The boy stiffened, leaned into Dorian. "No."
Dorian put an arm around his fragile, breakable body. "Be brave. Your mom wants you safe."
Those astonishing eyes looked up at him. "Will you kill me?"
Dorian looked to Judd. "It gonna hurt?"
A slight nod.
Dorian held Keenan's hand, the boy's blood mixing with his own where he'd sliced open his palm. "It'll hurt like a bitch, but then you'll be okay."
Keenan's eyes widened at the vulgarity, exactly as Dorian had intended. In that moment of distraction, Judd closed his eyes. Dorian knew the Psy male was working furiously to unlock the child's shields and get inside his mind - so he could cut Keenan's link to the PsyNet, the psychic network that connected every Psy on the planet, but for the renegades. Bare seconds later, the boy screamed and it was a sound of such brutal suffering that Dorian almost killed Judd for it. The sound cut off as abruptly as it had begun and Keenan slumped into Dorian's arms, unconscious.
"Jesus," Clay said from the front, merging onto a busy highway even as he spoke. "The kid okay? Tally will kill me if we get a scratch on him."
Dorian brushed back the boy's hair. It was straight, unlike his mother's curls. She'd had it tamed into a braid the one and only time he'd seen her - through the scope of his rifle - but he'd been able to tell. "He's breathing."
"Well" - Judd paused, white lines bracketing his mouth - "that was unexpected."
"What?" Dorian took off his jacket and covered Keenan in its warmth.
"I was supposed to pull him into our familial net." The other man rubbed absently at his temple, eyes on Keenan. "But he went... elsewhere. Since he's not dead, I'm guessing he's linked into DarkRiver's secret network - the one I'm not supposed to know about."
Dorian shook his head. "Impossible." They all knew that Psy brains were different from changeling or human - Psy needed the biofeedback provided by a psychic network. Cut that off and death was close to instantaneous, the reason why defectors from the PsyNet were few and far between. Judd's family had only just made it out by linking together to form the tiny LaurenNet. Their psychic gifts meant they could manipulate that net and accept new members. But DarkRiver's net, the Web of Stars, was different.
"There is no way he could've entered our web." Dorian scowled. "It's a changeling construct." Created by loyalty, not need, it welcomed only a select few - leopard sentinels who had sworn an oath to the DarkRiver alpha, Lucas, and their mates.
Judd shrugged and leaned back against the seat. "Maybe the boy has some changeling blood."
"He'd be a shape-shifter if he had that much of it," Clay pointed out. "Plus, my beast doesn't sense an animal in him. He's Psy."
"All I know is that as soon as the PsyNet was closed to him, his consciousness arrowed away from me and toward Dorian. I can't see your network, but my guess is that he's linked to you" - he nodded at Dorian - "and through you, to your web. I could try to cut that bond," he continued, his reluctance open, "and force him into our familial net, but it'd only traumatize him again."
Dorian looked down at the boy and felt the trapped leopard inside him rise in a protective crouch. "Then I guess he stays with us. Welcome to DarkRiver, Keenan Aleine."
Miles away, in a lab located in the bowels of the earth, Ashaya Aleine staggered under the backwash of a devastating mental blow. A sudden cut and he was gone, her son, the link she'd had without knowing she had it.
Either Keenan was dead or...
She remembered the first of the two notes she'd gotten out through the lab's garbage chute the previous week, a note that would have been transmitted to a human named Talin McKade by those who were loyal to Ashaya rather than the tyrannical ruling Council.
I'm calling in my IOU.
The best-case scenario was that Talin McKade and her friends had come through. Ashaya's thoughts traveled back to that night two months ago when she'd put her life on the line to free a teenager and a young girl from the lethal danger of the lab - before they became the latest casualties in a series of genocidal experiments run by another scientist.
It was as she was returning to the lab that he'd found her, the unnamed sniper with a voice as cool as any Psy assassin's.
"I have a gun pointed at your temple. I don't miss."
"I saved two innocent lives. You won't kill me."
A hint of laughter, but she couldn't be sure. "What did you want the IOU for?"
"You're male. Therefore you aren't Talin McKade."
"I'm a friend. She has others. And we pay our debts."
"If you want to repay your debt," she said, "kidnap my son."
With her note, she'd set that very event in motion. Then she'd cashed in every favor owed to her and put psychic safeguards in place to protect Keenan against recapture through the PsyNet. But now Keenan was gone - she knew that beyond any shadow of a doubt. And no Psy could survive outside the Net.
Yet, another part of her reminded her, the DarkRiver leopard pack had two Psy members who had survived very well. Could it be that Talin McKade's friends were cats? That supposition was pure guesswork on her part as she had nothing on which to base her theory or check her conclusions. She was under a psychic and electronic blackout, her Internet access cut off, her entry to the vast resources of the PsyNet policed by telepaths under Councilor Ming LeBon's command. So she, a woman who trusted no one, would have to trust the sniper had spoken true, and Keenan was safe.
Head still ringing from the shearing off of that inexplicable bond, she sat absolutely frozen for ten long minutes, getting her body back under control. No one could be allowed to learn that she'd felt the backlash, that she knew her son was no longer in the PsyNet. She shouldn't have known. Every individual Psy was an autonomous unit. Even in the fluid darkness of the Net, where each mind existed as a burning psychic star stripped of physical limitations, they encased themselves in multiple shields, remaining separate.