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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
"To countermand Fire, of course." The trio looked up to see Jasmine standing in what Kestra had to classify as a classic superheroine pose. Feet braced in heeled boots of burgundy that climbed to her lower thigh, tight wine-colored shorts that were very much just that-short. And a midriff-baring sweater in the lightest of pinks that was, in a shocking bid for modesty, long sleeved. Her hands were on her hips, one of which was thrust to the side, causing the gemstones and silver linked around her waist and through her navel ring to catch the sparkle of the light. "Or so they would like you to think. Your power is not truly all about Fire, though, is it?" she mused aloud, even though it was clearly rhetorical. "You manipulate energy. Scads of energy. You could put the lot of them to sleep like that!" She snapped hard, the sound echoing in the room. "They would have to be insane to pull a stunt like coming after you."
"I do not know, Jas. If there's a time to try, Samhain is it. Plus, the extra burden of a new mate," Jacob pointed out. "This makes him very vulnerable." He suddenly raised a staying hand to Kestra. "No offense."
"No…offense is exactly what this is about," Kestra countered. "They want a target that is powerful, yet vulnerable. One who they can hit offensively who puts up the least amount of defense or resistance. The proof is in the victims chosen so far. Youthful. Nonwarriors. That doesn't describe Noah, with or without me. Do you want to know what my suspicion is?"
Noah arched a brow at his mate and, in spite of the grimness of the situation, allowed delight and pride to swell over him, hoping she was reading his mind just then. She paused to smile ever so slightly before continuing, letting him know the answer to that.
"I want to know why the body was left out in the open. Knowing carrion birds are in the region? Knowing a missing Demon would be searched for? Forgive me a minute if this sounds callous in regard to your fallen friend, but…why not burn? Why not bury? Why would anyone leave fresh meat lying in your path?"
"A trap. A hunter's trap. Fresh kill lures the prey," Jacob said.
"I think it's more of a decoy." Jasmine spoke up suddenly, meeting Kestra's eyes so Kes could see the understanding dawning. "Oh, lookie over here at what we found. Buzz…buzz…busy bees trying to figure out what it means. Meanwhile, it has been left like some drugged-up hunk of meat for us to get fat and lazy on while all hell breaks loose elsewhere."
"And our backs end up turned away from the real game." Kes looked fully at Noah. "I have used this ploy hundreds of times. It's a classic diversionary tactic. Even the best trained people will fall for it for at least too long to realize they've been had. Look at what Jacob did, for example. He came straight to you, to raise the hue and cry. No offense," she tossed back to him with a soft wink.
"None taken," he said, looking at Noah with an expression of pure amusement.
"It didn't occur to him for a moment to play it close to the vest, whatever his reasons-protocol, experience, outrage-and if your enemy knows enough about you, they can predict this."
"If there is one thing we Vampires know, it is how vengeful Demons are over the death of one of their flock," Jasmine pointed out. "We learned that during the wars."
"Yes, I remember teaching it to you the hard way," Jacob remarked with a flash of cockiness and a side shot of humor sharp enough to defuse any insult the Vampire might have perceived.
He underestimated her humor, though. She chuckled quite readily.
"Okay, so we won't run around like chickens with our heads cut off. But how do we figure out the real target?" Noah asked.
"Wrong," Jasmine said suddenly, her head picking up and her heels snapping hard against the marble flooring as she came closer. "Actually, you need to send out a whole flock of chickens." She shook her dark head at their blank expressions. "Vampires are telepaths. If it's a lure, they left someone behind to report when it gets taken. If no one shows at the sight of the body, they will call off their assault."
"Well, maybe that is the best idea."
"Yes, until next time when we have no warning at all," Noah countered. "At least tonight we have a slight advantage."
"I did not sense a Vampire. I would know," Jacob said.
"Would you? With all these stolen powers in them, Jacob, would you know?" Jasmine paused to drum her fingers on her thigh as she gathered her thoughts, clearly already knowing that Jacob would concede her point. "Something stinks about this. I know Vampires. They will think in circles trying to outlogic an enemy. They aren't just after another kill this time."
"It's a game," Kes realized. "Catch me if you can. Serial killer modus operandi."
"That means it is about enjoying our pain and our fear," Noah realized, his jaw clenching briefly with anger as he absorbed this sadistic intent. "Jas, what do we do? They are your brethren, you will understand them best."
"Distraction technique," the brunette began to tick off on her fingers, "enemy knowledge, taunting with pain and fear, making themselves out to be smarter than all the rest of us…"
"Least likely target," Kes said suddenly. "Jas, if you were a…okay…uh…I mean, as a Vampire," she corrected herself, making them all chuckle with a release of growing tension, "who would be the last person you'd ever dare to go up against?"
"You mean besides me and Damien?" she asked with a sparkle of danger in her eyes. "I'd have to say Noah."
"That is what I thought in the first place," Jacob said with exasperation.
"Wait! Wait." Kestra's hands flew out to stop the others from speaking, her voice a sharp command that cut into their attention. "Besides who, did you say?"
"Me and Damien. The Prince."
"Why wouldn't they go after you?" Kes demanded.
"Imminent death and destruction?" Jasmine snorted. "That and Vamps don't gain power when they feed on each other. There would be no point. Except to gain the monarchy."
"That would be a reason, Jas," Jacob pointed out dryly.
"Then explain to me this: Why Samhain? There's no sense to doing it on Samhain. Vampires aren't weakened by it. Why not wait and gather more power if they are going after Damien's crown? We have a celebration tonight, too. The first festival for Samhain since Damien returned to the homeland. The place will be packed with Vampires. It would be suicide."
"Or the perfect cover for an assassination attempt," Kes mused. "Invite the enemy onto your territory."
"No. Damien knows these rogues. He's being very careful. He promised me. He could sense Cygnus and his bunch in a heartbeat if they entered the castle."
"Are you sure? Even with all this power gathering?" Noah countered her in return.
"It's Damien, Noah. Damien can sense any and every Nightwalker on the planet." She made a disgruntled sound at her perceived disparagement of the capabilities of her Prince. Kes was forced to wonder if she was too biased to see the truth.
No. She is right. Damien is not the kind you can sneak up on when he is on the alert.
"Provided he's on the alert," she argued with Noah aloud, her thought so irritable that she forgot all about telepathy.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kestra saw Jasmine stiffen suddenly. She jerked her head up when she caught the telltale reaction. The men noticed it, too, and Jasmine suddenly had all eyes on her as her face paled even more than it naturally was.
"Oh no. Oh, damn!"
"Jas!" Noah snapped when she made a move as if she wanted to take off.
She turned back, fury exploding in her dark eyes, fangs exposed as she snarled at the Demon King.
"They know I am here, and Damien is unprotected without me!"
"You just said-" Jacob protested.
"Add it up. Samhain leaves access to the castle; Damien thinks the rogues are headed here. And I myself put him on his guard and made him promise me to be careful!" Jasmine growled, ferocious black flames leaping in her eyes.
"Jasmine," Noah said helplessly, "I do not understand your point."
"I knew the Lycanthrope bitch would be the death of him!" The Vampire hissed furiously. "She's the one they're after, Noah. Low offensive, low defensive, you said, right?" Jasmine confronted Kestra. "Make noise in Demon territory and keep Jasmine far away from Damien. Kill the Lycanthrope, get her very extraordinary powers, extraordinary even among her own kind, and you get a two for one. Damien will never survive the anguish if something happens to…to…"
"His soul mate," Kestra whispered.
Damien didn't even want to breathe the sigh of relief he felt when Syreena finally fell into a fully exhausted sleep. He levitated gingerly out of their bed, floating over her to retrieve some clothing from across the room with all the stealth he, in all his power, could possibly muster. He had been through one of Syreena's heat cycles before, but it seemed like this time she was driven beyond even her own capacity. Frankly, he couldn't remember the last time his body ached so much. She was enough to wear out even an Ancient like himself, he thought, a fond smile and a repressed laugh lighting his eyes.
He slid on his trousers. Syreena was driven by multiple incentives: fear, need, and desire. The desire was for him, no more or less than it always was between them, just magnified in frequency perhaps. Her need was for a child. A child of their love, an heir for them both, each of them being in line with a throne of their peoples. A child she had longed for and, until they had met, thought she would never be privileged to know the joy of. Just as she had never realized her dreams of so loving a mate and marriage would come to fruition.
And the fear was the most obvious of all. She was terrified she would not have that compatibility of chemistry they needed. Not that he would be incompatible with her, he was beginning to realize, but that she would be incompatible with him. She was afraid that her singular genetics, the mutation she had suffered during her childhood, would prevent her from conceiving. She feared barrenness.
Damien tucked in a heavy linen shirt at his waistline as he cast a long look at his sleeping wife. She could very well be right, he realized, and he had to come to terms with that if it were true. But unlike her, he did not feel such a pressure to discover the truth of the matter. He loved her. He wanted children; right away was fine with him, but later was just as fine. He was not worried and did not see why she should put herself under so much pressure because of one failed heat cycle. It wasn't entirely unheard of, in spite of what she would have him believe. He had been affiliated with the world of Lycanthropes long enough to know that much.
For the moment, however, he had exhausted her for what he hoped was a good couple of hours. It was more than enough time for him to run a circuit of his territorial borders and then make a fairly decent showing at the Samhain festival downstairs, which his keen hearing told him was already well under way. She would be extremely peeved with him when she woke to find him gone. But as soon as she came searching for him, he would pull himself away and tend to any needs she might have, with more than enough love and attention to mollify even her spiky little temper.
He also needed to hunt. That meant leaving Vampire territory and seeking human holdings. Damien sought within himself to judge the time, even as he slid on his shoes and cinched his belt. It was early yet and he would easily be able to find prey. Then, as he combed his fingers through his hair, he scanned the interior of the citadel for specific energy sources. As expected, there were no hostile entities. He would have felt those immediately, no matter the holiday and the influx of Vampires. Then again, it was always the threat you didn't expect that was most dangerous. For that he had Stephan. The Vanguard leader was stalking the halls and the celebrations belowstairs with his usual brooding thoroughness. Though home defense was usually Jasmine's venue, she being far more willing than he was to make a merry fight with one of her own, Stephan was more than capable of facing any threat no matter what face it wore. Damien sent a brief telepathic warning to Stephan that he was leaving the premises and that Syreena would require a guard at her door until he returned. Once he had Stephan's acknowledgment, he slipped into the tower room and took flight out of the window.
To Stephan, nothing was more important in that moment than seeing to the protection of the Prince's woman. He knew very well how crucial she was to the Prince's well-being, and Damien's well-being was always his top priority, just as it was Jasmine's. The 6'5" Vampire made his way through the crowd slowly as he sent a telepathic order to one of his most trusted lieutenants in the Vanguard.
He attracted attention as he always did. Between his size and his sheen of blond hair, he was something of an anomaly amongst his own breed. They rarely produced blonds for some unknown reason and it made him a curiosity with some, attractive to others. Most remarkable was his size. He, like Damien, did not have that slimness and almost gaunt athleticism that was to be expected of his breed. He was bulky across the shoulders and chest; his muscular waist was thick and his legs were as long and dense as tree trunks. This was what he preferred to be noticed for. His overwhelming size was sometimes all the deterrent he needed when dealing with those who would contest him.
So it did not come as a surprise to him that a path opened up for him no matter what direction he headed in, no matter how thick the crowd in the common levels of the citadel. He considered sending a second guard to Syreena and Damien's quarters. There were a great many Vampires crowded together, a large cross-section of a very powerful population. Unsurprisingly, there were also Demons and Lycanthropes milling about. Not many, but more than had ever attended a foreign Samhain celebration in the past. He suspected it was a combination of factors: the recent exchanges in ambassadors that had opened up the cultures to one another, and the loosening of Demon cultural restraints that had them seeking the highly promiscuous newness of Vampire partners that hadn't been previously open to them. After a few centuries, Stephan supposed, the same faces over and over would definitely be cause for searching out new ones.