Book: Darkness on Fire

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Next: Chapter 6

Chapter 5

Jora stared out at the passing countryside, remaining silent unless she needed to give Penn directions. He answered in monosyllables if at all.

She glanced in his direction, noting the hard set to his jaw. One minute he’d been friendly enough, even defending her, then he’d turned cold and unapproachable. Was suggesting a workout crossing some mysterious boundary?

Men, she thought in disgust. Who can understand what goes on in those hard heads of theirs?

Not her, that was certain. Her experience with the opposite sex was very limited. She’d dated a few guys, but never anything serious. It was too hard to maintain a relationship and keep secrets. Over the years, she’d found it easier to keep things light and to break off with anyone who wanted more than a casual friendship.

Now she was with one of the few people in the world she didn’t have to guard every word with, and he wasn’t even speaking to her.

“Turn left onto that service drive up ahead. A short distance in, there’ll be a sign warning that the road is out ahead. I posted that myself, hoping to keep park personnel and tourists out of the area.”

Penn jerked his head in acknowledgment and steered his behemoth of a truck onto the gravel road. Eventually, the way narrowed down until the surrounding undergrowth brushed up against the sides of the truck.

When one particularly thick branch hit her door, she jumped. “I hope your paint job doesn’t get all scratched up. Maybe we should have picked up my SUV. It’s already broken in.”

Just as she spoke, they hit a rut that had both of them straining against their seat belts.

Penn actually laughed as the truck stabilized just in time to hit another one. “Don’t sweat it, Jora. You should have seen my last truck. There wasn’t a straight panel on it.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, because this is going to get worse the closer we get.”

They lapsed back into silence as Penn concentrated on easing the truck over the worst parts of the road, but at least the tension had disappeared. Finally, they reached the downed log that signaled the end of the road.

“From here on we walk. It’s a short hike.”

As Penn shut off the engine, he turned toward her with a frown. “I guess I should have asked if we needed to pack a lunch and some water.”

“We shouldn’t be here that long. I’ve got bottled water in my pack and a few granola bars. We won’t starve before we get back to civilization.”

“Glad you thought of it.” He slung his duffel over his shoulder. “It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the field. Devlin’s had me doing other things.”

From the way he said it, she knew there had to be a story there, but she was reluctant to pry. She settled her pack on her back and led the way through the trees.

As a geologist, she was used to spending large amounts of time out in the field by herself. Normally she checked in with park rangers to let them know where she’d be and when she expected to return. Lately, though, she’d been keeping her movements as secret as possible. She had no concrete reason to mistrust any of her coworkers, but she also didn’t want to arouse anyone’s suspicions.

Around the first bend, she stooped to study the ground.

Penn knelt beside her. “What are you seeing?”

She pointed to where some of the grass had been trampled. “Someone’s been through here since I last checked the barrier. The footprint is too large to be mine. It might not mean anything, but this is pretty far off the beaten track for tourists to be wandering around.”

Penn studied both sides of the trail. “My tracking skills were never great, but it looks as if there were at least two of them.”

Jora nodded. “I agree. The tracks aren’t from today, so we should be safe if we proceed carefully.”

Penn pulled out his gun and checked it over. His cold efficiency with the weapon gave her a chill, although it shouldn’t have. She’d grown up around swords and guns because her parents had felt the need to carry weapons of some kind wherever they went. Fear of being discovered by Paladins had never been far from their minds.

And yet here she was, miles from civilization and alone with a trained killer. It was too late now for second thoughts, though. If Penn turned on her now, there was little she could do to stop him. Better to forge ahead than worry about things that were out of her control.

She started walking again. “The entrance is just over that rise.” Right before cresting the low hill, she knelt down again, not wanting to provide a clear target to anyone on the other side. Penn joined her on the ground.

“Did you spot something or are you just being careful?” he asked quietly.

“Careful, for now.” She glanced at Penn. “Give me a few seconds of quiet to see if we’re alone.”

She closed her eyes, turning her vision inward. Normally her gift kicked right in, telling her what she needed to know about the life forces in the surrounding area. This time she had trouble pushing past the powerful presence sitting next to her. Penn’s pulse was strong, his energy running high, clearly a predator on the prowl.

It took considerable effort to move beyond him to pick up the scurry of small rodents and the press of feathered wings against the summer air. A moose and its twin calves were grazing a short distance away. As long she and Penn gave them a wide berth, the cow wouldn’t mind sharing its territory.

Now for the barrier itself. The surrounding rock seethed with growing tension. It had only been a few days since she’d last eased its burden; the pressure must be building at a faster rate for it to be this bad again. She did what she could at this distance to ease it some; she’d have to do more once they got inside.

Finally, she opened her eyes, the effort she’d just expended taking a heavy toll on her own energy level. Penn was standing guard over her and reached out to steady her when she staggered a bit after she stood up. He guided her to a handy boulder and pushed her to sit back down.

“Stay there and rest for a bit.” He rooted through her pack and brought out a bottle of water and a pair of granola bars. After popping the top on the bottle, he handed it to her.

“Drink up, and then eat a granola bar. You should feel better in a few minutes. My friend usually does.”

The water was warm, but it felt good going down. She made quick work of one of the granola bars. Curious about this friend of his, she asked, “Do you and he do this kind of thing often?”

Penn shrugged. “Barak and I help my sister lug her equipment up the side of the volcanoes in our area. Once in a while, he helps the mountain settle down a bit.”

“What does your sister think about you hanging out with aliens?” She kept her tone light.

Penn stopped scanning the horizon to glance down at her. “Since she married the guy, I don’t think she minds.”

Okay, that was a shocker. “Seriously? And you’re all right with that?”

“Working on it, but I suspect brothers feel that way no matter who the guy is. Or what.”

Penn pulled out a pair of binoculars to scan farther. “Barak was born and raised in Kalithia. He came across the barrier armed and ready to fight to the death, hoping to take as many of us as he could with him. Instead, he saved my boss’s woman. Not long after that, he damn near got himself killed saving my sister’s life. Even I’m not bastard enough to hate the guy after that.”

“I’d like to hear more of that story.” She took a bite of the second granola bar.

Penn shook his head. “No time for it now, but remind me. Or you can ask him to tell you. Devlin is arranging for Barak and our other resident Kalith hard-ass to head here. They should be here by tonight, tomorrow at the latest.”

The news that she was going to be facing two warriors from her homeworld put all her nerves on edge. Her parents had crossed the barrier all those years ago alone and scared. It had taken them years to scrape up the price of passage. They’d been warned by those in charge to lose themselves in the human population. Reaching out to others of their kind had been strictly forbidden.

Maybe because she’d been so young when they left their world behind, Jora had quickly adjusted to living among humans. Not so her parents. Although they’d been provided with effective new identities, her mother and father had become little better than recluses, only venturing out to work or buy necessities. She’d done her best to coax them into really living, but right up until their deaths, the fear of discovery had been too strong.

And now she was going to meet two Kalith males. One of them was obviously committed to Penn’s sister, but how about the other one? What would he think of her? Would she act too human for them? She’d always wondered how she’d fit in with those of her own kind.

“If you’re feeling better, we should get moving.” Penn offered her a hand up off the rock.

As she accepted his assistance, she glanced down at his arm and gasped. A vicious scar, thick and jagged, transected his right hand and wrist. Without thinking, she reached out with her free hand to trace what had to have been a horrific wound.

“Penn, your poor arm!”

He immediately jerked his hand free, fury laced with what she guessed was embarrassment in his eyes. “Let’s get moving. We don’t have all day.”

Figuring he’d prefer her silence to an apology, she stowed her water bottle and started off down the trail. As they walked, she couldn’t get the image of that scar out of her head. Judging from its size and location, Penn had come darn close to losing his hand to a sword blade. She didn’t have to ask how it had happened or whom he’d been fighting. It had to have been one of the Others, out-of-his-head crazy for the light of this world.

Her heart ached for Penn, though she doubted he’d want her sympathy. Was this the reason he hadn’t been out in the field other than to schlep equipment for his sister? She had so many questions.

She said quietly, “The entrance is just behind that cluster of bushes and boulders jutting out of the hillside.”

Penn knew he was being a jerk, but Jora’s horror when she spotted his scar had pissed him off big-time. He should be used to it by now; he still occasionally caught his friends looking at him with that same damn pity when they thought he wouldn’t notice. At least Jora had the excuse that she hadn’t known about it. The other Paladins had been there when the whole thing had happened.

When she started forward, Penn blocked her way. “Just a minute.”

He set down the duffel and pulled out her sword and handed it to her. “I’m hoping we won’t need these, but I’ve been around the barrier long enough to know we don’t want to be caught unprepared.”

Even after all the practicing he’d done, hefting his sword with his left hand still felt strange. Drawing a deep breath, he braced himself to tell her the truth.

“Look, I’m right-handed, but my wrist and hand haven’t healed enough for me to hold a sword very long. I’ve been training with my left, but it’s been an uphill battle.”

“Are you okay with guns?” Her matter-of-fact tone made it easier for him to answer.

“Crack shot with both hands.” He kept his eyes pinned on his sword. “I’m getting the mobility back in my hand, but I’m still working on regaining the strength.”

“I’m glad for you.” Jora gave him a brief smile before turning her attention back to her own weapons. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

Working with a female, even one as confident and competent as Jora, seemed strange to him. Ordinarily he and his buddies automatically traded off taking point and watching each other’s backs. But he didn’t want Jora to be the first one through the cave entrance, and he was just as reluctant to have her trailing along behind him.

She stopped when they reached the boulders. “There’s a nook just inside the entrance where I usually stash my pack. Some of the passages are pretty narrow, and it will be easier to maneuver without them.”

“Makes sense.”

He followed her inside and tossed his bag down beside hers as they waited for their eyes to adjust to the darkness. The familiar surge of adrenaline poured through him, ramping up his senses.

Leaning in close, he whispered near Jora’s ear, “Are we still the only ones in the area?”

After a few seconds, she answered. “So far, but the closer we get to the barrier, the more it will interfere with my ability to get clear readings.”

That didn’t surprise him. The barrier screwed up a lot of things.

She started forward again, sailing through openings that he had to duck down to clear. She set a pace that allowed them both to make their way without having to resort to flashlights, which would announce their presence if anyone was waiting up ahead.

“We’re almost there. The cavern opens up beyond that next turn, and the barrier is at the far end.”

There was no way he was going to let her lead the charge beyond this point. “Let me by you so I can take point.”

Jora lowered her sword and stepped to one side, pressing up against the wall to give Penn room to squeeze past. It was a tight fit, leaving barely a breath’s distance between them. The close proximity left him hyperaware of Jora’s warmth and filled his head with the feminine scent of her skin and hair. The effect on his own body was immediate and intense to the point of pain.

He wanted to curse and at the same time howl with relief that his hand wasn’t the only part of his body coming back to life. It was ironic that a Kalith had been responsible for his physical problems, and another was helping with the cure.

Now wasn’t the time for this. He was on a mission and couldn’t afford to screw it up with raging hormones. Time to get his head back in the right game.

Just past Jora, he paused to soak in the hum and buzz of the barrier. Each time a Paladin encountered a different portion of the surging current, it took some time to adjust to the new frequency. This one didn’t just feel different; it also felt wrong. Bracing himself for the usual lurch in his gut, Penn raised his sword, slipped the safety off his gun, and walked around the bend.

One look at the swirling, sickly greens and yellows had him reaching for the cave wall to steady himself.

“Son of a bitch! Would you look at that!”

Jora moved up to stand beside him as they both stared at the pulsing curtain of energy. After all the years of fighting at the barrier, he thought he’d seen everything. This took weird to a whole new level.

“Has it always looked like this?”

Jora shook her head. “My folks have been bringing me here for as long as I can remember. I think it reminded them of home.” She shifted restlessly. “I’ve always wondered if they might have tried to go back except for me. The light sickness runs pretty strongly in my father’s family, and they were afraid of the effect the growing darkness would have on me.”

She grimaced. “They always seemed a little sad after we visited this cave. Not me, though. The changing colors, each more beautiful than the next, always fascinated me. It was frustrating to not have anyone to share it with.”

There was nothing beautiful about what he was seeing. The dissonance of the frequency alone was enough to make him queasy. “You think that’s pretty?”

She shuddered. “Heck no! That’s what alerted me that something was wrong. I can hardly look at that putrid mess without wanting to hurl.”

She pointed toward the far edge of the barrier. “That sick color started on that side and has been spreading across the whole stretch over the past few weeks. It’s almost gangrenous.”

Penn started moving forward, hating the sick vibes he was getting, but someone had to check it out. Rather than stare at the pulsing colors, he studied the floor of the cavern. There were fresh scratches in the rock, as if something heavy had been dragged through recently. The only way into the cavern was the way that he and Jora had used, but there were no signs of the scratches past the center of the floor.

He didn’t like the leap in logic his mind just took: whoever was messing around in here had definitely come from the other side of the barrier. He pulled out his digital camera and took close-ups of the floor, the cavern, and the barrier itself. He’d e-mail the pictures to Devlin as soon as they got back to the motel; maybe someone at headquarters had seen something like this before and could make sense of it.

Jora stayed out of his way, dividing her attention between the passage behind them and that sick curtain of energy writhing on the far side of the cavern. After a bit, she asked, “So what do you think?”

“That you’re right.” He snapped another picture, this time including Jora in the frame. “Someone from the other side is screwing around over here. The only question is what they’re up to and why.”

He paced off the floor, making notes of the measurements. The size of the cavern probably didn’t mean jack shit in the grand scheme of things, but he wanted Devlin to have all the information he could give him.

While he worked, he was aware of Jora setting aside her sword and slowly approaching the barrier, her hands outstretched. He jotted down the last few measurements before picking up his own weapon and positioning himself where he could guard her back. She’d be defenseless until she broke off contact with the energies she was attempting to manipulate.

Already, there were bands of more healthy looking colors slowly spreading across the thirty-foot barrier. Despite the cool cave air, Jora’s forehead was dotted with beads of sweat and there were slight tremors in her hands.

He hoped she didn’t overextend herself, because carrying her out of this damn place would be awkward, not to mention dangerous. He’d have to get her out first and then return for their weapons. No matter how you looked at it, the situation would suck big-time.

If she didn’t break it off soon, he’d have to risk yanking her out of her trancelike state. He counted off the seconds. Her pale complexion was now chalky white and the shaking was far worse. He crossed the cavern floor and gingerly reached out to touch her shoulder.

“Jora?”

No response.

He set his sword on the floor and put both hands on her shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze.

“Jora, let it go. Please.” When that didn’t work, he gave her a shake and barked out, “Jora! Wake up, dammit!”

She blinked twice and then jerked around to look up at him in confusion. “Penn?”

When a high-pitched whine started up, her gaze whipped back around to the barrier. “Oh, God, it’s going feral!”

The entire cave shuddered and shook. Penn swept Jora up in his arms and ran back toward the passage, praying like hell that he hadn’t just gotten them both killed.

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Next: Chapter 6