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Huntress (Chapter 11)

Hey, Morgead!" the voice was shouting even as the door went slamming and crashing open, sticking

every few inches because it was old and warped and didn't fit the frame anymore.

Jez had jerked around at the first noise. The connection between her and Morgead was disrupted,

although she could feel faint echoes of the silver thread, like a guitar string vibrating after it was strummed.

"Hey, Morgead-"

"Hey, you still asleep-?" Several laughing, raucous people were crowding into the room. But the yelling

stopped abruptly as they caught sight of Jez.

There was a gasp, and then silence.

Jez stood up to face them. She couldn't afford to feel tired anymore; every muscle was lightly tensed,

every sense alert

She knew the danger she was in.

Just like Morgead, they were the flotsam and jetsam of the San Francisco streets. The orphans, the ones

who lived with indifferent relatives, the ones nobody in the Night World really wanted. The forgotten

ones.

Her gang.

They were out of school and ready to rumble.

Jez had always thought, from the day she and Morgead began picking these kids up, that the Night

World was making a mistake in treating them like garbage. They might be young; they might not have

families, but they had power. Every one of them had the strength to be a formidable opponent.

And right now they were looking at her like a group of wolves looking at dinner. If they all decided to go

for her at once, she would be in trouble. Somebody would end up getting killed.

She faced them squarely, outwardly calm, as a quiet voice finally broke the silence.

"It's really you, Jez."

And then another voice, from beside Jez. "Yeah, she came back," Morgead said carelessly. "She joined

the gang again."

Jez shot him the briefest of sideways glances. She hadn't expected him to help. He returned the look

with an unreadable expression.

". . . she came back?" somebody said blankly.

Jez felt a twinge of amused sympathy. "That's right," she said, keeping her face grave. "I had to go away

for a while, and I can't tell you where, but

now I'm back. I just fought my way back in-and I beat Morgead for the leadership." She figured she

might as well get it all over with at once. She had no idea how they were going to react to the idea of her

as leader.

There was another long moment of silence, and then a whoop. A sound that resembled a war cry. At the

same instant there was a violent rush toward Jez-four people all throwing themselves at her. For a

heartbeat she stood frozen, ready to fend off a four-fold attack.

Then arms wrapped around her waist.

"Jez! I missed you!"

Someone slapped her on the back almost hard enough to knock her down. "You bad girl! You beat him

again?"

People were trying to hug her and punch her and pat her all at once. Jez had to struggle not to show she

was overwhelmed. She hadn't expected this of them.

"It's good to see you guys again," she said. Her voice was very slightly unsteady. And it was the truth.

Raven Mandril said, "You scared us when you disappeared, you know." Raven was the tall, willowy one

with the marble-pale skin. Her black hair was short in back and long in front, falling over one eye and

obscuring it. The other eye, midnight blue, gleamed at Jez.

Jez allowed herself to gleam back, just a bit. She had always liked Raven, who was the most mature of

the group. "Sorry, girl."

"I wasn't scared." That was Thistle, still hugging Jez's waist. Thistle Galena was the delicate one who had

stopped her aging when she reached ten. She was as old as the others, but tiny and almost weightless.

She had feathery blond hair, amethyst eyes, and little glistening white teeth. Her specialty was playing the

lost child and then attacking any humans who tried to help her.

"You're never scared," Jez told her, squeezing back.

"She means she knew you were all right, wherever you were. I did, too," Pierce Holt said. Pierce was

the slender, cold boy, the one with the aristocratic face and the artist's hands. He had dark blond hair and

deep-set eyes and he seemed to carry his own windchill factor with him. But just now he was looking at

Jez with cool approval.

"I'm glad somebody thought so," Jez said, with a glance at Morgead, who just looked condescending.

"Yeah, well, some people were going crazy. They thought you were dead," Valerian Stillman put in,

following Jez's look. Val was the big, heroic one, with deep russet hair, gray-flecked eyes, and the build

of a linebacker. He was usually either laughing or yelling with impatience. "Morgead had us scouring the

streets for you from Daly City to the Golden Gate Bridge-"

"Because I was hoping a few of you would fall off," Morgead said without emotion. "But I had no such

luck. Now shut up, Val. We don't have time for all this class-reunion stuff. We've got something

important to do."

Thistle's face lit up as she stepped back from Jez. "You mean a hunt?"

"He means the Wild Power," Raven said. Her one visible eye was fixed on Jez. "He's told you already,

hasn't he?"

"I didn't need to tell her," Morgead said. "She already knew. She came back because Hunter Red-fern

wants to make a deal with us. The Wild Power for a place with him after the millennium."

He got a reaction-the one Jez knew he expected. Thistle squeaked with pleasure, Raven laughed

huskily, Pierce gave one of his cold smiles, and Val roared.

"He knows we've got the real thing! He doesn't wanna mess with us!" he shouted.

"That's right, Val; I'm sure he's quaking in his boots," Morgead said. He glanced at Jez and rolled his

eyes.

Jez couldn't help but grin. This really was like old times: she and Morgead trading secret looks about

Val. There was a strange warmth sweeping through her-not the scary tingling heat she'd experienced with

Morgead alone, but something simpler. A feeling of being with people who liked her and knew her. A

feeling of belonging.

She never felt that at her human school. She'd seen things that would drive her human classmates insane

even to imagine. None of them had any idea of what the real world was like-or what Jez was like, for

that matter.

But now she was surrounded by people who understood her. And it felt so good that it was alarming.

She hadn't expected this, that she would slip back into the gang like a hand in a glove. Or that something

inside her would look around and sigh and say, "We're home."

Because I am not home, she told herself sternly. These are not my people. They don't really know me,

either….

But they don't have to, the little sigh returned. You don't ever need to tell them you're human. There's no

reason for them to find out.

Jez shoved the thought away, scrunched down hard on the sighing part of her mind. And hoped it would

stay scrunched. She tried to focus on what the others were saying.

Thistle was talking to Morgead, showing all her small teeth as she smiled. "So if you've got the terms

settled, does that mean we get to do it now? We get to pick the little girl up?"

"Today? Yeah, I guess we could." Morgead looked at Jez. "We know her name and everything. It's

Iona Skelton, and she's living just a couple buildings down from where the fire was. Thistle made friends

with her earlier this week."

Jez was startled, although she kept her expression relaxed. She hadn't expected things to move this fast.

But it might all work out for the best, she realized, her mind turning over possibilities quickly. If she could

snatch the kid and take her back to Hugh, this whole masquerade could be over by tomorrow. She might

even live through it.

"Don't get too excited," she warned Thistle, combing some bits of grass out of the smaller girl's silk-floss

hair. "Hunter wants the Wild Power alive and unharmed. He's got plans for her."

"Plus, before we take her, we've got to test her," Morgead said.

Jez controlled an urge to swallow, went on combing Thistle's hair with her fingers. "What do you mean,

test her?"

Td think that would be obvious. We can't take the chance of sending Hunter a dud. We have to make

sure she is the Wild Power."

Jez raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were sure," she said, but of course she knew Morgead was right.

She herself would have insisted Hugh find a way to test the little girl before doing anything else with her.

The problem was that Morgead's testing was likely to be … unpleasant.

"I'm sure, but I still want to test her!" Morgead snapped. "Do you have a problem with that?"

"Only if it's dangerous. For us, I mean. After all, she's got some kind of power beyond imagining, right?"

"And she's in elementary school. I hardly think she's gonna be able to take on six vampires."

The others were looking back and forth between Morgead and Jez like fans at a tennis match.

"It's just as if she never left," Raven said dryly, and Val bellowed laughter while Thistle giggled.

"They always sound so-married," Pierce observed, with just a tinge of spite to his cold voice.

Jez glared at them, aware that Morgead was doing the same. "I wouldn't marry him if every other guy on

earth was dead," she informed Pierce.

"If it were a choice between her and a human, I'd pick the human," Morgead put in nastily.

Everyone laughed at that. Even Jez.

The sun glittered on the water at the Marina. On Jez's left was a wide strip of green grass, where people

were flying huge and colorful kites, complicated ones with dozens of rainbow tails. On the sidewalk

people were Rollerblading and jogging and walking dogs. Everybody was wearing summer clothing;

everybody was happy.

It was different on the other side of the street.

Everything changed over there. A line of pinky-brown concrete stood like a wall to mark the difference.

There was a high school and then rows of a housing project, all the buildings identically square, flat, and

ugly. And on the next street beyond them, there was nobody walking at all.

Jez let Morgead take the lead on his motorcycle as he headed for those buildings. She always found this

place depressing.

He pulled into a narrow alley beside a store with a dilapidated sign proclaiming "Shellfish De Lish." Val

roared in after him, then Jez, then Raven with Thistle riding pillion behind her, and finally Pierce. They all

turned off their motors.

"That's where she lives now; across the street," Morgead said. "She and her mom are staying with her

aunt. Nobody plays in the playground; it's too

dangerous. But Thistle might be able to get her to come down the stairs."

"Of course I can," Thistle said calmly. She showed her pointed teeth in a grin.

"Then we can grab her and be gone before her mom even notices," Morgead said. "We can take her

back to my place and do the test where it's private."

Jez breathed once to calm the knot in her stomach. "Ill grab her," she said. At least that way she might

be able to whisper something comforting to the kid. "Thistle, you try to get her right out to the sidewalk.

Everybody else, stay behind me-if she sees a bunch of motorcycles, she'll probably freak. But be ready

to gun it when I pull out and grab her. The noise should help cover up any screams. Raven, you pick up

Thistle as soon as I get the kid, and we all go straight back to Morgead's."

Everyone was nodding, looking pleased with the plan-except Morgead.

"I think we should knock her out when we grab her. That way there won't be any screams. Not to

mention any blue fire when she figures out she's being kidnapped-"

"I already said how we're going to do it," Jez cut in flatly. "I don't want her knocked out, and I don't

think she'll be able to hurt us. Now, everybody get ready. Off you go, Thistle."

As Thistle skipped across the street, Morgead let out a sharp breath. His jaw was tight.

"You never could take advice, Jez."

"And you never could take orders." She could see him starting to sizzle, but only out of the corner of her

eye. Most of her attention was focused on the housing building.

It was such a desolate place. No graffiti-but no grass, either. A couple of dispirited trees in front. And

that playground with a blue metal slide and a few motorcycles-on-springs to ride … all looking new and

untouched.

"Imagine growing up in a place like this," she said.

Pierce laughed oddly. "You sound as if you feel sorry for her."

Jez glanced back. There was no sympathy in his deep-set dark eyes-and none in Raven's midnight blue

or Val's hazel ones, either. Funny, she didn't remember them being that heartless-but of course she hadn't

been sensitive to the issue back in the old days. She would never have stopped to wonder about what

they felt for human children.

"It's because it's a kid," Morgead said brusquely. "It's hard on any kid growing up in a place like this."

Jez glanced at him, surprised. She saw in his emerald green eyes what she'd missed in the others; a kind

of bleak pity. Then he shrugged, and the expression was gone.

Partly to change the subject, and partly because she was curious, she said, "Morgead? Do you know the

prophecy with the line about the blind Maiden's vision?"

"What, this one?" He quoted:

"Four to stand between the light and the shadow.

Four of blue fire, power in their blood. Born in the year of the blind Maiden's vision; Four less one and

darkness triumphs."

"Yeah. What do you think "born in the year of the blind Maiden's vision' means?"

He looked impatient. "Well, the Maiden has to be Aradia, right?"

"Who's that?" Val interrupted, his linebacker body quivering with interest.

Morgead gave Jez one of his humoring-Val looks. "The Maiden of the Witches," he said. "You know,

the blind girl? The Maiden part of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone group that rules all the witches? She's

only one of the most important people in the Night World-"

"Oh, yeah. I remember." Val settled back.

"I agree," Jez said. "The blind Maiden has to be Aradia. But what does the 'year of her vision' mean?

How old is this kid we're snatching?"

"About eight, I think."

"Did Aradia have some special vision eight years ago?"

Morgead was staring across the street, now, his eyebrows together. "How should I know? She's been

having visions since she went blind, right? Which means, like, seventeen years' worth of 'em. Who's

supposed to tell which one the poem means?"

"What you mean is that you haven't even tried to figure it out," Jez said acidly.

He threw her an evil glance. "You're so smart; you do it."

Jez said nothing, but she made up her mind to do just that. For some reason, the poem bothered her.

Aradia was eighteen now, and had been having visions since she lost her sight at the age of one. Some

particular vision must have been special. Otherwise, why would it be included in the prophecy?

It had to be important. And part of Jez's mind was worried about it.

Just then she saw movement across the street. A brown metal door was opening and two small figures

were coming out.

One with feathery blond hair, the other with tiny dark braids. They were hand in hand.

Something twisted inside Jez.

Just stay calm, stay calm, she told herself. It's no good to think about grabbing her and making a run for

the East Bay. They'll just follow you; track you down. Stay cool and you'll be able to get the kid free

later.

Yeah, after Morgead does his little "test."

But she stayed cool and didn't move, breathing slowly and evenly as Thistle led the other girl down the

stairs. When they reached the sidewalk, Jez pressed the starter button.

She didn't say "Now!" She didn't need to. She just peeled out, knowing the others would follow like a

flock of well-trained ducklings. She heard

their engines roar to life, sensed them behind her in tight formation, and she headed straight for the

sidewalk.

The Wild Power kid wasn't dumb. When she saw Jez's motorcycle coming at her, she tried to run. Her

mistake was that she tried to save Thistle, too. She tried to pull the little blond girl with her, but Thistle

was suddenly strong, grabbing the chain-link fence with a small hand like steel, holding them both in

place.

Jez swooped in and caught her target neatly around the waist. She swooped the child onto the saddle

facing her, felt the small body thud against her, felt hands clutch at her automatically for balance.

Then she whipped past a parked car, twisted the throttle to get a surge of speed, and flew out of there.

Behind her, she knew Raven was snagging Thistle and the others were all following. There wasn't a

scream or even a sound from the housing project.

They were roaring down Taylor Street. They were passing the high school. They were making it away

clean.

"Hang on to me or you'll fall off and get hurt!" Jez yelled to the child in front of her, making a turn so fast

that her knee almost scraped the ground. She wanted to stay far enough ahead of the others that she

could talk.

"Take me back home!" The kid yelled it, but not hysterically. She hadn't shrieked even once. Jez looked

down at her.

And found herself staring into deep, velvety brown eyes. Solemn eyes. They looked reproachful and

unhappy-but not afraid.

Jez was startled.

She'd expected crying, terror, anger. But she had the feeling that this kid wouldn't even be yelling if it

hadn't been the only way to be heard.

Maybe I should have been more worried about what she'll do to us. Maybe she can call blue fire down

to kill people. Otherwise, how can she be so composed when she's just been kidnapped?

But those brown eyes-they weren't the eyes of somebody about to attack. They were-Jez didn't know

what they were. But they wrenched her heart.

"Look-Iona, right? That's your name?"

The kid nodded.

"Look, Iona, I know this seems weird and scary- having somebody just grab you off the street. And I

can't explain everything now. But I promise you, you're not going to get hurt. Nothing's going to hurt

you-okay?"

"I want to go home."

Oh, kid, so do I, Jez thought suddenly. She had to blink hard. Tm going to take you home-or at least

someplace safe," she added, as honesty unexpectedly kicked in. There was something about the kid that

made her not want to lie. "But first we've got to go to a friend of mine's house. But, look, no matter how

strange all this seems, I want you to remember something. I won't let you get hurt. Okay? Can you

believe that?"

"My mom is going to be scared."

Jez took a deep breath and headed onto the freeway. "I promise I won't let you get hurt," she said again.

And that was all she could say.

She felt like a centaur, some creature that was half person and half steel horse, carrying off a human kid

at sixty miles an hour. It was pointless to try to make conversation on the freeway, and Iona didn't speak

again until they were roaring up to Morgead's building.

Then she said simply, "I don't want to go in there."

"It's not a bad place," Jez said, braking front and back. "We're going up on the roof. There's a little

garden there."

A tiny flicker of interest showed in the solemn brown eyes. Four other bikes pulled in beside Jez.

"Yeeehaw! We got her!" Val yelled, pulling off his helmet.

"Yeah, and we'd better take her upstairs before somebody sees us," Raven said, tossing her dark hair so

it fell over one eye again.

Thistle was climbing off the back of Raven's motorcycle. Jez felt the small body in front of her stiffen.

Thistle looked at Iona and smiled her sharp-toothed smile.

Iona just looked back. She didn't say a word, but after a minute Thistle flushed and turned away.

"So now we're going to test her, right? It's time to test her, isn't it, Morgead?"

Jez had never heard Thistle's voice so shrill-so

disturbed. She glanced down at the child in front of her, but Morgead was speaking.

"Yeah, it's time to test her," he said, sounding unexpectedly tired for somebody who'd just pulled off

such a triumph. Who'd just caught a Wild Power that was going to make his career. "Let's get it over

with."

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