Hurt while scouting for salvage on his ruined planet, Berke Rylan runs across two other travelers who offer help. Unaccustomed to accommodating strangers in a world of nothing, Berke is hesitant to accept. But when he passes out from blood loss, he has little choice.
He later awakens, healed and his resources unexpectedly refilled—with no signs of the kind strangers. Once he returns to the outpost he calls home, the gifts the strangers have given him cause more trouble than they might be worth.
The leader of the outpost demands to know where he received them, and Berke has no answer to give but the truth. He isn’t believed, and sentenced to die… a sacrifice to the gods of rebirth and life.
Irishi, an Earth-like planet in decline
Berkeley “Berke” Rylan climbed through one of the building’s many broken windows, avoiding the jagged glass that remained along the edge. As soon as he stood inside, he dusted his hands off on his pants and gazed around the deteriorating structure, listening for anything moving within. He could only hear the steady beating of his own heart and the shallow breaths he took.
It was cooler inside, yet the heat was still near suffocating. Sweat dripped along his back and temple. He lifted the small canteen at his waist and drained the last few drops of it before shoving it back onto his belt.
Pale sunlight shone in through holes in the ceiling and the holes where windows had once hung. What little bit of glass was left was either shattered by the earthquakes, damaged by roving gangs, or clouded over by lingering dust from the sandstorms that came often came through. At some point—before the oceans and rivers had dried up—trees and foliage had made their claim. Dried dead branches wove here and there, a remnant of another time. From past experience, he knew one touch would make them deteriorate and blow away in the wind.
Once he was fairly certain no one else was there, he relaxed some. The light streaming in deepened the shadows, making it harder to see into the corners of the rooms. Berke took a few tentative steps, scanning the interior as best he could. His footfalls over the layer of fine debris echoed around the room.
As with the last three buildings he’d come into, there looked to be little left behind. Over the last decade, the building had likely been looted and combed over in the search for any resources—over and over again.
The place also smelled of urine and feces, so there was a chance someone, or something, was holing up in there. He made quick work of looking for items of value. Room by room he moved, hopeful there was something left behind that others hadn’t taken.
By the time he reached the last door, he came up short.
His stomach growled, hunger overtaking him. Berke knew there was a small piece of jerky left in his pack, but he was saving that for his dinner. After that, there was nothing else.
Unless he found something to trade.
Berke eyed the stairwell, knowing the building was unstable. A trip up could be catastrophic, so he rarely took the chance. His stomach clenched again, making him reconsider…
Before he could take one step, the ground began to tremble. Instead of heading up, he raced to the window he’d come in through. As he jumped out, he felt the slash of pain. Hitting the ground and rolling, a cry tore from his lips upon impact.
Berke moved his hand down to his ankle and brought back fingers coated in blood.
Before he could investigate any further, the building began to sway. Berke leapt to his feet and scrambled as quickly as he could with a wounded leg. A wall of concrete and metal fell in his direction. His heart thundered in his chest as he scrambled out of the way.
The rubble missed him by inches.
He fell back to his ass, breathing hard, and thankful he’d made it out alive.
After a moment, Berke sat up. Looking to his ankle and seeing his pants soaked with blood, he realized the question now was how long he’d remain alive. Even if he could make it back to the outpost, he could get an infection and it would only be a matter of weeks before he’d be dead.
Berke dug through his pack and found his spare canteen of water. There was little left. Either he washed his wound to protect against infection or he saved it so he didn’t die of dehydration.
He’d seen that death before and it wasn’t pretty.
Berke stared at the canteen a moment, trying to decide what to do.
“Maybe we can be of assistance?”
Berke’s head whipped up, and he quickly scrambled to his feet. Pain made him want to hiss… but he tried to hide the ache from the stranger. He reached for his knife and held it in his hand, ready for a fight.
Two huge men stood near, one much closer than the other.
How did they sneak up on me? Because I was more concerned with another lethal threat.
The closer of the two stood with his hands empty, palms up. “We mean you no harm.”
Berke looked between them. Both kept their hands up and where he could see them, but as hulking as they were it was hard to see them as anything but a threat. Returning his gaze to the first man. “What do you want?”
The stranger frowned. “I see you’re hurt. We can help.”
That frown… the look of concern… Berke narrowed his gaze. There was something… familiar about the man. He looked to the second. Yes, there was something familiar about them both. Searching his memory, he couldn’t recall where he’d seen them before.
Their size alone should’ve made them stand out in his memory. Berke wasn’t small. He stood eighteen hands tall… these men were easily twenty hands.
“I don’t need your help,” Berke said, his jaw clenched against the pain.
“If you don’t treat that cut, you could end up with a nasty infection.”
Berke eyed the strangers, his gaze moving between them. After it landed back on the closer man, he asked, “I don’t have anything of value for you to steal.”
“There’s nothing I want,” the man said with a smile. “Other than to help you… if you’ll let me.”
Give yourself to us.
Berke shook his head. Where had that thought come from? He shook his head, pushing the wayward thought from his mind. “Help? Not likely.”
“I know you’re not accustomed to the kindness of strangers… but we mean you no harm. There’s nothing you have we wish to steal. Your things… nor your life.”
Berke met the man’s stare… and he sucked in a gasp. There was something about him… something that made Berke want to give in.
Yet, that only made him warier.
“You’ll die without our help,” the man murmured, cocking his head to the side. “So, what do you have to lose?”
Berke eyed them both… they were clean. Well dressed. Well fed. They didn’t belong there.
“You have medicine?” he asked.
“A salve. Of my own creation,” the man said. “Not much medicine around anymore.” He pulled a pack from over his shoulder.
Berke jumped, lifting the knife.
“Relax… I’m just going to get the salve to show you.”
Berke’s heart raced, adrenaline shooting through his veins. He tightened his grip on the knife, hoping like hell he wouldn’t have to use it.
He would, if forced to.
There was already enough death and decay around. Berke never chose to add to it, unless there was no other choice.
Kill or be killed.
His gaze moved between them, his body tense and ready to jump.
The stranger lifted a tin from his pack and opened it. He showed the contents to Berke.
“And it can stop an infection?”
“It’s helped others before,” the stranger answered.
“You a doctor?”
The stranger smiled. “I’m a healer, of sorts.” The man looked down and knelt suddenly.
Berke’s gaze followed the man down.
Fuck! He didn’t have much water left as it was. If they took his canteen, he’d likely die of dehydration before he made it back to the outpost.
If I make it back to the outpost. “Giv—”
“Looks like you dropped this,” the stranger interrupted, handing over Berke’s canteen.
Berke stared at it a moment, ashamed that he’d assumed the worst. It could still be a trick. Luring me closer so they can kill me.
Yet his gut told him that wouldn’t happen.
The stranger smiled slightly, and something unfurled in his mind. He still couldn’t quite remember why he knew this man…
“We mean you no harm,” the stranger repeated. “You’ll die without water. Please… take it.”
Berke met the man’s stare—his eyes an odd golden color, much like the hair on his hair and face. Inside those eyes, he saw no guile. No evil intent. A sense of comfort came over him, and Berke didn’t understand it. His defenses felt as if they were crumbling around him and he had no control over it.
He’s so beautiful.
Berke inwardly gasped. He’d never considered another man as handsome, but there was no denying it. This male’s masculine beauty was something to be admired. Praying he wasn’t making a mistake, he reached out and took the canteen.
The stranger backed away as Berke tossed the canteen into his pack.
“You’re losing a lot of blood. We need to get it stopped and cleaned,” the stranger added.
Berke narrowed his stare. He knew he needed help, but strangers were dangerous. He’d heard the tales of those who hunted other people as food. He didn’t like his odds. Two against one. They could easily overtake him, especially considering his current situation.
Could they be cannibals?
The men did look awfully well fed. Berke was one of the best earners at the outpost and could still see some of his own ribs sticking out. I don’t have enough meat on my bones to make for food. They’d starve if they ate me.
“Where are you from?” Berke asked, looking between them. “There’s nothing around here for miles.”
The closer man smiled. “We have plenty of time to talk… while we work on that foot.”
“Ankle,” Berke corrected, swaying slightly. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
The guy cocked his head. “It looks pretty bad.”
Berke glanced down, saw the blood, and realized it was much worse than he had realized. Another wave of wooziness hit him. He lifted his stare, panic hitting him.
Calm down. Slow the heart. Slow the pumping…
He staggered a bit, the world shifting around him. His legs felt unsteady below him. The knife dropped from his hand.
The stranger raced closer, grabbing Berke as he fell.
“I’ve got you,” the man murmured as the world went sideways.
The other man moved in close, just behind them. Berke met the man’s gaze and felt a fluttering in his chest.
Who are they?
“Will he survive?” the second man asked.
“We got here just in time.”
“In time… for what?” Berke whispered.
The healer smiled at him. He lifted a hand to cup Berke’s cheek. “Sleep.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but lost the ability. Darkness took him.