Lt. Colonel Jeb Martin crouched beside a tree and checked his pistol. A few paces away, Zeke peered over a tangled bush, scouting the forest beyond. The old man squinted, then ducked. He turned to Jeb and put a finger to his lips. Someone was out there. Whoever they were, they were quiet.
After sixty heartbeats, Jeb pointed at Zeke. Zeke nodded, inched upward and took another look. After a slow scan, he shook his head and stoop-walked back to Jeb. "Must have been a sentry," Zeke whispered. "That gray bastard moved like a ghost. I barely saw him."
"You think we can get through to their village?"
"If we time it right, Colonel. I'll keep an eye out and see what their rotation is."
"Wish we had more men," Zeke said.
Jeb thought of the handful of men, women and children that had once been part of his neighborhood on Washington Avenue. They were scared, all of them. First their city had disappeared, replaced by miles of wilderness and that nightmare cocoon. And after weeks of wandering, they were now being abducted in the dark. Those who remained were tired, scared, and ready to give up.
"None of our people are soldiers, Zeke," Jeb said. "Some are willing to fight, but they'd only be a liability against the Vayna."
"We could wait for dark," Zeke suggested.
"The grays can practically see in the dark. They took Mai and Dieter right in front of us. We didn't even see them."
Zeke grimaced. "Why're they so fascinated with your granddaughter? And why take Dieter of all people? They're the two biggest loudmouths in the camp."
Jeb pondered this. Zeke was right. Why take Dieter?
It wasn't difficult to understand why a village of savages would take two teenage girls prisoner. When they took Mai and Ruby Tanner the first time, Jeb feared the worst. But after Mai's bizarre escape and Jeb's introduction to the Vayna, he assumed they were only protecting their territory. They'd promised to return Ruby the next morning. The Brit Professor Gordon had made it sound as if they were reasonable people. Formidable but friendly.
However, when Jeb return the next morning to retrieve Ruby, their friendliness had vanished. Men and women with blowguns and spears blocked his approach, shouting and threatening violence. He asked for Gordon, but they refused to summon the man. When Jeb tried pushing passed them, they shot him in the neck with a dart. He awoke hours later alone and disoriented in the woods.
That night as he and Zeke made plans by the dying embers of their campfire to retrieve Ruby, a pair of robed figures in the dark attacked. The scene had been chaotic—women screaming, flashes of blinding blue and green light, cries of agony. When it was over, ten people lay unconscious and two had gone missing. The Vayna had kidnapped Jeb's granddaughter once again.
"You got a plan yet?" Zeke asked as they crouched behind their tree near the Vayna village.
"Not really. The plan is to get a look at the village, make sure my granddaughter is all right. We're looking for an opportunity."
"We'll know it when we see it."
Zeke peered around the tree, then pulled back. "Sentry," he whispered.
Jeb took his own furtive look. A young man moved along a hidden path, his footfalls soundless, his eyes ever scanning for movement. Jeb withdrew.
"They're good," he said.
"About two minutes apart," Zeke said. "We can get through that."
"Maybe, but we don't know..."
A raised voice came from the village. Both men leaned out to glimpse the source.
Jeb recognized the woman. It was the warrior chief called Devick, the one who had bested him just two mornings ago when he had been looking for the Tanner girl. Devick approached, pointing at the sentry and speaking in angry, clipped syllables. The young man watched her approach, his blowgun gripped nervously in both fists.
Devick stopped before him, her spear gripped forward, staring him down. He mumbled a reply. She cut him off, her tone threatening. She pointed down at the leaf-covered ground, and the young man followed her gaze. He stared at the spot, then gasped.
"What do you think she sees?" Zeke whispered.
"Footprints?" Jeb guessed.
The two Vayna warriors followed an invisible path away from the village, Devick leading, her eyes darting around for threats. They headed directly towards Jeb and Zeke.
The two men prepared themselves, guns ready, poised to move. "Even if they don't see us," Zeke whispered, "They're bound to see our tracks."
"Think we can make it back to the clearing without being seen?"
"What difference would it make?"
"We have to ambush them."
Zeke frowned and nodded.
They ran, crouched low, careful to avoid dry leaves and twigs. There were no shouts of alarm or pursuing footsteps. When they reached the clearing, Jeb made a quick assessment. Hard dry earth, no footprints. Their pursuers will scan the perimeter, looking for their passage.
Zeke pointed to a rock at the edge of the clearing, big enough to conceal one of them. "Do we lead with bullets?" he whispered.
"We lead with threats. If we get them trapped in the open, they won't be able to retreat without getting shot. Hopefully they'll realize that."
"Are we going to shoot?"
"I hope not. But don't be nice if they're not."
"Easier to kill them."
"And have a whole village of silent warriors after us?"
Zeke crouched behind the rock. Jeb scanned the clearing and spotted an ideal tree. He moved behind it and waited.
Jeb didn't hear them approach, saw no movement from his hiding place. He began to think the'd gone in another direction when Zeke cried out. Jeb stepped out, his handgun held ready.
He caught only a glimpse of the young warrior dragging Zeke backwards in a headlock when a spear came down hard on Jeb's wrist. He dropped his gun, but he didn't hesitate, lunging past the spear and barreling into the woman who'd struck him. She evaded him, but he came on so fast that she stumbled. Devick rolled backwards in a reverse somersault and regained her footing, never dropping her spear. Jeb pressed on, staying inside the reach of her spear. He grabbed it and tried to wrestle it away from her. Rather than fighting him for it, she kicked him in the knee. Jeb grunted and fell. An instant later, Devick held the spearhead at his throat.
Jeb glared up at the warrior chief. She peered down the spear, her eyes filled with rage. "Tana nui. Bin danna ai owahn."
"I don't understand you," he replied. "Where's Gordon."
" Gordon ba hai'ha."
She paused. "No," she said. "No... dead." She flashed a vicious glint of teeth. "You dead."
She pressed the sharp spear harder against his throat.
This is it, Jeb thought.
"Hey," said a gruff voice.
Devick spun around, the spear tip narrowly missing a swipe across Jeb's jugular. She only managed a split second cry of alarm before her entire body convulsed, her spear dropped, her hands spasming. She fell backwards onto Jeb's legs.
Beyond her stood a short man in a broad brimmed hat, his face covered by sunglasses and a bandana. He held a taser, its probes sunk into Devick's stomach, the wires hanging between them.
"Morning, Colonel," he said.