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by Sonya Bateman

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

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“Come on, Ian. We’ll never make it back to that town walking. Especially not with you beat to hell.” He could barely walk, much less cast any spells. “Let’s just make a quick pit stop, all right? Give it an hour. You can rest, and I’ll stand watch.”
He cast me a dubious look. And started walking again.
“Damn it, stop being a jackass!”
“I am fine.” He staggered a little, took two more steps, and collapsed.
I cursed under my breath. “So we’re resting,” I said. “Right?”
“Apparently,” he muttered into the ground.
“Glad you see it my way.” I knelt beside him and tried to look through the trees. “I think there’s a decent clearing up ahead,” I said. “You gonna let me help you get there, or are you comfortable here?”
He let out a long breath. “Very well.”
“You’re welcome.”
Somehow I managed to get him up and leaning on me. The clearing that looked no more than fifty feet away took five minutes to reach—and it wasn’t much of a clearing. Just a semi-circular patch of ground covered in browning pine needles. At least there weren’t as many rocks here.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll let you down here, and—”
“You all just keep movin’.”
The voice, not clearly male or female, came from across the clearing. A shotgun protruded between two trees, with a figure in a wide-brimmed hat behind it.
For a minute my brain went blank. Why the hell would anybody else be on this oversized pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere? The only quasi-civilization, the little mountain town where we’d rented a room, was miles away. But the shotgun suggested hunter, so maybe whoever this was had been hunting something they shouldn’t have and didn’t want to be discovered.
The sharp blast of the gun jolted me out of pondering. A cloud of dirt and pine needles burst from the ground near my feet. “Jesus Christ!” I yelled, dragging Ian back a few steps. “You can’t just shoot people.”
Brilliant. I sounded like a Sunday school teacher. That’d deter the nut with the gun.
“I said move. Get on outta here.” The barrel came back up. “I won’t miss next time.”
Ian breathed in shakily. “I can walk,” he whispered. “We will find another spot.”
“Guess we don’t have a choice.”
The gun-bearer moved forward and stopped just outside the light in the clearing. “You hurt?” The tone was a few degrees gentler, but no more welcoming.
“Yes. My friend’s arm is broken, and...stuff.” Rattling off a list of Ian’s injuries didn’t seem like it would help. I might have to offer an explanation, and I didn’t have a lie handy.
“You ain’t from town, or that militia bunch?”
“Saints and shitpokes. Dumbass tourists. You from up North, too.” The voice edged into feminine territory as some of the coldness wore off. “Were you climbin’, or huntin’?”
“Climbing.” I seized the innocuous excuse, hoping Ian had enough sense not to contradict me. “We were checking out the caves up there and lost our footing. He fell further than me.”
Ian stiffened, but he didn’t say anything.
She—I was positive it was a woman now—sighed like I’d just confessed to not realizing the sky was blue. “S’pose you better come back to my place, then. It ain’t too far. Your...friend can ride Zephyr. You’ll have to walk.”
I ignored the suggestive way she said friend. “What’s a Zephyr?”
“My mule.” She turned and moved back into the trees.
Ian shuddered and coughed. “A mule,” he murmured.
“Sounds like fun.” I suppressed a grin.