Authors: Christine Feehan
He reached down and pulled her to her feet. “There was no downfall, Julija. Barnabas, Crina and Anatolie conspired to put you under their control. You held out. None of them control you. In the end, in spite of everything they did to you, your strength prevailed.”
“I let myself down a million times,” she confessed.
“We all do that. It is the getting back up that defines your character, Julija, and you did that.” He pulled her into his arms and, putting a finger under her chin, tilted her face up to his. “Kiss me before I go spring the trap on whichever one of your relatives is waiting to kill me.”
“Let me go. You can watch from the sky and rescue me if I can’t handle them.”
He was already shaking his head, everything in him rejecting her plan. “That is never going to happen so do not bother to argue.” He cut off anything more she had to say by taking her mouth. Where before he had kissed her so gently, he was much more demanding. She responded instantly, giving him everything. She was hot, addictive.
When he lifted his head, he stared down into her dark eyes. “I am beginning to think you may have cast a spell on me.”
“I couldn’t help myself,” she teased. “You were so gorgeous it was that or faint from sheer girlish desires.”
He laughed. “You are impossible.” He glanced down at the little cats. They were back together, almost cowering. It bothered him that they were so afraid. The female, Sable, had tried to comfort Julija, and both had chosen to escape when given the chance. The male, Phantom, had attacked Vasile. Isai had given them his blood. He’d never spoken harshly
to them or lifted a hand against them. He could understand them being leery and taking their time to trust him completely, but they weren’t even trusting the other cats.
“Something is not right with them, Julija. While I’m visiting our lone camper, I would prefer you in the air. If there is a hidden trap we are not yet aware of involving these two, I do not want you dealing with it alone.”
For the first time, he felt Julija was actually listening to him, considering the possibility. “How could we both miss something like that?” There was speculation in her voice.
He went still inside. Watchful. What kind of spies had her brothers planted in their camp? Now, he was more certain than ever that the two little cats were hiding something. “You tell me.”
She regarded the little cats. Both stared up at her, freezing in place. She gave them a smile and knelt down, right there, with him close. One hand remained on his leg to keep him from moving.
“Phantom, come here to me.” She held out her hand.
The male took a reluctant step toward her. The effort cost him. He began to tremble. She kept her hand extended toward him. There was no suspicion in her voice or on her face. Isai wasn’t certain how she could do it, because alarms were shrieking at him. The cat was clearly averse to going near her.
He doesn’t want to hurt me.
I am getting that. Julija, you are in a very vulnerable position.
On purpose. You are right here. I can examine him if he will let me. I don’t want to invade without his permission and lose any chance of him trusting me.
Isai had the strange urge to shake her. The woman could be totally exasperating.
You do realize that this cat might be programmed to kill you.
Yes. Of course. It isn’t his fault if he is. He doesn’t want to carry out the command, whatever that command is. He’s had a terrible life, one of betrayal and pain.
He clenched his teeth and dropped one hand into the thick mass of her hair, his fingers bunching those silky strands into his fist.
Do not identify with this creature. That way can get you killed. You have no sense of self-preservation, Julija.
She smiled up at him and then sank back on her ankles. “Phantom, I am mage. I can counter whatever they did to you. If you let me, I’ll examine you and fix the problem, but you’ll have to trust me.”
Phantom looked back at the female.
“The threat is to her, isn’t it? If you don’t do as they’ve commanded, she’ll be the one to suffer. Let me look at her. Perhaps I can remove the threat.”
Isai wanted to gather his woman into his arms and comfort her. Shelter her. Protect her from the terrible things her family had forced her to live through. They were still doing it in spite of the fact that he’d destroyed them. He had a sinking feeling the cats wouldn’t be able to overcome their fear and he would have to kill them. Would she forgive him?
Of course I would forgive you. I can’t hold it against you when you’re trying to save me, Isai. You haven’t indiscriminately decided the cats need to die. You’re waiting, even though you know they’ve been programmed.
How would they have done it?
Isai believed in her. He believed in her ability to counter any spell or command they might have given to the cats. He tried sending the shadow cats waves of reassurance.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” she said aloud. “Clearly, they expected us to try to rescue them. That’s on me. They know I have a thing for animals. We’d had arguments over the sacrificing of them plenty of times. I gave them that weakness to use against me.”
Isai remained silent, but he watched the cats, particularly the male. He was close to Julija, much closer than he’d been just a few moments earlier. His eyes had gone from amber to red and back again, never a good sign. He wanted to yank Julija out of there, away from the cat.
Phantom was the smallest of the shadow cats, but that didn’t mean he was small. Most male panthers in the wild weighed between one hundred and thirty pounds and one hundred and sixty pounds. The females were smaller, coming in around seventy to a hundred pounds. These cats were larger than that and yet they could be insubstantial. Nothing but shadow, thin enough to slip through cracks and enter rooms they should never be able to get into. To have those razor-sharp claws and teeth so close to his woman made Isai very uneasy.
Julija ignored the warning signs that the cat was close to attack. She turned her attention to the female. “Sable, are they threatening you? Have they put something inside you that can harm you?” She beckoned the cat closer.
Isai suppressed a groan. Two of them close?
Are you out of your mind? I am not a miracle worker.
Already he was working out how to kill them both before they could touch his woman.
Of the two cats, the female was far more receptive to Julija’s overtures. She padded across the short distance and thrust her nose right into Julija’s middle. Every cell in Isai’s body reacted. He wanted to fling the cat away from her. He looked at the male, who was pacing, his eyes on his mate and Julija.
“I understand what you are feeling,
. I want to protect my woman as well.” Deliberately he called Phantom his brother. They were forming a family and the shadow cat had to want to be part of it. That meant trusting Julija and Isai to guide the pair through this crisis.
“Can you lie down for me, Sable?” Julija asked, patting the ground beside her. “It will make Isai feel much better.”
“But not her mate.”
“You will, no doubt, ensure we are all safe from him.” Julija didn’t look at the male. All of her concentration was on the female. The little panther hesitated and once more glanced at the male before she reluctantly lay down in front of Julija.
His woman passed her hands over the cat’s body. She frowned and glanced up at him.
Something is here, but I can’t feel it exactly.
You are much more sensitive to mage magic than I am, and I need to keep on Phantom. He is considering launching himself at you.
Julija’s gaze shifted, just for a moment, to the male cat and then she was back concentrating on the female. Once more her hands passed over the cat, this time much more slowly. She appeared to be searching inch by inch for whatever her brothers had placed in the cat. Her hands stayed over the head, and she frowned and moved on.
There is no command in her. She isn’t the trigger. Phantom obviously is. But still . . . there is something here.
You are Carpathian, Julija. I can protect your body if you go outside yourself and into her to examine her.
He felt Julija’s instant excitement the moment he made the suggestion.
I can’t do that. I’ve never even tried. I wouldn’t know where to start.
You must be without all ego. Your sole purpose is to serve, and you do so without expecting anything in return. You shed your body and become healing light. Once you do that, you enter the body of the person or cat.
He tried for a little humor when he was now wishing he hadn’t made the suggestion.
You can examine them from the inside. If the mages left anything in her, you will see it. If you do, come back out and share with me. The experience might leave you very tired and in need of blood.
Her eyes met his. “I know I can do it. She wants me to find whatever it is and remove it. I can, Isai.” She switched her attention to the male cat. “Phantom, I’ve never tried this before but if it works, she will be free of whatever they left behind. Give me a few minutes to get it right.”
He didn’t like her sharing anything at all with the shadow cat. He seemed too far gone already. He wanted to protect his female, and the only way to do that was to follow whatever command he had been given.
The male suddenly swung his head away from Julija and snarled, pulling his lips back to expose his teeth. Comet had come up behind him. Phaedra slipped between the male and Julija. Belle stayed right beside Phaedra, closing an invisible gate to Julija. The only hope Phantom had to reach her was to leap over the cats, exposing his belly to them. Behind him, Comet prowled, but it was Blue that worried him the most. The big cat was nowhere in evidence.
“Hurry, Julija, if you are going to do it,” Isai encouraged.
She didn’t hesitate. Once she made up her mind to do something, she was determined. It took three tries to shed her body in the Carpathian way. It was difficult for anyone new at it to let go of all ego and become pure healing spirit. She had no problem entering the little female cat’s body. She was used to merging with Isai and used the same seamless method.
Isai stayed merged with her, just in case she got into trouble. He didn’t want her distracted, so he stayed quiet, not giving her any advice, just remaining as an observer. He was impressed with her way of quartering
the body, looking for something off. She made her first pass without finding anything, but she was patient and she went back to the cat’s spine and rib cage. Her white-hot spirit illuminated the entire skeletal structure.
Do you see it, Isai? There is a dark spot, very thick, on the underside of her spine. It’s about an inch thick and three inches wide.
He didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t want her to get too close.
Pull back, Julija. If it is some kind of explosive, you might detonate it.
She didn’t argue with him. Instead, she pulled completely out of the cat and wiped at the sweat on her head. She appeared to be reeling, her body trembling with the effort she’d made.
“Let me try something else now that I know where it is.” Without explaining, she lifted her hands, one curling around the cat right over the spot, the other waving in the air gracefully. She began chanting.
That which is hidden, now bring to light,
So that I may see what is inside.
Light to dark, dark to light,
Revealing all which would hide from sight.
Once more, she shed her body and entered the little female cat. Isai, merged as he was, continued to keep an eye on the agitated male. His rumbling protest rose as the other cats kept him from his prey and his mate.
The dark spot was once more back in the light. Now, it was no longer just a spot. It was clearly a very tiny bomb placed within the female’s body. In his mind Isai heard Julija murmur another spell. This one seemed to access the memory of the inner workings of the bomb.
Shade to shadow, shadow to dark,
Reveal to me your working parts.
Show me that which is hidden away from light,
So I may see your working mind.
For just a few moments, the case was laid open, allowing them to see the contents. The blast would radiate outward in a starburst pattern, at
least, it appeared so to him. He could see the simple mechanism that the mages had attached inside the cat’s spine. It was counting down. It wouldn’t matter what Phantom did or didn’t do, eventually the explosive would detonate. There was also a way to remote detonate, but seeing as how both mages were dead . . . He broke off his thought as once again, Julija returned to her body.
She looked up at him with shadowed eyes. He despised that look. “Barnabas,” he said aloud and switched his gaze to the male cat. He couldn’t help the unfamiliar surge of anger he felt at the cat. Julija looked so lost, very afraid, and he knew she was feeling as if she would never be free of the dark mage.
Instead of ranting, he remained calm. She needed steady, an anchor, and he had to be that for her. “Is it possible that we are seeing an illusion?”
She shook her head. “There would be little point. He wouldn’t consider that we would find this. He still has a remote detonator.”
“That matters little. It can be dismantled easily.”
“He is very good at protection spells.” There was despair in her voice.
“I have no doubt he needs them,” Isai said. “You are both mage and Carpathian. You are far more intelligent and definitely stronger than he is. More to the point, you do not need his spells. See with the eyes of a Carpathian. You will see the layers of his protection weave. Once you know any strand, you will be able to take it down.”
“He could blow the bomb and kill us all.”
“He could,” Isai agreed. “There are some chances you have to take.” She needed to defeat Barnabas over and over until she believed in herself. For Julija, the mage was her greatest enemy, her terror, that monster that couldn’t be destroyed. It wouldn’t help her if he continually fought off everything Barnabas threw at them—she needed to do so. “Is keeping Sable alive worth the risk?” He had the sinking feeling that this was another test. Barnabas was trying to force Julija to kill the two small cats. He would find a way to shield her, should the bomb detonate.