The following is a free chapter from book two in the Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors series Encounter at Demon Skull
The Warrior of the River’s breathing was too fast for her to remain as quiet as she wanted. Night had fallen and she had chosen an excellent hiding place, but she was certain that the stale, sour air would soon make her wheeze or cough and give away her position.
She could hear something approaching from the direction of the outer ruins. Between her and whomever or whatever it was loomed a massive sandstone pillar: One of the huge bulwarks that formed the outer ring of the broken arena structure.
Up to now, surprise had been her ally, and she was once again prepared to utilize it. Alanna glanced up to judge height and angle, then she shifted her weight. Across the ground she could see four long shadows cast by the flickering torchlight moving towards her position.
Now or never.
“He took this path,” the Huntress said, pointing along the ground where the Chronicler’s Lantern cast it’s colorful light. “The dirt and rocks are burnt, but these are the tracks of one man.”
“What were those tracks in the inner ring?” Ranko asked, referring to the center-most region of the half-mile-wide pillar-encircled centerpiece of the Gorian Ruins.
Shannon just kept walking. Ranko took a breath to repeat herself, then her words became a troubled look. The Huntress still couldn’t hear. She reminded herself they needed to find Talitha as soon as they could.
“There’s lots of little cracks in the ground,” Cici said. “Everywhere those big monster feet were, the ground is all broken and smashed together.”
“Whatever it was, it must have been–” The Warrior of the Storms saw the faintest quicksilver flash overhead. Something had flown over them. She turned quickly and took up a defensive stance, holding Thundercaller across her body. Then a delighted expression replaced her frown.
Shannon and Cici turned and saw the Warrior of the River standing in a graceful pose only a few yards away from them, the smooth surface of the Quarterseeker fighting staff gleaming from behind her right arm. Silhouetted by the orange light of the torches, Alanna looked taller, even dire.
“Hi Alanna!” Cici exclaimed joyfully. She started forward, but Shannon held her back. Alanna’s threatening posture was matched only by the powerful glare in her purple eyes.
Ranko cautiously put a hand on Cici’s shoulder. It was a silent signal the Ajan Warriors had developed for situations just like this. The Warrior of Stone understood and willed her Lantern’s light to brighten until they could see their friend clearly. Kishi watched the familiar older girl expectantly, his ears standing straight up.
As the light crept far enough to illuminate them, the Huntress noticed smudges of dirt, scorches and burns along the arms and legs of Alanna’s raiments. Her torn sash and the huge purple bruise on the left side of her face were further signs: Alanna MacLeese had been in at least one, and possibly several vicious fights.
Ranko wondered if Alanna had fought all alone. She wondered how scared her friend must have been. Then she felt a chill. Alanna neither approached them nor even seemed to recognize them.
The Crimson Champion was confident in her own combat abilities and in the sheer power of her weapon and heavy armor, but deep in her heart she knew the Winterdancer was a very dangerous and unpredictable opponent, even outnumbered four to one.
“You okay there, boss?” Ranko asked tentatively while very gently adjusting her own stance for maximum protection against what she knew were Alanna’s favored opening attacks. She realized too late that Alanna would recognize the escalation, and she muttered self-criticism through gritted teeth. It was a rookie mistake. Reina would not have approved.
The Warrior of the River responded in kind. She spun her Staff in a quick flourish and caught it behind her right shoulder, moving her right foot back and centering her weight. Ranko recognized the battle stance instantly. The Winterdancer’s words were colder than the ice she commanded.
“You will not deceive me again.”