Tess Mathers wishes that her mind would simply stop recording the horrors that she witnessed after the city where she studied was blown to bits. Running through the nearby hills may have saved her life, but nothing short of a miracle would save her sanity. Taken from the planet as the spoils of war, Tess hopes that her end is quick. Life at the fighting pit is harsh, brutal and usually short. Hiding inside her mind is her means of survival until the day she is thrown into a black cell and given to one of the fighters. The next day she remembers nothing, a frustration to her captors, but the next night she is sent back and once again he holds her enthralled.
Clawing at the interior of the storage pod had done nothing but bloody her fingers. They had left her in the dark with only her memories of the attack to keep her company. Horror welled as shadows of colleagues wandered in the darkness around her pod. Some were missing features, some had been gutted by debris, but all were looking at her with silent accusation. Why was she still alive when they were snuffed out with no warning?
Tess slumped in defeat and let despair wash through her. Her life was going to be short and judging by the comments of the medical staff, unpleasant.
With nothing to distract her, Tess thought back to the events that had brought her here. Her talent for languages and fascination for trade records earned her a place in the Volunteer ranks on Terra. Her family was proud and quite happy to have her in such a prestigious position. She had never been happy just plodding along day by day.
There had been tears when she had boarded the shuttle to the Alliance ship, but they were happy tears. She swore to them that she would stay safe and frankly, entering the Alliance as an academic, she really didn't see that much of a possibility for peril.
Apparently, she was wrong.
When the opportunity for the position in Barco had arisen, she had jumped at the chance to have access to the Nyal archives. Few, if any, linguists had had a chance to investigate the ancient trade documents. She had been on a short list of five who were considered for the position. Tess said yes and here she was.
Why hadn't she taken the posting on Azon? Tess kicked herself mentally as she lay trapped in the pod. She could have been mated to a nice researcher by now and living in a modest home on Azon or one of its colonies.
Well, hindsight was always 20/20.
A light flicked on in the storage area where they were keeping her and she put her bleeding hands up in front of her eyes. She guessed that she had been in the tube for nine hours or so, based on how hungry she was.
"He wants to see you. Now." The medical officer stroked the keys on the side of her pod and she was moving.
Rolling through hallways filled with light burned Tess's eyes. The cuts that the shards had left behind had swollen her lids so that they only opened to slits. Her pod was a clear plexi on the exterior, heat and air were the only things that were built in and those units were under her feet. She was completely exposed and didn't like it one bit.
At least she still had the shredded remains of her robe around her. It had allowed her that little bit of dignity before they dumped her in the pod for safekeeping. The slashes on her clothing barely allowed it to hold together, but it kept her from complete panic as they passed any number of horrific creatures in the hall that looked at her with unabashed curiosity. Some were recognizable species but most were not. The academic portion of her wondered what their species' names were and some were obvious blends. Her mind whirled with the possibilities of researching those races.
They paused in front of two giant doors and her escort tapped in a code to open them. A light blazed to life, illuminating the doorway and a few feet inside it. "Here we are. I will be back to collect your pod in two hours if you are still alive." The officer was very matter of fact as he shoved her though the doors and closed them behind her.
Shadows surrounded her pod, caressing and gently exploring. She realized that they were physical when they managed to open her pod. The hiss of air as it opened made her whimper in fear. The dark tendrils were different from the natural darkness, more solid somehow.
Welcome, little one. The shadows surrounded her, warm black velvet on her sensitive and abused skin. They lifted her from the pod and cradled her gently as they transported her into the heart of the darkness.
Terror was fighting with the comfort she felt at the calming touch. "What are you?"
I am Vere of Admar. Those here call me the shadow.
"Admar? Isn't that the elf world?"
So your species called us over a thousand years ago.
She was floated into the presence of two burning red eyes in a sea of darkness.
You were injured?
"Yes. But your demand for my presence saved me from getting my arms and legs blown off."
The sound of his voice shook her. It stroked parts of her that he could not touch through her clothing.
"Yes. That's what they said his name was."
"I have requested him as my next opponent, but I doubt that they will let me have him." Shadows stroked her hair and she sighed in relaxation.
His gentleness was almost her undoing. Tears started to form and only a sharp inhalation of breath stopped them from falling.
His shadows pulled her to him and she floated into his arms. For now, she was safe.
She let him hold her like a child, cradled in his arms. She lifted her hand and pulled a handful of his hair over one shoulder, surprised that it was bright white. "How did you get here?"
"The Admaryn have portals to hundreds of worlds, all hidden underground. We don't travel well in ships, so we developed an alternate form of transport. We used the power from our world to move between them." He didn't pull his hair from her grasp but let her continue to examine its texture.
"Do they know all of this?"
"No, and I will have to take your memory of this information before you leave, or they will take it from you." His fingers stroked her cheek. "I will be gentle with your mind. I promise."
"That was you, speaking in my mind when I first came in here, wasn't it?"
"It was. It is easier for me to communicate that way sometimes--through the touch of the shadows."
Vere brushed his lips against her forehead, a soothing warmth flowed from everywhere he touched her. Her cheek blazed with sensation as he touched it, the trail of his fingers lighting the way down her neck until she shivered with a heat that was not localized above the waist.
Curious, she lifted her lips to touch his and the blaze that kicked through her at the innocent touch took her breath away. She cupped his cheek with her hand, stroking the hard line of his jaw while she leaned up for another kiss.
This time, she flicked her tongue out to taste him and his answering groan and the tangling of his hands in her hair proved that her little exploration was welcomed. When she tried to pull back, he fought her, but only for an instant before he let her go.
"Indeed. It's nice to know that my instincts did not fail me." He smiled at her and the heat in his deep red eyes burned into her soul, lighting her from within.
To cover her pounding heart, she smiled, "Instinct?"
"I have been asleep for a very long time. When you passed Admar, my cold sleep ended and I woke with one purpose."
"To find you."
The light kiss on her nose made her giggle for an instant before she remembered where she was and how she had arrived there.
Flashes of memory ran through her--the wave of debris coming toward her, hiding under a desk and watching shelving cut a colleague in two just inches from her face. Her mind filled with images and she lay in Vere's arms, shaking and sobbing.
"It's over. You survived and there is nothing wrong with that. But our time together is growing short. I am going to touch your mind now. Relax and let the feelings wash over you."
She didn't have time to fight his mental caress. In seconds, she was lost in warm, soothing darkness.