Pounding down the corridor, Ray’s focus narrowed to the essentials.
To him, the closed doors he passed were barely a blur, while the latest piece of music to stream from Koz’s code—something about defying gravity—soared unheeded at the edge of his hearing.
Even the sharp pangs of his cracked rib were little more than a vague counterpoint to the uneven footfalls and rough wheezing from the man he pursued.
Sounds, he thought, of pain.
Sounds of weakness.
Gritting his teeth, Ray pressed on until he rounded a curve in the corridor, where he spied Rikert crouched inside an open door at the end of the hall, patting down what looked to be the body of one of his own security officers.
How the man had fallen, and why he was laying in the middle of an open door were problems for other people.
Ray had space for one thought only.
Or, two, now that Rikert had produced a stun baton from under the prone man.
“No, you don’t.” Ray’s lip pulled in a snarl and he charged forward.
At the sound of Ray’s approach, Rikert jerked, turned, and almost dropped the baton.
By then, Ray was close enough to grab Rikert’s weapon hand and slam it and the baton against the open door sill repeatedly while simultaneously delivering a solid jab Rikert’s face.
Ray considered it a happy coincidence that both the baton and Rikert’s nose snapped at the same time.
While Rikert sucked in a pained breath, Ray shoved him over the body blocking the door, and into what turned out to be a very large, very empty, very disorganized room.
From the looks of the fallen podium, the tipped-over serving tables, and scattered chairs, Ray guessed this was the auction room.
And though the doors on the opposite wall were still locked down, it appeared that none of guests had chosen to stick around.
He moved further into the room, where Rikert was staring at the empty space. “Looks like it’s just you and me,” he observed.
“Afraid of witnesses?” Rikert asked, but he backed away as he spoke.
Ray, following, shrugged. “Just don’t want anyone interfering. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? A real fight? Mano-a-mano, I think you said?”
“I was mistaken.” As he spoke, Rikert swiped at the blood seeping from his nose. “Fighting you isn’t man against man. It’s man against monster.”
“We could debate who’s the monster here,” Ray said, “but honestly, I’d as soon get on with it.”
And as he spoke, he flipped up a fallen chair with his foot, caught it in one hand and flung it directly at Rikert.
Rikert ducked, but Ray was already closing distance to loose a series of blows—punches, kicks, elbow strikes—that didn’t all land, but they kept Rikert on the defensive, and too busy to use his stolen strength to advantage.
Jessyn, keeping pace with Bader, heard the rumble of voices ahead, sensed the chill of Ray’s dark purpose, and the hot thrum of Rikert’s anger.
As the two women angled to the left, she spied the door from the auction house that she, Mo, and Kaara had escaped through less than half an hour past.
Though, when the three women had made their hasty exit, there had been no body laying over the threshold.
Approaching the door, Bader kicked aside the bent and broken stun baton, then crouched over the body. “He’s—”
“Alive,” Jessyn finished, sensing the man’s heartbeat while she peered through the door where Ray was engaged in a seemingly relentless assault on his enemy.
“What happened to him?” Bader asked.
Jessyn glanced down to see the man’s face was covered with raised circles that looked, against his dark skin, like burns, or tattoos. “Neocol burns,” she said. “There was a pod of them at the auction. They have the ability to generate electric charges through their tentacles.”
“I’d heard that. Never seen it, before,” Bader noted before pushing herself to her feet to join Jessyn in watching Ray hook his leg around Rikert’s, using the leverage to upend the other man. “Solid move,” she observed.
Jessyn agreed, though she was also sorely tempted to make her own attack against Rikert. But, besides knowing Ray would not appreciate the intervention, she was still uncertain just how far she could push her empathic boundaries, and still remain herself.
With some effort, she looked past the struggling men and noticed something else. “We need those concourse doors open if we are to make our rendezvous,” she told Bader.
The other woman followed Jessyn’s gaze and nodded. “I’ll take that if you can keep watch here.” As she spoke, something crashed in the room beyond, and Jessyn understood that, of the two, Bader was most suited to crossing the combat zone.
“As you wish,” Jessyn agreed. “But you will need the passcode to unlock the doors.”
“Let me guess, ‘there’s no place like home,' right?”
“That would be correct,” Jessyn said, pleased with the other woman’s perceptiveness.
“On it,” Bader said. “But, you should take this.” She offered the stun baton she’d carried into the previous battle.
“My thanks,” Jessyn said, though she held the baton, which Bader had kept activated, as if it were a live viper.
Bader offered her a salute and a bright smile before jumping over the man in the door and heading down the left side of the auction room.
Jessyn tracked her movements, wincing as, a quarter of the way in, Bader had to duck when a wine bottle, thrown by Rikert, shattered against the wall.
Jessyn’s relief at Bader’s escape was short-lived when an airborne Ray followed the bottle, landing against the upended pastry table.
So far so not dead, Ray thought as he landed in a wasteland of crushed pastries.
Mostly because he was pretty sure dead would hurt less.
Then he caught the sound of footsteps crunching through the wreckage and forced himself to roll away from the mountain of baked goods before Rikert could finish the job.
“Up and at ‘em, Devil Dog.”
The order came at the same time a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet.
“Bader?” He squinted at the pale-haired agent. “What are you doing here?” he asked, even as he sought out Rikert, and found the other man keeping a safe distance, now Ray had company.
“Just opening the gates.” Bader pointed to the closed barn doors at the front of the auditorium. “You know, for the ADs?”
“The extraction, right,” Ray recalled, brushing some quiche from his shoulder. “Just do me a solid, and don’t open them until Rikert’s dead.”
“Copy that,” Bader said, then turned to where Rikert was retrieving what looked like a panel from the busted wet bar. “Better get back in there.”
“Christ,” Ray said, but he started towards Rikert, only pausing when he spied a long, thin piece of metal which, in its previous life, had been the one of the pastry table’s legs. “You’ll do,” he decided, snagging the length of metal just in time to slam it at the incoming panel Rikert had just thrown. “Third base,” he muttered, and raised the makeshift bat again as he closed the distance between himself and Rikert, before the latter could heave the chair he’d just picked up.
Jessyn, watching Ray dive back into battle, felt a stirring at the edge of her senses, followed by the sound of a groan.
Looking down, she saw the unconscious man at her feet had begun to waken.
Without hesitation, she touched the baton to his shoulder, causing him to jerk wildly before falling unconscious again. “Not sorry,” she said, then let out a gasp as a rough hand grabbed her wrist, spinning her into the corridor to face a bloodied and dust-coated figure.
“You will be,” Vanzale said, even as he wrenched the baton free from Jessyn’s grasp.
Ray noticed a fresh twinge in his wrist as his table leg struck the chair Rikert had raised in his defense, but figured it was due to the force of impact, which was strong enough to rattle his eyeballs.
Then both shocks faded to insignificance as Rikert twisted the chair with enough violence to wrench Ray’s weapon from his hands and send it flying.
Though the muscles of his shoulders and back twanged in protest, Ray couldn't waste time on cursing… or even thinking.
Faced with the equivalent of a Drellan with ‘roid rage, he abandoned all hope of anything like strategy, and allowed instinct to take over.
In this case, instinct drove him, aching shoulders first, straight into Rikert's gut, ramming the man back into the remains of the bar.
Ray, hunched over, felt the swoosh of the chair passing over him, the hot exhale of Rikert’s breath, and drove his shoulder into the other man's gut a second time.
He was going for a third when Rikert broke the chair he still held over Ray's back.
Stars burst in Ray’s eyes as pain and fury melded and, with an inarticulate roar, he shoved Rikert up and over the rickety bar top.
At the same time, Rikert dropped the last bits of the chair to grab hold of Ray’s shirt, hauling him close, so they were linked as they toppled over the bar.
As they fell, Ray heard a ripping sound—his shirt collar tearing in Rikert’s hands—and experienced the cold touch of an unnamed fear.
Then he landed on his back and his breathe exploded as Rikert landed on top of him.
Ray felt the white-hot slap of the deck on the back of his head, a sharp prick under one hip, and something squishy under his back that he really hoped was a cocktail olive and not anything important, like a kidney.
Then he felt Rikert’s hands scrabbling near his throat, and the unnamed fear very suddenly had a name.
A name Ray only now recalled as Rikert, with a shout of triumph, yanked tight the rings of the garrote Ray had long ago forgotten was still concealed in his shirt collar.