Authors: Christine Feehan
That compulsion in her she couldn’t help had her inching forward as she spoke.
“You took a hell of a chance.” He moved away from her again, out of reach. “You did tonight as well. Thank you,” he said quietly, sincerely.
Julija detested that he wouldn’t allow her to help him but that low acknowledgment of his gratitude made her feel a little better. “You saved my life. I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
Those blue eyes flared in the darkness, lighting up the night. The sight of them like that, glowing almost, caused a slow roll in her stomach. The sensation was unlike anything she’d experienced. Still, she could see by the blank expression on his face that he wouldn’t expect her to thank him. He didn’t expect anything at all from her. He had withdrawn so completely from her, shut down any kind of relationship, even friendship, that she didn’t know how to approach him.
He rested his back against a rock wall and concentrated on the wounds on his chest. She felt the surge of power. It was incredible. Shocking even. Her father commanded tremendous power, more than any other she knew. Anatolie kept his abilities a secret from most in the mage world.
was the well-kept secret. No one was to know of his existence. He was Xavier’s secret weapon.
Those with mage blood had scattered since Xavier’s death, fearing retaliation by the Carpathian people after the attacks on them by the high mage. Then the truth had come out that he was one of triplets. Anatolie didn’t seem in the least surprised, but her brothers were. Their father made it clear they were never to admit Xavier’s blood ran in their veins. He said it would make them a target of jealous mages and the Carpathian hunters.
Isai wielded power so easily, as if it was a part of him. He didn’t call it up with ceremony, he simply used it. Casually. Easily. The shirt fell away, disappearing as if it had never been. The bloody streaks in his chest were already turning black as if some poison was eating away the flesh. She shuddered, one hand going defensively to her throat. Those claws would have gotten into her. Even if she’d managed to drive them off with a spell, the acid would have most likely killed her.
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the sight of him. He was mesmerizing as he pushed the poison out of his body through his pores. She knew it had to burn, but he never winced. Pale yellow droplets fell to the ground. The beads seemed to have some kind of magnetic attraction to one another and they rolled until they pooled together to form a light buttery-colored puddle at his feet.
“They used sulfuric acid or some combination with that in it,” she identified. “That explains why so many of the cats ended up dead with burns on their faces and feet. Somehow the acid leaked out of their venom sacs, right?” She stared in horror at the evidence at his feet. She wouldn’t have survived an attack with that acid. He had to be in terrible pain.
“I will be fine. Stand back for a minute. I have to get rid of the poisonous acid.”
She moved to the other side of the rock.
“Turn away when I bring this down.” He was already looking toward the sky.
Her heart pounded. He was calling down the lightning. It was a feat no other species could do. No mage had been able to wield lightning, even if they could draw it down.
An electrical charge made her hair stand up on her body. She heard the ominous sizzle and crackle of electricity. White-hot and too bright to look at, a whip of lightning flashed across the sky, lashed the pale-yellow puddle of acid and was gone, leaving behind scorched rock. She thought Isai stumbled, but when she blinked to bring him in focus, he was standing straight and tall. He certainly looked invincible. Pale, but definitely omnipotent. The skin where the wounds had been had gone from black to a healthy color again.
“I have to heal these wounds from the inside out just to make certain the cats didn’t leave anything behind in my bloodstream.”
She hadn’t thought of that.
“I will return in a few minutes. I will not be far from you.”
Perversely, she didn’t want him to go. “Can’t you just do it here? You pushed out the poison in front of me.” She hoped she didn’t sound whiny, but she really hated that he was so remote, so closed off from her. She was used to being alone. In fact, she preferred being alone. She should have been glad to see him go. Instead, she had the mad desire to cling. The shadow cat had shaken her up more than she realized. That was the only explanation.
“Just a few minutes, Julija.” His voice was very gentle. “I’ll be close in case there is another attack.”
She glared at him in challenge, hating that he thought she wanted him there to protect her. It wasn’t that at all. “Why? Why do you have to leave?”
“I have to shed my body in order to heal from the inside out.”
She knew instantly he didn’t trust her with the unprotected shell of his body, and that hurt. Her throat felt raw. Her eyes burned. “You can do it right here.” She made it a demand. He really didn’t seem to like that tone when she took it with him. Even if it earned her another spanking, which frankly hurt, it was better than his complete indifference.
He just looked at her and then he was gone. He dissolved right in front of her. Shimmering, he looked as transparent as the shadow cat had, but then he was just not there. Julija wrapped her arms around her middle and pressed her forehead against the rock where he’d been standing. That left her looking down at the scorch marks on the rock.
Why had she thought it would be so terrible to be with a Carpathian? She had nowhere to go. Her family and most of those with mage blood would forever brand her a traitor when they learned she’d been on her way to warn the Carpathians. And yet, she didn’t know how to live as a Carpathian. She had the ability to take blood, just not to sleep in the ground.
Julija sighed. She didn’t know how to trust someone enough to fall in love. There hadn’t been one single person in her life that she could remember that she could trust. Not her father. Her brothers. Her stepmother. Not one of them. No friends. Certainly not the man she’d slept with. She had thought him someone special, her friend. Turned out, not so much. A shiver went through her body.
She wrapped her arms around her waist, suppressing the shiver, pushing the memory to the back of her mind where it belonged.
She needed . . . something. Companionship. Contact with another being. She was well aware she’d connected very strongly with Elisabeta because she identified in some ways with her. It wouldn’t seem so to anyone looking at the two of them, but that awareness of each other was there. Compassion. Empathy. Whatever one wanted to call it, they had it for each other.
She held her breath for the long moments leading up to the stirring in her mind.
I am here. You have need? Are you safe?
Tears burned hot behind her eyes. Elisabeta was in the ground, healing from the terrible physical punishments Sergey had inflicted on her as well as the mental and emotional scars, yet she was instantly concerned for Julija. That said so much about the woman.
I just need someone to talk to.
We have to be careful. He is always listening at night. Trying to find a way to me.
That alarmed Julija. She knew exactly who Elisabeta was referring to. Sergey would only be able to call to her at night. Julija felt as if she could almost hear him whispering to her friend. She had all but forgotten Sergey in her rush to go after the book. Xavier might be dead, but the master vampire had slivers of the high mage embedded in his brain. She had no idea if those slivers could feel the book had left the relative safety of the Carpathian Mountains and was now vulnerable somewhere close.
I almost forgot that he’s doubly dangerous with the slivers of the high mage in him. He was already scary enough. I’m sorry, Elisabeta. I should have been more careful.
Even if the vampire didn’t feel how close the book was, it wasn’t like something as huge as the evil book of spells being stolen would stay a secret. Sooner or later, the news would get to Sergey and he would start his own hunt for it.
Will your father and brothers help him? Will they have other mages helping?
The anxiety Julija heard in Elisabeta’s voice was for her, not the woman who had been caged for centuries and forced to do a vampire’s bidding.
I don’t know.
She hadn’t thought of that, either. She knew her father wanted the book for himself. He wouldn’t want Sergey to get near it. On the other hand, if it was the only way to get the book back, he might form that alliance. Those slivers of Xavier might actually seek him out to aid him; after all, Xavier was his grandfather.
Julija? If your father is Rhiannon’s grandson, he is part Dragonseeker. No Dragonseeker has ever turned vampire.
He is not vampire, but he is evil.
I do not see how that is possible.
Julija knew there was something that was supposed to be extraordinary about the Dragonseeker lineage, but she wasn’t certain what it was until that moment.
He bears a mage mark, the same as my brothers. The same as me. But I was also born with a dragon mark low, on the left side of my body where my ovaries would be. When I asked my father and brothers, none had that mark. They couldn’t see my mark so they had no idea what I was talking about. It was like the dragon hid from them.
That had made her feel different, even more apart from the rest of her family when she’d already felt that way. For the longest time she’d thought she was treated differently because she didn’t have the same mother as her brothers and her stepmother was jealous of her dead mother.
There was silence while Elisabeta thought what the absence of Dragonseeker marks on Julija’s family could mean.
A man has come to me. He says he is my lifemate.
Julija thought she might as well tell her friend.
I refused him.
Elisabeta’s gasp of horror was instantaneous.
You cannot. You cannot refuse him, Julija. You have condemned him to death, or worse. So much worse. He could be another Sergey. Is he young?
He is an ancient. Very much so I think. He was one of a few Carpathian males determined to be so dangerous they locked themselves away in a monastery.
There was another gasp from Elisabeta.
One of his brethren is here. He lies close to me to prevent the constant whispers from Sergey. He’s very powerful. He has claimed that I am lifemate to him. I’m terrified, but I would never think to refuse him.
Of course Elisabeta wouldn’t refuse a Carpathian male, Julija told herself. The woman had been caged for centuries, taught to do whatever a man ordered her to do. Every Carpathian female seemed to do her man’s bidding. Not that she’d been around too many. Still, Elisabeta’s accusation echoed through her mind.
You have condemned him to death, or worse.
Julija closed her eyes tightly but there was no shutting out the truth of that.
Tell me why a woman must give up her rights but a man doesn’t.
I am uncertain what you mean.
Elisabeta, you were born into a different century. You wouldn’t know about women’s rights, but we own our lives. No one can tell us what to do.
You speak of a different culture. Carpathian women have those rights and have always had them. We follow our men, but they do whatever it is that makes us happy. It is their duty. I am not certain I can fully explain, but it is imprinted on them before they are ever born. The ritual binding words that tie us. Once said, there is no taking them back . . .
Julija’s heart suddenly beat too fast
. He could have tied us together?
Yes, of course. Once he says those vows for the two of you, nothing can tear you apart, not even death. You belong to each other. You cannot be without him nor he without you. If you die and he does not follow immediately, he can go into a thrall and become vampire. Otherwise, once tied to you, it is impossible for him to become vampire.
Isai could have taken the decision out of her hands the moment she’d refused him, but he hadn’t. He had declared she wasn’t worth the centuries of searching for her. Of waiting for her. She almost asked Elisabeta about the flow of ink scarred into his back and what those words said, but
it felt as if she was betraying Isai and she couldn’t do that. The words he’d put there had been for her. His lifemate. If she found out what they said, it had to come from him.
Lifemates belong to each other, Julija.
You say you have been claimed as well, but your voice trembles when you tell me. You are really afraid, almost more so than you are of Sergey.
That is true.
Elisabeta didn’t try to deny it.
I am no longer that girl with her foolish dreams of lifemates. I have been with a vampire for centuries. I am . . . altered.
Again, Julija felt tears dripping down Elisabeta’s face, but they were not in her voice. Just that quaver, the one that conveyed so much.
Julija had never known girlish dreams. She’d had the occasional fantasy when she’d watched human women fall in love. When she’d seen human families and the way they’d interacted. Some of them, not all. She’d wanted those things for herself, but she’d been younger than ten. Eight perhaps? She’d already known those things, like love and happiness, weren’t for her. There would be no man to love her and no children for her. Her family would never allow such a thing. More importantly, she didn’t want to trade one cage for another.
Can you refuse your lifemate?
I suppose it is possible, but if yours did not tie you together, I am certain mine would do so immediately. He is . . . hard. Disciplined. I cannot think about it yet. I do not know how to think for myself. I cannot see how I can please a lifemate.
This time the sob was in Julija’s throat, choking her. In her mind. Swamping her. She immediately hugged herself tightly in the hopes Elisabeta could feel it.
I am here for you. You will not be alone.
I am so lucky to have met you, Julija. Thank you for being my friend.