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There was a full moon tonight, but that only meant deeper shadows for their quarry to hide ... or lay in wait for them. MP Cpl. Josephine Benate pressed the button on her radio. "You see him, Murphy?"
Static greeted her when she released the button. "GI piece of shit issue," she muttered, wondering if her partner had gotten out of range or if the buildings were interfering. She pressed it again. "Murphy? What's your position?"
"...end of the field. He's gone over the wire. Heading for the trees."
"Where's our backup?" Again, the response was a burst of static. "Murphy. Where's our backup?"
"I'm on it."
She could tell from his voice that he was running. She cursed under her breath. "Hold your position, private."
He didn't respond. "I say again, hold your position for back up."
She scanned the perimeter and the field beyond it and caught a glimpse of movement just outside the fence. She knew it had to be Murphy and wondered if he'd called for backup, as he'd been ordered to, before he ditched their jeep. She had a bad feeling he hadn't. She ought to have known better than to leave it to him. He was too gung ho for his own good. "Stupid rookie," she ground out and began jogging in his direction, scanning the area between her partner and the edge of the woods.
A shadow detached itself from the ground and bolted for the trees. He wasn't twenty feet in front of Murphy. Josie ran faster, hoping to avert disaster. She almost ran right past the break in the fence. Skidding to a stop, she doubled back and pushed through the cut wire. The ragged edges scraped across the sleeve of her uniform andsnagged, jerking her to a halt. She grabbed the wire with her other hand and gave it a yank to free herself. As she did, she heard a meaty thud behind her. "Damn it!" she growled, pulling against the snag so hard she staggered when she finally came loose.
Whipping her head around, she scanned the clearing and zeroed in on the two men struggling near the edge of the woods. She launched herself into a full out run. She was within a couple of yards of the struggling pair when the report of a pistol almost deafened her.
She didn't know if Murphy had fired, if the suspect had managed to get Murphy's pistol, or if both men had a gun, but she didn't have time to retreat. Without taking time to consider it, she launched herself into the air, diving for them.
As if watching the event in slow motion, she saw Murphy crumpling toward the ground. She saw their suspect's mouth working in a silent yell and his head turning in her direction, watched as he brought his gun arm up.
Her impact with the suspect stunned both of them. Two seconds after their midair collision, they hit the ground. Josie rolled and came back up on her feet, scrabbling to pull her own weapon from its holster. The suspect, she saw, was on his feet, as well, and no longer armed. He glanced quickly around for his weapon and dove at her instead when he didn't see it. He hit her so hard the weapon she'd just pulled from her holster went flying off into the darkness. Pinning her to the ground, he shoved his forearm under her chin, pressing against her throat.
A roaring filled her ears. She clawed uselessly at his arm for a moment and then went for his eyes. He jerked his head back beyond her reach, but the movement also relieved the pressure on her throat. She grabbed the arm he was trying to choke her with, pushing up on it and bucked, trying to throw him off of her. Grinning, he grabbed both of her wrists and shoved her hands into the dirt, scooting up far enough he could put a knee of each hand.
She jerked the first hand from beneath his knee while he was trying to secure the other with his opposite knee. This time, instead of going for his eyes, she went for his crotch, grabbing a handful of cods and squeezing them for all she was worth. He let out a high pitched scream and grabbed for her hand with both of his, trying to pry her fingers loose. Balling her freehand into a fist, she drove it upwards with all her strength into his nose. Blood gushed down his face. She managed to buck him off of her while he was distracted and scrambled to her feet, but she'd barely gained her feet when he launched himself at her again.
She leapt to one side, but not far enough or fast enough. He managed to catch hold of the leg of her trousers and jerk her off balance, sending her slamming into the dirt. She drew her knee up and caught him on the side of the head with her boot, stunning him long enough to scramble to her feet.
He was already on his knees by the time she'd regained her feet and whirled to face him again. Something caught her eye as she turned to face her assailant, but it didn't register in her mind immediately. She was too intent on immobilizing the suspect before he managed to find one of the pistols. Even as she drew back and kicked the man in the ribs with the toe of her steel toed boot, it clicked.
There was a man behind her ... and it wasn't Murphy.
She leapt over her suspect, whirling so that she could see the other man. She only caught a glimpse of a whole lot of naked flesh, however. Despite the cracked rib she knew she'd given him, the man she'd kicked was on his feet almost before she landed on the other side of him. She discovered she'd lost her hat in the scuffle when the man caught a fistful of her hair, nearly pulling it out by the roots as he used it to swing her around.
Ignoring the pain that brought tears to her eyes, Josie used the momentum her assailant had given her to drive her elbow into his cracked rib. Her elbow immediately went numb, but the man released his grip on her hair as he doubled over and spat blood.
She backed off, flexing her fingers to try to get the feeling back. "You're under arrest, Sergeant Collins," she said gustily. "Put your hands behind your back, soldier!"
Slowly, he straightened, swaying slightly.
"Get down on the ground and put your hands behind your back."
"I don't think so," Collins ground out, leaping toward her again.
Josie bounded into the air, launching a flying kick at his head. Pain shot through her knee and ankle at the impact, but his head jerked sideways, changing his trajectory. He plowed up the dirt to her left. Josie landed in a half squat, ground her teeth against the pain and pushed herself upright, glancing from Collins to the stranger, who hadn't so much as moved a muscle. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" she demanded, keeping her eye on Collins, who'd struggled to his knees.
The stranger still didn't answer. She flicked a glance at him, saw that he still hadn't moved and strode toward Collins, kicking him hard enough on the ass that he plowed dirt again.
She dared another quick glance at the stranger and finally decided he must be an escaped mental patient. She couldn't think of any other explanation for his being here stark naked ... and as far as she could see, he was.
She didn't think he could be Collins' contact, in any case. He seemed unthreatening, for the moment at least. She divided her attention between the two men while she felt around for her handcuffs. The distraction cost her. As she clamped the handcuff on one of Collins' wrists, he rolled, throwing dirt in her face and pitching her over him. She managed to tuck herself into a roll as the ground zoomed up to meet her. Coming up on her feet again, she whipped around to face Collins.
That was when she discovered he'd managed to get one of the pistols ... and he had it aimed at her head. She dove away a split second before he fired, but she had no where to run and she realized she wasn't going to be able to reach the trees before he put one in her back. She made the attempt anyway. The second bullet caught the edge of her trousers, searing the skin.
The third bullet brought a gurgling yelp from Collins. The sound caught her attention and she whirled to look. The naked stranger had one hand on Collins' gun arm. Collins' wrist was dangling at a sickening angle, the pistol hanging from one finger now.
Josie stopped, staring at the two men, wondering how the stranger had managed to cover so much distance so fast. When he released Collins, the sergeant crumpled to the ground, nursing his smoking boot.
After a moment, she moved cautiously toward the two men. "Who are you?" she demanded again.
The stranger, who'd been studying her from the moment she changed directions and headed toward them, spoke for the first time. "Lord Nigel Bloodragon, Duke of Sarcen."
Josie stopped abruptly in her tracks. She'd been right to begin with. The man had to be a mental patient. The problem was, they were miles from any mental hospital that she knew anything about.
She couldn't see it in his eyes ... but then there wasn't that much light. Still.... Now that the adrenaline had stopped pumping through her bloodstream and the shock was beginning to wear off, she saw he wasn't completely naked as she'd thought. He was wearing something like a jock sock--she'd gotten a glimpse of one butt cheek so she knew it was a thong. It looked like the sort of thing a male dancer would wear, particularly in light of the fact that the man had the muscular physic of a body builder. For that matter, his whole getup almost shouted male dancer--or maybe he was some kind of S&M nut? There were epaulettes on his shoulders that looked as if they were made of metal. There were one to two inch spikes poking out from the epaulettes. Some sort of filigreed metal curled around his ribs, joined in from just above the jock sock, and he had one hell of an impressive package tucked into that thing. Either he had the balls of a stud bull, or a cock like one. A dark cape fluttered behind him. He also had about a thirty inch sword tucked into a scabbard at his side, but he'd made no attempt to draw it and she thought it might be just for show.
Who did he think he was, anyway? Super cock?
"Step away from my prisoner."
He looked down at the man at his feet and finally stepped away from him. She moved toward the men cautiously. That was when she realized 'super cock' was somewhere between six and seven feet tall, leaning more toward seven because he was one big son-of-a-bitch.
"Back off," she ground out, suddenly wishing she had her revolver ... or two dozen MPs with automatics at her back. The guy wasn't just a giant. He moved like greased lightening. She'd been between the two men when Collins started firing, but he'd still managed to close the distance and break Collins' wrist before Collins got off his third round.
As docile as a lamb, the hulking giant moved a few paces further, but not nearly far enough to suit Josie.
Texas might have been far enough.
Collins screamed when she grabbed his wrist. She ignored him, putting her knee in his back and cuffing the other hand.
"Bitch! My fucking wrist's broken!" Collins ground out when he managed to catch his breath.
"You're lucky I don't break your fucking neck, you son-of-a-bitch! You shot my partner.... Murphy!" she yelled. "Murphy? Are you all right?"
"That one is dead."
Josie looked at the stranger sharply. He had a strange accent, making it difficult to understand him. Russian, she wondered? "Did you do it?"
He shook his head, pointing to Collins. "That one."
She picked up the pistol that lay in the dirt. "What are you doing here? This area is restricted."
"I came to look for someone to aid me in a just cause. I need a female."
Josie was taken aback. She didn't have another pair of handcuffs though. Holding the pistol leveled at the stranger, she moved to Murphy and checked him for a pulse. There wasn't one. She'd feared as much. He hadn't made a sound since he'd gone down. Shoving the pistol into her holster, she rolled him over. His chest was soaked with blood. Collins had caught him in the heart. She swallowed against the knot that welled in her throat, but it was some consolation to know that he hadn't lay dying while she was busy trying to subdue Collins.
She was liable to be facing a Court Martial, though.
"You're going to fry for this one, Collins," she ground out.
Pulling Murphy's cuffs from his belt, she stood once more and studied the stranger. "You're not going to give me a hard time, are you?"
His brows rose questioningly.
"I'm going to have to take you in, too," she said steadily.
"This is a government facility, and it's restricted. I'll have to take you in for questioning ... If nothing else, you're a witness."
He frowned thoughtfully. "How much time will this take?"
Josie gave him a look. "A few hours ... maybe a few days."
"I do not have time ... now. When we return, I will do so."
Josie's heart skipped a few beats. "What are you talking about?"
"You are a soldier, yes?"
Josie nodded. "Military police, sir. Your cooperation will be appreciated."
He shook his head. "This is a strange world. I could scarcely believe you were a female and still a warrior, and yet I have seen your prowess as a fighter."
Josie stared at him in dismay. Just when she'd decided he wasn't a mental patient! Where the hell was her backup? Even if Murphy hadn't made the call, somebody should have heard the shots that had been fired. The damn place should be crawling with MPs by now. "All righty, then. Let's just take this slowly. Turn around and put your hands behind your back."
"Quit dicking around with the lunatic, bitch! I need a medic. I'm bleeding to death here."
Josie slid a glance toward Collins. "Shut up, asshole. Don't worry about it. I'm not going to let you die. I want to watch when they execute your sorry ass."
When she returned her attention to the stranger, she saw he hadn't moved.
"I should explain," he said slowly. "Our future queen is in peril. We dare not take her to Caracaren, for the traitors await her there and they have already made one attempt on her life. I need a female to pose as the princess while we ferret out the traitors. Be assured that I will protect you from harm and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts for the queen."
"I really don't want to shoot you, sir, but I'm going to have to if you don't turn around and put your hands behind your back ... right now."
He tipped his head to one side. "I do not believe that ... pistol? Will operate."
"I figure I've still got at least three bullets. It might not bring a hulking brute like you down, but it'll sure as hell fuck up your day."
"The end is bent," he pointed out almost apologetically.
Josie's gaze flickered down at the gun. "Shit!" Tossing it aside, she sprang into the air, aiming a flying kick at his head. He caught her foot with one hand. It was like hitting a brick wall, immovable. A jolt went through her entire body. She landed on the ground so hard it knocked the breath from her lungs and rattled her brains against her skull. Before she could do more than grunt, he'd scooped her off the ground.
"Are you injured?"
Besides scrambling her brains and breaking every bone in her body? She lifted her head with an effort, trying to focus her eyes ... which seemed to be rolling around independently of each other. "Jus.. fine," she managed to say in a slurred voice.
He caught her lolling head and studied her in frowning silence for a moment.
Dimly, Josie heard the sounds of vehicles skidding to an abrupt stop, voices in the distance. Lights flooded the area.
"This is the military police!" a male voice shouted. "Release the woman! Now!"
The stranger flicked a glance in the direction of the shout. "You are only stunned. We should go now. I will explain all when we reach Atar."
As if that settled the matter, he cradled her tightly against his chest and took off at a run. Josie bit her tongue at the first jolt and tasted blood. She clenched her teeth together after that. She'd just begun to feel some of the pain easing off when they suddenly went airborne. Before she could do more than gasp in a single breath of air, she felt something cold and slimy crawl over her skin, felt a cessation of movement, and sound. Gelatin?
Panic washed over her, freezing the blood in her veins. Abruptly, they fell through whatever it was that had surrounded them and movement, sound, and air rushed over her. He absorbed most of the impact of their landing and Josie still felt several bones along her spine crackle.
She hadn't realized that she'd squeezed her eyes shut, preparing for impact, until they jolted to a stop. Opening her eyes warily, she lifted her head from his shoulder and looked around at the strange landscape and then up at the sky when she realized nothing looked familiar.
In the night sky above them, three moons, one full and two half moons, were lined up like the lights on a runway.
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