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Manual strangulation. 18



Barely able to think, she answered its good-bye sunshine with a flower, and opened her eyes. Vaughn was holding her, but he was relaxed.

"I felt something touch you." He frowned. "It wasn't bad. Like a cub isn't bad. But different.

"The NetMind." Her answer set off a cacophony of questions from the others.

"How?

"a leak?

"Council?

"Is it?

"Quiet!" Vaughn cut them off with a roar. "Go on, Red.

She laughed and, to everyone's surprise, kissed him on the lips. "I love you.

His growl vibrated along her nerve endings, the most intimate of caresses. "Hell of a time to tell me.

The tension diffused from everyone but her jaguarshe felt his continuing anger through the direct connection of the mating bond. She wanted to soothe, to stroke, but for that she needed privacy and right now, the others were waiting for her to speak. "I'm assuming everyone here knows about the NetMind?

"I tried to explain it," Sascha said, "but I think you're the expert. You speak to it in images?

"Yes. It looks like we've managed to work out a number of pictures that translate as the same every timesunshine is happiness, rain is sadness.

"It feels?" Sascha whispered.

"Yes." And that signaled a precious hope.

"How can it contact you if you're not in the Net?" Lucas asked from his position against the window ledge.

"It's a sentience that finds it natural to live in networks of minds," she said, bursting to share what she'd learned. "If there is a network, it can travel to that place.

"The Web of Stars." Sascha walked to stand in her mate's embrace, back to his chest. "I've never felt it there.

"I'm saying this wrong." Faith tried to order her thoughts. "It won't come into a different network, perhaps not unless it's invitedI think I did that by thinking of it after I dropped out of the PsyNetbecause each network has its own NetMind.

Everyone went completely silent.

"It seems as if each time a networka webforms, it sows the seeds for the creation of a new sentience. The NetMind in the Web of Stars is a baby, a mere thought. Do you know of any other webs?

Lucas narrowed his eyes. "Tell us what you saw first.

Able to read changeling aggression to some extent, she knew it wasn't a display of distrust, but an unwillingness to color her perception. Her Psy mind appreciated that. "I saw several small networks, but it showed me one other in particular made up of five Psy minds. And if our NetMind is a baby, theirs hasn't even been born.



"Christ. It's the Laurens." Lucas's statement shook her she hadn't known that Judd was part of a group. A family. And yet he'd chanced helping her. "Does this make us vulnerable to the Psy?

"No. The NetMind is no longer bound by the Council, though they don't know it.

"What? How?" Sascha tugged her plait from Lucas. He just lifted it back up and dropped a kiss on the curve of her neck.

Faith watched Sascha melt and understood. These predators were impossible to resist when they played nice. "In our terms, it's a teenager now," she answered. "It can think beyond what it's been told, understand the bigger picture." Sadness flowed into her. Vaughn's nuzzled kiss was a welcome burst of sensation, of hope. "It showed me evil in the Net, badness that's infecting everything. If that evil isn't stopped, it'll kill the Net itself.

"A rot." Sascha voice went heavy with sorrow that sank into every person in the room.

The sentinel named Dorian walked over to pull her into his arms. Lucas allowed the embrace though Faith had expected him to react with possessive violence. Another facet of her new family, one that would take time to become accustomed to. Such open affection was disconcerting to a mind fresh out of Silent bondage.

"Anything else?" Clay asked.

She nodded. "I think the killer was possessed." Everyone looked at her in blatant disbelief. "Maybe I should think about it a bit more.

Vaughn kissed her forehead. "Possessed, Red?

"Do you think the mental degradation's taken root?" It was an attempt to make a joke out of her greatest fear. She might have cut free from the Net, but she was still an F-Psy, her mind more fragile than others.

"I think you're beautiful for a crazy woman." His hungry kiss brought the lightning to life, but when they separated, the others' expressions hadn't changed.

"The NetMind showed me something the first time we spoke." She explained the images. "I think the starry woman represents the good side and the one empty of stars, the bad.

"What about the Web of Stars?" Sascha asked from within Dorian's embrace.

Faith wriggled to a more upright position. "It's a single entity. Same with the LaurenNet.

Vaughn wrapped his arms around her neck and pulled her back against his chest. The wall of fire was a sweet benediction. "So what makes the Psy NetMind different?

"Emotion." Sascha's eyes had gone pure black.

Lucas reached out to tug at her plait and Dorian released her to her mate. "Talk to me, Sascha darling." He ran his finger down her cheek.

"The Psy have cut off emotion, tried to suppress it into nonexistence. So if the NetMinds are created when a net is created, then the basic material is provided by the net in question.

Faith saw where Sascha was going. "Our Web is fed by everythinglove, hate, fear, joy.

"So is the Laurens', probably because of the children." Sascha tangled her fingers with Lucas's. "The PsyNet, however, is fed mostly by emotionless Silence.

"But the NetMind is good. It feels joy." She was convinced of that.

"Yes, but the aim of Silence was to wipe out violence. The core of the conditioning says that any kind of darkness is bad. It must be contained, caged, kept separate from everything else.

"And that's become amplified in the twin NetMinds." Faith suddenly understood what the empath had seen at once. "A DarkMind for everything negative while the NetMind is pure goodness. It's so vulnerable.

"I'm not so sure about that," Sascha said. "If it's aware of the DarkMind, then perhaps it's aware of everything its other half knows. You did say it's fooled the Council.

"Yes." Some of Faith's concern faded. "But even if the twins function as a team, their separation has to have a consequence.

Sascha's eyes met hers and there was such grief in them. "Until the DarkMind and the NetMind are merged again, the Psy will continue to produce the most vicious serial killers on the planet.

"Killers without an ounce of mercy." Faith thought about what she'd seen. "The DarkMind is using them to give itself a voice. Maybe it can't speak like the NetMind can, because it's been Silenced, but it can communicate with its acts of violence.

"A child screaming its existence." Sascha's words gave emotional force to the cold facts.

The image chilled Faith. So much death, so much rage, all because of a child's need for acceptance. "Until Silence ends, the only thing we can do is try to stop the manifestations of darkness.

"Killers." Vaughn's beast prowled in the energy of his skin.

"Yes.

"Why does it speak to you?" Sascha asked, after a small silence.

"Maybe because I speak to it and I'm a Psy who has emotion. I think it needs that contact, needs to know that such Psy are possible.

Sascha's sadness softened into hope. "Can I speak to it, do you think?

"It adores what you are." Faith felt her own lips tilt upward in the faintest of smiles. "I think I might even be jealous.

"Why?

"How do you think you escaped detection in the Net as a child, before you were old enough to hide your rainbow mind?

"The difference didn't appear until I was a teenager.

"No, Sascha. It was always there. Think about itour basic abilities are something we're born with." Faith shook her head. "It showed me a thousand hidden minds exactly like yours, protected by something other than their own shields.

The look on Sascha's face was priceless. "The NetMind knows about us?

Us. The E-Psy. The designation Faith had barely begun to understand because they'd been slated for deletion from the Net. But they'd survived. Because, Faith now comprehended, they had to exist. If they didn't, the Psy would cease to be human, cease to be sentient. All sentient races had a conscience. Take that away and what you were left with was something horrifying.

"Yes. It's been protecting you for decades, ever since it started to understand what Silence was doing to you. Maybe that's when it started to think on its own. I don't know. All I know is that we're dealing with a life form that has a heart and that heart is made up of a thousand E-Psy. The NetMind will never be evil so long as those minds exist. In contrast, its twin will be absolute evil.

"Your NetMind might be good, but it's not the only one who knows where you are," Clay reminded them.

The conversation turned once again to the question of how to protect her from the Council. Someone brought up a recordingone that apparently showed the confession of a Psy killer.

Clay shook his head. "We play that card, we have to be prepared for war.

"None of our reasons for not going public with it have changed," Lucas added. "Let's save it for a last-case scenario. Vaughn?

Vaughn grunted and it was agreement.

"They won't stop hunting her." Dorian spoke for the first time, his voice so coldly angry that she wanted to hide from it. "Murder is what they're good at.

"Anybody dares touch her, I'll eviscerate them." Vaughn's words held the calm confidence of a beast that knew it was the most dangerous of predators.

"Well, there is that," Sascha said. "If she keeps her mind heavily shielded, they'll have to get close to attack her. DarkRiver can take care of them before they reach her.

"How long can I live like that?" Faith shook her head, frustrated that her earlier knowing had faded into mist. "There must be some way to keep them from making an example out of me.

Vaughn's hand was on her nape, a possessive grasp. "They'll never get that close, Red.

She believed him.

"We have a walk-through at the site with Nikita tomorrow," Lucas said into the pensive silence. "Let's see if they're open to a dealFaith's too valuable for them to do something stupid and risk getting her killed.

The meeting ended soon afterward.

Vaughn had drivento the meeting as far as he was able, then run the rest of the way with Faith riding his back. But as their feet touched the ground after leaving the aerie, she asked to be put down.

"Let's walk awhile." Her eyes were more black than he was used to.

"I'm at your command, Red." Taking her hand, he led her through the trees until they hit a pathway almost completely hidden from sight.

"What do you see?" she asked him. "I could have never located this path.

So he showed her the marks, the clawed parts of certain trees, the subtle positioning of rocks that appeared randomly strewn. "It's a code, a way of speaking to each other that doesn't rely on words or on telepathy. We can read these signs in either human or cat form.

She traced a pair of claw lines with utter gentleness. "A language the Psy don't even know exists.

"My Psy does.

She let him lead her deeper into the forest. "Lucas is right; if the Council comes for me, it won't be to kill me.

"You're worth too much alive." His gut burned. She was so much more than a moneymaking machine. She was a woman of spirit and courage with a gift that had the power to change the course of the future itself.

"I didn't say anything to the others, but I don't think Nikita is going to agree to a deal. There's nothing to deal with. We don't have proof that Marine's murder was a setup.

"Like Lucas said, it's a last-case scenario, but we do have Enrique's confession on record." He told her about the former Councilor's crimes and his punishment. Vaughn had been there that night, had taken vengeance on Lucas's behalf because his alpha had been locked in an attempt to save his mate's life. "He gave us everything." Before they'd ripped him into a thousand bloody shreds.

Face pale, Faith squeezed his arm with her free hand. "You agreed with them that you couldn't use that.

"We won't. Not unless we have no other choice.

"No, Vaughn! Not ever. If you back the Council into a corner, they will come at you with everything they've got. And they'll kill your most vulnerable, the children, first.

His vows as a sentinel slammed up against his unspoken vows to her. "You're my mate." A loyalty that overshadowed any other.

"That's why I'm asking you to never use that recording on my behalf." Stopping, she looked up into his eyes. "I need to know that I didn't bring death into this new family. I need to know I'm something good.

"You're everything good." He enfolded her in his arms. "Don't worry. We have the capacity to take them onwe had to devise a countermeasure after Sascha's defection. The cubs will be safe." Exposing them to danger had never been a possibility.

"But how many adults will die in the fight?

"You're Pack." And Pack stood together. He'd bled for them and they'd do the same for him.

"I can't have their blood on my conscience." She hugged him hard. "Promise me you'll never use that recording in a fight for me. Not even as a last-case scenario.

"And if I don't?

CHAPTER 25

"Then I'll turnmyself in to the Council." An intractable expression clouded her face. "I'll do it the first chance I get.

He knew she was stubborn enough to go through with the decision. "You've left me no choice." And the beast was angry at that, at her. But what enraged him most was having his hands tied. Judd had taken out the killer. Lucas and Sascha were meeting Nikita. He could do seemingly nothing to protect the one person he needed to protect. "Get on." He didn't want to speak any longer.

Faith didn't argue, letting him hoist her onto his back and then holding on as he raced through the forest, an animal on two legs, a jaguar caught tight in the grip of a trap that had no acceptable way out. Tonight he saw nothing of the beauty around him, felt no exhilaration, no joy. He was furious at everything and everyone. The Fates, the Psy who was his mate, and mostly, himself.

Ignoring the waves of tenderness coming down the mating bond, he poured himself into the forest and let the beast take over. Though he remained human in shape, his mind, his heart, his soul became jaguar. And the cat didn't allow human foolishness to color its thinking. It just was.

Vaughn didn't know how long he ran in that semishift state, but they were close to the car when his keen hearing picked up something very odd. He came to a complete stop. Faith clutched at him and he knew she was about to speak.

"Shh." He kept the sound extremely low.

But she'd heard. The second he released his grip on her legs, she slid down with utter quietness, allowing him to ease her down using his strength. Once there, she remained motionless. He scanned the surrounding area with his animal senses and felt every one of his instincts flare in warning.

Glancing over Faith's head, he looked back the way they'd come. The perfect tree stood almost directly in his line of sight. He turned his back to her and she jumped on. Moving with the catlike silence that was second nature to him, he retraced his steps to the large sequoia and began to climb, using his claws to dig into the wood. Faith held on tight and didn't say a word as he went ever higher. He was proud of her.

When he spotted what he was looking for, he shifted position so she could get off and sit down in the hiding place formed by the intersection of several branches. Only then did she whisper, "What did you hear?

He made sure she'd be invisible from the ground. "Something that doesn't belong." Leaning in, he kissed her. His way. Hard, savage, and raw. "Don't leave this tree until I or one of the pack return for you. And don't try to telepath Sascha or use any other Psy sense.

The stars in her eyes were blotted out by blackness in an eyeblink. "They've come for me.

"Nobody will touch you." That wasn't even an option. "Do exactly what I told you. They might be able to track you if you try anything Psy." He wasn't Psy, but he was a soldierhe knew about strategy and drawing out a target.

"Let me help," she whispered.

"I'll tell you if I need you." He watched understanding spread across her face. The mating bond wasn't Psy, therefore the others wouldn't be able to intercept it.

"Be safe and come back to me.

He had every intention of doing that, but first, he had to get rid of some vermin. Going back down the tree took almost no time. He touched the ground with silent feet and started to determine and categorize what his senses were telling him. There was definitely more than one Psy out there.

That they'd gotten this far into DarkRiver territory without alerting anyone told him they were good. Very good. Vaughn had no intention of underestimating their skills. He also knew he had to get them before they realized he was hunting. Otherwise, they'd smash his mind with a blast of pure power.

Stripping off the jeans, he cached them a small way up the tree and went jaguar. The Psy might be good, but this was Vaughn's territory and in this territory, his paws were silent, his senses even keener, his savagery unparalleled. These Psy had broken the first rule when they'd come into an area off-limits to anyone but cats and wolves. They'd broken the second by lying in ambush for his mate.

The first was a mistake. The second, unforgivable.

Vaughn walked a ways on the ground before taking to the trees. His sense of smell was not as strong as his sight, but it was far better than an ordinary human's, sufficient to tell him that there was a Psy to the left of his position and within meters. He padded along a branch until he was directly on top of the male. Dressed in black, his face camouflaged with paint, the Psy lay flat on the ground, one eye pressed to the scope of what looked like a Series III Ramrod.

An illegal rifle meant for hunting big cats.

Vaughn didn't give the Psy any warning. He couldn't be allowed to send a telepathic signal to his team members, though the communications link clipped to his ear probably indicated they were maintaining mind-silence. They didn't want to tip off Faith. In that case, they were likely not scanning the area telepathically either, relying on their physical senses alone. Mistake number threenever go into a predator's territory thinking to beat him at his own game.

Slamming down on the male's back, Vaughn crushed his skull between powerful jaws before the Psy ever knew he'd been marked as prey. He'd broken the would-be assassin's back, and in all likelihood killed him, with the jump, but no one could rise after his brain had been caved in as this Psy's was.

One down.

Pain shot through the mating bond. He froze. Faith had experienced his kill. It had disturbed her. He waited to see what she'd do. And realized the pain was for himfor having to do this for her. The jaguar had no time for such foolishness. Of course he'd do this for hershe was his mate.

He took to the trees again, knowing she was with him now. That was good. She should see the other side of his nature, know that he wasn't human, wasn't civilized. Then he silenced that thinking part and became the predator again. West of the first Psy, he found the second. This one had a small gun in his hand. Not a weapon meant to kill, but to subdue. For Faith.

This Psy was more wary, scrutinizing the area around him with the trained eyes of a scout, looking up into the trees with every sweep. He knew what hunted him. But jaguars were patientVaughn simply waited until the male was scanning a different section, then dispatched him with the same efficient technique he'd used on the first male.

Two down.

The third was northwest of the second Psy. He saw their tactic at once. A half circle with his vehicle as the center point. Likely six armed Psy mercenaries. Now two were dead and the positions of the other four had become obvious. Mistake number four. He'd never have placed his men in such a predictable pattern. But, of course, the Psy thought of changelings as animals too stupid to reason.

Mistake number five.

Assassin number three was gone in a minute. Four followed. Five actually saw Vaughn coming and fired off a shot, but that was as far as he got. However, he'd warned number six. Instead of launching a psychic attack, the last Psy took off, zigzagging through the forest on an evasive path that would've eluded most humans. Unfortunately for him, Vaughn wasn't human. He could've let the Psy think he was getting away, could've tortured him by playing with him, but that wasn't who he was.

He stayed in the shadows as he ran down the sixth assassin, knowing the Psy couldn't attack him if he didn't know where he was. Changeling minds were tough. Psy had to aim and focus to destroy thema diffuse hit would never penetrate his natural shields. In the end, taking the man out was almost an anticlimax. The Psy had no idea what hit him. One second he was running, the next he was dead.

The jaguar flipped him over onto his back and Vaughn shifted into human form to search the body for evidence of further plans. He found something in the left pants pocket. A small, flat, closed pad that he immediately identified as a long-distance remote. Flipping it open, he checked the computronic readout.

The car was rigged to blow.

If they hadn't been able to capture Faith, they'd had orders to destroy her. He growled. It was a good thing these men were already dead. Shifting again, he took the pad in his mouth and ran back to Faith. There was blood on his fur, which would translate to his skin when he changed forms. That couldn't be helped. But he was human and dressed in his jeans by the time he came to her.

"Are you alright?" Her eyes flicked over every inch of him. "You're bleeding!

"It's not mine." He watched her expression for signs of disgust.

Instead, it was only relief that showed. "I got the sense that one of them got off a blast.

"He missed. Come on." He brought her down from the tree.

Her face remained white, strain lines at the corners of her mouth. "You had to kill for me.

"It's what mates do." He kissed her for several long minutes, grounding his beast in the feminine scent of her. By the time he drew away to pull the pad from his pocket, there was a healthy flush to her cheeks. "See this?

She took the pad. "It looks like a remote of some kind." She placed it in the center of her palm, her curiosity apparently cutting through the residual shock. "Exceptionally compact and nothing that's on the market at this time. I'd say it's a prototype from Exogenesis Labsthey had me do some work last year.

"It's to blow up the car.

Her head jerked up. "They wanted you dead.

Suddenly, he knew she was right. Faith was too important to kill. "Wanted is the operative word. I assumed you could talk to Saschacan you?

"I'm not sure about 'pathing, but if the Web works the same way as the Net, I can try to do it that way.

"Tell her to give Lucas a message: We need a cleanup crew. Five cats to our location.

"How will they know where to come?

"They know the general area where I left the car and they'll track us the rest of the way by smell.

Nodding, she closed her eyes. "Okay, I'm trying a telepathic page. She's not that far and I know her... there you go. She's receiving me." Silence for a few beats. "Lucas says they're on their way. One extra man to take me back to the aerie.

"Fine.

She opened her eyes. "Why do I have to go back?" Stubborn, her forehead furrowed with lines.

"Because you can't drag one of these bodies where it needs to go.

She swallowed but didn't admit defeat. "And where would that be?

"Nikita Duncan has the bad luck to live closest to us.

"I see." She looked at her feet and then back up at him. "You felt no guilt at killing those men.

He waited, able to see her working something out in her head. Though he'd never admit it aloud, he was a little worried. She'd seen him at his most brutal. Now he waited for her reaction.

"And yet, it was clean. You didn't taunt them and you didn't get pleasure from it.

"I will when I take down animal prey." He wasn't going to lie.

"I think I can deal with that because it's natural." Ignoring the blood, she wrapped her arms around his waist, her fingers delicate points of heat where they brushed his skin. "I won't say I wasn't shocked by the way you dispatched the assassins so quickly, but I wasn't repulsed or horrified. This is who you are. And I love you.

The simple declaration brought him figuratively to his knees. Enclosing her in his arms, he let the tension seep out of him. This was who he was. And she loved him. It was all he'd ever wanted.

Faith followed Dorianalong the path back to the alpha pair's lair, glancing over her shoulder to try to catch a last glimpse of Vaughn. But he was already gone, a blur in the forest. Five leopards and one jaguar. So much power. So much fury. For her.

"I could run with you," Dorian offered after ten minutes. "I'm latent, but I have the strength of a changeling.

"I'm sorry." Faith made her tone very polite, conscious that Dorian didn't like her. "I don't know what latent means in your world.

"I can't shift into leopard form." Said without any hint of self-pity.

She looked at him. With his sky-blue eyes and blond hair, he looked more like a college student than the merciless predator he was. "Thank you, but no. I'm not comfortable being that close to anyone but Vaughn.

He nodded and they kept going. She thought over his words, wondered if that was why he had such anger in his eyes. But that anger was directed at her and she'd had nothing to do with his latency. After almost half an hour of silence, she decided that the only way to know was to ask. He was family now.

"Why don't you like me?

He didn't answer for several long minutes. "I don't know you, so I have no reason to dislike you as a person.

It didn't take her long. "My ability. That's it, isn't it? You think I could've prevented something.

"Not you. Foreseers as a whole.

"You're right. Maybe we could have." That they hadn't, was a tragedy. "But I don't think foreseers ever saw everything. If they had, then nobody would've ever been murdered, no great disaster would've ever killed millions." It was something she'd been thinking over. "So maybe we could've prevented whatever it was that happened to you, but maybe we couldn't.

"At least you could've tried if you'd been on the outside.

"Yes." That was an irrefutable truth. "Yes.

He didn't say another word for five more minutes. She spent the time thinking over her own statement. It was what she believed, but it was also a guess. She didn't know what past F-Psy had seen. Those records had been purged from the PsyNet, lost in the mysteries of time.

The knowing, when it came, was quiet, silent, like the male beside her. Dorian. Broken, shattered Dorian would one day be whole. And in a way not even he could imagine. She saw him clearly in her mind's eye, a beautiful leopard with dark facial markings and, in this form, eyes more green than blue.

The knowing drifted away and she wondered whether to share it with him. It hadn't been a true vision as such, had told her no specifics. But he'd been older. Not old, but at least two or three years older than he was now. What if she told him and then the future changed because of some act of his or another's? A false hope. She made the hard decision to keep the knowing to herself. Sometimes, Silence was the right choice. It was only when it wasn't a choice that it turned into a cage.





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