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|Gideon(Nightwalkers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Outside of the garish lighting, the room was actually warm and cozy, decorated in Persian rugs and antiquated furniture. The stone walls and floor were a reddish color, and they were the only thing that made the room seem as if it was underground. Otherwise, it was decorated with comfort and conveniences in mind, rather like an old gentlemen’s club or an exclusive cigar club. Except in this instance, it was full of women, and gentlemen weren’t invited.
“It almost looks like a Lycanthrope dwelling,” Siena whispered. “We mostly live in caverns like this, decked out in rich appointments very nearly identical to these.”
“It would not surprise me if this was exactly that,” Anya remarked, her eyes clearly those of a soldier as she assessed the room, its exits, and the entire situation they were walking into. “An abandoned dwelling that was left behind as the city above us was built. It is not Russian territory, but it is not unheard of.”
Suddenly, a wall of putrid stench seemed to strike them all at once. It took everything in the trio’s willpower not to react violently to the awful reek of the necromancers who were suddenly all around them. There were so many of them they could barely breathe. Legna turned to the Queen with wide eyes. Reports or no, they had never suspected there would be so many of them. This human cross-section of magic must have been gathering for years. Everything they were looking at, the specificity of the banners and symbolism decorating the walls of the gathering hall, as well as the numbers that gathered there, spoke of the time it must have taken to corral and woo so many of these women to the same cause. New or no, this had been quite some time in the making.
“My impressions are that the gatherings began long ago, but the organization itself has only solidified over the past few months. Apparently,” Anya remarked, “they have grown considerably in strength and numbers since then.”
“Apparently,” Siena agreed grimly, looking around with barely masked disgust and anger. Legna reached out, settling her hand on the Queen’s arm, sending out a blanket of soothing emotions and easing thoughts. She pitched her voice with low, gentle charm.
“We are here now. It will go no further than this,” she reminded her.
The Queen’s rage seemed to ease. Siena sighed with a guttural sound of frustration. “Women. Men I expect, but why women?”
“I guess female empowerment goes both ways, Siena, good and evil.”
“Such a waste,” Siena mourned.
“I know,” Legna soothed.
They began to move into the thick of the crowd, fighting their revulsion at the smell. Gideon flowed through Legna’s thoughts, calming her as she was overcome with the urge to bolt. The desire was all the more strong because the women on either side of her were feeling the exact same thing. It was understandable. To these human predators, they were the prey, a role they were not used to and definitely not comfortable with. The instinctive sensation was no different than what a fox thrown into a den of hunting hounds might feel. Even Gideon, strong and powerful Gideon, could not entirely hide his concern for her well-being. Had he been in her stead, he wasn’t certain he would have been able to remain either. Or so he tried to tell her as he steadily calmed her fear. But she couldn’t imagine her powerful and Ancient mate being afraid of anything.
Legna was aware of him notifying the other three males of the situation, and keenly felt Noah’s reaction to the news. But he put his feelings aside, no doubt because he was aware she would be sensitive to them. She sent him a silent impression of gratitude that helped calm her brother.
The trio advanced, Anya introducing them to others as they entered the den. The women all talked and behaved as if they were at a high-society social—except in this society, discussions were often about the recent deaths, or “victories,” over certain Nightwalkers they had encountered. Legna could not remember ever coming across such a gathering of bloodthirsty females in all of her lifetime.
It was a reflection of how the black magic permeating the room was poisoning the very souls of these women. Having learned about instinct and nature these past days, Legna understood that a huntress only hunted for what she needed, and only killed for survival and self-defense. She never sought out trouble, and she left the challenges for power to the males of the species.
These corrupted women killed in a warped view of self-defense and sought trouble with all their energy and focus. It was this unnatural, mutative behavior that made their scent so abhorrent to creatures as in tune with nature as Demons and Lycanthropes were.
It was becoming more and more unbearable as time passed, but they gritted their teeth and bore with it. The crowd was beginning to take seats in an area of chairs that had been lined up row after row. Legna warned Gideon to this, putting him on a heightened alert. It would make the gathering suspicious if they did not follow suit, so the spying trio took seats in the back row so no one was behind them, and to give themselves a small amount of relief from the stench.
They were facing a stage, one that rose in inclination the farther back it went, like a classical theater stage. It was constructed from white marble, including columns. The color bore significance. It represented their idea of good, of the female virgin who was pure and just. The psychology of it was clear.
The good guys always wore white.
So Legna was not surprised when a female trinity appeared in hooded robes of pristine white silk. Each woman took a position on the stage. There was right, left, and middle. Legna immediately recognized the traditional Triad, the one representing the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Future, present, past, respectively. No doubt Siena, coming from a species that had a deeply rooted faith in the Goddess these figures represented, was appalled and horrified by the abomination. Legna felt it emanating from the half-breed female as well.
The middle position was the traditional position of the Mother. If Ruth was one of the leaders there, it would be as the center figure. It would suit her sense of vengeance for her betrayed daughter.
Legna tried to get impressions from the three on stage, but she dared not do so with any strength. There was no doubt in her mind that these were impressively powerful women. There was a necromancer somewhere onstage who was over twenty times more powerful than the necromancer Legna had destroyed in October. And though that one had been a relatively easy kill, it was only because they had been able to take those magic-users by surprise.
But Legna was positive one of them was a Demon. They had been right about that much. And as they reached to pull back their hoods and began to speak to their audience, Legna was riveted on the central figure.
It took her a moment to realize that the Mother figure was not Ruth. Quickly she glanced to the other two positions.
It was the Maiden who was the Demon betrayer.
“Mary!” Legna hissed.
Not the mother, but the daughter herself. The mother was surely not far behind, since the fledgling Earth Demon simply did not have the power or the wisdom to plan such crafty attacks. Ruth was hiding behind the visibility of her daughter, Legna knew it as sure as she knew her power name. Mary did not have the knowledge Ruth had, no matter what she had seen all the years in her mother’s house. And there had been many years. The foolish girl was still a fledgling, one who knew little more than what her mother told her. And apparently, her mother had told her enough to engender a hatred and a need for revenge that centered on Jacob.
Legna recalled that the girl had never been fostered by Siddah, her mother refusing to choose them at the infant’s birth. Now she stood there as a poster child for why the Fostering was so necessary. Ruth certainly had never taught the girl anything about respect and temperament, never mind the moral limitations of a Demon’s powers.
The Maiden Demon was a female Earth Demon, the most powerful element a female Demon could be born to next to the element of Fire. And to see it wasted sickened Legna. Worse, Mary had thrown her lot in with these human deviants. For all the times Noah had joked about treason, this act was the ultimate betrayal. Not even he could have come up with this concept. Not even as a joke.
Job, Mary’s father, must be spinning on his pyre. Thankfully, he had not lived to see this blasphemy. The honor of Ruth’s entire family would be scarred in a way from which it would not soon recover. Ruth as well as Mary would have to answer for these actions. Even if she was not taking part in this, although Legna suspected she was. Until a Demon child became an adult, its parents and Siddah were as responsible for its behavior as the fledgling itself. And no one could be more responsible for this than Ruth. She might as well have been in the Mother position after all.
The Crone was the necromancer, Legna noted, sending this intelligence to the men along with her other realizations. She was the eldest of them, but far from old and decrepit. The Mother was the leader of the weaker hunters, insignificant in the dark of night, deadly as venom in the wash of the daylight sun. This woman was physically fit and well trained, and it radiated off her. Her confidence alone was formidable.
“The Demon will be returning to his territory soon,” Mary said with confidence.
The statement surprised her, and it also did not. Jacob would never return to the site of such an affront to his safety. The location had been exposed, and it was to be shed from his life as a snake sheds its skin.
This was devised information. Noah had planted it with Ruth somehow. Now the intelligence was clearly filtering down into the plan for a repeat attack on Jacob’s household that was being laid before the masses. This time the enemy planned on taking a small army, and they were not going to play psychological games. They planned to take the Enforcer himself, as well as his mate and unborn.
Legna actually felt pity for them. Mary had told them nothing of what they were truly facing.
Trying to capture a being like the Enforcer was rather akin to trying to catch a porcupine barehanded. The task was not impossible, but boy would you pay for it in the ensuing struggle. To these befouled women, Jacob was just a spawn of the devil, his mate his enslaved whore, and the child she carried some sort of Antichrist. Mary only fed their prejudices, stirring them up with the fire of their own fear and hatred, and leaving the humans woefully unprepared.
Do not underestimate them, Nelissuna. They represent a formidable power. We will be hard-pressed to be rid of them all.
I know. But it is such a waste.
I agree. Mary the most tragic of all.
Ruth will answer for her part in this, Gideon.
Another waste. But Ruth is no child. She knew what she was doing. She cannot claim ignorance at her age, Neliss.
I know, she thought sadly. We can be grateful for one thing, though. Mary is too young to have ever been Siddah to anyone and therefore will know no power names to give to the necromancers.
I hope you are right about that. Ruth has been Siddah to many. Mary may have heard a few things over the years. And I suspect Ruth herself is no longer above such a heinous act.
Let us pray that she has not already done so.
The three interlopers had to wait some time before the meeting broke up and they were able to rise and move toward other sections of the caverns. Legna used the cover of the milling crowd to hide her outreaching senses. The necromancers might pick up on them, but they would have a hell of a time singling her out so long as she and her companions kept moving. Still, she masked her efforts with surprising skill.
Legna could not immediately feel anything resembling Corrine’s distinctive presence. She supposed Corrine’s emotions were depressed by unconsciousness. That was when she felt Gideon powering through her. He was doing what she could not, where he could not do it. He sought through her for an injured presence, the blood left behind assuring him that Corrine was definitely injured. She would not have had enough time to heal naturally, so for Gideon this became a beacon for him to follow. With their powers combined, Legna drew a bead on the Druid’s location. She looked at Siena, who was also alert. Legna did not know their exact nature, but the Queen clearly had perceptive abilities of her own.
The Queen whispered to Anya, who walked to the entrance of the cavern section the other two were headed into, striking a casual pose as she guarded their backs for the time they needed to locate Corrine’s exact position. It took Siena’s warning touch to keep Legna from beelining to her objective. Legna was no warrior or spy. The Lycanthrope knew more about such things.
Gideon was aware of his mate approaching several guards in Corrine’s vicinity. He pushed any anxiety he might have felt far away from himself and concentrated on feeding her his power. He trusted Siena’s prowess as a fighter as well. He had seen her practice, day after day, all of the five years he had spent at her side. She was a formidable opponent.
“I have an idea,” Siena whispered, moving them back until they were flattened up against a wall just a curve away from the guards.
She reached up to loosen her hair, shaking the huge coils free, unable to suppress her sigh of relief as she did so. Legna watched with fascination as the curls moved into perfect position, springing up where they should not have been able to. It was then that she realized the changelings’ hair behaved almost as if it were a living appendage. This was another thing she had not known about the Lycanthrope species.
“I know how to throw suspicion off the Demons, at least,” she murmured.
The Queen then shrugged out of her shirt and stepped out of her skirt, standing nude as she handed the clothing to Legna. Then, as she continued to shake her head, the length of her golden hair crept over her skin, coating every inch of it in the soft filigree. The hair began to transform into fur as the Queen dropped to all fours.
With a final shudder, the woman turned into the wild beast. The mountain lion looked up at the female Demon staring at it with undisguised awe. But Legna quickly shook herself out of the daze when the cat crouched down and crept closer to the guards. Suddenly she sprang, loping into the distant cave quickly, releasing a scream that sent chills down Legna’s spine.