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Sadrian was pouting.
“I didn’t need rescuing,” she said for the seventh time.
“Oh, I’m well aware,” said Tenn. He kept his eyes on the road.
His response only made Sadrian pout more. Folding her arms, she sank deeper into the cushioned car seat and watched the scenery streak by at lightning speed. The headlights threw beams down on the road, which skimmed under them easy as water. Spindly fingers of summer-hungry trees flickered by like ghostly cobwebs.
“Well, I didn’t,” she said sulkily.
“Shut up, Sadrian.”
The low whir of the car was the only sound that remained. Sadrian, who didn’t much like the absence of conversation and liked being told to shut up even less, began to tap her rounded fingernails against her hard leather bracelet. It was agency issue, and had all her numbers carved on the underside. She knew precisely at what angle to click her nails on the bracelet to make as much noise as possible. She looked pointedly in Tenn’s direction. Very determined indeed, he continued to watch the road, his fingers gripping the steering wheel tightly.
Sadrian took the moment to assess her partner’s condition. A light cut on his forehead and a developing bruise on his cheek was all that was visible. Neither did much to mar his good looks B though she’d never tell him as much, Sadrian knew as well as any of the agency girls that Tenn was the handsomest guy of the Borders. With tan skin, a strong jaw, and eyes like dark chocolate, Tenn was the object of many crushes, none of which he encouraged nor indeed seemed to reciprocate.
His looks do little to hide his stubborn personality though, thought Sadrian.
“Third time this month,” she said finally. “I’m beginning to think you don’t have anything better to do.”
“It’s what I’m supposed to do. You were up against six wester wraiths tonight. If I hadn’t come when I did, you’d be in thirty pieces instead of one.”
Why me? Sadrian wondered. They’d both become full-fledged Borders seven months ago. Borders were responsible for guarding the river. Wraiths from the shadowed lands beyond their country persistently attempted to cross; when they did, they wrought havoc on the edge villages. Sadrian knew “border” had once been the word for a line that separated two places, but she supposed that had been a very long time ago. Now, the Borders were the only things keeping that line in its invisible and disputed position.
She loved being a Border. But Tenn and she hardly got along. They were constantly bickering and she had no inkling why they’d been assigned as partners.
“I had my knives,” Sadrian grumbled. They were her pride and joy; their blades were made of some sort of compound that worked against the substance of the wraiths. She had learned the chemical structure in training, but few Borders concerned themselves with that kind of detail.
“One of which was on the ground when I arrived.”
“You know what, Tenn?” Sadrian snapped. “You’re not the only person who can do this job. What’s the deal? Hansa goes out all the time and Rane never goes after her.”
“They are senior Borders. Much more experienced than you.”
“And you then too!”
“Exactly. We are partners for a reason, Sadrian. I’m going to have to lie for you this time. Unless you want to be put on probation. Three major offenses . . . I’d say this counts as your third?” Tenn’s voice was as casual as if Sadrian had inquired as to the time.
“I hate lying for you,” he added. Sadrian wound a piece of sandy hair around her finger and pursed her lips. “It’s against code.”
“You’re the only person who pays attention to code,” she muttered.
“Everyone pays attention to code. It keeps people safe. Except you, clearly.” Despite the fact that Sadrian knew Tenn was irked, he showed no sign of it, and his eyes never moved from the road ahead. His driving was impeccable always, even when Sadrian’s antics caused him to raise his voice. That was the extent of his temper; somehow he managed to stay in control all the time. Such a state of constancy was unfathomable to Sadrian, who was changeable as a summer storm.
She opened her mouth to issue a biting retort, but for a split second she glimpsed at the edge of the headlights’ reach a leaping gray shape. She blinked and it was gone.
“Tenn!” she cried.
“What?” he said, hardly matching her own urgency.
“A wraith - I just saw one. A wester wraith too by the looks of it!”
“I saw nothing.”
“It was only there a nanosecond, but I saw it!”
“We’re hundreds of kilometers from the river, and we killed all the wraiths. Neither of our sensors have rung.”
Sensors were built into Borders’ leather bracelets, and if wraiths were a nearby threat they sent a ringing through the bodies of their owners alone. He was right, they hadn’t rung, but Sadrian had battled enough wraiths in the past months to know one when she saw one.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she told him with fervor. “It was there. Turn the kinesobeams on!”
“I don’t see it as necessary just for a trick of the lighB”
“Turn the kinesobeams on!” Sadrian shrieked, and Tenn obeyed automatically. As the headlights began to move and scan the range of the road, they lifted upward to frame the loosely-defined gray outlines of more than a dozen wester wraiths hanging in the air before the car. “Left!” Sadrian shouted. “Go left left LEFT!”
Tenn cranked the wheel in a hard left turn, swerving around the hovering wraiths. The wheels hit the edge of the road and the car spun round, changing its direction into the woods. Tenn slammed on the brakes and could have easily brought them to a safe stop if it hadn’t been for the steep hill only meters from the road. Sadrian let out another piercing screech as the car tipped and rolled at high speed down the long slope. Her belts kept her in her seat as they flipped and turned again, the windows smashing and the roof closing in. Finally the car hit a snag and flew through the air, then landed upside down with an almighty crash on the forest floor.
A moment of hissing passed as the car smoked and fizzled. Sadrian sat still strapped in, her throbbing head resting on the ceiling. The roof had been bashed in right down the middle, making it impossible for Sadrian to see Tenn.
She moved all her limbs, taking inventory of body parts. Apart from a few aches and a bleeding arm, she seemed relatively intact.
“Tenn!” she called, her voice clogged with smoke and distress. No reply came.
Her Border senses took over and Sadrian reached for the belt release to free herself. She found it jammed. Through the hissing of the wreckage Sadrian could hear the high howl of approaching wraiths. She reached for one of her matching slender knives at her belt and in one clean motion cut the belt, which snapped back forcefully.
The door had been reduced to a mere slit, but skinny Sadrian managed to wiggle her way out of the car. She had barely gotten to her feet when the wraiths attacked.
They were not quite human but every week they seemed to be more so. Most could float a distance off the ground when they chose, but now these ran down the leaf-laden slope on strange feet that were not exactly the right shape. No skeletons or muscles kept the wraiths together; they were some sort of chemical compound which her knives would dissolve. She unsheathed her other knife just in time as her assailants descended. She could see their cerulean eyes burning deep within their bodies and shuddered. Methodically she raised her blades into a defensive position and braced herself for impact.
She knew instantly they would be too much for her. Though she swept her knives skillfully and within seconds managed to wound two of them, there were at least fifteen and all wielding jagged blades of glittering stone. Sadrian could barely block the blows they swung at her in time; they came from all directions.
Several of them fell away, leaving only a few to challenge her. This was not uncommon in wraith fights. Sadrian guessed they had some sort of caste that allowed some a better chance to get a kill. It made it easier on her, but still, seven was about four too many.
She slashed out at one of them and landed the blow on its shoulder. It let out one of their eerie moans, like rock scraping rock, and fell as ash to the ground. Sadrian had little time to savor her victory, though, for in the next instant, one of its fellows came up beside her and with its stone knife knocked one of her own blades out of her hand.
As the knife flew away Sadrian used the other to cut the offender right across the eyes. The wraith howled as it too crumbled to dust.
The other wraiths who were observing, seeing Sadrian a worthy opponent, decided now was the time to move in again. They rose up a foot from the ground and soared towards her. She tried to leap aside but they were everywhere - one of them hurtled straight into her and the force of the collision knocked her to the ground. She successfully parried the blow that followed.
It was Tenn’s voice. Suddenly the attention of many of the wraiths turned, including the one that was hovering over Sadrian. She seized the chance to lunge for her fallen weapon and scrambled to her feet just in time to see Tenn land a dart in the chest of one of the many wraiths converging on him. She was barely able to notice that he was covered in more cuts before the other wraiths remembered her. Only four were after her this time. Reunited with her other knife and emboldened by the sight of Tenn alive she fought with renewed vigor. One, two wraiths dissolved as she slashed and blocked and dodged. The two that survived her attacks seemed more resilient; they charged with ferocity and forced her to move back.
Steadily they bore down on her until there was a splash and cold spread over Sadrian’s foot. She didn’t need to look to know that she had stepped back into a stream. Quickly she placed her other foot in the water. Wraiths could not stand running water, which was why the river was what the Borders guarded.
Her assailants paused, irate at being outfoxed. Cerulean eyes blazing, one reached out and his stone knife sliced through the air. Sadrian leaned back as the tip of the blade missed her by an inch, then threw both her weapons, one for each wraith. At such close range it was almost impossible to miss, and the blades found their homes then fell to the ground with the ash from their victims settling around them.
Intent on returning to battle to help Tenn, Sadrian reached for her beloved knives. Her fingers had just touched the hilts when the remains of the car exploded violently, shattering the night into a thousand pieces and turning the darkness into swirls of red and yellow. Though a distance away the blast made Sadrian stumble backwards, and she watched as several wraiths, outlined by the curls of fire, flew every which way.
She realized that Tenn, too, had been near the car. Much too near.
“Tenn!” she cried. “Tenn!” Snatching up the knives she hurtled back to the wreckage, not thinking of her own safety. But the car was done exploding now and had fallen into a quieter state of burning and crackling. Sadrian could feel the oppression of the heat as she sprinted closer. She slowed to a stop and scanned the area desperately, searching for signs of Tenn. The scattered wraiths were nowhere to be found, nor was her partner. The smoke and the worry made it hard for Sadrian to breathe.
“Tenn!” she screamed again, more desperately this time, and began to wander in her urgent hunt for him. The explosion must have knocked him away . . . but where? Her eyes combed the trees, whose shadows danced eerily in the flickering light, but her ears served her first.
It was a word most feebly spoken, but nearly rang with an echo in her ears she was so anxious to hear it.
“Tenn!” she called, and despite herself felt tears of relief begin to gather. “Where are you?”
“Here,” came the voice, which trembled less now, and she followed the sound until she found its source.
He lay with his head between two roots of a tree, and Sadrian bit her tongue to keep from wailing when she saw him. His right arm was torn and its veins completely revealed; they bled profusely onto the surrounding leaves. Cuts crosshatched his right cheek and one eye was swollen shut. Forgetting herself, Sadrian rushed to his side, her tears no longer of relief but of anguish.
“Tenn,” she said breathlessly as she knelt beside him.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said calmly. “A stitch here and there will do the trick.”
Sadrian choked back a sob as she surveyed his arm and her Border senses kicked in again. “Tourniquet,” she commanded herself. Her shaking fingers unbuckled her belt and took it from around her hips. She tied the tourniquet tight just above Tenn’s elbow, then hurried to shed her jacket and wrap it around the remainder of his arm, applying as much pressure as she could manage while crying.
“The wraiths?” Tenn asked, obviously hiding a great deal of pain.
“I don’t know, they’ve gone.” Sadrian realized she didn’t much care about that anymore.
“The destruction of the car will have alerted headquarters . . . they must be on their way already.” Tenn winced and inhaled sharply. “Don’t worry, this will all be over quite quickly.”
“Oh Tenn!” cried Sadrian because he was such an idiot, and then before she could stop herself she was kissing him and he was kissing her back and her tears were streaming down both their faces. When she pulled away regretfully Tenn lifted his good arm to wipe away her tears.
“Sadie,” he said softly, and Sadrian laughed through a sob.
“I’ve been so stupid,” she said. “And so unutterably horrid to you.”
“We’re both stupid. And both horrid.”
“I know.” Now she was giggling like a schoolgirl. “But now look what’s happened.”
“It’s just a scratch here and there.” Was he smirking at her? “I don’t mind if I lose the arm. The ones they give you are much handier.”
“Shut up!” She leaned down and kissed him again. “Tenn, I’m so sorry I’ve been awful. Running off on my own. Doing things I know are dangerous and that I know I shouldn’t. I won’t be doing those things again.”
“Of course you will,” Tenn said, touching one of the curls that had fallen from her hair tie. “You always take risks. That’s why I love you, Sadie. I’m not a risk-taker.”
All this blubbering was beginning to make Sadrian feel rather unpresentable, but she couldn’t help it. He had never called her Sadie before. “That’s why I love you,” she retorted.
“And here I thought you hated being around me,” said Tenn with a grin. “Going off without me every chance you get.”
“Maybe I only went off because I was hoping you’d come after me.”
“Maybe I don’t mind rescuing you so much.”
“Maybe I don’t need rescuing.”
“Oh, I’m well aware.” A grimace twisted Tenn’s smile and Sadrian pressed a finger to his lips.
“You don’t need to say anything more if it hurts. You don’t need to say anything at all.”
The clamor of half a dozen sirens interrupted their moment, but Sadrian didn’t mind the intrusion right now. A number of agency vehicles, much larger than the one they had been driving, pulled up around the flaming skeleton of the car, making as much noise and light as possible. Sadrian waved over the first Border she saw and soon after there was a horde of the lot coming over to them, armed with a stretcher and first aid galore.
“I’ll see you back at the agency,” Sadrian said, reluctantly standing up as the Borders clustered around them.
“Don’t go far.”
“Not this time. That’s a promise.”