IN DARKNESS TRANSFORMED (The Paladin Strike Team, Book 1)
by Alexis Morgan
Publisher: Pocket Star
Release Date: June 4, 2018
The USA TODAY bestselling author of the Paladin series returns with this sexy, original title featuring a man discovering the paranormal world of the Paladins.
Dying hurts…but not as much as living.
Eli is lucky to survive the helicopter crash that killed the rest of the passengers. But when he notices his wounds healing before his eyes, it seems like his survival may have come from more than luck.
Safara knows what Eli does not-Eli is a paladin, a mortal enemy of someone like Safara, someone from Kalithia.
Still, after Eli saves Safara's life, and Safara introduces Eli to a whole new world, they just can't seem to treat each as enemies.
Especially when it was coupled with paralyzing fear and devastating grief. Sergeant Eli Yates learned that lesson the hard way when his world dissolved into nothingness at the exact second his heart coasted to a complete stop. His last vision was of the twisted tangle of arms and legs that belonged to his team, men he'd served with and loved like brothers. They'd all died within seconds of each other when their helicopter plummeted out of the sky and crash-landed on a tree-covered mountainside somewhere on the western slopes of the Cascades.
Living hurt worse.
Eli remained trapped in darkness as his heart suddenly began to beat again. The erratic rhythm pulsed inside his head while his limbs jerked and twitched, their movements sluggish and out of control. At the same time, his lungs struggled to fill with air that reeked of blood, death, and . . . smoke.
What the hell? He couldn't make sense of anything while his brain wasn't firing on all cylinders. At least it was working well enough to sense the danger lurking nearby and that he needed to get the hell out of Dodge—though it might have been pure instinct. He kicked his legs free from whatever was holding them captive and rolled to the side. His eyes finally popped open, but they slammed shut again after one look into the fixed stare of Corporal Montez. The realization that his friend was dead ripped through his heart like one more piece of shrapnel. "Aw, damn, Miguel."
Eli turned his head and tried again, but the view wasn't any better in that direction. Was he the only one still alive out of the nine men who'd boarded the helicopter that morning?
That thought hurt like hell.
"Is anyone there?"
Nothing but silence except for a faint crackling noise. Eli slowly put the pieces of his memories back together. The shouts from the cockpit. The worried comments from his friends as the helicopter began to lurch and then spin out of control. The impact with the ground that shredded the metal box surrounding them like paper. The shouts that morphed into screams and then whimpers before finally fading away into an awful silence—the loss of his friends' voices for good between one heartbeat and the next.
The crackling grew louder. Eli lifted his head to look around, but he couldn't see through the thick fog. Blinking didn't help, but a flash of red coming from what was left of the cockpit caught his attention. His addled brain finally recognized what he was seeing. It wasn't fog after all; it was smoke, which meant the flickering light was fire. Those two things would finish the job the crash had started.
Panic gave him the strength to move but sent a stab of fresh pain ripping through his gut. He slid a hand across his stomach, only to find a jagged shard of metal sticking out of his abdomen. Now wasn't the time to figure out what to do about it, not with the smoke getting thicker by the second.
Begging his friends for forgiveness, he dragged himself across their bodies to reach the one spot of daylight he could see. He paused by each man to check for a pulse. Finding none, Eli kept crawling, pushing himself along on one hand and two knees, keeping his other hand wrapped around the piece of metal to keep it from snagging on anything as he fought his way free from the wreckage.
It took only minutes to drag himself closer to the source of the fresh air, but it felt like hours. Each movement jarred the metal sticking out of his gut. Panting through the pain, he stopped to strip off his pack in order to fit through the opening in the side of the fuselage. Afterward, he reached back inside to drag it out after him. He'd need the supplies it contained to survive long enough for help to arrive.
Outside, he coughed his lungs clear of the toxic fumes from inside the chopper. When his breathing improved enough, he resumed crawling toward a cluster of boulders some distance away and scooted in behind them to catch his breath. Leaning back against the biggest one, he prayed it would protect him once the fire finally hit the fuel tanks. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, a deep rumble rolled down across the mountainside, and a flash of fire and smoke roiled up into the sky. The shock wave hit him a second later. He screamed as the concussion from the explosion left him curled up in a ball and shaking uncontrollably.
Debris rained down from above while the world gradually righted itself. Eli pushed himself back upright and took a quick inventory of his body parts. Good, all present and accounted for. He was alive, and except for the ringing in his ears, no worse off than he'd been a few seconds before. A peek around the edge of the boulder showed that the fire stayed contained to a small area, so he wasn't at further risk for the moment.
So what next? Grateful that thinking didn't require a lot of energy, he stared around at the towering Douglas firs surrounding the small clearing and tried to formulate a plan of action. Maybe he should begin with a more thorough assessment of his injuries. Yeah, good idea. He started with his feet and worked his way upward from there. His left leg was fine, but the right leg of his pants was ripped open for the entire length of his thigh. He pushed the blood-soaked fabric aside long enough to discover that his leg was slashed down to the bone. Now that he was aware of the injury, it hurt like hell. But not nearly as much as a wound that size should. It was as if he was feeling it from a distance somehow. Maybe he was in shock or something.
He watched in confused horror as two inches of the laceration closed up tight and the pale streak of bone disappeared beneath a layer of muscle. He closed his eyes and then reopened them slowly, hoping to clear his vision. When he looked again, a large blood vessel knitted back together right in front of his eyes while the wound continued to shrink.
Telling himself he was imagining things, he closed the gap in his pants leg and continued his assessment. His back and ribs hurt. No surprise there. The bright sunlight gave him a much clearer view of the metal jutting out of his belly. The sight made him queasy. It obviously needed to come out, but he wasn't sure what would happen if he were to yank on it. Deciding that should wait awhile longer, he checked both arms and hands. No apparent damage. Although he couldn't see his face, his fingers detected a slow trickle of blood seeping from a deep gash above his right ear. No wonder he'd passed out after the crash.
A voice in the back of his mind, which sounded just like his crazy grandfather, murmured over and over again that Eli hadn't just passed out. No, he'd died, same as his friends; the only difference was that he hadn't stayed that way. Yeah, right. Obviously, he'd had his bell rung but good, because he couldn't stop replaying the argument he'd had with the old man several years back when he'd driven up to Martin's mountain cabin to tell him about his decision to enlist in the army.
Grandpa Martin had been almost incoherent with rage. As he'd paced the length of the front porch, he'd alternated between telling Eli he was a damn fool for risking the truth coming out and muttering under his breath about "people like them"—people who died but didn't always stay that way. It hadn't made sense then; it still didn't. At the time, Eli had chalked it up to more of his grandfather's crazy behavior.
But now his grandfather's words kept echoing in his head as Eli leaned forward to take another look at his leg. The jagged gash had shrunk down to no more than a shallow cut. He fell back against the rock in shock. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen, things only got weirder. While he looked on in horror, the metal shard started shifting, like it was wiggling its way out of the wound all on its own. He started to tighten his grip to prevent it from moving, but then let his hand drop back down to his side. Hell, it wasn't as if he wanted to shove the damn thing back in. On the other hand, he didn't want to bleed to death, either. Who knew what kind of internal damage it had caused on its way in?
When the shard finally popped all the way out, a warm ooze of blood poured onto his skin. He gingerly lifted the hem of his shirt, expecting the worst. Using his sleeve, he wiped the blood away. Just as with his leg wound, the hole was sealing shut by itself.
"Son of a bitch, has the whole fucking world gone crazy?"
Seriously, what the hell was happening here? And what came next? With all the noise inside the chopper, he had no idea if the pilots had time to issue a Mayday call. If headquarters had been tracking their flight through whatever kind of recorder there'd been onboard, was that still happening now that everything had gone up in smoke?
Come to think of it, he wasn't sure he wanted to be found. How could he explain why he alone had survived the crash? At the rate his body was healing itself, he wouldn't even have a scratch left to show the medics when they arrived. There was always a big investigation when an aircraft went down. He could just picture some idiot reporter getting wind of his freakish recovery and running with the story. And wouldn't the army brass love seeing the face of a soldier smeared all over the tabloids?
Panic made it difficult to think logically. Was he really going to wait for the authorities to arrive? The answer to that question was surprisingly easy—no, he wasn't. In fact, hell no. He couldn't stick around to see what happened. If he told the truth, that he'd died but came back from it, they'd lock him in a loony bin somewhere. He'd be shut away forever.
Yeah, he could always lie, but what story could he tell that wouldn't raise red flags? Maybe claim to have somehow been thrown clear of the helicopter before it crashed, but there was no way they'd buy that explanation, either. He would've still been hurt. Parachuting out before anything went wrong might be feasible, but what could he say when they asked to see the parachute or, better yet, how had he known that something bad was going to happen?
That left him no choice but to make a run for it. He reached for the pack he'd dragged from the wreckage. First thing, he ate a couple of protein bars, then washed them down with one of the bottles of water he'd tucked inside before leaving the base. Feeling a little better, he stripped off his shirt and pants. Before donning the clean set from the pack, he used his T-shirt and another bottle of water to scrub away as much of the dried blood and dirt as he could, especially off his face.
Time was running out, and he really needed to get moving. Before heading down the mountain, he would stop long enough to throw bits and pieces of his bloody uniform into the still-burning fire. He hoped the scraps would be enough to convince the investigators that he'd died there, too. In some ways, that was true. No way he could let himself be found, not once he left the crash site. Before leaving, he had one more thing to do. Walking back toward the helicopter, he spotted something on the ground and stopped to pick up Montez's mirrored sunglasses. He paused for several seconds before continuing to the wreckage. There, not wanting to see what the explosion had done to his friends' remains, he kept his gaze centered on the flames and tried to find some way to say good-bye to his team.
His voice came out gravelly from shock and smoke; dark fumes still billowed off the wreckage.
"Guys, how the hell did this happen? Doesn't seem fair that we all survived so many tours in the worst hellholes this planet had to offer only to have things end like this. But as you always said, Montez, shit happens."
He stared at the bent and twisted sunglasses in his hand, picturing Montez's familiar grin in his head. He'd give anything to see it one more time. "I love you all like the brothers I never had, and it's been my honor to serve with each and every one of you. Rest in peace."
The buzz of an airplane overhead reminded him that this was no time to linger. He ran for cover under the firs, pausing just inside the tree line. Aching with grief, he came to attention, saluted the funeral pyre, and then walked down the mountain without once looking back.