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elinwyn

Reaver’s Return: Chapter One

Raelyn

“But why the mecha?” Kyla said. “Why would the commbangles lead us there?

“Who cares? It worked, we were recovered, happily ever after.” Jael was one of the girls with me when our escape pods landed on this primitive planet.

Now, we lived in caves with winged cavemen and a few hulking dudes of assorted colors.

By-and-large, the dudes in question were not into girls. Or guys.

From what I gathered, they were genetically designed clones, built for warfare. Maybe their Makers thought romance would only complicate their simple soldier design.

They made for less than exciting company.

“It could be that the mecha have flight capability, that the bangles are trying to help us get off-world,” Kyla said.

Blah blah blabbidy blah, I didn’t say.

I stood in the corner of what had become the women’s chamber. There were no other women on Thaxios, save the survivors of a crashed spaceship, Smarniks Dream.

All of us Earth girls were hired as dancers on that cruise ship. The Loliax, tentacled jerks who put us on display, hadn’t bothered looking for their cargo of entertainers after the ship exploded.

We had landed here almost a year ago.

You’d think being one of the only women among hoards of muscle-bound alien hunks would be paradise.

But none of them approached me. The rest of the girls didn’t like me much, either. Screw them.

Maybe it was because I tried to seduce the first humanoid male I’d seen in forever.

Could you blame a girl?

But Vandath, who looked like a combination of classical statue and bronze angel, was mated to Maisie.

For a bunch of asexual guys, they really took mating seriously.

Just look at Kyla. Could you be a hundred months pregnant? She was ready to pop.

My attempts to drag Van into the bushes earned me a half-shunned status.

No male, bronze angel, red devil, gray monster or striped tree hugger, gave me the mating eye.

Lord, I was bored.

A year ago, we were dancers. Regular girls, taking a job to get by.. Now, super-pregnant Kyla sat at a table, talking about strategy against underground creatures bent on taking us out. Discussing huge, armored suits and strange weapons to use against the subterraneans.

Can you believe it?

“How’s it going with the sonic guns?” Sarah bounced her little cherub, the winged infant babbling.

She was mated to the leader of the Sen’ki, the angel guys, Dakath. The baby was the only one known in the whole world.

“We’re missing a component. Ryven and I need to make a trip to the Mansion in the Icelands,” Kyla said. Ryven, red and scaly with spiny hair and thorns, was her mate.

To each her own.

“Not while the serkits are migrating. It’s the end of winter,” Sarah pointed out.

Most of the animals on this planet were out to kill and eat you. And some of the plants.

“And the gekka will pursue them until they reach the highlands,” Hannah added.

Hannah was mated to the spooky, silver-scaled Khelos. His eyes were solid black, features on the aquatic side.

Thinking about it, maybe the Reavers’ lack of interest in me wasn’t so bad.

“Sen’ki could fly you there safe,” Allison said.

“Hah! Like Ryven would be caught dead…”

Kyla slumped forward, elbows on the table. Her eyes turned bright and wet, hands trembling.

“Not again,” Maisie got up from her place. “Get some of the herb tea.”

“I hardly had any trouble with my pregnancy,” Sarah said.

Allison hurried to a side table. She poured water from a woven bucket into a carved bowl. Adding dry leaves, and then stones from the fire to heat the water, she carried it over.

“We’re almost out of the herbs,” she said.

Maisie frowned. “I thought she’d have the baby by now, or I’d have found more. It’s tough with snow still on the ground.”

Kyla sipped the brew. She made a face. “Ugh.”

But in a few moments, she sat upright.

Maisie put a hand on Kyla’s extended belly. “C’mon, little guy. You’re making mamma sick. Time to come out.”

“Stubborn,” she said.

“Like his mother,” Sarah smiled.

“I’ll get more herbs to see you thought,” Maisie said.

“Let the Reavers gather them. It’s dangerous out there,” Kyla said.

Maisie shook her head. “They can’t tell which are the potent ones. They can’t smell it like I can. Besides, I can take care of myself.”

“I’ll go with you, girlfriend,” I said. “Shorten the time.”

The other girls exchanged catty looks.

Whatever.

“Okay. Be nice to get out of the cave,” Maisie said.

Which only inspired more amazed glances.

I was sick of my fellow human women.

“No time like the present,” I said.

We walked together through the tunnels of the Aerie. I found it ironic that winged men would spend their lives underground, even if this was at the top of a mountain.

“Man, can I use some time away,” I said. “Those bitches get on my nerves.”

“Guess they’re looking out for me, in a way,” Maisie said.

I sighed. “Why are you my friend? I tried to steal your man.”

“You were half-drugged on zingot sap and siqot juice. If you girls hadn’t been sleeping in your escape pods, you’d all be dead. Happily frozen to death,” she said.

It was true. The marsh our pods landed near was a trap to turn our bodies into fertilizer. Stinky sap and hallucinogenic fruit kept us blitzed, stupid and lazy.

“Maybe I would’ve been more successful if I wasn’t so high,” I said.

“Why do you always have to push?” Masie said.

“Sorry. You land on the planet of the buff barbarians, and you expect a party, right? Freakin Loliax. Those squirmy SOBs owe me a ton of cash,” I said.

Maisie gave me sympathetic eyes.

“I’ve never been popular. Never had friends. My folks were survivalists. Anti-alien. They’d kill me if they found out I was married to a Sen’ki. Now, I’m one of the girls. Who knew? All I needed was to be marooned on an alien planet.”

“Well, I don’t want to be marooned anymore,” I said. “What was Kyla talking about, the commbangles trying to get us off-world?”

I shook the ornamental bracelet that acted as communicator, translator, homing beacon.

“We really don’t know why they signal like they do,” she said. “I know it sucks here for you. I really hope that’s what the bangles are doing.”

“You wouldn’t go if you had the chance?” The idea of it astounded me.

She turned away, pink face pinker with blush. “I’m too stupid in love.”

“I don’t need love,” I said. “Just a good hard banging. Here I am, on a planet where point oh-oh-oh-oh-oh one percent of the population is female, and I can’t even get a leer, a wolf whistle.”

Giving her a covert look, I had to wonder how she scored an Adonis with wings.

There wasn’t much to her. Back on the ship, she was stand-offish, quiet. I had come to think of her as either backward, or somewhere on the Asperger scale.

Turned out, she was the one of us most suited to survive this planet.

“I can’t explain the Reavers, why they do what they do, why some fall for us girls. But I was really worried when Van and I found you in the marsh.”

“Worried?” I asked.

“He thought you were attractive…” She took a breath. “Oh, face it! You’ve got that curvy body, those freakin curls. I thought he’d dump me in a heartbeat. Either you, or Jael. Hell, any of you. Anyone other than me.”

“Well, he sees something in you, that’s for sure. C’mon, Maze, you’re good looking. A little on the short and plain side. But you’ve got something special.”

She snorted in response.

I put a hand on her shoulder. “He’s not the biggest Sen’ki, but he’s certainly the hottest. That beautiful face, those abs, those shoulders.”

“Stop already!”

I held up my hands. “What I’m saying is, he’s into you. Nobody else. You don’t need to worry. I can see it every time he looks at you, kid. You hooked the best possible alien dude on Thaxios. I put on the full-on flirt, and he didn’t budge. Hold your head up, all right?”

When the winged god in question stepped from a tunnel, I buttoned my lip. He smiled at Maisie. I saw the love look in his eyes before he kissed her deeply.

Dang it!

“I need a lift, Van,” she said a little breathlessly when they broke.

His eyes studied hers. Jeeze, he was stupid with her!

“Anything you need, babe.”

“We need to collect herbs. It’s the only thing keeping Kayla going,” she said.

“Hmm,” he frowned. “The edge of Ken’ki territory. Those striped tree dwellers don’t like us much. It’s nearly sunset.”

She nodded. “We’ll have to be careful. Believe me, we’ll stay where you can keep an eye on us. But we can be back before dark.”

The bronze angel faced me. Van smiled. “Ray-lnnn.

But I didn’t get a smile like Maisie had. “Can you help us out?”

“Of course,” he said. Then he called down a cave. “Evrik! Nakavs! We’re going on a flight.”

A moment later, a taller, thinner Sen’ki appeared, two bladed spears in his hands. He gave one to Vandath; holstered the other behind his back. Then he looked me over.

“We’re flying the females?” he said. “Should I get a sling?”

“Nah. Just pick her up. This won’t take long,” Vandath said. He scooped Maisie into his arms as she giggled.

Evrik looked hesitant.

I sighed. “C’mon, tall, bronze and nervous. Pick a girl up already.”

It was an awkward moment. He tried to keep my body away from his.

“You are unnervingly soft,” he said. “Will this hurt you?”

“Just fly, kid. Just fly,” I said.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Six

Arctur

Only one place remained to take out the Vak’ki before the Northern Arena. A shallow canyon formed by the stream left flat, leaf-covered banks. Water had undermined the sandy soil leaving pits and ditches as deep as my waist. 

I prepped the one depression the brigands would have to cross. One by one, I sharpened the ends of thick twildi stalks. I embedded those in the bottom of the ditch. Then, harvesting more, I covered the stakes.

Vak’ki weighed a lot more than the women. Using myself as a test, I stepped on the stalks, checking the breaking point. A pole slightly thicker than my thumb would just support my weight. Collecting stalks of this size, I finished my work. 

The narrow spit of land between the canyon wall and the water would let two people walk side by side. My grid would easily support the females. It would briefly support the Vak’ki. Hopefully long enough to get several of them over the sharp sticks below. And then give way.

It was not a lethal trap, but the sharp sticks would maim as many outlaws standing on the grid. Knowing Jafiz, he would leave his wounded men behind to bleed out or eventually heal themselves.

Stepping back, I gave the pit traps a critical eye. It was not distinguishable from the rest of the bank.

With a leafy branch, I brushed away my own footprints. Twice, I nearly trapped myself, unable to see the covered grid. That was enough. I took to the trees above the canyon wall.

It would take them time to reach this point. 

I’d given the women my kill from the day before. Famished, I scanned the ground and the branches for game.

Kaqen roosted among the highest branches. They brought Savak to mind. 

I didn’t kid myself into thinking I’d taken out many of Jafiz’ horde. But when the time came, would Savak turn against his fellow Vak’ki? He seemed to hate them as much as me.

I stood a better chance with him at my side. Even if Vak’ki and Sen’ki were mortal enemies. 

Following rules had not served me well in the past. Perhaps this wasn’t such an unlikely partnership.

And Zania. I wondered. Would she stay out of harm’s way? I doubted it. Which meant protecting her while fighting. I would do it gladly.

Scouting along the river by air, I found patches of tall twildi. Their top, fuzzy flowers were falling apart in the late season.

These would show me when the Vak’ki approached. Marking their position along the banks, I hunted.

Today would provide no feast. Arsek sunning themselves on exposed branches were my only find. Beheading them, I dropped several into my pouch.

Beneath the fragrant leaves of silla plants, brorp grew. The shade-loving caps had a savory taste when cooked. 

Broula fruit grew along the disturbed game trails. Ricci gobbled these down to fuel their march south. Enough remained to harvest. It was not the greatest meal, but a meal it was.

All the while I hunted and gathered, the twildi remained still, their flowers intact.

From the sun’s position, Jafiz’ band should be near, yet I saw nor heard no sign of them.

Staying just above the canopy, I flew downstream. From various perches, I studied the bank. There were no footprints.

Surely, Jafiz’s scouts were no crafty woodsmen. 

Fear arose in the back of my mind. I dared not lose the tribe of women. They were my entrée back to the aerie.

I would gladly trade a return to my arrogant brethren for Zania’s safety. For some time, I’d lived without the Sen’ki, been exiled from the Aerie. But I was quickly becoming certain I could not live without Zania.

After flying halfway to the branching trail, I paused.

They hadn’t come this way at all. It was the clearest path to the Northern Arena. Something had gone wrong.

Still wishing to remain unseen, I backtracked. But, unfortunately, staying out of sight prolonged my flight. 

Eventually, I reached the sight of carnage.

The markeesh branch had done its work. Red-scaled warriors lay scattered.

Damage had been done to their heads, the branch sweeping over the shorter women. They’d been left in pools of their own blood.

Vak’ki must have moved on from here. A pair of boot tracks led upriver. Scouts. But after a few lengths, I lost their spoor.

Once the trap was sprung, Jafiz would know he was being hunted.

I never gave him enough credit. He had taken his rabble off the easy path.

But to where?

My breath came more quickly. Skin prickled with sweat. There was no sign.

The easiest way to locate them would be waiting until dark. From above, I would be unseen. Fires would glow brightly.

No. I could not wait that long. I could not leave Zania out of my sight for that long.

Doubling back, I examined their tracks. Around the fallen, uncountable footprints, I moved chaotically. The Vak’ki were in an understandable panic. Nevertheless, I could make out some small, delicate prints among them.

I paused, thinking. The band had gone neither up, nor downstream. So that left either the west or east bank. 

Scanning the opposite bank, I saw no trail. Only the narrow path led to the recci’s game trail on this side. Walking downstream, I came to it.

No footprints returned into the bush.

Except…

Twisted around a low branch, I caught a flash of color. Yellow and blue. A strip of hargeisa hide.

I knelt. Faint drag marks crossed the ground. They had swept behind them to hide their passage. Just as I had at the pit trap.

Had they headed back to the large game trail? That would send them away from the Arena. 

I sprang into the air.

Jafiz had stopped believing Zania.

I needed to reach her before he could enact revenge.

The flight from the stream to the game track was short. From my vantage, I saw their footprints now. Jafiz had gained some military skill in the past day. His brigands and the women walked in single file. He was hiding his numbers.

A little late for that my red-assed friend.

Launching myself, I moved beyond the broken canopy above the trail. Eventually I would come up on the band of brigands. Unseen would be best.

Then directly below, in the thick forest, a red face flashed through a gap in the leaves.

Darting away, I found a quick landing spot. I listened. If the Vak’ki had seen me, he did not raise the alarm. 

Yet I heard crunching through the loam, the treefall. Low voices issued. As did a constant sound of chopping.

The brigands had left the game trail, hacking their way through the deep woods.

Why?

Stealthily, I followed. From branch to branch, always just out of sight. Their progress was slow. Vak’ki swords were not made for bushwhacking.

Among the deep, complaining grunts, I made out a more musical sound. The females were still among them.

I would not put it past Jafiz to force the women to blaze the trail. It would be lazy. Slower. The brigand way.

It gave me reason to fly ahead of the band. Swerving far out of sight, I circled back. 

The sight below was strange.

“Hold!” Jafiz called, raising his hand.

In front of him, Makiv and Savak swiped sweat from their brows. Their swords cut a path. Right behind them stood Jafiz and the gathered women. Rakkin and Vokr stood at attention. Their weapons were at the ready.

Jafiz grabbed Zania by the arm.

It took iron will not to drop on him and beat the scaly red leader to pulp.

He let her go. 

“More to the west,” he pointed at the hackers. Then Jafiz grabbed Nandita’s wrist.

Savak took a half step toward the leader. His sword lifted slightly, his head down. I saw heat in his eyes.

But Jafiz pushed her aside. “Yes. More to the west. Keep going.”

With a last dark look, Savak turned to hack away at the dry vines and branches with Makiv.

I had seen Jafiz looking at the lighted bracelets. Even from here, I noticed the flash of yellow lights.

Pointing more to the west?

Trashing and hissing came from ahead. Savak’s sword was a silver blur. With a deft flick, he cut the fanged head of an arsek. Flipping the venom-dripping head into the trees, he speared the long, wriggling body. Savak dropped it in his carry bag.

It looked like arsek was on the menu for everyone.

Jafiz frowned, then stepped back from the trail breakers. Grabbing the arm of one of the women, he moved farther to the rear.

“Vokr, Rakkin, move these creatures to the rear. I won’t lose one to arsek-bite before we uncover our treasure.”

His men pushed and shoved the women along the line of bandits until they were last in line. I noted that Jafiz joined them there.

Not an arsek-lover, that Jafiz.

My move was to outflank them, so silently, I took to the sky. But, not knowing where they were heading, I could only scout ahead a short distance and wait.

Wet, gray clouds moved in. They would block the sun before nightfall. A freezing wind pushed ahead of them. This forest was soon to be even more treacherous.

In fits and starts, I stayed ahead of the brigands. 

Pieces of their conversation came to me. The foreign tongue of the women, the sweeter music of Zania’s voice, kept me rooted. 

Vak’ki, the ones out of Jafiz’ earshot, muttered complaints about arsek, uneven ground, doubts about treasure.

This grungy bunch had become outlaws to escape the discipline of their forest Fort. I wondered how long Jafiz could keep them together. I didn’t think he could keep them under his boot much longer with the oncoming weather.

My stalking became tedious. The ruddy henchmen had no idea of my presence, despite my killing several of their number. Blunt weapons, they were. 

Yet a mile away, I spotted a clearing. I flew to it, frigid wind buffeting me, shaking the flora below. A lake appeared, a ribbon of shore surrounding rocky cliffs to the east. The iron surface churned in the wind.

It was the only place around to set up camp. Not even the determined Jafiz would pass up a site with water and sheltering rocks.

Diving, I skimmed the surface. Waves sprayed as I passed. Large, black fish gathered in schools where twildi grew in the shallows. A forest of broad-leafed trees marched down the opposite shore.

Luckily, I found a hollow drikka almost on the water. It retained many of its yellowed leaves. Looking it over, I found it a suitable shelter from the wind.

In the hollow, a well-feathered nest had been abandoned by a southern-bound animal. Dry, relatively warm, I set my pouch on the uneven floor. The disassembled nest made for a thin bed.

If only I could steal Zania away for the night…

I stopped that train of thought. Zania was the only one Jafiz paid attention to. There was no taking her away from the others.

Why was that thought on my mind anyway?

It left me with a strange vibration that ran through my body. 

I set up my observation post, trying to ignore the sensation. But it stayed with me, along with thoughts of having Zania to myself.

On the ground, I built a small fire, trusting the billowing wind to hide the smoke, then I skinned the arsek, cutting them into pieces as long as my finger. On a sturdy stick, I skewered a piece of arsek, then a couple caps of brorp, and repeated the process until they all went over the flames.

Soaking drikka leaves in the lake, I prepared the broula for steaming.

As I worked, the wind whipped my tiny blaze. Hard, stinging rain nearly forced me into the hollow. But soon, the sleet became softer white flakes. 

The first snow of the season covered the lakeshore. It would be a truly miserable night for the brigands.

I continued at my task, trying to do my best to ensure it wasn’t as miserable for the women.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Five

Zania

“Sometimes I wonder why I’ve lost my taste for battle,” Savak said. “And then I encountered something like that. Those Sen’ki…” His face was pale, hands shaking.

It was horrible. The worst thing I’d ever seen. And yet the brigands had deserved it, that attack and worse. I only had to look at the other girls to justify my opinion.

“He’s alone,” I whispered. “He has to take drastic measures.”

“You approve?” Savak made a distasteful face.

“Until all of them are dead,” I nodded. “Yeah.”

Even though I knew I’d have nightmares for a long time, I had to free myself and the others. 

Although we women were the aliens here, I recognized something in the eyes of Jafiz.

The edge of madness. He was pressed ever closer to the precipice by anger. 

I had seen it before, but nothing as bad as this. Jafiz liked hurting. Hurting was equally as important as his insane plan to steal our treasure.

We could not let him keep us.

While the attack had been more violent, more sickening than I would have ever believed, Arctur appeared above, steadying my nerves. I had called him an angel, and that was true enough.

Avenging angel, and guardian. My heart leapt at the vision even as I feared his discovery.

I needed to thank him, needed just to be close. Even for a moment. No one had ever unleashed such power to protect me. There was no way anyone else ever could.

“Your heart is the coldest I’ve ever known,” Savak said. “Colder than even your feathered protector.”

I lifted my chin. “That’s because his heart is fire. His heart is reprisal.”

“There’s no talking to you.” Savak moved away.

Behind me, walking with us as protection, cowards! The brigands discussed their unknown opponent.

Their voices were hushed, but now they moved much more quietly.

“It came from the trees. But we are many marches from the Ken’ki’s jungle territory,” one said.

“That was a Sen’ki trap,” another said. “They always attack from above.”

Murmured agreement followed and my gut clenched, nervous that they had pinned down Arctur’s clan so quickly.

“Why here? This forest is far from their mountain realm.”

“Do we know it was set for us? It could have been there for decades, waiting to be sprung.”

“From the old days,” another agreed.

“Until we know different,” Jafiz’ growl rose above the low voices, “we behave as if we are under attack. You at the vanguard. Double time. Move out. I want two volunteers to scout.”

The other man at the front prodded us with his sword. “Faster,” he growled.

“Why is he poking us?” Nandita cried.

“I think they’re scared,” I said.

“Then feed us!” Bree shouted at the devil. “Give us something to wear on our feet!”

“Stop your yammering or I’ll fill your mouth with my sword,” the devil raged at her.

Eyes hot and wet, she turned away and walked faster.

“C’mon, ya’ll. I ain’t fixing to die here. None of us are. We’ll get away.”

“How?” Bree said. Her voice was on the edge of a sob. She let her anger cover her fear.

I couldn’t tell them we had an ally walking beside us or a guardian angel in the skies above.

“I ain’t figured it—” I started.

Then the flat of a sword hit me in the cheek. It was just a tap, but my temper was up. 

Teeth bared, I whirled on Savak.

“Step it up, all of you, before Jafiz starts thinking he doesn’t need so many females,” he said darkly.

“Listen to the devil,” Salome said. “Don’t give them a reason.”

“Exactly,” I said, frowning at Savak. 

He might be trying to protect us, but he didn’t need to be a complete jerk.

We walked on through the woods. Since the first trap went off without warning, I had no idea what to look out for. 

Would the girls and I walk headlong into another one of Arctur’s traps? 

Somehow, I knew he was smarter than that. Smarter than Jafiz, that was for sure. 

More than that, I knew he would save me, save us. 

No matter what the cost.

“How long do you expect us to keep this up?” Nandita demanded, facing Savak.

He didn’t understand her. He couldn’t, yet it seemed a sorrow crossed his face. I hadn’t seen sympathy from these red, scaly demons, and I hardly recognized it.

“I’m sorry, dark eyes. Please try to hang on.”

Suspicion crossed Nandita’s face. Was Savak truly different from the others?

But there was no way for her to answer, and she turned away.

I watched her walk ahead of me. When we had danced together, I was envious of her. The glossy black hair and the darkest eyes beneath long lashes. Now, she was skin and bones, her hair matted, her fingers skeletal.

Did I look any better? I’d been the first captured. First captured, first starved, I thought. Were my own thoughts even making sense? Was that why I felt drawn toward the angel? He didn’t look at me with pity. There was something else in his eyes.

Something I couldn’t bear to think about right now.

We walked on and on. The sun slanted through the canopy, its red light turning bloody. My feet hurt, the muscles of my legs cramping. Each step felt dangerously close to a collapse.

The devils slowed their pace when shadows pooled beyond vision—at least human vision. I wondered if it was too dark for even their glowing yellow orbs to see carefully laid traps.

Soon after, they called a halt. Tattered tents hauled from the beach were pitched and fires started. No one put up a tent for us women or lit a fire. We would be taken care of last, if at all.

Exhausted, I tried to find a place to sit. There was nothing but cold, damp ground. Ready to bawl my eyes out, I moved away from the group. I didn’t want them to see my spirits so low.

Then, a dull, drum-like sound came from a distance. From above. It could only be one thing. Carefully, checking to see if any of the devils noticed, I moved into the trees beyond the trail.

“Zania.”

The deep voice vibrated me like a tuning fork and he stepped from the darkness, his hands moving to my arms.

“You’ve walked so far. Nearly into my second trap. I thought I should warn you.”

I nodded. It took a moment to find my voice. “Jafiz has put the women in front.”

“I suspected he would. Don’t worry. Here.”

He took his bag from his shoulder. From this he took bundles of fur. Even as he did, an aroma made my stomach cry out. “Food?”

“Hargeisa, fat and plump, with some salt. Take the furs. You need to keep warm,” he said.

It took all I had to keep from breaking down in gratitude. “We’re all so hungry, Arctur. So cold.”

“Pass this among your people,” he said, “If you can do it without being seen. I will bring more when I can.”

Without thinking, I threw myself into his arms. He accepted me as if it were only natural. “I’ll try.”

“Make sure you eat as well. The Northern Arena is still distant.” His arms wrapped around me tighter until I felt his warmth even chilled to the bone.

“I just want this to be over,” I said against his chest. The idea that I was throwing myself at a stranger didn’t occur. I needed his closeness. His smell was spicy, skin nearly hot despite the dropping temperature.

“It won’t be long. Once the Vak’ki enter the dome, their time is done,” he said. 

“I don’t know if we can last that long,” I said. “I try to look tough, but I’m not a tough girl, Arctur.”

His arms hugged me harder. “You are tougher than most Sen’ki, Zania.”

“Only because you make me stronger,” I admitted.

“Take my strength. I will find more. I will give you all I can.”

Twigs snapped, leaves rustled. In an instant, he pulled me deeper into the forest. We stood in silence. A shadow appeared, a crossbow resting on a shoulder. Still and silent, we waited for the devil to pass.

“I can’t be seen,” Arctur whispered. “You can’t be seen with those supplies. Hurry back to your tribe. I will be watching.”

With the whipping of wind and deep flapping, he was gone.

“No. Please stay…” I knew he couldn’t. Nor could I stay away from the girls. Looking in all directions, I hurried back.

A small fire blazed. The devils had left a few big bones, a rock to break them so we could scrounge a meager meal on the marrow.

Cathy and Bree sat on either side of the fire, trying to roast one of the bones. Salome lay on the ground, arms covering her head. Neve tried to comfort her. Talia stood with Nandita, talking in a low voice.

“Look what I found,” I whispered. 

They turned toward me as one. Eyes locked on the furs. In the firelight, I saw the blue and yellow stripes of the deep, soft pelts. No one spoke.

“It’s meat. And furs. Bree, you can take the furs to wrap around your feet. C’mon, take the meat before the devils see us.”

Bree stepped forward, but stopped short. “Where did you get it?”

“I…” I received it from our guardian angel. “I found it. It won’t be missed. Dig in. Bree, take the pelts.”

No one needed a reason. They just wanted to eat. We each took a larger portion of meat than we’d eaten in weeks. And salt! When had I last tasted salt? It was cold, a little greasy, and the best thing I ever ate.

There were three of the bright pelts. While all our “shoes” were makeshift, Bree practically walked barefoot. She threw her arms around me. 

“I don’t care how you got this. Thank you so much. You always say we’ll get out of this…”

Nandita sighed. “Now you’re starting to believe it. But don’t get too grateful. None of you. We’re in this horrible situation together. That’s how we get out of it. You can’t put it all on Zania.”

There was a low murmur, hopefully of agreement. We all moved closer to the fire. Eventually, the heavy bones cracked. Like jackals, we greedily ate the marrow as well. 

For the first time in a long time, I slept soundly. But at sunrise, I remembered Arctur’s warning. There was another trap ahead. I debated clueing the other girls in. But if they acted like they knew something was coming…

Hoping they would forgive me, I kept silent. Soon enough, we were prodded into the chill morning. Fog gathered in the treetops. My hair was wet, and my torn, shredded clothing as well. I hoped for enough sunlight to warm me and dry me off.

At least my legs didn’t shake beneath me as the devils forced us to the front of the march. 

It happened almost at once. Jafiz called a halt as the game trail angled to the west. He stalked over to me, Rakkin and Vokr at his back, their swords drawn.

“Which way?” Jafiz grabbed my wrist, shaking me. 

I kept my eyes away from the trees. Even that might have given our guardian away. 

Mimicking writing with my other hand, the devils exchanged looks.

“What does it want?” Rakkin asked.

“Like she wants to write something? That’s absurd,” Vokr said.

Jafiz looked at my hand. “No. Not writing. Drawing.”

Vokr frowned. “A map?”

Rakkin cleared a spot in the dirt with his boot. “This I have to see.”

Trying to remember my night flight with Arctur, I found a twig and scrawled in the soil. The stream moved away from the Northern Arena, and I drew that first. Then the city. Finally, the Arena itself. I circled this.

Jafiz studied it. “Beyond the forest, it looks like. On the edge of the waste.”

“It could be a trick,” Vokr said.

Rakkin barked out a laugh. “These fragile things? Trick us?”

“This must be the stream,” Jafiz said. “I didn’t realize we were coming near it again.”

“That should tell us if she’s lying,” Vokr reasoned. “If we don’t come across the stream, we kill one of her fellow creatures.”

I tried not to let on how much I understood. Before my face could give me away, Nandita spoke up. “What are you telling them, Zania?”

“Hopefully what they want to hear,” I started.

Jafiz backhanded me and I tasted blood as I fell over on my face. Vokr started for Nandita.

“Never mind. Let’s move. Eventually these things will learn their place.” Jafiz drew his sword and pointed down the smaller game trail. “Move these creatures out. Makiv and you.

Jafiz still didn’t know Savak’s name, I noted. The two of them pushed us down the narrower track. Soon, we were on the march again.

We arrived at the stream a short time after. Jafiz folded his arms, looking upstream. “Maybe they learned their place.”

“Should we take a break, Jafiz? Fill our skins?” Rakkin said.

“What for? We’re following a stream, you idiot. Keep moving. We must be close. I can’t wait to be shut of these feeble beings.” Jafiz nodded at Savak and Makiv. Savak pushed my shoulder. But not too hard.

Tall, bushy trees grew along the banks, but there was room to walk. We moved upstream, our minders right at our backs.

I didn’t know who tripped it. All I heard was a heavy rush of air. Wind blew back my hair. And then the screams.

Whirling around, I saw the devils behind us as their knees sagged and weapons dropped from their hands.

“Get down!” Jafiz shouted. “Get down!”

A branch rebounded back toward us, covered with dagger-like thorns.

Covered with blood.

Five of the devils staggered. I saw that the closest one had lost the top of his skull. Another had a mass of blood where his face had been. Then, as one, they fell face first to the stream bank.

The bobbing branch was thicker around than my leg. It was the simplest trap ever—a branch drawn back, and released. The thorns were so sharp, so many—

I tried not to be sick. 

The saw-like branch had passed just over our heads.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Four

Arctur

I’d studied the renegade band of Vak’ki for days now. One thing was certain—it took them a long time to get moving. I raced ahead with the sun climbing in a cold, purple sky. 

Since entering the forest, they followed the broad game paths of the enormous recci. It made for easy hunting as well as easy travel. All of these brigands were lazy.

Laziness made them predictable.

What would be more than half a day’s march, and perhaps longer being encumbered by the women, lay the perfect spot. It must be where the blue monsters stopped to drink. A grove of red checha trees spread out on both banks of a broad stream.

At this time of year, sharp leaves hardened, turning a violet color. But the cold of the night made the tree sap run through the trunks. So those leaf blades defended against the one creature that sought checha sap.

Spearfires.

The red and black creatures were as long as my forearm. They lived in the mud around the tree roots. A single drop of sap would cause them to swarm. The saw-jawed creatures would devour anything covered in the sticky stuff. They needed it for the next generation—and winter was coming fast.

As simple to set as it was dangerous, it only required a hole in the tree trunk deep enough to draw sap, a plug to seal it, and a tripwire to pull the plug free. Other than the shredding leaves, the difficult part was getting a proper plug in place without being touched by the tree’s pink blood.

It was a favorite of the Sen’ki, who could access the branches from above without dealing with the slicing leaves. But, with the increasing cold, the branches drew themselves tight against the trunk. 

Growing from the marshy banks were twildi. Their hollow, segmented stems were ideal for tapping the sap. I would have to risk a fire to harden them. The most time-consuming part would be the tripwires. 

Weather had killed much of the grass along the banks. I found the driest, tallest blades. With my knife, I harvested a bundle. When it seemed enough, I doubled the load. Then I cut the thin tubes of twildi, making sharp points at one end. I triple checked that each tube was sealed.

Once a small fire blazed, I sat, tubes near the flames. Twisting and twining the grass, I formed it into sections of twine, then twisted and braided these together again. Gazing up in the tree, I estimated a length.

Thoughts of the marching Vak’ki drew my focus. Shaking my head, I continued my tasks. It seemed forever passed before my taps and twine were ready. That had given me time to figure out the most damaging placement. Two chechas angled over the trail. One in each trunk, directly above, should work.

Pacing out the distance, I tied my flame-hardened twildi with lengths of grass twine. Then I flew upward, carefully descending into the bundles of cutting leaves. The first tap went into a soft knot. I held my breath when I pounded it in with the haft of my knife.

Below, bubbles and motion in the mud. My heart pounded. The spearfires were aroused. 

After several tense moments, I wasn’t eaten. 

Spooling out line, I lighted to the other tree. Then, carefully pulling the line nearly taut, I inserted the second tap. 

Thrashing in the mud. I prepared to fly straight up, and damn the stabbing foliage.

The red and black nightmares remained submerged.

Dropping, careful with the line, I wrapped it around the lower trunk of one, pulled it across the trail, wrapping the other tree. Plenty of cord. I tied it off, the trap set. The rest I looped and carried over my shoulder.

But that would only take out a few. Gaining the sky, but keeping low among the branches, I followed the trail north, looking for the next place to hurt the enemy.

Thoughts of Zania came unbidden. She seemed soft, gentle as a golden neika on the outside. Yet her words spoke of a resolve harder than stone. That inner strength allowed her to survive amongst the kidnapping brutes. That and an innate understanding of her captors.

Being a stranger here, how she had come to that revealed a cunning intellect, superlative insight and ability to observe.

These creatures, these women, were interesting. Even a Sen’ki as thick as Vandath understood this. Yet I had not known fascination until I first laid eyes on Zania.

Had she even seen me? We’d locked eyes across a clearing. That single glance had sealed my fate. It was as if her essence had flooded my senses and thoughts from that moment on.

Was this their power? Camouflaged strength hidden behind a glamor that seemed nearly mystical?

It drove me to fly faster. 

Before confronting her captors, I needed their numbers severely reduced. 

The game trail continued north, but the Northern Arena lay to the northeast. 

Besides the broad stream, there seemed no easy way for the Vak’ki to travel. Easy was their way. So the stream it was.

I could move much faster in the air. Keeping among the tallest trees, I searched. Below me, I saw a migrating recci crash along the trail. Kaqen flashed from the trees at its progress. Where would the brigands turn to follow the stream?

Perching on a stout branch, I thought it over.

By now, they were on the march. They would reach the first trap after zenith. Then, panicked flight, or careful thought would follow. Either way, they would not make it this far until tomorrow.

I marked a smaller trail leading to the water. Not the size a recci would leave behind. Just wide enough for Reavers, I thought. Calculating their march, I made my best guess where they would be either in the late evening or early morning. Flying to that position, I prepared my next trap.

Zania. She came to me as inspiration. Taller than the other females, the top of her head only reached my chin. I smiled, not only at the thought of her.

Motivated by self-preservation, even a leader as dense and unimaginative as Jafiz would learn his lesson. He would march the women ahead of his brigands.

Ahead.

I laughed out loud. It startled a pack of autumn-fat hargeisa from hiding. Whipping the nakav from my back, I took three of them. Their blue and yellow fur and fat meat would serve not only my needs, but Zania’s as well. She needed the nourishment, and the warmth of pelts.

I would need the energy from the look of the stout markeesh trees on the bank.

The leftover twine was not enough. I needed to make more, and thankfully, I was far enough ahead of the marchers to have the time to replenish my stock. 

I grinned bleakly.

This one would be far deadlier than the last trap. It would take out many more. The horror of it would demoralize the outlaws.

There needed to be suffering.

Zania’s words came to me. Oh yes. There would be much suffering when Jafiz’s bandits reached this site. The thought of pleasing her made my heartbeat quicken.

I cleaned and skinned the tree-dwellers, soaked their pelts in the stream. Casting around, I found more tall grasses. Eyeing the fang-like thorns of the markeesh trees, I measured with my mind.

More rope, I thought. Lots more rope.

From a heavy trunk, branches sprouted in fading blue arches. Markeesh were harmless on their own. Branches sheltered all manner of beasts, flying and arboreal. With a little intervention, however…

Twisting, braiding, I made twine into rope, then into thick cords as big around as my wrist. As I did, I studied the markeesh until I found the perfect one.

I worked until the sun reached its full height. The meat and fur would have to wait. It was time to view the first attack on the unsuspecting Vak’ki.

Foliage was dense between here and the checha grove. It allowed me to fly high and straight. I would be invisible from below.

Nearing the site of the trap, I found a branch to lite on. The red trees were in view, as well as the game trail. I waited, listening.

Undisciplined, the rattle and clang of arms, the creak and groan of loose harness issued through the foliage. Casual talk, jests, grumbles, shouts, the noise of armed men who did not know they were about to face battle accompanied this. 

I tensed. 

Booby traps were not infallible. 

They could give me away as easily as injuring my foes.

Worse, and unthinkable, their prisoners marched among them—also in danger.

They emerged, red scaled faces, black hair, gleaming horns on their heads. As I predicted, brigands took up the vanguard. The women took the rear. Behind them, only two marched. 

Savak was among the pair. He was as crafty as I believed. His eyes were everywhere. Would his caution give away the trap?

This was my only chance at surprise. The Vak’ki would be wary after this. 

Now, the first of them was below me. I hugged the trunk. They walked without care.

When they reached the trip wire, I found I could not breathe.

Half a dozen moved past the danger zone.

Damn me, it wasn’t working!

The females came closer and closer. Would it spring on them? 

Muscles tensed. If it came to it, I would swoop down, take Zania in my arms, and get her away from this place. Crossbow bolts might miss me among the branches. Regardless, I would not let—

One of the outlaws stopped. He looked overhead. He held out a hand, as if feeling for rain.

The man next to him punched him in the back. Moving him on.

That was fine.

The fire-hardened taps clattered to the ground. A spray of pink issued from where they pulled free.

Watery sap sprayed the soldiers below.

Spearfires erupted. Mud splashed everywhere from their buzzing wings as a swarm exploded over the doused men.

They screamed. They ran.

Others pushed them away, realizing they had been tainted with sap. Yet others were also covered.

The air became dense with black and red bodies. Many of the creatures soared to the wounded trees. Enough of them did not.

A man staggered, falling to his knees, his head covered with squirming, biting, sawing horrors.

Those following retreated, scattering randomly.

The second man fell to the mad hunger of the spearfires. A third. Blood soaked the grass, the mud, the bark.

Deep whining filled the air with the onslaught. Crossbows fired, ineffectually. Swords swatted and cut.

These did not deter the famished attack.

“Idiots! To the stream!”

I was disappointed to see Jafiz had escaped the rain of death.

But happily, many did not. 

Their bodies piled beneath the checha grove, torn apart by the swarm. A single Vak’ki stumbled down the bank, so many spearfires covering him, they could not be counted.

As he fell into the water, I could not determine if he was saving himself by washing away the sap, or succumbing.

Women fled from the carnage. I saw Zania, calm, face stony, but caught up in the fearful stampede. 

To his credit, Savak ran with her and the others. Protecting them, perhaps. Likely just as shocked.

It had been years since Sen’ki and Vak’ki warred with each other. Had Savak forgotten what winged warriors would bring to the fight?

Much screaming and shouting passed before the winged death-dealers were sated. Jafiz’ band stood in two groups. One on each side of the dead on the trail.

Tentatively, they converged.

“How many?” Jafiz demanded. “How many dead?”

“It’s—” One of the bandits’ face paled to green. “It’s hard to tell, commander.”

“Seven,” another spoke. “And not by happenstance.”

“What are you saying, Vokr?” Jafiz growled.

I pulled farther behind my sheltering trunk. In the bandit’s hand was one of the fire-hardened taps still tied to the end of a rope.

Jafiz took it from him. He looked up.

“Eight,” another spoke, wading into the stream. The man there lay beneath the slowly flowing current, unmoving. Red dyed the water.

“Take his crossbow, Rakkin, before the string becomes wet,” Jafiz ordered. 

“The prisoners—” Vokr started.

“Bring them here! Bring me the weak creatures.” Jafiz threw the strung tap away.

As I watched, Savak and the other herded the females back to the game trail. When Zania stood before Jafiz, my breath caught. Without command, my hand gripped the hilt of my nakav.

The leader’s yellow eyes searched those of his prisoners.

“You, Makv, and the newcomer. Take the vanguard. If someone lays traps for us, he’ll take the females first. All else, take the rear. Move out. Quickly.”

For a split second, Zania glanced my way. I move away from the trunk. Her eyes widened as they met mine.

I remembered the first time I saw her. The memory nearly made me lose myself. But as she tore her eyes away, I retreated behind cover.

Though she didn’t look at me, Zania nodded. It wasn’t to herself. It was to let me know that she approved of the hideous attack. Silently, I waited.

There were more traps to set.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Three

Zania

Lights were so bright, colors so vivid, and the buzzing, shaking, my brain feeling like it was tossed in a blender. Images flashed, and voices echoed. A near eternity of foreign history, of an alien civilization. But also the opposite of civilized beings. It dashed through my thoughts until my head screamed.

And then he was there, looming over me, his massive hands lifting me up, steadying me as I tried to catch my balance.

The space beyond was four huge rooms with sinister tanks of liquid. Panic made me pant as I searched around. And that smell…

It actually smelled pretty good.

Oh. The smell came from him.

The bronze angel. Larger than life size, skin of bronze, muscled like a Greek statue.

With wings that I hadn’t imagined, hadn’t dreamed.

“How long have I been in there?” I asked stupidly, as I looked at the commbangle on my wrist. 

“Not long. The moons have not fully risen.”

Moons. Plural. I had seen them. This planet had three.

“Eat this.” He passed me a platter from a nearby table. A hump of something steamed in the cold air. “You need the energy.”

“Really?” I took the plate. The goop on it was like stretchy bread. It tasted sweet. “Better than half-cooked greasy bear off-cuts.” I shoved some more into my mouth.

“Recci,” my guardian angel said. “They migrate with the seasons. Even if their claws are poisonous, they are so large and slow at this time of year that even a cub could kill one.”

“All that, and yet they still taste like crap,” I said. Then my stomach clenched. Guilt. I handed the plate back.

“Eat. You’re half-starved,” Angel said. “The food replicators here still work.”

“So are the rest of my friends. I can’t eat when I know they’re going hungry.”

The angel shoved the plate back at me. “Think of how disappointed they’ll be if you don’t eat enough to help me free them.”

I took the plate. “First devils that beat me. Now an angel who force-feeds me. Where the hell have I landed?”

“Thaxios,” the angel said. His voice, though soft, boomed like thunder from his barrel chest.

“Never heard of—”

Whoa.

“You understand me?” I whispered.

“The teaching chamber. It gave you my language.”

I tried to speak, but nothing came out.

“If you wish to help me free your tribe, it’s necessary we communicate,” the angel said.

Teaching chamber?

“My tribe? That’s what the devils call us. You mean the women who crashed here.”

Angel nodded. “Women. That’s the word.”

I snorted. “You don’t have women here?”

“We do not.” He shook his head. “Well, until recently, we did not. I have only spoken with one of you. One who rescued one of my people. Her name is Masie. She was like pale gold.”

“Masie?” I blinked back, a sudden rush of tears. Had more of us survived? “You’ve met Masie? Where is she?”

“Probably safe in the aerie by now if that half-wit Vandath didn’t screw up again.”

“The aerie. In the mountains. We got a signal on our commbangles to come to the mountains.” I wiggled the band on my wrist.

“I will take you there. All of you,” Angel said. “But I will need your help. It will be dangerous. The tasks frightening.”

Something slow and steady burned through his words, the anger almost enough to warm me.

“If by my help, you mean killing all of those bastards slowly and painfully? Then I’m in, Angel man.”

I thought he might be taken aback. Promoting mass murder was hardly ladylike. But, instead, he looked impressed.

“My name is Arctur,” he said. “Not Angel.”

Well, an angel isn’t what I needed. Especially one built like a pro linebacker with features of unearthly beauty. Jaw like an anvil, yet full lips so soft—I didn’t say any of this out loud.

“I’m Zania.”

“As much as I loathe it, I must return you to the camp. But I have a plan in mind.” He gestured to the door with his chin.

I grabbed a handful of stretchy bread, and we walked back upstairs. Angel—Arctur—was right. The moons weren’t fully risen yet. Maybe the devils wouldn’t even know I was gone.

Not devils, the new knowledge in my head reminded me. Vak’ki. One of the four clans of Reavers.

He scooped me up in his arms. Somehow, I didn’t mind a bit. I held tight, snuggling close. It was just the heat of his body that attracted me.

Right?

With deep drumbeat sounds, his wings thrust us aloft. We circled the ruins as he climbed higher and higher. The wind bit as we reached altitude.

“There,” he said. “Do you see the Northern Arena in the distance?”

Some miles past the ruins, a broken dome glittered in the moonlight. It looked like a structure that might host sporting events. “Yeah.”

“Remember it. When you return, that is where you will lead Jafiz. Draw a map if you are able.”

“Why there?”

“Because there are places to hide, to strike from, weapons, and plenty of spaces to secret your whole tribe. We can make short work of Jafiz and his Vak’ki.”

“Just not too short,” I said. “There needs to be suffering.”

There was a smile in my naughty angel’s voice. “I will keep that in mind.”

“Do you think that’s wrong?” I asked. Did I really want to know the answer?

“I think it speaks of a warrior’s mind,” he said. “A successful warrior.”

We raced through the sky, back toward my hellish existence. But I had an ally. I didn’t know that I could trust him, but he seemed to have no love for Jafiz and his men. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

I might not admit it to myself, but flying through the air with him made me feel free. Perhaps freer than I’d ever felt. Was I holding onto him too tightly? The angel didn’t seem to mind at all.

And what did all this mean? 

I had to put it away. There was a heap of trouble coming. I best prepare myself for that.

Only the big moon remained in the sky as we reached the forest’s edge, the blueish leaves now flamed with chartreuse. Beautiful alien autumn. They caught the light of dawn. The very tip of the big red sun blazed from the horizon. 

Pouring on the speed, Arctur circled through the trees with breathtaking swoops. In a moment, he landed lightly on the ground. His eyes moved in all directions. So did mine.

Yet neither one of us spotted the enemy until he was on us.

Arctur drew a bladed spear from a scabbard on his back, the weapon whistling the motion as our attacker whipped out his sword. Stepping lightly, he caught the haft on his blade.

“Quiet, Sen’ki!” he hissed as my heart stopped in my throat. It was Yalen, one of Jafiz’s band. Our plan was over before we’d even begun. “You want to wake these brigands with a clanging fight?”

Wait, what?

Arctur tried to pull the weapon back for a second strike, but Yalen caught the spear’s blade with his pommel’s quillon.

“Hush, you feathered oaf!”

Weapons shivered with the forces of mighty arms as the tug of war lasted a few heartbeats.

The Vak’ki spoke again, his whisper harsh. “They don’t know she’s gone. Do you really mean to inform them?”

They froze like statues in the moonlight. I pressed my hand against Arctur’s back, my shoulders shaking with dread.

I’d barely noticed Yalen before. He hadn’t actively tormented any of us. Mainly had been assigned jobs scouting or around the edges of the camp. Trusting any of the Vak’ki seemed impossible, but we had no choice.

“If he wanted us dead, he would have called out to the others by now. Let’s hear what he has to say.”

For a long moment, neither spoke, only glared, their gazes as sharp as their weapons.

“Fine,” Arctur growled. “I stand down.”

The two of them lowered their arms.

“You. Get back to your flock,” Yalen said shortly. “What are you even doing here?”

“I’m here for the women,” Arctur answered.

“By yourself?

“He has me,” I said, moving to stand by at Arctur’s side.

Yalen sighed. “I’ve no love for the endless rules and regulations of the Fort, but they want to see him put down and hard. It’s taken me months to infiltrate his band.” He sheathed his sword. “The captives were a complication I wasn’t expecting.”

“And what exactly have you done since you’ve been here?” Arctur snapped. “You certainly haven’t helped any of the prisoners.”

I squeezed his hand. “He hasn’t been as bad as some of the rest.”

“Jafiz is better protected than I thought. And once I was in… getting out wasn’t quite as easy. I don’t know what Jafiz is up to, but I want to stop him. I know these gentle, fainting creatures have no love for him. What’s your interest, kaqen?”

From the learning chamber, I knew a kaqen was a brightly-feathered chicken. Not terribly bright, but tasty. For a moment, murder showed clearly on Arctur’s features.

“The tribe of women need to be brought to the aerie where their number gather,” he said, getting control of himself. “But that is far, and Jafiz’s men are too many. So for now, I would lead them to the Northern Arena,” Arctur said.

“Ah.” The devil stuck his lower lip out and nodded. “Devious. I like how you think.”

“He seeks something and believes the females know where it lies. With that, we can lead him by the nose,” Arctur continued. “And if you call me kaqen again, I will run you through, damn the renegades.”

“Ease up, feathers. I’m on your side.”

“Along the way, I will set up snares. Even the odds,” Arctur said.

“Snares…” Any lightheartedness left the devil’s features. “I’ve fought Sen’ki before. I can imagine what you have planned.”

“Then point me to the nearest grove of checha trees and see to it the Vak’ki march through.”

“Ouch. Maybe I can’t imagine. You’re beyond devious—” The devil’s head whipped around. “Go. Fly away. I’ll make sure this one is safe.”

Arctur frowned in reluctance. But the footfalls through dry leaves and sticks were undeniable. “Make certain she’s unhurt, Vak’ki.” With that, his wings thudded against the air, and he disappeared into the foliage.

The devil watched the leaves fall from his passage. Then he turned to me.

“Well. Time to get some lying done. Although you’d better let me do it,” the devil said. “I’m probably better at it.”

“Zania,” I said. “That’s my name.”

He nodded. “I’ll have to forget that now.”

Two Vak’ki emerged from the game trail into the clearing a few seconds later. I knew one of them—Vokr, Jafiz’s favorite toady. He leveled a loaded crossbow at me.

“What are you doing out here, Yalen? I knew you weren’t to be trusted.”

“I’m not to be trusted? You’ve got, what, fifty men, and you can’t afford a single guard at night?” Yalen said.

Vokr laughed. “Where would they go, Yalen? To feed themselves to the recci?”

Yalen shrugged. “She made it this far. No one noticed. Except me.”

“Let her go on, then,” Vokr’s companion said. “Not a one of her tribe would survive a single day in the forest.”

“Great idea, Rakkin.” Yalen laughed. “The one Jafiz thinks can get us to their city. And their treasure.”

“Well, maybe there is no treasure, Fort-lover. They’re just a waste of our time,” Rakkin said.

“You are absolutely right,” Yalen said. 

I felt my heart sink. This devil threw me under the bus at the first sign of trouble. But his face took on a thoughtful look.

“Well, except for all that interesting stuff they carry. The healing gear. The tablets that work outside a library. Strange silver fabrics. Their talking jewelry.” Yelan shrugged. “Jafiz figures there’s more—lots more than these skinny, soft little things can carry.”

He poked me in the shoulder hard enough to make me stumble.

“Yet—funny, we’ve never seen them before. If they’re hiding, it must be for a reason. Like they have treasure, right? But I’m not a thinker. That’s Jafiz’s job.”

“Oh, right, another tribe we’ve never once seen or heard of,” Rakkin scoffed.

Yelan snorted. “Impossible! But then…”

“What?” Vokr demanded.

“Just rumors. About a tribe that lives underground. They popped up after that big earthquake. Might even be in the histories, but who reads those, am I right?” Yelan smiled. Then his smile turned into worried thoughtfulness. “Supposed to be real ugly buggers. Mean.”

Vokr gestured with the crossbow. “Back with the others, you. And you, too, Fort-lover. You’re not trustworthy.”

They pushed us along the game trail. Out of the other devils’ sight, Yalen gave me a wink.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Arctur

I shifted the woman in my arms, flying hard to the northwest.

For three days, I’d been watching, waiting for the prisoners to be within reach of Vakfal, the closest of the cities.

Another day’s march would have been better, made for an easier flight.

But I could not stand it anymore. 

“Please, still yourself,” I said to her, no more than a fragile bundle in my grip. “I think you can understand me somehow through that.” I nodded at the thick silver cuff wrapped around her left wrist.

I might have been exiled from the aerie, but still, I watched from afar, had turned over the pieces of the puzzle of these strange creatures in my mind for months.

Vandath’s mate wore no such thing and had not understood a word I said.

These women all wore one, and while they did not speak, they obviously understood the commands of Jafiz and his band of outlaws.

The woman’s struggles stopped. “Nod, if you understand me,” I asked, and the knot of uncertainty in my chest loosened slightly as she did.

“Hold to me closely,” I said, picking up speed. “And listen. I have much to tell you.”

She made no sound. I took it as understanding.

“I come from the aerie.”

The soft, bruised creature did not react.

“Sen’ki,” I tried. “From the mountains.”

Her eyes met mine, wide. They shimmered, those dark orbs strangely touching me. Something more than foreign beauty lies within. I thought it might be hope.

“I’m an aerie scout. We are searching for your tribe. I would bring a rescue party,” I said. It was partly true.

One of her thin hands touched my arm. She made a sound I could not understand.

“Jafiz and his thugs have been on the move. Thus far, I’ve only been able to follow.”

The hand on my arm gripped, her soft voice sending a shiver through me. Why? What magic did this half-starved, fragile creature possess? What about her made me throw my lot to the wind? There was little but death in my actions, yet I could not stray from the path before me.

Her eyes searched mine, seeking.

I’d seen her with her people, the other soft females. Seen how she tried to protect them. Even without her words, I knew what she wanted.

“One way or another, I will get your tribe away from those red-scaled bastards.”

It was a stupid thing to say. Highly unlikely on the one hand and deadly dangerous on the other. What was I even doing? I should fly her all the way to the mountains and beg those who exiled me for aid—for mercy in exchange for her rescue.

But no. Once I had her in my arms, every other thought had left me.

And those eyes demanded more than a simple answer.

The first time I’d seen her, a plan had started to simmer through my mind, reckless and dangerous. “Can you stay strong? It will not be easy. Your circumstances will not change any time soon. But will you trust in me?”

The high, whispery sound issued from her full lips, touching me inside like a balmy updraft. In her liquid eyes, something changed. Even this tiny, barely detectable upturn in her spirit thrilled me.

My feathers were attuned to the subtle temperature changes in the air. Finding the swiftest streams, I strained my wings.

We needed to make the ruins quickly. How long would it be before Jafiz or his underlings noted the female’s disappearance?

Jafiz might be a monster, yet he was not stupid.

In order to have even half a chance, this part of the plan must go smoothly. Did the female understand that?

By the grip of her hands, she understood that I was no menacing red fiend, but being a step above a renegade Vak’ki was nothing to boast of. As far as she knew, I was only the lesser of two evils.

Moons shifted in the sky as we flew onward. Finally, on the horizon, the broken spires of Vakfal rose. 

She gasped, looking at me, her voice seeming to ask a question.

“The ruins of a great city,” I said. “Long abandoned.”

More words from her, a stream of sound I could not decipher. This was becoming frustrating. But also why I was taking this chance with her.

“All will become clearer soon. This I promise,” I said.

We flew high above the grid. Scouting for dangers, I descended slowly. This northernmost city had not escaped the fate of the rest of Thaxios. 

Still, machines left behind by the Makers existed. The purpose of many of their devices was nearly as mysterious to me as this tribe of strangers, the delicate being in my arms. 

Many, but not all.

My eyes scanned for the buildings that would house such devices. 

Swooping around towers over the highest roofs, I flew in a pattern, searching until the white arches, the heavily framed doors, and the tall windows of a structure I sought appeared. Circling, we continued downward.

“Time is running short. I know it,” I told her. “This is necessary.”

Her face grew tight, anxious, as her eyes searched through the ruins. Did she think I would bring her to another enemy?

Certainly, I was better company than a violent bully. However, that didn’t mean she trusted me.

I landed us gently at the threshold of the structure. 

For a moment, the female resisted leaving my arms. I stirred at this, yet her shivering erased my wandering thoughts. She was merely cold. Given the state of her clothing, she had not been so warm in a long time.

A vaulted door barred our entry. Set into the stone frame was a panel of dull metal. For a moment, I studied it.

The deposed warleader of the aerie, Klov, had constantly searched for Artifacts, the lost tools of the Makers. Under his reign, I had delved deep into the ruins, learning a little of the clues and ways that marked the ancient paths just as much as a bent branch on a game trail.

Only a little, but enough to bring back a prize or two, things that should have been used for the good of the aerie.

Instead, the lost machines of the Makers had proved Klov’s downfall. He grew too dependent upon the mystical properties of their secret weapons, abandoned our traditions and ways, and became a tyrant.

With his downfall had come mine.

Exiled. All for keeping to my oath of loyalty.

With the distance of time, I could see how he would have been no different than Jafiz; his core rotted out with the greed for power.

But still, he had my oath.

Straightening my shoulders, I brought my attention back to the present.

At least it left me with some skill. Approaching the door, my fingers roved over the relief of several buttons. These were of many colors. Two on the bottom were complementary colors—yellow and purple. I pressed the purple.

The whining of mechanisms made the female hide behind me. When the door ground open in dirty grooves, she made a sound.

It was like birdsong in the morning. I looked at her and saw a smile on her face, as well as a deepening of color.

None of the females in Jafiz’s camp had ever made such a wondrous noise. I almost didn’t recognize it as laughter. When I did, I couldn’t stop my face from smiling.

She put a hand in front of her face, still chuckling. I recognized the self-effacing gesture. It was perhaps the first natural expression I had seen from her.

Inside, lights flickered like flames. Finally, they settled into an unnatural glow, dull, neither like sun- nor moonlight. Dust drifted with the breeze. 

She looked hesitant, mirroring my own feelings, yet I held my hand out for her to enter and stepped inside.

White corridors greeted us, branching geometrically, but I had been in similar buildings, their cold patterns of a kind. Finally, after a few turns, a doorway opened on the stairs.

Our presence triggered more ugly light. The female gave me a look and said something. The tone was uncertain.

I nodded. “We need to go down. I dislike this place as well, but it’s necessary.”

While most of the first story stood empty, it was not so below. In its day, this place had generated many Reavers. The generator tanks remaining were a testament to that.

Looking back, I saw our tracks left in the dust. It had been a long time since anyone had been down here.

In the aerie, similar machines stood; all of them had been brought from Senviz and reassembled on the lowest levels. That was centuries before my own generation. There were none left that could perform such tasks.

Thus, the wonders of the Makers remained in place, slowly falling to pieces.

A single room intersected four with generator tanks. A row of three flattened ovals were set into the wall, leaning at an angle. On one, the door opened easily, revealing the padded bench stretching its length.

The female looked in, then looked at me, shaking her head.

I resisted the urge to push her dark hair back from her face, to soothe her, to comfort her hurts. There was no time.

“You have no reason to trust me. There has been nothing but cruelty since you’ve been in my land. Would you speak to me? Make me understand you?”

Her expression did not speak of agreement, more like confusion.

“It will allow us to speak,” I said, then waved at the silver bauble on her wrist. “Without that.”

She squinted at it. “Th’commbahngl?

Whatever it was. “Yes. It is the only way we can plan. Don’t you see?”

The woman made more noises at me. Questions perhaps. I would have to guess at what answers she sought.

“It doesn’t hurt. I have gone through it. You will learn my tongue and about this place that you’ve found yourself,” I said. Did I sound convincing?

And was I sure we should be untouched? Dakath’s Sarra had seemed well enough the one time I’d seen her. But she was healthy, strong. Not frail like my female had become, weak with mistreatment.

Her eyes were wide, wetter than before.

I took one of her hands. A warmth beyond her skin spread into me.

“I would like to understand your words.”

She looked down at our hands. Back up at me. Her pretty mouth made a straight line, then she nodded.

Reluctantly, I let her go. She leaned back against the bench, her eyes never leaving mine until the lid shut closed, cutting her off from me.

I rubbed my chest, suddenly more anxious than I’d been since I was a fledgling.

It would work.

It would have to.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter One

Zania

“You want this? Then tell me how much farther!”

With one blow from a red scaled fist, I went crashing to the ground.

And that’s when I saw them.

From the shadows, golden eyes burned through me, like a beacon in the dark.

But no beast sprang forth, and in an instant, they were gone.

Maybe I’d finally gone mad. It wouldn’t be a surprise.

Rolling over on the hard frosted ground, I stared at the strange stars peeking through the heavy canopy.

Cold and remote, no different from the night sky that had stretched above me as I stumbled out of my escape pod, cold and sick and shaky, clutching at the rocks of a stony beach.

Memories of the Dream exploding, of our pods flung into the Void, crashed into me and I had retched, emptying my stomach even as my mind whirled, trying to catch up.

I’d been alone, terrified.

And then out of the darkness, a message.

Get to the mountains. We’ve got a safe place there, and friends who will be looking for you.

I’d tried.

For three days I had clung to those words as I stumbled through the jungle, clutching the supplies from my pod, hiding in the dense bushes whenever I heard a noise.

But it hadn’t been enough.

On the fourth day, Jafiz and his band of merry assholes found me.

Aliens. Tall and unbelievably strong. Red scales and dark horns at their foreheads that poked up through wiry black hair.

Dressed in tattered leathers, carrying crossbows and swords, faces hard. Cruel.

And that’s when my hell began.

Assume everything here will try to kill you. Most of the natives are friendly, but not all of them.

That was an understatement.

The secret city. The treasure.

That was all Jafiz cared about.

The commbangle let me understand him well enough.

But without an implant of his own, my words were nonsense to him.

I’m not strong. I’m not a fighter.

I would never be able to resist torture.

And even if I wanted to tell Jafiz everything he wanted to know, I couldn’t.

So I did the only thing I could.

Played possum.

The first time Jafiz struck me, I collapsed in a limp heap on the ground.

It wasn’t hard to fake.

I’ve never been hit before, the shock and pain on their own would’ve been enough to knock me down.

But there had to be more.

I needed to teach him that violence wasn’t going to get any of the answers they wanted.

So I kept my eyes closed, bit my tongue as he kicked me, let my head loll limply, then counted to 300, 600, 1000 before I let my eyes open, stagger to my feet.

“Where do you come from? How do we get to the city?“ he shouted, and grabbed my shoulder to shake me again. 

I let my knees crumble, smashing into the ground once more.

It only took two days before Jafiz and his men learned they could shout all they wanted, but touching me wouldn’t get them anywhere.

It worked, most of the time.

And when he gave the order for the rest of his men to spread out, see how many more of this new clan they could find, I held my breath, hoping.

Not for our captors to be gentle. That was out of the question.

Just for them to let us live.

The camp at the edge of the jungle stretched out to the rocky beach, a rough conglomeration of shelters and nets catching the day’s fresh fish. The men patrolled, eyes alert for any sign of trespassers, but I never saw any strangers.

My life quickly fell into a haze of routine. Fetching water from the small stream near camp, cleaning and smoking fish, doing my best to avoid attention.

Every day, Jafiz or one of his men shouted at me, screaming, demanding that I tell them where the city was.

Sometimes they ignored me. Sometimes they didn’t feed me.

Every day, I pulled further into my shell.

I woke from my daze when the next woman was dragged into camp.

“Nandita!” I screamed, dropping the firewood from my arms and dodging the grabbing hands that tried to pull me back.

She was tangled in a net, slung over the back of Yarak, one of Jafiz’s scouts. “Maybe this one isn’t an idiot,” he boasted as he tossed her to the ground.

Frantically I tried to untie the knots as her wide dark eyes stared around the camp in a panic. “Don’t say anything,” I whispered. “Keep your head down.”

With a roar, Yarak pulled me away. “You still haven’t learned your place?”

I closed my eyes and fell, then risked a peek at Nandita. Her eyes were fixed on my face. She was smart. She’d figure this out.

“Where are the rest of your people,” Jafiz snarled at her, tossing the last of her bindings to the side. “Where is your city?”

The tendons at Nandita’s throat twitched, and she swallowed hard.

And then she went limp in his grasp.

“Useless!” Jafiz roared, letting her fall before stomping away.

Wriggling, I crawled over to her side. “Are you alright?” I asked as quietly as I could.

“I think I’m a long way from alright,” she whispered. “But I’m alive. That’s a start.”

That was all we had.

Every few days another woman was brought in, battered and bruised, but alive.

Salome and Bree, Cathy and Talia, Grace and Neve.

Bit by bit we compared notes, where we’d landed, what we’d seen before we were taken.

But the guards were everywhere. There was no way to escape.

All we could do was comfort each other, pretend we were fainting goats, and keep looking for an opening.

Kyla had said there were people on this planet who were our friends. We just had to get to them.

It only took a month for the scouts to start coming back empty handed.

“This is all there is of your clan?” Jafiz spat as I turned the fish on the smoker. It hadn’t taken long for me to figure out how to cook the strange blue and silver creatures to his satisfaction. Terror is a good teacher.

I hunched my shoulders, looked away.

“Then you’ll want to keep everyone you have.”

With a swift movement he grabbed Nandita, pulled her from the fireside.

“Tell me, or this one dies here.”

A trickle of blood ran down her throat, her lips quivering, but she stayed silent.

I’d known something like this would happen.

These weren’t reasonable, patient men.

Even if I didn’t have a real answer, they needed something.

Slowly I dragged myself to my feet and pointed.

Away from the beach. 

I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the mountains, but Neve and Cathy had. Between us we’d tried to make a rough map. Plains, jungle, forest.

And the mountains.

I’d pointed, chin held high.

Jafiz threw Nandita down, brought the knife to my own throat.

“How far?” He growled, as the rest of his men tightened around us.

How the hell should I know?

Nandita pushed to my side, jabbed repeatedly at the largest of the moons overhead.

“A month?” Yarak demanded. “Two?”

Lacing my fingers with hers, I nodded. Two months. Sure.

The next day was a riot of activity as we broke camp, and then moved out. Towards the mountains, I hoped.

“Are you sure this the best plan?” Cathy whispered.

I shrugged, stumbling slightly as we filed down the narrow trail cut through the jungle. “No one has come to rescue us here,” I answered. “Maybe if we move, they’ll be able to find us.”

I hadn’t counted on one thing.

Jafiz and his men were very, very good at not being found. 

As we moved, every time we made camp, they moved almost like soldiers, alert, eyes scanning all around.

What were they looking for?

Or, more disturbingly, what were they hiding from?

It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed them scanning the skies. 

Maybe someone here had aircraft? That would be a relief. 

We’d be found. Saved.

I’d been an idiot.

Looking back now on my meager hopes, I almost laughed. I thought I’d been so clever.

But now we’d been walking for almost two months, further and further north.

After the jungle, we’d been led through a twisting canyon filled with biting sand diggers that leapt at us from the rocks.

Then the plains, endless grasses that cut at our legs.  

I kept pointing towards the mountains, but Jafiz only laughed. “You think we’ll take you to the Sen’ki?”

Grabbing my chin, he pulled my head to either side. “You gave it away when you were scared for your friend’s life. You pointed straight to the frozen wastes. The only place left we haven’t searched.”

So we had kept walking, only stopping for a few days here and there to replenish supplies.

We learned to prepare furs, to butcher larger animals that the warriors brought back to camp.

That was when we’d lost Grace. “No. I can’t do it anymore.”

She’d stared blankly at the carcass in front of her. I couldn’t even figure out what it had been when it was alive. Giant purple striped lizard? 

In the list of alien horrors, it didn’t even make it to the top.

“You have to,” Neve whispered, pulling at Grace’s wrists. But instead she stood, turning her hands in front of her face as if she’d never seen them before.

Not like we had mirrors, but we all had a pretty good guess of what we looked like from caring for each other.

Thin faces, jutting collarbones. Fingers so thin they looked like dry twigs. Hair lank and matted.

That wasn’t the worst of it. The part that hurt the most was the empty despair that blanketed us, smothering even the faintest flicker of hope.

“If I don’t care,” Grace answered, moving away from the corner where we’d been assigned to work. “Then I don’t have to do anything.”

She started to run, hands pressed to her head, as if she could block out everything that had happened since we crashed here.

They didn’t even bother chasing her.

“Take her down,” Jafiz ordered.

And in an instant a thick black bolt jutted from Grace’s back, and slowly, without a sound, she sank to the ground.

Salome screamed, a high, keening wail that only stopped when Nandita covered her mouth.

All I could do was stand there, knowing that I’d led her to her death.

The next day we’d moved into the forest, leaving her body behind.

None of the women said much after that.

Now here we were, trudging ever north, towards some secret treasure city that only existed in Jafiz’s dreams.

How long would it be before he grew frustrated, killed another one of us?

And if he didn’t kill us, the weather would.

Night by night it became clear that winter was coming, cold and fierce and pitiless.

The men kept most of the leathers and furs that we had worked, leaving us scraps to try and fashion into some semblance of warm clothing.

It wasn’t going to be enough.

With no way of explaining to them that we needed more layers, tonight I’d done yet another stupid thing, grabbing onto the thick blue fur of the latest hide, and refusing to let go.

Even if I’d been in top shape, it wouldn’t have mattered. There was no way I could hold on to something Jafiz or any of his men wanted to take from me.

Slowly I rolled to my knees, crawled to where my friends huddled together for warmth.

“I’m sorry guys,” I whispered. “I’ll think of something else.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bree snapped. “Something else is just going to make things worse.”

“Stop it,” Nandita wrapped her arms around me, sharing her body heat and her support. “We’re all doing the best we can. Snarling at each other isn’t going to make things better.”

I curled into myself, hoping to at least escape in sleep. One by one, I listened to the other women’s breathing even out, the soft noises that had become the soundtrack of my nights.

Except tonight my mind wouldn’t settle down.

There had to be a way out of this mess that didn’t involve us dying, either by being shot or freezing to death or any of the other possibilities that Jafiz seemed so happy to inflict on us.

But I couldn’t see it.

Finally I gave up, slowly detangling myself from the others. No reason to wake them with my tossing and turning.

Stretching, I decided to go for a walk.

They didn’t even bother putting a guard on us anymore. We all knew we wouldn’t survive on our own in this forest.

Our thin slippers from the ship had worn away weeks ago, the rough strips of hide tied to our feet and calves approximating ill-fitting boots.

Certainly not something I’d be running far in, even if I could bring myself to leave the other women behind.

I wasn’t going far any way. Yarak and the others had brought back another of those blue bears today. If those things were stalking the forest, I wanted to be nowhere near them.

I just needed a minute, time to get my head clear.

But as I turned back, strong arms wrapped around me, one hand firmly over my mouth.

“You must be quiet,” a stranger’s voice growled.

There was a strange beating sound, and in a moment my feet had left the ground.

Sentinel’s Lock: Chapter One and Two

Kael

“How can you be sure?” the hybrid bird mocked, its wings tucked tightly around its body, the serpentine tail swishing through the air in agitation.

From the edge of an evergreen tree it watched us, bright eyes glimmering as brightly as the necklace that swung from its beak.

Amina’s voice was nearly drowned by the rushing in my ears.

“Kael—”

“Surrounded by pod creatures! Can you trust her?” The bird crowed, as shock ran through me.

Trust?

Of course I trusted her.

I hadn’t been in the room when Amina had escaped from the identity-stealing tangle leech, true.

But it had to be her.

“You can’t be sure!” the bird said.

“Kael, don’t listen to it,” Amina pleaded, but I shifted, just slightly, uncomfortable with her dark gaze.

“I know you’re you,” I said. She had to be.

I couldn’t do this again.

Amina grabbed my arm. “Kael! Tell me you know who I am!”

The brilliant, beautiful scientist who had been sent here to seek out gravity anomalies on Mount Hood. But while she was here she had seen far too much.

My duty was to make certain no human possessed knowledge of my mission.

I’d failed that. Had I failed her as well?

Had I left Amina behind in that cold basement, brought one of the pod-born here to my base?

Kissed her, tasted her skin, lost myself in her embrace.

Declared my love for her…

My eyes closed as memories triggered.

***

Red tholin snow brushed the black and white canyonlands of Planetoid W674. Even the smart suits could not keep in heat. Starlight cooked the opposite side. We only had an hour before a deadly daylight dawned.

“If this rock keeps rolling toward the star, we’ll be buried alive,” Balen said. “Then boiled.”

I could make out a sheltered path toward the pirates’ foxhole. Snow fell harder, a blinding red fog. “Keep me covered long enough to get over this ridge. Then I can come at them from behind.”

“I have a better plan,” Balen said.

Then I saw the knife in his hand. In freefall, he pushed off the surface toward me.

“What are you—”

My boots were locked to the surface. As he collided with me, I wrested the blade away, cutting his smart suit, gasses frosting as they blew out from the gap. Through his faceplate, I saw Balen turn blue before the suit resealed itself.

But he kept coming.

Pod-borne.

A genetic copy of Balen, with a few extra genes thrown in. How long had he been compromised? Enough to know the mission, the soldiers. Who had planted him in the unit?

Momentum made me crash against the surface, and slowly bounce toward the pirates. Visible energy-fire ensued, beams crossing in front of me.

I managed to turn and fire. But not before a bolt caught my helmet.

Everything went white.

***

I roughly shook myself, making the memory vanish.

I’d trusted Balen. Had I learned any better?

“Amina…”

The horrible bird made a sound like laughter.

She stared. “What happened to you?”

“It was a long time ago,” I said. “Not important now.”

“It’s important if it means you can’t trust me,” Amina argued. “I can see it on your face. The doubt. Suspicion. Why can’t you tell it’s me?”

“I know it’s you. I do,” I said.

I did, didn’t I?

The bird squawked in evil laughter. Where had it come from? How did it know us?

Angrily, I bent down and grabbed a rock, but the pod-bird flapped its wings and feathered legs long before my throw.

Amina stared after it for long moments before she turned back to me, grim determinations in her eyes.

It was her, wasn’t it?

Amina

Kael wasn’t sure. The doubt on his face tore at me, ripped the breath from my lungs.

How could he not be sure? He said he loved me…

“How can I prove it to you?” I asked.

“You don’t need to.”

“Then why are you backing away from me?” I demanded, fists on my hips. Sure, my hair was gone, the pod had eaten it, sprouted it on its own globby shape.

But that was all. I had gotten away before it could subsume me.

But Kael had come to the rescue after I freed myself. It was possible, just possible, that they’d been able to grow a new me in the time I’d been taken.

I mean, I knew I was me. But he didn’t. Couldn’t.

Was that what a war against the pod creatures was like? Never being entirely sure who you could trust?

“You were betrayed,” I said slowly, trying to understand.

He nodded. “Yes.”

“By a lover?” I asked, my eyes locked on his expression. Did I want to know that?

“No. But someone close enough to nearly end my life,” he said.

“Yet you won’t tell me,” I said.

“It’s an old war story. I don’t want to dwell on it,” he said.

“Soldiers love to tell old war stories,” I said, moving closer to him. To his credit, Kael didn’t back up. But he didn’t say anything, either.

My hand stole to his broad chest. “It’s okay. It’s me.”

He didn’t look convinced.

Drastic action was called for. Keeping my eyes locked with his, I reached out.

“I’ll just have to prove it to you.”

Freeing the knife from his belt, I jumped back.

“Amina,” he grabbed for me, but I danced away.

I held the edge to my palm. “Let me prove it to you.” The pod-born, the hybrids, whatever they were all bled black.

There was only one way to shake the doubt from Kael’s face.

“That’s not a normal knife—”

Teeth gritted, I slashed my palm, let the red blood show.

“Amina, no,” he shouted.

I held it out to him. “See? Now do you believe me?”

In front of my eyes, my hand went floppy. Blood rushed down my arm, raining on the ground. How did I cut myself that deep?

Kael ripped the blade from my hand and tossed it. It stuck in the bark of the tree below where the bird had sat, burying it to the hilt, vibrating.

He scooped me into his arms the moment my legs went wobbly. With long strides, he returned me to the cabin.

When I was placed on the low-g bed, the medical machine came alive. It scooted around the bed on the left. A beam detached from the toaster-looking machine. It became an arm, wrapping around my wrist just as the pain hit, like a fire through my arm.

“Amina,” Kael’s voice threatened to break as he stared down at me. “How could you do that?”

I gripped his hand with my good one. “How could I not? We don’t have the luxury of doubt, not anymore. You have to know who’s fighting with you.”

But it was like he didn’t even hear me. “The blade isn’t metal. The edge is a weak-nuclear force energy field holding crystal alloy to one angstrom wide,” Kael continued. “You’re lucky you didn’t cut your hand off.”

Well, hell. That was a little further than I meant to go.

In silence I watched Emmet, the medical device work. The toaster part on top opened, emitting a floating sphere, tubes tethering it to the main body of the machine, then a foamy substance sprayed on the bleeding wound.

The light around my wrist pulsed and I shuddered, not so much from the pain, but the feeling of thousands of ants crawling around under my skin.

Nanobots or some other advanced healing. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant.

But losing my hand would be worse.

“Kael,” I started to ask for details of the process, but stopped cold at the haunted look in his eyes.

After a brief tingle, the foam vanished. My skin had reformed, not a mark on my palm.

“Thanks, Emmet,” I told the med machine as it rolled back to its place on the other side of the bed. “Procedure. Complete,” it said in its buzzy monotone.

A spherical robot, Kael’s Companion Beta, rolled its iris toward me as it spun in its cage of chargers while it finished its repairs. Despite it looking like a steel bowling ball, I thought I could detect concern in its blue lens.

Kael sat at the edge of the bed and took my mended hand. “I believed you,” he said softly. “I did.”

“Too late now. I proved it,” I said.

“You almost proved your hand right off. That blade is dangerous,” he said.

“What else was I supposed to do? You won’t tell me what happened. Why? It bugs me that you won’t. Makes me suspicious. Don’t you get that?”

“Do you not get that recalling the incident makes me…” Kael sighed.

Afraid, I thought.

As an extraterrestrial soldier sent here alone to guard a spacetime portal buried beneath Mount Hood, doubt was both his enemy and his key to survival.

Another, smaller portal had appeared. Just a crack in the mountainside, but a crack that connected to another world. And from there, some unknown enemy had been sending freaky little pods that harvested DNA from the local wildlife, producing monsters that attacked us. Monsters much larger and more dangerous than the oversized crow.

Well, physically dangerous.

What the spider-headed crow had done was more dangerous than all the tentacles, fangs and claws of the monsters before.

The words had pushed Kael and me apart.

He took my hand, kissed the open, unscarred palm, but I could feel a tremor in his usually sure grip.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had to do it.”

“I know you are you,” he said. “Please don’t hurt yourself like that again.”

“It hurts more that you won’t reveal your past to me,” I blurted, then bit my lip.

Where had that come from?

Kael looked up from my hand. “Once we end this, once this planet is cleared of genetically unorganized pods, I might be able to speak about it. For now, I need to keep my nerve. Keep us safe. I feel like I’m failing at that.”

It must have struck a nerve, the crow’s words. Deeply. I could only guess what happened to Kael. Whatever that was, he’d been scarred.

“You’re not failing. And keeping safe is both of our jobs now,” I said.

He nodded. “Agreed.”

“Do you still trust me to watch your back?” I asked.

Kael leaned closer. I felt his breath against my ear. “Always.”

His visage changed. When we’d left the cabin, a device on his belt automatically turned on, camouflaging him as a human man with tanned skin and brown hair.

Handsome enough, but a lie.

He knew I preferred his natural self. The smooth silver skin, the mane of spiky black hair, the swooping, pointed ears.

We kissed, and I felt the points of his fangs just enough to arouse me.

His massive, muscular body pushed me down in the bobbing field, a hand on my chin as his kisses deepened.

I gave in to him, wanting him despite the issue between us. My hands slid over the muscular planes of his back. I only wore one of his shirts, and in a single motion, he whipped it over my head.

Smiling into his kiss, I pulled his shirt loose from his pants, trying to squeeze my hands in to work the buttons.

Deet.

We froze.

 CB made that sound when something approached.

Dozens of images appeared, split across the screens that lined that wall. One showed the oversized crow monster flying back to the cabin.

Kael pulled away from me to grab a needler from a chest near the monitors.

“I’m going to cut that little instigator in half,” he snarled.

I scurried around the cabin, finding my own clothes. Dressing quickly, I hurried outside. Hopping on one foot to get the other shoe on, I stopped behind Kael on the porch.

“Are you sure you want to end me?” the crow cawed. “I have things to show you.”

Kael raised the gun, aiming down the lit-up fin on top of the barrel. “I don’t want to see anything related to you.”

“You don’t want to know who has breached your mountain? Who wants control over the portal?” the bird asked.

I hated the bird. Hated its sideways head, spider-like mandibles and eyes. Its mocking voice.

But it had done its work.

We needed information.

There was no choice but to follow where it led.

Sentinel’s Gate: Chapter One and Two

Amina

Since nearing Portland, Oregon, Mount Hood filled the windshield of the archaic Land Cruiser. The snow-capped, eleven thousand foot high peak was one of the most popular mountaineering sites in the country. My interest lie in the fact that, like the rest of the Cascade Range, Hood was a volcano. Sleeping, but, as Mount St. Helens had proved decades before, not soundly.

The contract from the US Geological Survey haunted me. They wanted my firm to investigate anomalies in the data coming from the Blackwater Research Outpost.

The agency gave me little else to go on. I had seen the data. Yes, there were odd spikes in gravimetric and lava flow monitors. Nothing alarming.

Calling in a private consultation usually meant one thing—the USGS didn’t trust this private research firm stationed on the mountain.

That would almost certainly mean the researchers wouldn’t trust me. I had to anticipate a certain level of hostility. A me-against-them attitude.

Par for the course, as far as I was concerned.

Blackwater was in Camp Meriwether, too tiny to be called a town. Café, diner, a few motels. Most businesses catered to hikers, fishermen, climbers and outdoorsy tourists. It was a stop on the way to the Timberline Lodge, or a few ski resorts. Few residential buildings were set back from the main drag. Dominant was a modern facility just outside the town.

BRO, the sign outside the parking lot read. No unauthorized personnel, of course. But there was no guard house or gate. There were maybe eight parking spaces in the shadow of towering hemlock and fir.

I paused. What I was expecting was a few tents, a shack at best. The facility was pre-fab, but a pricy build at this altitude. It seemed a lot for a privately funded research project.

My equipment was all portable, proprietary, and stealable. I grabbed the duffle rucksack out of the back before heading in.

A harried looking young woman, honey blonde hair escaping from a bun, gazed up through thick cat’s eye specs from a receptionist’s desk. “Hello?” She gaped, seemingly surprised at a visitor. “Who are you?”

“Dr. Rahman?” A male voice carried through a door standing a jar.

“Dr. T—” the receptionist said.

He was older, hairline receding, but the roughness of his skin and sturdiness of his frame belied a life of fieldwork. Following an outstretched hand, he smiled. “I’m John Thompson, project leader. We were expecting people from VAC-Tech—but not the chief researcher.”

Well, there wasn’t any other way, really. While I didn’t advertise it, Volcanic Ash Cloud Technologies was a consulting and equipment design firm that employed one person. Me.

His handshake was firm. Eyes level. “Good to meet you,” I said. “Call me Amina.”

“Thanks,” he said. “But I must say, I’m still not sure why USGS found it necessary to send outside researchers. I assure you our findings are accurate.”

A young woman with straight black hair pulled in a ponytail and wide, dark eyes, followed Thompson into the lobby. “You must be from VAC-Tech. Is your team unloading your equipment?”

“My assistant, Misha Kelly.”

“I am my team,” I hiked the bag on her shoulder. “This is my equipment.”

“Right,” Misha said. “You’re the queen of high tech, right? As far as geology goes.”

Not a moniker I was familiar with. People really called me that? “Sure.”

“I’d really love to see some of your portable gear in action. We’re still stuck with the—well, you’ll see. Let me get you set up. C’mon back.” She smiled.

“Thanks, Misha. Nice meeting you.” With that, Dr. Thompson walked off.

A vestibule behind the door was gated with sliding steel beams. The left wall was an instrument panel. I saw an interesting binocular attachment at head height.

“Iris mapper,” Misha said. “Updated from our old retinal scanner. We’re a secure facility. I’ll program you a pass card as well.”

Seriously? This was high tech security stuff. Expensive. Why was the research here protected so carefully?

She flipped a switch, thumbed a pad, prompting a keyboard on a retracting arm to slide out. After typing, another door slid open. An angled device emerged, lighting up.

“A thumbprint as well, please. I suppose I should check your ID, but I saw you in National Geographic and Geological Magazine after you predicted Mauna Loa,” Misha bubbled.

I felt a flush. “I eighty-eight percent predicted Mauna Loa.” I pressed my thumb against the light.

“Yeah, but after forty years?” When the machine beeped, Misha typed. “Pretty impressive. Okay, do you prefer one eye over the other?”

Once the security protocol was complete, the bars slid into the doorframe. After we passed, I turned to see them slide heavily back into place.

The small lab was modern, typical. Large seismographs dominated the space with their blocky bulk. Gas chromatograph, ventilation hoods, and a rock crusher took up one side. Units receiving remote data on ground deformation and tilt, gas emissions, various cameras and satellite imaging took up another.

Impressive as it was, it was standard. Hardly worth an eyeball scanner.

“And you have all of this,” Misha pointed around, and then at her rucksack, “in there.”

“Pretty much,” I shrugged.

Misha shook her head. “That’s just so amazing. You design and build all of these portable instruments. I don’t know anything about electronics.”

“I didn’t either,” I said. “Mostly, I taught myself. Took some classes. But I’m not comfortable…” Working with people? That didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. Not to someone you just met. “…working indoors. So I take the indoors with me.”

“Wow, that’s—”

A loud sneeze, followed by swearing and nose-blowing, followed.

“Sorry,” Misha lowered her voice. “Dr. T’s got really bad allergies. He hates the spring.”

I looked down the hall. Thompson sat at his desk, staring at a computer screen.

Time to get down to it. “Okay, USGS has issues with some of your gravimetric data not lining up with your EDMs, and your seismometers don’t seem to be in sync with theirs.”

Electronic Distance Measurements were stable laser measurements of the ground surface. A change in gravity usually indicated a subterranean shift. And, of course, the US Geological Survey kept their own tabs on the mountain.

“Could be that our seismometer is just more sensitive. I calibrated it myself,” Misha said. “And, I don’t know, maybe our lasers are getting nudged? There are a lot of animals up here.”

Both could be true. Misha seemed competent. Still, I had to look for myself.

“Let me get out there. Can I have the coordinates?”

Misha paused. “Um, let me get your phone synched up with our remote data collection for comparison—”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I jumped a little. Dr. T moved quietly for an older guy. He stood right behind me.

“Why not?”

“Hood…”

“Are you going to tell me a spooky story?” I asked.

Dr. T chuckled. “I guess not. But you know how volcanism affects EMF. You could lose your phone signal, even a compass bearing. It’s no secret that experienced climbers vanish from the mountain every twenty years or so.”

“I’ve been on lots of mountains. All of them have legends, missing people. Sheer cliffs, sudden weather—I know the dangers.”

Misha smiled. “From what I can tell, you haven’t disappeared, Amina.”

“Maybe I should go with you,” Dr. T. said.

“I’d prefer to go myself. Besides, do you really want to aggravate your allergies?”

I always preferred to go alone. Being around people was not my jam. But something about Dr. T’s intense gaze was… Well, I hadn’t put her finger on it yet. And hopefully, I wouldn’t be around long enough to figure it out.

He returned to his office. This time, he closed the door.

“Sorry. Maybe it’s the allergy meds,” Misha said.

I eyed her.

“Dr. T.—he’s not himself these days. Maybe he’s just groggy,” she said.

Office gossip—I didn’t want to be included.

Misha went to her computer. She typed for a while. “I’m synching our remote data with your phone. It will be easier to do comparisons that way.”

I heard the tablet alert come from my rucksack.

“Thanks. Coordinates, too?”

“Yep. Our… weirder signals have come from here.” Misha stood up. A huge map featuring the mountain covered most of a wall. She pointed.

I stepped closer, noting the access, the trails, the areas without trails. Nothing out of the ordinary.

“I e-mailed several points to you,” Misha said.

“Let me get up there while there’s still daylight.”

Misha frowned. “There’s one thing.”

I didn’t like the serious cast of her face. “What is it?”

“Spooky stories aside, you don’t want to spend too much time alone on Mount Hood,” she said.

“Why?”

Misha looked down the hall at Dr. T.’s closed door. “I’m not precisely sure. But Dr. Thompson’s behavior started changing after a few solo trips up the mountain.”

“Changed how?”

Misha shrugged. “He’s never been exactly cuddly. But now—it’s hard to say. He’s impatient, easily irritated. There have been times when I’ve found him staring, completely spaced out.”

“Like you said, allergy meds.”

“Except it started in the winter.” Misha faced away. “Just watch yourself out there.”

Kael

I emerged from the cabin to intercept the intruder. Most humans, even the stupidest of the stupid, avoided this area. Partly because there were no paths save game trails. Mostly because I kept them away.

But my seekers had alerted me to an interloper.

I double blinked, bringing up the display from the computer implanted in my brain. Summoning Companion Beta, I watched the spherical defense robot swoop between the trees. As it followed behind me, scanning, I started off on another insignificant mission against an unworthy opponent.

I was an expertly trained and decorated commando. My current duty was guarding a cave housing a spacetime portal. A portal on a polluted mudball of a planet. A planet peopled by greedy creatures barely out of the stone age.

Duty? Punishment was more like it. Exile? Definitely. But they would have to think up some better penance.

This was fine with me.

Aelarans, despite being more advanced than these human creatures, were no more dependable. I didn’t need people, either those of my own race, or an alien one.

But apparently today one of those creatures had gotten far too close to the portal. I set out to misdirect, or kill, the intruder.

I had no compunctions about either—these people were so out of contact with their own wilderness that they went missing all the time. Very little of that was my doing.

Idiots…

Companion Beta hovered to eye-level. A pattern of lights blinked. My computer implant deciphered the message—the creature nears, coming down the slope.

Eyeing the sclera controls, I guided Companion Beta behind me and moved silently through snow and around trees.

My fatigues auto-mirrored the environment making me practically invisible.

Through a gap in the trees, I saw the intruder. Obviously female, I thought. For a moment, my eyes lingered on her pleasing shape, though I was unsure why.

She carefully tread a game trail, holding a boxy device. Then, to my shock, she turned quickly in my direction.

Gravity scan detected, Beta relayed.

Impossible

Yet—

With the heads-up controls, I set the Companion on the ground, deactivating its motivator.

The female made a breathy sound. She tapped her hand against her device. Aimed its antenna array around.

It was true, then. She was looking for gravitational anomalies.

Gravitational anomalies like the kind generated by the portal?

My heart rate increased. Kill her? Smooth her brain?

I studied her. A magnificent foam of brown and gold curls framed a heart-shaped face, dark eyes, a full mouth that fascinated me beyond reckoning…

I shook my head as she moved off the game trail, directly toward my position. Ducking behind a tree, I blinked on Beta’s motivator.

The device in her hand beeped.

Impossible…

Blinking Beta’s controls in place, I sent the companion machine swerving through the trees. To my amazement, the woman followed its progress with her device. She whipped the antenna back and forth.

“What is wrong with this thing?”

I heard her, soft voice, gentle despite frustration. Something stirred within me—

She chased after Beta. That was fine. This human was different. I needed to understand her better. I couldn’t abduct her if she was dead.

From concealment, I watched her descend the slope. Her motions were graceful, determined.

She passed, almost within reach.

Should I grab her? Force her to reveal why she was so near the portal? My hands reached for her…

I let her go, watching her from behind, her shape, her flowing movements.

Below, a Seeker caught sight of her as she passed. I brought the organic camera’s image fully in my left eye, then closed the right. The lens focused, and I squinted, remotely zooming in on her.

The hue of her skin, smooth and mesmerizing, the motion of muscles beneath the softness held me spellbound.

Zooming out again, I took in the surroundings. Vehicles parked on the overgrown road below.

I guided Companion Beta, sending it to those parked machines downhill. In return, it sent images. No one lurked near the vehicles. Beta would lead the female back to where she started her invasion.

I watched her, denying my fascination, making certain she went where I wanted her to. Yet humans were as unpredictable as Aelaran.

Once I felt certain she would return to her vehicle, I sent Companion Beta soaring above the tops of the trees. In a moment, it dropped back to my side. The circular blue lens hovered before me, gazing as if in admonishment.

Sending it to heel, we moved back to the cabin. My brain couldn’t handle more than one Seeker at a time. I didn’t have enough eyes.

I needed to check her progress from the monitors. If she showed any sign of returning, I would have to act. Part of me hoped she would.

The cabin was an old structure, constructed by humans. Modifications had been made.

Once inside, my aura projector automatically switched off to charge. Bricks of a fireplace smoothed to chrome, the dark interior now a bank of monitors. Black, rough cooking stove shifted to the analytic station. Rustic bed became comfortable low-g chamber, emergency medical machine forming from a crude night table.

She appeared on the monitors. I had seeded the Seekers well. And yes, she was nearing the trail that led to the road below.

I switched channels. The Seekers around the portal face detected nothing but squirrels. Companion Alpha, my offensive engine, remained on guard at the site.

Status quo. No fear of the portal being discovered. Yet my mind wandered back to the human female. Tapping into the Seekers downhill, I hoped for another look at her.

She moved beyond my organic monitors into deeper woods. While it would be good to have eyes everywhere, it was hardly practical.

Why had I let her go?

The last intruder I dealt with was left wandering the glaciers near the peak. The human didn’t know his name, let alone where he had been.

I intercepted the media stories regarding his condition. It was reported that he was lucky to be alive.

Human media didn’t know the half of it.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Six

Maisie

Holy crap, was he messed up!

There was no doubt, he didn’t know where he was going. His eyes were misty half the time. That arm—what a nightmare.

We had to take care of that. Otherwise, Bashful would probably die.

It’s funny how things can get old, even being carried by a guy with wings through the skies of an alien planet. But I’d had just about enough. If I couldn’t talk sense into him, I would have to find a way to escape and find help.

But where?

I didn’t want to leave him. He needed me, and even with him like this, I felt safe around him.

I sighed. There was no way out but through.

I just didn’t know where through was going to lead us.

“Bash, honey,” I tried for the umpteenth time. “We’ve got to go find some other people. A doctor, anything.”

If I hadn’t lost everything from my escape pod, I could have helped. There was a medkit in there, complete with an anti-toxin.

In the long months I’d worked by myself, I’d thought about it often. A broken leg could have killed me, out there by myself.

But now it could save my Bash.

Except I’d let it get taken from me, like everything else.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured.

Bashful responded by hugging me for a moment.

It felt good, but it didn’t assuage my fears. If we kept going like this, eventually whatever had infected him was going to crash him to the ground.

Me with him.

Even now, I felt his body temperature rising. As he flew, he shouted oaths at the sky in his language. There was nothing up there, no birds, dragons, other guys with wings, clouds. Was he shouting at the moons?

That seemed like the very definition of lunacy.

A final squint from the third moon drove his flight lower, to search the tors and cliffs. Shadow-colored, but limned with a greenish glow, he swooped to a narrow cliff in the rock face. A cave angled inward.

Awesome. Another cave.

I shook myself. I could work with a cave. Shelter, a chance to rest.

We needed all the help we could get.

I really needed to get him healed up, to try and get whatever had infected his arm out.

My knowledge was as limited as my resources. One thing I knew—heat could draw out infection.

I had a waterskin from the first cave tucked away in my backpack, and fire we could manage.

It was just a matter of getting him to sit still for it.

Other than the zig-zag entrance, we were in a large chamber. Brightly glowing moss or lichen revealed the space. Where the floor and ceiling sloped downward together, a slow waterfall filled a pool.

Stalactites and stalagmites surrounded the water, natural columns. The floor had been smoothed by centuries of water. As far as caves went, this one was pleasant.

Bashful leaned against an uneven wall, panting as if he’d run a marathon.

It hurt my heart to see him like that. Such a strong figure, so proud, fighting hard against the infection.

But I was worried he was losing.

And then I’d lose him.

“Sit down.” Dry grasses filled a depression in the floor. Nearby was a firepit, disused and dusty.

I tried to lead him there but he pulled away, pacing, ranting in his language. Taking the waterskin from the pouch, I held it to him. He drank, swiping at the perspiration immediately springing upon his brow. I encouraged him to drink it all.

Finally, I managed to coax him to the nest, motioning for him to take the weapon from off his back.

Reluctantly, he did, but kept it nearby.

Even now, I couldn’t get him to relax.

From the pool, I filled the skin. Previous occupants had left sticks for a tripod, and a small pile of fuel. Boil the water, make a compress—that’s all I had.

I hunkered next to him. He looked at me, dreamy-eyed, bronze cheeks flushed. Saying something in his language, he touched my hair, then he buried his face on my shoulder.

Mama always said that men turn into children when they get sick.

After setting up a tripod and hanging the skin over the low flames, I touched his cheek. A fire still raged in him. His wondrous golden eyes shone brightly but didn’t indicate that anyone was home.

My chest hurt. How could I miss someone who I’d just met?

We’d had just that moment after he rescued me from the bear, when he’d been so worried for my safety.

But that wasn’t right.

I’d felt him near me for weeks now, a warm, steady presence that wrapped around me.

And now I could lose him.

“Lay down.” I pointed to the dry nest. Then I held my palms together, leaned my head, and put my hands under my cheek. Was this a universal gesture for sleep?

He did it for me. Head bobbing, lids heavy, his ravaged body sank into the grasses. Then, the wings wrapped around him. So adorable!

But once I made compresses, the water near boiling hot to try to pull out the infection, I didn’t think he would remain adorable. In his delirium, he might even hurt me.

No, I thought looking at his tormented face. Even in agony, I didn’t believe he could ever harm me. I couldn’t say why.

Now, it was just a matter of getting the water to boil without setting the leather bladder on fire.

Bashful thrashed in the bed of grasses, talking in his sleep. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his tone was frantic.

And then there was a second voice.

I spun, heart pounding in my ears.

What wan light of sunrise made it through the twisting opening cast a stranger in silhouette. Broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, winged, another of Bashful’s people, stared at me.

“Get away!” I shouted, grabbing up the bladed spear. Baring my teeth, I stood between the interloper and my fallen Bashful.

Was this right?

I knew we needed help, but now that someone was here, could I trust him not to take advantage of Bash’s weakened state?

I didn’t need to know much about weapons or fighting to have realized that Bash was a trained warrior. Which meant there was someone to fight.

Was this a friend, or an enemy?

Whoever he was, the stranger spoke in a low growl. I shook my head, not understanding. Lifting the weapon, I wanted to make sure he moved no closer.

Holding up both palms, the second angel-man took a step back, then looked carefully at where Bash lay thrashing about.

No harm, I thought. Then, the stranger made a claw of one hand, and pantomimed the blue bear’s attack.

“Yes! He was clawed,” I said, nodding. Then I made the claw motion myself. My grip quickly returned to the spear haft.

The stranger’s expression softened to thoughtfulness, studying Bash, then moving his attention to me.

Specifically, my chest.

Blushing, I covered myself, then snapped. He wasn’t staring at my breasts. He was looking at the necklace Bash had made for me.

With a nod, he turned. In a moment, I heard the drumbeat sound of wings.

“Now what?” I asked Bashful. He moaned in response.

My plan still seemed like the only possible solution. Poking the waterskin, I moved it slightly before the leather could char.

How long would it take to boil? We were at a high elevation, so not long. What could I use for a compress? Other than leather and roughly woven material, there wasn’t much that would work well.

I studied the glowing moss that lit the cave. It was already saturated. Boiling water would probably destroy the stuff.

Well, the softest material on this planet, as far as I knew, were the clothes I wore. My leggings probably had too much stretchy stuff to be absorbent. My top, however, was good old-fashioned cotton.

As I cut a strip from the hem of the blouse, I heard the dull thud of wings. The stranger’s shadow cut what light entered the cave.

He spoke, nodding his head, then he lifted his hands. They were full of flowers, twigs and leaves, blue needles. Gesturing, he pretended to drink from his hands. The stranger pointed to the hanging waterskin.

“Like a tea?” I asked, mimicking pouring out the skin into his cupped hands.

He nodded, excitedly, then he took his own skin, dumped out the water and opened the lacing just enough to put in his herbal concoction.

Trying not to burn the crap out of myself, I removed the skin from over the fire. Dumping the hot water into his waterskin produced a minty, astringent steam.

At least, it smelled medicinal.

I paused.

Friend or enemy?

Medicine or poison?

Bash groaned.

Did I have a choice?

I swallowed hard. If there was a chance to save him, I had to take it.

And if it killed him…

I glared at the stranger, who just mimicked drinking, pointing at Bashful.

Sure, I got that part. The question was—how to get it down his throat?

Taking the hot skin, I moved into the nest. Lifting Bashful’s head onto my thighs, I opened his mouth. Dripping just a trickle, he managed to swallow without choking.

The stranger spoke in their tongue. Bashful responded, opening his mouth. Slowly, I fed it to him. His shaking hands rose, tilting the flow. When he coughed, I took it away from him.

“Vandath?” the stranger’s voice rumbled.

Bashful turned to face him, but his golden eyes did not focus.

Was that his name? Vandath, I tried on my mind’s tongue. Sounded better than Bashful, anyway.

The stranger moved away from Vandath, folding his arms and wings. His posture was one of “wait and see.”

I stroked Vandath’s hair. He didn’t stir.

If not for the slow rise of his chest, I would have thought he was dead.

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