Authors: Angela Verdenius
“Ceri,” Reya said with cold control. “You’re going to be confused but you need to know that everything is all right. I’m coming for you. Aye, you’re aboard a bounty hunter’s ship, but they’re our...” An icy smile flickered around her full lips. “Nay, not friends. But they will keep you safe. You have no reason to fear them. If you’re listening to this then you’ve already seen the pardon we received. All you have to do is rest and wait for me. I’ll be meeting you shortly to bring you back to Comll, back to our sister warriors. When you’re ready, tell Abra and he will put you into contact with me.” Her ice cold eyes softened slightly. “’Twill be good to see you again, cousin.”
Reya’s words were peppered with Daamen words, ‘aye’ instead of ‘yes’, and other words, but it was her voice, matured.
Then came a medley of image photos, images of Connie, Tenia, Reya and Dana with their husbands and children. They were all older, matured. Connie had several silver strands in her beautiful thick hair.
And that was it. The screen went blank.
Breathing heavily, Ceri stared at the screen. If what she saw was true, if it was all true... the last she remembered, it was 6992.
Now it was, apparently, 7006.
Black spots danced in front of her eyes and she could feel herself start to hyperventilate. Leaning forward, she tried to calm her breathing, but panic started to grip her and she was breathing too fast, much too fast, too uneven—
The door to her cabin banged open and dimly she heard a curse, then someone was beside her holding a paper bag over her mouth and nose. She gripped the hand holding it, squeezing as she fought to bring her breathing under control.
She didn’t know how long had passed before she finally become aware of her surroundings. Pulling the bag away, she took a gulp of fresh air and looked up. In the doorway of the cabin were two hunters, a swarthy one and a younger man. Both had the hard eyes and watchfulness of pack members.
They nodded to Abra who was sitting beside her and left.
“Right now?” Abra asked, his voice as harsh as usual.
God, could she ever be all right? It had to all be lies, it had to be. It couldn’t be true, it couldn’t...
But it was. There was no way such a fabrication could be concocted. She felt the panic start to beat inside her again.
“Don’t you dare go to bloody pieces again,” Abra growled. “On your feet.”
She followed blindly, allowing herself to be drawn to the edge of the bunk. His hard arm was around her waist, drawing her up, and he supported her as she stumbled towards the little door he was leading her towards.
It was a bathing cabin. She recognized the bath and that now familiar nausea roiled through her, only this time she couldn’t keep it down.
Abra lowered her quicr bred herkly in front of the toilet, and she dry retched into it, grasping the surprisingly clean porcelain in shaking hands. Nothing came up, her stomach was empty of food, but it didn’t stop the retching. Sweat trickled down the side of her face.
She felt the warmth of the hunter as he hunkered down behind her but he made no move to lay a comforting hand on her back. A good thing, because she wasn’t totally sure what she’d do if he did.
Karana was dead, Reya and Tenia now the Reeka leaders. Wed, with children. Everyone had grown up, grown older. Some had died, good friends and relatives. Life had passed while she had been frozen for—she did a sickening calculation in her head. Fourteen years. Life had moved on without her.
Her already white-knuckled grip on the porcelain went even tighter.
“You hyperventilate again and I’ll tie the bag to your head,” Abra said mildly.
“Bugger off,” she gasped breathlessly.
“No can do. I’m on this mission and I’ll see it done. Deliver you safely to Reya and then that’s it.” His hand appeared with a wet face washer in it. “Here, wipe your face.”
Shakily she took it and dabbed at her skin. Several minutes passed in silence while she stared into the water in the toilet and Abra stayed behind her.
Finally she started to push to her feet, swaying. Abra grabbed her under the arms and hauled her upright. Steering her over to the wash basin, he waited until her hands were braced on it for balance before he reached out to pick up a glass from the shelf and filled it with water. Handing it silently to her, he watched as she gulped it down.
Lowering the glass, Ceri gazed finally into the mirror, afraid of what she’d see. Her own face stared back at her, pale, red-eyed, but her own face. No lines of age, no silver in her tousled blonde hair. She didn’t look any older than she had been when she’d been caught in the ice.
Reaching out with a trembling hand, she touched the mirror.
“What’s wrong?” Abra watched her closely.
“I don’t look older. I should be... I should be older.”
“Well, you’re not. When you were frozen, you didn’t age. You should be happy, most women would be delirious.”
“I’m not most women.”
“I’m forty two years old.” Ceri swallowed hard. “I am forty two years old.”
“Technically, yes.” Abra shrugged. “But according to the data we collected through the couple of tests we were able to do on you, you’re still twenty eight.”
It was almost too much to take in but at least she wasn’t looking into the face of a stranger. She felt misplaced suddenly. How would Rani be feeling? “I want to speak to Rani. Take me to her.”
“Would if I could,” he replied, “but we have no idea where she is.”
Ceri looked around at him sharply, her slumped position making them on eye level.
“You were the only one in the cave,” Abra explained tersely. “The ice containing your sister had been cut away. She was taken, we don’t know when, where or why, or by whom.”
“You were the only one there.”
Placing the empty glass on thize glass e basin, Ceri drew a deep breath and straightened. “I need to find her.”
“You need to get your strength back first.” Looping her arm across his shoulders, Abra turned her in the small space and led her back to the bunk.
“I can’t just sit around.”
Unceremoniously he released her, watching with upraised brow as she spilled back on the bunk. “Yeah, you look like you’re ready to take on the biggest, baddest bastards of the universe right now.”
“And you’re the biggest.” Struggling up onto her elbows, she scowled up at him. “Oh, I forgot. Thanks for saving me. Is that all right?”
“I thought as much.” Her stomach rumbled suddenly.
“I’ll bring you food.” Abra pointed at her. “Stay right there, don’t run away.”
It was a bitter taste in her mouth to know that she couldn’t have run even if she’d wanted to. Right now she was reliant on the bounty hunter, and how bloody ironic was that? But as soon as she was strong enough, she was leaving to find Rani.
A sudden thought occurred to her. Why was she taking Abra at his word, anyway? Maybe the viscomm taping was a hoax. What for, she had no idea, but there was one way to make sure.
She only fell to her knees twice on the way across the cabin and considering her knees felt like jelly, Ceri thought that was good progress. Once in front of the viscomm in the wall, she touched the screen, using the touch pad in the corner. The disc started playing again but now she peered close at the date on the bottom and she saw the IPS insignia on the bottom.
Even an outlaw from fourteen years ago knew that the IPS insignia was unable to be copied. Unless things had changed in fourteen years. In which case if she was thinking that, then she believed the story anyway.
Now her head was starting to hurt.
Turning the viscomm off, she stumbled back towards the bunk, just managing to make it and fall face forward onto it as the door opened.
“Just couldn’t resist disobeying orders,” Abra drawled.
“The day I take orders from a hunter is the day I die,” she replied, rolling onto her back and pushing upright, fighting the panic that still threatened to overtake her. Better to be angry than afraid.
Plunking the tray of food on her lap, Abra grunted. He glanced up and they gazed at each other for several long seconds before he grunted once more, straightened and strode out the door.
Shaking her head, Ceri looked at the food. The
stew was hot, the bread fresh, and her stomach rumbled again in demand. Taking up the fork she started to eat. Food would give her strength, and strength would lead to her leaving to find Rani.
Inner Sanctum of the Outlaw Sector
The Overlord watched dispassionately as the Reeka fought the chains that kept her secure in the cell. The warrior was the promise againerist what was to come. She had been chosen a long time ago, chosen when the other hadn’t been ready, hadn’t been willing, hadn’t been at that precarious stage between life and death. Each time he’d thought they’d have the other somehow she’d survive and walk away from whatever was thrown at her.
But this one hadn’t escaped. Death had gripped her and the darkness had cut the tie and brought her back.
He watched her pace. She teetered on insanity, he could see it in her eyes. Cunning, wary, almost insane. But not entirely human anymore, either. Now she belonged to the darkness, and the darkness was what he sought to conquer and control and bring firmly into his grasp once more.
Darkness ruled him, and he ruled it. At least in the Outlaw Sector. His word was law in the Inner Sanctum, it was he who held the reins on the stronger war lords and outlaws, space pirates and mystics. He kept the balance through fear and intelligence.
And this warrior was the one to bring down the only one to ever threaten him.
~ * ~
Rani paced the confines of the cell as far as the chains would let her. Darkness surrounded her, shadows flitted in the corners. The stench of rotting flesh was everywhere and the heaviness of horrors prickled at her skin.
Her soul felt shattered. Little pieces clinking inside her, not whole, just grabbed and shoved together haphazardly, little parts falling away from each other. Her hands shook, her mind stormed with emotions and feelings, memories and darkness. Nothing was right, nothing was safe.
Demons crawled up the walls, she could see them. Great horned beasts so huge that their bodies came up through the stone floors and their heads disappeared into the stone ceiling above her.
But she could hear their roaring, feel the cold rake of their claws across her skin. And she knew who called them.
The robed man, the rotting man. Evil clung to him, dark magic, demonic mists. He wasn’t alive, nor was he dead. His flesh dripped off in petrified chunks and his words hissed through a ruined mouth.
She knew him. Oh yes, she knew him.
Pacing erratically, her mind churning, she tried to focus.
Focus, focus, focus. Must focus.
The slice of a sword, the cold, sharp sensation. Blood. Unable to breath. Falling, falling, the gathering darkness. She almost slipped free, she could feel herself slip free from her damaged body only to be yanked back, cruel claws raking at her soul, shredding it to pieces. Clawing and dragging her back, thrusting her into her body, a place almost alien to her now.
Her soul had been poised for flight, but before it could fly free it was captured and imprisoned.
Rani’s breathing was uneven as she shook her head, trying to clear her mind.
So much pain. Demons and sisters, warriors and death. Fire, smoke, laser burns. Space ships. Dark caverns, ice, hot fire and raking claws.
Imprisoned, imprisoned, imprisoned
Throwing back her head, she howled, the sound echoing eerily off the stone walls.
The shadowy demons keeping her company threw their horned heads back and roared, sharing her pain.
Kinship with demons
. Shuddering, she shook her head
. It wasn’t right. It was wrong, so wrong,
yet her shatteodyt her sred soul shivered and tried to piece back together. The orange smoke filtered through her, destroying even as it sought to bring her together.
Convulsing, she fell to the floor. Her soul screamed, she screamed, and the demons roared.
Head turned to the side, she saw the door to her cell open and the man come in. He knelt not far from her, holding her gaze with his. Hard, ruthless blue eyes snared her gaze, locked on as though drawing her into him.
He was speaking but she couldn’t hear over the roaring of the demons, the roaring in her head, the pounding of her heart and the screaming of her soul as it tried to hide from the orange smoke searching for the pieces.
His hand came out to grab hers. She clutched at him, knowing he was the only real thing in this nightmare seeking to invade her.
“It’s all real.” His voice was suddenly clear, a calmness in a storm.
The relief of being able to hear him made her grow quiet. Breathing heavily, she focused on his mouth, watching as he spoke
. Help me. Please help me.
“It’s all real, warrior. Don’t fight it and it’ll be easier. Let the darkness in.”
Betrayal! Betrayal everywhere!
She let go of the quietness, let herself be sucked back into the storm of her mind as she fought his words, rejected the quiet order and tried to push the darkness from her. Her soul pieces wept.
He didn’t relinquish her hand, holding on as her heels slammed against the floor and her back bowed up. The only thing keeping her slightly tied to reality was the strength of his fingers entwined in hers.
But even that couldn’t last for long and she tipped over into the darkness in her own, private war with the evil curling through her mind, the tendrils seeking the shattered pieces of her soul.
~ * ~
Beulah waited patiently as the spaceship landed not far from her hut. On the veranda her husband, Sinya, leaned against the rail, his hands braced against the rough wood, the billowing sleeves of his shirt fluttering in the breeze that swept across the empty spaces around them.