Arlie made an inexpert jab at the creature’s scaly hide, jamming the Taser against the thing’s spine, her hope plummeting when it barely stiffened. Its tail straightened with a snap that battered her leg on the way by, taking her down.
But Jaice gained space, locking one arm against the other to strengthen his resistance. And when Arlie fell, her hand skidded through tough grass clumps to find rock. A flat rock with sharp edges, broken from the limestone of the arroyo.
She threw herself on the back of the beast, slamming the rock at the base of its skull and then nearly losing her grip when it did little more than bounce off.
Doesn’t matter. If it gives Jaice an edge—
She hit it again, and again, her arm numbed from the impact. Just as she lost her grip, the thing whipped its head around, slapping her with a long, gaping jaw. She tumbled into the sandy wash.
But Jaice gave a wordless shout that sounded like triumph, and Arlie scrambled up to the sounds of renewed thrashing. Jaice knelt on top of the creature, one hand shoving at its chin, the other jabbing sharply at the narrow space between its lower jaws. The creature’s inhuman cry reverberated through the arroyo as its tail flailed wildly, battering Jaice.
Jaice yanked his hand back and orange blood spurted high in hard, pumping arcs that quickly fell away. The creature weakened, falling back—its tail flick fading to a feeble flicker against the sandy dirt until that, too, ceased.
Jaice fell back against the grasses, arms flung wide and chest heaving for breath. Arlie stumbled back to him, suddenly shaky—she barely made it to him before her knees gave out. But she did make it, dismayed to see in how many places his tunic was rent, and how much of the blood was his.
“I’m sorry—” He barely had enough breath to say it. “Between times…had hoped you not here.”
She managed to say, “It’s just as well I was!”
He gave her that hint of a smile as his breathing settled. “I was outmatched. My—” He had to find other words. “It may have been a test. Or a warning. It would have been known to my—” And he had to stop again.
“I get it,” Arlie said. “She knew what she was sending you into.” She pulled aside the rent tunic with dismay, seeing torn flesh and freely flowing blood. He wasn’t feeling it yet, she could tell that much. “This is ugly. We need to get you some help.”
“It awaits me.” Jaice made as if to rise, but wasn’t ready for it. He looked at the creature. “I must return him, also.”
Arlie glanced askance at the thing. Even in repose, its body lay heavily in the earth, its mass readily apparent. “I don’t think—”
But he was already rolling to his side, and then up on his knees, the stain blossoming over the side of his tunic. She winced for him—but he didn’t so much as press a hand to his side. He straightened, looking satisfied enough.
As soon as she realized he intended to drag the creature back to the doorway area himself, she sprang after him, finding new strength in her limbs. She reached the thing at the same time he did and grabbed up a front limb. In the process she got a perfect look at what Jaice had done to defeat it, and she couldn’t help a noise of dismay. He’d torn out its throat.
“Its only weak spot.” Jaice nodded at the damage as he dug his heels into the shifting dirt. “If not for you, I would not have prevailed. I brought us here thinking to dislodge it.” He gave her a sharp look as she, too, dug in, and one leg buckled under the strain. “Were you harmed?”
“Just bruises,” she panted. “Maybe we should—” Tug—! “roll him!”
Jaice bent low and pulled, and the body moved in a sudden surge. Arlie added her effort and they kept it going almost to the spot where they’d appeared in the first place.
She turned to look at it, feeling a pang of regret. “I’ve never—”
“Had I known you were—” But then his voice turned funny and Arlie turned to see him folding bonelessly to the ground, his eyes rolling back and his tunic soaked.
She dropped her share of the creature and this time when she reached Jaice, she did more than peek. She yanked the torn shirt aside, and then the startlingly fine layer beneath, staring with dismay at the depth of the wounds scoring his side. “Dammit, Jaice!” she said, while the rest of her flirted with panic. “You should have just gone. Nothing goes to waste in a desert—no one would have found this thing!”
She had nothing to bind the wounds, no way to staunch the bleeding. Grasses. Spider webs. Clay, for that matter. She would have gone for the thickest grass, had he not stirred.
“You should have just gone,” she told him, to his face this time. She found a few dried grass clumps within reach, tugging them free and wadding them into a ball. “And I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt—”
“It won’t hurt at all,” Jaice said, and it was hard to interpret his expression—the resignation there, the resentment.
He’d said something similar in February, when he’d arrived injured and uncaring of it. Arlie began to comprehend that he meant it literally. She took less care than she might have as she pressed the gathered grasses against his side.
“Hai!” He jerked aside in pained astonishment, and Arlie startled back with just as much surprise. But he grabbed her wrist before she got very far—and then just as quickly released it, the same as if he’d touched a hot stove.
“What—” Arlie started, but faltered at the intensity of his searching gaze.
He said, “I felt that.”
She gave his torn side a meaningful look. “You think?”
“I felt—” He started to say it again, but let his head tip back to the ground, his eyes closed and his throat working. He held out his hand without looking, and after a belated moment, she pressed the grass into it. He shoved it firmly against his side and held it there.
Nary a wince.
“More?” she asked faintly, and went to get it when he nodded. He took that, too, covering it with what was left of his tunic and pressing his arm tightly against the whole.
He said, without looking at her, “Do a thing for me.”
He held out his hand again, and she knew what he wanted this time, too. She slipped her own into it, absurdly aware of the breadth of his palm, the faint scrape of calluses against her skin, the restraint of strength when his fingers tightened around hers as his jaw set and his brow drew down.
She jerked her hand away. “That’s not right! I’m hurting you!”
“Not hurting me.” But his relieved gust of breath said otherwise, and he added with a reluctant note of truth, “Allowing me to feel what is.”
She stuck her hand between her side and her elbow, as if that would change what he’d said. “Same thing, looks to me. And it’s still not right.”
“On that, we are agreed.” He opened his eyes, pulling himself upright to sit cross-legged and awkward. Not feeling clearly didn’t negate the damage done. His paled face spoke of shock, and when he held his hand out again, it was far from steady.
“Oh, no way,” she told him.
“Yes,” he said. “Please. I need to know a thing.”
“We already know a thing.” Touching him gave her warmth and pleasure and a near-irresistible desire for more. Touching her gave him…what? A jolt of all the pains he could possibly feel?