WIND DROVE THE HEAVILY FALLING snow sideways as Erynn raced into the storm and down the mountain. She opened vents on the sides of her helmet to prevent her breath from fogging the inside of the face shield. Icy air rushed in, numbing her cheeks. She sped around boulders, sliding out of turns. She relished being outside and doing something useful. These two enemy soldiers had probably had enough of Arranon’s extreme weather and dangerous wildlife. They would gladly come with her. She could bring them in peaceably.
The tree line loomed ahead. She slowed the speeder, banking to a stop. Powdery snow fanned away, landing with a soft plop in the growing drifts. She cut the power to the speeder, and the humming engine whined to silence. A deep quiet that only comes with snow followed. An occasional gust of wind whistled around the high boughs, adding a lonely voice to the soundless forest. Erynn raised her visor and gazed through the trees. The faint, spicy scent of needle leaves swirled in. She smiled. “Beautiful.”
“Now, where are you?” Her whisper plumed out, darting among the dancing flakes to be spirited away. She faced forward, then right, then left. Nothing. “Hmmm. Did you leave?” She started the speeder, deciding to go deeper into the woods, straight ahead but slower. Dark shadows scurried, keeping pace with her from beneath drooping, snow-laden boughs.
Thoughts of meervorines, with their razor teeth and claws, clamped an icy hand around her spine. No aleuns flew from tree to tree or chirped a song among the branches covered in their thick white blanket. No maejen prowled the outer boundaries of the heavy boughs, yellow eyes gleaming, their great heads low, muzzles sniffing at the snow, tails tucked between long sinewy legs. Nor did they howl a greeting from the tops of ravines. Not even the katjaramuud, with their large, thick bodies poked massive round heads from the trees to watch her progress.
“Where is everyone?”
A sudden icy gust pushed through the forest. Limbs rose and fell, swaying under their mantle of white.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Erynn lowered the helmet’s face shield and activated the infrared sights. If something or someone was out there, she would see a heat signature through the sensors imbedded in the visor. She continued to creep down the mountain, rising up and over drifts, scanning the area under and around the trees.
“Nothing.” She sighed. “Okay, so what has my awareness on alert?” Her stomach tightened and rolled. She stopped the speeder, cut the power, and threw her leg over the seat. She stumbled through uneven drifts, moving only a few meters from the ski-speeder, listening to the unusual silence while peering into the storm and around the trees.
“What is going on?” She spun back toward the speeder, staring beyond the vehicle and into the swirling snow. Flakes skipped and darted, creating an illusion of flittering shapes closing in. Her breath caught. Nothing lit up the sensors, but something watched her. She could sense eyes, their gaze burning into her like dagger points, sharp against her back. That feeling of ice along her spine spread, tightening her chest.
She pushed through the deepening snow pack to the speeder, jumped onto the seat, and hit the starter. Her gloved thumb slid off, jamming against the speeder’s frame. “Batias!” she cursed, shaking her hand to ease the pain shooting up her wrist. That sense of others, of being watched, came closer, studying her. Their scrutiny stabbed through the frosty air. She punched the button again, but the speeder’s engine remained silent. Her respirations increased. Fog misted the inside of her visor, obscuring her vision. She flipped the shield up and out of her eyes. Without the visor, she couldn’t observe an approaching threat, but with it on, she was unable to see to start the speeder.
“What’s wrong? Why won’t you start?” She gritted her teeth, depressing the button repeatedly.
A small screen below the starter sputtered to a dim yellow glow. Words in a faint red radiance blinked off and on.
SYSTEM FAILURE. POWER RESERVE DEPLETED.
The light in the screen flickered and went out.
“No! There was a full charge.” The heavy blanket of white around her buffered her voice.
To her right, tree limbs shook, losing their mantle of snow.
Erynn pulled her weapon with a smooth, fluid motion. Yellow eyes appeared under long pointed leaves.
A heavy breath rushed between her pursed lips, fogging into the icy air. “It’s you.” The relief in her voice carried to the three white maejen, and they slipped out from the shadows. Erynn glanced around, still holding the staser. “But you aren’t what I sense out there, watching.”
The maejen circled her, yipping and dancing nervously on round paws.
She frowned. “Something’s hunting me.”
The alpha threw back his head and howled, the other two maejen joining his song.
“So what do I do?”
The group hurried under the limbs, glancing back at her.
“Follow you. Good idea.”
Erynn abandoned the speeder and ran.
The den of downed trees covered with snow was dry inside, and the wind didn’t penetrate. Erynn pulled off the helmet and stripped out of heavy gloves, placing them inside the upturned emptiness. She no longer sensed being watched, except by the pack. This season’s pups were nearly full grown. Their curiosity radiated to her. She sat back against a wall of sticks and held out her hand.
One by one, the five young came forward, sniffing her.
The big alpha male chuffed, his teeth showing in an obvious grin. He scooted in next to Erynn and sat down.
“Thanks. I owe you.”
He lay against her leg, head on her lap, his blazing eyes gazing up at her, and whined.
“Okay, we’re even, kinda.” She brushed her hand over warm, dense, soft fur. “I won’t keep score if you don’t.”
Outside the small opening, the day gave over to evening in faint degrees, finally succumbing to night and the impenetrable dark.
Erynn opened her pack. She pulled out water and a bland protein bar. More curiosity flowed from the young maejen. She offered to share her meal.
The pups sniffed the portion she held out, sneezed, and backed away, shaking their heads.
She chuckled. “I don’t blame you. They’re pretty bad.”
Erynn finished her meal, washing the tasteless bar down with a bottle of water. Wiping the back of her hand across her lips, she curled against the wall to wait for morning. When a fitful sleep came, unsettling dreams took her underground.
Open caverns dimly lighted by distant fires were alive with human-like forms. Screeching howls punctuated the gloom. Shadows slithered behind rocks and at the periphery of her vision. The dream shapes faded into nothingness, and she was alone in the dark.
Erynn woke to a gentle snowfall, but no wind. Soft morning radiance crept lethargically through the small entry. With a modest effort, the day created little more than a pale silver puddle of light near the den’s opening. The maejen slept around her, feet twitching, barking quietly as they ran after dream prey. An unidentifiable carcass stripped of flesh and discarded in the center of the den was evidence of a successful night’s hunt and full bellies. She was glad she hadn’t been awake for that part.
Pushing into a sitting position, Erynn yawned and stretched stiff arms over her head. She considered another protein bar but decided to wait until she was back at the base to eat something tastier, and warmer. Perhaps the bloody, raw smell of the pile of ravaged bones was another factor in her lack of appetite. She pulled on gloves, crawled to the opening, dragging the helmet with her, and poked her head out into the fresh morning air.
Snow-burdened trees lay beyond deep drifts. With eyes closed, she sent her senses flying. Like the aleun, her awareness soared, out and away. After a careful search, she reversed her probing consciousness. There was nothing threatening in the forest this morning. She crawled the rest of the way out but stayed tight against the opening, scanning the spaces around and under the trees.
A nose pushed gently against her back.
Erynn side-crawled to the right.
A massive white head popped out of the entry.
“Morning.” She watched the alpha. His intense gold eyes searched the woods. Her gaze tracked where the maejen’s had. Nothing.
He snorted snow from his twitching nose and glanced at her. Showing his teeth, he trotted into a deep drift outside the den.
“Yeah, I don’t sense any danger either. Whatever was out there is gone now. Thanks again. I gotta get back before they send out a search party.” She sighed. “If they haven’t already.”
The alpha dipped his head, staring at her. He chuffed, showing more teeth.
Erynn returned the smile. “At least you’re finding humor in this.”
His head swung in the direction they’d come from yesterday.
She frowned. “Yes. I’m going back for the speeder. There has to be a reason the power source is reading a complete failure.” She shook her head. “Strange.” She stood up, brushed snow off her pants, and set out through the forest.
The speeder was a lump among others in the snow. Erynn stood a moment, catching her breath. Walking through the deep drifts was a workout. When the ache in her chest eased, she began brushing the powdery blanket off the speeder.
She crouched, took the protective cover off the small engine, and examined the wiring. She could find no reason for the failure. Replacing the cover, she worked her way around the vehicle, checking each connection. On the other side of the speeder, she found the problem. The main power cable appeared to have been chewed through.
“When—” Erynn bolted upright. The watchers had returned. Every muscle in her body coiled to react as she peered into the falling snow. Icy fingers crawled from the base of her spine to her neck, and her skin prickled with the chill. “Okay, time to go.” She opened the repair kit from a case affixed to the rear of the seat. Electric blue and purple tendrils wound around her gloved hands. She knelt next to the damaged wiring and began to fuse the separation.
Movement in the distance to her right screamed for her attention, but she ignored the cry.
“Get this fixed. Get out of here,” Erynn whispered with urgency. When she had the heavy wires twisted together, she wrapped the spot in strong tape. “That should get me home. I hope.” She stood up and returned the tools to the box, her gaze drawn to the right. Several dark, human-shaped forms darted between the trees, edging closer. Her lungs hitched, and she jumped onto the speeder, throwing her hood off and her helmet on. Hot, fetid breath brushed at her neck. The stench of putrid flesh filled her nostrils.
Imagination? Yes. No. Maybe. Go!
Bright purple static popped off her hands as she reached down to the starter. The snapping currents enfolded the chassis. The speeder started without punching the button. Erynn twisted the throttle full open and sped away, up the mountain.
Jaer stormed into the transport bay. Cale was already there. A young man appeared to shrink at Cale’s menacing posture, intense gaze, and barrage of questions.
I will not be so kind.
Stammering, the young man turned at Jaer’s approach and paled. “General Athru, sir. Fayn Jaer. Sh-sh-she said she’d be back before da-dar-dark,” he whimpered.
Jaer reached out, saying nothing, and grabbed the front of the man’s jacket. He lifted, pulling him slowly forward until their faces nearly touched.
“Jaer, take it easy,” Cale warned. “We won’t get any information out of him if you kill him.” His eyes cold and hard, Cale turned on the young man. “Tell me everything Erynn said to you.”
Jaer dropped the young man, and he struggled briefly to stay upright. Jaer crossed his arms and waited, his blazing glare never leaving the frightened, shaking young man.
If anything has happened to my Kipa, he’ll know real fear.
“Yes, sir, General. Captain Yager said she needed to go out and that there would be trouble if she didn’t.” The words tumbled from his lips. He ducked his head, his gaze darting between Jaer and Cale. “She said she’d be back before dark.”
“I am going. I will take Aven and Roni with me.” Jaer pushed by the young man, and he stumbled backward. “Ready three speeders, Whill,” Jaer ordered an older man with long gray hair who stood back, watching the interrogation.
Whill nodded. “They’re ready, Fayn.” He glared at the young man. “Figured you might be needing them.” Whill’s use of Jaer’s impressive title was further meant to intimidate the young man.
Cale’s tone held an angry quality Jaer had never heard from him. “Whill, I’m closing all access points to the base until further notice. No one and I mean no one comes in or goes out without Jaer’s or my approval.”
“Understood, General. Consider it done.” Whill turned to the young man. “And what about Rand here?”
Cale whirled on Rand. “Whill, I’m putting Rand on report. I trust you to mete out an appropriate punishment for not following SOP, [Standard Operating Procedures].”
Whill nodded. “I’ll handle this, General.”
Rand stared at the floor. “I’m sorry, sir. I…She…” He shook his head. “There’s no excuse for what I did.”
Roni hurried up to Cale and Jaer from the outer tunnel. “A speeder is approaching the first waypoint.” She smiled, the warmth of her expression spreading across her young face and into her green-brown eyes. “It’s Erynn.”
Jaer felt his shoulders loosen. His breathing resumed its unrestrained rhythm of inhalations and exhalations, and his heartbeat slowed to a more normal pace.
Erynn is all right, at least for now.
Erynn entered the bay through the wide corridor. Jaer, Cale, Roni, and everyone on duty stared at her.
Maybe I should turn around and go back out. No, they need to know what I saw.
She stopped in front of them, pulled off her helmet, and climbed from the speeder. Cale glared at her. Jaer’s dark eyes blazed with an internal fire. Their anger and fear bombarded her. To reduce her exposure to their emotions, she visualized a tunnel of light becoming a pinpoint speck. “Yell at me later for not following procedure. There’s something out in the forest. Something not normally there. My speeder was damaged. It…They…were hunting me.” Her voice sounded thin, a fragile ribbon stringing her words together, barely holding. She put her hand to her forehead and rubbed. Now that she knew she was safe, relief and fatigue dropped over her like a heavy weight. Erynn glanced up, her attention divided between Jaer and Cale. “I saw them.”
Cale’s frustration was evident in his voice. “We’ll get to that. But first, what prompted you to go out, alone, all night?”
Jaer said nothing. He only stared at her. That was worse. She wished he’d say something and get it over with.
“I told you. I hadn’t planned to stay out that long. My speeder was damaged. They did it, somehow. Chewed the main power cable in two.” She sucked in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “Two enemy soldiers were in the forest just below the tree line.” She glanced at Cale. “You were busy with the murder of that woman.” Her gaze shifted to Jaer. “You were out searching for what killed her. This was something I knew I could take care of. I could bring the soldiers in without a fight.”
Jaer glanced at Roni and nodded. “Take Aven and check it out. Find the soldiers. Bring them here, alive.”
Roni spun back to the main tunnel and rushed away before Erynn was able to protest.
Erynn narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? Something is out there. A lot of those…things are roaming the forest. You’re only sending Roni and Aven?”
Cale’s irritation receded. “I believe you, Erynn. Aven and Roni are Anbas. Sometimes less is better. They can handle whatever is out there. Besides, their goal is to find the soldiers, not some strange animal roaming the woods.”
Erynn sighed. Her shoulders slumped under her weariness. Cale was right. She was worried about Aven and Roni after what she’d experienced, and maybe she didn’t need to be. The alien soldiers were more of a threat.
Cale nodded to Jaer. “We need to find those soldiers. If they have the ability to contact others of their kind, the invasion of our worlds could start all over again. And this time I don’t think we’d be so fortunate.” Cale turned to Erynn. “What did you see? Can you describe the animals that stalked you?”
Erynn sighed. “Yes. No. Not animals. They were tall, thin, human shaped.” Her jaw tightened. “They appeared to be black, their skin shiny, oily looking.”
Cale inhaled sharply and whispered, “Shifters?”
Jaer’s attention snapped to him. “It cannot be. They are a myth.”
“No. They are very real,” Cale said with emphasis. “Zander claimed Shifters were Dhoran’s select soldiers. His forward guard.”
“But if they are back, that would mean…” Jaer’s gaze darted to the dark tunnel Roni had run into. “The attack. Could it have been Shifters, sent by Dhoran?
“There’s no access below ground. I’ve checked every millimeter of the tunnels and warrens.” Cale’s gaze followed Jaer’s.
“What’s a Shifter?” Erynn thought of the Anim Blath’s warning. The colony feared that the alien invasion on Arranon would stir the evil soul of Dhoran, waking his spirit and rekindling his desire to rule Arranon, above and below.
Jaer’s attention returned to Cale. “They should be checked again. I will establish search teams for any unauthorized way in.”
“What’s a Shifter?” Erynn glanced from Jaer to Cale.
Cale sighed. “Yes. Tell the teams to evaluate all tunnels for air pockets behind the walls. This could take a while.”
“What is a Shifter?”
“We will get right on this, Cale. I will have all my Anbas working the tunnels.”
“Fine. I’ll go find one for myself.” Erynn turned and started toward the access tunnel.
Jaer grabbed her hood, pulling her back. “You are going nowhere, except to your quarters.”
Cale’s eyes narrowed and he glanced at Jaer. “If you’ve got this handled, I’m going to set up a search grid for teams. Can’t have them overlapping.” He hurried to the exit, disappearing into the gloom of the main corridor.
Jaer spun on Erynn. “I told you not to go out alone.”
“No. You told me not to go into the tunnels alone. I didn’t.” Erynn matched his hard gaze.
Jaer’s teeth ground, making a harsh grating. “Should I have confined you to your quarters?”
Erynn’s eyes widened and her jaw tensed. “I’d like to see you try.”
“Do not challenge me, Erynn. You will lose.” Jaer turned and stormed out of the transport bay.
Erynn took in a deep breath and let the air escape slowly through clenched teeth. “Well, that didn’t go exactly the way I’d hoped,” she whispered. She was again alone.
Emptiness pressed in around her.
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