Her stalker would have to attack soon. Sera bit her lip and struggled over the uneven terrain. Pine needles crunched underfoot. No point in being quiet. Her stalker certainly wasn’t. He’d crashed through trees, caused small rock slides down inclines and swore loudly. She’d heard him behind her ten minutes after crossing the river.
A good half hour ago.
Yet, he hadn’t attacked.
Nor had he called out, as was customary in the Outlands. She climbed up the ravine, keeping to higher ground and scanned her surroundings. Trees, trees and more trees. No line of sight to plan a counter-offensive or to determine their exact number.
There was definitely one closing in on her right. She swerved around a limestone boulder. The skin between her shoulder blades itched. But she couldn’t help thinking there was another stalker on the left, using the buffoon’s lumbering to disguise his movements. The random snapping of twigs and cascade of rocks grew nearer. As if on cue, a pebble skittered across her path.
Definitely not a wild animal. They tended to freeze when faced with an intruder in their home.
Sera licked her dry lips and gulped down air. Running time was almost at an end. Thankfully her newly acquired TSG-17 hung on her pack’s carabiner. She shook out her fists and reached for the weapon. Her hand wrapped around the stun-gun’s barrel before freeing it from the hook.
Thumbing off the safety, she settled her finger on the trigger. When she switched the setting to maximum stun, the weapon hummed to life. Even if the old thing only fired once, she was hardly defenseless. She had fingers to poke out eyes, legs to kick, and arms to strike.
And a knife in her boot.
Right. She could do this. She had to do this. Following the terrain, she turned around another boulder. Needles slipped underfoot when she stopped.
A man blocked her path. Black streaked his bald head. Light glinted off the curved blade in his sausage-link fingers. A coarse shirt streaked his mammoth shoulders in patches of black, brown and red.
“You’re a fine tribute.” His gaze raked her from head to toe then back up again to linger on her brown hair.
Swallowing the wad lodged in her throat, she shifted one leg behind her, raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The weapon fizzled. Well, shit. Muscle coiled around bone. When he attacked, she would use his momentum against him. With luck, she might be able to fling him into the tree trunk next to her or smash him upside the temple with the useless piece of crap in her hand.
“Tribute?” She balanced on the balls of her feet. A karate chop to the throat was out. He’d probably tuck his chin before rushing her. So she’d leap aside maybe with a kick to push him into the tree. Anything to avoid an intimate encounter with his knife.
“Your kind.” He pointed his blade at her. “Not of the blood. Weak.”
She’d show him weak. Keeping her attention locked on his, she strained to hear the other. It wouldn’t do to be blindsided. “I’m not the one who needs a knife to take on a little girl. One would think you’re compensating for something with a weapon that big.”
He narrowed his eyes and flashed yellow teeth in a snarl but didn’t rush her.
Well, damn——either the asshat was smarter than he looked, or he was too stupid to know she’d just insulted him.
A twig snapped behind her.
Shit! She’d forgotten option three. He was waiting for his buddy to attack from behind.
Baldy’s attention shifted over her shoulder.
Dropping the stun-gun, Sera dipped. Her fingers slid into her boot, brushing the hilt of her knife.
Roaring, Baldy charged.
An odd flutter sounded on her right. Black streaked in her peripheral vision before she caught sight of the arrow.
It plunged into Baldy’s chest until only the feathered end protruded. He clutched at it; his mouth fell open.
Option four. The two aren’t working together. But that didn’t exactly make the man behind her an ally. Knife in hand, Sera sprinted for the tree-line on her right. Ten feet had never seemed so far away.
Baldy pitched forward, plowed the detritus on the forest floor with his face.
“Stop!” A man shouted behind her. “Or I’ll shoot!”
Her thoughts exactly. Five feet to safety. If she could just put a tree between them… She leapt over a boulder. Two more feet.
Lightning bored into her right bicep, knocking her forward. Her toe caught on the tip of the rock and the knife fell from her hand. Diving for the rock strewn ground, she brought her hands up.
Footsteps pounded behind her.
Her right arm folded upon impact. Twisting, she smacked her head against a boulder then everything went black.
“You can stop pretending to be asleep now.”
Sera grit her teeth and rolled onto her side. Smug bastard, wasn’t he? She fluttered her eyes as if just waking and flexed her hands and feet. Her right shoulder throbbed. Straps bit into her flesh and her skin tingled. Her nearly numb fingers brushed her rubber boot soles. Hog-tied without the slipknot noose. Today was her lucky day. Now to distract him while she worked herself free.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
“No, we haven’t.” A man squatted five feet away, sharpening her knife on a grayish rectangle. Her belongings lay in piles around her flaccid pack. A black tattoo swirled like a dark flame up his neck and licked his jaw. White scar tissue embossed the design. Youth clung to his haggard face despite the age shining from his eyes. “Why don’t you start?”
She stared into his pale blue eyes. Flat. Cold. Determined. She suppressed a shudder. Looks like someone forgot to insert his soul. Still… He wasn’t her enemy. He’d killed her enemy.
Christ Almighty, ‘Viders were real.
And she’d nearly been taken by them. She wiggled her left big toe until hitting the notch. All her years in Public Relations and talking to friends from the outside hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the Outlands. If she was to survive, let alone reach Abaddon, she needed and ally. Given her choices, she nominated her ‘captor.’
She hoped he took the news well.
“I’m Sera Tahoma.” She smiled. Her introduction had covered the sounds of the blades in her soles deploying. “And you are?”
“Interested in answers.”
O—kay. So he wasn’t interested in making nice. She just needed a few minutes to get free, then she’d convince him.
“Rule twenty-two, right? Treat everyone with caution until they prove themselves trustworthy.” She shifted her hands a little. Pain seared her fleshy pad as it skimmed the knife. Clenching her jaw, she sawed at her ropes. “I know all forty-nine rules of the Outlands.”
His lips quirked before he clamped them together. Setting down the blade and sharpening stone, he picked up the stun-gun. He stroked the tin barrel before palming the grip. “What’s this?”
“A TSG-17.” Her bonds loosened.
His eyes narrowed.
“Perhaps you mean what does it do?”
He jerked his head once.
Obviously a man of few words. The straps released her hands. “I don’t suppose you will believe me if I told you that you aim the tip at your nose and pull the trigger?”
Cocking a black eyebrow, he pointed the weapon at her.
“Didn’t think so.” She hissed as blood rushed back into her fingers. Damn that hurt. Just how long had she been tied up anyway? She worked her hands until the pins and needles subsided into annoying tingles. “Can’t blame a girl for trying. I mean you have me at a disadvantage.”
His finger tightened on the trigger.
“Don’t shoot!” Shrinking into a ball, she stared at him with one eye. Just because it wasn’t charged before, didn’t mean it wasn’t now. And getting hit at maximum stun sucked ass, big time.
The corner of his mouth quirked. “If it doesn’t shoot arrows, what does it shoot?”
Relaxing, Sera worked the ropes around her ankles. They didn’t budge. Obviously, this wasn’t his first hog-tying event. She pushed on the back of her sole before slipping the knife free. Just another minute and she’d be able to impress him with her resourcefulness. “Basically staples on steroids.”
He blinked at her, dropped his attention to the gun, before pinning his attention on her.
“I don’t mean to insult you, but which word didn’t you understand?” She flexed her feet, keeping the ropes at her ankles taut.
He set the gun on the ground. “We’re gonna play a little game now.”
“Ooh, party games.” She strained at the bindings. Almost there. “Do we get hats? I love hats.”
Picking up her knife, he rose. “This is called show and tell. You tell me what I want to know or I’ll show you your insides.”
She blinked this time. Her heart battered her breastbone. Since he’d saved her from the ‘Vider wasn’t he supposed to be a good guy? She quickly unwound the bonds from her ankles and took stock. While her boots had prevented the circulation from being cut off, her offensive would be severely hampered by her time in this position.
“That’s not the way I was taught how to play show and tell.”
“My knife. My rules.” Advancing, he twirled the blade between his nimble fingers.
“Technically, that’s my knife.” Think, Sera, think. Once he was near enough, she’d take him down. Either he would agree to help her, or she would hog-tie him and find her own way to Abaddon.
To hide her severed ropes, she rolled a little onto her back. Pain ricocheted around her head and she vomited a little in her mouth.
“True.” He stopped by her knees. “And since you kept it all nice and sharp for me, I’ll let you decide where you wish to have a little extra flesh trimmed first——thighs, arms, belly or chest.”
Son of a bitch! “Are you saying I’m fat?”
She was so not fat. That was muscle, whoop-your-ass muscle. Oooh, she would enjoy knocking the ego out of him. She shifted her weight. She would drill his foot with her knife then kick him in the testicles. When he bent over, she would pile-drive her elbow in his back and make him eat dirt.
His lips bubbled before he turned his head and he coughed.
Sera’s grip tightened on the knife. He had better not be laughing at her. His life depended upon it.
Clearing his throat, he turned back to her. “Choose or I will.”
She shrugged. Since he wasn’t going to get a chance to use her own knife against her… “Arms then.”
Now move within striking distance and let’s end this.
As if hearing her thoughts, he stayed planted by her bent knees. “Where are you from?”
Her toes tapped against the insides of her boots. “Dark Hope.”
His face flushed and a vein throbbed at his temple.
That was an odd reaction. Most folks were relieved and grateful to be in Dark Hope. All the Outlanders she’d talked to considered it a beacon of civilization and a gateway to a better life. Why was this man different?
“How did you get here?” He strained the words through his clenched teeth.
She sifted through the garble. Really, he should speak more clearly if he planned to interrogate folks on a regular basis. “I fell from the sky.”
Adjusting the hold on the knife, he jerked his head once. “So be it.”
Finally. She tensed. Just another two feet.
He paused and cocked his head. Nostrils flaring, he faced the breeze. “Anyone else fall from the heavens with you?”
She rolled her eyes. Did she look like an angel? She could lie, lure him closer. But she was evolved, better than such a base nature. “I was pushed out of an airship, not the pearly gates.”
He glared at her for a moment. “Sit tight.”
Before she could respond, he turned on his heel and sprinted away.
Well, that was just rude! He’d deprived her of whooping his ass. Licking her dry lips, she sat up and sipped from her canteen. Capping it, she stretched her legs and uninjured arm. Ahh,that felt good. Holding up her right arm, she brushed the leaves and dirt off the wound.
That would have to be tended later, where there was a little time and distance between then. Now to gather her supplies and skedaddle. Grabbing her pack, she opened it and raked everything inside. Brown pine needles broke off in the zipper as she shut it.
Shrugging into the pack, she stood. Her legs trembled but held. Since the ‘Vider had come from the south, she would head north. The better to escape you, my dear. She took a shaky step forward. Then another.
A scream raised the hair on her nape.
Holy shit! The idiot had ran away to rescue another woman. She couldn’t allow that, not after he’d saved her life. Spinning on her heel, she headed south. The knife slipped against her palm.
Rule thirteen, she owed him and would pay him back.
Removing her googles from her pack, she slipped them on her nose and switched the readout to Infrared. His tracks glowed white and yellow against the blue ground.
Another scream punctured the air.
It ended abruptly.
Oh, Lord, that can’t be good. Sera picked up her speed. Please, let me be on time. Please. The footprints veered to the right and she zigged toward them.
Voices drifted on an air current. Two males. One higher pitched than the other. A father and son, perhaps? What about the woman? She slowed and ducked behind a tree trunk of a tree. The trail ended at a bush. Was the sunlight flooding the clearing covering it or was he crouched inside the vegetation?
Pine needles rained down on her before a weight brushed her backpack. A hand seized hers, smashed it against the trunk. Once. Twice. On the third time, her hand opened and she dropped the knife. Strong arms wrapped around her before the hand released her wrist and clamped over her mouth. Her glasses fell to the ground.
She rammed her elbow into his stomach, head-butted him and raked her heels down his shins.
His hold loosened.
Pressing her advantage, she stomped on his instep.
He swore under his breath.
She stopped. Christ, it was Mr. Talkative.
“Don’t make a sound or we’re both dead.”
“‘Viders?” The word was acid in her throat. There was still a chance she’d been mistaken about her stalker’s identity.
“Yeah, twelve o’clock.” He jerked his head toward a clearing.
She eased her left boot forward. Peeking down, she spied her glasses. That should snap under her weight. She kicked it aside. She crept closer.
He pantomimed her movements. The clearing came into view.
As did the girl’s body splayed in the center.
Bile surged into Sera’s mouth.
The scene told the grisly story. A bloodied rock lay in a crimson pool near the girl’s crushed in skull. A boy, maybe eight years old, lay face down in the mud. Sunshine beat down on the pale scalp. An arrow with black fletching stuck out of his back.
Blood pounded in her ears and her vision narrowed. Who the hell had shot a child in the back? Kids were for protecting, not murdering. She stretched out along the ground.
He lay next to her.
Oh, God. It was another boy. Would this one die too? She had to do something. Her muscles twitched. She had to wait for an opportunity to strike. She released his arm and relaxed. “He’s around here somewhere.”
Another man? Sera strung the new information together. Was the man a murderer or a friend?
“I just hope he hasn’t finished his tribute.” The man again. Closer. “If you’re gonna learn how to keep ’em in line, it best you learn from family.”
The man next to her parted a few branches until a thin green screen separated them from the clearing. “Watch.”
“Pa’s already been teaching me.” The boy stepped from the shadows. He blinked at the bright light before shielding his eyes. Scabs dotted the pale skin where his hair had recently been shaved off. In his left hand, he held a short pole attached to a shiny scythe. “I’ve practiced twice on our dinner.”
“Twice, huh?” His companion stood on the edge between shadow and light. A hulk of a man with no discernible features.
Fear trickled down her spine. Something was not right.
“Yep, I gots to keep all the hair, too.” The boy fingered his black woven belt before wading into the tall grass. “Stiletto said I could practice on his tribute.”
“You best hurry up then.” Light winked in the darkness before the man emerged. His close-set features reminded her of a weasel, but his stealth was pure sidewinder. Knives of various sizes were pinned to his multicolored shirt. The man held his right arm stiffly at his side. It trembled with each step he took.
“We got good tribute this time, didn’t we, Uncle Titan?” A happy smile curled the boy’s lips.
“Yep.” Titan nodded. Something glinted in the man’s right hand. “But it wasn’t without incident.”
The man next to Sera sucked in a breath. What had she missed?
The boy shoved aside a branch and ducked under it. He frowned at the girl’s body. “Stiletto done killed her already.”
Stiletto killed her? Sera shook her head. No, that can’t be right. Stiletto was a boy. Boys don’t kill.
“That’s right.” Titan charged, reaching his nephew just as the lad turned. An arrowhead grew from his hand. He stabbed the tip into the boy’s throat. “Then the raiders got him.”
The nephew coughed blood, clawed at the arrow.
Sera tried to rise but a firm grip held her in place. She closed her eyes. This couldn’t be happening?
“You shouldn’t have gone off to have your fun.” Titan grinned. “The raiders couldn’t resist.”
The nephew sagged and the arrow’s shaft snapped under his weight.
Titan tucked the broken piece into his belt. “Your daddy should have shared that bitch dame of yours. But no, he had to hoard his tribute, no matter how many times I offered to trade.”
She pressed against her rescuer’s body as Titan stomped closer. He couldn’t see them, could he?
“Now, I’ll have the bitch and her daughters too.” Titan paused by the dead girl and stroked her hair. Pulling a long thin knife from his shirt, he scalped the girl in a few long strokes. “I can use a new shirt.”
OhGodOhGodOhGod. They wore people’s hair.
Tucking the trophy into the sack at his waist, he hefted first one corpse onto his shoulder then the other. Humming, Titan marched from the clearing.
Her rescuer hauled her to her feet and pulled her into the forest. “Come on.”
Sera stumbled after him. This had to be a nightmare. Kids didn’t kill kids; uncles didn’t stab nephews in the throat and wear people’s scalps.
He shook her. “Pick up the pace. If those ‘Viders catch us, they’re not going to care if you’re a raider or not. You will die slowly. Horribly.”
Right. She boxed up the images in her mind, tucked them away into a dark corner and slapped ‘do not open until forever’ stickers on it.
Then she ran.