Excerpt for Sticks and Stones by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Sticks and Stones

Book 4 of the Storm of Arranon series



R E Sheahan


Copyright © 2018 Robynn E. Sheahan

All Rights Reserved

This book is work of pure fiction composed from the author’s imagination. It is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Contact the publisher at info@newlinkpublishing.com.

Distributed by Smashwords

Line/Content Editor: Denice Whitmore

Cover: Richard R. Draude

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

p. cm.—Robynn E. Sheahan (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

ISBN: 978-1-941271-35-3/Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-941271-36-0/E-Pub

1. Fiction/Science Fiction/General

2. Fiction/Science Fiction/Adventure

3. Fiction/Fantasy/General

www.newlinkpublishing.com

Henderson, NV 89002

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


For Henry Laurie Sheahan

~Dad~

You instilled in me a love of animals and nature.

I miss your gentle spirit and patient soul.



Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.


Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to old friends, Martha, Ruth, and Linda, who, during marathon gatherings, kept me motivated and feeling very much loved. And to new friends from the East Valley Writing Workshop, those Wednesday night sessions were great fun and I learned so much.

I want to thank NewLink Publishing for this opportunity, and Denice, my editor, for her time, effort, and patience.


Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53


Chapter 1

Captain Sean Tannen ran, his boots slipping on icy pavement. Slowing, he looked over his shoulder. “Quick. In here.” Heart hammering, he skidded around the corner. Straining to see in the weak light, Sean stumbled into a dark narrow alley and ducked into an opening after the first in a long row of bulky trash-compacting units. Steps ahead of his brother, Major Tiar, and Roni, an Anbas Warrior, he squeezed forward, making space for them behind him.

Distant siren wails rose and ebbed around tall, blocky structures of glass and stone, approaching in a constricting radius. More joined the high shriek, looping and overlapping, penetrating the cold still night.

“We should keep moving.” Roni panted. Her voice taut, she said, “This isn’t a good idea.”

Tiar shook his head. “We’ll only run into a patrol. We’re surrounded.”

“They’ll find us for sure if we stay here.” Roni’s gaze darted around the tiny alley.

Pressed against the damp wall, Sean’s quick breaths plumed. “I’m open to suggestions.” He stared at Roni and Tiar tucked in tight behind him. Black clothing blended into the darkness, emphasizing their wide eyes and pale faces. Sean’s stomach churned. “We’d better think of something fast. Any ideas? ”

Beirig din.” Roni’s angry grumble alerted Sean. She gestured behind, to the end of the alley.

A security vehicle crept along a parallel street, shining a brilliant white light far into murky nooks. For an uncomfortable moment, Sean didn’t dare breathe.

Ahead, red and blue strobes slashed the night, arcing over gloom-shrouded buildings. Visible through a narrow gap between wall and compactor, five dark-gray security transports, one after the other, raced down the street.

Sean whispered, “I think there’s a pretty good chance security knows where we are.”

“I’d say it’s more than a chance,” Tiar said, his voice low. Long dark hair slipping over one shoulder, he peeked around Roni. “They’re tightening the net around us.”

The cuff of Roni’s thick black tunic sleeve rustled against heavy quilted pants as she checked her holstered staser. “All we did was a ask a few questions at security headquarters. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Tiar’s weight shifted, boots scuffing the pavement. “Maybe Sean and I have. Our presence here interested someone higher up on the bureaucracy chain,” he said in a muted but defiant tone. “CIB operates covert death squads on both worlds—Arranon and Korin. Specialized units created to hunt down and murder mixed bloods and their families.”

“Core Bureau? I thought they—never mind. You think they know you and Sean have a parent from each world? How?” Roni’s low whisper rushed out in a frosty plume.

Sean’s thoughts raced to an unpleasant end. He stared down at an oily puddle shimmering in the faint amber glow of a streetlamp. “I can think of one way—Dhoran. He knows about us.” His eyes narrowed. “Some of us anyway. His efforts to rule Arranon would go a lot easier without us mixed bloods and our powers to challenge him.”

Shouts rumbled through the canyon of buildings, indistinct, but advancing.

“They aren’t being very covert now.” Roni thrust her chin toward the street.

A hard edge sharpened Tiar’s usual cool tone. “That’s not CIB. They’re using Tamaagra’s security officers to flush us into the open.” He rose and hurried to the corner of the alley, facing the street. Pressing against the wall, Tiar stayed clear of the radiance cast by streetlamps, his gaze tracking right, left, and across at dark, empty buildings.

Sean followed, swayed by a sudden chilled gust whistling into the narrow passage. He glanced up at dripping eaves. “Did you hear that? Someone talking just below the sigh of the wind?”

“I didn’t hear anything.” Roni’s eyes darted from one side of the alley to the other. “What were they talking about? Not us, I hope.”

“I couldn’t tell. Sounded like a foreign language, maybe.” Sean shook off the notion. “Never mind. We need to get out of here.”

“Agreed.” Roni shifted in behind Tiar, her voice low and raspy. “But again, how?”

Wind moaned along high eaves. Once more, that cadence of a foreign language mingled in the soft, mournful sigh. A shiver shot down Sean’s spine and he fought the urge to glance overhead again.

“Remember when Erynn drew on the ability of the Chamelaren and disguised us at the spaceport checkpoint?” Tiar stared at Sean. “We have to try. If we can’t ….” His head tipped to the left and he shrugged.

Sean stiffened, his shoulders squared. “No pressure, huh?” He took a step back, deeper into the alley, concealed by shadows. His insides flipped and fluttered. Their freedom, and possibly their lives depended on success.

Tiar shook his head. “No pressure, little brother.”

In a shuddering exhalation, Roni chuckled. “Can’t hurt to try.”

Opening his mind, Sean closed his eyes. The crimson Chamelaren, an aleun with the ability to change colors, to camouflage his feathers, and disappear into his surroundings filled his thoughts. He concentrated, willed the talent of the Chamelaren to manifest in him. His fingers tingled. A low thrum resonated through his body and a loud pop sounded in his ears. Just like before, when Erynn changed us. Sean sidestepped into weak light from the streetlamp filtering into the alley. He hoped he no longer looked like himself, a young man with dark, close-cropped hair and brilliant green eyes. “Am I different?”

Tiar’s attention darted from watching the street to the alley. He searched the small space, his brow furrowing. “I—I can’t see you. You’re not just blurry or indistinct—you’re invisible.” One of Tiar’s infrequent smiles turned his lips. “Well done, little brother.”

“Perfect.” Roni grinned.

Glancing down, Sean examined his hands, patted the white jacket he wore over the flight suit, and well, everything appeared to be in place. His gold ring encircled with clear green stones tapped a metal buckle with a soft chink. “What the—wow!” A wide grin pulled at his cheeks. “That’s not what happened with Erynn. We weren’t invisible. Just—just vague. Not like ourselves.”

“Think about it, little brother. Does the Chamelaren take the appearance of another aleun? No. He is unseen.”

Sirens stilled and tires squealed to a stop at the far end of both streets connecting the alley. The thump-snap of closing doors shattered the sudden quiet. For a breath, not even the wind whispered among the buildings.

Shouted orders bounced off stone walls and wide windows reflecting, revolving red and blue lights.

A voice, muffled by distance, echoed along the building fronts. “Stay alert. Search the alleys. Try every door, make sure they’re locked.”

“Yes, sir,” a mix of male and female voices shouted.

Rapid boot steps pounded the street, approaching from all directions, closing in on their position.

“They’re coming.” Roni stiffened. Her fingers grasped the hilt of the dygaer sheathed at her hip.

Tiar grabbed Roni’s hand. He reached out, found Sean’s arm, and closed his eyes.

“Just think about the Chamelaren, about what it can do.” Sean licked his lips and glanced toward the street.

Tiar’s efforts to imitate the aleun’s camouflaging ability generated a powerful energy flow. The low thrumming in Sean rose, vibrating through his core and pulsing in his ears. The tingle in his fingers increased, snapping in a blue static discharge. Sean tipped his head watching Tiar and Roni waver for a moment. The alley echoed with a dull pop. “I can still see you.”

“I can see you again, too.” Tiar nodded. “I think as long as we stay connected while we’re all invisible—”

Sean shook free of his brother’s grasp. Tiar and Roni blurred and vanished. “Yeah. You’re correct. Can you see me?”

Tiar’s exasperated sigh plumed in the icy air. “No. Take Roni’s hand. And don’t let go.”

Reaching out, Sean groped the air until he clutched Roni’s seeking hand. “I’ve got her.” Tiar and Roni flickered into view.

“Hope they don’t have infrared scanners,” Tiar mumbled. “We may be invisible, but we do have a heat signature.”

Roni pushed Tiar while tugging Sean toward the sidewalk. “We need to get to the street before we’re trapped.”

A scuffle of boots on pavement preceded three security officers hurrying into the narrow alley. Voice high with excitement, a thickset woman shouted her commands. “Search around and inside every compactor. Surveillance has them in this sector.”

One of the officers brushed Sean’s arm and lurched to a stop. He leaned forward and made a wide sweep through the air with his hand.

Sean pivoted and dodged the swipe.

Staring at the vacant spot and blinking, the officer rubbed his eyes, shrugged, and joined his team.

Sean grinned and followed Roni’s insistent tug.

Security transports blocked the intersections to the right and left, strobes flashing. Officers in gray and black combat armor barricaded the sidewalks holding staser rifles ready. Chatter from vehicle COMs punctuated fierce gusts that rocked the transports. Wind pressed an unseen force against those guarding the street.

Slowing his pace, Tiar edged to within four meters of the nearest officer and stopped.

Roni glanced behind. “Now what?”

Tiar’s low tone held a chuckle. “Diversion.”

Sean directed his whisper toward Tiar. “Need help?”

Cold determination honed Tiar’s words. “I’ve got this.” He held his palm chest high. Fingers splayed, he gathered the electromagnetic energy around him into a tight orb. Brilliant blue static snapped and popped from his hand. Tiar aimed and pitched the buzzing, crackling ball of writhing currents toward the farthest vehicle.

Energy exploded inside the open door with a shower of purple sparks. The siren produced one quick yelp and cut out. A low wail followed and mounted to a steady ear-piercing yowl.

Like a contagious disease, the vehicle next to the afflicted one shook. A shower of orange and yellow flashes burst from the interior. Its siren joined the first in a discordant keen, echoing off stone. Storefront windows shuddered under the resonant onslaught, cracking with sharp reports, cascading in thousands of tiny cubed segments over the sidewalk.

In rapid succession, the third and fourth transports joined the fireworks display, their long, high shriek added to the cacophony.

Voices bellowed over the tumult. “Shut. Them. Down.”

“I’m trying,” came a frustrated shout from the first transport.

“Nothing’s working,” someone screamed from the second.

“Try harder. Shut those vehicles down,” demanded a red-faced officer.

Static from COMs competed against the clamor. Angry voices broke through the crackling. “What’s going on down there? Sending backup.”

Combat officers rushed off the sidewalks toward squalling, sparking vehicles.

Tiar, Roni, and Sean raced past the caterwauling blockade, continuing until the yowling was a distant high-pitched hum.

“Impressive.” Roni panted, looking from Sean to Tiar.

“Show off.” Sean snorted.

Slowing to a hurried walk, Tiar shrugged. “Hey. It worked.” He glanced back, one eyebrow raising.

“Where do we go now?” Roni stared behind, past Sean, and into the dark beyond the nearest streetlight. “Can’t go back to the spaceport. Probably crawling with security and CIB. Our herk is most likely locked in a guarded hangar.” Head tipped, she chuckled. “I suppose we could steal a ship or a transport. It worked before.”

Sean’s thoughts flashed to their first trip to Tamaagra in an aircraft stolen from the spaceport in Arranon’s capital city of Arranoth. His voice cracked. “Seems like a long time ago.”

“Eight weeks, four days,” Tiar said, his tone pensive.

A glow shimmered against the night sky a couple of blocks away. The multicolored aura shone, a welcome greeting above the cityscape. The faint bass beat from a live band mingled with raucous laughter. Sounds of people—lots of them—increased with another sudden shrill gust of wind. A rumble of thunder boomed overhead.

Brow knitted, Sean stared up at the sky. Odd. There was no storm predicted tonight. Stars once brilliant against the black backdrop disappeared. Lightning flashed across and under dark roiling clouds.

Wind whipped around them, releasing words from the swirling vortex. “Cadjoo. Mabrath. Rihl.”

Sean jerked Roni and Tiar to a stop. “Tell me you heard that this time. The voice. Inside the wind.”

“Yes.” Tiar’s gaze slipped away from the sky, his focus on the street ahead.

“Voice?” Roni licked her lips. “You heard a voice? What did it say?”

“Cadooth? Mabra ril?” Sean wiped sweat from his eyes. “Something like that.”

“Cadjoo. Mabrath. Rihl,” Tiar repeated. “It’s Comhra. Help. Death. Run.”

The quick whop, whop, whop of rotor blades split the air, climbing above the skyline. Six herks flew in a widening search pattern, red laser shafts cutting across the area. One swooped in a tight arc, skimming the building tops. Light flashed from the hovercraft’s underside, tracing the path of an infrared scanner. The thin red beam stretched from building to building and raced up the street toward them.

“I think it’s time to run.” Sean pulled Roni in front of Tiar, leading them toward the lights and sounds of a celebration.


Chapter 2

Captain Erynn Yager rushed down the gloomy circular staircase, boot heels drumming hand-carved stone steps. Her fingers skimmed the cold, rough texture of curved rock wall etched with symbols of Arranon’s ancient language, Comhra. Electromagnetic energy trailed her fingertips, leaving a brilliant blue ribbon fading behind her, absorbing into the dark stone.

Heart thumping, the throbbing pulse built in her ears. Icy dread coiled around her spine, chilling her to the core. Her rapid breathing echoed in the close space, giving Erynn a sensation of confinement. She jumped over the last step, her breath hitching, and shoved at the narrow side-door. Heavy wood scraped against the gray stone floor, and she burst into the dimly lit room.

Leathan Tal leaned against the edge of his massive desk, staring at the glowing screen of a hand-held electronic pad. He straightened and twisted toward Erynn’s noisy entrance. “Erynn?” He stared at her, his hazel eyes wide.

From the hearth behind the desk, orange flames flickered. The warm glow shimmered in his long gray hair. The faint, smoky scent of countless fires permeated the space.

Skidding to a stop in front of Leathan, Erynn sucked in a ragged breath. “You haven’t heard from Sean or Tiar or Roni? They’re missing?” She took a step forward, close enough to see the white stubble on his gaunt cheeks. “Why wasn’t I told?” Dhoran has them. But where? Locked in his dark underworld? Tormented and beaten by Shifters, like Cace?

Fear skipped and tumbled along her nerves. She closed her eyes and held in a deep breath. Stop. Calm down. Don’t think the worst. Eyes open, she released her breath through pursed lips.

Sympathy, sorrow, and concern rushed from Leathan, flooding over Erynn, jerking her back to the moment. The walls closed in, leaving no air. She envisioned a broad beam of light spiraling into a pinpoint of radiance, narrowing her exposure to his emotional barrage. The claustrophobic sensation faded.

Lines around Leathan’s eyes narrowed and deepened with his frown. His gaze darted toward the front of the space before returning to Erynn. “I wasn’t expecting you this morning. It’s… it’s not a good time.”

Subtle movement caught from the corner of Erynn’s eye drew her attention to the main door of the office. She froze.

Jaer, Fayn of the Anbas Warriors, stood with his back against the doorframe, arms crossed. In the low amber lighting, his black uniform—thick tunic, heavy quilted pants, and tall boots—merged his powerful form with the dark paneled walls. His fathomless brown eyes stared into hers, just as before, triggering her recent memory of him standing in the exact spot.

Erynn’s breath wheezed through her constricting throat and her stomach lurched. She hadn’t seen Jaer since he woke from a deep coma and near death, five days, three huairs, and twenty-one timnents ago. Her knees threatened to buckle, to pitch her into a heap on the cold stone floor. She squeezed her eyes closed, willing her lungs to draw air and her heart to slow its maddening pace.

She lowered her head, unable to look at Jaer. His proximity pierced her already raw emotions, pain ripping her aching heart. “You’re here. I mean, in the city,” Erynn said, her declaration tentative. Last she knew, he remained at his family’s farm in the mountains outside Glaskra, recovering. “I didn’t know… ” Erynn bit at her lower lip. Jaer is alive. Just because he doesn’t remember me, or the love we shared, or much of his life for the past year—

“Captain Yager. Why would you be contacted regarding what’s clearly Anbas business?” Jaer’s smooth voice echoed inside the confined space.

“Anbas business?” Erynn’s tone rose, her arms stiffened. Sorrow whirled away, replaced by a flash of annoyance. Her pulse calmed into a slow, deliberate rhythm, and her chest expanded without conscious effort.

“Yes. Anbas business, Captain.”

Jaer’s continued use of her rank to address her plunged Erynn into yet another memory. After they met, Jaer always referred to her as Lieutenant, or Lieutenant Yager, never as Erynn—until their first kiss. The past appeared to be repeating itself. Only this time I’m Captain. Fine. I can play the part. “I’m questioning, sir, why you think this is clearly Anbas business. I don’t see it that way and I’m sure Cale, General Athru, will agree with me. Sean and Tiar are Interceptor pilots under General Athru’s command.”

Jaer’s arms dropped to his sides and he strode to stand in front of her. Words strained between clenched teeth. “I’m handling this, Captain. My Anbas are tracking Roni’s movements in the city. They’re questioning anyone who might have seen them. Searching places only Anbas know to look. We will find them. You have no business—”

“I have as much business as you in this situation, sir.” Head tipped back, chin thrust forward, Erynn’s gaze locked with his stony glare. The four thin, raised scars across her cheek burned, but she didn’t back down or turn her head to hide the hot flush spreading over her face.

Jaer’s dark eyes narrowed, his jaw muscles bunching under a neat black beard.

“Jaer. Erynn.” Leathan stepped forward. “We, all of us, need to focus on the situation. If it turns out there is one.”

Erynn glanced at Leathan and her ire faded, but not the heat flooding through her veins. “You’re right. We should work together, Ja—sir. We always managed before.” Unscathed by Jaer’s show of intimidation, she fought the urge to collapse against him, to breathe in his spicy scent, to meld into his warmth. She hoped her bold façade hadn’t altered, giving away the longing and grief that boiled inside her, straining toward the surface.

Jaer’s hard countenance softened and his eyes warmed. His tone held no menace. “I’m just doing my job as Fayn, Captain, keeping the people of Arranon safe. That includes you. I read your file. You hadn’t even graduated Academy on your home world of Korin before you were compelled by the alien invasion into duty. You’re young, still not legal age.” He shook his head. “You have your whole life ahead of you. Why do you insist on taking risks that may cut it short?”

Erynn’s chest tightened and her focus blurred. Jaer’s words brought an unwanted reminder of her upcoming birthday—a day her adoptive dad always celebrated with love, even if it was only the two of them. This year, there would be no dinner of her choosing, no gifts wrapped in silver paper, tied with streaming gold ribbons, no cake topped with frosting and set aglow with tiny white lights. Her dad was gone, brutally murdered just weeks ago. The aliens invading their worlds considered him a risk. Threatened by the loyalty of those under his command, they assassinated him.

“Captain. Let me do my job.”

Jaer’s sympathetic tone brought Erynn back to the uncomfortable moment. She held her ground, fighting to speak around the lump rising in her throat at the thought of her dad. Words pushed past an unyielding tongue in a tangled whisper. “It’s my job, too, sir.” Erynn’s voice rose and strengthened. “What my dad, Commanding General Damon Yager, would expect of me. I may be young, but I’m well trained—a good pilot. You say you read my records. Then you should know. After all I’ve been through, I’ve proven I’m capable.”

Leathan broke in again, his attempt to defuse heightened emotions. “Of course you’re capable, Erynn. No one questions your ability. And Jaer, Erynn isn’t questioning your methods either.”

Erynn sensed a presence approaching. Aven. He hurried toward Leathan’s office, a wave of unease flowing ahead of him, breaking over her. She opened her awareness, allowing the pinpoint of light in her mind to expand. Further dissection of Aven’s apprehension into neat segments, some for Tiar, Roni, and Sean, the rest for Jaer, his brother, wasn’t something she could do. The parts, no matter how she divided them, made up a whole. Aven is worried.

The main door squeaked on old brass hinges and scuffed against the floor. Aven’s deep-brown eyes shifted between Jaer, Leathan, and Erynn. Like Jaer, his long dark hair, worn in the traditional style—clasped at the back of his neck in a filigreed silver and gold cocha—slid over one shoulder.

Aven pressed between Jaer and Erynn, holding up gloved hands, the tips of his fingers uncovered. “Hey, you two. I could hear you clear down the hall. What’s this about?”

Jaer’s eyes darkened and he straightened, glancing at his brother. “Nothing.” The single word rolled out in a low grumble.

Erynn’s face cooled and she took in a deep breath, stepping back to face Aven. “Nothing.”

Aven frowned. “What are you doing here, Erynn? I thought you had hangar duty today.”

“I do. And so does Sean. But he’s not here. It seems no one knows where he is. Or Tiar. Or Roni.” Erynn’s voice rose with each of her friend’s names.

“Oh.” Aven managed a quick look at Jaer, and then Leathan. “Well, there’s no reason for concern. Communications can often be unreliable. They’re half way across Arranon. Their COM’s aren’t capable of transmitting such long distances. Storms interfere—”

“Their lack of contact has nothing to do with distance or weather.” Erynn’s glower faded along with her exasperation. Tiny hairs lifted along the nape of her neck. A cold chill shivered through her. Fear regained a hold over her emotions. The low thrum of alarm grazed her words. “What if Dhoran… We need to find them.”

“Captain Yager. I’m handling the situation.”

Erynn spun on Jaer, annoyance sharpening her tone. “Okay. So, what do you know? What are you doing?”

Jaer stepped back from Erynn. His scowl smoothed, and his jaw relaxed, transforming his expression from irritated to impassive. “I know you’re concerned about Sean’s safety—and Tiar and Roni. I have Anbas in the city. They’ll find out what, if anything has happened.”

Erynn turned to Leathan. “What about security in Tamaagra? Can’t you contact them? Someone there should know something.”

Leathan opened his mouth to speak, cut off by Aven.

“We’re getting nothing from security.” Aven’s brow furrowed and he stared at the fire blazing in the hearth.

“Nothing?” Erynn divided her attention among the three men. “And that doesn’t concern you? They flew to Tamaagra to talk to security. To find out about the three Anbas Warriors in the city while Nev and I were there searching for Dhoran. Three Anbas no one seems to know anything about.”

Jaer’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms. Doubt colored his tone. “No one but you. By your own statement, Captain, this information came from a supposed follower.” He shook his head. “Dhoran—A mythical creature, centuries old, with mystical powers. One parent from the underworld, and one from the surface, suddenly back among the living to take over Arranon. Another wild accusation we have only your word on.”

Another wild accusation?” Erynn glared at Jaer. “Only my word? What about Byan Nev, a highly regarded surgeon, possessed by Dhoran for weeks? And Aven, your brother? He saw Dhoran, spoke to him. You doubt him?”

Jaer glanced at Aven, his tone reticent. “No, but—”

“But you believe I’m making this up.” Erynn leaned closer to Jaer, her nostrils flaring.

Jaer’s eyes flashed, then softened. “No. I believe you encountered something, but not Dhoran. Think about it, Captain. This ancient tale of Dhoran sounds very similar to the children born with mixed parentage from Arranon and Korin. They’re abnormal, born with lethal deformities, against the laws of nature. They don’t live—nor should they. Why would Dhoran? His parentage would be an equally perverted abomination.”

Stepping back, eyes wide, Erynn gasped for air. Jaer’s words struck deep, knifing into her soul. He didn’t remember her guarded secret. She was one of those children with a blended parentage. She bit her lip to keep it from trembling and blinked back tears.

Aven stiffened. Hands fisted, he whirled on his brother. His shout echoed in the cramped office. “Jaer.”

Leathan took Erynn’s arm, tugging her out the side door and up the circling stairs. “There’s so much Jaer doesn’t remember—yet. His memory consists of an Arranon long before the alien invasion. Even parts of his early training as an Anbas elude him. All that’s happened, well, it’s difficult for him to come to terms with reality sometimes.”

Cold sunshine filtering through wispy strands of clouds met them at the top step.

“Back to freak status.” Erynn wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.

“Stop. You are not a freak.” Leathan pulled her into a hug.

“At least the first time I met Jaer he knew who—what I was. He doesn’t now. My mother from Korin. My father from Arranon. I didn’t die. I’m not deformed. But I do have abilities,” Erynn mumbled into Leathan’s soft tunic. She stepped back, tipped her face to look at Leathan, and shook her head. “Jaer doesn’t even talk the same anymore. Why? What—”

Erynn sensed Cale’s presence and pulled free of Leathan’s hands on her shoulders. She gazed down at short grass, browned by morning frosts. “My whole life—it was just my dad and me. Together we kept my secret. I always thought I was the only one. I truly believed I wasn’t supposed to be alive. That if anyone knew about me, what I really am, the things I can do, my life would never be the same. I didn’t want to be put in a cage and studied. Dad instilled this into me from an early age—to protect me.” Continuous biting at her lower lip these last few days had created a small raw, area. The irregular bump drew her attention. She stared, unfocused, and pursed her lips, hiding the spot from her probing tongue and nibbling teeth. “I still can’t believe Dad’s gone.”

General Cale Athru stopped a short distance away, cloaked in shadows against the gray stone wall at the top of the circular staircase. Sorrow clouded his face and his voice carried that pain. “Erynn… I—It’s been less than two months since Damon’s death. Give yourself time.”

The sting from her lip forgotten, she inhaled cool air. “Jaer made all this easier for me. Without him…” Shoulders slumping, she crossed her arms.

Cale took a tentative step forward. “Erynn, give Jaer time. He’s remembering more every day and hopefully he’ll come back to who he once was. They say it’s possible he’ll remember everything.”

“And it’s possible he won’t. Ever. Nev believes Jaer died, just for a moment. That and the poison in his system for so long had consequences.” Erynn broke eye contact with Cale and lowered her chin until it almost touched her chest. “He has his life back. Fayn of the Anbas Warriors. That’s what’s important. I can accept him forgetting me—us.” She chuffed, her voice thick. “Shan swore she would take everything away from Jaer before agreeing to their separation. I guess, in a way, she succeeded.”

“I’ll be fine.” Erynn straightened, shoulders squared, head high. “I’m tough. A survivor. Remember, Cale? You told me that the first time we met.” The unbidden thought plaguing her these last few days pounced yet again. “But there are some things… I’m just not sure I’ll ever be the person you expect.”

Leathan coughed and cleared his throat. His words tumbled out in an anguished rush. “Erynn. You’re exactly who you’re supposed to be. We’re here for you, to talk, or just listen. Whatever you need. Cale understands.”

Yes. I believe he does. She turned to Cale, winding and unwinding a string from the hem of her coat around a finger. Determined to ask this question before her nerve failed, she took in a deep breath. “I’ve had time to think lately. Mostly about one of the last things my dad said just before he was… murdered. ‘I understood Zander, Cale, or someone like them would come for you one day.’ Why would he say that? Can you tell me?”

Beside her, Leathan’s posture stiffened but he remained silent.

Erynn shook her head, and took in another deep breath, gathering what remained of her courage. “I need to ask. Sometimes I feel my existence…my birth…was planned, methodically executed for a specific purpose. Is this what my dad was talking about?” She watched Cale for any indication she was wrong.

Nothing.

Cale didn’t meet her gaze. Neither man confirmed nor denied her suspicion. They didn’t need to.

A cutting smile lifted her lips, and she nodded. “So it’s true. Well, guess I should stop whining and get busy doing whatever it is I’m here to do.” Her posture now military erect, she strode toward the expanded hangar on a rise above the city, wanting to be anywhere but under Cale and Leathan’s pitying scrutiny.


Chapter 3

From her vantage at the top of the stairs to the control room, Erynn watched Aven stride into the hangar bay, his intense brown eyes burning, a scowl pinching his severe expression. His glare swept the crowded, noisy space. Looking up, he met Erynn’s gaze. Trotting toward her, his long dark hair hung over one shoulder, swinging across his back.

At the bottom of the stairs, he shouted over the piercing screech of air tools freeing bolts. “Jaer doesn’t know what he’s saying, Erynn. I’m sure once he does—”

Erynn held up her hand, stopping Aven’s excuses for his brother. The acrid scent of smoke from scorched metal burned the tender flesh inside her nose. The squeal of resistant steel quieted, but still vibrated in her ears. Descending the steps to stand next to Aven, Erynn forced a smile. “It’s all right.” No it isn’t. Not really. Her uneasy smile faded. “We need to focus on Dhoran and his followers.” She stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and tipped her head, staring up at him, eager to hear his opinion. “How do we identify Dhoran’s human followers? Any ideas? It’s not like the alien invasion. Once Newell began an open attack, his people didn’t care if we knew.” She chuffed and shook her head. “They wanted us to know. Sought the fear and chaos created by their presence, their cruelty, and disregard for life.” The unpleasant reminder of her failure to recognize the threat and save her dad clutched at her chest, squeezing until she believed her heart might burst. Just don’t fail anyone ever again.

A prolonged roar of heated air blasted from the exhaust ports of an Interceptor, interrupting Aven’s response. He shrugged and turned toward the source, waiting for the screaming engines to quiet.

Busy flight crews checked readings and adjusted instruments. Erynn waited for a break in the familiar and somehow calming din of activity. Her thoughts flowed like air slipping past an Interceptor in flight. She shivered in spite of the backwash of heat from the exhaust. Dhoran’s extreme plan to change Arranon’s climate to a warmer, more hospitable environment for himself brought unwanted visions of a world in ruin. Life on the surface of Arranon would cease to exist. The balance between the realms, above and below, altered in ways she didn’t want to think about. Even Korin might suffer repercussions from this unnatural disruption.

The roar cut off, leaving Erynn’s ears ringing. “If we knew the location of all four portals, we could close them.” Her voice quieted and slowed. “Sealing Dhoran in…the…underworld.” She shook her head. “No. What about the Socar Batahs and Shifters? They can’t live above ground. They’d be forced to deal with Dhoran’s wrath. I can’t—I won’t do that to them.”

Holding his palm toward Erynn, Aven smiled. “But using the portals is still the best chance we have to stop Dhoran. And Cale has an idea.”

“Great. What is it?” Erynn’s jaws relaxed, her grim mood shifting a bit. A familiar sense of hope, of expectation prickled over her.

Aven motioned Erynn outside onto the small scramble pad, away from the flurry of activity, the clang, buzz, and rasp of tools.

Cool air enveloped her. The relative silence of the pad eased the thrumming pressure inside her ears.

“Cale agrees, just locking Dhoran in his underworld isn’t the answer. He’d eventually find a way out or create another portal.” His expression thoughtful, Aven tilted his head. “We know, because of his mixed parentage, he’s limited in his ability to pass between the surface and the underworld. He can’t use natural accesses like caves or fissures. He can only use the portals bridging the two realms. But what if we block his use of the four portals? Imprison him between the two realms? He’d be unable to use his power to reach the surface or the underworld and be caught in a never-ending state of…nonexistence.” Aven stared back into the forest a moment before returning his attention to Erynn. “Wouldn’t Dhoran be trapped?”

“Between the realms?” Erynn frowned. “How?”

Eyes narrowing, Aven pointed at Erynn. “Well, we have the location of three of the portals, water, fire, and air. We need to find the Portal of Stone. Since you closed fire, that just leaves air and stone. Close all of them except water. Imprison Dhoran in the antechamber beneath the surface that leads to the underground waterfall and the portal. Between the realms, Erynn. Water. The only portal with an enclosed space separating above and below.”

Tugging on the thread at the hem of her coat, Erynn bit her lip. She had also considered this likelihood but didn’t trust the possibility as fact. Not yet. “We don’t know that. No one’s ever seen the Portal of Stone. Except Dhoran.”

“But what about the dagger Zander left you?” Aven’s voice conveyed excitement. “It has to mean something. It’s the key, right? The only way out of the antechamber once inside. Without the dagger, Dhoran can’t leave. He’d be imprisoned.” He continued in a rush. “Cale believes this might be the answer. We have to try. When Dhoran’s power is fully restored, his followers will grow bolder. It’s only a matter of time before attacks begin all over Arranon. We have to do something.”

“The Anim Blath warned me about the coming violence. A beginning to Dhoran’s war.” Erynn shook her head. The Anim Blath. A sentient life form, half plant, half animal, and her connection to the living consciousness of Arranon. “There has to be more to it though. If killing Dhoran, his spirit, had been that simple, Zander would have succeeded…instead of dying.” Dropping her gaze, she kicked at a small stone at the edge of the scramble pad, sending the pebble tumbling down the long hill toward the city’s outer ring of warehouses and industrial buildings. “We don’t even know where the fourth portal is.” Lifting her hands, Erynn let them fall and sighed. “The Olas Imian. Those wooden plates you and I found in Deanaim had the information we needed.” She squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her temples. “I’m so sorry. I should have been aware of the danger of keeping them.” Frowning, she shook her head. “Dhoran understood their significance and acted to get the tablets back.” She took a deep breath and straightened. “They were our best hope to defeat Dhoran. Not just a plan to lock him in a chamber and pray he can’t get out.”

Her attention shifted back to Aven. “When Dhoran exists in a corporeal state, he can only pass between the surface and the underworld through portals. But when he is in spirit form, he must be able to move freely from either realm. Dhoran will be able to go wherever he wants, possess another, and begin all over again. There has to be a way to stop him in whatever form he inhabits.”

Aven stared out past the wall to the forest, his hand gripping the hilt of his dygaer.

Arms crossed, Erynn watched a dark aleun, his wings outstretched, glide across a patch of pale blue sky. “The answers we needed were on the plates.” She shook her head. “And what about the possibility of a fifth portal on Korin?” Erynn didn’t mean to sound so negative, questioning Aven, but she had considered all of these possibilities more than once. “If Dhoran leaves Arranon for Korin, who knows if we’d find him before it’s too late.”

“Cace’s working on it. The kid’s amazing.” Chuckling, Aven’s brow rose. “There he was, slowly dying, so sick all his life he could only read, learn—absorbing everything…well, until you—”

“I told you. It wasn’t me.” Erynn grimaced at her gruff tone. “Arranon and the Anim Blath healed Cace. I was just…their—a conduit, I guess.” She waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.

“Whatever.” A sly smile turning his lips, Aven shrugged. “Thanks to his eidetic memory, Cace did recall an anomaly. Some areas on the surface of Arranon show higher EMF readings and above-normal temperatures. He’s trying to determine if there’s a correlation between these and the location of the portals. He’s also checking similar sites on Korin, while allowing for the warmer climate of your planet.”

His reference to Korin struck Erynn as odd. Korin didn’t feel like her world anymore. Arranon—and Jaer—were home for her.

Cale approached across the scramble pad, his manner tentative, reserved. He cleared his throat. “Yes. But without the exact coordinates from the plates…” Staring at the black tarmac, he nodded. “Arranon is too large. There are just too many locations to search. We’d never find the correct one in time.”

Erynn didn’t look at Cale. She couldn’t. The knowledge she’d just gained regarding her birth, her existence, even though she’d suspected the truth, still stung. “If there was one set of plates with the answers, perhaps there is another. Something else that will tell us how to stop Dhoran. In the meantime, what do we do?”

His expression pained, Cale faced Erynn. The thick auburn streaks in his long graying hair stood out in the weak sunlight. “I’m sorry, Erynn…about our earlier conversation.” He glanced at Aven’s quizzical expression. “If you want, we can talk about it later.” Duty and the safety of Arranon his foremost concern, Cale continued. “As for finding Dhoran, Aven has a plan. He wants to take us—those of us with a mixed parentage, along with a party of Anbas—to Glaskra and the inhabited areas surrounding the city. See if we can determine who among us, if any, are loyal to Dhoran. He believes with only a few well worded questions, our abilities to read the emotions of others can expose the enemy through their thoughts and reactions.”

Clasping Erynn’s shoulder, Aven chuckled, his attention on Cale. “I was thinking about things, and I realized it’s not possible to keep secrets from this one.”

Erynn’s cheeks warmed and she smiled. Affection for Cale and Aven rushed up from deep inside, extended beyond her mind, and enveloped them both.

Cale’s posture relaxed. He’d received her emotional message and wrapped her in a quick hug.

Aven chuckled again. “I’m glad you two made up. The tension was thick enough even I, not a mixed blood, could sense it.”

His tone encouraging, his manner optimistic, Cale said, “If it turns out we are able to distinguish those loyal to Dhoran, we could split up, each of us with a contingent of Anbas Warriors. Mark out a widening perimeter across the inhabited sections of Arranon. Gain control over our enemies by containing them in a central location. Stop any strikes against the people before they happen. If we inhibit Dhoran’s followers from acting, slow them down, we’ll have more time to systematically check and eliminate zones until Cace can locate the last portal.”

Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, Erynn asked, “Have you considered the enormity of this undertaking, the vast size of Arranon, the logistics of the problem, and the personnel required? And where could his followers be held so Dhoran couldn’t find them? And the danger. Who would even consider doing this? I understand the plan might give Cace time to uncover answers. But…”

“We agree. Aven’s plan has drawbacks. But if we can keep Dhoran’s followers questioning their actions, unsure of what we can do, where we may show up next, it might be enough. We need more time. This is a way to gain some, even a little could make a difference. Whether it will be enough,” Cale shrugged. “I’m hoping it will. As for holding Dhoran’s followers, We’re considering a place he would least expect. His narrow view of the world and our potential confines his thinking. His inflated ego limits his expectations of others, of us, into a tight boundary.” Tipping his head, Cale said, “Self-imposed as it is.”

“Where already?” Erynn crossed her arms over her chest. “And how did you get all this profiling of Dhoran? Who would know…” Dropping her arms to her sides, Erynn sucked in a breath. “Nev.”

Cale nodded. “He’s been invaluable to our understanding of Dhoran. Nev even thinks he might remember enough about the fourth portal to help Cace find its location.” He glanced out over the city. “As for where,” Cale turned his attention back to Erynn. “Korin. Our good friend General Brayton has offered his assistance, a secure unit to hold detainees, and any personnel necessary. Keeping Dhoran busy and on Arranon until we can find a way to stop him is crucial for this to work.”

“If Dhoran were to go to Korin…” Erynn shook her head. “When can we get started?”

You, Captain Yager, can get started tomorrow. Hangar duty, remember? It’s equally important our aircraft are ready to scramble. We all have a responsibility.” Cale motioned behind her to the bay. “And today, yours is here.” Stepping forward, Cale faced her. “Erynn, trust Jaer to do his job. It may not show, but he’s as concerned about Tiar, Roni, and Sean as you are. He will find them.”

“I know. I do trust him. He’s just so…so stubborn and opinionated.” Erynn fought back the frown threatening to alter her expression of acquiescence.

Aven burst out a laugh. “He’s stubborn and opinionated? It’s like listening to Jaer all over again. He says the same thing about you.”

Her struggle to maintain a neutral expression failed and Erynn shot a dour look at Aven.

Clearing his throat, Aven turned away. “Time to go, Cale. We have a lot of territory to cover.”


Chapter 4

Once again, Sean led the trio. He slowed to a jog and turned into a side street that intersected twenty meters ahead with a bright, boisterous main thoroughfare.

A few people walked this darker street, staring up into the night sky, watching thin red beams sweep the city. Interest in the Herks short lived, passersby attention shifted to a lively outdoor party.

Sean, Tiar, and Roni hurried toward the more populated street.

“Stop running. Walk normally.” Tiar’s slight tug transferred through Roni. “Under those scans we’ll be bright white shapes against a dark background along with everyone else. If our actions are suspicious, being invisible won’t gain us anything.”

“We can’t stay connected. Two people holding hands is one thing, but three?” Sean acted before Tiar could protest or take the initiative and dropped Roni’s hand. Tiar and Roni wavered like a heat mirage on a sunny day and disappeared. An overwhelming unease almost had Sean groping the space to find her again.

“Sean. Come back,” Roni’s whisper hissed from empty air.

Her voice acted as a tether, calming Sean, reassuring him. “I’m not going anywhere. Just keep talking to me so I know your position and can stay close…hopefully.” The last word a quick prayer muttered under his breath.

“I don’t like it, but you’re right, Sean.” Resignation colored Tiar’s tone. “Security will concentrate their search for groups of three. Just in case we are split up, we should set a place to meet.”

“Well, the old airbase at Taiystill’s probably not an option. Been used already. And recently.” Sean dodged a man whose riveted attention focused on the unusual activity above. Not that he would have seen and avoided an invisible Sean anyway.

Back on course, Sean listened for the phantom footfalls of his brother and Roni, but blaring music and shouted conversations on the street ahead made it impossible. Panic tumbled and sparked along his nerves. “Tiar? Roni?” Sean didn’t whisper. They were close enough to the thronging crowd no one would notice his disembodied voice.

“Here.” Tiar’s shout came from the right and farther away than Sean anticipated.

Sean sidestepped, hurrying toward Tiar’s voice. He turned the corner onto the main thoroughfare, staying well away from groups lining the street edge of the wide sidewalk.

Blue and gold banners stretched between buildings, billowing with each chill gust. Similar flags waved and snapped from window casings and doorposts.

Tiar called from a step or two in front of Sean, “This section of the city seems to be hosting a celebration. Stay close to the building fronts.”

From the other side of the street, a young male voice roared over the mix of music, and high festivity. “Here it comes. Catch it.” A flashing silver sphere arced high through the air over the street.

A smiling young man standing on the sidewalk three meters ahead of Sean stretched up, arms high, fingers open, realized his reach wasn’t long enough, and jumped backward, catching the glittering orb with his fingertips. His head snapped back as he bounced forward off an unseen obstacle.

Arms flailing, orb bouncing over the sidewalk, the young man collided against a group of men passing by, their dour expressions turning maniacal in an instant.

“Oh no.” Sean groaned.

The young man’s friends darted around transports and rushed across the street to aid their doomed companion. In a feeble gesture of adolescent male blustering, their attempt proved ineffective. A melee ensued involving bystanders fueled by too much beoir and little self-control.

Pressed back, Sean fought to make his way around the growing confrontation. “Tiar. Roni.” He called, trying to see above the jumbled mass of thrashing bodies while keeping his balance.

A ball of blue static flew into the air.

“Tiar. I see you,” Sean yelled above the angry roar of shouts and curses. Jostled, shoved, and propelled across the street by the expanding fray, he didn’t gain any forward momentum.

A clenched fist attached to a brawny arm appeared an instant before impact. The intended recipient ducked at the last moment, and Sean took the full force of the blow.

Sean’s head snapped to one side and exploded with pain. He teetered backward, blood filling his mouth, and he coughed, spraying fine red droplets through the air. Ears popping, his body tingled with electricity and Sean’s misfiring brain mocked, You’re visible. Everyone can see you. What are you going to do now, chum? He struck the corner of an exterior wall and the scene around him sped into a dizzying swiftness. He pivoted around the building’s edge and stumbled into an alley, the grease-slick pavement rushing up to meet him.

Sean landed face first, and rolled into dark shadows, settling on his side against the wall. Consciousness slipped away, but not before he recognized the twitching whiskers, pointed little noses, and tiny, glowing yellow eyes of meerats staring at him from under the cramped space of a trash compactor.


Chapter 5

The two officers, Jole and Chad, did a quick survey of Bryn’s room and relaxed their postures.

Bryn knew both of them. They were honest and didn’t hassle her too much. They had no reason to. Well, other than a few minor lapses in her otherwise respectable accomplishments. Bryn wasn’t a liar or a thief. She didn’t use medpreps, legal or illegal. She’d never sold herself to make a living, though she could have. Told enough times she was pretty, she’d had offers. Good ones. She’d rather go hungry and did a time or two.

Jole slipped his staser back into the holster. “Bryn. I thought you lived over on Thradal, above the warehouses?”

“I moved.” Bryn smirked, her tone flippant.

“Relax, Bryn. We’re not here to harass you.” Bending down, Chad picked up the half-empty bottle of beoir from the floor next to the chair. Condensation on the outside dripped from his fingers. He set the bottle back where he’d found it and wiped his hand on his pants. He glanced at two other bottles, one empty, the other still frosty and full, sitting in puddles on the cracked blue counter. “Having a party?”

“Haven’t you heard?” She said with a lavish gesture of the space. “This is where all the all the best people come to party.”

Stepping into the small kitchen area, Jole stared out the tiny window over the sink. “See anything unusual down on the street tonight?”

Bryn chuckled. “Always.” Her gaze flicked to the corner, between the cabinet and the wall. Jammed into that cramped space, Sean had to be hurting.

Following her glance, Jole stared into the corner. He took a step toward Sean’s position.

Bryn followed Joel, her boots thumping across the floor. “I’m fine.”

Jole spun around and frowned. “What?”

“You said this was a safety assessment. You know? When you pounded on my door? Well, I’m fine.”

“I can see that.” Jole’s hand rested on his staser.

Chad stepped from the bathroom. “Nothing here.”

Bryn hadn’t noticed him leaving the main area.

“There’s even a damp towel hanging on the door hook.” Chad grinned. “And I thought you were just stalling us.”

Bryn let out a breath she hadn’t realized she held. “Why would I want to stall you?” Eyes rolling, she shoved her hands into hip pockets, and twisted around to watch Jole.

From the area of the cabinet, a strained squeak drew both officers’ attention. Pale-gray dust swirled and sifted down from the top. Fine particles paused in what seemed mid-air, defying gravity, before drifting to the floor. A strange wave bent the pale overhead light, like a heat mirage, but with a shape, a faint blur warping undefined edges.

Head tipped, posture stiff, Jole’s fingers tightened on his staser.

Cueing off Jole’s tautness, Chad’s attention shifted from his partner to the corner, and he moved forward. Each step placed with a conscious approach, Chad crouched, ready to act.

Behind the two officers, Bryn glowered and mouthed toward Sean’s hiding place, “Do something. Quick.” Will they hear him breathing? They could feel him…couldn’t they? Will physical contact break the…whatever…invisibility field…and make him visible?

Backing closer to Chad, Jole watched the small space next to the now quiet cabinet. “Did you see that?” His tone rose in pitch.

“See what? I only heard creaking. Probably just meerats in the walls.” Chad glanced up to the ceiling and around the tiny kitchen before staring back toward the cabinet. “Not the most appealing place I’ve ever been.”

“Hey,” Bryn crossed her arms glaring at the two officers. “This is my home.”

“No.” Jole ignored Bryn. He shuffled forward, peering into the corner between the wall and the cabinet. “I thought I saw something…move.”

Chad’s voice took on a tense note of concern. “Something moved? What?”

Bryn held her breath, cringing as Jole swept his arm inside the space, touching the sidewall, then the back, finishing at the cabinet’s outer wall.

Jole’s lips lifted in a smirk as he turned toward Chad. “Meerats.”

“I’m here,” Sean whispered at her side.

A warm breath touched Bryn’s cheek and she almost yelped. Disguising a startled jerk by throwing her arms up, Bryn took a step forward. “Just exactly what are you looking for in the corner, sprodes? Didn’t know the little eight-legged pests were on any wanted lists.” She shot a quick glance back in time to see the bathroom door waver. Fists planted on slim hips, Bryn scowled in the direction of both officers, now turned to face her. “If you’re done?”

Jole nodded, walking out into the hall behind Chad. “See ya around, Bryn.”

Pacing a path from bed to counter, Bryn waited until boot steps retreated and their voices muffled in the distance. She hurried to the bathroom and flung open the door.

Empty.

She tapped the pad of the overhead light and glanced around the cramped bathroom. “They’re gone.” Dropping her gaze from the open top shelf of the narrow cabinet to the tiny space under the small sink, she at once felt foolish. He’s invisible, not miniaturized.

The opaque white curtain over the narrow shower space fluttered, opened, and revealed Sean, his green eyes wide and imploring over a swollen nose and split lip.

Palms forward, Bryn raised her hands, turning away from him. “No. Don’t even think you can get away with not telling me what’s going on. I deserve that much—and the truth this time.”

Sean sighed and stepped out of the shower, almost colliding with her.

Stumbling back, her feet tangled. Her hip struck the half-shut door with a thump, stopping her clumsy retreat.

The tiny room seemed even smaller with both of them crammed inside. Heat radiated off him, his musky, masculine scent washing over her.

“You do deserve the truth. I didn’t mean to involve you in my troubles.”

Bryn crossed her arms, her staunch resolve fading along with her irritation. “Okay. So tell me what’s going on. I’ve been dealing with trouble most of my life.” Lowering her gaze from his extraordinary eyes, she stared at a crack in the clean blue floor tiles. “Maybe I can help.”

Opening the door, Bryn turned and walked to the bed, resisting the call of her beoir. Hand smoothing the soft quilt, hand-stitched in multiple shades of purples, she started to lower herself to the edge of the bed. Instead, she straightened, sidestepped, and settled into the chair, nodding Sean toward the bed. Unsettled, she didn’t understand her sudden concern for, or the underlying sensation of connection to this mysterious man with clear green eyes, long dark lashes, and boyish smile.

• • •

Still open to Bryn’s emotions, Sean grinned, but managed to control the smile by clearing his throat. He sat on the corner of the bed, weighing what he would tell her, knowing it didn’t matter anyway. She’d seen him become invisible. Anything he said needed to be believable, and sticking with the truth, how would that be possible. He had no guarantee she wouldn’t call the authorities if he confided his forbidden parentage. A chance he’d take. She deserved to know everything.

Staring at her, he nodded. “The truth.”

Bryn’s eyes narrowed. “The truth.”

Focused on the geometric designs in a small, dark rug on the floor in front of the bed, Sean took in a deep breath. “Okay. Here goes.” He glanced at Bryn.

She scooted to the edge of her seat.

“I have a secret. I hope you’ll keep it safe.” He looked into her midnight-blue eyes. “If not, it could mean my death.”

“Death? Really?” There was a slight tremble in her whisper. She acknowledged his nod with one of her own. “Of course, Sean.”

“I have a parent from Korin, and a parent from Arranon. I’m a half blood.”

A small frown creased her forehead. “You certainly don’t look deformed. And you obviously aren’t dead.” Her frown increased. “Or are you?”

Sean shook his head, causing a low throb behind his eyes. “I’m not dead or deformed. That is the lie our governments created to prevent the birth of mixed children. Children with unique abilities they feared might grow powerful and take over one day. Specialized teams murdered those children and their families to keep the government’s secrets. The truth about us is far more amazing.” He stood up, walked to the door, and stopped. “You see, I am different. I was born with these abilities.” He glanced at Bryn over his shoulder. “Like becoming invisible. I didn’t lie to you. You asked about a technology to make a person invisible. There isn’t one. In fact, I didn’t know I could do this until earlier this evening.”


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