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Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Two

Ashur

I still thought my cousin, Tharon, next for the throne, was playing some joke, only amusing to him. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Murbai honked, twisting her antlers. Dropping the reins, I let her have her head.

Maybe my bagart knew the way to go. Gods knew I sure didn’t.

Sent as a spy to these southern dry woods beyond the Canyonlands to observe…

Nothing. No one. The dry forest was empty of settlements, or people. Only monsters of notable size and disagreeable flavor wandered this part of Ryhn. That, and the spring weather had brought tangle vines to life.

They swiped at me from time to time, thorny branches dripping with sleep-inducing poison meant to turn me into future fertilizer for the plants.

Monsters of notable size and tangle vines must be favored by the gods, there were so many of them.

I hadn’t even seen a brigand, which these lands were supposedly haunted by, since finding my way from the canyons. Why had the prince sent me?

Except it felt like I’d been here before. Not in dreams. More than a sense of déjà vu.

My pulse raced for no reason. Anticipation built as I passed into new areas. Yearning. But for what?

At the back of my mind, a shape danced into awareness. Female. Both familiar and unknown.

As I rode, I saw it through the trees. It made me gasp in recognition. At first, three blue spires above the foliage. Reaching thinning woods before a broad plane, I saw steel walls.

Round steel walls in rings telescoping upward.

The city was Terr, I knew, from my other cousin’s mate. An alien place filled with her kind.

Though I’d only met one of her kind—her—I wondered if the rest of the denizens were as attractive.

And as pale as Frostlings.

Yearning and anticipation lived behind those walls. I knew it with certainty. But how?

I needed to know more than my Shakai senses would tell me. Dangers likely lingered close to the steel walls.

Breathing deeply, I sought the inner beast. It was like gently sliding a hand into a spiked gauntlet, summoning its senses without waking the animal.

Color fled my vision. The surrounding forest let loose a foreign song. Breezes flooded my scent with information.

Here were people, not Shakai, but…

What did Lita call herself?

Human. With their own smell.

Freshly turned soil, blooms, plants breaking ground, manure—the smells of farming; tannins, oils, charred wood, the tang of worked steel, the stink of refuse pits—the smells of civilization.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked aloud.

Within me, I felt my savage side stir. Another scent. Familiar, and gently tugging at my chest.

The other side of me dragged my eyes from the alien city and back into the woods. For the moment, I remained gentle, not fighting the instincts of my Valti.

But at the slightest hint that the animal might take over my consciousness, I would rein it in, hard.

I followed the strange and familiar scent. How did I know it? From a dream, mayhap.

Near the cleared fields, I spotted signs of activity. Bright wood freshly cut. A drag trail of loaded sledges. Ruts of carts. Fuel for the circular city.

Deeper in, such signs vanished. It was as if the dwellers of the city feared venturing beyond their tamed fields.

Not that I blamed them. Plenty of danger lurked in the deep wood.

My legs pressed the sides of the bagart, not of my own will. The mount picked up her hooves.

That scent—I couldn’t ignore it. It grew stronger as we left behind a sledge trail.

Here, the land stepped and sloped down to my right. Water rushed, out of sight behind the leaves. The Valti caught the smell of it.

Water wasn’t the source of my dark side’s urgency.

Descending, Murbai picked her way through muddy, loose ground. In a few moments, we reached a narrow river. Without my guidance, the animal moved to the bank to drink.

Looking around, I dismounted, gripping the hilt of my sword. Yet nothing stirred, save the breeze.

So where was that scent coming from?

I filled my waterskin near a low waterfall. Drank half of it, and filled it again. All the while my eyes took in the forest.

“Some help your senses are, Valti,” I said.

That undeniable scent hung in the air, so close it drove me to madness. Madness was a place best not visited. I withdrew from my animal self.

This time, the Valti did not fight me for control. I wandered uphill from the river. It had to be here somewhere.

Still—where was it?

Where was…

She?

Fruit!

Even without brute senses, I could smell the sweet tang. There, just up from the bank, a leather pack. Something that looked like golden plesples had rolled free. I grabbed one and took a bite.

Very much like plesple.

Murbai nickered and hooted at me. I grabbed another, swinging my arm to indicate a toss. I threw it underhand. She caught the fruit, devouring it messily with her sharp teeth.

Searching the pack, I found a tinderbox, a candle, some kind of bread rolled in leaves. A waterskin. No weapon?

Well, that might be a reason that the pack survived its owner.

There was no suitable place to camp. And no footprints. So where had this pack—

My heart leaped. A pale limb, dangling. the pale garment that it stuck out of. Up in a tree, a figure lay over a branch.

Studying the area above, I saw what must have happened. Walking in the night, you might miss the ground suddenly dropping away.

I climbed the tree. Studied the pale, shapely leg, the hard travel boot. The hood of a robe had fallen over the head, but I still saw a spill of ink-black hair.

Like a Frostling’s.

Just to make sure, I touched her leg, felt the warmth. A pulse. With a gentle hand, I explored for broken bones.

She was so soft.

I was distracted.

Then, as I carefully lifted her from her perch, her scent fully roiled into my nose.

Inside, the Valti gave a distant roar. It almost sounded triumphant.

But I tamped down my blacker heart. In order to get her out of the tree, I would need to focus.

Pulling back the hood, I saw that her jaw was colored with a rainbow of bruises. She’d knocked herself unconscious during the fall.

Lifting her from the branch, I heaved her over my shoulder. Climbed down. Patted myself on the back for not falling or dropping my prize.

As I carried her to Murbai, her hood dropped away.

My heart nearly stopped.

I’d dreamed of this girl. I thought her pallor, the tarry black of her hair, just imaginary. But she was real. Her weight more present than her maddening scent.

Delicate, soft features gave my heart a stab. Her nose was too large, and must have been broken at some time. Her lips were far too wide, too full. Bruised chin too prominent. Lashes black and ashen lay against the deathly white curve of her cheek.

“Beautiful,” I whispered aloud.

Placing her gently in a drift of leaves, I looked up at Murbai. “Watch over her. And don’t eat her.”

She snorted in displeasure. Bagarts, though omnivorous, tended to lean toward meat eating.

I hurried over for her pack and put the spilled plesples back, then heaved her and her belongings up onto the saddle. I got behind her.

“Where are we going?” I asked no one.

Taking the reins, I urged Murbai back up the ravine. Once at the top, I had few options.

I should probably take her to that city. Maybe leave her near the gate. Hopefully someone would find her before it rained or something.

Or I could ride until I found a place to camp. Maybe tend her wounds if I could.

But her animal magnetism left me no options, really.

I had never seen her before. Didn’t know her name. Hadn’t heard her speak.

But my heart spoke truly.

This was my mate.

Alien, pale as the legendary creatures who haunted Shakai lore, I felt as drawn to her as a hatchling bridil to its mother. Was this part of her dark magic? Did it matter?

I was smitten.

Damn my cousin.

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