The gathering was the who’s who of the supernatural scene, and I relaxed into my seat after I realized they were more worried about sizing each other up than noticing me. Not that I thought I should garner that much attention from them, but I could admit I was incredibly worried someone would have made a fuss.
Conversations rose and fell around us, as allies and enemies watched each other, and each others backs, from the corners of their eyes. Various food dishes were brought out, some just as exotic as the ones who were eating them, though nothing looked as though it was anything but animal of some species or another. With some of the supernaturals their dining preferences tended to lean more toward human and screaming, so I appreciated the chef’s discretion, though not everyone at the table looked thrilled with the choices.
I nibbled on the food brought out for me, not wanting to overindulge in the rich fare and make myself sick. Considering I’d thought I’d be eating cheap noodles for the next month, it was difficult to hold back. Oliver and Viktor remained quiet through most of their meals, though they did occasionally answer questions posed to them from those around us.
“Don’t worry–this kind of food has never sat well on my stomach, either,” my landlord rumbled in my ear.
It was all I could do not to jump and attract any attention, though the ones with sharper senses slid sidelong looks to me when my heart rate spiked. I let out a shaky breath and scowled at Viktor, who merely gave me a wolfish smile in return, not sorry in the least.
Before I could muster a scathing reprimand, Zeus stood from his place at the head of the table on my left. I’d gathered that since the Strixes were from the Greek side of the tracks, he’d be leading the meeting. From the low grumbles at various points along the table, quickly silenced as Zeus’ gaze swept over the assembled supernaturals, not everyone was happy with the decision.
Well, you can’t please everyone, I noted idly as the lovely Mignonette retained her scowl, despite the weight in the air the God of Thunder’s presence seemed to create.
“We’ve come together because Strixes, at least five confirmed, have been spotted in the city,” he prompted, and the attention of a few honed in on his words. “Which means we’re looking at something nearly as catastrophic as possible, and my source states it will be a deadly combination of natural and supernatural disasters.”
This was bad, so very, very bad. Daphne made it seem as though it would be one thing or another, not a deadly combo platter of everyone’s worst fears.
“Could your source not pinpoint the origin of these catastrophes?” Mignonette’s tone was as caustic as accidentally putting your hand in a raging wildfire, but it was still a good question.
At her total lack of respect, Zeus pinned her down with stormy eyes, and even from my spot halfway down the table from him, the lightning that danced there in bright flashes set my teeth on edge. Mignonette is going to get us all killed, or at least me, I realized woefully, as I was the closest thing to human at the table, as well as the fragility that goes along with it.
“No,” he finally admitted, as the moment of danger passed and we could all breathe again, “she could not do that, and other sources such as her have had less to offer than what she was able to garner.”
“Yes,” cackled an old, wizened woman close to Zeus’ left, whose skin was tanned and looked almost cracked from the multitude of wrinkles. “It seems all our Shamans, diviners, Oracles, Seers, Druids, and the like are having an exceedingly difficult time in wresting knowledge of the future from their respective avenues,” she laughed, and the dry sound scraped over my skin like branches of a dead tree. I shuddered, and resisted the urge to rub my hands over my arms to dispel the sensation.
Bone white air that hung in thick dreadlocks over most of her face and halfway down her ragged, black cloak-covered hunched back, swung a little as she turned her head in my direction. A single, filmy white eye locked on with mine, and my breath caught in my throat. Though the other eye was covered by her hair, I wasn’t sure I was curious enough to know why, or that I wanted the full weight of her scrutiny leveled my way.
“Though some might want to think on eternity, and what that does to those like dragons, who jealously want for treasure with a fierce desire.”
There was a pregnant pause as everyone at the table ceased to move or even breathe as they waited for more. Instead, the old woman’s face broke into a maddened grin, displaying teeth as crooked as her back and yellow as banana slugs. She let out a single, triumphant crow of laughter, then in the next moment blinked from existence. Or I blinked and she was gone. Either way, I was glad for her departure.
“Damned old Crone, speaking in half-riddles as usual,” Viktor grumbled his disdain, and his sentiment was reflected in the sour faces around the table. I sneaked a peak at Oliver, who instead was more contemplative than annoyed. Then Viktor’s words dawned on me.
“Does he mean that she was the Crone?” I hissed at Oliver, the disbelief in my question at war with the potential awe, and he raised a single eyebrow at me.
“One of her manifestations, at any rate. She rarely comes out in public, even for events such as this, so it was more likely some kind of visual illusion,” he said nonchalantly, waving away my astonishment, and then shrugged. “She said what she wanted and left, which is what she tends to do.”
The stories of the Crone were as varied as there were stars in the sky, and she could run the gamut from helpful to malicious, depending on which mood strikes her at that moment. Sometimes she was a Wise Woman, offering advice, while other times she personified the Hag, who liked to trap and eat children. She is the original poster child for Borderline Personality Disorder, and all I could do was thank my lucky stars she was here in a somewhat benevolent capacity.
“At any rate,” Zeus continued, and the various conversations around the table came to an abrupt halt, “we need to start emergency preparations in and out of the city. Evacuate the weakest of your kind to the safety of the countryside, as well as any humans who might be associated with you. As for the general populace, knowing a disaster is imminent would only cause panic, and I’m hoping with everyone’s cooperation we can stop this before it comes to pass.”
“This seems like a lot of work to go through only on the word of a lowly Mid,” Mignonette scoffed, and the number of those nodding their heads and casting dark looks my way were far greater than I would have preferred.
“She is not the only witness to the Strixes–I have seen them,” Viktor proclaimed, and faced down those at the table who might argue with the legitimacy of a Mid, but not whoever Viktor was. Since he was the only Werewolf present, I had the sneaking suspicion he was the leader of the city’s Pack, and that carried far more weight than my word alone.
He could be lying to help my claim, which was written in the postures and expressions of some at the table, but when I thought back to the morning, I realized he had been out sweeping the stoop. Viktor could have legitimately seen them.
“I have felt their presence. The Midlander is not lying,” Zeus said, and silenced any of the remaining dissenters. “Go, and make your preparations.” He turned on his heel and left the room as everyone at the table pushed back and most started to clear out. Some converged in little groups to speak in low, conspiratorial voices, and I noticed not a few looks of irritation being cast my way.
“Let’s get out of here and hit up Omnie headquarters; my bosses will want to know that it’s going to be natural disasters with a supernatural cocktail thrown in,” Oliver said, standing along with the others. I nodded, not really sure I wanted to go into such a lion’s den, but still needing him to keep me safe from revenge-seeking shifters, and possibly the vampires, too.
When I looked toward Mignonette’s end of the table, she and her entourage were already gone, and I let out a little breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. I stood, and Viktor pulled me into an unexpected hug. He smelled of the Wild Woods, deep, dark, and dangerous, but powerful, protective, and earthy, too.
“Be careful, kotyonok. Oliver is a decent man, but not all in his organization are the same,” he whispered a quick warning. I returned the hug, and gave a small, stiff nod that I had heard. He gave me a final squeeze, and when he pulled back his face held a huge grin, and gave no indication of the shadowy counsel he’d just bestowed on me.
“I’ll walk you two out,” he said, more to Oliver than me.
“We would be glad for the company.”
The three of us headed out of the dining room, and I paused as we neared the entrance and saw a sign for the restrooms.
“I need to use the restroom really quick,” I said.
The two gave each other a look that clearly indicated exasperation for my gender, and nodded. I rolled my eyes at them and made for small hallway off the main foyer. Yeesh, when a girl’s gotta go, she’s gotta go. The door of the ladies’ room was the last one before a fire exit, and swung open soundlessly at my touch.
There was a light out in one corner, over the handicap stall, and the shadows seemed particularly thick in that portion of the windowless room. It gave me the creeps, and I made a note to tell the concierge before we left. It was the polite thing to do, as my mother had taught me, though she despaired at times that I’d never heard any of her lessons in manners.
No one else was in the room, and once I finished I went to the sink to wash my hands. After a quick look in the mirror, I decided washing my face was in order as well. As I splashed the warm water over my face and scrubbed a bit with a paper towel, then something at the back of my brain began sending out panicked signals of alarm.
“So foolish of those two to leave you so unprotected, but men rarely think about going where only ladies are permitted. Well, females, at any rate–I would be hard-pressed to consider one such as you a lady,” Mignonette’s malicious voice rolled over me like a dark tidal wave.
I bolted upright, water running down my face and wetting the front of my jacket and shirt, and my wild-eyed look in the mirror was met with…nothing. A well-manicured hand gripped the back of my hair and yanked my head backward to face eyes a wicked shade of hellfire.
Vampires and mirrors, you idiot!
It was my final thought before my consciousness spiraled down into the abyss of her gaze, and the malevolence of her smile.
“I shall enjoy this. Oh, yes,” she hissed, and everything went dark.