The truck lurched hard into a deep rut and jolted to a stop. Penn cursed as he tried to coax the rig into moving forward again, hopefully without leaving his suspension behind. He was running on no sleep and high tension, never a good combination.
He glanced in Jora’s direction to see how she was holding up. Not much better than he was, and he suspected that was due more to the proximity of the cavern and the barrier.
Barak was definitely green around the gills, too. Not surprising, since he shared Jora’s sensitivity to both the barrier and to the surrounding layers of rock. If they were both feeling it this far out, it was a sure bet that someone had been screwing around with the stability of the barrier again.
He shifted gears, letting up on the clutch as he pressed down on the gas. The truck groaned and strained, finally climbing free of the rut. Almost immediately, Penn had to give a hard yank to the left to avoid another rough patch in the road.
He glanced at Jora again. “Why is this road so much worse than it was just a couple of days ago?”
“It’s deliberate,” she said through gritted teeth. “I don’t know how they did it, but the weather has been too nice to cause this kind of damage.”
Great. The bastards were not only trying to destroy the barrier, but also had enough mojo left over to screw with the roads around the park. Luckily they were only a short distance from the end, where they’d have to walk.
They hadn’t seen any signs of the enemy, and he wasn’t sure what to think of that. Were the bastards restricted to working at night for some reason? Well, one way or the other, he and his team were going to have to put a stop to this mess.
He backed the truck off the road, carefully maneuvering it into a stand of trees. With the truck facing the road, they could get away faster if necessary.
As soon as the four of them climbed out, they stretched before shouldering their packs and checking over their weapons. Barak and Larem each carried a sword similar to Jora’s. Though Penn had his as well, he had also loaded up extra ammunition for the two revolvers strapped at his waist.
Jora held her sword with both hands, moving through a set of exercises. All three men stopped what they were doing to watch. Hot damn, she sure knew how to move!
When she realized they were all staring, she stuttered to a stop. Penn glared at the other two men, who quickly got busy with their own preparations.
Jora frowned at them and then at Penn. “Once we reach the cavern, what’s the plan?”
“That will be up to you and Barak. Larem will support you if he can. I’m the hired muscle.” As long as he could use a gun.
“I’ll take point while you two handle rear guard. Jora, you stay between us, and if I say duck, you dive for cover and stay there.”
“I can fight,” she protested.
“Yeah, but you’re also the only one who with experience fixing this particular barrier. If you go down, we’re all screwed.”
As soon as Penn started down the trail, a tidal wave of dread washed over him. For a few seconds, it took all his strength to move forward. Then the sensation faded just as suddenly.
“Did anyone else feel that?” he asked.
Jora’s eyes were wild looking, her pupils dilated and scared. “It’s the barrier. Someone ripped it open, but it’s closing.”
“He’ll try again as soon as he’s able.” Barak looked even worse, clearly feeling the effects more than anyone else.
Penn started forward at a run. “We need to get there before that happens, but keep your eyes peeled. I doubt he’s alone.”
They ran on in near silence. None of them had the breath to spare for talking, and anything other than a whisper could alert the enemy. Penn soon spotted the boulders that marked the opening of the cavern and he held up his hand, motioning the others to fall back slightly while he scouted the area.
If anyone was watching the mouth of the cave, he was doing it from far enough away to avoid being spotted. Penn closed his eyes and reached out with his other senses. Nothing. Though their way to the entrance appeared to be clear, his instincts screamed danger with each step he took.
But safe or not, they had no choice but to move forward. Waving for the other three to join him, he admired the way Jora moved with the same lethal grace as her fellow Kalith.
Jora nodded, her expression solemn. Barak did the same, but Larem grinned. Ordinarily Penn would have been feeling the same rush of battle fever, but he was too worried about Jora to take satisfaction in once again doing what he’d trained for his whole life.
He stepped inside the cave, his eyes immediately adjusting to the sudden darkness. He tuned out the soft footsteps behind him, concentrating on the passage ahead. Despite the silence, they weren’t alone.
His stomach churned and acid burned the back of his throat. The barrier was sick. He could feel it in his blood and his bones. After a lifetime of fighting near the damn thing, he’d thought he knew its every mood: healthy, strong, weakened, down, and everything in between. But this was different—somehow this stretch of the shimmering energy was being tortured. There was no other word for it.
He looked back at Jora and the two Kalith males, briefly flicking on his flashlight. All three looked horrified, but resolute. He extinguished the light and moved on.
By the time the passage widened out again, it was all Penn could do not to go charging forward, screaming out his rage. With his sword in one hand and his gun in the other, he silently stepped forward. The cavern was empty.
Jora followed him into the cave, Larem and Barak fanning out on either side of them. All four stood transfixed as they stared at what was left of the barrier. Along the edges, it still looked normal—sick, but normal. But there were no words to describe where the center of the barrier used to be. They weren’t looking into the Kalith’s world, which would have been bad enough.
It was as if they were staring into the heart of creation, that single second where the universe went from nothing to everything in a burst of bright light.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, hoping one of the others had an answer.
Barak was shaking his head, but it was unclear whether he had no answer or was denying what his eyes were telling him was true. Larem’s face was frozen in a grimace of pain, and his sword hit the ground with a loud clank as he slowly sank to the floor of the cave.
Penn’s own gaze was drawn back to the hole torn in his reality. The ever-changing patterns pulsed and danced, making him want to reach out and touch them. Their cold beauty was that of a cobra, mesmerizing but deadly. He backed up a step and reached down to help Larem back to his feet. They had to get the hell out while they still could.
Then Jora laid her sword at her feet and brought her hands up in the same position as the last time she’d tried to bring the rogue energy back under control.
“Jora, no!” he yelled.
But tendrils of energy had already stretched out to entangle her in their grasp. Slowly, they reeled her in, pulling her step by step toward the infinity of the breach. He dropped Larem’s arm and lunged forward to catch her, to fight for her, to keep her grounded in this world.
She shot him a terrified look. “Don’t touch me, Penn. Please. I have to do this.”
She moved forward as Barak and Larem latched onto Penn, dragging him down to the floor.
“Jora!” She touched the rift, and the cave exploded in a cacophony of sound and light. The last thing he remembered was Jora looking back at him as the darkness claimed her. He could have sworn he heard the words “I love you,” but he was too busy screaming to be sure.
“For the sake of the gods, man, snap out of it!”
The words were punctuated by a loud slap, followed by a faint sting of pain. On some level, the rough treatment pissed Penn off, but everything was happening at a distance, muted as if the pain belonged to someone else. A splash of water hit his face next, leaving him sputtering for breath.
Penn finally shrugged off his lethargy and came up fighting. His fist connected to someone’s jaw with a satisfying crunch before a pair of arms snapped around him like bands of steel. His protest came out as a mere whimper, his throat feeling as raw as if he’d swallowed broken glass.
What the hell had happened to him? To the others? Then it all came rushing back. Oh, God, Jora!
His eyes popped open and struggled to focus. Barak hovered over him, rubbing his jaw. That meant it was Larem who held him trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
“Jora?” he managed to rasp. “Where?”
Larem loosened his hold and moved back. “We don’t know. That last surge knocked all three of us out.”
Penn struggled up to his feet, staggering a couple of steps to lean against the cave wall. Several seconds passed before his head quit swimming enough that he could take note of his surroundings. The barrier was back in place. A few streaks of sickness were scattered across the narrow expanse, but otherwise it was intact.
He pulled his gaze away to glance at Barak. “How stable is this place?”
“Better than it was, but not great.”
“Do you think she’s trapped on the other side?” If so, she could be at the mercy of crazies armed with swords and driven by a thirst for blood. As terrifying as that possibility was, it was less scary than think she could be . . . simply gone.
He retrieved his sword and his gun. “We need to check. She could be hurt—or worse.”
Barak rolled his shoulders and breathed deeply. “Give me a minute for my head to clear a bit more, and I’ll see what I can do to bring the barrier down.”
Penn paced the length of the cavern and back again. The last place he ever wanted to be was on the other side of the barrier, but for Jora, he’d march right across and take on every freaking Other in existence.
“All right, I’m ready.”
Barak assumed a position similar to the one that Jora had used. Larem came up beside him on the right. Barak chanted softly under his breath, his eyes closed in concentration.
Almost immediately, the barrier began slowly pulsing. Penn focused on the floor of the cave to keep the dizzying array of colors from making him queasy. Finally he resumed pacing, knowing that rushing Barak could prove fatal to all of them.
While the two Kalith focused on the barrier, he explored the passage that had led them to the cavern, hoping to find some sign of Jora. Anything was better than the idea that she’d somehow crossed into another reality, one that didn’t include him.
He turned back to see what Larem wanted, but one look at the barrier answered his unspoken question. The energy was stretched so thin now that it was like looking through translucent glass. He could pick out enough detail to know he was seeing Kalithia.
A handful of figures moved into sight as the barrier continued to thin out. Penn gripped his sword tightly but kept his gun drawn, even though bullets could rip the barrier to shreds, making it harder to restore. There was also the problem of the stone walls increasing the danger of ricochets. The last thing they needed was a barrage of bullets bouncing around the cave.
As the final glimmer of energy dissipated, darkness blanketed the cavern. Torches flickered to life from the other side, chasing the shadows back into the corners. Penn braced himself to face the charge of crazed Others for the first time since his injury. Instead, the Kalith warriors stood their ground, weapons at the ready, but without making any hostile moves.
Barak stepped toward the barrier, the figures engraved on the blade of his sword shimmering in the darkness. His voice echoed off the rough-hewn walls of the cave as he spoke. “I am Barak q’Young, and this is Larem, my Blademate.” Then he pointed toward Penn. “He is our friend and leader, Paladin Penn Sebastian.”
Penn injected as much formality and strength as he could into his words. “Identify yourselves and your business at the barrier.”
One of the warriors stepped forward. “We hunt those who would endanger us all. We have no cause to cross swords with you, Paladin.” His voice was deep and guttural, making it difficult to understand him. Then he jerked his head in Barak’s direction, “Or them, though traitors they both be.”
Larem snarled and started forward. “I am no traitor, Guardian. If you would live through this day, I suggest you guard your tongue better than you have guarded your world.”
This was going to get out of hand if they weren’t careful.
“Enough, both of you. We have far greater problems to deal with right now. Did any of you see a young Kalith woman on your side of the barrier? She would have been dressed in human clothing.”
The men muttered among themselves, shaking their heads. Finally, their leader said, “We were patrolling this area some distance from the barrier when an energy wave knocked us to the ground. As soon we were able to move, we came straight here to investigate. There are many tracks on the approach to this part of the barrier, but we saw no one.”
Penn considered his options, not liking any of them. “Would you object to me taking a look myself? I might be able to pick out her footprints.”
The Guardian gave him a suspicious look. “Why would a Kalith woman be dressed as a human?”
“Her name is Jora b’Larth. Her parents bought their way into my world when she was an infant. Jora has lived here her whole life.”
Evidently that satisfied the man, because he nodded. “Come if you dare, Paladin. We won’t guarantee your safety if the barrier traps you on this side.”
“I can hold it for a short time, as long as whatever knocked us flat doesn’t pay us another visit.”
“Do your best.”
“I will. I do not want to have to tell the boss that I left you stranded over there.” Barak’s smile was wicked.
Penn nodded. “Yeah, Devlin would take that badly.”
“Barak wasn’t talking about Devlin, idiot,” Larem said as he cuffed Penn on the shoulder. “He meant Lacey.”
Penn grinned at his two friends. “You’re right. My sister is a whole lot scarier than Devlin is even on one of his bad days.”
He appreciated the two Kalith warriors’ efforts to lighten the moment. All this time, he’d thought Cullen was crazy for charging across the barrier to rescue the woman he loved. Now Penn knew exactly how he’d felt.
As he stepped across, the Kalith Sworn Guardian and his Blademates immediately surrounded him, their swords drawn.