“Sit down, Penn, and eat something. You won’t be any good to Jora if your brain’s fried by too much caffeine and no food.”
Earlier Larem had physically dragged Penn out of the cave to make a run into town while Barak maintained a vigil by the barrier. They’d only convinced him to go because neither of them could drive, and they’d need supplies if they were going to set up camp.
Now that Penn was back at camp, Barak shoved a bowl into his hands. “Come on, Penn. Eat the stew while it’s hot.”
He grunted with displeasure at being ordered around, but they were right. Wherever Jora was, she was going to need him at full strength. The two Kalith warriors were convinced that she’d been sucked into that rift when she disappeared. He wasn’t completely convinced of that, but he’d searched the area outside of the cave for hours and found no sign that she’d gone that way.
When he started shoveling stew into his mouth, Larem and Barak relaxed and picked up their own dinners. For the next few minutes the only sound was the crackling of the small fire they’d built to ward off the damp chill of the cave. Penn had also bought a couple of lanterns, but they were saving those for exploring other caves if Jora didn’t return soon.
Where the hell was she? Her absence had ripped a huge whole in his heart. He’d lost friends before, but Jora meant so much more to him. In her arms, he’d felt powerful—whole once more. Without her, all his fears of inadequacy had come rushing back.
“Jora is strong, Penn. Wherever she is right now, you know she will fight to return to your side.”
The sympathetic expression in Barak’s pale eyes, so similar to Jora’s, almost proved Penn’s undoing, but the Kalith warrior was right. Jora would be weighing her options to pick the one that would offer the greatest chance of returning her to this cave.
“You both saw that tear in the barrier. If anyone else on this world has ever seen such a thing, I’ve never heard about it. The Regents and the Paladins wouldn’t keep something that dangerous secret. How about in the lore of your world?”
Larem was already shaking his head. “There’s nothing I’ve ever heard, but my family’s talents were different than Barak’s or Jora’s.”
Barak stared at the fire, lost in thought. “If there are stories, I am not familiar with them. Berk might be able to find something in the archives if we could contact him. But even if he could, it would take time to do a thorough search.”
Penn wiped up the last bit of gravy with a piece of bread and mulled over the possibilities as he chewed. “Okay, that eliminates that option. So if we don’t know the rules of the games, we’ll have to settle for a SWAG.”
The two Kalith looked at each other in confusion. Finally, Larem asked, “All right, I’ll bite. What’s a SWAG?”
“A scientific wild-ass guess.” For the first time since Jora’s disappearance, Penn smiled. “It means that we take what we know and what we can find out, add it all together, and then give it our best shot.”
“A SWAG—I like that.” Barak offered Penn one of his rare smiles. “First we should take turns getting some rest. While you and Larem sleep, I will make a list of anything I can think of that might help.”
“Take one of my guns, and keep your sword handy in case we get unexpected visitors.” Penn checked over his revolver before passing it to his friend. “Wake one of us in a couple of hours so you can catch some shut-eye, too. I’ll need you both running on all cylinders when the time comes.”
He stretched out on one of the sleeping bags and closed his eyes. After so many years of being on call at the barrier, he’d perfected the ability to fall asleep at a moment’s notice. He hoped it worked this time. He badly needed to dream about holding Jora in his arms again.
“Penn, wake up. Someone’s coming.”
Penn’s Paladin training kicked into high gear, driving him to full alert in one heartbeat. He had his sword in one hand and a gun in the other as soon as he rolled to his feet.
Barak was dousing the last few embers of the fire, throwing the cave into deep shadow. Only the dim glow of the barrier held complete darkness at bay. As Penn positioned himself near the entrance, he listened hard for what had triggered Larem’s alarm.
There—a distant mumble of voices. Two, at least. Using hand signals, Penn motioned for Barak and Larem to position themselves on the opposite side of the entrance from his. Whoever the men were, they were being cautious in their approach.
Stopping a short distance back, one of them called out, “Tarl, what’s going on?”
When there was no response, his partner whispered, “Either Tarl’s gone back to town, or maybe he fell asleep waiting for us.”
They shuffled a few feet closer. “I’m hoping he went back to town. He’ll still be mad, but at least he won’t know how late we were in getting back here.”
“It’s not our fault we couldn’t cross back here and had to use the other entrance to this world. Even he’d have to admit that.”
The second man snorted. “Since when has he been reasonable about anything? He’s the one who has the barrier all messed up, but he’d never admit that.”
Evidently the two idiots mistook silence for safety and came strolling into the cave. Penn smiled in anticipation. They should have remembered that their leader wasn’t the only predator in the park. Before they’d come two steps into the cave, Penn subdued one while his friends took on the second.
Considering his mood, Penn thought he showed considerable restraint in not beating the holy hell out of them. He needed them conscious and talking more than he needed them bruised and bleeding.
“Get their weapons.”
Penn held them both at gunpoint while Barak and Larem searched the men, netting an impressive stash of knives, throwing blades, and two Kalith swords. It was amazing the two hadn’t put up a better fight.
Penn loomed over the two, letting them see his murderous fury up close and personal. “Okay, I’m going to ask the questions; you answer. Say anything I don’t like, and my friend here will test how sharp you’ve kept those snazzy blades you were toting.”
He shot a wolfish smile at Barak. “Do you think it hurts worse being cut with a sharp knife, or a dull one?”
His friend didn’t fail him. “I’m not sure. We can experiment to find out.”
Larem ran his finger along the edge of his own sword. “This one is very sharp. Penn, as a Paladin, I’m sure you keep your sword in top condition.”
The captives had been watching Larem stroke his blades, but at the mention of Paladins, their fearful eyes jerked back in Penn’s direction. They reeked of fear. Good. He wanted them pissing-in-their-pants scared.
He held out his damaged wrist toward them. “I’ve been looking for payback ever since one of you crazy bastards almost took my arm off. My associates killed the one who did it, since I was too busy bleeding out to join the party. Maybe today I’ll get back some of my own.”
Barak put a restraining hand on Penn’s arm. “Hold on. These males look intelligent. I’m sure they will cooperate if you give them half a chance.”
For an alien, Barak understood the rules of the good-cop-bad-cop game pretty well. He offered the captives an encouraging smile. “You will cooperate, won’t you?”
Two pairs of eyes studied the blades Larem was fondling and then turned back to Penn. “Yes. Ask your questions.”
“Where is your leader?”
The taller one of the two answered, “We don’t know. He sent us back to our world to get more equipment, but this part of the barrier refused to come down. We were hit by a surge of energy unlike anything we’ve seen before.”
“We took our equipment over there,” continued the second man, pointing toward the barrier, “and carried it to another small crossing that we’ve used before.”
“How far is this other crossing?”
So far they’d been communicating in English, although both had accents so thick that Penn had to listen hard to follow their explanations. Now they switched to their native tongue, speaking directly to Barak now. Evidently units of time and distance were harder to translate.
When they finished, Barak said. “It’s hard to tell exactly, but no more than a mile, I would guess. You could send me or Larem with one of them to check it out, but here’s the problem. If Larem crosses back into Kalithia, he can’t get back on his own and would be at risk of capture. That’s not a problem if I go, but then I wouldn’t be here if that rift reappears.”
“Son of a bitch.” Frustration boiled up inside of Penn, making him want to destroy something—or someone.
“Both of you go, but leave one of them here. Find out which one works with the barrier the best. Tell him that if he helps me, I’ll let him return home if he promises to stay there. I’ll also want his name to give to a Sworn Guardian—either Berk or Arik.”
The tall one spoke again. “I will stay with the Paladin. My brother Jarner can show you where the crossing is. Once he crosses, he will stay there. I will honor your request for help in exchange for his freedom.”
The younger captive protested. Even though Penn didn’t understand a word he said, it was easy to guess the gist of what was being said.
Finally, he turned to Barak. “No. It is my duty to stay with my brother Berod.”
Barak clearly wasn’t happy about the situation. “Penn, we can’t trust these two, together or apart.”
“We don’t have any choice. Take him anyway. Time is running out for all of us. Besides, if either one of them tries to double-cross us, they both die.” He flexed his hand on the pommel of his sword, smiling.
“We’ll return as quickly as we can.”
“Just find Jora if you can. That’s all that matters.” He pegged the older of the two captives with a hard stare. “One thing you should know. If anything has happened to my woman, everybody dressed in Kalith black dies. Got that?”
“Yes. I would expect no less.”
Barak and Larem quickly escorted their guide out of the cave, leaving Penn alone with the other captive and his fear for Jora. Where the hell could she be? He stared at the barrier and prayed that the aberration returned soon, even if it threatened to destroy the world he was sworn to protect.
“This woman you hunt for must mean much to you.”
Penn glanced at his captive. Since the male’s continued existence depended on her safe return, he deserved the truth.
“Jora b’Larth is everything to me.”
The silence was driving her crazy. Hours had passed with no change in the barrier and nothing being said. Desperate to do something, anything, she asked, “What are you called?”
“Why do you care?” He sounded as bored as she did, but at least he’d spoken.
“I don’t, particularly.” She stood up. “I’m going outside.”
He reached for his sword. “Why?”
“For two reasons. One is that I want to look around some more. The other is personal.”
Her face flamed hot, but why should she be embarrassed? He’d made a similar trip only a short time before. Besides, if he was right about them being trapped in an alien world, where did he think she could go?
“Don’t stay gone long. If the barrier goes into flux again, I don’t want to miss my chance to return home.”
Did he think she was a fool? She wanted to go home every bit as much as he did.
Outside, she took care of one priority quickly, not trusting her nameless captor to allow her much privacy for long. The sky had lightened some since their last foray out of the cave but not much. She didn’t know what to think about that. Were the days and nights longer here than back on Earth, or was there no difference between the two?
She shivered. What if she never got back?
No, she wasn’t going to think that way. She had a damn good reason for wanting to get home: Penn Sebastian.
“Woman, get back here now!”
Jora took off running. When she charged back into the cave she saw that the rift had returned, and she could see the faint outline of two men on the other side. Penn? But as she raised her hands, the rift shrank down and popped out of sight.
With a bellow of frustration, the Kalith male wheeled around and smacked the side of her face hard enough to send her staggering back. At first she felt only shock at the sudden violence, but then her face burned in pain and her ears rang.
Refusing to cower, she stood her ground. “Hit me again, and I’ll skewer you as you sleep. Got that?”
“Try it and die.”
“And then who will get you out of this place?” she sneered. “If you kill me, you could be stuck here for the rest of your miserable life.”
He stepped closer, trying to use his size to intimidate her. “I may not kill you—yet—but I can and will make your live very unpleasant. So far I have kept my hands to myself. That could change.”
“There are warriors hunting for me. If I am harmed, they have friends in two worlds who will hunt you down. Imagine how long it will take you to die at the hands of my Paladin lover.”
Once again his hand came up, but then he let it drop down to his side. “As I said, stay close. If we miss another opportunity, I will not be pleased.”
When he turned away, Jora stuck her tongue out at him. It was childish, but she didn’t care. Penn and his friends would never let this bastard live, but right now she needed him as much as he needed her. They both sat down in sullen silence to wait.
Despite her efforts to stay awake, she must have dozed off, because she was jerked awake when her chin dropped down to hit her chest. This would never do.
Keeping her eyes on the barrier, she said, “We need to take turns sleeping so we don’t miss it again. Who should go first?”
The big jerk ignored her. Fine. Maybe he didn’t need to rest, but she did. She’d lost track of the hours since she’d been dragged into this hellhole. It was impossible to know if it was day or night or even the same year as when she’d left. Who knew how much the feral barrier had twisted everything? She could be on the other side of the universe or only a barrier’s thickness away from her home. Either way, she had no control over the situation and worrying about it only exhausted her meager resources. Right now she needed a respite from the tension and the cloud of hopelessness that threatened to overwhelm her.
At least in dreams, she might find her way back to Penn. She rested her head on her knees and closed her eyes, ignoring the sting of tears. Slowly, she managed to lose herself in sweet memories of being held in Penn’s arms, remembering the hot spice of his kiss and the strength of his warrior’s soul.
He thought that battle scar had made him less of a man, but he was wrong about that. It had only made him stronger. A lesser man would have withdrawn from the field of battle forever, but Penn continued to fight. His Paladin heart required no less of him. She wished she’d told him that.
“It’s coming back!”
A rough hand snagged her braid and hauled Jora to her feet. The combination of pain and a new influx of adrenaline surged through her veins, burning away her fatigue. At full alert, she jerked free of the Kalith’s grasp and put some distance between them. If she did manage to return them to their proper time and place, she would need room to maneuver. Her captor needed her now, but that wouldn’t last past the second they reached safety.
Bringing her hands up, palms out, she studied the jagged tear forming in the center of the barrier. The rupture beat with a feral pulse as it continued to rip holes in the blanket of energy that held other worlds at bay. Jora set her feet farther apart to counteract the dizzying effect of the swirling sickness.
“Make sure that you do exactly what you did before.”
She did not need his unhelpful suggestions. “Shut up and stay out of my way.”
Chanting narrowed her focus on establishing a connection to the roiling energy, opening her body to become a conduit for the powerful force that she drew from her surroundings. The tearing slowed briefly as the healthy energy she was channeling meshed with the twisting rift.
Fire ripped through her, making it more difficult for her to focus. She bit down on her lower lip and forced herself to get closer and closer to the source of her agony. Working through it, passing through it, was the only hope of salvation.
She counted off the beats of the flickering energy. “One, two, three . . .”
The Kalith’s voice joined in. When they were in sync, she risked a glance in his direction. He had his sword in hand, obviously preparing for battle once they made their leap.
She wished she could warn Penn. “Get ready.”
“Are you sure?” the Kalith asked, even as he took off running.
She charged after him and dove headfirst into what looked like the crucible of creation and prayed it wouldn’t be her destruction.