fb

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Eleven

Hannah

“If it were up to me I’d turn you into ceapak food,” Zelan said as he dragged me down the hall.

The worst part was he didn’t even sound angry about it, maybe just bored.

Like turning people who were a nuisance into food for monsters was the normal sort of reaction.

We turned a corner, and a small lit chamber faced us at the end of the corridor.

This wasn’t the way they’d taken us into the pit yesterday.

I needed a map. 

I’d been trying to pay attention to the routes Khelos had used to take me from the lab to the roof, and then back to the warehouse, but I would be more comfortable if I understood more than just the network of service passageways.

Zelan pushed me hard into the small room and I stumbled, hands flying out to break my fall.

When I got up to my feet again, he’d already closed the door, tapped on a control panel. With a lurch the chamber moved.

Not a chamber. An elevator.

Right.

I reached for Khelos in my head. Could he hear me? Find me wherever I was being taken?

But all I could feel was his pain.

Anger burbled up in my chest, demanding that I yell, scream, kick this asshole in the nuts, get back to Khelos’s side.

It wouldn’t do either of us any good.

Khelos had made it all too clear he’d let himself be injured to save me. And the guards were all far stronger than I was.

I couldn’t fight them.

So I’d have to be smarter.

Wait.

Evaluate the situation.

Come up with a plan.

And then get out of this nightmare.

The way Zelan looked at me sent goosebumps up my arms.

This was someone who obviously thought I was worthless. Trash.

The Master of the guards might be an alien, but I knew that look well.

I’d spent years learning to ignore it.

When the elevator door opened I shook my shoulder sharply and stepped forward, sliding out of his grip.

This new room was a lush jumble, hanging tapestries and view screens that flicked up and out across a wall, work tables cluttered with experiments that look like they belonged down in Evras’s lab and tall stacks of tablets.

And standing in the middle, waiting to greet me, was Lord Isar. 

“I’ve always wondered if there was a hidden city in the southlands. And now you’ll tell me how to get there.”

Well, that obviously wasn’t going to happen.

Thanks to the teaching chamber, I had a sense of where the southlands were, but that was it. 

Secret information hadn’t been included in that little brain download.

But even if I tried to argue with him, would he believe me?

“Tell me, and I might spare you.”

I’d never been a brave person.

Isar could hurt me, badly. 

And Khelos would wait for me forever, and I’d never get back to him.

Never have a chance to find the others.

I swayed a little.

But Khelos had advised silence. He knew this place and its twisted rules.

He was stronger than I was, but I could try. 

“I know you can talk. There’s no point in trying to hide.”

A screen popped up before me, hanging in the air, clips cycling through at dizzying speed.

Oh no. 

There were cameras everywhere in the facility. 

Guards walking down steel corridors.

The spectators at the pit.

Men at some sort of mess hall.

Me waking from the escape pod, retching on the floor.

In Evras’s lab, my mouth moving frantically as I tried to explain a starship.

Us in the horrible, blood soaked room with the regenerator and the teaching chamber.

Then back to the warehouse, where the guards circled around Beast’s prone form, kicking and jabbing with those damn spears, smiles twisting their faces.

We hadn’t even started fighting yet, and Isar had won.

Except…

The images were silent.

Video only.

My mind scrabbled after pieces, something I could work with, even as I stood rooted to the floor.

“He shouldn’t have fought,” Isar said mildly. “But he won’t anymore. Not while I have you.”

“Stop it. Stop it,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

Bastard.

I raised my chin, summoned every bit of self-control I’d ever possessed in my life and turned from the screen to face Isar.

“Call them off and I’ll tell you. But you’re wrong about the city. The truth is even better.”

The words sounded far more confident than I felt, but I’d be damned if I was going to give this bastard the pleasure of letting me know how terrified I was.

“I’m curious to know what you think is better.” Isar tapped commands into a small box, and at my side a soft squawk sounded from a device hanging from Zelan’s belt.

“That’s enough,” Isar said.

The guards moved away from Khelos’s bleeding body before the screen snapped back into nothingness.

Had they really left Khelos alone?

There wasn’t any way to be sure. 

“I don’t know anything about a secret city,” I said, turning away from him to make a show of studying the room. “It’s not where I’m from.”

Bedroom? Office? Impossible to tell,

It looked like he worked and lived here.  

I wasn’t going to find the formula for Evras’s medicine laying in plain sight, but there had to be something useful.

Zelan grabbed at my shoulder again, fingers digging in until it was all I could do not to shriek in pain.

“You don’t need to spend your time on this creature, my Lord,” he snarled. “I can get whatever information it has from it, and if not…”

“You really need to rethink that,” I said, my fist crumpling the fabric of my skirt as I fought for control.

“Kill me, toss me into the regenerator to try to get a new version? Fine. But even if it worked, that new human won’t know anything I do. You’ll lose the information forever.”

Isar stared at me, the long pause between his blinks making me edgy, but I refused to look away.

“You are a strange soft thing,” he finally said. “Hooman? It would be the work of moments to bring you to the pit.”

I swallowed hard. “Not sure how that would get you what you want, either. But you’re right, I can’t stop you.”

Isar leaned back against the workbench. “Are all of the creatures of your city so casual with their lives?”

“I’m not casual,” I told him. “I’m negotiating.”

Both men laughed. “What do you have to negotiate with, soft thing?”

And that was the question.

What did I know about Isar? What did I possibly have that he wanted?

A vat set into the back wall bubbled.

Maybe.

Such a slight hope.

But it was better than nothing.

“Information about every creature that lives among the stars,” I shrugged, turned to the closest workbench, tried to make any sense of what was there. “Warriors, monsters, the strongest creatures anyone has ever known. But I’m not sure you’re advanced enough to do anything with it.”

“That’s nonsense,” Zelan snapped.

But I didn’t turn to look at him.

When it came down to it, he wasn’t the psycho I needed to deal with.

“Where do you really think I came from? If I really was from one of the other cities, even a secret one, would I have needed to go into the teaching chamber?” I shrugged. “You saw it yourself.”

“I have spent more time with the old records of the makers than anyone still alive,” Isar said slowly as if weighing out every word. “There is no mention of a creature like you.”

“That’s because I’m not from this world,” I pressed. “And while you might know of every creature on Thaxos, trust me, there’s more than a few species out in the universe that could chew up anything you threw at them.”

Next to me, Zelan shuffled his feet but stayed silent.

“If this hooman truely is from beyond this world, then it has information,” Isar’s eyes focused on something past me, something only he could see. “The Makers speculated there was life around the other suns, but they did not care. I will not be so foolish to ignore the possibility.”

My breath caught, just a bit. He’d taken the bait.

Now to see if I could reel him in, just a little further.

“I’ll tell you what you want to know. And you leave me alone the rest of the time.”

“Why should I do that? You are here, a tool in my hands. Why should I not use you?”

“You really don’t know anything about other species, do you?” I shrugged. “It’s a human thing. I’ve already started making my nest. You saw it on the cameras, I’m sure. If you force me to stay away from it for too long, I’ll die.”

Isar’s eyes narrowed. “Then I will move your nest here.”

“You can’t.”  My mind scrambled, trying to think of a reason. 

The Sudorians of Bulan III. They were closer to birds than mammals, but what the hell. 

I was so far out on a limb right now I might as well try to fly.

“If my nest is moved, I’ll need to go back into my pod to reset my… hormonal balance.”

“How long does that take?” Isar snarled.

I bit my lip. Time to keep pushing. He wanted me. 

Wanted the information.

But how much? 

“You saw when I emerged. I’d been in my pod for almost three of your years before that.”

I turned away to look over his desk.

“Of course, the decision is up to you. You can have the information now, and give me time to rest as I require, or you can have it in three years.”

The long minutes stretched out.

This was ridiculous.

He’d never buy it.

He was going to snap, command his bully to slit my throat here and now.

Except… only a fanatic would have built this place. Someone who had thrown himself into the research of the Makers, had told himself and all of his followers that he was better, smarter.

And what better way than to surpass the Makers than by acquiring a store of information that they could never have dreamed of?

The blare of an alarm cut through the silence and beside me, Zelan lifted the communicator from his belt.

“What is it?”

“Sir,” a tinny voice answered. “A patrol from Ol’ki Base is approaching our waters.”

A smile spread over Isar’s face. “Excellent. New recruits.”

My stomach lurched at the thought of what this madman thought of as persuasion, but there was no time to think about that, not now.

“Bring her back to her nest,” he snapped. “I will send for her tomorrow at the second chime.”

Had I won?

“Hear me, hooman.  I hold the Beast’s life in my hands. If you are not where I want you, when I want you, I will destroy him while you watch. I will paint you in his blood so there is no doubt of your guilt.”

The coldness of his gaze cut through me, freezing my heart.

“So be prepared to tell me everything that you have promised.” He turned back to his screens. “Take her away.”

I should have been trying to memorize the route, but my legs were shaking too badly to think straight.

Normally the high of finding a leverage point on a mark would have had me giddy, excited.

Now all I could think of was getting back to Khelos’s side.

At the doorway to the warehouse Zelan stopped, a sneer twisting his face. “Lord Isar has been generous with you. But don’t forget. One mistake, and you’ll be in the pit.”

Then he pushed me through the opening and stalked away.

Before I could hit the floor Khelos had swept me up into his arms, pressing me tight against his chest.

For a moment I melted into his embrace, breathing in the spicy scent of him, like sandalwood mixed with leather, turned into something surprisingly familiar.

Then a sharp tang caught my attention, and my eyes flew open.

His blood.

“You’re hurt!” I protested, Wriggling to make him let me go. “We need to get you to Evras, get you help.”

His grip didn’t loosen. 

I am not concerned about myself. 

His words warmed the chill from my bones.

What did he do to you? 

I searched his face for answers, the dark heat in his eyes catching me, pulling me in.

“I’m fine. I just…”

I shuddered again, the revulsion I’d suppressed while dealing with Isar breaking through.

“I’m fine now,” I insisted.

I will kill him for this. I promise you.

“You will stay safe,” I demanded. “I couldn’t stand it if…”

The image of Isar’s guards beating Khelos flashed before my eyes, cutting the words off as my arms tightened around his neck.

Whether he caught the memory or just my fear, the result was the same.

I am fine now, he soothed me. Just be with me. Let me hold you.

Khelos lowered his head to my neck. Just for a moment, let me have this.

The tickle of his breath on my skin sent a new kind of shiver through me, a soft moan escaping my lips.

Hannah.

He turned his face, as if tracking a scent from my shoulder to the base of my neck, behind my ear and back down again.

And then the barest flick of something at the curve of my shoulder.

With a surge of heat he licked me again and I moaned louder, pressing against his chest.

I’m sorry, my Hannah he said, pulling his head away with a jerk. I do not know what possessed me to taste you.

No memory this time, but my imagination ran wild, the thought of Khelos tasting me all over, touching me everywhere sent sparks coiling through my belly.

Turning my face into his shoulder, I darted my own tongue out, the scaled texture strange against my mouth.

Do you like it? I sent to him.

But there was no need to ask, not from the way his fingers knotted into my hips, the crash of lightning that I could feel running through his body.

Without answering me he spun, striding back through the warehouse.

My legs wrapped around his waist for balance, then I whimpered.

Every step he took ground the hard length of him against the thin fabric of my panties.

By the time I had enough brain cells gathered together to notice where we were, he’d taken me back to the small room where we had slept.

Bedroom. Good plan.

Except…

Whatever this was, I didn’t want to stop it.

But the idea of Isar or Zelan getting a show threatened like an ice cold shower.

He has cameras here. Everywhere.

Cameras, Khelos snarled. He would watch you?

He glared up at the shadowy quarters of the ceiling until I ran my hand up the side of his face, gently pulling his head back down to look at me.

We already had a plan for this, remember?

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Ten

Khelos

“Is it morning?”

I put the tablet back into its hiding place while Hannah sat up, gazing around blurily.

She frowned. “I need coffee. And windows.  How do you know what time it is here?”

“The first chimes sounded a while ago, but I seldom pay attention,” I admitted.  “When Isar decides to watch me perform in the pit, Zelan or his minions appear.”

Her thoughts were still blurry, half-asleep.

“I wonder if even his mother loved him,” Hannah muttered as she finger combed her hair back. “I mean, I know he didn’t have one. But still.”

I stood, eyes fixed on her curves as she wriggled out from the blankets and stretched.

The fabric of her skirt had crumpled in the night, revealing soft smooth skin my fingers ached to touch.

Instead I held them firmly to my sides, and attempted to pull my attention back to other things.

Things that had nothing to do with the way she looked as she slept.

The delicate foot that kept escaping from the covers.

The small sounds of contentment as she burrowed into her makeshift bed.

The sweet smile that curved her lips, distracting me from the epic tales of Nakqui the Explorer and the lands he discovered while rejoining his clan.

Hannah stretched her neck to either side, rolling her shoulders, then walked out to look over the larger room.

“What are in all these boxes?”

Quickly I regathered my thoughts and moved to join her. “There are three more facilities like this one, stretching up at the coast. Isar talks of expanding to them all someday, but he will need far more bodies for the generator if he plans to hold new territory.”

Hannah swallowed hard.

“Coffee before bodies, okay?” she said weakly. “Besides,” she rapped sharply on the dark metal side of the closest box. “That doesn’t really tell me what’s in here.”

Her eyes widened and she stepped away quickly.

“Unless you’re telling me it’s more bodies. It’s not more bodies, is it?”

“No,” I assured her. “Merely supplies the Makers left behind in the other facilities. Isar has taken what he wants. What is left is useless, moved here to be forgotten.”

“It might be useless to him, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless to us. Let’s see what we have.”

An hour and six empty crates later we stared at the pile of random items before us.

“Do I need another session in the teaching chamber? Hannah asked. “I’m not sure what half of these things are.”

I picked up a heat baton, turned it over in my hand.

“The teaching chambers only provide the background for the Reavers. They were never meant to replace every day experience. Most younglings would spend years training with their clan’s Elders, learning their clan’s ways, the codes and history.”

She stooped down to touch a long soft roll of fabric, bright colors now faded and dim. “That’s why he killed those prisoners so quickly, isn’t it? So he could have a clean slate to work with?”

“And because he enjoys being cruel.”

She wrinkled her nose. “All the more reason for us to get out of here soon as possible.”

I bit back my answer.

We weren’t going anywhere.

She was.

But in the long hours while she had slept I had realized she was just as much a fighter as any opponent I had faced in the pit.

Hannah had made it plain there was no way I would be able to convince her to leave this place if it put Evras or myself at risk.

Therefore I would save my breath.

As far as Hannah was concerned, we would proceed with her plan for all of us to escape.

But in reality, only she would be making the journey to the mountains of the Sen’ki.

Just as soon as I figured out how.

“So homicidal, psychopathic, cruel asshole with delusions of grandeur.”

She looked up at the shadowy corners around us. “Seems like the kind of guy that might have cameras around to spy on people, make sure nothing was happening he didn’t like.”

I nodded. “It is possible, but I have never found any.”

“Maybe it depends what this room was originally for,” she said. “If the Makers who were stationed at this facility didn’t think there was anything important in it, they might not have bothered. But those guards found us pretty quickly yesterday.”

She eyed at the two largest containers, rectangles twice my height. “I wonder if we could make a little shelter.”

I frowned. “I’m certain we could if that’s what you would desire. But I am uncertain why.”

“It’s not exactly that I want to play house.” Her cheeks darkened and her breath caught for a moment. “I mean, oh hell…”

Hannah shook her head, regained her composure.

“But maybe, just in case he does have some sort of surveillance system in place, it might be for the best if we had a little privacy.”

Her hands flew to her face, covering her eyes. “I give up.”

“It is not a bad idea,” I agreed. And tried not to think about what privacy might allow.

“Beast! Where are you hiding now?”

I stiffened. 

Seldom did I fight in the pit two days in a row. While my injuries from the battle with the ceapaks were mostly healed, there was still a stiffness from the slashes on my side that lingered.

But if Isar were angered enough about Hannah’s presence, he would make someone pay.

I would rather it be me.

“Come on out!” Zelan’s shout made my hands itch to strike a blow, but it would do no good. 

Silence.

Compliance.

That was the only way to survive here, had become my rule.

 “And make sure to bring your pet!”

Maybe this time would be an exception.

“Come on,” Hannah said. “Let’s not make them explore this place too carefully. I don’t want to wonder what we’re doing.”

It rankled to come when called, but she was right. Antagonizing the guards seldom was worth the momentary enjoyment.

And now I had too much to lose.

Remember, be quiet. Don’t attract their attention.

Hannah rolled her eyes at me, then swept her hands over her strange clothing as if to remind me how different she was.

Nothing she could do would possibly let her escape notice.

Working our way back up to the front of the warehouse, we found Zelan and seven of his favorite minions circling the metal chamber Hannah had slept in, poking it with their spears.

“When will another come out?”

Hannah and I stopped, confused by the question.

“Does it need more material?” Zelan glared at Hannah. “This one isn’t very compliant. Maybe Lord Isar should put her back, try again.”

My blood ran cold.

These idiots thought her pod was a generator. That she could be killed and rebuilt, turned into someone new.

Someone who wasn’t Hannah.

“Keep away from her!” I growled

Rules be damned.

With a sharp gesture Zelan directed his goons towards Hannah.

I was on them at the first step, snatching the spear out of the hand of the guard in the lead, jerking it towards me so that he fell and stumbled.

Then with a twist at his shoulder, I flung him towards the other.

Two others came at me, only to be thrown hard into the metal sides of the containers, falling with a loud crunching noise.

Three left.

This would be easy. This would be fast.

A sharp jolt of panic ran through my mind and I whirled to see Zelan standing behind Hannah, the blade of his dagger at her throat.

“Tell him to stop,” he snarled at her.

Hannah closed her eyes tightly, biting her lower lip, but stayed silent.

Zelan drew the blade against her skin, leaving a fine line of bright red across her neck.

She shook, but said nothing.

I fell to my knees, hands behind my head.

“Stop. Do not harm her.”

Zelan’s lip curled. “You did this to her. I might have held the weapon, but you caused the wound.”

My heart slammed into my chest.

It was true.

Hannah’s eyes flew open, her gaze searching mine, her thoughts a jumble I could not read.

“We will take the female to Lord Isar. See what he thinks should be done.”

Hand wrapped tightly around Hanna’s upper arm he dragged her behind him.

“Make sure the Beast does not cause any more trouble while we are gone.”

The guards were happy to comply.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Nine

Hannah

The despair in his voice tore at me.

“Isn’t there any way out of this all?”

“Not for us.  But for you.” Khelos pointed off into the night, towards where the last bit of daylight had disappeared. “That way lies the mountains of the Sen’ki.’

His brow knitted. 

“It may take some time, but I will find a way to return you to your clan.”

Just the thought brought tears of relief to my eyes.

We’d still be stranded on this world, but I’d be out of this nest of vipers, back with my friends.

Kyla was there.

And maybe Sarah. And Masie and Allison and …

Wait.

“If I’m gone, what is Isar going to do to you?”

“It will not matter. I will be fine.”

His voice was even, his thoughts resigned.

But I’d seen the cruelty in Isar’s face, could imagine what other horrors would wait for Khelos in the pit as a punishment.

No.

Not acceptable.

“Come with me,” I pleaded. “Get out of this place.”

His arm tightened around my shoulders, and I leaned my head on his chest.

For a long moment we stayed like that, the only sound the waves far below, crashing into the walls of this horrible place.

“I cannot leave Evras. You have seen what would happen.”

“We can take him with us!”

His hand stroked the soft fuzz of my sweater, as if calming a wild creature.

“It is not possible for him to live without his ‘medicine.’  I have seen what happens when it is withheld. His muscles grow even weaker, until breathing itself becomes nearly impossible.”

Chewing my lip, I let my thoughts wander.

There had to be a way.

Even when the board was stacked against you, there was always a move to make.

Maybe not a straightforward one, but something you could do to change the game.

Bitterness clawed at my stomach.

I’d spent so long carefully putting my past behind me. Creating this new, perky, friendly Hannah.

Convinced myself there was no need for my old life.

My old skills.

Everything had been neatly planned out for a shining, straight future. 

Put up with this job.

Finish school with glowing references.

Never look back.

But then my plans quite literally exploded all around me.

“If we had the formula, do you think Evras could make the medicine himself?”

Khelos pulled back, startled. “I do not know. The opportunity to find out has never occurred.”

“I think it’s time we made some opportunities, then.”

“Hannah.” 

I shivered, not from cold, but from his voice. Still raw and rough, it slid down my spine, did interesting things deep inside my belly.

“It is not safe for you here. I cannot let you stay.”

Turning towards him, I traced the faint scars that criss-crossed his chest. 

“It’s not exactly safe for you either.”

He puffed, almost a laugh, if any of this was in the least bit funny.

“I was made as a Beast for the pits. My life was never going to be safe.”

As if touching glass, he brushed the curve of my cheek with his hand.

“But you… you are different.  I do not want the muck of this place to touch you.”

My breath caught in my throat.

His touch was like fire on my skin. 

In that moment all I could think about was leaning forward, just enough to touch my lips to his.

And then I pulled myself together.

Lacing my fingers together firmly in my lap I shoved my mind back to the real problem at hand.

“How far away are those mountains you were talking about?”

Khelos turned his head to stare out across the water. “I do not know. Many days of travel, if we are on foot.”

I nodded sharply. “I’d never make it on my own.” Holding up a hand I stopped his arguments. “I know you said you would take me, but it sounds like you’d be gone for too long. Isar would notice, and do something terrible to Evras.”

His shoulders stiffened. “It is possible.”

“Then our only option is for all of us to escape. And to do that, we need to steal that formula.”

Rocking back as if I’d pushed him, he was silent for a moment before softly chuckling, and for a change, the sound wasn’t bitter, or mocking. 

“Your body looks so soft and weak.  But your mind is as sharp as any blade, isn’t it?”

Before I could answer, a huge yawn stole my words.

“Right now my body is soft and weak and tired,” I announced. “Let’s go back in. We have a lot of planning to do.”

As he led the way back down the shafts and tunnels, he silently argued with me. 

It is not safe.

“Neither is staying here,” I whispered back. Dammit, if he could speak so clearly in my head, why couldn’t I do the same back?

Then let me take you to the Sen’ki. I will return here as quickly as possible to protect my friend.

“If you think I’m going to run away, knowing what those assholes are going to do to Evras, you haven’t spent enough time in my mind.”

He was quiet the rest of the way down.

I tried keeping track of the maze, but I was going to need a map of this place, sooner rather than later.

We must’ve come back through a different way because this time when we emerged from behind the wall we were back in the cavernous room where I’d woken up.

Metal boxes piled high all around us, making a different sort of tangled path that led deeper into the warehouse.

“Is Evras going to be okay without us?”

Khelos nodded.

“He prefers for others not to see him when he is so weak.” His lips quirked up at the side. “Of course, there are instances that he is too ill to send me away. But this is not one of those times.”

There wasn’t much to say to that. 

Before long we arrived at a smaller chamber walled off from the larger room. I was relieved to see a replicator set into the wall, and a panel that looked just like the door to the privacy room at Evras’s lab.

Then I froze.

There was no bed. No place that Khelos could rest other than a pile of ragged fabric.

Nothing to soften his life, nothing that made this place his own, other than just a smaller cage set into a larger one.

The whole setup was screwed up.

I mean, from the very beginning.

Cities that wanted to go to war but didn’t want to put their own families on the line so they genetically engineered their own little soldiers to fight it out for them.

Big soldiers.

Whatever.

And then even when those jerks had disappeared, the warriors they’d left behind didn’t know anything else to do other than keep fighting.

And now we have king asshole, Isar. 

Not content to just keep battling out of nostalgia, it sounded like he wanted to bring back the full scale wars, to take over the mantle of the Makers who had engineered this cluster fuck to begin with.

“You are angry. Your thoughts are too fast. I cannot tell what has angered you so much.”

I spun to gape at Khelos, shock and fury tangling so tightly in my chest I could not speak.

He stepped back quickly. “We should discuss this more after you have rested.”

Then his face suddenly shuttered, blank and cold.

“But this is not suitable for you.”

“I thought this was where you lived?” I asked, surprise knocking the wind out of my outrage.

At least, just a little bit.

I didn’t exactly have a great track record of dealing with my anger in healthy ways.

“There are better rooms in the facility. Surely we can find one that Isar’s followers have not claimed. I will guard it, make sure you are not disturbed.”

“Only if you’re carrying me there.” I scrubbed at my eyes. “I’m tired enough I can just curl back up in my pod. It’s here, it’s easy, it’ll work.”

It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable option, but the bench was padded, and that was about where I had dropped the emergency blanket anyway.

Actually…

I eyed Khelos’s arms. Muscled like, well, like really strong muscley trees. If trees had silver scales. Or muscles.

Good grief, girl. Time to crash.

“Can you help me with something?

Fifteen minutes later I curled up on the cushions Khelos had ripped out of the escape pod, with the emergency blanket tucked in tightly around me.

“Aren’t you going to get any sleep?” I asked drowsily.

He sat upright, his back against one of the wall, long legs stretched out before him.

“In time.”

Hmph. I didn’t like the sound of that, but honestly there wasn’t a thing I could do about it right then.

I couldn’t even keep my eyes open, lids getting heavier and heavier while I watched him.

As I drifted off into the dim light, he pulled a thin rectangle out from between two boxes.

A faint glow lit the planes of his face, and I realized what the mystery object was.

My Khelos, my Beast, who’d torn his opponents apart in the pit, was quietly reading on a tablet.

Sliding into dreams, I wondered what sort of bedtime tales he’d prefer.

Something with lots of adventure, maybe. Perhaps he wanted something totally different from this place, with fluffy bunnies having a party.

The image of him sitting by a tree trunk covered with tea cups and pots and slices of cake, surrounded by rabbits in little costumes, made me smile.

Then I jolted, almost awake again.

My Khelos?

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Eight

Khelos

Her gaze pulled me in, trapping me as surely as any opponent in the pit.

A weak wet sound vied for my attention, but only until I heard it the second time that I understood.

I ripped myself away from Hannah to find Evras attempting to get himself into the miserable cot that he was allowed.

“You will reopen your wound,” I growled, hurrying into his side to lift him from his chair.

Without a word, Hannah came behind me, quickly pulling down the covers and rearranging them over my friend’s frail body.

“I’m not entirely certain Isar didn’t mix a surprise into my dose after all.”

Hannah gasped, and he reached for her hand, putting it lightly.

“Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last. But Khelos will have to answer your questions for a while. I’m afraid I won’t be in much shape to help you.”

I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and she swallowed hard, smoothing the blanket out.

“Do you want us to stay here, see if you need anything?” She asked in a small voice.

I knew what his answer would be, what it always was, every time I offered.

Maybe this time he would relent, let Hannah’s soothing presence remain nearby.

But he shook his head.

“No. It’s best if I’m alone at times like this.”

Evras’s eyes fell close and quietly we stepped away.

“He is not the only one who needs rest, I am certain.”

Hannah looked up at me, her mouth twisted into a half smile.

“If you mean me. I’d rather not. I’ve got too many questions for my mind to rest. Besides,” she added. “Evras seemed to think you had some answers for me.”

I snorted.

“Everything I know of value is from what he has told me. I will be a poor second choice.”

“How about you start explaining, and if I need more detail I’ll ask him when he wakes up.” She frowned, eyes clouded with worry. “He will wake up, right?” Her whisper was so faint I was unsure if I had heard her with my mind rather than my ears.

“He will be fine. Despite Isar’s amusements, he needs Evras too much to permanently destroy him.”

At least, I hoped he still did.

Hannah shuddered. “What a horrible, horrible man.” She took a deep breath. “Can we get out of here, just for a little bit? I think I could use some fresh air.”

I considered the risks.

The capture of new potential ‘followers’ always heralded a celebration. 

Most of the facility would be in the large chamber Isar had turned into an audience hall, feasting and drinking, listening to his plans to conquer the rest of the Reaver clans.

“Out, yes. Not away. However…”

She tilted her head to the side. “What are you nervous about?”

Thrak.

Before I had suspected, but now it had been confirmed.

At least at this proximity, Hannah could sense my mind, just as clearly as I could hers.

That was new.

And I was not certain how I felt about it.

“I am not nervous. I simply do not know if you will agree to be carried again,” I said brusquely. “There is a place that is unmonitored, but it is a long climb through the tunnels.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Promise not to drop me?”

My words of outrage died on my lips as I realized she was teasing me. 

Me.

The beast of the pit.

This tiny female, who I could lift with one hand, joked with me as easily as if we were younglings together, fresh from the generator.

“I promise nothing,” I declared, and was rewarded by her husky laugh.

As I ascended through the hidden network of shafts and tunnels, I was all too aware of the feel of her heartbeat against my own.

Ask me your questions. Softly, I sent. I will do my best to answer as we go.

“I guess that’s the first one,” she whispered. “How do you do that?”

I do not know, I said, then shifted her to my other arm as I crossed to a new passageway.

While Evras grows new creatures for the pit in his lab, Isar has not his patience. 

Years ago, he decided to mix the most savage beasts of the sea with the bodies of our own dead in the generator. The results from the generator are often somewhat unpredictable.

Shock.

Disbelief.

And… anger? 

“Who would do that? How would they even know where to start?” She shook her head. “From what I saw in the teaching chamber I thought the Reavers were made to fight. No offense, but this seems a little above their pay grade.”

I placed my hand lightly over her lips as we neared the next junction.

So far the way had been easy, securely out of sight.

But here we had to cross into the open, past the rooms that Isar had claimed for his own as Lord.

Slipping out into the brightly lit hallway I pressed her close to me, ignoring the feel of her, the touch of her hands around my neck.

I could not afford to be distracted now.

If I were caught wandering this level, the consequences would be severe. 

But Isar wouldn’t take my punishment out on Evras, not when the scientist was already so weak.

No. Hannah would pay the price.

Around the corner the heavy steps of the guard approached, then passed by on their patrol.

Quickly I darted out, racing back along his path until I reached the next hidden panel.

Once we were safely inside I leaned against the cool metal for a moment before resuming our climb.

Unlike in the other cities, some of the Makers of Olvos shared their knowledge with a few, chosen warriors.

When the Makers died, Evras’s clan kept records of much of the old technology.

Her fingers on my cheek stopped me as I reached for the next rung.

“The Ol’ki. They’re your clan too, aren’t they?”

It is not something I claim. I am too different. And the warriors here have strayed far from the path of the rest of the Ol’ki.

“Right. More questions that need answers.”

Evras would explain it better, I reminded her.

“Maybe, but I’ll just keep a list for later. Go on.” She leaned back slightly to look up at me. “Please.”

While the information was kept, it was forbidden to recreate the Makers’ work. But secrets are hard to keep.

“Isar decided he wanted to know more, right?”

I pushed open the final hatch that led to the outside. 

The shrieks of kaquen birds swooping through the evening sky greeted our arrival and waves crashed far below, sending flecks of salty foam into the air.

But here on the shore-facing side of the facility, the small ledge was mostly dry.

He-

I cleared my throat. I’d avoided talking aloud for so long that using my voice felt strange, unnatural.

But this clear connection with Hannah felt too easy. Too right.

Dangerous, somehow.

“He was not alone. In the beginning, Evras and Isar were brothers in the work. Inseparable.”

Crouching down on the ledge, I stared across to the mainland, just as I had countless times before.

In the growing darkness there was only a dark line on the horizon, the last deep red light of the sun a fading light over the jagged peaks of the mountains.

Nothing more.

“Three moons,” Hannah said, her head craving up at the two pale globes that hung above us, the third moon a low crescent at the horizon.

“Is it that different from your own world?”

She laughed softly. “Yeah, you could say that. But I guess one moon or three isn’t the biggest thing to get used to.”

Leaned out slightly over the ledge, she stared down at the churning sea below.

“We’re on some sort of an island? Never seen the ocean before. This wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my first visit to the beach.”

I settled back, trying to organize my thoughts, to tell a story I’d only learned in fragments.

“As Evras said, in the beginning this was a dream. He and Isar found this place when they were younglings returning from their first raiding mission. They were separated from the rest of the party, lost, wounded.”

“Is that when Evras was injured?” Hannah said, tucking her legs under her as she sat next to me, facing out into the deepening dark.

Bile burned my throat. “That was later. Together they were able to penetrate enough of the facility’s mysteries to spark their curiosity. Well, Evras was curious. I think even then Isar must have realized this was a path to power.”

Hannah leaned against the wall next to me. “He’s really a grade-A, sadistic psychopath, isn’t he?”

A wave of bleak humor slammed into me. “That’s a pretty neat summing up. But you forgot deranged and easily embarrassed.”

“Charming.” Her eyes went back to the moons. “They found enough stuff here to start doing their own experiments, right?”

She pulled her over garment tightly around her chest. “I guess Evras isn’t one of the good guys after all.”

Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, I cursed myself. I shouldn’t have brought her here. Shouldn’t have tried to explain the tangled past.

Now she was cold and unhappy and I would only make things worse.

“That is not correct.” 

Her narrowed eyes challenged me silently.

“In the beginning Evras was too focused on learning the tools of the Makers. He did not think about the consequences, too excited to be freed from the rigid restrictions the Elder Ol’ki had placed on this knowledge.”

“Maybe they had the right idea,” she muttered.

“Perhaps. Slowly, Isar wooed more Ol’ki warriors to their cause. When Evras realized the breadth of Isar’s ambitions, he declared he would not be a part of it, would return to Base.”

“But he didn’t.”

“Do not judge him too harshly. While Evras slept that night, he was taken prisoner. Isar seems to have enjoyed having a live subject for his experiments.”

A small gulp marked her disgust, but I could not stop now. 

She had to understand.

“Isar had learned enough of the Makers’ arts to twist something inside Evras’s body, to make an illness where there had been none before.”

The screech of the birds above faded, the world restricting to only the female at my side.

“The need for the medicine kept Evras in line. And through his pain, they control me as well.”

I took a deep breath.

“I can never leave.”

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Seven

Hannah

Once again I woke dizzy, disorientated, confused.

But this time I wasn’t alone.

Silver skin scales over sharp cheekbones, impossibly black eyes narrowed with worry.

“Khelos?” I said weakly.

Are you all right?

“Yes…”

The word sounded strange in my mouth, my tongue twisting in knots.

It had worked.

The teaching chamber had given me Khelos’s language, and more.

Random images of the history that have been crammed into my brain flashed before me as I struggled to sit up.

If you are well, we should leave.

Well might be an overstatement, but I was ready to get out of here.

The bulking dome of the generator loomed over Khelos’s broad shoulders and I shuddered.

Something else for me to think about, but I could do that as we traveled.

Khelos’s hand steadied me as I climbed out of the chamber.

“Back to the laboratory?”

He nodded. 

It will be safer there.

I clung on to him as he climbed the maintenance shaft with quick strong movements.

Reluctant to let go of him as we reached the horizontal passage that led around the building, I tucked my hands behind my back like a kid in a candy store trying to ward off temptation.

My cheeks heated, but he didn’t seem to notice, simply crouching down as small as he could before leading the way back to the next shaft.

I followed behind quickly, his awkward posture making it barely possible for me to keep up.

As we twisted and turned through the hidden ways I fought the urge to put my hand on his back.

Don’t be ridiculous Hannah, I chided myself. He’s right there. You don’t need to be touching him at every moment.

I’d never been clingy.

Wasn’t really my style.

But apparently turning my world upside down, having my life explode before me, be threatened to be thrown into a pit filled with weird creatures, and having my only protector in this place forced to battle for his life changed things.

Add hearing the murder of three unarmed prisoners and then having an entire culture’s history and language shoved into my head and it was enough to shake me up a bit.

Besides, touching him felt safe. Right.

And at the moment that was all I needed.

All the way back my mind spun, thinking of the wonders I had seen.

Five different types of aliens.

Four obviously built for battle, the fifth, small gray ones giving the orders.

Gleaming cities, scattered across a vast continent.

One city of graceful curves, winding through tall trees.

Another, its tall spires reaching to the sky, skies above it filled with copper figures with wings.

Another shimmering in a desert like a mirage, another spanning over a broad river.

So many places, all under a purple sky filled with orange and pink clouds. Sometimes three moons hung above the scenes.

But almost all of the images had focused on a fourth city, sparkling and shimmering in the giant red sun like the dark water it was built beside.

The city the Ol’ki had been built to protect, to fight for in the endless battles of supremacy between the people of Thaxos.

Row after row of silver scaled warriors battling against others just as fearsome looking. I could almost feel the information swirling in my mind, still needing to settle.

It was going to take a while. Even with the help of the teaching chamber, I had plenty of questions.

At least now I would be able to ask them.

As we entered the privacy booth attached to the lab Khelos stopped again, listening, his hand on the panel.

I didn’t need his powers to tell that someone was with Evras.

“Lord Isar was not pleased with the beast tonight.” 

I shivered.

That was the voice of the man who had dragged me from my hiding place in the escape pod hours ago.

“He fought well, though.” came Evras’s mild reply. “Even I had doubts that he could defeat so many of the sharks without taking more serious damage. Lord Isar should be excited about the possibilities of his design.”

A loud smack of flesh on flesh stopped whatever else Evras wanted to say.

I moved towards the door but Khelos stopped me, shaking his head.

Our presence would only make it worse.

“Don’t be a fool. The beast defied his maker, in full view of the court.”

A strange wet sound I did not recognize, followed by a low groan.

“If you cannot control it better than that, there is no use for you.”

Evras didn’t answer.

The voice said nothing else.

And after long minutes, Khelos opened the door to find Evras alone, slumped over in his chair, bleeding from the wound of his shoulder, his scales even paler now.

“Bastard.”

Rage fumed off of Khelos, but not surprise.

He quickly moved to the pyramid on the table that Evras had used just an hour ago to heal his own injuries, carefully placing the clear tape over the wound.

“What can I do to help?” I whispered, my hands at my throat as if I could push my heart back into place.

Hands busy with the device, Khelos pointed with his chin at something that looked like a pistol at the edge of the table.

“Take that, shoot him with it.”

“What?” Maybe that language download hadn’t really worked. Maybe there was a conflict with the translator implant.

Because he couldn’t mean that, could he?

Then it clicked.

It wasn’t a gun, it was some sort of syringe.

A vial of yellow liquid sticking out of the top sloshed slightly as I picked it up, pressed the point into Evras’s uninjured shoulder.

“Do it,” Khelos ordered.

I pressed a long flat button at the top, held it down.

Nothing happened.

That was stupid. No one would make a syringe that didn’t work.

I kept pushing the button until finally it slid to the side, and with a click and a hiss the yellow liquid drained away.

The ashey look began to fade from the scales of his arm as Evras’s breathing became easier.

“Good,” he said faintly. “One day it will be poison, but I’m glad it wasn’t today.”

My hands went numb, the syringe-gun nearly tumbling to the floor before I stepped back to my senses and snatched it back up, carefully, so carefully putting it back on the table.

“I could have poisoned you?” I said weakly, reaching behind me to find the chair, sitting down hard before my knees gave out altogether.

“It was always a risk. Today perhaps more so.”

That did it.

My temper, carefully schooled over long years to stay sweet, happy, to not draw attention, finally, totally snapped.

“What the hell is going on in this place?”

“Would you be surprised to learn this was part of a dream?” Evras said, sitting up even straighter now, rolling his chair back from the table. “Once it was even my dream.”

“It seems a lot more like a nightmare now,” I snapped.

“Perhaps we should have learned the lessons of the Makers better.” Evras took the syringe from the table, rolled over to a cabinet and placed it inside.

“It is a long story. Perhaps while I recover you will tell us your own tale of how you came to this place.”

I laughed. “Mine starts out as a dream as well,” and waved my hands at their blank looks.

“Sorry, just that was the name of the ship we were on, the building in the stars that you saw in my mind.”

One of the hundreds of questions that the teaching chamber had spectacularly failed to answer bubbled to the top, insistent, pressing like a siren.

“I need you to tell me how you do that.” I narrowed my eyes at Khelos. 

“Because while I am unhappy about being trapped here with knife wielding maniacs, I’m going to be really really unhappy if the knife wielding maniacs can also read my mind.”

Khelos’s smile stopped me in my tracks.

It softened his whole face, the harsh angry look of him transforming into almost sweetness.

“Have no fear. The others do not have this gift.” 

The corner of his mouth quirked up, and he moved from sweet to downright charming.

“They are not aware I have it either.”

I stopped myself from trying to work that through, figure out how that was even possible.

It would wait.

For now, I had an answer. Even if I didn’t understand it.

Taking a deep breath, I thought about my own story.

At least telling what had happened to me was fairly straightforward, if not particularly helpful.

“What you saw in my mind, that was pretty accurate. Many of us were on a ship, and it had an accident and was destroyed.”

All right, that was a gross simplification, but I was a biologist, not an engineer. I didn’t want to get into details I couldn’t explain.

There were other people, people like me. We all got into our escape pods.”

“The metal chamber you were hidden in?” Khelos asked.

“Exactly. And then the pods came here. At least mine did.”

A wave of aloneness swamped over me.

No. I wasn’t alone.

“At least one other of my friends is here. Kyla. I heard her voice.”

I scowled at Khelos.

“I didn’t hear much of her message though.”

He didn’t look daunted by my glare at all.

“I am sorry. I still had hopes that your presence would remain undetected.”

I grit my teeth.

That was reasonable.

Annoying, and I was still kind of mad about it.

But reasonable.

“But now I don’t know what she said, what she wanted,” I sighed. “Even where she is.”

I traced the edge of the comm bangle, tapping it as I had a hundred times already, trying to summon Kyla’s voice again.

A terrible thought struck me.

“She’s not here, is she?”

 Khelos shook his head. “I could not understand her words, but one of the Vak’ki spoke after she did.” He frowned, mouth pressed into a severe line.

“It made little sense though. It said to go to the mountains of the winged one. Almost as if there was a truce, a treaty between the two clans.”

Vak’ki and Sen’ki. The red skinned, horned warriors and the copper winged ones I’d seen in the visions from the teaching chamber.

Nothing I’d been shown made me think they were friends.

“I would say such a thing was impossible,” Evras said, his voice still weak. “And yet our guest is here. I would have thought a ship that sailed in the stars with an unknown clan was also impossible until today.”

Khelos blinked, rubbed the side of his head.

“Our guest. Have we really not even asked your name?”

It seemed impossible. 

He’d been in my mind, been my shield and protector. I could feel every emotion from him, the feeling as close as if he was in my own skin with me.

But apparently we’d skipped that bit.

“It’s not exactly like we had a lot of time for formal introductions.”

I pushed up from the chair, held my hand out towards him.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Hannah Dominguez. Thanks for saving my life.”

Wrapping his fingers around mine, his grip gentle, but firm, strong, until I could almost feel the warmth of his embrace through my entire body.

“It was a pleasure to fight for honor. That has not happened for a long time here.”

Alien’s Gamble: Sneak Peek

Kamek

I almost heard the urge to ask if we were there yet brewing and bubbling in Laux’s chest.

Every time I glanced back at my brothers, there he was, the youngest out of us all, nearly vibrating in his seat.

He’d missed out on the last game of Speiwet due to a mid-game injury and he was itching to show off his new moves. Today would even double as revenge, given how we were going up against the same team that took him out before.

“To your right!”

Sorik’s shout made me jolt in my seat. My instincts took over and I changed course, barely avoiding crashing against a fragment of debris.

“Is that a slavers’ unit?” my brother asked.

I directed my gaze towards the point Sorik was staring at, and, sure enough, he was right: fire, hot and bright enough to rival Reazus Prime’s twin suns, had engulfed a slavers’ ship. 

Flames like tentacles rollicked up its sides and everything they touched reddened and darkened. Parts of the craft flew apart from the main body, disintegrating during its unmanned descent until finally, like a firecracker, dozens of smaller lights streaked through the dark.

“I’m getting life signs on those,” Sorik said. 

“Escape pods?” I muttered. “They don’t look right.”

Sorik looked over sharply. “Do you think anyone survived that?”

Norsuk leaned over the back of my chair. “They would if they were in storage pods. See if you can find what’s in there.”

A few moments of quick scanning, and Sorik had an answer. “Human females.”

A moment of quiet came over us as we considered the possibilities.

“Sleeping slaves, all ripe for the picking. What do you all say? Finders’ keepers?”

The familiar beep of incoming data transmission drowned out whatever else Norsuk meant to say. 

The air shimmered before our eyes and took on the form of a multidimensional map of Reazus Prime. 

With a flick of my wrist, I sent over the tracking data. At first, there was nothing, but then one by one, tiny blue dots flashed, drawing our gazes at them, scattered all over the globe.

“I hear they make good breeders,” I added, my mind forever on the prize. “I’ve counted at least a dozen. They should fetch a good price.”

It was stupid and probably nothing, but I found I couldn’t keep my eyes off a certain pod, far to the north in the mountains that were permanently covered in snow.

A noiseless hum rang in my ears and I felt my heartbeat accelerating. Something deep within me, almost primal, made me want to sprint and collect my bounty before anyone else got the same idea. 

I cleared my throat before speaking. “Let’s each pick a pod and whoever’s female brings the most money, wins.”

The proposal was welcomed with excited hollering and neither of us wasted any time in getting into our stingers and claiming our literal gifts from above. 

“Good hunting!” I called out as my brothers’ personal crafts split off from mine, racing towards their own targets.

All I cared about was mine.

A storm had beaten me to the site, heavy winds and thick gusts of snow coated the mountain passes, burning away the moments until I found the long trail from the impact of the stasis pod.

It had torn through a nearby stand of trees, the trail of smoking destruction in its path already half covered by the storm.

Banking away, I landed the stinger in a small clearing, excitement spurring me on.

Nothing was more exciting than the rush of the game.

Well, except winning.

Sinking up to my knees in snow, I grabbed a heavy cloak from the ship and checked the blaster holstered at my hip and the comm unit on my wrist.

Nothing from my brothers. I still might be the first to reach my prize.

The knot in my stomach tightened and I rushed towards the pod.

Restlessness, an urge to run and claw my way to the female slowly took over me. 

I pulled my cloak tighter against myself and broke into a sprint, the distance between me and the stasis pod lessening with every heartbeat.

Once there, I peered down at the shattered glass and let out a low growl.

She wasn’t there.

Deep tracks zigzagged away, but quickly faded out into nothingness.

Frantic, I ran around in circles, desperate to pick up her trail, going past a derelict cabin, a stand of trees, more pieces of debris.

Nothing.

She couldn’t have made it far. At least, not unless someone had already taken her, and if that was the case, I was prepared to fight to claim her.

Were there others out here, searching for the human females?

I snorted. Of course. We couldn’t have been the only ship who witnessed that explosion.

Tapping at the communicator, only the crackle of static filled my ears. What had I expected during a storm like this? 

Of course, I’d be cut off from my brothers.

They’d have to fend for themselves.

And then I found her.

Swaying on her feet, dressed in nothing more than scraps.

It was her. No question.

But I didn’t reach her soon,  she’d freeze to death and I’d have nothing to sell.

That was the only reason I sprinted through the storm, panic ringing through my ears.

Nothing else mattered.

Only the game.

Jaylee

I let out a long groan of displeasure. 

I’d swear the cold nipped at my feet. 

Perhaps I’d forgotten to close the windows? Unlikely, but then again whose ass was freezing? 

This girl’s.

Oh well, too late now, I told myself. 

If I got up and closed them, I knew it’d be a while before I’d fall back asleep, so I stubbornly stayed put. I tossed and turned in my bed, ignoring the lowering temperature, determined to get my eight hours of sleep. 

Come morning, I was to start my dream job at the local gym and I needed to be fresh as a daisy, not showing up with raccoon eyes. 

Except this was freakin’ cold! 

Whoever said chilly weather was conducive to good rest was an idiot. 

Still reluctant to move from my comfortable position, I blindly patted the space around me, wanting to pull my blanket up higher. 

Yet, instead of soft Egyptian cotton, the cold lick of metal grazed my fingertips. I recoiled with an audible gasp.

The thermal shock brought forth an unpleasant realization: it wasn’t my bed. 

It wasn’t even a bed. 

With sleep still coating my lashes, I glanced around. Opaque glass and unyielding metal surrounded me from all parts, like a nightmarish cocoon. 

Swallowing down my panic, I called upon all the strength I was capable of, kicking and beating my fists against the fine white lines peppering the ciel blue glass. 

Whatever this thing was that I found myself inside of, it was already cracked, which meant I could escape.

Once, twice, and then with all my upper body strength, I slammed myself against the least sturdy portions of my prison, ignoring the mounting headache and the soreness of my body. 

I was used to pain, but this was pushing it.

With lucky number ten, I finally broke free. On unsteady legs, I climbed out of my enclosure, but my hard earned freedom merely making the air in my lungs freeze. 

Without something between me and the elements, the wind kicked my ass something fierce. The cold hit me doubly hard and I could barely draw in another breath.

My body folded in on itself and I dropped down low.

I winced and closed my eyes. The sudden brightness was almost painful, not to mention unnatural, and for a moment there, I could’ve sworn I saw two suns, looming blue above me. 

I shook my head off the nonsense imagery and I called out. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

Yes, I knew shouting into the unknown was mistake number one in horror movies, but this wasn’t a movie. This was… I dunno, more like a nightmare? One set in apocalyptic levels of cold? 

“Please? Anyone?”

My voice was quiet and soft, all but lost to the snowstorm around me. The strong gusts of wind tearing across the space around me made my skin tingle.

“Fuck,” I muttered. 

I huddled, momentarily paralyzed with cold and fear.

Where the heck was I?

Did I sleepwalk to Narnia or something? This was definitely not LA weather. 

I couldn’t make sense of things, but at least I was still wearing my pajamas, so nothing too bad could’ve happened. I glanced down at my bare legs and arms, sunkissed brown now tinted red by the biting frost. 

My flimsy pajamas offered no protection against such weather. A thousand needles prickled my skin and I wrapped my arms around my knees, making myself smaller to preserve my body heat and minimize the exposed areas. 

I knew I wouldn’t be able to survive for long like that. Rescue seemed unlikely and something inside me, equal parts hysterical and pragmatic, bubbled to the surface, driving my body as if on autopilot. 

If I stayed where I was, I’d die.

So it was time to move.

I began to walk, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, staggering like a Walking Dead extra. 

I wanted to run, to sprint and scream, really, but I was groggy, shivering, and overall just ill, and every step of my bare feet onto the cold snow shot daggers up my half numbed calves. 

It felt as if someone had drugged me, but there couldn’t have been anyone. I worked and lived alone, hadn’t been out bar hopping or whatever people with social lives did.

And right now it didn’t matter.

I shouted and shouted again, each time the sound echoing less and less into the distance.

There was nothing but a great white flurry of flakes whichever way I cared to look.

Was I going in the right direction?

Was there a right direction?

Maybe I should’ve stayed in that metal cocoon.

I wanted to return to it, to let it shelter me, protect me.

Unless that wasn’t real either. Just a part of this crazy dream.

Thinking straight was a chore and the reality before me had grown fractured.

Because I could’ve sworn there was a person out there, not ten feet away, coming towards me, but that had to be another brain glitch. 

Real people don’t have skin that looks like molten gold.

They’re not that tall.

They don’t stand that way, so rigidly straight.

I was aware of the rasp of my own breath, the quiet, barely audible rustle of my pajamas as I walked, trying not to fall onto my knees and let the white death take me. 

Almost there, I thought, almost close enough to fall into this golden man’s arms and then I’d be safe.

I felt myself swaying, my vision growing blurry and after a few shaky breaths, I found I couldn’t hear anything anymore.

It was suddenly so quiet, the awful kind of silence that only the dead of night brought, but I wouldn’t die now, would I? Maybe it was all just a dream, I thought, before my legs gave out from underneath me and I fell. 

Kamek

The most valuable cargo wasn’t the biggest, bulkiest, most outstanding, but the exact opposite. 

Just like the little female in my arms, lithe and almost weightless, whose shallow intakes of breath worried me. She was ice cold and motionless, practically lost to the world around her. 

Fragile, like all humans I’d ever heard about.

Vulnerable, like all stolen females. 

Mine to keep, a voice from within added, but I pushed it back into the darkness it’d come from. 

I wasn’t the type to be easily softened and I most certainly didn’t have a weak spot for the less fortunate of this world. 

She wasn’t the first, nor the last, kidnapped female about to be thrown into a life of slavery. 

It was just her bad luck. It had nothing to do with me.

Whatever that moment of doubt was, it better pass as quickly as it had come. 

The skies added to the miniature mountains of white surrounding us. 

On instinct, my body wrapped itself around her form, lending the female some much needed warmth. My kind could sustain ten times nature’s fury, but she was of a much more fragile breed. 

I glanced down at her.

If I meant to sell my quarry, it was imperative that I acted fast, bringing her to proper shelter. 

The stinger, small and light, would never make it out of this storm.

The trees weren’t thick enough to break the wind.

So the cabin I’d passed would have to do.

I could take her there, see the condition she was in, other than half frozen to death, and then make a decision.

With renewed purpose, I made my way to the building. From up close, it was clear it’d been abandoned for quite some time. 

Its roof looked suspect and some of the windows were replaced with wooden boards. 

But it was better than being out in the elements.

We could wait out the storm and then I’d bring her to the main ship, win the bet, and carry on with a heavier purse.

With my hands momentarily full, I kicked open the door, stepped inside, using my considerable body weight to close it shut, before taking a look around. 

If the place looked derelict from the outside, the inside wasn’t that much better. There was a rudimentary fireplace, something akin to a bed, a slanting, half-broken table, and a chest that doubled as a chair, if need be.

I gently laid the female down onto the rickety bed and she let out a low moan. 

The sweet sound of it made my insides tie into knots. Small and precious and wonderful, it called for an answer.

For protection against the world.

For answering sweetness.

Yet, it was as far from that as it could be and I knew it. 

I wouldn’t delude myself by thinking something might happen between us once she woke up. I intended to sell her and win the bet against my brothers.

I couldn’t keep her. 

I wouldn’t even imagine it.

Without truly meaning to, I reached out a hand and brushed the little human female’s hair out of her pale face. She looked so peaceful, so delicate. 

Was I really going to do this to her? 

It wasn’t my fault.

She’d already been taken. 

Her fate was decided upon long before I laid eyes on her. 

Somewhere between now and the moment the slavers picked her as their target, her life’s course had been completely altered. There was no going back.

She moaned again, this time closer to a whine. Her strange, soft skin had taken on a bluish hue and she was so cold to the touch, the few snowflakes remaining on her body wouldn’t even melt.

I sighed.

“This doesn’t bode well,” I murmured, my breath turning into a frosty fog. A cold shelter wasn’t much better than no shelter at all. 

There was no way to immediately seal off the space and the fireplace didn’t have the tiniest twig with which to make fire for the little human female to warm up near.

So I did the only thing I could – I took off my cloak and draped it over her form before kneeling down the side of the bed. She was barefoot and her toes were turning dark purple. 

Carefully, I touched her, but the little female hissed.

“Bear with it,” I said, unsure if she could hear me or not, but some strange part of me needed her to know I meant her no harm. “I need to restore the blood flow or you’ll lose your feet.”

For a moment, I froze. Even if she heard me, did she understand?

A quick check behind her ear answered that question. The slavers had implanted a translation device. Usual procedure to ensure that slaves would follow orders quickly, but useful for me now.

Reassured, I massaged her foot, from sole to ankle and higher up her calf.

Slowly, surely, the deliberate path my fingers took as they pressed and dragged over her frozen, aching skin started to produce heat.

Not just in her body, but in mine as well. 

Inappropriate thoughts crowded my mind, but I pushed each and every one back down.

She wasn’t mine.

If I took her, claimed her, tasted her, she’d be worth less at auction.

Nothing could or would ever happen between us.

I switched limbs, giving her right leg the same kind of hands-on treatment and she moaned again, sending my thoughts back out of control.

I stared at her fragile form, visibly more relaxed, so completely unaware of the dangers of this world or of the way my hands worked to loosen the kinks in her muscles, fighting the urge to explore more of her body. 

She was so different from the females of my species and yet, still so beautiful, even with such smooth skin and a lack of scales or facial ridges.

There was some meat on her bones, some good muscle definition there, telling me this human took good care of herself. 

I wondered how she managed to become someone else’s prey. 

Lost in my own head, I failed to notice she’d woken up and was quietly staring at me, assessing the situation. 

It was only when I pushed the cloak higher on her body, revealing her curved thighs, that our gazes met.

If she was scared, she hadn’t shown it. 

She looked ready to fight me – her jaw squared, her lips set in a thin line and all the fierceness this beautiful, tiny creature was capable of was infused into the words she uttered next.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Hands off me, you bastard!”

She tried to pull her leg from my grasp, but I held onto her, unreasonably unwilling to let her go.

If she panicked, if she ran, she’d be back out in the cold.

She was like a wild animal, straining, pulling and twisting, wanting to get away, but my grip wouldn’t let her gain an inch of freedom, no matter how hard she tried.

“Calm down. You’re going to hurt yourself.” 

She’d only end up killing herself in the raging storm out there, or worse, die a slow and painful death by the time I found her to bring her back here, her limbs lost to the frostbite and then going septic. 

I wrestled her closer to me and with a neutral, level, tone, I laid out the terms of how it’d go. “If you calm down, I’ll tell you everything. If you continue to try to fight me, I’ll have no other choice but to tie you up.”

Her eyes flared wider. “Let me go! Let me go, let me go!!”

She continued to uselessly struggle against my superior strength, making me think she was pretty, but dumb.

Surely she knew it wouldn’t work.

“Fucking asshole, I told you to let me go!”

Then she kicked me in the face.

I had to admit, it’d been a while since someone had taken me by surprise like that.

Her little foot actually managed to split open my lower lip. 

Golden liquid stained my copper skin and I tasted iron on my tongue. I rubbed the pain away.

“Impressive,” I let out. 

I could make her pay for that, hit her back and beat her into submission, but I wouldn’t. 

A dainty little human she might be, but I’d been a fool to think she was dumb. 

I deserved the ass-kicking I got, for underestimating my opponent. 

She was a firecracker. 

There was a part of me that wanted her to take a gamble and go against me once more, to see what all she was capable of. 

I liked her fighting spirit. 

I liked the thrill of the chase. 

What else would she try? When would she admit defeat? 

Or was she the type to never admit such a thing? 

I liked the idea.

Finally free, at least from my touch, she slid backwards on the bed until her back connected with the cold wall behind her. She eyed me with apprehension, but also a good deal of determination. 

For some stupid reason, I felt proud of her for that.

And then the questions flew out of her and my feelings of pride were replaced with ones of dread and awkwardness.

“Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here? Where is this place, anyway? It’s not LA. Why the hell are you dressed up like that, like it’s Halloween?”

She pulled my cloak around her body. Bundled up like that, crammed into the corner, she looked even smaller than she was.

I got up to my full height, towering above her. Playing nice hadn’t worked. Maybe she would only respond to fear.

Or not.

She didn’t shy away from me, just going back to a defensive position. I could tell she was like a tight coil under the cloak, ready to spring into action if the opportunity presented itself. 

“My name is Kamek Teki and,” I trailed off. Surprisingly, the words tasted bitter on my tongue. But this little warrior deserved the truth. “You are a slave now.”

She scoffed. “The hell I am!”

“You were kidnapped by slavers, taken from your home and brought here, to my planet.”

“Planet? Are you drunk?”

I ignored her. “And as soon as this storm passes, you-”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence, because she threw the cloak at my face, distracting me. 

I twirled on a foot and reached out, my hand just barely grasping her wrist to pull her back. 

I miscalculated the force I used, though, and we fell backwards onto the bed, landing with a loud and painful thud, her sprawled over my chest, my arms trapping her to me.

She wasted no time kicking my shin and punching my stomach, but I breathed through the impact.

“You’re one crazy fucker, you know that?” 

I bore punch after punch, kick after kick, roll after roll, noting how precisely she targeted the spots on my body.

Were I another human, I probably would’ve been defeated five hits into her attempt at escaping.

Unfortunately for her, she was against a far tougher species.

I used to go fishing with Laux when we were younger. The bigger the prey, the harder it struggled.

Her size had nothing to do with her value. I let the little female exhaust herself before reining in my exotic game once more. 

With her on top of me, panting hard, trembling, and how I could see down the valley between her breasts, taking in her nearly bare legs splayed open, wrapping around my hips.

Even in her anger, she was beautiful.

Yet, now all I could do was ignore the way my cock stirred feeling her soft weight atop my body.

Rolling slightly, I maneuvered her between a wall and my solid presence, wrapping a hand around her throat. 

The human female stopped struggling the second I squeezed her against me just enough to tell her I’d won this round.

During our little dance of power, my cloak had fallen off her body and she knelt before me, half naked and flushed, out of breath, her messy hair inviting me to run a hand through its gentle waves and bring her head closer, covering her full lips with mine. 

I could make her burn, even with this snowstorm outside. 

Her quickened pulse echoed in my own body, making it harder and harder to not push her on her back and claim her as mine, at least once. 

It was madness.

Her defiance was an incredible turn on. Even like this, her eyes bore into mine, unafraid.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she panted.

I coughed, clearing the lust from my voice before addressing her. “Are you done trying to hit me, little one?”

I could almost taste the frustration in her words. 

“Yes.”

“Will you try to run again?”

“No.”

I chuckled. Her answer came much too quick, too clear, to be genuine. “Yes, you will.”

“Then why ask me if you already know the answer?”

I shook my head, deeply amused. 

She was unlike any female I’d ever met.

Hells. She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. 

The more she held her ground, the more she swore at me, yelled at me, kicked me and tried to escape me, the more I wanted to keep her for myself. 

I wanted to claim her, to ravish her, to conquer her in a way that perhaps she wouldn’t fight so hard against. 

I wanted to talk to her some more, to draw out her name, to coax some compliance and sweetness, but an unexpected itch across my back and a sharp pain in my chest made it hard to stay coherent. 

“I’ll be back with some wood,” I snapped. “If you try to run again, you won’t live to see another sunrise.”

And then I fled the cabin, and my own disturbing desires.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Six

Khelos

Come with me.

I didn’t need to understand the female’s words to get a clear picture of her confusion as I led her back into the privacy closet.

“I’mnotreallyoneofthosepeoplethatthinksusingthebathroomtogetherisasignofahealthyrelationship.Notthatwe’reinarelationship.Whatarewedoing here?”

The sound of her words flowed over me, her voice soothing the ragged edges of my worry while I worked.

With a click a long section of the paneling came away.

No door this time, rather an access panel to the maintenance tubes.

I paused before stepping inside, unease and habit muting my voice all over again.

I do not want to bring you to that place.

Her shoulders sagged, defeat draped over her like a wet blanket.

She had not wanted this, to come to a place where her words had no meaning.

I thought again of the slightly raised spot behind her ear, the feel of something hard, foreign placed underneath the skin.

Was it that important to her? I had no way of knowing if that alteration had been done by her own free will, or something that had been done to her.

She stepped closer, gripped my hand.

“Khelos. Please.”

The sound of my name on her tongue was like an electric shock.

I could not deny her anything.

Whatever had been done to her in the past, she chose this now.

And if there was a danger, I would take care of it.

Then follow me.

I led the way into the maintenance shaft, squeezing past the pipe that brought water and nutrients from the lowest level.

The shaft continued straight up through the facility, rungs jutting out from the wall.

I began to climb, then suddenly stopped, her absence from my side nearly a physical thing.

I glanced down.

She clung to the first rung, stretching towards the next, her fingers barely brushing it.

I am sorry.

Quickly I climbed back down, considered our options.

The chamber we were headed to was several levels above us.

I could make a sling to keep her secure against my back. 

But it would take time. And she was unhappy.

Do you still trust me?

Without a flicker of hesitation she stepped closer.

I pulled her to my chest, left arm clasping her body while her own legs twined about my waist.

I will not let you fall.

Her hands rested lightly at my throat, as if I was somehow delicate.

You cannot hurt me, I chided her. Hold tight.

And then I began to climb again.

I’d made the trip many times before, my clandestine explorations of the facilities over the years letting me make a mental map of tunnels and shafts that would allow me access to wherever I wished.

But never had the trip seemed so long.

Her slight weight did not slow me down.

But the feel of her hands, her bare legs encircling my waist, the smell of her flooding my nostrils, sent every one of my senses into disarray.

At the fourth level I stepped away from the ladder into a perpendicular connecting tunnel, hunching over to avoid striking my head on the ceiling.

“I can walk.”

She squirmed against me, and I froze, my mind going utterly blank in a wave of white fire.

It took no more than a moment to snap out of it, to carefully extricate her from my arms, place her on her feet while I regained control of myself.

She tilted her head to the side, brows knit together.

It is not far now, I told her, ignoring the implied question.

I could barely stand to remember the feel of her moving against my body.

I certainly wasn’t going to be explaining my reaction.

A warm breeze moved with us, fresh air from outside the facility being circulated throughout all of its windowless rooms.

The soft slippers on her feet made no sound as we crept towards our target.

Angry voices reached us from the room below as we drew closer to a wide slatted opening, and I cursed myself.

How did her very nearness take all of my focus away, when I needed it the most to protect her?

A quick glance below confirmed my worst fears.

Isar stood in front of three kneeling Ol’ki, their faces swollen and bruised.

I had no doubts that Zelan and the rest of his guards lined up behind them were the cause of that.

The kneeling warriors’ hands were bound behind them, yet they bravely kept their heads up, glaring at their captor.

“You have one chance. Join me. Be a part of the return of the Makers as we claim Thaxos.”

“You are mad, outcast,” the one at the far right declared. “The Makers have been gone for generations now.”

He slumped back under the force of Isar’s blow.

“The Makers are reborn in me,” Isar said, as calmly as if he hadn’t been interrupted, hadn’t knocked the teeth out from his prisoner.

“I am the future. You will join me.”

“Our loyalty is to the clan,” the next prisoner spat. “No one with the heart and soul of a true Ol’ki would ever join you.”

I had heard it all before, countless times.

The Ol’ki main base regularly sent raiding parties to the mainland, for supplies and to battle with the other clans.

Years ago Isar had made it a policy to prey upon them as they returned, picking them off one by one to be brought back here.

His scavengers brought in two rewards, equally valuable: Their stolen booty, and the warriors themselves.

Every time Isar told the prisoners they would join his cause.

None of them had understood they weren’t being given a choice.

The fingers of Isar’s right hands twitched towards his palm, just a bit, and I knew what was coming.

Quickly I grabbed the female, pressed her face into my chest, covered her ears with my hands.

She must’ve understood what was happening below, for she needed no convincing to stay quiet, curling tightly into me.

“Lucky I don’t need your heart or soul then, isn’t it?”

And at his nod, Zelan slit the prisoner’s throats one by one.

“They all join us in the end, don’t they?”

Zelan laughed at the obscene joke, then moved almost out of view.

I knew what was there well enough.

A massive machine, with a cylinder taller than my height, twice as large than I could wrap my arms around

Keeping the female close to me I listened as he tapped in the command to open the receiving drawer

One by one the bodies were dragged away, heavy thunks punctuating their falls as they were put in the drawer.

More beeps as the generator’s cycle began, breaking down the bodies to be used for new, more compliant creations.

“Three new younglings, ready to join our ranks,” Isar said, slapping Zelan on the back. “I know you will train them well, my friend.”

The Master of the guard struck his left shoulder with his right fist twice in salute.

“Nothing can stand in the way of the Makers reborn, my Lord.”

They left the room while the blood was still wet on the floor.

I waited, listening with my ears and my mind but found no one near.

Hands at her shoulders, I pushed the female away from me, just far enough to see into her eyes.

The device we must use is in the room below. Can you stand it?

She trembled in my grasp, but nodded decisively.

Very well. If she would not be dissuaded by the danger, neither would I.

Crouching down to make myself even smaller we followed the passage till the next intersection.

A short distance to the side another shaft opened up, leading below.

I started down the ladder, then held my free arm out for her.

As she curled into my chest I paused, for just a moment, breathing in the clean scent of her hair.

She was a pure, good spark of light and color against the darkness.

It might have been selfish of me, but I could not resist the impulse to relish it a moment longer.

Before long we reached the level below.

Wedging my fingertips into the crack that outlined the maintenance panel I paused.

Stay here. Wait till I am certain it is clear.

I sensed nothing beyond the wall, but I could not, would not trust my senses now. 

Not knowing how badly she distracted me.

Not with her safety at stake.

She squeezed my hand tightly, worry like a cloud that clung to her even as she hooked her arm around the rung, legs stretched to their limit to rest her toes on the next rung down.

Carefully, soundlessly I removed the panel and waited.

Slipping into the room I checked every corner, behind every device.

We were alone.

Returning to the shaft I lifted the female out, resisted the urge to keep her cradled to me.

This way.

Ignoring the low hum of the generator at its work I headed towards the rows of flattened ovals set at an angle to the wall, until her distress caught me off guard.

She had stopped by the massive machine, the bright sheen of tears streaking over her cheeks.

It is the end for every Reaver, to be brought back as the next generation. They did not choose their time to die, but no one can.

Somehow she did not look at all reassured.

I did not try to explain again.

The teaching chamber would do a better job.

If she survived.

With a last look over her shoulder at the generator she followed me to the furthest teaching chamber.

My hand rested on the control panel, but still I hoped to change her mind, stalled before entering the first sequence.

This does not come without risks.

She tilted her head to the side, listening.

Not every youngling emerges from the chamber as he was. And you are far different from any Reaver I have ever seen. The danger will be higher.

She frowned, then pointed to my chest, then the machine again and back.

Yes, I survived. But I was the only one of my batch that did not go mad.

She stood still, waiting for the rest of the story.

The rest were fed to the generator. As they were, they served no purpose for Lord Isar and his plans.

Her shoulders rose as she took a deep breath, then another and a third.

Then she stepped closer to the machine, her decision clear.

Heart heavy in my chest I entered the code to begin the process.

The lid swung open, revealing a long low bench that ran down the middle.

Legs shaking, but back sword-straight, she stepped inside, twisting to lay back on the bench.

Gently I pushed her hair back.

I will protect you no matter what. You will not be alone.

Before I could change my mind, pull her from the chamber and run with her, to hide somewhere deep within the facility where no one could ever find us, I entered the command to begin the procedure.

The lid closed.

And I settled down to wait.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Five

Hannah

That didn’t exactly make things better.

But if Beast said the old silver guy in what was some sort of hoverchair was an ally, I should try to believe him.

Because right now it was clear I didn’t have a whole lot of friends in this place.

“And it doesn’t help that you can’t understand me either,” I grumbled.

Beast held his hand out, and without thinking I rested my own in it.

Come. 

The word echoed in my mind.

How did he do that?

Through a survey of the thousands of species that made up the Galactic Alliance, only a few dozen relied upon telepathy.

But this didn’t seem to be a species-wide phenomenon.

Beast’s was the only voice I heard in my head.

And I’d be happiest if it stayed that way.

Evras in the lead, we moved deeper into the massive chamber.

“What is this place?” I asked. 

Rows of vats of all shapes and sizes, from as small as my fist to even larger than the beast bubbles and sloshed all around us.

The fluid inside was thick, its movements slow, more like some sort of goo than water.

And every now and then I caught a glimpse of something inside the tanks.

I pulled my eyes away quickly and Beast squeezed my hand.

They cannot harm you as they are.

I would add that to the list of things that were not particularly reassuring.

After a final twist through rows of equipment we stopped in a slightly less cluttered space.

A broad table with tablets scattered over its surface. A single chair. A low cot pressed against the wall.

And to the side…

“Is that a replicator?”

I moved over to the device set into the wall.

It sort of looked like the ones back on the Dream, but the strange lettering that flashed on the screen made it clear things weren’t going to be that easy.

Are you hungry?

I nodded.

There were emergency rations back in my pod, but I had no idea how I would get there.

My body felt like it was waking up, bit by bit. 

The headache was fading and my stomach was empty. 

And… oh hell.

“Yes,” I said “but–”

This wasn’t going to be good. How exactly did you tell two aliens who had no idea what your language was that you needed to use the ladies’ room?

I looked around, but there was nothing that even looked like a chamber pot.

Beast watched me, frowning slightly, then moved to a section a bit further down the wall, tapped lightly on it.

The panel slid away, revealing a small room.

“Thank you thank you thank you,” I blurted as I rushed inside.

A few minutes later, feeling much more composed, I came back out to find Beast sitting in the chair while Evras lay stripes of transparent tape over the long gashes down his chest. 

Another pass with a small orange pyramid, and the tape glowed in response, the wounds below seeming to heal before my eyes.

At one end of the table was a bowl of noodles in a fragrant broth.

I grabbed it so quickly the broth sloshed over, nearly scalding my hands.

Beast was on his feet so quickly I did not see him move.

“It’s okay, I promise.”

With my free hand I pushed him back, carefully avoiding the crisscross of tape.

“I’ll be more careful.”

With a scowl he resumed his seat.

Evras looked between us, smooth expression revealing nothing other than curiosity.

“Forgive me if this seems intrusive, but at this point I think we could all use some information.”

I paused from shoveling noodles into my face and nodded, then caught myself.

Did they use the same nod and shake for yes and no, or was it reversed here? Most life forms with a single head used head movements to convey meaning, but I hadn’t been paying attention.

By Mendel’s Peas, was this going to be one of those cultures where the shake of the head declared war or something just as unpleasant?

But neither of the men were moving towards weapons, so maybe it was safe enough.

“I have examined or seen the records of nearly everything that walks, swims or crawls here on Thaxos,” Evras continued. “But I have seen nothing like you. Was there a secret city? One that escaped the Maker’s plague?

Beast looked interested as well.

Apparently he was perfectly aware of Makers and cities and plagues. But it meant nothing to me.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then where are you from?”

I dropped my noodles back in the bowl as my throat clenched,

I had been so busy being terrified I had not allowed myself to think for too long about what had happened to the Dream. To wonder where all of my friends were. 

Where I was.

Beast stood again, slowly this time as if careful not to startle me.

Cheeks flaming, I reached for his hand.

I should not be imposing myself on him like this.

He’d already fought to protect me.

My emotional baggage was my own problem.

But right now, if I had to think about what had happened on the Dream, I needed a little more support.

There was no reason for his touch to make me feel safe.

But it did.

Closing my eyes I thought back to those last few minutes on the Dream, all of us girls huddled in the rec room, the growing panic when we realized the ship was in danger.

But even running to our pods it hadn’t seemed completely real.

Sarah, my cabin mate and best friend, had said she’d catch up on her reading. 

Then everything ended in fire.

And Sarah was gone. Everyone was gone.

And I was here, alone.

You were in a room, with others like you, and  there was  danger?

Beast’s voice in my head was soft, gentle.

That was one way to sum it up.

I tried again, imagining the angled L-shape of the Dream against a starry sky, then the expulsion of the escape pods like dandelion seeds in the wind.

His fingers wrapped more tightly around mine.

A city in the stars that fell away, leaving only your metal box?

I couldn’t try to picture it any more.

Loneliness and despair washed over me, just imagining those tiny, fragile pods sailing through the Void.

Escape pods were programmed to land on the closest planet with an atmosphere compatible to the sentient being within.

There was no way of knowing how far I had traveled, how long I had slept.

Taking a deep steadying breath I blinked hard, forcing the tears back down.

It didn’t matter. Not really.

I was here now.

I knew at least one other of the girls had made it. I’d heard Kyla’s voice when I first woke up.

If she was here, I had to believe the others were as well.

Which meant I needed to do anything, everything possible to survive until I found them.

Beast must have communicated something of my images to Evras, for his chair rolled closer to me, his eyes alight, his thin, sick frame almost vibrating with excitement.

“A city in the stars? How did it fly?” He reached out to tap my comm bangle.”Is this something else from your floating city?”

How to explain a translation implant?

I pointed to Evras’s mouth then drew my hand back to the comm bangle, tapping it before pushing my hair back to expose the slight ridge behind my ear where the second part of the translator unit had been implanted.

Repeating the motions, again, and again.

Mouth, bangle, implant.

His eyes narrowed, flicking back and forth and I sighed.

This wasn’t going to work.

There was no way to explain something this complicated by charades.

“That device takes my words and then puts them in your ear as something that you can understand?” 

My jaw dropped.

Or maybe it wasn’t as complicated as I thought.

Beast traced the edge of the implant lightly, but ‘said’ nothing. Only a slow roll of anger that was quickly pushed away.

Before I could wonder about it, Evras was talking again.

“And that is why your words mean nothing to us, we do not have something that can translate them, put them in our ear?”

Well, yeah.

That was the big problem.

And I wasn’t sure how to solve it. 

From their confusion about what a spaceship was, it was pretty clear this planet hadn’t been contacted by the Galactic Alliance.

No Alliance, no translator.

Fingers tapping on the arm of his chair Evras rolled back and forth, and with a jolt I realized he was pacing in his own way.

I turned towards Beast, wishing I had a better way to read his expression. The strange, black eyes gave so little away.

Evras is clever. He will find a solution.

A flicker of hope rose in me.

“No one I know, no one I have ever heard of could build a machine like that. Not since the Maker’s time,” Evras said. “But if my friend’s words can reach you, it would seem your mind is not so different from our own.

He stopped rolling, pivoted to look straight at me.

“It is possible that you could learn to speak our language, without the need of such a device.”

Shooting to my feet I bumped against Beast’s arm.

“Yes!” I nodded, then turned to him, hoping I was conveying every bit of enthusiasm in the universe for this idea.

“No,” he answered aloud, his rough voice shocking me all over again. “It is not safe.”

“What if this stops working?” I tapped the comm bangle. “I would know nothing of what was going on. How is that safe?

Arms crossed over his chest, Beast didn’t answer.

“Khelos, if Isar tries to force her to speak and she is unable, you know what will happen to her.”

Evras’s voice was no more than a whisper but Beast recoiled as if he had been struck.

Wait, Khelos?

“She is not one of the clans. How do you know the teaching chamber will not harm her?”

Evras sighed.

“I don’t. I am only offering it as an option. The choice is hers.”

Teaching chamber?

Whatever it they were talking about was obviously dangerous.

Certainly Beast – no, Khelos –  thought so.

And I trusted him.

But the thought of being the only human here, completely dependent on my comm bangle to provide any communication, even one sided, with this world, terrified me more.

“Please,” I said, hoping, knowing he would understand me.

Was the only person who would ever understand me, if this didn’t work.

His face softened, then he turned his head to examine the translator implant again.

Lightly running his finger over it, he moved my hair to check behind the other ear.

Whatever he found, or didn’t find, seemed to make up his mind.

“We will go. But I do not like this.”

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Four

Normally I didn’t mind a good fight with the ceapaks or whatever other lab-born nightmares Isar threw against me.

Here in the pit there were no lies, no veiled threats.

No words masking harder, crueler thoughts.

Just the flow of battle and blood.

Simple. Direct. Easy. 

But now the pack of creatures were in my way.

I leapt towards the closest one, ignoring the curved blade in its hands while I wrapped my hands around the thick, flesh of its neck.

With a sharp wrench to the side its spine cracked, gave way.

I grabbed its knife from its hands as it sank into the knee-high water.

Spinning to face the rest of the pack, I searched for any other modifications.

The extra set of arms had been enough of a surprise.

Three broke away, splitting around me, trying to circle me.

I flung my knife into the eye of one, then dove towards it to retrieve my blade and claim his own.

That was better.

Isar had not allowed me weapons for years now.

But I did feel better with them in my hand.

Suitably armed, the next two fell before me, my focus burning past any awareness of the slashes across my scales.

Which left the other four, who stood, watching.

Observing.

Could they be learning?

I’ve learned long ago not to discount the wildest theories.

Those were the ones that came and stuck a knife in your back.

These four were the new ones that Evras had released into the pit at Isar’s command.

I wondered what special treat was in store for me.

It didn’t matter.

My only job now is to finish this quickly.

Claim my prize. 

Get back to the female.

I felt the weight of her terror as she watched me.

Then my step faltered.

Her fear was for me, not herself.

My resolve only firmed.

She did not know the danger of this place.

And I could only hope I had not put her in more peril.

I shouldn’t have spoken, lost control.

My sharp laugh sent a wave of uneasiness through my opponents.

Control was lost to me the moment I found her, touched her.

There was no going back now.

My gaze swept across the pack of wolves again as they edged forward, watching them, waiting for a break.

With one unified motion the creatures charged, then spread out.

Their motions more coordinated than their brethrens had been, but still the tactic was the same.

Surround, trap, destroy.

The low rumble of machinery let me know the viewing platform now straddled the pit, rolling forwards in grooves at either side so that Isar could have a perfect view of the combat below.

His experiments.

The four enhanced Seawolves moved closer, bringing in the corners of their square.

Crouching I whirled into a low spin, throwing the knives again, taking one of my opponents in the center of the throat, then twisting to fling my blade at the enemy diagonally across.

But it flinched, the blade doing little more than grazing his shoulder.

For a moment shock ran through my blood.

Had it understood its danger? 

With this batch of wolves capable of thought? 

I shook myself.

That was a problem for later.

The three remaining opponents shifted positions, pinning me within their triangle.

Except they had forgotten a direction.

I launched myself towards the underside of the viewing platform, my fingers snagging the metal lip.

Swinging myself back and forth, and for a second I was high enough to see the wide gaze of the female, her hands pressed over her mouth as she stood next to Evras.

The points of the spears of the guards at her back forced her to the edge, ensuring she was not spared the side of the carnage below.

Wait.

Before anyone on the platform could move I hooked my hand around one of the guards ankles, flinging him off his safe perch and into the water below.

Isar’s bellow of rage continued long after the guard’s scream was cut short by the wolves.

I dropped back down, behind the feasting creatures.

Distracted by the unexpected meal, they fell easily.

There was no honor in this fight.

But the pit had never been about honor, only survival.

The platform rolled back as I panted for breath, the cuts across my scales burning.

Isar looked down, the scowl of his face quickly replaced by a broad smile, but the fingers of his hands flicked open and closed, an unconscious sign of his agitation.

“Again you have earned the name of Beast,” he said. “You will have extra rations tonight.”

No.

That was not what I had fought for.

Reaching down I took the knife from my final opponent’s grip, held it to my own throat.

“What are you doing?” He snapped.

The female’s distress ripped through me, sharper than any blade I had ever fought against, but I could not look away from Isar. Not now.

I pressed the point of the knife in further, enough that he could see the blood flowing.

“Extra rations for a week.”

But still he said nothing about the female.

A fraction deeper with the blade and Evras gasped.

“My Lord, he will not be swayed. Is that not a testament to the perfection of your design? Let him have this creature. It will be of no other use to you.”

“You are wrong, my old friend. Having something new that the beast cares about could be very useful indeed.” For long moments Isar said nothing, then he spread his hands out, as if dropping a weight into the waters below. “Fine, he can have it. Take it to the labs and make sure it brings no disease here.”

The platform rolled away, and I fell to my knees in the filthy water.

I had won. 

This time.

By the time I climbed out of the pit the spectators were gone.

And so was the female.

I rolled my shoulders, testing out the extent of my injuries.

Nothing too bad. It didn’t even feel like their blades had been poisoned.

Normally if I’d taken such little damage I’d return to my lair, sleep, wait to heal.

But the need to see the female, to confirm with my own eyes that she was safe, pulled at me, led me through the facility like a hunting call I could not refuse to answer.

I paused at the gate to the chamber of the pit, stretching my senses as far as I could before leaving.

Flitting from one corridor to the next, I twisted and turned, my progress towards Evras’s lab far slower than a direct route.

But I had no interest in meeting any of the others now.

My temper rode too high, my grip on it felt frayed.

An encounter with any of Isar’s disciples would not end well.

Finally I could feel her presence, sliding into the corners of my mind like she had always been there,

I quickened my pace, stepping through the sliding door as soon as it opened.

They sat together at a table at the front of the lab, her legs swinging as they dangled from the chair, her hands locked together, face blank as Evras spoke to her in low, soothing tones.

My feet slowed, stopped as I considered the situation.

Evras could shield her, hide her from Isar’s attention better than I could.

My presence would only distress her.

She would be safe here. I was a beast. I would only make her more frightened.

I had seen her. It was enough.

But some sound must have betrayed my presence, far as I turned to go she sprang from her chair and ran towards me.

More surprised than I’d ever been by any of the creatures of the pit, she wrapped her arms around my waist, her head resting on my chest.

I stayed still, afraid to touch her, then she broke away, tiny hands patting over the long cuts across my chest.

Evras reached us quickly.  “He’s taken more damage than that and been fine,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

She whirled to face him, anger flaring.

Anger on my behalf?

Carefully I lay one hand on her shoulder.

Evras is a friend.  You do not need to be silent now.

She glanced at me over her shoulder, then turned back to Evras, a torrent of words falling from her lips.

But I could understand none of them.

Evras’s narrowed eyes looked between us in confusion. “I’m sorry, what does she say?”

She stopped, then tapped at the broad metal cuff on her wrist, and with a jolt I remembered the sounds it had made when she first emerged from the metal cocoon.

The sounds were the same.

After a moment there had been words in our own language, then the strange voice spoke its nonsense again.

I had only half listened to them, more focused on the need to keep quiet, to avoid attracting the attention of the guards.

Perhaps I should have listened more closely.

But you can understand me? I sent to her.

She turned to me, nodded once.

Then speak again, little one.

“MynameisHannah.Idon’tknowwhereIamorwheremyfriendsare.AndifthisguyisyourfriendIdon’tknowwhyyou’renotgettingfixedup.”

Evras tilted his head to the side.

“I understood none of that. Did you?

I shook my head, and her shoulders fell in defeat.

I could not even understand her in my mind, only the waves of emotion as they passed through her.

Fear and despair and sadness.

It was unacceptable.

I pushed her hair back from her face.

We will find a way to fix this, I promise. 

She gazed at me with eyes bright with unshed tears.

Do you trust me?

She nodded sharply

Then trust Evras also.

She stepped closer to me, mouth pursed angrily before she spoke again.

“Idon’tthinkso.Hesenttheothermonsterstoattackyou.”

The words were soft like rushing water, but the image in her mind was sharp.

Evras’s hand at the controls, the second pack of wolves coming into the pit.

Do not blame him. He is as much a prisoner here as I am. He dares not refuse.

Reaver’s Prize: Chapter Three

Hannah

His voice snapped me out of my daze.

The sights and sounds of the world around me finally made more than just vague blurred impressions on my mind.

Ever since I was a child I had dreamed about this day, when I would meet a new, undiscovered alien species, learn their ways and culture.

It would be wonderful.

But now? 

Now I was just scared out of my mind.

The soldiers who had escorted us from the room where I’d awakened, the men standing on this platform.

The echoing hallways we’d taken in to get to this strange room, the knots of people staring at us.

A large rectangular hole took up half the space, like a mostly empty swimming pool, smooth metal sides disappearing beneath the water below.

It was dark at the bottom.

And for a moment I thought something moved in the shadows.

It all terrified me.

Except for the one they were calling Beast.

I risked another glance around in the silence that followed his words.

It wasn’t that he was any less imposing than the others.

Everyone in the room looked to be of the same species, with the same silver skin and scales, harsh planes to their face.

But my companion stood taller, broader than the rest, even larger than the man who was the obvious ruler of this place.

If that didn’t mark him as something removed from the others, his eyes did. Everyone else I could see had grey eyes, not too different from my own.

Only Beast was marked with those pools of unrelieved black.

He stood quietly, his hand still on my arm, as if he had exhausted his ability to speak with those two small words.

No. 

Mine.

Then with a shock my brain replayed what he’d been responding to.

The king, whoever he was, had said ‘put it in the pit.’ 

It.

Me.

Maybe the translator was getting it wrong.

But I didn’t think so.

The king tilted his head to the side, a slow smile loss spreading across his face revealing disturbingly sharp looking teeth.

“You’ll have to pay if you want to keep your pet. But something could be arranged.”

Beast didn’t answer, didn’t even shrug, just stood next to me, staring back at the man on the dais above us, the one with the power to command, to demand obedience.

But the Beast simply waited, and the king finally looked away.

“Fine. It should at least be interesting.”

He turned away and for the first time I noticed the  person behind him.

He’d been easy to miss, seated in a sleekly curved black chair rather than standing as the others did.

The same sort of alien, but whereas all the rest looked impossibly strong, the face of the person in the chair was drawn, his body thin, even his scales looked faded and scarred.

If he was human, I would think he’d been sick for a very long time.

Despite my fear I stopped myself.

I had no way of knowing that.

I didn’t even know if it was a “he.”

It was ridiculous to assign gender to a being that I knew nothing about.

The Xornians of Rekalda Two had seven different genders, and a multitude of configurations for family life and reproduction.

But still, Beast felt male, and strangely, so did everyone else in the room.

“Double them.” The king didn’t sound amused any more. 

“My Lord Isar…” the man in the chair protested, then his shoulders slumped.  Lips pressed tightly together, he tapped at a tablet in his lap.

The grind of machinery, then splashing from the pit below.

A moment of tension ran through Beast, then instantly suppressed.

Whatever was down there wasn’t good.

The sounds drew my attention despite my fear, like the shapeless things of nightmares.

You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t help it.

I shouldn’t have looked.

Through a gate in the side of the pit four creatures stalked through the water.

Like sharks.

If sharks walked upright, and had four arms instead of fins.

But the same grey and blue mottled skin. 

The same nearly featureless, pointed faces.

The same flat look in their eyes.

And the same horrible rows of teeth.

Lights flicked on all around the edge of the pit, and I saw what had been waiting in the shadows.

Another four of the monsters.

“Bring it here.”

The soldier next to us pointed a wicked looking short spear at Beast’s chest while the other grabbed my arm, pulling me forward. 

Stay silent.

His voice again, I would have sworn it.

They forced me up the platform, placed me next to the man in the chair.

But all the while my mind was spinning.

Beast had spoken again, hadn’t he?

But no one else had heard him.

My eyes fixed on his, the blackness of his gaze pulling me in until I could almost feel him next to me.

Without turning away, he stepped backward, towards the edge of the pit.

My heart leapt to my throat and I leaned forward, only to be stopped by a hand around my wrist.

Startled, I looked down. The man in the chair didn’t look at me, just shook his head a tiny fraction.

The message was clear.

Whatever was happening here, I couldn’t do anything about it.

“What do you think of my latest design?” the king, Lord Isar, whatever, was back to smiling. It didn’t make me feel a bit better.

Beast’s only answer was another step backwards, closer to the edge, the brightness around the pit like a spotlight on him.

Unlike the rest of the men, he wasn’t in any sort of uniform.

They all wore dark pants and boots, the jackets with the stripes of color that even now part of my brain wondered the meaning of.

They all carried weapons. Knives and swords, short spears.

All except for Beast.

Barefooted, his only clothing was a ragged pair of pants torn at the knees.

 No colors. No weapons.

Nothing but his stillness.

“Don’t you want to keep your pet?” Isar tilted his head, looked around at the other men, now all avidly watching the scene as it played out before them.

Don’t watch.

And then with that same silence wrapped around him, Beast took a final step backwards, and dropped out of sight.

Subscribe to my Update List!