Authors: Christine Feehan
She shook her head. “Shadow warriors were men who fought with honor, and a mage captured their spirit and forced them into service. These are demons, evil beings the mage can’t force into service. He makes an exchange with them. In this case, he’s trading their service for the chance to taste flesh and blood. Yours or mine, specifically.”
Zev ran his hand down his knife as if eager for battle. “Let’s get to this. Tell me what to do.”
“We’re one, our souls tied together, so he believes if he kills one of us, he kills the other,” she explained.
“And he’s right,” Zev confirmed.
“He doesn’t know our spirits are tied together. If either of us gets pulled into the other world, which from what I see here, could be their plan, the demons devour our body and our spirit will enter the other world where his brother waits to collect it in the hopes that he can be resurrected.”
Zev swore under his breath. “I’m a man who fights what’s in front of me, not ghosts,” he said, his voice turning gravelly, the growl not far off. “How the hell do you prevent your spirit from entering another realm, or your body from being devoured by demons?”
She reached out and gently rubbed his wrist. “I don’t know if that is the plan, Zev,” she admitted. “I’m trying to guess and prepare myself for any likelihood. I know they spoke of such things, and the spirit has to be one known to them.”
Zev was a man of action, and this fight required finesse, the knowledge of spells and both white and black magic. His breath hissed out, a harsh blast of protest. “He wants your spirit.”
“He didn’t know I was here until he questioned Arno,” she reminded. “But he is an opportunist. I’m just being careful.”
She glanced behind her and Arnau’s body was already gone, the hall clean as if no violent death had ever taken place. She touched her belly where the claws had raked her. “There can be no trace of blood on me,” she added, lifting her fingers to examine the evidence of the Lycan’s attack.
Instantly Zev spun her around and really looked at her. “Branka, I’m sorry. I was selfishly thinking of the loss of my friend.” He placed his palm over the bite marks on her neck.
Rather than soothe the wound, pain flashed through her body. She jerked away from him, her eyes going wide. “I need Skyler and Tatijana right away,” she said and let herself sink down on the floor right in front of the door. “Tell them to hurry,” she added.
Fen and Tatijana emerged first, Tatijana going to her knees beside her sister. Her gaze went into the room and she gasped at the sight of the bloody symbols.
Branislava grasped her hand tightly. “I was bitten by Xaviero’s servant.”
“Arnau was not Xaviero’s servant,” Zev protested. “He was a good man.” He crouched beside his lifemate. “When I tried to heal her with my palm, my touch burned through her. I felt it, Tatijana.”
Tatijana and Branislava stared at one another in a kind of horror. Tatijana gripped her sister’s hand. “He injected you with demon’s bait, didn’t he? They’ll rush right to you.”
Zev wrapped his arms around his lifemate. “Speak a language I can understand.”
“We have to get it out of her,” Tatijana said. “They’ll find her. In this realm or the next, they’ll come for her. I know this spell. I saw them all working on perfecting it. We both did. Bronnie, we can get it out of you.”
Branislava nodded several times, took a deep breath and settled back against Zev. “Now, Tatijana, you and Skyler. Get her here. Where is she?”
“Dimitri and Skyler were out running the wolves this evening with Ivory and Razvan,” Fen explained, his voice so gentle Branislava had to fight tears. “All of them are on their way and should be here soon.”
She knew she was emotional. Most of it had to do with Zev’s emotion—or lack thereof. He pushed his feelings aside in order to survive the things he had to do, but she felt it, that burning sorrow at the loss of a man he considered family. He blamed himself for not tending to her wounds immediately and for not finding a way to prevent what had transpired. Losing a council member was a huge blow to him. Losing Arnau, a member of his pack, was even more of a personal blow. And now knowing he had waited to heal her and she was infected . . .
“We’re here,” Skyler said, breathing hard, as if she’d been running. “Ivory, too. What do you need?”
“She’s been bitten. Demon bait was transferred into her body,” Tatijana explained.
Both Ivory and Skyler looked past the Dragonseeker sisters into the room. Thousands of bloody runes covered the walls and ceiling, while a dark pool of blood covered the floor.
“I can use the bait to draw the demons into the open,” Branislava explained. “It’s the only way to send them back to where he pulled them from. He’s brought them through from hell.”
Ivory’s fingers sought the cross she always wore hanging around her neck. Her fist closed over it. “I saw Xavier, at least at the time I thought it was Xavier, it may have been one of the others, but I swore the gates of hell opened and he emerged.”
Branislava went pale, but she didn’t reply. Instead she looked to Tatijana. Tatijana stepped back at once and lifted her arms. Her eyes grew larger, the emeralds darkening to a much deeper hue.
Thurisaz, I call upon thee,
That which can bring chaos, instinctive will,
Help me to draw forth that which will draw forth the darkness of demons,
Born of blood, by the blood I command thee to come forth.
Dark bubbles appeared around the wounds in Branislava’s neck and stomach. The bubbles beaded together to form long strands. The strands wiggled and danced, until finally a head appeared on each one. The small creature writhed and squirmed, feasting on the droplets of blood before being suddenly lifted up by a blast of icy wind and driven into the room where Arno’s body lay.
Branislava spun around and came to her feet all at once, a blur of motion, her hands up like two weapons. Her breath caught in her throat. Tatijana stood as close as possible. Power leapt between the two women. Branislava could feel the flow of energy pouring from her sister to her. Skyler and Ivory joined with Tatijana and the power was so strong, it was almost too difficult to wield. She felt Zev close, steadying her.
Inside the room, the long, wormlike creatures rushed to feed off the pool of blood beneath the dead body. There was a moment of absolute stillness, and then the chamber came alive. Dark shadows appeared from every direction of the room and one dropping from the ceiling, bodies stretching obscenely, mouths yawning wide as bony, clawed fingers reached greedily to snatch at the demon bait. There were five of them. The shadowed shapes circled the dark worms and the body on the floor.
Branislava waved her hands gracefully, drawing symbols in the air, all the while chanting in a soft, but commanding voice.
That which comes from the dark,
I see you, I know you,
I take back from you the spirit and energy that was stolen,
I call upon Hagalaz, that which can be destructive uncontrolled,
I call forth your energy now, Hagalaz, to use your forces of control.
Branislava’s voice swelled with power. She felt the additional boost as Skyler joined Tatijana, feeding her energy to counter the dark spell the High Mage had left behind.
I call upon the spirit of air,
Winds that blow freely,
Bring forth your gales,
Cleanse and seal this place,
So that which would do harm may not leave this place.
In unison, the demons whirled around to face her, mouths gaping at her, eyes glowing red with hatred. They clawed at the wormlike creatures, snatching them up as the cleansing wind began to whirl around the room. Shrieking in fury, the demons thrust the worms into their mouths, gobbling fast in an effort to get something in return for their daylong vigil. Even as they devoured the worms, they rushed toward the opening where she stood unflinching, her hands as graceful as ever, determination in her every move as well as in her voice.
The demons hit an invisible barrier and were pulled back toward the center of the room. The wind whipped around the walls of the room in a circle, traveling faster and faster, howling, seeking prey. It caught at the shadowy figures and tugged, dragging at their reluctant forms, pulling them apart until they looked more like dust particles scattered in the air.
Still the shrieking could be heard. The walls of the room swelled outward. The ceiling raised higher, the bloodied runes writhing, looking as if they were alive and making an effort to counteract Branislava’s commands. She kept the wind building speed, calling once more for aid from above.
That which is bound by darkness,
I call forth light.
Fire that burns and cleanses bright.
I call forth your energy, separate and dispel,
That which would be bound, sending it back to hell
The particles in the room slowly began to be drawn into the very vortex of the wind, spinning faster and faster, a funnel of black sand and shadow. Hands emerged, great long bony fingers tipped with claws, and just as suddenly were pulled back into the maelstrom. Faces pressed through the twister, mouths screaming, eyes distorted and then those too disappeared.
Branislava kept the pressure on, building on the power fed to her by Tatijana, Skyler and Ivory. She refused to relent, again weaving symbols in the air, the pattern intricate, a replica of the runes written in blood on the walls and ceiling, but in reverse order.
As fire burns and ashes fall,
I call forth the abyss, hear my call.
Open your maw so that I may return,
That which was born of blood and must be returned.
Heat burst through the room. Orange-red flames danced up the walls and licked across the ceiling, devouring the runes. As the fire spread and leapt higher, the demons shrieked and moaned in protest. The cleansing wind continued rushing around the room, howling in fury, fanning the flames until every last rune was consumed. The demons tried to flee the firestorm, but the winds were too strong for their insubstantial bodies. They were drawn in by the ferocious gale and consumed by the flames.
Branislava drew a deep breath and allowed the wind and flames to slowly subside. She felt her legs tremble. Turning, she went into Zev’s arms, uncaring who was watching and might see her weakness—her vulnerability. She needed the comfort of his strength, of the rock that he was for her.
“I know now what the three of them were doing when Xavier seemed to kill Xaviero and then Xayvion,” she murmured into Zev’s shirt. She lifted her head and looked at her sister with stricken eyes. “They were practicing bringing each other back from the other side. That’s what Ivory saw. They were practicing for a time just like this one.”
“Do you mean he intends to bring Xavier back?” Razvan asked. His voice was steady, his face expressionless.
“He needs a soul, or a spirit,” Tatijana said. “To send down the tree of life.”
“Arno, a council member?” Zev asked. “Or his son, Arnau, an elite hunter?”
Branislava sighed and pulled herself out of his arms. “No, Zev. He means to trap you or me. Once he extracted the information from Arno, and he knew I was his enemy, he knew he had the ideal person for his plan. He wants the two of us dead. I have mage blood. Xavier is my father. He would recognize my soul or my spirit immediately. Xaviero is probably rubbing his hands with glee right at this very moment.”
Zev shook his head. “Well, he doesn’t get you or me. Too bad for him. If he wants to see his brother so badly, we’ll just have to arrange a little trip for him.”
“What’s next, Branislava?” Fen asked.
“We go in, just Zev and me. There’s no point in risking anyone else. If we fail, Tatijana and Fen should just burn the body right from the doorway. There has to be another trap set inside, around the body itself. He knows someone will attend the body.”
“Can you build a circle of protection around the body before you touch it?” Skyler asked. “At least then, while you’re doing whatever needs to be done, you can’t be attacked from outside the circle.”
Branislava inclined her head with a small smile. “I think that’s a good idea, little sister-kin. Wish us luck.” She turned and hugged her sister fiercely.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Tatijana whispered. “Right here. I’ll be waiting.”
Zev stepped through the doorway first. She knew he would. Of course he would. He wasn’t about to allow Branislava to go into danger without checking it out himself. She followed him, one hand fisted in his shirt as she stepped into that demonic room. Her breath left her lungs in a rush of fear. It was a gut reaction she couldn’t stop, and Zev instantly flooded her mind with warmth and assurance.
“I can feel him, Zev, that’s all. I’m all right,” she declared. “His presence is strong in this room. It just threw me for a minute, that’s all.”
Zev crouched beside the body, hands reluctantly keeping away from Arno, even though she felt his need to touch the man in a kind of salute. He looked at her over his shoulder. “I’ve got this one, Branka. I’m your detail man, remember?”
She nodded. Zev knew Arno far better than she did. If there was something out of place he would spot it. “Take your time,” she cautioned. They couldn’t afford a mistake.
“The stake isn’t right,” he said. “The cord holding his medallion of the Sacred Circle isn’t the one he normally wears.” Without touching the fallen council member, Zev peered closer, studying the small intricate tattoo on Arno’s wrist. “This isn’t right, either, Branislava. Can you look at this for me? I’ll show you what it should look like and you tell me what’s different and why.”
In his mind, Zev produced an exact replica of the Sacred Circle tattoo worn on the wrist by every member. He felt Branislava look it over carefully before she studied the one on Arno. He heard her suck in her breath sharply.
“He’s woven in a death spell. See the black runes between the double rows of the scrolls? Don’t touch the body. Don’t move it. Not yet. And don’t let his blood get on you.”