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The sound of her bedside hotel phone ringing startled Karen Gibson awake. She blinked into Caribbean sunlight beaming between the sheer white curtains of the French doors, which opened to a beachfront patio. The luxury hotel was one of many stops she'd be making while on assignment for Vacation Fun magazine.
Normally she called her life one of pleasure and fun. Yet, deep down, especially lately, she knew it only sheltered her from the realities of her past. Waking here alone bothered her today. Bothered her a lot. Reaching for the phone, she fumbled with it, almost dropping the receiver, as she sat up and shoved it to her ear.
"Yes," she managed hoarsely, shoving a long strand of blond hair from her eyes. "We have a telegram for you at the front desk. Shall we bring it up?"
Karen's blood went cold, her chest tightening. Sleep had been fitful at best. She'd tossed and turned with an odd feeling of dread. Somehow, she'd known something dark was coming. "Send it up, please."
A flash of a dream came to her. Of a man who stood well above her, broad-shouldered, with long dark hair. So familiar. But how did she know him? She reached for the images floating in the back of her mind but couldn't manage to draw them forward. But she felt comfort in this man. Comfort she needed right now. If only she could find that dream right now. To remember what it held.
Barely able to breathe, Karen realized she still held the phone and settled the receiver in its place. Having lost her parents years before in a car accident, bad news brought fear for her sister, the only person she had in this world.
Guilt took hold. If something had happened to Eva, she'd never forgive herself for leaving her back in Brownsville. Eva might be a grown woman, now married, but she'd always been a bit needy.
Karen's own feeling of something missing in her life had driven her to travel, searching for an elusive secret to life she'd never found. The feeling had always been inside her but it had grown stronger after losing her parents. Years of traveling, of searching, had revealed nothing. In the end, she felt just as lost. Just as empty.
Karen knew she needed to reevaluate her decisions and make changes in her life. She needed to go home and see her sister and reestablish their relationship. And she would. She'd go home and she'd fix things. If it wasn't too late. As she tied a knot in the sash holding her robe in place, she couldn't shake the feeling of doom taking hold.
A knock sounded and she darted for the door, eager for answers. Fighting her desire to know what the telegram said, she hesitated, hand on the handle, eyes lifted upward, and said a silent prayer. Please let Eva be okay.
With shaky hands, she accepted the telegram, signing a form the doorman handed her. She never looked at the man's face, only mumbling a thank-you.
She ripped open the envelope, removing the single sheet of paper with a short, typed message. "Mike's dead."
Nothing more. Two words. No signature. No explanation. Not so much as an "I love you." Just a short note informing Karen that Eva's husband was dead. Oh, God. How? How did he die? Was Eva hurt, or in some sort of danger? Eva. Poor Eva. Why hadn't she called instead of sending a telegram.
"Everything okay, miss?"
The hotel employee's voice drew Karen out of her inner turmoil. "No." Her hand raked through her hair.
"I mean, yes. I, ah, I need to get to the airport."
The man, near sixty judging from the solid gray hair and deep wrinkles in his forehead, offered her a concerned look. "I can have a shuttle ready in fifteen minutes."
She couldn't think. "I never mind." Booking an international flight needed to be her priority. "I'll call downstairs after I talk to the airlines."
Karen processed for all of a minute before darting toward the phone. She dialed the operator and gave her Eva's number. Ten rings later, she heard the operator's voice again, telling her that no one was picking up.
"I need the police department in Brownsville, Texas," she told the woman.
Ten minutes later, Karen hung up, with the news that Mike had been involved in a car accident. The same way their parents had died. God, what Eva must be going through.
Karen had to get home, and she had to get there now.
Only hours after deciding to visit Salvador, Jag arrived at his creator's home. Deep inside the valleys of Mexico's Sierra Madre ranges, this was where Jag had first trained with Salvador.
Jag pushed open a steel gate covered in jasmine and stepped into a courtyard filled with flowers and trees. He felt none of the peace most would feel here. He preferred the ranch, preferred his place by his men's sides. But Salvador limited his exposure to the Knight, his existence cloaked in mystery, even to Jag.
Here, deep in these mountains, the Darkland Beasts had destroyed his world. This was the place the beasts had taken homage and fueled the evil of their dark world. And it was here where Jag had first hunted his prey.
Here he had first trained to be the destroyer of the Darkland Beasts. Where he had gotten so lost in vengeance, Salvador had been forced to pull him back to reality. Forced him to see the colors of the world around him, beyond the red of burning anger, the black of painful darkness.
It had been many years since he last visited this place, but he came today in hopes of finding answers. To understand the meaning of his dreams. Yet coming here held repercussions as always. Images of the past danced within his mind, taunting him with memories of destruction. With the reality of his wife's blood-drained body. And of her pale, lifeless face.
Jag hated this place. Hell, he hated life.
Staying so close to this place came from necessity. Otherwise, he'd be on the other end of the continent. The small border town of Brownsville remained a haven for the Darklands, and he had become its protector.
A wooden atrium covered in greenery stood before Jag, and he could see Salvador in the center. His mentor stood there, dressed in loose-fitting gray pants and a shirt, hands on his legs, eyes shut. Clothes worn for meditation. And though Salvador seemed unaware of Jag's approach, it was a mere illusion. Salvador knew Jag was here. Salvador always knew. Exactly why Jag rarely sought out Salvador for guidance. Salvador saw beneath his exterior, to the inner turmoil Jag hid from others. Facing Salvador meant facing far more than the mentor who'd trained him to face the Darklands. It meant facing himself.
And that, he didn't want to do.
As Jag walked up the three wooden steps leading to the core of the structure, his nostrils flared, taking in the essence of sage and rosemary in the air. Incense and candles often donned the areas of Salvador's presence. Salvador called them cleansing. Today, they burned in lanterns hanging from each corner of the building.
But nothing could make Jag clean, and he knew it. He suspected Salvador did, as well. He'd been tainted by battle and touched by death. No one could cleanse the blood from his soul.
The sultry scents lifted with a breeze and enhanced the memories already in the forefront of his mind. Forcing them aside, he studied the man before him, the one who had both saved and created him two centuries before.
Tall and lithe, with high cheekbones, a strong jaw and light brown skin, Salvador hadn't aged, just as Jag had not. They were immortal, and for them, time had stood still. At least, in the physical form. But each day felt like a lifetime.
Drawing to a halt a few steps in front of Salvador, Jag watched as the other man opened his eyes. Eyes like emeralds, so intensely green they never failed to take Jag by surprise. For long moments, Salvador stared at Jag, taking him in as if he memorized every pore and line of Jag's face.
"Your heart is heavy, my friend," Salvador said in the soft yet commanding voice Jag had come to expect from him. Salvador motioned to a bench positioned along the atrium railing, and together they moved toward it. Jag didn't want to sit, feeling anxious about what he had to discuss, but he did.
"What troubles you?" Salvador asked, once they were settled.
Jag wasn't fooled by the directness of the question. This conversation would not be straightforward and easy. With Salvador, everything came in riddles and word games. Just one of many reasons Jag dreaded coming here. Frustration always came with these meetings. Worse, Jag got the feeling Salvador knew why he was here before he told him. Regardless, Salvador would make him work for the answers he sought.
The sooner he got this conversation over the better. "I've been having dreams. The first since " His words trailed off. They both knew since when. Since he'd become the leader of the Knights of White. He wanted to stand, but he forced himself to remain still. Telling Salvador, he'd dreamed of bloodlust didn't exactly come easy. Avoiding detail for as long as possible, he did a verbal sidestep. "They mean something, these dreams. I just don't know what."
Seconds passed and Salvador didn't respond. Finally he broke the silence, disappointment heavy in his voice. "You still do not accept your destiny. I'd hoped you would have by now."
As expected, the riddles were already starting. Despite frustration, Jag kept his voice controlled, speaking through clenched teeth. "I hunt. I kill. My destiny is clear. I get that. What I don't get is these dreams."
"And you want me to explain them to you?"
"Yes," Jag said. "Why else would I be here? I came here for answers."
Salvador pushed to his feet and crossed to a corner where a hanging shelf held an array of knives and swords. The scrape of metal filled the air as Salvador withdrew a sword from its sheath and then moved to the center of the atrium. He faced Jag, his blade in front of his body, its steel glistening in the sunlight trickling through the crisscross of the cover overhead. "You say you want answers, but I see only one thing inside you, Jag. I see a desire to fight." Salvador spit the words out, goading him with their truth. "I have never denied you what you seek. So stand and fight."
Jag narrowed his gaze on Salvador, the man who had not only fixed his bleeding body when the Darklands had destroyed it, but taught him to wage a war against them, as well. A man who could raise a hand and change a person's fate, with the power of good behind him. A power he refused to explain to Jag, and that did nothing but piss him off. How did he know Salvador was good and not evil? Okay, he knew. What he didn't know was if he, himself, could ever be anything but dark.
Sometimes, he wished Salvador would have just killed him instead. That he had allowed him to live made Jag angry. Furious even. He pushed to his feet, feeling the thought like hot flames licking at his body. Without hesitation, Jag turned to the weapons rack, found a sword, then turned to face Salvador.
If Salvador wanted to fight, they'd fight. Fighting was all he knew. It's how he dealt with everything in his life. He fought. He killed. He slept. He woke up and did it again.
He hadn't asked to be the leader of the Knights. He hadn't asked for any of this.
Jag bent at the knees, one hand in the air, sword in ready position, matching the stance Salvador already held. Then, Jag touched his blade to Salvador's, the action announcing his readiness to press this challenge onward.
Silence fell between them as seconds passed, their gazes matching in a mental war of sorts. Without warning, Salvador moved, scraping his blade along Jag's in an aggressive action that demanded response. Jag double-stepped and blocked the move, returning it with a swipe of his weapon, but something made him hesitate to go fully on the attack.
Blade to blade, Salvador and Jag held them steady, moving in a circle, again in a mental war. "What are you waiting for?" Salvador prodded. "I offer you what you seek. I give you a battle to fight."
"I do not seek a battle. I seek answers."
Salvador made a disgusted sound. "You aren't ready for answers."
"Why must everything be a word game with you?" Jag demanded. "Why?"
"This is no game, I assure you," Salvador replied, his sword hitting Jag's.
The clang of metal against metal filled the air for several minutes, but it didn't provide an outlet for Jag's frustration. With his chest rising and falling, his breath heavy, not from activity but emotion, Jag finally understood what was happening. Salvador simply played with him. The man was an expert swordsman who taunted and teased Jag with well-conducted maneuvers, just as he had his words.
"Enough," Jag said, taking a step backward, and dropping his weapon from ready position. "I'm done."