Hunting Shadows

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Chapter 21

“What happened back there?”

Her voice was soft, and the concern in her eyes made him feel uncomfortable. He had brought her back to her own apartment after the incident at the warehouse. She could hear his heartbeat; strong and steady under her splayed fingers, even though she knew it was just an illusion. He shifted against the headboard, sitting up and tightening his arm around her bare shoulders.

“I lost control. He hurt you and was threatening you; the Reaper won’t stand for that so it took over completely and nearly obliterated the vampire. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not about being sorry, it’s about learning to control the monster that lurks deep within you. The Reaper is a part of you so you either learn to accept it and stop fighting it or you learn to control your powers better. I won’t always be around to help you.”

“Because you’ll be with your new boy toy?”

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m with Jayson, or off world looking for an ancient artifact. We’re through, done, over with. However, you want to say it, it’s over between us. We had a good life together, now it’s time to turn over a new chapter in your life and this time it won’t have me in it.”

“You know I love you, and that’d I’d do anything to protect you.”

“I do know; I know how much you’ve sacrificed for me.”

“Then why can’t we make this work?”

“It never has between us. It never will; if we must work to make it work, then it’s never going to work. A part of me will always love you, just like it still loves Elara… but the man I knew died. I accepted that… it’s time for you to accept that as well.”

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The scent of hardwood polish, coffee, biscuits and the underlying scent of fresh kitty litter seemed to surround him momentarily. Memories came and went like flashes of images in his head; a lifetime lived with the woman he loved. But then past and present collided and the Reaper wiped the slate clean. When he opened his eyes again, he had come to understand that him and Eryn wouldn’t be together as a couple, but they would still be friends, with very high benefits.

“Alright, have a good night then I guess; I hope the rest of your very long life finds you well.”

She didn’t miss the barb in his farewell, but she wished him the same and watched quietly as he walked down the apartment hallway.

She messaged Jack letting him know she would be able to do the mission, before messaging Jayson to let him know if he wanted to come on the next mission with her, he was welcome to. She began packing for Egypt, while also deciding for travel and accommodations. It was going to be a long couple of weeks. Jayson said he would most likely join her later; he had something he needed to take care of first.

The ride to the airport was quiet; Cassandra and her daughters Heather and Alyx picked her up and dropped her off with little conversation between the girls.

“You know if you ever want to get together for another girl’s night, I’d be down for that.”

Eryn laughed at her friend’s enthusiasm. She could always count on Cassandra to be there for her when she needed it.

The last girl’s night they had, had been before Elara was born when she had kicked JB out the first time after finding out he had cheated on her with her father’s wife Athena Corsorva. That had been almost five years ago, and when JB had been human.

So many complications in her life, and she was forever frozen at the age of 23. She hugged the girls, told Cassandra she’d let her know when the next girl’s night is, and thanks for the drop off. Cassandra watched her friend disappear into the busy airport hoping she’d come back this time around; however, something told Cassandra that maybe this would be the last time she saw her best friend. Though she was a little leerier of stepping into a plane after what happened on her mission to Ireland, she gritted her teeth and sat down.

The ride to Egypt central airport went smoothly and when she opened her eyes, nothing but sand hills and miles of desert greeted her.

The hotel room was nice, large bed and bath, with a nice view of the outdoor pool, and a flat screen T.V. Her guide would be coming to get her in the morning. It was far too bright outside the café, and the sun baking down on everything made the intense heat nearly unbearable. She slept fitfully, either too hot or too cold.

Since Egypt was a desert, temperatures ranged from the high 80’s and 90’s during the daytime to negative 40 and 50 during the nighttime.

The tomb was musty and dank; though not dark thanks to the excavation crew and their lights. Bats could be heard chirping to one another high in the shadows of the rafters. The tour guide was droning on and on about the most recent discovery about the kings of ancient Egypt, and while the tour group was listening, she wasn’t. She was looking for a barrier that hid a doorway to another world. The group of 20 plus the tour guide travelled down a hallway taking pictures of the unearthed ruins while listening to the tour guide tell historical facts about the ancient civilization.

She followed the group as they continued down the tunnels that were open to the public, waiting until they got to the catacombs.

Those would be saved for the end of the tour, as they were the hidden resting places of the dead; said to be haunted by the souls that lay deep beneath the earth’s surface. She snorted; a derisive sound that echoed off the rough stone walls. A few people from the group turned back to glare at her for interrupting the tour guide, she glared back, allowing her eyes to change to yellow green so they looked like they were glowing.

Paranormal activity was a bunch of marketing drivel devised by companies in the government to control the masses through fear and doubt.

Reapers would never allow souls to remain in the living realm for very long after the body died. Once the soul was removed from the body, if it wasn’t sent on to the next stage right away it began to rot and would eventually drive the soul insane which would then call forth a death eater; a monstrous creature that ate souls and fed off the energy of the living.

“Miss, is there a problem?”

“No problem, I just think your information about souls and death is inaccurate. That’s all.”

“How would you know?”

“Through certain experiences I’ve had.”

She didn’t like the scrutinizing look the tour guide was giving her.

“And can I ask; through what experiences are you talking about?”

“You can ask, doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you. Humans aren’t supposed to know what lies beyond the veil. It’s not the souls of the dead that people “feel” it’s merely leftover negative energy. Or demons and evil spirits.”

“Who are you that you know this?”

“I’m no one….”

The tour guide frowned at her cryptic words. The rest of the sheep merely looked confused at the exchange. Some were whispering to each other, others looked like they believed her and others looked disdained as if she were proposing a completely new concept they couldn’t wrap their minds around. Finally; she turned back towards the entrance and walked away from the tour group, heading deeper into the vast maze of catacombs.

The anomaly appeared in the corner of her eye as a twinkle down a darkened dirt hallway. She slipped away from the group and darted into the shadows narrowly missing a construction worker as he passed by.

She went stock-still, not even daring to breathe, thankful that her dark fur blended in with the shadows.

Frowning; the construction worker looked directly at her, but quickly moved on when another worker called to him from deeper in the tunnel.

She breathed out, and continued towards the doorway. Hidden by heavy otherworld magic’s, the doorways were not meant to be discovered by normal human beings.

She theorized that was why they moved around as well, and the only reason she and JB had been able to find and cross through them was mostly by accident, but now it was easier to find the portals and doorways due to the nature of JB’s powers. He was other now, so though their connection she could see the portals and doorways much better. The tunnel was dark, and the sand was warm beneath her paws as she followed it down, twisting deeper and deeper below the safety of the Earth’s surface.

There were sharp, jagged rocks that jutted up from the ground to slice into her pads. As she continued further into the tunnel, the sand became harder and more like clay. Wary now of quicksand and sinkholes she slowed her pace to a near crawl and it was becoming more stifling and hotter the deeper down she went despite the tunnel being so far underground.

Her ears flicked forward, following the sound of bats and rodents until she had squeezed through a crevice in the ground.

She peered through the darkness trying to see fully and from what she could hear, there were bats; hundreds of them flying through the cave tunnel. Moles the size of housecats shuffled blindly in the darkness; and she felt more than saw her way to the other end of the cavern following the scent of fresh air leaking in through a crack. Light from outside the cavern filtered through. She dug out the rocks blocking the light and the air until she had made a crevice large enough for her to squeeze through into the outside world. It was far too bright and far too hot; the intense light was playing havoc with her eyes.

It was a relief to be out from the tunnel though. She had come out in a different part of the desert though it looked like a different world. There were still miles and miles of sand and the sun seemed hotter than normal; she scanned the horizon hoping for something other than being lost in the middle of the desert. The fountain seemed like a miracle and she refilled her canteen making sure she had lots of water. Oddly enough she missed having someone with her; if only for company and to have her back. The hair on the back of her neck was standing on end and she whirled with her claws and fangs out, a growl rising in her throat.

The goat bleat, tilting its head and looked at her. For a moment, she just looked at it, before drawing back and laughing at the absurdity of a goat in the middle of the desert. The animal merely watched her with its creepy rectangular eyes. She was scanning the horizon looking for something other than desert when the fountain water began swirling.

She had just found the tiny village barely visible along the horizon line when the goat charged at her, hitting her backpack and sending her flying into the swirling water.

The fountain was deeper than it appeared and it was a clear crystal blue as she fell towards it. “This is why I hate goats.” She thought as the water swirled her down into the portal. A feeling of weightless distortion consumed her. She could see stars and galaxies of every shape and color. Blueish grey rose ones, and sparkling pink swirly ones; it was quite pretty and she smiled at the picture she was seeing. Space; she was falling through space. The idea seemed absurd; if it were actual space she would have been dead already due to the severe lack of oxygen in space, the fact that she wasn’t meant that she was falling through a temporal time distortion wormhole.

The feeling ended and she was spewed out into a small muddy clearing. Groaning, she rolled over and spit mud and dirt into the short unhealthy-looking grass. “Stupid portals and doorways; why couldn’t they have markers so that she would know which portal was which and where it went?” Of course, once she realized what she was asking herself, she realized the stupidity of the question itself. As an explorer, it was her job to find the portals, doorways, wormholes, and whatever else linked one world to the next.

What made her job harder was that the portals moved, and were difficult to track. Looking around now, she looked for markers from previous missions to see if this were a world she and JB had been to before. What she saw was a wasteland, a forgotten world of desolation and decay. There was nothing healthy and living for miles, even the sky had a sickly greenish hue to it. She shivered and shouldered her backpack hoping to find the next portal quickly. Patches of rough, nearly dead trees and grasses clung lifelessly to the terrain, giving everything a greyish green color and she had the eerie feeling of being watched. She headed towards the copse of brambles on the horizon, hoping to find shelter quickly.

Night didn’t look much different or much better. It was considerably darker and she huddled close to the small fire she had built out of the sickly-looking tree branches. She had just found a comfortable spot to lay in when the ground a foot to her right exploded in an upward spray of dirt, rocks and earth debris. She hissed and scrambled backward, her metal claws giving her better purchase. Scrambling from the brambles that were swerving as a shelter for her, she pelted into the shadows of the field behind her hoping to draw her attacker into the open. More shots rang out, following her, sometimes barely but purposefully missing her, urging her towards a certain direction.

Judging from the direction and timing of the shots, she gauged that the shooter was most likely using a long rang rifle, and that she wasn’t being shot at; but shot towards. Whoever was shooting at her was herding her towards the edge of the field and the ravine that waited beyond. Snarling, she changed direction, doubling back the way she had come and darted towards the trees. The gun shots stopped momentarily which meant it was most likely one shooter, as opposed to multiple. She had found a large tree to hide behind and was waiting for the next set of shots. She heard the heavy tread of the attacker; much like a cat hears the nearly quiet shuffle of mice in the grass.

He was quiet; trained in stealth, possibly military. But who would be after her? She had made sure every one of importance knew she was disappearing after the failed mission of her team. Her dreams were still haunted by the crazed unstable look in Ryan’s eyes, the doctor’s blood on her hands, watching Ryan twist the Generals neck in a fit of mad rage. She shook her head; now was not the time to be thinking of past missions. She had an attacker who needed her attention that needed to be dealt with.

Everything was eerily silent then; not even the wind scraped through the lifeless looking trees. She became a shadow among the shadows, changing forms allowed her better night vision and balance as she scaled the tree she was hiding behind. He was a shorter man, roughly about 5’ 7” if she had to guess and stocky. Barrel chested, and though she couldn’t see his features clearly, she guessed he also had a beard. Nowhere near JB’s height of 6’ 3” or Jayson’s height of 6’; both men very well built but not hugely muscular. Tyver stood close to 7’ and he was massively built. She focused on his size and stature and the weapon in his hands as he moved lithely through the forest.

She couldn’t remember anyone matching that description that she knew. She waited until he was almost under her branch to drop to the ground in front of him. Caught off guard, the man swung his left fist toward her; she ducked and brought her knee up between his legs and as he was going down, caught him with fast punch to his jaw effectively knocking him out.

The man crumpled to the ground as dead weight, and she dragged him to the nearest tree. She tied his hands behind the trunk in a double figure 8 knot, making sure that if he struggled, he would only result in hurting his wrists through the tightening of the ropes. Once she made sure he was secure, she unloaded and safetied the long-range hunting rifle he had on him.

She also relived him of his knives and ammo, as well as another smaller pistol. Then she lit another fire, caught a couple of weird rodent type creatures that resided in this world and waited for her captive to come around.

His eyes gleamed coldly in the darkness, the light of the fire flickering in their dark depths. He watched her, watch him. She turned the meat cooking over the fire, the hair standing on the back of her neck.

“Who are you?”

She poked the meat and looked at him. He merely glared coldly back. She shrugged and bit into the meat.

“Just so you know, I have no qualms about leaving you in a forgotten world; to be ripped apart by unknown creatures. And considering you’re unarmed, I’d say your chances of survival are slim to none. Of course; you could always tell me what you know, who you are and I might be merciful.”

Something in her tone told him she wasn’t bluffing. It also could have been the fact that his sidearm was pointed at his face. He still didn’t say anything, but instead looked at the meat cooking over the fire. Picking up on what he wasn’t saying; she went over and picked up the remaining rodent creature.

A moment later, she was crouching in front of him offering the cooked meat to him.

“So, are you going to talk to me? Or can I leave you here to die?”

“My name is Jules; I’m a bounty hunter.”

“And I’m your target? Fantastic, now I got bounty hunters after me.”

She returned to her spot across from him, flicking her gaze between him and the fire. It turned out to be a long night, mostly of periods of dozing and tending to the fire. Jules didn’t talk even though she asked questions periodically. Finally, a weak light filtered down through the trees and branches.

Eryn stretched, kicked dirt over the fire and shouldered her backpack and the hunting rifle. Jules was slumped forward sleeping softly, and as she went over to untie him, she noticed a gash on the underside of his leg, that she hadn’t noticed before. Not a deep wound but bad enough that if left alone without antibiotics, would become infected and would need treatment. She sighed and began cleaning it. Once it was stitched closed with a gauze pad around it and wrapping, she untied his wrists and retied them together.

“Why are you helping me?”

“Because I have an ex-partner who gets mad when I leave people to die, even in a forgotten dead world, full of nasty creatures.”

He flinched when she tied the knot above his wrists too tightly. Making sure he still had circulation to his fingertips; she began walking uphill with Jules following.

“Thank you for helping me… though I’m still confused as to why.”

“I’m not helping you; I’m just not leaving you to die yet.”

“Oh, I see…”

He still sounded confused and she smirked.

“I can help you.”

“Yea right; like I really need the help of a bounty hunter who’s only going to turn me in for the reward on my head.”

Her voice was laden with sarcasm; and still they climbed uphill. There was something further on that she was looking for; most likely a treasure of some sort.

“I have a kid at home, and I needed the money, and no one else wanted the gig. Also, I’m excellent at tracking and navigating.”

She laughed at that, and looked back at him before shaking her head and moving forward.

“How much is the bounty on my head?”

“Dead… 250,000; alive…. Half a mil.”

“Half a million? Wow, I didn’t think I was that important. Who holds the contract?”

“They just said they were an organization and that they were looking for the girl a Jayson Storm was with…. The Blades or Cades or something like that… a military dude with really, really scary friends.”

The name clicked into place and she snarled low. A noise behind them made them stop halfway up the ravine; a low growling shuffling noise; that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She ducked behind a large boulder, pushing Jules behind her and peeked out, the hunting rifle already loaded and aimed near the place where she heard the noise.

“You know I could help you if I wasn’t tied up.”

He glared meaningfully at the rifle in her hands and the pistol on her hip. He assumed his knives were safely tucked away elsewhere on her person.

“No; of course, if you keep talking, I’m going to shove you into the open as bait.”

“I didn’t think you were so amoral as to leave a man to die.”

“Says the man in question hunting me like an animal; which by the way, I identify with humans.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Shut up and run. It’s time to split.”

She turned and ran, pelting full speed up the side of the ravine and into the rock base at the side of the cliff. Jules had stumbled and was struggling to get up.

She could feel the vibrations from the heavy tread of the creature that was following them.

Eryn; your better than this, don’t leave him to die like that.”

JB’s voice echoed in her head and she sighed heavily. Backtracking, she quickly pulled Jules to his feet and ran back to the ledge, pushing him onto the ledge she shoved him over it before climbing onto it.

The portal wasn’t far; maybe another hundred or so yards. However, the creature was out of the bushes now and looking for prey.

A huge, hard leathered animal with a rhinoceros head, a thick alligator like torso and legs that could only be described as monstrous; it swung its head from side to side, scenting for prey. She pulled back just as the head came dangerously close to the rock ledge they were on.

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