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Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter One

Mila

I lay under a structure like a metal mushroom, my hands squishing through the stuff that would be gills.

The Tomb had provided instructions, and I followed.

Small nubs were hidden in the squish of the under parts. Rough ones needed to be removed. I replaced them with smooth ones from a bucket.

On the other side, Denna, the other temple girl, did the same.

The work was reminiscent of cleaning fish. Cold and slimy. Different stink. Eew.

But the instructions in my head could not be ignored.

“You’ve noticed that things are getting weirder in the temple?” I asked Denna.

“It’s nothing but strange in here.” Denna turned her head, spitting and swiping at her face. A drop of goo landed on her.

We both sat up. The curved top of the device lit with blinking lights. Bright without fire. Smooth squares like ice without chill scrolled with unknown symbols.

“Is it working now?” I had no idea about what anything in the temple did.

Denna still swiped at her face. She hiked her shoulders. “It’s blinking now.”

I studied the hidden thoughts imparted by the Tomb. No other instructions followed.

“You don’t see how things have changed?” I asked.

“Since lightning struck the temple?” Denna said. “Since that temple girl just walked off?”

“Lita,” I remembered. “There is only one left from last five.”

Every year, five girls were given to service in the temple. I had drawn my lot two years before. Between skinning and tanning hides or shoving smooth bits in a mushroom machine, I couldn’t decide if one life was better than the other.

Denna was the last survivor of her five, her lot drawn the year after mine.

The latest sacrifice was spending a lot of time in the Tomb. We hadn’t met her yet. Or maybe she couldn’t learn to learn. The temple had other uses for girls.

I turned my mind from that thought.

Where the other girls ended up—the idea brought a chill. We were lashed with firewhips if we enquired.

“How could she just walk away?” I asked.

“She put on her robe and departed,” Denna said. “Simple as that.”

“Is it?” I asked. “Could we do the same?”

Denna’s lips disappeared, her eyes twitching toward the corridor.

“Oh, don’t panic, Denna. I’m not going anywhere. Where would I go?”

In truth, there was a whole world out there. As a girl, I had roamed the woods that rimmed Infinity Ring. If I were discovered, it was the switch for me. It didn’t keep me from wondering what lay beyond the ringed city of Terr and the forested boundaries.

It wasn’t something I admitted out loud much. Some would find such thoughts less than sane.

“Don’t even consider it. Just think of Branna,” she said.

I shivered. I didn’t know what happened to Branna, but her voice now came out of windows in the inner temple walls. Spooky.

The two of us stared at the unknowable mushroom machine. Blinking lights and windows were near mesmerizing. “We’ve never finished maintenance early before,” I said. “It’s too soon for supper.”

“I’ve got gray goo on my robe.” Denna held up a smeared sleeve. “There may be fresh clothes in the cells.”

We headed into the corridor to the spiral stairs. The temple was the tallest building in the city, its three towers rising high above the center of Terr. It had many more floors than the eight rings of the city. We worked below ground level today.

After rising a few floors, we reached the level of our cell.

Five rough beds with straw mattresses, a basin in the corner, a curtain over the garderobe chamber, high windows, and a single shelf comprised our living quarters.

While I had never seen it move, the shelf held fresh clothing for us once a week. Like magic. But there was no magic to be had currently.

“Gods be damned, I’m going to smell like gray goo for days,” Denna moaned.

“Maybe you can rinse it off in the—”

I was interrupted by footfalls. A dragging sound.

Three figures entered the cell. Father Zarak and Father Aronn carried a limp girl between them. Without ceremony, they dumped her naked form on a cot.

I saw fresh firewhip marks across her torso. My arms itched, the similar scars there responding sympathetically.

“Who is she, Fathers?” Denna asked.

The priests wore deep hoods. I’d never seen their faces. Only their whips, and the pleasure they tried to hide while using those weapons.

“Laren,” was all Father Zarak said.

Then the men turned and walked off.

“Always a friendly bunch,” Denna said under her breath.

I went to the bed, covering the new girl. She was the last of the five, though it had taken months to indoctrinate her to the Tomb. Some girls didn’t survive. I had almost forgotten there was a girl remaining.

She had waves of deep brown hair, pale skin, pretty features.

I felt sorry for her. Then wiped that emotion from my brain. It was pointless.

“Denna. Stay with the new one.”

I spun toward the door.

Niam, the Oracle, stood there, her usual silent approach startling me. Her presence was rarely a good omen.

“Of course, Oracle,” Denna said, but tossed me raised eyebrows and a downturned mouth.

“Come,” Niam said to me. She turned without seeing if I followed.

“I was just in the Tomb!” I whispered to Denna.

She held her hands up. What was there to do?

The Tomb was where instructions, knowledge, repair information was given to us. It was a grave-sized hole in the floor filled with warm, salty water. A huge stone slab moved to cover it, creating utter darkness.

Cut off from sensation, on the brink of madness, the priests could then violate the brain.

In my years of service, I had learned to attain the learning trance before the visions started. But not completely. Strange faces appeared in the blackness. I felt a call to my heart, a melancholy beckoning.

It was something I didn’t understand. Definitely something to ignore.

But being familiar with the Tomb did not make it any less unpleasant.

When I turned toward the stairs to the first level, I saw no sign of the Oracle.

“Here.”

I faced the other way, seeing her at the far intersection of the corridor. She vanished around the corner.

Hastening, I followed down the pale stone hall. Windows without view studded the rock at regular intervals. Each glowed and bleeped as I passed.

Again, I didn’t see the Oracle. As I moved down the hall, I was grabbed from behind.

Yanked into a room I’d never seen before, Niam gripped my shoulders.

I thought it was to steady me.

“Your physical presence is confirmed,” she said. Then her hand touched a dull metal pad. A door slid closed behind me. It looked like a seamless part of the wall.

It wasn’t my place to ask questions.

Niam had white, freckled skin, though the pallor indicated she’d never seen the sun. A wisp of flaming red hair revealed itself from under her hood. I could see she was painfully thin, even beneath the shapeless white robe.

Her eyes took a moment to focus on mine.

“A task,” she said.

“I’ve only just received the Tomb,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t be punished for my insolence. My whining.

“There.” She pointed at a tall, narrow table with a metal box on top.

I walked over to it. At my touch, the lid of the box dilated open. Wanting to leap back from it, my eye caught a gleaming object within. Tentatively, I withdrew a necklace.

It bore a segmented chain, the pendant gleaming with a mirror polish. When I touched the bauble, hidden lights glowed to life.

“You have explored beyond the borders of Infinity Ring.”

It wasn’t a question.

Would I be punished for it? We were alone. The Oracle carried no whip.

“Into the woods, Oracle. When I was a girl. I know it’s forbidden.”

Infinity Ring was a euphemism for “outside,” as in beyond the ringed city walls. Flat farmland spread for miles outside Terr, the hem of trees a distant, dark line. But despite the idea that the land went on forever, only the bravest woodsman would enter those distant trees.

Some did not return.

I had seen enough evidence of the monsters that dwelled beyond civilized lands.

All citizens of Terr knew not to stray.

“You will go beyond the woods.”

I gaped at Niam’s words. “Beyond?”

Above the table was a control I hadn’t noticed. Niam touched it, revealing a square window. Within the glass, a vision appeared.

It stood at an impossible slant, unbalanced, ready to tip over. Vaguely egg-shaped, there were intricate twists to the smooth surface.

Niam took the necklace from my hand, looping it around my neck. “The tracker will lead you to it. Find the artifact, Mila. That is your task.”

“Find it? Out in the wilderness? And then what?” I asked.

The Oracle’s eyes went distant. “Error,” she said.

Uh oh. This was part of the strangeness since the lightning strike. Niam, who was already more like a temple machine than a girl, kept having these fits.

“Will I have access to supplies?”

“Calculating,” Niam said.

“When should I leave? Tonight?”

“Error. Affirmative.” Niam stared into space. Then her eyes met mine again. “Go quickly. And do not let the priests learn of your task.”

“Don’t—”

The Oracle pressed the panel, opening the door. She pushed me out. “Go.”

I walked back into the corridor. “What do I do when I find it?”

“You will be found,” Niam said before the door slid fully shut.

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