Phantom Game

Two predators collide with unbridled passion in this intoxicating GhostWalker novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan.

Jonas "Smoke" Harper has watched his brothers find their perfect mates, never imagining he'd actually meet someone who complements every part of him — even the monster that lurks within. But his instant connection with Camellia goes far beyond wanting the intelligent, beautiful, and lethal woman in his bed. They are two parts of a whole, linked to each other and to a larger network that exists everywhere around them.

Camellia has lived on her own for a long time, relying on her unique psychic abilities to keep her safe. She knows that Jonas was literally made for her, and that makes their addictive connection more dangerous than a thousand enhanced super soldiers. Once the larger threat looming over them is dealt with she's going to get far away as fast as she can. Life has taught her that the only one she can truly trust is herself.

Jonas can sense Camellia is going to run — and the hunter inside doesn't want to let go. Not when he knows how good they'll be together. So he'll just have to use all of his considerable skills to convince her to stay...





Christine's Notes


Christine Feehan
This story had been calling to me for quite some time. I'd been writing about Team Four over the last several books. Team Four is gifted, brilliant and dangerous. And they were later experiments, so they didn't have all the problems the first teams had.

Team One was the original GhostWalker team and those early experiments left the soldiers with a variety of problems. In the end, they were expendable because they weren't perfect. Contrasting Team One and Team Four was interesting. Even though Team Four is strong and don't have as many problems, Team One is equally strong and dangerous but have to work with or around their many challenges. They have to fight against adversity in a way other teams don't. Team One suffered and needed each other in order to function. Because their problems are so unique Team One has had to learn to depend almost solely on one another, bringing them even closer than most teams.

As we all know, at times in our lives for whatever reason, a misunderstanding can occur between loved ones or friends that spiral in the wrong direction and can disrupt everyone. Any misunderstandings can change relationships and lives.

So we're going back to Team One to see how they've been doing and what their challenges are. We'll find out surprising things about our hero and heroine that we've not addressed with any GhostWalker team before and I'm excited about that!

— Christine Feehan


Christine regularly writes about her books (and all kinds of subjects) in the following places:

 

Phantom Game

More Order Options

GhostWalkers ,
Book 18


Latest Release:
Latest Release Date: August 23, 2022
Original Release Date: March 1, 2022
Number of Pages: 400 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Language: English
ISBN: 0593439104


Phantom Game (GhostWalkers, #18)

Excerpt: Chapter 1

The mountains rose up climbing higher and higher, towered all around, the peaks reaching for the clouds.  All along the mountainsides and in the valleys between, red cedar, whitebark pine and spruce trees vied for space.  This was true forest, two million acres of actual wilderness, most of it, left to the animals that were native to the area.  Grizzlies, black bear, mountain lions, moose, timber wolves, mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer all made the vast forest home along with a range of smaller animals.

Jonas ‘Smoke’ Harper, Dr. Kyle Forbes, and Jeff Hollister, three of the genetically and psychically enhanced members of GhostWalker Team One continued along the nearly nonexistent game trail they’d been traveling for the past three hours. 

“You still getting that bad feeling in your gut, Jonas?” Jeff asked.

Jonas scanned the dense forest with narrowed eyes, maintaining his purposefully relaxed gait while keeping his hand close to his weapon.  “Yep.”

Kyle sighed.  “You sure it isn’t just a stitch in your side?”

“Yep.”

“You did notice that the higher we climb, the more bear scat we’re coming across,” Jeff said.

“Yep.”

“Just thought I’d point that out.”  A small grin lit Jeff’s face.

“I’m not sure he actually knows how to talk, Jeff,” Kyle said.  “Ryland did warn us.  Said if we volunteered to come with him, we’d hear nothing but grunts for days.”

“Wait.” Smiling fading, Jeff halted abruptly and glared at his companions. “You volunteered?  Ryland ordered me to come with you two.  Said I had to protect your asses.”

Jonas and Kyle stopped as well, and Jonas took the opportunity to study Jeff without appearing to do so.  It had been a couple of years since Jeff had recovered from a stroke that would have put any normal soldier out of commission for good.  Jeff had fought his way back.

Jeff, like men in the government’s GhostWalker program, wasn’t anyone’s definition of a normal soldier anymore.  They were, instead, the products of a military experiment that hadn’t quite gone off as expected.  They had gone into the program volunteering for psychic enhancement with the expectation of being of more use to their country, but along with removing filters in their brains, Dr. Peter Whitney had also performed experimental gene coding on them.  That part, they had not signed up for.

Worse, the first of Whitney’s gene coding experiments had been illegally performed on young orphan girls, with disastrous results.  Those initial failures hadn’t stopped Whitney though.  Instead, he’d forged ahead with similar gene modifications on the soldiers, believing that grown men could better handle the pressures of the enhancements than the female children had done.  Team One had lost several of the men in their unit and Jeff had suffered a brain bleed and stroke.  He was fully recovered, but the entire team tended to watch over him, Jonas especially.

The survivors of Whitney’s experiments were all admittedly stronger, and they now possessed some very incredible abilities, but those benefits had come at a steep price.  They were all continuing to learn just how steep that price could be.  Lily Whitney-Miller, Peter Whitney’s adopted daughter now married to their team leader, Captain Ryland Miller, had given them all exercises to do to strengthen the barricades in their minds.  That allowed the ones who had been wide open to be able to be in public without an ‘anchor’ one who drew emotion and psychic overload from them—at least for short periods of time.

Jeff looked good to Jonas, but still, he glanced at Kyle just to make certain.  Kyle would be better at making an assessment.  If the doc thought Jeff needed a break, he’d find an excuse to take one.  Jeff never shirked the physical therapy designed to strengthen the weaker side of his body or the mental exercises to strengthen the barriers in his brain. He stayed in therapy the brain surgeon recommended to ensure the psychic talents he used didn’t bring on another bleed.  He was one of the hardest working GhostWalkers Jonas knew—and that was saying a lot. 

Their unit—GhostWalker Team One was tight.  They looked out for one another.  They trusted few others and those they brought in, they did so slowly and carefully.  Years ago, their team had been set up for murder, separated and held in cages, essentially waiting to die.  Ryland had planned their escape and Lily had hid them at her estate until they could get to the bottom of the conspiracy against them.  In the end, they had managed to come out on top, thanks in no small part to their dedication to training hard and working together.  They still ran missions, but they trusted and depended only on one another.

Now, there were three other GhostWalker teams.  Whitney had used each team to perfect his technique so that each subsequent unit was able to handle their enhancements much better than the team before them.  But he’d also added more and more genetic coding, turning the soldiers into much more than they ever expected—or wanted—to be. 

There was a special place in hell reserved for sociopathic monsters like Peter Whitney—or if there wasn’t, there ought to be.  Jonas wouldn’t mind bringing a little –or maybe a lot of that hell to Whitney in the here and now—especially as more and more of his most diabolical experiments, all on orphaned girls, came to light.  Unfortunately, as evil as he was, Whitney had a solid network of connections among America’s most powerful, including high-ranking government officials, billionaire defense contractors, bankers, as well as his own private army of expendable super-soldiers, all of them would-be GhostWalkers who hadn’t made the official cut.  Between his connections and his army, Whitney was virtually untouchable.

Jonas sighed as his gaze swept the surrounding forest.  He used every enhanced sense he had, both animal and human.  They were being watched.  He had been aware of it for the last few miles, but hadn’t been able to identify exactly where the threat was coming from—or from whom.  Or rather, from what.  He was certain their observers were not human.

“You feel it?” Kyle asked him quietly, turning toward him.

“Yep.”

Jeff heaved an exaggerated sigh.  “You ever think a word now and again might be helpful?”

“Not certain what it is yet.”

Jeff shoved a hand through his perpetually sun-bleached hair.  “It?  Not a who.  An it?” When Jonas didn’t answer, Jeff rolled his eyes.  “Why did I agree to keep the two of you alive?  You’re both a pain in the ass.”  He began walking again, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other.  “Do we even know where we’re going?”

“Nope.”  Jonas hid his grin.  Annoying Jeff was one of his favorite pastimes, and when the tension was beginning to stretch out, like now, a little humor went a long way.  In spite of his amusement, he stayed on full alert, looking for the sentries watching them.
 
He was fully aware Ryland hadn’t sent Jeff.  Jeff had come with him, like Kyle, because they were his friends and they hadn’t wanted him to check out his strange feeling alone.  It had been that simple.  Friendship.  The feeling, at first, had been a vague calling to him.  For the last mile, along with that compulsion he felt, he now felt uneasy as if there was a threat, but he couldn’t place where it was coming from.

Night was falling.  In the forest, especially this deep in the interior, it was always a good thing to establish a camp before sunset.  Too many wild animals hunted after dark.  He could connect with them and if he was lucky, keep them away, but it was silly to take chances.  The trees were thick, the brush heavy.  The trail they were on was very narrow.  Tree frogs were abundant, staring at them with round eyes as they passed.  In the vegetation at their feet was the constant rustle of leaves as rodents rushed to get undercover. 

“We should find a place to camp for the night.  Build a fire.”

“I tried to send word back to the others,” Kyle said.  “But I’m not getting through.  Could be the density of the canopy, but I should be able to…”. He trailed off.

“I’m not surprised.”  Jonas wasn’t. There was something at work here.  He’d gotten that feeling in his gut and wanted to check things out. 

Jonas had told Ryland he had a strange pulling toward this side of the mountain for some time and wanted to take some time off to explore.  They’d just recently come off a dicey hostage rescue.  They’d managed to pull off the rescue without a single casualty even though things had gone sideways twice, and they all had some down time coming.  Jonas wanted—no—needed—to explore the miles of wilderness around the fortress they had carved out for themselves close to Team Two.

“Have you noticed that we’re losing visibility, Jonas?” Kyle asked.  “The mist is getting thick.”

Jonas could see the fog moving through the trees at times.  At first it stayed low to the ground, gently rolling like ocean waves on a cloudless day.  Then a few fingers of mists crept through the trees toward them, in an eerie display, looking like giant hands pulling an equally giant blanket through the forest until it was impossible to see through the gray vapor.  Jonas glanced down at the trail they were following, but the swirling mist had thickened so much that he couldn’t see even his own boots—a strange phenomenon.

There was another component to the fog he found fascinating.  A warning, or dread, that acted on their bodies.  He could hear both Kyle’s and Jeff’s hearts accelerating.  His own pulse rate had tried to increase and he had instantly forced his heart under control.  All three GhostWalkers slowed considerably, eventually halting altogether. 

Jonas waited in silence for his eyes to adjust to the fog rolling off the ground and rising in dark tides nearly to his waist.  Given time, he could see through just about anything.  He was often called ‘Smoke’ because he moved through and could disappear into places no one else could.  He saw through things no one else could see through.  It was only a matter of time before his vision would adjust to the strange mist hiding the trail.
“Looks as if the fog is dissipating in the direction,” Kyle said, indicating with his chin their right.

Jeff nodded.  “And our little game trail leads in that direction too, Jonas.  If we’re going to find a place to camp before nightfall, we should double time it out of this mist.”

Jonas didn’t move, studying the forest and rocks in front of him.  The path had wound through the trees and rocks earlier.  He had a good memory.  More than a good memory.  His mind mapped things out for him in grid patterns.  The game trail hadn’t veered to the right.  It had continued upward, straight ahead, winding around tree trunks and large rocks, but it hadn’t really swung left or right. 

“Give me a minute.”

Keeping completely still, Jonas swept his gaze up and down the fog-shrouded forest floor in a grid pattern, paying special attention to the area where the game trail should have been.  At first there was a strange shimmer, very reminiscent of a mirage in the desert.  But Jonas persevered until the shimmer dissipated and what lay beneath it became clear. 

“The actual trail is straight ahead.  It’s being hidden from us.”

“That’s not good,” Kyle observed.  “And we’re being watched to make certain we go where we’re directed?”

“Yep.”  Jonas took the first step onto the very narrow game trail to see if it would trigger an attack of some kind.

“This is some kind of crazy-ass magnetic earth thing happening like in the Bermuda Triangle,” Jeff muttered.  “We’re going to get misdirected all over the place, aren’t we?”
“Yep.”
Jonas wished the phenomenon came from a ‘magnetic earth thing’ but he seriously doubted it.  Something was going on in the mountains above the two fortresses that GhostWalker Teams One and Two had established to keep their families safe.  Weirdly, the compulsion to continue forward was still on him, but the threat was still very vague, as if it was very, very far away. 

He had to consider going back down the mountain and telling Ryland what they’d run into.  The fog was manufactured, exactly real, and someone had planted a very potent danger signal in it.  Not only that, but they had diverted them from the real trail.  Very few could manage.  He wasn’t going back.  He couldn’t go back.  The compulsion to continue was stronger than ever.  That didn’t mean he wanted to risk Kyle and Jeff.

“You two could make it out of the danger zone if you hiked down fast for two hours and then camped.”  The offer had to be made and he did his best to sound casual.  He knew there was no way either of his friends would take him up on the offer, but still, he had to try.

“Can’t leave you here without direction, Jonas,” Jeff said.  “Especially since we all know you’re afraid of the dark, otherwise, I’d advise we’d just leave your stubborn knife-wielding ass right here in Creepy Hollow.”
“Technically,” Kyle said helpfully, “a hollow is a low-lying area, not a mountainside.”

“Work with me, Kyle. ‘Creepy Mountain’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Jeff quipped, bringing humor to the tense situation.

The tension continued to build in spite of Jonas seeing through the fog to the trail beneath it.  The dark purplish beads had a strange reddish cast to them as they swirled almost hypnotically around them.
“Seriously, it isn’t a bad idea to let Rye know there’s something going on up here that wasn’t here before.” Jonas tried a second time.

“It’s that bad?” Jeff asked.  He began walking, showing Jonas he wasn’t about to be left behind. “Now I feel like I’ve got a target painted right between my shoulder blades.”

“You’ve got a pack on.  They wouldn’t be able to see the target so they would have to aim for your thick skull, Jeff,” Kyle said helpfully.

“Great. Now the back of my head is all tingly.  I think my psychic abilities are expanding.  I can feel someone targeting me right now.”

“You’re so full of shit,” Kyle said.  “I think you need serious help.  You’re turning into a psychic hypochondriac.”

“There isn’t any such sort of thing.  You’re making that up.”

“I’m a doctor.  I would know,” Kyle assured solemnly.

“Jonas, is there such a thing as a psychic hypochondriac?”

  “Yep.”

Jeff burst out laughing.  He kept the sound low and directional so only his two companions could hear, but it was real.  All the while they were walking along the game trail, Jonas continued to scout for a good place to camp for the night.  He wanted somewhere they could defend if needed.  With every step they took, the feeling of danger increased. 

“I feel it too now,” Kyle said.  “Increasing I mean.  Before, the feeling of something watching us was very faint, now it’s strong.”

“My best guess,” Jonas said, as they continued very slowly uphill.  “Tree frogs.  We’ve now graduated to timber wolves.  I noticed a disproportionate number of frogs on the trees as we passed by.  The wolves are staying well back, but I’ve caught glimpses of them.”  

The trail narrowed significantly, as it wound up the forested mountainside.  There were fewer trees and more rock.  As they walked, the shimmer became worse.  It was very disorienting, at times making it feel as if the ground dropped out from under them. 

There was a brief silence while both Jeff and Kyle looked warily around them.

“You aren’t going to spot them,” Jonas pointed out.  “They aren’t hunting to eat us, at least not at the moment.  They’re watching us.”
“What does that mean?” Kyle asked.

“Like they’ve never seen humans before and they’re just curious?” Jeff asked.

“I’m not getting that.” Jonas reached out to the wolves with great care.  There was plenty of game in the area and could sustain a small pack and this one seemed small.  “They’re watching us for a reason.  I have to be very careful.” 

Jonas kept his touch delicate as he reached out.  The alpha, was especially wary.  Normally, Jonas had little trouble connecting with wildlife and establishing communication, even if it was just to ‘push’ the animal in a direction away from him.  This time, however, there seemed to be something blocking him another pathway he encountered that the wolf was familiar with.  That pathway circumvented him from taking command of the animal. 

“The ground moving continually is beginning to make me sick,” Kyle said.

“You realize the ground isn’t actually moving,” Jonas pointed out.

“Yeah, I get that,” Kyle agreed, “but it feels and looks like it.  I’m trying to make my brain understand it’s all an illusion.”

“Are you feeling ill, Jeff?” Jonas asked.

Jeff was walking very steadily where Kyle seemed a little off balance every few steps.

“No. I’m cheating a little, just like I did when I first suffered a traumatic brain injury.  I take a picture of the trail out ahead of me and use it when I’m walking until I get to the end of where I was able to take the picture and then I do it again as far out as I’m able.  I don’t actually look at the trail we’re walking on.”

“Is that how you got around all my tests so fast?” Kyle asked.

It sounded to Jonas as if he was clenching his teeth.  Kyle wasn’t actually Jeff’s doctor and he didn’t administer tests to him, but the banter helped the two keep moving.

“Absolutely.”

“There’s a small clearing, nothing big, but that ring of rocks just off to the right would provide cover and is large enough for a fire,” Jonas said. “It looks like it might be a halfway decent defensible position.”

“Head in that direction,” Kyle advised, relief in his voice.  “Otherwise, our orders to leave no footprints isn’t going to matter.  I’ll be leaving my lunch behind.”

Jonas stretched his senses.  Kyle wasn’t a man to be nauseated over a rolling trail.  The shimmering mirage was difficult for him to look at, but Kyle wasn’t looking at it.  He was looking straight ahead at Jeff’s back.  There was another subtle component Jonas was missing because he couldn’t feel it.

            The GhostWalkers had various talents.  When Whitney had enhanced them, even the smaller gifts had grown stronger.  Practicing to use those talents had developed them even more.  Jonas was beginning to believe a GhostWalker or a team of GhostWalkers was using this particular part of the mountain for something they didn’t want known and they’d set up a perimeter of psychic defenses to keep unwanted visitors away.

            “Only a GhostWalker could have produced something as complex as this,” he murmured.  “There’s a subtle flow of acoustic energy, a low note to make you feel sick, Kyle.  The sound is just below our normal hearing range.  And if they decide to up the volume, we’ll be in a world of hurt.”

            “You saying whoever’s up here can weaponize sound, like what Gator and Flame can do?  They can kill with sound,” Jeff asked, naming two GhostWalkers from their team.

            “That’s exactly what I’m saying.  I can use my voice, but I can’t do what they do.  And I can’t do this.  We’re going to have to be very careful.” 

            Knowing they were going to be facing enhanced soldiers changed everything.  It was one thing to face wildlife, but this was something altogether different and very dangerous. It wasn’t as if it came as a huge surprise.  The moment they recognized the trail had been diverted by the illusion in the fog, they suspected they were dealing with enhanced soldiers.  Or someone who was very good at building traps with illusion.

            They had reached the potential camp site Jonas had spotted earlier.  The circle of rocks provided a shelter from the wind and watching eyes.  The opening at the center was large enough to allow a fire, something they wanted just in case the wolves took too big of an interest in them. And if something other than wolves came at them, well, the rocks could stop bullets too.  It wasn’t perfect, not a bolt hole they could count on to last against a determined assault, but it was better than nothing.  As an added benefit when they hunkered down inside the ring, with the boulders looming over them, they escaped the strange warping of their senses.

            “I’m going to take a look around while you set up camp,” Jonas said.  “I can negate the effects of the illusion, and if I have to, I can control the wolves.  I want to see how big of an area is being affected who or what it’s protecting.  Not to mention, I’d like to know how many people are behind this, who they are and what they’re up to.”

            “Do you think they’re jamming us, or we just lost signal in all this pea soup?  If you run into trouble, we can’t call on the others for help,” Kyle reminded.

            “I’m aware.  But we can still talk to one another if we have to.  Conserve energy, but reach out if there’s trouble.  Jeff, if you have to leave on the run, get Kyle out if the illusion is still making him sick.”
            Jeff nodded.  “I can get around the mirage.  And I can lead others back to get you out.”

            “Don’t stick around if anything goes bad.  Better you two get out and go for help,” Jonas wanted to reiterate that point, because otherwise Kyle and Jeff would try coming to his aid. All GhostWalkers were intensely loyal to one another.  They didn’t leave their fallen behind, let alone abandon a live teammate when the shit hit the fan.

            Kyle glanced up, his gaze sharp.  “You think it’s that bad.”

            “I don’t know what we stumbled onto, but no one constructs a psychic defense this strong and this good without using it to hide something important.  Most people would have been turned away.  They never would have known this part of the forest was even here.  Now, whoever put this barrier up, knows it didn’t work on us.  They’ll wonder why and they’ll either sic the wolves on us, or they’ll come themselves.  I want to take a look at what we’re up against.  How many.  What we need to do to protect ourselves.  I especially don’t like the fact that someone in their unit can use sound to debilitate us.”

“Hell, Jonas,” Jeff said, once again using humor to lighten the situation.  “I had no idea you knew so many words.”

“I wasn’t sure he knew the entire English language,” Kyle agreed.  “Mostly just grunts.”

“Or ‘yep’,” Jeff added.  “That’s his go-to word when he can’t think of anything else.”

“Or I can just throw a knife at you,” Jonas pointed out.  He was very good with knives.  Better than good.  He’d grown up in a circus family and he’d learned from an early age to be included in the high wire act and how to throw knives and stars with pinpoint accuracy and how to balance on a high wire so he could be part of his family’s act.  His circus days were long behind him, but the skills he’d acquired had transferred over to combat and he practiced every day to keep those skills sharp.

“Circus freak goes up the sides of mountains only goats go up,” Kyle teased.

Jonas wasn’t so certain that particular ability was completely from his circus days.  Perhaps more from Whitney’s gene coding.  “I’ll be back by sunup.”

GhostWalkers were adept at disappearing into the night.  They could hide in plain sight during the day, staying still for hours, but at night, they were virtually unstoppable.  Jonas could disappear.  He was ‘Smoke’.  His team had given him that name long ago for a reason.  Unlike the others, Jonas didn’t need the special clothing that mirrored his surroundings or the skin that changed colors to mimic his background. 
He had never talked to Lily Whitney-Miller, Ryland’s wife, about the science of what he could do, because he didn’t want anyone looking to closely at what he’d become.  He didn’t want a spotlight turned on him—or any record made of his abilities.  He especially didn’t want anyone to about the extremely predatory and aggressive tendencies that he’d fought so hard to keep under control.  Primal animal instincts, the need to hunt—even, if he was being honest—to kill.  And in the early days, keeping those impulses in check had been a real struggle.

At first, he’d wanted to believe Whitney had managed to plant those urges in him, but the more he read and understood about what Whitney had done to them all, the more he realized, the enhancements could only bring out what was inside of him.  It was beyond disturbing to realize such ugly, violent traits were part of his own nature.  It hadn’t mattered that they were buried deep, they were still a part of him. 

Jonas slipped over the boulder facing away from the trail, the one closest to the trees, deliberately blurring his body so that when he moved into the strange mirage, he was already becoming a part of it, so as not to disturb it.  So, he couldn’t be seen or felt.

An owl hooted, the notes a clear warning.  That told him the sentry had eyes on the men inside the ring of boulders.  The bird had noticed there was one less man seated at the fire and reported immediately.  He waited, staying very still, absorbing the abnormal mist and its properties, breaking it down even as he listened for the instructions to the sentries.  He knew whoever was guarding the region would have to tell the lookouts what to do next.

A few short notes replied, that of a Great Gray owl calling out to its mate, at least to an untrained ear that was what it sounded like.  Jonas stayed very still, forcing his energy to remain extremely low so he couldn’t be detected inside the web of mist, all the while fighting to control his surprise.  That Great Gray owl cry—the orders being given to the watching animals in the woods—had come from a female.  She had the sound of an owl down perfectly, but his ear was tuned so acutely, he could distinguish real from fake, no matter how good the mimicry was.  And she was the best he’d ever heard.

Whitney had taken numerous girls from orphanages from countries all over the world.  He also used in vitro to create designer babies to experiment on.  His first idea had been to create pairs, a male and female.  He used enhanced pheromones to make the pair attracted physically to one another so they would bond when he was certain he had the correct enhancements that would together in the field.  It was possible whatever was taking place above Teams One and Two homes was being run by a bonded pair.

The moment the woman had uttered her bird call, Jonas had pinpointed the direction from which the sound had come, but instead of rushing towards it, he stayed put and remained as still as stone, giving off so little energy it would be impossible to detect him, and lowering his external body temperature so he gave off no heat signature.  Whoever the woman was, she knew he was out here and was, at the very least, directing the wolves and birds to keep watch on him.  Rushing towards her now, while she and her sentinels were all on alert was too risky.  Best to hunker down for a while and wait for them to relax their guard.

Jonas had learned patience in a hard school when he was young.  High wire acts were dangerous, so was throwing knives.  One misstep and someone he loved could be hurt or killed.  He had learned to always stay calm and not make mistakes.  Now, with all his predatory instincts enhanced, he had become even more patient.  He could wait hours in complete stillness.

For this hunt, he knew he had to be cautious.  The mist contained traps that could detect him if he made a mistake.  The animals in the forest were actively looking for him.  Beneath his calm surface, he could feel the familiar rush of adrenaline, the predatory instincts taking hold.  That trait in him was so powerful and aggressive, so dominant that when the alpha of the sentinel wolf pack had resisted his very subtle influence, that urge to attack that wolf and rip out his throat had welled up like a volcano.

He suppressed the urge with ruthless control.  Jonas was at his most dangerous when he was in hunting mode, and while some part of his hated the savagery Whitney’s experiments had unleashed in him, another part of him thrilled at the visceral intensity of those urges.  He couldn’t deny the joy he felt each time he allowed himself the freedom to use his abilities, in spite of the ugliness of what he knew what ultimately be his fate.

Over the years, he had come to terms with the predatory side of his nature.  Now, it was a matter of always keeping it under control. He honed his hunting skills every chance he got, knowing they would be an asset to his team, so long as his killer instincts were never allowed to take over.  He had seen what happened, if the monster got out of control.  The entire team had.  That could never happen again.  That meant continually strengthening his discipline.  Working on restraint.  He didn’t let a day go by without performing the mental and physical exercises that allowed him to maintain complete control of himself.

He waited there without moving until darkness had finally fallen, bringing with it a sliver of a moon.  His blood moved through his veins like thick lava, slow and hot, though from the skin out he’d gone as cold as ice. That was the way he kept his energy level so low it was impossible to detect. 

At last he began to make his way up toward the grove of trees from which the woman had issued her earlier call.  The mist grew thicker the higher up he went. He was in full predatory mode, switching between using the vision of an owl and that of a leopard to traverse the misty forest with ease.  He could also use wolf vision when he needed to, but the owl and leopard both had superior night vision.

It had taken some time to sort out the fact that he had the skills of each of the three predators in him along with their individual drives.  Those weren’t the only predators Whitney had put in him, either.  Not by a long shot. He was a mixture of far too many predatory species, all of which brought out the worst in him—this tremendous joy in the hunt.  This endless, gnawing hunger for it. 

He had tried to hide what he was from Ryland and his fellow teammates, too ashamed to let them see what he’d become, but there were times on a mission….  And the nightmare when there was no going back and he’d been forced to stare at the truth of what kind of monster Whitney had truly created.  They’d all been there.  His friends.  His teammates.  In the end he just had to come to terms with what he was and learn control.

As he continued his prowling trek u the mountain, he was more than a little surprised to see several types of plants and trees that only grew in the rainforests with high humidity.  Jonas slowed down to get a better look.  This section of forest could easily be part of some bio-experiment that had been going on for years.  It was as if he’d stepped into a beautiful, mythical garden.  Exotic flowering plants circled the bark of the trees, climbing high toward the canopy, draping branches in variegated or dark leaves and bright, velvety blossoms.  The trees were also varieties that thrived only in warm, humid climates, yet they appeared extremely healthy, trunks wide, branches strong and leaves abundant.

His first thought was that he’d stumbled into one of Whitney’s experiments.  He knew Whitney was into plants, heard he kept greenhouses all over the world in his hideaways where he grew all sorts of plants and flowers, including some of the rarest and most exotic breeds in the world.  Hell, he’d even named the girls he’d bought from orphanages after flowers.  Some people might have thought that proof of a nurturing soul, but only if they didn’t know the sort of cruel, torturous experiments Whitney inflicted on those same girls.  All in the name of science and patriotism. 

Peter Whitney.  A modern day Mangele wrapped up in an American flag.

Suppressing the sneer that curled his lips, Jonas clamped down on the rage thoughts of Whitney stirred up. This was neither the time or place for him to get distracted by old injustices.  Because if Whitney was behind whatever was going on up here, he, Jeff and Kyle were in more danger than they suspected.

He took a careful look around, his senses flaring out utilizing every enhancement he had in order to find any hidden traps and to identify any poisonous plants.  He knew one of the other was there.  More likely both.  He could feel the danger surrounding him.

He pulled up the mental file of poisonous plants he kept in his head and scanned through it as he looked around.  He and his team travelled all over the world and trekked through a lot of wild and dangerous places.  Often they encountered a variety of environmental dangers while on a mission, including plants so toxic that one unwary scratch could cost someone an arm.  Sometimes it seemed like everywhere they went even the plants were out to kill them.  Because of that, Jonas had made a point of studying books on botany, committing to memory every hazardous or helpful plant, tree, shrub or flower they might encounter. 

He studied the various flowering bushes and the vines winding their way up the trees.  Many of the specimens growing up high were epiphytes, plants that lived by extracting moisture out of the air rather than requiring soil for their roots.  The kinds of flowers and vines he was observing just didn’t grow in the Lolo National Forest.  Certainly, they didn’t grow in this particular high-altitude climate.  Intense snow was common several months out of the year and these exotics needed consistent care, warmth and humidity.

Jonas could feel the rising heat in the mist.  At this altitude, temperatures should be dropping, but instead, the air was warm and getting downright hot the deeper into the interior he went.  Whoever was able to control the temperature inside the groves of trees over such a wide range had a powerful gift.  They weren’t just manipulating temperatures in a controlled environment.  They were manipulating the climate of several square miles of open forest and sustaining that manipulation over time.  He didn’t know too many of his fellow GhostWalkers capable of such a feat—if any.

He moved slowly, feeling his way with all of his senses.  Plants had alarm systems, just the way animals and people did.  They could shrink back from heat or cold, from loud noises or extend their leaves or vines toward appealing music.  He had always been able to hide himself from people and animals, even birds and reptiles, but he’d never considered having to include plants. 

He tuned his mind to the mist and humidity.  Someone had bound nature itself to them.  The respect and admiration he felt rose the more he examined the full extent of the shimmering illusion hiding the grove.  He was looking at an outdoor greenhouse in an impossible location where few hikers would stumble across it.  Two full teams of GhostWalkers made their homes miles below surrounded by the same national forest, yet they had no idea the phenomenon was above them.  The garden had been built after the teams compounds had been established because he knew both had sent men up the mountain to ensure they had escape routes prior to building.

Jonas was capable to binding nature to him.  He hadn’t known any other GhostWalker could, not even the newer ones Whitney had perfected. He could only enhance what psychic gifts each individual already possessed.  As for the gene doping, in the beginning, he’d thrown everything but the kitchen sink into the mix.  He was much more cautious with his last two teams.  Jonas, being a member of the first team, had no idea what was inside of him.  He had discovered hidden talents accidently and practiced hard at developing them or controlling them, whichever was needed.

The mist contained not only the illusion and the warning, driving anyone away from the area, but also the humidity, pushing the temperature up so that moisture collected in the air throughout the trees.  Was there a trap for the unwary?  Had vines moved overhead? 

Jonas tuned his body to mimic the same molecular structure of the mist so he could ‘disappear’ into it.  He moved deeper into the interior of the forest and the garden.  The deeper he got into it, the more he realized, the garden had to have been there for some time.  Someone had worked on it lovingly with a great attention to detail.  Numerous footpaths wound through the forest floor, created by someone tending the various bushes and flowers.

He followed one of the paths winding in and out of the trees.  He remained alert for traps, and was careful not to trip alarms, but he increased his speed.  He needed to find who had bound nature to them, set the mist and where the GhostWalker team was hiding and what they were up to.  Unexpectedly he came up on several very exotic plants, flowers that were considered so rare they were only known to grow in one or two places in the world, yet here they all were. 

Jonas spotted a Ghost Orchid, growing high in a tree, an epiphyte that required not only high heat and humidity but a certain type of fungus in order to prosper, none of which occurred naturally in the Lolo National Forest.  Not far away, a beautiful Jade Vine, was wrapped tight around another tree, its pendulous clusters of claw-shaped flowers hanging a good three meters long. The Jade Vine was found naturally only in the rainforests of the Philippines, yet here it was, in Montana, not just surviving, but thriving, its magnificent, hanging blooms an incredible shade of deep blue.

Jonas recognized the Black Bat Flower, so rare as to be considered endangered in the wild, it was also quite difficult to cultivate.  30 centimeters in diameter, the flower resembled its namesake bat with droopy whisker-like stamen that could measure as much as 70 centimeters in length.  He also spotted the Rothschild Slipper Orchid, and a flowering Franklin Tree.  He found it incredible that the variety of flowers from various countries could be successfully cultivated side by side let alone in this forest.  Clearly, someone, for some reason, had brought these rare flowers to this altitude and manufactured the conditions required to grow them.

Of all the incredible blooms growing in this unprecedented garden, he was most surprised to find the Middlemist Red Camellia.  Considered by most to be the rarest flower in the world, there were only two known surviving specimens of Middle mist Red in existence and neither was growing in the wild.  But here they were, several shrubs of them, planted close together and looking very healthy, with glossy leaves and spectacular showy blooms.  Although the flowers looked like beautiful roses, the plant was really a camellia.  And despite being named Middlemist Red, the blooms were actually a deep, bright pink.

Jonas inched closer to the rare camellias.  As he approached, the shrubs branches parted slightly, revealing a shadowy entrance hidden behind them.  He went very still.  The circle of shrubs were cleverly concealing the presence of a little house built into the side of the mountain.  The small dwelling appeared to be constructed entirely from plants native to the forest.  Evergreen tree boughs had been woven tightly together to form the walls and roof, vines, threading through to tie them securely.  Plants grew across the top of the roof, effectively hiding the lodging from aerial or satellite photography.  The back of the house was tucked away beneath a rocky overhang, while the dense hedge of Middlemist Red shrubs completely concealed the dwelling from all other sides. 

Jonas studied the little house, not moving a muscle.  He doubted if the structure contained more than one or two rooms, unless it went back further into the mountain. That was his biggest worry.  Considering the mist, flowers and the woman commanding wild animals, the idea that Whitney was involved was logical.  That meant the house could be an entrance to a far greater complex below ground.  This could be the threat he was feeling, although it was still ‘vague’ and ‘far-off’.  So far, he’d only sensed the presence of one woman.

He knew that women Whitney had experimented on had escaped his compound.  He also knew that, rather than trusting the GhostWalker teams that aided their getaway, the women had followed their original plan and scattered to make it as difficult as possible for Whitney to reacquire them.  The women were distrustful of any GhostWalker, any of the soldiers Whitney had experimented on.  Who could blame them?

Jonas knew the women had all been taken from orphanages as children, raised under horrific conditions, used in Whitney’s scientific experiments so he could perfect his enhancement methods before he tried them on his soldiers.  He raised the girls in a stark environment, training them to be soldiers, only to decide later to use them in his breeding program.

At first, Whitney had paired specific couples, using pheromones so they would be attracted physically.  He had hoped to create surgical strike teams comprised of bonded couples, a man and a woman so it would be easier for them to slip into any country without being identified as soldiers.  The paired couple’s skills and enhancements would compliment one another and enable the pair to handle any mission more effectively than an entire team of spec-ops soldiers.  For all his evil, Whitney was an unswerving patriot. By creating bonded-pair teams of more efficient, more powerful super soldiers, he was certain he would be saving American lives.

Later, he decided the next step of perfecting his enhancement program was to experiment on the children of the soldiers he created.  He no longer bothered ensuring the women were attracted to the men he paired them with in his breeding program.  It was no wonder the women didn’t trust anyone who had been enhanced by Whitney.

Jonas inhaled slowly.  The camellias gave off no real fragrance.  None.  Still, he was certain there was a wholly feminine feel to the mist and weaves of illusion, to the binding of nature.  It was too light, too subtle to be a man’s hand.  He had to be cautious.  Whitney had trained female soldiers and there could still be one or two active in his ranks.  His heart wanted to accelerate and he had to actively fight to keep the adrenaline from moving fast through his veins.  He felt as if he was on the verge of a great discovery.

He couldn’t take chances.  Kyle and Jeff were with him.  Not only were their lives in his hands, but his team counted on him.  He forced air through his lungs, careful to modify each exhalation to match the temperature and vapor content of the surrounding mist.  He had no choice but to settle in and wait.  That was what predators did.  They had patience.  They waited for prey.  He was a phantom, unseen.  He’d disappeared into thin air and he could outwait anyone or anything.

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Phantom Game

Jonas can sense Camellia is going to run and the hunter inside doesn't want to let go. Not when he knows how good they'll be together. So he'll just have to use all of his considerable skills to convince her to stay...

PHANTOM GAME