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Her body ached.
It wasn't anything new. Although Lee was only twenty-eight years old, she already felt ancient. Ex-hausted even upon awakening, with stiff aching joints and bruises that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Lee slowly flexed her muscles and tried to hold together the fragile wisps of the dream. But as always, it faded away, out of reach, out of mind. He faded away.
She didn't know his face. But each night he came to her. Each night, they found each other again. He would look at her with eyes that made her burn and want and wish, and for that brief period of time, she felt whole-complete-and that sensation lingered with her as she drifted from sleep into awareness. But the minute she opened her eyes, all memory of her dreams started to fade. All that remained was an ache in her chest, a knot in her throat and a body that felt as though somebody had tried to beat her to death.
Today, the ache was worse. The memories were fading fast although she tried to hold on to them. Like smoke, though, they faded away even as she grabbed the notepad by her bed and started to scrawl down what little she remembered. She didn't look down while she wrote-instead she clenched her eyes tightly shut and focused on him. Even if she couldn't remember his face, she could remember how he made her feel inside. Fo-cusing on that instead of trying to recall the dream made the words flow more easily.
Blood. Screams. Smoke. The cries of the wounded. Ugly snarls and fetid breath. People clamored for her and they had needs that she couldn't even begin to understand. And him.
Always him. Everything seemed to revolve around him, and everything inside of her yearned for him. As much as Lee dreaded closing her eyes and facing the strange dreams that assaulted her while she slept, she yearned for them as well. Because her dreams led her to him. He would make her laugh, even when the dreams were dark as death. There was a warmth in his presence that filled an empty ache.
But not this past night. There had been distance, anger, and disgust. He'd yelled at her. His fury had been so great that even now she felt chilled by it.
She opened her eyes and stared at the notepad in front of her. She hadn't just written words. She'd sketched out faces of people she'd never met and monsters the likes of which she'd never seen.
She stared at each of the faces she'd drawn, studying its features for something that would trigger her memories again. The notebook was filled with sketches and notes, and none of them meant anything to her. All of them were set against twisted, scarred landscapes.
Some of the figures appeared more than others, like the old woman and the two guys. Even on paper, the woman's smile had a decidedly mischievous bent to it, as though she was laughing and Lee had no idea why. The men were polar opposites, one pale, one dark. One looked like an angel and the other had the devil's smile. Both of them were enough to make a girl's heart skip a beat, but if the man she dreamed of was one of them, she didn't know which one he was.
Furious with herself, Lee hurled the pad of paper across the room and watched as it hit the wall. It slid to the ground, several of the pages bent and crumpled. With a scowl, she climbed out of the bed and stalked to the bathroom.
"He isn't real," she told herself as she turned the hot water on full before turning to tug off her T-shirt. "He isn't real." He's not, her mind insisted, even though something inside her heart argued.
Her reflection caught her eye and she stilled, fighting the impulse to turn and look. Damn it, she was going to take all the mirrors down. She couldn't not look, when the mirrors were there.
But every time she saw a bruise, a chill ran through her. It was no different this time. Her eye was black, swollen, raw looking. It had been fine last night. Her mouth trembled as she tried to make sense of what she was looking at.
The doctors had tried to tell her she was doing it to herself. They had even done a sleep study and watched her all night long to determine what caused the bruising.
The study had revealed nothing. And everything.
For when she walked out of the room where they had monitored her body all night, her ankle was swollen, twisted and discolored. It had been fine the night before.
The tape of the study had shown her lying quietly on the narrow bunk, never once rising in the night. She didn't toss. She didn't turn. The only weird thing was a blip in the middle of the tape that lasted no more than a few eye blinks. For that brief span of time, the bed was empty. But she hadn't gotten out of the bed. The probes and lines weren't long enough to allow her to leave it without one of the attendants disconnect-ing them. They hadn't done it.
Odder still, an attendant had been in the room during the blip. They could see him at the edge of the screen. But he'd never seen her move. She hadn't done any more studies after that. Even though the doctors tried to urge her to agree, it had simply unsettled her too much. So no more studies. She'd just deal with looking like the loser of a boxing match.
Lee leaned forward and probed her eye, touching it gently, wincing at the tender flesh she encountered under her fingers. The eye itself looked fine, which was a relief. There had been one morning when she woke up and her pupil was blown. Her vision had been blurred, and the sickening pain made her think she had a concussion. By nightfall, though, the pupil had returned to normal and her vision was fine.
Today, her eyes seemed a little more bloodshot than usual, and the red looked unnaturally bright against the nasty mottled blue. Almost festive, the red, white and blue.
There was another bruise on her knee, like she had fallen down. The flesh was sensitive, and each step she took sent pain shooting through her knee. Much as the knee hurt, it was actually a rather light night. Lee knew from experience, though, that that wasn't necessarily a good thing. Light nights seemed to be followed by bad ones.
Her gut churned as that thought circled through her head. Bad ones came with concussions, broken bones-even burns. It had been a while since she'd had a real bad night, and it was like a little mental clock was ticking away the time. It wouldn't be much longer before she woke up one morning hurt so bad that she'd wish for death, just to get away from the pain.
Even if she did heal fast, pain was still pain and she was tired of feeling so much of it.
"Morbid, much?" she muttered as she turned away from her reflection. She climbed into the shower with one goal in mind. Shower... then caffeine. With caffeine, she could face almost anything.
Through the Veil, Kalen could see her. Stubborn little bitch. He could still just faintly smell the sweet scent of her skin, and his hands still itched to feel that satiny skin under his hands, to feel the silk of her hair brush against his body. The vivid bruise on her face infuriated him, even though her ability to heal rapidly was already lessening the vivid color and the swelling.
The Jorniak demon that had attacked her was dead. Dust in the wind. Not that Kalen had anything to do with it. Lee had taken damn good care of it herself. She was good at that. Always had been. Scowling, he wondered if maybe she was a little too good at it. Good at taking care of herself, good at rationalizing away prob-lems, good at everything.
Clenching his jaw, he turned away from the Veil and prepared himself to face the coming day without her. It was a frightening thought. But it always had been. One never knew what the day might bring. Not in this world.
There had been another demon attack, this time high up in the mountains, striking the small settlement of families living there. They had refused to come down into the valley. Too close to the Roinan Gate. It was as if they thought a few miles would protect them. They had been wrong, terribly wrong, and Kalen had to live with the guilt of not trying harder.
Raviners had killed the few men and taken their time with the women and children. It brought back memories too ugly for him to dwell on, staring at their remains. He couldn't even take a little bit of comfort in knowing that his men had slaughtered the Raviners. If he had taken them down himself, filling their bodies with the dangerous power of the pulsar he carried at his hip, it wouldn't have been any comfort.
They were losing a little more ground every day. The demons were breeding in his world now, and they didn't have to wait for the Roinan Gate to open for more of their numbers. There had been a time when finding a clutch of demons was a rare occurrence and they were killed quickly, if not always easily.
They might have a ghost of a chance if they could shut down the fucking gate. Though the demons were breeding in Kalen's world, they didn't breed easily. Kalen's people could hunt them down and kill them, but every time it seemed the resistance had gotten the advantage, the earth would rumble, signaling another influx of monsters as the gate was forced open.
It was an ugly, thankless job he was doing and one that often seemed pointless. No matter how many demons they killed, more sprung up to replace the dead. No matter how many lives they saved, they'd turn around and find more slaughtered. For every female they managed to save from the raiders, three more were taken.
It was to the point that the men now outnumbered the women four to one. Girl children were taken into the east, away from the gate, but Kalen heard rumors that girls were being kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder. As young as three or four; whoever the winner was, he'd care for the child and then take her to his bed as soon as she was old enough. Some didn't even wait beyond the girl's first menstrual period.
This damn war was turning his people into savages, and Kalen was losing hope. It hadn't been so hard at first;he'd been young and idealistic, convinced that with the loyal, devoted people that formed the resistance, they could face whatever hell Anqar threw at them. Convinced that Lelia would soon join them-truly join them. But instead, he was leading the resistance alone as he had for the past fifteen years.
Facing another day without her-and until she was ready to accept reality, not her idea of what reality was, it wasn't hard to imagine that each new day could be his last.
Lee stared with focused intent as she wielded the stylus, watching as the image took on life and color. It was a man. His features were familiar to her but that was no surprise. She'd drawn his face easily a hundred times. But he hadn't ever seemed this clear to her. This vivid.
A strong jaw, quicksilver eyes that could glint hot with fury one second and then be as cold as death the next. His long hair blew in the wind, tangling over wide shoulders as he stared out over a land that looked barren and desolate. There was something starkly beautiful about it, though. As if once it had been so lovely, it could bring a tear to the eye. Now it looked like some kind of hell.
He was crouched on a jagged outcropping, wearing a coat that billowed around a lithe, powerful body, tensed and ready... She added more color to his hair, a silvery sheen to the dense black. Then she added more definition to the muscles that rippled along his forearms under the rolled-up cuffs of his coat.
Lee worked in a daze. Once she finished with the man, she added to the background, working with the sky, the clouds, drawing in just the barest outline of creatures so monstrous they would have given her night-mares if she was prone to them. In her mind, they already had names. Jorniak demons. Raviners. Sirvani.
Battles raged in her mind as she worked. Hissing calls, furious shouts, the sounds of metal clashing, the hum of a laser weapon slicing through flesh. She could almost smell the scent of burnt flesh.
There were no battles for him now, though. The battles had already been fought. Now he rested. Now he prepared. Now he waited... waited for her.
I'm getting tired of waiting, Lee... We need you...
Then silence fell and she heard him, like he was whispering into her ear, from just over her shoulder. How much longer will you hide from what you are?
Lee snorted. "Just because I don't think you are real doesn't mean I am hiding," she muttered as she saved the work. Standing up, she wavered a little, her knees weak and shaky, as though she had just run a mile. Or fought a battle. Pressing a hand to her temple, she laughed shakily. "You're losing your mind, chick."
Actually, you're a little more sane now than usual, Lee. When are you going to stop fighting the truth, pet?
Lee ran her tongue around the inside of her cheek as she started across her studio. "I'm hearing things," she mumbled, shaking her head. "Man, I need a break. A vacation. Drugs. Something."
You need to stop being so blind, Lee.
"Damn it!" she shouted, spinning around. "Would you shut up?" That voice sounded so real... Holy shit.
It was him. The man from the picture.
He was standing right there.
In her studio.
With hair that flowed to broad, rock-hard shoulders, eyes the color of pewter, and a coat like Jack the Ripper would have worn. It hung down to the floor and had one of those weird little capelet things. Under the coat, he had a leather harness on his chest and she could see easily five different blades. His eyes glinted like silver and his hair was raven-wing black.
But he was also transparent. Lee pressed one hand to her mouth as black dots started to dance before her eyes. His teeth appeared as he grinned at her, a sensual twist of his lips before he faded away. She managed to whisper, "Oh, hell," before she hit the ground.
Long moments later, Lee groaned and forced her lids to lift. There was a throbbing just behind her brow as she sat up. With her hands on the ground, she stiffened her arms and forced her weight up, swearing as the world spun in dizzying circles around her. "Whoa... what in the hell... ?"
An image of that man danced before her eyes. "For crying out loud," she muttered, pressing a hand to her forehead. Damn it. "Working too hard."
Yeah. That had to be it. Had to be. She was working too hard, sleeping too little and stressing over it all. That was why he had looked so real to her. There was a life to him that was unlike anything she had ever drawn in her life. Everything, from the texture of his hair, the color of his eyes, to the demons that surrounded him.
She got to her feet, locking her knees when her legs wobbled underneath her. She needed to go to bed. But the dreams would chase her too vividly there. His image would follow her. Haunting her with that dark, quicksilver gaze and that mocking grin that seemed to taunt her every time she closed her eyes.
"I'm losing my mind," she groaned.
Rubbing her eyes, she shut her computer down and left her studio. "That's it. I'm done for the day."
Kalen watched with a faint smile as she walked away, shaking her head and probing the goose egg that was no doubt forming. She'd seen him. He'd seen the shock in her eyes, felt her gaze connect with his... at last. She was already rationalizing it away, but for once, he had managed to breach her conscious mind. He opened his eyes, and the vision of the Veil faded away, replaced once more by the physical world.
Not everybody could see the Veil, or see through it. It took years of training to see beyond what the conscious mind allowed. Kalen had been forced to learn to do it as he ascended through the ranks of their ragtag rebellion. Considering the demons they fought, they needed all the advantages they could get. It wasn't always handy, but the few times he'd looked through the Veil and seen what the Warlords of Anqar had planned for his people, he knew it was worth it. Saving just one life would have been worth it.
Being able to use it to spy on Lee was just a bonus.
Maybe tonight they would speak of something more than the battle against Anqar.
Hours later, Kalen growled to himself, "And perhaps kittens will fly."
Lee stood in front of the front line of the temp base set right at the city limits. Angeles lay before them in ruins. Until Kalen had moved his people here, the only living creatures in the ruined city were the few poor souls that had managed to evade both demon and Sirvani.
She stood quiet and intent, focused on something that he couldn't see or sense, although he wouldn't have been surprised if she was feigning that concentration just so she wouldn't have to look at him. From the time she had appeared out of the forest at sunset, Lee had been ignoring him entirely, like that brief, surreal moment earlier in the day hadn't happened. If Kalen had thought things would be different, he was very much mistaken.
It was business as usual for the pale, pretty blonde. The past few weeks had gone by with an uneasy quiet. It didn't bode well for them. Other than the encroaching bands of Raviners and the demon attack in the mountain settlement, there hadn't been much demonic activity on the radar. Small skirmishes, but very few out-right attacks and absolutely no raids for nearly two months. The gate wasn't completely inactive-weird little flickers that lasted a few heartbeats before it fell silent.
Their enemies never went this quiet for long. Lee's presence only added to Kalen's unease. The woman usually only showed up this regularly when trouble was brewing. She was silent and tense, her body practically vibrating from the nerves inside her as she paced the perimeter of the encampment.
Kalen didn't think it was the devastated landscape that held her attention.
Much of the city had fallen to ruins, but the inhabitants of New Angeles were determined not to lose one more square foot of their land. Anqar had been a blight on Ishtan for centuries untold. Entire families went missing in the dead of night. A horde of demons slipped through a gate and devastated small villages.
But Ishtan had always battled them back. The small raiding parties that came through were nothing that Ishtan couldn't handle. But the past two generations had seen drastic changes, and all of it for the worse. Gates were blasted open, unleashing a series of natural disasters that devastated the land. Entire armies re-placed the small raiding parties. Demons came through unchecked.
Ishtan was being overrun. Even though their resistance had battled back the invaders from Anqar, Kalen knew their luck wouldn't hold forever. When they fell, it was over.
Not because they were the only hope of an already broken world. Pockets of rebellion were scattered across the globe. But here in New Angeles, at the base of the Roinan mountain range, lay the gateway to and from Anqar. There were other, smaller gates but they were erratic and rarely remained open for longer than a few heartbearts. Many hadn't been opened for decades and were easier to protect. The Roinan Gate was huge, big enough for entire armies to pass through, and it remained open for hours, sometimes days, at a time.
There had been two other gates this size once. In Yorkton and in Jivan. A huge earthquake had rocked Jivan, and the shelf of land where that gate had resided crumbled. When the gate flickered next, it had proved devastating to what few people still lived on the big island. As well as to the creatures from Anqar that tried to come through. There was a second earthquake, more powerful than any in recorded history. A huge tsunami had resulted and no one had survived. What remained of the island lay under hundreds of feet of water. Hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of humans had died, but it had shut down a dangerous gate.
One hand giveth..., Kalen thought bitterly. The earthquake had probably saved most of that con-tinent, at least for the time being.
What happened in Yorkton, nobody knew. York had been the first to fall to the raiders, and nothing of what once was remained. Huge skyscrapers had been decimated by the endless battles. Ragtag rebellions had formed, just like they did with every other gate. The demons came through, destroying enough of the resistance that they would have less chance of fighting. Then the Sirvani came, capturing whatever women they could. Finally the Warlords.
Warlords could tap into the energy of the land with an ability much like Lee's. They fouled it, though. Poisoned it. The land weakened, and eventually the people fought less and less, as though the sickness in the land had spread through them.
The energy fluctuated each time the gate opened. An odd ripple effect. Power erupted from one gate, traveled through the land, triggered something that made the next nearest gate open. And so on and so on, until within a period of days, a hundred gates were open at any given time. Sensitives could feel it in the air when a gatestorm was approaching. There had been a huge storm brewing, centered around Yorkton. Resistance units throughout the world had mobilized, preparing for the coming onslaught.
But it didn't come. Instead there was a power fracture. Almost a hiccup, then an explosion. The resistance there had done something, but what, nobody would ever know. Nothing living survived. Yorkton was little more than a crater in the earth now, a hollowed-out, burned depression that stretched out for miles.
That had been three years ago and still nothing lived there. While it didn't exactly turn the tide, it weakened the remaining gates. The Roinan Gate was the only one strong enough now to trigger the others.
Their intelligence resources in Anqar were limited, but there was a theory that the Warlords somehow forced the flickering in the gates, the surge in power that made a gate open. Once the Warlords had the gate open, Sirvani and demons flooded through while other Sirvani worked with the Warlords to maintain the gate.
"She's tense tonight."
Kalen glanced over at Dais, his mouth quirking in a smile. The older man's face was heavily scarred-a long, ugly jagged mark started at his right temple and ended just above his lower jawbone. It was twisted and puckered, and thanks to days without medical treatment, infection had set in and damn near killed him. That had been forty years ago, a few years before Kalen was born, and he'd grown up seeing the old man's scars. Under the cavinir vest, there were probably twenty other scars. Some older. Some newer. All of them received while fighting the demons back.
Kalen looked over at Lee and studied her. Yes. She was quiet. Her mind was heavy; he could sense it even if he wasn't trying to touch her thoughts. Out of respect, he turned his back to her and focused on his weapons lieutenant. "You left your position to discuss her silence?"
Dais grinned. "No. I left my position to tell you that my men found two younglings out in the woods. Boys, seventeen or eighteen at the most. Looking for you, Cordain." The older man smirked a little as he used the rare title. Roughly translated, it meant "wise one" or "leader." It was a term that had once been used for governing males in Ishtan, while corida was the female equivalent. Over the past century, as their world sank further and further into chaos, many of the traditions had fallen to the wayside. Dais's use of the title now was more humorous than aught else. The man had nearly twice as many years on him as Kalen had, but when the role of leadership had fallen to Kalen over the years, Dais had settled comfortably into his role as Kalen's lieu-tenant and only rarely made jabs at Kalen's fewer years.
Thinking about the boys, Kalen rolled his eyes. Yeah, he could imagine why a couple of foolish boys were searching for him. Same reason men twice their age searched him out, but at least grown men had a place in Kalen's army. He didn't know what to do with the kids. He knew what they would want him to do, but as des-perate as he was, Kalen hadn't taken to putting seventeen-year-olds on the front line.
He prayed that day didn't ever come.
"They have an escort?"
Dais gave Kalen the same look he'd give a dullard. Chances were Dais's men had been watching the kids for days. And protecting them. With a smirk, Kalen said, "Fine, fine. Send them on in. Send them to Eira. She'll know what to do with them." He waved a hand back toward the main camp. If anybody deserved the respectful title of corida, it was Eira. She'd seemed ancient when Kalen was a boy, but she still continued to train those with talent.
As Dais headed off, he beckoned to his men hiding in the trees. They separated themselves from the foliage in a fluid, easy motion, invisible even to Kalen's eyes until they moved.
No. Kids had no place in his army. Kalen knew that, even as he knew that he probably had kids serving under his command. Kids that looked older than they were, had led lives that aged them far too soon. Kalen had been like that, orphaned and forced to fight to stay alive.
He'd been twelve when he killed his first demon, was serving as a courier by thirteen and fighting in bat-tle before fifteen. He would have died on his first battlefield if Dais hadn't found him, lying there with a demon's poison swimming through his bloodstream. If Kalen had been fighting when he was fifteen, then chances were he had other fifteen-year-olds out on his battlefields and he didn't even know it.
It was an unpleasant thought, but there was little he could do about it. He had a war to fight and people to protect and if he started questioning his soldiers about their age and their right to serve on the battlefields, more people would die. So he had to live with the knowledge that he likely had kids serving under him, and it left him sick inside with the image of them out there, fighting and dying.
Unless there was some sort of miracle, it would keep happening. "If we only knew what they did in Yorkton," Kalen muttered as he stared off into the west. The Roinan Gate was quiet tonight. Very few flickers lit the air around it, but he knew that didn't mean much. There were so many demons from Anqar here now, death would come even if the gate never opened again.
Dais's joking use of cordain circled through Kalen's head and he thought bitterly, Wise one, my ass. What's the term for useless one?
"You want to see your home turned into another crater?" Lee asked softly, silently appearing at his side and interrupting him before he could travel too far down the path of self-flagellation.
Kalen didn't bat an eyelash. "If it meant shutting down the Roinan Gate permanently? In a heart-beat."
He would try to evacuate the area as best as he could, but if the knowledge to destroy the gate ever fell into his hands, Kalen knew he'd sacrifice himself and every soldier in his unit if it meant destroying it. If the Roinan Gate fell, this world might actually have a chance.
Without that knowledge, Kalen didn't know what he was going to do, and he didn't know what to say to his men when they looked to him for answers. The rebellion followed their leaders, Kalen Brenner and Lee, with a blind, fearless devotion that was almost slavish. None of them knew her last name. They didn't know where she lived. They didn't know where she came from. Nothing more than her first name and that she fought like a woman possessed and that when she was in the battle, the battle was likely to be won.
That was all they knew. They spoke her name in hushed tones, even the ones who had fought beside her from the time she was old enough to fight. Yes, that utter devotion was a bit disturbing. Even more so considering that not one of them had ever seen Lee by the light of day.
Not even Kalen.
She came and left in the dark of night, lingering only a few hours and then disappearing. Sometimes weeks passed between appearances, and then there would be months when she showed her pretty face on a nightly basis. He had known Lee for more than twenty years. She had appeared out of the darkness when she was hardly more than a pretty, cherubic little thing with big, angelic blue eyes and dimpled cheeks, her curling hair pulled into a ponytail high on her little head as she pushed a meat-filled sandwich into his bony hands, whispering, "You're making my belly hurt."
He'd been so hungry. Starving. Locked in the basement of the house where the demons had set up camp, he had been waiting for death. The Raviners that had captured him weren't known for quick deaths. They preferred to torture their victims slowly, feeding off their pain and their screams.
Being caught by a Raviner usually only had one of two outcomes: slow death by torture, or possession. A boy of ten was ripe for them, a good prize-especially one weakened by days of abuse, starvation and fear. They'd killed his mother, right in front of him, and Kalen spent long hours in the dark wishing they'd killed him as well.
But even as a kid, he'd known the Raviners had more in store for him than just a simple death. Raviners had a unique ability of forcing their evil into the soul of weakened victims, making them into mindless zombies intent on one thing-devastation. But Lee had saved him. She'd fed him that night and the next. The third night, she had appeared next to him holding a small, thin disc-the key to the synergistic bonds that kept him immobile. She freed him and disappeared into the shadows of the basement. When he went to look for her, she was gone. Like she had vanished into thin air. He'd waited until sunrise to escape because Raviners, like most of the hell creatures out of Anqar, were weaker during the day. Come sunrise, he'd slipped out of the house and run for his life, sparing just a few thoughts for the girl who had freed him.
It wasn't the last time he would see her, or the last time she would save him. Three years passed, and when he saw her next, he was a courier for a rebel army just outside of Orleans. Even though she had grown up a little, he still recognized her as the child who had freed him from the little hell of his prison outside the fallen city of New Angeles.
"What's your name?" she had asked. Perched atop an aboveground crypt, she had sat swinging her feet, that dimpled smile exactly as he remembered it.
Her brow puckered. She frowned a little. "You have really long hair for a boy." She tugged on her short curls and glanced at his hair with a wistful sort of envy. "Your hair is prettier than mine."
He hadn't thought so. Kalen had liked those pale yellow curls. But he didn't say anything. She had just continued to stare at him for a while, then she giggled. He wanted to ask what she was laughing about, and where she was staying, was she safe... but somebody had called him. In the few seconds it took him to look be-hind him and then look back, she had disappeared.
Gone from his life for another five years. Kalen went from serving as a courier to fighting in a rebel army to leading one. The next time he saw her was when she went to pull him out of the way when one of his lieutenants would have slashed his throat from behind. Dais had warned him that men weren't going to like following somebody so young, and the old war dog was right. Lee had saved his life again, and after that, Lee started fighting, not just sliding in and out of his life like a wraith, but fighting. Small things at first. He hadn't wanted her in danger. She was just a kid-she might have just been three years younger but she hadn't grown up fighting to stay alive, not like he had. She'd been too soft. Too pretty-and not just because she was a girl. But for all his instincts to protect her, Lee had a knack for finding dangerous situations and defusing them. Or finding innocent families, trapped and helpless-Kalen had long since lost count of how many people she'd been responsible for saving.
At first, she'd simply appeared and led Kalen and his men, but eventually, she'd started showing up with people in tow. People she'd saved. Now he led yet another band of rebels, but this one was larger, more organized, and they didn't just fight small skirmishes. They fought on the most dangerous front left in their world, with the gates in both Yorkton and Jivan decimated.
They fought to keep the demons from spreading past the Roinan Mountains. Lee, always an enigma, came and went like the wind, appearing out of the night like a shadow, full of whispered secrets and magicks that saved countless lives. Most of their witches were useless when it came to fighting near the gates-it was as if something from the gates froze their power. What they could do was divert the energy flow that fed the gates, but it wasn't easy work and usually required the strength of a good three witches.
Lee, though, was different. A witch, yes, but the gate's energy didn't affect her at all. Even more, she was quick, canny and intuitive. The woman should have been leading this army. If Dais truly wanted to call some-body a leader, then it needed to be Lee. Leader, wise one, corida-for all her young years, the titles suited her. She was a leader and Kalen was simply a soldier. He wanted to be out there fighting, not issuing orders and playing the diplomat with fellow rebel leaders.
Crouched on the twisted rock outcropping, Kalen watched as she issued orders to the rebel soldiers with ease, the sunny banner of her curls gleaming in the false light as she shook her head in response to a question. Tonight's agenda was the same as it had been for the past week: recon and salvage.
This had to stop. There had to be a better way to fight this war than this. Gaining a little ground on one front, only to lose it on another. But Kalen didn't know what the other options were. One of his best warriors was about as insubstantial as a wraith. Until she opened her eyes...
The screams painted the night like blood. Hot, vivid washes of it. Kalen jerked to his feet and all around him, people stared.
The screams hadn't come from here. He'd heard them echo through the Veil-a warning, but he had a feeling it was already too late. As he stood, he grabbed the plasma assault rifle from the ground and slung it over his shoulder. His feet passed silently over the uneven ground as he moved closer to the source of the turmoil. Too many screams. He ran for the rebuilt solar-powered glider and powered it up with a silent prayer. It came to life with a muted roar and he breathed out in relief.
"I don't like this."
He shifted his eyes as Lee slid out of the darkness, running along beside him effortlessly. Her hair gleamed like silver in the darkness of the night, her blue eyes colorless. "You heard the screaming."
Her lips flattened. "The very dead heard those screams," she whispered. The glider moved over the ground with blurring speed, and she caught her hair in her fist to keep it from blowing in her eyes.
Miles passed in silence. As they moved closer, other tran-units joined them. As they slowed to a halt, he heard the soft whimper that rose in her throat before she could stop it.
Kalen had to bite back his own furious scream of denial. Clenching his jaw, he drew the rifle from over his shoulder and leveled it at the Jorniak demon that was still feasting in the middle of the death and devastation.
Lee lifted her hand and the pure silver energy that flowed from it was the same as the beam that shot out of the laser pulsing from Kalen's plasma rifle. Like most men, Kalen couldn't control the energy of the land, although he could sense it. It never ceased to amaze him how easily Lee could call that energy to her hands. She carried weapons-all his soldiers did-but she rarely needed them. Lee was a weapon.
The Jorniak demon screamed, the hissing quality of his death scream making their skin crawl, while the stench of his blood made their eyes water. Jorniaks never really stank, unless they bled. Once they bled, the smell of them was enough to make a grown man's eyes water and his stomach rebel.
"Did you have to kill him so fast? He could have been useful," Dais muttered from behind Kalen. From the corner of his eye, Kalen saw his lieutenant crouching over one of the fallen.
Lee's bolt had killed him. Kalen's pulsar blast had gone through one of the thing's three lungs, enough to hurt him, enough to keep him from running very far. Dais had taught Kalen well and Kalen liked to ask questions.
But Lee... well, her anger sometimes got the better of her. Eh, maybe actually leading the army wasn't the wisest course of action for her. She acted first, asked questions later. She was a dangerous piece of work, true, but she had little use for talking to the demons.
Kalen had learned the value of asking questions.
But he understood why she had destroyed the thing. This small unit had been basically a hospital on wheels. A few soldiers, but most of the dead had been healers, the deirons who used the elusive healing magicks and the medics, untalented but skilled people who relied on science to bring a person back to health. They had been harmless, all of them. Healers had little use for fighting unless they were threatened.
"He killed them all, Kalen."
With harsh, jerking motions, he shoved his plasma rifle into the harness at his back. Fury and grief burned inside him and he wanted to howl out his rage to the night sky. But at the low, rough sound of her voice, he turned to look at her, a fist closing around his heart. There were tears sparkling in her cerulean eyes.
She blinked them away before they could fall, but still the sight of them was like a punch to his already battered system. Lee never cried. "Damn it, how much longer do we have to keep doing this?" she demanded, her voice shaking and hoarse with barely suppressed emotion.
Kalen cupped his hand over her neck, drawing her against him, his body jumping to life as her sleek curves came into contact with his tensed muscles. "Until we win, darlin'. Until we win," he replied. Or until they kill all of us. The words hung between them, unsaid, but understood.
It made no sense. The brutality of the demon attacks had increased over the past decade with an intensity that sickened and scared all of them. There had been a time when the Anqarians had policed the demons them-selves. It had only made sense-they used Ishtan as their breeding ground, so they wouldn't want it totally decimated.
But lately, it was as though Anqar didn't give a bloody damn. Not that Kalen wanted to go back to sim-ply evading slaving expeditions or fighting to free the females before it was too late, but this sudden reversal made little sense.
"And when will we?" Lee asked. But she didn't seem to expect an answer, and that was just as well. Kalen had no desire to lie to her simply to comfort her, but from where he stood, their future looked grim.
A shudder wracked her body and then she sighed. The soft sound was broken in the middle by a weird little hitching hiccup. He gritted his teeth as he felt the soft push of her breasts against his chest, the smooth plane of her belly cuddling up against his cock.
He could smell her. She smelled so sweet, so warm and alive. The scent of her body took him away from everything-for just the briefest moment, he could imagine himself reaching for Lee, holding her body against his. Feeling the warmth of the sun on his flesh, feeling her silken soft body moving against his own.
A few seconds of peace-the rebellion faded away. The stink of his decaying, dying world, for a moment, was replaced by the warmth of a woman. Then, it was over. Lee stepped away and seemed totally oblivious to the effect she had on him.
She turned to face the destruction and death that lay before them. Kalen watched as she shoved a shaking hand through her hair. Lee always hated being stared at. She slid him a nervous look and then jerked her gaze away. He sighed and turned away, forcing himself to walk into the splattered circle of blood.
Akira was dead. She had been a twenty-one-year-old medic that Kalen had known since she was a kid. A tic throbbed in his jaw as he studied the gore that had been made out of her once pretty face. Her eye was missing, half her cheek, and bone gleamed in the moonlight. Blood shone wetly, her throat a raw, open wound.
He closed his eyes and rested a hand on the smooth, unmarked skin of her brow. "Blessings on your path, little sister," he murmured, the traditional farewell to a dead or dying friend coming harshly.
At least she had died quick. And most likely first.
Akira had been an anomaly, a true healer also blessed with telekinesis. Psychic skills weren't common among those who went into the healing arts. The only talent common among them was the ability to heal using magick. All Akira had ever wanted to do was help people, and because of that, she was dead.
If she hadn't died fast, and first, she could have called for help. Akira's ability to heal had been invaluable, her other abilities even more so-with her around, her unit hadn't needed a designated telepath. The soldiers that moved with the med-unit were some of his best, but none of them had any kind of telekinetic skills. He'd counted on Akira being enough. Now she was dead and he'd have to live with that. With a hand that shook, he reached out and gently closed Akira's one remaining eye.
She was already cold. Damn it, she had just been fine... a few hours ago.
Rage boiled inside his heart as he straightened up, turning his head, counting every last body. His voice was a rasping snarl as he demanded, "Are there any survivors?"
Silence fell as his men fanned out and searched for any sign of life. Kalen knelt in blood, gore and other things that he didn't want to think about as he checked the still bodies for a pulse, for breathing-any sign that someone had survived. There was nothing. He found himself standing at the edge of the clearing, staring at the unidentifiable remains of the Jorniak demons.
He lifted his head and stared at Dais. The old man's lined face was weary and his eyes glittered with rage. "There are none left alive," Dais said, his voice oddly gentle, as though that made the news any easier to hear. But Kalen already knew. Rage pounded inside him as he slowly turned around and stared at the devastation before him.
The entire med-unit was gone, along with every patient that had been in the small roaming clinic. He counted twelve patients. One or two of them seemed familiar, but beyond that, he knew none of them. But the med-unit staff, he'd known all of them. Five friends dead. Blood roared in his ears, while reality seemed to freeze in front of him.
"Leave," Kalen whispered.
Kalen lifted his head and stared at Dais, his eyes burning. A muscle jerked in his jaw as he repeated it, "Leave. All of you. Take the men back to camp."
"But the deadÉ"
Kalen laughed bitterly. "The dead will still be dead in an hour, Dais. Get the hell out of here. Now." Kalen didn't bother to watch them leave; instead he turned his head and stared at Lee. She sat cross-legged by the body of a young child, holding a limp hand between hers. The tears had finally started to fall and her shoulders were wracked with the force of her sobs.
Even in the middle of the massacre, the sound of her grief tore at him like jagged claws. He wanted to go to her. But standing over Akira's body, he couldn't. Rage shook him, ate at him, and the longer he stared at Lee, the hotter his rage burned.
This could all stop.
Lee could help them stop it.
It was within her power. Kalen didn't know how he knew that, but it was true. Magick wasn't uncommon in his world. More than half of the women who served under him had magickal abilities. Many of the men had psychic skills of some sort. Save for the med-units, easily half of his forces had either magickal or telepathic skills. But none of them had the kind of potential that he sensed within Lee.
She moved in the shadows of their world, always at night, fighting the demons while the moon rode in the sky and the demons were at their strongest. She fought them and she won. Somehow, she was their chance out of hell. He knew it in his gut. But none of that would do any of them a damn bit of good until she accepted who she was. If Lee would do that, they just might have a chance. He reached out to her and she ignored him every time. She came and did what she had to, and when it was done, she turned her back on them while Kalen's people continued to die.
His heart pounded in his throat and the bitter taste of anger lay heavy on his tongue as he stared at her. "How long will you hide, Lee?"
She lifted her head, and a breeze blew by, blowing long strands of her silken hair across her face, hiding from him everything but those azure eyes. For long moments, she stared at him, unmoving.
Kalen moved to her, the thick soles of his combat boots thudding dully on the rubble-strewn ground. It was thick with garbage, dirt, tossed medical supplies... and things he'd rather not think about, gobbets of nasty wet things he didn't want to see. By the carcass of the senior medical officer, he paused and knelt. He felt a knot swell in his throat as he stared down into the man's wizened old face. "Godspeed, Jacob," he whispered. He blew out a tired breath and ran a hand down his face before snagging a blanket from the rubble. Gently, he cov-ered Jacob's body before rising and meeting Lee's gaze over the distance that separated them.
Purpose filled his eyes, his gut, his steps as he moved to her. He curled his hands into loose fists and wondered if he would be able to control his temper this time. Kalen saw the trepidation enter her eyes, watched as her throat moved, the fragile skin shifting, betraying the nerves he suspected she was suddenly feeling.
He could see the pain in her gaze, but it came nowhere near the pain he felt. Lee barely knew these peo-ple. She hadn't been there when Akira returned from her medical training and forced her way into Kalen's unit. She hadn't been there when Akira helped deliver Jacob's first granddaughter. She hadn't been there when Akira sat by Jacob's side as his wife died.
No, Lee came and went. She never risked herself for anything longer than a few hours a night. A few nights a week. Weeks would go by when she wasn't seen at all.
It cost them lives. People depended on her.
She had proved time and again she would only come when she couldn't stay away any longer. Her conscious self didn't even know what was going on. She hid behind the veil of her memory, safe inside her normal world, where demons didn't exist, where everything was safeness, security and light.
Here, in this darker reality, where things existed whether she liked it or not, she could join them, save lives... but she refused.
Closing the distance between them, he loomed over her, staring down into a face he knew almost as well as he knew his own. "When are you going to open your eyes, Lee?"
She blinked. He could seen the tension that suddenly tightened her body, stiffening her shoulders, drawing her back ramrod straight, tiny little lines fanning out from her eyes. Her lashes lowered, the spiky little fans hooding her eyes, shielding her gaze from him as she murmured, "What do you mean, Kalen?"
"When you are going to come into the open? Join us? We're dying while we wait for you," he growled, reaching down and closing firm, unyielding hands around her upper arms as he drew her closer to him.
"I've been helping you for twenty years, since I was a kid, Kalen. What more do you want?" she demanded. "I gave you my childhood."
"I want you to join us. Not to just fight when you can't hide from your dreams anymore. What do you do when you're not here? Where do you live? What is your home? I don't even know your full name-do you?" She just stared at him and the irrational anger surged higher in him. "Damn it, what is your name?"
With every harsh question, he watched her flinch. Even here she couldn't answer. Even when she was here in her subconscious dreams, she was too afraid. With a rough, disbelieving laugh, he let her go and turned away, reaching up to rub a hand over his stiff neck.
"You come and go like a shadow in the night, Lee. You're like flashfire, baby," he whispered. "Just as reliable. Just as hot. Just as deadly. You can cause a hell of a lot of damage to the Warlords' armies. You can cut through demons like you're cutting down grass. But too many of our people want to depend on you to al-ways be there. People have launched entire campaigns, thinking that at the critical minute you will come and pull off a miracle. When they are right, it's been amazing. But when they are wrong... it's been too devastating for words. I can't let them depend on you anymore. I can't depend on you."
Turning back to face her, he felt a hollow ache settle in his heart. "You belong in my world. I know this-in my gut. You know it, you always have. Otherwise you wouldn't keep coming here. You wouldn't even know we existed."
Kalen plunged his hands through his hair, fisting them, resisting the urge to tear out hunks of hair, any-thing to relieve the building pain and frustration inside him. They needed to end this. They had to find a way to unite and drive back the monsters through the gate separating Kalen's world from Anqar, a way to stop the War-lords' ever-increasing raids, and they had to do it soon, or it would be too late.
A sudden surge of weariness flooded him and he had to fight to stay on his feet. All the fighting, endless, seemingly useless fighting, inches gained only to loose yards on the next front. Staring into the sky, he studied the flickering lights of the auroras. They had once been much brighter, so beautiful it made the soul hurt just to look at them.
Now he couldn't even see the stars. The auroras grew fainter with each passing season. The skies were clogged with smoke and fumes. The fire-bearing demons were only partially responsible for that. Encampments relied on fire to keep back many of the demon breeds, so there were always fires burning. Some of the demons breathed out a noxious gas, adding to the already polluted air.
Time passed and the skies grew more and more hazy, until the sun became little more than an indistinct bright circle behind the smog.
Kalen couldn't remember the last time he had seen stars.
His world was falling apart. His people were being killed to extinction.
"What are you waiting for, Lee?"
Cutting his eyes to her, he whispered silkily, "Don't. Just-don't, Lee." Crossing over to her, he cupped her face in his hand, tightening his hold when she tried to jerk her face away. "You aren't here every day. You haven't been the one to go into a safe haven and find entire families slaughtered, wiped out, from the elders to the babes. You haven't had to comfort friends as they had to watch the women they love slowly go insane be-cause they were raped by the Warlords' men.
"You live there, in your reflection of this world, safe and secure, blind to what happens here. Except for your dreams, where you can't block us out. And then, you come and you go-but you come because you can't resist it anymore. You never come for us, for me."
"Damn it, I've saved your fine ass a number of times," she sneered, jabbing him in the chest with a fingernail. It was bright, bold red, the color of junyai rubies, precious gems once found in the mines of Jivan. "Your life. This army. All of you."
"Yes. Because something disturbed you in your sleep, while you rest safe and sound in your safe little world. Damn it, I know what's going on. You know. A part of you has always known," he whispered passionately. The wind started to kick up and his hair blew around them like a cloak, winding around her slim shoulders as he moved closer, nudging her toes with his.
"Known what?" she demanded, rising onto her toes so that she was snarling into his face.
Her mouth was just a breath away from his... just one breath... Kalen could almost taste her, taste her fury, her fear, the hunger she tried so hard to hide. He laughed softly, releasing her chin to stroke his fingers over her eyes. "Known what you are. You don't belong in the mundane, powerless realm. You're magick. You're power... You're a warrior and you belong here. You see things in your world that other people don't see, but you block it out. You feel things, hear things, sense things... You are like a wraith in that world. A mere shadow of your true self. When are you going to come home? Come to us, fight with us?"
"I fight with you all the time," she whispered, her lips trembling, tears welling in her eyes as she stared at him, hands clenched into tight fists at her sides. "You act like I'm in some other world, but I am right here."
"You're still blocking it out. Even after all this time." Kalen shook his head. "Still. Lee... you are here. Part of you. Part of you lingers there. But you're nothing but a shadow of yourself in either world. You have to open your eyes and start seeing your reality, instead of the one somebody created for you. Otherwise you'll remain in the shadows."
Lee gritted her teeth, a tiny shriek of frustrated anger slipping from behind them as she spun away and punched her fist into the ruined wall of what had once been a mercantilery. "Damn it, what in the hell are you talking about? You always talk in riddles, you overgrown, self-righteous, hypocritical bastard!"
He said her name softly and waited until she turned around to glare at him before he asked quietly, "Where do you go when you aren't here? Do you know?"
A blank look entered her eyes, one he had seen before. Often he tried to probe her mind-sometimes she deflected him, but sometimes, he knew she honestly didn't know. Her face turned mutinous, a line forming be-tween her eyes, that lush pink mouth puckering into a sullen, sexy little scowl. "What does that have to do with anything?" she demanded. She shoved a hand through her hair, pushing the blond curls out of her eyes.
With a tired sigh, Kalen rubbed his forehead. "You don't even know. Damn it, Lee, doesn't that strike you as pretty fucking weird, that you don't know where you go in between flitting in and out of my life?" he demanded, flinging a hand in her direction before letting it fall limply to his side as she just stared at him, her lids flickering, her eyes glittering like diamonds in the faint light.
"What did you do yesterday?" he asked. Damn it, prove me wrong... prove me wrong! It would be so much easier if she was just some elusive witch from the mountains. From anywhere-so long as she lived on this world.
But he already knew the truth.
When she remained silent, he felt something inside him die. "You can't," he answered for her. "Because you don't remember."
Something broke open inside him and he lunged for her, drawing his blade from the sheath at his hip, grabbing her forearm. She shrieked and shoved at him, startled. He could feel the fire of her magick as she pressed her hands against his chest. One hand pressed against the dull sheen on his cavinir jacket that he hadn't zipped up. But the other landed on his chest, just a little off center. Above his heart. The heat of her power burned into his skin.
Gripping her left hand, he wrenched her palm away from his chest. He could smell the scorched stink of burned flesh as he pinned her arm down. Stony-eyed, he used the blade to slice a shallow mark into her arm. His heart bled as he heard her soft gasp of pain. "Explain that... when you wake in the morning. Explain your bruises away, however you will. But explain a knife cut."
Turning from her, he stormed away. He felt a little sick in his gut for what he had done. He closed his eyes and fought the urge to scream and rail at her. It wouldn't do any good. She hadn't listened to him in all this time.
She wouldn't listen now.
"Leave, Lee. Leave and don't come back. We'll fight this war without you."
And if she kept coming back, he would end up doing something that would destroy them both.