Harry Davies thought the worst part of hiking the Oregon woods in December was the uphill trail to the cabin. His five gay friends all agree. It's cold, they're hungry, and it's margarita-o'clock. But Harry's worried about other things. Cougars. Bears. And some strange, animal-like creature a friend had filmed there years ago. His friends say he's being stupid. But when something dark moves in the trees around them, Harry fears they could all be in danger. And when his friends start vanishing into thin air, there's nothing to do but run—straight into the arms of animal-like creatures with technology like they've never seen.
Something is pushing Vexe toward a disturbance in the sky. A ship, possibly slavers returning to capture more of his people to be sold on Bengus-6. The huge, blue-skinned Zentarans are a favorite of the Ghovik slavers, and Vexe knows he should abandon his hunt and head back to the colony. But he can't resist the strange compulsion—the need—that pulls him through the harsh, snow-covered mountainside, straight for the ship, which he's sure now is going to crash. And straight for the exotic, human survivor, desperate for Vexe's help. Vexe's soulbond explodes to life, compelling him to possess her, his rhuza, his destined mate. But the little human will not submit without a fight. And there is much Vexe must learn before he can claim his rhuza, the beautiful human woman, Harry…
Reader note: contains gay Sci-Fi Romance, alpha aliens, and a happily ever after
Harrison Davies clutched his walking stick in his gloved hands and planted it firmly on the ground. Little puffs of steam escaped his lips and wafted out into the air. The Pacific Northwest trail seemed much longer on the hike back than it did on the walk out. Maybe because the way back was all uphill.
As he caught his breath, he pushed a lock of his long, dark hair out of his eyes. “Whose idea was this, again?” He cast a sharp glance around his five friends from work and let it settle on their ringleader, Parker Reid. “Oh, right. Mr. North Face.”
His friend Parker chuckled, his blue eyes sparkling. He did look like he belonged on the cover of an outdoors catalog. “Come on, Harry. The trail isn’t even that long.”
Parker always sparkled. He was like a big, sparkly magical unicorn prince. With long blond hair that never got mussed and perfect clothes that never wrinkled, he had a smile for everyone, always. If he hadn’t been Harry’s best friend since the tenth grade, he would have hated him just on general principle. It was Parker who always organized these camping weekends—this time for their friend Miles’s birthday. Every year, he found some reason to drag them all into the woods to stay at his parents’ cabin. Although calling it a cabin was like calling a Carnival cruise ship a rowboat. The Reids were loaded. The cabin was nicer than Harry’s family’s regular house. Which was a double-wide in an unpaved park called Sunset Pines, so that wasn’t saying much.
“The trail might not seem long to you,” Harry replied, pulling his phone from the pocket of his red down jacket to check the time. “But for those of us who didn’t grow up in these woods, I’m here to inform you—it’s kind of torture.”
“Oh, come on,” Parker said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not that bad. You’re just out of shape. You need to walk more.”
“What? I’m not out of shape. Do you know how many pushups they make us do at karate? Besides, I walk like twenty miles a day at the plant. From the office to the factory floor, to the office, to purchasing, to the office, to marketing, to the office….”
“I’m with Harry. I call time out,” Miles said. He took a seat on a fallen log and stretched his long legs out in front of him on the carpet of leaf mulch and pine needles. “Besides, I don’t want to jinx it by talking about work. I heard they’re planning more layoffs.”
Miles threw his long red hair over his shoulder and adjusted his Burberry scarf, which looked great against his wheat-colored, hand-knit sweater. Miles was a clotheshorse, and Harry had to admit that if he looked like Miles, he would be too.
But he wasn’t one of those stuck-up fashionistas. Miles was crazy. The total life of the party. There wasn’t a joke he wouldn’t tell or a gag he wouldn’t pull. He just liked to look amazing while doing it.
Like Harry, he was an administrative assistant for the aeronautics plant where they all worked, and he and Harry had next-door cubicles. Miles had a little toy shark on a stick with a mouth that opened and closed when you pushed a button. He liked to lower it over their cubicle wall and “bite” Harry with it when he wasn’t looking. The best was when he brought it to production meetings and bit the plant manager in the ass from three seats away.
“I heard about the layoffs, too,” Harry said. “I hope to God it won’t be us.”
Miles gave him a shrug. “Well, I was the last one hired, so…”
“No more talking about work,” Parker demanded. “We’re here to have fun. Ready to get going again?”
“Somebody kill him,” Simon said. He slid onto the log beside Miles and hip-bumped him to push over. Simon was the tech nerd of the bunch, a software engineer from the IT department. Tall and thin, he could have been really hot if he got his hair trimmed once in a while and wore something other than anime T-shirts and skinny jeans. He had long, dark hair like Harry, always in a ponytail. But where Harry’s eyes were blue, Simon’s were a luminous gray, and his nose had a bump on the bridge where it had been broken at least once. Simon claimed he got hit with a baseball playing Little League as a kid. Harry suspected the cause was something a little less wholesome.
“I’m with Harry,” Simon said. “I need a rest. The only thing keeping me going right now is the promise of a warm fire and a pitcher of margaritas.”
“And the steaks,” Will chimed in, dropping his broad, muscled body beside Simon on the log and making room for Michael to scooch in. “Anyone else dying to dig into a big, juicy steak?”
Hands went up all around, except for Michael, who was a vegan. He was a total child of Portlandia. He practically lived in tie-dye and wore his short blonde hair in an asymmetrical cut that was half tinted pink. His favorite shoes were his “barefoot shoes,” like foot gloves with separate pockets for each toe. Right now, he was wearing his new vegan barefoot hiking boots, which he’d bought just for this trip. Needless to say, he worked in the art department.
“Yuk. Save a cow,” Michael said.
“Yeah, save it for me,” Simon replied. “I’m starving. Honestly, Parker. I don’t know how you talk us into this every single year.”
Miles raised a slim, perfectly plucked red eyebrow at Simon. “You mean he’s done this to you guys before, and you still came?” He guffawed loudly and kicked a rock into the underbrush. “And they say I’m the dumb one.”
Will, who looked more like a bearded lumberjack than an engineer, gave him a little laugh. “He suckers us into this every time. Every winter, he gets us together for some bullshit reason. Christmas-card-writing party, post-Thanksgiving pie-baking party, New Year’s resolution party. And now, thanks to you, your birthday party. And every year, we sit on this same damn log, huffing and puffing and wondering why we never learn.”
“I blame you, MacGyver,” Michael said to Will. “You’re the engineer. You and Simon are supposed to be the brains of this show. We trust you guys to make the right decisions. And you let us down. Every damn time.”
Will shrugged. “What can I say? I’m powerless to resist Parker’s mind control.”
“You should have seen him as a kid,” Harry replied. “You know when your parents said if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you do that too? Well, Parker was that friend.”
“That’s why he’s in marketing,” Miles said. “He’s an expert at convincing people they can’t live without stuff they don’t even want.”
Parker chuckled. “You know you love me. Now get your sorry asses off that log, and let’s get back to the cabin before we get eaten by bigfoot.” He turned and gave Harry a loaded grin.
“God, that was fifteen years ago,” Harry said. “And I still say you would have believed Danny’s footage if you’d seen it. I swear, whatever the camera captured, it was as real as I am.”
“Danny Sullivan’s a liar and always has been,” Parker said.
“Who’s Danny Sullivan?” Miles asked, leading the exodus off the log and back onto the trail beside Harry.
“He’s a kid we went to school with,” Parker said. “Sophomore year in high school, he came in with a video he supposedly shot of bigfoot. Scared the crap out of Harry.”
“Because it was terrifying!” Harry insisted. “You didn’t even see it.”
Parker laughed. “Exactly. How convenient that it miraculously ‘got erased.’ That’s because Danny knew better than to show his bullshit video to people who actually knew these woods. He probably filmed it in his backyard.”
“Don’t be afraid of bigfoot, Harry,” Michael said, patting him on the shoulder as he headed up the trail. “He’s just as afraid of you as you are of him.”
“I never said it was bigfoot!” Harry said, laughing. “I just said it was something. An animal, maybe. Like the kinds that are out here right now. Cougars, bears, wolves. We need to be careful, even if there aren’t any bigfoots.”
“Wouldn’t that be bigfeet?” Miles asked.
“That would be Will,” Simon said. “His feet are like swim fins.”
Will shrugged. “You know what they say. Big feet, big…”
“I promise you, Harry,” Parker interrupted. “There’s no such thing as bigfoot.”
“I never said there was!”
“Don’t worry, Harry,” Will added. “If we see any on the way back to the cabin, I’ll protect you.”
Harry threw his head back and groaned. “I hate you all.”
Something rustled in the brush off to his right.
“What’s wrong?” Parker asked.
“Shhh. Did you hear that?”
Harry’s gaze darted between the trees, searching for motion. For anything that didn’t belong. “There’s something in the bushes.”
“Is it tall, dark, and hairy?” Miles asked.
“Shhh!” Harry hissed.
The group went quiet. Michael stepped toward the edge of the trail. He leaned forward and squinted into the brush between the tall, densely packed pine trees. After a brief pause, he stepped back.
“There’s nothing there,” he said. “Probably just a deer.”
“Or bigfoot,” Miles joked.
The rustling sound came to him again. He froze in place. “Hear that? Something’s moving through the leaves.” He gripped his walking stick like a staff, ready to strike at whatever came charging out of the woods at them. He thought he saw something dark move in the shadows between the trees. He pointed with his stick. “Right there. What’s that?”
His friends all gazed into the bushes where he was pointing. Nothing happened. Not another sound came from the brush.
He waited a little longer, the tension growing thick around them. All he could hear was his heart pounding and his breath coming faster.
“Oh my God, Harry,” Simon said, breaking the tense silence. “Quit trying to scare the crap out of us. Can we please just keep going? It’s margarita-o’clock.”
“No, really,” Harry said, but the five men all began laughing off the tension as they headed up the trail without him.
Harry didn’t follow them. He couldn’t bring himself to look away from the spot in the brush where he thought he’d seen…something.
“Come on, Harry,” Parker called, his voice growing fainter as he and the others grew farther away. “Before Sasquatch gets you.”
A twig snapped in the brush off to his right.
Harry spun to face it. There…
He gazed into the gaps between the pines where the underbrush grew thick and leafy, even in winter. Everything was silent for several tense breaths. All he saw were the little clouds of steam rising from his lips into the frigid air.
“Come on, Harry!” his friends called from a distance away.
He turned, but the trail was empty. It curved off to the left, and the others had made it around the bend. Ahead he could hear Parker and Miles laughing at something.
He sighed and glanced back at the still, empty trees. Whatever had been there was obviously gone.
Turning back toward his friends, he tucked his walking stick firmly under his arm and trotted to catch up.
It suddenly seemed darker in the woods. It was getting late, and one of the ubiquitous Oregon storm clouds must have moved in. Harry reached the bend in the trail, and as he rounded it, he saw his friends up ahead. “Hey, wait for me!”
They stopped and turned around to look at him.
Parker stepped forward. “What’s taking you so long?”
Something dark darted out of the woods and snatched Parker right off the path. It moved so fast Harry couldn’t even see it. Parker was just…gone.
Harry skidded to a stop on the rocky dirt trail. As he watched, Miles disappeared too.
Simon, Will, and Michael began to shout all at once.
A low growl came from Harry’s right. He spun to face a dark animal. No, a person. No… What the hell was it?
The creature’s coat of black fur melted into the gathering dusk. Michael screamed up ahead, and a rush of adrenaline burned through Harry’s veins.
He swung his stick like a bo staff, first a rising block, then a reverse strike, aiming for the creature’s head. But the creature vanished. Harry’s makeshift weapon whooshed through empty air.
Then the creature reappeared, closer.
The black creature appeared right before him. Harry tried to stop, but he plowed right into it.
It made a strange hissing snarl, like a wild animal. But it grunted at the impact like a person would. It stood and walked on two legs.
It was a man. A large, black, furry man. Harry’s mind shouted bigfoot, but he knew that was ridiculous.
The thing grabbed him with black, fleshy hands like an ape’s. It smelled like rotting meat.
Harry screamed and tried to tear himself away, but some invisible force wrapped around him. It whipped Harry through the air between the trees. Something heavy and tight surrounded him, covering his head and body, nearly suffocating him. He struggled, but he couldn’t move his arms and legs.
He tried to call out, but he couldn’t make a sound. No matter how he moved or struggled, he couldn’t break free.
His heart pounded like it was going to explode out of his chest. Where the hell was that thing taking him?
Suddenly, he stopped moving and landed on his back on the ground. A weird, vibrating hum filled the air, almost too low to hear. He leaped to his feet in a small clearing he didn’t recognize. The little hairs on his skin stood on end. His long, brown ponytail and the wisps of hair by his face rose to the left as if something was pulling them to the side. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his friends. They stood stock-still and silent, mouths agape. Their hair and the ends of Will’s scarf were all being pulled toward the sound.
The hum grew louder and vibrated more strongly. He could feel it through the soles of his feet all the way to his teeth. A strange sensation of pins and needles ran over his skin on that side of his face and body.
The black-furred creature turned him toward the vibrating hum. In the clearing before him, he saw a huge dark shape. It looked like a round, pod-shaped…spaceship?
Whatever it was, it seemed to be the source of the hum. It wasn’t very big. Three or four of the black creatures stood beside the thing and began carrying the motionless men through a hatch. The rancid smell of them almost made him retch.
This couldn’t be real. There was no way this could be real. He’d taken shit for years for falling for Danny Sullivan’s fake bigfoot. He was not going to fall for this.
One of the black furry creatures lifted him like he weighed nothing and carried him up the ramp into the ship.
The humming vibration stopped as soon as he was inside. The area was cold and dim. The creatures lined him and his friends up against the curved black wall. As soon as the one holding Harry let him go, his arms fell limp at his sides, and his legs gave out from under him. He collapsed to the floor. It was as if the invisible net holding him up had suddenly disappeared.
He tried to speak again, and this time, he could.
“Where are you taking us?”
His friends joined in, barking questions at the creatures. Who are you? What do you want from us? Where are you taking us?
The creatures didn’t respond. They bound his hands in front of him with thick metal cuffs as he struggled uselessly against them. They were inhumanly strong. Then one of them clamped a metal collar around his neck and threw him to the floor.
They didn’t chain his collar to anything. He glanced around, looking for an opportunity to run.
“This is a good haul,” one of the creatures said. “How fortunate to find six at once.”
“Very fortunate,” another one replied.
“The captain will be pleased.”
Harry stared in shock as the creatures simply vanished.
They’d disappeared. As if by magic.
“How are they doing that?” Parker said.
“I don’t know,” Will replied. “Just be glad they’re gone.”
His friends were each in their own handcuffs and metal collars. Harry raised his hands to the metal ring around his neck. He couldn’t find a latch or buckle, or even any hinges. Just a solid ring of metal.
“Maybe we can just make a run for it,” Will said, turning and heading for the hatch.
The ship made a loud whirring sound, and Harry could see through parts of the smooth black walls. Windows. The pod-thing had windows. They spanned what he’d thought were walls on one side of the round room. His stomach lurched as they started to rise.
“Holy crap,” Michael said. “We’re moving.”
Harry glanced through the wide window. The ground fell away so fast he thought he might be sick. Then, they were rushing through clouds.
They gathered by Harry’s side and gazed out the window.
“Miles, please tell me this was you,” Simon said. Miles had micro-dosed them all with psilocybin at the company’s team-building retreat last summer, which had been hilarious. This was not that.
“Not me,” Miles said. Then he clutched his stomach. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
The sky darkened. A red sheen covered the windows, as if they were about to catch fire, and the ship started shaking so badly they fell back into one another, into the walls, onto the floor. Harry banged his elbow on the floor, and someone’s foot got him in the gut.
There was a final pop, then the ship stopped shaking, and there was nothing out the windows but darkness.
“Oh my God,” Parker said, getting to his feet.
Harry got up and turned to look in the direction Parker was staring. Through the biggest window, Harry could see the blue and green Earth, swirled with white clouds.
No one said anything as they watched the Earth grow smaller. The moon suddenly appeared enormous as they passed it. Then it, too, grew smaller.
“Where the hell are we going?” Will took a step toward Parker but jerked back like a dog at the end of a leash. He cried out in pain and fell to his knees, grasping his collar with his cuffed hands.
One of the creature’s deep voices came to them from seemingly out of nowhere, a deep invisible rumble. “Cease moving. Cease speaking.”
Will let go of the collar and gasped for breath.
“Are you OK?” Miles said, dripping to his knees beside Parker. He was the next one to suddenly cry out and claw at his collar. Whatever they were doing to him, it lasted longer than it had with Will, and Miles fell onto his side, gasping for breath.
“Cease moving! Cease speaking! Do not make us punish you again!”
Harry and his friends looked at each other, but no one moved or spoke. Miles quit gasping and lay still, catching his breath.
Harry turned once more to the window. The last thing he saw was his strange, beautiful planet Earth, very small now.
“Prepare for jump,” came one of their gravelly, invisible voices. “Sector gru-4-9-36, subsector hra-hra-256 by hra-tru-625 by pri-tru-16.”
“Preparing for jump.”
The ship made a strange, electrical sort of sound that made Harry’s ears pop and his skin feel too tight. He lost his ability to breathe or move for a moment. When he could breathe again, the Earth was suddenly just…gone.
“Jump complete. Current coordinates Sector gru-4-9-36, subsector hra-hra-256 by hra-tru-625 by pri-tru-16.”
Harry glanced at his friends. They gazed at each other, too scared to speak. Except for Miles. He’d pulled himself up and was sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the floor in front of him.
“Status of the captives?” one asked in its deep, guttural voice. The captain, or whoever was running the show.
“They all appear healthy,” another replied. Their deep, gritty voices sounded exactly like Harry would expect a freaking bigfoot to sound like.
“They will make perfect breeding slaves.”
“The large one will breed many healthy new slaves.”
Harry glanced around for the creatures, but they were gone. Were they really going to be sold as breeding slaves?
“Perhaps we can keep one,” said the second voice. “We are far above our quota.”
Miles nudged Harry’s leg. “How are we understanding their language?”
Harry glared at him. “Really? That’s what stands out to you in all this?”
“I mean, it doesn’t seem realistic.”
“But you can suspend disbelief for invisible alien bigfoots?”
One of the creatures appeared before him. He reached out to touch Harry’s face, but Harry kneed him in the groin and sent him flying back. Pain suddenly consumed Harry’s body from head to toe. He felt as if the collar was pumping electricity through is body. All the air drained from his lungs, and he couldn’t breathe. He grabbed at the metal collar around his neck, but it burned his hands.
Suddenly, the pain disappeared. It was just gone, as if it had never been there. The creature was gone, as well.
Terrified, Harry pushed himself farther back against the wall.
Then the ship lurched to the side and shook as if it had hit something. Harry and his friends tumbled across the smooth floor. Something rocketed past the window. Another ship.
“Remain still. We are under attack by the ISF. We must evade capture.”
“Do you think they’re trying to rescue us?” Parker asked.
“Who would even know we’re here?” Harry answered. He looked around, trying to see out the windows.
“Maybe this ISF knows the bigfoots are trafficking slaves. Maybe they’re like the intergalactic FBI.”
“Or maybe they just want in on the action.”
The ship continued to shake. Harry saw images of a control room at one side where the creatures sat or stood at controls. The images flickered in and out of his vision, there and then gone. It was as if the creatures were in the same room with them but were somehow invisible. And whatever was keeping them invisible was breaking down.
The control room became visible and stayed that way. So did the massive ship outside the main window, which was shooting beams of yellow light at them.
The entire room descended into chaos. The aliens shuffled about, yelling commands. A couple of them sat at terminals returning fire. Harry’s friends cried out in fear. One of the creatures lunged for Harry, grabbed him around the waist, and carried him off.
Harry lashed out with his hands and feet, then fell still as the pain from his collar consumed him, taking his breath away.
“Cease moving! I’m not letting the Interstellar Forces take all my profits!” The alien dragged him away and slapped a control pad on the wall. An opening appeared, a hatch, and on the other side lay a smaller ship. A shuttle? Or an escape pod?
The alien dragged him in and threw him onto the floor.
The hatch closed behind them. The alien swiped the air, and a transparent control screen appeared. He swiped around on the screen, and two seats appeared, both with manual controls similar to those in an airplane. The alien seated himself and buckled his harness.
“Sit and secure yourself,” he said. The controls in front of him lit up immediately, and their small pod began to hum and vibrate.
“Where are we going?” Harry shouted above the hum, which grew louder as the creature swiped across the controls.
“Sit and secure yourself! You’ll be worthless if you die before we get there!”
“Zentara. Maybe they’ll pay enough for you to get me back to Bengus-6.”
“Pay for me? You mean as a breeding slave?”
“Breeder, laborer, sex toy, whatever I can unload you for the soonest. You’re lucky you’re pretty. It’s unlikely anyone would waste a pretty little ass like yours in the mines.”
The alien launched them into space. Harry tumbled over and over on the floor. His head crashed against a wall, and he saw stars. Maybe he should have strapped himself in when he had the chance. He looked through the window at the ship they had just left. A beam of light from the interstellar force’s ship surrounded their ship.
Then the entire ship disappeared.
“What just happened?” Harry asked. “Where’s your ship?”
“Cease speaking,” it nearly grunted, “or I’ll toss you out into the void!”
Harry just gazed out the window at the much larger ship.
“Your ship just disappeared! What happened to it? What happened to my friends?”
“We’ll reach Zentara in moments.” The creature at the controls hit something, and time stood still for a moment, stopped in an awful state of unmoving nothing. Then everything suddenly raced back into place. Harry wasn’t sure anything had even happened.
He sat up. Right in front of him, mounted on the wall, was a strange, yet strangely familiar-looking, object. A silver tube with a black hose, about the size of…
“A fire extinguisher,” Harry whispered.
He reached for it with his cuffed hands, and it automatically freed itself from its mounting. It felt heavy in his awkward grip. Too heavy.
Harry rose to his feet behind the alien’s seat.
“The landing sequence is entered. Sit and secure yourself.”
Harry looked down at the heavy fire extinguisher in his cuffed hands. He only had moments. If he didn’t act now, he’d be sold to some freaking alien as…he didn’t want to think about what. What had the creature called it? Zentara? God only knew what those creatures would be like.
His hands began to sweat, but he tightened his grip and raised the thing awkwardly in the air.
He brought it down as hard as he could on the creature’s head.
The creature slumped forward in his harness, unconscious. Harry looked through the front window to see a planet with a ring around it. The place looked nothing like Earth.
A wave of fear washed over him. He didn’t know where he was going or whether there would be people down there who would help him. What kind of people lived on a planet that looked like that, anyway?
What did it matter? The little escape pod was plummeting toward the planet at mind-numbing speed, and he’d just knocked the pilot unconscious.
Maybe he hadn’t thought this through.
Outside, the planet grew larger at an alarming rate as they approached. It took up the entire window. The little pod began to shudder. Through the window, Harry saw flames begin to surround the pod as they broke through the atmosphere.
“Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck.” He wished that he was back on that hiking trail in Oregon with his friends, worrying about making it back to the cabin to get drunk. Worrying about layoffs from the plant. Worrying about who was gossiping about whom.
Wishing he’d sat down and buckled up.
He dropped into the seat and fumbled with the harness, trying to strap himself in with his hands cuffed before him. “Come on, come on, come on…”
An end of one of the straps clicked in, seemingly on its own. But for the life of him, he couldn’t get the other to engage.
“Shit!” He gave up on the second harness strap, and as soon as he did, it snapped into place. He took hold of the wheel and stared at the buttons. Lights that had all been a calm green were now flashing in all different colors. The bigfoot had said he’d entered the landing sequence. Did that mean they were flying on some kind of autopilot? He reached for a button with a shaky hand but thought better of it. It would be just his luck to knock out the autopilot the way he’d knocked out the real pilot and crash-land his ass.
Sudden ridiculous laughter bubbled out of him. What did it matter? Even if the little ship didn’t explode on impact, did this planet even have an atmosphere he could breathe? And if it did, how was he going to survive…whatever they intended to do with him?
He felt like he wanted to throw up. Where were his friends right now? Were they even still alive? Had the interstellar forces ship taken the slavers’ ship into itself? Or had they…destroyed it?
He regretted everything he never did back home. Like telling his boss he needed a raise. Or asking out Lance in accounting. Or getting a dog.
Terrified, he clutched the wheel as the ship shot through layer after layer of clouds. The ground came into view, white and frozen, covered with icy mountains. Rainbows of light reflected off the rocks and mountains in colorful flickers, as if the landscape were made of prisms.
He thought for a moment how beautiful it was, until he realized it was the last thing he’d ever see.
He glanced at the big, black, furry alien beside him, still slumped over in his seat.
“Son of a bitch. I told them bigfoot was real.”
* * *
Vexe stood at the base of Shavala Mountain with his spear in his hand. His blue skin glistened in the ethereal light, and the mane of darker blue hair running from his head to the base of his spine fluttered in the wind. He blended in perfectly with the winter landscape, his blue hues mimicking shadows in the snow. That was the best thing about being Zentaran. He was one with his home world.
His long jova fur cloak whipped about him in the breeze. He wore it open, its open back leaving room for the hair down his back. The cold did not bother him. It didn’t bother any Zentaran. The cloak was to keep the snow off if a squall hit while he was out hunting or to shelter beneath at night to hide him from predators. Zentarans were made for this weather, and Vexe took pride in his strength.
He sighed contentedly as he looked over the mountains, soaking it all in.
He loved his home.
The steep, snowy slope before him looked treacherous, but it was no match for his strength and agility. He could easily chase down a marvak, the great many-legged insects the size of many Zentarans laid head to foot. The creatures hunted in swarms, and they preyed upon the jova, the adorable little herd animals the Zentarans raised for milk and wool. It was Vexe’s job to make sure they did not succeed.
“Mweeeee!” The little jova squealed beside him and butted his thigh with its nubby horns.
“Hush, Mwee. Your impatience is noted.”
Vexe reached down and scratched his little pet’s head between its little horns. The creature dragged its head away and butted him again in the thigh.
“Oh, all right. Calm yourself, you little beast.”
He didn’t need Mwee to remind him of the importance of his task—kill marvak to keep them from threatening the herds.
Vexe started up the slope with Mwee kicking up snow beside him. The white-wooled creature hummed contentedly as they climbed, bouncing with the jova’s lively gait that made them always look happy. Their fluffy, impossibly soft wool made them appear twice their actual size.
Though jova were livestock, raised in pens down by the barn for milking and shearing, Vexe had found the bedraggled young creature while out on a hunt several winters ago. Clearly orphaned, he’d been more dead than alive when Vexe had brought him home. He spent the night warming him by the fire and feeding him drops of jova milk from the end of his finger to try to keep him alive till morning.
The damned thing had survived and had taken over his life like some a fluffy white fungud, impossible to get rid of.
“Are you ready to hunt, you cursed beast?” Vexe asked him.
The jova responded with a light hum of delight as Vexe bent down at scratched his chin.
Something seemed to tug at his shoulder. Vexe turned, but there was nothing there.
Of course there was nothing there; he knew that. He was miles from the settlement. But the sensation was undeniable. It was as much inside him as out.
What was that? A premonition of danger? He looked tentatively up the slope as he kept his hand on the jova.
Mwee was looking, too.
“What is it, Mwee? What do you see?”
He felt another tug. It was as if something was pulling him, coaxing him to walk somewhere. But where? The strange sensation grew, and his mood darkened. Nothing but the sound of the wind came to him. It whipped about his legs and blew his mane around his face.
Something wasn’t right.
The uneasy feeling crept into his stomach and made him twitch. No longer was the feeling merely tugging him. Now he could feel it pointing in the direction to his right. What was over there? He sniffed the air.
“Something important is going to happen today.”
He said it without thinking.
He tried to shake off the strange idea. What was he talking about?
The feeling didn’t leave him, even as he tried to put it out of his mind. He was no seer, no soothsayer. His people believed in such things, but he did not. He believed in what he could see, touch, and hear. And that meant he believed in the two hands he gazed down at, in the ice his hide-booted feet stood upon, and in the little jova who stood beside him, bouncing excitedly. His experience was what he could see and hear and touch. Not silly stories passed down from his elders.
“Mweeeee!” The little creature nudged him and took a few bouncing steps forward through the snow, encouraging Vexe to follow.
“You feel it too, Mwee?” he asked. “Maybe I should follow you then. You’ve got more sense than the stupid stories.”
As a young kid, he’d heard the stories of the goddess who created life and love. The Zentarans used the stories to lull children to sleep or to scare them out of creating mischief. Threats of the goddesss’s minions coming to drag them off to the otherworld haunted every kit’s dreams. In her happier aspect, it was said the goddess brought a Zentaran his true rhuza—the other half of his soul that splintered off during the passage from the last life to the present. His soulpiece.
While Vexe had believed in all those tales as a child, he’d learned that they were nothing more than that. Tales. Tales to keep foolish young men in line, working hard for something that didn’t exist, and to keep scared old men unafraid of death, believing they would be with their loved ones forever.
Vexe was past the age where he should have met his rhuza. Yet he was still alone. His friends had all found their rhuzas and had housefuls of kits chasing their feet and getting into mischief. Needing tales of the goddess’s minions, the wakuha, who would come to them in the night and carry them off to the otherworld if they misbehaved.
But Vexe was still alone. No kits to scare into good behavior with tales of wakuha. No kits he could have taught the ways of a hunter, a warrior.
Vexe hunted alone. Alone but for Mwee.
A loud blast rang through the air. The snow on the mountains vibrated in response to it. Vexe looked up and saw a bright flaming streak in the sky. It looked like a meteor. But this wasn’t the usual season for meteor showers.
It was a zhip.
A shiver raced over Vexe’s skin. A zhip that carried the loathsome creatures who often came to his world from the sky to kidnap their young and carry them off to the goddess knew where.
The Ghovik. The real wakuha that should have been sufficient to terrorize kits.
The zhip was clearly falling, not flying, toward Zentara.
He chuckled to himself. “May they crash into the side of the mountain and become food for the marvaks.”
Within seconds, the zhip slipped past the tree line. A moment later, Vexe heard the sound of it crashing into the ground at the foot of the mountain. The ground beneath his feet shook, and snow and forest debris exploded up into the air from the impact. The tugging sensation at Vexe’s body resurfaced, pulling him toward the zhip.
Go to it, something inside him said.
He shook his head. The filthy black-furred Ghovik might have survived. As strong as Vexe was, a troop of them would easily overcome a single Zentaran.
You must go to it.
He frowned hard.
Why did he feel so compelled to go? He had to go. He didn’t know why. He just had to.
“Well, Mwee. Danger or no, we have no choice. It’s what must be.”
The little jova squealed with delight and took off toward the crash as a pillar of smoke rose into the sky. His little legs scampered beneath him as he leaped joyously through the snow toward the crash site. “Mwe-mwe-mwe-mwe-mweeeee!”
Vexe let out a sigh and set off after him.
He followed the jova over the blowing snow, using his spear to steady him through the drifts and trying to keep his mind from running away with him.
It might not be the Ghovik. But if it was, he would have to fight. He had sworn no more of his people would be taken by those evil beasts. The Ghovik favored Zentarans because of their strength. But though they were strong, the alien creatures were stronger. They had unfathomable ways to create pain for their prey, devices the Zentarans didn’t understand. And they kept their prey in cages, only taking them out to defile them, forcing themselves on them in a mockery of the rhuz.
If he had a rhuza, he would never treat her in such a fashion. The slavers were evil, wretched creatures. He wished he had the means to kill every last one of them.
He sighed and continued after Mwee. The little fool was dancing onward to his death, most like, and there was nothing Vexe could do about that, either.
He tried not to think about it. He tried to distract himself by looking around him at his surroundings, listening for danger, smelling for anything unnatural. But that horrible feeling that they were walking to their deaths made it difficult to focus.
The feeling grew worse as he reached the top of the rise. The valley lay bare below, save for the crashed zhip. Billows of black smoke rose from the distorted metal, and nothing moved anywhere near it.
Maybe there was no one inside. Perhaps the foul creatures had abandoned it when it became clear it was doomed. Or perhaps they had all died in the crash.
There was no way of telling. He held his spear at the ready, prepared for whatever was inside. He studied the surrounding area to check for their scouts. If it was an ambush, there would be creatures hiding among the crystal formations that rose through the snow and ice. But there didn’t seem to be any.
He took a deep breath and saw Mwee leaping over a snow drift. The foolish thing didn’t worry about any danger at all.
He let out a breath and turned back to the snow and ice before him. “Wherever you are, you foul, filthy beasts, I’m coming for you.”