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Authors: Christine Feehan

Dark Illusion (39 page)

BOOK: Dark Illusion
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Blue joined the colors swirling around each of the shadow warriors. They stood very still, holding their weapons in front of them as if they might need them at any moment.

Fire, burn the dark mage’s unholy spell back into his soul and release these honorable shadow warriors wholly from his claim that he may never call them again.

A high-pitched shriek echoed across the battlefield and in the distance, across the meadow near a high bluff, a column of dark red burst into the sky. The warriors were ringed now in colors, and orange-red flames joined the various shades spinning through the shadows.

Wind, carry these men home to their resting place.

Earth, open your arms that you may accept and protect them.

Deliberately, Isai stepped toward the shadow warriors to salute them respectfully.

He felt for them, these men who had lived with honor, fought bravely and yet weren’t allowed their rest.

Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Warriors return, breathe your last.

Air, earth, fire, water, hear my voice, obey my order.

Thrice around your grave do bound, evil sink into the ground.

As he spoke the words to return and protect the shadow warriors, a thunderous clap rent the air. In the distance, across the meadow, rocks slid from the bluff as the earth shook. The bluff collapsed into a pile of boulders, rocks and pebbles as Anatolie sank into the ground.

I now invoke the law of the three, this is my will, so mote it be.

Isai knew Anatolie would try to retaliate, either that, or he would realize the book was already lost to them and he’d slink off. Either way, Isai knew he had to get the shadow warriors free before the dark mage did something to wrest them away from him.

The shadow warriors, almost as one, saluted him and then the wind came through, howling like a banshee, tearing at their indistinct bodies, ripping through the faint streaks of black and gray, tearing them apart and carrying them off into the night to return them to their resting places.

“May you find eternal peace,” he murmured softly and for a moment let himself feel the fatigue that came with combating a mage spell as dark as the one Anatolie had used to seize the warriors from their graves. His woman had been doing just that for what seemed like hours.

He sent his shadow warriors forward to meet the next line of evil coming at them. He suspected it would be Barnabas’s hellhounds. He had
no idea what they might do, and he wanted Julija out of there. He hurried back to her.

The book had wrapped long, disturbing-looking roots of black and ash wood-like vines around her arm and through her hand. The book was pierced with holes through and through, but still it fought back, desperate to survive. It had changed tactics, bringing forth those who had been sacrificed for each of those dark spells preserved inside the pages of the book. Julija was forced to relive each life taken.

Bloodred tears ran down her face and dripped onto the book. With each tear, more small holes burned through the papyrus pages. For once, the safeguards Xavier had so cleverly woven into the spell book had backfired on him. For all that, no lifemate could bear to see his woman suffering. Even as he hurried toward her, the book changed strategies again. Dark vines grew from the papyrus, coming directly from the piercing of her hand, moving down her belly in a twisting snakelike movement in a very threatening manner.

A look of horror crossed Julija’s face. “The baby, Isai. It’s after the baby. It knows it is our combined blood, all three of us, that is destroying it.”

Isai hacked at the growth nearest her stomach with a knife. Even as he did so, a bright light burst from beneath her clothing and the dragon was there. The scales were a shiny black obsidian. Although small in stature, it didn’t need to be anything else. The fire was just as effective as if it had been a full-sized dragon.

The little fierce dragon sprayed fire all up and down the roots, so that they withered and turned completely to particles of black ash, dropping to the snow, covering the blood Julija’s hand had shed.

Without hesitation, Isai tore open his wrist again and added the power of his blood to Julija’s. At once he could see the difference, the tears in the book gaping wide so that there were only the outer edges and a few troubling places where the safeguards stubbornly held.

A dread, so dark, so malicious and all encompassing, overtook both of them. They looked at each other. It felt for a moment as if time had stopped. The wind rushed toward them, carrying a sulfuric stench, much like rotting eggs.

Julija pulled her gaze from Isai’s. “Brimstone,” she whispered. “Hellhounds, Isai.
His
hellhounds.”

“You get rid of that book, woman. You are very close. You can do it,” Isai instructed.

“You can’t take on all of them. He’ll have impossible numbers coming at you.”

Isai called to the cats.
To me now. All of you.
“Just as you have to destroy that book, I have to destroy his hellhounds.”

The cats came out of the night, great slinking shadows, huge panthers. He held out his arms and one by one, they leapt onto him, merging with his skin. He noted that they were getting better at it, not using their claws as much. If they all survived this night, they would soon be able to fuse with Julija as well.

Once more he leaned over to brush her mouth with his. “Get it done, little mage. You were born to stop them.” He’d infused confidence in his voice and left her, striding into the snowstorm to stand between his woman and the monstrous animals coming for them. He covered himself in hyssop oil as well as every arrow for his crossbows. He needed mobility. There was only one way to kill them. He had to shoot an arrow in each eye and then sever the head. Unfortunately, they often had more than one head. They were fast and vicious, and once set on their purpose, they didn’t ever stop.

Hellhounds were not unknown to him. Isai had fought them more than once in the past. They were faster than anyone could possibly imagine, and even calling up the memories didn’t always prepare him for that first encounter again. A throat shot could slow them down if it was needed. He didn’t want one to slip past him while he was dealing with others coming straight at him.

He waited, breathing easily, listening for the first of the pack to arrive. Strangely, other than the powerful stench, the lead hellhound broke silently out of the snow, coming straight at him. He was massive, much like a giant buffalo, running at full speed, eyes glowing like two fiery coals. His massive claws left few tracks in the snow. His fangs dripped with
venom. Behind him came the rest, all rushing toward him like one enormous freight train.

Isai moved then, using his preternatural speed and the experience he’d earned over centuries of battle. He fired arrow after arrow, hitting the eyes of the creatures as they came close, some a breath away. As he fired, he ran toward them, slicing down with his sword as often as possible. There were so many, and they kept coming. He knew they were being used to distract him. Julija was going to be in trouble very soon if he couldn’t halt the hellhounds.

The animals were trying to circle around him, to cut Julija off from him. He tried backtracking and they became fiercer, a galloping horde of ferocious beasts, canines like those of a saber-tooth tiger, razor-sharp, their attention completely centered on him. The closest one to him received two arrows straight into his burning eyes. It skidded to a halt and tumbled, headfirst, rolling. Two behind it couldn’t slow down and tried to run over the top of the downed hellhound.

He’s coming.

She never used Barnabas’s name if she could help it. He knew it was Barnabas, not Anatolie using the hellhounds to keep Isai apart from her.

How close are you?
He fired four arrows with blurring speed.

It’s dissolving now at a rapid rate.

He could hear the pain in her voice.
What is wrong?
He fired off four more arrows and followed up with the sword. One hellhound grazed him. The fur was venomous, but he was covered in hyssop oil and the creature screamed as the substance burned through it.

The dragon, scorpion and snake are attempting to free me from the last of its tethers. I am unsure if it is possible.

Isai swore and sliced through the head of the beast turning on him. So close. Everywhere he looked they were too close. He needed to dissolve. To take to the air, but where would that leave her? He was all that kept Barnabas from having a free path straight to her. He needed his brethren. He needed a miracle.

You are high mage, Julija, every bit as powerful as he is. He is dead. In
another realm. Take that vile book off you as if it is no more than garbage.
He was asking a lot of her, but he knew she was capable.

Isai shot three more beasts with arrows, but he couldn’t get to them to chop off their heads. Another came at him from his right, a huge monster of a hellhound, and he quickly ran backward, leapt up and over its back, shooting arrows into its eyes.

One particularly large hellhound shook its head, the arrow dropping from it. It pawed the ground, looking at Isai with hatred and purpose. Its eye ran with blood, and it was fixed on him. Around him dozens more charged.

20

The pain in Julija’s hand and arm was excruciating, but the little dragon was valiant and refused to give up, breathing fire steadily at the roots protruding from her palm. She felt a second stem drop away. The snow hissed a complaint and melted right through to bare dirt. She was growing weak and the book sensed it, holding on, wrapping the last root around her wrist and trying to stab through her skin to get to her artery.

The snake and scorpion moved together as one unit, rushing down her arm so the snake could slip between the wood and her wrist and the scorpion could use its claws to pry it off her. The pages of the book were gone, but the binding stubbornly held on, desperate to carry out its maker’s wishes. She dripped her blood up and down the spine in the same pattern as she had over the pages.

She heard the fierce battle Isai waged against the hellhounds, trying to give her the time she needed to destroy the book once and for all. There was a sudden hush over the battlefield, as if the very world around her in the midst of the thick storm held its breath. Nature, even the wild snowstorm, seemed to pause.

Her heart accelerated. Pounded. Threatened to burst through her chest. There was no time to waste. He was coming. She knew it was Barnabas. She felt his power as she’d never felt it before. She’d had glimpses of it, but she’d been too cowed by him, too humiliated, to recognize anything but his cruelty.

Deliberately, she brought her wrist to her mouth, allowed her teeth to lengthen and tore a larger hole in her own flesh. Blood poured over the spine, so much that for a moment it scared her, but the terror of Barnabas coming anywhere near her again overcame the sight of her blood consuming the spine of the book. Now, there was only the wood to get off her and the book would be done with.

I can’t become vapor and he’s coming. He’s coming, Isai.

She needed him. Isai. Her savior. Her talisman. She needed him to get to her before Barnabas. She knew there was utter panic in her voice, that chaos reigned in her mind, and that her body was trying to shut down on her. Her legs and arms tingled, pins and needles striking throughout. Her lungs refused to work, desperate for air. Her head spun. She felt so faint she knew she would crash to the ground if she didn’t sit, but it was as if she’d forgotten how to move.

He’s coming now. Can you feel him?
She didn’t bother to try to keep the sob from her voice.

I am on my way to you, little mage.
Isai’s voice was as always—calm, matter-of-fact. Peaceful even, as if he wasn’t fighting a terrible, impossible battle with the hounds from hell, or that one of the most dangerous mages wasn’t striding across the battlefield toward them right that moment.

You are as powerful as he is. Remember that. He has experience, but you are both high mage and Carpathian. The moment you are able, dissolve into vapor. He can do a lot of things, but that he cannot do. He will not be able to find you within the storm. Close off every wound. That is important. One drop of blood can give you away.

She took a deep steadying breath. Of course. She was letting herself panic when she’d known this moment would come. Barnabas. It was just that no one else saw him as she did. They thought she was terrified of him because of the things he’d done to her. She knew better. There were many
moments when she’d caught glimpses past the cruel mage into something deeper, something far more sinister than even she could conceive. That was what shook her. He might have long surpassed his masters in his ability to weave and bind with magic.

She sank slowly into the bloodstained snow. The scorpion and snake were doing their best to remove the last of the roots that had driven through her hand and twined around her wrist. She would help them in a moment, but she was weak from loss of blood and that ever-present fear she couldn’t quite let go of. Isai had to come. He would. He said he would. He just had to get there before the dark mage did.

•   •   •

Isai fell back, making his retreat as unnoticeable as possible. He realized when he made any move to go back toward Julija, the hellhounds adjusted their positions in order to cut him off. This was no battle where the massive creatures were just flung at him or put in place to kill everything in their path. They didn’t go around him to get to Julija. These demonic creatures from hell were being directed with purpose.

There was a general on the battlefield and he was ensuring his soldiers did exactly as he wanted. Each strategic move was designed to keep him separated from Julija. As he turned to face the threat coming in from the south, a stampeding group of four, an extremely aggressive attack came from directly in front of him. The beast was on him just as he let loose three arrows at the ones coming in from the south. He felt the hot bite of the demon’s breath as the jaws just missed his leg and then he was on the ground, the last place any warrior wanted to be, not when hellhounds continued to multiply no matter how many he managed to kill.

He slashed open the hellhound’s belly, rolling to keep the burning intestines from reaching him. As he rolled he leapt into the air, shooting off half a dozen arrows. All but one hit their mark, penetrating eyes. He pushed forward, using his sword to sever heads as he went. One arrow hit just to the right of the eye of the lead hound coming in from the south and bounced off. The second penetrated deeply so the animal skidded,
shook its head and stumbled into the hound next to it, forcing it to veer off course.

Instantly, Isai could see the black, turbulent cloud churning behind the five hellhounds. The beasts were massive. Venom dripped in long strings of saliva from their mouths. Their eyes glowed fiery red, like hot coals pressed deep into their skulls. Nostrils flared as they breathed, smoke coming from noses. The one with the arrow in its eye shook its head over and over, trying to dislodge it. The eye dripped with blood, adding to the hideous effect.

Isai had intended to shift into vapor and get ahead of the hellhounds, making his way back to Julija. But now he was aware these hellhounds weren’t after Julija; they were programmed to kill him. Somewhere hidden in that black cloud was the mage. Along with fighting for his life with the hellhounds, he knew the worst was coming. He was certain of it. Isai took his time with his shot, ignoring the pawing, snorting and galloping of the rest of the herd of hellhounds coming at him.

He dropped back another two feet and then, as the hellhounds went into a frenzy, determined to stop him, to cut him off from Julija, they opened ranks just enough for him to see the churning black cloud. He let the arrow fly.

The hellhounds were on top of him so he did the only thing left open to him, he leapt into the air, over their backs, letting four arrows fly before he landed on the ground, just a few feet from the cloud. The hellhounds snarled and snapped at him and at one another. They had to change direction in order to keep him in their field of vision. Swinging around wasn’t easy for them. They were massive beasts and running full out.

Isai scored a hit in the direct center and the roiling, agitated murky veil lifted, enabling him to see the mage lying in wait for him to make a mistake. Shockingly, it was Anatolie who lifted his hands instantly, not Barnabas. Barnabas still commanded the hellhounds, his hand was everywhere, but Anatolie was the mage he faced. One hand held a staff with an amber ball at the top of it. He pointed that globe at Isai. Lightning slashed over the backs of the hellhounds, singeing their fur, so blackened smoke rose while the beasts howled, the sound grating on ears, sending nerves into a jangle so it was difficult to move quickly.

Whips of lightning struck the ground all around Isai, snapping and crackling, sizzling with electric life. The animals, programmed to continue forward after Isai, were confused, running into one another, slashing with razor-sharp teeth, opening the motley fur so blood ran like rivers into the pristine snow.

Isai concentrated on the lightning. The weather was his forte. He’d been managing lightning since he was no more than a child. He timed the strikes. Each one was getting closer and more severe. Anatolie clearly had wielded the lightning on more than one occasion, but Isai had complete confidence in his abilities. He waited until a whip slammed into the ground just feet from him and then he called his own whip down and struck hard right at Anatolie, slamming the full force of the electrical storm down on him.

Anatolie moved at the last possible moment, as if he had been waiting for the retaliation. The staff had gone up and swung toward Isai, redirecting the streaks and whips right back at the Carpathian. Each time Isai tried to get into the air, Anatolie took the route from him. Each time he stepped back in order to close the distance between him and Julija, Anatolie slashed at him with the lightning strikes.

It was difficult to see in the whiteout of the blizzard. The sizzling and crackling added to the chaotic scene. The light flashed, ultrabright, illuminating the snow, but causing a terrible glare. Anatolie appeared to be in the middle of that spinning, churning web of smoke and deceit.

Then he was hovering above the hellhounds, and they snapped at him, spinning in circles trying to see him. Next, he was a few feet away. Isai could see him easily, his dark eyes spitting hatred at him, that staff directing the lightning.

Isai directed his own electrical whips straight at Anatolie. The lightning forked in the air and wrapped around the columns Anatolie had sent at him. A shower of sparks rained down on all of them, hellhounds, Carpathian and mage alike.

Where are you?

Julija sounded scared. Forlorn. Terrified he had abandoned her. Isai turned toward her, deciding to get to her and fight from that position. Just as he chose to streak away, a loop caught his ankle and yanked him down.
At once the hellhounds went into a frenzy as their quarry went from the air to the ground in seconds.

•   •   •

Desperately Julija fought to get the root off her hand and arm so she could shift. The ground moved under her. Rising. Falling. As if it was breathing. Her own breath caught in her throat. She could see the battle of lightning taking place a distance from her and knew something had prevented Isai from getting to her. Tears burned behind her eyes and her throat closed. She felt helpless. Without hope.

It is a snare. You know better, Julija. Take one step at a time. Close the wounds and rid yourself of the last of the book. I will join you as soon as I am able to do so.

There it was again—that complete calm. She had touched Isai’s mind on several occasions and never once had he closed it to her. She could see his every intention was to get to her. Anatolie had confronted him.
He is a master of illusion, Isai.

She needed to hold up her end. Isai was battling so many things. Hellhounds were demonic. They had been programmed so they would obey Barnabas’s dictates, but his orders slowed them down and confused them. They were demons and wanted to feast on the flesh of the Carpathian, not be dictated to and forced to obey.

She took a deep breath and forced air through her closed lungs. Barnabas had more than once sent ahead such a spell, one to make her feel helpless, small and as if she couldn’t do anything but obey his every command.

That which is cloaked in shadow,

Bring clearness to my sight.

Taking on none of the illusion,

I surround myself with light.

Send back that which came along this path,

Tracking from whence it came.

Let the helplessness and shadow

No longer in my heart and mind remain.

Julija hurriedly began closing the numerous wounds on her body. She worked fast, but was meticulous, all the while trying various ways to rid herself of that last, stubborn root. As it fell away from her arm, she used several healing techniques to ensure not one bit of wood was left. She dripped blood on the scattered splinters so that they withered into black, crispy curls of ash there in the snow.

The scorpion and snake rushed back up her arm, clearly alarmed as she got shakily to her feet. She still felt faint and dizzy from lack of blood. When she tried to dissolve into mist, nothing happened. Nothing. She was left there, standing out in the open, once again caught by the foulest and most dangerous of all the mages she knew.

Barnabas stepped out of the blizzard of white. He looked—invincible. Cruelly handsome. He wore a suit, unlike Anatolie, who enjoyed wrapping himself in robes. He smiled at her, satisfaction gleaming in his eyes.

“Julija. You look worn. Exhausted. I don’t think your Carpathian lover is taking such good care of you. You need your master.” He sounded benevolent. “I have never been one to forgive grave sins such as yours, my pet, but I will admit I have missed our delicious games.”

Her entire body shuddered. Intellectually, she knew his voice was part of his spell. He enthralled the listener, hypnotized and mesmerized, much like a cobra. That’s how she thought of him now. A cobra, ready to strike when she exposed any weakness.

It is true that you are worn and exhausted, my love,
Isai said softly, brushing love into the walls of her mind.
You have lost far too much blood. Those things are very true, but you belong to no one but who you choose to give yourself freely to, Julija. You are strong. You destroyed the high mage’s book when no one else could do so. Every wound you’ve suffered, every scar you’ve gotten, is a badge of courage and shows me the strength of the woman you are.

Isai’s voice was filled with admiration and respect, everything Barnabas had never given her. Her warrior championed her in all things. Even now, he was fighting against impossible odds to get to her.

Julija lifted her chin and looked Barnabas right in the eye, something he’d trained her never to do. “I have no master. I’m no one’s pet. And your games are anything but delicious, Barnabas. I find them cruel and vile.”

He smiled at her, his white teeth gleaming. There was no hint of amusement in his eyes. “I can see our lessons will have to begin all over again right from the very start.”

BOOK: Dark Illusion
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