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elinwyn

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Four

Tirac

The thrashing of the arsek’s tail slowed, stopped and finally lay still.

My heartbeat didn’t slow down so quickly.

This strange, soft creature had nearly perished in an instant, all unaware.

“You must be more careful,” I growled, severing the arsek’s head, flinging it far from us before rising to my feet with its thick body still in my grip.

At least the question of dinner was answered.

Slowly, she lowered her arms down from where she’d held them up and I realized she wasn’t trying to protect herself from the snake.

The scent of terror rolling off of her had nothing to do with the arsek.

She hadn’t known it was there.

Her fear was because of me.

The thought sickened me.

“I won’t harm you,” I said, softly.

Whatever the strange female was, she was alone and afraid. No weapon of the Makers, no matter the metal case that’d held her. And with no knowledge of the dangers that were all around her.

“Nor will I let you come to harm.”

Her face softened, a flicker of a smile crossing her lips.

“ThatsgoodtoknowImgoingtoneedafriend.”

Her words were nonsense but her expression…

“Do you understand me?” I asked.

Her soft brown eyes lit up and she nodded.

“Yes.” The hissing sound meant nothing.

“But you can not speak my words?”

Her shoulders slumped, the perfect picture of dejection.

My thoughts circled.

Back in the village, cubs were put into the teaching chamber where our language, history, and the foundation of our clan were given to them in one long span of dreams and visions.

The hut that held it and the generator were the oldest, most sacred part of the village.

But there was no way for us to go there, not now.

“Then I will have to teach you,” I said slowly. “There is no other way.”

She nodded, another flash of a smile curving her lips. “Goodimgoodwithlanguages.”

“First, we must eat.”

She pointed to the arsek, eyebrows raised. “That?” 

“Their poison is deadly. But the flesh is sweet.”

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to.

No words were needed to convey her doubt about our upcoming meal.

I took stock of the clearing.

With only myself to worry about, I hadn’t given too much consideration for where to make camp.

The situation was different now.

I looked at her from the corner of my eyes, trying to guess at what sort of clan she came from.

No horns or red skin like the Vak’ki, not the wings of the Sen’ki.

Her skin was almost as pale as the silver of the Ol’ki, but she didn’t have the arrogant stance of their warriors, the sly look of their faces.

I looked again.

She didn’t look like a warrior at all.

Then it would be my responsibility to protect her until she rejoined her people.

I cleared a small patch of leaves and branches, making it easy to see anything crossing the ground.

“Stay here,” I told her, using one of the fallen branches as a broom to expand the area.

“Jobra leaves would be useful,” I muttered.

She looked around, but didn’t move.

“I’ll show you what they are in the morning,” I decided. “Fire will be our friend tonight.”

Soon enough, the arsek was skinned and speared, roasting over the flames.

She huddled next to the fire, arms wrapped tightly around her.

I eyed her thin clothing, again confused as to where she could have come from that such apparel would be remotely practical. A long, loose shirt without sleeves that reached mid-thigh over pants so tight I saw every curve of her leg. Not warm enough for the mountains, too confining for the jungle. 

Her thin shoes would give no protection from the ground or the elements in any territory. A broad silver cuff on her left wrist was her only ornament.

“Are you cold?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“You will feel better when you have eaten,” I assured her.

She showed no sign of understanding.

I went to fetch one of the broken logs I discarded, checked it over for arseks or other threats and brought it over to the fireside.

“Sit before you fall.”

For a moment, it looked as if she’d argue, then she sank down, her gaze still lost in the flames.

“In the morning, we will make a better camp, until you can tell me where you were going.”

She nodded quickly, and I handed her a hunk of the roasted snake, wrapped in a thick leaf.

“Thisishuge,” she said, staring at the lump in her hand. “YoucandothisAllison,” she said. But she still didn’t move, just studied the meat in her hands.

Finally, she took the smallest possible bite of the charred flesh, then the first real smile spread over her face.

“Itsgood,” she chirped. “Itsactuallyreallygood!”

“Itsgood?” I tried to repeat her own words back to her, the strange sounds like bubbling water in my mouth.

Her smile only grew broader, sending a small twitch of pleasure deep in my chest.

I liked making her smile.

“Good,” she repeated with a nod.

She finished her first piece, and a second, but refused any more, shaking her head and miming with her hands a huge bloated body, puffing out her cheeks until I laughed.

“You’re smaller, perhaps you don’t need as much food.”

Allison pushed the rest of the pieces towards me as if to confirm, licking her fingers happily as I finished the remains of the meal. I passed her my waterskin, watched her delicate neck tilt as she drank.

She leaned back, stretching, then winced, her hands flying up to rub at her shoulder.

“Are you injured?” I asked her again.

She shook her head, the slightest of movements before pointing to her neck, then twisting her hands fiercely.

It seemed unlikely she was trying to tell me she had a broken neck.

True, I knew nothing about her clan. But nothing I’d ever met survived such an injury.

I remembered my own headache after my fall during the quake.

Thought about the saplings that’d grown in the path left by her metal cylinder.

How long had she lain there?

My muscles would be stiff as well.

Rising up from my crouch, I moved behind her.

She twisted, staring up at me in confusion.

“The muscle is knotted?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, the hissing sound of her agreement.

I reached towards her, then stopped, blocked from the skin of her neck by the fall of dark hair that swung freely past her shoulders.

For a moment, I wondered what it’d be like to touch it.

“I am no healer, but if you move that, I will see if I can unknot the muscle.”

Her gaze met mine for long moments, then she nodded slowly, pulling her hair around to the front, her head leaning forward slightly, leaving the pale column of her neck fully exposed.

Softly, I let my fingers run over her spine, following the curve down to her shoulders, her skin soft and smooth like nothing I’d ever seen, ever touched, her scent as heady as the perfume of navien blooms.

A low groan escaped her lips as I rubbed tiny circles across her shoulders.

My hands went still. “Should I stop?”

In a silent answer, she reached up, placing her hand across my fingers, pushing down, keeping me in place.

“Good.”

I began again, and with every light stroke across her skin sparks flew through my fingertips.

Slowly, the corded muscles relaxed, her breathing even as she sank back against me.

“Good?” I asked her again, enjoying her closeness, the strange feelings it stirred up inside of me.

She nodded her head more freely this time. “Good.”

The crackling of the fire and our voices muffled against the night sounds of the jungle.

And then a trill sounded, like no bird I’d ever heard.

She jumped up, staring at the silver band on her wrist now flashing with a blue light, cutting through the darkness.

“Theyrehere!” Her fingers flew over the metal, all of her attention drawn to it.

I stepped back in shock as her words came from the band on her wrist.

But it wasn’t her voice.

A flow of sound I couldn’t understand, but Allison surely could, her excitement shining in her eyes.

“Canyouhearme?Hello?Kyla?”

From her worried look, it seemed clear that though the voice went on without stopping, it hadn’t answered her.

“Pleasecananyonehearme?”

The cuff kept talking, the strange sounds only for her ears.

Then the voice changed and I bit back a snarl.

“If you hear this, Reavers of the cities, hear me. Let this be as true as the visions of the teaching chamber. I am Ryven of the Vak’ki, and I swear this on my life. The human women are a new clan from far away.”

I snorted.

Leave it to one of the Vak’ki to state the obvious.

“They are not part of the Makers, know nothing of the games. They are not warriors. Not enemies.”

Allison stared at her wrist, then nodded up at me in frantic agreement.

“I didn’t think you were, little one,” I assured her.

“Help them rejoin their clan. Bring them to the mountains of the Sen’ki. Safe passage is assured.”

Madness.

There was no other word for it.

I could believe in the sudden existence of a new clan. 

I could believe in this soft, delicate creature before me, who so clearly didn’t know where she was, what land she’d been brought to.

But I couldn’t believe the words of a Vak’ki.

And safe passage through the lands of the winged ones?

Madness.

As if the speaker heard my unvoiced thoughts, it continued.

“I did not believe it was possible either,” the Vak’ki warrior droned on.

“Spend some time with your human woman. You’ll understand soon enough that they will change your world.”

The message repeated, the words of Allison’s tongue spilling out, but heedless of her calls, then again the voice of the Vak’ki with his insane claim of safety.

And then the cuff at her wrist was silent.

Allison stared blankly, then turned around, hand pointing in all directions as she spun.

“We can not go there,” I told her.

Her lips pressed into a tight line as her eyes narrowed.

Perhaps my little one was a warrior after all.

She picked a direction, heading away from the fire before I dashed forward to pull her back.

Bitterness flooded my mouth as she struggled in my arms, but I refused to let her go.

“It’s not safe at night for you,” I told her.

And despite the assurances coming from her bracelet, I was not certain how safe the mountains of the winged ones would be for either of us.

“Besides, we cannot get there right now. Maybe not for a long time.”

She went rigid, staring up at me, her mouth falling into a soft ‘O’ of surprise.

“I will show you in the morning.”

Alien’s Stake: Sneak Peak

Emily

The whole thing about your life passing before your eyes before you died was a lie.

How did I know?

Because I’d been waiting for that to happen for the last, say, ten to fifteen minutes? I wasn’t sure how long it’d been. Not with everything having gone from bad to worse, the way it did.

I only knew one thing: seeing my life’s biggest moments, the good, the bad and the ugly, would’ve been preferable to this.

Frequent flyers should be able to understand my plight the best, if they’d ever been caught in a bad storm.

Not knowing what to do while everything around you was shaking and you were holding onto the edges of your seat, unable to make a run for it because you could barely see the ground beneath, all the while hoping you made it out alive.

Except that this time, I wasn’t on a plane and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

Maybe I’d gone crazy, but my dreams had been nightmares, so real that I’d managed to wake myself up.

At least, I thought I had.

In my nightmares, little green men had taken me from my cozy bed, stripped and poked and prodded me as I faded in and out of consciousness.

Now the nightmare was getting worse.

Trapped in a metal pod with only a glass viewport at the front, my ears rang with the sound of alarms, the rattle of explosions.

I closed my eyes, willing myself to think of happy things, to fill my brain with good memories of my sweet kids and their sunny classroom. 

We’d been decorating the space with their drawings and hand prints the day before this happened.

And then another explosion rocked my pod from the wall, and I faded out again.

The nightmare changed. 

No alarms, no shaking.

Natural light poured in through the cracked window of the pod.

Sore spots bloomed all over my body and maybe a couple of bruised ribs?

Life as a kindergarten teacher hadn’t exactly made me an expert on that sort of thing.

Far above, a pale cloud drifted across the sky.

Sky.

Suddenly I was desperate to get out.

Maybe it was just another dream, but the thought of being trapped for even one more second was more than I could bear.

Thrashing and kicking, the door finally broke loose and fell, hitting the ground with a muffled bang and I hoisted myself up, one groan at a time, freeing myself.

And then I blinked.

Once.

Twice.

“Nope, you’re real!” I yelped and dropped myself back inside the pod. In the nick of time too, since the energy bolt that crackled through the air merely grazed my shoulder.

Real or not, that hurt.

After being abducted, nearly losing my life in a crash, now a walking rhino-man was shooting at me.

This was surreal, like an episode from my favorite sci-fi flicks, except I was the protagonist in this adventure.

“Try anything and I will make you beg for mercy, slave. I can hurt you in ways you haven’t dreamed of,” he taunted me.

His voice was gruff, like a chain smoker’s, colored by a very palpable sense of danger. 

My gut was telling me that this thing, this man, liked hurting others. These were not just empty threats.

My heart raced in my chest, the already accelerated rhythm going into pure overdrive the second he grabbed me by my hair and pulled me up. 

There was no way to escape him, my gaze switching between his horned face, his shark-like teeth, his black, beady eyes that bore into mine, emanating glacial coldness.

It felt like I was staring at Death itself.

The walking, talking, rhino-man was dressed in something straight out of an 80’s punk-rock music video, but with definite Mad Max vibes – guns hanging off his back, at his sides, his solid frame easily thrice the width of mine and he reeked of something coppery.

Like blood.

“How many of you are there?”

What?

“Answer me, slave!” he yelled again.

The rhino-man was now all up in my face, his stinking breath suffocating me. He was prodding me with the pointy end of his gun, punctuating his questions with painful jabs aimed at my cuts and bruises.

I had every intention to answer him, but it was taking me a while to find my voice.

“Please,” I croaked out.

Impatiently he threw me to the ground.

Like a rag doll, I fell face-first, inhaling an unpleasant amount of dirt. I choked on it, my eyes watering, my entire body aching.

“Poor little human can’t breathe?” the rhino mocked, stepping closer.

Just as well he did, though, because it turned out he had a knife strapped to his ankle and I was close enough to grab it.

So I did.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of action hero. 

Either this was another nightmare, and nothing mattered, or it was real and I was going to die anyway.

And I really, really didn’t like bullies.

I grabbed the cold handle and I plunged the blade right into his foot, wiggling it in there for maximum damage.

Black blood gushed out of him and splattered all around, staining his boot, my hand, the ground we were on.

“Fuck you!” I yelled. Well, I tried to. It was probably more of a whisper as I rolled away, clutching the knife in my bloody fist.

His pained roar was deafening. I’d angered him and earned myself a scathing beating at the least, if I remained his prisoner.

The only thing I could do now was to run as fast and as far as my legs could carry me, but when I got back on my feet, a flash of gold, copper and brown blocked my vision.

“Did nobody tell you not to touch the belongings of a Korgein? Hands off my female!”

Sorik

It seemed like I’d made it to the stasis pod’s crash site just in the nick of time.

And that the human female it housed was alive and… well, alive.

Her tiny form lay bleeding at the G’zanta’s feet, half broken and trembling.

And yet there was something about the way her body was poised that spoke of yet unbroken determination.

She hadn’t surrendered to him.

Good.

What she did next was even better, though.

As I leapt from my stinger she wasted no time in stabbing him.

Was there anything sweeter than a bloody G’zanta wailing in pain?

Yes, there was. When the source of his pain was a tiny little human female, not even half his size. It was like a grown axtell being taken down by a cute little gouin – ridiculously shameful.

“Did nobody tell you not to touch the belongings of a Korgein? Hands off my female!”

She’d rolled away, pushing herself to all fours, while the G’zanta had his stun gun pointed at her back, clearly intent on shooting so much pure electricity into her body it was going to knock her unconscious for hours, if not days.

While that would have made things easier on my end, I didn’t want to see the female suffer for her bravery.

“Then maybe you should take better care of your slaves. She’s mine now.”

“Not a chance.”

With a final dash I landed between them, a split-second before the cursed idiot fired the blast.

It hit me square on my chest and I doubled over in pain, my vision blurring. My people are resilient, but taking such a direct hit was still unwise.

Keeping upright was a struggle, but I grit my teeth and bore with the sting of the blast, taunting my enemy.

“The day a mere G’zanta takes something from me, Sorik the Korgein, is the day I die.”

“Then die, No One the Stupid,” he roared and tackled me.

Like youngsters on the training steppes, we fell to the ground in a mass of limbs. 

It soon became clear that hand to hand combat was not the way to go. We were too well matched. This was going to be a long, vicious fight.

And then, right before I could gain the upper hand by shattering his socket and blinding him in one eye, the G’zanta wailed again. I kicked him off me and he rolled to the side, groaning, revealing the human’s lithe form. She was looming over us, panting, her eyes round and wide, her mouth forming an O.

“Did… did I kill him?”

Her hands were empty of any weapons and it wasn’t until I looked at the G’zanta again that I realized what she’d done.

She’d stabbed him in the back, right at the base of his tail, nearly severing it.

No wonder he was wailing like a newborn babe.

“No, but you’re going to wish you did.”

I rose and glanced around. First and foremost, I needed to ensure the female’s safety. A wounded G’zanta was doubly dangerous and she’d hurt not only his body, but his pride, too.

Twice.

I grabbed her arm. “You need to snap out of it and listen to me.”

I wasn’t prepared for the intensity brimming in her eyes. 

Or that their color was a shade shy of the rich emerald of the Threzelas blooms, my mother’s favorite flowers.

The word precious came to mind.

Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t entirely about the money she was going to bring me once I sold her to the highest bidder and won the bet against my brothers.

“Yes?”

I swallowed around the lump in my throat.

I needed to focus.

“Find a spot to hide in and only come out when I say it’s safe to do so. Do you understand?”

We were in a junkyard, a graveyard for ships and stingers, but I wasn’t going to let it become a final resting place for either one of us.

“Behind you!” she screamed, but it was too late.

The G’zanta fired his blaster at me and didn’t stop until he emptied the charger. My muscles cramped and I felt frozen, like a statue made of flesh and scales.

“Run,” I urged the female.

“That’s not going to save her from what I’ll do to her, Korgein. She’ll be broken before she meets her next owner. That, I promise you.”

“She. Is. Mine,” I growled before turning around and facing him.

I didn’t need to look back to tell that she wasn’t obeying my command, the scent of her fear filling my lungs.

“I said run!”

Finally, she moved. The sound of her soft footsteps hitting the water-starved ground echoed in the dead silence surrounding us.

The loss of her presence was like an itch. Nonsense.

She was a universal breeder and valuable slave, worth a year’s wages as a gun for hire.

And yet the thought of letting the G’zanta abuse her made my blood boil.

In silence we stalked each other around the junkyard, hiding behind scraps and using the wreckage to trap the other, running circles around the now empty stasis pod.

Finally I climbed to the top of a ship that had been picked for parts, the maze of metal unfurling below me like a map.

Clearly revealing the G’zanta pulling the human out of her hiding place. He smacked her across the face and she went limp in his arms.

I didn’t think.

I simply acted.

I shot him dead, stopping only when I ran out of charges for my weapon. By then, the G’zanta was nothing more than a puddle of black blood and exposed bone, half slumped onto a discarded stinger cockpit.

I ran to her, to the brave little female that got plunged into an unfamiliar world and yet who didn’t want to submit to its chaos.

Kneeling beside her unconscious form, I used my bioscanner to check for injuries. The external ones were obvious and none of them seemed like they would kill her, but I knew next to nothing about human anatomy.

Certainly not enough to discern any potentially life-threatening internal damage.

Lifting her short gown I passed the scanner over her belly, marveling at her softly yielding flesh before going higher, over her chest and the plump, round, pair of breasts.

There was a certain kind of beauty in the paleness of her skin coloring and the way her dark hair reflected Reazus’ blue sunlight.

Yet on the other hand, she was weak, there was no denying that. 

She was fragile, so vulnerable and soft, I wondered how her species survived without any natural defenses. 

The G’zanta had their thick skins and horned heads, my kind had scales and sharp claws, the advantage of speed and even flight, for the lucky few who’d found their mates.

The bioscanner beeped three times in quick succession, pulling me out of my dark thoughts.

“Not what I wanted to hear,” I mumbled to myself as I read the results.

This was beyond what I could handle. 

I had no other choice than to call upon the help of an old acquaintance. 

If Tarka still lived in Maneet, that was, and if he didn’t still want to kill me.

There was a lot at stake here: my safety and hers, the bet with my brothers, the credits and what I was going to buy with them.

Yet every moment of indecision could be costing the female her life.

I gathered her small form in my arms, ignoring how ice cold she was, and made my way to the outskirts of town.

Tarka better not close his door in my face.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Three

Allison

When I first went to college, my first roommate was a bit of a wild child.

Okay, more than a bit.

Nice enough, but I only went out with her once.

And right now, I remembered exactly why.

My head pounded, my tongue was swollen, scratchy.

Every bit of me felt like crap and the idea that people would do this to themselves on purpose was still bewildering to me.

But this wasn’t the dorms.

Or my cabin back on the Dream.

The unthinkable had happened, and I was somewhere else.

Somewhere unexpected, unplanned.

I hated not having a plan.

Wherever I was, it was quiet, the ever present hum of the ship gone.

No voices. The rest of the girls weren’t here.

Maybe they were still asleep.

I felt fresh air on my face, a rich loamy scent of plants all around.

Maybe this was a garden. That’d be nice.

Still I kept my eyes closed, just for a moment, trying to clear my mind.

“What are you?” a deep voice rumbled, and I sat up in shock then froze.

I was at the side of a clearing, tall, twisted trees lacing the sky with slender branches far overhead all around, deep shadows at their bases.

A circle of dark sky above was filled with a giant full moon.

I swallowed hard.

To its side, I saw a second smaller orb.

Two moons. That… that was different.

I looked around again. “Who’s there? Who spoke to me?”

A dark form separated from one of the trees and I stayed very still.

From a distance, in the shadows, it looked like a man. Very tall, with broad shoulders.

But one head, two arms, two legs, and–

I blinked.

A tail. Yes, a thick tail swishing in the air behind him.

When he stepped closer into the moonlight, I swallowed hard.

My rescuer was unclothed, other than a short loincloth and a broad strap running diagonally across his chest.

The light was enough to give me a clear view of the rich stripped green of his skin, the strong planes of his face, not softened in the least by the frame of dark brown hair.

This was no gentle gardener.

“Are you here to help me?” I whispered.

Sure, it was more than a little terrifying to be by myself in the dark with a naked alien.

Naked, giant alien.

But at least we could communicate.

He tilted his head to the side.

“I don’t know your words. What are you? Where did you come from?”

Or not.

I ran my hand over the comm bangle, my stomach knotting as with glowing certainty I understood.

I had a translator, I understood him easily enough.

Therefore the bangle had found a match, found his language in its colossal database of tongues, working its magic and feeding me the translation to the disc implanted behind my ear.

But my new friend had no such device.

Which was odd.

My understanding was all members of the galactic alliance had the option for a translator implant when their languages were added to the databases.

Maybe this guy had just opted out?

Maybe not enough people came to this world for it to be worth the trouble?

Welp, I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way.

“Hi, I’m Allison,” I said slowly, touching my chest. “Allison.” First holding up my hands to show they were empty, I pushed myself up.

And that was a lousy idea.

My knees buckled as the worst headrush of my life washed over me, nearly landing me flat on my ass, back in the pod.

Instead, I clutched at the sides, hanging my head down and breathing deeply.

“Are you injured?” 

I risked a glance up. 

Mister tall, green and naked had come closer to the escape pod, dark eyes studying me carefully.

“Not exactly. It’s just been a day.”

His eyes narrowed and I shook my head. “Sorry, explanations about space travel will have to wait until after I get the basic nouns down.”

With more care than I’d ever used on the dance floor, I slid one leg out, then the other, keeping a grip on the lip of the cover to keep myself upright.

The ground all around the escape pod was covered in branches.

I looked more closely.

Not just branches, it looked like entire trees that’d been knocked down.

“What happened here?” I wondered.

I rubbed at my temple.

The pounding in my head was better now, but still there, right behind my right eyeball, beating a constant tattoo.

I needed answers. Even if he couldn’t understand me, he could at least give me information.

I tapped my chest again. “Allison.”

I tapped the pod I leaned against. “Escape pod.”

Stooping down, I ran my fingers over the rough bark of the branch beside me.

“Tree.”

His eyes flicked between me and every item I touched, and I repeated the process, this time finishing with pointing towards him and waiting.

“Tirac,” came the immediate reply.

And since the translator didn’t try to do anything with the strange word, it seemed a safe bet that was his name.

“Tirac, Allison.” I spread my arms wide, gesturing around the clearing, then made a show of looking all around me.

A sudden snap of comprehension widened his eyes

“Tirac, Allison,” he repeated, then shook his head, pushed his palms down toward the ground.

The hand gesture was unfamiliar to me, but the meaning was clear enough.

We were the only ones here.

All right, I could work with that. If the pods had brought me to this planet, wherever it was, surely they’d brought the other women here. I could proceed on that assumption.

And if they weren’t here, I simply had to find out where they were. That was a reasonable plan.

Straightening my shoulders, I took a deep breath, looking around for any sort of a break in the trees, a path, anything.

Nothing.

No lights of some distant city, no pleasantly marked trail, nothing.

“But he came from somewhere,” I reminded myself. “So there’s something out there.”

I picked a direction and started walking.

And my green giant charged.

“What the hell?!” 

I crouched, arms above my head as he dashed forward, leaping high in the air, moonlight glinting on the knife I hadn’t even realized was in his hand.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes off of where he seemed to hang in the air above me.

With a snarl, he landed, coming to a crouch at my side, the blade of the knife buried deep into the ground by my foot.

No. Not into the ground.

In the head of a yellow and orange spotted snake, invisible among the leaves.

My hands clutched my throat and I staggered back.

“All right, traipsing through the jungle by myself at night isn’t a good idea. Time for a new plan.”

Except I had no idea where to start.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Two

Tirac

“How did you miss that shot?” Yehan hissed.

I snarled.

I didn’t think I had missed it.

But the golden flank of the neika was quickly bounding out of sight, its nimble hooves darting through the dense brush of the jungle that pressed all around.

“I didn’t, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, it’s not here,” Laicer smirked from a nearby tree, adjusting the net slung over his shoulders that held our kills for the day.

I swung down from the branch above the game trail where I’d waited patiently all day long.

Maybe not that patiently.

And maybe it’d only been an hour, maybe less.

Still, long enough.

I bent down over the tracks then straightened, showing Yehan and Laicer the thick blue fluid smeared across my fingertips.

“I did not miss.”

“Well, the neika is long gone,” Laicer said. “And you don’t have your kill. Doesn’t seem to make a difference, does it?”

Yehan jumped down beside him.

“Come on, we have enough, let’s return to camp.”

Swishing my tail in irritation, I hung back.

“I’ll meet you there.” I finally decided. “I’m not leaving it to wander around injured.”

My companions left without arguing.

They didn’t need me to help take the day’s hunt, poor as it was, back to the village.

We had been out on the trails since sunrise, but the animals were scarce, their normal patterns disturbed.

They weren’t the only ones.

I’d been agitated all day, like an itch deep in my blood I couldn’t scratch.

A long run would soothe it.

Regaining my vantage point, I saw what direction the neika had gone.

Hooking the bow to the quiver slung over my back, I leapt from tree to tree, following the broken trail of branches below.

The neika was faster than I’d expected, running and dodging through the underbrush, despite its wound.

But it couldn’t run forever. 

The further I followed, the more certain that truth became. My prey was running toward the tip of the Horn. 

And while neika might be the fastest creature in the jungle, one thing was certain.

They couldn’t swim.

Right here, the land jutted out to sea from the coast, a rough triangle surrounded on all sides but one by water. Someone long ago had compared it to a lopped-off horn of one of the red warriors, the Vak’ki, and the name had stuck.

The neika would have to turn soon, or it’d trap itself.

Either way, I’d have it.

A rumbling moved through the jungle, a sound so low I felt it in my bones before I registered it.

The birds exploded from the trees in a cacophony of sound, every creature below me broke cover to run wildly in all directions, and still, the noise grew louder.

Quake.

Instinctively, I lowered my body to cling to the branch, arms, legs and tail all wound tightly for support.

The ground bucked and shuddered below, the trees shook violently, a shower of leaves and branches raining down all around.

“No, no no no…”

There was no escaping it. My branch broke, and I plummeted through the air.

Twisting free, I jumped from tree to tree, desperately trying to gain height to get away from the center of the destruction.

Almost!

Then something crashed into me, and all was dark.

***

When I woke, it felt like half the forest had fallen on me.

My head ached, and when I went to rub it, I realized my hand was trapped.

“This day doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” I grumbled, heaving at the tree trunk that lay across my chest, pinning my right arm and left leg

Other than my grunts, the jungle around me was silent, as if the chaos and commotion of the quake had sucked away every sound.

Hours later, I worked my way free, staggering to my feet and turning around, almost unable to comprehend the destruction around me.

Half the jungle had been flattened, entire trees picked up and tossed about like a giant had kicked them away as he stomped through, heedless of his path.

With a sinking feeling in my gut, I slid the strap holding my quiver and bow off from my shoulder.

Broken, every arrow, and a crack running through the stave of the bow that promised it’d snap in my hands the next time I pulled it.

My belt knife was unscathed, to be sure, but the signs were clear.

“This hunt is over.”

Slowly, I made my back towards the village, keeping a wary eye on the trees that still stood, not trusting them to bear my weight.

Staggering and dizzy, twice I had to stop and rest, only to wake to see the sun had moved.

Once the ground trembled under my feet and I crouched, waiting it out.

But no more trees fell, no more calamities stalked my path.

Until I tried to return from the Horn and saw the true destruction of the quake. The Horn had been snapped off like a branch from a tree, leaving a vast chasm separating me from the village.

I stared at it, blinking, my blurry vision doubling the problem.

The distance was more than twice as far as I could jump, even on days when I hadn’t been clobbered by a tree.

Peering over the edge, I considered climbing down, but the rocks still crumbling and crashing below put an end to that thought, and I wasn’t sure I could manage it right now anyway.

Sleep took me, and when I woke the dizziness was gone.

But from the stiffness in my limbs, I’d been unconsous for a day, maybe two or more.

Maybe it all had been a dream?

But when I returned to the edge of the broken earth, that hope was dashed.

“It won’t be the first night I’ve slept in the jungle,” I decided. “And I’m in no shape to figure it out now.”

Eat, sleep, and then in the morning light, I’d look for a tree long enough to span the gap, make some sort of rough bridge.

Reluctantly, I turned away from the mainland and went to survey the damage to my new domain.

The moons rose as I walked, and for a moment, I wondered how the village had fared before pushing the thought away.

I’d find out soon enough, and worrying without being able to do anything about it would do me no good.

Strong warriors and well-trained cubs, all of them.

They’d be capable enough to deal with whatever the quake had caused without my assistance.

My thoughts were still with them when I stumbled upon another trail, but this time of no creature I’d ever tracked. A long wide furrow in the earth, ridges at either side, plowing in an unnaturally straight line. 

I knelt to examine it more closely, mentally separating the wreckage from the quake from whatever had crashed through the jungle here. 

A row of saplings marching down the upturned earth, all close to the same height, gave me the clue I needed. Whatever had passed through had been months ago.

I couldn’t get home. Couldn’t help my brothers. 

But this was a mystery I could solve.

Carefully, I followed the trail, keeping to the shadows, keeping the furrow to my right as it led deeper into the Horn.

The trail stopped in a clearing.

And nothing was there.

Then I saw it, moonlight glinting on the slivers of metal not covered by a thick coat of fallen leaves.

Warily I approached it, a long tube with one end buried in the roots of an odil tree at the far side of the clearing.

The artifacts of the Makers were not to be handled lightly, their secrets passed down only to the elders of the clan.

But the closer I studied the cylinder, the more I became uncertain.

It was very much like the devices the Makers had used, and left behind when they’d disappeared.

But I’d never seen anything quite like this. Its lines were foreign to me, unfamiliar.

What was it doing out here?

Circling it, I noticed small colored lights flashing on one side. Green, yellow, blue, green, yellow, blue.

Then the pattern stopped, the panel turning solid green.

And with a hiss, the lid opened.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter One

Allison

“The Loliax aren’t going to leave us.”

I looked around the dingy room in the middle of our dorms we’d dubbed the rec room.

Seriously, did anyone really believe that we’d be abandoned?

It was ridiculous.

Not even worth thinking about.

A tiny glimmer of doubt prickled my belly.

Maybe because the idea of being abandoned in space by a bunch of aliens is too terrifying to think about, Allie.

No. It was ridiculous.

“We have a contract with them. How do we even know Kyla is reading the screens right?”

The computer whiz of our little group shot me a look, and I shrugged.

Sure, Kyla was the only one of us who’d managed to take extra shifts with the Loli’s maintenance crew, the only one of us who’d poured over their stupid manual with all the mind-numbing detail about the ship, the Smarniks Dream.

Of all of us girls who’d signed on as entertainers for the third-rate intergalactic cruise, she’d be the most likely to understand what she was seeing.

But how much did she know?

It’d only been forty years since the Galactic Alliance had contacted Earth, only forty years since humans had known for certain that we weren’t alone in the Void.

Four decades wasn’t much time to try to absorb an entire universe of new technologies, advances in physics, new branches of science we’d barely dreamed of.

Kyla couldn’t be right.

And still, the warning announcement rang over and over in my mind.

“Attention honored guests. Unexpected solar activity has been detected. Shielding has been raised. There’s no cause for alarm, but for your safety and comfort, we ask all guests to retire to their quarters.”

We weren’t ‘guests,’ but we’d gone to our quarters, gathered around in a panicked mob, and now Kyla was making things worse.

“Make you a deal,” Sarah said.

I was a little surprised.

Sarah wasn’t usually the type to push herself into the center of a situation.

But here she seemed to step up to the plate and take charge. Someone needed to do it before we had a mass of crying women.

I looked over the rest of the girls.

Sophia and Amelia held hands, looking shocked.

Hannah seemed calm enough, maybe because she spent her off-time reading up on all the different aliens. For a xenobiologist-to-be, it must’ve been heaven. 

Hannah knew they wouldn’t really abandon us.

Maisie stood a bit behind the others, eyes fixed on the screen over Kyla’s shoulder.

Who knew what she was thinking?

She never said much, and honestly, I wasn’t sure she had much to share.

But she danced well, and the aliens running the cruise appreciated that.

“Thirty minutes in the pods, just in case,” Sarah continued.

She met my eyes and grinned.

“If Kyla is wrong, and we’re all overreacting, I’ll take your shifts for the rest of the cruise.”

Tempting. Very, very tempting.

When I signed up for this, I’d thought about it like any other gap year job, just one that paid much better.

I needed the money if I was ever going to finish school.

A dual degree in law and linguistics would get me a job almost anywhere on Earth.

Even off Earth if I wanted.

But after several weeks of being stared at by every species imaginable, feeling like nothing more than a bug in a cage, I wasn’t sure how friendly I felt about dealing with aliens ever again.

“I’m not that much of a bitch,” I told her.

I mean, maybe I was. Probably was.

It might’ve come up before.

“Fine, I’ll get in my pod. But I reserve the right to tease you all until we’re back on Earth.”

“Four minutes,” Kyla said.

That cold voice of fear popped up again.

She sounded awfully certain.

After that, it was a mad scramble as we all slipped back to our cabins.

Olivia, my roommate, had beat me to it. I only saw a flash of her hair as she slid into one of the tight cylinders set into the outer wall of our room.

No matter. It wasn’t like we were best friends.

Taking a deep breath, I looked at my tablet, thought about grabbing it, getting a little studying time in.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” I reminded myself. “You may as well take a nap.”

Nothing had better happen, because to be honest, I wasn’t entirely certain about the sturdiness of the pods.

It was clear these cabins had been created for us humans as an afterthought, ostensibly because they didn’t have space for more staff in the main part of the ship.

I thought it was clear that the rest of the staff didn’t want to be housed with savages like us.

Probably the inclusion of escape pods was part of some galactic bureaucratic codebook, like having a fire escape or something.

“And maybe that’s a good thing,” I admitted as I slid inside the cramped tube.

“Here’s the view from the external cams,” Kyla said, her voice faint through the pod’s comms system.

Fine.  It wouldn’t keep me from my nap. I’d seen it before. The long column housing our deck stretched out before us, ending underneath the giant disc where the rest of the cabins were housed, the pleasure gardens and lounges and casinos and all the rest of the things that made an intergalactic cruise fun.

At least for the passengers.

Whatever.

The all-clear would sound, we’d get back to our regular schedule.

My shifts would start in a few hours, and I’d skip up and down the stage, mentally reviewing torts and damages cases.

I grimaced.

Dancing had never been something I’d tried to learn. It was frivolous, a waste of time.

Luckily, none of the aliens seem to care. Or maybe they did, and the comm bangle on my wrist did a terrible job of translating for me.

Either way.

“See, they’re not going anywhere,” I said. “I’m taking a nap.”

No sooner had I closed my eyes than the pod shook, and my heart leapt in my chest.

Shit.

Something really was happening.

Couldn’t be. Maybe it was just something with the shields.

A thin crescent slowly emerged, dividing the disc from the cargo column. From us.

“Can’t be happening, can’t be…” I couldn’t even speak, eyes riveted to the screen as a white light circled the edge of the disc.

“Guys, that’s the jump drive powering up,” Kyla’s voice said.

I didn’t want to know that.

It circled, gaining speed, the glow getting brighter and brighter.

They were doing it. The Loliax were really leaving us. 

I’d sue their pants off for this. Okay, not pants. They had too many tentacles for that. But still…

The flash filling the screen was almost too bright to look at, and suddenly the cargo column rocked back and forth, the shouts of the other girls echoing in my ears.

When the screen cleared, the disc was gone.

But they hadn’t jumped.

The wreckage floating all around was proof of that.

Everyone was silent, all the words shocked away.

And then, the hiss of sleeping gas filled the pod as I was ejected into the Void.

Alien’s Gamble: Sneak Peek

Kamek

I almost heard the urge to ask if we were there yet brewing and bubbling in Laux’s chest.

Every time I glanced back at my brothers, there he was, the youngest out of us all, nearly vibrating in his seat.

He’d missed out on the last game of Speiwet due to a mid-game injury and he was itching to show off his new moves. Today would even double as revenge, given how we were going up against the same team that took him out before.

“To your right!”

Sorik’s shout made me jolt in my seat. My instincts took over and I changed course, barely avoiding crashing against a fragment of debris.

“Is that a slavers’ unit?” my brother asked.

I directed my gaze towards the point Sorik was staring at, and, sure enough, he was right: fire, hot and bright enough to rival Reazus Prime’s twin suns, had engulfed a slavers’ ship. 

Flames like tentacles rollicked up its sides and everything they touched reddened and darkened. Parts of the craft flew apart from the main body, disintegrating during its unmanned descent until finally, like a firecracker, dozens of smaller lights streaked through the dark.

“I’m getting life signs on those,” Sorik said. 

“Escape pods?” I muttered. “They don’t look right.”

Sorik looked over sharply. “Do you think anyone survived that?”

Norsuk leaned over the back of my chair. “They would if they were in storage pods. See if you can find what’s in there.”

A few moments of quick scanning, and Sorik had an answer. “Human females.”

A moment of quiet came over us as we considered the possibilities.

“Sleeping slaves, all ripe for the picking. What do you all say? Finders’ keepers?”

The familiar beep of incoming data transmission drowned out whatever else Norsuk meant to say. 

The air shimmered before our eyes and took on the form of a multidimensional map of Reazus Prime. 

With a flick of my wrist, I sent over the tracking data. At first, there was nothing, but then one by one, tiny blue dots flashed, drawing our gazes at them, scattered all over the globe.

“I hear they make good breeders,” I added, my mind forever on the prize. “I’ve counted at least a dozen. They should fetch a good price.”

It was stupid and probably nothing, but I found I couldn’t keep my eyes off a certain pod, far to the north in the mountains that were permanently covered in snow.

A noiseless hum rang in my ears and I felt my heartbeat accelerating. Something deep within me, almost primal, made me want to sprint and collect my bounty before anyone else got the same idea. 

I cleared my throat before speaking. “Let’s each pick a pod and whoever’s female brings the most money, wins.”

The proposal was welcomed with excited hollering and neither of us wasted any time in getting into our stingers and claiming our literal gifts from above. 

“Good hunting!” I called out as my brothers’ personal crafts split off from mine, racing towards their own targets.

All I cared about was mine.

A storm had beaten me to the site, heavy winds and thick gusts of snow coated the mountain passes, burning away the moments until I found the long trail from the impact of the stasis pod.

It had torn through a nearby stand of trees, the trail of smoking destruction in its path already half covered by the storm.

Banking away, I landed the stinger in a small clearing, excitement spurring me on.

Nothing was more exciting than the rush of the game.

Well, except winning.

Sinking up to my knees in snow, I grabbed a heavy cloak from the ship and checked the blaster holstered at my hip and the comm unit on my wrist.

Nothing from my brothers. I still might be the first to reach my prize.

The knot in my stomach tightened and I rushed towards the pod.

Restlessness, an urge to run and claw my way to the female slowly took over me. 

I pulled my cloak tighter against myself and broke into a sprint, the distance between me and the stasis pod lessening with every heartbeat.

Once there, I peered down at the shattered glass and let out a low growl.

She wasn’t there.

Deep tracks zigzagged away, but quickly faded out into nothingness.

Frantic, I ran around in circles, desperate to pick up her trail, going past a derelict cabin, a stand of trees, more pieces of debris.

Nothing.

She couldn’t have made it far. At least, not unless someone had already taken her, and if that was the case, I was prepared to fight to claim her.

Were there others out here, searching for the human females?

I snorted. Of course. We couldn’t have been the only ship who witnessed that explosion.

Tapping at the communicator, only the crackle of static filled my ears. What had I expected during a storm like this? 

Of course, I’d be cut off from my brothers.

They’d have to fend for themselves.

And then I found her.

Swaying on her feet, dressed in nothing more than scraps.

It was her. No question.

But I didn’t reach her soon,  she’d freeze to death and I’d have nothing to sell.

That was the only reason I sprinted through the storm, panic ringing through my ears.

Nothing else mattered.

Only the game.

Jaylee

I let out a long groan of displeasure. 

I’d swear the cold nipped at my feet. 

Perhaps I’d forgotten to close the windows? Unlikely, but then again whose ass was freezing? 

This girl’s.

Oh well, too late now, I told myself. 

If I got up and closed them, I knew it’d be a while before I’d fall back asleep, so I stubbornly stayed put. I tossed and turned in my bed, ignoring the lowering temperature, determined to get my eight hours of sleep. 

Come morning, I was to start my dream job at the local gym and I needed to be fresh as a daisy, not showing up with raccoon eyes. 

Except this was freakin’ cold! 

Whoever said chilly weather was conducive to good rest was an idiot. 

Still reluctant to move from my comfortable position, I blindly patted the space around me, wanting to pull my blanket up higher. 

Yet, instead of soft Egyptian cotton, the cold lick of metal grazed my fingertips. I recoiled with an audible gasp.

The thermal shock brought forth an unpleasant realization: it wasn’t my bed. 

It wasn’t even a bed. 

With sleep still coating my lashes, I glanced around. Opaque glass and unyielding metal surrounded me from all parts, like a nightmarish cocoon. 

Swallowing down my panic, I called upon all the strength I was capable of, kicking and beating my fists against the fine white lines peppering the ciel blue glass. 

Whatever this thing was that I found myself inside of, it was already cracked, which meant I could escape.

Once, twice, and then with all my upper body strength, I slammed myself against the least sturdy portions of my prison, ignoring the mounting headache and the soreness of my body. 

I was used to pain, but this was pushing it.

With lucky number ten, I finally broke free. On unsteady legs, I climbed out of my enclosure, but my hard earned freedom merely making the air in my lungs freeze. 

Without something between me and the elements, the wind kicked my ass something fierce. The cold hit me doubly hard and I could barely draw in another breath.

My body folded in on itself and I dropped down low.

I winced and closed my eyes. The sudden brightness was almost painful, not to mention unnatural, and for a moment there, I could’ve sworn I saw two suns, looming blue above me. 

I shook my head off the nonsense imagery and I called out. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

Yes, I knew shouting into the unknown was mistake number one in horror movies, but this wasn’t a movie. This was… I dunno, more like a nightmare? One set in apocalyptic levels of cold? 

“Please? Anyone?”

My voice was quiet and soft, all but lost to the snowstorm around me. The strong gusts of wind tearing across the space around me made my skin tingle.

“Fuck,” I muttered. 

I huddled, momentarily paralyzed with cold and fear.

Where the heck was I?

Did I sleepwalk to Narnia or something? This was definitely not LA weather. 

I couldn’t make sense of things, but at least I was still wearing my pajamas, so nothing too bad could’ve happened. I glanced down at my bare legs and arms, sunkissed brown now tinted red by the biting frost. 

My flimsy pajamas offered no protection against such weather. A thousand needles prickled my skin and I wrapped my arms around my knees, making myself smaller to preserve my body heat and minimize the exposed areas. 

I knew I wouldn’t be able to survive for long like that. Rescue seemed unlikely and something inside me, equal parts hysterical and pragmatic, bubbled to the surface, driving my body as if on autopilot. 

If I stayed where I was, I’d die.

So it was time to move.

I began to walk, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, staggering like a Walking Dead extra. 

I wanted to run, to sprint and scream, really, but I was groggy, shivering, and overall just ill, and every step of my bare feet onto the cold snow shot daggers up my half numbed calves. 

It felt as if someone had drugged me, but there couldn’t have been anyone. I worked and lived alone, hadn’t been out bar hopping or whatever people with social lives did.

And right now it didn’t matter.

I shouted and shouted again, each time the sound echoing less and less into the distance.

There was nothing but a great white flurry of flakes whichever way I cared to look.

Was I going in the right direction?

Was there a right direction?

Maybe I should’ve stayed in that metal cocoon.

I wanted to return to it, to let it shelter me, protect me.

Unless that wasn’t real either. Just a part of this crazy dream.

Thinking straight was a chore and the reality before me had grown fractured.

Because I could’ve sworn there was a person out there, not ten feet away, coming towards me, but that had to be another brain glitch. 

Real people don’t have skin that looks like molten gold.

They’re not that tall.

They don’t stand that way, so rigidly straight.

I was aware of the rasp of my own breath, the quiet, barely audible rustle of my pajamas as I walked, trying not to fall onto my knees and let the white death take me. 

Almost there, I thought, almost close enough to fall into this golden man’s arms and then I’d be safe.

I felt myself swaying, my vision growing blurry and after a few shaky breaths, I found I couldn’t hear anything anymore.

It was suddenly so quiet, the awful kind of silence that only the dead of night brought, but I wouldn’t die now, would I? Maybe it was all just a dream, I thought, before my legs gave out from underneath me and I fell. 

Kamek

The most valuable cargo wasn’t the biggest, bulkiest, most outstanding, but the exact opposite. 

Just like the little female in my arms, lithe and almost weightless, whose shallow intakes of breath worried me. She was ice cold and motionless, practically lost to the world around her. 

Fragile, like all humans I’d ever heard about.

Vulnerable, like all stolen females. 

Mine to keep, a voice from within added, but I pushed it back into the darkness it’d come from. 

I wasn’t the type to be easily softened and I most certainly didn’t have a weak spot for the less fortunate of this world. 

She wasn’t the first, nor the last, kidnapped female about to be thrown into a life of slavery. 

It was just her bad luck. It had nothing to do with me.

Whatever that moment of doubt was, it better pass as quickly as it had come. 

The skies added to the miniature mountains of white surrounding us. 

On instinct, my body wrapped itself around her form, lending the female some much needed warmth. My kind could sustain ten times nature’s fury, but she was of a much more fragile breed. 

I glanced down at her.

If I meant to sell my quarry, it was imperative that I acted fast, bringing her to proper shelter. 

The stinger, small and light, would never make it out of this storm.

The trees weren’t thick enough to break the wind.

So the cabin I’d passed would have to do.

I could take her there, see the condition she was in, other than half frozen to death, and then make a decision.

With renewed purpose, I made my way to the building. From up close, it was clear it’d been abandoned for quite some time. 

Its roof looked suspect and some of the windows were replaced with wooden boards. 

But it was better than being out in the elements.

We could wait out the storm and then I’d bring her to the main ship, win the bet, and carry on with a heavier purse.

With my hands momentarily full, I kicked open the door, stepped inside, using my considerable body weight to close it shut, before taking a look around. 

If the place looked derelict from the outside, the inside wasn’t that much better. There was a rudimentary fireplace, something akin to a bed, a slanting, half-broken table, and a chest that doubled as a chair, if need be.

I gently laid the female down onto the rickety bed and she let out a low moan. 

The sweet sound of it made my insides tie into knots. Small and precious and wonderful, it called for an answer.

For protection against the world.

For answering sweetness.

Yet, it was as far from that as it could be and I knew it. 

I wouldn’t delude myself by thinking something might happen between us once she woke up. I intended to sell her and win the bet against my brothers.

I couldn’t keep her. 

I wouldn’t even imagine it.

Without truly meaning to, I reached out a hand and brushed the little human female’s hair out of her pale face. She looked so peaceful, so delicate. 

Was I really going to do this to her? 

It wasn’t my fault.

She’d already been taken. 

Her fate was decided upon long before I laid eyes on her. 

Somewhere between now and the moment the slavers picked her as their target, her life’s course had been completely altered. There was no going back.

She moaned again, this time closer to a whine. Her strange, soft skin had taken on a bluish hue and she was so cold to the touch, the few snowflakes remaining on her body wouldn’t even melt.

I sighed.

“This doesn’t bode well,” I murmured, my breath turning into a frosty fog. A cold shelter wasn’t much better than no shelter at all. 

There was no way to immediately seal off the space and the fireplace didn’t have the tiniest twig with which to make fire for the little human female to warm up near.

So I did the only thing I could – I took off my cloak and draped it over her form before kneeling down the side of the bed. She was barefoot and her toes were turning dark purple. 

Carefully, I touched her, but the little female hissed.

“Bear with it,” I said, unsure if she could hear me or not, but some strange part of me needed her to know I meant her no harm. “I need to restore the blood flow or you’ll lose your feet.”

For a moment, I froze. Even if she heard me, did she understand?

A quick check behind her ear answered that question. The slavers had implanted a translation device. Usual procedure to ensure that slaves would follow orders quickly, but useful for me now.

Reassured, I massaged her foot, from sole to ankle and higher up her calf.

Slowly, surely, the deliberate path my fingers took as they pressed and dragged over her frozen, aching skin started to produce heat.

Not just in her body, but in mine as well. 

Inappropriate thoughts crowded my mind, but I pushed each and every one back down.

She wasn’t mine.

If I took her, claimed her, tasted her, she’d be worth less at auction.

Nothing could or would ever happen between us.

I switched limbs, giving her right leg the same kind of hands-on treatment and she moaned again, sending my thoughts back out of control.

I stared at her fragile form, visibly more relaxed, so completely unaware of the dangers of this world or of the way my hands worked to loosen the kinks in her muscles, fighting the urge to explore more of her body. 

She was so different from the females of my species and yet, still so beautiful, even with such smooth skin and a lack of scales or facial ridges.

There was some meat on her bones, some good muscle definition there, telling me this human took good care of herself. 

I wondered how she managed to become someone else’s prey. 

Lost in my own head, I failed to notice she’d woken up and was quietly staring at me, assessing the situation. 

It was only when I pushed the cloak higher on her body, revealing her curved thighs, that our gazes met.

If she was scared, she hadn’t shown it. 

She looked ready to fight me – her jaw squared, her lips set in a thin line and all the fierceness this beautiful, tiny creature was capable of was infused into the words she uttered next.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Hands off me, you bastard!”

She tried to pull her leg from my grasp, but I held onto her, unreasonably unwilling to let her go.

If she panicked, if she ran, she’d be back out in the cold.

She was like a wild animal, straining, pulling and twisting, wanting to get away, but my grip wouldn’t let her gain an inch of freedom, no matter how hard she tried.

“Calm down. You’re going to hurt yourself.” 

She’d only end up killing herself in the raging storm out there, or worse, die a slow and painful death by the time I found her to bring her back here, her limbs lost to the frostbite and then going septic. 

I wrestled her closer to me and with a neutral, level, tone, I laid out the terms of how it’d go. “If you calm down, I’ll tell you everything. If you continue to try to fight me, I’ll have no other choice but to tie you up.”

Her eyes flared wider. “Let me go! Let me go, let me go!!”

She continued to uselessly struggle against my superior strength, making me think she was pretty, but dumb.

Surely she knew it wouldn’t work.

“Fucking asshole, I told you to let me go!”

Then she kicked me in the face.

I had to admit, it’d been a while since someone had taken me by surprise like that.

Her little foot actually managed to split open my lower lip. 

Golden liquid stained my copper skin and I tasted iron on my tongue. I rubbed the pain away.

“Impressive,” I let out. 

I could make her pay for that, hit her back and beat her into submission, but I wouldn’t. 

A dainty little human she might be, but I’d been a fool to think she was dumb. 

I deserved the ass-kicking I got, for underestimating my opponent. 

She was a firecracker. 

There was a part of me that wanted her to take a gamble and go against me once more, to see what all she was capable of. 

I liked her fighting spirit. 

I liked the thrill of the chase. 

What else would she try? When would she admit defeat? 

Or was she the type to never admit such a thing? 

I liked the idea.

Finally free, at least from my touch, she slid backwards on the bed until her back connected with the cold wall behind her. She eyed me with apprehension, but also a good deal of determination. 

For some stupid reason, I felt proud of her for that.

And then the questions flew out of her and my feelings of pride were replaced with ones of dread and awkwardness.

“Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here? Where is this place, anyway? It’s not LA. Why the hell are you dressed up like that, like it’s Halloween?”

She pulled my cloak around her body. Bundled up like that, crammed into the corner, she looked even smaller than she was.

I got up to my full height, towering above her. Playing nice hadn’t worked. Maybe she would only respond to fear.

Or not.

She didn’t shy away from me, just going back to a defensive position. I could tell she was like a tight coil under the cloak, ready to spring into action if the opportunity presented itself. 

“My name is Kamek Teki and,” I trailed off. Surprisingly, the words tasted bitter on my tongue. But this little warrior deserved the truth. “You are a slave now.”

She scoffed. “The hell I am!”

“You were kidnapped by slavers, taken from your home and brought here, to my planet.”

“Planet? Are you drunk?”

I ignored her. “And as soon as this storm passes, you-”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence, because she threw the cloak at my face, distracting me. 

I twirled on a foot and reached out, my hand just barely grasping her wrist to pull her back. 

I miscalculated the force I used, though, and we fell backwards onto the bed, landing with a loud and painful thud, her sprawled over my chest, my arms trapping her to me.

She wasted no time kicking my shin and punching my stomach, but I breathed through the impact.

“You’re one crazy fucker, you know that?” 

I bore punch after punch, kick after kick, roll after roll, noting how precisely she targeted the spots on my body.

Were I another human, I probably would’ve been defeated five hits into her attempt at escaping.

Unfortunately for her, she was against a far tougher species.

I used to go fishing with Laux when we were younger. The bigger the prey, the harder it struggled.

Her size had nothing to do with her value. I let the little female exhaust herself before reining in my exotic game once more. 

With her on top of me, panting hard, trembling, and how I could see down the valley between her breasts, taking in her nearly bare legs splayed open, wrapping around my hips.

Even in her anger, she was beautiful.

Yet, now all I could do was ignore the way my cock stirred feeling her soft weight atop my body.

Rolling slightly, I maneuvered her between a wall and my solid presence, wrapping a hand around her throat. 

The human female stopped struggling the second I squeezed her against me just enough to tell her I’d won this round.

During our little dance of power, my cloak had fallen off her body and she knelt before me, half naked and flushed, out of breath, her messy hair inviting me to run a hand through its gentle waves and bring her head closer, covering her full lips with mine. 

I could make her burn, even with this snowstorm outside. 

Her quickened pulse echoed in my own body, making it harder and harder to not push her on her back and claim her as mine, at least once. 

It was madness.

Her defiance was an incredible turn on. Even like this, her eyes bore into mine, unafraid.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she panted.

I coughed, clearing the lust from my voice before addressing her. “Are you done trying to hit me, little one?”

I could almost taste the frustration in her words. 

“Yes.”

“Will you try to run again?”

“No.”

I chuckled. Her answer came much too quick, too clear, to be genuine. “Yes, you will.”

“Then why ask me if you already know the answer?”

I shook my head, deeply amused. 

She was unlike any female I’d ever met.

Hells. She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. 

The more she held her ground, the more she swore at me, yelled at me, kicked me and tried to escape me, the more I wanted to keep her for myself. 

I wanted to claim her, to ravish her, to conquer her in a way that perhaps she wouldn’t fight so hard against. 

I wanted to talk to her some more, to draw out her name, to coax some compliance and sweetness, but an unexpected itch across my back and a sharp pain in my chest made it hard to stay coherent. 

“I’ll be back with some wood,” I snapped. “If you try to run again, you won’t live to see another sunrise.”

And then I fled the cabin, and my own disturbing desires.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Four

Normally I didn’t mind a good fight with the ceapaks or whatever other lab-born nightmares Isar threw against me.

Here in the pit there were no lies, no veiled threats.

No words masking harder, crueler thoughts.

Just the flow of battle and blood.

Simple. Direct. Easy. 

But now the pack of creatures were in my way.

I leapt towards the closest one, ignoring the curved blade in its hands while I wrapped my hands around the thick, flesh of its neck.

With a sharp wrench to the side its spine cracked, gave way.

I grabbed its knife from its hands as it sank into the knee-high water.

Spinning to face the rest of the pack, I searched for any other modifications.

The extra set of arms had been enough of a surprise.

Three broke away, splitting around me, trying to circle me.

I flung my knife into the eye of one, then dove towards it to retrieve my blade and claim his own.

That was better.

Isar had not allowed me weapons for years now.

But I did feel better with them in my hand.

Suitably armed, the next two fell before me, my focus burning past any awareness of the slashes across my scales.

Which left the other four, who stood, watching.

Observing.

Could they be learning?

I’ve learned long ago not to discount the wildest theories.

Those were the ones that came and stuck a knife in your back.

These four were the new ones that Evras had released into the pit at Isar’s command.

I wondered what special treat was in store for me.

It didn’t matter.

My only job now is to finish this quickly.

Claim my prize. 

Get back to the female.

I felt the weight of her terror as she watched me.

Then my step faltered.

Her fear was for me, not herself.

My resolve only firmed.

She did not know the danger of this place.

And I could only hope I had not put her in more peril.

I shouldn’t have spoken, lost control.

My sharp laugh sent a wave of uneasiness through my opponents.

Control was lost to me the moment I found her, touched her.

There was no going back now.

My gaze swept across the pack of wolves again as they edged forward, watching them, waiting for a break.

With one unified motion the creatures charged, then spread out.

Their motions more coordinated than their brethrens had been, but still the tactic was the same.

Surround, trap, destroy.

The low rumble of machinery let me know the viewing platform now straddled the pit, rolling forwards in grooves at either side so that Isar could have a perfect view of the combat below.

His experiments.

The four enhanced Seawolves moved closer, bringing in the corners of their square.

Crouching I whirled into a low spin, throwing the knives again, taking one of my opponents in the center of the throat, then twisting to fling my blade at the enemy diagonally across.

But it flinched, the blade doing little more than grazing his shoulder.

For a moment shock ran through my blood.

Had it understood its danger? 

With this batch of wolves capable of thought? 

I shook myself.

That was a problem for later.

The three remaining opponents shifted positions, pinning me within their triangle.

Except they had forgotten a direction.

I launched myself towards the underside of the viewing platform, my fingers snagging the metal lip.

Swinging myself back and forth, and for a second I was high enough to see the wide gaze of the female, her hands pressed over her mouth as she stood next to Evras.

The points of the spears of the guards at her back forced her to the edge, ensuring she was not spared the side of the carnage below.

Wait.

Before anyone on the platform could move I hooked my hand around one of the guards ankles, flinging him off his safe perch and into the water below.

Isar’s bellow of rage continued long after the guard’s scream was cut short by the wolves.

I dropped back down, behind the feasting creatures.

Distracted by the unexpected meal, they fell easily.

There was no honor in this fight.

But the pit had never been about honor, only survival.

The platform rolled back as I panted for breath, the cuts across my scales burning.

Isar looked down, the scowl of his face quickly replaced by a broad smile, but the fingers of his hands flicked open and closed, an unconscious sign of his agitation.

“Again you have earned the name of Beast,” he said. “You will have extra rations tonight.”

No.

That was not what I had fought for.

Reaching down I took the knife from my final opponent’s grip, held it to my own throat.

“What are you doing?” He snapped.

The female’s distress ripped through me, sharper than any blade I had ever fought against, but I could not look away from Isar. Not now.

I pressed the point of the knife in further, enough that he could see the blood flowing.

“Extra rations for a week.”

But still he said nothing about the female.

A fraction deeper with the blade and Evras gasped.

“My Lord, he will not be swayed. Is that not a testament to the perfection of your design? Let him have this creature. It will be of no other use to you.”

“You are wrong, my old friend. Having something new that the beast cares about could be very useful indeed.” For long moments Isar said nothing, then he spread his hands out, as if dropping a weight into the waters below. “Fine, he can have it. Take it to the labs and make sure it brings no disease here.”

The platform rolled away, and I fell to my knees in the filthy water.

I had won. 

This time.

By the time I climbed out of the pit the spectators were gone.

And so was the female.

I rolled my shoulders, testing out the extent of my injuries.

Nothing too bad. It didn’t even feel like their blades had been poisoned.

Normally if I’d taken such little damage I’d return to my lair, sleep, wait to heal.

But the need to see the female, to confirm with my own eyes that she was safe, pulled at me, led me through the facility like a hunting call I could not refuse to answer.

I paused at the gate to the chamber of the pit, stretching my senses as far as I could before leaving.

Flitting from one corridor to the next, I twisted and turned, my progress towards Evras’s lab far slower than a direct route.

But I had no interest in meeting any of the others now.

My temper rode too high, my grip on it felt frayed.

An encounter with any of Isar’s disciples would not end well.

Finally I could feel her presence, sliding into the corners of my mind like she had always been there,

I quickened my pace, stepping through the sliding door as soon as it opened.

They sat together at a table at the front of the lab, her legs swinging as they dangled from the chair, her hands locked together, face blank as Evras spoke to her in low, soothing tones.

My feet slowed, stopped as I considered the situation.

Evras could shield her, hide her from Isar’s attention better than I could.

My presence would only distress her.

She would be safe here. I was a beast. I would only make her more frightened.

I had seen her. It was enough.

But some sound must have betrayed my presence, far as I turned to go she sprang from her chair and ran towards me.

More surprised than I’d ever been by any of the creatures of the pit, she wrapped her arms around my waist, her head resting on my chest.

I stayed still, afraid to touch her, then she broke away, tiny hands patting over the long cuts across my chest.

Evras reached us quickly.  “He’s taken more damage than that and been fine,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

She whirled to face him, anger flaring.

Anger on my behalf?

Carefully I lay one hand on her shoulder.

Evras is a friend.  You do not need to be silent now.

She glanced at me over her shoulder, then turned back to Evras, a torrent of words falling from her lips.

But I could understand none of them.

Evras’s narrowed eyes looked between us in confusion. “I’m sorry, what does she say?”

She stopped, then tapped at the broad metal cuff on her wrist, and with a jolt I remembered the sounds it had made when she first emerged from the metal cocoon.

The sounds were the same.

After a moment there had been words in our own language, then the strange voice spoke its nonsense again.

I had only half listened to them, more focused on the need to keep quiet, to avoid attracting the attention of the guards.

Perhaps I should have listened more closely.

But you can understand me? I sent to her.

She turned to me, nodded once.

Then speak again, little one.

“MynameisHannah.Idon’tknowwhereIamorwheremyfriendsare.AndifthisguyisyourfriendIdon’tknowwhyyou’renotgettingfixedup.”

Evras tilted his head to the side.

“I understood none of that. Did you?

I shook my head, and her shoulders fell in defeat.

I could not even understand her in my mind, only the waves of emotion as they passed through her.

Fear and despair and sadness.

It was unacceptable.

I pushed her hair back from her face.

We will find a way to fix this, I promise. 

She gazed at me with eyes bright with unshed tears.

Do you trust me?

She nodded sharply

Then trust Evras also.

She stepped closer to me, mouth pursed angrily before she spoke again.

“Idon’tthinkso.Hesenttheothermonsterstoattackyou.”

The words were soft like rushing water, but the image in her mind was sharp.

Evras’s hand at the controls, the second pack of wolves coming into the pit.

Do not blame him. He is as much a prisoner here as I am. He dares not refuse.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Three

Hannah

His voice snapped me out of my daze.

The sights and sounds of the world around me finally made more than just vague blurred impressions on my mind.

Ever since I was a child I had dreamed about this day, when I would meet a new, undiscovered alien species, learn their ways and culture.

It would be wonderful.

But now? 

Now I was just scared out of my mind.

The soldiers who had escorted us from the room where I’d awakened, the men standing on this platform.

The echoing hallways we’d taken in to get to this strange room, the knots of people staring at us.

A large rectangular hole took up half the space, like a mostly empty swimming pool, smooth metal sides disappearing beneath the water below.

It was dark at the bottom.

And for a moment I thought something moved in the shadows.

It all terrified me.

Except for the one they were calling Beast.

I risked another glance around in the silence that followed his words.

It wasn’t that he was any less imposing than the others.

Everyone in the room looked to be of the same species, with the same silver skin and scales, harsh planes to their face.

But my companion stood taller, broader than the rest, even larger than the man who was the obvious ruler of this place.

If that didn’t mark him as something removed from the others, his eyes did. Everyone else I could see had grey eyes, not too different from my own.

Only Beast was marked with those pools of unrelieved black.

He stood quietly, his hand still on my arm, as if he had exhausted his ability to speak with those two small words.

No. 

Mine.

Then with a shock my brain replayed what he’d been responding to.

The king, whoever he was, had said ‘put it in the pit.’ 

It.

Me.

Maybe the translator was getting it wrong.

But I didn’t think so.

The king tilted his head to the side, a slow smile loss spreading across his face revealing disturbingly sharp looking teeth.

“You’ll have to pay if you want to keep your pet. But something could be arranged.”

Beast didn’t answer, didn’t even shrug, just stood next to me, staring back at the man on the dais above us, the one with the power to command, to demand obedience.

But the Beast simply waited, and the king finally looked away.

“Fine. It should at least be interesting.”

He turned away and for the first time I noticed the  person behind him.

He’d been easy to miss, seated in a sleekly curved black chair rather than standing as the others did.

The same sort of alien, but whereas all the rest looked impossibly strong, the face of the person in the chair was drawn, his body thin, even his scales looked faded and scarred.

If he was human, I would think he’d been sick for a very long time.

Despite my fear I stopped myself.

I had no way of knowing that.

I didn’t even know if it was a “he.”

It was ridiculous to assign gender to a being that I knew nothing about.

The Xornians of Rekalda Two had seven different genders, and a multitude of configurations for family life and reproduction.

But still, Beast felt male, and strangely, so did everyone else in the room.

“Double them.” The king didn’t sound amused any more. 

“My Lord Isar…” the man in the chair protested, then his shoulders slumped.  Lips pressed tightly together, he tapped at a tablet in his lap.

The grind of machinery, then splashing from the pit below.

A moment of tension ran through Beast, then instantly suppressed.

Whatever was down there wasn’t good.

The sounds drew my attention despite my fear, like the shapeless things of nightmares.

You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t help it.

I shouldn’t have looked.

Through a gate in the side of the pit four creatures stalked through the water.

Like sharks.

If sharks walked upright, and had four arms instead of fins.

But the same grey and blue mottled skin. 

The same nearly featureless, pointed faces.

The same flat look in their eyes.

And the same horrible rows of teeth.

Lights flicked on all around the edge of the pit, and I saw what had been waiting in the shadows.

Another four of the monsters.

“Bring it here.”

The soldier next to us pointed a wicked looking short spear at Beast’s chest while the other grabbed my arm, pulling me forward. 

Stay silent.

His voice again, I would have sworn it.

They forced me up the platform, placed me next to the man in the chair.

But all the while my mind was spinning.

Beast had spoken again, hadn’t he?

But no one else had heard him.

My eyes fixed on his, the blackness of his gaze pulling me in until I could almost feel him next to me.

Without turning away, he stepped backward, towards the edge of the pit.

My heart leapt to my throat and I leaned forward, only to be stopped by a hand around my wrist.

Startled, I looked down. The man in the chair didn’t look at me, just shook his head a tiny fraction.

The message was clear.

Whatever was happening here, I couldn’t do anything about it.

“What do you think of my latest design?” the king, Lord Isar, whatever, was back to smiling. It didn’t make me feel a bit better.

Beast’s only answer was another step backwards, closer to the edge, the brightness around the pit like a spotlight on him.

Unlike the rest of the men, he wasn’t in any sort of uniform.

They all wore dark pants and boots, the jackets with the stripes of color that even now part of my brain wondered the meaning of.

They all carried weapons. Knives and swords, short spears.

All except for Beast.

Barefooted, his only clothing was a ragged pair of pants torn at the knees.

 No colors. No weapons.

Nothing but his stillness.

“Don’t you want to keep your pet?” Isar tilted his head, looked around at the other men, now all avidly watching the scene as it played out before them.

Don’t watch.

And then with that same silence wrapped around him, Beast took a final step backwards, and dropped out of sight.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Two

Khelos

How had I allowed Zelan and his slab-brained minions to get so close to us?

I should have heard them the instant they stepped into the room that was as much my prison as my home, sensed them even at the door.

But I hadn’t.

The only person I had been aware of was the delicate creature who had emerged from the metal box Isar’s scavengers had pulled from the sea months ago.

It had refused to yield its secrets, so had been disposed of in the store room for later testing.

Nothing here went to waste for long.

And everything had a use.

Unable to take my eyes from her, I’d watched as she pulled herself out, fallen, and looked around herself in confusion.

Even in the half-light of my lair she shone brightly to my eyes, her clothing a riot of bright colors, the garment swinging around her knees in loose folds.

Fall of light brown hair to her shoulders, wide dark eyes staring out from golden skin, searching all around her for anything familiar, anything safe.

Unfortunately there was only me.

And as we moved through the cold metal passages of the facility, her agitation only grew.

I could not blame her.

As usual the guards had formed a diamond, Zelan at my back, the sharp point of his gaffe pressed against my spine.

Two of his crew stayed at the ready on either side of us, the fourth in the lead, as if I didn’t know where we were going.

Normally their abundance of caution either amused or irritated me.

It did not matter what they did, and they knew it.

But now it was different.

Fear rolled off the strange female at my side, mounting higher with every step.

I lay my hand on her shoulder, squeezed lightly.

A guard sneered.

“Looks like the beast has a new pet. I wonder what Lord Isar will say.”

So did I.

She flinched at his words but did not answer.

Good.

Too quickly we arrived at the pit.

As we emerged into the chamber, the female stumbled.

I slid my hand under her elbow catching her, resisting the urge to pull her close.

It would only draw Isar’s attention to her more sharply.

And that was never a good thing.

Along one of the short sides of the rectangle a platform had been built and in the middle Isar waited, surrounded by lackeys.

He stood, watching as we approached, arms spread wide, his deep blue robe of office rippling with each movement. 

“All hail the mighty Beast.”

The two Ol’ki warriors he’d been speaking with laughed as expected.

As Isar moved forward he revealed the fourth person on the dais, an older, frailer copy of himself.

Evras.

There must be something special waiting for me in the pit.

Maybe that could be turned to our advantage.

Maybe Isar would be so interested in the results of the lastest experiment 

“My dear Beast. What have you brought me?” His black eyes narrowed as he studied her. “Some sort of new animal? Not much of a fighting one at first glance, but perhaps it has hidden talents.”

With a flick of his fingers he beckoned for her to approach, but she stayed pressed into my side.

“How annoying.”

At his nod, the guard nearest to her lunged forward to grab her arm.

Or he would have, if I hadn’t slid to the side to shield her.

Zelan’s weapon dug into my back, but I ignored it, the female’s terror my only concern.

Isar’s face went hard. “Put it in the pit.”

Every muscle in my body tensed for a fight, but I knew I’d pushed the limits too much already.

If I resisted again, the Lord of the Ol’ki would have his vengeance.

He always did.

There was only one thing to do.

“No.” My voice came as a low rumble, creaky from disuse.

“Mine.”

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter One

Hannah

I knelt on the cold hard floor, silently retching, feeling as if I’d been turned inside out and back again.

Wherever I was, it was dark, cold, the smell of salt in the air telling me I must be near an ocean.

Using the lip of the escape pod, I tried to pull myself upright but my legs weren’t cooperating.

Where was I? Where was Sarah? We’d gotten into our pods at the same time.

Had she made it?

My stomach flipped again.

Wherever she was, I had to focus on my own situation now.

As my eyes became accustomed to the dimly lit space around me I could make out the shapes of boxes, crates and bundles piled high.

Some sort of warehouse? 

Shivering, I forced myself to stand, then rummaged in my pod until I found the emergency blanket, pulling it around my shoulders tightly.

Note to self: The next time we’re faced with imminent destruction, wear more layers.

“Hello? Is anyone here?”

I’d meant to shout, but something about the oppressive silence of the room muffled my voice, made my words no more than a faint squeak.

An answer came, but not from anyone nearby.

A trill from the broad metal band around my left wrist startled me.

A flash of blue light.

A blast of static, then a voice. A human voice.

Kyla, one of the other girls who had been with me on the Smarniks Dream.

My heart soared. I wasn’t alone. Everything was going to be fine.

Get to the mountains. Assume everything here will try to kill you.

What?

Then a hulking shadow broke away from the surrounding darkness.

Man shaped, but far too tall, shoulders too broad, he was at my side before I had fully registered his presence.

One massive hand clamped over my wrist, covering the comm bangle, nearly muting Kyla’s message.

“Please,” I begged. “That’s my friend, I need to know what she’s saying.”

But that was as far as I got.

With a quick twist he pulled me tight against his body, my back to his chest, pressing his other hand over my mouth.

You must be silent.

I froze, rigid against him.

That didn’t sound good.

Not at all.

We were still, like statues in the dim room, until the eerie hush was broken by shouting.

Somewhere in the distance, louder now.

A beam of light played across the boxes, illuminating for an instant the hand wrapped against my arm.

I stared at it, blinked.

Three fingers covered my comm bangle.

Three long thick fingers, covered in silver scales.

I twisted in his grip, but couldn’t see anything else.

The shouts grew closer, the words harsh static in my ear as my translator implant struggled to keep up.

Where was I?

“Beast… wanted … pit…”

Hide.

He pushed me from him, turning his back towards me, ready to deal with whoever was approaching.

I caught a glimpse of his face for only a minute.

The silver scales were sprinkled over his cheekbones and jawline, curving up to hairless head.

Pointed ears and midnight black, pupilless eyes caught my attention and held it fast.

No alien I’d ever seen before. Not on the Dream. Not in all my years of studying xenobiology.

And then my common sense kicked my curiosity in the tail and I frantically looked for a place to hide.

Where? I looked around, searching for any place, before lighting on my pod.

Legs still trembling, I dragged myself in, lowered the lid on top of me but it refused to close all the way, a wide gap leaving me exposed.

My captor moved, the broad planes of his back filling my vision from where I crouched.

“You’re wanted in the pit, beast,” a newcomer’s hard voice echoed through my translator.

He didn’t answer, made no motion that I could see.

“Don’t think you can’t be replaced,” another voice snapped. “Lord Chris was your maker. He can make another. Maybe a more obedient version this time.”

My heart thudded in my ears.

But there was nothing I could do, no place I could run.

I’d trapped myself here.

I squeezed my eyes tightly, the childhood belief that if I couldn’t see the danger coming it couldn’t catch me too strong to adult my way out of right now.

It didn’t work, of course.

“What’s this?” The first voice asked. “What have you found this time?”

A hard smacking sound as if something hitting flesh drove me even tighter into the foot of the pod.

With a wrenching sound, the lid of the escape pod flew open, and despite myself, I looked up.

Four more of the strange aliens peered down on me, their faces twisted, jackets of grey and black with flashes of red highlighting their silver scales.

One smiled, like a child discovering an unexpected cookie, before reaching for me to pull me out from safety.

My alien swatted the threatening hand away.

“Careful, beast,” the stranger snarled, but he didn’t seem to expect a reply, merely moved back slightly.

Shoulders set, my alien held his hand out towards me, waiting.

Stay silent.

Not exactly comforting.

But there was nothing for it.

Taking a deep breath I slid my hand into his and let him lift me out of the pod and into the unknown.

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