Authors: Christine Feehan
“You are saying that to open the book one must kill five people in the correct order.”
She nodded. “That’s the truth of it. The members of my family and Barnabas are very much willing to kill three times that many in order to open the book. And if Sergey gets wind of the book being so close—and he will eventually—he’ll do anything to recover and open it. He has tiny bits of Xavier in him. In fact, he would probably know precisely how to open it.” She tilted her head back, both hands buried in the cat’s fur. “We
to recover that book first, Isai.”
“We will,” he assured her.
“Why haven’t you ever questioned that I might be trying to recover the book for my family, or for myself?”
“It is impossible to lie to one’s lifemate. You can omit things, but lying will not work.”
She very carefully put the large shadow cat from her lap. “Thank you for believing in me, Isai. I haven’t given you that much cause to.”
“That is not necessarily true. You risked your life to try to help Elisabeta. You could have gotten away and yet you didn’t. You allowed Sergey to keep you prisoner so that you could aid her. Have you told her of your experiences with Barnabas?”
“Not exactly,” she admitted in a low tone. “She was held prisoner for centuries. It wasn’t nearly as bad for me.”
“You cannot compare the two, and neither will she. Sergey might have tormented Elisabeta, but I doubt that he tortured her. He wouldn’t want her to commit any act that would take away her innocence. It was her light he needed. He might have hurt her in order to get her to comply with his commands and to rely on him, but he wouldn’t have sexually assaulted her with the kind of pain Barnabas inflicted on you.”
Isai made absolutely certain that he kept his features perfectly expressionless. He didn’t want her to know that he was seething with the need
to find Barnabas and then her family and one by one wipe them from the face of the earth. He did find it a little laughable that she thought an ancient couldn’t handle mages. He had learned so many things in his time on the planet and most of those had to do with battles and hunting vampires. Mages sometimes helped and sometimes got in the way.
He was careful, searching for the right words. She was already wounded. She needed to know she was worth something to him after hearing what her family had done to her. She felt shame and that infuriated him, but he made certain none of his growing anger showed in his voice. “Like me, Elisabeta will admire and respect you for your courage. You truly are worthy of being her friend and my lifemate.”
Her gaze jumped to his. For the first time since she’d decided to tell him about her past, she looked pleased. He’d said the right thing. He took a chance. “Perhaps it would be a good thing to talk to Elisabeta. If there is anyone who will understand and not judge you, it will be her. She is a woman of the light, just as you are.”
“She is so lost and wounded,” Julija protested. “She doesn’t need me to dump my troubles on her. She needs me to be there for her.”
“Maybe she needs to know she’s needed. Would you want to be the one everyone feels sorry for? Everyone tiptoes around? Helping you, even if it is just to listen to you, might be the thing she needs most to start healing.”
Julija looked down at her hands. “I don’t think it’s possible to heal after what she went through. I hate the idea that everyone thinks she’ll rise all perfect.”
“No one believes that, least of all her lifemate. They were born for each other. He will know how best to make her happy.”
Her chin went up. A challenge. “Do you know how best to make me happy?”
“Yes. But you are unwilling to take that chance. Now that I know why, at least I have understanding.”
He wasn’t certain if that was completely true or not. He wanted it to be. He wanted to do whatever she needed him to do without regret. He was her lifemate and if she absolutely could not stand the idea of it, then
he didn’t want to force her. They wouldn’t work. Some men claimed their women, and he knew they did so because, deep down, their women needed them to. Julija had to make up her own mind. That was as important to him as it was to her.
There was a long silence. He could hear her heart beating a little too fast. Had he already claimed her, he would have immediately corrected that and soothed her. She was upset, and embarrassed, two emotions she didn’t need to ever have around him.
“I don’t know what to think anymore.” There was honesty in her voice. “You’re very different than I expected. I was terrified of becoming a lifemate to a Carpathian, now I don’t know what to think.”
“Terrified?” There had been genuine fear in her voice even when she’d said the word. That seemed abnormal for her. Julija wasn’t a woman too many things terrified. “You studied the Carpathian species?”
“Yes, it was a requirement. My father wanted me to know everything about the species.”
“Since there are no books on us, how were you informed?”
“We had instructors for our classes. The Carpathian class was taught by my stepmother’s brother . . .” She trailed off as he kept looking at her. Her gaze shifted away from his. “So the Carpathians wiping out the mages never really happened? According to the class I took, that was the reason Xavier began to fight back. He had thought they were his friends.”
“It never happened, Julija. Is this class taught to all mages?”
“I have no idea. I was privately tutored.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “My brothers were supposed to take the class, but they didn’t, and they weren’t in trouble for it. I tried to skip out once and my father was furious. I was punished for a couple of weeks.”
“How long was this class?”
“Just a couple of weeks, which I thought was strange, even at the time.” She shook her head and looked straight into his eyes, realizing the truth. “It was fake, wasn’t it? At least fake mixed with truth. Had it all been fake I would have known. I was impressionable at the time and was still trying to figure out why my father was so harsh with me.”
“He knew you were Dragonseeker. He knew what that meant. He
wanted to find ways to turn you against the Carpathian people. He knew you were growing powerful as a mage and the longer you lived, the more your Carpathian blood would call to you.”
“They all fed off me.” She held up her arms for him to see. “Once when he was very angry with me he told me I had been bred just to sustain his life and if I wasn’t giving him my blood, I was useless to him.”
“How were you fed blood? You must have needed it?”
“I was trying not to use it and that was what made him angry all the time. I didn’t like that if I didn’t have it, I grew weak. I prefer the night and sometimes, when I was hurt, after he beat me, I would lie in the yard, in the dirt. It soothed my body. Once, my brothers caught me and they told him. He was furious. He said I was acting like a traitor and he would bury me alive if he ever caught me doing such a thing again.”
She wrapped her arms around her middle, shuddering with memories pouring in.
“Your father is an ass,” Isai declared in hope of making her laugh.
He didn’t get a laugh, but he did get a faint smile.
“I suppose you could call him that, although it’s mild.”
“Julija, we need to get moving to find Iulian and the book. I have to feed again. It will not take me long. You will be safe here while I am out hunting. Are you comfortable with that?”
She nodded. “I can clean up while you’re gone.”
“When I return, you’ll need to feed, you know that, don’t you? To keep your strength up.” He kept his gaze fixed on her face, reading her every emotion.
She nodded, avoiding his gaze. “I’m well aware.”
told him the truth, Elisabeta. It was the most difficult thing I can recall ever doing,
Julija confessed in a little rush.
I’m so glad I have you to talk things over with. Just telling him made me feel so sick, once he left, I had to vomit. It was that bad. I was terrified he would look at me and feel disgusted. When I look in the mirror, that’s how I feel.
There was a small silence and Julija held her breath. Elisabeta flowed into her mind, stronger than Julija had ever experienced with her before. Maybe Isai was right and Elisabeta needed someone to want her help.
I assume you told Isai why you are afraid to trust him with your heart.
I did. He’s been good to me other than the, you know . . . spanking thing. That was annoying. And it did hurt whether he thinks so or not. He’s strong.
Mostly it hurt your pride.
Wouldn’t it yours?
I would have welcomed a spanking, sister. Sergey was very cruel.
Julija was silent for a long time, gathering her courage. In comparison to what Elisabeta had been put through, she felt her horrible experiences didn’t count, but Isai had told her perhaps not only did she need to tell
Elisabeta the details, but her friend really did need to be needed. Already she could feel that was so.
Elisabeta was silent, waiting for her to decide. Elisabeta never pushed. Never insisted. In the end, because there was no one demanding, because she had to make the decision, Julija told her everything. The horrifying details that shamed her. The revulsion of being made a subject in Barnabas’s classes for others to see. How the torture worsened when she refused to comply and kill someone.
There were times when the spells burned her from the inside out and she couldn’t distance herself from what was happening to her. Those times she feared the most, feared she would give in and harm an innocent. Once, they tried to convince her that she had, and, although she was certain they were lying to her, there was a part of her that feared it might have happened. That was the worst, to think she could have sacrificed another being in order to stop her own suffering.
Julija didn’t realize she was weeping until she felt Elisabeta surround her with comfort.
Most of those living on earth are made up of balances. Good and evil. Or dark and light. When my lifemate was born, his soul was split in half and he ended up with all darkness, his and mine, while I received his light to safeguard. I had my own light as well. He became a hunter of the vampire. I am incapable of becoming vampire. As are you. There is no way you would have killed an innocent, Julija. It would be impossible.
I feel like I could kill those coming after the book,
That is different. Those hunting the book are not innocent. Their intentions are to harm others, and the book will allow them to do that. You might protect yourself or those you love, but you wouldn’t just kill indiscriminately. Once you allow your lifemate to claim you, the balance is restored.
In any case, until your lifemate claims you, it will be difficult.
Julija didn’t like that at all. She needed to be able to defend herself and to help Isai.
Are you really going to allow your lifemate to claim you? Are you that certain that he will make you happy?
I am that certain that I can make him happy if he gives me time. Lifemates will always give their other half what they need.
Julija didn’t think Elisabeta sounded as sure as she wanted to sound. She was every bit as frightened of her future as Julija was.
I kind of like him,
she admitted reluctantly,
but it could be just because he’s the nicest anyone other than you has been to me.
He’s pretty hot as men go. I hope your lifemate is hot for you.
What is “hot”?
Attractive. You can’t resist him physically. Gorgeous.
Amusement flooded her mind. That felt good. Elisabeta didn’t often portray laughter to her.
Of course I will find him attractive—um—hot. He is my lifemate. There is no other for me—or for you. Should Isai not claim you, you will never be satisfied with another, Julija.
Sadly, Julija was afraid Elisabeta was right. She was beginning to look forward to his return far more than she should have been. She definitely didn’t like the separation. The two cats were pressing close to her, so she dropped her hands into their sleek fur and massaged their necks while she thought about Isai. Was it really so bad to have a partner? Would he be a partner, or would he turn on her?
How can you trust anyone again? Sergey was your friend. He wasn’t vampire when he came to you, yet you’re still willing to trust a man—a complete stranger at that—with your life. How do you do it?
I am still in the ground.
There was shame in Elisabeta’s mind.
That admission humbled Julija. She saw courage in the other woman, while Elisabeta thought herself a coward, yet she was determined to rise and allow a complete stranger to claim her, a selfless act, to save her lifemate. Julija tried to tell herself that Elisabeta would do so because she’d been trained from birth to do just that—give herself up for a man—but she knew better. Elisabeta had been taken captive as a young teenager by a Carpathian male, one she’d trusted. One she’d believed to be her friend. Just like Barnabas had taken her, only Julija had been an adult.
She closed her eyes and leaned forward to bury her face in Belle’s fur.
Sometimes, Elisabeta, I don’t know why someone as extraordinary as you would have me as a friend. I’m so selfish. Really. I want him, but the dream seems too
good to be true. I’ve never had anything in my life be good. Everything that looked that way has been illusion. Sometimes, when I look at him, I wonder if I conjured him up—or if my father did.
The moment the thought was out of her head and into Elisabeta’s her entire body began to shake. She had let out her worst fear when she’d guarded it so carefully.
Elisabeta, my father could do this. He is good at illusions.
She hadn’t wanted to examine the idea too closely to tip her father off that she knew what he’d done.
There was quiet. Stillness. Elisabeta thought things over carefully. She didn’t just blurt out a denial, she examined the possibility from every angle.
He would create illusions of my mother coming to me when I was just a child. Sometimes I thought I would go insane wondering if he’d really killed her or if that was the illusion and he held her prisoner somewhere. I remember being a child and whispering all my secrets to my mother, all my fears, and of course, it was my father. I learned not to trust anything or anyone. Especially if they were nice to me.
Your lifemate spanked you.
He had done that. Would her father ever have risked that? Anatolie had never spanked her as a child. He was far subtler than that. Far crueler. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the one thing she was furious with Isai over was the one thing proving him to be real? She rubbed her cheek in Belle’s fur and then sat up, looking toward the slight crack leading to outside. She realized she wanted him to come back.
I can’t stop thinking about him, and that makes me more afraid than ever. I don’t like feeling like a coward.
Again, soft amusement flooded her mind.
You are chasing after a spell book that could kill off an entire species as well as change the balance of power in the world if allowed into the wrong hands. I do not think you can call yourself a coward, Julija.
She could never live through the humiliation of giving herself, her body, her heart and soul to another man and have him be an illusion. It would break her. Totally break her. Sometimes she felt held together by the thinnest of threads. She couldn’t imagine what life was like for Elisabeta.
There was a faint stirring in her mind and she knew immediately Isai
had connected with her. She held her breath and willed Elisabeta not to say anything more.
Are you all right? You feel . . . upset.
It was the last thing she expected him to say. She could feel his worry and it felt genuine. The way he came into her mind, pouring in slowly—like molasses, gently, so as to give her time to shut him out—that alone made her heart flutter. She was so susceptible to him. The way his voice was so intimate, stroking along the walls of her mind. He felt strong and protective—something she’d never known. Could her father be capable of such an illusion? She doubted if he had knowledge of such caring. Of such sweetness.
Sívamet? Now I am really worried. You are afraid.
She was. Of him. Of taking a chance. Of letting someone into her life when they could tear her to shreds.
I am fine.
You are sad.
So true. She was sad. Sad for herself. Sad for Elisabeta. Even sad for both their lifemates. She tried to live her life in a positive manner, but she didn’t know how to handle the present situation.
She had to give him something. Some truth. Even if he wasn’t real—and she suspected he truly was—he deserved truth just for making her feel as if he cared about her.
I need to know you’re real.
There was a brief silence.
You believe I am an illusion? Sent to you by this Barnabas? By your father?
She remained silent, afraid to think or move, frozen, paralyzed by her inability to know for certain.
I am on my way.
There was decisiveness in his tone.
Abruptly he was gone, and she let out her breath, not realizing she’d been holding it.
She could still feel her friend, so still and quiet.
What do you think?
He is very real. He is Carpathian. No mage could possibly produce that.
There it was. Confirmation. Julija didn’t know whether or not to be relieved, because now she actually had to make up her mind. Already, she’d insulted him and made him think poorly of her as a lifemate. He couldn’t possibly understand what her life had been like and why she’d been so terrified of ever opening herself up to trusting anyone, let alone
the enemy. And she’d been led to believe Carpathians were the enemy. She just hadn’t believed an entire species could be.
I know you have to go.
It was difficult to maintain their connection over so long a distance. Elisabeta was very powerful, whether she believed she was or not.
I really appreciate you being my friend.
She needed one. Desperately.
Elisabeta’s affection slipped into her mind, warming her.
I have never had a friend before. I like having someone to talk to as well.
I’ll get back to the compound as soon as I’m done here,
I would like that.
Elisabeta sounded and felt shy to her.
Before Julija could reply, Elisabeta had slipped away leaving her . . . alone. She patted both cats on the head and stood up, needing to move. She wasn’t wholly Carpathian. She could give the illusion of being clean, and she could cast a spell to clean her body and hair if necessary, but it didn’t feel like a real shower.
She looked around the cavern. As in most caves, water trickled from the walls. She studied the various paths of water. All led downward in little jagged trails, but one was wider than the others and formed a small puddle at the far end of the chamber. She might be able to do something with that. There was no rock to build up to form a barrier to give herself a pool or bath of any sort.
She was just standing there, frustrated, when she felt him come up behind her. There had been no warning, not even from the cats, and that told her more than anything else could have. They always reacted to her family, mostly slinking away in fear, or hissing their hatred and submission. The shadow cats chuffed softly in greeting and bumped into his legs, winding around them. He was so close, she felt the cats’ movements, but she didn’t feel him.
“I want to take a shower.” She blurted it out like a crazy person, but just his presence was overwhelming when she felt she had told him far too much about her life. She couldn’t face him, not with him knowing the worst about her. It was humiliating, and she couldn’t think about anything else, vividly remembering the way Barnabas had hurt and displayed her for his class.
“You are Carpathian, Julija,” he said softly, his voice whispering against her ear.
She felt her hair move with every breath he took. “I’m mage. I don’t understand what you mean.”
“If you wish a shower, you can create one for yourself. If you don’t want to bother, you simply can freshen yourself and change your attire.” He stepped out from behind her and walked in a slow half circle to stand in front of her. “You have already been doing it, probably most of your life.”
She shook her head. “I’m mage, Isai. What I do is mostly illusion. I will admit, my illusions are considered some of the best in my world, but I kind of had a knack for it from childhood.”
“Julija, you had a knack because your illusions aren’t tricks or deceptions, they are real. There is no doubt in my mind that your father is aware of this. Most likely, he discovered it when you were a child. Rather than allow you to realize what was happening, he fostered the idea that you were extremely good at illusion.”
She shook her head. “I practiced all the time. I still practice.”
He stepped back and indicated the wall behind him. “Build yourself a pool from the rock.”
She frowned and circled around him slowly, studying the rock surface and the smaller stones on the floor of the chamber. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Everything around you has properties. You can manipulate those properties. You do it all the time when you’re building what you think are illusions. If it was merely an illusion to widen the crack in the rock at the entrance to the cave, how would you slip your body through? If it was illusion to make your body paper thin, how would the reality of it work?”
She frowned up at him. She hadn’t thought of that. “I’ve used magic spells my entire life. They’re second nature to me. Magic can create the things you’re saying I do as a Carpathian.”