Dark Illusion by Christine Feehan
Julija Brennan linked her fingers behind her head and gazed up at her unimpeded view of the stars. With the absence of light from cities and the lack of pollution from industry, the sky over the Sierra Mountains was absolutely clear, giving her an unparalleled view of the Milky Way that, despite all her travels, she hadn't seen before.
She barely noticed that she was shivering in the night air. It was cool in the Sierras at night, and with winter coming on, the temperatures promised snow in the next few days. She'd hoped her errand would have been completed before the first snowfall, but that didn't look as if it was going to happen. Any other time, finding herself under the night sky would have been just perfect.
She didn't mind being in a beautiful mountain range far from everyone else. She liked solitude. She even craved it. Unfortunately, she was in the race of a lifetime. She'd been out in front and now she'd stalled. She had no idea where to go or what to do to get back on track. The range was four hundred miles long and seventy miles wide. To find anything as small as a book in it with no idea of where it was located was impossible. Impossible, but it was a matter of life or death, although she hated drama and the last thing she wanted to do was be dramatic, even to herself. Still, it was a fact she couldn't avoid. She had to find the book before anyone else did and there were several looking.
Strange how such a small thing like a book could have the power to destroy lives. Corrupt them. Twist otherwise good people into monsters. Power corrupted. She stared up at the constellations, wishing she could ride on those stars, or slide down the comets instead of trying to find traces of a book no one should ever see or know existed. Riding stars and sliding on constellations might prove far easier than hunting in four hundred miles of wilderness for a mythical book.
She preferred the places in the world closest to the stars with the least amount of people around her. She loved these mountains. The Sierras. Who knew they would rival the Carpathian Mountains for her affection? She was a nomad with no home and she'd accepted that she was a castaway. A traitor. In her world, a criminal. It had taken some time to come to that place of acceptance. Places like this one had helped her get there.
Julija didn't believe she would ever have a home or family. Her one friendship had been formed solely out of desperation. She had seen what no one else could-Elisabeta. A woman held prisoner, beaten into submission, so afraid after lifetimes of captivity to be free. In all those years she'd been caged, no one had ever managed to see through the layers of illusion her ruthless captor had surrounded her with until Julija's sight had penetrated the shields to find her.
Julija had reached out to her in spite of Elisabeta's fears and tried to instill hope. There was no giving the woman anything but that one thought.
Sighing, she closed her eyes to block out the millions of flickering lights overhead. Sometimes, having gifts was more of a curse than a blessing. Finding a friend had been the blessing; leaving her to her fate once she was safe had been a curse. Elisabeta needed her desperately, but she had to complete her mission. She had to. She could only hope that Elisabeta would understand and forgive her.
Julija stared overhead, grateful for the clear night, although clear meant the temperature had dropped. She shivered a little and snuggled deeper into the sleeping bag. It would be nice to be able to regulate her body temperature in the way she knew Carpathians did. There were things she could almost do in the way the Carpathians could, but unfortunately, regulating temperature was not one of them.
Carpathians were a species of people, nearly immortal, who fed on the blood of others but could not kill while feeding or they would become vampire. They slept in the rejuvenating soil and could not be out during the day, but they had tremendous gifts, powers that allowed them to shift shape and become what they willed.
Elisabeta was fully Carpathian and she came from a very powerful bloodline, yet she had been taken at a young age, given up for dead and lived her life at the whim of her captor. That just proved to Julija that she had to be more careful than ever. If someone as strong as a Carpathian could be overcome, then so could she.
She didn't live in a cage in the way Elisabeta had, but in a sense, she was just as much a prisoner as her friend had been-and would probably always be. One couldn't take centuries of conditioning and throw it away because they were free. It didn't work that way. Julija had broken away from her family and friends because what they were planning-and doing-was wrong. She knew it was wrong in every way, but so did they. They just didn't care. Now she had no one and nowhere to go, just like Elisabeta. Freedom didn't always mean free.
A star shot across the sky and fell toward earth, glowing as it raced in a spectacular explosion of glory. The beauty of nature always took her breath, but no matter how stunning or amazing her surroundings, she was still alone with no one to share them with. No matter how right she was, morally or otherwise, she was still alone. Elisabeta, at least, had been left with strangers, but they would all look out for her. It wouldn't be the same as having someone she loved close, but there were people who cared.
Elisabeta had a brother she hadn't seen since she was a young woman and wouldn't recognize after all the years, but at least he would want to take care of her. Julija had two brothers, but they wanted to kill her. More, they would come after her. Most likely, they were already on her trail. They would kill her if they caught up with her-and they weren't alone.
She closed her eyes on the stunning sight overhead, trying to force herself to fall asleep. She loved the night and spent most of it awake as a rule. Until she'd found Elisabeta and eventually was surrounded by Carpathians.
She sighed and turned on her side restlessly. Clearly, word hadn't yet filtered down to those living in the United States that she was an enemy of the Carpathian people. She had desperately wanted to help Elisabeta through the coming months, when she would most need a friend. But she'd run across her while searching for the book, and although she'd been instrumental in freeing her, she couldn't stay. She knew sooner or later word would reach the Carpathians in the United States that she was an enemy. She didn't want to be taken prisoner herself-and the Carpathians were powerful-probably every bit as powerful as she was.
Julija touched the scar running along her throat. Her voice had been forever changed, but at least she had one. She knew, although thankfully no one else did, that her throat had been specifically targeted for a reason. Sergey, the man who had captured Elisabeta so long ago, was well aware of Julija's potential and he hoped to kill her or keep her from her destiny. Neither scenario sounded good to her. She was the mistress of her own fate. She made up her own mind and followed her own rules. She had done so ever since she'd made the decision to split from her family and warn the prince of the Carpathian people what was being planned behind his back.
She'd been too late. Things had already been set in motion by the time she realized the ultimate goal, and now here she was in the race of a lifetime. She accepted that she might not come out of it alive, but she refused to accept defeat. She couldn't lose. There was too much at stake, too many lives depended on her completing her task. Perhaps an entire species of people.
Overhead, the stars stared back at her. A long sweep of what looked like stardust left a comet-like trail through the brightest stars. It was wide and curved gracefully through the night, leaving behind brilliant white specks to mark its passing. Even the stardust had other particles close to it. Neighboring stars twinkled and danced as if talking to the long trail of dust.
"Way to feel sorry for yourself," she muttered aloud when she realized she was comparing her lonely life to the stars overhead. "Sheesh, girl, you've really lost it this time."
She should have gotten a pet. A dog. A big dog. But when the others came looking for her, what would she do with a pet then? Especially a big dog. It would get killed or be left behind to starve. Either way, it wasn't a good scenario for a dog.
The stardust trail seemed to move. It was subtle, just a shifting of the particles to make it seem as if the wide swath of dust began to change course. Her breath caught in her throat. She blinked several times to make certain she had the filmy constellation in focus. There was no question, the entire path of milky stars was subtly veering from one angle to another. The change was happening so slowly she wouldn't have noticed except that she'd been staring up at it nonstop for the last hour.
Nothing could actually change the course of the stars, so the movement had to be an illusion. And that meant someone was looking for her. She turned her head very slowly so as not to draw the eye of whoever was searching for her. It could have been anyone. Her family would come after her. The Carpathians would send someone. A shiver went through her. Just a few short days earlier she had been with them, ensuring Elisabeta had others surrounding her who would take care of her. Julija had simply walked away from them, torn throat and all. By now, their prince would have sent the message that she was an enemy and to stop her at any cost.
Her family or a Carpathian hunter? Did it matter which? Both would try to stop her, and she couldn't allow either one to interfere. She inched downward until she was completely covered up to her eyes. There was no fire to draw attention. Campers were everywhere on the John Muir Trail and in Yosemite, but she had known her quarry would never have gone near other people. He would have sought out the wildest places in the Sierras possible.
At first, she had been able to "feel" him. Sometimes she'd known his thoughts. He was Carpathian. An ancient hunter, Iulian Florea, who was the last of his family. He had been searching for his lifemate-that one woman who held the other half of his soul-but by the time he had discovered her, she was already dying of old age.
He'd held her for all of a few minutes and she'd never spoken, never restored his emotions or color, although holding her, he had felt grief. She had opened her eyes and looked up at him right before she passed. Something like peace had stolen into her. So fragile, her body worn with age, but her spirit indomitable, she had given him a half-smile and succumbed. Julija had cried even though the Carpathian could not.
The woman had never married and ended her life alone in a nursing home. Iulian held her a long time, pressing her body to his chest, her face over his heart, before lowering her body with exquisite gentleness to the bed. The workers were busy with their many patients and while they were looking the other way at his command, Iulian had taken the body and disappeared into the night. He'd brought her to a cavern high up in the Carpathian Mountains and buried her deep. He'd stood for a long while over her, and Julija had read in his mind that he'd planned to meet the dawn the next morning.
What had changed his mind? Why had he left the cave suddenly and gone to the home of his prince? What had possessed a Carpathian hunter, a man who had lived honorably for centuries, to suddenly turn on his entire species and put their very existence in jeopardy? He hadn't gone into the thrall when his lifemate died. It was impossible. She hadn't restored his emotions or color, not to mention the glimpses Julija had caught of his mind hadn't been filled with chaos. They had been filled with purpose.
She kept her eye on the constellation above her as she tried to puzzle out what her quarry was up to. She'd been on her way to warn the prince of the Carpathians, Mikhail Dubrinsky, that there was a conspiracy building against him and that she had found out almost too late. Things had already been set in motion and she'd had to adjust within minutes, make a decision and follow it through.
A book of demonic spells had been created by Xavier, the high mage. Every spell recorded in his deadly tome had been the blackest and darkest of what he'd wrought. Death. Destruction of species. Everything he had created over the years to destroy or command every other species. He had wanted complete power, and his spell book could give that to anyone knowing how to use it. She was one of those who could. Her father and two brothers would know how to use it as well.
Julija had abandoned her idea to warn the prince and tracked Iulian instead. That book could never see the light of day. The Carpathian people believed the book had been sealed with the blood of three species-Jaguar, mage and Carpathian-because that had been seen in a vision of Xavier actually sealing the book. She knew it was more than that. The blood sacrifice of a Lycan had been made with a different ceremonial knife. She didn't know for certain, but it stood to reason that Xavier had included the sacrifice of a human as well.
Xavier had grown extremely paranoid over the years he'd been alive. He'd wanted immortality and complete rule over every species living on earth. He'd thought himself superior to everyone, incapable of making mistakes, yet she knew that he had. She'd studied him carefully, brought up every recorded scene she could find from everyone who had memories of him-specifically, her father and two brothers. They had been privy to his work. She was female and expendable. They were not. Still, she'd studied the great mage through her family members. They believed it was harmless to share information with her.