Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Arctur

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

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

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

But I could not stand it anymore. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She made no sound. I took it as understanding.

“I come from the aerie.”

The soft, bruised creature did not react.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes searched mine, seeking.

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

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

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

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

And those eyes demanded more than a simple answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many, but not all.

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

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

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

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

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

I landed us gently at the threshold of the structure. 

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

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

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

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

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

With his downfall had come mine.

Exiled. All for keeping to my oath of loyalty.

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

But still, he had my oath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She squinted at it. “Th’commbahngl?

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were wide, wetter than before.

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

“I would like to understand your words.”

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

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

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

It would work.

It would have to.

Reaver’s Rescue: Chapter One


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

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

And that’s when I saw them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d been alone, terrified.

And then out of the darkness, a message.

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

I’d tried.

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

But it hadn’t been enough.

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

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

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

And that’s when my hell began.

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

That was an understatement.

The secret city. The treasure.

That was all Jafiz cared about.

The commbangle let me understand him well enough.

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

I’m not strong. I’m not a fighter.

I would never be able to resist torture.

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

So I did the only thing I could.

Played possum.

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

It wasn’t hard to fake.

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

But there had to be more.

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

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

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

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

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

It worked, most of the time.

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

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

Just for them to let us live.

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

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

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

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

Every day, I pulled further into my shell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then she went limp in his grasp.

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

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

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

That was all we had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hunched my shoulders, looked away.

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

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

“Tell me, or this one dies here.”

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

I’d known something like this would happen.

These weren’t reasonable, patient men.

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

Slowly I dragged myself to my feet and pointed.

Away from the beach. 

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

And the mountains.

I’d pointed, chin held high.

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

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

How the hell should I know?

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

“A month?” Yarak demanded. “Two?”

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t counted on one thing.

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

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

What were they looking for?

Or, more disturbingly, what were they hiding from?

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

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

We’d be found. Saved.

I’d been an idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t even bother chasing her.

“Take her down,” Jafiz ordered.

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

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

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

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

None of the women said much after that.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t going to be enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except tonight my mind wouldn’t settle down.

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

But I couldn’t see it.

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

Stretching, I decided to go for a walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sentinel’s Lock: Chapter One and Two


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

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

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


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


Of course I trusted her.

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

But it had to be her.

“You can’t be sure!” the bird said.

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

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

I couldn’t do this again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Declared my love for her…

My eyes closed as memories triggered.


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

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

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

“I have a better plan,” Balen said.

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

“What are you—”

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

But he kept coming.


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

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

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

Everything went white.


I roughly shook myself, making the memory vanish.

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


The horrible bird made a sound like laughter.

She stared. “What happened to you?”

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

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

“I know it’s you. I do,” I said.

I did, didn’t I?

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

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

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

It was her, wasn’t it?


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

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

“How can I prove it to you?” I asked.

“You don’t need to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “Yes.”

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

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

“Yet you won’t tell me,” I said.

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

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

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

He didn’t look convinced.

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

“I’ll just have to prove it to you.”

Freeing the knife from his belt, I jumped back.

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

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

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

“That’s not a normal knife—”

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

“Amina, no,” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But losing my hand would be worse.

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

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

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

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

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

“Too late now. I proved it,” I said.

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

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

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

Afraid, I thought.

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

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

Well, physically dangerous.

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

The words had pushed Kael and me apart.

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

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

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

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

Where had that come from?

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

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

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

He nodded. “Agreed.”

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

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

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

Handsome enough, but a lie.

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

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

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

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

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


We froze.

 CB made that sound when something approached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it had done its work.

We needed information.

There was no choice but to follow where it led.

Sentinel’s Gate: Chapter One and Two


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. T—” the receptionist said.

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

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

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

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

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

“My assistant, Misha Kelly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty much,” I shrugged.

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

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

“Wow, that’s—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I eyed her.

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

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

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

I heard the tablet alert come from my rucksack.

“Thanks. Coordinates, too?”

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

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

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

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

Misha frowned. “There’s one thing.”

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

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


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

“Changed how?”

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

“Like you said, allergy meds.”

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


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

But my seekers had alerted me to an interloper.

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

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

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

This was fine with me.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Gravity scan detected, Beta relayed.



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

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

It was true, then. She was looking for gravitational anomalies.

Gravitational anomalies like the kind generated by the portal?

My heart rate increased. Kill her? Smooth her brain?

I studied her. A magnificent foam of brown and gold curls framed a heart-shaped face, dark eyes, a full mouth that fascinated me beyond reckoning…

I shook my head as she moved off the game trail, directly toward my position. Ducking behind a tree, I blinked on Beta’s motivator.

The device in her hand beeped.


Blinking Beta’s controls in place, I sent the companion machine swerving through the trees. To my amazement, the woman followed its progress with her device. She whipped the antenna back and forth.

“What is wrong with this thing?”

I heard her, soft voice, gentle despite frustration. Something stirred within me—

She chased after Beta. That was fine. This human was different. I needed to understand her better. I couldn’t abduct her if she was dead.

From concealment, I watched her descend the slope. Her motions were graceful, determined.

She passed, almost within reach.

Should I grab her? Force her to reveal why she was so near the portal? My hands reached for her…

I let her go, watching her from behind, her shape, her flowing movements.

Below, a Seeker caught sight of her as she passed. I brought the organic camera’s image fully in my left eye, then closed the right. The lens focused, and I squinted, remotely zooming in on her.

The hue of her skin, smooth and mesmerizing, the motion of muscles beneath the softness held me spellbound.

Zooming out again, I took in the surroundings. Vehicles parked on the overgrown road below.

I guided Companion Beta, sending it to those parked machines downhill. In return, it sent images. No one lurked near the vehicles. Beta would lead the female back to where she started her invasion.

I watched her, denying my fascination, making certain she went where I wanted her to. Yet humans were as unpredictable as Aelaran.

Once I felt certain she would return to her vehicle, I sent Companion Beta soaring above the tops of the trees. In a moment, it dropped back to my side. The circular blue lens hovered before me, gazing as if in admonishment.

Sending it to heel, we moved back to the cabin. My brain couldn’t handle more than one Seeker at a time. I didn’t have enough eyes.

I needed to check her progress from the monitors. If she showed any sign of returning, I would have to act. Part of me hoped she would.

The cabin was an old structure, constructed by humans. Modifications had been made.

Once inside, my aura projector automatically switched off to charge. Bricks of a fireplace smoothed to chrome, the dark interior now a bank of monitors. Black, rough cooking stove shifted to the analytic station. Rustic bed became comfortable low-g chamber, emergency medical machine forming from a crude night table.

She appeared on the monitors. I had seeded the Seekers well. And yes, she was nearing the trail that led to the road below.

I switched channels. The Seekers around the portal face detected nothing but squirrels. Companion Alpha, my offensive engine, remained on guard at the site.

Status quo. No fear of the portal being discovered. Yet my mind wandered back to the human female. Tapping into the Seekers downhill, I hoped for another look at her.

She moved beyond my organic monitors into deeper woods. While it would be good to have eyes everywhere, it was hardly practical.

Why had I let her go?

The last intruder I dealt with was left wandering the glaciers near the peak. The human didn’t know his name, let alone where he had been.

I intercepted the media stories regarding his condition. It was reported that he was lucky to be alive.

Human media didn’t know the half of it.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Six


Holy crap, was he messed up!

There was no doubt, he didn’t know where he was going. His eyes were misty half the time. That arm—what a nightmare.

We had to take care of that. Otherwise, Bashful would probably die.

It’s funny how things can get old, even being carried by a guy with wings through the skies of an alien planet. But I’d had just about enough. If I couldn’t talk sense into him, I would have to find a way to escape and find help.

But where?

I didn’t want to leave him. He needed me, and even with him like this, I felt safe around him.

I sighed. There was no way out but through.

I just didn’t know where through was going to lead us.

“Bash, honey,” I tried for the umpteenth time. “We’ve got to go find some other people. A doctor, anything.”

If I hadn’t lost everything from my escape pod, I could have helped. There was a medkit in there, complete with an anti-toxin.

In the long months I’d worked by myself, I’d thought about it often. A broken leg could have killed me, out there by myself.

But now it could save my Bash.

Except I’d let it get taken from me, like everything else.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured.

Bashful responded by hugging me for a moment.

It felt good, but it didn’t assuage my fears. If we kept going like this, eventually whatever had infected him was going to crash him to the ground.

Me with him.

Even now, I felt his body temperature rising. As he flew, he shouted oaths at the sky in his language. There was nothing up there, no birds, dragons, other guys with wings, clouds. Was he shouting at the moons?

That seemed like the very definition of lunacy.

A final squint from the third moon drove his flight lower, to search the tors and cliffs. Shadow-colored, but limned with a greenish glow, he swooped to a narrow cliff in the rock face. A cave angled inward.

Awesome. Another cave.

I shook myself. I could work with a cave. Shelter, a chance to rest.

We needed all the help we could get.

I really needed to get him healed up, to try and get whatever had infected his arm out.

My knowledge was as limited as my resources. One thing I knew—heat could draw out infection.

I had a waterskin from the first cave tucked away in my backpack, and fire we could manage.

It was just a matter of getting him to sit still for it.

Other than the zig-zag entrance, we were in a large chamber. Brightly glowing moss or lichen revealed the space. Where the floor and ceiling sloped downward together, a slow waterfall filled a pool.

Stalactites and stalagmites surrounded the water, natural columns. The floor had been smoothed by centuries of water. As far as caves went, this one was pleasant.

Bashful leaned against an uneven wall, panting as if he’d run a marathon.

It hurt my heart to see him like that. Such a strong figure, so proud, fighting hard against the infection.

But I was worried he was losing.

And then I’d lose him.

“Sit down.” Dry grasses filled a depression in the floor. Nearby was a firepit, disused and dusty.

I tried to lead him there but he pulled away, pacing, ranting in his language. Taking the waterskin from the pouch, I held it to him. He drank, swiping at the perspiration immediately springing upon his brow. I encouraged him to drink it all.

Finally, I managed to coax him to the nest, motioning for him to take the weapon from off his back.

Reluctantly, he did, but kept it nearby.

Even now, I couldn’t get him to relax.

From the pool, I filled the skin. Previous occupants had left sticks for a tripod, and a small pile of fuel. Boil the water, make a compress—that’s all I had.

I hunkered next to him. He looked at me, dreamy-eyed, bronze cheeks flushed. Saying something in his language, he touched my hair, then he buried his face on my shoulder.

Mama always said that men turn into children when they get sick.

After setting up a tripod and hanging the skin over the low flames, I touched his cheek. A fire still raged in him. His wondrous golden eyes shone brightly but didn’t indicate that anyone was home.

My chest hurt. How could I miss someone who I’d just met?

We’d had just that moment after he rescued me from the bear, when he’d been so worried for my safety.

But that wasn’t right.

I’d felt him near me for weeks now, a warm, steady presence that wrapped around me.

And now I could lose him.

“Lay down.” I pointed to the dry nest. Then I held my palms together, leaned my head, and put my hands under my cheek. Was this a universal gesture for sleep?

He did it for me. Head bobbing, lids heavy, his ravaged body sank into the grasses. Then, the wings wrapped around him. So adorable!

But once I made compresses, the water near boiling hot to try to pull out the infection, I didn’t think he would remain adorable. In his delirium, he might even hurt me.

No, I thought looking at his tormented face. Even in agony, I didn’t believe he could ever harm me. I couldn’t say why.

Now, it was just a matter of getting the water to boil without setting the leather bladder on fire.

Bashful thrashed in the bed of grasses, talking in his sleep. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his tone was frantic.

And then there was a second voice.

I spun, heart pounding in my ears.

What wan light of sunrise made it through the twisting opening cast a stranger in silhouette. Broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, winged, another of Bashful’s people, stared at me.

“Get away!” I shouted, grabbing up the bladed spear. Baring my teeth, I stood between the interloper and my fallen Bashful.

Was this right?

I knew we needed help, but now that someone was here, could I trust him not to take advantage of Bash’s weakened state?

I didn’t need to know much about weapons or fighting to have realized that Bash was a trained warrior. Which meant there was someone to fight.

Was this a friend, or an enemy?

Whoever he was, the stranger spoke in a low growl. I shook my head, not understanding. Lifting the weapon, I wanted to make sure he moved no closer.

Holding up both palms, the second angel-man took a step back, then looked carefully at where Bash lay thrashing about.

No harm, I thought. Then, the stranger made a claw of one hand, and pantomimed the blue bear’s attack.

“Yes! He was clawed,” I said, nodding. Then I made the claw motion myself. My grip quickly returned to the spear haft.

The stranger’s expression softened to thoughtfulness, studying Bash, then moving his attention to me.

Specifically, my chest.

Blushing, I covered myself, then snapped. He wasn’t staring at my breasts. He was looking at the necklace Bash had made for me.

With a nod, he turned. In a moment, I heard the drumbeat sound of wings.

“Now what?” I asked Bashful. He moaned in response.

My plan still seemed like the only possible solution. Poking the waterskin, I moved it slightly before the leather could char.

How long would it take to boil? We were at a high elevation, so not long. What could I use for a compress? Other than leather and roughly woven material, there wasn’t much that would work well.

I studied the glowing moss that lit the cave. It was already saturated. Boiling water would probably destroy the stuff.

Well, the softest material on this planet, as far as I knew, were the clothes I wore. My leggings probably had too much stretchy stuff to be absorbent. My top, however, was good old-fashioned cotton.

As I cut a strip from the hem of the blouse, I heard the dull thud of wings. The stranger’s shadow cut what light entered the cave.

He spoke, nodding his head, then he lifted his hands. They were full of flowers, twigs and leaves, blue needles. Gesturing, he pretended to drink from his hands. The stranger pointed to the hanging waterskin.

“Like a tea?” I asked, mimicking pouring out the skin into his cupped hands.

He nodded, excitedly, then he took his own skin, dumped out the water and opened the lacing just enough to put in his herbal concoction.

Trying not to burn the crap out of myself, I removed the skin from over the fire. Dumping the hot water into his waterskin produced a minty, astringent steam.

At least, it smelled medicinal.

I paused.

Friend or enemy?

Medicine or poison?

Bash groaned.

Did I have a choice?

I swallowed hard. If there was a chance to save him, I had to take it.

And if it killed him…

I glared at the stranger, who just mimicked drinking, pointing at Bashful.

Sure, I got that part. The question was—how to get it down his throat?

Taking the hot skin, I moved into the nest. Lifting Bashful’s head onto my thighs, I opened his mouth. Dripping just a trickle, he managed to swallow without choking.

The stranger spoke in their tongue. Bashful responded, opening his mouth. Slowly, I fed it to him. His shaking hands rose, tilting the flow. When he coughed, I took it away from him.

“Vandath?” the stranger’s voice rumbled.

Bashful turned to face him, but his golden eyes did not focus.

Was that his name? Vandath, I tried on my mind’s tongue. Sounded better than Bashful, anyway.

The stranger moved away from Vandath, folding his arms and wings. His posture was one of “wait and see.”

I stroked Vandath’s hair. He didn’t stir.

If not for the slow rise of his chest, I would have thought he was dead.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Five


I had to shield her frail body, protect her. Dangers hid everywhere. Recci in the foothills, tulpi in the clouds, the threat under the ground. Capable as she was, her body could not stand up to savage predators.

But when I turned, she was pulled away from me, terror in her wide blue eyes.


Shivering, I opened my eyes. Dim firelight.

I knew this cave. When I was a fledgling, I would keep it stocked for long patrols. How did I come to be here?

With a jerk, I thought of her. My golden gift. Where—

In my arms, I found her sleeping form. Good. Protect her. Carefully, soundlessly, I wrapped us both in my wings.

Though I fought to guard her, I slid back into troubled sleep. Tremors shook me. Nightmares chased me, my flight slowed by an unknown force. I stood in a group of my fellow Sen’ki.

All of them spoke to me, voices lilting, as if in question.

I could understand none of them.


The mellifluous voice woke me. The moment I opened my wings, the last of the dying fire brightened her hair, her softly curved face. Blue eyes bore into mine.

She wiggled, wanting freedom.

I should not free her. The world was dangerous.

But she wiggled more fiercely, and I let her out of my arms. For a moment, she hopped on one foot, the dance interesting.

After a moment, she could walk again. She moved to the coals of the fire, stoking it alight again with fresh fuel. Then she moved to cover me with furs.

When I tried to rise, to push them away, she pushed me back.

Strange. This was important to her.

Therefore, I would allow it.

She moved away, and darkness took me again.

Water. Her cool hand on my face. Underdwellers watching us from the flickering shadows. Thoughts colliding without sense.

We could not stay here. The cavern was too dangerous.

I rose, watching the female place cold ashes from the fire on her hides. Face bright, she made words at me. Could she not sense the peril closing in around us?

Dizzy, I steadied myself against the cave wall. “We must flee. Why can you not understand me? They’re all around—everywhere.”


Her tone turned querulous. I ignored it. Even in my weakened state, her tiny body could not match my strength. Escape was of the essence.

She squawked and slapped at me when I picked her up. The fuss she made hurt my head, my brain. After a moment, she gathered her things. Then, protest or no, I scooped her up and quickly moved to the outside.

Had time passed at all? Oh. Yes. That was sunset, not sunrise. How had I gotten so turned around? Gripping her soft body to mine, I took flight.

For the briefest of moments, I thought my wings did not have the strength, that we would plummet to the ground. But then we were airborne.

Below us, the setting sun lit the vast planes. Pink and blue blossoms of endless wildflowers submerged in dark as we traveled.

I flew on. A broad, slow river, ripples shown in the light of the big moon. It brightened the clouds as well. I searched for sky predators as we moved on.

Then, as the other two moons rose, they were reflected in smooth, obsidian waters. I blinked. There should be a city on the shores of that lake.

Thoughts tangled, I kept on. Heading for safety. Unsure where that was.

Slopes became covered in orange and blue. The striped flowers of silla gave off their heady scent. Soon, they would be under the snow, their riotous colors lost until the next season.

My female squirmed in my grip. She whispered her nonsense words into my ear. The combination of these two things sent a slow burn through my body. How could I be this close to her without—

She wanted me to land, I understood. For a time, I scouted, seeking a suitable place. Trees stood thin in higher elevations, and I sought a landing site.

Pain flashed through me, without source. The skies brightened, darkened, with moons or without and still I flew on in a daze.

We were beyond Sen’ki territory now. There were no shelters maintained. A fallen log to sit on was the best I could do.

She moved away and I caught at her hand.


Her face softened, her cool hand pressed to my cheek.


Good. I knew that word.

And if my golden one said it was so, I must believe her.

She trotted off to tend to her business. I stared south. There was something important to the south. A safe place. I couldn’t remember what it was.

It was so hard to think. Fever burned. I splashed water from the skin on my face.

Throbbing in my arm drew my attention. The cuts had turned black, the entire upper arm turned a dark shade of unhealthy purple. When I made a fist, I grunted in pain.

Fussing sounds. The golden one. She gasped at my arm, theen she tried to talk to me. She raised the waterskin. Pointed at the fire I’d struck.

I shook my head. The fire was only for eating. Then, we would continue.

When she tried to argue, I grabbed her by both arms. With a stern look, making certain she paid attention, I shook my head and spoke one of her few words. “No.”

She tried to respond. I heard “bad” and “no” but I waved my hands. I pointed at the food. Then I pointed at the sky.

There was nothing more to say.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Four


Who the hell was this guy? Bronze skin—wings? He stood more than a head taller than me. I was reminded of an action-hero star, a Greek statue.

Enormous as he was, his frame was cut, super muscular, and from a dearth of clothes, I could see most of him.

Should I run? The run-in with the giant bear had stoked my adrenalin. A split second before I could take off running—

“Good,” he grunted, lips pulled back to reveal slightly pointed canines.

What the?

He’d swooped through the trees, killed a blue monster bear twice his size with a medieval spear—wait, monster bear. “Is that good to eat?” I had never eaten bear, monstrous, blue or otherwise. If I could smoke a bunch of bear meat, I’d be set for months.

When the statuesque angel guy made a so-so gesture with his hand—why my sudden sense of relief? I had to laugh.

From his clumsy pantomime (not like mine was better) and gestures, he wanted us to get out of here.

I’d tried to explain that I had prepped for months here, worked hard to ready myself for a colder season.

Words bounced off him.


“Females,” he had said. “Human females.”

Were they the girls from the Dream? Had they landed here? Sarah, Allison, Kyla, everyone?

Somehow, my co-workers from the space cruise gig had survived, and were somewhere on this surreal planet. And this bronze god knew them.

My heart thudded as something else clicked.

This was Bashful. Not some cute little gnome hiding in the bushes. A giant angel guy watching from above.

Was it because of the others that he was spying on me, stalking me?

I held up the necklace with one hand, and pointed at him with the other. My brows went up, questioning.

Did my angel blush? He nodded, though his eyes would not meet mine. Bashful indeed.

“C’mon, Bashful. Let me get packed.” I led him to my shelter.

He did the “we gotta get outta this place” miming.

“I get it, but I want to grab things I need.” I didn’t have a chance when the leather lions smashed my escape pod around. This time, I was going to prepare a little.

With a little bit of lacing, the basket turned into a backpack.

“See, now I’m ready!”

Oh, shit.

He leaned against the largest rock, head down, massive bladed spear already slung back into its sheath. He was glossy with sweat, golden eyes foggy. When I put a hand on his forehead, he burned with fever. This close to him, I could smell him, cinnamon-y and herbaceous. His skin beneath my hand started a static shock in my brain.

I shook myself.

Stop it.

He’s sick.

But from what? He was in amazing shape while he was fighting that bear thing. What could have happened?

Then I saw the injury on his arm, the scratches were surrounded by darkening skin. I remembered his blush.

“This looks bad,” I said.

For a second, it looked like he understood. But the next second, he lifted me off the ground like I was a child.

Then powerful legs pistoned, wings hit the air with a drum like thump, and we were airborne.

He held me so close to him I could feel his heat, his fever. My poor Bash! At the same time, if he dropped me—I threw my arms around his neck.

He murmured, but sounded almost content.

We whipped through the night sky. Two moons hung low, a third rising on the opposite horizon. Distantly I saw the glow of fires, of lights. Yet we flew hard in the opposite direction.

“Bash, where are we going?”

He didn’t answer, just kept flying.

Mountains rose on the right. I hadn’t noticed before, but the peaks were now covered in snow.

I was glad I’d put my vest on. The only other clothing I owned were leggings and a blouse that I’d been wearing when the ship exploded. Wind cut to the bone at this height.

But my rescuer didn’t notice. When I could see the sharp planes of his face, the square jaw, high cheekbones, his expression was one of determination.

He did not respond to my words.

Relentlessly, we crossed the night sky.

When all the moons set, and the sky purpled to the east, I thought we might fly forever. Wings flapped, tirelessly. Thickly muscled arms held me, moving not an inch in all our time in the sky.

There were worse things on this planet, I thought. Being carried around by a hunky winged dude wasn’t so bad. My worry was his fever. His flight—was it delirium?

Medicine wasn’t my thing. I didn’t know if he was suffering from infection, a toxin, or if this caveman behavior was normal.

He swooped nearer a mountain, lighting on a pathway. I moved to get down, but he only held me tighter.

Speaking in his language, he carried me along the steep path.

“I can’t understand you,” I murmured. If I’d still had a working commbangle, maybe I could have.

But I didn’t, so here we were, with charades and the few words he’d learned from someone.

Taking me… somewhere that he couldn’t, wouldn’t explain.

The path ended at a cliff, a round stone making the end of the trail. Finally, he put me down, but only long enough to roll that enormous stone out of the way.

Beyond was a cave. Bashful directed me inside. Both of us had to crouch down, the ceiling was low. He managed to roll the rock back in place from inside.

Before I could make my way down a narrow tunnel somehow aglow with pink light, he scooped me up again.

“This is going to go much easier if I walk,” I said.

He said nothing, only continued to carry me, hunched over, into the narrow stone throat.

I felt a tinge of fear. What was this winged caveman going to do to me in this cave?

Sure, he’d saved me from getting eaten, but since then he hadn’t been making much sense.

Soon, it felt like the cave opened up and I felt myself laid on a bed of something soft.

I braced myself. Even sick, I’d never be able to fight him off.

But he moved away, his steps oddly shuffling.

With a few scritches, the walls around me illuminated. He was striking a fire. In a moment, the cavern was aglow. On a rock shelf above the nest of leaves, baskets not unlike my own.

Bashful staggered around the room. He knocked a basket over and dried roots and fish rained on my head. Abashed, he sagged against the wall.

“You need to sit down, Mister.” I patted the grass next to me.

He shook his head negative, pointing back up the narrow cave.

“No one’s coming in here. C’mon. Sit with me.”

It took a while. Finally, he acquiesced, either from my urging or his own loss of strength. I gave him some of the dried fish from my hair.

“C’mon, Bashful. Starve a cold feed a fever.” Is that how it went? Halfheartedly, he chewed some dried fish. There were waterskins (squee!) on the shelf, and both of us were parched.

The moment he got some water down, his bronze skin glistened with sweat.

“My poor baby. My poor Bashful,” I said softly.

He leaned forward. Those amazing golden eyes pulled me in, calling to something deep within me.

For a second, I thought he was going to kiss me.

And for another second, I thought maybe I would be alright with that.

There might have been the smallest twinge of disappointment when he lay his head on my shoulder.

“Aw, it’s okay. It’s okay, baby,” I said. With the hem of my shirt, I dried his face.

For the first time, I got a good look at him. I marveled at the complex muscles around his wings. Shoulders and biceps were rounded, more solid than muscle should be. His hands were the size of baseball gloves.

They roved over me, patting, less trying to feel me out, more like he wanted to make sure I was really there.

“I’m fine, there’s nothing for you to worry about.” I stroked his powerful arms, and in response they wrapped around me and pulled me down.

There wasn’t time to consider my options. In a moment, he breathing lengthened, evened out.

Holding me close, he fell asleep.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Three


I’d been spending too much time away from the aerie. While I hadn’t been told as much, I was getting inquisitive glances whenever I arrived.

We all wanted more answers about the underdwellers, all eyes were on alert for any move closer to our mountains.

As did I.

But I could not deny the heightened patrols had given me an excellent reason to stay out longer, watching over my golden female.

Still, it was time to return.

My heart felt light. She liked my gifts, even wore the necklace. An unfamiliar warmth filled me.

Why could I not stop watching her activity around the camp? It should bore me. Instead, I was held rapt.

Yet I was failing my duty. The female needed to be escorted to the aerie, to her tribe. That was the standing order.

But watching her from hiding—the act had taken hold of me. Seeing her from a distance, going about her day. Daring myself to be closer, pulled by invisible strings to her side. To stare openly at her smooth shape, her glossy golden hair. Guarding her sleeping, eating…

While I tried to convince myself I was protecting her, it was beyond that. My distant admiration, I knew, needed to end. Soon. Before the winter.

Or maybe when the first snow fell.

She moved into her shelter, carrying food, the meat I’d provided. I knew the routine. After eating, she would retire for the night. Maybe sing a song to her campfire.

I sighed. I knew she was safe enough. My game bag was stuffed with another bundle hargeisa meat, a delicacy this time of year. It would serve as a good excuse for my absence.

Even as I took to the sky, I felt her tug on my soul. To be near her, to guard her, to watch her…

I had responsibilities.

She had taken the necklace, and wore it even now. When the time was right, I would make my introduction. Somehow, I would convince her to let me carry her to her people in the mountains.

Circling the camp high overhead, it occurred to me what a wise selection this tiny valley was. Steep slopes dropping down on two sides, the mountains rising on the other, made it difficult to reach on foot.

A stream ran close by her rock shelter, splashing down a waterfall to the river in the gorge below. She had easy access to water, to game, the grasses she toyed with endlessly, and edible plants.

One more circle, higher this time. My wings caught an updraft. I caught her tiny figure moving toward the forest. Gathering more firewood, I thought. Then I straightened my course, heading for the peaks of the aerie.

Chill wind blew over me, harbinger of the seasonal change. My wings found the gusts, lifting me. The thought of her accepting my gift lifted me higher. I found myself smiling.

And then terrified.

Even at this height, the scream reached me.

Raw fear, from my little golden one.

Pulling my wings as tight as they would go, I plummeted back toward the clearing, my dive was dangerously swift. Dark closed in, pooling in the woods.

We’d only learned of dangerous underdwellers. They lived only in darkness. Had they emerged from their underground domain, taken advantage of the lengthening night?

A grumbling roar directed me. Darting between the twilight trees, I sought her. Finally, I caught sight. She was halfway up her cache tree and facing her was a mountain of blue fur.

Hunched back, knuckle walking, and dozens of claws—a recci attacked her.

It stood nearly twice as tall as me. Fangs were longer than my fingers. Claws oozed with stunning venom. Ricci were huge, slow moving. The ambush predator swiped at my golden one.

She fell! But caught herself on the many branches.

Freeing the nakav from between my wings, I held it for a flying lunge. Impact from my swift momentum threatened to rip my weapon away.

Instead, I held it true. The spear blade punched into the recci’s shoulder. It took a stumbling step. Away from my female.

We collided. It backhanded me with a paw twice the size of my head. My teeth loosened. But not my grip.

Wings furiously pumping, I managed to remain airborne. The monster’s next swipe was met with the nakav.

It howled in pain, the slash deep. Fanged snout snapped inches from my own face. Blocking sideways with the shaft, I kept it at bay.

Faster than I anticipated, its other paw swatted me away, claws tearing into my arm. The blow fell hard enough to knock me to the ground.

Tucking my wings, rolling, I leapt again to my feet. Close combat with the monster was suicide. From a few paces away, I threw the nakav with all my strength.

It flew true, into the beast’s neck. In slow motions, the mighty recci fell to the ground.

Ignoring my pain, and my cherished weapon, I raced to the tree where she hung from the branches still. Was she hurt?

Reaching up, I grabbed her hips and lowered her to the ground. My hands turned her head, golden hair falling to one side and then the other. No bruises.

I lifted her arms, fingers seeking broken bones. There were none. I turned her around. Only a few abrasions, bruises, indicated her struggle with the monster recci.

Her eyes popped, staring at me. While her mouth moved, no sound came out.

I took a step back. She was terrified of me. What was I thinking?

The golden female began clucking like a kagen. She was more damaged than I could tell.


She pointed.


I turned to look at the fallen recci, pulling my nakav free with a wrench.

“You’re fine now,” I said.

“Whoareyou? Howdidyoufindme?”

Of course. She spoke the tongue of the females. Despite months of watching Sarah and her clan, I knew only a few of their words. Still, I sought to calm her.

“Good.” I looked into her gemlike eyes. “Good.”

“Good?” She then babbled; her language full of too many words.

Again, she pointed at the bear.


I shook my head, unable to follow. She brought her fingers together near her mouth. “Nom nom nom?” Then she rubbed her abdomen.

Ah. She wanted to know if the recci meat was edible. The tribe of women had various gestures. I tried one. Holding my hand out flat, I tilted it from side to side.

She blinked, staring. Had I done it wrong? Then she laughed, eyes wide. When she babbled, I felt a little relieved.

I watched her do a little dance. She rubbed her stomach, pointed up into the tree, did the finger-mouth thing, then pointed at me. Her brows rose, head tilting with a slight smile. “Nom-nom-nom?

It took a moment. Then I realized she wanted to share her smoked fish. Could I do this dance, too?

I pointed at her, and then at me. Then I made a gesture, waving my hand in an arc toward the treetops. We had to leave. Then I indicated the recci. One by one, I held up fingers. Then I made claws of my hands. With two fingers, I did a walking gesture. More recci would come.

For a while, she only blinked. I danced again.

“Morebear?” Her brows drew together. “Coldweather? Aretheymovingsouth?

I picked out a single word. “Cold,” I nodded. I did the point wave again. “We have to leave, to reach your people. Your tribe. Females.”


Aha! I nodded rapidly, reaching for more of Sarra’s words. “Hyoo-mon female.

“Humanfemale?” She looked startled. Babbled, put a hand on her chest. Her words rose up at the end. A question.

I pointed at her and nodded. Human females like her.

“Omigod!” Her hands flew around as she paced. She pointed in all directions. Her hands made a rolling motion together. Nothing she did made sense.

She headed for her shelter, beckoning me to follow. Was she not understanding it? As we moved from the trees, my head went light. A sweat broke out over me. Not wanting her to see weakness, I shook it off.

In her shelter, she put on a vest she’d made from twined and woven grass. She grabbed a small woven basket, then put a few stone tools in the vest pouches. In the basket, some cordage, a bundle of leather, a leaf packet of berries. She held some out to me.


I shook my head. My stomach churned, and another round of sweating. What was wrong with me?

“Suityourself,” she shrugged and ate a mouthful. She pointed at the meat, shrugged.

I hefted my full gamebag. She got it. There was plenty. But she did put the fur in her basket, as well as the fur of bawets. Then she lifted fistfuls of dry grass and looked a question at me.

“It grows everywhere,” I managed. My head ached. I swiped sweat off my brow.

Her expression darkened and she moved near. I felt an electric tingle when her palm touched my forehead.

She spoke a bunch of words, but I caught only one.

“Hot.” Then she gasped, lifting my arm.

I saw claw marks, eight deep cuts. They were surrounded by the darkening of my skin, swelling.

“Bad.” She said. Another female word I understood.

As the room went blurry, I found I couldn’t argue.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Two


For a while, now, I’d had the sense something was watching me. A shadow here, a rustle there. Since nothing jumped out of the bushes and ate me, I learned to live with it. Something curious, with maybe a touch of stalker vibe.

Something, or someone.

To keep from freaking out, I gave it a name: Bashful. That made it cute, non-threatening.

An invisible friend, my own little companionable gnome.

Not that I was fooling myself.

Nothing was friendly here.

I’d woken from the sleeping gas when my escape pod was knocked about, the force of the impact enough to pop the lid, spilling me outside.

Dazed, I could do little more than watch as two giant creatures had batted the silver tube around like a toy.

They were reminiscent of lions, saber-toothed, but leathery. Just like kittens, they knocked the pod down a steep slope and chased after it.

On the one hand, they hadn’t noticed me—which would’ve meant eating me. But on the other, there were things I could use in that pod. Medicines, food, a tablet–you know, little things.

That was six months ago now. I’d been on this planet with its fat red sun, three moons and blue-purple foliage since the ship I was on, the Smarniks Dream, blew up.

I straightening my shoulders.

Thinking about it wasn’t going to make anything better.

Hard work. That was my only option now.

Basket brimming with bright red berries, I made my way home. Home being anchored by three rocks: one big that served as a wall, one medium that worked as a hard chair, one flat for a table.

It had a roof over it that I made from sticks and thatched with grass. The same grass served as a nest. Also, the berry basket, my sling and pebble pouch, even my shoes.

The grass was useful stuff. Plus, weaving, twining and half-ass crocheting the stuff kept me from going out of my mind.

As I approached, “Bashful” stopped being a concept and became real. A parcel wrapped in fluffy fur, brightly colored, sat on the outer shelf of the wall rock.

Closer inspection showed that it was tied like a present with a leather thong. I moved nearer. It smelled like fresh meat.

I looked around my clearing. “Bashful? Are you there?”

Nothing but a slight echo.

Then I saw the item next to the meat bundle. While the package showed cleverness, some dexterity, the other made me stare.

It looked like a necklace. Necklace meant decoration, decoration meant creativity, creativity meant high intellect.

I picked it up. Looked around. Coppery wire gleamed in nearly perfect little links, silver accents carefully twisted in, blue jewels in the front. I put it on. Hesitated.

No rustle in the leaves, no crack of a twig.

“Bashful?” I stared around the clearing. “Thank you. It’s really pretty.”

No answer.

I sighed. Not that I was really expecting one. I glanced down at my bare wrist.

Unless my friendly gnome spoke English, or had his own translator patch, we were stuck for conversation.

That was alright. I’d never been much for conversation, anyway.

Besides, there was work to do. There was always work.

I thought when I’d left my parents, started to find my way through the city, I was done with all of this.

Foolish me.

Placing the berries and meat in the deep hole I’d dug for refrigeration, I grunted the slab of rock in place over it. Checking my sling and slugs were in place, I moved to check my trap line.

Cries of the local fauna had become familiar. My eyes scanned the trees. Nothing to see. Under my breath, I sang an old song.

I wondered about the other girls from the Dream. Had they landed here? They were all college girls. I doubted they would last more than a week in this wilderness.

The snares were empty until I reached the one near the stream. I caught another ugly bunny.

“Look at this, Bash! Boot linings on the way.”

My one-sided conversations with Bashful were the only interactions I had these days.

Which wasn’t that bad. I never knew what to say around people. Alone, it was easier. A lot less necessary.

And Bash didn’t argue.

It had taken a while to figure out how to make the grass cords strong enough for trapping, which made me mostly vegetarian. Well, pescetarian. At the bank, I hauled in my handmade net.

Damn. Another foam-fish. Maybe you could eat them, but—ick! I tossed him back. But there was another, a black fish with too many fins and bulgy eyes. No slime, though. Good eating. I cleaned him right there, using the leftovers to bait the net.

The last snare was empty. I dug around in a patch of feathery leaves and pulled out a long pink root. The ugly bunnies loved these things.

I did, too. Some nights, they were all I had to eat.

Snares and nets reset, it was time to smoke this fish and prep my ugly bunny.

The weather had remained almost the same during my time here. Lately, though, the days steadily grew colder. Was there winter here?

I huffed and puffed and scratched out a fire. Feeding it with the ubiquitous grass, I spitted the bulgy fish for smoking.

On the chance that the weather would turn nasty, I’d smoked every other fish I caught. They were at least vaguely recognizable. Could I smoke ugly bunny meat? Or the stuff in the fur bundle?

While the animals here filled familiar niches, I knew nothing about them. Other than I ate what the animals ate, and what I could catch.

Motion grabbed my attention. Looking up from my work, I saw a weaselly, lizardy looking thing pawing around my fridge hole. I slid the sling from my belt, a smooth river stone from my pouch. Once loaded, I whirled it over my head. Loosed.

The stone cracked off the flat fridge rock half an inch from my target. It bellowed flatulently and scattered back to the woods.

After six months of practice, I was getting good with the thing.

“Are you good to eat?” I called after it.

Like Bash, it didn’t answer back.

For a moment, the silence tugged at something in my chest, and I rocked back on my heels.

Carefully I unwrapped a thick piece of leather to reveal my commbangle.

At least, what was left of it.

It was squished, some of the guts hanging out of the cracked metal.

I’d hated the heavy thing, the extra weight throwing me off balance all the time.

Probably shouldn’t have been adjusting it one more time when the pod launched…

Didn’t have time to get it secured before the leather lions knocked me loose, and it had gone flying. When I retrieved it out of a feline footprint, it was done for.

With the escape pod who-knew-where, the communication jewelry was really my only other hope for rescue.

Poking at it, turning it over, it looked destroyed. I wasn’t any kind of tech.

Why did I even keep it? A souvenir of my past life? The chance that there was a homing device still functioning?

Just a bit of hope?

I wrapped it back up, put it back in its hiding place.

Hope was well and good, but wouldn’t make dinner.

At the edge of the clearing, I gathered sticks for the fire. Eventually, I’d need to start stacking wood near the lean-to. And make a container to boil water. And make a door for the shelter. And make a permanent fish smoker. And find a saline spring. And build a bed off the ground.

In half a year, I’d accomplished nothing but surviving.

With the sun going down, I had to get to cooking. It was too much of a pain in the dark. Plus, I was curious about the meat, and the berries were super yummy.

From the deep fridge hole, I pulled the parcel and berries. One of these days, I had to make this a proper root cellar. Maybe some clay on the walls. More digging with a stick. Awesome.

Mom and Dad were survivalists, and I’d learned a lot from them. Most of it applied on this planet.

And the solitude…

I’d had a long time to get used to that.

Meat, berries, root cellar closed, I carried supper to the shelter.

“Oh, no,” I said, quickly setting everything down on the table. One of the forked sticks that held up my spitted fish had caught fire. I managed to save the fish. Not the setup.

“You gotta go hang out with your smoked school anyway, buddy,” I said to the fish.

Though the red sun half sunk into the horizon, I headed for the woods. My cache of fish was several baskets hanging high in an easy to climb tree.

Hauling myself up, I hung the fish with a bunch of smoked friends. There was plenty here. I could survive for months on dried fish alone.

Carefully, I climbed down, searching the ground for another forked stick. The leaves and branches shifted as I descended. But I didn’t feel a breeze.

Then, I was eye-to-eye with something.

Even though my feet were still six feet off the ground.

A fanged maw opened, a roar riffling my hair.

And although no one could hear me, I screamed.

Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter One


Lithe as a neika, she moved through the clearing, as for no reason, her walk became a dancing twirl. The motion riveted me. Her shape, pale skin, hair as gold as the delicate creature she moved like, the song she absently sang…

Never had I understood my friend Dakath’s fascination with his female, his mate, Sarra. She made him burn, made him surrender, yet at the same time strengthened him.

Watching this tiny dancer go about her daily tasks, I began to see.

And I could not stop my constant vigil.

She was like Sarra, even as she was different. I knew my duty was to bring my creature of gold and light to her tribe of women in the aerie.

Yet I could not.

I’d been content to observe her from a distance, to protect and watch over her, but I knew that time must come to an end. Winter would drive predators from the mountains, freeze her stream, bury her camp in snow.

Just a few more days, a few more weeks…

Why could I not break away from her?

The aerie had learned of creatures that were a threat. Creatures as big and lethal as Revers, yet unknown to us.

Even if the information came from an enemy clan, the presence of one of the human women in their midst made us all take notice.

I knew it to be true, somehow.

They needed to be investigated.

We needed to seek their subterranean homes. Learn what they wanted, what they were.

The situation needed to be delved into deeply.

And yet, here I perched.

The female wandered away from her camp, into the deeper woods. Swinging from one hand was a cleverly woven basket, while from her belt dangled a sling on one side, round stones in a pouch on the other.

The hypnotic motion of her hips made everything sway.

Once she was out of sight, I flexed my wings. Dropping silently to the ground, I moved to a boulder that served as one wall of her shelter.

Hargeisa had fattened up for the cold on autumn berries. Though the gliders were pests, at this time of year, they were delicious.

I set a package of their meat on the boulder was wrapped in their yellow- and blue-striped hides. The female could make use of that as well, I knew.

At the crack of a twig, I ascended back into the tree, my eyes scanning the game trail my female had taken. After a moment, I relaxed. She had not returned.

While I had not allowed her to see me, I knew she sensed my presence.

Why could I not reveal myself to her? This uncertainty was a feeling I’d never experienced before.

From my pouch, I removed the bauble. Over time, I had collected interesting items from the abandoned cities. Twists of copper wire, silver, stones of bright blue.

They were as blue as her eyes.

Inspired by her, I had attempted to make something. The necklace had a symmetry I admired, even now wondering how my own hands had fashioned such a thing. I thought about how it would look against her pale skin.

Did I dare?

Never before did I fear facing another. What was it about her? Perhaps our meeting could be slow?

Once again, I descended from a high branch. With reluctant hands, I placed the necklace next to the package of meat. A gift. An introduction I could not make myself—

Another crack, closer this time.

In a flurry, I leaped to the air, wings churning, losing myself above the high foliage. I was so lost in my nervousness, I almost hadn’t heard her approach.

Once over the canopy, I found a clearing under a high branch. It was farther away than before, but my eyes were sharp enough.

Basket full of berries, she lightly walked to her campsite. Anticipation made me shiver.

She saw my gifts.

What would she think of them?

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