Alien Beast’s Fated Mate: Chapter Two


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear slithered down my spine like ice water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The slight diversion at least halted their assault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going, Lita?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their lascivious words turned my blood to ice.

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

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

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

Alien Beast’s Fated Mate: Chapter One


My brain cleared as if emerging from a deep fog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Error,” she murmured, blinking rapidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giants wandering a shimmering forest, ancient trees glittering.

Stars wheeling slowly across the night sky.

Whispers, soft as feather caresses within my ear.

Silence. Utter void.

And then…a presence. Not mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was this rescuer? Man or beast?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaver’s Return: Chapter Three



I kicked away one of the rocks that had fallen from the narrow stone chimney.

Another day, another dead end.

“Come on Snix, let’s go. There’s nothing here for us.”

From his perch on top of the pile of stone, the strange white critter chirped, then flowed down the pile of stones like fuzzy water.

We climbed up a short incline, and I muttered, pulling my hair back from my face from where it had fallen out of a piece of thin vine.

It’d been months since I’d been trapped down here, and my hair was past my shoulders now, constantly in my way, an annoying reminder of how long it had been since I’d seen the sun.

How long had it been since Tirac, Yelan and I had stumbled into these caverns with that strange female creature?

I rubbed at the long scar that crossed my chest.

I hoped they made it out. I’d done my best, but at this rate, I’d never know for certain.


The furry creature wound around my feet and I blinked, realizing I’d stopped walking, the small bag of woven vines that held the Deiyon stones hanging loose in my hand.

Stooping to pet him, I ruffled his fur. “I’m alright. Sorry, just got a little lost.”

That was a bit of an understatement.

Lost in the caverns, lost in my thoughts.

Lost enough that sometimes I wasn’t entirely sure what I was still doing down here.

“Who’s a good critter?”


“That’s right. You’re a good little beastie.”

No idea what Snix was, but right now, he was the only friend I had. Freakishly oversized eyes, hands like mine, and white fur so thick it made him look fat. Or her. I hadn’t looked that close.

“Let’s head back to the stream.”

Not really a stream, more like a dribble of water than oozed down a rocky wall to trickle away down another crack in the stone.

But it was enough to keep us alive, and the same cavern was home to a colony of thick wriggling worms that were surprisingly spicy.

Not saying that I wanted to keep on the worm and rat diet forever, but it had been enough to keep me going, ever since I’d broken free of the cavern-dwellers.

The Grubs, I’d named them.

Not at first, of course.

After I’d been captured, I didn’t have time to come up with a clever name.

I was too busy coming in and out of consciousness, wondering what they were going to do with me, listening to their grunts.

At first I thought they were just a particularly shouty clan, but soon I began to wonder.

It looked more like they were arguing, fighting among themselves, snarling.

Probably not sure what to do with me.

Whatever they wanted, I was sure I wouldn’t like it.

I barely remembered escaping.  A fight broke out, and bound, wiggling like a worm on my shoulder, belly and knees, I had dropped into a black hole in the stone.

In agony, I’d kept crawling until I collapsed.

Snix must have liked the taste of my bindings. I was too beaten to free myself, but down there in the dark he’d found me, gnawed away until I was free.

Even then, I could barely move. Bruises, breaks, tears, one closed eye and a few loose teeth conspired to still me.

After my escape, it was hell; blinded by darkness, constantly afraid, walls too close.

I couldn’t reveal myself if I wanted to live.

If not for the ugly, fuzzy burrower who had befriended me…

“I’d be crazy by now. Right, Snix?”


“You better believe it.”

Snix stopped his weird noise. I heard him sniff the air.

He left my side, but claws scrabbling on stone quickly stopped.

“You smell something?”

Covering my ‘lantern’ with a scrap of rat hide I crawled after him, feeling my way in pitch black.

My ribs no longer ached. Nor the break in my left arm I’d barely managed to splint. How long had that taken?

Time didn’t pass underground.

Snix came back to my side, bringing my attention back to the here and now. Sniksniksnix.

Then he ran forward again, back and forth, quivering.

What was Snix smelling?

Then, the voices came.



“Yay! She! Beth sooth!”

“Poke she, en herberwe. Coy! Coy!”

My gut froze at their words.

For a while, I had been able to follow the Grubs from darkness, using it against them. Over time, I began to understand some of their tongue.

The word she I hadn’t heard before.

But poke she, en heberwe, sounded like they were putting something in one of their nets and bringing it deeper into their dwelling.

Like they had done to me.

Coy, secretly, quietly.

Beth sooth—believe, real, true, listen to me.

But she?

It was worth a look.

Crawling silently, I headed for a spot of wan light ahead. This cave intersected a larger, brighter one from above.

A pink glow—the dim deiyon stones they carried for light. Bobbing, shifting, the Grubs were in motion.

For an eternity, I had secretly followed groups of the monsters.

Eventually, I’d figured, they would lead me somewhere.

So far, either in avoiding being seen, or just moving too slow, I had come up with nothing.

This cave system was a jumble of tight tunnels intersecting larger ones. The monsters stuck to regular paths.

I had learned where they slept. Where they ate.

Once, wracked with hunger pains, I had stolen food from them.

Turned out, it was better to grab whatever crawled on the cave walls.

Even when my injuries made me nearly immobile, I could creep and crawl in secrecy and Snix’ nose had kept me from getting spotted.

My enemies were busy, constantly moving.

I had no idea what they were doing.


Yes, I could smell it, too—freshly disturbed soil.

That meant a tunnel to the surface.


I tried to still myself, to stay hidden, silent—coy.

From my position, I saw the tops of the Grubs’ hoods as they passed beneath.

Two of them carried a net between them, a squirming burden within.

Waiting for them to pass, I hung from the upper cave.

Light. Not pink stone light, but daylight. Fading. Dim.

A breeze struck my face as I dropped—a breeze, fresh air, when was the last time…?

Snix followed after, landing on my shoulder. This cave was just large enough to stand in. I moved as quickly as I could toward the light.

Daylight, maybe dusk, maybe dawn, I didn’t care, I could crawl up that little rise and see the sun, the moons.


Right. Stay coy. I absently rubbed Snix as I crept toward escape.

I didn’t really care why the Grubs were digging their way out of the caves.

All I knew was that joy bloomed in me, my heart pounding with excitement.


“Yeah, it’s different up there. Don’t worry, buddy. You’ll be okay,” I whispered.

That dirt slope was steep. By now, I was an expert creeper. One way or another, I was getting out of—

“Help me!”

I looked at Snix. He didn’t speak in words. Huge dark eyes turned in the direction the Grubs moved.

Leaning back, trying to see around the bend in the tunnel, I caught sight of them, and instantly leaned forward.

“Somebody help me!”

A high-pitched voice.

It couldn’t be.

The sound of a slap followed, echoing.


“Impossible,” I whispered to Snix.

Sniksniksnik, he argued.

“What do you know about it?”

Sniksnix. His huge eyes chided me.

I sighed, tearing my eyes off freedom. “Fine. Just a quick look.”

Pressed to the slimy wall, I pursued. This cave curved a lot, which could keep me hidden from eyes used to the dim.

I nearly ran into the hooded party.

Eyes caught mine.

Not those of a Grub.

Pleading eyes, crying eyes, fearful eyes.

Female eyes.


A soft creature like the one who had captivated Tirac, bossed him around, pushed him into this underground hell, dragged me along…

Curvy, with dark curls of hair, she was trapped in a net, hauled toward who knew what.

The troupe vanished around another turn.

I turned back toward the surface tunnel.


“Females are nothing but trouble,” I told him.

Snik. Sniksnix.

“But we can get out of here.”


“Yes, I hate the Grubs more than anything,” I said.

The little animal might be right. Depriving them of their captive would be a coup. And with an exit found…

“You know this is a stupid idea.”


“Same to you. I don’t even have a weapon.”

The creature leapt off my shoulder and ran along the cave, chattering away. He looked over his furry shoulder, telling me to follow.

Snix didn’t follow the Grelzoks. He dived into an unlit cave to the right.


He jumped atop something with straight edges. From the deiyon stones outside, I made out the shape. It was a moving thing, like Tirac, Yehan and the female had dragged me into. What had she called it? A cart?

This one didn’t move. Brown covered the metal surfaces. It had only a single wheel.

Grelzoks had dragged it here, I thought, and wondered if we were close to the large, metal tunnel that ran between towers above.

“What did they want with it?” I asked Snix.

He crawled around it, chittering.

I followed. “What?”

Snix. Snix.

Though it was hard to see, I made out a familiar shape. Even if it was metal…

“A bow?”

Part of it remained attached. But a few twists freed it. It felt heavy in my hand, but just as flexible as any weapon I’d handled.

“Needs arrows, a string—”

But there, segmented like a bug but long and narrow, a thick shiny strand of vine. I stepped on one end, tugged the other.


In a moment, I ran it through the loops on one end of the metal bow, angled it with my foot, and strung my bow.

After all this time hiding, sneaking, it felt good in my hand.

There were long, straight shafts running beneath the boxy thing. I managed to dislodge them. Two arrows were better than none.

But I had nothing for an arrowhead, nor kaqen feathers for fletching.

There were vine-like things, in many colors splaying from a box.

I yanked some free. Not exactly feathers, but they might be enough to keep an arrow straight. I tied them tight to the end of my two arrows.

Perfect? No.

Would it work?

Well… we were about to find out.


“Definitely a good find, Snix.”


I nodded. “Let’s go ruin some Grubs’ day.”

Reaver’s Return: Chapter Two


We dropped down the slope of the mountains, the Sen’ki wings beating a deep drum sound. It was freezing! I should’ve grabbed some furs.

Eventually, we dropped past the snow line, heading for a sketchy jungle on the horizon. Many of the trees were bare with the season. But the foliage was still dense.

Vandath landed in an area with few trees, gazing at the wall of the jungle ahead. “We shouldn’t need to venture into Ken’ki territory.”

“Hope not,” Maisie said, hopping out of his arms.

Evrik set me down clumsily. I managed to keep my dignity by not falling on my ass.

“Thanks, Evrik,” I said.


“C’mon, Ray-Ray,” Maisie jerked her head toward a bank of low brush.

We hunted the cold ground for her weeds. She quickly found one.

“Pull it out of the ground,” she said. “Smell the roots. If it smells like cow manure and Old Spice, keep it. If not, toss it.”

I found one, and yanked it out. Yep. Stinky. “Kyla actually drinks this stuff?”

“We don’t have medical tech like she needs, but what we figured out is some kind of nerve ailment. The baby is attached to her in the same way as the Reavers attach to mates.”

“Really? It’s a bio-chemical thing? I thought you guys hooked up by going on harrowing adventures. You know, being so close to death really gets the juices going.”

Maisie pulled up another. “Maybe both? Don’t ask me. I never even had a boyfriend before.”

I had to wonder again about her life back on Earth. Still, I was the one not getting laid.

We quickly filled a carry pouch with stink roots.

“Let’s get this done and get out of here,” Maisie said. “There have been lots of Grelzok reports in this area. There must be a cave that surfaces nearby. Maybe in the woods.”

As happy as I was to get out of the claustrophobic Aerie, I scanned the area for threats.

This planet was worse than Australia for things that wanted to kill you.

There was a strange feeling in the air. A vibration. No clouds hung on the horizon, only a misty winter fog.

“They wouldn’t come out in the daylight, would they?” I asked.

“We don’t know. Up until recently, even the Reavers had never heard of the subterraneans.” She snatched another weed, sniffed, and tossed it. “Maybe just a few more.”

Evrik called from a distance. “Are you nearly done?”

It seemed my case of the jitters was contagious.

“Couple more minutes—”


Vandath suddenly took to the air. When he freed his bladed spear, my heart froze.

“Tirac! Yehan! What are you doing here?”

A moment later, I saw two big men racing from the trees. They had green skin with turquoise stripes. They were running their tails off. Literal tails.

“Preika!” Tirac shouted breathlessly.

“Stampede!” his partner yelled.

Then, I realized the heavy, rolling feeling in the air wasn’t thunder. The ground shook.

I knew what neika were. My boots were made from the golden hide of the gentle, deer-like critters.

But preika?

They burst from the trees, antlers spread broadly, hooves kicking up mud as they charged. Even from here, I could see the gnashing of sharp fangs. Not at all like neika.

“Get us out of here!” I ran toward Evrik.

But he took to the sky!


The striped guys turned, firing arrows at the wave of rushing deer flesh. Two fell. The others just trampled over their bodies.

“Shit,” Maisie said. In a split second, her sling whistled through the air. A loosed stone felled another preika. Arrows took down a few more.

Above, the Sen’ki swooped in, trying to drive the herd off.

My sling was out. This was pretty asinine, trying to kill a whole herd of the things.

Maisie had taught me well. I knocked one off its feet.

But they weren’t diverting, despite the fallen frontrunners.

We needed to get airborne!

Vandath dove in front of us. His nakav killed a deer that nearly trampled us. One behind fell atop the dying one.

“Up!” Maisie cried.


She dragged me, climbing up the fallen deer. More joined the collision. We leaped on the back of one that tried to turn.

Would we really be safer on top?

“Maisie! Raelyn!”

Vandath swooped in, Evrik on his tail. But their maneuver caused our mount to bolt to the side.

I gripped dark fur, holding on for dear life. Maisie gripped the spread of spiky antlers.

“Maze, turn around!” I said.

In an awkward but amazing move, she faced me on the running preika’s back. “Why?”

“Get up, get a foot on my shoulder. If I boost you, Vandath can grab you!”

“What about you?”

The sea of dark brown deer surged around us, still on the rampage. A moment later, I understood why.

Arrows jutted from the animal next to us. They weren’t the fletched weapons of the Ken’ki.

Distantly, I saw pale figures among the trees, firing, hoarse voices urging the stampede.


“Vandath!” Masie and I shouted together.

She got up on her knees. I took one of her hands. Her foot landed on my shoulder.

Maisie stepped up—instantly, her weight left me.

Looking up, I saw Vandath holding her by one hand as he flew.

Evrik swooped toward me.

I tried to move upward, the churning muscles of the animal beneath me making it a challenge.

Getting on my knees, I reached my hand toward the oncoming angel.

He screamed, practically falling from the sky.

Blood rained down.

An arrow had pierced his arm.

I lost sight of him as I had to grip fur to stay atop the running preika.

How long before it turned its head, snapping at me with its fangs?

More Grelzok arrows hissed through the air. More deer dropped.

For an instant, I saw Tirac fire at the enemy, then at the deer.

Then, a glimpse of Yehan sprinting for his life.

Wait. The sling was wrapped around my fist.

I whipped one end though the air. It wrapped around the preika’s neck. I caught it as it came around. Instant reins.

Like I knew what to do with reins.

The efforts of Tirac, joined by Vandath from above, turned the stampede.

Back toward the trees.

Where the Grelzoks waited, firing their bows.

“Son of a…”

The deer next to me collided with my makeshift mount. Which made the preika beneath me ram another.

My makeshift leash kept me on board.

The wall of trees moved closer. I could see the glow of the Grelzok’s eyes in the deep shadows of tattered hoods. Hunched backs made their long arms nearly touch the ground. Those not aiming bows.

“No! No! Turn!”

Maybe I had a handle, but not a steering wheel.

“This is bad. This is so bad.”

The animal in front of me reared, an arrow jutting from its neck. My mount tried to run over it.

No good. I felt it stumble beneath me.

I was going down.

Desperately, I turned to look back.

Vandath swooped toward me.

Arrows drove him away.


I fell to my hands and knees. Rolled through cold mud. Got up.

Chaos ensued, animals rushing at me. One stopped, hooves slashing just over my head.

I tried to run, but the fanged deer were everywhere. Running. Falling. Dying.

In my freaking way!

“Git!” I waved my arms, my sling. “Git, deer!”

They pushed me back into the trees.

Wrong way!

But at least I could avoid a trampling.

Something I couldn’t avoid was the pale hand that grabbed my arm.

I looked on in horror. Translucent white skin that had never seen the sun covered a claw.

It yanked me around.

Half a dozen faced me, several with bows drawn.

Eyes were pinpricks of light. Their pale hair grew from just above the ugly, huge ridge of their brows. No foreheads. Cheekbones jutted. No chins.

“She!” it sounded like my captor said.

“She! She!” Others repeated it.

I tried to yank from its grip.

All I got for my effort was a slap that sent me spinning to the forest floor.

Blood flooded my mouth.

I got to my knees. My head swam. This was not the kind of male attention I’d craved.

“She!” the creature said again.

I didn’t even see the blow coming.

Cold hands gripped me everywhere.

I was lifted. Carried.

And then I lost track of everything.

Reaver’s Return: Chapter One


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

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

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

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

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

They made for less than exciting company.

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

Blah blah blabbidy blah, I didn’t say.

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

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

We had landed here almost a year ago.

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

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

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

Could you blame a girl?

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, I was bored.

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

Can you believe it?

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

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

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

To each her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hah! Like Ryven would be caught dead…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in a few moments, she sat upright.

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

“Stubborn,” she said.

“Like his mother,” Sarah smiled.

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

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

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

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

The other girls exchanged catty looks.


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

Which only inspired more amazed glances.

I was sick of my fellow human women.

“No time like the present,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maisie gave me sympathetic eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worried?” I asked.

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

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

She snorted in response.

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

“Stop already!”

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

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

Dang it!

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

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

“Anything you need, babe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evrik looked hesitant.

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

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

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

“Just fly, kid. Just fly,” I said.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Six


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would take them time to reach this point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely, Jafiz’s scouts were no crafty woodsmen. 

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

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

After flying halfway to the branching trail, I paused.

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

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

Eventually, I reached the sight of carnage.

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

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

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

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

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

But to where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No footprints returned into the bush.


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

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

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

I sprang into the air.

Jafiz had stopped believing Zania.

I needed to reach her before he could enact revenge.

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

A little late for that my red-assed friend.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The sight below was strange.

“Hold!” Jafiz called, raising his hand.

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

Jafiz grabbed Zania by the arm.

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

He let her go. 

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

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

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

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

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

Pointing more to the west?

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

It looked like arsek was on the menu for everyone.

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

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

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

Not an arsek-lover, that Jafiz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only I could steal Zania away for the night…

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

Why was that thought on my mind anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Five


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

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

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

“You approve?” Savak made a distasteful face.

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

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

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

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

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

We could not let him keep us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From the old days,” another agreed.

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

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

“Why is he poking us?” Nandita cried.

“I think they’re scared,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ain’t figured it—” I started.

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

Teeth bared, I whirled on Savak.

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

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

“Exactly,” I said, frowning at Savak. 

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

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

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

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

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

No matter what the cost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look what I found,” I whispered. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it want?” Rakkin asked.

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

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

Vokr frowned. “A map?”

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

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

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

“It could be a trick,” Vokr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covered with blood.

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

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

I tried not to be sick. 

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

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Four


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

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

Laziness made them predictable.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After several tense moments, I wasn’t eaten. 

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

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

The red and black nightmares remained submerged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It drove me to fly faster. 

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

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

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

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

Perching on a stout branch, I thought it over.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I grinned bleakly.

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

There needed to be suffering.

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

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

More rope, I thought. Lots more rope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tensed. 

Booby traps were not infallible. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half a dozen moved past the danger zone.

Damn me, it wasn’t working!

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

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

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

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

That was fine.

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

Watery sap sprayed the soldiers below.

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

They screamed. They ran.

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

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

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

Those following retreated, scattering randomly.

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

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

These did not deter the famished attack.

“Idiots! To the stream!”

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

But happily, many did not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tentatively, they converged.

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

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

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

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

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

Jafiz took it from him. He looked up.

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

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

“The prisoners—” Vokr started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were more traps to set.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Three


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

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

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

It actually smelled pretty good.

Oh. The smell came from him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never heard of—”


“You understand me?” I whispered.

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

I tried to speak, but nothing came out.

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

Teaching chamber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Zania.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Why there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what did all this mean? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

“Hush, you feathered oaf!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two of them lowered their arms.

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

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

“By yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zania,” I said. “That’s my name.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are absolutely right,” Yalen said. 

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

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

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

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

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

Yelan snorted. “Impossible! But then…”

“What?” Vokr demanded.

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

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

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

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Arctur

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

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

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

But I could not stand it anymore. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She made no sound. I took it as understanding.

“I come from the aerie.”

The soft, bruised creature did not react.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes searched mine, seeking.

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

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

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

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

And those eyes demanded more than a simple answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many, but not all.

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

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

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

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

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

I landed us gently at the threshold of the structure. 

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

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

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

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

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

With his downfall had come mine.

Exiled. All for keeping to my oath of loyalty.

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

But still, he had my oath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She squinted at it. “Th’commbahngl?

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were wide, wetter than before.

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

“I would like to understand your words.”

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

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

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

It would work.

It would have to.

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