In Darkness Transformed
Especially when it was coupled with paralyzing fear and devastating grief. Sergeant Eli Yates learned that lesson the hard way when his world dissolved into nothingness at the exact second his heart coasted to a complete stop. His last vision was of the twisted tangle of arms and legs that belonged to his team, men he’d served with and loved like brothers. They’d all died within seconds of each other when their helicopter plummeted out of the sky and crash-landed on a tree-covered mountainside somewhere on the western slopes of the Cascades.
Living hurt worse.
Eli remained trapped in darkness as his heart suddenly began to beat again. The erratic rhythm pulsed inside his head while his limbs jerked and twitched, their movements sluggish and out of control. At the same time, his lungs struggled to fill with air that reeked of blood, death, and . . . smoke.
What the hell? He couldn’t make sense of anything while
his brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. At least it was working well enough to sense the danger lurking nearby and that he needed to get the hell out of Dodge—though it might have been pure instinct. He kicked his legs free from whatever was holding them captive and rolled to the side. His eyes finally popped open, but they slammed shut again after one look into the fixed stare of Corporal Montez. The realization that his friend was dead ripped through his heart like one more piece of shrapnel.
“Aw, damn, Miguel.”
Eli turned his head and tried again, but the view wasn’t any better in that direction. Was he the only one still alive out of the nine men who’d boarded the helicopter that morning? That thought hurt like hell.
“Is anyone there?”
Nothing except for a faint crackling noise. Eli slowly put the pieces of his memories back together. The shouts from the cockpit. The worried comments from his friends as the helicopter began to lurch and then spin out of control. The impact with the ground that shredded the metal box surrounding them like paper. The shouts that morphed into screams and then whimpers before finally fading away into an awful silence—the loss of his friends’ voices for good between one heartbeat and the next.
The crackling grew louder. Eli lifted his head to look around, but he couldn’t see through the thick fog. Blinking didn’t help, but a flash of red coming from what was left of the cockpit caught his attention. His addled brain finally recognized what he was seeing. It wasn’t fog after all; it was smoke, which meant the flickering light was fire. Those two
things plus the smell of jet fuel added up to a single fact. If he didn’t haul ass out of there, an explosion would finish the job the crash had started.
Panic gave him the strength to move but sent a stab of fresh pain ripping through his gut. He slid a hand across his stomach, only to find a jagged shard of metal sticking out of his abdomen. Now wasn’t the time to figure out what to do about it, not with the smoke getting thicker by the second.
Begging his friends for forgiveness, he dragged himself across their bodies to reach the one spot of daylight he could see. He paused by each man to check for a pulse. Finding none, Eli kept crawling, pushing himself along on one hand and two knees, keeping his other hand wrapped around the piece of metal to keep it from snagging on anything as he fought his way free from the wreckage.
It took only minutes to drag himself closer to the source of the fresh air, but it felt like hours. Each movement jarred the metal sticking out of his gut. Panting through the pain, he stopped to strip off his pack in order to fit through the opening in the side of the fuselage. Afterward, he reached back inside to drag it out after him. He’d need the supplies it contained to survive long enough for help to arrive.
Outside, he coughed his lungs clear of the toxic fumes from inside the chopper. When his breathing improved enough, he resumed crawling toward a cluster of boulders some distance away and scooted in behind them to catch his breath. Leaning back against the biggest one, he prayed it would protect him once the fire finally hit the fuel tanks. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, a deep rumble rolled down across the mountainside, and a flash of fire and smoke
roiled up into the sky. The shock wave hit him a second later. He screamed as the concussion from the explosion left him curled up in a ball and shaking uncontrollably.
Debris rained down from above while the world gradually righted itself. Eli pushed himself back upright and took a quick inventory of his body parts. Good, all present and accounted for. He was alive, and except for the ringing in his ears, no worse off than he’d been a few seconds before. A peek around the edge of the boulder showed that the fire stayed contained to a small area, so he wasn’t at further risk for the moment.
So what next? Grateful that thinking didn’t require a lot of energy, he stared around at the towering Douglas firs surrounding the small clearing and tried to formulate a plan of action. Maybe he should begin with a more thorough assessment of his injuries. Yeah, good idea. He started with his feet and worked his way upward from there. His left leg was fine, but the right leg of his pants was ripped open for the entire length of his thigh. He pushed the blood-soaked fabric aside long enough to discover that his leg was slashed down to the bone. Now that he was aware of the injury, it hurt like hell. But not nearly as much as a wound that size should. It was as if he was feeling it from a distance somehow. Maybe he was in shock or something.
He watched in confused horror as two inches of the laceration closed up tight and the pale streak of bone disappeared beneath a layer of muscle. He closed his eyes and then reopened them slowly, hoping to clear his vision. When he looked again, a large blood vessel knitted back together right in front of his eyes while the wound continued
Telling himself he was imagining things, he closed the gap in his pants leg and continued his assessment. His back and ribs hurt. No surprise there. The bright sunlight gave him a much clearer view of the metal jutting out of his belly. The sight made him queasy. It obviously needed to come out, but he wasn’t sure what would happen if he were to yank on it. Deciding that should wait a while longer, he checked both arms and hands. No apparent damage. Although he couldn’t see his face, his fingers detected a slow trickle of blood seeping from a deep gash above his right ear. No wonder he’d passed out after the crash.
A voice in the back of his mind, which sounded just like his crazy grandfather, murmured over and over again that Eli hadn’t just passed out. No, he’d died, same as his friends; the only difference was that he hadn’t stayed that way. Yeah, right. Obviously, he’d had his bell rung but good, because he couldn’t stop replaying the argument he’d had with the old man several years back when he’d driven up to Martin’s mountain cabin to tell him about his decision to enlist in the army.
Grandpa Martin had been almost incoherent with rage. As he’d paced the length of the front porch, he’d alternated between telling Eli he was a damn fool for risking the truth coming out and muttering under his breath about “people like them”—people who died but didn’t always stay that way. It hadn’t made sense then; it still didn’t. At the time, Eli had chalked it up to more of his grandfather’s crazy behavior.
But now his grandfather’s words kept echoing in his head as Eli leaned forward to take another look at his leg. The
jagged gash had shrunk down to no more than a shallow cut. He fell back against the rock in shock. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen, things only got weirder. While he looked on in horror, the metal shard started shifting, like it was wiggling its way out of the wound all on its own. He started to tighten his grip to prevent it from moving, but then let his hand drop back down to his side. Hell, it wasn’t as if he wanted to shove the damn thing back in. On the other hand, he didn’t want to bleed to death, either. Who knew what kind of internal damage it had caused on its way in?
When the shard finally popped all the way out, a warm ooze of blood poured onto his skin. He gingerly lifted the hem of his shirt, expecting the worst. Using his sleeve, he wiped the blood away. Just as with his leg wound, the hole was sealing shut by itself.
“Son of a bitch, has the whole fucking world gone crazy?”
Seriously, what the hell was happening here? And what came next? With all the noise inside the chopper, he had no idea if the pilots had time to issue a Mayday call. If headquarters had been tracking their flight through whatever kind of recorder there’d been on board, was that still happening now that everything had gone up in smoke?
Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be found. How could he explain why he alone had survived the crash? At the rate his body was healing itself, he wouldn’t even have a scratch left to show the medics when they arrived. There was always a big investigation when an aircraft went down. He could just picture some idiot reporter getting wind of his freakish recovery and running with the story. And wouldn’t the army brass love seeing the face of a soldier smeared all
over the tabloids?
Panic made it difficult to think logically. Was he really going to wait for the authorities to arrive? The answer to that question was surprisingly easy—no, he wasn’t. In fact, hell no. He couldn’t stick around to see what happened. If he told the truth, that he’d died but come back from it, they’d lock him in a loony bin somewhere. He’d be shut away forever.
Yeah, he could always lie, but what story could he tell that wouldn’t raise red flags? Maybe claim to have somehow been thrown clear of the helicopter before it crashed, but there was no way they’d buy that explanation, either. He would’ve still been hurt. Parachuting out before anything went wrong might be feasible, but what could he say when they asked to see the parachute or, better yet, how had he known that something bad was going to happen?
That left him no choice but to make a run for it. He reached for the pack he’d dragged from the wreckage. First thing, he ate a couple of protein bars, then washed them down with one of the bottles of water he’d tucked inside before leaving the base. Feeling a little better, he stripped off his shirt and pants. Before donning the clean set from the pack, he used his T-shirt and another bottle of water to scrub away as much of the dried blood and dirt as he could, especially off his face.
Time was running out, and he really needed to get moving. Before heading down the mountain, he would stop long enough to throw bits and pieces of his bloody uniform into the still-burning fire. He hoped the scraps would be enough to convince the investigators that he’d died there, too. In some ways, that was true. No way he could let himself be
found, not once he left the crash site. Before leaving, he had one more thing to do. Walking back toward the helicopter, he spotted something on the ground and stopped to pick up Montez’s mirrored sunglasses. He paused for several seconds before continuing to the wreckage. There, not wanting to see what the explosion had done to his friends’ remains, he kept his gaze centered on the flames and tried to find some way to say good-bye to his team.
His voice came out gravelly from shock and smoke; dark fumes still billowed off the wreckage.
“Guys, how the hell did this happen? Doesn’t seem fair that we all survived so many tours in the worst hellholes this planet has to offer only to have things end like this. But as you always said, Montez, shit happens.”
He stared at the bent and twisted sunglasses in his hand, picturing Montez’s familiar grin in his head. He’d give anything to see it one more time. “I love you all like the brothers I never has, and it’s been my honor to serve with each and every one of you. Rest in peace.”
The buzz of an airplane overhead reminded him that this was no time to linger. He ran for cover under the firs, pausing just inside the tree line. Aching with grief, he came to attention, saluted the funeral pyre, and then walked down the mountain without once looking back.
One month later
ELI JERKED AWAKE, pulse pounding and his skin slippery with sweat. Yet another nightmare that forced him to relive the day that his life had literally come crashing down around
him. Over the past few weeks he’d learned there was no use in trying to get back to sleep. Giving up on bed altogether, he pulled on yesterday’s clothes and headed for the front porch of the cabin he’d inherited from Grandpa Martin. On the way out, he snagged a broadsword off the wall. That wall shone with blades—it was where his grandfather had displayed his extensive weapon collection.
There wasn’t a single gun in the bunch, but there was at least one example of every kind of bladed weapon imaginable. Some were plain and utilitarian, while others were more like works of art. Even as a kid, back before his parents died in a car accident, Eli had loved the old man’s collection. Some of his favorite memories from that time were of him and his father admiring Martin’s latest acquisition. Later, after he’d gone to live with his other grandparents, he’d missed those visits with Martin talking about swords and knives, which might be why he’d ended up on the fencing team in college.
His skills had gotten rusty over the years, but working out with the various blades was one of the few things that brought him any sort of peace on these restless nights.
Outside, he leaned against the porch railing and let the night air cool his fevered skin. Ever since taking refuge in the remote cabin high in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, he’d been trying to figure out a way to get some semblance of his old life back. Instead, his thoughts continued to spin in circles, and he was no closer to a solution now than he had been the day he’d crawled out of the wreckage.
He glanced up at the stars. “Grandpa, I don’t know if you’re up there somewhere listening, but I wish you were here to answer some questions for me.” That safety deposit
box Martin had filled with cash and the papers with Eli’s birth name on them had come in handy. Eli would have given anything to know how his grandpa knew Eli might need them.
It wasn’t as if he’d ever known Martin all that well, especially in his later years. His grandparents on his mother’s side had never gotten along with Eli’s father, much less Martin. After the memorial service, they’d whisked Eli away to Spokane on the eastern edge of Washington State and changed his last name to theirs when the court had awarded them full custody.
They’d also gotten the judge to forbid any unsupervised contact between Eli and Martin until Eli came of age and could make his own decisions. Considering how crazy the old man had acted on the day of the funeral services, Eli couldn’t much blame them. Martin had been agitated when he got there and then totally lost control. He had slammed Grandpa Yates against the wall while accusing him of killing Eli’s father a second time by cremating his body so soon. The police had been called, and the situation had only deteriorated from there.
Looking back, Martin’s rantings had sounded insane at the time. But now, after everything that had happened to Eli, maybe the old man had known what he was talking about. Regardless, having his birth certificate with his original name of Eli D. Jervain would make establishing a new identity a lot easier. God knows, he’d never be able to go back to being Eli Yates without risking the army finding out that he’d survived the helicopter crash.
That didn’t mean he wanted to spend the rest of his life
parked on the side of this mountain alone and afraid to let anyone close. He’d served as part of close-knit team for too many years to want to go solo now.
“None of this is getting me anywhere,” he said into the night air.
He also hated that the only person he had to talk to was himself. Frustrated, he picked up the sword again and headed for the small clearing on the back side of the cabin. The soft glow from the kitchen windows didn’t do much to brighten the night, but he’d always had exceptional night vision. Holding up the sword as if saluting an opponent, he began a series of movements meant to strengthen his arms, especially his wrists. It didn’t take long to get lost in the routine, buying him a few minutes of peace.
Starting off slowly, he focused on accuracy, and only gradually picked up speed. But as he raised the blade over his right shoulder, intending to swing it down hard and fast at an invisible target, a woman’s scream, high pitched and full of fear, echoed down off the mountainside. It was followed by a male voice bellowing in fury. The sounds brought Eli’s warrior instincts to full attention. He was running flat out by the time the woman screamed a second time.
Gripping the sword with all his strength, he charged into the darkness.
In Darkness Transformed
Safara fought her cousin with every bit of skill she could muster. Tiel had her at a distinct disadvantage on several fronts, starting with the fact that he was half a foot taller and nearly sixty pounds heavier, most of it muscle. He was also out of his head crazy with the light disease that plagued the people from their homeworld. Right now, Tiel wouldn’t care if he killed her. In contrast, she wanted to shove him back to where he belonged on the other side of the shimmering barrier that separated the human world from Kalithia.
As long as Safara could keep her blade between the two of them, she might stand a chance of surviving the night. As soon as that thought crossed her mind, her opponent hooked her sword with his and sent it flying off across the clearing. That left her sidearm as her only defense. Unfortunately, Tiel grabbed her right wrist before she could draw the gun.
His pale eyes gleamed in the darkness with an unholy joy. “Are you going to beg for your life, little girl?”
Her answer didn’t surprise him; they both knew pleading
her case would do no good. The man Tiel used to be would’ve never lifted a hand against her; the man he was now only craved her death and pain. In a surprise move, he spun her around and twisted her arm up behind her back hard enough to make her scream. Laughing, he dragged the tip of his knife across her throat just hard enough to leave a thin trail of blood in its wake.
Just when she thought he was going to finish the job, he shoved her away. “Run, little one. Maybe I’ll let you escape so we can play again another night.”
But he wouldn’t. They both knew he couldn’t risk her getting word to her father, the local chief of police, or back across the barrier to the Sworn Guardians, who enforced the law in Kalithia. Neither side wanted a rogue like Tiel running loose in their worlds. Before she took three steps, he lunged forward, carrying Safara to the ground and trapping her beneath his heavy body.
He rolled her over, and his damp breath on her face made her sick as he forced her legs apart. The proof that he was enjoying himself was rock solid and impossible to ignore. She got one hand free long enough to rake her nails down the side of his face. Now they were both bleeding, but he seemed impervious to pain. After capturing both her hands, he pinned them down above her head with one of his.
Even with the extra strength generated by the adrenaline pumping through her veins, she remained trapped beneath Tiel. When he used his free hand to squeeze her breast hard enough to bruise, she screamed again. She did so partly out of pain, but mostly out of desperation, although it was highly unlikely that anyone else was close enough to hear her cry
Tiel lapped up the blood on her neck with his tongue and then smacked his lips as if she tasted delicious. “Sweetling, this is going to be so good between us. It’s a shame that we will only have this one night together.”
He’d succeeded in scaring her while creeping her out at the same time. “Tiel, we’re cousins. We grew up together. You don’t want to do this.”
His accent thickened, making his English harder to understand. “Oh, but I do. You’ve always thought you were better than those of us stuck living in the darkness of Kalithia.”
Maybe if she kept him focused on talking, the crazed fever burning in his gaze would fade away long enough for her to escape. “That’s not true! I’ve never thought I was better than anyone. Besides, I was only a child, hardly even walking yet, when my father and grandfather brought me here to live.”
Wrong thing to say. His pale face flushed with rage. “Yet they left me behind, knowing the same illness that drove your mother to die on a Paladin’s sword also ran strong in my bloodline.”
His fist connected with the side of her head. As he hauled his arm back to swing again, a deep voice rang out across the clearing.
“Hit her again, and you’ll lose that arm for good!”
Tiel surged up to his feet to plant himself between Safara and the intruder. “This woman is mine. Find your own.”
She took advantage of Tiel’s inattention to scramble backward. When he realized she was heading right for her sword, he kicked it out of reach, leaving her gun as her only
defense once more. She’d never had to shoot anyone and hated to start now. Regardless, she wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if he came after her again. It was tempting to run away while his attention was split between her and the second man, but she couldn’t leave her would-be rescuer to face Tiel alone.
The man circled around the edge of the clearing to get closer to her. When she got a good look at him, her fear jumped to a whole new level. He was a Paladin, one of the human warriors who made it their life’s mission to keep her people from crossing into this world from Kalithia. Had to be. Considering his incredible size and powerful build coupled with the ease with which he handled that broadsword, there could be no other explanation. How had he found her? She and the others of her kind who lived in the area had worked long and hard to prevent their age-old enemy from discovering their existence. They were all as good as dead if the murderous Paladins had tracked them down.
She had to get away. Had to warn the others now while all of his attention was on Tiel. Safara drew her gun and backed away until she reached the edge of the trees. But with her eyes still fixed on the two dangerous men and dazed from shock and fear, she lost her balance when her foot caught in a shallow hole. Her gun went flying into the bushes as she hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of her. Gasping for breath, she tried to stand, only to fall on her ass again when her ankle gave out on her. Damn, could this night get any worse?
Waiting for the pain to fade, and hidden behind the thick trunk of a tree, she stared across the clearing to where the
two men were now locked in battle with their swords. If the fight hadn’t been so deadly, it would’ve almost been a thing of beauty. Her cousin was lighter on his feet as he swung his curved Kalith-style blade hard and fast. The stranger’s technique had less finesse and more brute strength as he blocked each of Tiel’s blows with ease, gradually forcing her cousin to retreat step by step back up the mountainside. Her cousin favored his left side as if he’d taken a solid hit to his ribs. For his part, the stranger was breathing hard and dripping blood from his forearm.
Suddenly Tiel broke and ran, most likely heading back to the cave that shielded the entrance to his world. The Paladin started to follow, but then turned back in her direction. She had to get moving, but her ankle still refused to cooperate and gave out as soon as she put any weight on it. That left her to face an implacable enemy, unarmed and unable to defend herself or warn her people. That didn’t mean she would go down without a fight. Using a sapling for support, she pushed herself to her feet again and tried to hobble away, but the Paladin quickly closed the distance between them.
His big hand clamped down on her shoulder. She tried to fight free of his grasp, which only sent her stumbling backward. Once again, he reached out to capture her arm, easing her fall. As soon as she was safely on the ground, he released his hold on her and retreated a step.
“Leave me alone! I’m not your enemy.” She scooted back a few inches. “Can’t you forget you ever saw me?”
The deep rumble of his voice when he answered destroyed what little hope she had. “All things considered, that would be a little hard to do, don’t you think? Besides, we need to tell
the authorities that some nutcase is up here on the mountain attacking people with a sword.”
He was clearly talking about Tiel, but she gave his broadsword a pointed look. “You really want to call the police in on this? I thought you Paladins were all about secrecy. You wouldn’t want the world to find out that you guys have a free pass to kill all of the innocent Kaliths you want with no repercussions even when they don’t present any kind of threat to you or anyone else.”
To her surprise, he leaned his sword against a rock and knelt on one knee right in front of her, his expression reflecting nothing but concern. “Are you all right? Maybe you hit your head when you fell, because right now you’re not making any sense. I’ve never heard of anybody called a Paladin outside of a history book, much less Kaliths. Is that guy one of them?”
His concern sounded genuine, which surprised her even more than his denial of any knowledge of the Paladins. From everything she’d ever been told about them, they swung their swords first and asked questions only if there was anyone left alive to answer them.
Right now, he was still talking. “I realize you don’t know me from Adam. My name is Eli, and I have no intention of hurting you.”
As if knowing his name made him any more trustworthy. He tilted his head to the side as if waiting for her to introduce herself, but she ignored the unspoken invitation.
“Okay, then. Let’s see what’s wrong with your ankle.” He moved toward her slowly as if afraid of startling her into trying to escape again. Finally, the warmth of his big hands
settled around her ankle, his touch gentle as he did a quick assessment of her injury. “My guess is that it’s only sprained, but you might want to get it x-rayed to make sure of that once we get you back down the mountain.”
Before she could do more than squeak in protest, he suddenly swept her up in his arms. “I live just over that ridge. Once we’re there, I’ll wrap your ankle and then we can decide what to do next. We can’t risk hanging around here in case that guy comes back again. I managed to hold him off this time, but that was pure luck. It’s not like I have any experience fighting with swords for real.”
So if he didn’t usually fight with swords, how did he happen to have one when he came charging to her rescue? Nothing about this guy was adding up right, but she was in too much pain to think straight. For sure, it was stupid to let a total stranger carry her off to his cabin. On the other hand, she was probably in less danger going with Eli than she would be stuck out in the woods on her own, especially if Tiel did come back. To make matters worse, it had started to rain, which would only make her position even more precarious.
Resigned to her fate, whatever it might prove to be, she settled against Eli’s muscular chest. Besides, once he wrapped her ankle, she’d stand a better chance of slipping away from him if necessary. The less time she spent in his company, the better. He was bound to start asking questions she couldn’t afford to answer.
After taking only a couple of steps, he spun back around and leaned forward a little. “Can you grab that sword? I could come back for it later, but I’d rather not leave it out here if at all possible.”
It took both of her hands to lift the heavy weapon, but the added weight didn’t slow Eli down at all. He wasn’t even breathing hard when they crested the ridge. She spotted the lights from his cabin in the distance and thought she recognized the place. If she was right, it had belonged to Martin Jervain, one of her grandfather’s old chess partners. She’d been in it once or twice, but that had been years ago.
As far as she’d known, the cabin had been vacant since Martin’s death several months ago. Just how long had Eli been living on the mountain? No one in the police department had mentioned anyone new taking up residence in the cabin. As a deputy herself, she was pretty sure she would’ve heard if anything had been said about it.
Safara waited until Eli carried her inside the cabin before asking any questions in case she was mistaken. But no, as soon as they crossed the threshold, she knew she was right. The place hadn’t changed much at all since the last time she’d visited with her grandfather. “Isn’t this Martin Jervain’s cabin?”
Eli set her down on the overstuffed sofa and propped her ankle up on a pillow. Once he had her situated to his satisfaction, he carried the sword over to the kitchen counter and dried it off with a couple of paper towels. After inspecting the blade, probably checking for any damage from the fight, he returned it to its place on the wall surrounding the stone fireplace. Wow, she’d hadn’t realized Martin had such a huge collection of bladed weapons.
She had about decided that Eli wasn’t going to answer her last question when he finally glanced in her direction again. “Yes, this is Martin’s cabin, or it was, anyway. He left
it to . . . his grandson when he died six months ago.”
Had she only imagined that slight hesitation in his explanation? She couldn’t be sure. “How long have you been living here? I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen you around town.”
“Just about a month.”
Eli disappeared down the hall, returning a few minutes later with a first aid kit in his hand. He’d also changed into dry clothes. “Let’s get that ankle wrapped and then I’ll make an ice pack to keep the swelling down. Afterward, I could drive you back to town tonight, but it would be better to wait until morning. The road isn’t all that good at the best of times. With the way it’s raining right now, mudslides are a distinct possibility, so I’d rather not risk it. We also can’t call anyone. I never get reliable cell reception up here, and the landline is out thanks to the storm.”
A quick glance at the clock on the mantel showed it was nearly midnight already. A few more hours wouldn’t make any difference. “That’s fine.”
He sat down on the edge of the coffee table in front of her and pulled an elastic bandage out of the kit. With the greatest of care, he untied her shoe and slipped it off. When she winced, he apologized. “I know moving it hurts, but your ankle will feel better once it’s wrapped. Okay?”
She bit her lip and nodded. Judging by his skill in wielding the bandage, he’d obviously had first aid training somewhere in his past. He quickly had her ankle wrapped and propped back up on the pillow. By the time he covered her ankle with a plastic bag of ice wrapped in a kitchen towel, the pain had already faded to a more manageable level.
Which reminded her that he had his own wound to take
care of. “It looked like you took a bad cut to your arm during the fight. You’d better get it cleaned up and some antiseptic on it before infection sets in.”
He flinched as if her words hit a nerve. “It wasn’t a bad cut. Barely a scratch, really.”
When he tugged his sleeve up far enough to prove that was true, she could hardly believe what her eyes were telling her. She would’ve sworn she’d seen a fair amount of his blood dripping onto the ground from several feet away. Tracing the small scratch with her fingertip, she looked up into his dark green eyes. “It looked worse out there on the mountain.”
He shrugged and averted his gaze as if to avoid making eye contact with her. “Guess I’ve always been a fast healer.”
Which was another trait all Paladins shared, despite him denying any connection with her people’s mortal enemies. She didn’t call him on it; after all, she had her own secrets she didn’t much want to talk about. Like, for instance, her reason for being out on the mountain in the middle of the night in the first place. So far, Eli hadn’t asked, which was odd in itself, but she wasn’t about to offer any explanations if she didn’t have to.
Starting with the fact that it was her fault that Tiel had escaped Kalithia in the first place. Her grandfather had been on an extended visit with family in Kalithia. She’d made the long climb up to the cave to see if he was ready to return. People from her world varied wildly in the gifts that were handed down from one generation to the next. In her case, she’d inherited the ability to control the barrier from her grandmother’s side of the family. Tonight, she’d weakened it enough to see if anyone was waiting on the other side.
As soon as she could make out the dim outline of a male figure through the fading light, she’d collapsed the barrier completely. But instead of her grandfather, it had been Tiel waiting there. He had acted normally at first, but he’d turned on her as soon as they were clear of the cave.
She had no idea where he was now or where he’d likely go to ground. How would she live with herself if he went on a rampage instead of returning to his homeworld?
As Eli closed up the first aid kit, he glanced at her. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“It’s Safara.” Then she added her last name in the hope that he would share his.
He stood up. “Well, Safara, would you like something to eat or drink?”
“Nothing, thanks. I’m mostly just tired.”
“Me, too. I’ll help you down the hall to the bathroom. When I was getting the first aid kit, I laid out a toothbrush along with a set of my sweats for you to sleep in. While you get out of those wet clothes and, um, take care of any other business, I’ll get you a pillow and a blanket. I’ll also add more wood to the fire. These late spring nights can still get pretty cold.”
She meant that. His clothes would be a gazillion sizes too big, but it would feel great to get out of her muddy, wet clothes. Then maybe she’d finally shake off the last of the chill she’d taken out there in the rain.
Fifteen minutes later, she opened the bathroom door to find Eli waiting to carry her back to the couch. She gave him
credit for not laughing at how silly she looked in her makeshift sleepwear even if there was a hint of a grin he couldn’t quite hide. After setting her back down on the sofa, he covered her with the blanket. “After breakfast, I’ll drive you to the police station in town so you can report what happened. I’m sure they’ll want to start looking for that nutcase who attacked you as soon as possible.”
She shook her head. “A formal report won’t be of much use. The rain will have washed away any evidence by now, and I’m sure that guy is long gone.” Might as well tell him everything. “But I will tell my boss everything when I go into work, though, since I’m a deputy myself, and the chief of police is my father.”
If anything, Eli looked even more worried. “Look, tell him whatever you feel is important, but I’d appreciate it if you downplayed my role in all of this. All I got out of the deal was a small cut, so the focus should really be on why this guy attacked you. You might not want to pursue the investigation, but I’m betting your father will feel differently about it. If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t rest until the guy’s ass was behind bars where it belongs.”
Her father would definitely agree with Eli on that, except he’d more than likely want to toss his nephew back across the barrier into the waiting arms of the authorities in Kalithia. It would be better for everyone concerned if Tiel faced justice in his homeworld. It would endanger everyone if one of their people were to end up in a human prison. There was no telling what would happen if Tiel started shooting off his mouth as his illness grew worse, not to mention they couldn’t risk his alien DNA being detected by a human doctor.
“You can trust my dad to make sure justice is done.”
“Good. Shout if you need anything during the night.”
He turned off the lamps in the living room but left the light on over the stove in the far corner. She waited until he’d started down the hall before bringing up one last subject. “Eli, the last I heard, Martin’s only grandson was in the army. Does he know you’re staying here?”
His broad shoulders went rigid as he stopped walking midstep. Without looking back at her, he drew a deep breath before answering. “Martin’s grandson died five weeks ago in a helicopter crash. Since I’m the only relative he had left, the cabin is mine now.”
Then he disappeared into a room and slammed the door shut behind him.