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elinwyn

Desired by the Dark Prince: Chapter Two

Tirus plowed through the stream of data that scrolled before his eyes, but his thoughts kept drifting back to the tiny woman in the chamber upstairs.

“Freeze stream.”

There was no point in proceeding.

He had dedicated years to this quest. But if he couldn’t focus on the information his agents had harvested, it would be just as likely that he would let some important clue slip.

Something that would bring Druval down.

And still, his mind wandered back to the firm set of Matilde’s chin, the gleam in her eyes as she evaluated her situation.

Despite everything he had given up to exile himself on this backwater rock, for the first time he could not focus on his mission.

“That’s not true either,” he reminded himself as almost without thought his hand dropped into his pocket, fingers rubbing over a worn scrap of cloth.

“Not true at all.”

Just being in the room while she healed, had stirred something in his blood.

Something strange, almost forgotten before he’d scented her, months ago in the foul caverns of the Haleru.

Now it called to him, demanding he go closer to her bedside.

To touch her. Taste her.

He’d refused. Staying instead at the edge of the room, compromising between his need to ensure her safety, and what she would rightfully demand as her privacy.

He could taste her in the air, hours later, far removed from her chamber.

This was ridiculous. He was a master of strategy, had played the long, intricate games of the court for years, and survived.

And he might have thrown it all away to save one woman.

He’d had no time to come up with a plan, a reasonable story to explain his actions.

All that mattered was to save her. And once she was in his arms, he simply could not let her go, any more than he could have handed an enemy his own right hand.

That clever, curious glare filled his vision again. He’d need to come up with a better answer than that, and quickly.

But for now, his secret hopes for Matilde would come to nothing if he could not get his mind back on his work.

He snapped open the screens again, diving through the web of transactions, looking for anything out of place, any thread he could pull to bring an empire down.

Checked on the new drive simulations. Not only a good reason to be here, but he’d never had a problem focusing on an engineering problem before.

Apparently now was different.

The soft footsteps behind him were easily ignored.

The awkward shuffling was something else entirely.

“What is it, Lorrik?” he snapped, pulling himself away from the figures with a mix of reluctance and relief.

“The female. That you brought here.”

Tirus studied his second-in-command with narrowed eyes.

Lorrik had been at his side for more years than he cared to count.

Certainly long enough not to question his orders.

“There’s nothing about her that anyone needs to know. She is to be left alone. Well cared for. No one is to disturb her. No one is to touch her.”

“That is perhaps the problem,” Lorrik said with a slight deferential nod towards the monitors that Tirus had turned off.

“What do you mean?” Tirus demanded as he waved them back on.

Images began cycling, nothing out of order, then one froze.

“She has fallen. And no one will touch her. At your orders.”

There she was.

Outside of her room.

Alone and despite the defiance on her face, Tirus could read the pain she masked.

In a rush, he pushed back from the desk, knocking the chair over as he stood.

“What level?” he asked Lorrik as he began to run up the stairs

“Forty-six.”

So far away,

The thought of her in pain ripped through him.

He had caused this.

“No!” He had brought her here to be safe.

If she was hurt while she was here, while she was under his protection, he had failed her already.

He knew where the next nearest lift was, but still it seemed too far, too out of reach.

He had to get to her, needed to be at her side now.

The strangeness in his blood stirred, tempting him, reminding him there was an answer, if he wished to take the chance.

He paused, remembering the stricken look on Matilde’s face.

“I’ll meet you there.”

He ran to the low railing that walled the corridor from the central shaft and without allowing himself to think any further he jumped, hanging for a moment in mid-air before he fell.

And just as he hoped he might, he changed.

Desired by the Dark Prince: Chapter One

Matilde

Wherever this was, Matilde didn’t plan on staying long.

She moved slowly, sliding one leg out of the bed, then another, biting back a wince at the shooting twinge of pain.

The arrogant asshole had left almost an hour ago.

Maybe.

Without windows she wasn’t sure, but she’d counted until she lost count and started over twice more.

Her bare foot touched the floor, and with a muffled shout she pulled it back quickly.

Lady, it was freezing!

But she didn’t exactly have the option to ask someone for a pair of thick socks, and even if she did, she wasn’t asking Mister stand-in-the-shadows-and-give-orders for anything.

Honestly she was glad that she was at least covered in the long white gown she’d woken up in.

It was silky, gathered at the neck and wrists with delicate lace.

But it wasn’t hers.

She was pretty angry about that, but anger would have to wait.

First, she had to get out of here.

Second foot down, easier this time now that she was prepared for the iciness. Shifting her weight, she straightened up.

Oh hell.

At her first step she stumbled, catching herself on the carved footboard before she tumbled to the floor.

She really had been hurt.

But when?

Looking around again to make sure she was alone, she pulled up the hem of the gown to examine her left thigh.

A thin red line marred her skin, yellow bruising marking all around it.

She didn’t remember anything that could have caused this.

She’d gone to bed, thinking about her class. Most of them were well behaved enough, but there were one or two she was tempted to ask Nic to visit.

In his other form.

She wouldn’t really, but it was fun to imagine.

Drifting off, she had snuggled down beneath the quilts, the heavy weight of her cat pressed behind her knees.

Then all of a sudden she’d woken up to a loud noise and crash…and nothing more.

So what had happened?

Whatever it was, she’d figure it out, save the wondering with the anger.

Teeth clenched against a grunt of pain she limped towards the door, eyes fixed on the section the silent servant had entered and departed from.

If it was anything like the doors at Adena’s…

Yes!

As she approached it slid open.

But instead of bolting for freedom, she paused.

What was out there? More strangers like that man?

And where was she?

It was unlikely she was going to find yourself within walking distance of Grasmere.

Stop being ridiculous, she scolded herself. The only way to find out what’s on the other side of the door was to go out there.

One more step. And then another.

Despite the cold, Matilde wiped sweat from her face.

Maybe she really should have stayed in bed, rested.

Except just the thought of doing what her captor had asked was enough to spur her on.

The room opened on to a hallway.

An eerie, completely deserted hallway.

She glanced quickly at either side, but heard no one, saw no one.

The hallway was broad, but facing her wasn’t another door, but rather a waist-high wall.

She limped over to it, clutched the top railing and gasped again.

A series of walkways wrapped around a vast open square.

Peering down she couldn’t guess how far the bottom was from her.

Craning her neck to look up, the emptiness stretched off far above her.

At each end of the hall she stood in, there was a set of stairs.

Up or down?

For all she knew, this place was somehow buried deep below the earth, and she should head up.

She looked at the stairs, considered it, and tested her weight on her leg again.

There was no way she’d be able to climb out of here.

She turned to the right, clutching the railing as she took the first step.

The exit had better be down.

But where was everyone?

This place was massive. It could probably hold the entire population of Grasmere. Maybe even Kinallen, the way it stretched on and on.

She reached the first landing, caught her breath and rubbed at her aching thigh.

Down another short corridor, then another flight of stairs.

She could do this. Of course she could.

The silence became uncanny, almost oppressive, and she caught herself glancing over her shoulder.

They were really just going to let her walk out of here?

Halfway down the third flight of stairs she heard a noise.

Was it above or below her?

Had they realized she’d left her room?

She hurried, focusing on the steps, trying to ignore her leg, now burning in pain.

There it was again.

What was that noise?

Another landing, another short corridor.

And as she began the next flight of stairs down, the sound came again.

Quickly she whipped behind her, and her foot missed the next step and she hurled forward with nothing to catch her.

There was no muffling the scream that came from her throat now as she tumbled down the sharp edged stairs to lay in a pile at the bottom.

“Is anyone there?” she called out, too afraid, in too much pain to worry about who she was asking for help.

The soft sound came again.

And out of the walls the hooded figure who had knelt by the side of the bed to offer her tea emerged.

“Please, help me,” she whispered.

But he did nothing, simply stood by her as another gray hooded figure, as exactly alike as if brought from a mirror, emerged from the wall.

Three more came, but none of them did anything but stand by her as she struggled to pull herself upright.

And then the floor began to shake.

Freed by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Four

Miranda

I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. Dressed in a skimpy bikini-thing that resembled Princess Leia when she was a prisoner of Jabba the Hutt, I was forced on stage to the jeers and cheers of a dozen disgusting species of aliens. It was a little like one of those never-ending dreams where you are in front of a crowd without your pants on.

Only this was no nightmare. This was all too real.

I felt tears well up in my eyes as the bidding started. It fractured the scene around me into a million points of light.

To my surprise, a golden glow caught my attention. I blinked some of my tears back, to see Tiyisi sitting at a table speaking intensely with another tree man.

That one looked nothing like Ilai. He was visibly younger, and more handsome, his hair was red and gold like autumn, his bark like skin, less rough than Ilai’s, but the rich deep brown of fertile soil. His eyes were some of the most striking I had ever seen, a deep yet vibrant green.

And there was something… glowing under his shirt? It washed his face in light, and for some reason, just seeing it calmed me.

I stared across the room at him. Help me, I pleaded with my eyes, and with my entire being.

I did not know why, but I knew deep down in my heart that this man, out of all of the others in the room, was good.

But the man looked away.

He and Tiyisi exchanged a few more words, then Tiyisi stood up and strode to the stage.

I had the half-wild thought that maybe she’d help me too. I knew she worked for Ilai, but she’d been kind to me when no one else had.

Instead, she took the weird stick the current auctioneer used as a microphone and brought it to her own mouth. “Gentlemen… As you can see, this slave has been rated as Gold tier.”

My heart sank as cheers, boos, and hisses echoed up from the audience.

Tiyisi smiled without warmth at the men. “Bidding will resume at a new minimum…” Then she rattled off a number that meant nothing to me, other than it was substantially higher than the bids I had half paid attention to.

She was really auctioning me off. And from the sound of it, whoever “won” me, would be expecting to get his money’s worth.

Help me… Somebody help me…

Suddenly, there was movement from within the audience.

The handsome tree man had stood up and rushed the stage, to the outraged cries of others in the audience. Someone tried to grab him and he shoved them aside with such strength that he sent the other man flying.

My heart lifted. Against all odds, someone else saw that this was wrong. I would not be sold at all. I would be saved.

The man reached the stage… And grabbed Tiyisi.

“No!” he yelled with enough force to make me want to flinch from the anger.

Not that I was afraid of him. But I hated seeing him in anguish.

His word was not directed at me, but at Tiyisi who he tried to… drag off the stage? “Enough of this, Tiyisi! You’re coming with me!”

“It’s a raid!” someone from the audience yelled. He sounded outright panicked.

The word spread like wildfire, everyone jumped up, trying to make a run for the exits. Some pulled out what looked to be laser blasters from their pockets. Meanwhile, my so-called savior tried to drag Tiyisi away, and Tiyisi resisted. They bickered back and forth.

I started to edge off the stage. No one paid any attention to me. Would it be possible to slip into the crowd and escape?

For one of the few times in my life, I found myself paralyzed by indecision.

It didn’t matter anyway, because someone new abruptly roared in outrage. His voice was loud enough to even drown out the rapidly panicking crowd.

“Lock the building down! Now!”

All the lights in the auction house came on, while middle doors slammed down into place over the existing exits. One lobster-like man was unfortunate enough to get pinched between the crowd and the door. I’m pretty sure he lost one of his claws.

“Holy crap,” I muttered, stepping back to the shadows of the stage. There wasn’t anywhere else for me to go.

Once the doors were shut and sealed, the local guards sprang into action.

Most of them were tree people, too. All male, and all larger than Tiyisi’s would-be rescuer.

They swarmed him and dragged him, shouting and resisting, away from Tiyisi.

Once he was subdued, a few turned my way. I backed up until my back hit the wall. “I didn’t do anything wrong!” I squeaked.

It was no use, they grabbed me anyway.

 ***

Still in my itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny golden bikini, I was marched down a side hallway that led from the back of the stage. My only consolation was that the tree person who had started the fracas was marched along with me.

I found myself glancing up at his face without quite knowing why. Really, he should mean nothing to me. All he had done was stop the auction, which would probably be restarted once everyone calmed down.

Still, I found my eyes flicking again and again to his face.

“What’s your name?” I whispered.

He looked at me, his expression set in a grim line. Tiyisi was nowhere to be found. Was she his wife… or girlfriend?

For some reason, I didn’t think so. Something about the way they were arguing sounded… Familiar, like people who had known each other their entire lives.

“I’m Miranda,” I said when he didn’t answer me.

He glanced at me again, then away.

“Nice to meet you, too,” I muttered, taking the hint to shut up.

Soon, I found myself standing once again in front of Ilai’s office. The guards who’d escorted us backed away a little to hold a private conversation among themselves. They were a little too far away down the hall for me to hear, but I got the impression they were trying to figure out what to do with us while they waited for Ilai to arrive.

Well, the longer it took, the better for me. I didn’t look forward to being under that creep’s gaze.

“Tadraa.”

I glanced up at my fellow captive. “Pardon me?”

He scowled at the door. “My name is Tadraa.”

“Hello.” I blinked. “Well, I would say it was nice to meet you, but considering the circumstances…”

“I feel I must apologize to you.”

I blinked at him again. “Come again?”

If anything, his scowl only deepened. “You must understand, I’ve been on a personal mission for some years now. Saving Tiyisi was within my grasp, and I couldn’t let anything else distract me from my goal.” He glanced at me. “Even you.”

“Even me?” I repeated, hoping that would clarify something. It didn’t. I still had no idea what Tadraa was talking about.

Tadraa didn’t seem to be in the mood to explain, falling once again into sullen silence.

“Okay…” I muttered, turning around to see what the situation was with the guards. There were still twice as many of them as there were us, blocking the only way out of there.

“You know, if you’re really sorry, you could bulrush those guys and give me a chance of escape,” I said, though I wasn’t serious. “Where am I, anyway? Do you know?”

“Omicron,” he said solemnly.

“And Omicron is… What?”

He looked at me like I had a screw loose.

“I’m sorry,” I said sarcastically. “This is my first alien kidnapping. I don’t know the ins and outs yet.”

“Omicron is a space station,” he said, pausing. “A space station is a large stationary construct in —”

“I know what a space station is! I’ve seen Star Trek!”

Now it was his turn to blink at me.

I scowled at him, and for some reason that made the corner of his lip twitch up, until he remembered he was supposed to be brooding again. Then he looked away.

 I rolled my eyes. “I guess that means I can’t get out of here without hopping aboard a spaceship, right?”

“That is correct.”

“Outstanding,” I muttered. But, since we were on a roll, I decided to ask a few more questions of my new friend. “So, what was that between you and Tiyisi, anyway?”

He jerked in surprise and opened his mouth.

And at that moment, the double doors to the office opened and Ilai stepped out.

“Come,” Ilai said. “Right now, you two are my guests, and I know exactly how to treat my guests.”

Tadraa and I exchanged a look, but the guards moved forward, and we had no choice but to walk into the next room.

To my surprise, Ilai had changed the furniture in his office. Or, at least, he had rearranged things. His desk had been cleared of all paperwork and computer systems, and instead, platters of food set there, as well as tall, fluted glasses I assumed were alien cups.

The food was set up buffet style with different platters of single objects — none of which I could recognize, but some visibly appeared to be meat, and some were visibly veggies.

“Come, come, sit, eat,” Ilai said.

Well, when in Rome… My only solace was that Tadraa looked as obviously confused as I was. We both sat, choosing seats right next to one another. Right now, he was my ally.

“Where’s my sister?” Tadraa asked.

Ilai tsked under his breath. “Food first, business second.”

Tadraa growled, grabbed one of the plates and, using something that looked like a ladle, spooned some green glop on. He then took one bite and said, “Where is my sister?”

I, meanwhile, had snuck some of the leaf-like things. It tasted like mint except sweeter, and it was more filling. Putting that aside, I decided to nibble off a piece of what looked like bread, except it was green.

I just wondered if I had eaten some alien dessert. It wasn’t half bad.

Instead of answering Tadraa, Ilai sat at the other end of the desk and beamed at the two of us. This whole thing was playing out like a twisted family meal.

“Tell me, Tadraa, do you want to know how I got this scar on my face?” He pointed to a long indent that went from his forehead, skipped over his right eye, and down his cheek.

“Do you want to know how I got my scars?” I muttered to myself.

Both alien men stopped and stared at me.

“Yes, that is exactly what I said,” Ilai said. “Is your universal translator not working?”

I shook my head minutely. I wasn’t about to explain pop-culture to a couple of aliens. “It’s fine. How did you… um, get your scars?”

It took every ounce of self-control I had not to smile as I said the words. It wasn’t a situation for smiling.

“I am glad you asked. It seems that some people have manners around here.” Ilai threw a very direct gaze at Tadraa, who visibly bristled.

Seriously? It was obvious that Ilai had tried to get a rise out of him, and Tadraa let him. Under the table, I touched Tadraa’s wrist. He flinched and looked down at me.

I rolled my eyes at him.

Just play Ilai’s stupid little game, I tried to tell him with my gaze alone. Let him have his fun, and hopefully he will lower his guard or something, then you can get me the hell off of this space station.

I don’t know how much of that came through, or if any did at all, but Tadraa visibly relaxed.

“It was a card game,” Ilai said, either ignoring or choosing to ignore mine and Tadraa’s reactions to one another. “On this very station.” He waved his hands grandly. “Before I became the master of Omicron, it was nothing but a gambling hall.”

“You won the game but still got the scar?” I seriously didn’t care one way or another, but Ilai did, and as long as he talked, I ate. I took another bite of bread.

“I did.” He grinned at me, and his teeth were stained green. Gross. “My opponent refused to pay, so naturally, I challenged him to a fistfight as payment.”

“Is there a point to this?” Tadraa asked.

Apparently, he wasn’t impressed with Ilai’s attempt at villain monologuing.

“There is, and I believe you will like it,” Ilai said with another green-tinged grin at Tadraa. “I killed the cheapskate with my bare hands, and I took his slave, Tiyisi, as my own.”

At that, Tadraa went stick straight. So tense, he was nearly vibrating in his seat.

He didn’t have much of a poker face. I hoped that he wasn’t a card player himself.

“In fact,” Ilai continued, clearly enjoying the emotional turmoil that he was putting Tadraa through. “Tiyisi is the only slave I have found both useful and interesting enough to keep. Most of them, I either sell or throw out the nearest airlock.” He made a show of examining his own fingernails. “Good help is so hard to find.”

I took another piece of bread and resisted the urge to point out that maybe Ilai would find better help if he actually paid his employees.

Ilai’s gaze swept to me. “I am hoping to find the same usefulness in you. You have the same spark as Tiyisi, the same… unquenchable desire to fight. I expect interesting times ahead of us, my dear.”

I grinned back at the man who would be my master, making sure to show teeth. “Well, I had been top of my class in college.”

Ilai threw back his head and laughed and, as he did, I grabbed a two-pronged utensil that looked like a fork. I didn’t have sleeves, but Tadraa did.

I passed it under the table to him. He took it, neither looking down or indicating that we were doing anything at all.

 “I’ll ask again,” Tadraa said, low. “What is the point of this charade?”

“The point, my fellow Mtoain, is that whatever you have planned for either one of my slaves, Tiyisi or Miranda, it’s too bad. You’re leaving this space station empty-handed.”

“You expect me to believe that you are going to let me leave alive?”

“Well,” Ilai said. “It would’ve been foolish of me to kill one of Landri’s disciples, wouldn’t it?”

Again, Tadraa stiffened. “You seem to know a lot about somebody you just met.”

“Oh, believe me, I pay for all sorts of juicy information. Your little quest to find Tiyisi is well known within this sector.” Ilai made a tsking sound under his breath as if he were disappointed in the younger man. “You are not nearly as sly as you think that you are.”

Tadraa said nothing. I looked back and forth between them. I had no idea who Landri was, but if I had to guess, he was somebody that Ilai didn’t want to fall on the bad side of — maybe the reason why he had kept Tadraa alive instead of having his men shoot him earlier.

“Why are you here?” Ilai asked Tadraa.

“I thought you knew that.”

“I want to hear from your own lips,” Ilai said.

Tadraa paused and his eyes flickered to mine. I don’t think I was seeing things. There was definitely an apology in his gaze. “I am just here for my sister, and I’ll leave when I have her.”

Oh.

The contents of my stomach seemed to curdle within me and drop down to my shoes. I don’t know why I’d thought — I’d assumed — that this guy would do the right thing and help me escape the space station. I wanted my fork back.

“Only your sister. Is that all?” Ilai asked. “Well, I believe that the polite thing to do would be to ask her.”

With that, Ilai pressed a button on his desk. There was a faint buzzing sound and a side door opened.

Tiyisi stepped out. She was calm and put together, but there was slight puffiness underneath her eyes. If she were human, I would have thought that she had been crying earlier.

Tadraa half rose as if to greet her, but Ilai gave him a hard look, and Tadraa reluctantly sat again.

Then Ilai turned to Tiyisi. “Tiyisi, my dear, do you want to leave my employment?”

“No,” Tiyisi said.

And that was that.

I couldn’t take it anymore. “Well, I do!” I snapped. “I don’t know what kind of weird family feud you guys have going on here, but I want no part of it!” I turned to Tadraa. “Wherever you’re going, take me with you. I can work, I can —”

I may just as well not have spoken at all.

“What do you think about that, Tadraa?” Ilai asked, voice dripping with mockery. “Is that a fair trade?”

In answer, Tadraa lunged across the table.

It happened so fast, I barely had time to react. One second, the two tree men were playing some weird game of one upmanship. The next, food was upended everywhere and Tadraa went for Ilai’s throat.

But if I was taken by surprise, Ilai certainly wasn’t. He swung one fist around and clocked Tadraa in midair, sending the younger, slightly smaller tree man flying to the side.

Tadraa hit hard, but quickly rolled as Ilai crashed down in the space where he had just been. Still on his back, Tadraa managed to punch him once, his other hand holding the fork I had given him, aiming for Ilai’s throat.

But Ilai grabbed his wrist in some kind of crazy Kung Fu move and twisted.

Tadraa growled, but his hand released the fork. Ilai punched him hard again and again in the face. I felt the force of the blows through my chest.

In the next second, the door to the office flew open and guards swarmed in. The two aliens wrestled around on the floor, food scattering everywhere. Somehow during the fracas, I’d gotten up and pressed myself against the far wall to get out of the way. Weirdly enough, Tiyisi had not moved an inch.

I stepped to the open door, hoping to make my escape, but one of the guards grabbed me, yanking my hand up and behind my back.

“Ow!” I yelled. “Ow, dammit, I didn’t do anything…”

“Quiet, you,” he growled in the most clichéd way possible. But he was a lot stronger than I was. I couldn’t resist at all as I was forcibly taken out of the office – and my dreams of being rescued once again went up in smoke.

Freed by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Three

Tadraa

This rented ship was truly bottom of the barrel. It shook as I got up to speed, and red warning lights flashed tiredly across the dashboard. It looked like they’d been flashing for years without receiving maintenance.

The one positive about the ship was that it had an onboard spoofing system for the general channels.

Once I limped into the range of Omicron, I activated the faked ID. That made every other ship and station in the area see mine as, not a bounty hunter, but registered under a local galactic arm’s dealer.

It would not stand up to close scrutiny, but worked well to get into areas where I should not be.

The auction house was an independent space station which was currently in orbit around a local gas giant. It was a pretty vista for such hideous work.

Every specialized sensor went on high alert as I pulled my ship in to land.

There were advanced tech and weapon sensors onboard the auction house, as well as several high-end dampeners. It was obvious that the slavers in charge did not want to be seen or surprised.

It was also obvious to anyone with eyes that there was an event upcoming soon. Possibly, an auction.

My fists clenched at my sides, and I had to make an effort to relax them again. I would stand out in all the wrong ways if I was visibly angry, or the other patrons caught the death glares I sent their way.

Still, the thought of my sister being locked up inside this facility made me see red.

Somehow, I kept it together and got in line to be ushered into the main auction room.

Someone had made an effort to class up the place. There were stunning vistas of the gas giant outside the large floor-to-ceiling viewports. The planet’s violet and blue color scheme was matched in curtains and dim lighting within the interior. Instead of rows of seats, I took my place at a small table. There was an indicator light lit up in the middle. I assumed a prospective buyer would light up his table to place a bid.

The moment I sat, a young alien woman in skimpy clothing came to take my drink order. There was, she told me in a demure voice without meeting my eyes, a one drink requirement.

I would’ve snapped at her, but the poor woman had a slaver’s collar around her neck. She was only doing her job.

I ordered water. I needed my senses sharp.

As the room filled up, I realized that the lighting held a second purpose. Most of the crowd didn’t wish to be seen or identified by one another.

Was that out of a sense of shame, or paranoia?

I was pulled out of my musings when I caught sight of a familiar Mtoain woman. My heart stopped.

It was Tiyisi. True, she was several years older than I remembered, so thin she was nearly skeletal, with lines of care and stress around her mouth and eyes… But it was her, my sister. At last!

She moved through the crowd with purpose, and other prospective buyers gave way to her.

I had to resist the urge to leap across the table, grab her, and drag her away from the place.

But if nothing else, the last couple of years had taught me some small measure of restraint. Instead of acting immediately, I gestured to get her attention as if I had mistaken her for one of the waitresses.

In the dim light, it was hard to tell, but I think she might have turned my way. Then the lights dimmed to almost blackness and the stage in front lit up.

Some Uralah was more or less pushed onto the stage. She shivered so hard her claws crackled together.

Instantly, several tables lit up around the room, and the auctioneer began the bidding in earnest.

I barely paid attention. Tiyisi was headed my way.

I half stood, ready to take her hand and run, but before I could do so, my sister shoved me back into my chair.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed.

“Me? I am looking for you, of course.”

“Hey!” a man with a deep voice rumbled from behind us. “Down in front. I can’t see the stage!”

I turned around to snap something at the no-good slaver, but Tiyisi gripped my arm hard and slid into the chair next to mine.

“You need to leave,” she said in a low undertone. “Please, before anybody sees you.”

“Fine, we will leave before anyone notices you are missing,” I said, starting to stand but she had not budged an inch. I sat back down. “Tiyisi, come on. This is a rescue,” I clarified, just in case her brains had been addled. “You’re coming with me.”

Her expression was pained. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean —”

I stopped as the music up on the stage changed. Tiyisi’s head whipped around as the previous alien woman was sold and led off, and a new woman took her place.

It felt as if the entire universe had stopped.

The new woman was a… well, I wasn’t sure what species she was. I had seen a couple of them running around Station Four and knew that Khenja had one for a mate. Oh, that’s right. Human. They were eye-catching, but this one… she was gorgeous.

Soft skin, a fall of red hair that went halfway down her back and, although she was physically much shorter than the average woman of my species, her proportions were… quite pleasing.

She, too, was dressed to only hide the bare essentials, and for a moment, I could not tear my eyes from all the exposed skin.

I wasn’t the only one. Cheers and hoots rose up from the room all around me.

I wanted to commit murder.

“Tadraa, your chest,” Tiyisi hissed.

Finally looking away from the stage, I glanced at my sister to see her staring in a mixture of horror and wonder at my chest. I looked down. My amre had lit into a golden glow. It was so bright, the auctioneer pointed to my table as the first bid.

Quickly, I fastened my jacket to cover it.

The bidding around me grew fierce. I glanced up at the stage again, to see the woman looking down at me, something indefinable in her expression.

No. That was a lie. I knew exactly what it was, a plea for help.

I was no fool. I knew what the glow meant, and why it had arrived now. The woman was my mate, and she needed my help.

But I hadn’t come this far, for this long, to lose my sister now.

Breaking the gaze, I turned again to Tiyisi. “Come with me,” I begged.

The expression she gave me was both sad and resolute. She had seen the glow and knew what it meant, but she commented no further on it.

“I cannot,” she said, and with that, she turned to walk up to the stage.

Freed by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter Two

Miranda

I woke up feeling like I was suffering the worst hangover ever.

If only it were tequila and not whatever crap the aliens had darted into me the previous evening. At least, I assumed my last dose had been last night. The sun did not rise and set on an alien spaceship.

Because this was my life now. Or really, this had been my life for the last month or so — give or take a week.

I don’t exactly know what happened. One day I was your typical law student, working a back bar to pay a portion of my living expenses while the student loans piled up. A typical university sob story.

I was just walking “home” to the van where I lived. Dorms were for chumps, and apartments in San Francisco were for rich people. I lived the van life, which meant I didn’t have to pay sky high rent, and I could make some extra YouTube scratch on the side with video blogging.

Anyway, I was headed home from the bar after last call. It was two-thirty, maybe three in the morning. Thankfully, my first college class the next day didn’t start until after twelve. I had planned on getting some quality sleep in.

I was just to the parking lot where my van was parked when a bright searchlight beamed down on me from the sky. I looked up, thinking it was a police helicopter and they were searching out somebody shady.

Just me, Miranda, poor college student.

Only, there were no helicopter or drone sounds. Just an odd high-pitched hum, like an electric transformer about to blow. And the aircraft overhead had too many lights on it. Either that, or it was really big — too big to be a normal helicopter.

“What the —”

I don’t know what happened next, though I suspect from later encounters, I was stunned.

The next thing I knew, I woke up in an actual cage. There was this… thing, kind of like a yellow cross between a lobster and a man, complete with head antenna, one giant claw and one humanoid hand with too many fingers.

It screamed at me, I screamed at it. It threw something that was supposed to be food in my cage. I threw it back. I was stunned again… and that set the tone for the rest of my trip.

I didn’t see that particular alien again — after I figured out that it was indeed an alien and I had been abducted like something straight out of a sci-fi novel. But I had seen others. Their attitudes ranged from downright shitty and hostile, to completely uncaring when they remembered to feed me.

It was hard to keep track of what was going on, considering I didn’t understand any of the language, and I kept getting darted or stunned if I threw any attitude — which was often.

But I was certain I was being transferred from ship to ship. Sometimes, I would see other captives — none of them human, and most of them female-looking.

So, as I said, this was my life now. And I had just woken up in yet a new cage.

However, this one was larger than most. I had even been given a bed. Well, more like a slab of metal welded to the wall. But it was marginally better than the bare floor.

Another big difference was that an alien woman stood outside my cage, instead of in a cage of her own.

She… kind of looked like a tree?

She was pretty, with pale bark like skin. Her hair was done up in a no-nonsense ponytail, and yet the tail cascaded down her shoulders like leaves. Her nose was thin, and rather pointy, her chin squarish. She stared at me as if she had been waiting for me to wake up.

Groggily, I pulled myself into an upright sitting position. My stomach rumbled, and I wondered how long it had been since my last meal. This woman wasn’t carrying a tray of food, but she definitely had something in her hand.

“What do you want?” I asked, warily.

The woman said something in a mishmash of sounds and syllables — none of it meant a damn thing. Each new species of alien seemed to have their own tongue, and I hadn’t ever been around one for long enough to pick up a simple phrase.

I looked at her. A month ago, I would’ve been terrified. Today, I was exasperated, and my hunger put me in a bad mood. “I don’t speak gobbly-goop.”

She held up one slim but strong-looking hand. Huh. Four fingers and one thumb, kind of like a human. Maybe we were space cousins.

Between her forefinger and thumb, she held up a small tictac shaped electronic thing.

Then she tossed it through the bars at me.

I caught it by instinct and frowned, looking down at the thing. It was a tiny little electronic device, though what it was meant to do, I didn’t know. Maybe this was the alien equivalent of a cell phone?

My current captor spoke again. When I looked up at her, she mimed poking her own ear. Again, her outer ear was more human-like than usual, though distinctly pointed.

I frowned, and she did it again. Then she pointed to me.

Oh. She wanted me to put this in my ear.

I considered not doing it. A couple of my previous captors had tried to get me to mop the floor like I was their personal maid. Instead, I threw the mop equivalent to the side and spit on the floor. Those displays had earned me a quick sedation, and when I woke up, I was on somebody else’s ship.

Today, I was hungry, and tired… More tired than the sedatives swimming around in my bloodstream would account for. No, I was tired and my soul ached. I wanted to go home. But even more than that, I wanted out of his damn cage.

“Well, I guess I’m going to have to trust that this won’t explode my brain or something.”

With that, I stuck the stupid thing in my ear canal.

I did not expect it to slip down there, as if it had a mind of its own.

I yelped and clawed at my ear, but the electronic tictac thing only slipped down deeper down my ear canal. I swear, I could almost taste it on the back of my tongue.

Thank goodness it did not hurt.

“Wow! What the hell, man?”

“I am not male.”

I stopped and whirled around to the tree lady. She watched me with amusement, one hand cocked on her hip. She had spoken the unintelligible language — I heard it, but at the same time, I also heard and understood the meaning in English, overlaid above the gibberish.

“Did you just… speak English?” I asked hesitantly.

The alien lady opened up her mouth, and although she spoke… whatever she spoke, I understood the words in English.

“No, I am speaking the native tongue of my planet, Mtoain. You have been given a universal translator — and it seems to be working. Very good. There was some concern that with a species as rare as your own, your language wouldn’t be inputted into the system.”

Oh my God. Finally, after a month-long nightmare, there was somebody I could actually talk to!

I rushed to the bars and gripped them. “Let me out of here!”

“I’m afraid I cannot do that. You are the property of Ilai and are currently up for sale.”

I had half-figured it was something like this, but hearing it aloud was still horrific. “But… But you can’t! You’re going to sell me as some kind of slave?”

“Yes,” she said flatly.

“But… But that’s wrong. I’m not somebody’s property! I’m my own person!”

The woman barely batted an eye. She continued her lecture as if she had said it a hundred times before. “There are various kinds of slaves you can become. Domestic, entertainment, administrative… and pleasure.”

No need to outline what the last one was. “Isn’t there a “none of the above” option?”

“No.”

I shook the bars. There was no give to them at all. “You can’t do this!” I raged, fruitlessly. Because it was pretty obvious from the cages and my treatment thus far that, yes, they could.

“This is illegal on my planet. How dare you just take me from my home and sell me like I’m a piece of property! It’s… it’s so screwed up!” I yelled. Somehow my brilliant reasoning did not sway her.

“Right now, you are angry,” she continued in that flat, detached tone of voice. “But once you calm down, you will start to think and plan ahead. You will decide to play along, just so you have enough freedom to plan your escape.”

I reeled back, because an escape plan had already started churning in the back of my mind. “Shit,” I said. “Are you… some kind of telepath?” I clarified because I wasn’t sure if that word would go through the universal translator or not. “Somebody who can read minds?”

She smiled. “No. Just somebody who has been in your exact position.”

I gave her a blank look, not sure if she was lying or not.

She continued. “And because I have been in your position, I know that you must be starving. First though, your new owner, and my master, Ilai.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to take all of this. She was by far the nicest one of my captors, but that didn’t make her a good person, or someone that I should trust.

I decided to put some of my mandatory psychology classes to good use and try to establish a human connection. Or… whatever. “My name is Miranda,” I said. “What’s yours?”

She hesitated for a moment as if surprised, and then shrugged and said, “Tiyisi.”

“You’re saying that you’re going to take me to meet… your boss?”

“My owner,” she said with a sigh.

I nodded to myself. It would be the first time that I was allowed out of one of the cages while awake. I had no illusions that I could escape whatever facility this was — was I on a spaceship? — But gathering intelligence would be key to my future survival.

“Do you have any… hints on what I should say to this Ilai guy? Because I can’t tell you how much I don’t want to be a pleasure slave.”

A flash of what I swore could be read as amusement crossed Tiyisi’s face. She was definitely more humanlike than most. Other aliens’ faces were about as easy to read as your typical praying mantis. Then, that look of amusement was replaced by one of sorrow. “I’m afraid your fate is out of your hands. You will do whatever your new master requires.”

And with that cheery advice, she stepped forward and pressed some kind of code into a holographic keypad by the cage door.

The bars unlocked, sliding open.

For a moment, I considered bull-rushing her. I had played powder puff football in junior high. But that had been as the quarterback, and I was twelve. Plus, this lady was like seven foot tall. I didn’t think I would get too far by trying to tackle her.

She eyed me. “I would suggest you don’t resist… For your own good.”

“You are a telepath,” I grumbled, but stepped out.

“No, I’m not. You are just particularly easy to read.”

She led me through a narrow hallway. There were no windows or viewports to the outside. It was a shame because if I was really, truly in space right now, I would’ve loved to have seen the stars. Or maybe another planet.

These thoughts helped keep my building anxiety under control. If I concentrated on the wonders of space, I would not have to think too hard about what might happen to me out here… A defenseless woman among aliens who were all larger, stronger, and much more knowledgeable about the universe…

Stop it, Miranda. Think about the stars. Embrace serenity, and do not panic.

It helped a little.

I was out there all alone, and I did not even bring my towel.

“What are you smiling about?” Tiyisi demanded.

“Nothing.”

She gave me the tree person equivalent of the fisheye, and then suddenly stepped ahead of me to punch in a code in front of a large double door at the end of the hallway.

She turned briefly, and the look she sent was definitely some kind of warning. Then the doors whooshed open to show… an office?

Another tree person like Tiyisi waited in the office. He sat behind an honest to God desk made of wood (hopefully, considering these were tree people, it wasn’t the equivalent of a human sitting behind a big desk of bones). There was even what looked like a very large filing cabinet off to the side, and to chairs in front.

Unlike Tiyisi, something in the man’s demeanor was vaguely threatening and cunning. Like walking up to a manager at a car dealership. You didn’t know exactly how you were about to be screwed, but some way or another, you’d walk away with less money than you came in with.

“Tiyisi, excellent. Thank you for being so prompt,” the man said.

His words were right, but the tone was wrong. There was a hint of sarcasm to every word, and Tiyisi flinched as if struck.

The man looked me up and down, slow and deliberate. I huffed and put one hand on my waist, cocking my hip in irritation.

I guess body language must be universal because he chortled in laughter. “I assume that the universal translator is working for your species?”

“If what you’re asking is if I can understand you… then yes,” I replied

“Excellent. Your species are exceedingly rare among the galaxy, so there was some uncertainty.”

Again, his creepy gaze swept me up and down, making me feel like I was some sort of prize horse he had just acquired.

I let some of my frustration out. “Maybe that’s because we aren’t a spacefaring species yet. Aren’t there laws protecting those kinds of civilizations?”

He smiled at that. “Who would ever enforce them?”

Great. Space was like that, then. No overseeing judicial system. Then again, as a law student, I was well aware of how hard it could be sometimes to enforce laws in a well-organized country, much less the vast space of… space.

Suddenly, I felt very small and the universe seemed very, very large.

“Please,” he said, gesturing to a chair that had no back. “Have a seat.”

I did, but Tiyisi stood, standing in loose parade rest. Was she here to block my way in case I tried to make an escape? Or was she here for moral support? And why was I so trusting of her? For all I knew, she was one of my captors.

I decided to ignore Tiyisi and focus on the tree man in front of me. “My name is Miranda Hale. Who are you?”

“I am the one who is asking the questions here,” he said calmly. “But as it happens, I suspect we will be spending… a lot of time together.” He smiled a smile that was utterly creepy. “My name is Ilai, and I am the one who will determine your future.”

“I don’t suppose one of those options is sending me back home?”

He laughed, bright and sharp. Then, to my surprise, he took out a device that looked a little bit like an iPad and started writing alien symbols all over it. “So, you have a sense of humor. That is good. Let us get started with the additional testing.”

What followed was like the weirdest, creepiest job interview ever.

First, he had me solve some basic logic problems using what I swore were probably children’s toys. The type where one shape fits into another one. Then he asked some basics in my job history.

I played it up a little, giving myself the credentials of a full lawyer instead of a law student. It wasn’t like he was going to check my references.

Then he turned the iPad thing over to me and had me do a series of simple logic tests on it.

Each symbol was given a value represented by a number of lines. I was supposed to put them in order from lowest to largest. It was a little like organizing a spreadsheet.

It was followed by a few more tests, all of them easy to the point of being childish.

When I handed back the pad, Ilai hummed at the result.

“I assume that your people have a reading and writing system?” he asked.

“I did tell you I was a lawyer.” He looked blank and I sighed. “Yes, I read and write quite well, thank you.”

This earned me a long look. “Smart and beautiful,” he murmured. “Shame about the attitude, but that can be fixed.”

It felt like bugs were crawling over my skin, and I had to resist the urge to look away from his penetrating gaze.

“Let me be up front with you, Miranda.” My name rolled off his tongue with all of the wrong inflections. It was weird. For a few minutes there, I had forgotten that he was, in truth, speaking an alien language. The universal translator in my ear had worked more or less flawlessly. “I have not earned my reputation by holding back my best merchandise, but I admit that a part of me hopes you do not sell.”

“Sell?” I squeaked.

“Yes, because I want to spend as much time with you as possible.”

His hand reached as if to grip my own, and I yanked it away.

He smiled at me, all oily, and then for the first time since the testing started, looked up at Tiyisi. “Make a note on her file. She will be starting at the highest bidding —”

“Bidding?” I repeated, dully. I should not have been surprised, considering everything that had not been said so far, and yet, somehow, I was.

Ilai ignored me as if I had not spoken. “Set her at the Gold tier. Intelligence, beauty and…” He paused, sweeping over me again. “You are not one of those short-lived species, are you? The ones that grow up and die within a decade?”

I felt like telling him yes, if it would take attention off of me and disappoint him… But at the same time, if I was going to be sold like a piece of meat, I didn’t want to be a cheap piece of meat. “A human’s average lifespan is usually within seventy to eighty years,” I muttered.

“Decent, but not extraordinary. All well. You can expect how many more years?”

I swallowed against the impulse to tell him that it was rude to ask a lady’s age. He was going to sell me on an auction block, so we were far beyond that. “Fifty, give or take.”

Two thirds of my life as some kind of slave… if I was lucky.

“Excellent.” He clapped his bark-like hands together. “Make the note, Tiyisi, and return Miranda here to the holding pen.”

“You can’t even give me a room?” I demanded.

Tiyisi’s strong fingers clasped over my arm, giving me a gentle tug to stand, reminding me of my place. “Come along,” she said softly. Whatever light had been in her eyes before seemed to have dimmed. “I will get you prepared for the auction.”

I felt like crying, but I kept my head up high as I strode out of the slaver’s office.

Freed by the Alien Bounty Hunter: Chapter One

Tadraa

Downing a shot of energy goop from one of the sub level station vendors, I pushed open the door to the Bounty Hunter Guild and strode inside. From the number of hunters wandering in and around the office, the official meeting had yet to start, but it was only a matter of time.

“Tadraa!” My friend, Yndon hailed me. As I walked up, he noticed my cup of energy goop. “Did you get that from the vendor on sub level three?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“And you didn’t get a cup for me?” Yndon looked mockingly hurt.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not getting you your morning energy goop. Don’t you have a human mate to do that sort of thing for you?”

“Eh, she left our quarters earlier than I did this morning on some human scavenger emergency so dire that they couldn’t live without her expertise…” He rolled his eyes, but there was an undertone of fondness that he didn’t bother to hide.

I ignored him, looking away. My own feelings were a mix of annoyance and vague jealousy. As a young Mtoain, I felt the need to take a mate. But until I completed my personal mission, that wasn’t going to happen.

One of the senior hunters hailed us from the conference room next door. The meeting was soon to start, and we obediently trooped in.

I let my mind wander as Landri and Khenja, his second in command, went through the usual morning business. Not much of it affected me directly. As one of the newest and youngest hunters, I didn’t have a full buy-in with the Guild, and unlike Yndon, I wasn’t interested in changing my status.

Finally, Landry and Khenja began to talk about assignments.

The most senior hunters — and Yndon — were of course given the choicest, most lucrative missions. I caught a few dark looks from the other younger hunters who were all itching to prove themselves. I didn’t care. None of the offered missions were what I was looking for.

Then, the least wanted assignments began to get handed out. Again, I let my mind wander. None of those fit my requirements, either.

Not until…

“This is mostly recon work,” Khenja said. “The hunter who takes this mission is required to seek out activity within the sector. Once confirmed, the hunter is to submit the evidence here so that the Federation can assign a bounty. The fee is nominal—”

I gestured for attention. Landry, who had been looking just as bored as I had been, nodded for me to ask my question.

“Which sector was this?” I asked.

Khenja checked over his file before he answered. “Omicron.”

“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation.

There were a few scoffs around the table. Khenja narrowed his eyes at me. “As I said,” he continued. “The fee is nominal — at the low end of this guild’s pay scale, even without your fees.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

One of the other senior hunters snorted. “Let the boy take it. It’s a good job to cut his teeth on.”

I had more than a few jobs under my belt already. There was no need to cut my teeth on anything. But at the same time, I wasn’t in the mood to argue.

Neither was Khenja, it seemed. “Okay Tadraa. It’s yours.”

Then he moved on to the next job.

Yndon leaned over to me. “Why are you taking something like that? That is a trash run. It won’t even pay your fuel costs.”

I flicked him a glance, but ignored him. My business was my own to deal with.

Getting the hint — and hearing Khenja describe a much better paying job — Yndon turned away.

Meanwhile, I scrolled through the information that Landri forwarded to my private account. All of the details of the so-called trash job.

It was perfect.

***

As a Guild member, I had access to their supply of ships to complete a job. Unfortunately, as a new member, not fully bought in yet, I had to pay a steep rental fee. The fuel costs and any damages incurred to the ship would also come out of my final pay.

It didn’t matter. I wasn’t doing this for the money.

I was just about to go over my preflight inspection when I heard the sound of footsteps from behind me. I turned to see Khenja, a personal tablet in his hand, and a frown on his face.

I glanced at Khenja, and when it became obvious the senior hunter wasn’t just passing by, I straightened. “Is there something I can do for you?” I asked, putting as much ice as I could in the words.

“Yes, you can tell me what on Mtoain you are thinking.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“I know you are not actually stupid,” Khenja said, “And you can do basic math, yes?”

I didn’t answer, simply narrowing my eyes at him. Whatever point Khenja was trying to make, he needed to make it quick.

Khenja turned his digital clipboard towards me. I could see that he had opened up a log of my most recent bounty jobs. Before I could focus on any one line, Khenja pulled it away.

“Between the rental and gear fees, you will end up owing the guild money after this job.”

Damn it. The gear fees. I knew the profits would be slim to none, but in my haste to get to the Omicron sector, I had neglected to take the gear fees into account.

Instead of answering, I simply crossed my arms. Khenja still had a point to make and I wasn’t going to help him along with it.

“So, I pulled up your records,” Khenja continued. “Some patterns became immediately clear.”

My jaw clenched and I stayed silent.

Khenja managed to stare me down for the space of ten heart beats before he sighed. “Why are you taking every bounty that goes anywhere near Omicron?”

And… there it was.

“What does it matter?” I asked, turning away. “They’re crap jobs. No one else wants to take them — you should be glad someone is picking up the slack.”

“That is not a good enough answer,” Khenja barked.

“How about this: Guild leader or not, this is none of your business.”

I turned away, but the other Mtoain put his hand on my shoulder and twisted me around again.

“As your guild leader, it is very much my business,” Khenja growled. I could tell that I had pissed him off. “If the next words out of your mouth are not a satisfactory explanation, I will take you off the job for your own financial good.”

My fists clenched and I had to resist the urge to punch my senior guild leader in the jaw. “You would not dare.”

It was his turn to stare at me.

I grimaced, feeling myself folding. “It isn’t… what you’re thinking.”

“Really? Because what I’m thinking is there is a very public, well-known slave auction house in that sector—”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t mind if Khenja thought I was an idiot for taking jobs that cost more than they were worth, but if he suspected I was a slaver… that was unbearable.

“I’m searching for my sister,” I admitted, and had to resist the urge to spit to the side. The reminder that I couldn’t take care of my own blood left a bitter taste in my mouth. “We left Mtoain together. We were separated soon after, and I’ve been trying to find her ever since.”

Immediately, Khenja’s posture changed. Became gentler. His eyes lost their hard, accusing look and was instead replaced by pity.

His sympathy felt as burning to my ego as the shame.

“That isn’t as uncommon of a story as you may think,” Khenja sighed. “It’s why it’s so dangerous for female nywosi to leave the planet.”

“You don’t need to remind me,” I growled. “I know that, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to find her.” I couldn’t resist throwing out the last barb. “Are you still determined to kick me off this mission? Give it to someone who has their own ship and who doesn’t care?”

Thankfully, the pity in Khenja’s eyes vanished, replaced with annoyance. “No, I will let you go.”

“Thank you—”

Khenja raised a hand in warning. “However, you must remember that there is no bounty attached to this job. As such, you do not have the law or the guild to shield you from your own actions.” His gaze met mine, once again hard and unflinching. “If you start something, you will be the criminal.” An unhappy smile twitched at his lips. “And then you may very well find yourself being hunted by me.”

“How ironic,” I replied, deadpan. “I will keep that in mind.”

“See that you do.” With a last nod, Khenja left me to finish rigging out my rental ship.

I grimaced and turned back. One thing was for certain: Khenja was correct that I operated at a loss. If I didn’t find my sister soon, I wouldn’t be able to afford to search for Tiyisi for much longer.

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 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.

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