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Reaver’s Hunt: Chapter Two

Maisie

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

Vandath

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?

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Seven

Allison

Apparently, I’d completely lost my mind.

At no time in my life had my plans involved falling head over heels in love. Or at least lust.

A few casual relationships, sure.

That was normal. Healthy.

But none of them had ever sparked the growing, almost desperate need that spiraled through me whenever Tirac was near.

We might not have long conversations anytime soon, but from his reaction to my taking the food from his fingers, I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

A muscle jumping in his jawline was his only movement.

I risked a glance at that loincloth and wondered what it hid.

After a minute, he shook himself from his daze.

“This tree will be our home tonight.”

I stared up into its leafy heights.

Why this tree? I wanted to ask, but knew there wasn’t any point.

They all looked pretty similar to me, thick trunks rising straight and tall far overhead then twisting and branching out, the silver of their bark making the perfect background for the large gold heart-shaped leaves.

I looked around the circle again.

It was strange how they clustered together like this.

Almost as if they’d been planted here.

Craning my neck up, I tried to guess how tall they were, but just made myself dizzy.

Misreading my expression, Tirac thumped the tree twice with his fist, making the leaves high above us whisper as they rustled against each other.

“They are safe,” he said. “Or rather, it is.  The trunks we see are all part of a single plant deep below.” He struck it again. “While other trees of the jungle may weaken and fall with a quake, these will stay strong.”

That was good to know, but didn’t address my primary concern.

“Imnotreallygoodwithheights,” I whispered.

Tirac stooped over one of the long straight branches he’d spent the afternoon collecting.

In the light, I could tell he sorted them based on how straight they were, trimming off stray shoots with his belt knife as needed.

“Good,” he echoed. “Yes, the jobra trees are very good.”

Even as I sighed again, I had to smile a little bit.

I’d have to teach him more of my words.

“Or…” I twisted the comm bangle on my wrist, considering my options.

They all kinda sucked.

“Stay clear,” he said, breaking through my thoughts.

I glanced up to find he’d already lashed one of the ropes I’d made around the middle of the branch.

Then my jaw dropped open as he jumped straight up.

That answered one question.

As fast as I could think, he scaled the tree, hands and feet moving in a blur, that long thick tail swaying back as if to give him better balance.

My hands flew to my mouth as he passed the first set of branches radiating out from the trunk, looping the rope to one above him.

“Be careful, little one,” he called down and I stepped back quickly, his faith in my brand-new rope making skills a little disturbing.

But I shouldn’t have worried.

The vines stretched as he pulled on them, oozing a sticky sap that bound each braid into a flexible cable.

We worked in a steady rhythm all afternoon. I tied a vine rope to one of the branches, fastening the other end to a length he’d let dangle from above.

Tirac pulled the entire thing up to the fork in the tree that he’d claimed as a base, then placed the branch according to his own design.

Then he’d lower the rope and we did it all over again.

Before the shadows began to lengthen all around us, he’d secured a small platform, resting across two of the branches, lashed securely to the trunk.

He leapt down beside me, a proud smile making him even more handsome.

“Are you ready to see our new home?” he asked, encircling my waist with one arm, holding me tightly to his chest.

With a yelp, my arms shot around his neck, clinging to him.

He looked down, amused. “I would not let you fall.”

And that was all the warning I had before he made another one of those amazing jumps onto the tree.

I closed my eyes, burying my face into his chest and held my breath. Before I could make another sound, we stopped.

“See what we have made together today.”

I took a deep breath, turning my head slightly to peek.

All right, it could work. From below the platform hadn’t looked much larger than my old tablet.

From up here, I could tell it was a little larger than that.

Maybe twice the size of my tablet. That counted as larger, right?

“You do not look happy,” he said softly, peering down at me.

Get it together, Allison.

This was the man who’d killed a monster for you. Two of them, counting that stupid arsek.

He lived here, he knew what was best.

If he said this was safe, show a little gratitude.

I plastered a smile on my face and beamed at him.

“Good.”

But I kept my arms around his neck.

He didn’t seem to mind, instead moving to the other edge of the platform.

“We will add more here tomorrow,” he said. “And then we can add a roof.”

A roof sounded good. Like a house, not just a wooden bench tied to a tree with vines.

Besides, it wasn’t forever. It was just until we figured out how to get across the stupid, massive crack in the ground that the earthquake had made.

And then I’d be off, on my way to meet up with the rest of the girls.

“But now, we hunt,” he continued. “Do you want to stay up here?”

“No!” I yelped.

Not that I’d be any use to him while hunting. But surely there was some gathering that could be done.

Or making more rope, right? We’d need that for tomorrow.

I mimed braiding and he nodded.

“That would be wise. I’ll bring you more vines, then find something for the fire.”

A brief remembered taste of the red berries he’d brought for lunch flashed across my tongue and I licked my lips.

Tirac bent over me, his eyes darkening, and suddenly the memory of his lips on mine wiped everything else away.

His face came closer, a fierceness in his expression that had me trembling from its intensity, his tail coming up to brush against my leg leaving goosebumps in its wake.

What was I doing?

And did I want him to stop?

But before I figured out what to do about the liquid pool of want in my belly, he straightened back up.

“Dusk is coming. I must begin the hunt.”

Right.

That was for the best.

My mind still in a whirl, I barely made a squeak as he brought me back down to the ground.

My fingers braided on autopilot throughout the evening.

Some other sort of reptile was on the menu tonight. Tirac carved and wrapped it in leaves, leaving it to roast over the fire while he helped me with the vines.

“Tomorrow, I will make a new bow, find something different for our bellies,” he said. “Tonight, we’ll sleep better if we finish these.”

“Why?” I asked, but of course, he didn’t answer.

As the coals burned down, he took the finished ropes and laid them out, crisscrossing them like a net.

Something to hang under the platform, in case I rolled off?

I didn’t know if I should find that reassuring or more terrifying.

Finally, he was finished with the whatever-it-was, and the small tasks that’d quickly become my new evening routine were done.

Instead of skin cream and 100 strokes with the hairbrush, now it was watching him check the fire, making sure there was water in the skin, and finding a reasonable looking bush.

And then, I couldn’t delay any longer.

“We should sleep now,” Tirac said, slinging the net over one shoulder and holding out his hand. “In the morning, we will have much to do.”

“I can just stay down here,” I offered, pointing between me and the fire, pillowing my head on my hands. “It’ll be cozy.”

He frowned. “The fire is safe, I promise you.” But he checked it again, showing me the softly glowing coals banked under the thick layer of ash before wrapping his arm around my waist.

Trust him, I told myself, but I still closed my eyes as he scaled the trunk.

This time when we reached the platform, he let me go.

Heart pounding in my ears, I scrambled away from the edge, pressing my back against the trunk, unable to look away from the end of the platform.

“A railing would be good,” I whispered. “Or a wall. There could be a nice, tall wall, right there.”

Tirac didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong, instead climbing to a branch overhead, fastening one end of the net to it before leaping to another branch, tying the other end there.

With growing horror, I realized what he was doing.

“I’m not sleeping in a hammock,” I told him, fingers trying to claw into the tree trunk behind me.

Something in my tone caught his attention.

“I will sleep on the platform,” he waved me over. “You will be more comfortable here.”

“No. Not happening. Not now, not ever.”

He frowned at my torrent of words, head tilted to the side, then patted the netting. “Good.”

“No.”

Seriously, I needed to learn more of his language.

But that was a problem for tomorrow. Right now, I needed to figure out how to get the hell out of this tree.

I glanced down. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

That was a mistake.

The shadows of the forest floor seemed to dance before me, the smooth bark I’d clung to sliding under my skin.

“Allison!” Tirac snapped, pulling me back from where I swayed over the edge.

Turning my face to his chest, I breathed deeply, his strange spicy scent grounding me, sliding as securely around me as his arms.

“Are you afraid?” he murmured softly. “Of me?”

I looked up at him, scrunched my face up to try to convey just how ridiculous that was, and shook my head.

“No.”

“Of the tree?”

“No,” I whispered.

Comprehension donned across his face.

“Of being high in the tree?”

“Yes.”

His arms tightened around me.  “It is safe. And far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground.”

I trusted him. I really did.

But the thought of crossing the platform to climb into the hammock kept my feet frozen into place.

“Here, I will show you.”

I wrapped my legs around his waist as he stepped to the hammock, trying to look at it objectively.

Three ropes dangled from the branches above to each end, and a layer of soft leaves lined the net, holding it slightly open.

Tirac’s tail twined around my waist, and feeling a tiny bit bolder with an extra tether, I peeked over the edge.

All right, the hammock wasn’t just hanging over nothing at all.

It was actually just a few feet above the platform.

That was slightly less terrifying.

I relaxed my death grip around his neck, leaning over to pull on the ropes with both hands.

He chuckled. “Nothing to fear at all.”

Maybe not, but I wasn’t getting into that thing by myself.

“Allison.” I raised one hand up, then the other. “Tirac.” Then I pressed them tight to each other before pointing at the hammock. “Together.”

No matter how he protested, I refused to get in without him.

“For someone so small, you have very large opinions.”

I laughed, the sheer ridiculousness of the situation finally overwhelming me.

“That’s the kindest way anyone has put it,” I told him.

With me still wrapped around him, he straddled the netting, then leaned back, the hammock swinging slightly as he lifted one foot then the other, until we were totally suspended.

I lay rigid against his chest, knees on either side of his hips, keeping my gaze firmly on the pattern of stripes on his chest.

Despite my expectations, we didn’t plummet to our deaths.

We didn’t even swing wildly around, instead swaying gently, the golden leaves of the trees all around us whispering to each other.

This was… not terrible?

Tirac’s hands stroked my back, kneading at my neck. Slowly I relaxed into him, stiff muscles slowly melting with his touch.

“Are you all right now?” he asked softly.

I nodded. “Good.”

Suddenly I was very aware of the hard length pushing against my belly, and the question about what was underneath his loincloth became more than theoretical.

The tension that’d strained between us all day since that kiss on the beach grew, tightening until I had to do something.

Carefully, I pushed up on my elbows until I saw his face in the moonlight.

His gaze held mine, unblinking.

I swallowed hard.

This should be scarier than sleeping in a tree.

Maybe too many things had scared me lately. Maybe there wasn’t room for another one.

I inched forward on his chest, lowering my lips to his for the lightest of kisses.

“Good?”

His arms hardened around me like a snare, one hand sliding down my back, fingers caressing the curve of my hip as his other hand cupped the back of my head.

“Better than good. I have no words for you.” His hand tightened slightly at my neck and I gasped, a wave of sensation running straight from his touch to my core. Immediately, he plundered my mouth, plunging his tongue against mine, stealing my breath with his demands.

I moaned, writhing against his chest, the rod of his cock grinding into my mound.

“I do not know what you have done to me,” he growled, breaking away. “And I do not care.”

Without warning, he rolled us in the hammock, his body covering mine, trapping me in the heat of his desire.

And then I was lost, his hands roving over me, his mouth claiming me as his own.

Every nerve felt like it was on fire as I melted into him, blinding need wiping away every other thought.

“Move your hands, little one,” he purred.

I blinked, dizzy from his kisses, not understanding.

“Put them here.” He moved my hands over my head. “Hold tightly. You are a gift, and I would like to take my time to explore you.”

My fingers curled around the netting, just the rumble of his words sending thrill through my belly.

He rose over me, a dark shadow against the stars, the curve of his tail over his head like a black question mark across the sky.

But as he slowly dragged my shirt up to expose my breasts, I realized every question I had could be answered by him.

My breath came in short pants as he stroked the sides of my torso, strong hands working their way slowly, inevitably towards my breasts.

At the first light touch of his fingertips, I groaned and he leaned closer.

“You must tell me if I should stop,” he whispered, lips caressing the shell of my ear before his teeth nipped at my neck, the contrast with the gentle kneading of my breasts enough to make me quiver beneath him.

He pulled away, and I almost cried out at the absence of his touch.

“Good,” I promised him, releasing the net to pull him back to me. “So good.”

His hands wrapped around my wrists as he brought them above my head again.

“I can find more rope, but I would rather not move.”

My hands clutched the hammock while my mind stuttered, unable to decide if more rope was a good thing or a bad thing.

Then I couldn’t think at all as his mouth fell on my breasts, licking and sucking, nibbling and kissing.

Tirac was talking, that slow rumbling growl only sent the burning in my veins higher, but I couldn’t understand him, couldn’t hold onto anything right now, the words slipping away from me.

Either the translator was on the blink or my mind simply could no longer process my whole world devolving to Tirac, his body over mine.

His touch.

My need.

The hammock swung slightly as I felt him shift, his hands drifting away from me.

I shook my head, trying to focus, trying to figure out what was going on.

He had moved to one side, standing on the platform, leaving me sprawled and panting before him.

“These must go,” he growled, thick fingers hooking around the waistband of my tights.

“Wait! No!”

He froze.

Oh shit.

I struggled to stand and gave up, wriggling in the hammock until I managed to push the leggings down over my hips.

“Should I help now?”

“Yes.” I should’ve been able to do it, but right now, figuring out how to get undressed in a hammock seemed impossible.

His hands skimmed down my legs, gently peeling the fabric away from my legs until I was exposed.

“I’ll be more careful in the future, little one.”

His hands caressed my thighs, long strokes moving up and down until I shook.

There was no way of knowing what he’d do next.

No way of guiding him.

Except maybe…

I reached above my head, my hands where he’d obviously wanted them.

“Yes.”

He loomed over me again, and I moved my hands back down to cross them over my chest.

“No.”

Tirac stopped, fingers tapping against my leg as I repeated the performance.

“Yes. No.”

Then I laced my hands firmly into the netting, licking my lips. “Yes.”

All throughout the day, I’d seen how smart he was.

And right now, he had a strong incentive to figure it out.

He dropped the leggings to the platform, then with one swift motion, slid his hands underneath my hips. He stepped back over the hammock, straddling it as he had before.

But this time, my legs were over his shoulders.

And I was half-naked before him.

And when his tongue stroked up the inside of my leg, my shouts were only answered by the wild cries of the birds above.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Six

Tirac

Allison looked as if I had struck her.

“I will find a way,” I told her, turning away, unable to stomach her disappointment.

Along the walk back from camp to where the Horn had been snapped away from the mainland, I’d fought with myself.

I tried to think of a way to convince her not to listen to the words of the Vak’ki that’d come from her metal cuff, not to risk the mountains of the Sen’ki.

But every thought was swept away by the anguish in her face.

“Give me time,” I promised. If she wanted to go, I would make it happen.

But she wouldn’t go alone. Safe passage or not, I’d be by her side.

I studied the chasm, dreaming up plans and discarding them just as quickly, until I realized she had moved away.

“Whatisthat?” she asked, head tilted to the side as if she was listening to something.

I looked around, uncertain as to what she referred to.

Slowly she walked away, her steps hesitant, unlike the wild dash she’d made when first confronted with the chasm.

Now she walked parallel to it, then broke into a run.

I watched for a moment, confused.

The work of the earthquake had been thorough, completely separating us from the mainland. She couldn’t walk around it. The only thing she’d find that way was the sea.

And with that thought, I ran after her.

I’d let her get too far ahead, she was already scrambling over the rocky beach, eyes fixed on the dark waves ahead instead of the storm gray stones.

“Allison, stop!” I shouted, but she kept on.

I reached behind me for my bow, swearing as I remembered my failure to find an appropriate replacement last night.

“Wecanjustswim!” she shouted. “Imagoodswimmer!”

All I caught was a single word.

“No, it is not good!” I shouted back, almost at her side.

But it was too late.

From underneath the rocks sprang a gakul, pebbles flying everywhere by the force of its eruption, long soot-colored snout snapping at her, razor-sharp teeth slashing through the air.

Allison shrieked, falling backwards, scrambling away from it on her hands and feet as the scent of her terror filled the air.

With a bellow of fury, I launched myself at it, knocking it away from her.

Greedily it wrapped its short legs around me as we rolled over the stones.

It was no arsek, deadly but small, flitting through the undergrowth.

The gakuls were monsters, dragging any prey foolish enough to venture too near to their lairs under the waves, ripping and savaging whatever flesh came close to their gaping maws.

Its talons raked at my side as I struggled to lose my arm, but it held fast.

“Get away from him!” Allison screamed, and something thudded against the gakul’s thick hide.

It swung its massive head around, snapping at her in rage.

I craned my head to see her lob another rock at the beast.

“Get back!” I shouted at her, but she kept pelting it with stones, ignoring the danger.

Spurred anew, I wrenched my arm upwards, driving my knife deep into the creature’s belly.

It howled, and I stabbed it again and again until its grip weakened and I could roll away.

But not far enough.

The click and clatter of stones behind me was all the warning I had.

I lunged to the side as it darted forward, undeterred in its hunt.

Allison threw another rock and it changed course, charging at her again.

Hot resolve flooded my veins and I leapt atop its back, driving my dagger down through its neck, leaning with all my might until the spine cracked, severed.

With the final blow, it went limp under me, the tip of its snout a hand’s breadth away from Allison.

But it hadn’t touched her.

I staggered away to my feet and with a soft cry, Allison flung herself into my arms, her sobs paining me more than my wounds.

“Imsorryimsorryimsorry,” she repeated frantically, then stepping back, she tilted her head up.

Her eyes searched over my face, looking for a meaning I didn’t understand, but something in me responded as I bent over her, drawn in by her gaze.

She slid her arms around my neck. “Ihopeyoudonthatethis,” she whispered.

I had no time to wonder what the words meant before she pressed her lips against mine.

It was as if another earthquake had struck me, shaking my very core, the sweet taste of her lips spurring an insatiable hunger for more.

 Allison was a food I’d never dreamt of, but now I cared for nothing but to consume her endlessly.

Her mouth opened against mine and I didn’t hesitate, my tongue sweeping against hers, eager for more, my arms and tail twining about her, holding her close.

Finally, my senses returned.

“It is not safe here,” I told her as I swept her up into my arms, carrying her away from the bloody remains of the gakul.

“I will bring you to your clan. And I will keep you safe. I have a plan.”

As I made my way back to last night’s camp, her body slowly softened as she fell asleep against my chest.

My mind filled with questions while I searched for a new, better place for us to set up as a base.

Where had she come from? 

How had she become separated from her people?

Like all of my clan, like every other Reaver, the history of Thaxos had been imprinted on me as a cub.

The warring cities of the Makers with their towering spires.

 Us, their created soldiers, designed and bred solely for war.

The Makers had disappeared long ago, leaving only the remnants of their armies, the ghosts of old battles weighing heavily on us all.

Never in that history had there been any creature as sweet as my Allison, nothing with her soft curves and silken skin.

Her reckless courage and quick emotions.

There was no pattern, no tradition to fall back on here.

We would have to make our own path together.

When I reached the remnants of last night’s fire, I paused.

The wise thing to do would be to wake her and build the fire up again, to leave Allison here while I scouted for a sturdy tree, tall and broad enough to serve our purposes.

I gazed at her for long moments, her dark lashes fluttering against her pale cheeks, plump lips even now enticing me.

She should sleep more, I decided. 

It was the wisest choice.

It had nothing to do with my reluctance to release her, my need to keep her close as long as possible.

Slowly, I searched through the jungle, wishing I’d spent more time here on the Horn earlier.

But the lands closer to my clan’s village were rich in game and between the training of cubs and ever vigilant watches against the encroachment of our enemies, there’d been little time to explore so far away.

Picking my way through the brush, I curved my shoulders to shield her sleeping form.

Her limbs lay limp with exhaustion, the toll of whatever had brought her here marked in her still, pale face.

Before long, I’d found what I was searching for.

A grove of jobra trees, their graceful silver trunks clustered in a circle. Shoving my shoulder against each one, they stayed solidly rooted, secure.

I walked around each tree, considering, then sat, my back against familiar bark as I waited for Allison to wake.

Finally she stirred, her eyes still closed, wriggling slightly in my lap.

My cock sprang to attention, but thankfully she didn’t seem to notice, only shifting her shoulders as if an orkin kit stretching.

Then with yawn, her eyelids twitched, and her eyes flew open as she struggled to sit up.

“Itwasntadreamitwasallreal.”

With a soft sigh, she sank back down in my arms, lips curved into a smile.

“Butyoureheregoodmorning.”

“I’ll have to teach you more of our words,” I answered. “But yes, things are good. Look, let me show you.”

Rising up, I placed her on her feet.

She looked around the circle of jobra trees in wonder, the smile spreading to light her whole face.

“My clan builds their homes in these trees, high above the threats from below.”

She nodded slowly, then her brows knit together. “Whataboutthesnakes?”

At my confusion, she wiggled her hands back and forth in the air.

“I don’t understand,” I said blankly.

She crouched closer to the ground, repeated the motion, bringing her clenched fist down in the same area over and over.

“Ah. The arsek.”

She nodded forcefully.

“They won’t find us here,”

I took her hand, running it against the smooth bark.

“The arseks hate these trees, every part of them. Leaves, bark and bloom.”

She didn’t look convinced.

“Do you trust me?”

Allison stepped closer, placing her hand in mine.

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid we’re in for a long boring day.”

“Boringwouldbeanicechange.”

“And perhaps you can teach me more of your words.” I ran my finger over her lips. “Yes and good won’t get us very far.”

Her cheeks colored, and I wondered what she was thinking.

Every warrior of my clan had spent time repairing and maintaining the village.

The task before us wasn’t impossible, but it would take many hours.

“Stay here, and I’ll be back shortly.”

She shook her head, squeezing my fingers as she stepped closer.

“No.”

That seemed clear enough. 

“Don’tleaveme.” Her chin trembled, just a bit.

“There is nothing for you to fear,” I promised her, but she refused to release my hand.

And while we might move more slowly, my chest swelled, pleased with having her wish to stay near me.

The early afternoon was spent gathering the long thin vines that crept across the jungle floor.

Once my arms were filled with them, we returned to the safety of the jobra trees.

Crouching down, I pulled three from the pile, fashioning them into a long rope.

“Icandothat,” Allison said quickly, teasing out her own sections, her tiny fingers flying over the work.

In no time, she had finished, reaching for another set.

“I will bring you more,” I said, slightly stunned. “Good?”

“Good,” she answered.

Before long, the vines we would need for the first stage of our platform had been gathered and it was time to move to the next task.

While she continued making long coils of rope, I went in search of the branches that would form our foundation.

Luckily the earthquake had given me plenty of options to choose from.

There was no time for hunting, but while bringing the second load of long, thick branches back to our new home, I had discovered a cluster of broula, dark red ovals hanging heavily from the bush.

Peeling one to reveal the creamy flesh within, I handed it to her.

“Good.”

She lay the rope down, stretching her fingers before taking the small fruit. After a quick sniff, she popped it into her mouth.

“Delicious,” she said, licking her lips, small pink tongue darting out to catch the juice from her lips.

My mind blanked even as I half-wondered about the new word.

How could the simple act of her eating affect me so?

As if in a dream, I sat next to her, peeling a second fruit.

But instead of handing it to her, I held it before her mouth.

Her eyes locked onto mine for a long moment, then slowly she leaned forward until her lips wrapped around my fingers, her tongue flicking at the fruit sending fire through my blood.

Had I thought to protect her from the dangers of the jungle?

Right now Allison, with her soft, lush body, was the most dangerous thing I had ever seen.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Five

Allison

I stayed curled by the fire as a third moon joined the first two high overhead, passing out of sight behind the branches twisting above the clearing.

The words of Kyla’s message ran around and around in my mind.

The equipment I’m on wasn’t built for this and I’ve done terrible things to get enough power to send this out. No idea how long I have.

So here’s the important stuff: 

Get to the mountains.

Assume everything here will try to kill you.

Most of the natives are friendly, but not all of them.

They don’t have translator implants so won’t be able to understand you.

She’d laughed, and I almost saw her shaking her head at the absurdity of it all.

You’ve probably already figured that out, sorry.

If you meet one of the natives, tell them you need to get to the Sen’ki. That’s the name of one of the clans here. They won’t like it, but hopefully they’ll help.

Just get to the mountains. We’ve got a safe place there, and friends who’ll look for you.

Her voice got tight.

Be careful. Stay safe. And come home.

No matter how often I tried to send a message back, nothing had happened.

Kyla had spoken, followed by a stranger. From his words, it was obvious he was another native of this planet.

A Vak’ki, whatever that was.

Not one of Tirac’s favorite people, from his expression.

But that had been nothing compared to his reaction to the idea of us going to the mountains.

I wrapped my arms tighter around my knees.

There was something there that had made him angry, his face twisted into a snarl.

In the morning, he’d promised to show me something, hopefully something to explain it all.

Better than that, maybe he would show me the way to the mountains, where Kyla was.

How many of the rest of the girls were there?

Worry and exhaustion weighed on me but I couldn’t bear to sleep, instead waiting until daylight for answers.

Tirac wasn’t sleeping either, instead keeping watch over the camp.

Watching over me.

It was hard to tell if it was for my own safety, or to make sure I didn’t try to run off again.

Kyla had said most of the natives were friendly.

What about Tirac?

He had fed me, cared for me.

I still felt the pressure of his hands on my skin, tiny sparks that tingled for hours.

My thoughts spiraled as the flames grew low.

I poked at the fire with a stick, the crackling glow more soothing than I had expected.

Camping had never exactly been something I was interested in.

Had never had the option really.

The gardens back on the Dream were enough wilderness for me.

Wide manicured paths, beautiful banks with borders of blooming flowers.

And most importantly, nothing that would try to kill me.

But as I sat there listening to the rustling of the leaves, the uncanny hooting of the birds in the trees, feeding twigs into the crackling fire while waiting for the dawn, I had to admit…

This didn’t completely suck.

I glanced at Tirac, crouched at the other side of the fire pit, the tail that I still couldn’t quite believe in, coiled next to him.

Kyla had mentioned clans. Then where were the rest of his people?

Did he always live alone like this? 

All night, as he watched the shadows around us, he had sorted through a stack of branches, dragging them one at a time close to the fire, and then breaking them into pieces.

The smallest he’d used to keep the fire going, the rest he’d sorted into piles, judging by some criteria known only to him.

I could ask, I knew.

But the thought of another round of charades just felt overwhelming.

In the morning, he’d take me to the mountains. And then it wouldn’t matter what he was doing.

I’d meet up with Kyla and whoever else was with her, and then we’d find a way to get home.

Whatever he was doing with his growing pile of sticks wouldn’t be important at all.

I’d probably never see him again.

That’d be fine. Perfectly fine. 

Camping in a deadly jungle with a giant green striped alien with a tail had never been part of my plan.

My hand touched the back of my neck.

It would all be fine.

As the sky lightened into lavender, I sat up straighter.

But before I asked if it was time for us to go, a rumble rolled through the air.

“What is it?” I gasped, springing to my feet then stumbling to the side, my balance suddenly lost.

With a roar, Tirac sprang over the fire, wrapping me in his arms and carrying me down.

“Get off of me!” I pummeled against his broad chest, but he didn’t move, his elbows braced on either side of me, pinning me to the ground.

“It will be over soon,” he muttered.

Oh hell no.

I fought harder, desperate to escape him, but it was no use.

And then I froze.

In my frantic thrashing, I had failed to notice one important thing.

Tirac wasn’t moving.

Tirac wasn’t trying to do anything to me at all.

But the ground under us had come alive.

I went still, meeting his eyes.

“Earthquake,” he said

At that point, I didn’t need any further explanation, the world was filling me in quite nicely, thank you.

Something made a deafening crashing noise and he tucked me tighter against his chest, one hand curled protectively over the back of my head.

“Not much longer.”

This close, I couldn’t help but watch his lips, observing the mismatch of what he said to what the translator played in my ear.

That was the only reason I watched his lips so carefully.

They were full, strangely sensual in a face seemingly made of harsh plains.

Then he jolted, a deep grunt escaping him.

“Are you okay?”

Another jolt shook us, and I cursed at my inability to actually talk with him, to use real words and sentences.

“Good?” I asked, feeling like a complete idiot.

Of course, it wasn’t good.

Because I was pretty sure that branches, if not entire trees, were falling on him.

Him, and not me.

But instead of being annoyed, he just laughed.

“Good enough,” he answered. “I am stronger than you think, little one.”

In seconds, it was over.

The ground stilled, the birds began their songs all over again.

Tirac arched his back, pushing himself up to his knees, the fallen branches sliding away.

For a moment, I gazed up at him kneeling over me, the dark curtain of his hair backlit by the early morning sun, and a thrill ran through me.

Alien. Utterly strange.

Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the last effects of the gas from the pods. Or shock at crashing landing here, and an earthquake.

But for just a moment, I missed his arms around me, the feel of his chest pressing into mine.

My thoughts drifted, and I shook myself.

And that was enough of that, Allison.

I turned and looked at the devastation in the clearing.

It hasn’t been as bad as it sounded, only a few trees had fallen.

Except…

“Oh no!” 

I ran back to the crushed shell of the pod, staring at horror at the massive tree that lay across it.

There were things in there, emergency supplies, medicine.  

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what. It hadn’t seemed even remotely possible that I’d need to be familiar with the exact contents of the escape pod.

Even last night I had thought I would have more time, would be able to sort through it in the morning, and get whatever I needed.

I shouldn’t have waited.

Shoving at the tree trunk did nothing other than spike my anxiety higher.

“Let me in!” I shouted at it, but not surprisingly, the tree didn’t answer.

“Wait, let me look.” Tirac had come up behind me, his hand on my shoulder pulling me back, keeping me from flinging myself at the wreck.

“Please, I need to get inside,” I begged. He couldn’t understand me, I knew that.

But somehow it didn’t matter. He’d fix it. I knew he would.

Gently, he moved me to the side, setting his shoulder against the column of wood.

A flash of guilt ran through me.

His back had just been hammered by trees not five minutes before.

And now I asked him to do it again.

I was better than that, wasn’t I?

“It’s all right. It’s my fault I didn’t take things out sooner.”

Raising an eyebrow at my stream of sounds, he just shoved against the tree trunk harder.

“Tirac, you can stop now, it’s okay.” I tugged at his waist, but he was as immovable as the tree itself.

Until unbelievably, he managed to shift the tree out of the deep crease it had made in the side of the pod, and then with one last mighty shove, rolled it to the side.

For a brief moment, hope bubbled in my chest. Sure, I was still stuck here, and sure, it was pretty scary, but I’d take any sort of victory.

I needed one.

But it wasn’t to be.

No matter how I mashed at the control panel, tried to pry the metal open, nothing worked.

The lid was stuck, jammed fast.

I stepped back, fighting back the tears welling in my eyes.

It was just stuff. It wasn’t important, I tried to tell myself. I don’t even know what was in there.

Tirac tried to jam his fingers into the seam of metal, but he failed as well.

“I am sorry,” he said softly. “It would take more tools than I have with me to open it.”

I sniffed, nodded sharply.

Just stuff.

“New plan,” I told myself, more than him. “I’ll get to Kyla and the others. I don’t need what’s in there. It’ll be fine.”

But first, the basic needs of my body finally caught up with me. The series of gestures and expressions I needed to use to tell Tirac I needed a bush and a little privacy was almost as humiliating as wondering which leaves were safe, and which were some sort of alien poison ivy.

Done, I rejoined him by the pod and tried to focus on the new goal.

“Sen’ki?” I asked hopefully.

Tirac might not like them, whoever they were. But that’s where Kyla said to go, off into their mountains.

So that’s where I was going.

His face hardened. “I will show you,” was his only answer.

Oh. That didn’t sound good.

The sun rose high above us as we made our way through the jungle, but I still couldn’t see any mountains.

It’s just because the trees are so tall, I told myself.

It was true.

Despite the downed trees all around us, the jungle was thick, silver barked trunks twisting up and over us, their branches curving off in a tangle, each capped off with a cloud of blue and green leaves.

“It’s beautiful.”

Tirac glanced back at me, but didn’t say anything.

My chest tightened, just a bit.

He’d been quiet ever since I insisted on going to see the Sen’ki.

Maybe Kyla was wrong. Tirac had done nothing but try to keep me safe, to help me. And if he thought it was a bad idea, maybe I should listen to him.

No. Get to the others.

Figure things out from there.

The further we walked, the more fallen trees I saw.

“This can’t be all from this morning, can it?”

I tried to remember everything I’d ever heard about earthquakes.

New Chicago wasn’t really known for them.

Before I figured it out, a pale peak arose far in the distance, rising over a vast jungle that lay before us.

“There?” I pointed, bouncing on my toes. “Is that it?”

“Yes,” he answered, clearly not needing to understand anything other than my enthusiasm. “Wait.”

And in a few moments I saw why.

My gaze drawn up to the peak, I hadn’t noticed the dark slash across the ground in front of us.

As we approached it stretched out to a wide chasm, blocking our path.

“What is this?” I whispered, as a heartrending lurch clenched at my chest.

Like a giant hand had broken a cookie into two pieces. 

The land was divided into here and there.

And the gap between the two was far too broad to cross.

Legs shaky, I took a few faltering steps closer to the edge before Tirac’s arm around my shoulder drew me back.

“This morning was not the first quake to strike this land,” he explained. “Days ago the ground shook harder, longer. I was out hunting, and when the quake was over, this had appeared.”  He gestured to the chasm before us. “I am trapped here as much as you.”

The chasm before me seemed to echo with his words.

Trapped.

I didn’t have a plan for this.

Now I didn’t have anything at all.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Four

Tirac

The thrashing of the arsek’s tail slowed, stopped and finally lay still.

My heartbeat didn’t slow down so quickly.

This strange, soft creature had nearly perished in an instant, all unaware.

“You must be more careful,” I growled, severing the arsek’s head, flinging it far from us before rising to my feet with its thick body still in my grip.

At least the question of dinner was answered.

Slowly, she lowered her arms down from where she’d held them up and I realized she wasn’t trying to protect herself from the snake.

The scent of terror rolling off of her had nothing to do with the arsek.

She hadn’t known it was there.

Her fear was because of me.

The thought sickened me.

“I won’t harm you,” I said, softly.

Whatever the strange female was, she was alone and afraid. No weapon of the Makers, no matter the metal case that’d held her. And with no knowledge of the dangers that were all around her.

“Nor will I let you come to harm.”

Her face softened, a flicker of a smile crossing her lips.

“ThatsgoodtoknowImgoingtoneedafriend.”

Her words were nonsense but her expression…

“Do you understand me?” I asked.

Her soft brown eyes lit up and she nodded.

“Yes.” The hissing sound meant nothing.

“But you can not speak my words?”

Her shoulders slumped, the perfect picture of dejection.

My thoughts circled.

Back in the village, cubs were put into the teaching chamber where our language, history, and the foundation of our clan were given to them in one long span of dreams and visions.

The hut that held it and the generator were the oldest, most sacred part of the village.

But there was no way for us to go there, not now.

“Then I will have to teach you,” I said slowly. “There is no other way.”

She nodded, another flash of a smile curving her lips. “Goodimgoodwithlanguages.”

“First, we must eat.”

She pointed to the arsek, eyebrows raised. “That?” 

“Their poison is deadly. But the flesh is sweet.”

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to.

No words were needed to convey her doubt about our upcoming meal.

I took stock of the clearing.

With only myself to worry about, I hadn’t given too much consideration for where to make camp.

The situation was different now.

I looked at her from the corner of my eyes, trying to guess at what sort of clan she came from.

No horns or red skin like the Vak’ki, not the wings of the Sen’ki.

Her skin was almost as pale as the silver of the Ol’ki, but she didn’t have the arrogant stance of their warriors, the sly look of their faces.

I looked again.

She didn’t look like a warrior at all.

Then it would be my responsibility to protect her until she rejoined her people.

I cleared a small patch of leaves and branches, making it easy to see anything crossing the ground.

“Stay here,” I told her, using one of the fallen branches as a broom to expand the area.

“Jobra leaves would be useful,” I muttered.

She looked around, but didn’t move.

“I’ll show you what they are in the morning,” I decided. “Fire will be our friend tonight.”

Soon enough, the arsek was skinned and speared, roasting over the flames.

She huddled next to the fire, arms wrapped tightly around her.

I eyed her thin clothing, again confused as to where she could have come from that such apparel would be remotely practical. A long, loose shirt without sleeves that reached mid-thigh over pants so tight I saw every curve of her leg. Not warm enough for the mountains, too confining for the jungle. 

Her thin shoes would give no protection from the ground or the elements in any territory. A broad silver cuff on her left wrist was her only ornament.

“Are you cold?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“You will feel better when you have eaten,” I assured her.

She showed no sign of understanding.

I went to fetch one of the broken logs I discarded, checked it over for arseks or other threats and brought it over to the fireside.

“Sit before you fall.”

For a moment, it looked as if she’d argue, then she sank down, her gaze still lost in the flames.

“In the morning, we will make a better camp, until you can tell me where you were going.”

She nodded quickly, and I handed her a hunk of the roasted snake, wrapped in a thick leaf.

“Thisishuge,” she said, staring at the lump in her hand. “YoucandothisAllison,” she said. But she still didn’t move, just studied the meat in her hands.

Finally, she took the smallest possible bite of the charred flesh, then the first real smile spread over her face.

“Itsgood,” she chirped. “Itsactuallyreallygood!”

“Itsgood?” I tried to repeat her own words back to her, the strange sounds like bubbling water in my mouth.

Her smile only grew broader, sending a small twitch of pleasure deep in my chest.

I liked making her smile.

“Good,” she repeated with a nod.

She finished her first piece, and a second, but refused any more, shaking her head and miming with her hands a huge bloated body, puffing out her cheeks until I laughed.

“You’re smaller, perhaps you don’t need as much food.”

Allison pushed the rest of the pieces towards me as if to confirm, licking her fingers happily as I finished the remains of the meal. I passed her my waterskin, watched her delicate neck tilt as she drank.

She leaned back, stretching, then winced, her hands flying up to rub at her shoulder.

“Are you injured?” I asked her again.

She shook her head, the slightest of movements before pointing to her neck, then twisting her hands fiercely.

It seemed unlikely she was trying to tell me she had a broken neck.

True, I knew nothing about her clan. But nothing I’d ever met survived such an injury.

I remembered my own headache after my fall during the quake.

Thought about the saplings that’d grown in the path left by her metal cylinder.

How long had she lain there?

My muscles would be stiff as well.

Rising up from my crouch, I moved behind her.

She twisted, staring up at me in confusion.

“The muscle is knotted?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, the hissing sound of her agreement.

I reached towards her, then stopped, blocked from the skin of her neck by the fall of dark hair that swung freely past her shoulders.

For a moment, I wondered what it’d be like to touch it.

“I am no healer, but if you move that, I will see if I can unknot the muscle.”

Her gaze met mine for long moments, then she nodded slowly, pulling her hair around to the front, her head leaning forward slightly, leaving the pale column of her neck fully exposed.

Softly, I let my fingers run over her spine, following the curve down to her shoulders, her skin soft and smooth like nothing I’d ever seen, ever touched, her scent as heady as the perfume of navien blooms.

A low groan escaped her lips as I rubbed tiny circles across her shoulders.

My hands went still. “Should I stop?”

In a silent answer, she reached up, placing her hand across my fingers, pushing down, keeping me in place.

“Good.”

I began again, and with every light stroke across her skin sparks flew through my fingertips.

Slowly, the corded muscles relaxed, her breathing even as she sank back against me.

“Good?” I asked her again, enjoying her closeness, the strange feelings it stirred up inside of me.

She nodded her head more freely this time. “Good.”

The crackling of the fire and our voices muffled against the night sounds of the jungle.

And then a trill sounded, like no bird I’d ever heard.

She jumped up, staring at the silver band on her wrist now flashing with a blue light, cutting through the darkness.

“Theyrehere!” Her fingers flew over the metal, all of her attention drawn to it.

I stepped back in shock as her words came from the band on her wrist.

But it wasn’t her voice.

A flow of sound I couldn’t understand, but Allison surely could, her excitement shining in her eyes.

“Canyouhearme?Hello?Kyla?”

From her worried look, it seemed clear that though the voice went on without stopping, it hadn’t answered her.

“Pleasecananyonehearme?”

The cuff kept talking, the strange sounds only for her ears.

Then the voice changed and I bit back a snarl.

“If you hear this, Reavers of the cities, hear me. Let this be as true as the visions of the teaching chamber. I am Ryven of the Vak’ki, and I swear this on my life. The human women are a new clan from far away.”

I snorted.

Leave it to one of the Vak’ki to state the obvious.

“They are not part of the Makers, know nothing of the games. They are not warriors. Not enemies.”

Allison stared at her wrist, then nodded up at me in frantic agreement.

“I didn’t think you were, little one,” I assured her.

“Help them rejoin their clan. Bring them to the mountains of the Sen’ki. Safe passage is assured.”

Madness.

There was no other word for it.

I could believe in the sudden existence of a new clan. 

I could believe in this soft, delicate creature before me, who so clearly didn’t know where she was, what land she’d been brought to.

But I couldn’t believe the words of a Vak’ki.

And safe passage through the lands of the winged ones?

Madness.

As if the speaker heard my unvoiced thoughts, it continued.

“I did not believe it was possible either,” the Vak’ki warrior droned on.

“Spend some time with your human woman. You’ll understand soon enough that they will change your world.”

The message repeated, the words of Allison’s tongue spilling out, but heedless of her calls, then again the voice of the Vak’ki with his insane claim of safety.

And then the cuff at her wrist was silent.

Allison stared blankly, then turned around, hand pointing in all directions as she spun.

“We can not go there,” I told her.

Her lips pressed into a tight line as her eyes narrowed.

Perhaps my little one was a warrior after all.

She picked a direction, heading away from the fire before I dashed forward to pull her back.

Bitterness flooded my mouth as she struggled in my arms, but I refused to let her go.

“It’s not safe at night for you,” I told her.

And despite the assurances coming from her bracelet, I was not certain how safe the mountains of the winged ones would be for either of us.

“Besides, we cannot get there right now. Maybe not for a long time.”

She went rigid, staring up at me, her mouth falling into a soft ‘O’ of surprise.

“I will show you in the morning.”

Alien’s Stake: Sneak Peak

Emily

The whole thing about your life passing before your eyes before you died was a lie.

How did I know?

Because I’d been waiting for that to happen for the last, say, ten to fifteen minutes? I wasn’t sure how long it’d been. Not with everything having gone from bad to worse, the way it did.

I only knew one thing: seeing my life’s biggest moments, the good, the bad and the ugly, would’ve been preferable to this.

Frequent flyers should be able to understand my plight the best, if they’d ever been caught in a bad storm.

Not knowing what to do while everything around you was shaking and you were holding onto the edges of your seat, unable to make a run for it because you could barely see the ground beneath, all the while hoping you made it out alive.

Except that this time, I wasn’t on a plane and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

Maybe I’d gone crazy, but my dreams had been nightmares, so real that I’d managed to wake myself up.

At least, I thought I had.

In my nightmares, little green men had taken me from my cozy bed, stripped and poked and prodded me as I faded in and out of consciousness.

Now the nightmare was getting worse.

Trapped in a metal pod with only a glass viewport at the front, my ears rang with the sound of alarms, the rattle of explosions.

I closed my eyes, willing myself to think of happy things, to fill my brain with good memories of my sweet kids and their sunny classroom. 

We’d been decorating the space with their drawings and hand prints the day before this happened.

And then another explosion rocked my pod from the wall, and I faded out again.

The nightmare changed. 

No alarms, no shaking.

Natural light poured in through the cracked window of the pod.

Sore spots bloomed all over my body and maybe a couple of bruised ribs?

Life as a kindergarten teacher hadn’t exactly made me an expert on that sort of thing.

Far above, a pale cloud drifted across the sky.

Sky.

Suddenly I was desperate to get out.

Maybe it was just another dream, but the thought of being trapped for even one more second was more than I could bear.

Thrashing and kicking, the door finally broke loose and fell, hitting the ground with a muffled bang and I hoisted myself up, one groan at a time, freeing myself.

And then I blinked.

Once.

Twice.

“Nope, you’re real!” I yelped and dropped myself back inside the pod. In the nick of time too, since the energy bolt that crackled through the air merely grazed my shoulder.

Real or not, that hurt.

After being abducted, nearly losing my life in a crash, now a walking rhino-man was shooting at me.

This was surreal, like an episode from my favorite sci-fi flicks, except I was the protagonist in this adventure.

“Try anything and I will make you beg for mercy, slave. I can hurt you in ways you haven’t dreamed of,” he taunted me.

His voice was gruff, like a chain smoker’s, colored by a very palpable sense of danger. 

My gut was telling me that this thing, this man, liked hurting others. These were not just empty threats.

My heart raced in my chest, the already accelerated rhythm going into pure overdrive the second he grabbed me by my hair and pulled me up. 

There was no way to escape him, my gaze switching between his horned face, his shark-like teeth, his black, beady eyes that bore into mine, emanating glacial coldness.

It felt like I was staring at Death itself.

The walking, talking, rhino-man was dressed in something straight out of an 80’s punk-rock music video, but with definite Mad Max vibes – guns hanging off his back, at his sides, his solid frame easily thrice the width of mine and he reeked of something coppery.

Like blood.

“How many of you are there?”

What?

“Answer me, slave!” he yelled again.

The rhino-man was now all up in my face, his stinking breath suffocating me. He was prodding me with the pointy end of his gun, punctuating his questions with painful jabs aimed at my cuts and bruises.

I had every intention to answer him, but it was taking me a while to find my voice.

“Please,” I croaked out.

Impatiently he threw me to the ground.

Like a rag doll, I fell face-first, inhaling an unpleasant amount of dirt. I choked on it, my eyes watering, my entire body aching.

“Poor little human can’t breathe?” the rhino mocked, stepping closer.

Just as well he did, though, because it turned out he had a knife strapped to his ankle and I was close enough to grab it.

So I did.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of action hero. 

Either this was another nightmare, and nothing mattered, or it was real and I was going to die anyway.

And I really, really didn’t like bullies.

I grabbed the cold handle and I plunged the blade right into his foot, wiggling it in there for maximum damage.

Black blood gushed out of him and splattered all around, staining his boot, my hand, the ground we were on.

“Fuck you!” I yelled. Well, I tried to. It was probably more of a whisper as I rolled away, clutching the knife in my bloody fist.

His pained roar was deafening. I’d angered him and earned myself a scathing beating at the least, if I remained his prisoner.

The only thing I could do now was to run as fast and as far as my legs could carry me, but when I got back on my feet, a flash of gold, copper and brown blocked my vision.

“Did nobody tell you not to touch the belongings of a Korgein? Hands off my female!”

Sorik

It seemed like I’d made it to the stasis pod’s crash site just in the nick of time.

And that the human female it housed was alive and… well, alive.

Her tiny form lay bleeding at the G’zanta’s feet, half broken and trembling.

And yet there was something about the way her body was poised that spoke of yet unbroken determination.

She hadn’t surrendered to him.

Good.

What she did next was even better, though.

As I leapt from my stinger she wasted no time in stabbing him.

Was there anything sweeter than a bloody G’zanta wailing in pain?

Yes, there was. When the source of his pain was a tiny little human female, not even half his size. It was like a grown axtell being taken down by a cute little gouin – ridiculously shameful.

“Did nobody tell you not to touch the belongings of a Korgein? Hands off my female!”

She’d rolled away, pushing herself to all fours, while the G’zanta had his stun gun pointed at her back, clearly intent on shooting so much pure electricity into her body it was going to knock her unconscious for hours, if not days.

While that would have made things easier on my end, I didn’t want to see the female suffer for her bravery.

“Then maybe you should take better care of your slaves. She’s mine now.”

“Not a chance.”

With a final dash I landed between them, a split-second before the cursed idiot fired the blast.

It hit me square on my chest and I doubled over in pain, my vision blurring. My people are resilient, but taking such a direct hit was still unwise.

Keeping upright was a struggle, but I grit my teeth and bore with the sting of the blast, taunting my enemy.

“The day a mere G’zanta takes something from me, Sorik the Korgein, is the day I die.”

“Then die, No One the Stupid,” he roared and tackled me.

Like youngsters on the training steppes, we fell to the ground in a mass of limbs. 

It soon became clear that hand to hand combat was not the way to go. We were too well matched. This was going to be a long, vicious fight.

And then, right before I could gain the upper hand by shattering his socket and blinding him in one eye, the G’zanta wailed again. I kicked him off me and he rolled to the side, groaning, revealing the human’s lithe form. She was looming over us, panting, her eyes round and wide, her mouth forming an O.

“Did… did I kill him?”

Her hands were empty of any weapons and it wasn’t until I looked at the G’zanta again that I realized what she’d done.

She’d stabbed him in the back, right at the base of his tail, nearly severing it.

No wonder he was wailing like a newborn babe.

“No, but you’re going to wish you did.”

I rose and glanced around. First and foremost, I needed to ensure the female’s safety. A wounded G’zanta was doubly dangerous and she’d hurt not only his body, but his pride, too.

Twice.

I grabbed her arm. “You need to snap out of it and listen to me.”

I wasn’t prepared for the intensity brimming in her eyes. 

Or that their color was a shade shy of the rich emerald of the Threzelas blooms, my mother’s favorite flowers.

The word precious came to mind.

Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t entirely about the money she was going to bring me once I sold her to the highest bidder and won the bet against my brothers.

“Yes?”

I swallowed around the lump in my throat.

I needed to focus.

“Find a spot to hide in and only come out when I say it’s safe to do so. Do you understand?”

We were in a junkyard, a graveyard for ships and stingers, but I wasn’t going to let it become a final resting place for either one of us.

“Behind you!” she screamed, but it was too late.

The G’zanta fired his blaster at me and didn’t stop until he emptied the charger. My muscles cramped and I felt frozen, like a statue made of flesh and scales.

“Run,” I urged the female.

“That’s not going to save her from what I’ll do to her, Korgein. She’ll be broken before she meets her next owner. That, I promise you.”

“She. Is. Mine,” I growled before turning around and facing him.

I didn’t need to look back to tell that she wasn’t obeying my command, the scent of her fear filling my lungs.

“I said run!”

Finally, she moved. The sound of her soft footsteps hitting the water-starved ground echoed in the dead silence surrounding us.

The loss of her presence was like an itch. Nonsense.

She was a universal breeder and valuable slave, worth a year’s wages as a gun for hire.

And yet the thought of letting the G’zanta abuse her made my blood boil.

In silence we stalked each other around the junkyard, hiding behind scraps and using the wreckage to trap the other, running circles around the now empty stasis pod.

Finally I climbed to the top of a ship that had been picked for parts, the maze of metal unfurling below me like a map.

Clearly revealing the G’zanta pulling the human out of her hiding place. He smacked her across the face and she went limp in his arms.

I didn’t think.

I simply acted.

I shot him dead, stopping only when I ran out of charges for my weapon. By then, the G’zanta was nothing more than a puddle of black blood and exposed bone, half slumped onto a discarded stinger cockpit.

I ran to her, to the brave little female that got plunged into an unfamiliar world and yet who didn’t want to submit to its chaos.

Kneeling beside her unconscious form, I used my bioscanner to check for injuries. The external ones were obvious and none of them seemed like they would kill her, but I knew next to nothing about human anatomy.

Certainly not enough to discern any potentially life-threatening internal damage.

Lifting her short gown I passed the scanner over her belly, marveling at her softly yielding flesh before going higher, over her chest and the plump, round, pair of breasts.

There was a certain kind of beauty in the paleness of her skin coloring and the way her dark hair reflected Reazus’ blue sunlight.

Yet on the other hand, she was weak, there was no denying that. 

She was fragile, so vulnerable and soft, I wondered how her species survived without any natural defenses. 

The G’zanta had their thick skins and horned heads, my kind had scales and sharp claws, the advantage of speed and even flight, for the lucky few who’d found their mates.

The bioscanner beeped three times in quick succession, pulling me out of my dark thoughts.

“Not what I wanted to hear,” I mumbled to myself as I read the results.

This was beyond what I could handle. 

I had no other choice than to call upon the help of an old acquaintance. 

If Tarka still lived in Maneet, that was, and if he didn’t still want to kill me.

There was a lot at stake here: my safety and hers, the bet with my brothers, the credits and what I was going to buy with them.

Yet every moment of indecision could be costing the female her life.

I gathered her small form in my arms, ignoring how ice cold she was, and made my way to the outskirts of town.

Tarka better not close his door in my face.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Three

Allison

When I first went to college, my first roommate was a bit of a wild child.

Okay, more than a bit.

Nice enough, but I only went out with her once.

And right now, I remembered exactly why.

My head pounded, my tongue was swollen, scratchy.

Every bit of me felt like crap and the idea that people would do this to themselves on purpose was still bewildering to me.

But this wasn’t the dorms.

Or my cabin back on the Dream.

The unthinkable had happened, and I was somewhere else.

Somewhere unexpected, unplanned.

I hated not having a plan.

Wherever I was, it was quiet, the ever present hum of the ship gone.

No voices. The rest of the girls weren’t here.

Maybe they were still asleep.

I felt fresh air on my face, a rich loamy scent of plants all around.

Maybe this was a garden. That’d be nice.

Still I kept my eyes closed, just for a moment, trying to clear my mind.

“What are you?” a deep voice rumbled, and I sat up in shock then froze.

I was at the side of a clearing, tall, twisted trees lacing the sky with slender branches far overhead all around, deep shadows at their bases.

A circle of dark sky above was filled with a giant full moon.

I swallowed hard.

To its side, I saw a second smaller orb.

Two moons. That… that was different.

I looked around again. “Who’s there? Who spoke to me?”

A dark form separated from one of the trees and I stayed very still.

From a distance, in the shadows, it looked like a man. Very tall, with broad shoulders.

But one head, two arms, two legs, and–

I blinked.

A tail. Yes, a thick tail swishing in the air behind him.

When he stepped closer into the moonlight, I swallowed hard.

My rescuer was unclothed, other than a short loincloth and a broad strap running diagonally across his chest.

The light was enough to give me a clear view of the rich stripped green of his skin, the strong planes of his face, not softened in the least by the frame of dark brown hair.

This was no gentle gardener.

“Are you here to help me?” I whispered.

Sure, it was more than a little terrifying to be by myself in the dark with a naked alien.

Naked, giant alien.

But at least we could communicate.

He tilted his head to the side.

“I don’t know your words. What are you? Where did you come from?”

Or not.

I ran my hand over the comm bangle, my stomach knotting as with glowing certainty I understood.

I had a translator, I understood him easily enough.

Therefore the bangle had found a match, found his language in its colossal database of tongues, working its magic and feeding me the translation to the disc implanted behind my ear.

But my new friend had no such device.

Which was odd.

My understanding was all members of the galactic alliance had the option for a translator implant when their languages were added to the databases.

Maybe this guy had just opted out?

Maybe not enough people came to this world for it to be worth the trouble?

Welp, I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way.

“Hi, I’m Allison,” I said slowly, touching my chest. “Allison.” First holding up my hands to show they were empty, I pushed myself up.

And that was a lousy idea.

My knees buckled as the worst headrush of my life washed over me, nearly landing me flat on my ass, back in the pod.

Instead, I clutched at the sides, hanging my head down and breathing deeply.

“Are you injured?” 

I risked a glance up. 

Mister tall, green and naked had come closer to the escape pod, dark eyes studying me carefully.

“Not exactly. It’s just been a day.”

His eyes narrowed and I shook my head. “Sorry, explanations about space travel will have to wait until after I get the basic nouns down.”

With more care than I’d ever used on the dance floor, I slid one leg out, then the other, keeping a grip on the lip of the cover to keep myself upright.

The ground all around the escape pod was covered in branches.

I looked more closely.

Not just branches, it looked like entire trees that’d been knocked down.

“What happened here?” I wondered.

I rubbed at my temple.

The pounding in my head was better now, but still there, right behind my right eyeball, beating a constant tattoo.

I needed answers. Even if he couldn’t understand me, he could at least give me information.

I tapped my chest again. “Allison.”

I tapped the pod I leaned against. “Escape pod.”

Stooping down, I ran my fingers over the rough bark of the branch beside me.

“Tree.”

His eyes flicked between me and every item I touched, and I repeated the process, this time finishing with pointing towards him and waiting.

“Tirac,” came the immediate reply.

And since the translator didn’t try to do anything with the strange word, it seemed a safe bet that was his name.

“Tirac, Allison.” I spread my arms wide, gesturing around the clearing, then made a show of looking all around me.

A sudden snap of comprehension widened his eyes

“Tirac, Allison,” he repeated, then shook his head, pushed his palms down toward the ground.

The hand gesture was unfamiliar to me, but the meaning was clear enough.

We were the only ones here.

All right, I could work with that. If the pods had brought me to this planet, wherever it was, surely they’d brought the other women here. I could proceed on that assumption.

And if they weren’t here, I simply had to find out where they were. That was a reasonable plan.

Straightening my shoulders, I took a deep breath, looking around for any sort of a break in the trees, a path, anything.

Nothing.

No lights of some distant city, no pleasantly marked trail, nothing.

“But he came from somewhere,” I reminded myself. “So there’s something out there.”

I picked a direction and started walking.

And my green giant charged.

“What the hell?!” 

I crouched, arms above my head as he dashed forward, leaping high in the air, moonlight glinting on the knife I hadn’t even realized was in his hand.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes off of where he seemed to hang in the air above me.

With a snarl, he landed, coming to a crouch at my side, the blade of the knife buried deep into the ground by my foot.

No. Not into the ground.

In the head of a yellow and orange spotted snake, invisible among the leaves.

My hands clutched my throat and I staggered back.

“All right, traipsing through the jungle by myself at night isn’t a good idea. Time for a new plan.”

Except I had no idea where to start.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter Two

Tirac

“How did you miss that shot?” Yehan hissed.

I snarled.

I didn’t think I had missed it.

But the golden flank of the neika was quickly bounding out of sight, its nimble hooves darting through the dense brush of the jungle that pressed all around.

“I didn’t, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, it’s not here,” Laicer smirked from a nearby tree, adjusting the net slung over his shoulders that held our kills for the day.

I swung down from the branch above the game trail where I’d waited patiently all day long.

Maybe not that patiently.

And maybe it’d only been an hour, maybe less.

Still, long enough.

I bent down over the tracks then straightened, showing Yehan and Laicer the thick blue fluid smeared across my fingertips.

“I did not miss.”

“Well, the neika is long gone,” Laicer said. “And you don’t have your kill. Doesn’t seem to make a difference, does it?”

Yehan jumped down beside him.

“Come on, we have enough, let’s return to camp.”

Swishing my tail in irritation, I hung back.

“I’ll meet you there.” I finally decided. “I’m not leaving it to wander around injured.”

My companions left without arguing.

They didn’t need me to help take the day’s hunt, poor as it was, back to the village.

We had been out on the trails since sunrise, but the animals were scarce, their normal patterns disturbed.

They weren’t the only ones.

I’d been agitated all day, like an itch deep in my blood I couldn’t scratch.

A long run would soothe it.

Regaining my vantage point, I saw what direction the neika had gone.

Hooking the bow to the quiver slung over my back, I leapt from tree to tree, following the broken trail of branches below.

The neika was faster than I’d expected, running and dodging through the underbrush, despite its wound.

But it couldn’t run forever. 

The further I followed, the more certain that truth became. My prey was running toward the tip of the Horn. 

And while neika might be the fastest creature in the jungle, one thing was certain.

They couldn’t swim.

Right here, the land jutted out to sea from the coast, a rough triangle surrounded on all sides but one by water. Someone long ago had compared it to a lopped-off horn of one of the red warriors, the Vak’ki, and the name had stuck.

The neika would have to turn soon, or it’d trap itself.

Either way, I’d have it.

A rumbling moved through the jungle, a sound so low I felt it in my bones before I registered it.

The birds exploded from the trees in a cacophony of sound, every creature below me broke cover to run wildly in all directions, and still, the noise grew louder.

Quake.

Instinctively, I lowered my body to cling to the branch, arms, legs and tail all wound tightly for support.

The ground bucked and shuddered below, the trees shook violently, a shower of leaves and branches raining down all around.

“No, no no no…”

There was no escaping it. My branch broke, and I plummeted through the air.

Twisting free, I jumped from tree to tree, desperately trying to gain height to get away from the center of the destruction.

Almost!

Then something crashed into me, and all was dark.

***

When I woke, it felt like half the forest had fallen on me.

My head ached, and when I went to rub it, I realized my hand was trapped.

“This day doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” I grumbled, heaving at the tree trunk that lay across my chest, pinning my right arm and left leg

Other than my grunts, the jungle around me was silent, as if the chaos and commotion of the quake had sucked away every sound.

Hours later, I worked my way free, staggering to my feet and turning around, almost unable to comprehend the destruction around me.

Half the jungle had been flattened, entire trees picked up and tossed about like a giant had kicked them away as he stomped through, heedless of his path.

With a sinking feeling in my gut, I slid the strap holding my quiver and bow off from my shoulder.

Broken, every arrow, and a crack running through the stave of the bow that promised it’d snap in my hands the next time I pulled it.

My belt knife was unscathed, to be sure, but the signs were clear.

“This hunt is over.”

Slowly, I made my back towards the village, keeping a wary eye on the trees that still stood, not trusting them to bear my weight.

Staggering and dizzy, twice I had to stop and rest, only to wake to see the sun had moved.

Once the ground trembled under my feet and I crouched, waiting it out.

But no more trees fell, no more calamities stalked my path.

Until I tried to return from the Horn and saw the true destruction of the quake. The Horn had been snapped off like a branch from a tree, leaving a vast chasm separating me from the village.

I stared at it, blinking, my blurry vision doubling the problem.

The distance was more than twice as far as I could jump, even on days when I hadn’t been clobbered by a tree.

Peering over the edge, I considered climbing down, but the rocks still crumbling and crashing below put an end to that thought, and I wasn’t sure I could manage it right now anyway.

Sleep took me, and when I woke the dizziness was gone.

But from the stiffness in my limbs, I’d been unconsous for a day, maybe two or more.

Maybe it all had been a dream?

But when I returned to the edge of the broken earth, that hope was dashed.

“It won’t be the first night I’ve slept in the jungle,” I decided. “And I’m in no shape to figure it out now.”

Eat, sleep, and then in the morning light, I’d look for a tree long enough to span the gap, make some sort of rough bridge.

Reluctantly, I turned away from the mainland and went to survey the damage to my new domain.

The moons rose as I walked, and for a moment, I wondered how the village had fared before pushing the thought away.

I’d find out soon enough, and worrying without being able to do anything about it would do me no good.

Strong warriors and well-trained cubs, all of them.

They’d be capable enough to deal with whatever the quake had caused without my assistance.

My thoughts were still with them when I stumbled upon another trail, but this time of no creature I’d ever tracked. A long wide furrow in the earth, ridges at either side, plowing in an unnaturally straight line. 

I knelt to examine it more closely, mentally separating the wreckage from the quake from whatever had crashed through the jungle here. 

A row of saplings marching down the upturned earth, all close to the same height, gave me the clue I needed. Whatever had passed through had been months ago.

I couldn’t get home. Couldn’t help my brothers. 

But this was a mystery I could solve.

Carefully, I followed the trail, keeping to the shadows, keeping the furrow to my right as it led deeper into the Horn.

The trail stopped in a clearing.

And nothing was there.

Then I saw it, moonlight glinting on the slivers of metal not covered by a thick coat of fallen leaves.

Warily I approached it, a long tube with one end buried in the roots of an odil tree at the far side of the clearing.

The artifacts of the Makers were not to be handled lightly, their secrets passed down only to the elders of the clan.

But the closer I studied the cylinder, the more I became uncertain.

It was very much like the devices the Makers had used, and left behind when they’d disappeared.

But I’d never seen anything quite like this. Its lines were foreign to me, unfamiliar.

What was it doing out here?

Circling it, I noticed small colored lights flashing on one side. Green, yellow, blue, green, yellow, blue.

Then the pattern stopped, the panel turning solid green.

And with a hiss, the lid opened.

Reaver’s Kiss: Chapter One

Allison

“The Loliax aren’t going to leave us.”

I looked around the dingy room in the middle of our dorms we’d dubbed the rec room.

Seriously, did anyone really believe that we’d be abandoned?

It was ridiculous.

Not even worth thinking about.

A tiny glimmer of doubt prickled my belly.

Maybe because the idea of being abandoned in space by a bunch of aliens is too terrifying to think about, Allie.

No. It was ridiculous.

“We have a contract with them. How do we even know Kyla is reading the screens right?”

The computer whiz of our little group shot me a look, and I shrugged.

Sure, Kyla was the only one of us who’d managed to take extra shifts with the Loli’s maintenance crew, the only one of us who’d poured over their stupid manual with all the mind-numbing detail about the ship, the Smarniks Dream.

Of all of us girls who’d signed on as entertainers for the third-rate intergalactic cruise, she’d be the most likely to understand what she was seeing.

But how much did she know?

It’d only been forty years since the Galactic Alliance had contacted Earth, only forty years since humans had known for certain that we weren’t alone in the Void.

Four decades wasn’t much time to try to absorb an entire universe of new technologies, advances in physics, new branches of science we’d barely dreamed of.

Kyla couldn’t be right.

And still, the warning announcement rang over and over in my mind.

“Attention honored guests. Unexpected solar activity has been detected. Shielding has been raised. There’s no cause for alarm, but for your safety and comfort, we ask all guests to retire to their quarters.”

We weren’t ‘guests,’ but we’d gone to our quarters, gathered around in a panicked mob, and now Kyla was making things worse.

“Make you a deal,” Sarah said.

I was a little surprised.

Sarah wasn’t usually the type to push herself into the center of a situation.

But here she seemed to step up to the plate and take charge. Someone needed to do it before we had a mass of crying women.

I looked over the rest of the girls.

Sophia and Amelia held hands, looking shocked.

Hannah seemed calm enough, maybe because she spent her off-time reading up on all the different aliens. For a xenobiologist-to-be, it must’ve been heaven. 

Hannah knew they wouldn’t really abandon us.

Maisie stood a bit behind the others, eyes fixed on the screen over Kyla’s shoulder.

Who knew what she was thinking?

She never said much, and honestly, I wasn’t sure she had much to share.

But she danced well, and the aliens running the cruise appreciated that.

“Thirty minutes in the pods, just in case,” Sarah continued.

She met my eyes and grinned.

“If Kyla is wrong, and we’re all overreacting, I’ll take your shifts for the rest of the cruise.”

Tempting. Very, very tempting.

When I signed up for this, I’d thought about it like any other gap year job, just one that paid much better.

I needed the money if I was ever going to finish school.

A dual degree in law and linguistics would get me a job almost anywhere on Earth.

Even off Earth if I wanted.

But after several weeks of being stared at by every species imaginable, feeling like nothing more than a bug in a cage, I wasn’t sure how friendly I felt about dealing with aliens ever again.

“I’m not that much of a bitch,” I told her.

I mean, maybe I was. Probably was.

It might’ve come up before.

“Fine, I’ll get in my pod. But I reserve the right to tease you all until we’re back on Earth.”

“Four minutes,” Kyla said.

That cold voice of fear popped up again.

She sounded awfully certain.

After that, it was a mad scramble as we all slipped back to our cabins.

Olivia, my roommate, had beat me to it. I only saw a flash of her hair as she slid into one of the tight cylinders set into the outer wall of our room.

No matter. It wasn’t like we were best friends.

Taking a deep breath, I looked at my tablet, thought about grabbing it, getting a little studying time in.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” I reminded myself. “You may as well take a nap.”

Nothing had better happen, because to be honest, I wasn’t entirely certain about the sturdiness of the pods.

It was clear these cabins had been created for us humans as an afterthought, ostensibly because they didn’t have space for more staff in the main part of the ship.

I thought it was clear that the rest of the staff didn’t want to be housed with savages like us.

Probably the inclusion of escape pods was part of some galactic bureaucratic codebook, like having a fire escape or something.

“And maybe that’s a good thing,” I admitted as I slid inside the cramped tube.

“Here’s the view from the external cams,” Kyla said, her voice faint through the pod’s comms system.

Fine.  It wouldn’t keep me from my nap. I’d seen it before. The long column housing our deck stretched out before us, ending underneath the giant disc where the rest of the cabins were housed, the pleasure gardens and lounges and casinos and all the rest of the things that made an intergalactic cruise fun.

At least for the passengers.

Whatever.

The all-clear would sound, we’d get back to our regular schedule.

My shifts would start in a few hours, and I’d skip up and down the stage, mentally reviewing torts and damages cases.

I grimaced.

Dancing had never been something I’d tried to learn. It was frivolous, a waste of time.

Luckily, none of the aliens seem to care. Or maybe they did, and the comm bangle on my wrist did a terrible job of translating for me.

Either way.

“See, they’re not going anywhere,” I said. “I’m taking a nap.”

No sooner had I closed my eyes than the pod shook, and my heart leapt in my chest.

Shit.

Something really was happening.

Couldn’t be. Maybe it was just something with the shields.

A thin crescent slowly emerged, dividing the disc from the cargo column. From us.

“Can’t be happening, can’t be…” I couldn’t even speak, eyes riveted to the screen as a white light circled the edge of the disc.

“Guys, that’s the jump drive powering up,” Kyla’s voice said.

I didn’t want to know that.

It circled, gaining speed, the glow getting brighter and brighter.

They were doing it. The Loliax were really leaving us. 

I’d sue their pants off for this. Okay, not pants. They had too many tentacles for that. But still…

The flash filling the screen was almost too bright to look at, and suddenly the cargo column rocked back and forth, the shouts of the other girls echoing in my ears.

When the screen cleared, the disc was gone.

But they hadn’t jumped.

The wreckage floating all around was proof of that.

Everyone was silent, all the words shocked away.

And then, the hiss of sleeping gas filled the pod as I was ejected into the Void.

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