The air was thick with heat, dust, and tension. Penn slowly met each man’s eyes, warrior to warrior. These men were not the crazies he’d spent his entire life fighting. Even so, their proximity had his scar aching. Reminding himself they were here to do a job, same as him, he got down to business.
“Show me what you’ve got.”
The leader used his torch to point to the floor of the cave. “The ground in here is too hard to show the passing of feet, but those deep gouges on your side continue into our side of the cave. Outside, they disappear, but the dust shows the passing of several individuals and their pack animals. Perhaps you will see something we have missed.”
The Guardian sounded skeptical, but at least he was willing to give Penn a chance. They walked several minutes in silence until they stepped out into the dimly lit world of Kalithia.
The twin suns were pale imitations of the one that lit up his world. As a result, the plant life was scrubby and short. A small stream babbled down the hillside, but it was the only cheery note in the dismal surroundings.
He moved forward slowly, studying the ground. Just as the Guardian and his men had indicated, there were plenty of footprints in the dust. As far as he could tell, they were all made by the smooth soles of Kalith boots.
Looking out across the terrain, he was puzzled. “Is this area patrolled regularly? There seem to be an awful lot of footprints, considering how remote this place is.”
The Guardian studied Penn for several seconds before answering. “We were thinking the same thing. I plan to report to our Guildmaster what we have noted and ask that he increase patrols until we learn what is going on here.”
How much should Penn share? “Do you know a Sworn Guardian named Berk?”
The Guardian was visibly shocked at his casual use of a Guardian’s name, but he nodded. “He serves a different area, but our paths have crossed. Why?”
“My name is Penn. If you contact him, he will vouch for me and my friends back there.”
“And why would he do that?”
“We have worked with him to stop greedy men on both sides of the barrier.” He gestured back toward the cave. “Do you know what a volcano is?”
The abrupt change in subjects had the man frowning. “Yes, it’s mountain that explodes with melted rock and ashes.”
Penn nodded. “The land on my side of the barrier is known for an immense volcano that lays hidden from sight. If it were to explode, my world would die. With the connection your world has to mine, it might rip through here as well.”
He pointed to the gouges on the ground. “We think someone is trying to find a way to steal the energy produced by the lake of melted rock and bring it into your world. That wave of energy that knocked you and your men down was caused by the damage they’ve already done to the barrier. When Jora tried to stabilize the rupture in the fabric of the energy, it went feral. The resulting shockwave knocked all of us out. When we woke up, she was gone.” He didn’t try to disguise the pain in his voice.
“This Kalith woman Jora b’Larth, she means something to you.” It wasn’t a question.
The truth was that he loved her, but she should be the first one to hear him say those words. “Yes, I would protect Jora with my sword and trade my life for hers.”
The Guardian immediately stepped away to confer with his men. Then one of his Blademates ran off in one direction, while the other two went in another.
The Guardian rejoined Penn. “We should return you to the barrier. I don’t have the gift your friends have for working with the energy, but I sense it struggling to return.
“I sent a message to Berk. He will want to know that the enemy is now active in this area. The rest of my Blademates went to fetch our gear. We will set up camp nearby until reinforcements can arrive.”
At the entrance to the cave, the warrior retrieved his torch to light the way before continuing his explanation of their plans. “Once we are settled in, we will search further for signs of your woman.”
Penn couldn’t have asked for more. “If you need to contact me, toss a note across the barrier when you can. We will be monitoring the cave until we catch the traitors working on our side.”
“We will do the same.”
Penn stuffed his revolver into his waistband, then held his hand out to the Guardian.
The Guardian stared at the scar on Penn’s wrist for a second before gripping his hand. “Did one of my people do that?”
There was no use in denying it. “Yes, one of those seeking the light got lucky, or else I got careless.” It felt odd to be joking about the injury with this man, but it also felt right to repeat the same thing he’d told Jora when they’d first met. “My people have a saying, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. For me, that is true.”
A slow smile spread across the Guardian’s stern features. “My name is Arik, and for today, Paladin, we will be friends. Tomorrow that may change, but I would hope not.”
“Me, too, Sworn Guardian Arik. Here’s to peace between our people.”
Penn stepped back across the barrier.
Where was she? Jora’s head pounded, making it impossible to focus on anything but the pain. Instead of forcing the issue, she kept her eyes closed and reached out with her other senses. Judging by the low hum in the back of her mind, she was still close to the barrier. The frequency was off, though. Was she no longer in the same cavern?
The last thing she remembered was reaching to heal that bizarre damage to the barrier. Had someone yelled? Maybe, but the shout had come from behind her somewhere. It was all too foggy to make sense.
Fighting against the panic threatening to overpower her, she concentrated on the other information she could pick up.
The air was damp and cool, but smelled like rock rather than the forest. That verified that she was inside a cave—but in which world? The steady drip of water meant she wouldn’t die of thirst, at least. That was good news, right?
She opened one eye and then the other. Yep, she was in a cave. Shadows flickered along the walls. Slowly turning her head, she spotted a small, unattended campfire a short distance away, camping gear scattered around. Wood smoke was being drawn upward to a narrow fissure in the ceiling, which meant she wasn’t far underground.
She rolled onto her side and then pushed herself into a sitting position. So far, so good. Whatever had happened at the barrier had left her feeling bruised and battered, but nothing seemed to be broken.
That was the good news. The sound of footsteps headed her way, not so much. She had nowhere to run, but they were too close for her to have gone far, anyway. Looking around for a weapon, she picked up a fist-size rock.
By the time a Kalith warrior came around the corner with a load of firewood, she was ready to see if her softball skills had rusted since college. She’d give him two seconds to convince her he wasn’t the enemy before she let fly.
As soon as he spotted her, he dropped the wood, then bellowed in challenge as he drew his sword and charged straight toward her.
The rock made a satisfying thunk as it bounced off his head, dropping him to his knees. She refused to feel guilty about the bloody gash in his forehead, since he’d intended far worse to her. She took off running. If she was anywhere in the park, she’d be able to find her way back to Penn and the others.
But there wasn’t even time for her pulse to slow down before her pursuer caught up with her. He grabbed for her, but she ducked and managed to evade him. Then he launched a tackle that slammed her to the ground.
The resulting scuffle was over quickly, but at least she got in a few good blows before he dragged her up on her feet and right back to where they’d started.
He shoved her to the far side of the cave, then grabbed a piece of cloth to wipe the blood off his face. She was disappointed to see that he shared the Paladins’ capacity for fast healing; the cut had already closed.
“Where am I?” she asked in English.
Her captor ignored her while he tossed another log onto the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. He sat down, placing himself squarely in the middle of the only possible escape route. She fought against the tide of panic. “I asked you a question. Where am I?”
“In a cave.” His guttural pronunciation marked him as a native-born Kalith.
“I know that much,” she retorted. “Where is this cave? On which side of the barrier?”
“Neither side. We are caught in between,” he growled as he put a pot of water on to heat. “You did that with your clumsy gift.”
His answer made no sense. “In between where and where?”
He added some dried leaves to the pot of water. “Between the two worlds: Kalithia and the one you call home.” He stirred the pot before looking up at her. “We’ve been working on the barrier, seeking a way to bring light and heat from the caldera into my world.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “That’s insane! Do you have any idea what will happen if you manage to set off an eruption from that caldera?”
The idea of messing around with a super volcano of that magnitude was beyond her comprehension. They were either too greedy to care or too stupid to understand what was at risk. Probably both. She was pretty sure he wasn’t going to listen to her, though.
“I want to return to where I came from.”
He ignored her. Instead, he poured himself a cup of whatever he’d been brewing and took a cautious sip.
“How did we get here?”
“I already told you. You brought yourself here and dragged me along with you when I tried to stop you from attempting to close the hole.”
He poured a second cup and held it out to her. When she didn’t accept it, he said, “I’m not in a hurry to kill the one person who might be able to take me back. Drink. It will warm you and give you energy.”
That wasn’t saying he wouldn’t kill her—just not yet. She inched close enough to accept the drink. Closing her eyes, she drew a deep breath of the steam. It smelled like the tea her mother used to make. The small taste of home soothed her fears enough for her to start thinking of possibilities.
Maybe offering him a bit of information would encourage him to share what he knew. “The tear in the barrier was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was like looking into the center of a galaxy of stars.”
He looked at her over the brim of his cup. “Go on.”
“I inherited my family’s gift for working with the barrier and stone, and tried to use it to heal the breach. Apparently that was a mistake.”
“Obviously.” He flexed his fingers as they gripped his cup. “It also wasn’t the first time you’d messed around with that stretch of barrier.”
“No, I’ve been trying to counteract whatever has caused it to sicken. When I tried the other day, it went feral. My companion and I barely made it out alive.”
Clearly unconcerned about their near death experience, he snagged a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. “I have grown tired of you undoing what I have managed to accomplish. By going slowly, I had kept the transfer stable.”
“No, you hadn’t. How do you think I found the cave in the first place?” she asked. “I followed the swarms of earthquakes back to their source.”
“And yet you realize that if you’d left it alone, neither of us would be here now.” He finished his drink and tossed the dregs at the fire. “As it is, we are both trapped until the next time the rift opens. With luck, we will be able to return home. If not . . .”
His eyes glittered in the dim light, sending a new shiver of cold fear through her chest. If not, then she was trapped in whatever random world the rift had dumped them in. As frightened as she was of her companion, she feared the unknown that existed outside of the cave even more.
“Have you explored much of this world?”
“I only went a short distance to gather fallen limbs. I saw trees, a night sky, and not much else. I will look again in another few hours—unless the rift returns. Then you will take me back.”
“How can I do that, when I don’t know how I got us here in the first place?”
“That is your problem. One way or another, your life depends on figuring it out.”
His threats weren’t helping matters. “No, whatever your name is. That is our problem.”
Arguing with him wouldn’t get her anywhere, so she sat down and leaned against the wall to rest. She had to figure out how to get back to where they started, to where Penn was waiting for her.
She closed her eyes and drew comfort from remembering the night she’d spent in Penn’s arms. Surely the fates couldn’t be so cruel as to give them such joy, only to rip them apart so soon. The memory of Penn’s blue eyes and roguish smile warmed her from the inside. Somehow she would find her way back to him. At least he had Barak and Larem with him. Between the three of them, they’d move heaven and earth to bring her home and to put a stop to her mysterious companion’s lunacy.
With that happy thought, she finally drifted off to sleep.