elinwyn

Avenged by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Three

Yndon

Ah, the sound of a distress beacon. Music to my ears. Or, it would’ve been had this not been a silent distress beacon. That meant the tech was too high for most ships to detect. But not me.

I had invested very carefully in my ship. This included the technology to be able to spoof specific outgoing messages, using frequencies not used among common traders. It gave me an inside edge to find people who did not want to be found and trick them into leading them to me.

According to a directory I had purchased on a black market, this particular frequency was used by associates of Acan, a slaver who cast a wide net in the area. Many of Acan’s associates had individual bounties on them.

This was a perfect way to start earning my credits to buy my share of the guild.

It took a few moments of fiddling to allow my ship to act as a decoy for the emergency message. As soon as I was ready, I sent a return ping.

The sender replied immediately. Tisk, tisk. Someone was eager to be rescued. The viewscreen resolved and a few moments later, I was looking at the ugly face of Acan himself.

“Finally,” the slaver snarled. “I have been sending out a distress signal for three galactic weeks! What took you louts so long?”

I fought to keep my face natural. This particular transmission had visuals going both ways, which means he could see my face. The fact that Acan thought I was one of his men meant one of two things: he didn’t pay attention to all the grunts who worked for him, or he was suffering from lack of breathable air and it affected his judgment.

“My apologies, boss,” I replied. “Your ship’s signal is weak and we’re having trouble locking on.”

“Moron!” Acan snarled. “I’ll send my coordinates.”

I nodded. Keeping the movements of my hands ambiguous, I checked my outfit’s directory for the payout I would get when I brought in this scumbag.

I nearly fell out of my chair.

Acan’s listed bounty was seven million credits. In addition, there would be a three million credit kicker if he was brought in alive.

This suggested he was either a dangerous target or one with a habit of paying off hunters before they could deliver.

“What’s your ETA?” Acan snarled.

I glanced up, realized that he had already set his exact coordinates. Moron. He hadn’t even checked my ship’s serial number, simply assuming that since I was able to pick up his frequency and called him ‘boss’ that I worked for him.

I did a series of quick calculations. He was not far away—for the given value of interstellar distances.

“I can be there in a half cycle.”

“Make it a quarter cycle,” Acan snapped, cutting the connection with his side.

I stared at the blank screen, pissed at his rudeness. Then my anger took on a grim edge. Acan would find quite the surprise when I boarded.

Still… he had beamed an emergency beacon for three weeks. That meant he should be out of both water and food, possibly low on air if his stellar mood was partially due to low oxygen.

This hunt would be both profitable and easy. My favorite kind.

Punching in the coordinates, I engaged my engines, imagining the look on Landri’s face when I slapped ten million credits worth of tokens on his desk this time tomorrow.

Acan’s yacht had come into view. There was no official up or down in space, but people as a whole tended to follow the same rules of stellar north and south. So, it was easy to see that Acan’s yacht was listing drunkenly on one side. I didn’t see any lit running lights, meaning that she was out of power or running on emergency life reserves only. Even if Acan realized by now that I was a hunter and not one of his men, there was nothing he could do about it. He had nowhere to run. Cutting into the yacht’s hull would be a simple process.

Suddenly, my dashboard lit up with an incoming ping.

I smiled grimly to myself, thinking that Acan finally pulled his head out of his ass and had run my serial number. He was calling to either try to scare me off (which would never happen) or bribe me into taking him to safety without taking him to justice (still wouldn’t happen, but it would be amusing to hear him plead).

I returned the ping and opened the channel without looking at the frequency.

I was completely taken aback when Acan’s ugly face did not fill the view screen. Instead, it was a beautiful human woman.

I found most human women attractive, but this one was… exceptional.

Silken-looking skin, hair the color of the finest bark on my home planet, and large dark eyes that nevertheless seemed to snap with an inner fire. My breath caught, and the surprise allowed her to speak first.

“Frigate M’hintoa, this is Rene of Phoenix Incorporated. You are hereby ordered to back off. This is my prize.”

And just like that, the spell was broken. “Back off?” I snapped. “Who do you think you are?”

She smirked at me. “I’m Rene from Phoenix Incorporated,” she replied in the exact same inflection as before. Treating me like an idiot.

Phoenix Incorporated? They were nothing. A little scavenger operation that rented temporary office space on Station Four. I was outraged. “Listen, scavenger scum—”

“This is your last warning.” Then the woman reached off the screen and cut off our connection.

I barked out a laugh even as my fingers danced across the controls, ordering my ship, the M’hintoa, to increase velocity. Beautiful woman or not, she was out of her human mind if she thought she would claim my prize.

Alarms blared through as a ship approached on a ramming vector. I cursed and jerked my rig to the side out of the way… just in time to see a cheeky tug pull directly into my flight path.

Rene’s ship could barely be called a ship at all. An outsized tug, as ugly as its pilot was beautiful. She must have coaxed every erg of energy out of the engines to pull that maneuver.

Frustrated, I opened up communications. “This is my bounty. Back off if you know what is good for you!”

I did not wait for a reply but powered up my weapons systems. Not that I actually planned on firing upon the obstinate woman, but the threat should be enough to get my message across.

The tug answered by opening a back hatch. Suddenly a stream of objects flew out—a good amount bouncing off my hull. It took seeing the remains of what looked to be a compost heap spatter against my ship’s viewscreen to realize the human had just opened her trash shoot.

I cursed, angry enough that the use of my weapons systems wasn’t so theoretical any longer. But it took only a few moments to see that the trash had served two purposes: it forced me to slow down as impacts in space were not something to take lightly, especially at these speeds, plus, the numerous small objects muddled my data. The computer could no longer get a fix on the craft in front of me.

I had heard human women had minds of their own, but this was ridiculous!

Seething, I could only watch as the boated tug glumped towards the yacht.

However, as soon as the tug got within grappling range, the yacht’s running lights flared to life.

“What the—” I queried the sensors, but the amount of trash played havoc on pinpointing what was going on.

This looks like a trap— I thought with a sense of foreboding.

I pulled the nose of my ship upward into a steep climb. From the view port, I watched the tug do the same. However, the human’s ship was too close to get away.

The yacht admitted a local EMP blast—invisible to the eye, but my sensors caught wind of it anyway, despite the trash littering the area.

I was incredibly lucky. It was our company policy to harden our electronics against EMP blasts whenever possible, as they were effective defensive weaponry. But that could only give so much protection. An EMP moved at light speed, so by the time a ship saw it coming, it had already arrived. And there was virtually nothing that could be done if you were caught within the blast cone.

Sparks leaped off my dashboard as the extra energy rolled off my ship. The tug had caught the blast pointblank. Instantly, it was dead in the water.

As I watched, Acan’s yacht engines lumbered to life. It started to limp away. It seemed like Acan was not quite as helpless as he had advertised.

Thinking quickly, I fired a tracking beacon at the yacht. It struck true and held on tight. Hopefully, the amount of trash littering the area would obscure from Acan the fact he’d been tagged.

I turned my attention to the tug. Momentum carried it forward, but it showed no independent movement. Nothing to indicate the human powered it back to life.

Looked like the human was in need of a rescue. And I wanted a word with her. Personally.

Avenged by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Two

Rene

A harsh knocking at my bulkhead door woke me from a dead sleep. Instincts, long honed from my years of being an abducted slave kicked in. I jerked, fists and feet lashing out at nothing… tumbling from my hammock bed straight onto the cold floor. Several holodisks, and my collection of music crashed and scattered around me.

“Ow.” I sat up, staring at my office/bedroom. Right. I was no longer on the slaver’s ship. I was back home on good old Station Four, in the area Phoenix Incorporated rented.

Another bang echoed through my bulkhead door.

“Rene!” Syd’s voice sounded muffled and annoyed through the door. “You dead in there?”

“Wishing I was,” I muttered, rubbing my head. I glared at the door. “What is it?”

“Meeting’s in ten minutes. Don’t you remember?”

Double ugh. “I know, I know!” I lied and got up to scavenge around for something not too dirty to throw on. It was just us ladies in Phoenix Inc, but Syd would not appreciate me coming to work in a t-shirt and panties.

Her evil deed accomplished, Syd backed away from the door. She was the type of person who thought if you weren’t five minutes early then you were late. I… was not.

It was amazing that we got along as well as we did.

Locating some clothes, I pulled them on and then took a moment to give a luxurious stretch.

Then I walked out to face the music.

Phoenix Incorporated had been an active scavenging operation for just about a year now. We were unique as all of us were human

And all of us were female in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Scavenging space wrecks was a hard business, and I, for one, enjoyed sticking it to people who thought I was not up for the challenge.

Unfortunately, it was an industry with a lot of ups and downs, and it seemed that Phoenix Incorporated was perpetually on the financial edge.

Which was why I hated these types of meetings.

Syd gave me an arch look as I walked to the main area we used as an ad hoc meeting hall.

“Long night?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Her expression relaxed a little bit into one of sympathy. All of us who had been abducted from Earth knew that feeling. “Want to talk about it?”

I snorted my answer. Really, she should know better by now.

“I just thought I would ask,” she said, tapping her hollow tablet against the desk in a way I imagine she used to do with a big stack of papers on Earth. Some habits die hard. “So, our first order of business…”

I had not yet set at the table, and I raised a hand to stop her. “Coffee, first. Business, after.”

Syd gave me a look. “One, it’s not called ‘coffee’ out here.”

“Hot brown energy goop first,” I corrected. “Business after.”

“Two, you would have had time to wake up if you actually bothered to set an alarm.”

“Why should I bother to do that when I know you’ll wake me up in time? It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy. Really, you have only yourself to blame.” I quickly poured a few glugs worth of the finest space station energy sludge and tossed it back. It tasted hideous, but it wasn’t as bad as the stuff one of the vendors sold down on the third level, though. I would live.

Other than taste, another difference from good old Earth coffee was that the benefits kicked in almost immediately. By the time I sat down at the table, my mind had kicked back into gear. I smiled suddenly and said, “Okay, I’m all yours. What’s the damage today?”

It turned out, there was a lot of damage. We weren’t behind on rent at the station, but that was only because we prioritized this little living space before everything else… Including food. But our supplies were running low. We soon wouldn’t have enough to feed ourselves and our crew if we did not come by a decent score, and fast.

“What we need,” Syd said, “is something low risk and low labor but high reward.”

“So, basically we need the perfect job,” I said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Syd smirked at me and turned the tablet function to a holo-display. A recent scan popped up between us, showing a floating hulk among the stars. “On the contrary, this space yacht has been parked for cycles. It’s dead in the water. No movement, no power fluctuations. I think whoever was on it had a coronary or whatever the alien equivalent is, and for some reason, the autopilot never kicked in to re-dock it.”

The lines of that ship looked eerily familiar.

A tingle of apprehension crawled up my spine, and for some reason, I had an impression of the dream that I had been trapped in before Syd woke me up. My mouth went dry. “What’s the serial number of the vessel?”

Frowning, Syd brought it up. Immediately, my suspicions were confirmed.

“I know that vessel,” I said flatly.

“You do?”

I nodded. The apprehension had gone to my stomach where it burned low and hot. An old anger that I would never be fully rid of. “That ship belongs to the low-level gangster who enslaved me.”

Syd’s eyes widened, but then they narrowed again. “Are you sure?”

I locked eyes with her. “Trust me, I know that ship inside and out, and I want the pleasure of scavenging it.”

Avenged by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Yndon

It was too early in the morning for politics.

With a slug of energy goop in hand, I hooked an ankle around the stem of a chair, pulled it around, and flopped down in it. I downed the goop in one long pull. Ugh. I knew that the vendor cart I’d picked it up from looked suspicious, but he’d promised the drink would be strong.

He didn’t mention anything about it being so thick, it was chewy.

Pulling a face at my own bad decision making, I glanced across the table to see my fellow Mtoain bounty hunter, Maza, watching me with a smirk on his face.

“You got that from Lower Deck Three, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He’d given me the lecture several times already on buying from unlicensed vendors. But Space Station Four was out at the edge of what most considered civilized space. That meant unless you wanted to pay credits out the nose, you didn’t get choosy.

Maza opened his mouth and I cut him off, not in the mood for a lecture. Yes, I was one of the youngest Mtoain bounty hunters but I could wipe my own ass without help, thanks.

“Do you know what this meeting is about?”

Maza’s face fell. “Not a clue.”

I glanced around the room, cataloging who was here, who was gossiping, and who was listening. “Bet Khenja’s new mate is pregnant, and he wants to crow about it to us single Mtoain.”

Maza smirked back, but before he could reply a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.

“Why? Jealous?”

I glanced up to see one of the senior hunters. Paktal, I think his name was. He shrugged off his shoulder. “Of what? If I wanted a mate, I wouldn’t be out here in the middle of space.”

Even a mate as… enticing as Deanna.

I was very careful to keep that thought clear from my face. No one with sense lusted over the boss’s mate, and some instinct deep down told me that Deanna and I would never make a good match. Still… There was a reason why human women were regularly captured and enslaved from their backwater home world.

The door to the meeting hall opened, admitting the last few stragglers as well as Landri, Khenja and his mate.

Instantly, I blanked my expression from jeering to professional and arrogant. Across the table, Maza looked Deanna over, up and down. No tell-tell sign of pregnancy, but who knew how it worked with humans? I was a bounty hunter, not a doctor.

There was some good-natured grumbling as the other Mtoain bounty hunters picked their seats and sat. Above, the environmental control vents hissed as it recognized a full room of adult males (and one scrumptious female) and adjusted its air scrubbers accordingly.

Landri waited at the head of the table until most of the conversations died down. “Thanks for coming in, everyone. I know this time of the morning was suboptimal for many of you.” He casted an amused eye to the low ranked dead end of the table, where I and the other new hunters sat.

“What’s going on, boss?” one asked.

“Suck up,” I muttered under my breath to the low growling chortle of Maza.

Landri cast me a swift glance my way as if he’d heard the comment but could not identify the speaker. Then reaching over, he gestured Khenja forward so that they stood at the head of the table as a unified team. Deanna looked on proudly.

My inner eyebrows rose.

“Khenja and I are going to use the proceeds of his most recent bounty to file the paperwork to form a guild,” Landri said.

There was a moment of brief stunned silence — I was not the only one who was taken off guard — before a ragged cheer went up from the rest of the group. I joined in, enthusiastically.

This was very good news. I was new to bounty hunting, but already knew I’d hit a jackpot with this outfit. There were definite advantages, economical and prestige wise—to be a part of a guild. And to get on the ground floor of one as it was starting… well. Those were once-in-a-lifetime events.

Landri held up his hand to quiet us down.

“Naturally, the hunters who have been with us the longest will get the full stake.” Another cheer, this time with some back-slapping.

My end of the table was notably silent. I myself felt my hopes plummet and frustration take its place. I should have known better than to entertain a brief flash of hope. New guys always got shorted. It had been that way on Mtoain, too, which was why I fled for space the moment I qualified for a Deh-Ria ritual. A sour taste invaded my mouth.

I opened my mouth and spoke without thinking about it. Bad habit. “What about the rest of us?”

A couple of harsh laughs from the more senior Mtoains answered that question. My expression darkened.

I also didn’t appreciate the soft look of sympathy Deanna sent my way. As a human woman, she no doubt knew what it was like to be at the bottom and what it took to earn your way up.

Landri flashed a tight smile. “You younger hunters have not been forgotten. You will have the option to give up a percentage of your credit taken to earn guild support.”

“So we have to buy our way in.” My voice was just short of a snarl. Maza and a couple of others muttered their own agreement.

Landri extended a hand to gesture around the room. “We have all bought our way to our current standing, in one form or another. The elder hunters have purchased their places through their loyalty and dedication. You don’t get to jump to the head of the line just because it seems unfair.”

Some of the more senior hunters looked proud at his words. I tried and failed not to glower.

“If you still object to the pay scale,” Khenja added, “You can choose to stay out of the collective.”

I snorted. What, and start fresh at a new outfit at the very bottom in seniority? That was not going to happen.

Khenja’s words caused a ripple of laughter from the more senior Mtoains. I had to raise my voice to be overheard.

“What would it take to buy my own stake?” I shot a glare to the upper part of the table. “An equal stake?”

Landri and Khenja exchanged a look. Khenja nodded as if in agreement and Landri turned to me. He crossed his arms, radiating ‘smug’ from every pore. “We’re a small guild seeing as we’re just getting started, so an equal stake won’t be worth much.” He paused, holding the moment. “Ten million credits.”

I choked. That was twice the amount of the last bounty that I had brought in.

But I had my goal set now. What was the point of fighting and scraping only to rent the privilege of guild security? I had no doubt that under Landri and Khenja’s leadership, the guild would thrive. If I played it safe and waited for seniority, the buy-in amount could be twice that or more by the time I had years under my belt.

I stood, acknowledging Lendri with a head bob that stopped just short of formal. “Only ten million credits? That’s reasonable.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

Lendri turned in mute dismissal and I sat down. I could feel Maza eyeing me speculatively, but I didn’t turn his way. My mind was filled with ideas—something high risk, high reward was needed.

Because I swore I would do whatever it took to gather those credits, even if I died trying.

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Six

Well. That wasn’t what she’d expected.

Maybe it should have been, but Zuri clutched the leads for the two horses even tighter as the eerie blue crackling cloud washed over Kennet’s tall form.

Because he changed.

Not just like he had in the tunnel. That was strange enough, but she could still see him, still believe that the man she’d spoken and traveled with, was the same as the being who had dug them out so quickly. 

Then, just his upper body had changed, grown fur and claws and fangs.

Now, instead of a grumpy pale-skinned man with strange markings on his skin, a gigantic white cat stood in front of her. Thick fur covered his entire body, a lush tail swished through the air. Only the bright blue eyes remained unchanged.

“Is that really you?” she whispered, dry mouth trapping her words for a moment.

But he didn’t answer, just looked away impatiently.

“Yup, that’s you.” 

Even as a cat, the starman radiated arrogance.

Zuri sighed as she quickly fashioned a longer lead for FarRunner, then tied it to Goliath’s saddle bags.

“They’re never going to be happy carrying you now, you know that, don’t you?”

Still no answer.

 ”Right then.” She swung up into the saddle and headed northeast through the forest. “Really, at this point I might as well be traveling by myself.”

But that wasn’t entirely true.  Densely tufted paws made no sound on the snow, pale fur blended into the surroundings with disturbing ease.

Still, she caught glimpses of Kennet, easily keeping pace with Goliath’s steady walk. Off to one side of her or another, then fading away again.

“At least you don’t argue with me,” she patted the strong neck. And FarRunner was settling down now. Goliath no longer seemed to care about the strange scent, so the younger horse accepted it as well.

Slowly the light changed as the pale, watery dawn came, and Zuri began to look for a place to stop. Despite taking bundles of wool down to Kinallen twice a year, she’d never left the cave so early. Her regular spot for a mid-day break was still hours of travel away. 

***

An hour after sunrise, they came to a small clearing. “I don’t know if you understand, but we’re stopping for a bit now,” she called out, unsure if Kennet still was within hearing distance.

Eh. He’d figure it out.

She needn’t have worried. Before she’d touched the ground, he was there, shifted back into the safe mostly human form he’d worn when she’d first met him.

Lady. Had that been less than a day ago? It felt like they’d been fighting for years.

“Why have you halted?” he asked immediately. “Are you ill?”

She focused on untying the saddlebag. “Nope. It’s time for breakfast and a break.”

“The weather is still uncertain, and we are still far from your village.”

Zuri pulled out the grain bag for Goliath, fixed up another for FarRunner.

“True, but we left early enough that we should reach the next waystation well before dark. It;s time for a rest.”

By Kennet’s scowl, it was easy to see he didn’t agree.

But she didn’t care. She was cold and stiff.

Zuri leaned against Goliath, curving her back slightly to stretch the sore muscles.

“Everybody needs a break sometimes, even you I’d think,” she said.

She took two steps away from Goliath, then cursed herself.  

Too cold, Too stiff. She should’ve waited.

Her legs started to buckle.

She stayed still, wobbling slightly, willing her legs to hold her.

But apparently that wouldn’t be necessary.

While she was still bracing herself for the seat of her pants to be cold and wet, Kennet crossed the small clearing, scooping her up in his arms.

Zuri’s heartbeat drowned in her ears, as he held her tightly against his chest.

“You said you were not injured,” Kennet said. “That does not seem to be accurate.”

Was that the faintest trace of concern under those arrogant words?

She thought back to how quickly he adjusted to her fears about the snow coming in to cover them in the cave, irrational as they were. 

How often he’d offered–or rather demanded–to help.

How he’d refused to take a faster, more comfortable way back to her village, even though he clearly disliked traveling horseback.

Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t a complete asshole.

Maybe he was just bad with people.

“There is no place here for you to sit.”

Kennet was still talking, she realized, the swirl of sensation tightening her chest and distracting her.

“I just need to walk around a little,” she said softly. “Get some feeling back in my legs.”

“Can you be trusted not to fall?” he said sharply. “No, you should sit, not walk.”

Or maybe he really was just a jerk.

“Trust me, I think I know what I need,” she said, pushing away from his chest.

With obvious reluctance he lowered her slowly until her feet brushed the ground, his right arm curved around her back, still supporting her.

“You can let go now.”

“Perhaps we could reach a compromise.”

Zuri sighed. “We shouldn’t need to reach a compromise about letting me walk around.”

“But it’s wet,” Kennet insisted. “And you might fall.”

He did have a point.

As a cold as the day promised to be, it would be a mistake to continue riding in wet clothes.

And while the clearing made for an acceptable spot for a short break, it would take hours to dry her pants out.

“Tell your horse to hold still and I will place you back on him. And I will clear a walking path for you.”

She looked up at him, lips pressed tightly to hold back her laugh. “What if I just walked, and you stayed nearby, in case I fell?”

She answered softly.

He took a moment, clearly considering the pros and cons of her counteroffer.
“I suppose that would be acceptable,” he admitted.

So slowly, ridiculously, the two of them began to make a circuit of the small clearing.

 Zuri knew this should be uncomfortable. Awkward.

But somehow, after the first few steps, it wasn’t. 

Halfway around the first circle, her legs began to torment her, sore muscles turning into pins and needles running all the way up and down her legs. Each step was agony, but she knew from experience the only way through it was to keep walking.

“Thanks for clearing the snow out from the cave opening so quickly,” she said after a few more minutes, when she could focus on her words rather than screaming. “I shouldn’t have been so upset by it. We were safe enough.”

He shrugged slightly, steering her around a muddy patch. “But it did bother you. How you could or should have reacted isn’t the issue.”

Zuri grimaced. “It’s not that I mind snow. Living where we do, I don’t really have a choice about it. Just…”

Her throat closed, the pain in her chest overwhelming the discomfort in her legs. Why was she even telling him this?

He’d find out, once they reached the village. Someone would say something.

It was better to get this out of the way now.

She’d have to put up with the pitying looks everyone wore for a while, but he’d get over it.

“Five years ago my mother went out, looking for a lost ewe. It was pregnant, one of her favorites.”

Another circle around the clearing. Her legs were fine, and although the cold hadn’t gone, the stiffness had faded. She could stop now. They could have something to eat, ride on.

But starting the story again would only make it worse.

“The snow came down heavier than expected. Right before dusk, we heard it. The rumbling from the mountain that only meant one thing.”

She could still see the horror-struck expression on her father’s face, feeling the bone deep chill as they all frantically searched through the wreckage left from the avalanche.

“We found her body, curled up with the ewe, a week later. My father turned his face to the wall, followed her into death within days.” 

She’d been so angry with him. But there hadn’t been time for anger.

“My little brother and I weren’t really prepared to run our holding on our own. But we did it. Our whole village came together to support us. That’s why it’s so important for me to help figure out what’s going on, what’s threatening everyone’s herds.”

And she waited for the pity.

She should’ve known better.

“I’m sorry that your parents died,” he said. “I understand this is difficult and distressing. We lost a brother, in a battle. It was not unexpected, but I do not look forward to it happening again.”

She looked up, his sharp blue eyes softened as they stared at something in the distance, something she couldn’t see.

A place, a time she couldn’t see.

“Thanks,” she said, squeezing his arm. “Do you want something to eat, or you want to move on?”

And just like that he was back in the here and now. “I am fine, but you should have something. Then, yes we should continue. I do not trust the weather.”

He was right.

Despite their early start it was a miserable day for travel.

They stopped far more often then she would’ve liked, but the cold and snow worked through her layers, her legs stiffened in the saddle.

The horses trudged along, mostly because Goliath knew there was shelter ahead, and FarRunner followed.

It was worse when they left the forest, the wind whipping through the plains, down the high slopes of the northern mountains, finding every gap in her clothing no matter how small, no matter how many layers she wore.

Ride as long she could stand it, stop to warm up again, eat a little, move on.

“Are you sure there is no other closer shelter?” Kennet asked the third time they stopped.

“Nothing closer than the next cave.” She forced her numb cheeks to smile. “Tell you what, we’ll compromise.”

His lips quirked up as he helped her stretch out her legs again. “On what this time?”

“You make one of those things big enough to hold Goliath, and next time we’ll take your air sled, whatever that is.”

“I will see what I can do.”

Rests were no more pleasant than moving, but she knew she’d pay for it later if they pressed through.

When it was time to ride, Kennet shifted again, closer now to her and the horses. The horses were too tired to care, but she was glad for his presence, however strange and silent.

And finally, as the sun sank below the high ridges they were there.

“Oh, Thank the Lady,” she breathed, clicking to Goliath to move faster. Out of the cold and wind she mentally promised, a place for a fire and hot mash and good rubdown.

The crack in the mountainside grew wider as she approached, eyes focused on it.

Tea.

All she wanted was tea.

Her cheeks burning with the cold she barely noticed, she kept her focus on the opening. Get inside, set a fire, care for the horses, fall down in a collapse to sleep forever.

That seemed like a perfectly reasonable todo list.

Finally they reached the cliff side.

She swung down out of the saddle, clutching at the stiff leather for balance.

“It’s pretty narrow at the beginning,” she called over her shoulder to Kennet, “but then it opens up. The cavern is just as large as the last way station, maybe a little larger.”

He said something, but the wind tore away the words, and she was too cold, too tired to care. 

Head down, she slipped inside the narrow opening, counted her steps.

Eight, nine, ten.

Her right hand shot out to find the flint and steel that were kept tethered to a hook on the wall, the bracket for the torch always kept there.

Her hands were too cold to successfully strike a spark the first or second time.

But the third worked well enough. 

Bright enough to see Kennet’s disapproving face where he had somehow slipped past the horses to stand next to her. “You don’t know what’s in here,” he growled.

“I know it’s warm in here,” she countered. She pressed on. “It’s only a bit further, and you can fuss at me then.

A dozen more steps, then a sharp turn to the left and the cavern opened up. 

“Eww,” she scowled. “Something smells terrible in here.”

Turning slowly she let the torch light flicker over the cavern floor, shadows lurching drunkenly across the rocky walls.

And then she saw it.

It shouldn’t have been her first thought.

Probably not even her second.

But in the moment before everything exploded, she couldn’t help it.

“He’s never going to let me live this down, is he?”

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Five

“It can not be an actual avalanche,” Kennet decided. “I would have heard such an event.”

“We were in a cave, remember?” Zuri argued. “Sleeping.”

She always argued.

“I suppose the only way we’ll find out is for me to start digging,” Kennet said.

He tamped down his displeasure.

Cold he didn’t mind. Well, he did, but it was an ignorable discomfort.

Cold and certain to soon become wet was another matter.

He reached for the sheet of white that blocked the cave entrance when Zuri grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

Her touch sent a spark running through him.

Ridiculous. 

Simply static in the air caused by the cold.

But she didn’t let go, clinging to his forearm as if she had the strength to actually stop him.

He cocked his head to the side.

Considering that he had in fact altered his plans, perhaps she did.

Interesting.

“Don’t do that, please. Not until we know how deep it is.”

Her eyes were wide in the half-light, and in their depths Kennet saw the trace of something else, some other incident that had scared her. 

Still had power over her.

Very well.

While he believed he had packed everything they would need for a trip across the countryside, he had not brought a tool for this situation.

But perhaps something could be fashioned.

“Just a moment please.”

When he returned to the snowed in cave entrance Zuri was still there, arms wrapped tightly around her chest.

Her palpable unhappiness bothered him. But he didn’t have enough data to do anything about the actual cause, therefore he could only focus on what lay before them.

“This should do nicely,” he said, and then forced the heated metal frame that the teakettle had been suspended from into the mass of snow.

It slid in easily, then slowed as the metal cooled.

“A little further I think,” he said as he tested the makeshift probe against the unseen barrier.

Just as Kennet began to wonder if he would need to raid the storage chest for something longer, the resistance against the end of the frame suddenly stopped.

“I believe we’ve reached the end of the snowpack,” he said, withdrawing the probe, marking how thick the imprisoning wall was.

“Let’s try another spot.”

He repeated the procedure three more times until he was satisfied.

“I do not believe it is much thicker than the length of my arm anywhere except near the very bottom of the opening, and that is only a matter of gravity. We could wait until light,” Kennet offered, “But that would simply give the snow a chance to pack harder.”

Whatever had been bothering Zuri was gone now. “You’re right, should come down now.” She nodded, as if to convenience herself. “I can start over here and if you work there it shouldn’t take us more than an hour.”

“I can clear it considerably faster than that. You would be safer, and drier if you went back to the larger cavern,” Kennet said. “If nothing else to ensure that the horses stay calm.”

Zuri snorted. “They have grain, and a thick bed of new hay. I don’t think there’s going to be much that disturbs them.”

Still, Kennet paused.

It was hard to predict how humans would react to… well, anything really.

And while in general he didn’t care about their opinions, he was finding himself reluctant to startle Zuri.

“It will be faster if I utilize a skill that may seem strange to you.” 

That was a reasonable warning, wasn’t it?

“If you can get us out of here in less than an hour, I can put up with a whole lot of strange,” Zuri smiled slightly.

She was competent and brave.

He would have to take her at her word.

Turning away from her, Kennet let the change wash over him, not in its entirety, there was no need.

But now when he glanced down, his arms were covered with white fur, the charcoal stripes even clearer.

And more importantly broad paws, tipped with rending claws, perfect for quickly digging through the snow.

He didn’t turn around when Zuri gasped.

“You’re right, the horses might be startled by this.” 

Her voice was shaky.

Of course it was. 

“I’ll be finished shortly,” he growled and got to work, not paying any intention to how quickly her footsteps receded. No attention at all.

The first step was to make a tunnel. Paws flying he burrowed through the snow until he was outside the cave.

It would’ve been easier to clear the entire opening from inside, but then they would have the problem of snow melting inside.

No, this was better.

He got to work, letting the smooth easy movements distract him.

Before long, a soft sound behind him caught his attention.

“I’ve made more tea,” Zuri said quietly. “Your hands must be freezing.”

He had paws. Not hands.

“They are chilled, yes,” Kennet answered, shifting back to take the thick pottery mug from her. Her fingers brushed his, and there it was again, the jolt.

“You should go back inside.” He looked up, the heavy clouds lit from the moons, promising more snow. “I’ll be finished here soon.”

She shook her head. “It’ll take me awhile to wind back down.” The haunted look had returned to her eyes.

Finishing the drink he handed her the mug. “If you’d move just a bit, you won’t get as wet.”

This time when he shifted to start digging, she didn’t flinch. “Can everyone out there do that?” she asked. 

“If by out there, you mean in the Alliance, no.” Kennet finished clearing the upper section of the snow wall he’d been working on, moved on to the next. 

Zuri moved, keeping out of the way of the flying snow.

“My brothers and I can, and some of the other Garrison soldiers were designed with the capacity to change forms.  There is suspicion that some of the warriors of the Kuseon may also have the ability, either by natural processes or engineered, but there’s not enough data to do anything more than speculate in that direction.”

Her laughter cut the cold air. “That’s what I get for asking questions when I don’t even understand the answers.”

He stopped digging, examined her expression. “If you don’t ask questions, how are you expected to understand anything?”

While he finished excavating the cave entrance, he gave a quick history of the endless war between the Rakian Alliance and the Kuseon Empire. “Their soldiers have never been captured, and even in negotiations, they are always masked. The Alliance has no reliable information. It is most irritating.”

“At least it explains why FarRunner was nervous,” she said as they headed back inside. “I did try to explain, but I’m not sure how much of it got through to him.”

Kennet glanced at the horses. “As long as he can bear with me, I can bear with him. I suppose.”

The snow had kept the warmth of the fire inside. Now that it had been removed, it was noticeably chillier in the cavern.

“I’ll build up the fire again. You should get more rest before we head out again.”

Zuri folded the blanket she’d wrapped around her shoulders. “I doubt if I’d be able to sleep,” she said, then pulled a heavy coat out of one of the chests. “There’s enough moonlight. We should keep going.”

Really? She had to argue about this as well?

Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh Lady, I wasn’t thinking. You’ve just dug us out and you’re probably tired and you’re right we should rest and-”

“I do not require additional rest at this time,” Kennet cut her off. “However, if you are tired while we travel, that could pose an additional danger.”

She snorted. “I’d bet I could be sound asleep, and Goliath could find his way home from here.” But still she examined him carefully. Her gaze was… uncomfortable. “Are you sure you’re ready to go? It’ll take me awhile to neaten everything up. You should at least take a break.”

It was somewhere between ridiculous and offensive. 

But the sooner they arrived in her village, the sooner he could discover what was creating the problem, solve it, and be done with this assignment.

Which you wanted to take, an amused voice in the back of his head reminded him.

“Tell me what needs to be done,” he ordered. “I will assist you.”

Despite his best intentions, the horses weren’t comfortable with him mucking out their straw and replacing it with clean until Zuri moved them to the other side of the cavern, holding their heads and whispering to them soothingly.

“I don’t know why they’re so spooked,” she apologized. “They’ve promised to be good when we’re back outside.”

But apparently the promises of horses were not to be trusted.

Once she’d led them outside, the big roan that had carried him without complaint on his visits to the human villages throughout the past several months shied, rolling its eyes back, every time Kennet came close.

“We should return to Ship,” he offered after the horse danced away from him the third time. “Get the airsled and be done with this nonsense.”

“You can,” she snapped, breath clouding in the crisp air. “But I’m not leaving Goliath behind, I’ve told you that.”

“And I’m not letting you travel alone,” he growled, patience at an end. “Fine. There’s a solution, but I doubt the horses are going to like it any better.”

Zuri threw her hands up in the air, then pulled FarRunner’s lead until he fell into place beside Goliath.

“Anything has got to be better than this.”

This was a mistake. 

He was sure of it.

But honestly, he no longer cared. At least this way, he wouldn’t have to argue with her.

“I’ll hold you to that.” 

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Four

It had been more than a few minutes, and they were nowhere ready to start.

Because the only starman available to help her was a jerk.

“I’ve told you, I’m not leaving Goliath behind.” Zuri said. Again. 

It might have been closer to yelling at this point, but the tall grey jerk wasn’t listening.

“As I have mentioned, taking the air sled will cut our travel time considerably. Your horse will be well cared for. A young person comes from the village daily to do whatever is needed in the stables.”

Maybe she should wait until one of the others came back.  There were others, right?

Hells, maybe she should try talking to the creepy not-a-cat. Maybe it would be more useful.

“Fine. We’ll compromise. You get to the village however you want to, and start whatever you’re going to do.” She pointed to the map, hovering in the air over the table, ignoring the impossibility of nearly everything that had happened in this place. “You didn’t know what information you’d need, right? Now you have a reason to get it. I’ll take Goliath and be there in two days.”

There. That was reasonable. If anything, it was better this way. He’d be able to start fixing the problem sooner, and she wouldn’t have to put up with his arrogance for a bit.

“No.”

She threw her hands into the air, stomping into a circle. “Why not?”

“There is no reason for you to risk yourself for two days traveling by yourself. It is unacceptable.”

She was going to push him into the lake to be devoured by the flyers. That was acceptable.

“How do you think I got here!”

“That is beside the point.”

“That is entirely the point,” she growled. “Here’s the deal.” Zuri forced her hands to lay flat on the table. “I’m going back on Goliath. You can get there however you want. How do you think you can stop me anyway?”

His face contorted through a myriad of expressions until finally his eyes half closed into what Zuri assumed was resignation. “Very well. If you insist on taking these animals, then we should at least wait until the morning, when you are better rested.”

“Nope.” She stood, headed toward the door. “Have you even looked outside? There’s a storm coming off the mountains. If we leave now, we can be under the cover of the forest before it hits.”

Before Zuri could say anything she was going to regret she retraced her path, out of the small room, down the short corridor and through that enormous reception hall.

Who even needed something like this anyway?

Half of her village would fit in the space.

He was going to help.

That was all that mattered, right?

She rubbed her temples, the headache that had plagued her ever since she’d set foot in this place sending sharp spikes into her brain.

He hadn’t been gone that long when he took Goliath outside, so the stable should be easy to find, she figured.

Back out in the bitter cold she pulled her cloak around her shoulders tightly and marched around the castle.

Of course. 

The one side she hadn’t seen before finding the open door.

And really, that was weird. Who left the door like that open into a castle?

But once she was inside the warm stable all thoughts of the starmen’s strange ways left her mind. 

Goliath was in a stall at the end of the row which held four other horses, just as large as he was.

She stopped to rub their ears as she worked her way down the row. They were content, happy to see her. None of them smelled of  fear or pain in the slightest.

That was good.

The rumors she’d heard in her mountain village of the star men had been fragmented, incomplete and not everyone had agreed with her quest to ask them for help.

Terath in particular had been certain it was a mistake.

What did he know?

Just because the tall gray one was a jerk didn’t mean he couldn’t help them.

Finally she’d reached her own mount, laughing as Goliath hooked his massive head over her shoulder, as if to draw her closer.

“I’m glad you like it here,” she murmured into his mane. “But we’ll be heading for home soon.”

The starman might’ve been grumpy, but he was as good as his word, following her into her stable only minutes later, full saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

“Did you even bring any gear with you?” he asked as he turned to saddle the roan in the third stall.

“Of course I did, I’m not an idiot,” Zuri snapped.

Well, she’d brought what she had at least.

Grain for Goliath, a few travel bars for her, a bedroll. Everything else would be at the waystations.

“I have estimated the pace these animals are capable of achieving. We should be at your village in slightly less than a day and a half,” he said as they lead the horses out into the morning air.

She snorted as she swung up onto Goliath’s back. “Weather doesn’t care much about your estimate,” she said. “And the horses will let us know when they’re tired and need a rest. Come on,” she said turning back the way she had arrived only an hour ago. “Let’s see how much ground we can cover before the storm hits.”

Zuri looked at the sky, shivering.

It had gotten colder sooner than she expected, the heavy clouds above promising the storm.

“Hurry,” she said. “If we get to the treeline, that will shelter us from the worst of it.”

The man behind her said nothing, but his silence was answer enough.

The trail headed west until they were under the trees, but despite having achieved her goal, the muttering behind her didn’t lift her mood.

“He doesn’t like you either,” she called over her shoulder.

“Excuse me, what?” came the brusque reply.

“You’ve spent the entire time since we’ve left mumbling about how uncomfortable this is, how much you dislike this traveling on horseback,” she said. “It just seemed fair to let you know that FarRunner doesn’t think much of you either.”

“You named my horse?” Kennet asked after a quiet moment.

“Not exactly, but is that really what you want to focus on?”

“It was the strangest part of what you said, so yes,” Kennet answered.

“Really, why don’t you go back, take your sled whatever and I’ll meet you at the village,” Zuri tried one last time.

“No,” Kennet refused again. A few moments passed in silence.

“Why doesn’t the horse like me?”

“Apparently you scare him slightly. You smell funny, like a predator.”

“I cannot help that,” Kennet said.

A few more moments of silence, as the trees thickened around them.

“Is your Gift talking to these animals?”

“Not exactly talking,” Zuri said, “more like sensing what they are feeling. They’re not big on words, as we’d use them.”

“If you can, please tell both of the mounts I will not eat them. Probably.”

Zuri scowled, then turned to look over her shoulder, eyes narrowed.

“Was that a joke?”

“Probably.”

Despite the shelter of the trees, the first few flakes had turned into a bitter storm, snow so thick she could barely find the path by the time they got to the cave.

“Here’s where we’ll stop for the night,” she managed through chattering teeth.

“Are you quite certain?” was his only reply.

“Of course I’m certain,” she said. “It’s where I stayed last night, where we always stay.”

Legs stiff from a long day of riding in the cold, she swung off Goliath’s back, reaching for the small lantern strapped to the saddle bag.

“Wait,” he growled.

“What now?” Zuri sighed.  

“Let me go first.” Smoothly he sprung down to land between her and the opening of the cave.

Zuri fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I told you, I was just here this morning.”

“And you don’t know what might have changed since then.” His bright blue eyes met hers, and a strange shiver ran through her. “Please stay here.”

She nodded silently, head spinning, as he stalked into the cave.

What was that? she wondered. 

Some sort of Gift that the starmen had? Nothing else she knew would make her breath catch like that, her stomach tighten, her pulse pound.

The shadows of the trees had barely had time to grow deeper when Kennet returned.

“It appears to be safe,” he admitted. “Let’s get you out of the cold.”

“I told him,” she muttered as she led Goliath in. He nickered in reply. “Yes, you remember, don’t you? A rub down and some mash, just as soon as I set up the fire.”

The short passage turned sharply to the right, opening into a large cavern. Her steps slowed as she reached the bend.

“You already started a fire?” 

The soft glow on the far wall was strange, steady. Not a bit like the flickering light she’d spent so many nights around.

“No.  I didn’t need the light for the search, but thought you might like such a thing.”

She stared transfixed by the glowing orb hovering near the roof of the cave until Kennet came and took Goliath’s rein from her hands, leading them both to the center of the room.

“Why don’t I start the fire, while you see to the horses?” Kennet said softly. “I have the feeling you’d only check them over again if the roles were reversed.”

Was that another joke? Zuri wondered, but the cold and wonder had stopped her brain from being able to tell. Her hands moved automatically through the motions of unsaddling both horses, rubbing them down, preparing their feed.

Long before she’d finished the fire had taken the sharp edges off of the chill. Kennet had spread two bedrolls on opposite sides of the cavern, and set two small folding stools by the flames.

“Where did all of this come from?” she asked, knowing that none of the gear was her own. “Surely that didn’t all fit into your saddle bags?”

“I’m a good packer,” he shrugged. “Lots of practice.”

“Hmm.” 

For all of his reluctance to travel by what he’d loudly decried as “the slowest way possible,” clearly he’d set up camp more than a few times. 

“While we have our meal, tell me more about your village.” He handed her a dry block wrapped in thin shiny paper. Unwrapped, it looked like one of the travel bars she’d prepared, a little. Cautiously she nibbled at a corner, then quickly went back to her own saddle bags.

“Here,” she thrust one of her few remaining bars at him. “Mine may not taste like much, but they at least taste like something.”

“Flavor is not as important as satisfyingly caloric needs, especially in adverse weather,” he complained. She thought it was complaining, but she stood in front of him, hands on hips until he relented, took a small bite of the bar. His eyes widened. “That’s good!” he took another bite. “Perhaps I was mistaken.”

“We’ll keep yours just in case, alright?” she said, rewrapping it and putting the dry, dusty thing to the side. It’d have to be a real emergency before she willingly ate that. “What else do you want to know?”

“How are you so certain that the creature is not native to the area, or has emerged from a dormant cycle?” Kennet asked. 

She glanced across the fire at him. Was he licking his fingers? Couldn’t be.

“Um, I do have another bar, if you’d like it,” she offered.

He quickly pulled his hand away from his mouth. “I thank you, but there is no need.” He slowly began to open the silver wrapped brick. “This is sufficient. Please continue.”

He chewed mechanically, and with a shudder Zuri wrenched her mind back to what his question had been.

“It’s possible, I suppose. But really, really unlikely.” 

He started to say something, but she raised her hand to forestall him.

“Seriously.  My great-great grandparents were a part of the original group to settle there when the first wave left the capital. Our family has been there for over 100 years, and we’ve kept records. We’ve had to, learning the weather and the flood patterns, when it would be safe to travel, when we were on our own, cut off from even Malterresy.” She shook her head, thinking of the pages of cramped writing, journal after journal, the script changing with each new generation. “There’s no record of anything like those creatures.”

“Over one hundred years of records, you say?” Kennet didn’t seem to be paying attention to what he was eating anymore. “And you have access to them?”

“Of course I do.” Fed and warm, she moved to the far side of the cave where a row of chests were arranged.

She grabbed a metal frame from one of the boxes and a small pot, dashing back outside to fill it from the rapidly falling snow before setting it up over the fire.

“How did you know those items would be here?” he asked, frowning.

This time she didn’t bother to hide her eyeroll. “I told you. I stayed here last night. We always stay here, when we take wool down to Kinallen. We get a better price than if we sold in Malteressy, but the trip is longer. I think it was my great-grandfather who started setting up the waystations.”

She pulled out a bundle of leather from another chest, dragged it over to where Goliath and FarRunner were contentedly eating their grain.

“Let me,” Kennet said, surprisingly close to her. He paused, then added. “Please.”

Well. 

That was different.

And to be honest, help wasn’t exactly unwelcome.

“Thank you.”

Before she could explain how to set up the collapsible water trough, he’d figured it out.  “I assume the weight of the water will keep it from falling in on itself?” With quick steps he turned back to the chest she’d pulled the trough out of. “Therefore there must be another container for carrying water, correct?”

In minutes he had the pair of leather buckets filled with snow, and by the fire.

Alright. 

A jerk, but a useful one.

And maybe, possibly, not a complete jerk.

Eyes drooping she headed back to the fire. “Which one is yours?”

“Neither,” he answered, pouring the melted water from one of the buckets into the trough. “They are for sleeping. I have no preference.”

Could it be that everything he said sounded slightly condescending? Was that the problem?

“Great,” she said, collapsing onto the nearest bedroll, pulling the thin cover over her. For a moment she thought about getting up, getting her own blankets. But the day had been long, and the thin cover was warmer than she’d expected.

Thank the Lady.

She’d gotten help. They were on the way back.

And it was all she could do.

Everything else could wait. Would have to wait.

She drifted off, hearing the soft nickering of the horses, Kennet’s low voice barely audible as he spoke to them.

“Truely, I am not planning to eat you.”

Strange man.

She woke grudgingly, the glow near the ceiling fainter now, but still enough to see clearly across the cavern.

Goliath and FarRunner were napping in their makeshift stall.

Kennet was quiet on his bedroll on the other side of the fire.

She closed her eyes, willing herself back to sleep, but to no avail.

She needed to go outside, unless she wanted to use the straw with the horses.

Dammit.

Grumpily she sat up, pulling the surprisingly toasty blanket around her shoulders, grateful she’d been too tired to take her boots off.

Back around the corner, down the short passageway…

Zuri stopped, blinking at the wall of white.

“Double dammit!”

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Three

What was he doing? Kennet railed at himself. He had projects enough already.

And whatever this woman thought, he was certain that the Garrison hadn’t been so sloppy as to have brought this… creature with them. He scowled slightly. The very thought was insulting, and given Ship’s method of travel, technically impossible.

Well, nearly so.  

He’d check again. 

He always checked.

Guiding the woman into one of the smaller conference rooms, he stopped short.

“There is not a suitable place inside for your horse,” he explained. “However, there is a stable outside. Would that be acceptable?”

The human woman looked around, blinking, as if all the fire had burned out of her.

He didn’t like it.

And he didn’t know what to do, which he liked even less.

“Here.” He pulled out a chair for her, and put the box holding the pieces of the flying creature down on the far end of the table. 

At the replicator panel set into the wall, he programmed up Adena’s favorite drink.  In moments he had a warm mug pressed into the woman’s hands. “Drink this, and I’ll be right back.”

Grabbing the dangling reins, he led the horse off towards the stables. At least, he tried to.

The massive beast refused to budge, just lowered its head and rolled its eyes.

The woman looked up from the mug. “Go ahead and go with him, Goliath. I’ll be fine.”

Goliath chuffed. Clearly, he wasn’t so sure about that, but was willing to humor his mistress.

Kennet didn’t care, as long as the animal moved.

Quickly he led it along the shortest path to the stables that had been built in the first days after the Garrison had arrived on Crucible.

The air sleds were quiet, fast and efficient. but Nic insisted on using local beasts whenever they could, in order to disturb the local population as little as possible. 

A boy from Grasmere came up daily to care for the animals, and Kennet was pleased to find an empty stall and the grain boxes full in the warm building.

The animal settled, he hurried back to the woman, slowing his steps as he came closer to the door. She would be fine. Nothing here would harm her. But that didn’t explain his sense of urgency.

“Shall we start again?” He sat across from the table, watching her.

Her cheeks had more color now.

That was just an observation. It certainly didn’t mean that he had been concerned.

“My name is Kennet. I am the analyst of our group, so it is good that you have brought the specimen to me.”

She looked at him over the rim of the mug and put it down slowly. “I’m Zuri Sturmveld. I’m from the village of Solibek, in the northern mountains.” She tweaked an eyebrow up. “Pleased to meet you, and sorry the flyer tried to eat your face.”

Kennet lips twitched. “If I had allowed it to do so, the fault would have been my own.”

She shook her head, wide eyes fixed on his. “The rumors said the soldiers from the stars were fast, but I didn’t even see you draw a weapon.”

Ah. A topic for another time. Or never. 

That was also an acceptable time.

Kennet could still feel the slightly sticky goo from the creature’s innards on his claws. It was unpleasant, but certainly not the worst thing he’d sliced open.

“Northern mountains,” he muttered, flicking open a globe showing his updated maps of Crucible, repositioning and zooming in until it showed the area to the north of Ship. “Somewhere over here?” He tapped the range close to where Adena’s aunt Vania lived, in the foothills bordering the Haleru’s territory.

“No…” Zuri’s wide eyes were fixed on the map. “We’re more to the east, over here.” She reached for the hologram, pulling the focus to the side, and further north. “Halfway up the mountain, there’s a little valley.”

“Let me,” Kennet started to take control of the map from her, then lowered his hand at her glare.

“Why don’t you show me how instead?” 

That was reasonable.

Not entirely efficient, but he didn’t mind. Much.

“Move your hands like this,” he lay his fingers over hers. “Slowly now.”

The view changed, bit by bit, until with a slip the globe spun wildly before them.

Zuri covered her face with her hands, laughing. “Not what I meant to do, but fun anyway. Alright, you steer, and I’ll tell you where to go.”

Soon enough the image focused on a small valley near the top of the peaks that lay at the northwestern-most point of the range that curved down, cutting off the grasslands from the river and forest that lead to Raccelton, and down to the coast.

“The lake is fed from the waters that come down from Mount Urhom. The water is clean, if a little cold,” Zuri explained, running the tip of her finger down the wavering blue line that trailed down the mountain’s western slope. “It collects in the lake here, and then continues down to the lowlands.”

Kennet nodded, thinking. The lake looked as if it covered the valley floor. With a flick of his fingers, he lay his most recent satellite imagery over the map.  “These houses further back into the valley. That’s your village?”

She nodded, reaching for her home, before pulling her hand away sharply. “So clear,” she wondered, then sat back, studying him sharply. “Did you know I was coming? Why do you have an image of my home?”

Kennet spun the map into a globe again, more slowly this time.  “Having a complete survey of Crucible in its entirety is useful for our work here. That your home was mapped in the process is purely incidental to the project.”

Her lips quirked up. “So you’re saying we’re not that important?” 

“I’m saying that it is impossible for us to know what is important, and what is not, before the information is needed. Therefore I collect it all.” Somehow it felt as if this conversation was slipping out of his control. Surely his surveying methods were not the point. “Tell me when these creatures first began to bother your village,” Kennet asked.

“Almost a year ago,” Zuri’s voice drifted into silence and he winced. This was going to be another one of those disjointed, fragmented tales, wasn’t it? Maybe it would be better to talk about satellite imagery after all.

Then her fingers tightened on her mug, and her chin went up. “Almost exactly one year ago, I noticed that the flock was agitated when they came into the pens at night. She pointed to a section on the map.  “It happened just as we shifted from the winter grazing here, here on the higher side of the lake.”

Kennet pulled the map tighter into the area. Nothing looked out of place, but perhaps he didn’t know what he should be looking for yet.

“Depending on the snowfall, the water level of the lake is unpredictable. That is why our village is further up the slopes, and we’ve got two good wells.  The chatha are smart enough to work their way down to the lake for water they want during the day while they’re grazing, and come into the pens at night.” 

She took another long sip from her mug, eyes fixed on the lake. “Not long after we moved, the flock started coming back agitated, almost hysterical.”

“How exactly do you know when an animal is hysterical?” Kennet asked, curious.

“Spend your life working with them, you’ll know.” Another long sip. “We couldn’t figure it out. And then we noticed that the wool around their shoulders was tangled and torn, as if it had caught on brambles and been pulled halfway out. But nothing like that grew in the area.”

“What about local predators?” Kennet drummed his fingers on the table. This sounded far too much like the troubles Vania’s village had with the Haleru. Except there hadn’t been any maiming of the herd animals there. Just disappearances. 

She shook her head. “One of the reasons our family settled in the valley in the beginning is the lack of large animals. Sometimes we’ll get an aphin coming through, but they’d have eaten the chatha, not just scared them. Even the beastmen don’t come this far north.”

Well. Good to know the Haleru weren’t a surprise to everyone.

“After a few days of wondering what was going on, I went out with the flock, and noticed that they were avoiding the lake.” She pointed to the river that cascaded down the mountains. “They were going all the way up there to get water. It’s rocky on the shores there. No reason for them to go to the trouble.” She pushed the empty mug away. “Then we got busy with lambing season, and I didn’t think too much about it. Until the lambs started going missing.”

“Did you see what was taking them?”

“Those things.” She jabbed a finger at the box that held the pieces of the creature. “Came leaping out of the water, dragged the lambs under.  By the time I got to the water, it was long gone.”

“The lambs were bad enough, but there’s more of those things now. They’ve been breeding all through the summer, and their range is getting farther. It used to be safe enough for the children as long as they avoided the lake shore. Now it seems like they’ve reached the village itself. Going outside now you’re as likely to get a face full of flyer as snow.” Her shoulders slumped. “People are talking about leaving the valley, trying to start over somewhere else.”

“If the lake has been infested, and you have no way to combat the spread, then it would seem to be the logical solution,” Kennet offered.

“No.” She snapped. “The logical solution would be for you people to do something about it. That thing isn’t from here. We’ve never seen such a thing before your castle arrived. You came from another world, right? No one on this world has ever seen anything like that. So it’s your problem. Fix it.”

“We did not cause this,” Kennet started, then caught himself staring at the lines of exhaustion and worry around the woman’s eyes.

Did it really matter? 

Something had happened. Possibly a native creature the colonists knew nothing about had changed its migration pattern. Or perhaps it was a life form with a long dormancy cycle, just now reawakening. That might explain why there were no large predators in the valley, when the human colonists had arrived.

It might be something interesting.

Kennet’s mind ran over the experiments he’d already started in the lab, each waiting for his attention.

But Nic’s parting words still nettled him. Just a bit.

“I will be happy to investigate this. Even if this is simply an unknown organism of this world it will be a valuable bit of information.”

Then he thought of Nettie sitting alone in the garden, staring into the sky.

“However, I’m afraid I cannot go with you at this moment,” he finished. “Perhaps with the others have returned–”

“You’re an idiot, aren’t you?” Coracle said as he materialized on the table between them.

Zuri pushed her chair back quickly, scrambling to her feet.

Kennet’s back stiffened. “That is distinctly and provably untrue.”

Zuri watched the two of them warily.

“Please allow me to introduce another resident of Ship. This is Coracle.”

Coracle leapt gently off the table, twined between her legs and sniffed Zuri’s boots. “Why wouldn’t you go?”

“You know perfectly well,” Kennet growled. “Our guest needs protection.”

Zuri examined Coracle with narrowed eyes. “You’re not a cat,” she said flatly. “I don’t know what you are.” She tilted her head. “Are you real?”

Kenneth blinked quickly. 

While Coracle’s  appearance and disappearances were always disturbing, no one had ever so quickly commented on the question of his physical existence.

“Real enough to take care of visitors to my realm,” Coracle said, turning his back on Zuri with the swish of his tail. “Leave our guest to me,” the-not-quite-cat announced as he walked towards the conference room door. “You can handle this rude human.” 

Coracle walked through the wall without another word.

“Well then,” Kennet said, still surprised. “I’ll need a few minutes to attend to some things, and then we can be off. Shall we take a look at the air sleds?”

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Two

Zuri pushed her nerves back into a box, slammed the lid and threw away the key.

Just entering the castle had been terrifying. Approaching it from the small town of Grasmere, it stood alone in a wide field. She’d begun to circle it, looking for any signs of life, before finding a wide open door.

As if whoever lived here had no reason to fear anything.

Now that she was inside, this immense room was more terrifying. She was sure it shouldn’t even fit inside the castle, as large as it had seemed.

But if she wanted Goliath to stay calm, she needed to do the same.

She studied the strange man in front of her again, his pale skin cast into sharp relief by the simple grey vest and black pants he wore.

Ha. Maybe he didn’t know it was winter outside.

At the moment, the horse wasn’t scared of this room, with its spiraling, unsettling endless space. 

So she wouldn’t be scared either.

The man who studied her was another matter though.

Tall and thin, his skin wasn’t just pale, it was grey, unlike anything she’d ever seen on a person. And the bright blue eyes and jagged charcoal stripes that marked his face and arms made it clear.

This wasn’t actually a person.

This was one of the starmen.

“I’m not certain what you believe I have done,” he said calmly. “But it seems unlikely.”

And the anger that had kept her warm during the long trip down from the mountains flared again at his words.

“This!” she turned away from him, his calm, dismissive words doing nothing to calm her.

“May I assist you with that?”

She jumped. 

He’d been all the way over there, almost across the room from her. And now he was right next to her, peering down where her fingers fumbled at the fastenings of the saddlebag she’d so carefully lined.

“No,” she muttered, edging away slightly. 

There. The first layer was unwrapped.

A thick layer of wool wrapped tightly around a large box, waxed and watertight. She hoped.

She tugged at it, wiggling to get it loose from its surroundings, but she’d filled it after placing it into the saddlebag.

Now it was unbelievably heavy.

“Please, miss. Allow me.”

And then without even waiting for her to move, he reached around her, pulling the container free.

“Hey, watch it!” she exclaimed. “I would have had it in just a minute.”

“I am afraid that I do not have an unlimited amount of time to spend with you,” the tall man answered absently as he set the box onto the floor, bending over it. “I have other duties to see to.”

Well, if that was the case…

“Be my guest,” she said, stepping away, just a bit, wrapping her fingers in Goliath’s reins.

Her horse had seen plenty of the damn things, but didn’t like them.

Neither did she.

Would the grumpy ass starman, who was even now lifting the lid?

Probably not.

The instant the lid to the box was opened the flyer splashed in agitation. 

“This water smells as if there has been–” 

That was as far as he got before the flyer launched from the box, straight for the man’s face, gray, fleshy triangular wings extended fully.

Hell. 

“Duck!” Zuri yelled, reaching to knock the flyer from its path.

But she moved too slowly

Before she quite realized what had happened, the flyer lay in three neat pieces, scattered around the box.

And the man kneeling before her looked more than grumpy now.

Double hell.

He slowly straightened, eyes narrowed as he studied her.

“For the moment, I will assume that you did not come here with the intention of attacking me,” he growled.

Zuri swallowed hard. “No. I just want you to fix what you did.”

Eyebrows raised, he looked at the pieces of the flyer at his feet. “I suppose it might be an interesting exercise to reconstruct it. However, I have other experiments planned for the day.”

“What?” Zuri was back to angry now. 

Angry was more comfortable than scared. 

“I don’t want you to fix it, I want you to get rid of them. They’re all over the lake and they’re killing our chatha! You brought them,” she pointed to the shriveled pieces of the thing on the floor. “You need to take them back to wherever they came from.”

The man didn’t even bother to look. “No.”

“What?” Goliath stamped his hooves, agitated by her tone now. “What do you mean no?”

“We did not bring them. We are not here to interfere with the natural order of your world.”

That did it.

She pulled back her lips into a snarl, stomping up to the starman. “They came when you people did. We’ve lived by the lake ever since the first colonists arrived. We’ve raised chatha there, raised our children there. And there has never, ever been a problem until you came!”

His eyes were flat, face serene.

Uninterested.

Zuri’s fingers curled into a fist, wanting to punch something. But she remembered how quickly the flyer had turned into limp strips of flesh, and instead crossed her arms in front of her chest, as if to hold the trembling rage inside.

But then he surprised her.

“I am not familiar with this creature. We did not bring it to your world.”

Indignation washed over her, then he raised a hand. “However, if your statement is correct, then I do not believe it is native to this planet. Therefore, it is a mystery.”

He tossed the pieces back into the box with a splash, closed the lid and stood. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Then he turned and walked away, leaving Zuri and Goliath standing in the middle of the echoing, empty room.

He was leaving.

He wasn’t going to help them.

No.

Leaping up to Goliath’s back, Zuri charged across the room after the jerk.

Swinging around to cut him off, she blocked the exit with the horse’s broad body. 

“Wait!” she snapped, then exhaustion took over. Too many hours of worry, of travel. 

She slid back down to stand on the floor, leaning heavily on Goliath for strength.

“It’s not just a mystery, some abstract problem. Those things are killing our livestock, and there’s worry that the children will be next.” Staring into his dark eyes, she stumbled, just a bit, and effortlessly he caught her, his hand sliding under her elbow, keeping her upright.

“Please,” she murmured.

His face didn’t soften, his uncannily bright eyes still expressionless.

“Perhaps we should talk more,” he answered, with a slight inclination of his head. “Please follow me.”

And his hand at her elbow still holding her up, Zuri went with him, deeper into the castle.

Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter One

Kennet studied the results of his latest round of tests.

There. That might be useful.

“I don’t know how long the hearings will take,” Nic said. “So you might be holding the fort for a while.”

“That is acceptable.” Kennet answered, diving deeper into the readings. It would be better to work on this in his own quarters, but Nic had called him into the Ready Room.

Things had been quiet lately.

Well, perhaps quiet wasn’t the precise word.

In the month since the secret laboratory had been exposed underneath the oldest part of Raccelton, the colony on Crucible had nearly been torn apart.

The news that a group of Elite had been kidnapping women and children, running experiments on them in an effort to understand how the psionic Gifts worked, had understandably shaken the rest of the colony’s faith in their leadership.

Civil war hadn’t broken out.

But tensions were high, and the frightened Council had applied for admittance to the Rakian Alliance.

And now that they had the upper hand, the Alliance wasn’t going to let the renegade colony in without serious concessions.

“Sasha is coming with us to testify, but Nettie,” Adena’s voice drifted into silence as she looked over at another screen.

Esme and Nettie sat in the garden, Gavin hovering in the background.

“I don’t think she’s ready to leave yet.”

“There’s no reason she’d need to,” Nic said. “Once the shields are up, nothing could break into Ship. Certainly nothing on this planet, and damn near nothing off it.”

Adena still looked worried, and Kennet attempted to explain. “When the shields are up, we are partially occupying these coordinates, and partially not.” 

Neither Adena or Rhela seemed convinced, so he tried again. “For instance,  when we traveled here. We folded space from our previous location and homed in on the beacon the child from your village placed in the meadow.”

Rhela nodded slowly. “Folded space. Like fabric.”

Good. Progress.

“If Ship were to be under attack, the most logical defense is to simply not be here.”

Adena narrowed her eyes. “Sometimes I think you’re trying to be confusing.”

“Not at all,” Kennet said. “It’s simply how it works.”

“Either way,” Jormoi said, pushing up from the table. “The only person that she’s spoken to is Coracle. And now that we know what Coracle is, I suspect our guest will be the best protected person on the planet.”

A small feeling of annoyance ran through Kennet.

“Even without substantial defenses of Ship, I would be a formidable protector.”

“But you’d rather be in your lab,” Nic said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Give me a hand, Jormoi. If we’re going to be gone for a while, I have a sneaking suspicion our mates are going to want to pack half of the still room.”

“Not half,” Adena mumbled as she walked through the door her mate held open for her. “Well, maybe almost half.”

Jormoi and Rhela followed and Kennet stayed in the ready room, his mind quickly emptying of trivialities.

There were, it was true, several experiments he would like to dedicate more time to.

And he’d almost perfected a new method of stabilizing communications through the acetanium fields.

It wasn’t that he disliked his brothers’ mates.

They were strong, capable women, who added to the strength of the team.

But there was no denying that Ship had become a little noisier.

Yes, this would be a welcome break.

***

In three days, life on board Ship had fallen into a pleasant routine.

Every morning and evening Kennet spoke briefly with Nic about the affairs at the capitol.

“All these humans do nothing but shout at each other,” Nic had grumbled. “They’re going to need to get their act together before the Alliance representative arrives if they expect to be dealt with seriously.”

“Perhaps you should shout louder,” Kennet had advised, absently.

Three times a day he checked on the recovery of Nettie.

She no longer turned away from him, but neither did she speak.

That was fine.

He’d watched what food she picked from the trays he left in the garden, and made sure that her needs were met.

Besides that, the biggest gift he could give her was time.

“Load the results of experiment 336 on tertiary screen,” Kennet commanded. “Overlay with 278.”

Interesting.

The graph lines were almost identical in their movements. He reached for another window.

“Someone is approaching the entry hall.”

Kennet blinked for a moment, mind still wrapped in the delicate dance of figures before him.

He sighed.

“Save everything to date,” he commanded as the screens vanished from the air. “Display visitor.”

The tall figure, wrapped tightly in a hooded cloak against the winter chill, stroked the shoulder of a massive black horse, then looked around as if waiting for someone to appear.

“I suppose I should greet him. Her. It,” he muttered.

The visitor wasn’t Matilde, Declan, or any of the small group of people who he’d bothered to learn their names.

It wasn’t that it was difficult, it just seemed like a waste of effort.

Nor was this any of the other townspeople he’d met, automatically filing their physical profiles into memory.

His lip curled in irritation as he strode down the corridor, nearing the entry hall.

Which meant this would take more time than he’d like.

New humans would be reduced to staring incoherence by the vast, deliberately disturbing emptiness.

It did discourage most visitors, but was inexcusably inefficient.

You needed to spend minutes coaxing information out of the messenger, instead of dealing with them quickly and sending them on the way.

The doors slid open, and he stopped.

A figure stood inside the hall, and with the hood pushed back he could tell it was a woman, dark auburn hair twisted back away from her face, eyes calmly scanning across the room.

That was surprising.

But even more so…

“What is that creature doing in here?” he said, pointing at the dark horse who stood calmly at the woman’s side.

“You might not have noticed in your fancy castle, but it’s snowing outside,” the woman snapped. “I’m not leaving him out there.”

She narrowed her eyes, studying him and for a moment Kennet felt a twinge of something in his chest as her gaze met his.

Curious.

But any urge to explore the feeling further vanished with her next words.

“My village has a problem, and I think you’re to blame.”

Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Five

 Gavin

“You don’t have to stay.”

The flattened tone of Esme’s voice made Gavin want to bundle her back in the air sled, take her back to Ship with the others despite her protests.

But he wouldn’t.

“I can’t believe you got rid of Adena so easily,” he answered instead. “She’s not usually so easy going about the health of one of her patients.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “But you’re not going to get rid of me.”

The faintest hint of a smile lifted the corners of her lips. “I appreciate it,” she said. “Even if I don’t know what you can do to help.”

He didn’t either.

There was nothing he could do but wait, and watch, as she walked down the long row of the dead, calling their names.

Around each shrouded form she paced, singing in a low haunting voice.

All the way down the line, all the way back.

And when she finally stumbled, he caught her in his arms.

“They’re your family, your clan, right?” he asked gruffly.

She nodded, eyes shining in the dark with tears she still hadn’t shed.

“Then they’ll know you need to rest.”

She stiffened in his arms, then he felt her body slump with resignation. “You’re right,” she admitted. “Just, if I keep thinking about the next step and the next, then I’m not worrying about the children and Aunt Layla. Not worrying how we’ll get them back. What I can even do with them if we do get them back.” Her voice dropped to a horse whisper. “They must be so scared.”

He led her back a few short steps to where he’d spread blankets on the ground, built a low burning fire, hoping that its friendly warmth would give her some comfort.

“We’ll find them, but you need to be in good shape to help them when we do,” he nudged another one of the field rations at her. “Trust us. My brothers and I, we’re good at what we do.”

She picked up the bar, but instead of opening it, turned it over and over again in her hands.

“Speaking of the things you do,” she said, “What exactly happened when your friend turned into a cat? That’s not like any Gift I’ve ever seen.”

“My brother,” he answered automatically.

Not that the definition of family was the point of the question.

Or maybe it was.

He leaned back on his arms, eyes fixed on the cold stars above.

“The Alliance has been at war with the Empire for generations,’’ he said, searching the sky. Easier than watching her reaction. “Both sides are willing to do almost anything to win. Along the way, they made us. Made others like us. And they made us into weapons.” He took a long, slow breath, let it out. “That’s really all there is to it.”

“It seems a little more complicated than that to me,” she said, her hand resting on top of his, the light touch sending a spark through his blood. “You’re not just a weapon.”

“I know what I am,’’ he said.

The silence stretched between them, the only sound the crackling of the fire.

She leaned back next to him, resting on her elbows. “They say that somewhere out there was our home, once upon a time. The oldest story.”  Her shoulder was close enough he could feel the heat of her body.

“Usually when a clan member dies, we sing them home. And I’ve always wondered which? Here where we’ve traveled and loved the land for so long, meeting new friends along the way? Or back there, the place we all came from, lost in the stars?” A soft laugh. “It seems impossible. How would they even know the way back to that old, lonely world?”

Gavin could answer that at least. He searched the sky, checking against his memories of the updated star maps since his Enforcer Unit had arrived on Crucible.

“It’s one of my favorite things about what we do,” he said. “Every place we go, the sky is different. The same stars, but you’re looking at it from a different angle. The ancients called them constellations, imaginary pictures they drew in the sky.” He could draw his own constellations here.

An air sled, over there, maybe.

Maybe that cluster was a flower. Maybe a horse.

“But on a different world, everything is out of alignment. You’re forced to take a new perspective, a new pattern every time you move to a new place.”

He pointed towards a faint nebula, a cluster of three stars to the right. “But I think the world your generation ship left from is that way.”

“New worlds,” she said, leaning a little closer as she followed his pointing finger into the black.  “I can’t imagine exploring everything there is to see on this one in my lifetime, much less having time to see another.”

Gavin snorted. “We’re not exactly seeing the sights. Like I said. We’re just weapons.”

Esme sat up, staring into the fire, and the loss of her nearness struck him like a physical blow.

This was ridiculous, he thought, then was startled by her low laugh.

“You have a gift, a skill like Rhela and Adena, I think,” he started cautiously. “You read minds? How does that work?”

She shook her head and the low flickering light of the fire cast shadows across her face.

“Thank the Lady, no,” she said. “With most people, I can occasionally pick up on strong emotions, and the rest is just watching body language.” She shot him a sidelong look, then stared back into the fire. “Sometimes I get glimpses of the future in dreams. But I never know the truth from a dream until it’s too late. It’s not so much a gift as something I live with.”

Esme pushed herself back up to her feet, swaying with exhaustion.

“What are you doing?” he asked, watching her intently.

“Normally the clan would take turns, staying up with the one who’s passed, and then bury them the next day,” she said, straightening her back, eyes bleak. “But now, there’s only me.”

He followed her to the row of bodies, standing at her side.

“Are they particular about bloodlines in your clan?” he asked.

She looked at him questioningly. “Good thing for me they’re not, no. Why?”

“Then swear me in, do whatever you need to do, and let me take my turn.” He smiled. “Have pity on me. Adena will have my hide if you don’t get some rest.”

Her lips pursed. “They’re not your people. This isn’t necessary.”

“Does it break any taboos if I do?”

“No, I guess not, but…” She gazed around, as if looking for someone to give her a better reason.

“Is it going to help them if you fall over where you stand?” He pressed on, feeling a twinge of guilt at using dirty tactics. “Don’t you want to be in good shape tomorrow, when we meet with someone who might be able to tell us anything about the children and Layla?”

She glared at him. “Of course, I do. That’s not fair.”

“But you know I’m right.” The guilt wasn’t nearly strong enough to overcome the need to see that she rested.

And whatever her gift revealed to her of his thoughts, she finally gave in.

“Thank you again.” She shuffled back to the fire, curling into a ball on the blankets.

He knelt by her side, pulled the second blanket over her. “Is there anything special I should do or say?” he asked, suddenly aware of the magnitude of his offer. “I’m not much of a singer.”

“Just stay with them, let them know they’re not forgotten,” she murmured. “Let me know when you need a break, all right?”

“Of course.”

***

The pale moons gave more than enough light to work by, and Gavin made good use of the time.

When Esme stirred with the first morning rays, he moved to her side.

“Still warm enough?”

She struggled out of the blankets he’d piled on her through the night, eyes wide. “You didn’t get me! You said you–”

He held up a hand. “You said someone needed to stay with them. I did.”

Esme rocked back, pulling the blankets tightly around her shoulders against the cool fall air. “All night? By yourself?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I told them stories of places I’d been. Figured them being a traveling people, they might like to hear.”

A slow smile spread over her face. “That was perfect. I wish I’d been awake to hear.”

The nervous knot only tightened in his gut. “I can tell them again, if you really want. And, um. I did another thing.”

A dark eyebrow raised, but she said nothing.

He held out a hand, and she took it.

That was a good sign, right?

If he hadn’t just ruined everything.

“Stop worrying,” she said, as they picked their way across the camp in the pre-dawn mist.

And then she froze.

“What did you do?” she whispered.

He watched her face. He knew what she saw, he’d spent the long hours of the night digging them all, one by one, grave by grave.

“Is it right?” he asked.

She knelt by the first shrouded body, stared blankly into the neatly dug grave beside it. “How did you do this?”

Gavin coughed, embarrassed. “I told you. We’re built as weapons.”

“Nonsense,” she snapped, flying to her feet. “However you were born, whatever your gifts are, it’s what you do with them that counts.” Her eyes softened. “And what you did was an act of kindness. Don’t forget that.”

It didn’t take long to complete the burial of her clan. As the sun rose, Esme took one last walk around the destroyed camp while Gavin watched her every step.

“Is there anything you want to bring back with you?” he asked as she finally turned away, walking quickly towards the air sled.

“No,” she shook her head. “I’ll get a message to the other clans, see what can be reused. But none of this matters to me, not anymore.”

Subscribe to my Update List!

Powered by EmailOctopus