Lyon eyed her, his eyes narrowing as if he didn't believe her.
She tried to make him understand. "I was as much a prisoner of that place as Paenther was. I don't ever want to go back. But it's not what I want that matters. All that matters is that Birik not succeed." She stared at the Chief of the Ferals, willing him to know the truth of her words. "You must never allow him access to my power again." Though she couldn't bring herself to say the words out loud, the thought was clear in her eyes. If you have to, destroy me first.
The room was silent. Beside her, she felt the tug of Paenther's strong presence and turned to find him watching her with dark, unfathomable eyes as if he couldn't quite figure her out. Sometimes she almost felt like he believed her. Like he saw the truth.
Two people slipped into the room, the couple from the car, hand in hand, looking both well pleased and sheepish.
"Sorry," Tighe said. "We got a little carried away."
Lyon nodded, then turned back to Skye. "How many Mage in the cavern?"
"Twenty-seven including me."
"How many ways in and out?"
"Three. Two main passages and a little-used back passage, which was the one I led Paenther through to escape. But I don't know if you can get through the warding on the mountain to reach the cavern. I know it's impossible for humans to breach."
"She's fucking with my animal again," Jag snarled, his brows low and menacing as he rose from his chair and started toward her.
"Jag..." Lyon warned.
Paenther stood, putting himself between her and the angry warrior. "She can't help it. Animals are drawn to her."
Jag scowled. "Mine's not drawn to her. It's getting itchy. Annoyed. And so am I."
"Sit down, Jag," Lyon said. "We've got to understand what's going on before we deal with the witch."
His words did nothing to calm Skye.
And little enough to calm the angry Feral. Jag scowled. He didn't reach for her, but neither did he return to his seat. Instead, he paced like a caged animal, ready to bite off the first hand thrust into his cage.
Paenther remained standing at her back.
"How did the Mage regain their ancient magic?" Lyon demanded of her.
"Do you think we're fools?" The Chief of the Ferals' voice was deceptively soft.
"No, I think you may be the only ones standing between the world and true evil. The Mage haven't regained their ancient magic. They've acquired dark magic."
Lyon's gaze narrowed, but in question now rather than hostility. "Explain."
Skye clasped her hands, knitting her fingers together behind her. "I don't know the entire story, but I've heard rumors that the Elemental, Inir, was infected by dark spirit years ago. He was only a sentinel at the time, but within a few months he rose through the ranks to become the high leader. I do know...he changes people. I think he changed Birik a long time ago. Before he claimed me. I saw the changes myself when Inir came to the cavern years ago."
"How many years?"
"I'm not sure. I'd reached my full height, but not my maturity. It was probably eight or nine years after I'd arrived there. Thirty or so years ago. He did something to the Mage. I think he stole their souls. They serve the purpose of the High Daemon now."
The room went deathly silent. Growls slowly erupted.
"Satanan hasn't risen," Lyon said.
"No." Skye shook her head. "Inir's intent is to free him."
The Shaman nodded, leaning forward. "Dark spirit always seeks to free evil. Some believe the dark spirit left in the world is part of Satanan himself, tiny bits of his consciousness left behind when he was imprisoned."
Lyon's eyes narrowed as he stared at Skye. "So you have no soul?" The cords in Lyon's neck were beginning to stand out.
Skye's pulse ratcheted up another notch. "I alone was left untouched by Inir's sorcerers. Birik feared I'd lose my ability to call the animals if they changed me. He feared he'd lose the source of my power."
"Yet you're able to hide your Mage eyes," Paenther said behind her. "That's a magic Mage haven't had in millennia."
She turned and looked up, meeting his piercing black gaze. "Birik gave me that ability in the form of a short-term spell to enable me to capture you. I can no longer hide them."
"Our first target is Birik and the cavern stronghold."
Skye turned back to the table as Lyon addressed his men. "I want Vhyper and the blade out of there, and those Daemons destroyed." Lyon looked at the Shaman. "What's it going to take to free Paenther from the shackles?"
"I don't know."
"Work on it. I need him." Lyon turned back to the table. "But we can't wait. Kougar, Wulfe, and Hawke, you'll leave for the Blue Ridge immediately. Once you've located the cavern, we'll regroup and move on it, full strength."
Foxx leaned forward, his face eager. "And me. Let me go, Lyon. I've already been out there. I'll recognize the area."
"You remembered shit, Cub," Jag said. "Or have you forgotten?"
"Lyon?" Foxx persisted.
The Chief of the Ferals shook his head. "You stay here, Foxx. You were touched by magic once out there, I'm not sending you again." He turned to Hawke. "Go. I don't know what she's doing to our animals, but I feel it, too. The sooner you're out of here, the better. Foxx and Paenther can fill you in further over the phone."
Hawke nodded as all three men rose and left.
Skye watched them go, wondering why the animals were becoming so agitated. And there was no denying they were. All but Paenther's. Why? She was doing nothing to antagonize the Ferals themselves and certainly nothing to harm their animals. Why would they be getting more and more angry?
Jag began snarling, glaring at her.
"You take your life in your hands, witch," Lyon warned.
"I don't know what I'm doing." She was beginning to shake. "It's not on purpose."
Jag started around the table toward her again. Paenther moved to block his access to her, but Jag didn't back off this time. Instead, fangs sprouted in his mouth, claws erupted from his fingertips, and his eyes turned the color of a jungle cat's.
Paenther tensed, his arms opening at his sides as if preparing for a fight. "Back off, Jag."
"If you can't make her stop fucking with our animals, I will."
To Skye's horror, the terrifying creature Jag had become leaped at Paenther, his claws out. She ducked, fearing they were going to land right on top of her, but Paenther met the attack with one of his own. The two men, both part animal, tumbled to the ground, clawing and ripping at flesh in a tangle of teeth and claws and massive limbs.
"Enough!" Lyon roared.
The fight went on for about ten more seconds before the two bloody combatants rose to their feet and retracted their fangs, eyeing one another as if ready to go at it again.
Her heart pounded.
"No one touches her but me," Paenther snarled.
Skye felt something warm and raw stir in her chest as she realized he was protecting her. From his own men.
"Get her out of here, B.P.," Lyon snapped. "I don't know what the hell she's doing, but I'm about to leap out of my own skin. Lock her up in the prison, then come back. We have some decisions to make."
Paenther's jaw clenched, drawing his cheekbones in high relief. Finally, he nodded once and turned to her, barely looking at her as he pulled her from her chair and steered her out of the room, retracing the path back to the prison.
"What in the hell did you do to them?" he asked tightly as he led her down the long stairs.
"Nothing. I don't understand what happened. Animals always react to me, but it's with friendliness, not anger. Your panther was the only one who didn't go nuts in there."
Paenther said nothing more as he led her back to the prison and locked her up. Then he turned and left without a backward glance as she watched his bloody and retreating back disappear into the passage.
He'd protected her. And, so far, he hadn't been able to bring himself to hurt her. There was goodness inside him. And honor. She'd thought it before, and she believed it even more, now.
But that didn't mean she was safe from him. As long as he was convinced she was his enemy - and the strange reaction of the animal spirits to her wasn't doing much to convince him otherwise - she was in deadly peril from the very strength she admired. Maybe, whether they meant to or not, the Mage and the Ferals couldn't help but harm one another. Even if harming these men was the last thing in the world she wanted to do.
She sat on the hard floor against the back wall, her hands still trapped uncomfortably behind her back. While she feared what the Ferals might ultimately decide to do with her, she feared Birik more. Because she knew what Birik would do.
And it was almost midnight.
Paenther rejoined the group in the war room minutes later.
"We're spread too thin. I'm enlisting the aid of the Guard," Lyon said as Paenther took his seat.
Jag scoffed. "The Guard is just a bunch of Therians. What in the hell can they do?"
Lyon growled. "They're damn fine fighters, just Therians or not. They won't be of much help in fighting the draden, but they can help in other ways. A small team is on its way over to discuss the situation as we speak."
Paenther half listened to the discussion, shaken by how violently he'd reacted to Jag's threat against Skye. It infuriated him. He should be clear of her magic, but she obviously still had her claws in him.
Lyon placed his hands palm down on the table and looked at Paenther. "Until those shackles come off, you'll be guarding Feral House. I don't want you leaving."
Great. Now I'm essentially under house arrest. Yet he couldn't argue the point. Lyon was right.
"Tighe and Foxx, you take first shift with the draden. You'll rotate with Jag."
Paenther looked at Lyon. "Since when do we need three men guarding the house?"
"Since one of them brought a witch home and still wears the shackles to prove it. I won't compromise the safety of our Radiant, or the other women in this house."
He turned to the others. "If that's it, we're through."
When no one said anything more, they all rose.
Paenther scowled, hating the situation the Mage had put him in. Even his own chief couldn't trust him. Worse, he couldn't trust himself.
Kara came to him, her blue eyes warm and determined. "I'd like to give you a shot of radiance, Paenther. After all you've been through, I think you could use it."
Paenther inclined his head with deep respect and deeper affection for this petite woman with the heart of a lioness. "I'd be honored, Radiant."
"Fuck." Jag grabbed the back of a chair.
Lyon and Tighe, too, seemed to be in some kind of pain.
"What's happening?" Paenther demanded.
"Your witch," Tighe said, through gritted teeth. "I think the pain is hers."
Paenther leaped for the door and took the stairs to the underground chambers four at a time, running the rest of the way back to the prison. No sound reached his ears as he approached her cell, but as he came even with it and his gaze took in the sight of her, his chest seized, his mind going gray as a winter sky.
She lay on her back in a pool of blood, her arms still caught behind her, her back bowed in agony. Deep cuts marred her lovely face, neck, and hands. Scores of them.
Fury roared through his blood as he grabbed for the keys to her cell with shaking hands. As Lyon and the others raced in behind him, he whirled on his chief, his lip pulling back in a snarl. "I'll kill the man who did this."
Lyon came to stand beside him as Paenther unlocked the door of the cell. "Look at her legs, B.P."
Through a haze of rage, Paenther stared, uncomprehending. Cuts erupted along the lengths of her legs as if a ghost wielded an invisible blade. The bloodstains on her dress grew, encompassing her abdomen and hips, arms and thighs, though no cuts appeared in the fabric. They were coming from within her.
"What's doing this?" he demanded, pulling the door open and rushing inside. As he knelt beside her, blood-caked lashes rose slowly, painfully. "What's happening, little witch?"
She tried to speak, but her voice broke on a word, forcing Paenther to lean closer. "Birik." Her face and body contorted, but her mouth fought to form the words. "The moon...ritual."
"Yes," she gasped. "My punishment...for not..." Her mouth went still as a wicked cut slashed across it.
Paenther stared at her, at the slashes wreaking havoc on her flesh with quicker and quicker frequency. Her meaning slowly penetrated the furious fog encasing his brain.
Birik was punishing her for not performing the ritual. As if she had any choice when she'd been stolen away.
The slashes were coming so fast that it was as if five men attacked her at once. The pool of her blood spread.
Her suffering tore at him. It shouldn't matter to him. She shouldn't matter to him. But she did.
"How do we stop it, Skye?"
"Can't. It will...stop." Her words told him clearly she'd been through this before. How many times?
Her eyes rolled back, her body bowing against the agony. Yet she made no sound, suffering in silence until finally she collapsed into unconsciousness.
In his mind's eye, he saw her again as she'd lain in a heap on the floor of the cavern, bloodied and broken from Birik's attack. He'd kill him. If it was the last thing he did, he'd kill that son of a bitch. Fury roared through his body, a fury born from the depths of his abhorrence for the abuse of innocents.