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|Jacob(Nightwalkers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
As Jacob flew onward, his thoughts turned philosophical. Was it harder to be Enforcer or to be the King who must choose the Enforcer, as Noah had chosen Jacob? When making the choice, Noah would have been forced to acknowledge that there was an equal chance that he might one day find himself face-to-face with the Enforcer.
It was a brave leader who could still make the best choice knowing that one day he might live to regret it.
Noah looked up from his reading, the eddying energy of Jacob’s approach reaching him long before the Enforcer himself drifted in through a high window in the form of a soft shower of dust. The Demon King understood that Jacob had allowed him to be aware of his coming, as he always did, out of respect. If he had wished, the Enforcer could have camouflaged his presence right up until the moment the dust coalesced into his normal athletic form, as it was doing now.
Noah watched the other Elder, who was now floating above the floor in solid form. Jacob returned his relationship with gravity to normal, touching down with the fluid grace that was always present in his natural movements.
The King sat back, his impressive build filling the oaken frame of his high-backed chair. Where Jacob was shaped for quick, agile power, Noah was bolder in his musculature and build. This was easily seen in the snug fit of his buff riding breeches and a silk shirt specifically tailored to the wide breadth of his shoulders. Still, Noah had his own style of elegance, and it showed as he casually hooked a black-booted ankle over his opposite knee. He sat silently for several beats, taking the Enforcer’s measure thoroughly.
“I take it you found your youngest brother in time to stop him from causing any chaos?”
“Of course,” Jacob replied in dismissive tones, instantly striking Kane’s enforcement off the list of topics he was willing to discuss at present.
Noah got the message loud and clear and graciously accepted the terms. He watched as Jacob moved to pour himself a drink, paused to sniff the contents of the glass, and raised a questioning brow in Noah’s direction.
“Milk,” Noah offered.
“I know that,” Jacob said impatiently. “From where?”
“A cow. But imported from Canada, nonpasteurized, and unprocessed.”
“Hmm. I expected better on your table, Noah.”
“The children were here. Anything better would have been too potent for them. They would have gotten tanked up and you would have been hunting down six of my sister’s drunken little troublemakers. You recall what trouble she was when she was their various ages, do you not?” the King asked. “Imagine the spunk of her progeny.”
Jacob actually grinned at that, tipping the glass up to his lips and taking a tentative sip. Judging the milk to be refreshing enough, he downed half the glass. “Your sister Hannah,” he recalled, “barely drew breath before she began to cause trouble. For that matter, I am not likely to turn my back on any of your relations anytime soon.” He toasted the King with an impudent tilt of his glass. “I am, of course, excluding Legna from the notorious side of your genetics,” Jacob added generously.
“Of course,” Noah replied dryly.
“So, how are the children anyway? Your sister must be going crazy trying to keep all of them under control, given the circumstances,” Jacob remarked. He glanced upward out of habit, indicating the moon neither of them could see.
“Why do you think Hannah brought them here? I think she was hoping the foreboding presence of their royal uncle would help control them.” Noah reached up to rub a knot in his neck. “I could have used your help. Imagine how well behaved they would have been if the Enforcer had walked in the door.”
Jacob knew Noah was teasing him, but he didn’t see as much humor in the statement. The Enforcer, in the Demon world, was what mothers used to scare their children into good behavior. It was a necessary evil, considering the powerful mischief young Demons were capable of, but that didn’t mean it sat well with Jacob. It made for a pretty solitary existence, actually. Those Demon children grew up into adults and Elders who never quite shook off their fear of the Enforcer.
Then again, that made his job all the easier. It was a rather nice perk when all it took was his appearance to quell even the most powerful stomachs, making actual battles for control less likely. He was surprised it had worked so well on his brother. Kane was notorious for claiming that, having been raised by the Enforcer, he wasn’t at all intimidated. That obviously wasn’t true, and Jacob wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Grateful he hadn’t had to fight his baby brother? Of course. But happy that his brother was as terrified of him as all others were? No, not really.
“So, have you learned anything useful?” Jacob indicated the large, dusty tome sitting half read on Noah’s table.
“Not really.” He paused for a beat, narrowing a pair of jade and gray eyes on Jacob, his irises so pale in contrast to his tanned complexion that they seemed to glow in the firelight. Noah’s inspection made it clear that he hadn’t missed the artful change of subject. “As archaic as we tend to be in culture and customs, these books prove how modernized we really are. It is like reading another language.”
“Language is a living thing. As a scholar, surely you must appreciate that even a language as old as ours evolves over time.”
“Well, that does not help me much now. We are in the midst of an intensifying crisis, and I am no closer to finding a solution than I ever was.”
“Then we will just have to maintain, as we always have,” Jacob said quietly, his modulated tone meant to settle Noah’s piqued frustration. Noah’s temper was ten times more famous than his sister Hannah’s, though he usually exhibited ten times more control over it as well. Noah firmly believed that no individual could rule over others if he could not control his emotions. “I have faced everything imaginable and persevered, Noah. No one will be harmed, or be allowed to do harm, for as long as I draw breath.”
“But it is getting harder, is it not?” Noah looked up and met Jacob’s eyes sharply. “Every year I watch you become busier and more disheartened. Every year I see more of the most highly accomplished Elders lose control as if they were in their first hundred years all over again. Tell me I am mistaken.”
“I cannot tell you that,” Jacob said, sighing heavily as he ran a long-fingered hand through thick, brown-black hair. “Noah, I had to enforce Gideon just under a decade ago. Of the handful of Demons I thought to be impervious to this madness, Gideon the Ancient was highest among them. Gideon!” Jacob shook his head, mute with his disturbed emotions and the chilling memories of that dreadful encounter.
“And he is still wound-licking. Gideon has not come out of his stronghold for these past eight years.”
“Well, he certainly will not come about while this is continuing to grow worse.” Jacob frowned dourly as he sank into a chair across from Noah. “His seat at the Council table gathers dust and leaves us… incomplete.”
Noah was aware of Jacob’s personal angst over that fact but refused to let him wallow in it. “It is for the best, at the moment,” Noah remarked. “I do not think you relish the idea of having to rein him in twice.”
“No. I do not. But I am positive that locking himself away alone is the worst choice—the choice that will be far more likely to lead me and Gideon once more into a devastating conflict.”
The bitterness in Jacob’s voice was not lost on the King. Noah had never known another man with the Enforcer’s sense of responsibility, loyalty, and morality. Death was the only thing that would ever convince Jacob to step down. This Enforcer would never retire so long as he breathed.
But something had not been right with Jacob for a while now. Year after year he was forced to bring the Elders he most respected to heel as madness briefly overcame them. It was clearly dragging Jacob down in both mind and spirit.
The worst, Noah supposed, had been the aforementioned confrontation with Gideon. Previously, Jacob had been the only Demon who could claim an actual form of friendship with that great Ancient. It had lasted up until the Enforcer had been forced to choose between that friendship and upholding the law. There had been no choice, really. Not for Jacob. The law was like lifeblood to him. An Enforcer with Jacob’s level of dedication and sense of obligation would psychologically destroy himself if he defied the law.
Noah was aware that if he himself lost control of his faculties during one of these Hallowed full moons and Jacob were forced to snap him back like a recalcitrant child, it would be hard for him not to resent the Enforcer for it. Sure, it would be for his own good, for the good of the entire Demon race, and definitely for the good of the defenseless humans they coexisted with, but Elder Demons were a mightily proud lot and Noah was no exception. Falling prey to weakness was bad enough; having Jacob witness it was worse. Having the Enforcer punish them brutally, as the law demanded, was unbearable.
Noah did not envy Jacob his position in the least.
Just then, the man of Noah’s concerned thoughts raised his dark head from its brooding bent, tilting it to one side as his semirelaxed frame rapidly grew tense. Noah felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir as the other man’s sensory powers filled the room. Every Demon had his own particular abilities in which he excelled, and Jacob’s hunter’s perceptions were among his keenest.
“Myrrh-Ann comes,” Jacob said, putting his glass down on Noah’s desk as he rose to his feet. “She is extremely agitated.”
Just then, the two large doors at the end of the room burst open violently. A swirl of dark dust and wind spun into the room, whirling like a small tornado, crossing toward the two males in the blink of an eye. It abruptly settled with a final twist into the figure of a beautiful woman with hair as soft and silvery white as the clouds, her normally blue eyes nearly obscured by the dominating black width of her pupils as unspeakable fear pulsed behind them.
“Noah!” she gasped, reaching blindly for the King as her panic caused a shudder to ripple through the air, bending every flame in the room. “He has been taken! You must help me! I cannot lose him! He is everything to me!”
“Hush, now,” Noah soothed softly, coming around his desk to pull her into a comforting embrace. “Calm down, Myrrh-Ann,” he said quietly. “I assume you are talking about Saul?”
“It was horrible!” the young beauty sobbed, clutching at Noah’s shirtfront. “He disintegrated beneath my very hands! Noah, you must help us!”
Noah and Jacob both went very still, their eyes meeting over Myrrh-Ann’s bright head. They didn’t need to speak to know the other’s thoughts, to sense the quickened breath of alarm in one another.
“What do you mean, ‘he disintegrated’?” Jacob asked carefully.
“I mean he has been Summoned! Enslaved!” Myrrh-Ann screeched, whirling in Noah’s hold to glare at the Enforcer with all of her terror and outrage. “One moment he was with me, touching me, cradling our unborn child in his hands as it moved within me.” Her hands went reflexively to her rounded belly, as if she were afraid it would be the next thing to be taken from her. “The next moment his face was contorting in such unimaginable pain. Dear, merciful Destiny! He began to fade, feet first, in a swirl of the most acrid and vile smoke I have ever known.” She turned back to the King, clutching the silk of his shirt in her despair, her nails scoring the fabric. “He screamed! Oh, Noah, how he screamed!”
“Myrrh-Ann, please sit,” Noah said, using a soft, comforting turn of voice to soothe her. “You need to calm down before you drop your babe too early. You have done the right thing by coming to us. Jacob and I will get to the bottom of this.”
“But if he is enslaved… ” Myrrh-Ann shuddered violently from head to toe. “Noah, how is this possible? Why? Why my Saul?” Myrrh-Ann lowered her voice to a rapid, breathless whisper of panicked, babbling words. The two others in the room could barely follow all the implications of her shattering thoughts as she rambled.
Could this be accurate? There hadn’t been a Summoning of a Demon in almost a century. It was possible she was mistaken. Demons had once been threatened to near extinction from this horrific act of enslavement. It had been a necromancer’s trick, a black sorcery that had faded in frequency as Christianity, science, and technology had come to reign. With the demise of such magics, peace had come.
The exceptions to that peace were obvious—the uncontrollable periods of madness that plagued them during the Hallowed moons, dodging relentless human hunters, and the occasional skirmish with other Nightwalker races.
As long as there has been the world, there have been Nightwalkers: the races of the night who breathed the nighttime air best, felt refreshment in the moonlight, and used the sun as a heavenly orb meant to be slept by. Demons, Vampires, Lycanthropes, and more shared these traits, if not always the same moralities and beliefs.
For as long as there have been Nightwalkers, there were those who sought to hunt them, humans armed with ignorance and folklore who stumbled about trying to murder them. These humans, fearing what they didn’t understand, were fanatical in their quest to rid the world of the so-called creatures of pure evil. While normal human hunters did not faze the Demon race much, human magic-users known as necromancers were another issue entirely. In their spells lay a fate far worse than death for any Demon captured.
Myrrh-Ann’s accusations could mean a crashing disruption in the balance of their world. It would mean that this ultimate magical threat had somehow become reborn. Some would say such a thing was inevitable as the recent human fascination with cults and dark magic had intensified, but the speculation was a far cry from the actual occurrence. A human magic-user? After all this time? Myrrh-Ann’s story made it frighteningly possible.