Passion Untamed

Page 23


"More, I think. It was Birik threatening me if I didn't come back."
"He can reach you over this distance?"
"I don't know." She pressed her shaking hand to her damp forehead, trying to clear her mind of the nightmare. "He was wearing a green tunic I haven't seen him in for years. And he was taller. Much taller."
"Or you were smaller. Could he have inserted that nightmare into your cantric when you were a girl?"
"Yes. I think that's what he did."
"Will you tell me about it?"
She glanced at him, at the worried look in his eyes as he met her gaze. "I was being stoned. He said the nightmares will get worse if I don't come back, until I can't tell dream from reality."
Paenther growled low in his throat. "That Mage is going to die." His fingers caressed her shoulder. "No one's going to hurt you again. I won't allow it."
His touch was firm and warm, but not even Paenther could protect her from the living hell Birik would make her life if she didn't return to him. Yet she couldn't go back there, not when she knew the use he would make of her power.
Like a wraith, she floated between one world and the other, unable to live in either without misery. If she stayed away from Birik, her misery would be of the mind and flesh. If she went back and helped him free more of those Daemons, the anguish would be to her soul.
And neither choice gave her the only thing she wanted in life. The only one.
Chapter Seventeen
Hours later, they reached the small town of Corolla on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The sun was setting, the sky a brilliant pink and orange silhouetting the row of beach houses on their high stilts. The tourists had yet to begin their annual migration to the beaches and the houses stood dark and empty amid the sand and wild grasses of this narrow, windswept barrier island.
Lyon had called a short while ago to tell him Hawke and Kougar had found no sign of the Mage who'd called him through his shackles. It was possible Birik's control over him extended much farther than they'd believed. Lyon had urged him to be careful.
Paenther glanced at Skye, who watched out her window, her fingers laced with his. He still held her hand. For reasons he wasn't entirely sure of, touching her calmed him. Grounded him. And seemed to do the same for her.
"We're here, Beauty."
Finally releasing her hand, he handed her the map printout he'd pulled from the computer before he left. An aerial map upon which the Shaman had drawn a star in what appeared to be an empty lot a block from the beach. "This one's up to you. If the Shaman's right, I won't be able to see it."
He drove down the road, per the Shaman's directions.
Skye pointed. "There."
All he saw was a plot of sand between two large, dark beach houses set high on stilts. "I'll take your word for it." He parked the car at the edge of the road and climbed out.
As he helped Skye out, she looked up, meeting his gaze, a worried look in her eyes. "The Shaman told me to call the animals, but the last time I did that, I forced the Ferals to shift, and they couldn't shift back right away. What if it does something bad to you, too?"
Paenther shrugged and ran his fingers through her hair. "Don't call so hard this time."
A small smile lifted her mouth. "Okay."
As she closed her eyes, it was all he could do not to lean forward and kiss her. But her magic was already unpredictable enough. Better to let her do this on her own.
Within a few minutes, three feral cats and two red foxes ran up to her. As she knelt and greeted each one with a stroke of her hand and a soft word, doves and crows and a dozen seagulls gathered around her, several landing on her shoulders and head. She only smiled and reached up to stroke them, too.
A bemused smile on her face, she stood and looked at him. "Ready?" She turned and opened a gate in a fence he couldn't see.
As Paenther followed her through the sea oats, a man suddenly appeared a dozen yards in front of them, fury on his face. Old, the Shaman had said, but like all immortals, he appeared to be no more than thirty. Except for his clothing. He was dressed much as humans must have been in the early days of civilization, in a simple brown belted robe that fell to his ankles. Worn sandals covered the soles of his feet. His brown hair was long and stringy, a short beard covering his jaw and upper lip.
Paenther snagged Skye around the waist and pulled her behind him, birds and all.
"Who do you think you are?" the Mage demanded.
Paenther growled low in his throat. "The Shaman told us where to find you, Ezekiel."
"Little Therian bastard." With a dismissive wave of his hand, the Mage turned away.
"Skye's an enchantress and needs some guidance."
Ezekiel paused, then turned back slowly, eyeing the creatures on her shoulders and at her feet. Then his gaze rose and widened, looking beyond them. "Well, I'll be."
At the sound of a low whinny, Paenther turned and stared at the two horses. Skye's face lit. As she went to them, Paenther turned a wary gaze back to Ezekiel. "Mustangs?"
"Aye. Only a powerful enchantress could call them like that."
He looked back to where Skye stood stroking their sleek brown necks. Mustangs ran wild on the island, the descendants of horses brought ashore by Spanish explorers around the time he himself was born.
Skye sent the horses away and came back to join him. "We need your help, Ezekiel." Her voice was firm and strong even as her hand slid into his. "Since I was a child, the archsorcerer, Birik, has used my gift to raise dark power. Now he's trying to open the Daemon blade. We have to stop him."
The Mage grunted. "There's nothing I can do." But he didn't turn away this time.
Skye's cool fingers squeezed his hand. "The Ferals will stop him. But thanks to a couple of Mage attacks, this warrior is in danger of losing his animal. The Shaman thinks I might be able to help him if I learn to pull the good energies. I need you to teach me."
"And what is it to me?"
She released Paenther's hand and started to step forward, but he barred her way with his arm. She glanced at him, but didn't fight him.
"Do you know what Inir's doing?" she asked the Mage instead.
He grunted. "Stealing souls."
"He hasn't stolen mine, and he's not going to because no one knows I'm here! Or they didn't," he added with a grumble.
"The Shaman said there's no darkness in your heart," Skye said softly. "I can see that in your eyes. It's been a long time since I've seen Mage eyes with a soul."
Ezekiel frowned, peering at her. "Why are you with a Feral?"
"He rescued me from Birik. I was the only one in that stronghold who hadn't been turned."
"Birik will be after you, then."
"He's after both of us. He used us to free three wraith Daemons from the blade. I've seen what they do."
The Mage muttered something unintelligible under his breath as he turned away. Suddenly, the run-down lot disappeared. In its place stood a small frame structure, far older than its neighbors. Unlike the other homes, it sat only a few feet off the ground as if only grudgingly acknowledging the nearby ocean. Quaint, with two dormer windows attesting to a small second story, it appeared freshly painted and surprisingly well maintained.
"Come in, then," he said with a motion of his hand, and turned to start up the front steps.
Paenther met Skye's gaze. "You did it."
She gave him a smile that was part triumph and part wary uncertainty. She'd gotten them a pass into the Mage's house. What came next, neither could know.
Paenther kept a tight grip on Skye's hand as they followed the Mage up the steps and into the house, but his knife hand remained free and ready.
The old hermit led them through a spare, dated living room and into a kitchen that looked like it hadn't been updated in half a century. "Sit," he said as he picked up the teakettle and carried it to the sink. "Tea?"
"Yes, please," Skye said, sitting at the rough-hewn dining table.
"No." Paenther's reply was brusque, but he didn't care. He was taking nothing in this place. The Shaman might trust him, but Paenther trusted no Mage.
As Ezekiel pulled down two large coffee mugs and placed a tea bag in each, Paenther studied the man, noting the way his hair hung in stringy hanks around his shoulders. Though he carried no scent of body odor, his grooming habits were far from impeccable. One of the hazards of living alone, Paenther supposed.
Ezekiel glanced at him, his eyes sharp and curious. "How did Birik come by the Daemon blade, Feral?"
"Feral House was infiltrated by a Mage witch several months ago. A witch capable of hiding her eyes from us. One of our own was cut by the blade and turned."
The Mage filled the mugs with boiling water, then carried them to the table and set one before Skye, along with a small saucer and spoon for the teabag.
"Thank you," Skye said softly.
"He's lost his soul," the Mage said, meeting Paenther's gaze.
"No, Vhyper's soul is still there. I talked to him in Birik's cavern after Skye captured me."
Ezekiel looked between them with interest. "She captured you? I thought you rescued her."
Paenther scowled at him. "We rescued one another. As I was saying, there's humanity in Vhyper. It's hidden, forced down, but it's still there. I know what I saw."
"That may be." Ezekiel pushed a large platter of cookies toward Skye, then took one for himself. "Terrible sweet tooth," he admitted, before biting into the treat.
As Skye reached quickly for a cookie, he remembered with a pang that she still hadn't eaten. He'd make it up to her. As soon as they left here, he'd buy her a feast.
"I've been studying this soulless plague on and off for centuries."
"Centuries?" Paenther asks.
Ezekiel nodded. "Whenever a Mage gets infected with dark spirit, the cycle begins all over again."
"What do you mean?" Skye asked.
"When Satanan was captured and incarcerated in the Daemon blade, he left behind wisps of dark spirit around the Earth, hidden in cracks and crevices, in caves and within the ground. Over the many millennia since Satanan's capture, most of these wisps have found their way into beings of one kind or another, generally subjugating the soul that inhabited the body and turning it pure evil. Most of these creatures have been human. They cause tremendous suffering while they live, but humans don't live long, and when they die, the dark spirit dies with them. Lamentable, but not a huge problem. The far greater problem comes when the dark spirit infects one of the immortal races.
"It's largely believed that the demise of the Ilina race over a thousand years ago resulted from dark spirit's infecting their queen, a woman of prodigious power who may have understood what was happening and made the ultimate sacrifice in order to keep the darkness from spreading.
"Unfortunately, the Mage have always had a weakness for the dark power. There have been numerous instances of dark spirit infecting Mage over the millennia, with unfortunate results. The worst, though, is Inir, the current Elemental. He was a dark and dangerous soul before he was infected. And I, for one, believe the spirit that infected him possessed more than a trace of Satanan's consciousness. The dark spirit alone merely turns the individual to evil. But Inir has come into possession of vast stores of knowledge that should have been lost eons ago. I believe Satanan is working through Inir to free himself and his horde from the blade."
When Skye grabbed yet another cookie, Ezekiel frowned at her. "Does no one feed you?"
Paenther grunted. "I tried this morning and failed. Birik served her only the flesh of the animals she calls."
Ezekiel stared at her, then scowled. "Birik's a stupid, soulless bastard." He rose from the table and removed the cookies. "Spaghetti with tomato sauce, a large salad, and garlic bread." He peered at her. "Will that do?"
The smile that spread across her face was so pure, so beautiful, Paenther felt his heart seize.
"That sounds wonderful. Thank you."
A small smile breached the Mage's face for a split second before he nodded and grabbed a pot from one of the cabinets.
Paenther forced himself to focus on the man's words. "How is Inir infecting others if dark spirit can't be shared in that way?"
"He's not. Not exactly." Ezekiel turned on the tap and filled the pan with water. "At least not in the same way. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. It's my belief that the stronger souls he's turned will survive the attack of darkness. That in those individuals the darkness is reversible. The question is, how to free them."
Ezekiel set the pot of water on the stove, then pulled a head of lettuce out of the refrigerator and began making a salad. "So Birik's had you raising dark power for him, Skye?"
"He has."
"Moon rituals with sacrifices?"
"Yes. Every night."
"For how long?"
"Have you ever performed the ritual without the sacrifices? The way it was meant to be done?"
"No. I didn't know there was another way until the Shaman suggested you might know."
Ezekiel nodded. "I do. And you may well be able to heal your Feral friend here."
Skye's gaze flew to his, the relief and excitement in her soft eyes palpable. But he found it hard to believe anything inside him would really change.
"You'll stay here through midnight. After we eat, I'll teach you what I know, though I'm no enchanter. My Barbara was the enchantress, you know."