Authors: Christine Feehan
Iulian had gotten ahead of her and gotten into the Sierras before she had. She’d connected with Elisabeta and had allowed herself to be captured by those holding the woman prisoner in the hopes of breaking her
free. That had taken precious time, and she’d been wounded. Still, she’d gotten on the trail again fairly quickly.
In spite of that she always seemed to be one step behind no matter how hard she tried to get in front of things. Twice she’d made a guess as to where her quarry was going, and both times she’d been wrong and had to backtrack. Fortunately, she could “feel” his presence and the draw was much like a magnet until—unexpectedly—that, too, had disappeared.
Did he know she was following and that she could catch glimpses into his mind? Had he deliberately tricked her? It was possible. She was strong and had endless power and talent, but she wasn’t as adept as she’d like or needed to be. Not when it came to dealing with a Carpathian ancient. She was a direct descendant of Xavier, the high mage. Treacherous, greedy blood ran in her veins. She knew Xavier had committed far greater sins than anyone knew about, and she didn’t want those sins to come to light, but if it meant being able to stop those in a race to find the book, then so be it. Let the world find out about Xavier and the unholy things he’d done.
She remained very still as she stared up at the clear night sky. The breeze ruffled the hair on top of her head. She made certain it looked as if a small plant had attached itself to the rock just in case that tiny movement brought attention to her. Studying the stars overhead, she tried to find one small thing about the near-perfect illusion that would allow her to identify the one producing it.
She actually admired the work. Both of her brothers were excellent at spells, but illusions, although seemingly easy to do, were actually difficult to use when dealing with anyone skilled in the art of spells. Illusions were simply images that could mislead those who saw them, a misperception of reality—of actual nature. The overhead deception was nearly flawless. If she hadn’t been studying the stars, she would have missed it.
The fact was, Julija loved the night and in particular, the night sky. Her family knew that about her. If it was dark and clear, she was outside. She had a very good telescope up on the roof of their home to better study the stars. She could name every constellation. She was a walking encyclopedia of facts about the universe and everything in it. Her brothers would know that, and they would be careful in their choice of what instruments to use to find her.
They also knew she was a master of illusion. She knew there were better, but with the power running through her family’s veins, there was a time when her brothers considered her the best within that family. That had changed over the years. Now, they believed she’d been beaten so far down she could barely do any magic anymore. Still, they wouldn’t choose the stars unless they wanted her to know they were chasing her. It wasn’t to their benefit for her to know. She would make it all the more difficult for them—which, of course, she was already doing.
She knew her brothers were somewhere down below in the valley, looking for her. Not because there had been evidence, but she’d “felt” them in the way she felt the Carpathian she hunted. That was a gift she’d been born with, just like so many others. That was how she knew Elisabeta was close even when she couldn’t see her. Elisabeta’s captor had put her in a small cage and made her part of the rock and dirt inside an underground chamber. She’d been hidden in plain sight. But Julija knew illusion and she also could “feel” other living creatures.
She could almost always tell just how far someone was from her and in what direction she needed to go to find them. It wasn’t always the best thing, but she felt what they did. That was most likely the reason she couldn’t go along with her siblings in their plan to follow in Xavier’s footsteps and take over the domination of the world.
If her brothers weren’t using the stars to find her, it had to be a Carpathian, a very skilled one. The thought made her heart pound faster. She knew what the prince would think once they discovered who she was. She’d been in the vicinity of the book right before it was taken. They might even blame her and think Iulian was chasing her, trying to get the book of black art spells. That would make more sense than the other way around. The prince would know his Carpathian hunter hadn’t given in and become vampire.
A delicate little shudder went through her. She’d seen her fair share of vampires and she’d rather deal with a mage any day of the week. Elisabeta had been taken by an old family friend and then he’d deliberately turned vampire. She’d spent centuries in captivity, trained through violence and pain to do whatever she was told. She’d lived. She’d survived.
The Elisabeta from childhood was long gone. In her place was a woman terrified of life. Of living on her own. Of making a single decision. She hadn’t dared for centuries and now, just the thought was terrifying and overwhelming. Julija knew she wouldn’t be able to do it and would need help. She had intended to help her. Now, she wasn’t certain when she could get back to her only friend.
Julija knew the Carpathians were hoping to heal Elisabeta by leaving her in the ground, as was their custom. The earth’s properties, especially minerals, aided the species to heal faster, as well as rejuvenated them each day as they slept. The earth might heal Elisabeta’s body, but not her heart, not her soul, nor could it help with the emotional toll those centuries had taken on her. She would be utterly lost.
Julija couldn’t imagine that any of the omnipotent Carpathian hunters would have any understanding of how completely Sergey Malinov, the man who’d kidnapped her, had shaped her life. Elisabeta had been young and he’d shaped her into a woman who was totally submissive and had no idea how to be anything else. Julija knew the chances of her becoming anything different were slim to none—not with centuries of developing that character.
What was she doing here in the mountains on an impossible quest when the only friend she had in the world needed her desperately? She couldn’t help herself. She was telepathic and very, very powerful. Elisabeta was hundreds of miles away and in the ground, but Julija reached out to her anyway, knowing Elisabeta was just as powerful.
Elisabeta. Can you hear me?
The Carpathians were all telepathic and used a common pathway to talk to one another. Julija was well aware of that pathway and wanted to avoid it at all costs. She and Elisabeta had created their own conduit of communication to keep their vampire captor from knowing that they were talking. At the time they’d been focused on Elisabeta escaping. She had been terrified to do so for many reasons.
Julija had only then realized the extent of the problems the other woman would be facing if she got away. She had been cared for since she was only seventeen and before that, her family had watched over her.
Elisabeta remembered that much about her childhood. She’d been so young, and she’d followed Sergey, a childhood friend of her family. He had built a wall in memory of his missing sister and she’d gone willingly to see it. Instead, she’d found herself taken prisoner by a madman.
Julija pushed more power into her query, sending it out toward the location she knew Elisabeta to be in.
Can you hear me? Are you awake? Out from under the ground yet?
She waited, counting the most prominent stars overhead, wishing on them like a child. When had she been a child? She didn’t even remember. Elisabeta was at times very childlike still and yet she’d gone through more than any being should ever have to.
The voice was faint, not from the distance—Julija was providing the bridge and she was immensely powerful. She could manage the distance, and it helped that she knew exactly where her friend was. Elisabeta was uncertain. Frightened. Julija didn’t like that.
Are you alone, my friend?
Elisabeta relayed that without hesitation.
Underground. I don’t want to face the world yet. Not ready.
I will come as soon as possible. This errand is taking longer than expected.
There was a small silence while Julija’s heart pounded. She pressed her hand, beneath the cover of the sleeping bag, to her heart. She wanted to wrap her arms around Elisabeta. She was still that young girl, never given a chance to blossom and grow into the woman she should have been.
Are you safe?
Julija didn’t know why that simple inquiry coming from Elisabeta brought tears to her eyes. Was she? She stared up at the constellation slowly shifting position in the sky. How did she answer that?
I’m not certain. Someone is hunting me. I told you about my brothers and what they wanted.
The two women often had talked to each other when Sergey had thought they couldn’t. Julija had told Elisabeta all about her brothers and what she’d discovered they’d been up to over the years and why. In turn Elisabeta had told her about her life with Sergey. Julija had known she never would have gotten any explanation out of the woman without
giving up personal information. She was far too scared to talk to anyone without Sergey’s express permission.
And yet you stay on your course. I’ve never met a woman like you.
Julija couldn’t help but hear the admiration in Elisabeta’s voice.
There are many like me, and many in this world like you.
She knew her statement to Elisabeta was true when she thought of women in other countries without the chances she’d had to become what she wanted to be. Julija had studied at the best universities just because education appealed to her. Knowledge was power, her teachers had always said, and she agreed. They just hadn’t agreed on what kind of knowledge gave one power.
The world has changed considerably while you were held captive.
He calls to me.
Julija’s heart skipped a beat, then thudded wildly.
Sergey calls to you?
Yes. I’m afraid I will go to him if I go aboveground. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to be anything but what he wanted from me.
Elisabeta’s voice dripped with tears, although Julija knew she wasn’t shedding any. That wasn’t Elisabeta’s way. Tears had been beaten out of her, along with any fight.
You know you can’t go back to him. You detest him.
More than anything. With every breath I draw. I just don’t know how to live without him. Until I can figure that out, I am staying right where I am.
He gave me everything, Julija. I did what he said and in return he would supply me with the blood I needed to live. He especially liked to take my blood, so he would bring me blood from others.
There was a moment of silence. Julija could feel Elisabeta gathering her thoughts, and those thoughts were distasteful to her.
I suspected he murdered those he used for blood.
This time the sorrow was not only heard but felt.
Julija hesitated, searching for the right words.
You know you couldn’t do anything to stop him, Elisabeta. You still can’t. Please don’t throw your freedom away. I know it’s terrifying, but give yourself time. The Carpathians there can’t wait to help you. And you have a brother.
Everyone tells me that. I don’t remember much of my childhood, just bits
and pieces, and I’m uncertain if they’re real or if Sergey planted those pieces in my head.
This time there was reluctance.
If my brother comes, he will expect things from me I can’t give him. I feel so afraid and alone. At least I was protected from everyone by Sergey.
Julija closed her eyes, her distress level rising. She’d hoped Elisabeta was in safe hands, but her friend was hiding from everyone. That made Julija feel all the worse that she wasn’t there to shield her and help ease her into some kind of a life. But what? What was there for someone like Elisabeta? The modern world would never understand her. They would expect her to go to counseling and be “cured.” That was never going to happen. Centuries of abuse couldn’t be swept away. Hundreds of years of submission couldn’t suddenly turn her into a fiery, independent woman. Julija knew that and feared for her.
Small steps, Elisabeta. Remember? We talked about this. You can’t expect to be on your own right away, if ever. You have to depend on those people who reach out to you, the ones that feel right to you.
There was silence. Rejection.
Julija cursed the fact that she’d ever told so much about her life to Elisabeta.
I don’t know how to make friends easily. I didn’t have anyone to rely on.
She was a direct descendant of the high mage and her parents had never allowed her to forget it. They hadn’t wanted her befriending anyone else, mage or otherwise. She’d studied every spell, practiced casting and creating illusions and whatever else her stepmother had insisted on her doing. There hadn’t been time to learn how to be friends, or to have a childhood one could look back on and laugh about. Her brothers had often viewed her as a rival, but treated her as a pathetic mage and more of a food source than anything else.
You’re afraid of your brothers.
My parents as well. Don’t forget them. They were all involved in what my brothers were doing. Breeding cats to make them shadow creatures. It was inhumane and wrong. The cats suffer. They need blood to survive just as you do, but unless they cooperate, they aren’t fed.
That’s exactly the way Sergey treated me. Some nights I went until I was
too weak to see. He would get so angry, he would beat me with a cane or a whip. Then I wouldn’t be able to stand. He would come to me, treating me so gently I would be confused. So confused. Not understanding it was the same man.
My brothers did the same with the cats, conditioning them to return to them always after their orders were carried out.
Why are people so cruel?
I don’t know, Elisabeta. Money. Power. Just because they can be.
He said I would never survive without a master. He said he made certain of that and then he would laugh so cruelly. He’s right, though. I will never be able to survive alone.