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Dust and the humidity made the air too heavy to breathe. Jarvis Donahue leaned against a tree and rested his weary body for a few seconds. Sweat stung his eyes, making it impossible to see clearly. When he used the hem of his T-shirt to wipe off his face, it came away stained with dirt, sweat, and old blood. Some of it was his, some of it not.
There was one more Other to track down and kill before he could think about some serious sack time. He was in no condition to fight, but there hadn't been anyone else left to send.
He reached out with his senses on full alert, listening for the presence of his enemy. Pushing away from the tree, he picked up his sword. At least he was still upright and functioning. That was more than he could say about Jake and several more of his fellow Paladins. The Handlers were scrambling to patch wounded Paladins back together, shoving the walking wounded back out the door as fast as they could. Only the dead were given a chance to rest, but they'd be sent right back into the fight as soon as they had a regular pulse.
For the past two weeks the barrier had been down more than it was up, and anyone strong enough to hold a sword was ordered to hold the line against invasion. If those bastard Regents didn't bring in some replacements pretty damn quick, the whole state would be overrun with murderous Others on a killing spree.
Jarvis started down the slope toward the narrow river that ran along the valley floor. Some cool water would bolster his energy, and the going would be easier down where the ground was flatter. Slipping and sliding, he hauled his weary ass down the hill, not caring if the noise he made carried to his enemy's ears.
He wanted the bastard to know that death was on his trail. As long as the Other was busy avoiding the sharp end of Jarvis's sword, he'd be too busy to look for innocent victims along the way. Right now Jarvis still had the advantage, because the bright daylight would leave the Other all but blind. But once the sun dropped behind the hills to the west, all bets were off. He and his mortal enemy would be stalking each other in the darkness.
There was no sign of anyone along the river. His sword at the ready, Jarvis knelt down and scooped up handfuls of water, splashing almost as much on his clothing as he got into his mouth. The cool, clear water tasted sweet, washing away the coppery taste of blood from his tongue. When he'd had his fill, he dunked his head underwater and then raised up quickly, shaking off the excess water and sending a spray of droplets sparkling through the air.
It was better than a jolt of caffeine for clearing the head. But now, it was time to get back to business. Once darkness fell, the Other would be in his element. Keeping to the edge of the water, Jarvis watched the top of the ridge.
There. Just ahead, someone crested the hill, heading away from the river. Jarvis charged up the hillside, the familiar sizzle of adrenaline surging through his veins. Out here in the countryside, he didn't have to worry so much about running into civilians. He and the Other would have privacy for this latest battle in the secret war between their two peoples.
Judging by the Other's speed, he knew Jarvis was closing in on him. Good. Panic made for poor judgment and wasted effort.
Keeping below the crest of the hill, Jarvis shoved through the underbrush as quietly as he could. Any element of surprise was better than none. Maybe he could get ahead of his quarry and stage a nice little ambush for him.
At the edge of a clearing Jarvis picked up his pace, loping through the grass and wishing he had some backup. Even one of the regular guards would have been welcome, but that wasn't going to happen.
Turning back in the direction he'd last seen the Other, he paused just inside the treeline. All he could hear was his own ragged breathing. Even the cicadas were quiet. Should he risk another few steps? What choice did he have? Some innocent local would pay the price if he didn't track the murderous son of a bitch down and skewer him. Drawing on his last store of energy, he stalked through the woods with his sword out to the side.
A twig snapped off to his left just as the air stirred behind him. With the instincts born of years of fighting, Jarvis brought up his sword and swung to kill.
The Other jerked back out of range, avoiding being gutted by blind luck. He took off running, pounding downhill toward the river with Jarvis right on his heels. The Other, dressed in Kalith black, was a living shadow as he darted between the trees.
Jarvis didn't slow down, knowing this was his last chance to catch his enemy. If he failed now, the Other would blend into the darkness and disappear until a trail of human death led the Paladins straight to him. That wasn't going to happen on Jarvis's watch.
He flung himself to the ground to slide down the steep slope in a controlled fall. Bruises didn't matter but a broken bone would leave him vulnerable to attack. He reached the bottom and pulled himself to his feet.
When the Other went splashing across the river, Jarvis charged in right after him, coming out only a few feet from his enemy. The Other finally turned to challenge him, his pale eyes crazed and gleaming in the failing light.
"You know you're going to die if we fight. Why don't you come along like a good little freak, and I'll shove you back across the barrier to your own world." Jarvis kept his voice reasonable, not sure why he was offering the bastard another chance at life.
Maybe because he was soul-sick with all the killing he'd done, and with no end of it in sight. But not once in all his years as a Paladin had an Other accepted his offer of clemency.
This one was just like the rest. He'd drawn his own sword and stood waiting for the fatal dance to begin. At the last second, his eyes flicked past Jarvis to focus just behind him. Oh, fuck no!
A sword hummed through the heavy evening air from behind Jarvis. He spun to block the blow, only to see at least two Others moving in to surround him. Even at full strength, he would've had a hard time taking on that many at once.
Bringing up his sword, he screamed out his rage and prepared to die -- again. Well, hell had room for a few Others, too. He might be fighting a losing battle, but he'd take his enemies with him.
An eerie howl broke the early evening quiet, startling Gwen out of the romance novel she'd stolen a few minutes to read. She stuck a scrap of paper in the book to keep her place and listened, waiting for a repeat performance. It wasn't long in coming, and then a second voice joined in the ballad, making her frown.
Larry, her brother's coonhound, was a young dog who'd bay at anything that moved in the woods, but Dozer usually showed more sense. Often as not, Larry treed some poor critter and just wanted someone to come admire his handiwork. Dozer spent most of his time sleeping on the porch or tagging along behind Gwen when she worked outside, but right now he sounded pretty darned upset. She pocketed her cell phone and got up to see what had them so worked up.
Dozer let loose with another long howl as she picked up a flashlight and grabbed the loaded twenty-two by the mudroom door. She followed the path toward the small river that ran through the woods bordering her property to the east. The dogs met her at the edge of the trees, looking worried and wagging their tails in obvious relief.
"Come on, boys, let's go see what you've found."
She offered Dozer the comfort of her touch while Larry ran on ahead, circling back occasionally as if to hurry her along. Despite the cloying heat of the evening air, a chill snaked down her spine.
Dozer crowded closer to her legs and this time, when Larry circled back, he stayed with her. Their unusual behavior was definitely worrisome. Maybe she should have called the dogs into the house and locked the door rather than charging out on her own -- especially without telling Chase where she was going.
She shone the flashlight in a wide arc, but its glow extended only a few yards. Dozer whined again and took a few steps forward before looking back at her and slowly wagging his tail. Larry might not have a lick of sense, but she trusted Dozer not to lead her into danger.
"All right, boy, I'm coming." She rested the barrel of the twenty-two back over her shoulder and hurried after the anxious dogs.
A short distance ahead, Dozer stopped again, this time to raise his head and howl. Larry lay down beside the older dog and trembled. Gwen shined the flashlight on the path ahead of them but didn't see anything. Then she swung it down toward the river. Just a short distance from the path, she could just make out the shape of something lying half in the water.
It looked like a log, but that wouldn't have riled up the dogs -- unless it had injured an animal when it went down. She never liked killing wild things, but neither would she let some poor animal suffer if she could help it.
Watching out for snakes, she made her way down to the river's edge, only to realize that the dark lump wasn't a log at all, but a man.
"Hey, mister, are you all right?" She had to ask even though it was obvious from the way he lay sprawled across the rocks that he wasn't. "I don't want to spook you, mister, but these woods are no place to be at night. You shouldn't be here." And maybe she should listen to her own advice.
The dogs crowded closer to the limp body, risking a quick sniff now that she was there to protect them. Larry gave the stranger's face a tentative lick, which got no reaction at all. Either the man had ironclad control over his reflexes or else he was unconscious. She refused to think he might actually be dead.
Her heart in her throat, she knelt at his side and pressed two shaky fingers against the side of his neck. His skin was cool and clammy, but she felt a faint pulse. What to do next? She used the flashlight to catalog the stranger's injuries.
He looked as if he'd tangled with the wrong end of a buzz saw, with deep cuts along his arms. She reached out to touch his shoulder and her hand came away wet -- but not with water. Dear God, his shirt was soaked through with blood! She gagged as her stomach roiled.
Quickly rinsing her hand in the water, she tried not to think about the possible infections his blood might carry. Who or what had done this to him?
But she wouldn't be any good to either of them if she gave in to panic. She started to reach for her cell phone to dial 911, then froze and blinked her eyes to make sure she was seeing straight.
Unless she'd taken leave of her senses, one of the shallow cuts on his face had all but disappeared while she watched. She peeled off the chambray shirt she wore over her T-shirt and dipped it in the river. Using the damp cloth, she wiped more of the mud and blood off his face and the closest arm to study his injuries. After a few seconds she reached for the phone again, but this time she called the house and waited for her brother to answer.
"Chase, I'm down by the river with an injured man. Bring the garden cart and some old towels. And don't tell anyone." She disconnected before her brother could ask any questions.
In all her years, she'd seen only one other person heal that quickly: Chase, her half-brother. If this man had that same ability, he wouldn't appreciate being at the mercy of the local medical authorities. If he didn't, well, then she'd call for help as soon as they got to the house.
But maybe, just maybe, she and Chase would finally have some answers about his peculiar gift.
It took considerable pushing and shoving to get the garden cart through the door of the guest room, but they'd finally managed. Gwen quickly stripped the blankets down to the foot of the bed and spread out an old shower curtain to protect the mattress until they got the stranger cleaned up.
"On a count of three, we'll heave him up onto the bed."
Chase nodded and took the stranger's feet while she worked her hands under his armpits. She counted aloud to three, then strained to muscle his deadweight up and onto the bed. It worried her a great deal that the wounded man hadn't even whimpered, no matter how much they jostled him. It had to hurt, even though his wounds continued to heal before their eyes.
"Who do you think he is?" Chase stared down at the man, worry and curiosity an equal mix in his expression.
"No idea. I've never seen him before." Despite all the grime, he was a strikingly handsome man, one who'd be hard to forget. "We can look for his identification after we get him out of those wet clothes. He's starting to look a bit blue."
When she started tugging at the man's wet shoes, Chase frowned and reached out a hand to stop her. "Maybe I should be the one to strip him."
Although Chase was almost ten years younger than she was, he'd recently developed a protective streak a mile wide. He was several inches over six feet and starting to pack on some muscle, yet she still had a hard time seeing him as anything other than her little brother.
"I need to check his injuries, Chase. You put the cart back outside and then grab the first aid kit. I'll get warm water, soap, and towels."
"But..." He started to protest again.
She already felt half guilty about not calling for an ambulance; the least they could do was get him cleaned up and comfortable as quickly as possible. "Chase, let's just get this over with. Please."
He grumbled about her stubbornness under his breath, but she let it pass. When Chase left, she started peeling off the stranger's wet socks and jeans. She left his boxers in place, figuring the soft cotton would dry fairly quickly. His T-shirt was a goner, though, so she cut it off with scissors.
Despite his goose-bumpy skin and streaks of mud, it was impossible not to admire all those well-defined muscles. Judging by the way he filled up the old double bed, he had to be at least Chase's height, well over six feet tall. She noted the calluses on his hands and feet, the kind common to those dedicated to martial arts.
Could he be in the military or law enforcement? Or was he some sort of criminal, left to die by his fellow thieves or injured in a heist gone bad? She wouldn't go there. For the moment, he was helpless and in need of care.
She filled a bowl with warm water, then carried it to the bedside table so she could wash away the dirt and blood to check his injuries. More for Chase's sake than her patient's modesty, she draped a clean towel over the center of his groin and set to work.
It was a relief to see that most of his wounds were already closing up and healing. A couple, though, were quite deep and caked with mud. Judging by the number of battle scars on his body, this wasn't the first time he'd been in this shape. What kind of life did he lead?
Shoving that thought onto the back burner, she began the delicate task of cleaning the filth out of the few deeper cuts. What on earth had he tangled with that would do such damage? It was almost as if he'd been in a knife fight, but it had to be a hell of a big blade to cause such damage.
When Chase finally returned with the first aid kit, his mouth was set in a straight line and his blue eyes darkened in disapproval. He placed the kit within easy reach before bending down to pick up the sodden jeans she'd tossed on the floor.
"Did you check his ID?"
"Not yet. I left that for you."
Chase pulled out a trifold wallet and carried it over to the lamp to see better. When he pulled out a wad of money, a foil packet fell onto the table. Gwen pretended not to see it while her brother blushed and hastily stuffed it back in the wallet.
"Doesn't look like he was robbed." He studied the driver's license. "His name is Jarvis Donahue, and he has a St. Louis address. How do you think he ended up in our woods?"
"We'll have to ask him when he wakes up." She dried the last cut and carefully taped a gauze pad over it with surgical tape. "If he's like you, he'll sleep through the night while his body heals. Come morning, though, we should get some answers."
Chase crowded closer to the bed. "He really is like me." The boy's voice cracked, a sign of how intensely the discovery affected him.
"It would appear so. Do you want to be there when I question him?"
"Yes." Then Chase shook his head. "No, you do it after I leave for work. You can tell me what he said when I get home."
"But..." she started to argue, but changed her mind. As volatile as Chase's temper had been lately, there was no telling how he'd react to his problems being discussed with a total stranger.
Gwen stretched her weary back, then gave her brother a weary smile. "Let's get this mess cleaned up and throw his wet things in the washer. I had to cut his shirt off, so he'll need something to wear in the morning. Can you toss one of your shirts downstairs when you go up to bed? You're pretty close in size."
Chase nodded as he stooped to pick up the jeans and dirty towels and headed for the mudroom. "I'll set his shoes on the dryer, too."
"Good idea. Oh, and one other thing. When you come back, bring that rope from the cabinet over the washer."
Chase's head jerked around. "Rope? What are you going to do with that?"
"I'm going to tie him to the bed, once I've got him under the covers."
Chase returned to study the stranger. "Why? If you're that worried, maybe we ought to call the sheriff."
"That's part of it, but mainly I'm afraid he'll thrash around when he starts waking up. Last time you fractured your arm, you almost broke my jaw when I leaned over to check how you were doing. I'd guess he outweighs you by a good thirty pounds, with most of it muscle."
Chase flushed with embarrassment. That hadn't been the only time he'd hurt her when he was in the throes of healing. He couldn't help himself; it was just the way things were for him. She'd learned to approach him with great care.
"Can you roll him to one side for me while I get rid of the shower curtain? Lying on that plastic won't be comfortable."
Chase set down the wet clothes and towels and turned the stranger on his side while she tugged the curtain out from beneath him. Then they pulled the blankets up to cover him and put a pillow under his head.
"Thanks, Chase. If you'll start the washer, I'll put the clothes in the dryer later. Once you've done that and gotten me the rope, go on up to bed. I'm going to stay down here tonight."
"I can take a shift. What if he gets loose?"
Gwen mustered a reassuring smile. "I'll bring the dogs in to sleep by my chair. They'll sound the alarm if he tries anything. I'll be fine."
Chase didn't like it, but he left to do as she asked.
She checked her patient one more time. His skin was warmer to the touch, and his color had improved considerably since they'd brought him into the house. The unhealthy blue tone to his skin was gone, and his face had relaxed into peaceful sleep. She was pretty sure she'd made the right choice in bringing him home instead of turning him over to the authorities.
She could only imagine what the local emergency room doctors would have done when his cuts and bruises disappeared right before their eyes. He'd be lucky if he didn't end up the object of some highly classified medical experiments. She shuddered at the thought.
After letting in the dogs, she restrained their guest with the rope. She felt a little guilty, but she wouldn't risk him hurting her or her brother. In the morning, she would untie him -- if he gave her a believable explanation for how he'd come to be in that condition in her woods.
If she didn't like what he had to say, she would call the sheriff, although she'd have to come up with some excuse for not calling him in the first place. But she really, really hoped that this man had answers for all the questions she had about her younger brother.
She tugged a chair closer to the bed, then settled in for a long night.
Consciousness came burning back, jerking Jarvis out of the deep sleep his body demanded for healing. With it came the familiar surge of anger, coupled with a heightened awareness of being alive. His skin burned and hurt, as if it were too small to contain him any longer. Old habits had him twisting and turning to break free of his bonds; he hated being tied down, and hated the need for it even more.
But something was different. Waking up unable to move was hardly a new experience, but he was used to the cold chill of stainless steel under his back, not soft, sun-dried sheets. He tried to move his sword arm, but couldn't budge it more than an inch or two. Same with his left.
His legs were bound, too -- but with rope rather than the security straps and chains his Handlers used. What was going on? Keeping his eyes shut, he reached out with his other senses.
There were other heartbeats in the room, two of which weren't human. The good news was that they weren't Others. The third heartbeat was definitely human, and from the faint scent of floral perfume, it was most likely a woman's.
Where the hell was he, if he wasn't dead and he wasn't in the lab?
His last clear memory was the nightmare realization that he was about to die at the hands of a rogue mob of Others. Everything after that was a complete blank.
He opened one eye to assess his situation. A ceiling fan whirred softly overhead.
To the right was an old-fashioned oak dresser and a wall covered in floral striped wallpaper. Careful not to make any sudden moves, he slowly looked to his other side and hit pay dirt.
A woman lay sprawled in a chair in the corner. She couldn't possibly be comfortable with her neck bent like that, but it clearly hadn't interfered with her ability to sleep. Who was she?
He'd always been a sucker for redheads, especially the ones with fair skin and a few freckles thrown in for extra interest. He grinned, willing to bet she hated each and every one of them.
He studied her face, liking what he saw. What color were her eyes? He was betting on green, or maybe a rich chocolate brown. Her hands looked strong and capable, and she wasn't wearing a wedding ring -- although that didn't always mean anything. Not that it mattered. Once she cut him free, he'd leave, never to darken her doorway again. And that was a damn shame. He definitely wouldn't mind a romp in this bed with her.
Then he noted the rifle within easy reach of her chair. She'd been smart enough to tie him down, and he bet she knew how to use that gun. A bullet from a twenty-two wouldn't kill him, but it would hurt like hell. And if she hit a vital spot, it would definitely slow him down.
He shifted slightly, causing the bed to creak. Immediately there was the sound of claws scrabbling on a wooden floor, and two furry heads popped up over the edge of the bed. The dogs were well mannered enough not to jump up with him, but they whined and looked back at their owner as if trying to figure out what to do next.
The woman went from sound asleep to wide awake in a heartbeat. She jerked upright, her eyes wide and a little scared. Then she reached out to reassure her guardians.
"Down, boys. He doesn't need you in his face." The animals immediately disappeared from view.
If she'd been pretty while asleep, she was stunning wide awake. And he'd been right the first time: her eyes were a bright green with flecks of gold in them. Right now they were focused on him with sharp intelligence.
"Good morning, Mr. Donahue."
How the hell did she know his name? Then he spied his wallet on the small table next to the chair. She'd rifled through his things?
He let a little temper show in his words. "You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Mrs...."
"Gwen. Gwen Mosely, and it's Miss."
That pleased him far more than it should. "I would offer to shake your hand, but I'm a bit tied up at the moment."
When she made no move to untie him, he tried again. "I won't hurt you, Miss Mosely. If you'll just untie me, I'll leave and never bother you again."
Preferably without answering any of the questions she was likely to start asking, ones he couldn't answer.
"My dogs found you last night, and my brother and I brought you up to the house."
He could imagine what shape he'd been in when they found him. After a fierce fight, he'd managed to escape from the Others, but he hadn't expected to live through the night.
"You were a bloody mess." Her eyes darkened. "I don't suppose you'll tell me how you came to be in that condition."
"You suppose right." With the toll healing took on his body, he simply didn't have the energy to think up a believable lie. "You don't want to know the details."
"Well, yes, actually I do." She leaned forward, as if to encourage him to start talking.
He went on the attack. "Why didn't you call the authorities? Or are you in the habit of taking in wounded strangers and tying them up?"
Her fair skin flushed. "I thought about calling Sheriff Cooper, but he would have insisted on calling an ambulance. I didn't think you'd want the local medical authorities to get their hands on you. A man with your particular abilities could end up as a lab rat somewhere."
His stomach clenched. She was right -- but her reaction to his ability to heal didn't make sense. Unless she knew more about Paladin physiology than any civilian had business knowing.
"I would have survived the experience." Short of a head shot or amputation, he could survive almost anything, but she didn't know that. Or shouldn't.
"My mistake, then. Next time I find you cut to shreds and half-drowned, I'll save myself a lot of work and call nine-one-one." She had a redhead's temper, all right.
He tried his most winning smile. "Did I forget to thank you? This is a far more pleasant wake-up than I expected to have."
She wasn't buying it. "Save the charm for someone who might fall for it, Mr. Donahue."
He couldn't help laughing. "Okay, but the gratitude was sincere. I really do appreciate what you did for me." He tugged at his ropes again. "Now, can you cut me loose?"
She gave him a slow nod. "On one condition. You stay for breakfast and meet my brother."
That seemed like a simple enough request, but was it? What difference did it make if he met her brother or not? Maybe he should find out.
She smiled. "Good." She began working on the ropes before she spoke again. "There's a bathroom down the hall on the right. I'll lay out towels and a toothbrush for you. Your clothes are clean -- well, your jeans and socks are. I'm afraid your shirt was beyond salvaging. My brother is about your size, though, so you can wear one of his."
So her brother was full-grown. If he was an adult, though, why would he let his sister stand guard rather than do it himself? They had no way of knowing whether Jarvis was a good guy or a bad guy, and he'd give her brother an earful on the subject.
He remained still until she finished untying him, not wanting to startle her with any sudden moves.
When she stepped away from the bed with her two dogs flanking her, he slowly sat up. Other than a few sore spots, he was well on his way to mending.
When he swung his legs over the side of the bed, she actually blushed and backed farther away. He grabbed the sheet to cover himself up. In the lab, he was used to waking up stark naked with a serious woody and thinking nothing of it. But from the way she kept her gaze strictly on his face, she wasn't used to strange men walking around her house in their underwear, aroused or otherwise.
"I, um, I'll go get your things." She beat a hasty retreat.
Once she left the room, he picked up his cell phone from next to his wallet and called headquarters to check in. They sounded relieved to hear from him, but he didn't fool himself that they really cared. His permanent death might even come as a relief to some of the Regents, considering how often he was in their face over how they treated the local Paladins.
The good news was that the barrier had finally stabilized during the night. The mop- up campaign was nearly complete, and everyone had orders to stand down for the next couple of days.
Jarvis hung up, then headed down the hallway to the bathroom. After a hot shower, he'd ask his hostess a few pointed questions of his own.
Copyright © 2009 by Patricia L. Pritchard