Book: Darkness on Fire

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Chapter 3

Too restless to unwind, Jora stood outside on the porch and peered out into the night. She’d considered going for a walk earlier, but there were things lurking in the darkness that were better left undisturbed. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, trying to soothe away the goose bumps rippling on her skin.

The night air tasted of evil.

Who was out there? Using her special senses, she followed their every move as the wanderers disturbed the rightful occupants of the park. Even from this distance, their feet sent small vibrations through the ground as they stomped uncaring through the trees, allowing her to track their movements. In the darkness, humans and Kalith sounded the same. Neither one had any business prowling her woods at night. Tomorrow she’d have more information to report to the Paladin.

She pulled herself back, too tired to maintain a constant vigil by herself. Was Penn Sebastian having any better luck sleeping than she was? Probably not, if the information in her reports scared him as much as it did her. At least dawn was just a few hours away. Once the sun crested the horizon, she’d be knocking on his door to see what the Paladins had to offer in the way of help.

She pulled the collar of her robe up close to her neck as her chills worsened, thinking about her current predicament. According to the stories her parents had told her, Kalith considered the Paladins to be bloodthirsty savages. God knows how many of her people had died on the point of a Paladin’s sword over the centuries.

Yet here she was, having to trust one to protect her secrets and watch her back, while the two of them dealt with a far greater threat to both their worlds. She closed her eyes, doing one last check with her other senses, seeking out those that scurried about in the darkness.

A small group of deer was crossing the nearby creek, their grazing done for the night. She could feel their weariness as they made their way to the thicket where they’d bed down. An owl swooped down out of the trees on silent wings, just missing the small marmot it’d been tracking. The normal rustlings of the park’s residents were soothing.

Wait—what was that? Her stomach lurched as she realized that the four-legged and winged creatures had suddenly taken cover, hiding in the deepest shadows. Jora’s pulse raced to the same frightened pace as theirs did, all because the two-legged predators stalking the night were now headed her way. Not one, but two. From this distance she couldn’t tell much about them other than they were both male, both intent on doing violence, and she was their target. Obviously she hadn’t hidden her tracks as well as she’d thought.

Jora dashed inside the cabin, stripping off her robe to pull on her sweats, then grabbing the backpack she kept ready at all times in case she got called out to the field on short notice. She quickly added her father’s sword, a revolver, and a pair of throwing blades to the pile of things she needed to take.

She left her bedside lamp on and took one last look around the small cabin she called home during the summer. Now, how to best make her getaway? Although she knew these woods as well as anyone, she had a feeling the darkness would do little to slow her enemies down. She wouldn’t stand much of a chance on foot against two adult males.

That left her SUV and one other choice—the small dirt bike she sometimes used on back trails. If she took the car, they’d know that she’d escaped as soon as they realized the carport was empty. The bike was light enough to roll it some distance before firing it up. If it bought her even a few minutes’ advantage, she might just survive the night.

She stuck her laptop into the pack and locked the door on the way out. No use in making entry easy for the bastards. After strapping the pack onto the back of the bike, she pulled it out of the carport and started rolling it down the road toward town. As soon as she sensed the cabin had been breached, she straddled the seat and kick-started the bike.

The roar of the engine echoing off the trees sounded inordinately loud, and she knew her enemies would use the noise to track her. She made a beeline for town. There was no point in trying to mislead her pursuers; it was the only logical destination.

Where should she go to ground once she got there? The diner was open all night, but she’d be putting innocent bystanders at risk if the enemy was determined to find her. Betsy might take Jora in for the night, but she was reluctant to bring trouble to her friend’s door. And the local police department wouldn’t know how to battle two killers from another world.

There was only one possibility that made any sense—Penn Sebastian. How would he react to her showing up on his doorstep claiming that death was on her trail? It all depended on whether he’d read her reports, and if he believed what she’d said in them.

Only one way to find out. She revved the engine and tore down the narrow highway, hoping to find sanctuary before her enemies found her.

Penn burrowed under the pile of pillows, wishing whoever was out in the parking lot pounding on a door would just stop. Now—before he picked up his sword and taught the bastard a lesson in manners. Who would be raising such a ruckus at this ungodly hour anyway? It wasn’t as if he was in the barracks back in Seattle with Devlin or Trahern rousting everyone out because the barrier was failing.

It had been a long time since he’d last been in that position. He missed it. The only thing worse than dying in battle was having to stand by and watch while his friends bled and died without him. On that cheery thought, he rolled over and tried to will himself back to sleep. But as soon as he closed his eyes, the phone started ringing.

That was enough to vanquish the last hope for a restful night. No one he knew would be calling on the motel phone. Time to teach someone a lesson about careless dialing. He’d show them how wrong this number really was. He flung his hand out to snatch the receiver and snarled, “This better be damned important. If it isn’t, I will hunt you down like a rabid dog.”

To his surprise, he recognized the caller immediately even though her voice was thick with fear.

“Penn? It’s Jora. Can you let me in? Please?”

“Sure thing.”

He slammed the phone down and rolled off the bed, picking up his gun as he did. He unchained the door and threw it open. The Kalith female stood on the threshold, supporting a dirt bike.

“I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but I need to bring this inside.”

Penn stood back out of the way to give her room to maneuver. It had to be one of the stranger requests he’d ever had, but she didn’t seem the kind to panic easily. Once she was inside, he stepped outside briefly to survey the parking lot. There was no one in sight, but danger was out there somewhere. It would take a lot for a Kalith woman to risk being alone with a Paladin she barely knew.

As he shut and locked the door, Jora leaned the dirt bike against the wall on the far side of the bed. She kept herself busy untying the pack she’d had lashed onto the back of the bike, probably needing the time to collect herself.

When she lifted her bag onto the bed, there was no missing the all-too-familiar shape of a Kalith sword jutting out of the top. Interesting, but he wasn’t overly concerned about it. Even if she did go on the attack, no blade could outrace his bullets.

Finally, she asked, “May I sit down?”

It would have taken a lot harder heart than his to keep a woman standing, especially one who looked so totally spooked. He gestured toward the only chair in the room, figuring she wouldn’t much appreciate him telling her to get comfortable on his bed—not that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind.

He filled the carafe from the coffeemaker with water, figuring Jora might benefit from a cup of hot tea. All the Kalith he knew preferred it to coffee. “Okay, who’s after you?”

Her eyes jerked up to meet his. “I don’t know their names, but I know what they are.”

He filled the two mugs the motel provided and added a teabag and sugar to each. “And that would be?” he prompted as he handed her the tea.

“Evil,” she whispered, her pale gray eyes wide with fear. “I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. There were two of them. I was still keyed up from meeting with you and couldn’t sleep. That’s the only reason I’m still alive. They were coming after me through the woods near my cabin.”

“What do they look like?” He set his tea aside and picked up his gun.

“I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing they were Kalith. I never saw them, but I felt them coming and knew they intended to do me great harm.” She sounded defensive, as if expecting him to throw her assertions right back in her face.

He gave her a hard look. “I read your reports. There’s no way even a trained geologist could know all of that for certain. I know, because my sister is one. That tells me that you have the gift to read the moods, for the lack of a better word, of rock formations. Maybe even more than that.”

Jora immediately sat up straighter. “How did you know of this gift? I hadn’t been told that it was one that Paladins had.”

“They don’t, but I know others from your world. Two of them have a variation of that same gift. Can you control the barrier, too?”

She frowned. “I’ve never tried, but probably. I can ease the stress in deep formations when it builds up too much. But if I concentrate hard enough, I can feel the smallest vibrations, even footsteps, as long as the people walking are within my range. It doesn’t work in town or in crowds, because there are too many to distinguish. These two were coming directly through the woods, not following any trails. My cabin is the only dwelling in that area.”

The glow of headlights swept past the window out in the parking lot. Penn pushed the closed curtain aside long enough to look out. Whoever it was pulled out of the lot, heading back toward the park, already too far away for him to see the license plate.

“What did you do when you sensed them coming?”

“I keep a pack ready in case the park needs me in a hurry. I grabbed a few other things and made a run for it. I didn’t take my car, because they would have noticed I was already gone as soon as they approached the cabin. By taking my bike, they had to check the cabin first. It bought me a few minutes.”

“Smart thinking.”

No sign of the car returning. He backed away, putting some distance between himself and Jora. As scared as Jora was, he wanted to offer her the comfort of his arms. She’d turned to him for help, but she was far too skittish for him to risk crowding her too much.

“It’s too dark for us to go back to your place and see much, but I’ll want to do that at first light. I don’t function without at least some sleep, so you can have the bed. I’ll take the floor.”

Jora immediately protested. “But this is your room. I’m the intruder here.”

“My momma raised me to have better manners than that, so I’ll take the floor.” Then he grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “Or we could share the bed.”

Holy crap, it looked as if she was actually considering it. Jora might have no interest beyond a safe place to grab some sleep, but he wasn’t sure he could trust himself. Like all Paladins, he had a strong need to protect. The thought of wrapping Jora in his arms, to keep her close and safe, held a great deal of appeal. But he also knew he’d want to do far more than just snuggle.

Time to make the decision for the both of them. “Help yourself to anything you need in the bathroom. Turn the lights out when you’re done.”

When she disappeared into the other room, he took two of the pillows and the extra blanket from the bed. After putting his gun and sword within easy reach, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the thin carpet. His gut told him Jora was on the up-and-up, but he’d been wrong about people before. If she went for her sword, he’d be ready for her.

When Jora returned he deliberately slowed his breathing, hoping she’d think he was asleep. She tiptoed past him, then all he heard was the rustling of blankets as she settled into the bed.

“Good night, Penn,” she whispered as she turned out the light.

He hadn’t fooled her at all. Smiling in the darkness, he whispered back, “Good night. Sleep well. You’re safe with me.”

“I know.”

He didn’t know which one of them sounded more surprised by that fact.

Tarl slammed his fist against the wall. At least this primitive cabin he’d rented outside of town was far enough from its neighbors to ensure no on heard him bellowing. The bitch had managed to slip free of the trap he’d set. That told him two things were true. The men he’d sent after her were incompetent fools, and her abilities were even more powerful than had been reported.

He turned to face his associates. “Tell me again how this went down.”

Berod shuffled his feet a bit. “We waited until after midnight, just like you told us to do. The parking lot was empty when we left the car there. We cut directly across country toward her cabin to avoid the trails. That way we’d be less likely to run into any stray campers.”

At least they’d thought that much through. He nodded his approval. “Did you see anyone who might have called the woman to warn her?”

“No, sir. I’ve got a talent for detecting heartbeats within a half mile or so, and the woods were empty. When we reached the clearing, there was a light on in the back of the cabin.” He wiped off the sweat that had beaded up on his forehead.

“We watched the place for a couple of minutes, you know, making sure she wasn’t outside. Then I realized her heartbeat was moving away from us. We charged through the cabin door to make sure, and that’s when we heard a motorcycle start up. It took us a few minutes to get back to the car to follow her.”

Tarl let his disapproval leach into his voice. “And you lost her, despite there being only one road into town? How is that possible?”

“I can’t track a single heartbeat in a crowd. Nobody I ever heard of could do something like that.” Berod and his brother Jarner exchanged unhappy looks. “We drove up and down every street in the whole town, but there was no sign of a motorcycle anywhere. Either she kept going straight through town or someone’s hiding her. We looked for motorcycles, too, but she could’ve stashed it someplace. In a garage maybe.”

“You think?” Killing these two idiots right now wouldn’t further his cause at all, but he’d do so later. No use diluting the gene pool with fools. “Did our research on Jora Larth reveal any close friends within the town limits?”

Berod shook his head. “She’s on good terms with most folks, but no one in particular stood out. The diner is the local gathering place. We thought we’d stop there in the morning in case she showed up for breakfast.”

So they weren’t completely stupid. “Good idea. If necessary, one of you do the breakfast shift and the other lunch. We don’t want to raise suspicion by spending too many hours in such a small place.”

Berod started sidling toward the door. “We’ll be going now, unless you need us for something else.”

As if they were good for anything other than their muscles and very small brains. Still, it didn’t hurt to throw them a bone or two.

“I know you did your best tonight.” Such as it was. “Check out the diner. If she’s there, make no contact. Just report in, and I’ll take it from there. Whether or not you see her, get some rest afterward. It’s looking like another late night ahead of us.”

“Yes, sir.”

The two scuttled out the door, almost coming to blows over which one got to escape first. He waited until they were gone before dialing a familiar number. If they thought he was scary, they should meet the man he reported to.

“Sorry about the late call, sir, but you said you wanted me to report in no matter the hour. It was just as you suspected. Jora b’Larth is definitely the one who’s been interfering with the energy flow. I regret to say that she sensed my men approaching her cabin and managed to escape. I’ve instructed them to notify me as soon as they spot her. I will bring her in.”

The chill at the other end of the line made his gut twist in dread. Though he might kill his underlings for screwing up, but he’d make it quick and clean. He had an awful suspicion that his superior wouldn’t offer him the same courtesy.

“Good night, sir. I’ll be in touch as soon as I have any news.” Or he’d run for the nearest stretch of barrier and disappear back into his own world.

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Next: Chapter 4