Authors: Christine Feehan
You helped the others.
The images of Julija caring for the cats’ wounds and secretly giving them blood startled her. She didn’t know if it was an accusation or not. She just inclined her head, because there was no denying it. She was there. Comet was there.
There was movement above them, but Julija didn’t dare take her eyes from the big cat. Both Belle and Blue had come to their feet. She felt this was a defining moment, but she was unsure what to do so she sat very still. Those strange eyes stared into hers and she felt the cat deep within her. She willed him to see her good intentions. Willed him to see that she wanted to help his mate. After what seemed an eternity, Comet looked up toward the female and yowled.
Phaedra remained where she was. She shook her head and cried, mewling pitifully. Comet bared his teeth and called to her a second time. The female looked around her slowly, tentatively. Julija heard Isai’s breath hiss out of his lungs.
I told you it was a trap,
Julija said. She wanted to shake him. They could have been halfway out of Yosemite had they taken to the air.
It is only a trap if we are unaware of it,
Isai pointed out.
You warned me earlier and I believed you. It was necessary to expose ourselves if we wanted to save Phaedra and Comet.
The large cat looked at Isai as if he’d heard every word. Once again, he called to his mate. This time she obeyed, slinking down the narrow trail toward them, her head swinging cautiously left, then right.
Without warning, something cracked hard almost against Julija’s thigh and then up near her shoulder. Shockingly, cracks feathered out around her as if she were sitting in a glass house and the glass had shattered but held. Isai leapt for the female cat, taking her off the trail as more bullets struck where she’d just been.
“Go, brothers, hide yourselves,” he called to the shadow cats as he tumbled down the rocky hill toward the cover of brush with the large female.
Phaedra had been startled enough to rip across his thigh with a hooked, venomous claw, but then realized he was saving her life. She held herself very still as they rolled together. More bullets hit the brush, but Isai had thrown up a barrier to prevent them from being hit.
You could have told me,
Julija said, touching the shield her lifemate had erected around her. Clearly, he had been protecting her not only from the large cats should they attack, but all along he’d been expecting her murderous family to catch up with them. They’d shot the owl, so it stood to reason they had a high-powered rifle and would use that in the first phase of their attacks.
Why don’t you have a shield around you?
You are much more important.
Was there laughter in his voice? Maybe not, but certainly amusement. She wanted to shake him.
This isn’t a game. Anatolie is very, very dangerous. If you knew Xavier, or heard of the despicable things he did, then you should realize that he raised Anatolie to be as bad as he was. He wanted an heir. He kept Anatolie secret from everyone, so he could teach him everything he needed to know and help him take over the world. That was the ultimate goal. Do you think he would raise someone to be wimpy?
Now he was laughing.
What does that even mean? Is it slang?
She was not going to laugh.
More bullets hit the shield surrounding her and the cracks webbed wider.
Should I run for it?
Go invisible. Become mist and fade away. Once you have done that, I will follow with the cats. Do not worry, I will be right behind you.
Her heart jerked hard. She took a deep breath and shook her head.
Isai, I can’t possibly do something like that. It’s too scary.
The moment she sent the words to him, he flooded her mind with soothing warmth and filled her visually with mist, so it felt as though it was building in her mind rather than outside around her, yet when she looked up toward the stars, she could no longer see them. The mist had crept in, a few long fingers at a time until it surrounded her, thick and impenetrable.
The change always starts in your mind, just as your illusions do. Think of it as an illusion if that helps you, little mage. You must hold two things in your head at all times. You will be mist and you must be lighter than air, taking to the sky to escape. Moist air is heavier than dry air. You can do both.
The moment he said that, she realized he was right. She lifted her hands and began to weave a pattern of mist so that she felt it twisting around her body, those wet, cool, very fine droplets. She began to chant softly.
Mist made of water, I call to the light.
Moonshine surround me with your beams so bright.
Take that which is water transforming its light.
So I may transcend, becoming mist and take flight.
Her body dissolved, a stranger feeling even than when she’d become an owl, or rather had been buried deep in the owl’s body. She moved quickly, rising to join the strange, eerie fog that surrounded the large series of passes along the mountain range.
A loud crack followed by a single command sliced through the heavy fog.
The air shimmered around her. The droplets went iridescent. Julija
had been trained to obey that voice, that command. Without real thought, she started to shift.
Stay with me,
Feel me with you. He cannot have you.
Shocked that she’d nearly obeyed her father when she knew better, Julija clung tightly to Isai.
A series of loud cracks like lightning whips echoed across the sky and reverberated down through the canyons. Isai held the cat low, murmuring soothing reassurances to the huge female. Phaedra had one venomous talon hooked into his thigh, but she’d gone still, realizing they were being fired upon. She’d heard the sound of gunfire before and she’d seen the results.
“That’s a girl,” Isai praised, his mind more on keeping the image of fog in Julija’s brain than on his predicament with the cat. He hadn’t yet given the animal his blood, so he couldn’t fully read her, but she’d gone docile. She was too thin, clearly starving. “We have to stay here, hunkered down, you might as well feed.” He offered his wrist. He hadn’t closed the laceration and blood still beaded there.
Phaedra looked at him in much the same way her mate had, studying his face, looking for a trap. These cats had been so abused by their creators that they had little trust—like Julija. His woman. She was in the thick fog moving overhead and he wanted to send her somewhere safe while he dealt with those hunting them.
He’d known there was a trap. He had hoped to get the shadow cats
out before it was sprung. He’d protected his lifemate first and then reached out to the cats. He would have killed them both immediately had Comet not responded.
Why are you called Comet?
he asked the cat.
In the form of a shadow, the male made his way to Isai and made his presence known by pressing close to his mate. She didn’t look up from where she was licking frantically at the blood beading on Isai’s wrist, but she did press back against the larger male.
The image of speed came into Isai’s mind. There was no bragging. The cat stated facts.
Isai felt his woman move in his mind. She felt sweet. Compassionate. Wholly feminine. Her touch warmed him unexpectedly.
How are we going to get out of here with the cats? Can you make them like the fog as well?
He had no intentions of leaving, not until he had engaged the enemy. He knew there was at least one, but more likely two. One to handle the rifle and probably a partner, a spotter.
I will settle you in the distance and return to fight these people. We do not want them biting at our heels while we search for the book.
Feminine outrage filled his mind.
You will not settle me in the distance. I am perfectly capable of helping you. In fact, I’m probably better at dealing with them than you are.
He was careful to keep the thought that she hadn’t dealt with them ever from the front of his mind. If she’d been capable, her family would already have been annihilated. She might have the power, but she lacked the compartmentalization needed to kill. Also, they had programmed her to believe they were all-powerful. Especially her father.
“Enough,” he said regretfully to the female cat. She needed more blood. More food. More care. He couldn’t shed his body and enter the cat’s while keeping the fog surrounding them and Julija safe. “As soon as we are in a safe place I will see to your injuries,” he promised.
Move to the very edge of the fog.
He waited to see if Julija would do as he commanded. They were new. She was more of the modern world than he was. Mage women were
powerful in their own right and as a rule were not in the least subservient to men. He wasn’t asking for obedience from his woman, but in a battle, he expected to be the general.
He felt her hesitation, but then she moved slowly within the thick fog, going in the direction of the slight breeze. Movement was very slight, and she moved sluggishly, not wanting to draw attention.
Can you spot them?
At once he felt the difference in her. She had thought he wouldn’t ask her for help and had been upset, but with that one question, she was once again fully with him.
I see movement. They’re trying to use the fog for cover. My two brothers. They have leashes on two shadow cats. The cats are young. I recognize them from the shed. They are from the last litter considered Phaedra and Comet’s. The only two to survive.
They have three mages with them. Males.
Their friends. Terry, Sam and Andrew. They always hang with them.
He wanted to ask about “hang with them,” but the implication was that they were always together, so he understood enough to know the five men had probably worked together before.
I do not play games when I hunt, my little mage.
There was a small silence.
What are you saying?
I intend to kill them.
Another silence. She held herself away from him. It was subtle, but it was there. He didn’t give in. Her family was the enemy. More, they were her greatest enemy. As long as they were alive, she would never be safe. He was not going to pretend that he wouldn’t destroy them. The moment he heard her story of Barnabas and realized her father and brothers had not only allowed such a hideous thing to happen to her but had set her up, he knew he was going to kill them.
Was she silently weeping? He couldn’t blame her. She had never really had a family. He touched her mind very gently, working his way around the image of fog she was so valiantly holding uppermost. He felt her fear
of the unknown. Her family might be something out of a horror film, but they were familiar to her. He felt her loneliness. It felt stark. Raw. Ugly. He had been alone for centuries, but he felt nothing, certainly not lonely.
Sívamet, you are my lifemate. You are never alone.
I’ve always been alone.
She didn’t feel sorry for herself, nor did she want pity. She was stating a fact. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her safe. He had to kill their enemies. That meant her family. He couldn’t take that pain away from her.
I am sorry I must do this, Julija.
I know it has to be done, but I would hesitate. I’m grateful you’re strong enough for both of us. What do we do about the cats?
Is their loyalty to your brothers or Phaedra and Comet?
I would imagine their parents. My brothers tortured the shadow cats at every opportunity, believing fear brought results much better and faster than kindness.
Belle and Blue popped their heads up just over the grass to allow him to see them. They had also taken their shadow forms. Only their eyes glowed in the darkness through the fog. The four cats awaited their orders.
You four get to safety. I will hunt alone.
Perhaps one day he would use the cats to help take down enemies, but he felt his loyalty to them needed to be proven before he started asking for help, and none of them were in the best of shape.
The cats exchanged some kind of communication he didn’t quite catch. He felt the passage of information, but he didn’t hear it.
They are talking to one another,
Julija cautioned. She was careful to keep the pathway between them very exact.
Yes, I caught that. Keep watching the enemy, sívamet. I want exact positions. I also need to know if someone is backing them up with a rifle.
Andrew is carrying a rifle.
That was one piece of information he had been looking for. The shooter was with her brothers, Vasile and Avram. That was good news.
We are your family.
That was unexpected. Firm. And came from Comet.
Isai understood that while taking his blood, they could see his
intentions and perhaps even share his mind for small glimpses of what kind of man he was, simply because they were cats and had psychic gifts of their own. Still, it shocked him that just that little bit of kindness had given him their full loyalty.
He needed to know.
Going into battle there can be no switching sides. Not now, not down the line. You have to know what kind of man I am. Ruthless. In battle, I do not hesitate, and I kill. There are no halfway measures. I do not take prisoners. I destroy my enemies. Most importantly, I do not tolerate traitors.
She is good.
It was a simple enough statement and it said it all. Julija. His woman with her compassion. She was good. That he understood. The reasoning made perfect sense to him.
What are they talking about?
Julija sounded confused.
You, my little mage. They are loyal to you.
She was silent a moment, turning that over in her mind.
I treated wounds on some of them. Phaedra and Comet wouldn’t allow me near them.
But they saw your kindness.
I don’t want anything to happen to them.
As opposed to me?
I am well aware you can take care of yourself.
Even though she sounded snippy, he felt her underlying worry. She didn’t like him putting himself in the hot zone.
Blue, take the others and get to safety.
The cat hesitated.
He didn’t want the cats with him. Not yet. He was used to working alone. He wanted them always to protect his lifemate, but if he said that, she’d fall out of the sky in indignation. He needed to stay in her mind to ensure she remained safe, just as she was.
It would make this battle much easier for you if I had my feet on the ground,
Julija pointed out.
Your attention can’t be divided.
She was very astute, or she was more adept at reading his mind than he realized, and he had to be careful when he conspired with the cats to keep her safe. He turned to the four shadow cats. All eyes were on him.
He signaled toward Blue and then pointed toward the sky where Julija was hovering. It took a moment and then the cat swung toward the others, clearly communicating. Isai hoped they got it.
Take position on the bluff about a mile from here. I will need you to tell me where they are.
He swept his arm toward the bluff. Three of the four shadows slipped into the fog, sliding around and over boulders. Only Blue remained. Looking at him. Watching. Very still.
Isai wasn’t prone to arguing. He had a choice of freezing the animal right where it was, or letting it come with him. He shrugged and began inching slowly down the mountain, moving with the fog, his mind firmly entrenched in Julija’s.
I’m good now. In cover. On the ground. You can do your thing without worry.
He would always worry. He would always need to know she was safe.
Do not go to sleep while you wait for me. Contemplate on where Iulian might have gone.
He wanted her mind on something other than the fact that he was going to kill her brothers.
He broke off his connection with her and reached for Comet, Phaedra and Belle.
Guard her with your lives.
The moment he felt their affirmations, he took to the air, not bothering to hide his trail through the fog. There was no drifting with it. No pretense. Mages didn’t force him into hiding, they hid from him.
Below him, the mages were spread out, each finding their way up to the spot where Julija had been sitting. The last they’d seen of Isai was when he’d made his dive to save Phaedra from a bullet.
He would have had Blue call to the young shadow cats with them, but Julija’s two brothers had them leashed. That meant he couldn’t attack them from a distance in the air, not if he wanted to keep the cats alive. He turned toward the first of the three mages traveling with her brothers. Julija had identified him as Terry. The man was halfway up the side of the steep pass. Isai sent the entire side rolling down on him from above.
Big chunks of granite broke off in rolling boulders, sweeping everything in their path with them as they rushed down the mountain, picking
up speed. Terry, warned by dirt, debris and the shaking of the ground, looked up, trying to peer through the fog. The largest boulder hit him dead center, crushing him under it as it rolled over him. Isai dropped down to make certain he was dead or dying.
The body was mangled, dirt covering most of it. Shockingly, although half of his face was gone, the other only had a few specks of dirt and grass. He was dead, his eyes staring up at the fog in a kind of horror.
Isai took to the air to hunt Sam. Sam had felt the movement of the earth and heard the boulders, the sound like a clap of thunder. He dropped low, crouching, using a natural overhang to protect himself from a slide. He was in a good position to defend himself. He was ready, his hands up as he cast a spell. Isai watched intently as the mage wove a protection spell around himself. He listened intently.
I call upon the power of the moon
I call upon your energies
Both small and large
I call to the wind to surround me
Protect me from that which cannot be seen
Moon surround me with your light
Let that which would do harm be destroyed
I call to the four directions
Envelop me with your powers
Protect me as I fight.
Above, below and from either side. Isai shook his head. Sam was supposed to be a very experienced mage, yet he’d left a loophole. He had given himself protection from every direction, including above, but he’d been specific, using the sky. Isai dropped down, as light as a feather, standing on the overhang. The one Sam thought protected him.
He paced across the entire overhang. It was very thick, much like the roof of a cave. It felt firm. There was grass and even some small bushes and saplings growing in it, the roots holding it in place. Each featherlight
touch of his foot removed the roots and loosened the rocks holding the dirt.
Sam looked up as dirt rained down, small particles of almost dust. Realizing he hadn’t completely protected himself, he had to make the decision to step into the open or remain in the enclosure and once again throw up a protection spell. His hands went up.
Isai stood in the middle of the roof, right above Sam, and jumped. The structure collapsed instantly, burying Sam under all the debris. The weight of the dirt, rocks and brush was enormous. Sam was driven to the ground, buried, with only his eyes showing. His mouth and nose were covered in the massive mound of dirt. He looked at Isai frantically, but he couldn’t weave a spell and he couldn’t breathe. It took only a few moments, but it was a hard way to die.