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elinwyn

Aliens Match: Chapter Two

Agatha

I blinked, trying to focus on the massive figure looming over me in the darkness. A chiseled face emerged from the shadows, all sharp angles and hard planes. What was he doing in my bedroom?

Had I gotten lucky? I squinted, giving him another once-over. Had I ever gotten that lucky?

Or was this an intruder? My body tensed as I realized he cradled me in his arms, the heat of his body seeping through my thin nightgown. Oh god, was I about to be assaulted? Fragments of a long-ago self-defense class flashed through my mind. Rape was about control, not sex. Sometimes, going along with it was the best way to throw off a stranger rapist.

“I’m ready to go if you are,” I heard myself say, my voice wavering slightly. “Why don’t you put me down on the bed and we can get it on?”

He jerked as if I’d slapped him, his arms tightening reflexively around me. “Bed?”

I glanced around, a sinking feeling in my gut. No familiar glow of the streetlight through my window shade. No comforting red numbers on my bedside clock. In fact, no window or clock at all. Just rough, craggy walls and a ceiling that looked suspiciously like…rock?

The man set me down abruptly and I had to crane my neck to look up at him. Good gravy, he was massive. Seven feet tall, at least, and built like a tank. He strode away, his heavy footfalls echoing in the confined space.

“Damn my fate!” he growled, the words laced with frustration and something else I couldn’t quite pinpoint.

Seeing no obvious escape route, I trailed after him, my bare feet kicking up puffs of dust with each step. The air felt thick and stale, heavy with the scent of earth and something metallic. I sneezed, the sound startlingly loud.

The giant waved a hand, somehow triggering tiny beams of light that sliced through the hazy air. “Your pod caused a cave-in,” he said, gesturing toward a wall of tumbled stone and debris.

I blinked. “My what?”

He turned, his eyes catching the light and reflecting it back at me, twin points of eerie luminescence in the gloom. Like an animal. Or something else entirely.

“The escape craft,” he clarified, eyeing me intently. “When it crashed in the tunnel…” He cocked his head, the movement oddly reminiscent of a puzzled dog. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

A glint of metal drew my gaze to a band encircling his left wrist. He glared at it, shaking his arm and tapping at the device in clear agitation.

“What’s that?” I asked, curiosity temporarily overriding my growing unease.

“My broken communicator. I think the rock is blocking the signal.”

“Signal?” I echoed. “Who are you trying to talk to?”

He ignored me, his attention focused on the uncooperative gadget as he stalked deeper into the cave. A bright beam flared to life from the wrist-thing, illuminating our surroundings in stark relief.

And that’s when I saw them. The scales. Tiny, iridescent, and decidedly not human. They covered every inch of his exposed skin, catching the light and throwing it back in a mesmerizing dance of color.

“You’re an outer space alien, aren’t you?” I breathed, the pieces clicking into place. My roommate was obsessed with sci-fi shows, but I’d never seen a character quite like this. Then again, what else could he possibly be?

“No,” he retorted, his tone clipped. “You are the outer space alien.” He snorted. “Actually, I guess we’re both strangers to this planet.”

I frowned. “Earth?”

“Reazus Prime.”

“Oh.” I digested that for a moment. “So I’m on an alien planet? How did that happen? Did you bring me here? Why?” A sudden, terrifying thought occurred to me and I took an involuntary step back. “Am I your captive? Are you going to…to have your way with me?”

I couldn’t quite keep the tremble from my voice, even as some reckless part of my brain whispered that it might not be so bad, being ravished by a gorgeous space giant.

Stupid brain.

But I couldn’t seem to get any further than that. The whole idea was too much to absorb all at once, so I’d just have to pretend this was fine.

Kinda fine.

Not at all.

He shot me a look that could have melted steel.

“I guess you don’t want me to take you to my leader, then,” I babbled, the words spilling out unchecked. “But what do you want?”

“I want you,” he growled, advancing on me with predatory grace, “to stop. Asking. Questions.”

“Sorry,” I squeaked, holding up my hands in surrender. “I kind of babble when I’m nervous. Is that irritating?”

If looks could kill, I’d have been vaporized on the spot. Mercifully, he whirled and stalked off without another word.

Since he was the one with the light, I had no choice but to follow. The beam played over the uneven ground, throwing monstrous shadows on the cave walls. He stopped abruptly and I nearly plowed into his back, catching myself at the last second.

When I peered around his imposing frame, my stomach dropped. A massive crevasse split the earth mere inches from his boots, a wound in the planet’s surface that seemed to have no bottom. I thought I caught the distant whisper of rushing water, but it was hard to tell over the sudden roaring in my ears.

“This place seems prone to seismic activity,” he mused, his voice a low rumble.

Then he was moving again, picking his way along the edge of the chasm with the ease of someone who’d done it a thousand times. I had no choice but to fall into step behind him, my heart lodged firmly in my throat.

After what felt like an eternity, the gaping maw fell away, replaced by a rickety-looking suspension bridge that spanned the rift. The giant strode across without so much as a backward glance. I gripped the rope railings until my knuckles turned white, my feet finding the weathered planks as if of their own volition. Don’t look down, don’t look down…

On the other side, the giant dropped to one knee, running a hand over the stone. “Mine cart tracks,” he said, tracing the trio of rusty rails with a fingertip. “These might lead us out.”

“Oh, good,” I replied, trying for nonchalance and failing miserably. “I wouldn’t want to be late for my shift. Mrs. Hannigan kind of depends on me, you know?”

He turned to stare at me, his expression unreadable in the half-light. Slowly, deliberately, he shook his head.

“You’re going to be late for that shift,” he said, an undercurrent of something I couldn’t identify threading through his words.

“I am?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach. “How late?”

But he had already turned away, following the tracks deeper into the mine.

I stood there for a long moment, my mind reeling. What the actual heck was going on? The last thing I remembered was going to bed after the eleven o’clock news. No, wait…there had been a light. An intense, blinding blue light that seared itself into my retinas. The kind of light you’d expect to see in a Spielberg flick, not boring old reality.

But try as I might, I couldn’t dredge up a single memory after that. It was as if my brain had been wiped clean, a slate left blank and waiting. Waiting for what? I had no idea. But I had a sinking suspicion I was about to find out, whether I wanted to or not.


Aliens Match: Outlaw Planet Mates

Norsuk

The rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins as I leaped into the stinger, my fingers dancing across the manual retro controls. Sorik and Kamek, those idiots, thought they could best me in a contest of piloting skill. Ha! They couldn’t handle a stinger like I could. I zeroed in on my chosen target, a glint of chrome caught in the light of the twin stars.

“Telemetry capture,” I barked at the computer, my eyes never leaving the pale arc of Reazus Prime. The pod’s trajectory flashed across the screen – glide path seventeen degrees south of the equator. Perfect.

The stinger’s thrusters clanged and thrummed as I maneuvered, the vibrations rattling through my bones. I could almost taste the victory. Once I scooped up that pod in the EM haul field, I’d jam it into a descending orbit to Maneet and sell off the contents sight unseen. Minimal effort, maximum profit. The contest was in the bag.

“Glide path twenty-nine degrees southwest,” the computer chimed, an edge of warning in its mechanical voice.

What the hells? The pod was changing course on its own. Impossible. No matter – I was still on its tail. I watched the distance tick down. 3000 klicks. 2500. It was pulling away from me now? I slammed my thumb on the main rocket control, the thrust shoving me back into the command chair.

We were scavengers, my brothers and I. Bounty hunters. Opportunists. Whatever put credits in our pockets. And according to the scans, those pods held human females. Universal breeders. Valuable commodities in certain circles – slaves, concubines, baby-makers. Not my scene. I didn’t want to get close to any female. I just wanted to get rich.

The stinger shuddered as it hit atmosphere, the planet’s surface filling the viewscreen. Too close for any fancy flying now. “Employ EMHF when we’re in range,” I ordered, watching the electromagnetic haul field charge up. Almost there. I could practically smell the credits.

“Ten. Nine. Eight,” the computer counted down. The pod loomed large before me, seconds from capture. I readied myself, fingers tightening on the control stick. At contact, I’d activate the delta fields and guide us safely planetside…

“Seven. Six. Fi-” The cockpit flashed red and klaxons blared.

“No, no, no!” I yelled, fighting for control as the stinger rocked violently.

“Trawl ray failure,” the computer announced needlessly as the pod broke away. The sudden release sent the stinger hurtling in a dizzying loop. I hauled back on the yoke, desperate to level out. To land. The pod was ahead of me again, retros flaring as it tried to land itself.

“Telemetry capture!” I barked.

“Emergency landing sequence engaged,” the computer replied. I pounded the dash. Stupid, useless machine!

“Where is it going?” I demanded. The pod seemed determine to plow straight into a plateau. At the last second, it plunged downward… into the yawning mouth of an arched tunnel. An old mine shaft. Of course.

I pulled up hard, catching a final glimpse of the pod vanishing into the depths. Banking around, I brought the stinger down just outside the tunnel entrance, landing skids sinking into the bare rock.

The hatch popped and I leaped out into a wall of blistering heat. I ducked quickly into the cool shadow of the mining tunnel, following the marks carved into the stone by the pod’s violent passage. It didn’t take long to find it.

The once gleaming nacelle lay dull and scarred, studded with spent retro rockets. As I approached, the rear end suddenly lifted a few inches, then settled again. What the…?

I edged around the side and froze. The pod balanced precariously on the lip of a deep chasm. One wrong move…

The hiss of an airlock seal releasing made me jump. The rear hatch began to rise with agonizing slowness. I knew the shifting weight would send the whole thing tumbling into the abyss. Leaping forward, I peered inside…

And forgot to breathe.

A small, sleeping form lay within. Child-sized, yet curved with the unmistakable shape of a woman. The most delicate, exquisite features I’d ever seen…

The pod groaned and pitched forward. I lunged, scooping the female into my arms and throwing myself back just as the pod lost its battle with gravity and plummeted out of sight. The crunch of metal on stone echoed up seconds later.

Behind me, a thunderous roar. I spun to see a cascade of rubble seal off the distant light of the tunnel mouth. The pod’s violent passage must have triggered a cave-in.

I looked down at the tiny woman cradled against my chest, her face barely visible in the gloom. My heart stuttered, then began to race. Now what the hells was I supposed to do?


Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Five

Mila

The ugly monster came at us, horrible huge teeth clacking and squirt eyes that bulged in triumph.

It raised its front claws and continued racing forward on its four hind legs.

From the oily hair barely cloaking green skin to the wide maw to the swinging, amphibious tail, it was a complete horror. Even when Ashur sunk two arrows into it, it kept coming.

If anything comes at us, just dig your heels into her sides and hang on.

No. I couldn’t leave him. A sword glittered in the fading light. I heard it chunking into the angry creature again and again. It roared in fury.

Awkwardly, I slid off the huge mount. But how could I help?

Searching the ground, I cast around for a big stick, settling on a big rock and grabbing it with both hands.

But as I rounded Murbai, I saw that Ashur had shredded the grotesque amphibian. His entire body was covered in blood, sword still slashing at the dying monster.

He didn’t see the other one coming up from behind.

“Ashur!” I cried.

The monster saw me, and probably thought I was an easier target. But as it neared, I bashed its teeth in, hurling the rock with a grunt.

It reeled back.

Ashur threw me a look, so angry, it looked like his eyes glowed.

But with a deft thrust, he speared the neck of the second rangungi.

The animal screamed, pawing at the blade.

Ashur withdrew the sword. Then with a savage cry, cleaved the horror’s skull.

A moment of savage battle followed as it batted the sword aside. To my shock, Ashur drove in barehanded. The two tumbled. Squealing, the creature tried to bring its back legs to bear. A crunch followed.

The second rangungi crashed in a heap next to its kin.

“What are you doing?” Ashur growled at me.

“Saving your hide!” I said.

“Find shelter,” he barked, voice a rasp. “Build a fire. I’ll find you.”

“But—”

“Do it!”

Before I could say more, he ran off into the trees. Was he hurt? He was hunched over as if in pain. Still, he moved faster than anyone I’d ever seen.

Distantly, I heard a splash.

Not sure what to make of it, I grabbed Murbai’s reins. “C’mon, girl. Let’s find a safe place.”

She whickered and didn’t bite me.

Huzzah.

I’ll find you.

The phrase stuck in my brain, an eerie echo of Niam’s words. But this couldn’t be what she meant…

Before last light, I found a stand of trees with several fallen trunks forming a natural lean-to. It wasn’t much, but it would keep the rain off and catch some heat from a fire.

Taking off my pack, I found the tinderbox. After giving Murbai a plesple, I found dry twigs and started a little fire. With the light of it, I found larger sticks for fuel. Quickly, I had a merry fire going.

“Why did you risk your life like that?”

Ashur stood behind me, only partly lit by the firelight. His hair hung, dripping. Water made his shirt tight against his frame, letting me see his torso was knotted with muscle. Boots squeaked from the wet.

“Did you dive in the river?”

“I was covered in blood.” He tossed a hunk of something into the bed of needles. “Here. The tail. The only good part of a rangungi. Why didn’t you ride off like I told you?”

“So I could save your backside is why,” I said. “I couldn’t leave you.”

“Couldn’t leave me,” he said. He removed his vest and tossed it aside. Then the shirt.

He had spots on his skin, running from his ears around to his back. The veiled torso was now revealed. A six pack of abs, slabs of pectoral muscles, all of him rock hard and perfect.

“I’ve only just found you,” he said. “A dancer in my dreams. A sweet fragrance I could only trail after. Laughter like distant birdsong. A wisp of longing. Do not risk yourself again. Our hearts are bound. I could not bear to live without you.”

What was this daft talk? I hardly knew the man. Yet his words spoke to me on a more physical level. I felt goosebumps in response. When he closed with me, I didn’t back away.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know my way out here. Maybe I should’ve listened.”

“Maybe?” He lunged forward, grabbing my arms. “You are precious. A beauty. Not something to be put in harm’s way.”

“I understand,” I said, hearing a quiver in my voice.

“Do you?” he said, pulling me even closer.

Did I?

Before I could think about it, he kissed me, his mouth hot against mine. It shocked me. Yet my body responded. For a moment, I held tight to him, kissing him just as firmly.

The touch of a man. I’d felt it before. But it was nothing like this. My mind was overwhelmed. Every fiber of me sang out in desire.

Oh, yes…

But no.

No.

“No!” I pushed him away, not wanting to.

Needing to.

“You want me,” he growled. “You are my mate.”

“I don’t know you!” I said. Keeping the tremor from my voice made me proud. “There’s important work to be done. I won’t have you pawing me. Holding me. Kissing me.”

“We are as one, Mila.” He folded his massive arms across his chest. “Feel me in your heart.”

“Feel this, Ashur.” I growled. “If you so much as touch me again, I will light out on you and escape into the woods. You’ll never find me. I’ll never speak to you again. Maybe I don’t know my way, but I’ll find it.”

But I need you. More than just to get through the woods, I thought.

And then wondered where the thought came from.

“Mila—”

I held up a hand. “Ah-ah. Do you hear me?”

Insects and nightflyers filled the night. The two of us were alone. He was big and so strong.

I should have been afraid. What could I do against such power?

But somehow, I wasn’t worried. Instinct, that was all I could think to call it, said he would never hurt me. That certainty gave me a flutter in my tummy.

“You know I would never hurt you,” he said.

More flutters. How could a stranger know my thoughts?

He pulled his knife, turning to the tail meat to butcher it.

“I hear you,” he grumbled.

I relaxed a little, until his eyes met mine.

“But you’ll die out here by yourself. Whatever you’re doing, I’ll be at your side.”

Like I could stop him.

“As long as you don’t interfere,” I said.

He glared at me. Then returned to his task. And pointedly didn’t respond.

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Four

Ashur

Maybe I shouldn’t have let that name slip.

“What in all the hells do you know about Lita?”  Her face colored red, her eyes wide.

For a brief moment, I thought I had made a fatal mistake. Never had I seen such a ferocious expression. Was she a Frostling?

“She’s fine,” I said.

“You grabbed her, too?”

“Me? No. Well, I’ve escorted her. That’s not the same thing.”

“Escorted?”

I took a long breath. “She’s safe. Comfortable. Not to speak for her, but I believe she’s happy.”

The Frostling sputtered, but when no fire shot from her fingertips, I figured I was safe.

“Lita is in Zashi. My home. The capital of the kingdom. It’s a pleasant place. I could take you to her.”

I could see her mind whirling as her eyes looked at something I couldn’t see, but she shook her head.

“I’ve got a… I’ve got business to attend to.” Her chin raised. “You said she’s safe?”

“The safest. In the safest tower of the castle. My people like her.”

“Kingdom?” she said. “Castle? Your people? How many people are we talking about?”

“In the city, or the whole kingdom?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never heard about your people. Shakai? We were taught there were only humans here. And the monsters.”

I snorted. Monsters?

“What do you say? I could show you around,” I said. “You might like it there.”

For a few moments, she blinked.

Thinking it over?

“I can’t. I’d like to see Lita. Just to know she’s okay. I don’t know her that well. But I can’t.”

“North-northwest then?” I sighed. “C’mon. Let’s ride. It’ll be faster. Safer.”

She didn’t say anything, merely walked off.

In the wrong direction.

“That way,” I pointed.

She looked down her robe again. Turned. Walked off.

I paused, breathing deeply, focusing on my own breath. The Valti opened my eyes, my ears.

Nothing prowled the forest nearby. Not within range of my heightened senses. But that wouldn’t last long. These weird woods were crawling with predators.

We walked uphill. After a time, the trees went from leafy to thorny and needled. From beneath the skirts of evergreens, I saw the gentle motion of tangle vines seeking a meal.

“Are those plants moving?” Mila glanced at me over her shoulder, brows knit.

“Don’t get close. Tangle vines will thrash you to bits. They have poison thorns. You’ve never seen tangle vines?” This girl had led a sheltered life. “Stick to this animal track.”

We topped a rise, disturbing a flock of pink and blue bridil. I reached into my saddlebags and drew the bow and quiver. I strung it, nocked an arrow, hoping to bag some fresh dinner meat.

“Those are pretty,” Mila watched the bridil flock rise.

“And delicious,” I said. “Too far to shoot now, but I’ll be ready if they’re closer.”

She eyed me, then the bow. But she didn’t comment.

For hours, we walked on. It took half the day to reach the top of the highlands. We descended in shadow. Somewhere ahead was the Meadowspan. I’d never been in this place before, but I’d seen maps. It was a wide plain that ran from the piney ridges to Lost Swamp and the Kalinda Jungle.

These lands were outside of the Kingdom of Zashi. Unsettled, barely explored, and wild.

Did Mila have any idea what she was headed for?

“We should make camp soon,” I said.

“Camp? I just want to keep going,” she said.

“You can’t. Not in the dark. Remember the last time? Face injury? Falling on a tree branch?” I said.

“Won’t happen again,” she murmured.

“Plus the night predators will start to stir.”

She eyed me. “Predators?”

“Best to find shelter,” I said.

“Oh, what, so you can have your way with me?” she said.

“I didn’t think that was part of the plan,” I said.

But something deep inside me stirred at the thought. The brief touch of her skin when I’d checked her leg had set me on fire.

What would the rest of her be like?

“I can’t stop,” she said. “There should be plenty of moonlight.”

“The moon is just past new,” I said. “The night won’t be bright.”

“You have an answer for everything.” Her face shifted, jaw setting. She lifted a hand, about to gesticulate to get her point across.

A low roar issued through the trees. Not close, but still loud enough to shake my innards, my bones.

Her eyes went big as her voice went small. “What was that?”

“Rangungi. Probably hungry from hibernation. The snows left the highlands recently.”

“What’s a rangungi?”

“A little smaller than Murbai. Lots of teeth. Six legs, claws. Disagreeable.”

“Will it hunt us?”

“We are moving slowly. So maybe. What’s worse are the monsters who hunt rangungi.”

Her pale face went impossibly paler. “What hunts rangungi?”

“Darkav.”

“Sounds bad.”

“You have those little bugs that spin webs? Catch other bugs? Eight legs.”

“Aye,” she said. “Spooders.”

“These are bigger. They tend to hide in clusters of mushrooms. Sometimes, they get infected by fungus. It makes them more intelligent hunters. Nature is full of mystery.”

“Holy stie,” she said.

I nodded. “Better to have shelter. A fire will keep most anything away.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do that.”

Instead of pacing far ahead of me, Mila dropped back.

“You said it’s safer if we ride?” she asked.

“Less time to catch our scent,” I said.

“Ah.”

“Plus there’s the getaway factor. Not many animals can outrun a bagart. Even with riders.”

“Maybe we should get on her?” she said.

I hung the bow over my shoulder, putting the arrow in my teeth, then I lifted her into the saddle.

“If anything comes at us, just dig your heels into her sides and hang on,” I said around the arrow.

“What about you?”

“I need to make sure whatever wants us for dinner is dead,” I said, nocking the arrow again.

“Let me down. I don’t know how to ride this thing,” she said.

The roar issued again, louder.

Closer.

“Stay up there,” I whispered.

“Ashur!” she said.

I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. A stirring. The way my name sounded on her tongue was musical.

But darkness gathered between the tree trunks. I had to stay focused. As we moved, I heard the sound of the river.

“Keep your eyes open for shelter,” I said.

“Let me down!”

“You have a better vantage,” I said.

A rustle. The breaking of a stick. Snuffing breath.

“I’m not staying—”

“Shh!” I pulled back the bow string.

“Get me off this animal!”

“Mila, be still!” I heard my voice drop an octave.

Unbidden, the Valti emerged. I was happy to have the night vision of my animal passenger.

But it was more than in my consciousness. I grunted with the transformation as my shoulders swelled, muscles growing. My canines extended. I hunched forward, legs deeply bent.

I was glad for the growing darkness so that Mila couldn’t see the awful change in me.

Forcing myself to keep calm, I kept my Shakai focus. Giving into the animal would force a physical confrontation and I needed to use my weapon.

It charged from the blackness between the boles. Six legs made it swift. Plate like teeth gnashed. A juvenile. At least they tasted better than adults.

I shot an arrow between its eyes.

To my dismay, it kept coming.

Nocking, firing again, I hit it where the heart should be. But the greasy-haired creature kept on.

I just managed to free my sword as it plowed into me.

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Three

Mila

Rhythmic bobbing, clopping sounds, the whisk of leaves.

Holy stie!

I opened my eyes and found exactly what I feared.

The ground moved steadily past. Warm arms surrounded me. An antlered head moved back and forth in front of me. I was in a saddle, a rider behind me.

How in the hells—

My jaw ached. Carefully, I raised my fingers; felt the swelling. I’d smacked my face on something.

Smooth going, mighty adventuress.

Should I fight my way free? Scramble off this weird animal? Risk the wrath of my captor?

The animal walked on, steady. My head ached, but the motion soothed me. Arms around me felt strong, but not threatening.

The necklace!

My hand felt it through the robe. Still there. Good…

Head jerking, I gasped. Had I fallen back to sleep?

I heard a voice behind me, the words foreign. But I caught the meaning: woah.

The mount snorted and came to a halt.

Huge hands gripped my sides. I was lifted easily, set on my feet. Legs wobbly, I held onto the mount for balance.

My captor jumped from the saddle.

His face was broad and open. Chin like an anvil. Cheek bones almost feminine in their shape. Yet his brow was beetled, eyes deep set.

“Blăshen se reyalt, mö shay.”

He said.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Yet something stirred at the back of my mind. It was like instructions from the Tomb. Implanted information.

“I’m Ashur of (Something). You are my mate.”

I understood! Sort of.

Let me take that back. The words were starting to make sense, but not the meaning.

“I’m Mila. I’m from the Temple of Terr.”

His language slid easily off my tongue. Had it been placed there? Through the Tomb? Why?

And then I saw that his skin was the hue of burnished bronze, his hair blue twined with strands of green, his eyes concentric circles of color bisected by a vertical pupil. What the hell was he? Bronze people—

“Are you dead? A ghost? A device?”

He shrugged. “I don’t feel dead. I feel livelier than I should, mayhap. Are you going to burn me to the bone with magical fire?”

What? “No…”

“Good. Let’s eat. We need the rest. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to feed Murbai some of your plesples. That way she won’t try to eat us.”

Murbai? “Your—” what was this thing? Not a stie, not a siu, not any animal I knew.

“She’s a bagart,” the stranger said. “You don’t know bagarts?”

“No.”

“Hopefully she likes you. Otherwise, expect a fairly fierce bite when you aren’t looking.” The enormous man smiled.

Dimples?

Wrinkles bunched around his strange eyes. Speckled sunlight brought out copper highlights.

 Strange, but not unattractive.

“Why have you strayed from your round city? It’s dangerous out here in the dry forest.”

“I’m on a—” I stopped myself. “Never mind. Who are you? What are you?”

“Like I said, I’m Ashur of Zashi. I’m Shakai. And if you aren’t a woodling monster out to steal babies and cast curses, I would have to guess you’re human.”

“Human? Where did you learn that word?”

“From a—” he turned his head slightly sideways. “Never mind.”

Mocking me.

Fine. I had plenty of other questions.

“What’s Shakai?”

“People of this world. Natives.”

He gave me a long look I didn’t understand.

“Why are you here, near Terr?” I asked.

“I’ve been tasked by my prince to seek out brigands in your lands,” he said.

“Brigands? Like bandits? There are no brigands here.”

He shrugged. “That verifies that I have nothing better to do. So why don’t I give you a ride?”

“No,” I said.

He seemed friendly enough. Maybe too friendly for an alien giant. I didn’t know what to make of the look in his eyes.

But I had a quest. It didn’t involve huge bronze mystery men and antlered mounts.

“You sure? How’s your face?”

I felt the swelling in my jaw, touched my teeth with my tongue. Nothing loose. “It hurts. What happened?”

“I’m only guessing, but since I found you up in a tree—”

“You what—?”

“—I’d have to say you ran right off the edge of a ravine. You wouldn’t have seen it in the dark. Especially if something was chasing you.”

I thought back. Tried to. Had something chased me? I couldn’t remember.

“You knocked yourself out, and landed on a branch. It seemed like you might need a hand.” He shrugged.

This was hard to believe. “You pulled me out of a tree?”

“Plucked you like a fruit,” he said.

What did one say to that?

“Thanks for getting me down.”

He nodded. “Of course. Why not eat something? Then you can tell me where to take you. Back to the city?”

“No, no, not there.”

He seemed relieved by that answer. Odd.

“Some other settlement?” he asked.

“There isn’t one,” I said. Although I was now looking at a heretofore unknown species of being. Maybe there were lots of settlements.

“The Canyonlands?”

“I’ll just be on my way,” I said. “You don’t have to concern yourself.”

I faced away from him. Peeked down my robe. The light on the pendant was centered, red. I needed to move directly forward.

“What are you doing?”

Turning around, I shrugged. “Checking for more bruises.”

“Mm-hmm.”

This was getting awkward.

“I’m just going to go now. Thanks. Can I have my pack?”

He took it off the saddle and handed it to me.

“You know, you can’t outrun a bagart,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I shouldered the pack and started walking.

A moment later, he was beside me, leading his mount.

I started walking faster, then realized that was stupid. “Look. I have business I need to attend to. I’m fine on my own.”

“Right,” he said, falling back.

But as I walked, I could still hear him behind me.

I faced him. “Stop following me.”

“What makes you think I’m not going in this direction?”

“Fine. You go ahead.”

He shook his head. “I’m feeling lazy. And Murbai is tired.”

The animal snorted.

I looked him over. His vest was of ornately tooled gray leather, shirt of embroidered and finely knit wool, leather breeks and boots, a red cloak of fine, billowing material. He wore a sword on his left, a knife at his right on a heavily worked leather belt.

If not for his hue, his height and breadth, he might well be a woodsman of Terr. Well, that shirt was a little fancy and I had no idea what the shiny material of his cloak was.

“Truly, I need to do this on my own,” I said. “It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed your brief company.”

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“That way,” I pointed.

“North-northwest. Do you even know what lies that way?”

Should I admit it?

My shoulders slumped. “No. I have no idea.”

“Well, the dry forest turns to jungle. And then, after a range of mountains, there’s a desert. On the far side of that is more jungle, more mountains. How far are you going? I can tell you more,” he said.

“I don’t really…”

My throat clenched.

My mission was from the temple. I couldn’t involve strangers, especially strangers I hadn’t known existed until very recently.

How could I trust him?

“I’m not giving you a choice. Well, that’s not true. Here’s the choice. You keep walking, and I keep following. Or. We ride and cover a lot more ground. Those boots look new. You need to break them in. Otherwise, you’ll blister badly. Maybe get the blood fire.”

The boots had been left in the secret room Niam had dragged me into, along with the leather pack stuffed with food and outdoor items.

Given that scenario, this quest must be important.

I couldn’t screw it up.

But which decision was the right one?

I shrugged. “Follow me, then. I just hope you get bored sooner rather than later.”

“Since you have no supernatural powers I can discern, I’ll keep following you. Do you even have a weapon? How will you bring down game? Protect yourself?”

I kept walking. North-northwest apparently. “What’s with the supernatural powers thing?”

“Oh. You resemble a Frostling.”

“What’s that?”

“A magic being that lives in the woods. My people consider them evil. They’re pale with unnaturally colored hair and eyes. Supposedly, they cast spells and curse people. Any who stumble upon their settlements returns insane. Or doesn’t return at all,” he said.

“Like a fairy? An elf?” I said.

He shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know what those are.”

“Okay, then, I am a Frosting,” I said. “I will curse you and give you the pox in your sleep. So you better go your own way.”

“Frostling,” he said.

“Whatever. Just shove off, okay?” I sighed and hurried along.

“By the gods, Lita wasn’t stubborn like you,” he said.

I stopped, my heart pounding in my chest.

Turned.

Lita?

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Two

Ashur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round steel walls in rings telescoping upward.

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

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

And as pale as Frostlings.

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

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

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

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

Here were people, not Shakai, but…

What did Lita call herself?

Human. With their own smell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where was that scent coming from?

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

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

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

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

Still—where was it?

Where was…

She?

Fruit!

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

Very much like plesple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a Frostling’s.

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

She was so soft.

I was distracted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart nearly stopped.

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

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

“Beautiful,” I whispered aloud.

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

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

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

“Where are we going?” I asked no one.

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

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

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

But her animal magnetism left me no options, really.

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

But my heart spoke truly.

This was my mate.

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

I was smitten.

Damn my cousin.

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter One

Mila

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

The Tomb had provided instructions, and I followed.

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

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

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

But the instructions in my head could not be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned my mind from that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe you can rinse it off in the—”

I was interrupted by footfalls. A dragging sound.

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

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

“Who is she, Fathers?” Denna asked.

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

“Laren,” was all Father Zarak said.

Then the men turned and walked off.

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

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

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

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

“Denna. Stay with the new one.”

I spun toward the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here.”

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

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

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

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

I thought it was to steady me.

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

It wasn’t my place to ask questions.

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

Her eyes took a moment to focus on mine.

“A task,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a question.

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

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

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

Some did not return.

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

All citizens of Terr knew not to stray.

“You will go beyond the woods.”

I gaped at Niam’s words. “Beyond?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will I have access to supplies?”

“Calculating,” Niam said.

“When should I leave? Tonight?”

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

“Don’t—”

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

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

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

Alien Beast’s Fated Mate: Chapter Three

DRAX

My shoulders barely fit in the tight passage, but I crawled forward on my belly until it opened wider. This awful place…

I sensed her. The girl from my dreams. I could feel the vibration of her thoughts in my heart. More than that, I caught her scent. She was real. Though I knew that already, I’d had no proof until—

“Aahh!”

Pain sliced me, sizzling fire drawing strips across my skin.

And again!

“Aahh!” I screamed through clenched teeth.

My voice echoed. Hands sliding over my body, I felt no sign of injury.

The pain wasn’t mine.

With double the effort, I surged through the smooth burrows deep beneath the earth. My Valti overwhelmed me with roaring abandon. The beast within railed against the pain. For the nonce, I exalted in the animal power, the bestial senses. It drove me faster. Surer.

The pain was hers. She was being whipped by flames, tortured. Surging agony could not slow my progress.

When the cave turned upward, I followed her scent. Unholy decorations appeared, red eyes watching, a fire that didn’t warm.

Frightened as I was, it was not nearly the abject terror I felt through the bond of my soul.

She must be protected. I must make her mine. Tear those who hurt her limb from limb.

Of a sudden, the pain vanished.

I stood still in a geometric cavern. Felt fear through the bond. She was still alive. Her heart sadly resolved.

Taking a relieved breath, I focused, calming myself. This strange place was no place to unleash my inner beast. Following the wind in and out of me with my mind’s eye, I restrained the animal within.

Feeling my true self after a time, I examined my surroundings.

Was this room so different than a chamber in the castle palace? Staring eyes could be candles. Flickering blue square windows. Bizarre boxes and tubes… furniture?

Calm. Balance.

I needed these to fight.

Tapping gently into my Valti nature, I sniffed the air. The girl, my mate, was somewhere above.

Stalking these shadow chambers, I sought a way up.

My motions halted.

My mind filled with a calmness more profound and stiller than I ever experienced. Unlike the state I fought the animal that lived in me, never had I felt such overwhelming tranquility.

I recognize you, though I don’t know you.

That touch, I knew it from before. “I am here for you,” I said.

So fierce… Are you my savior or devourer?

“None will hurt you and live to tell of it,” I said. “You are mine and mine alone. Come to me.”

I cannot.

Even in this serene state, I felt her fear rising. Was she held captive?

“Come to me!” I commanded.

Her thoughts quailed, intellect rippling like a still pool disturbed by a thrown rock.

I… I will…

“Come to me, my bonded soul!” I bellowed.

I will… try…

A shudder of hopelessness. The depthless tranquility flashed away. My mind had lost hers.

By the cursed red moon. If she could not come to me, I would go to her.

Passing beneath mountain-sized construction, through straight caves in steel, around cold objects that blazed with light, I sought a passage upward.

I am Branna. How may I serve?

A vision appeared, eyes without sight. Below, a network of lines pulsed and shined. Glowing red eyes winked on the flat surface.

“What are you?” I took a step back. “Are you trapped in there?”

I am Branna. Biological Oracle. Interface to Terr. How may I serve?

“Where is my bound soul, Oracle?” I asked.

Error.

“A woman held captive. Imprisoned. Where is she?”

Cells of initiates are on sublevel one north.

Meaningless. “Where are we?”

I am omnipresent. You are below sublevel five.

“How do I get to sublevel one north?” It was worth a shot.

This temporary monitor chamber is beneath Terr proper. Passages are natural lava tubes and unmapped.

Lava tubes. Is that what I’d been creeping, squeezing through since the Canyonlands? Easy enough to recognize.

I continued my quest.

Wandering, tiring, every chamber, every cavern started to look the same. No upward passages appeared.

I would not give in to despair.

There had to be an area I hadn’t searched. If only I had a torch, a lantern.

Then, voices.

Echoes made the direction difficult.

A jolt ran from my shoulder to my hand, stunning me. I tried to shake off the numbness.

Again, it was not my own feeling.

More jolts seared through me. I sprinted toward the source. As I neared, the intensity of the attack increased. At least I knew I was headed in the right direction.

Swerving around a curve in the tunnel, I came upon two hooded men. They stood above a form covered by a fluffy blanket. Each of them stabbed the fallen one with a wand.

Each touch crackled with energy. Through the nerves of the one on the ground. Through our bond. Through my own. Lunges of agony.

“Hold, torturers!” I raced toward them, drawing my blade.

Hooded figures staggered back in shock.

One cried out a babble of fearful words.

The other hooded figure sounded more commanding.

Warriors to sublevel five west. The temple has been breached by a primitive.

Branna’s voice in my head told me it was time to flee.

I leapt over the fallen one, putting myself between her and the hooded foes. They backed away even more, staring at my weapon.

The first made a sweeping gesture. A line of fire cut through the air. I parried it away. Even that slight touch brought heat all the way to the pommel.

When the hooded ones began attacking in earnest, I knew there was no point in defense. Turning the sword, edge meeting whip, I swung with all my strength.

With a clang, the tip of my weapon bounced off the rock walls. At the same time, glowing red and squirming, the flame whips lay on the floor.

With cries of panic, the hooded ones fled. I should go after them…

Her face froze me in my tracks.

Legends, stories told around campfires emerged upon the sight of her. Hair and lashes black as night. Skin pink and pale. Impossibly delicate features. A Frostling, a forest nyx, deceptively frail, yet bearing lethal magics.

In my dreams, haunting me, drawing me, never once did I think she was a fearful creature of myth.

She lay so still…

My bond mate was a creature out of legend?

Dare I?

My fingers touched her neck.

A strong pulse. Warm skin, not the feel of an unliving, unearthly fiend.

She stirred as I lifted her in my arms.

“You…” her eyes widened in fear. “You… what are you?”

Her head slumped again, unconscious.

And what are you? I thought.

The woman was small, hardly a burden. Though barely larger than a child, her feminine curves were evident under her clothes. Still, shoving her through narrow caves—lava tubes—all the way back…

Might as well give it a try.

“Branna, what is the fastest path to the Canyonlands?”

An emergency escape passage runs from sublevel one north beneath the city wall.

Okay, a good start.

“How do I get there from here?”

Take the central corridor to the farthest north wall from sublevel five east. Stairs lead to the levels above. A door beyond the level one north landing leads to the emergency escape tunnel.

Adjusting the woman’s weight, I moved in the direction the hoods had fled. Since they’d melted my sword in half, I hoped not to meet their warriors.

Following the oracle’s directions as best I could, I ran through the underground nightmare.

The female trapped in the wall wasn’t lying. After racing up flights of stairs at the north side of the dungeon, I saw a disused door. Kicking it open, I ran through a square, metallic passage that rose steeply.

Hollow shouts pursued. Warriors. Their torches provided enough light to see, and I sprinted after my shadow.

Finally, I came to a short flight of stairs, a door above.

Ramming with my shoulder, I crashed my way into the cool night.

Looming walls of the alien city rose close behind as I glanced over my shoulder.

Time to put some distance between us and it.

In my mind, I reached out to the bagart. Though I’d left my mount in the Canyonlands days before, she remained. Grindi was loyal, chained to the dominance of my Valti, even if she would rather run free.

My Valti summoned her, and she ran toward us. I would do my best to meet her halfway.

Running through the forest, I kept casting looks behind. This was territory controlled by the aliens. I needed to reach the Canyonlands, and my home beyond.

The bond of my soul, my creature of dark lore, stirred in my arms. Her legs thrashed.

Then she gasped.

I could not understand the words that followed. Gripping her more firmly, I continued losing us in the forest.

It did not take her long to wriggle free, forcing me to put her down.

I kept hold of her arms.

“We are destined to be one,” I told her. “I’m taking you to be mine. Should you not burn me to ash with your spells.”

Her eyes took me in, growing wider and wider.

She let out an ear-piercing scream.

More than that, her horror stabbed me in the heart.

“I have claimed you. You came to me in my dreams, and now you are mine,” I tried.

“Like hell I’m yours!”

Our language on her tongue sounded strange. How did she learn to speak it? Again, the possibility of a magical nature seized my heart.

“You’re a primitive, an animal!” she shrieked.

She tried to pull away, to run back to the city.

“I’d not whip you,” I said. “Chain you. Force you to live in a wall. Am I so savage?”

“Live in a wall?” After a moment, she stopped struggling. “Branna…”

“We remain in alien territory,” I said. “If we don’t move now, the warriors will find us. Drag you back to that living hell. Cut me to bits.”

“I can’t go with you!” she said. “My home is in Terr.”

“Do you really want to return to your prison? To the hooded men with the fire whips, the lightning cudgels?”

She faced south but trees blocked the view of the city.

Would she choose her terrible life over an unknown future?

If I couldn’t convince her to accompany me, my animal nature would fully consume me.

“Do you?”

She trembled, torn between the only home she’d ever known and the open unknown. I could see the indecision in her eyes, could feel the war raging in her heart through our bond.

“I…I don’t know,” she whispered.

I softened my tone, trying to reassure her. “You need not be afraid. I only wish to take you far from those who would chain and torture you. I swear no harm will come to you by my hand.”

She searched my face, looking for any deceit. I held her gaze steadily, willing her to trust me.

After agonizing moments, her shoulders slumped in resignation. “Very well. I will go with you, away from this awful place. But I don’t belong to you, primitive! Don’t think you can control me.”

Relief swept through me and I nodded. “We should move quickly, before the warriors come.”

I took her hand and we moved through the trees at a brisk pace. She stumbled often, weak and disoriented. I steadied her gently each time, waiting until she nodded to continue on.

I would never leave her behind.

She was mine now.

Alien Beast’s Fated Mate: Chapter Two

Lita

“Give her a robe,” an irritated voice said.

I felt rough hay scratching my back beneath a thin, itchy blanket. My senses slowly returned after…how long had I been in that watery tomb? Days? Weeks?

When I finally managed to sit up in the dim, cramped chamber, a wad of coarse cloth smacked me right in the face. Oh lovely.

Raucous laughter ensued from two rather unkempt young women sitting together on a cot across from mine.

“First time in the Tomb is always the worst time,” the blonde one commiserated.

I quickly realized I was in some kind of dormitory cell. My charming new roommates had so graciously chucked a shapeless tunic at me to wear.

“Get dressed, sleeping beauty. We’ve got work to do,” the other woman added in a bored tone. She had straight black hair and eyes the shape of almonds, set in bronze skin.

I fumbled to pull the garment over my head, my body stiff and sore. “I take it you both have been in this dreadful place far longer than me?” I asked wryly.

The blonde nodded, chewing on a fingernail. “You catch on quick, girl. What’d they put in that pretty little head of yours?”

I paused, surprised to find I could answer. “Removing corrosion from the contact points in Monitor One.”

Where in blazes had that specific knowledge come from? I knew nothing about contact points or monitors before entering this nightmarish temple.

The brunette raised an eyebrow, looking mildly impressed for the first time. “Well, well. You can learn to learn. Good for you. In that case, I’m Mila.”

“Name’s Denna.” The blonde fluffed her mass of springy curls with one hand. “Guess it’s the three of us now. Our previous roommates got…reassigned.”

I shuddered, hugging my knees to my chest. The temple demanded five young women be sacrificed as tribute every year. “What happened to the other two girls who were with you?” I asked quietly, fearing I already knew the answer.

“Not suitable for temple slaves, we gather,” Mila replied with a careless shrug. “They’ve been…”

Applied. The ominous word slithered unbidden into my thoughts. I felt nauseous.

Denna gave me an assessing look. “You know what we’re doing here at least. Do you have any clue where we’re going next?”

I blinked in surprise as the answer popped readily into my mind. “Monitor One is on sublevel three west.”

“Well, let’s get moving then,” Mila said, standing up and stretching. “We’ve got a lot to do today, ladies.”

I slowly rose to my feet but immediately staggered, my legs rubbery and weak. Denna grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You’ll get your land legs back soon enough,” she said. “Takes some time to get used to whatever forbidden knowledge the priests crammed into your brainbox. Makes you dizzy at first.”

The cell door swung open at my push. I turned back to the other two slaves hesitantly. “Don’t they lock us in?”

Mila gave a harsh laugh and physically turned me around, shoving me out into the dim corridor. “The temple IS your life now, sister. Get used to it.”

I felt a chill run down my spine at her words.

Denna sidled beside me, slipping her arm supportively through mine as we walked. “Wouldn’t bother trying to escape if I were you,” she murmured. “They’ll kill any girl who tries running away.”

My mouth went dry and my steps faltered. “They’ll kill me?” I whispered.

Mila shook her head, her face grim. “Death would be a mercy. They’ll keep you alive instead. For a very long time.”

I shuddered at the thought, quickening my pace. What fresh hell was this place?

We turned a corner and I immediately recognized one of the robed figures approaching us. It was the same pale woman who had first led me into the temple, who had watched impassively as I was sealed into the lightless tomb.

Mila and Denna quickly bowed their heads and echoed, “Oracle.”

The woman blinked slowly at us. “Error,” she stated flatly. What a cheery greeting.

Without further acknowledgement, she handed each of us a small metallic device before gliding away down the hall.

Denna blew out an exasperated breath. “Good morning to you too, sister. Ever so chatty, that one.”

Mila silenced her with a sharp elbow to the ribs. “Have some respect. Niam wasn’t given a choice in her role here.”

I glanced between them questioningly as we descended a winding staircase.

“Niam was selected by lottery too,” Mila explained, “but she was just a baby when the priests took her. She’s spent her whole life growing up in this temple.”

Denna leaned in close with a theatrical whisper. “Rumor is becoming an oracle made her more than a little…eccentric. Strange even for one of their kind.”

I pondered that silently as we navigated deeper into the temple’s subterranean maze, trusting my feet to lead us unerringly to our destination. More questions than answers still crowded my mind.

We finally entered a spacious chamber filled with enormous panels that reminded me of auto-scribes, but expanded to wall size. Swirling symbols and colors shifted hypnotically across their glossy black surfaces.

I had no idea what any of it meant. But a clinical part of my brain knew exactly what needed to be done here.

“One day we might come to understand all this data,” Mila remarked in an ominous tone. “Can’t say I’m looking forward to that day…”

For now though, we were simply performing routine maintenance on the bizarre machines, guided by knowledge implanted in our minds. Without consciously deciding to, I found myself disconnecting a translucent tube that pulsed with crawling blue light.

Inside were thin wires tipped with golden nodes, squirming and wriggling like living things. Using the device the oracle had given me, I began methodically cleaning each one.

Glancing over, I saw Denna and Mila also efficiently tending to the disturbing biomechanisms, their faces stony.

Over the next few days, I settled into a grim routine. The dreams of my mysterious rescuer had utterly ceased. But I gradually learned more about my fellow captives.

Denna was a military brat from the fifth ring. Mila had grown up the child of leather workers in the lowest slums of the eighth ring. Both were hardened and cynical enough not to speak of loved ones left behind.

But one evening after lights out, Denna asked bluntly, “What did you do before your number came up in the lottery?”

I stared at the ceiling, struggling not to tear up at memories of happier days. “Not much. Just a glorified nanny and maid for a wealthy healer’s family on the third ring. Cooking, cleaning, gardening – making do with what herbs and vegetables we could grow on our terrace. Mother showed me how to sew dresses too.” I tried to keep my tone light.

Denna scoffed in the darkness. “That’s not a real job or skill. That’s just basic living, girl.”

“Is nannying even considered a job?” Mila wondered aloud. “If so, someone owes me a sack of coins.” She chuckled before adding kindly, “You must come from a high class family to live on the third ring though.”

Unwanted tears trickled down my temples into my hair. I stayed silent, jaw tight. The life I’d lost felt so far away now.

Mila seemed to sense my sadness. Her voice softened with sympathy. “How’d you end up as one of the chosen tributes then?”

I exhaled shakily. “I learned my real purpose right before being handed over to the temple. All those lessons in cooking, cleaning, sewing – they were meant to make me the perfect prize for some wealthy old man. A broodmare bringing status with my good breeding. My father hoped to use me to climb another ring up the social ladder.”

Bitterness seeped into my tone. “But I drew the unlucky lottery number instead, and Father’s grand plans were ruined.”

Denna made a small understanding sound. “Like our friend Branna then. Her parents essentially sold her to a prominent family who could afford to bribe the priests and save their own daughter from selection.”

I simply nodded, unwilling to explain further. Some secrets were mine alone to keep, at least for now.

We lapsed into silence until the cell door suddenly scraped open. The oracle’s waifish form was visible in the torchlight.

“The Tomb,” she intoned hollowly, unblinking gaze fixed on me. “You will acquire a new skill.”

Fear slithered down my spine like ice water.

I did not want to return to that lightless underwater crypt, suspended weightlessly in total darkness and silence. The very thought made my skin crawl.

But Mila’s scarred forearms caught my eye as she gave me an almost imperceptible nod. I remembered the brutal punishment the priests had inflicted before sending me into the Tomb the first time. Defiance or resistance would only make things worse.

With leaden feet, I followed the oracle out of the cell down to the chamber that held the sarcophagus pool. My palms began to sweat, my breaths coming faster.

Two tall robed figures awaited me impassively. I could not see their faces within the deep hoods, only shadow. But I sensed their malevolent power.

When I glanced pleadingly at the oracle, her gaze remained fixed straight ahead, disconcertingly vacant. She would be no help.

“Remove her robe,” one priest commanded in a deep, resonant voice that seemed to vibrate through my bones.

I hesitated only a moment before obeying, despising their desire to humiliate me by leaving me bare and vulnerable before them.

For long moments, they simply stared at my exposed flesh. I fought the urge to cover myself with my hands.

“The knowledge we will impart carries a heavy toll,” the other finally rasped. “Should your feeble mind survive assimilation, you will be initiated fully into our order.”

I couldn’t restrain a visible shiver at his words. Survive?

“Submit to the Tomb,” the first priest intoned.

Before I could ask what price they spoke of, both made a sweeping gesture in unison. Searing heat flashed across my skin, followed instantly by the wet agony of an open welt.

With a choked cry, I fell to my knees, clutching my head in anticipation of another blow. But none came.

“The Tomb awaits, fathers,” the oracle said tonelessly, moving between us.

I saw a smoking rent in her robe where their punishment had burned through to mark the flesh beneath. Yet she showed no reaction to what must be pain.

The slight diversion at least halted their assault.

“Yes…” the first priest drew out the word almost sensually.

“Into the Tomb,” the other echoed with a hungry rasp.

The oracle held an instrument that glowed green, erasing the worst of my injuries before binding me once more. 

Jaw clenched, I descended into the warm dark water, feeling the heavy stone lid seal me in silent captivity. What price would my mind pay for the secrets they forced into it this time?

Some unknown hours later, I awoke bolt upright on my cot, heart racing. I didn’t remember returning to the cell.

Disturbing dreams clung like cobwebs to my mind, just out of reach. Dreams of freedom…of escape.

I stood and hastily pulled on my robe and sandals, tiptoeing so as not to disturb Mila and Denna. But Mila’s whispered voice froze me in place.

“Where are you going, Lita?”

So much for sneaking out unnoticed. I turned reluctantly to face her, unsure how to answer.

I felt a powerful compulsion drawing me down into the temple’s lower levels. But why? What waited for me in those buried halls?

“I…I don’t know exactly,” I admitted. “But not here. I can’t stay trapped in this place another night.”

Mila slid silently out of bed and gripped my hands, her eyes pleading. “Please don’t do this. Wherever you feel called to go, it’s a trap. There are far worse fates than this cell. Please, just try to sleep.”

I wanted to believe her. But the relentless pull in my mind was impossible to resist. I gently pulled away, shoving past her out the cell door before I could change my mind.

“Lita, stop!” she hissed after me. But she didn’t follow.

Driven by compulsion, I descended deeper into the temple, navigating the maze of stairs and corridors without hesitation. It was as if my body moved of its own volition, my conscious mind merely along for the ride.

The walls gradually changed from roughly hewn stone to smooth metallic panels decorated sporadically with inscrutable symbols.

I was drawn short by one panel with a glowing design that turned my blood to ice: a pattern of intricate veins and sinews, undulating with lurid colors.

With dawning horror, I realized it was organic matter fused directly into the metal. Flesh and blood transformed into biomechanical circuitry.

Used.

Just as the Oracle had warned would happen if I would not, could not learn.

A screen suddenly flickered alight, making me jolt back in alarm.

“I am Branna,” a feminine voice stated from unseen speakers. “How may I serve?”

Wide, vacant eyes stared out from the monitor at me. With a strangled gasp, I whirled and ran, desperate to escape the grisly wall decoration and the sightless gaze tracking my flight.

In my panicked state, I lost my footing and tumbled with a short scream into absolute darkness. The compulsion fell silent, leaving me alone and disoriented.

I slowly got to my feet and felt along the smooth walls of what seemed to be a service tunnel. Then a dim light approached from the far end.

The oracle materialized before me, face unreadable as always. In one hand she held an ancient lantern, in the other…a bundled cloak?

“Error,” she stated in the same flat monotone. Then she dropped the cloak at my feet and backed away.

“Wait!” I blurted out before she could leave me alone again in the terrifying catacombs. “Where are we? Why did you bring me that cloak?”

She paused, blinking slowly. “Error. Lava tubes. Formed during the establishment of Terr.”

Lava? I didn’t understand her vague explanation about the founding of the city. But I had no chance to ask as she turned and disappeared into the shadows once more.

“Error,” her voice drifted back, then faded away.

Unsure what to make of her cryptic actions, I picked up the bundled siu wool cloak and wrapped it around my shoulders. It provided some small comfort.

But I was quickly reminded I was not alone down here.

“She thinks she can escape,” a contemptuous voice echoed around me, instantly recognizable as Father Aronn.

I whirled, searching desperately for anywhere to hide in the exposed tunnel.

“We will teach her obedience,” rasped Father Zarak. “Many, many times…”

Their lascivious words turned my blood to ice.

“Branna!” Zarak suddenly shouted. “Attend us! Where has the initiate fled to?”

His command seemed to reverberate directly into my skull. Moments later, I glimpsed flickering light rapidly approaching through the curved tunnel, reflecting off the polished black walls.

My pulse roared in my ears. They were coming for me.

Alien Beast’s Fated Mate: Chapter One

Lita

My brain cleared as if emerging from a deep fog.

How much time had passed, I didn’t know. But it was enough for soldiers to be summoned, for me to be dragged up the winding roads of South Spoke that led to the imposing center of Terr and the arched entrance of the foreboding temple.

I heard the clop of siu hooves on cobblestones, smelled the rank animal odor of the draft beasts. Above me, Terr’s terraced rooftops and overhanging eaves crowded the stormy night sky. I realized I was lying on a wooden cart, propped up on a bale of hay.

My head throbbed; my jaw, teeth and nose were a symphony of pain. Blood clotted in my raw throat as I struggled to breathe.

“She’s coming around,” said a gruff, deep voice nearby. I blinked, slowly focusing on the three imposing spires of the temple looming above us.

“The old man really did a number on her,” remarked another man, his voice fading as he dismounted a siu and walked away. Then came the hollow, ominous knock of the round serpent’s head door knocker, slammed three times against the ancient bound wooden doors.

“Too bad,” continued the first man, the one who remained close by. “I’ll bet she’s a real beauty under all that blood and bruising.”

A blinding flash of lightning lit up the ominous temple façade an instant before a torrential downpour opened up. I blinked away the purple afterimage seared onto my retina and struggled to sit up on the hay bale.

Despite being ten feet tall, the imposing temple doors swung open without a sound. Beyond lay only inky blackness.

The soldiers immediately knelt, keeping their gazes fixed firmly on the ground. One held out a sheet of auto-scribe parchment in a slightly trembling hand. An impossibly slender pale hand emerged from the impenetrable darkness beyond the door, long fingers beckoning.

“Let’s get this over with and get the hell out of here,” muttered one of the soldiers nervously.

They returned to the cart and lifted me up. My legs were unsteady but I could stand at least. The soldiers kept their grip under my arms as they walked me toward that pointed black maw of a doorway.

I was utterly terrified, my heart hammering against my ribs. But I dared not resist. These men were afraid too, I realized. Fearful of whatever lay within that lightless temple.

“You’re afraid,” came a soft voice from the shadows. It wasn’t a question.

I managed a slight nod, unable to find my voice to answer.

“Come,” the voice commanded. Those long pale fingers emerged again, summoning me forward.

I wanted to run, to fight, to resist entering that ominous doorway. But the soldiers gave me a rough shove from behind and I ended up on my knees on a hard stone floor inside.

The light narrowed, then vanished entirely as the thick wooden door boomed closed behind us. Thin cold hands gripped my shoulders, stopping me from collapsing further.

“I’m touching you,” said the soft voice. It belonged to a woman, I realized.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim torchlight, I saw luminous amber eyes peering out from beneath a black hooded shroud, her skin almost glowing in the firelight.

“Your skin is like gold,” she murmured, those spidery fingers trailing down my arm.

I wanted to scream and demand answers, but terror shut my mouth. I couldn’t make a sound.

“You are afraid,” the pale woman repeated. She seemed pleased by this realization.

I finally managed to croak out a trembling, “Yes. I’m afraid.”

“Your response is appropriate,” she replied. Her tone was devoid of any warmth or sympathy.

Before I could say another word, more hands reached out from the surrounding darkness, grabbing me from all directions. My beautiful blue dress, my mother’s gift, was ripped violently from my body and disappeared from view.

I was lifted up, stripped completely naked, and carried swiftly through the blackness. Terror robbed me of my voice, leaving me mute.

In an unlit chamber, I was dropped carelessly into a water-filled stone tub. Coarse cloths immediately began scrubbing my skin, reaching every private place with complete disregard for modesty or dignity. I couldn’t slip free of the unyielding grip that held me down.

Just as suddenly as it began, I was dragged from the bath. Cold metal manacles were forced over my wrists and ankles. When I instinctively struggled against them, I found the bonds were strangely soft, yet utterly unbreakable.

Still held fast by these inexplicable bonds, I was taken into another room, this one containing a large rectangular hole in the floor. Nearby lay an angled stone slab, like the cover of a sarcophagus.

My captors forced me onto the slab, positioning me over the opening in the floor. I still could not see their faces in the oppressive darkness.

“What are you doing to me?” I finally managed, my voice rising in naked fear.

To my surprise, the water in the hole below was pleasantly warm, embracing my body instead of chilling me. Yet I still floated fully immobilized, with only my face remaining above the surface. When I tried to thrash my limbs, I found I was gently but firmly held in place, unable to move.

The pale woman’s face suddenly floated into view above me again. Her amber eyes were impassive, devoid of emotion.

“What is this?” I pleaded with her. “Please don’t hurt me.”

She tilted her head, considering me for a moment. “We only need to learn if you can learn,” she finally replied. Her words made little sense to my panicked mind.

“What? What does that mean?” I demanded, fresh tears spilling down my cheeks.

“The temple requires this,” she explained patiently. “We will attempt to train you, if you prove able.”

One spidery finger stroked my cheek in an oddly tender gesture. “You are present,” she murmured, seemingly to herself. “I’m never sure.”

My confusion only grew. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” I sobbed.

“You will be deprived of sensory input,” she continued, ignoring my distress. “Once you reach a calm, open state, the priests will attempt to impart esoteric knowledge directly into your mind. If you cannot fully accept the wisdom, there are…other uses for you.”

“Other uses?” I repeated. That single phrase filled me with unspeakable dread, even as her meaning eluded me.

None of the girls brought to the temple by lot ever emerged again. 

Was that what she meant? Were they used in some dark, sinister way I could scarcely fathom?

The slab I lay upon began sliding backwards with a grinding sound of stone on stone. The sarcophagus cover being positioned to seal me inside this liquid tomb.

“No no no, please!” I begged, thrashing weakly.

“Fear is your friend,” the pale woman said in her soft monotone. She showed no reaction as the heavy stone lid loomed over me, sliding relentlessly into place.

A flash of lightning illuminated the room just before the cover sealed shut. I shouldn’t have been able to see it this deep within the temple’s bowels. Yet the very walls shook in response to the tremendous crack of thunder that followed.

The woman suddenly threw back her hood with a moan, clutching her temples as if in pain. Sparks erupted from the slick black featureless walls around us.

I glimpsed her face clearly for the first time in that brief instant. She was slender, with short cropped auburn hair. When she blinked against the pain, I caught a flash of sea green eyes. And…were those freckles across the bridge of her nose?

She looked barely older than me. How could this seemingly ordinary young woman be complicit in such cruelty, such torture within these unholy temple walls?

“Error,” she murmured, blinking rapidly.

“Don’t do this to me,” I pleaded one last time.

More sparks burst from the darkness. She winced again, shaking her head. “Error,” she repeated firmly.

With chilling finality, the heavy lid came to rest over me, sealing me in suffocating darkness. I floated in the warm black void for a time, senses utterly deprived.

Then slowly, gently, colors and lights began playing across my vision. Vague shapes formed, then took on solidity. Scenes from my life played before my mind’s eye, summoned from memory.

My father, bouncing me on his knee on our terrace, telling me silly stories. My mother and I, slicing firin root and patat together as we prepared larendove pies. Friends from Four Ring, playing skip-tag.

My lecherous, lame betrothed, assaulting me violently within view of the temple itself.

A towering wall built from steel plates, set inside a deep mote.

Giants wandering a shimmering forest, ancient trees glittering.

Stars wheeling slowly across the night sky.

Whispers, soft as feather caresses within my ear.

Silence. Utter void.

And then…a presence. Not mine.

Danger, the foreign mind thought. Cautious, yet determined.

This presence sensed my own fear, my mortal peril, embraced me as it crawled through the rusted, blood-scented guts of some bizarre stronghold.

The passages we moved through were barely large enough to squeeze along on bellies. Slick, cold, greasy fluids dripped down as we slithered forward. Sometimes we crawled through grotesque, fetid muck, gagging but unable to stop.

This mind would not give up or turn back. It was here for me, my rescuer across impossible distances.

For many moons, it had dreamed of me, as I now dreamed of it. But those were just yearnings from afar.

Now, my terror and pain had forced its hand at last. I was no phantom, but real. Flesh and blood. 

What was this rescuer? Man or beast?

Should I feel jubilant relief or dread as it approached unstoppably?

Needing to understand, I reached out tentatively with my mind.

At my first probing touch, the mind’s reflexive growl was feral, primal. Savage.

Yet still we connected. Rage and fear fell away in a flood of stunned recognition, of yearning joy beyond words.

“My fate,” it whispered within me. “The missing bond of my soul. You will be mine.”

The tidal force of raw emotion was almost too much to bear. I pulled back, breaking the link…

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