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Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Nine

Ryven

Kyla was trying to kill me.

Not with the crossbow. I was perfectly safe in that regard.

But hours later I could still see her laying on that rock in the sun, the tight fabric that encased her legs revealing every lush curve as she rolled before my eyes.

Despite having used that crossbow for all of the years of my youth my hands had shaken as I pulled the cord back for her to knock it.

Every nerve in my body was on fire, demanding that I bury my face in those curls, to taste her skin.

Instead, I handed her a loaded crossbow.

It seemed a far less dangerous choice.

After the first shot I quickly called Tali back to sit with us.

The orkin had a lovely time chasing and retrieving the bolts that flew everywhere other than the tree that was supposed to be the target.

“Have you ever thought about just making a cat toy?” Kyla asked as I packed away the quiver and she pulled on her boots.

“I seem to be pretty good at that.”

“We will practice again tomorrow,” I assured her. 

The rain came shortly after we left the clearing, a fine steady fall that drummed on the leaves around us. Tali returned to her perch on the top of my pack, nestling underneath the flap of felt, grumbling loudly.

Kyla marched next to me, only her round chin visible from the hood of her coat.

“Can you keep going for a little longer?” I asked.

She turned, and her brilliant smile astounded me.

“This is great!” She gave a little bounce. “Everything looks like a painting, all swirly and soft.”

I laughed at her excitement. “We’ll see what you think of it after a month.”

“Where are we going, anyway? Are we camping? I’ve never done that. Sleeping in a tent under the stars always sounded amazing.”

The ground broke free of the trees, rising gently before us. Low clumps of moss dotted the hillside, and I held my hand out to steady her.

“My friend Albak is even more of a wanderer than I am. He travels around to each of the dead cities, seeing what is left to recover.”

“That kind of sounds fun,” she said. “Probably dangerous, but fun.”

I thought of the mardix, the other weapons of the Makers.

“Definitely dangerous, but Albak is too old to go to battle, and did not care for any of the other tasks available for him at the Fort.”

Kyla stopped, eyes wide. “You mean he’s doing this for his retirement? I’m impressed.”

“You and I might be the only ones,” I answered. “Most others think he’s mad. I helped him build a way station in this part of the forest some years back. He will not begrudge us spending the night there.”

One side of her lips curved up in half a smile.

“Is he one of the two people who know about your house?”

I huffed. “When he finds something interesting, but that does not work, he brings it to me. No one else wants the broken castoffs of the Makers. Not that they do me much good, either.”

Kyla squeezed my hand. “We can figure out a way to make them work. Look what we did with the teaching chamber.”

She rocked her head from side to side.

“I mean, I don’t expect that they all just need new power supplies, but you would be, we make a pretty good team, partner.”

I stroked the back of her hand with my thumb, letting her words sit with me.

A team. I had never wanted such a thing before. 

The very thought was strange.

After finding her friend, after reassuring herself that Sarah was safe and happy, if Kyla would agree to stay with me I did not care in what capacity.

To have her working at my side, to hear her laugh of victory when a problem was solved, the adorable way the tip of her tongue poked out from between those luscious lips as she concentrated…

If having her as a partner in deciphering the Artifacts of the Makers was the only way to keep her near, I would gladly take it.

As the shadows lengthened we finally reached Albak’s waystation.

I examined the path that led to the hidden twist in the hillside carefully.

“It does not look like he has been here for some time,” I commented. “Nor has anyone else.”

“That sounds like a good thing,” Kyla said.

“Definitely.”

The locking mechanism was similar to that which protected my own workshop.

Kyla eagerly watched my every move as I pushed and pulled the switches in the correct order. “I’d love to see how that works.”

I pulled the last lever. “It might be difficult. The mechanism is all buried beneath the rock now.” 

At her disappointment I smiled. “But I have another lock half-built back in the workshop. It would be easier to show you its workings there.”

With a final click the brackets released and the door swung open. “Let’s see what we find. At the very least, it will be dry.”

She pushed back her hood, peering down the long tunnel. “I hope so.”

Once inside Tali leapt down to investigate, disappearing around the curve of the tunnel to the main cavern.

“It’s dark,” Kyla whispered, edging closer to me.

“Albak is only here occasionally. The glowworms would not survive without care for such lengths of time,” I explained to her. “But I will have the fire built in no time.”

“Right. The care and feeding of glowworms,” she answered. “Something else to add to the stack of research topics.” Despite the lightness of her voice, her hand trembled in mine.

“I will not let you fall,” I promised as I led her to the center of the cavern, my steps steered by the pale pink light of the flecks of deiyon stone set into a circle.

“Can you still see nothing?” I asked, curious.

“There’s a little glowing light, I think.”

Strange.

At another time I would be more interested in seeing what other differences lay between our senses of vision and hearing.

Strength had been already demonstrated clearly enough with the crossbow.

But for now, Kyla was in the dark and did not like it.

“You stay here, I’ll get some firewood and be right back.”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” she whispered. “How can you even see anything?”

“Marker stones. Such small flecks do not give enough light to work by, but serve well enough as a guide.” I tapped the stones by her feet. 

“Nope,” she said shortly. “I don’t think they’re serving me well enough at all. It’s just dark. Very dark.”

Luckily everything was as it should be.

In moments the flickering light of the fire played over her face.

“For a cave in a cliffside,” Kyla said, turning in place slowly. “It’s not what I was expecting.” She laughed softly. “Maybe I should just quit expecting things, and learn to roll with it.”

I glanced around. Compared to my home the cavern was sparse.

But some might say that the never ending pile that spilled from my workshop into my living space made things a little cluttered.

The floor around the firepit was covered with soft furs. A smoothly raked path led to the storage chests and shelves set into one wall, while another led around a twist in the cave to a small spring of crisp, pure water.

A broad platform stood a small distance away from one side of the fire, and facing it was a long bench. 

With a grateful sigh Kyla sank onto the bench and unlaced her boots.

“They’re not hurting or pinching or anything,” she said hastily. “But I think I’m ready for a break.”

We hung our coats on sturdy hooks driven into the rock wall, weapons and her satchel next to them.

“Albak told me once that he had all he wanted of hard beds and uncomfortable seats when he was younger. Now he wants something different.” 

“How far does he go?” Kyla asked as I set a tripod up over the fire, then went to fill a pan at the spring.

“It is a week’s travel to the closest of the dead cities,” I explained. “The others all lie a month or more away.”

Kyla pulled supplies out of the pack. “Let me know when I get to what you need,” she said, then her hands paused. “Do you think he has these little hidey holes scattered all around?”

“I would not be surprised,” I answered her, taking the wrapped packet of jerky from her. “But I do not know of any others.”

While our meal cooked I went to the shelf of supplies and took down a pair of lanterns.

“I don’t need those now, really,” Kyla protested.

“As the cavern heats up we will want to bank the fire,” I told her. “You might want them then.”

It was more than I would have done if I’d been traveling on my own, but the trace of fear in her voice at the darkness of the cavern decided me. An easy thing, if it made her more comfortable here.

Before long the hot water had softened the serkit jerky, and I crumbled in one of the travel cakes over the top. 

Kyla hid her disappointment fairly well when I handed her a bowl. “I’m sure this is filling and nutritious.”

“Very.”

We sat quietly by the fire, drawn in by the flames, taking turns tossing bits of jerky to Tali.

Once she had eaten I unveiled my surprise.

“Do I even want to know what that is?” she asked, wide eyes staring at the lumpy gray ball she’d pulled out from the top of the pack earlier and quickly set to the side.

“Maybe.” I pulled out my belt knife and sliced off a wedge, handing it to her. 

One sniff resolved her doubts. “I thought you said you couldn’t bring any nava!”

The delight in her eyes made the trouble to bring it worth every careful step.

“I said it doesn’t travel well. But it was packed well enough for one day.”

Humming happily she devoured her slice and just as happily I handed her more.

“Don’t you want any?” she asked. “I shouldn’t eat the whole thing.

I took a small piece to appease her, but I tasted nothing.

I was far too busy watching every expression on her face, listening to her small sounds of pleasure.

Perhaps we should go a bit out of our way, find more fruit for tomorrow, I considered.

Or perhaps not.

If Kyla made those same sounds every day, we would never get anywhere.

Soon her shoulders drooped but she rubbed at her eyes. “Let me help with dishes,” she said. “But it better be soon or I’ll be asleep.”

“You’ve got a little juice there on your cheek,” I told her.

She touched her cheek then licked a finger and I bit back a groan.

It had been hard enough not to imagine what the taste of her skin would be, how she would feel under my tongue.

She would be sweet enough without any additions, I was sure.

I knew it in my soul.

Trying to busy myself with other tasks, I pulled out a thick mattress and quilt from the largest chest.

Kyla came to the other side of the platform, and together the bed quickly took shape.

“This does look comfy,” she said. “And I am tired.” She crossed her arms across her chest. “But I’m not sleeping in it unless you sleep with me.”

“That, that, is not necessary,” I sputtered. Or possible. Or desirable.

But that was a lie. The urge to be closer to her grew with every moment.

“Oh yes it is,” she insisted. “You didn’t get any sleep last night. You walked just as far as I did today. And you were carrying all of our gear.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to argue my case. “You carried your own bag and your crossbow.”

She didn’t say anything, just looked pointedly at her small satchel hanging on the wall, and then back to the much larger pack.

“Have it your way. I’m sure the bench is fine.” She grabbed her coat and folded it into a pillow, laying it at one end of the bench.

“No,” I blurted. “I just have a few things to finish. You should go ahead and go to sleep.”

“Not happening until we have this settled.” She shook her head, curls flying. “You’ll wait till I’m asleep and then you’ll just go sleep on the floor, or just stay awake all night. I’m going to help you with whatever else needs to be done, and then you’re getting in that bed, Mister.”

Her hands flew to her mouth. “I mean, if that’s okay. Is that forbidden or something for your people? To sleep with someone else?”

“No, I said slowly. “Not forbidden.” But, a sudden thought struck me, and I clutched at it like a thrown vine as I was sinking down the river.

“But is it not forbidden for me to see your skin? And would you not be more comfortable if you undressed?”

“Good try, but I think I can manage.”

She gathered up our bowls and the cooking pan, took them around the corner to where the spring flowed. “You have anything for soap?”

I was defeated.

Dishes done, I took the lanterns and placed one on the bench, the other on the largest of the chests.

After banking down the fire I tipped our boots over, the openings at the top facing the coals.

“What is that for?” she asked.

“It will be much more pleasant to pull them on in the morning if they are dry and warm,” I told her.

We stood on opposite sides of the bed, facing each other.

The fine lines of her throat twitched as she swallowed hard.

“I’m just going to take off my sweater,” she said softly. “That’s all.” 

I kept my eyes fixed on the quilt until she pulled her corner back.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable without your vest?” she asked. “It’s not like I haven’t seen your chest before.”

She slid into the bed and still I hesitated.

“I’m not going to sleep until you lay down,” she murmured. “No sneaking getting up after I go to sleep either, promise?”

She had no idea what she was asking.

And yet I would deny her nothing.

“I promise.”

I lay stiff and still beside her, keeping one arm carefully at my edge of the bed.

“Good night, partner,” she sighed softly and then rolled over, her breathing becoming gentle and even as she faded into sleep.

I studied the cavern ceiling.

It was unlikely she would notice if I moved to the bench.

But I had given her my word.

I tried to fill my mind with projects and plans, the broken bits of the past that had so easily distracted me for all of my life.

But nothing could pull my attention away from her.

Her first soft whimper caught me immediately.

“No,” she twisted on the bed next to me. “Why won’t it stop?”

I turned towards her, distress clear on her face even in the lamplight.

“Kyla,” I said softly as I could. “Sleep. You are safe.”

I moved to hold her hand as I had the previous night, but at the sound of my voice she rolled towards me, burying her face into my chest.

My arms wrapped around her as if with the will of their own.

“All is well,” I reassured her, my hand smoothing out the crinkled fabric at her back as I rubbed up and down her spine.

“I am here. I will not let anything harm you.”

A small sob wracked her frame, and then she turned her face up to me, eyes wide and searching.

“Ryven?”

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Eight

Kyla

I might’ve lied a little about the bed.

Apparently giant red scaled warriors didn’t feel the need for comfy mattresses.

When I woke, I was more than a little stiff.

Although to be fair, that might’ve had something to do with running and stumbling through the rain like an idiot yesterday.

I rolled over and Tali snuggled tighter against my side as I surveyed the kitchen.

“So much for sleeping in the back room,” I said softly. “How long have you been here?”

Ryven looked up from where he was sewing something in his lap.

Was he making me a boot?

“One valuable thing about how my people were created is that we do not need to sleep as often as you I suspect.

“Have you really been up all night?” I pushed myself upright, guilt laying over me like a sodden blanket.

“It was not the first time, nor will it be the last,” Ryven said easily. “I am almost finished.  You should eat something before we go.”

Maybe.

My stomach grumbled in response.

Last night when we had been working I’d alternately been too upset, too excited, or too exhausted to eat.

Now I was regretting it.

“The purple petals weren’t really my favorite,”  I said. “But what was the green stuff?”

“Nava fruit?” You cannot just survive on that.” He tilted his head, and I knew he was thinking. “At least, I would be surprised if that was the case.”

“I know I can’t, but at least for breakfast it seems like a good idea.” I stopped as a horrible thought crossed my mind.

“You don’t have coffee do you?”

Ten long and sad minutes filled with attempting to explain coffee, I sat down with a plate of nave fruit and a cup of tea.

It wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t coffee.

Ryven finished my boots while I was eating.

“How do you know how to do all of this stuff?” I asked, and felt like an idiot.

Of course he knew how to do this stuff. Low-tech world. He didn’t have any choice.

Sure, he was obviously brilliant, trying to teach himself the devices of the weird little God-complexed big-headed creatures who had decided to genetically create their own race of living weapons didn’t change that.

He still had to live in the world as it was now.

Low-tech. Hunting. Probably a little farming. 

He understood about forging so there was probably metalworking but not to any suitably high temperatures to make the heavy panels like what he had scavenged for his doors.

Ryven would be able to make boots and coats and whatever else he needed.

His survival would depend upon it.

“Can you teach me how to do all of this?” I asked, waving at the coat and boots, the table and chairs.

He frowned. “You understand the technology of the Makers. Why would you care about such simple things?”

I laughed as I slung my satchel cross-body, made sure my tablet and medpak were wrapped in the emergency blanket for an extra layer of protection from the rain.

“I don’t understand any of it, really. Besides, you’re the one that spent years studying what they left behind.”

But the buzz of curiosity, the possibility of learning a whole new system tickled through my veins. 

I’d like to have the chance though.

Scratch that. I’d love to have the chance.

“Tell you what,” I said as I pulled on the boots he’d made for me. Perfect fit. How did he do that?

“Anything we find of the Makers, I’ll do my best to understand and explain to you. And in turn, I want to learn what it’s going to take for me to survive here. I’m betting that boots and a coat are the least of it. Agreed?”

He finished fastening his sword belt over his own coat and gazed at me, thoughtfully.

“Agreed.”

He rubbed his right horn, eyes narrowed. “And in that case, I have one more thing, if you can carry it.”

He went back into the workshop.

Long moments stretched out before he returned and I gasped at what he carried in his hands.

“Is that a crossbow?”

“Good!” he cried. “You are already familiar with this weapon.”

I stepped forward, drawn to the deadly thing as if by a magnet. “I know what it is. I’ve never even seen one in person though.” I touched the elegant curve of the bow. “I certainly don’t know how to use it.”

“We will fix that.” He handed it to me, the solid weight of it another surprise.

“It is the one I used when I was just a cub. Someday I had planned to pass it on to another. That time is now.”

Carefully he adjusted the leather straps at the stock so that it hung on the opposite side from my satchel, resting against my hip.

Welp, I’d wanted to learn how to survive here. 

And the thought of being able to defend myself against monsters like those centipedes with something more effective than a tree branch was pretty damn appealing.

Ryven strapped a second, thicker belt around his waist, sword at each hip framing a dagger with a smooth wooden handle, then hoisted a pack onto his back, and Tali jumped onto the top, burrowing down underneath a flap of felt.

“It’s beautiful,” I sighed as we emerged from the overhang.

The early morning light glimmered across the trees, their red and orange leaves like jewels against the purple and indigo streaked sky. 

“I thought you said it was the rainy season?”

Ryven set the door panel into place behind us and then bent down, pulling at a series of levers set into the rock.

“Just because it is the rainy season does not mean it rains all the time,” he explained. “We should be able to make good time in the mornings. The afternoons will be slower going.”

He pulled one more levele and a click echoed.

“What are you doing?”

“We will be gone for quite some time. Only two other people know where to find my workshop, but I would prefer not to take any chances of unwelcome visitors.”

I was itching to see the details of his lock, but if the rain was going to start up soon, we had other priorities.

“You have to show me how that works when we get back,”

I started to head down the way I’d gone yesterday, but not before I caught Ryven’s startled blink.

Well, that was presumptuous of me.

He’d rescued me from the pod, fed me, given me the language and history of this place. Yes, admittedly in a slightly problematic way, but he’d done everything he could to ensure my safety and comfort.

And now I was assuming I was staying with him?

Ryven was obviously a confirmed bachelor.

It didn’t seem like he was looking for a roommate or anything else.

So get it together, Kyla. Whatever your future holds, its not him.

In long strides he caught up to me, pointing to the left slightly.

“The path is that way.”

“Does it avoid those critters?” I asked, tucking my hands up in my sleeves to ward off the chill morning air.

“In fact, it does,” he nodded. “The most efficient method of survival on Thaxos is to try to avoid the things that want to eat you.”

I snorted. “And you couldn’t tell me this yesterday?”

“You didn’t stop to listen.”

Ouch.

As the giant red sun rose higher in the sky we walked. And walked some more. And more.

Ryven played tour guide gracefully, naming the flowers and trees all around as we passed.

Tali sprang from his pack to chase after blue winged insects, batting them with her paws into the yellow striped flowers that sprung up between the rocks.

I restrained myself from pulling out my tablet and snapping photos of everything. We had somewhere to be.

I thought I was in good shape from running all over the Loli’s ship.

After the first week aboard the Dream, I’d pleaded for some extra shifts — not dancing at the lounge, but with the maintenance crew. Not exactly the programming job I really wanted, but it had given me a chance to get close and personal with their systems, both computerized and mechanical.

Now it was clear that tracing through the decks and service passageways of a perfectly smooth, climate controlled ship was no preparation at all for a days long hike across an alien planet.

Just as my legs were starting to ache Ryven stopped at a flattish boulder in the middle of a clearing.

“We will not reach the mountains of the winged Sen’ki in a single day,” Ryven said as he slid his pack on to the rock. “There is no reason to push yourself.”

Embarrassment flooded through me.

“I’m all right, I can go further.”

But he simply shook his head and began to take things out of the pack.

“We will eat, and then you will learn to use the bow.”

I supposed that made sense.

“But first these must come off.”

He stepped towards me and I froze.

What must come off?

In a moment his hands were on me, massive fingers nearly circling my waist.

“This should work.”

And he lifted me as if I weighed nothing at all, carefully setting me down at the edge of the rock.

My heartbeat drummed in my ears and my breath caught.

What was he doing? And did I want him to stop?”

Ryven sank to his knees before me, hands sliding down my legs.

My mind sputtered.

He needed to what the what?

Then he unlaced one boot, then the other, gently drawing them off and putting them to the side.

“Any pain? Any rubbing?” 

He massaged my feet, working out the tense spots around my ankles.

“No,” I managed. Everything’s fine. Absolutely fine.”

Other than the building warmth spiraling in my belly at his touch, everything was just peachy.

“I’m glad to hear it. Still, we will not go much farther today, I do not think.”

I was too busy getting myself back under control than to argue.

Deep breathes. Deep breaths. Think about nice, impersonal code. Not about the man who can apparently turn your brain into mush with a touch.

Completely oblivious to my internal chaos, Ryven pulled two round cakes from his pack, handing one to me before sitting down on the rock at my side.

“Not quite as tasty as nava fruit,” he admitted. “But it travels better and is very filling.”

I nibbled at my cake. Dry, mostly tasteless. Still better than the emergency rations.

Ryven offered me a second cake but I shook my head.

Filling was an understatement. Eating felt like I’d had a bowl of oatmeal, but without anything that made the oatmeal good. This was going to take me a while.

He had a second, tossed Tully half of his third and then rose up, pulling a small cylinder off the side of his pack that I had not noticed before.

“Time for little target practice.”

I swallowed hard, the travel cake suddenly stuck in my throat.

“This isn’t going to go well,” I muttered, trying to get my apologies in early.

“Then we will try again another day until it does.”

All of the smiles were gone now.

This was the grim warrior before me.

“Teaching you an edged weapon would take far longer, and allow your enemies to come far too close.”

He pulled a short sharp start out from the cylinder that I finally recognized as a quiver.

“Shouldn’t I be standing first?”

“Let’s see how your aim is and then we will proceed.”

Except there was a little difficulty that neither of us had counted on.

“There is no way I can cock this,” I panted after several minutes of pulling the string back towards the latch.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a loop for my foot?”

“Why would you use your foot?” Ryven frowned. “How would you even do such a thing? I have seen your feet. Your toes do not seem long enough to wrap around the cord, much less have the strength to move it.”

I rubbed my forehead. Ancient weaponry had never been something I’d studied. Not even vaguely interested in. But still…

“I know I saw this in a video once.”

And that was probably the worst reason for believing something was true ever.

“I’ll show you.” I wriggled out of the harness, then unfastened my coat to lay flat on the rock behind me.

“The crossbows had a loop right here, at the front part of the curve.” I tapped the bow.

“And then the soldiers slid their foot through the loop to hold it steady, and pulled back.”

I mimed the motion, the crossbow resting against my shins.

“No, that doesn’t work.”

I tried to remember the scene more clearly.

Did they start on their backs and did something with their legs? That was it, wasn’t it?

I lay back, put my legs in the air. Maybe kick one side? Bend knees, touch foot to front, straighten back out?

That didn’t make any sense either.

A low cough pulled my attention back to Ryven.

He stared at me, one muscle jumping at his jaw.

Well hell, girl. Way to look like a raving idiot.

I sat up, pushed my hair back from my face, trying to ignore the burning in my cheeks.

“Maybe you should just pull it back for me for now.”

Ryven licked his lips, nodded sharply.

“I think that would be best.”

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Seven

Ryven

Kyla had put aside her anger, was here in my home, safe and warm.

That should have been enough for me.

But knowing that underneath the faded tapestry of the Makers was nothing but Kyla’s silken skin had sparked lightning in my blood. Her sweet lips as they softly said the word “mate” filled my mind, made me hunger in ways I’d never dreamed about before.

A craving nothing would satisfy but Kyla.

But that was my own problem. Right now, she needed comfort.

“I would have you tell me everything,” I assured her. “But first, that does not look very secure.”

She clutched the edges of the blanket tightly around her.

“It works, but maybe you have a belt or something I can borrow?”

An easy enough request to fulfill.

Strips of leather that I had laid aside for a new weapons harness easily transformed, wrapping around her curves until the cloth was fastened securely, hiding all of her but her arms and lovely face.

“And now, one other request.”

“Anything.”

“I don’t suppose you have a comb I could borrow?”

I ran my fingers through my short wiry hair. “A comb has never been a priority for me, I’m afraid.”

She giggled. “I can see that. No worries, finger combing won’t hurt.”

She divided her hair into sections and then slowly worked her fingers through the ends, separating the curls from each other.

“Let me help, while you tell me of your world,” I offered, pulling the second chair up behind hers.

She stopped, gazing up at me.

Uncertainty stayed my hand. “Unless touching your hair is also taboo?”

“Not exactly,” she said slowly. “But,” she bit her lip then nodded. “It might help. I’ve never been very good at getting the back. Just be gentle, all right?”

All of my focus drilled onto one section of her curls, and slowly, with the care I normally reserve for taking apart the machines of the makers, I began to work through it, one finger’s width of time.

She had not said it, but clearly this was a special task with which she had entrusted me. I would not fail her.

“If anyone had asked me two days ago if I’d let a giant red scaled alien warrior comb out my hair I would’ve laughed in their face,” Kyla murmured softly to Tali who had sprung up and to take advantage of a lap by the stove.

“Should I stop?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “Just thinking of all the ways life has changed. I don’t even know if I can say two days ago. I’m not sure how long I was in the pod. There’s no clock or anything. I guess they figure that whoever pulls you out will know.”

I moved to work on another curl, pondering. “Perhaps I can help. Did you go into your pod at the same time as Sarra?”

“Yeah, the whole group of us did. We didn’t have any choice.”

“I met Sarra and Dakath over two months ago,” I told her. “I do not know how long she had been with him, or how long she had been in her own pod before they met.”

“Two months,” Kyla said softly, then sniffled.

My hands froze in their work and I wished I could see her face. “Did I hurt you?”

She reached back to pat my leg. “No, not at all. Just hadn’t quite realized. Two, maybe three months sleeping in that thing. All that time, just missing.”

I tried to imagine it. Some beasts spent the cold season sleeping, dozing in their dens. But it did not seem like this was a behavior normal for Kyla’s clan.

“What drove you to take shelter in the pod? It doesn’t seem as if you meant to be there.”

“Not in a million years,” she sighed. “The trip was supposed to be just another gap year job,” she waved her hand, and Tali chirped in annoyance. “A way for me to learn more about different computer systems used by members of the Galactic Alliance.”

I tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “You know I understand none of that, don’t you?”

She turned to look at me, and I was pleased to see her smile was returning.

“Let me try again.”

I didn’t claim to understand all of her story, but enough was clear. Her clan had been on a vessel. The vessel had some sort of mechanical problem and her clan had been left behind, cast down from the sky in their tiny pods.

Later I would ask her to explain the words ‘solar flare’ and ‘computer systems’ more thoroughly.

For now, it was enough.

“This vessel, I would know more about it. Where it came from, where it was going.”

Gently I coaxed her head to tilt back so that I could more easily move up the curls towards her scalp.

“None of that seems important now,” she answered. “I’m here. And unless another Alliance ship passes by anytime soon, better start thinking of this is my home. This is what I need to learn about. This world.”

As I ran my fingers over her scalp, she closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “You’re really good at this.”

A trill of pleasure hummed in my gut. “You know all about my world now that you have been in–“

The teaching chamber, I caught myself.

That was perhaps not the wisest topic of conversation

Kyla cracked open an eye. “I’m still kind of mad about that,” she admitted. “But I understand you didn’t feel like you had a choice.”

“I did not.” Truely, how could I have told the story of her friend with just hand gestures?

Her eyebrows raised. “Just make sure the next time you do something that you don’t feel like you have a choice about, that you’re not taking away my choice. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” I assured her, and hastened to change the subject. “You know about my world, the cities and the clans. What else is there to know?”

“I know what some history book shoved into my head wanted to tell me,” she replied. “But I also know that history books don’t tell you everything. Why are you here, all alone? Where are the cities that I saw?”

My fingers faltered.. It was true. The teaching pods did not explain the disappearance of the Makers.

“There was a sickness. Many people died.” At least, that was the story I had been told as a cub.

“No one alive now really knows what happened. The Makers were there, the clans kept in their cities, ready to fight their wars. And then the Makers were gone, and each clan found themselves on their own.”

My mind reached back to my own past, the cub that I was with endless questions. There were no answers.

“The Vak’ki, my people, moved to the forest when our city became uninhabitable. We took with us the tools and artifacts from our barracks. Did our best to re-create the life we had.”

I stopped, stared at my hands, listening to the crackle of the fire in the stove.

“But that was generations ago. None not are alive now that know the secrets of those machines. If they fail, my people will not survive.”

The weight of my task hung heavily on my shoulders.

“No one else seems to believe the danger. So I am here, struggling to wrest the secrets of the Makers from their works.”

Kyla turned in her chair to face me. “That’s what all of that is back in the workshop?”

“Some of it.” I shook my head. “But there is so much I do not understand. My people were made for battle. Not something like this.”

She turned in her chair, encasing one of my hands with her own. 

“How you’re born doesn’t have to limit what you do with your life.  If you taught yourself everything back there, there’s no reason you can’t figure the rest of it out.”

Holding her hand, for just a moment it all seemed possible.

How could it not be? Anything could happen. 

She was here. 

That itself was proof.

“Perhaps, but first we need to figure out how to get you to your friend. Preferably while staying dry.”

“That’s probably for the best,” she laughed. “Let’s see what you’ve got for raincoats.”

In the next few hours we fell back into the easy working rhythm we discovered while repairing the teaching chamber.

My clan had long used the felted bark of the savia tree to stave off the worst of the rainy seasons onslaught.

“Luckily the process is mind numbingly dull,” I explained to Kyla.

Her own clothing now dry, she peered over my shoulder at the full chest of felt.

“And that’s lucky how?”

I rubbed my horn, only a little embarrassed to admit the truth. “It gives me something to do when I’m figuring out a problem.”

“It’s a pity I don’t know how to knit,” she laughed. “I’ve often thought it would serve the same purpose.

The felted bark was heavy, one side waxy, the others still slightly abrasive.

I had never worried about it before, but I frowned, thinking of how it would irritate Kyla’s more delicate skin.

“We can line this with the blanket,” I decided, clearing off enough space on the floor to cut out pieces for her coat.

She pulled the fabric back from me before I could lay it over the largest piece of felt.

“Are you sure? She asked, frowning at the faded images woven into the tapestry. “It looks like it might be something important.”

I shrugged. “Anyone who cared about it is long dead. It may as well serve some use now.”

“Fine,” she said reluctantly. “But first, let me get something.”

She returned with the smaller of the two boxes she’d taken from the pod. “I just want to get some photos of it, just in case.

Her box admitted the strange flash of light, and I peered closer at it, intrigued.

“What was that?”

“My tablet,” she answered. “It’s just another device, that’s all.”

I peered at the thing she handed me, a smooth cold surface that now showed an identical image of the tapestry.

“It is for making images of real things?”

Looking between the image and the cloth on the floor, I could find no differences.

“Sure, but that’s sort of only part of what it does.” 

I handed it back to her. “Show me. Show me everything.”

She grinned. “Look, it has the manual for the Dream, the vessel I was on. Tells you everything you need to know about it.”

She tapped at the side of the box and immediately the screen turned pale, black markings marching across the page, broken by drawing after drawing.

And none of it was anything that I could understand.

“We’d need a teaching chamber of my own for you to be able to read this, wouldn’t we?” Kyla quickly realized.

“It would seem so.” I watched, fascinated as she showed other images, like the stored memories of my people’s history, but these were of a world and a place I had never imagined.

“Wait! That is her!” I pointed to the screen.

With a quick snap of her fingers the image enlarged.

“Yep, that’s Sarah. Now just to find her.” Kyla’s voice quivered as she gazed at the face of her friend.

“We will start in the morning,” I assured her, then unhooked the panel from the wall that concealed my bed, pulling it down and testing the legs.

“Our journey will be long. You should rest.”

She eyed the bench warily.

“Two questions. Where are you going to sleep? And where do you…well..” She bit her lip, and looked to the ground. “Where do you go to take care of your bodily functions? I think my system is finally catching up with me.”

Once she had reemerged, I motioned her to lay upon the bed.

“You still haven’t answered my first question,” she protested. “Where are you going to sleep?”

“I still have a few things to pack up,” I explained to her. “Nothing you can help with. I promise, it would not be the first time I have bedded down in the workshop after a late night stuck on some puzzle of the Makers.”

Kyla smiled. “I’d be lying if I said I’d never fallen asleep over a project myself.” She climbed up into the bed

“Will it do?” I worried. “Your body is frailer than mine, and I do not know what you need. Perhaps something more like a nest, like Tali?”

She yawned sleepily rolling over to her side to face me.

“I never thought I’d want to go to sleep again. But right now I’m so tired you could probably stuff the mattress full of nails and I wouldn’t notice.”

Gently I pulled the covers over her as her eyes drifted closed.

“I promise, no nails were involved in the making of the mattress.”

But I don’t think she heard me.

As she slept I tacked together the side seams of her raincoat and fastened the hood and laces.

Not perfect, but it would work.

Now for the next pressing problem.

The journey to the mountains of the Sen’ki would take many days of walking.

Kyla could not be barefoot.

And while the idea of carrying her the entire way was tempting, I knew full well I’d need my arms and weapons free.

Besides, I suspected she would argue.

I gathered together various pieces of leather I had saved from projects, some heavy and thick, others more supple to the touch.

It would not be the first time I crafted a pair of boots, however there was one small difficulty.

I had no idea what size to make them.

I returned to the living quarters, watched her sleeping, her breathing even and peaceful.

“Stay and watch over her,” I told Tali, who leapt up to press against Kyla’s side.

Grabbing my own raincoat I slipped out the front door, closing it carefully behind me, then went up the tunnel and out into the night.

Breaking into a run I retraced our path until I found one of the light impractical coverings she’d worn on her feet before.

Useless as a shoe, but it would work perfectly well as a template.

Snatching it from the grass I sprinted back to the house.

A sleepless night was nothing, but there was much to do before daylight.

As I returned, I heard Kyla’s voice.

“Tali had better not be bothering her,” I muttered to myself as I opened this panel that led to the kitchen.

But Kyla wasn’t awake.

Tali stood at her shoulder, pressing her small orange head into Kyla’s shoulder as she twisted and turned on the bed.

“I can’t make it stop. Why can’t I make it stop?” 

Kyla’s voice was tight, filled with panic and frustration.

“Everyone’s going to die if I can’t make it stop.”

I dropped the shoe to the floor and hurried to her side, kneeling down beside her.

“It’s only a dream,” I whispered. “No one died. You did well.”

True or not, I didn’t care, only that the look of anguish that contorted her face went away.

In my soul I knew it was the truth. Whatever tormented her, Kyla had done her best.

I laced my fingers with hers, murmuring soft words until she quieted.

Silently I went to gather my tools, set up near the bed.

I would not leave her side again until she woke.

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Six

Kyla

“How can I have been such an idiot!”

The sound of my bare feet splashing in the mud as I ran away from Ryven was my only answer.

I wasn’t looking where I was going anymore.

The mountains I had hoped to see from the top of this hill had been locked away by the fog and rain.

Ryven, he would have helped.

But no, I couldn’t trust him.

Not anymore.

How else could he tell you what was happening? That stupid annoying voice in my head persisted in asking.

It’s not like you were going to get much further in your conversations than tab A into slot B.

I stumbled slightly.

No. We certainly were not going to start thinking about any tabs going into any slots.

As hot as he was, he’d shown me he couldn’t be relied on.

Even before I had this language that had been shoved into my head, he knew that I didn’t want to go into that not-a-pod.

Fine. Teaching chamber. I knew what it was now. Which was kind of neat.

It felt like a whole graduate course of history and language had been crammed into my brain, images still swirling about, settling into place.

I’d think about what it all meant later.

Now, I just needed to get away.

Sure, maybe pushing forward in the middle of a rainstorm wasn’t my brightest idea, but it couldn’t rain forever, could it?

While the emergency blanket didn’t really make the best raincoat I’d ever worn, it would do.

The missing slippers were no great loss. This wasn’t like the perfectly smooth floors on board the dream.

Hiking boots would’ve been more appropriate,

But in their absence, my own feet were just fine, if a little chilly.

My tablet wasn’t much help. There wasn’t exactly a programming solution to this set of problems.

But that didn’t matter. I had food, medicine, and a direction to go find at least one of my friends.

Ryven’s description of how he had found her worried me.

A mate? And, one of the winged ones?

No. Either he was lying or the language upload was faulty.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. Sarah could explain it to me herself when I found her.

I just had to keep moving.

I slowed at the bottom of the hill.

The trees were thicker here, shadows beneath their branches like layers of soot.

“It’s a little too late to be afraid of the dark, Kyla,” I chided myself

Although, it wasn’t exactly the dark I was afraid of.

Ryven was obviously a member of a giant alien species I’d never seen, and Tali, while adorable, made it clear this world held predators.

Scanning the trees all around me, I scooped down to pick up a heavy branch.

Not the best weapon, but the manual didn’t cover anything like this.

As I picked my way through the undergrowth the shadows became heavier.

I clutched at the tree branch, my gaze flickering everywhere, as the rustling began overhead.

“Stay focused,” I muttered. “Keep going, don’t get distracted.”

And then the largest creature I had ever seen in my life fell from the trees in front of me.

Shrieking in surprise I swung at it, missed as it slithered away.

A centipede?

No.

This wasn’t a just a centipede, I realized.

This was some sort of crazy ass insect as tall as I was and as thick as  my thigh, thousands of little pointy legs rippling down its side, pincers clacking at its head as it reared up to screech at me.

Wildly I lashed at the creature but it easily weaved and dodged clear of my blows.

Its shrill cries were terrible, ear piercing things.

And then I heard something worse.

The sound of more rustling coming from the trees overhead.

“Get away!” I shouted, dancing backward in a circle as more and more of the monsters fell around me.

My breath came in ragged pants as I tried not to think about what would happen if one fell on me.

It was only a matter of time.

My jaw clenched so tightly I thought my teeth would crack, I jerked about frantically, trying to keep an eye on each member of the advancing horde, knowing that it simply wasn’t possible.

Then a roar shook the leaves and the monsters halted their attack, their raised heads swaying.

I clutched the branch tighter.

What was it? What was coming that seemed to frighten even these terrible things?

“Tali?”

She sprang at one of the giant insects, claws slashing across its eyes, then swinging around behind it to pry the chitinous shell open.

Before I could see her next move, Ryven entered the clearing, a sword in each hand, swirling at his sides like deadly windmills, he danced through the crowd of monsters till he reached my side.

“Are you hurt?” He barked out, as he beheaded another of the monsters.

“No,” I gasped. “I’m fine, I think.”

He glanced down at me, brow furrowed.

“I would rather you were certain about that.”

Then he spun away again, his blades widening the open space around us, destroying everything that dared to approach.

Tali leapt from the carcass of her prey onto the back of another, hissing her outrage.

And in another moment it was over.

The bodies of the centipedes oozed a sickly yellow green goo.

Any survivors had scuttled away.

Ryven returned to my side, eyes narrowed as he examined my trembling forearm.

“Have you decided if you’re injured yet?” was his only comment.

The branch fell from my hands and my knees buckled.

He scooped me up, held me, mud and all to his chest.

“I know you would rather I did not touch you,” he growled. “But I will not let you fall. Not again.”

I let my head rest against his shoulder, all the rage and fury burned out of me.

“Can we go back to the workshop?” I asked softly. 

“Of course.” His eyes rested on me for a moment, and I wondered what he was going to say next. Then he glared across the clearing.

“Put that down,” he ordered Tillie who had  pulled off the leg of one of the monsters and was batting it about the forest floor.

“Come here, girl,” I murmured, then oophed as she landed in my lap, knocking the air out of me.

“Who’s a good little murder floof,” I said, burying my face in her fur and letting the sound of purring fill my ears.

When I looked up again, we had returned to the overhang of earth that hid the outer door to Ryven’s lair.

“I guess I didn’t get that far, did I?”

He set me down gently, eyeing me warily as if I might collapse at any moment.

He wasn’t that far off.

I felt hollow, completely drained. Physically, emotionally and mentally, there just wasn’t anything left.

“Further than many would have dared unarmed,” he answered quietly as he twisted the giant plate.

It clicked, then swung away.

“Did you build this yourself?” I asked as we entered the tunnel. Alright, maybe there was enough left for me to still be a little curious.

He handed me the basket of worms I’d left behind. I barely remembered setting it down, so wrapped up in my anger and hurt.

“I do not have the tools to forge that metal, but the gateway that houses it is my work. I do not encourage visitors.” 

Oh.

He glanced down at me and in  a flash, a sudden smile softened the rugged planes of his face.

“But there are always exceptions.”

I was just tired. Overwrought.

There was no reason at all for that little bubble of warmth to bloom through my chest.

Once inside he pulled the chair towards what I really hoped was the stove and tapped its back.

“Try to dry off here.”

“It may take a bit,” I said ruefully, pulling at my thin sweater where it clung to my body.

He slipped around the corner back towards the workshop as I huddled by the heat, steam rising from my soaked clothing.

Tali followed him, and then came a series of thuds.

“What are you doing?”

“Searching for something useful.”

Made as much sense as anything else today.

Within moments he’d reemerged, heavy folds of a thick blanket spilling out of his arms,Tali trailing behind.

“I do not have clothing that would fit you, but you can at least be warm while your own clothing dries. Later, we can figure out how to better equip you.”

He held the blanket to me and I could see it was a remnant of some massive tapestry, cut to a length twice my height.

I reached out, rubbed the cloth between my fingers.

It was soft, and more importantly, dry.

“I wouldn’t argue,” I said, then paused, my hands at the top button of my shirt.

“Except, maybe you could just leave that on the chair? I’ll let you know when I’m wrapped up.”

“Why?”

My cheeks burned..

“My clan, women, have rules about who is allowed to see them without our clothing.”

That sounded good right? 

“Rules like what?” He asked.

Well, shit.

Maybe this wasn’t the best tack to take but I was committed now.

“Usually doctors, if it’s necessary,” I started. “Or other women. Or…”

My throat closed around the words. “Or lovers. Mates,” I forced out.

His eyes widened.

“Of course. I’ll just be back there,” he pointed over his shoulder, stumbling backwards.

And with a surprising lack of grace for someone who I’d just seen dance his way through a battle, he bumped into the table on his way out.

Tali stayed, watching with interest as I set the satchel on the table, then pulled the sodden sweater, shirt and pants off, draping them over the chair.  

“I’m not really taking off my fur, kiddo,” I told her. “This is just a thing humans do.”

I reached for the strap of my bra then stopped.

That felt somehow like it might be crossing the line,

If nothing else, who knew when I’d find another that fit.

But the clammy coldness against my breasts was just too much.

“It’ll be a compromise,” I told myself as I wriggled my way out of the offending garment. “Panties stay on. No exceptions.”

Glancing around the corner I smiled.

Ryven was very obviously doing something on the workbench.

Cleaning it up, making another mess, who knew.

But I appreciated knowing where he was. It was almost gentlemanly, if your gentlemen were deadly giant red aliens with horns.

I took advantage of his distraction to let myself toast in front of the stove for a moment, slowly rotating until I thawed, before pulling the tapestry around me.

“It’s safe to come back now,” I called out.

After a few moments Ryven reappeared, carrying a second chair.

He placed it next to me, then stood awkwardly by it.

“I’d never thought to have someone else here long enough to need two places to sit in any one room,” he said awkwardly.

I paused from where I was unsuccessfully attempting to fasten the blanket into a robe.

“Are you sure it’s all right for me to be here? If you don’t have any visitors, not even enough to have a chair for them…” I trailed off.

“No, I want you here.”

He rubbed at one of his horns. “I mean, as long as you want to be here. It’s just very different,” he said with a sigh.

 “Why don’t we start again?” I wriggled one hand free, held it out towards him.

“Hi, I’m Kyla Tovale. It’s very nice to meet you.”

He took my hand but instead of shaking it turned it over, stroking the back of my hand with one finger.

I shivered slightly at his touch.

“We can work on handshakes later,”

I decided. “Though if we don’t find the rest of the human women, I guess there’s not really a point.”

“This is the greeting of your clan?” He asked, tearing his eyes away from my hand, brows drawn together. “Then I will learn it. I want to know about your clan. About you.”

A tiny thrill ran through me, but I pushed it down. He wasn’t interested in me. Not like that. Of course not.

He was just curious, like I’d been about the door.

That was all.

Right?

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Five

Ryven

The look of betrayal on Kyla’s face tore at my heart.

“It’s for the best,” I told Tali as she glared at me, perched atop of the teaching chamber.

“I’m not happy about it either,” I insisted. “Maybe if you hadn’t torn up the token from Sarra, Kyla could’ve understood what I was trying to say.”

Tali didn’t answer, And for the first time the silence grated at me.

The hours Kyla and I had spent working together had been filled with wonder and surprise. 

The soft sounds of her voice, her quick understanding of every challenge.

Her laugh when I tried to explain the unexplainable through increasingly ridiculous gestures.

And with every passing minute I grew more desperate to know what she was saying.

To be able to actually talk with her. Explained to her where she was, where her friend was.

To find out every detail about her. Her past, her dreams.

This was the only way. 

It was for the best.

And still, the fear in her wide eyes hung before me, the roundness of her plump lips as she gasped in shock.

She was clever.

She would understand. 

Of course she would.

As I waited for the chamber to do its work I tried again to reassemble the torn token.

“Did you eat some of the pieces?” I asked Tali.

It was possible that the kit had whisked them away to another lair.

It was also possible that I simply could not focus on anything other than the chamber that held Kyla within.

I gave up, and sat, waiting for her.

Had we truly fixed it? I didn’t remember it taking so long with my clans cubs.

Perhaps there was a problem. Perhaps I should force the chamber open, take her out.

Even with a language barrier, it was better to have her unharmed.

Before I could make up my mind, the series of chimes sounded and the door swung open.

Relief bubbling in my chest I hurried to help her out.

“Don’t even try it, buddy,” Kyra snapped, pushing my hand away. “Don’t touch me, don’t talk to me.”

Thrak.

She was angry after all.

“You don’t understand,” I said quickly. “This was the only way to give you my language, to explain what happened to your friend.”

She froze, turned towards me slowly, her still face a mask for the anger that burned in her eyes.

“I understand you just fine now. The other woman? You said the other pod was empty.”

“It was,” I assured her. “There was no one around, certainly no one of your clan.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have a clan.”

“Did I misunderstand Sarra then?” I reached back for the largest fragment of the token, handed it to her.

“Three months ago, I left to search the dead cities. Instead I found that.” I pointed to the empty, damaged pod. “While I was bringing it down from the plains, I meant another member of the clan of Women.” Kyla’s lips pressed into a thin line.  “Her name was Sarra. She gave me this, asked me to watch for any others like her.”

Kyla turned the fragment around and around in her hands, then silently went over to the rest of the remnants.

“It’s a CheezE puffs box,” she said softly. “Sarah and her damn snack food obsession.”

Her eyes shone with unshed tears, and she bit her lip.

“You found her on these plains, and you left her there? Alone?” She didn’t look at me, her voice still low, but with a dangerous edge to it.

“Of course not,” I exclaimed. “Her mate was with her. One of the Sen’ki, the winged ones. As a match, he would be more than capable of protecting her.”

“Sarah doesn’t have a mate,” Kyla spat, the fragment quivering as her hands trembled. “If there was someone with her, he would’ve been a stranger. And you left her with him.”

I moved to where she could not help but see me.

“Kyla, I know you are angered with me. But I swear she was safe and happy. I could not have taken her from his side if I tried.”

“Your word means nothing to me,” she said. “But now that I know she’s out here, I’m going to go find her.”

She swept up the fragments into her hands, walked back to the pod she had emerged from.

“It is the rainy season,” I explained as I walked behind her. “And she is in the mountains of the winged clan,” I explained. “It is many days travel from here.”

“Then I’d better start making up for lost time,” Kyla answered

Kyla didn’t look at me, instead pulling out a small satchel from her pod, carefully placing the fragments at the bottom, added a flat dark box, then lined it with a thin blanket and more of the silver bars.

She went back to the table, grabbed the gray box that she had kept with her while she ate and savagely jabbed it into the bag.

“You cannot go alone.”

Snarling, she spun to face me.

“You gave up any right to tell me what to do when you put me in that thing.”

“But I needed to–“

Her hand flew up to seal my mouth with her fingers.

“No. You didn’t need to. You knew perfectly well I did not want to do that and you decided for me. You don’t get me to make the decisions anymore.”

Tali spraying to the tabletop, twined around Kyla’s bag, chirping.

“I’m not mad at you, little one,” Kyla murmured as her fingers rubbed behind the orkin’s ears. “But I don’t think I should take you with me,”

No. This couldn’t be happening. I thought I had been prepared for her anger, but for her to leave? To try to cross to the forest alone?

Unthinkable.

Her eyes swept the room, quickly resting on the door, a smooth mass of metal I had scavenged from one of the dead cities.

I had not meant to hide its presence by plastering the surface to match the walls, simply to dull its echoing.

She marched to the wall and shoved, but it refused to move for her.

“Is this the way out?” she demanded.

“Yes, but it is not safe outside.”

“Right now I don’t know how safe it is for me to be inside with you.”

I stepped back in shock. “I would never hurt you!”

“I’m not thinking about my own safety right now,”

Oh.

Despite her tiny size, the fire in her eyes made her intention very, very clear.

Kyla crossed her arms over her chest, pulling the soft jacket tight around her.

“Let me out.”

With a sigh I hefted the barrier out of the way.

There was no point in arguing, I could see that now.

With the ease of long practice I quickly fastened my weapons belt, adjusting the twin swords that hung at my hips so they would draw freely.

If Kyla wanted to go out, I would not stop her.

But I would not let her go alone and unprotected either.

“It’s dark,” she blurted as she entered the tunnel.

Wordlessly I handed her a basket of glow worms.

“It is not far to the surface.”

She nodded sharply and moved on, head held high and shoulders pulled back.

The short tunnel rose quickly, twisting sharply at the end, where another slab of metal sealed us from chill air.

I did not try to stop her, merely opened the door and stepped aside.

Kyla stopped under the overhang of earth that sheltered the door, peering into the rain.”Which way to Sarah?”

“The territory of the Sen’ki lies to the northwest,” I answered, pointing. “If she and her mate were successful in their quest, they will be there.”

“Right then,” she said, and proceeded to march away.

I turned to fasten the outer door behind me, and grunted as Tali landed on my shoulders.

“I do not have a pack for you to ride on,” I told the kit. “It is raining. You don’t like to be wet.”

But the orkin kit was apparently just as determined to have her own way as Kyla.

“Two angry females,” I muttered. “Not how I expected the day to go.”

The rain weighed down her curls, soaking through her clothes by the time she took shelter under the broad leaves of a hibichi bush at the foot of the hill.

By the time I reached her side she had pulled out the thin blanket from her satchel and wrapped it over her head and shoulders, pulling down a thin vine to tie it at her throat.

“Come back,” I tried again. “You’re not dressed for this.”

“I wasn’t dressed for my ship to blow up, my friends to be scattered to the Void and my entire life to get turned upside down either, but here we are.”

Hands clutching at the edges of the blanket over her head, she marched away, keeping a fairly constant line even as she wove around trees and bushes and thick undergrowth.

I would be impressed, if I was less worried.

She didn’t want to talk to me. 

She didn’t want to listen.

That was all right. I would wait. 

And I would watch over her.

Her path led up a steep hillside, the soil saturated by the constant deluge, the purple and blue striped grasses laying flat to the ground, slick with the runoff.

A third of the way up Kyla stumbled, falling to her knees, her thin shoes slipping off her feet.

I stood at her side, but she ignored the hand I held out for her, instead clawing her way back up.

She fell again, a second and the third time, and with each fall she turned away from me, spurning my help.

Aggravation coiled in my belly. She was going to make herself sick. I should pick her up, take her home, take care of her… 

The memory of the hurt in her eyes froze me in my tracks.

No. That was not the way.

I claimed to be clever, a solver of mysteries. I would solve this as well, would find a way to make it right.

At the top of the ridge she swayed, and despite my best intentions, I reached for her again. 

“Go away!” She finally spun to face me and I saw that more than rain wetted her face.

Tears coursed down her cheeks, making tracks in the mud.

“I trusted you!” she shouted. “I thought you were my friend!”

“I am,” I tried to sooth her. “Come back. I will take you to your friend, I swear it.”

“No! Leave me alone!”

Swollen eyes half close she lunged at me, arms outstretched, and knocked me off balance.

Tali sprang for safety as I lost my footing and tumbled down the slick grass, back the way we had come.

As I fell I heard Kyla’s sobbing gasp. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” 

Then her footsteps faded away.

And as I raised myself to my feet, shaking my head to clear it, I heard her scream.

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Four

Kyla

“Cats are cats everywhere apparently.”

I sank cross legged to the floor, hands still tight around the scruff of the cat’s neck.

Okay, probably not a cat. 

Whatever it was was orange, and the tufts at the points of its ears were far too long, pale golden strands shimmering in the light.

But I was going to roll with it.

Hissy, pointy and bitchy when disturbed?

It was a cat.

“Calm down little one,” I murmured, working the fingers of my free hand behind its ears.

It continued to glare at me for a moment, then its body relaxed beneath my grip.

“That’s a good girl,” I encouraged it. “Are you a boy or a girl? Or am I assuming some sort of gender binary when there isn’t one?” I chewed my lip, letting my brain wander off into the realm of xenobiology. Not my field. Maybe it should have been.

The creature squeaked in irritation as the petting slowed down. 

“I’m sorry kiddo, I’ve had a hell of a day. For now, you’re a girl.”

Ryven loomed over us, and I glanced up to meet his glare.

“Tali,” he pointed at the critter. “Ryven, Kyla, Tali.” And then muttered something that I was pretty sure wasn’t exactly a language lesson.

“Sorry about waking up your cat,” I said. “But I think he’s forgiving me faster than you are.”

Ryven threw his hands up into the air, then stomped back to the end of the bench he’d been at earlier.

“You ready to come with me?” Slowly I got to my feet, grinning at my success as Tali kept purring, arms wrapped around my neck. Small victory, but today I’d take it.

“Oof. You’re heavier than you look.”

Ryven went back to searching through the workbench for something. Whatever it was seemed important.

Maybe an english to big red hot guy dictionary? That would be nice.

Then I caught myself.

Hot guy?

I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the melting pile of fur in my arms.

Okay, for a certain kind of attractive, Ryven certainly would tick all the boxes.

Tall, there was no question.

He was at least a head taller than any human man I’d ever seen.

Chisiled jaw and cheekbones you could cut yourself on.

Bare chested, it was easy enough to see there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him.

And when he’d carried me from my escape pod to the table I’d  had a chance to be close and personal with the solid muscles of his torso.

But there was the little matter of those red scales. And the horns peeking up from the black wiry hair.

Let’s not forget about the horns.

Hot or not, at the moment he was clearly an alien on a mission.

He ransacked the workbench as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.

Some of the parts were finely machined, the glint of fabricated metal and carbon glimmering in the soft light.

And that machine that I’d stopped to look at, the oval chamber resting against one wall kept catching my eye.

It almost looked like an escape pod, but on closer inspection clearly wasn’t… that certainly didn’t match the rustic quarters and furnishings.

A glimmer of hope bloomed in  my chest.

Maybe everything I had assumed was wrong.

Maybe this guy just lived off the grid or something. Maybe my bangle was damaged but someone here could fix it.

Then why doesn’t he have an implant? A small voice at the back of my head wondered.  I shoved it back down. Not helpful. Even if it was a little worrying.

I turned to study the rest of the workshop.

Machinery and devices I didn’t recognize, all in different states of disrepair.

In some cases, the pieces had been laid carefully to the side as if waiting to be reassembled, others were twisted and wrecked.

“Aargh!”

I turned quickly at the low moan behind me and the cat in my arms flexed his claws lightly into my shoulder.

But that was easily forgotten by the expression of devastation across Ryven’s face.

Spread on the table before him were shreds of blue and green thick paper.

He slid the pieces back and forth trying to reassemble it, but clearly some were missing.

I frowned, looking at the fragments.

It looked almost familiar.

His shoulders slumped as he met my eyes.

Whatever it had been, it was important.

I looked at it again, but the torn bits meant nothing to me.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” I caught myself, bit back laughter. “I don’t understand is sort of the understatement of the year, isn’t it?”

He reached forward, his large hand running down the side of my cheek, a wordless apology.

Then his eyes snapped to the not-a-pod in the far corner and he rumbled something, low and decisive.

“It’s nothing to get mad about, right?” I offered warily. He’d been kind. Sweet almost.

But suddenly I was very aware he could break me in half without trying.

I stayed very still as he stomped back to the open panel, glaring at the scorch marks inside.

Good. He was angry at a repair job, not me. 

I could sympathize with that.

“Are you trying to fix it? Looks like you’ve got something that burned out.” Carefully I set Tali down on the workbench where she happily batted at the scraps of paper.

One mystery solved at least.

Apparently whatever that important thing had been, a little orange fluff ball had decided to sharpen his claws on it.

Total cat.

Nothing I could do to fix that, but maybe I could help my rescuer with his other repair project.

“Can I help?” I said, squatting down next to where Ryven scowled at the opened side of the device.

Now that I had more time to study it, it really looked nothing like an escape pod.

Flatter than my pod, more like an oval coffin, hinged on one of the long sides.

I shook myself. Not really the most cheerful of comparisons. Maybe it was a replicator or food storage device.

Ryven glanced at me, but didn’t bother to say anything.

Just as well, since I couldn’t understand a word.

Instead he scootched over to make room.

I would take that as an invitation.

Pulling off the rest of the panels, he traced the circuitry and wiring for me, his massive hands surprisingly agile.

“So if that connects to there, then well, something really did blow out here didn’t it,” I murmured. “I wish we had a better light.” I craned my head to peer into the workings then sat back, frowning. “Can I use one of those?” 

With a nod Ryven rose to his feet, and in an instant I had one of the glowing baskets in my lap.

I blinked at the contents.

Worms. Somehow I hadn’t been expecting worms.

But that was the source of the light.

Well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen today.

Gingerly I touched one, bracing for pain, just in case whatever form of chemical luminescence at work here would burn my skin as well.

But despite their glow they were cool to the touch.

“Don’t think about it Kyla,” I muttered to myself and then gently lifted one from the basket.

By its illumination I could see the problem more clearly.

“Look at this.” I pointed to a small gap in the wiring where the scorching was heaviest. “Don’t you have a replacement?”

Huh. Apparently every species rolled their eyeballs when someone asked something stupid, even when the language itself didn’t come across.

“Right. If you did, you wouldn’t be stuck.”

Together we bent over the casing as I tried tracing an alternate route. “Is it really just the power source that fried?” I wondered.

Nothing.

There had to be a way to ask this.  

Feeling like an idiot, I took one of the worms and gently held it into place, right where it looked like the problem was.

Ryven’s boom of laughter caught me off guard, the warm sounds echoing off the walls.

This time it was my turn to roll my eyes. “Ok, obviously not with a worm, but you know what I mean, right?”

After he managed to get control of himself, Ryven waved me over to examine a small pile of parts.

With the casual movements of long practice he assembled them and it didn’t take long before I could tell it would be the perfect shape to fit in that spot.

“So that was what was in there, but it doesn’t work,” I murmured.

I reached for the component then paused, looking to him for agreement. Some people didn’t like you to just take something they were working on without asking first.

Like me.

Instead of being grumpy, he nodded. But the moment his hand brushed mine I gasped in surprise.

Just a bit of static, no doubt.

Nothing more than that.

Shaking my head to clear it, I studied the part more closely.

It was some sort of power supply, I was sure of it.

“I’m going to assume you don’t have a spare one laying around,” I asked as I took it back apart, peering at the insides, imagining how it would function when it was working.

“I guess if it just needs power, maybe we can make something else work.”

Replacing the component on the workbench I headed back to the second escape pod.

As I ran my fingers over the deep gashes running down one side of it my breath caught.

Who had been inside? Hannah or Sarah? Olivia or Charlotte?

I hit the emergency release and stared at the empty space within, hoping for clues.

Whoever it was had at least remembered to take the med kit and emergency rations with her.

But no scrawled message on the interior walls, no hints as to who had been carried here.

Whoever she was, she had a rougher landing than I had.

The light caught on a thin line near the head of the pod.

Throat tight, I reached in, pulled it out.

One long blonde hair.

But no blood. Whoever she was, I had to assume she was out there somewhere, safe.

Wherever she was, I couldn’t do anything to help her.

“This pod isn’t going anywhere ever again, no matter what I do,” I told myself, then knelt down at its side. “But maybe I can do something else with it.”

Tapping at the panel before me I mimed pulling it off. “Have any tools that could handle this?”

Ryven watched with narrowed eyes then nodded sharply, disappearing back into the depths of the workshop before reemerging with a long thin strip of metal.

Head tilted curiously, he put the tool in my outstretched hand.

“I’ll let you know if I can’t get it,” I promised him.

But even with a decidedly non-regulation wrench, the panel came off easily.

I pointed at the power unit. “Think we can make it fit in your doohickey?”

I chewed my lip, considering.

It wasn’t just a matter of making it fit. I had no idea if the two devices even used the same kind of power, much less voltage.

And from the looks of Ryven’s workshop, he wasn’t exactly prepared for building a converter.

Apparently he wasn’t worried about any little things like that, as his eyes glowed with excitement as he reached for the power unit.

I batted his hands away. “Hey, not like that. Watch me.”

He didn’t have to watch me demonstrate the proper procedure for uncoupling the unit for long before he’d finished on his side.

“Show off,” I poked his side. “I’ll be done in just a moment, you’re going to just have to wait.

Finally it was free, cables trailing from the shielded box.

“Let’s see if we can splice this in.”

Starting to my feet I groaned, legs stiff from sitting on the floor for so long.

With a smile Ryven stooped down, one broad hand at the small of my back as he raised me to my feet.

“Don’t get any ideas,” I told him “Usually I’m perfectly capable of standing. Walking even.”

But there hadn’t been anything usual about today.

Exhaustion gnawed at me, but I had no interest in sleeping.

Not after I’d been stuck in the pod for who knows how long.

And resting my head against his shoulder felt nice. A little bit of security.

Back at the mystery device we bent over the burnt out section, comparing what we had with what we might need.

Together we tackled the problem quietly, as if we’d worked together for years, tweaking and twisting the cables until they matched, or at least well enough.

I glanced up at Ryven’s face, intense with concentration.

If I had to be shipwrecked somewhere, this wasn’t the worst option.

A nice guy, a problem to sink my teeth into, and a sort of cat.

Tali had gotten bored of playing with the cables and had curled up to nap on the workbench again.

And then we had it.

The lights on the panel above where we worked began to flicker, cycling through shades of blue and red. A speaker at the other side emitted a long series of beeps before settling down to a steady hum.

Ryven whooped, springing to his feet and whirling me up into his arms.

“Take it easy, big guy!” I laughed, but his enthusiasm was contagious.

At least something was going right for someone today.  And maybe now that this was fixed, he could take me to whoever could fix my commbangle.

He set me back down and pressed a series of buttons.

I held my breath as slowly the door hinged open, and a bright smile lit up his face.

“Looks like it works after all!” I congratulated him. 

Ryven stepped to the side, pointing inside the chamber. 

“Is there something else we need to take apart?” 

I couldn’t see a problem, but didn’t really know what I was looking at. Just a long flat surface running the length of the device, swirling purple and silver lights sparkling along the interior.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, glancing back over my shoulder at him.

He pointed to the bench, then to me, then back to the bench.

“You want me to get inside?” I stepped away quickly. “I don’t think so. I’ve spent quite enough time locked up. Time for me to stretch my legs.”

Great. My nice guy had turned into a lunatic. Frantically I tried to remember where in the kitchen area I’d seen a door.

Shit. Groggy and achy from the sleeping gas, I hadn’t noticed one. That was alright, I would find one.

Big machines like this had to come in from somewhere, and wherever that door was, I was going out.

“Thanks so much for your hospitality, and it’s been fun, but I really have to-“

Ryven’s hands clamped down over my upper arms, keeping me from backing away any further.

Eyes wild, he picked me up, holding me in front of the gaping chamber.

“No. Nope, I really don’t want to do this.”

But it didn’t matter. Gently but firmly he placed me inside, holding me in place as the door began to lower.

And then he sealed me in, back with my nightmare.

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Three

Ryven

Ripping my eyes away from the stranger took an unreasonable amount of will.

Despite the richer tones of her skin and the lush curls of her hair, it was clear that this was one of Sarra’s women, one of her lost clan.

But unlike Sarra, this one’s words were a mystery to me.

With sudden urgency I realized that every other project in my workshop paled in importance.

The woman who stood before me had my full attention.

She could not understand me, nor I her.

But we must begin somewhere.

I tapped my chest.

“Ryven,” I said and repeated myself.

I pointed to her and waited.

She frowned, delicate lines marring her brow. “Esthatyourname?”

I mimicked the sounds faithfully, but apparently had misunderstood.

“Nononno.” She shook her head, curls flying.

She reached out towards me, hand stopping well short of touching me.

“Ryven?”

I repeated my name again to confirm it.

“Kyla,” she answered as she touched the center of her chest.

“Kyla,” I echoed, the sound soft in my mouth.

I pointed to myself again, feeling the fool, but not particularly caring.

“Ryven.”

“Kyla.”

I pointed at the table before her. “Table.”

She stumbled over the words, but it was clear she was intelligent, understood what I was doing.

Despite that, this would take an eternity.

I ground my teeth in frustration.

There was another way. Or would have been, if I’d been cleverer.

One of the un-finished projects at the back of the workshop mocked me.

A teaching chamber of the Makers that had ceased to function longer than anyone in the Fort remembered.

Three more were left to train the cubs from the generator and no one had cared when I had pulled this one away.

A broken hulk of machinery only took space.

I’d been confident I could fix it, wrest its secrets from the maze of parts inside, but after seasons of effort, I’d come no closer to a solution, and had abandoned the project, like too many others.

“I will take you to Sarra,” I said, but she only shook her head as frustration rose through me.

Without Sarra here to translate, there was no way to explain that I needed to take Kyla anywhere.

The puzzle weighed on me, as heavy as Kyla’s expectant gaze.

Except, something of Sarra’s was here. Perhaps that would do.

“Come, I will show you something.”

I beckoned towards the workshop but she made no move to follow me.

“Come,” I said softly, then reached out my hand.

She stared at it, considering, then hesitantly placed hers in mine.

For a moment it was all I could do to not simply stare in wonder.

The soft skin of her tiny hand, so strange against my hardened scales, the touch like fire through my blood.

Gently I wrapped my fingers around her palm and gave a light tug to bring her to her feet.

“Come with me,” I repeated. “I have something to show you.”

“Ihopeyourenottakingmetoyourleader,” she said, doubt clear in her tone, no matter that I did not understand the words..

She paused at her pod, then tapped at the heavy silver cuff that wrapped around her left wrist. “Hello?

“Helo?” I repeated back to her.

She turned and flashed a half smile.

“Sorryjustwonderingwhythisthingisntworking.”

I pushed aside the curtain that separated my workshop from the living space, searching my mind to try and remember where I had put the strange box from Sarra.

Somewhere safe, I was sure.

Before I took another step, Kyla rushed past me.

“Someonelseishere? Whereisshe?

She circled the first pod I had found, her face was bright with expectation.

Feeling like the worst villain, I knew I had to crush it.

“It was empty,” I told her.

With a sigh I turned to my workbench, found two of the small chests I had fashioned in an attempt to create some order back here.

I lifted the contents out from one of them, then turned back to face Kyla.

Holding the chest that still contained a jumble of small metal pieces I pointed to the pod I had freed her from.

“You were inside that one,” I said, then opened the chest, showing her the contents.

Her gaze flicked back and forth between the chest of my hand and the pod, obviously not understanding.

I showed her the other chest, pointed to the pod that had given her such hope.

“This was empty,” I told her, showing that nothing lay in the chest, turning it upside down and shaking it to prove the point.

“Empty.”

It was clear the moment comprehension struck.

She crouched on the floor, head in her hands in despair.

I knelt next to her, spurred on by some wild need to comfort her, but having no idea how to do so.

“I’m sorry.”

The silence stretched around us until she tilted her head back up to stare blankly at the ceiling. “Okicanhandlethis.”

Taking two deep breaths she climbed to her feet, turning to survey the rest of the room.

“Whatsthat?”

She pointed towards the broken teaching chamber and I racked my brain for a way to explain it.

Gracefully she wove through the piles of debris I’d let accumulate, then crouched down to examine the side from which I had removed a long strip of the metal casing.

“Howonearthdidthisgethere?”

I wondered what she had asked in that soft voice.

Rising back up from the teaching pod, she examined the rest of the room.

Shame burned through me as I looked at my ‘burrow’ through fresh eyes.

Too much tinkering, not enough completed work.

Just the blundering attempts of an amateur.

“Let me look for the token from your friend,” I said, checking one corner of my bench, then the other.

It had been here, I was sure of it.

A rustling noise wrenched my attention back to her as Kyla opened and closed boxes, worrying at her lip.

“Noneofthismakessense.”

Then she reached for a low covered box and before I could stop her opened the lid.

In a blur of bristling orange fur, Tili sprang out hissing, bright blue eyes narrowed and paws outstretched for the attack.

“No!” I shouted, the thought of what those razor-sharp claws would do to Kyla’s unprotected skin sending ice through my veins.

But before I could move Kyla had whirled, plucking Tali from mid air with one firm hand grasping the loose skin at the back of the kit’s neck.

“Idontthinkso,” Kyla told the startled orkin.

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter Two

Kyla

My dreams were filled with fire.

The golden glowing circle that wrapped around the passenger disc of the Seramiks Dream  spun faster and faster, brighter and brighter.

No matter how quickly my fingers danced at the console I couldn’t call it back, couldn’t change what I knew would happen.

Flame filled the screen as the shouts and cries of my friends echoed in my ears.

I couldn’t see them. Even awake, they hadn’t been where I could see them, touch them.

Somehow, even stuck in this never ending nightmare I knew that.

We had been left behind.

Worse, the passenger disc had exploded, and now no one knew where we were, what had happened to us.

The rest of the women were in their own individual escape pods, and we had been cast somewhere into the Void.

I struggled to wake, but the nightmare refused to let go of me, kept me pulled into its repeating hell.

After an eternity, something changed.

The light of the ship’s explosion flared once more, but this time faded, dimmed into nothingness.

The screams were silent now.

Instead, a thin line of warm light appeared at the edge of my vision, grew broader and brighter.

Until a demon leaned over the edge of the pod, flickering light dancing over his red scaled features, dark horns jutting up through his short black hair.

This time I was the one who screamed.

The sound of my voice in my ears shocked me back to reality.

This wasn’t a nightmare, this wasn’t some hell or some devil.

This was just another alien, like the dozens of species we’d met on the Dream.

I sat up, coughing, pulling my sweater tight around me.

“Thank you.” 

My throat was clogged from disuse. How long had I been asleep?

“Where is this? Where are the others?”

The demon guy stepped back from the sides of the pod, a blank look of incomprehension across his face.

Oh no. That couldn’t be right.

“Do you understand me?”

Nothing.

Right then.

There hadn’t been much in the manual about this.

Statistically it wasn’t totally impossible that the pod could end up on a world that could sustain intelligent life, yet hadn’t been contacted by the Galactic Alliance.

Heck, that would describe Earth for most of its history.

No Alliance, no translator.

Shit.

I struggled to get out of the pod and in an instant Big Red was at my side, arm out to assist me.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. “I’ve felt better.”

The manual talked about this. Disorientation and grogginess after the sleeping gas. 

That would explain the headache.

But all of that seemed minor compared to the larger issue.

“Where am I?”

Big Red didn’t answer.

Of course he didn’t.

As far as he was concerned I was some random babbling creature he’d pulled from the pod.

Except…

How had he gotten me out?

I took quick notes of my surroundings.

The smoothly curved walls were covered with a light colored plaster that reflected the warm light coming from baskets that hung at intervals around the room.

Further back a thick cloth curtain separated the rest of the chamber.

Definitely pre-industrial.

Then how had Big Red managed to get the pod open?

Blind luck?

There was something here I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t blame it all on the sleeping gas.

But investigating it might have to wait. I stepped away from the pod and my knees buckled.

He caught me before I hit the floor, one arm under my rubbery legs, the other around my back, cradling me to him.

“I’m not a child,” I grumbled, gut honestly, I didn’t have much more strength than one.

He spoke, his low voice rumbling in his chest and with a hopeful glance I checked my commbangle.

No happy blue light. Not even the circling indicator that would let me know it was processing his words.

Just a heavy hunk of metal around my wrist.

Well, that wasn’t encouraging.

The giant rumbled again, then with long strides carried me around a bend in the room that I hadn’t noticed.

This new section held a few more furnishings, but still everything was low-tech.

A wooden table with just one chair, a contraption that might be a stove set into an alcove of the wall, a dark oval high above it suggesting a chimney.

Placing me in the chair, Red turned his back to me, rummaging in a low chest for something.

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” I said as I rubbed my temples. “But I wish there was a way I could ask you for a glass of water.”

In moments he’d returned, a roughly fired clay platter in one hand. On it three small mounds were placed perfectly evenly from each other.

He set the plate in front of me and I peered at it warily.

One pile seemed to be of dried purple petals.

The second a dried shredded brown something.

And next to that an even more unappetizing looking sickly green paste.

My reluctance appeared to be mistaken for confusion because Big Red pointed in turn to each of the piles and then to his mouth, miming eating.

“I get it, I just don’t know if it’s a good idea.”

There wasn’t exactly something in the manual that covered this.

But wait!

I pushed back from the table, only stumbling slightly this time.

Red kept a careful eye on me while I returned to the pod, pulling out the packet of emergency rations.

As I unwrapped one of the silver bars, a flash of recognition seemed to cross his face.

I froze.

“Do you know what this is? Have you seen something like this before?”

Don’t be an idiot, Kyla. He couldn’t understand you five minutes ago, he isn’t going to magically be able to understand you now.

He tapped the bar, and scrunched his face up like a toddler, then pointing back to the plate, he nodded encouragingly.

“Emergency rations probably aren’t going to taste particularly good,” I agreed with him. “But I can at least be sure it’s not going to poison me.”

I tore open the packet, gnawed at a corner of the bar, and shuddered slightly.

It was like chewing chalk. No. That was a disservice to chalk.

Considering my options, I tried to take another bite. Failed.

The med kit in the pod had anti-toxins in it.

I knew this, because I had read the manual. For a moment my mind went blank.

But what about the rest of the girls?

They’d constantly invited me to be part of whatever social life we’d managed to eke out between our work shifts on the Dream.

Just because I hadn’t accepted any of the invitations wasn’t on them, and hadn’t stopped their good natured efforts.

But despite all of that, I couldn’t really imagine any of them taking the time to read the manual.

Not that it was doing me a whole lot of good right now.

I looked at the mystery piles on the plate again, weighed the risk against the horrible silver bar, then went back to the pod and got out the antitoxin.

The dried purple petals were bitter.

The shredded brown stuff seemed to be some sort of dried meat.

I glanced at my host.

I couldn’t exactly imagine him being vegetarian.

But the unappealing green paste was fantastic. Sweet and creamy, a little bit like mango pudding.

At my appreciative noises Red added more to my plate, but tapped the pile of jerky as well, dark eyebrows raised.

“Look, I’m stranded on a  strange planet, I don’t know where my friends are, our ship has been destroyed, and I don’t know how long it’s going to be until the beacons on the pods get through to someone to come and rescue us.”

I took a defiant bite of disgusting looking paste.

“If I want to have my dessert before dinner, today’s the day for it.”

Reaver’s Claim: Chapter One

Ryven

“Don’t you get bored at all, out there with no one else around for company?”

I shook my head, eyes focused on the pack before me.

“You know me,” I answered. “There’s only so much of you all I can take.”

Yalen hit my shoulder hard, but there was no real animosity in it. He was well aware that he was the only warrior in the clan I had any tolerance for.

Not much, but some.

“Try to make it back before the end of the rainy season this time. Let me know you haven’t been flooded out of that burrow.” He frowned. “Last time the Elders nearly declared you rogue.”

Finally satisfied with the arrangement of straps, I slid the pack onto my shoulders and rose to my full height, clasping my friend’s arm.

“Tell them to come see my workbench. I’m far too busy to go out marauding.”

At his laugh I turned away, waving for the guards on duty to raise the gate placed into the thick palisade.

Two kept a keen eye on the forest, crossbows at the ready, while the third set his shoulder to the wheel, slowly winching the wheel about until the counterweight swung free, letting the heavy gate pivot open.

I frowned. Something in the mechanism didn’t sound right.

Perhaps I should stay another day, see what needed to be adjusted.

“Get if you’re going,” Makot, the oldest of the guards growled, his red scales dulled by the years. “We’re not here to wait upon your whims.”

Suddenly I remembered why I had been so anxious to leave.

Other people, even the warriors of my own clan, talked too much and said too little of any worth.

With a quick wave at Yalen I headed out into the forest, the slamming of the gate behind me, the sound of freedom in my ears.

I quickly crossed the scorched earth that delineated the territory of the Fort from the surrounding forest, the fire baked clay holding solid even in the increasing downpour.

The other clans had not been so foolish as to try to attack the Vak’ki  in our stronghold for years now, but still, we were prepared.

There would be no sneaking through the underbrush, no setting the forest aflame around us to drive us out.

No, our enemies would have to cross a wide, barren expanse exposed to our arrows before they reached our walls.

I glanced at the sky before entering the shade of a crimson leafed checha tree. The Sen’ki were another matter, but a system of watchtowers throughout the forest were positioned to give us warning of any incursion into our territory.

The winged ones were not to be trusted. 

Every clan cub knew that.

Except…

I thought about the strange artifact I had been given weeks before. The bright colors on its surface still a mystery, the marks of some language I did not know.

Chesepufs, the woman Sarra had called them.

Her companion, a Sen’ki warrior, had been willing to barter anything for her safety.

The light of a coming battle had been clear on his face, but his eyes softened for her.

I grunted as a slight weight hit my shoulder as I passed under the heavy branches of a tree.

“I see you had good hunting while I was gone,Tali” I told the orkin kit who butted its head against my horns before taking her accustomed position at the top of my pack.

“Better hunting than the day I met the strangers,” I continued. “I wonder what you would’ve thought of them.”

The female, her soft strange body such a frail shell for the burning will inside of it, sitting so trustingly next to the Sen’ki warrior, Dakath. 

I could not remember a time when warriors of our clan had met without battle, had sat together.

Talked freely.

And yet, I had done so.

I wondered what awaited them in their mountain fastness, if their mission had been successful.

“But I don’t think we will be paying them a visit anytime soon,” I reached back to scratch at the soft orange striped fur. “Do you?”

Tali did not answer, of course. The perfect companion.

The day wore on as we traveled, the dim sunlight that made it through the constant rain filtering through the trees drawing ever changing patterns in our path, while thoughts of home and the project that awaited me there filled my mind.

My burrow, Yalen had called it.

It was true, as far as it went. I was digging for answers to the mysteries that surrounded us, as much as through the soil.

And while it might be nice to have someone who understood my work, I knew better than to expect it.

The mysterious shell I had found on the Stav plains had obsessed me, my other projects gathering dust while I explored this new puzzle.

Sarra had called it a pod, had expected it to be filled like that of a flower.

But there were no seeds, nothing I understood. Its inner workings were almost like the devices of the Makers, yet different enough to leave me further baffled.

“We will stay all season until we discover its secrets,” I told the kit. 

A glimmer of light caught my eye and I realized we had already reached the river bank.

“Stupid,” I chided myself.

The dangers of the forest were many, and while they would not be a threat to a wary warrior, to one wondering in a daze? “Stupid,” I repeated. “You do not have to agree with me though.” 

The kit’s belly rumbled and I laughed. “Come, let us see about our dinner.”

During the last rainy season the bank had caved in under a massive pair of checha trees a short ways down the river.

I had harvested one for its wood months ago, but the scooped out section remained, a cut-out twice as long as I was tall.

The waters of the stream swirled into an eddy, making a perfect place for fishing.

“With the start of the rains,” I wondered idly. “It may have finally filled in.”

As I rounded the corner I stopped still. The fish trap was still there, its undercut earthen edges somewhat ragged but holding.

But the roots of the remaining tree had caught something else. Something unexpected.

A metal cylinder, the twin of the one I had found before, floated, one end buried into the mud of the bank.

Tali squeaked with displeasure as I threw my pack off, racing into the water, hands scrambling for purchase on the smooth sides.

“You’re not much help,” I muttered. Cursing, I ripped down low growing vines, ignoring my soaked clothing as I knotted the line together.

In moments I had dragged the machine to the bank, the beating rain slowly washing away the muck.

Tali balanced on her hindlegs to examine it, then chirped her confusion.

“I do not know, little one.”

My hand hovered over the collection of buttons set into the side.

I remembered every movement Sarra had made to open the empty pod.

What would I find in this one?

Reaver’s Quest: Chapter Three

Sarah

“Anyone else a little freaked out by the purple sky?” 

Nobody answered.

It had been easily an hour since I’d struggled out of my pod, and the entire time no one had answered me.

There was some quote I’d read once about insanity and doing the same thing over and over again.

Maybe right now I was a little insane but honestly it had been that sort of a day.

Because if I stopped talking, stopped assuming that somewhere, someone could hear me, I’d have to admit a terrifying possibility.

That I was alone here.

“The moons are pretty,” I said, leaning against the slightly crumpled nose cone of my escape pod to stare up into the indigo and violet streaked heavens above.

The first moon had already been halfway up the sky by the time the second one peeked over the horizon.

“Think there’s more moons waiting?” I looked around, wishing I’d paid a little more attention to the beginning astronomy course.

I had to assume that despite the purple sky, giant red sun and multiple moons aside, it was safe for me here.

I’d woken up as fresh air filled the pod, the lid hinged open high above me.

No choking, struggling to breath, no foul odor, and as far as I knew, no hallucinations.

Right now, that counted as safe enough.

I was in the mountains, nothing but rocks and scrub brush no higher than my knees anywhere around.

No buildings. No signs of anyone.

And no shelter.

“I know we’re supposed to stay by the escape pods,” I said. “But it’s getting cold up here.”

I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat “Hannah? If you can hear me, I think I need to head downhill.”

The thin blanket I’d grabbed from my bed would have been cozy enough for a short nap inside the padded pod.

It wasn’t going to do a damn thing against frigid mountain temperatures.

I tapped my comm bangle in frustration, but it didn’t even ping.

“Wonders of alien technology,” I grumbled.

The comm bracelet, tethered to the translator implanted behind my ear, should have picked up any of this planet’s satellites, connected me to all the other girls using the same system. 

There’d been no answer over the escape pod’s systems either.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” I tried to reassure myself. “Not like the Loli’s  technology could be trusted much.”

I stumbled as the memory of the explosion of the Dream filled my vision again.

Couldn’t have been an explosion. 

Maybe that’s how it always looked when the passenger disc jumped separately?

I was a terrible liar, even to myself.

But one thing was certain.

I needed to find shelter before the giant sun finished setting.

Turning back to the pod I grabbed everything that looked like it might be useful.

Small foil wrapped bricks which we had been told were universal emergency rations.

I could not imagine that anything that was safe for multiple sentients to eat was going to be tasty, but I wasn’t exactly seeing any restaurants around here.

My half eaten bag of CheezE puffs. As tempting as it was to curl up and stuff them in my face until everything was better, it would be smarter to dole them out slowly.

Maybe they would make for a reasonable dessert after the horrible ration bricks.

A small gray case that I half remembered was meant to be medical supplies.

Sounded useful, if I’d had any idea how to use any of it.

And my tablet. Unfortunately not filled with star maps or survival tips.

Instead every byte was packed with my ever-expanding collection of romance novels.

After a moment’s thought I spread out the thin blanket, piling my pitiful worldly possessions into the middle.

Rolling it up like a burrito I slung it over my back, tying the loose ends across my chest.

Not comfortable, but at least my hands were free. And given the terrain, it seemed like a good idea.

Taking a deep breath I looked around again.

This was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

Maybe I should wait, try to seal myself back in the pod, wait for someone to come rescue me.

But once opened, the lid had refused to lower again, leaving me totally exposed.

Maybe it was supposed to be that way.

Maybe something had broken in the landing.

Either way it didn’t matter. I needed to move.

“So, in one of those books you always say are a waste of time, the heroine was lost in a forest and knew to go downhill and eventually she found water,” I told Hannah, or whoever was listening. “Right now, that seems pretty reasonable.”

Of course not everything that happened in a book would work the same in real life.

But that sort of made sense, didn’t it? Water ran downhill. So if I went downhill too, I should find water. 

And where there is water, maybe there would be people?

Because there certainly wasn’t much of anything up here.

Though the sun was now the barest memory of light on the far horizon, the two moons had been joined by a third, their collective light making my descent possible.

Unfortunately, the warmth of the evening was  quickly turning cold, and even with my flannel I began to shiver.

The light slippers we’d worn on board the Dream didn’t do much to protect the soles of my feet from sharp pebbles, and far too often I slid in the loose scree, arms flailing to catch my balance.

“Just keep going,” I told myself. “The mountain can’t go on forever.”

Bleat!

Jumping at the sudden sound, my legs slid out from under me, and I landed painfully on my ass.

“What in all the hell?” Slowly I brought myself back up to my feet, rubbing my behind, searching the area around me for whatever the noise had been.

A shadow moved, and I realized something was standing on the top of one of the rocks before me.

Bleat!

“That almost sounds like…” my words trailed off as I began to skirt the rock, but the strange shape sprang through the air, landing directly in front of me.

Bleat!

I stumbled back, but this time managed to remain standing.

“You’re a goat,” I blurted out in surprise. “Or at least, something like a goat.”

Well, sort of.

Gray and shaggy fur covered the thin body, six legs coming down to sharp looking hooves that glinted in the moonlight.

Two pairs of horns curled from the creature’s forehead, above the enormous dark eyes that were fixed on me.

“Are you friendly, boy?” I murmured softly, edging to the side, wondering what to do about my new admirer.

Bleat!

Shit.

That didn’t come from the not-a-goat in front of me.

On the boulder to my right another shaggy shape had appeared.

“Who’s your friend?”

If dogs could smell fear, I was going to have to assume that not-a-goats could too.

They’d certainly be getting a muzzle full now, as the second was joined by a third, and then on the other side, a fourth and fifth beast appeared.

“You’re very cute, but I have to be going now,” I said.

The critter in front of me didn’t move as I squeezed past, just slowly swiveled its head, following my progress.

I sucked in my stomach, crossing my arms over my chest to make sure I didn’t touch it.

Who knew what a casual touch meant to an alien goat?

Heart pounding in my ears I forced myself to walk slowly, to focus on the slope before me.

Creepy critters. That was all.

They were probably just as scared of me as I was of them.

And then I heard the click of hooves tripping along behind me.

Glancing over my shoulder I saw the herd following me.

Their numbers had doubled, and the distance between us was closing.

“Go away now,” I called out. “Go on, shoo!”

They weren’t listening.

In fact, instead of going away, they sped up.

Scrambling away, I tried to increase my own speed, slipping and sliding until it was less of a run and more of a controlled fall.

That was fine. Anything to get away from the menacing mass and those unblinking eyes, sharply pointed horns.

Bleat!

I glanced over my shoulder and quickly regretted it.

Goats back on earth were herbivores.

The moonlight had gleamed on the bared teeth of the beast in the front of the herd, revealing wicked fangs.

I could too easily imagine them rending and tearing flesh.

My flesh.

“Nope!” I push myself harder, thighs beginning to burn. “Not happening. You’re not going to get me!” 

Scanning the ground before me I realized that it suddenly wasn’t there anymore.

The mountainside ended with a jagged edge, only darkness beyond.

“No no no no no no no!”

I tried to stop, but I couldn’t, my momentum carrying me along.

Maybe I could throw myself to the side, roll, hope to stop before I went over the edge, and then deal with the sharp hooves later.

Not a great plan, but I didn’t have any other ideas.

Before I could stop myself, the slope ended, and I was falling, my own scream echoing thinly in my ears.

And then suddenly I wasn’t.

Strong arms held me close to a bare broad chest.

“Maybe the air here isn’t as safe to breathe as I thought,” I murmured.

Because what I was seeing couldn’t be true.

Copper wings, shining in the moonlight, carrying me and my rescuer away.

Had to be a hallucination, right?

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