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Stardust Paws and Alien Claws: Chapter 3

Cassidy

I took a deep breath as Doanor led me through the sleek corridors of the Koloss, my mind whirling. This was definitely not what I had expected when Jacob offered me this pet-sitting job, but how could I turn down the chance to work with Lazamai? Those rare, enchanting creatures were the dream of every aspiring xenobiologist. 

Even the pretense of dating the gruff, imposing Doanor didn’t seem so daunting. He radiated strength and competence, despite his perpetual scowl. Pretending to be his romantic companion for the sake of secrecy? I could handle that…probably.

We stopped in front of an unmarked door. Doanor pressed his palm against a panel. 

“These are my quarters,” he rumbled, gesturing for me to enter as it slid open. He coughed. “Ours, for now.”

I stepped inside, and my jaw dropped. This wasn’t just a utilitarian sleeping chamber – it was a lavish suite. 

The main room opened up into a spacious bedroom, dominated by an enormous bed covered in sumptuous fabrics. Soft amber lighting bathed the space in a warm glow. A large viewport offered a breathtaking view of the starry cosmos, punctuated by the occasional streaking ship.

Doanor watched me take it all in, his expression unreadable. “Through there is the study,” he said, nodding towards an open archway. 

I wandered over and peeked inside. The study was even more impressive – a cozy nook lined with overflowing bookshelves and a sturdy desk facing another viewport. On the other wall screens flickered, reminding me that a ship’s captain worked here.

“And the refresher is through that door,” Doanor added, indicating another portal.

Curiosity piqued, I stepped into the cavernous bathroom. A separate glassed-in shower alcove shimmered.

Gleaming metal and polished stone surrounded an oversized sunken tub, big enough for at least three people. 

Or one person and a massive minotaur man.

Heat crept into my cheeks as I re-emerged. “It’s, um, very nice.”

“The sleeping quarters are meant for two,” he stated bluntly. “To maintain our…facade.” 

A flutter of nerves danced in my belly as reality sank in. I would be sharing this decadent space with Doanor, at least for appearances’ sake. Sleeping in the same bed as this imposing alien male, his powerful body mere inches away…

“I will be resting in the study, of course,” Doanor announced.

Oh. Of course.

An awkward silence stretched between us, the unspoken tension crackling like a live wire. Doanor shifted his weight from foot to foot, his tail lashing behind him. I found myself mesmerized by the tiny movements, hyper-aware of every twitch and flex of his muscular frame.

This was ridiculous. I was a professional. I could handle some undercover role-playing with a handsome alien captain, even if he did make me feel more than a bit flustered.

Straightening my shoulders, I met Doanor’s intense gaze head-on. “Well, I suppose I should get settled in then. What else do I need to know about?”

Doanor cleared his throat, his deep voice rumbling like distant thunder. “The Lazamai have been secured in a hidden cargo bay, left over from the Koloss’s smuggling days. I’ll show you once we’re underway.” 

A thrill ran through me at the prospect of seeing those elusive creatures up close. “What other cargo are we hauling?” I asked, trying to appear nonchalant despite my burning curiosity. “What does your crew think is the cargo?”

Doanor’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid. A shipment of Alaari ore for a mining consortium and some Xendryl tech components.” He waved a large hand dismissively. “But enough about that. Let me give you a tour.”

He led me out into the main corridor, the overhead lights casting stark shadows across the angular planes of his face. My gaze traced the sharp curve of his jaw, the slight flare of his nostrils as he breathed. Up close, I could make out faint scars criss-crossing his muscular frame – mementos of battles long past, no doubt.

The corridor branched off in several directions, each section marked with alien glyphs. Doanor gestured to our right. “That wing contains the crew quarters and mess hall. The opposite side leads to engineering and the cargo bays.” 

As if on cue, a towering figure emerged from a side passage. Zylith, the rocky-skinned Novalian crewmate, nodded gruffly at Doanor before turning to me. His obsidian eyes glinted with fleeting curiosity.

“Everything’s stowed and ready for departure,” Zylith rumbled, his voice like gravel crunching underfoot.

“Excellent.” Doanor tapped his commbadge. “Jharra, Jhessi, prepare for launch sequence.”

A pair of high-pitched trills answered in the affirmative. Clearly those were the diminutive siblings who manned the helm. I couldn’t wait to meet the rest of this motley crew.

“You should see this,” Doanor said, gesturing for me to follow. 

We made our way to the bridge, the corridor sloping gently upwards. My heart raced with a strange blend of trepidation and exhilaration. This was it – my first real journey among the stars.

The bridge opened up before us, a wide expanse of gleaming panels and flickering holoscreens. The viewports curved in a broad arc, revealing a panoramic vista of the bustling space station beyond. Docking arms and gravitic moorings tethered other vessels of every conceivable shape and size.

Jharra and Jhessi whirled in their seats, flashing me toothy grins that crinkled their obsidian eyes. Despite their childlike stature, their three-fingered hands flew across the controls with practiced ease.

“Engines at full capacity,” one of them piped up, the translator rendering their chirps into a musical lilt. “Awaiting your command, Captain.”

Doanor crossed to the central console, his massive frame radiating an aura of assured command. “Release all moorings. Take us out on vector Kalith-7.”

The deck trembled beneath my feet as the Koloss’s powerful engines thrummed to life. Gradually, the docking clamps retracted, and our ship drifted free of the station’s embrace.

I gripped the back of a chair for balance as we banked sharply, the inertial dampeners straining to compensate. Doanor glanced back at me, a ghost of a smirk playing across his features.

Before I could react, another jolt sent me stumbling forward. Sturdy arms encircled my waist, drawing me flush against Doanor’s powerfully muscled chest. His warm, leathery skin brushed my cheek as his musky, earthy scent enveloped me.

For a suspended heartbeat, the universe shrank to this singular point of contact. My pulse thundered in my ears, drowning out the cacophony of the bridge. Heat blossomed across my face and traveled downward, awakening a molten ache low in my belly.

Then, just as abruptly, Doanor steadied me and stepped back, his expression inscrutable once more. “You’ll want to be careful,” he said softly, not meeting my eyes.

I nodded mutely, still reeling from the lingering imprint of his touch. Get it together, Cassidy. You’re here as a professional…who just happens to be pretending to date an impossibly virile alien captain. 

The cosmos stretched out before us as the Koloss banked into the inky blackness of open space. Stars winked into being, their brilliance no longer outshone by the station’s glow. I drifted closer to the viewport, drawn by the breathtaking vista.

So this was the great unknown that awaited us. Despite the immense distances, it no longer seemed so vast, so isolating with Doanor and his crew by my side.

After an eternity compressed into mere moments, Doanor’s rough voice snapped me from my reverie. “Shall we continue the tour? There are a few more areas I’d like to show you.”

I followed him from the bridge, doing my best to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. My mind still swam with phantom sensations – the scorching press of his body, the lingering musk of his skin. This façade of intimacy was going to take some getting used to.

The corridor curved gently to the left before opening into a spacious galley. Sleek metallic countertops curved in a broad horseshoe shape, punctuated by built-in cooking stations and food printers. A long dining table dominated the center, already set with an array of covered dishes that released tantalizing aromas into the air.

At one of the cooking stations, a lanky, reptilian figure twisted around at our entrance. Glittering scales shimmered across her lithe, sinuous frame, and a pair of slit-pupiled eyes regarded us with open curiosity.

“Kylari, this is Cassidy,” Doanor said by way of introduction. “She’ll be with us on this job as…my companion.” His tail curled slightly as he spoke the final word, almost imperceptibly.

Kylari cocked her head, flicking her forked tongue against the air as if tasting my scent. An enigmatic smile drew up the corners of her thin lips. “A pleasure to meet you, Cassidy.” Her voice slithered like silk against my skin, smooth and hypnotic. “I must say, you’ve landed yourself quite the impressive mate.”

Heat flooded my cheeks anew as I opened my mouth, grasping for a reply. Doanor cut me off with a rumbling chuckle. “I’m the lucky one,” he demurred, slipping an arm around my waist and pulling me against his side. “I’ve been counting the days until we could finally meet in person.”

My breath hitched in my throat at his casual possessiveness, his words igniting sparks that danced across my skin. He played the role of besotted partner with utter conviction, his deep voice practically smoldering with restrained ardor.

Two can play at this game, buster. 

Looping my arms around his thick neck, I raised myself on tiptoe to press my lips against the taut cords of muscle at his throat. A shudder ran through his powerful frame, so fleeting I wondered if I’d imagined it.

“And I you, my heart,” I murmured against his skin, allowing the barest hint of a caress with my tongue.

Doanor froze, the sudden tautness of his body belying his relaxed facade. His pupils flared, blown wide for the span of a single ragged breath. 

Before either of us could shatter the delicate tension, Kylari cleared her throat with a low trill. “Well, now that you two have been…reacquainted…” She turned back to the cooking unit, deftly slicing some kind of violet tuber. “I’d best get dinner prepped so you can properly celebrate your reunion later.”

My face burned anew, but I refused to be the first to break away from Doanor’s embrace. Let him make that move, if he dared. I wet my lips as I met his smoldering gaze.

“Yes, dinner first,” he agreed at last, his voice pitched lower than usual. “And then…perhaps we can continue our more private tour?”

The heated promise in his tone made my knees go weak. Before I could formulate a suitably brazen response, however, he extricated himself from my arms with a deft smoothness that left me unbalanced.

“For now, I should check in on our other cargo,” he added, turning on his heel and striding from the galley. “Let me know when you’ve finished, Kylari.”

I stared after his retreating form, equal parts stunned and aroused. That smug, insufferable…magnificent brute! How dare he draw me into this game of seductive one-upmanship only to leave me utterly discombobulated?

Then again, perhaps I’d been too effective at flustering the mighty Captain. My lips curved into a slow, predatory smile.

This mission had just become infinitely more intriguing.

Stardust Paws and Alien Claws: Chapter 2

Doanor

The lounge door slid shut behind us with a hiss as I blinked in the harsh artificial lighting of the corridor, my eyes adjusting after the dimness inside. 

I realized I was still holding Cassidy’s hand. Her smaller fingers were entwined with mine, her palm slightly damp against my leathery skin. A strange sensation stirred within me – not unpleasant, but unfamiliar. 

Reluctantly, I let her go.

“I’m afraid my duties prevent me from accompanying you further.” Liora’s luminescent gaze flickered between Cassidy and me. “But I have the utmost faith you’ll manage just fine.” She offered a slight smile and placed a hand on Cassidy’s arm. “You’re in capable hands.”

Cassidy grinned. “Thank you for all your help, Liora. I really appreciate you taking a chance on me.”

“Of course.” Liora inclined her head. “I’ll leave you two to prepare for your journey.” With a final glance at us, she turned and continued down the corridor, her tendrils fading into the distance.

Well. Now it was just the two of us.

Clearing my throat, I forced myself to meet that inquisitive blue gaze.

“We should get moving. The docking bay isn’t far.”

We set off through the bustling concourse, Cassidy sticking close by my side. I could feel the nervous energy radiating off her in waves as she took in the sights and sounds of the space station. 

Humans hadn’t been around for long. Less than twenty of their years had passed since they’d joined the rest of us up here in space. What did this little human think of it all?

A passing Maklav merchant barked out an advertisement, his voice like gravel in a blender. Cassidy jumped, her shoulder bumping against my arm. I resisted the urge to put a protective hand on the small of her back to steady her. That would be overstepping our agreed boundaries.

As we continued, a pair of towering Brizlak lumbered past, their hulking frames nearly scraping the ceiling. Their scaled hides glistened like burnished metal, reflecting the harsh station lights. One of them paused, fixing us with its beady black eyes as mandibles clicked in our direction.

“Sssmall one,” it rumbled, the words reverberating through my bones. I tensed, prepared to shield Cassidy if needed. But the Brizlak merely cocked its head, studying her with curiosity before continuing on its way.

Cassidy exhaled shakily. “What was that about?”

“Don’t take it personally,” I said gruffly. “The Brizlak are an ancient race. To them, humans are little more than infants stumbling around the galaxy.”

She frowned but didn’t argue. Smart girl. As we rounded the next junction, a cluster of merchants hawked their wares – exotic fruits, glittering jewelry, even a caged Narvian eel that slithered and hissed menacingly. 

One particularly persistent Xendryl trader noticed us and slithered over, her multitude of eyestalks swiveling. “You, ssssir! A fine specccimen like yourssself mussst want a rare treassure for your lovely mate.”

Before I could respond, she thrust a pulsating orb into Cassidy’s hands. It throbbed with an inner glow, like a heartbeat.

“Behold! A living gem from the cavernsss of Tycalia 5. Guaranteed to bring eternal prossssperity and pleassssure to any union.” The Xendryl’s eyes gleamed greedily.

Cassidy recoiled, nearly dropping the orb. “Oh, uh, no thanks. We’re not – I mean, he’s not my -”

I snatched the orb back and shoved it toward the merchant. “We’ll pass.”

The Xendryl tsked in disappointment but slithered away, undeterred. Cassidy shot me a sidelong glance as we continued on. 

“So…no rare treasures for your ‘lovely mate’ today?”

I snorted. “You’d do better not to accept gifts from a Xendryl. Especially ones that seem alive.” 

Her nose crinkled. “Ew, yeah, no thanks. Still, it was a…unique offer.”

Unique was one word for it. My gaze drifted briefly to those full lips, now curved in an amused smile. I jerked my eyes away, refocusing on our path ahead. This human female was proving quite the distraction.

But maybe she was more focused than I thought.

Cassidy nodded, absorbing the information. “You said there were other crew members aboard? What are they like?”

I eyed the human female skeptically as she inquired about the crew. Who would she encounter the most during her stay? My mind immediately went to Kylari, 

She had been part of my crew longer than anyone, sticking by my side through the roughest jobs and tightest scrapes. Loyal to a fault, with a cantankerous demeanor masking a deep well of wisdom. If anyone could be trusted around the fragile human, it was her.

“Kylari’s been the engineer aboard this bucket of bolts for decades,” I began gruffly. “There’s a streak of mischief there, but she knows these systems better than anyone. You’ll want to steer clear when she’s elbow-deep in repairs, otherwise she’s liable to mistake you for another faulty component and start tinkering.”

A small smile played across Cassidy’s lips at that. Good, she had a sense of humor about her predicament. The female would need it to survive aboard my ship.

“She’s got a real soft spot for machinery though,” I continued. “Treats the Koloss like her own kin. You’d do well to show the old girl some respect if you want to stay on her good side.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Cassidy said, unconsciously mirroring my gesture by trailing her fingers along the wall. “What about the others? Any…oversized reptiles or tentacled horrors I should watch out for?”

I barked out a harsh laugh before I could stop myself. “You’ve got a decent grasp of things already, little female.”

Who else would she run into? 

“Zylith is a Novalian – big brute with rocky grey skin and horns protruding from his skull. Doesn’t say much, but he’s strong as a granite boulder. Hauls most of the heavy crates around like they’re made of polystyrene.”

Cassidy’s eyes widened slightly at the description. I couldn’t blame her – Novalians cut an intimidating figure.

“Then there’s the twin Arenkar pilots, Jharra and Jhessi,” I continued. “Inseparable pair, those two. Tiny little guys, but fast and dexterous enough to make up for it when we’re dog-fighting raiders. Which happens more often than I’d like…”

My voice trailed off as we entered the docking bay. The immense chamber echoed with the din of machinery and the shouts of dock workers. Craft of every conceivable size and shape lined the hangar, being loaded or unloaded by scurrying alien forms.

And there, at the far edge of the chaos, was the docking port to Koloss. My ship.

“That’s her,” I said with a touch of pride, gesturing to the battered old hauler visible through the portholes. “The Rusejoss Koloss. Not much to look at, I know, but she’s sturdy as they come.” 

Cassidy was staring around us with open fascination. I watched the expressions playing across her face, mesmerized by the way her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled. 

A sudden commotion nearby shattered the moment. Shouts and screeches echoed through the hangar as a small, bright pink furry creature came barreling past, chased by a feathered child no bigger than a human toddler.

“Narko! Narko, come back!” the kid was squealing in a high-pitched tongue.

The fur-ball – some kind of pet, by the looks of it – was zipping between the feet of startled dock workers with remarkable agility. A couple of burly reptiliods made grabs for it, only to come up empty-handed as it slipped through their clutches.

It was heading right for us. Without thinking, I stepped forward and braced myself, arms out to try and cut off its escape route.

The little blur shot between my legs with a squeak. I whirled around just in time to see it scamper under a hovering pallet stacked high with crates.

“Oh no you don’t,” I growled, dropping to all fours.

“Doanor, wait!” Cassidy called out behind me.

But I was already crawling after the furry menace, my larger frame making the tight space even more cramped. Gritting my teeth, I squeezed further underneath, boxes scraping against my back and horns.

There! I could see the creature’s tail flicking around a corner up ahead. Putting on an extra burst of speed, I lunged –

And came face-to-face with a very startled Cassidy, who had circled around to try and head it off.

We collided with a muffled thump, our bodies pressed together in the confined space. Cassidy let out a surprised gasp as I landed half on top of her, our faces mere inches apart.

Sweet celestials, she was even more stunning up close. Those ocean-blue eyes, those full lips parted in surprise, the intoxicating floral scent of her hair…

Somewhere behind us, the alien child was still wailing for its pet. Right, I had a job to do here. Forcing myself to snap out of my daze, I opened my mouth to apologize.

But Cassidy beat me to it. Reaching above her head, she pulled the critter from between my horns. “I’ve got it!” she hissed, holding up the squirming furball triumphantly.

The creature let out a pathetic mewling sound, its huge eyes blinking at me pleadingly. 

No such luck, critter.

“Nice work,” I rumbled, my voice coming out lower than I intended. Our faces really were disconcertingly close together…

Cassidy seemed to realize this at the same moment, a rosy flush spreading across her cheeks. “We, uh, we should probably get out of here,” she mumbled.

“Right. Yes, of course.” I tried to shift backwards, only to smack my horns against the low ceiling with a dull clang. “Ugh, damn it…”

Gritting my teeth, I awkwardly maneuvered my bulk around until I could start inching out from under the pallet. Cassidy followed, still clutching the pet protectively.

By the time we emerged, the wailing child had been joined by what I assumed were its frantic parents – a towering feathered Drean and its smaller mate. As soon as they spotted Cassidy, they swarmed over, beaks clicking in obvious relief.

“Narko! You found our little one!” the larger Draen, scooping the furry creature from Cassidy’s arms and cradling it protectively.

Its mate was fussing over the child, smoothing its feathers and making soothing noises. The little one sniffled.

“Thank you, thank you!” the parent gushed at us, feathers quivering. “We were so worried when Narko slipped its leash and ran off. It’s only a juvenile, you see, and gets confused so easily in the crowds…”

“Think nothing of it,” I rumbled, dusting myself off and trying to regain some semblance of dignity after my undignified scrambling. “Glad we could reunite you.”

The family dipped their wings in a strange bowing motion before scuttling off, the child waving a tiny farewell over its parent’s shoulder. Cassidy watched them go with a warm smile.

“You’re a natural with animals,” I found myself saying gruffly. “That’ll come in handy with this job.”

She turned that radiant smile on me, and for a moment I felt my hearts skip a beat. “Well, I do love all furry little critters,” she said lightly. “Even the ones that give me the runaround first.”

There was a mischievous glint in her eye that sent a jolt through me. Doanor, you hopeless fool…this human female is going to be the death of you.

I jerked my head towards the Koloss. “Cargo bay’s through here. I’ll show you around.” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “And later, I’ll take you to where the enclosure is set up.”

As I led the way up the ramp into the battered old freighter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this routine job was shaping up to be anything but.

Stardust Paws and Alien Claws

Cassidy

I flopped down on the worn couch. Grandma’s medical bills loomed large, the debt an ever-present weight on my shoulders. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm my racing heart.

The vidscreen chimed with an incoming call. Jacob’s smiling face appeared, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners. “Hey, Cass. You got a minute?”

Despite the weight of my worries, I couldn’t help but return his warm grin. Jacob had been my closest friend since we were kids, bouncing between each other’s houses and getting into scrapes together. “For you? Always.”

“I’ve got a potential new client for the pet sitting business,” he began. “It’s…a little unconventional, but the pay is great.”

My ears perked up at the mention of good pay. “Unconventional how?”

“Well, it’s not your typical pet-sitting job,” he said evasively. “But I know you’ll love it. It’s right up your alley with all the animal and xenobiology stuff you’re into.”

I hesitated, my natural curiosity piqued but also wary of anything too out of the ordinary. “Can you give me more details?”

“Trust me, Cass, you’re going to want to take this one,” Jacob insisted. “I can’t really explain it over the comm, but just know that it’s completely safe and legitimate. It’s just for a week.”

Then Jacob named a figure that made my eyes widen. It was more than I typically made in three months of pet sitting. “Seriously? For one week?”

He nodded. “I’d take the job myself, but Daniel has that couple’s retreat planned and you know how he gets.”

I stifled a laugh at the thought of Jacob’s fiery partner throwing a fit if he tried to back out of their vacation plans. “So you’re pawning off this lucrative mystery gig to me?”

“Exactly.” Jacob shot me a pleading look. “C’mon, Cass, I’d never steer you wrong. This could be exactly what you need to get back on your feet after…” He trailed off, not needing to mention Grandma’s passing.

I worried my lower lip, weighing the pros and cons. The money was beyond tempting, but taking care of a mystery creature I knew nothing about seemed risky. Then again, when had I ever backed down from a challenge, especially one related to animals?

“Okay, I’m in,” I said, taking a deep breath. “When do I need to be ready?”

“That’s my girl!” Jacob’s smile was audible. “I’ll send over the details later today. And Cass? You’re gonna love this, I promise.”

After ending the call, I set about gathering my pet-sitting supplies—food bowls, toys, treats, and a well-worn tablet of the Xenobiology Compendium that had been my constant companion since I was a kid.

Just as I finished, the tablet pinged again – this time with a request for a teleconnection. I frowned, unfamiliar with the term. Some sort of video call maybe? With a mental shrug, I accepted.

The room spun around me in a dizzying kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. My stomach lurched as the colors coalesced and I stumbled, catching myself on a padded wall as I blinked at the strange scene before me. One moment I was in my shabby apartment, the next I found myself standing in a dimly lit lounge that looked like it belonged on an alien world.

Which, I realized with a start, it did. The patrons scattered around plush booths and tables were an eclectic mix of sentient species – some humanoid, others distinctly not. Iridescent scales, tentacles, and even a pair of guests that resembled walking houseplants.

My fingers itched to open up my tablet, research everything I could about everyone around me.

“Cassidy Bennett?” An ethereal voice made me whirl around. A tall, willowy figure stood before me, her translucent skin shimmering with hues of green and blue. Bioluminescent tendrils swayed gently as she regarded me with large, luminous eyes. An Elunian. An actual Elunian was right before me.

“I’m Liora Vesh,” she introduced herself. “This is Doanor, captain of the Koloss.” A towering figure stood next to her, his bovine features and imposing horns leaving no doubt that he was a Zemaitoz.

“W-where am I?” I stammered, my mind struggling to catch up.

“The space station Nangara 4,” Liora replied. “I must apologize for the abrupt arrival, but we are short on time.” Her expression turned serious as she ushered us to a secluded corner of the lounge.

Doanor held a chair out for me at the table, and I slid into it, head still whirling. “Short on time? What kind of job are we talking about exactly?”

Liora exchanged a glance with Doanor before replying. “It is a matter of great ecological importance. A transport mission, you could say.”

“You should know the full details before committing,” Doanor continued. “We are tasked with transporting a breeding colony of Lazamai to a new sanctuary world.”

I gasped, my eyes widening. Lazamai were an extremely rare species, their iridescent fur and delicate wings making them a favorite target for unscrupulous collectors willing to pay exorbitant sums on the black market. 

I might have had to drop out of college, but any aspiring xenobiologist would know how precarious their situation was.

“An entire colony?” I breathed, hardly daring to believe it. “But they’re almost extinct! There’s so few of them that the textbook on them is almost an empty void! How did you…?”

Liora held up a slender hand. “The details are not important right now. What matters is getting them safely to their new home before poachers catch wind of their location.”

My mind raced. If word got out about a Lazamai breeding population, every smuggler and collector in the quadrant would be after them. The potential for profit was staggering…as was the risk to the fragile creatures.

“I’ll do it,” I said firmly. “Whatever you need from me, just tell me what to do.”

Liora’s luminous eyes studied me intently. “You understand this mission must remain absolutely confidential? No one else can know about the colony, not even the rest of the crew.”

I blinked in confusion. “But if the crew can’t know, how am I supposed to explain being on the ship?” 

“We have prepared a…cover story,” Liora replied, exchanging a glance with Doanor. The hulking captain grunted and nodded.

I eyed the imposing Zemaitoz captain skeptically. Despite his fearsome visage with those wicked-looking horns, something about Doanor put me at ease. Maybe it was the steady way he held himself or the pragmatic glint in his dark eyes. 

As if sensing my appraisal, Doanor shifted, the movement rippling the thick cords of muscle across his broad chest and shoulders. 

Heat crept up my neck as I realized where my thoughts had drifted. 

Stop it.

This was hardly the time or place to be ogling an alien, no matter how…striking he appeared.

Running my hand through my hair, I met Doanor’s gaze steadily. “So this cover story…?”

He nodded once, his deep voice surprisingly gentle despite its rumbling timbre. “We will tell the crew you and I met through Stardust Souls.”

I blinked owlishly. “The…dating service? As in, we’re supposed to be…?”

“Companions, yes.” Doanor’s expression remained impassive, though I could have sworn I detected a hint of amusement in those dark eyes. “It will provide a plausible reason for your presence on my ship without arousing undue suspicion.”

“Oh. Uh, okay then.” I hoped the lounge’s dim lighting concealed the flush creeping up my cheeks. “So we just…act like we’re together? Dating, I mean?”

One furry brow arched ever so slightly. “If that is amenable to you. I assure you, I will conduct myself with the utmost propriety and respect.”

Despite his genteel words, a little thrill went through me. Pretending to be Doanor’s…companion, even if just for show? My sensible side knew it was ridiculous, but another, more reckless part couldn’t help being intrigued by the idea.

I forced a casual shrug, aiming for nonchalance. “Sure, why not? Could be fun to play act a little.” Mustering a grin, I added, “Although just to be clear, I’m not sure if you’re my type.”

The words were out before I could stop them. So much for not ogling the client. But rather than taking offense, Doanor merely chuckled, the deep rumble sending an unexpected thrill through me. 

“My humblest apologies,” he replied wryly. “I shall endeavor to be utterly resistible during our…charade.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe this crazy job wouldn’t be so bad after all. “Deal. So are we supposed to be newly dating or long-term partners or what?”

Doanor considered the question with a surprising earnestness. “Perhaps we met several months ago and have been…getting to know one another during that time.”

“Works for me.” I grinned up at him impishly. “I have to admit, you certainly know how to show a girl an interesting time on a first date – teleporting her across the galaxy with no warning.”

One side of his broad mouth went upwards. “The lady prefers a dramatic flair, I see. I shall endeavor to keep things…exciting for you.”

Was it my imagination, or did his deep voice dip into an almost husky register on that last word? I fought back another shiver, determinedly ignoring the warmth blooming in my core. 

Focus, Cassidy. This is just an act. A really, really well-acted act if Doanor keeps that up.

Liora cleared her throat delicately, snapping me out of my distracted reverie. “If you have worked out the parameters of your…relationship, we must be going.”

“Right, of course.” I sat up straighter, all business once more. “So when do we depart?”

“Immediately.” Doanor rose fluidly to his feet and extended a large hand towards me, his calloused palm rough yet oddly gentle against my skin as he helped me up. “If you are ready?”

My pulse quickened as I placed my hand in Doanor’s. Ready or not, it seemed my life was about to take a very unexpected turn.

Aliens Match: Chapter Two

Agatha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “My what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “Earth?”

“Reazus Prime.”

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

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

Stupid brain.

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

Kinda fine.

Not at all.

He shot me a look that could have melted steel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aliens Match: Outlaw Planet Mates

Norsuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Telemetry capture!” I barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And forgot to breathe.

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

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

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

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


Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Five

Mila

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashur!” I cried.

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

It reeled back.

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

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

The animal screamed, pawing at the blade.

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

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

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

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

“Saving your hide!” I said.

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

“But—”

“Do it!”

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

Distantly, I heard a splash.

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

She whickered and didn’t bite me.

Huzzah.

I’ll find you.

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

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

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

“Why did you risk your life like that?”

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

“Did you dive in the river?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I?

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

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

Oh, yes…

But no.

No.

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

Needing to.

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

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

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

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

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

And then wondered where the thought came from.

“Mila—”

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

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

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

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

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

More flutters. How could a stranger know my thoughts?

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

“I hear you,” he grumbled.

I relaxed a little, until his eyes met mine.

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

Like I could stop him.

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

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

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Four

Ashur

Maybe I shouldn’t have let that name slip.

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

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

“She’s fine,” I said.

“You grabbed her, too?”

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

“Escorted?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the city, or the whole kingdom?”

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

I snorted. Monsters?

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

For a few moments, she blinked.

Thinking it over?

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

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

She didn’t say anything, merely walked off.

In the wrong direction.

“That way,” I pointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Mila have any idea what she was headed for?

“We should make camp soon,” I said.

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

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

“Won’t happen again,” she murmured.

“Plus the night predators will start to stir.”

She eyed me. “Predators?”

“Best to find shelter,” I said.

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

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

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

What would the rest of her be like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a rangungi?”

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

“Will it hunt us?”

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

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

“Darkav.”

“Sounds bad.”

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

“Aye,” she said. “Spooders.”

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

“Holy stie,” she said.

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

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do that.”

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

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

The roar issued again, louder.

Closer.

“Stay up there,” I whispered.

“Ashur!” she said.

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

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

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

“Let me down!”

“You have a better vantage,” I said.

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

“I’m not staying—”

“Shh!” I pulled back the bow string.

“Get me off this animal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shot an arrow between its eyes.

To my dismay, it kept coming.

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

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

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Three

Mila

Rhythmic bobbing, clopping sounds, the whisk of leaves.

Holy stie!

I opened my eyes and found exactly what I feared.

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

How in the hells—

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

Smooth going, mighty adventuress.

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

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

The necklace!

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

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

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

The mount snorted and came to a halt.

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

My captor jumped from the saddle.

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

“Blăshen se reyalt, mö shay.”

He said.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

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

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

I understood! Sort of.

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

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

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

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

“Are you dead? A ghost? A device?”

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

What? “No…”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

Dimples?

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

 Strange, but not unattractive.

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

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

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

“Human? Where did you learn that word?”

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

Mocking me.

Fine. I had plenty of other questions.

“What’s Shakai?”

“People of this world. Natives.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said.

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

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

“You sure? How’s your face?”

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

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

“You what—?”

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

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

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

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

“Plucked you like a fruit,” he said.

What did one say to that?

“Thanks for getting me down.”

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

“No, no, not there.”

He seemed relieved by that answer. Odd.

“Some other settlement?” he asked.

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

“The Canyonlands?”

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

“Mm-hmm.”

This was getting awkward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” he said, falling back.

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

I faced him. “Stop following me.”

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

“Fine. You go ahead.”

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

The animal snorted.

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

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

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

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“That way,” I pointed.

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

Should I admit it?

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

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

“I don’t really…”

My throat clenched.

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

How could I trust him?

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

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

Given that scenario, this quest must be important.

I couldn’t screw it up.

But which decision was the right one?

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

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

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

“Oh. You resemble a Frostling.”

“What’s that?”

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

“Like a fairy? An elf?” I said.

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

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

“Frostling,” he said.

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

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

I stopped, my heart pounding in my chest.

Turned.

Lita?

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Two

Ashur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round steel walls in rings telescoping upward.

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

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

And as pale as Frostlings.

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

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

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

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

Here were people, not Shakai, but…

What did Lita call herself?

Human. With their own smell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where was that scent coming from?

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

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

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

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

Still—where was it?

Where was…

She?

Fruit!

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

Very much like plesple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a Frostling’s.

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

She was so soft.

I was distracted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart nearly stopped.

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

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

“Beautiful,” I whispered aloud.

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

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

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

“Where are we going?” I asked no one.

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

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

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

But her animal magnetism left me no options, really.

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

But my heart spoke truly.

This was my mate.

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

I was smitten.

Damn my cousin.

Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter One

Mila

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

The Tomb had provided instructions, and I followed.

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

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

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

But the instructions in my head could not be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned my mind from that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe you can rinse it off in the—”

I was interrupted by footfalls. A dragging sound.

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

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

“Who is she, Fathers?” Denna asked.

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

“Laren,” was all Father Zarak said.

Then the men turned and walked off.

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

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

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

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

“Denna. Stay with the new one.”

I spun toward the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here.”

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

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

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

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

I thought it was to steady me.

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

It wasn’t my place to ask questions.

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

Her eyes took a moment to focus on mine.

“A task,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a question.

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

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

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

Some did not return.

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

All citizens of Terr knew not to stray.

“You will go beyond the woods.”

I gaped at Niam’s words. “Beyond?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will I have access to supplies?”

“Calculating,” Niam said.

“When should I leave? Tonight?”

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

“Don’t—”

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

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

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

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