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Dark Illusion
Author: 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.

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