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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Magnus, however, had once told him that if an enemy erased the honor in battle first, then it obligated you to play by his rules. Trace was more than willing to accommodate the advice, but he had one small problem.
He had explained nothing to Ashla.
Trace stepped back with her, drawing her back as far as he dared without completely cornering them. Then he took a deep breath.
“We have a problem.”
“Yeah, I can see that!” she whispered harshly. “Why does everyone want to kill you?”
“Because I am a very important part of the government where I come from,” he explained in a quick hush. “If they kill me, it begins to weaken a political structure that cannot afford any weaknesses right now.”
“Oh,” she said contritely. “That explains a lot.”
“Hardly,” he sighed. “Listen, jei li, I have a lot I need to tell you.”
“You said that.”
“Yes, but now I don’t have time to do it the way I should have.” He made certain to meet her eyes and drive his sincerity into her mind and soul with sheer force of will. “Remember, I am going to protect you with my last breath. Don’t ever doubt that, okay?”
“Trace, don’t say things like that,” she scolded fearfully, clutching harder at him.
“I have to say it, because I need to leave you here.”
“Shh,” he both soothed and scolded. “Just trust me.” He turned on his heel, pushing her back against the near wall. He kept both eyes on the lobby and beyond as he briefly kissed her forehead. Then he pushed back away from her, his chest aching as he watched her panicked breathing increase with his distance and he was forced to pry her hands free of his shirt. He stepped back and she moved as if to lunge forward to him. He stayed her by crossing the flat of his blade between them, his expression a warning, the only exception being the angst written in his dark eyes.
When Ashla realized she was the cause of what she saw in his pained gaze, it had the power to keep her still in place against the wall just as he wanted her to do, in spite of the horrible fear coursing through her veins. She gripped the flat metal faces of mailboxes on either side of her. Trace had placed her against a cinderblock break between one wall of them and another.
She watched him back into the darkest corner of the room, his attention torn between where he knew the threat to be, and her. Slowly, shaking all the while, she sank down low to the floor, watching and waiting to see what he was going to do.
It was because she was staring at him so hard that she saw every moment of the way the darkness seemed to just swallow him up. Then, in a blink of her eyes, there was nothing there but walls. She covered her mouth to keep from gasping aloud, her eyes shot with shock and disbelief. She blinked, telling herself he had to still be there. Where else could he go? After all, people didn’t just disappear! If they did, then that meant…
She really was crazy!
Trace had tracked the darkest corners of the room in his mind, those moonlight and starlight had left neglected and virtually black. This was the kind of shadow that was absolutely necessary for him to shadow-skip. Basically, it was like Fade, except instead of switching realms, he switched to a line-of-sight location. It was a silent and swift way of traveling across the room or further. Every ’Dweller could skip close shadows to an extent, as long as they connected at even the smallest point, but no one could match the distance Trace could skip to because all he needed was to see the other space of shadow. No connecting shadows necessary. It liberated him to move like no one else could; nor did many expect it because it was not a skill he’d advertised.
In this case, it allowed him to come up behind the enemy that had pinned him down. He materialized in the black, coming free of his skip with perfect silence. He took a moment, sensing more than seeing the stealth-guarded figure before him. He could hear beyond this immediate area of utter silence, to the distant sound of Ashla trying to breathe.
He could also sense a second person close by. The area behind the postal workers’ station was full of objects and walls that could conceal, but for the most part it was a single, vastly open space. That meant the moment he moved on one enemy, the other could get a clear shot at him.
But when the flash of silver metal in moonlight winked for the briefest second, Trace knew his target was about to make a mark of Ashla. It was clear he wasn’t a professional assassin, however. A Shadowdweller assassin knew better than to use unblackened metal in a stealth fight. Trace himself had only recently stopped carrying a blackened blade, an effort at pulling himself away from a warlike guarding and mentality. It wasn’t good for the advisor of a peace-preaching regime to be always suspicious of attack and on his guard. He had sacrificed the mindset for the sake of his rulers and their people.
And he would be damned if some back-stabbing bituth amec was going to ruin that for him.
Trace moved like a heartbeat, only not so loudly. He was out of the shadows and on his enemy like a silent breeze, ringing him around the throat with one arm while running through his left kidney with the katana. His right arm choked off his victim’s warning cry, and he continued to hold him upright in front of himself while scanning shadows for the other operative.
“Where?” he asked the indistinguishable man he held. In the back of his mind he was already trying to fit the shape and build to someone he knew. There weren’t many such slight-figured men among ’Dwellers. “Answer,” he hissed soft as a breath, “or I show you how easily this steel cuts upward through a body.”
The threat became useless an instant later as the sound of saw-stars whined through the air. They entered the chest of his captive in three solid thunks, even without him having to move to guard. It was clear the ruthless killer in the shadows had murdered his own partner rather than have him taken alive or be given opportunity to reveal his location. These stars, unlike the others, were black as night, however, warning Trace that what he was facing now was something vastly different than a scheming senator. Since trained assassins could learn how to throw stars in a curve, and the whine of the flung missile was designed to echo and throw off its locus, he had no idea where they had come from.
All he knew with certainty was that the assassin was skulking in Ashla’s side of the building. He had no doubt that had the hired gun been behind him, he wouldn’t have wasted the chance to kill him.
This thought was reaffirmed when the buzzing of blades on air whipped past, one clipping his cheek and another the exposed side of his rib cage on the right. The blade sliced almost painlessly through both his shirts and his flesh before it flew in a true line to hit the drywall several feet behind him. The strike sent fire blossoming over his ribs, but he ignored it as he unburdened himself of the body and dove for the deepest shadows nearby. He skipped locations quickly, altering sides of the room even as he still felt the breeze of a star passing so close he knew it would have hit true under any other circumstances. He measured his breath and waited for the assassin to move again and give himself away. He was thankful for the blood-dulled metal of his blade as he readied it for defense or offense. Whichever came first.
It was the faintest whisper, but his keen hearing picked it up easily. Ashla. She didn’t realize she could be easily heard by one of his breed.
Because you never told her about your breed, he thought in fierce regret.
It was for this reason that Magnus had always lectured him about keeping focus in a fight. He became aware of a presence to his left barely in time to avoid another dagger in his back. He would be damned if he knew how he had given himself away, but the cunning assassin had seen him, as still as he was. He sidestepped, lunging down low to the ground and shooting out a leg to catch the enemy at his ankles. The assassin dodged the trip, lightly overstepping Trace’s leg and flipping his blackened dagger around to expose the heavy counterbalance in its hilt even as Trace reached for the tanto blade he kept concealed in his boot. The eight-inch Japanese dagger allowed him to fight closer than the katana did, which was fortunate since his attacker clipped Trace hard upside the head with his steel just as he drew the short blade and cut it with a right-handed sweep under his opponent’s arm, returning the draw of blood across his ribs with one of his own.
The assassin recoiled with a grunt, stumbling back over Trace’s still-outstretched leg. The reaction surprised Trace. The hired gun acted as though he had never taken a wound before, and it was highly unlikely that he had never been injured in training. Just the same, he was in full, fast retreat and in the shadows before Trace could catch him. He knew the instant his reach came up empty that the bastard had Unfaded.
As disappointed as he was at the lost opportunity, he needed to take advantage quickly. He resheathed the tanto quickly and ran for the counter at the front of the room. He cleared it in a single lithe vault, his boots hitting the tile on the other side lightly in spite of his weight and speed. Habit. Unfortunately, it made for a very surprised blonde when he suddenly came around to her. She let out a squeal of alarm until she recognized him. Then she just pressed back hard against the wall and looked at him exactly how he would have expected a human to look at him after seeing him disappear before their eyes.
“I’ll explain on the way,” he sighed. “Right now, we need to get out of here.”
What choice did she have? Ashla took his offered hand and let him boost her over the counter. He followed after grabbing up his belt and her jacket. Then he hurried them out the rear exit. Since his enemies had likely entered this way, if there were further enforcements they would be focused on the front of the building, where the couple would have been forced to run had they tried an escape. Trace’s sharp eyes picked up two sets of tracks in the otherwise undisturbed snow. He wasn’t in a position to round the front and take on any other possible comers, so he hurried Ashla out into the deeper snow in the lot behind the building.
She ran with him, jerking on her coat quickly, her breath clouding fast on the air. She was afraid to stay behind, and afraid to go with him. She had no idea what was going on and felt like she was in some kind of surreal nightmare. After all, how else could you go from sex to samurai swords in sixty seconds, if not in a weird, disjointed dream? Next she’d be eating peanut butter sandwiches with him on a checked picnic blanket while he played the pan flute.
“Where are you taking me?” she whispered in demand, afraid to raise her voice still.
“And warmer, I hope,” she muttered.
“Ashla, this is serious, okay? If we have to freeze out here in order to stay safe, then that’s what we will do!”
“That makes no friggin’ sense!” she snapped back at him. “You can’t call freezing to death staying safe!”
Trace winced when he realized she had a point. He had spoken to her like a child, and she deserved to get mad at him for expecting her to simply shut up and accept the simplistic demand without question. He wasn’t used to seeing so much fear in a person unless it was a child. Not that that was any excuse. He had already acknowledged that Ashla had every right to be frightened and thrown off by the unexplained things happening to her.
The unexplained things he was supposed to explain.
“Okay, here’s the condensed version of all this,” he said as he hurried her onward, watching frequently over his shoulder. “Human beings aren’t the only upright walking species on the planet. There are other races…You could call them supernatural races. That’s how your culture would see them, anyway. We exist, we have lives, jobs, cultures, and we just happen to have special abilities that most humans don’t.”
“Like the power to heal?”
Trace drew up short, turning quickly to look at her. She was shivering despite her jacket, huddling in on herself for warmth. He hadn’t even grabbed his own coat and could offer her nothing more.
Just the same, her quick retort about how her ability to heal fell under the category of supernatural ability made him realize she had been paying much closer attention than he had been giving her credit for all of this time.
“Sometimes. In our species that’s a very, very rare ability. Although that could have something to do with how we heal pretty fast as a race.”
“Yeah, I saw that,” she said, clearly referring to the speed he had healed at early on in their relationship.
Trace cocked his head curiously and looked at her. “I didn’t think you’d be this quick to accept all of this. Honestly, I thought you’d be freaking out by now.”
“Are you kidding? After running around in this postapocalyptic hell for God knows how long? I’m ready to believe any explanation at this point. It sure beats no explanation at all. And I’m not saying I’m not completely freaked out, either, because after watching you disappear like that, I have to say I’m really doubting my sanity, but…well, I don’t see what choice I have. Besides, being born a freak makes me obligated to be more tolerant of other freaks.”
“You aren’t a freak, and neither am I. You are a woman who has a side of herself she hasn’t learned about yet, that’s all. And I am a man who is one of an entire race of people who are just like us.”
That seemed to arrest her shivers and her attention as her eyes widened a great deal. “‘Us?’ And just before, you said ‘our.’ ‘Our species.’ Are you saying that I’m from—from people like you? And just what exactly are you?”
Trace sighed. He’d never messed up his language use so much in his life until he had met this woman. And damn if she didn’t catch him every time.