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Braxton gritted her teeth, trying her best to keep her ass and crotch from pounding into the beast underneath her anymore than she had to. Her arms were wrapped around the woman in front of her, whom of which she had no idea who she was, or why Braxton felt compelled to mount the black war horse and fly off at a neck-breaking pace with her.
They’d been pounding the earth beneath them for more than half a day, and Braxton was starting to feel the physical pain and exhaustion of the unexpected trip. She turned her head, spitting out locks of dark hair from the woman in front of her, whose hair continued to fly into her face and any open orifice it could. She looked up into the sky, noting the gathering of angry-looking clouds, black and pregnant. The threat of rain was clear.
Braxton squeezed the woman’s waist slightly to get her attention. The dark head turned, showing Braxton a profile for the second that it took the long, black hair to fly back into the blonde’s face. Swiping it away with a frustrated hand, she leaned toward the rider. “I need to stop!” she yelled to be heard above the rushing wind. The head bobbed in an understanding nod.
Eternally grateful as the huge beast slow, then began to canter off into the thick forest to the left of the seemingly unending dirt road they’d been traveling. The brunette pulled the horse to a stop, then helped Braxton down off the high back.
Planted on her feet, she took in their surroundings, her legs feeling like rubber as she walked around on them. Her companion took care of the horse, leading him to a gurgling stream. Braxton followed, her thirst making itself very known. She adjusted her shoulders then rolled her head around on her neck. She felt oddly out of sorts, almost dizzy.
”Who are you?” she asked the woman, who knelt next to the stream, drinking from water she had cupped in her hand, her back to Braxton.
“My name is Asima. And as for who I am,” she stood, walking past Braxton on her way back toward the road, “I’m your guide.”
“My guide?” Braxton followed, watching as the woman glanced up at the sky, taking in the road left and right, then turning to regard the blonde.
“We need to find shelter. I see a storm brewing,” she said, one corner of her lip quirked in amusement that seemed to be aimed at Braxton. “Come.”
Braxton watched as Asima mounted Black Jack, holding her hand down toward the blonde. With a groan compliments of her behind, she allowed herself to be lifted behind the other woman.
The quiet of the small room was cut by incessant beeping from the machines keeping the figure in the bed alive. Jared’s eyes were drawn to that figure, his breath catching. Braxton looked so small and fragile. She lay with a thin blanket covering her body, though the bulges underneath the blanket gave notice to the casts that were on both arms and left leg, which he’d been told were crushed in the accident.
What drew Jared’s attention the most, however was Braxton’s face and head. Her head was completely bandaged, the long, golden hair he’d loved to look at and touch gone, cut short during surgery, and he was told, shaved in places. Her face was swollen beyond recognition, her nose taped after reconstructive surgery on it. She almost looked like Frankenstein’s monster with the railroad tracks of stitches traveling across her cheeks, chin and forehead.
The blonde man stepped further into the room, eyes resting on Braxton’s closed ones, bruised and swollen. It was probably a good thing she was comatose- Jared doubted she’d be able to open her eyes if she were to try.
“Hey,” he said softly, resting a hand gently on one of her narrow shoulders. He wanted to take her in a huge, relieved hug, but knew that wasn’t an option. “Looks like they’ve got you in quite the contraptions, Brax.” His voice cracked some on his best friend’s name. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You’ve got to make it, Brax. You’ve got so much to live for.” He leaned down, placing a soft kiss on the bandaged forehead. Sniffling and running sleeve across his eyes and nose, he turned, wanting to give Lydia and Carrie time to visit, too.
The waiting room was near pandemonium when Jared through the doors that led to the ICU rooms. He recognized Margot Crowley crying hysterically, held by Carrie who patted her back continually and looked lost. She spied Jared over the distraught woman’s back, her hazel eyes pleading for help.
“Hey, Mrs. Crowley,” he said softly. The sobbing woman lifted her head from Carrie’s shoulder, tears starting anew at the familiar sight of Jared. He welcomed her, relieving Carrie who took a deep breath. His newest roommate wasn’t keen on the emotion of the situation.
“Have you seen her?” Margot asked, wiping her face on a Kleenex she’d pulled from her purse. Her tormented green eyes gazed up pleadingly at Jared, who needed.
“Yeah. Just got back. Come on, I’ll take you in.”
“Ugh, I only hope Braxton’s father doesn’t show,” Lydia muttered, watching the pair disappear through the ICU doors.
“Amen,” Carrie said.
Jared kept his arm around Margot the entire way to Braxton’s room. The older woman gasped at the sight of her only child, nearly falling to the floor. Jared held her up.
“Oh, honey,” Margot Crowley whispered, walking to the bed and taking her daughter’s hand in her own trembling ones. “Daddy will be here soon, Braxton. He wanted to…” she cut herself off, then finished, voice quiet, almost ashamed. “He wanted to make sure we had a decent place to pray and go to church while we were here.” Behind Margot’s back, Jared rolled his eyes. “Jared?” the older Crowley said.
“Yeah, Mrs. Crowley?” He stepped up beside her, hands resting on the metal railing that were up on either side of Braxton’s bed.
“How did this happen? Was it that no-good boyfriend of hers?” Margot’s words were strong, cold.
Jared glanced over at the older woman whom he’d known just about his entire life. “No. She was driving on a dirt road. Lost control of the car. That’s all I know.”
Margot looked down at the still figure in the bed, her soul breaking in two. “She can’t die, Jared.”
He felt the backs of his eyes prickle with emotion once more, but managed to swallow it down. “I know. How long are you and Mr. Crowley staying?”
“Fletch won’t stay away from his flock for more than a few days.” She eyed the handsome young man next to her. “I’m not leaving my daughter until she’s well. Get her away from these influences here.”
Jared was surprised. “Mrs. Crowley, you know Brax won’t leave here. She’s only got one year left of college-“
“And what good will that one year, or that degree, even, do if she’s dead, Jared?” Margot hissed. “She needs to be around her family. Around what she knows.”
Jared said nothing, instead he returned his attention to the still form of his best friend.
Braxton pulled her legs up to her chest, staring into the flames of the small fire Asima had started. They’d found themselves a shallow cave, the light reflecting off the stone walls in eerie, dancing shadows. Outside the storm raged, rain pelting down, lightning and thunder nearly constant companions.
Asima sat on the other side of the fire, stretched out on her side, head held in the palm of her hand. Braxton’s gaze found her. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked. Blue eyes flicked up to meet her own.
“That woman and the little girl, is that your mother and sister? Mother and daughter?”
Asima studied her for a moment. “Would that make you feel better, if they were? My mother and sister.”
Braxton’s brows drew. “I don’t really care. Just curious.”
The brunette’s smile seemed almost mocking. “Yes, mother and sister.”
Braxton grabbed the small water skin, twisting off the cap and taking a long drink. She was so thirsty. It seemed like no matter how much she drank, she couldn’t get enough.
“You sure you’re not hungry?” Asima asked, waving off the offer of the water skin.
“I’m sure.” Braxton resumed her examination of the fire, more questions crowding into her brain. “You said you’re my guide. Where you are you guiding me to?”
“Your destiny,” Asima said simply.
Braxton felt anger bubble to the surface. Every answer she’d gotten from her companion. “I don’t understand something about you, Asima. Well, that’s not entirely true. I don’t understand a lot of somethings about you.” She met the amused gaze, which only acted to irritate her more. “Why can’t I get a straight answer from you? Who are you? Where are you taking me to, and why don’t I get a say in it?
With a sigh, Asima pushed herself up, sitting cross-legged and leaning her elbows on her knees. “Who are you?” she asked, voice quiet but firm.
Confused, Braxton stared. “What? Asima, I’m not playing-“
“Who are you?” Asima said forcefully, her face a mask of stone. “If you can tell me that, then our journey stops here.”
Green eyes blinked several times. “I don’t understand. I’m Braxton.”
Braxton smirked, ready to spill out the answer that was so easy, but nothing came. She stopped short. The more she tried to think about it, the further away the answer until her brain felt like a thick mass of molasses.
“That, Braxton, is why I’m your guide,” Asima said gently. “You need to trust me. Now, if you don’t want food, get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ve got a long day. I’m really hoping these storms will blow over,” she said pointedly. With that, the most Braxton had heard the taller woman say, Asima grabbed one of the bedrolls, spreading it out and curling up in it, her back to the fire.
Braxton stared at the other woman for a long time, eventually looking through her. She felt like crying, but had no idea why. Glancing past her companion, she looked to the mouth of the cave and the night beyond. The storm still raged, and somehow she felt as though she were connected to it. She felt as though those swirling clouds and pounding rain beat within her own heart. Never before had she felt so alone as she sat there on the cold stone of the cave.
The breeches she wore did little as far as protection, and she began to shiver violently. Grabbing the other bedroll, she spread it out and wrapped up in it, resting her head on her bent arm. As she closed her eyes, a tear slipped out.
“Roll her a bit back this way,” the nurse said quietly. Her fellow nurse did as asked. The nude body between them was pale, every bruise and cut on her body blatant and shocking. “Okay. Let’s get her sitting up so I can get the gown around her.
Nurse Karen James held the slight woman as her co-worker finished putting the fresh gown on their patient. The nurse’s dark curls bounced into her eyes as she helped to lower Braxton Crowley back onto the mattress. Brushing them aside, she glanced down at the still form. Her heart went out to the family of this young woman. Far too young to be lying there so motionless and helpless.
“Ready?” the voice of the other nurse asked, arms filled with the dirty sheets and gown they’d just removed. Karen nodded, lightly touching Braxton’s shoulder before heading out of the room.
Jared nearly ran headlong into Karen in his haste to get to Braxton’s room. “Oh jeez, I’m sorry,” he said, moving out of her way.
Karen smiled at him. “That’s okay. Somehow I don’t think you’re attention is exactly on this,” she said, indicating the hall around them.
Jared grinned sheepish. “Uh, no. Not exactly. How is she?” he asked, glancing into the room.
“She’s holding her own,” Karen said softly. “That’s about all I can say.”
Jared nodded with a grateful smile. “Thanks, Nurse.” He watched her walk away, recognizing her as the nurse who had given him coffee the night Braxton had been brought in. Quickly he headed into his best friend’s room. “Mornin’, sweetie,” he said brightly. He had managed to convince Margot Crowley to go home and rest. She and Fletcher were staying at the house- no reason they should pay for a hotel. They had camped out in Braxton’s room. Lydia and Carrie had headed home long before Jared and Braxton’s mother, so he’d called ahead, telling his two roomies to make sure there was nothing incriminating in the blonde’s bedroom, as undoubtedly her parents would snoop. Jared had nearly chocked on his laughter when the girls told him they’d removed two vibrators.
Now, Margot and Fletcher were getting breakfast downstairs, so Jared wanted some time alone with Braxton. He sat in the chair beside the bed, reaching through the metal railing to take a small, pale hand within his own. The skin was soft to the touch.
“Hey, girl,” he said softly, noticing that a bruise had started on the back of her hand where the IV had been put in. “Sleep well?” He grimaced at his own unintentional joke. “Your mom is really freaking out, Brax. If nothing else, you’ve got to come back to make her stop.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure he was still alone, then leaned in to whisper, “she’s driving me crazy.”
He smiled at a nurse who came in to check Braxton’s vitals, getting out of her way then resuming his seat, once again taking the blonde’s hand.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Brax,” he whispered. “I really let you down, and I’ll never forgive myself for it. Because of me…” Jared broke down, bringing Braxton’s hand to his face, the sobs quietly racking his body. He felt warm hands on his shoulders and quickly wiped his face with a Kleenex from the box on the side table. Turning, he saw Margot looking down at him with concern and understanding shining in her moist eyes. Fletcher stood near the open door, looking rather uncomfortable. “Hey, guys,” Jared said, pushing to his feet and offering the chair to Margot. “How was breakfast?”
“It’s hospital food,” Fletcher said, as though that said everything. He glanced at his daughter, his only child, before turning to his wife. “I’ll be at the hospital chapel.”
Jared watched him leave, stunned. Saying nothing, he turned back to his friend.
Asima glanced up, her nerves on end from the unending thunder that raged across the sky. The clouds were swirling in menacing threats, sending fingers of lightning crashing to the ground in magnificent bursts of light and sound. She rode Black Jack hard, riding around an obstacle course of debris and rivers from the pounding rain.
Jesus! Is this from Markus or from her?
She could feel Braxton clinging to her, face buried in Asima’s upper back. “Braxton!” she yelled, voice barely heard over the storm. “I need you to calm down!”
The blonde lifted her head, squinting against the tiny knives that were aimed at her face, hair flat to her head from the pelting rain. “What?”
“You need to calm down!” Asima said again, holding onto Braxton’s hands, which were clenched around her waist, as she led Black Jack to vault over a fallen tree. “We can’t keep doing this! Calm yourself down!”
Utterly confused, Braxton turned her attention inward, trying to figure out exactly what Asima was talking about. She paid attention to her own emotions, realizing that she was keyed up and scared. She had been waiting for one of those bolts of lightning to zap them all day. She glanced up into the sky, her eyes drawn to the tiniest bit of blue that was peeking in. She thought it was amazing and beautiful against the angry, bruised clouds overhead.
Asima gasped, eyes drawn to a widening ocean in the sky, when suddenly a burst of light pierced the storm, shining down on them. The thunder rumbled angrily, but began to roll away, the lightning sizzling in the calming rains. “Good girl,” Asima whispered, pushing Black Jack harder. She knew the storms would be back, so best take advantage of the calm while she could.
Eyes closed, Braxton relaxed her hold on Asima, lifting her face to the warmth of the sun, her body lulled by the constant gallop of Black Jack’s hooves. When she opened her eyes again, she saw that they were surrounded by green hills and an open, seemingly endless landscape. Mountains cropped up distant and blue, capped by white snow. Black Jack’s hooves pounded over natural grasses, green and thick.
Asima leaned over the stallion’s neck, urging him faster. His mane flew, as did his tail, racing across the grassy plains. She caught something out of the corner of her eye, heart filling with dread.
“Too soon,” she muttered, glancing up into the sky. Asima would have happily welcomed the dark clouds of moments ago compared to the blood red sky beginning to swirl above. The darkening hue around them made her feel like she’d ridden into a volcano.
“What’s happening?” Braxton yelled into Asima’s ear to be heard over the rush.
“Hold on!” the brunette screamed. “No matter what, hold on!” Asima kicked the mighty beast beneath her with the heels of her boots. “Ya, Black Jack! Ride!” The beast seemed to garner strength from a reserve as he used every ounce of muscle and energy he had to make them fly.
Braxton glanced over to the left, gasping when she saw the ground beginning to crack, the earth falling into the ever widening hole. With a loud crack that matched the flash of white hot lightning, the crack burst open, cruising along the ground, headed straight for them, leaving a black maw in its wake. “Asima!” she cried, her breath nearly stopping cold in her chest.
Asima turned Black Jack hard to the right, racing ahead at frightening speeds. IF either of them fell off, or if the animal tripped, they were doomed. She felt true panic for the first time as a glance over her shoulder told her that the ground was literally falling away at their feet.
Braxton felt like she was at the doorway to Hell, the darkness behind them alive with crashes of lightning, seeming to come from within the core of the earth, clashing with the fingers of death pounding at them from the skies above. She held on tighter, too afraid to do anything else. She squeezed her eyes tight, trying to imagine the most peaceful, wonderful day she could think of, all blues and greens, yellow and purple.
Asima glanced up, relieved to see the skies trying to part, the red lightning, almost as though water had been poured over blood until the ground echoed the pink hues. “Yes, Braxton,” she whispered. “Yes.” A light, cornflower blue began to bleed into the mix, creating a strange sort of lavender for a moment before the sun shone down in a fierce arch over the gutted land.
Finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, Asima slowed their speed, but dared not stop. She knew they’d won a minor victory, but he wouldn’t stop. Next time the attack would be worse, and far more personal. Feeling the strong arms wrapped tightly around her waist, she couldn’t help but wonder if her charge would be ready for it.
Slowing them to an easy gallop, Asima headed into the lush woods just beyond a small row of dunes. Black Jack was breathing hard, and she knew he was finished for the day. All of them could use a rest, truth be told. Asima stopped the animal and jumped down, leading the horse and single rider through the more dense parts of the woods, looking for a good source of water and a good place to camp for the night, as the intense burst of sunshine was already fading, the approaching night marching forward.
Braxton looked down at her companion, holding on to Black Jack’s saddle horn as she was lightly rocked from side to side with every step the stallion made. “That was some impressive riding, Asima,” she finally said. Blue eyes glanced at her briefly.
“What was that back there? I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think,” she muttered, letting out a shaky breath.
“Few have,” Asima said simply. “He knows you’re here.”
They broke through into a small clearing, a stream just off to the right, plenty of fallen branches all around for firewood. “We’ll camp here for the night.” Asima halted Black Jack’s movement, helping Braxton to the ground before removing the stallion’s gear and getting him settled for the night. “Start collecting wood for a fire,” she said, beginning to brush down her horse.
Wanting to ask more questions, or at least get her first question answered, Braxton knew it wasn’t going to happen, so did as she was asked. She hurried off into the forest, drawing a mental map in her head so she didn’t get lost. Something told her that her sense of direction was less than perfect.
Using her upturned tunic as protection for her arms against the sharp sprigs on the branches and twigs she was picking up, she hummed softly to herself, a nameless tune that just came to her. She glanced down at what she had gathered, and hoped it was enough. Night was falling, and she didn’t want to have to try and find her way back in the dark. Asima would kill her if she got lost.
Heading back toward the sound of the lightly gurgling creek, Braxton quickened her pace. Looking up, she realized that the sky had turned nearly pitch black in a matter of moments. Brows drawn, she brought up the mental map, turning left through a thicket when suddenly she was grabbed from behind. Gasping, her load of wood hit the forest floor, a large branch landing on her booted foot. A hand grasped her throat, shoving the blonde back against the trunk of a tree, knocking her breath from her.
Shaking the darkness away from the edges of her vision, she tried to concentrate on what had her trapped. From the size of the hand, and the cold, clammy feel of the skin, she knew it wasn’t Asima. Opening her mouth, she tried to scream, but with her airway cut off, only a small squeak managed to escape. Braxton reached out blindly, clawing at the arm attached to the pinning hand. She felt tattered clothing, more of the clammy skin underneath.
Braxton gasped desperately, her lungs burning from lack of air, and she could feel herself fading, heart pounding in her ears as her blood rushed through her head. Eyes closing, she prepared for death when her throat was released. She took a deep, gasping breath, her hand clutching at her own neck. It was then that she saw the glint of steel just seconds before it was shoved through the body of whomever had attacked her.
“Are you okay?” Asima panted from the deep shadows of this darkest, of all dark nights.
Braxton nodded, trying to keep her emotions in check. “Yes,” she managed. Her hand was grasped roughly, and she was yanked away from the tree and nearly off her feet as Asima ran through the trees. She grunted as she was pushed against the trunk of a tree, a warm hand placed roughly over her mouth. She tried to squirm but Asima hissed in her ear to stop. She stayed still, listening. She heard movement far off in the trees, but soon it was gone. The hand was removed, and she was being pulled through the forest again, then thrown to the ground.
“Protect yourself!” Asima exclaimed, looming large as she stood over the crumpled form of Braxton. “Do you have any idea what could have happened tonight?” Asima knelt, her face within an inch of the petrified blonde. “That Averill would have taken you to him, and your chance would be gone. Do you understand me?”
Braxton could feel Asima’s hot breath on her face, her bangs swept back from the force of her words. A tear managed to escape to her mortification. “No, Asima, I don’t understand,” she sniffled, pushing the brunette away from her and wrapping her arms around her knees. “You won’t tell me anything. Won’t explain anything to me.” Her tears wouldn’t stop now, and she angrily swiped at them. “How the hell am I supposed to defend myself or know when I’m doing wrong when I don’t know what’s right!”
Asima stood, sighing heavily. She ran a hand through her hair, heart finally slowing. “You’re right,” she said, turning to face the night. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s good,” she muttered before heading out into the shadows. “Stay put.”
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