It was always night beyond the rim. No moons or stars, and no sunlight to warm the landscape. The perfect cover to break into the cult city’s inner courtyards and steal back a precious datapad.
I desperately needed it to connect to the now-derelict starship beyond the sky hologram. The data stored on the ship’s systems might have answers to the part of myself I still don’t understand—why most days my bones burn like they’re on fire. But more importantly, the ship’s logs could help me find the woman whose faded photograph I clutched in my hand.
The one who disappeared without a trace—now deified in this world as Guardian Herana.
“We can do this tomorrow.” Marco clapped me on the shoulder, mud clinging to his russet brown hand. He had a point, and I could do with the heat of his sensual touch for one more night.
But the siren call of the Guardian’s soft brown eyes tugged at my soul. I’d give anything to feel her lips warming mine, as long as she didn’t mind the beard.
My lover would have to wait.
The blast of a horn reverberated through the morning frost. A squid-like steel forge hovered above the central square, spanning the entire length of the plaza—a replica of the cult city’s lost hive queen.
Citizens lined up along the alleyways to the inner courts carrying old starship technology, weapons, and any bits of metal for the central forge’s green flames.
Braygen cursed their ignorance as they quietly dumped their offerings into large bins and scurried away. The cult’s control was absolute.
“No, it has to be now.” Herana’s photo returned to my pocket and a dagger clutched tight, I ignored the fiery ache in my bones and melted with Marco into the crowd. The pain always flared at the worst times, and something about this city made it feel like those forge fires burned inside my arms and legs.
But I was determined to locate a working datapad once we got to the front of the line.
Darkness clung to the metal city under a starless sky. Black cloth draped the old Guardian monoliths as a warning of death to all who defied the cult city’s hive queen.
“Don’t do it,” Marco muttered behind me as we inched closer to Herana’s shrouded statue. I swear the man could read my mind sometimes, which made him an intuitive lover, but a terrible conscience when I set my sights on something.
We stepped onto the plaza, a line of sentries silently at guard along the inner plaza, but I couldn’t stand to see my Guardian’s face covered. As I passed her statue, I yanked the rough cloth down to give her life again. To see her still wearing the old starship uniform was like a punch to the gut, a reminder of all this world suffered since her disappearance.
In my mind, she was the only Guardian who mattered.
“Dammit, Braygen. You tryin’ to get us caught?” Marco was rarely angry for long, but he grabbed his sword hilt, ready for trouble.
“Defiler,” the Fueler shouted as green flame lit his features from the central orb. A silver circle pendant, two tentacles curled beneath, hung around the Fueler’s neck.
The symbol of their hive queen’s absolute rule.
“Go, I got this.” Marco swaggered toward the Fueler, a grin on his face. “Hey, you. Can you point me to where that Guardian lives?”
A few eyes from the crowded lines turned toward Marco, but the sentries kept their backs to the plaza. Perhaps they thought those in line more dangerous, but I wasn’t about to question our luck.
I left Marco to cover my back while I headed straight for the bins. This damn, brainwashed city was dumping our heritage like useless junk. I bit back my frustration and quickly rooted through the discarded items.
But my heart beat faster at the silver gleam of a datapad next to the Fueler’s leg.
A rifle gripped in their hands, the Fueler gazed at Marco with a deadly ice in their eyes. “Your invader Guardian sleeps now… and when she wakes, she will open the gate back to our world. For us, not you.”
“Sleeps.” The whispered word fell from my tongue as the sentries slid the black cloth back over Herana’s statue. But that one word hit my heart like a hammer. It could only mean one thing… Herana was still in hypersleep.
And I was going to find her.
As they slid the rifle into the forge fires, I hastened forward and slid to one knee, driving my dagger into their calf.
Ignoring the Fueler’s painful cries, I grabbed the datapad and tucked it against my chest.
Marco clenched the Fueler’s hair and yanked his head down, breaking their nose with the hilt of his half-drawn sword.
The forge fires sweltered an unforgiving heat, but I yanked the dagger out and bolted beneath the metal queen’s belly.
Sweat dripped into my beard as I whipped around, the dagger gripped and ready to fly.
A long, grayish tentacle had Marco by the throat as he dropped to his knees. Pulsing gray flesh slid out of the Fueler, creeping up their shoulders and reaching toward Marco.
The sentries still kept their backs to us, but those in line held dejection in their eyes that sent a shiver up my spine.
The Fueler’s dormant eyes gazed toward the starless night as blood dripped down their chin. “Our starship is nearly complete.”
Their words were punctuated by one of the forges’ dangling legs dripping molten metal into the ground. “Soon we feed her to the forge, too.”
Their words ignited the fire in my bones, uncoiling a desperate need to grab the metal forge in my jaws and rip it out of the air, crushing it with sharp teeth as if I had the body mass of a starship.
Shaking off the bizarre urge, I threw the dagger. It hit the Fueler’s throat, the blade buried to the hilt.
Good riddance to that asshole.
Dropping near Marco, I tried to untangle the pulsing tentacle. He screamed an unnatural wail as his head arched back.
The tentacle released him and slammed against my cheek. I tumbled across the platform. The datapad flew from my hands, clattering on the ground. My damn cheek stung from the creature’s venomous slime, but I scrambled for the precious technology.
Marco shrieked, his eyes laced with terror, as a fleshy gray mass dug its long tentacles into his spine.
“The fuck is that thing?” Shoving the datapad in my pocket next to Herana’s photograph, I ripped the bow from my back and nocked an arrow. Aiming the tip at the hideous squid creature, I tightened the tension and dropped to one knee so I wouldn’t hit my lover.
The lifeless Fueler crashed to the ground as the creature slid into Marcos’ body, fleshy pulp dissolving until it disappeared beneath the skin.
“Marco!” My stomach twisted at the thought of a creature like that squirming through me. How the hell was I supposed to get it out of him?
Marco blinked and gasped for air. The pale blue tinge to his suffocating features softened to his natural brown. Holding up his hand, he crawled to his feet, but a cold malice lingered where once his hazel eyes held soft affection. “You left our queen beyond the gate. We will find her again and you cannot stop us.”
My arm shuddered as my bones lit like an arsonist’s fire. That sure as shit didn’t sound like Marco. The thing must be a damn parasite. “Get the fuck out of him, you bastard.”
All traces of my lover’s gentle spirit vanished. Stripping off his weapons, the parasite controlling Marco’s body threw them into the forge and pulled the dead Fueler’s pendant around his neck. He wouldn’t even look at me now as he turned toward the line of citizens, most of whom averted their eyes.
As the fear rippled through the crowd, I understood why they didn’t react and why the sentries still didn’t turn around. They were terrified of whatever the fuck these parasites were, and that they might be its next victim.
Marco-Fueler raised his arms to the sky. “My beautiful queen, we once again sacrifice these relics to…”
My lover was gone, and I couldn’t find the right words of farewell anywhere inside my soul. Maybe I should have waited one more day, then Marco might still be alive.
At least now I had a datapad to connect me back to the starship beyond the hologram sky.
My father always said every heroic deed requires sacrifice. With tears in my eyes, I retreated to the edge of the plaza, heart aching with the loss of Marco. Returning the arrow to my quiver, I passed Herana’s statue once more, yanking off the black cloth. “I’m going to find you, no matter the cost.”
Cold loneliness gutted my soul as I escaped the treacherous city and returned to our horses on the hilly outskirts.
Marco was in the great between now. Maybe we’d meet again in the future, but as I released his mare into the wild, I whispered a soft goodbye that brought a fresh wave of anguish.
A zankata cawed from a leafless màvon tree, no doubt deprived of sunlight when someone turned the sky hologram to constant night over the cult city. Mounting my brindled gray, I turned north toward the jungle where four suns burned bright beyond the horizon.
Only the promise of Herana’s face soothed the rage and sorrow burning my bones. I would have done anything for Marco, but the moment I flipped on the datapad and my Guardian’s gentle features lit the screen, I knew I’d never turn back.
Tracing my thumb across her cheek, the way forward became clear. No going back home to the old starship, but I could search every inch of this world for her, and I wouldn’t stop until I had Herana in my arms.