Before I forget, I’m interviewing about Forsaken By Shadow over at Paromantasy.
Just joining us? Links to previous episodes here.
Sergeant Mackey was waiting on the other side of the soaring fence when they pulled up. At his order, the gate swung open, and Gage drove through. Mackey leaned over as he rolled down the driver’s side window of the Charger.
“Hope you brought your chops. The men are looking forward to watching our guy wipe the floor with your ass, but I hope you’ll be able to last a few rounds, at least.”
“I’m ready,” said Gage. The message was clear: I want a good fight, so don’t drop our guy in the first round. Gage almost smiled. The guy was giving him permission to draw this thing out. He nodded, feeling understanding pass between them. “I’ll try to hold out,” he said dryly.
With a smirk and a quick double tap on the car door, the sergeant waved them on.
“Cocky bastard,” Gage muttered. As the gates closed behind them, he said a fleeting prayer that they would make it out alive, preferably with his car intact and Adan in tow.
They entered the big, concrete tunnel leading into the mountain. It looked like any other tunnel, lit at regular intervals by fluorescent bulbs. Except that instead of open air, this tunnel let out into a cavernous underground parking lot that was lit brighter than an NFL field. Guards were posted every fifty yards. Embry raised an eyebrow at the sight of them. “You could take any of these meatheads in your sleep. But for the sake of the recon, you think you can drag it out a while?”
“Baby, I can take this fight anywhere it needs to go. I’ll give you as long as I can. But you be careful. If you get caught—”
“If I get caught, I’ll just say I got lost on the way back from the bathroom.”
Her flip response put him on edge. “Embry. . . ”
“I’ll be careful, Gage.”
“I don’t like this,” he ground out as he whipped the car into a space at the far end of a row of Humvees. “I can’t back you up from the ring.”
“You won’t have to back me up. You just have to distract them. I’ll find out the lay of the land. In and out. Just like we talked about.” She looked perfectly reasonable and calm. So why did he feel like cats were clawing their way up his bare back?
He shut off the engine and reached across to cradle her face. “Ember, I love you. Don’t do anything risky.”
She leaned forward and laid her lips over his. The thrill of it, the heat of it shot through him, juicing him well beyond the adrenaline that preceded a fight. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the flame just under her skin. Vital, addictive. Alive.
He exhaled unsteadily as she pulled back. “When we get out of this, we’ve got some serious catching up to do,” he said.
Someone knocked on the window. Gage shifted back to see a BDU clad soldier with an MP-5 slung over his shoulder. He gestured for them to get out of the car. “Showtime,” Gage muttered. There was no time to issue further cautions or rehash their sketchy plan. Fixing an arrogant smile in place, he opened the door. “Evenin’, Private.”
Face expressionless, the guard escorted them to a bank of elevators, where Mackey was waiting for them with three other soldiers. The sergeant leaned forward for a retinal scan. Once the system had verified his identity, the doors slid open. He motioned for them to enter.
“Fancy toys y’all got here,” observed Gage. “You tryin’ to keep folks in or out?”
Mackey gave him a cool look. “Our security is none of your concern, civilian.”
Inside, Gage noted discrete cameras mounted in all four corners of the brightly lit car. The private punched a button for SL-23 and the elevator began a long, whisper-quiet descent. Though she lounged beside him with a bored expression on her face, Gage could feel the tension in Embry as they went deeper and deeper into the mountain. He noted the surreptitious glances the accompanying soldiers shot at her, and he wondered if there were any women at this base.
“So who am I facing off with?” Gage asked Mackey. “I sure hope you’ll give me a better challenger than Stegman. You did say you wanted an entertaining fight.”
The sergeant’s smile was thin and cold. “Oh we have something a bit more special in mind.”
The elevator doors slid open to a brightly lit hall. Two additional guards flanked the elevator bank as their group of six exited and turned to the left. Gage chafed at the sensation of being a prisoner as they were escorted through a series of four airlock-type doors. Nearly a dozen turns later, he realized that they were covering the same ground. The bastards were trying to confuse them so they couldn’t find their way out on their own. Gage glanced briefly at Embry, then at a scratched metal girder they’d passed ten minutes ago. She gave a tiny nod.
At length, they finished the detour in front of a pair of double doors. Mackey punched in a keycode—89763 to judge by the tones—and the doors slid open like something on the set of Star Trek. Inside the cavernous room, bleachers had been set up around a raised wooden platform. Mats covered the top, and ropes marked the boundaries. Soldiers were filing in from two other entrances and filling up the seats.
As they made their way toward the ring, Embry made a soft noise of distress, wrapping both arms around her stomach.
“What’s the matter?” he asked quietly, but not so quietly that their escort wouldn’t overhear.
“I’m not feeling so good.”
“I told you those tamales looked sketchy. There’s no telling what was crawling around in the kitchen of that hole in the wall.”
She glared at him. “So not helping.”
The makeshift ring was a little smaller than he was accustomed to and square. Not the perfect setting, but he’d make it work. He shifted his attention to Mackey. “So where’s my opponent?”
“Oh, he’ll be here in a bit. Do you need anything before the fight? Water, whatever?”
The din in the arena was rising as the bleachers filled and more packed in to stand, so Gage shook his head. “Pretty decent crowd,” he shouted. He guestimated three hundred, at least.
“Nobody wanted to miss this,” said Mackey.
Gage bent over to zip the legs of his cargo pants off, leaving him with shorts. When he turned to hand them and his t-shirt to Embry, she was doubled over. He sighed in annoyance. “One of these days, you’re gonna listen to me when I say not to eat something.” He looked at Mackey, “Have y’all got a bathroom she can use?”
With one hand, the sergeant gestured to one of their escorts.
“Try to make it back for the fight,” Gage called.
“I may be a while,” she answered, clutching her stomach as she followed the silent soldier out of the room via another door. Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched her exit.
Gage stuck to his role, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Mackey was watching him. He slipped off his shoes and socks, tucking the pants legs and t-shirt into them. “You mind if I go on in the ring to warm up and get the lay of the land?”
He climbed through the ropes to check out the space. The fight surface was a series of standard gym mats, velcroed together. Not ideal, but he’d worked out on the same often enough. The ropes were climbing rope, stable, not a lot of give. There were four layers of them, about 9-10” apart. Far more like a boxing ring. He’d done that too. Sweat popped out on his chest and back from the glare of all the lights. Even here, they were taking no chances. Gage wondered if Adan was the only Shadow Walker they had captured or if there was something else the light kept at bay.
With all appearances of ignoring the growing crowd—up to four hundred by now—Gage went through his warm-up routine, stretching, shadow boxing, until he was loose and limber. Embry wasn’t back. He hoped it was because she was still faking sick in the bathroom. He was twitchy, ready for the fight to begin so he could do something on this mission—the only thing he was actually capable of.
He heard the squawk of a radio and straightened. One of the other soldiers said something to Mackey, who had acquired a microphone. The sergeant nodded and flipped on the mike with a screech of feedback that silenced the crowd.
“Welcome to our unofficial Fight Night. As many of you may be aware, we’ve brought in a special treat for you. The Ultimate Fighter, Cade Shepherd.”
Gage raised his arm in response to the cheer of the crowd.
Mackey waited for them to quiet before continuing. “We’ve given some thought to who he would face off with. Several of you volunteered. But after some considerable discussion, it was decided that one of our. . . guests, would make a more appropriate competitor.”
The men began to pound their feet.
The third set of doors opened and a group of seven men came through. Six of them were soldiers, armed to the teeth as they surrounded the seventh who shuffled between them in chains. A bag covered his head.
They’re going to have me fight a prisoner?
Gage didn’t like this. He had no problem beating the shit out of one of these asshole soldiers, but he didn’t want to hurt some poor schlub they were detaining. From the way the man moved, he’d obviously been several rounds already.
They marched him across the room, roughly wrangling him into the ring. The guy swayed as they unshackled him. He rubbed his wrists where the cuffs had abraded the skin, but made no effort to attack any of his captors, only turned drunkenly back in the direction of the door he’d been marched through, head bowed. They whipped off the hood, and the man’s head ducked further, as if trying to hide from the glare of the lights. One of the soldiers stripped off the man’s shirt, revealing a patchwork of bruising covering his ribs and back.
Christ, this guy’s in no shape to fight. What the fuck are they thinking?
Gage felt his heart beat thick in his chest as his opponent took a few stumbling steps, circling the ring, taking in the audience. The big, reddened hands curled into fists as he made it around to Gage and straightened by infinitesimal degrees. His squinted eyes went wide, his face paling until the bruises there stood out like bull’s-eyes.
Keeping his face carefully blank, Gage had only one thought. Oh, fuck.
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