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*****

Well, after much work and effort (mainly by Cas), we have the lastest chapter in the Jarod and Samantha saga. Enjoy! Oh, and Pretender and its characters belong to Steve and Craig. Any original characters (Samantha, etc.) belong to Cas and myself. Please don't use them anywhere without our permission, and don't try to sue us; we're broke! Enjoy!

*****

The moon had vanished.

The day, much like the 56 before it, had been crisp, dry, painfully bright, and remarkably warm for even a Southern winter; the temperature had hovered just above 50 degrees. The entire region was trapped under a broad high-pressure dome, turning the sprawling cities into a sort of chilled urban desert; the people who had hoped for a mild winter were now praying for a few clouds, a shower or two, or even a light snow to relieve the drought and the tension in the atmosphere. It was as if some dragon held the world within its grasp, and as long as it slumbered and didn't touch the world with its breath, all would remain ordered and in control.

But tonight, after a dusk that brought a glowing full moon, an antiseptically clear sky, and a breeze to brush through the cold air, the high-pressure dome shattered like an egg. The sleeping dragon awoke, not with a roar but with ominous silence. The breeze died, and with it, most of the electrical current that supplied this part of the Metroplex. The temperature plummeted twelve degrees in as many minutes. The air simply ceased to move as if it had never stirred. The dying light from the street lamps only briefly painted reddish-brown on the bases of oily black clouds that suddenly smothered the sky. The cold, the darkness, and the silence pressed in on the city like giant claws, and the moon had vanished as if swallowed.

The woman and two men standing on the ridge above the city watched all this happen, their unease palpable. The woman, leaning against the black sedan and wishing she hadn't quit smoking, hissed and shivered slightly, trying to hide her reaction to the bite of cold and tension; the younger man draped a coat over her shoulders and was rewarded with an epithet. Accustomed to her venom, he simply shrugged and returned to his chosen spot, about ten feet away and clear of the trees. He resumed his search for a clear frequency between his tiny computer and mobile phone, but the cell grid for the area was temporarily out of service, and as he kept trying to bypass the dead frequencies, the darkness hid the trembling of his hands.

The older man simply rolled his eyes and leaned against a tree, tugging his hat down to shield his eyes so that he appeared to be dozing. The woman had switched on the car's low beams to light the clearing on the ridge, but the beams only penetrated a few yards into the night; the darkness was like heavy velvet, absorbing light and giving back nothing but friction.

It was no use. Of course he wasn't coming. The whole rendezvous was a farce, a setup to get her and her team out of the way while her self-appointed supervisor tried to make himself look good in front of their bosses. Every time someone mentioned this man, this hunter, even her supervisor shuddered-for decades, stories about the hunter were used to scare younger associates into obeying orders. In truth, she'd grown up assuming that the stories were exaggerated, and by the time she had served her first year, she had her own theory about the hunter - he was about as real as the gypsy dragon in her mother's favorite Russian legend. The only reason she'd even bothered to show up tonight was because she couldn't afford the risk of disobeying orders. She'd put in her hour, so now she could report what she already knew and be done with it.

The woman turned to order her companions back into the car, having just made a unilateral decision to haul hard to a hotel in the nearest town with power. She was cold, tired, and bored, and sure that her time was being wasted, time she could be spending on other pursuits. She drew a breath, the cold in the air knifing into her smoke-damaged lungs; she had to clamp down to keep from coughing, and while she sputtered she waved to the two men, willing them to respond to a gesture she herself could barely see.

"Are we ready to take care of business?"

Startled, the woman released a cough accompanied by a curse. She whirled on her heel as her two companions closed ranks toward her, all three of them scanning the area around them. The voice, like distant thunder, had come from a spot just to the left of the limit of the headlights-the shadows there were like bleeding black, so deep that the younger man felt as though he could drown trying to see anything in them.

"We've been ready for an hour; where have you been?" The woman spoke through clenched teeth, but the remark came out as more of a mutter. The older man touched her shoulder briefly from behind, his way of nudging her into more prudent silence. He drew himself up to his full height and waited with calm expectation.

The three team members peered into the darkness to the left of the beams' reach; they were caught off-guard and the woman nearly drew and fired as a figure emerged from the shadows about twenty feet farther to the right.

He walked out of the darkness like a ghost. His features were nearly indiscernible, but he appeared to be just shy of six feet tall, with obsidian hair, pale skin, and a compact build. He was wearing a black suit with a black shirt and tie and a full-length coat that matched the night. His shoes made no sound on the parched ground littered with dead twigs; he seemed to stride just above the surface. His eyes glowed from within, an indiscernible color; as he neared the trio, he deftly covered his eyes with opaque black shades, though whether to hide his eyes from scrutiny or to shield them from the proximity of the headlights, only he knew. His hands were sheathed in matte black leather gloves. He reminded the woman of a panther - or something darker, something that existed only in myth.

The dragon had emerged.

He glided over to the woman, stopping just a foot and a half from her. How he could see anything in the dark through the shades, she couldn't fathom. She got the distinct feeling, deep in her spine, that he could see through them and that he was seeing straight into the core of her; the thought sent a chill down her spine, colder than the air around her, and she shivered sickeningly in the pit of her stomach.

"Do you have a hearing problem?"

She jumped slightly when he spoke - his voice sounded even more like distant thunder or like one heavy stone grinding against another. He had a thick accent, and it annoyed her that she could not place it. "Pardon me?" She tried to sound dangerous but didn't quite manage her normal edge. There was just something about him. She was standing face to face with this man, this hunter, with whom she'd be working to accomplish her mission. He was the best, the fastest, the most efficient man-hunter that considerable money could discreetly buy, he was here to help her achieve her goals and hence her freedom, and even better, he terrified her supervisor. There was only one problem with this situation.

The man standing before her

didn't

exist.

Ghost or not, he was real enough for her to see the thin steam of his breath as he impatiently spoke again.

"Did you or did you not hear me? I asked you a question: are you ready to do your job? Or do you not know what your job is?"

The woman drew herself up, willing steel into her spine and a measure of control into her voice - showing this man blatant disrespect would be nearly as dangerous as showing weakness or fear. Gritting her teeth, she said as respectfully as she could manage, "We are ready, and have been for some time. All the elements are in place. The weather, which our industrious superiors have yet to learn to control, is making it difficult to proceed with the next phase of the plan. However," she said, gesturing toward her two colleagues, "we're well on our way to finding a way around the problem. I think you'll find that we know our jobs very well. After all, there's a reason we've been permanently assigned to this project - our superiors know we're the best; we know everything there is to know about this case."

The hunter chuckled in a slightly amused, lethal sort of way. "You don't know me." The woman seethed with the knowledge that he was right - she didn't know him, but in the next moment he stunned her with his casual contempt for her and her skill and reputation. Silently, fluidly, he turned his back on her, making her itch to pull her gun and see if the mythical dragon could outfly a bullet. Her hard-won self-discipline and determination to remain living were the only forces that kept her still. As a drum roll of thunder and lightning licked the sky, the man gazed down over the darkened city, walking a few feet toward the shadows with predatory grace. His next words were low and seemed to ride on a current of thunder, making her wonder if she really heard them.

"You will report to the main nerve centre as soon as the power is restored, and you will await my instructions there. I suggest you use the time to compile thorough reports for me, and to contemplate why you have thus far failed to produce results. Insolence alone cannot explain so many mistakes."

Just as the woman's mind was processing his words and forming a biting response, white fire arced between the sky and the ground nearby, pulverizing a tree about fifteen feet from the car. The woman ducked and crouched, covering her eyes against the flash, then rose to her feet again as soon as she realized she was safe. The entire incident had taken perhaps eleven seconds, but as she glanced up she saw that the hunter was gone. He'd flown into the night as if he'd never been there, and only her memories and her burning anger convinced her that she had not imagined him.

The dragon was gone, and the world had just become a much darker and more dangerous place.

(End of Prologue)











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