“What the hell?”
Penn stared in horror at the barrier. Seconds before, it had been a swirling mass of healthy color, vibrant and strong, then its usual hum had become a high-pitched shriek. He and his prisoner covered their ears to save their eardrums from damage.
When the noise dropped off, a ragged tear formed in the center, appearing and then disappearing again and again. His heart lodged in his throat when he caught a brief glimpse of Jora before the hole closed up again.
“Jora!” Only years of experience serving at the barrier stopped him from charging in after her. Even the slightest contact with the barrier would fry a few brain cells; throwing himself at it would be suicidal.
He turned back to his captive. “Get your ass over here. I need to know what to do.”
The Kalith moved up to stand beside Penn. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Who the hell has?” Penn snapped.
When the hole faded away again, he grabbed the guy by the front of his shirt, jamming the barrel of his revolver under his chin. “This is what you and your boss have done, trying to rip off my world. You’d better pray I get Jora back and we find a way to heal this breach. If we fail, everybody dies.”
He cocked the trigger. “And guess who gets to be first in line.”
Despite the chill in the cave, sweat poured off his captive’s face. Penn shoved the idiot backward as the hum began building again. All that mattered now was helping Jora find her way back.
If the breach opened wide enough, he’d do his damnedest to yank Jora back through to this side or else dive through to her. He couldn’t believe he was even thinking about doing something that crazy, but she needed his help. That was reason enough.
The breach ripped open and a Kalith male came diving through, screaming in pain as he hit the floor of the cave. Penn ignored him as Jora came running toward the shrinking hole, calling Penn’s name as she took a flying leap.
Holy God, if the barrier closed now, it would slice her in half! He grabbed her hands and yanked with all his strength. She slid through just as the rift disappeared with a loud pop. Just that quickly, the barrier stabilized.
Penn clutched Jora to his chest, horrified that she could’ve died right there, right then. As he tried to breathe, a flicker of motion warned him they were under attack. Penn shoved Jora behind him as her Kalith companion charged at them, his sword aimed chest high. Penn blocked the attack with his left arm, taking a deep cut. Ignoring the pain, he fought to keep himself between Jora and the murderous renegade.
The three of them continued in a lethal dance in a wide circle as Penn worked his way around to where he’d dropped his sword to grab Jora’s hands. At the same time, he maneuvered Jora safely toward the passage where she could escape. But that was blocked by the second Kalith, who had now joined in the battle. Son of a bitch, they were so screwed.
“Penn!” Jora feinted to the left and then dove to the right. She rolled to her feet with Penn’s sword in one hand and hers in the other. She tossed him his blade and they stood back-to-back, ready to take on all comers.
God, this was his worst nightmare come true. He couldn’t risk using his revolver this near the barrier, and thanks to his opponent, his left arm was useless. The slash had gone all the way to the bone, leaving his hand numb and unable to grip his sword.
He switched the blade to his right hand, as scared as he’d ever been in his entire life. Not for himself, but for Jora. If he couldn’t kill the bastard coming at them with murder in his eyes, then Jora could die. That was simply unacceptable.
Charging forward, screaming his rage, Penn went on the attack, putting his enemy on the defense and drawing blood. He shouted in triumph as his months and months of training with Barak paid off, fighting the Kalith on his own terms and in the bastard’s own style.
Now that they were both wounded, it came down to which one could hold out the longest. Penn heard the clang of swords as Jora fought for her life against her own opponent.
“Paladin, you’re going to die. Why not make it sooner rather than later? We both know you won’t stay that way.”
Penn sneered. “What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll be the one to bleed out instead?”
He accompanied the words with another furious attack, once again drawing blood. His strength was ebbing faster now, making it imperative that he put an end to this once and for all.
He slowly forced the Kalith to retreat as the barrier went feral again, the hum of energy quickly building to excruciating levels. Penn fought on, ignoring the shrieking noise as he went for the kill. The noise may have distracted the Kalith, for he stumbled, giving Penn the opening he’d been waiting for. The Kalith’s eyes widened in horror, knowing his life was about to end.
At the last second, Penn stayed his thrust, holding the tip of his sword at the male’s throat. One more inch and death would come calling, and they both knew it.
“Surrender or die.”
Penn widened his stance as he waited, fighting against waves of dizziness from blood loss and exhaustion, determined to protect Jora’s back. After the briefest hesitation, the Kalith tossed his sword to the side just as the barrier once again stabilized.
“Now call off your dog.” Penn jerked his head toward the other Kalith. “Or I’ll kill you and go after him.”
The Kalith barked out a command.
His subordinate looked relieved to retire from the battlefield. Jora was breathing hard, but was unharmed. That was the only thing that allowed the two Kalith to live.
“Both of you, facedown on the floor. Now!” he barked. “Jora, get their weapons.”
“Penn! Is it safe to come in?” Barak’s voice called from the passage.
Barak entered first, his sword drawn. Larem shoved their Kalith companion in next, his weapon at the male’s back.
Barak surveyed the cavern. “Looks like we missed all the fun.”
Jora shot him a dirty look. “Penn’s hurt.”
“I’ll help him.” Larem sheathed his sword and drew his knife.
Jora hissed in horror as he started for Penn, and immediately planted herself between them. “What do you think you’re going to do with that?”
Penn snaked his right arm around her shoulders and tugged her against him. “It’s all right. He has some kind of weird Kalith ability to heal.”
The three prisoners watched wide-eyed while Larem chanted softly and ran the tip of his knife along the jagged cut. Penn hissed as the blade heated up, feeling acid hot to his skin. Gradually the pain faded, and the bleeding slowed, then stopped altogether.
When Larem finished with Penn, he used his mojo on the wounded Kalith.
Jora was home, and she was safe. Penn had no words to tell her what that meant to him, so he simply kissed her.
Penn’s kiss curled her toes. When he finally broke it off, he tucked her head under his chin and held her next to his heart. Tears ran down her cheeks. This disaster wasn’t over with yet, but they were together, and that was all that mattered. Right now all she could do was breathe in Penn’s essence, and judging by how hard he was hugging her, he drew comfort from the close contact as well.
Barak finally spoke. “Penn, I hate to bother you, but we’ve got to seal this stretch of barrier and then take out this trash.”
Penn sighed and shifted to face him, keeping Jora at his side. Barak and Larem stood over the prisoners, their swords ready for action.
“Jora, what would you suggest?”
“Barak and I need to close the fissure for good.” She looked to the Kalith for confirmation. “Do you agree?”
Barak’s complexion was even paler than normal. “I do, but I have burned much of my energy in attempting to repair the other barrier that these fools have rendered unstable. We will need to split up in teams to close it for good. Penn, I’d ask the Guardian on the other side for some help. I can draw off their energy to work the stone, and I’m guessing Jora can as well. We will also need someone to stand guard over these three. Perhaps the Guardian’s Blademates can help with that.”
Penn smiled his approval. “Sounds good. Barak, can you do the honors this time?”
He waited until Penn took over guarding the prisoners, then started the process of bringing the barrier down. It winked out to reveal a Sworn Guardian and his Blademates standing battle ready.
Penn took charge of the situation. “Arik, we have captured those responsible for the damage to the barrier. We need your assistance, if you are willing.”
Jora watched the male quickly assess the situation and nod. Then he and his men put away their weapons and stepped across the boundary into this world. Odd—she’d spent her whole life wishing she could meet a suitable Kalith male. Right now she was looking at several prime candidates, but they faded in comparison with Penn.
While Penn explained the situation to the newcomers, Barak spoke briefly with Jora to make sure they were in accord on how best to resolve the barrier’s instability. They were taking a huge chance not only with their own lives, but also with those of the men supporting them. If it all went to hell, there was no telling what kind of destruction would rain down on both worlds.
Barak gave her a quick hug, winking at her when Penn glared at him, then they outlined the plan. He’d take half the men to the second site the Kalith renegades had been using. Since cell phones didn’t work near the barrier, Larem would wait outside the passage until Barak called to say they’d reached their destination. It was a bit intimidating when the remaining men looked to her for guidance, but she drew courage from Penn’s unspoken support.
“When the time comes, you’ll need to line up in a half circle behind me. You don’t have to do anything but stand still, although you may feel a bit strange when I start pulling energy from you.”
The Sworn Guardian approached her. “I am Arik, a Sworn Guardian of Kalithia. Jora b’Larth, it will be our pleasure to serve you.”
“You and your Blade do me honor.”
As she nodded at each man in turn, she noticed Penn frown. He motioned for her to follow him into the passage. Once they were outside, he spoke to Larem.
“We’ll wait for the call. You can go back in.”
His friend surrendered the cell phone without question and disappeared back inside. Jora waited until he was out of sight to speak.
“Penn, what’s wrong?”
He cupped her face in his callused hands. “We don’t know how this is going to turn out. I know you’ll give it your all, and that scares me. Use us up if you have to, Jora, but don’t burn yourself out.”
The bright moon bathed them in its silver light. Penn smiled down at her, his eyes warm and loving. “We’ll all do what we have to, but I didn’t want this to go down without telling you that I love you. I think I have from the second I looked up and saw you standing there in the diner.” He brushed his lips across hers.
Her heart almost burst from happiness. “I love you, too, Penn Sebastian. Now and for the rest of my life, whether it’s measured out in minutes or decades.”
Their kiss was filled with heat and love and desperation. Then the cell phone rang, and the rest of the world came rushing back.