Death’s black cape billowed.
A thick blanket of darkness folded over the surreal scene.
Jaer knew Death would claim him one day. A final battle fought with courage and honor against a deserving enemy. But there had been no warning to this assault—and no fight. The tactical approach of a coward.
The cloaked adversary waited, hidden in a crevice of the tunnel’s rock wall. He delivered a single lightning-quick strike, and then disappeared swiftly into the gloom.
Jaer had registered the flash of a blade in the muted-yellow light a fraction too late. He reeled back in shock and disbelief, gritting his teeth against the sharp pain. His mind screamed for his body to respond, to pursue and destroy the unknown assailant. Instead he crumpled to the cold stone floor. Anger surged. His vision cleared. He raised his head to survey the immediate area. A dark pool spread in an increasing expanse beneath him. Deep shadows swooped over Jaer, stealing his sight, but not before he knew he was alone in the dim corridor. His head dropped back to the hard stone, and his thoughts drained from him like the blood from the wound in his chest. Frosty numbness spread from the tips of his fingers, up his arms and legs, and into his core. Memories of his life swirled through his mind, and he struggled to pull his consciousness back to the present.
An ambush. Who would dare? Am I not Fayn of the Anbas Warriors. How is it my attacker does not lay dead beside me?
Jaer winced at the piercing burn in his lungs and coughed. “I . . . failed to . . . protect myself.” The words were a muted whisper slipping between trembling lips. Warm blood dribbled down the neatly trimmed hair of his beard. His fingers twitched, then lifted. He didn’t have the strength to raise his arm and wipe at his chin. Jaer’s hand stilled and he fought the urge to cough.
His battle was now with Death itself.
And Death meant to win.
Captain Erynn Yager turned from the setting sun dipping below the snow-covered scramble pad. She stepped into the massive hangar through one of the open bay doors. An excruciating pain tore into her ribs, and struck a deep sharp blow just below her solar plexus, seizing the breath from her lungs. She staggered and clutched at the thick flight coat over her chest. Her vision dimmed. Heat drained from her body. Her cheeks grew icy and a cold sweat enveloped her.
I’ve . . . been shot?
Erynn unclenched her fist and drew a shaking hand forward, believing her fingertips would be smeared with warm blood, the white of her coat blossoming red. The scent of this life-giving force, coppery and sharp, filled her nostrils.
But there was no blood.
Not here. Not on me.
In fact, any pain she had experienced was gone, leaving behind only a fading sensation of the burning, tearing ache that had stabbed into her.
Jaer groaned and a shallow breath shuddered into his chest with a slow rattle. He no longer felt connected to the floor beneath him. “Just . . . let . . . go.” He exhaled, believing he had taken his last breath.
No! I will not die. Not like this. I cannot leave . . . her. I have . . . I have found . . . what? Who? I do not fear Death.
A fierce love wrapped around him. Jaer’s heart warmed with this sudden crash of intense emotion, tethering him to life. He settled back to the cold hard stone, and labored to pull in a breath so thin it scarcely raised his chest.
Who can I not leave? Whose love is so powerful it holds my spirit in this body?
A brilliant white beam of light opened before him. There was no pain, no cold, nothing. Only that vague sensation of floating again.
Ah. Here it is. I am ready. I will join my ancestors.
Whill, the transport bay chief, appeared in Erynn’s peripheral vision, and stopped next to her. “Captain, I have those coordinates . . . Captain? Are you all right?” He quickly faced Erynn, and his gray eyes widened in alarm. “Erynn! What’s wrong? What’s happened? You’re as white as new snow.” Whill reached out to steady her with one hand while tapping the COM behind his ear with the other. “General, get down here! I’m in the hangar bay. It’s Erynn.” His long gray hair fanned over his shoulders as he swung his head right, left, and then back to Erynn. “Yes, General. The area is secure, and I’m not leaving her.”
Is there blood after all? Is he searching for an assailant? I wasn’t attacked. It was something else—no, not something—someone?
Erynn wiped sweat from her face, her hand steadying, and shook her head. “Please don’t call Cale. I don’t want him to worry.” She took in a deep breath and straightened. “Really. I’m fine, Whill. Just umm . . . it was just—” She frowned.
Just what? Another vision? Or a prophecy? Is this happening now, or will it happen in the near future? Knowing could mean the difference between life and death for . . . for—who? I need to think.
“Let’s let the General decide if he should be worried or not.” Whill placed strength behind the words, but his tone wavered with concern.
Whill’s strong emotions flowed over Erynn, interrupting her thoughts as she tried to concentrate. She sensed Cale’s approach. His apprehension surged ahead of him like a giant wave, crashing down on her. Cale’s anxiety united with Whill’s in a barrage against Erynn’s attempt to focus.
With Cale nearly here, Jaer must have been informed and was rushing to the hangar bay. Together they would sort out this strangely vivid vision.
An apparition shimmering with a bright blue radiance walked toward Jaer from the far end of the blinding tunnel of light. Long brown hair cascaded over his shoulder as he knelt down on one knee. “It’s not your time yet, Jaer. You have more to do. Both of you have more to accomplish before Arranon is finally safe.” He glanced at Jaer’s wound, and his shining face darkened with concern. “A poisoned blade,” he whispered, and pressed his ethereal hand over the deep puncture. “There is only so much I can do. This time, she must save you.”
Jaer felt the pressure of the spectral being’s touch. More warmth flowed into him, chasing the numbness from his body. “The light . . . so beautiful . . . warm . . . I will go.”
The spirit smiled. Sympathy in his brown eyes shone through a profound sadness. “She is your light, and your warmth, Jaer. And you are hers.” His visage faded.
“Wait. Who is she? Who are you?” Jaer whispered, his voice less substantial than the ghostly specter.
Words drifted from out of the dark. “I am Zander, her father.”
The blinding light faded and the dim corridor came into focus around Jaer.
Death’s black cloak whipped and snapped in an angry retreat.
Erynn’s heart hammered in her chest.
I sense Cale presence, but not Jaer’s. Where is Jaer? Where is he?
Her knees again threatened to buckle under her weight. Her heart, her soul, her life—Jaer. The pain she’d felt was his. The attack had happened to him.
Who would dare attack Jaer, Fayn of the Anbas? Dhoran would.
Dhoran, with a parent from each realm—the surface and the underworld—possessed great power, and an obsession to rule all of Arranon.
This must be his doing. But Dhoran is locked in a heavily guarded cell, and kept in a drug induced coma. Then someone—or something—else has acted against Jaer on Dhoran’s behalf. Could Dhoran have followers here on the base?
Erynn stiffened, eyes narrowing, her hands curling into tight fists. Heat fueled by rage flared into a fire that melted the cold encasing her. She turned and pulled from Whill’s grasp.
General Cale Athru, the base commander, rushed from the outer corridor and through the main access. Long coppery-brown hair heavily streaked with gray swung with each jarring step, the colors a vivid contrast to his white flightsuit.
Whill touched Erynn’s arm. “Wait. Cale’s here, Erynn. Just . . . wait.”
Erynn watched Cale’s approach, wanting to run toward him, away from the hangar bay, out into the heart of the base and begin the search for Jaer. Her calmer, more logical side prevailed. She locked eyes with Cale as he stopped in front of her. Her voice relayed the urgency ready to explode from deep inside her. “We have to find Jaer. Right now! He’s been attacked—stabbed!”
A few weeks ago, Shifters had begun stealing onto the base, carrying out random attacks on personnel on Dhoran’s—their master’s command. Erynn had foreseen these attacks in visions, alerting Jaer and Cale, preventing the Shifters from inflicting more harm.
Cale tapped behind his ear, his expression tense, deepening the lines around his eyes. “Aven, alert the Anbas and Security. Begin a search through every tunnel, every warren, all quarters and holds.” He was silent a moment, listening, his lips drawing into a thin line. His answer to Aven’s unheard question came out in a low growl. “Your brother.”
Erynn hurried down steep steps into long, dim corridors. Concern and mounting dread threatened to consume her. But this rush of feelings wasn’t originating from her own anxiety. They came from the security team following her and Cale. Erynn reduced her exposure, her empathic ability to these sensations by visualizing a broad beam of light, spiraling into a pinpoint. As always, this technique reduced the flood of emotions from others that often bombarded her. She spared a glance at Cale, the man running beside her. She sensed nothing under his tight expression—he kept his mind clear—concentrating on finding Jaer.
Cale had taken Erynn in after the murder of her much-loved adoptive father by alien invaders. Even after the invasion ended with the alien enemy defeated, Erynn chose to remain on Arranon instead of returning to her home world of Korin. There was little there for her with her father gone. Cale provided a home—a sense of family, of belonging, and an acceptance she had never before experienced. Jaer was here. She belonged on Arranon now.
Erynn believed she knew where to find Jaer—alive. Level ten—the deepest site on the base. Cale was unable to contact the guards stationed there—another reason to suspect that was Jaer’s location.
An alcove on level ten had held a magical hidden opening that led into the underworld. Because of Erynn’s time spent in this domain, only she could see this doorway and perceive the realm beyond. Mere days ago, she’d discovered the passage to find Cace, a boy taken as a hostage to this realm by the Shifters in an attempt to draw Erynn to them. Erynn had accepted the challenge, taking on this rescue mission alone. She’d hidden, watching, helpless as several Shifters taunted and tortured Cace. By using her unique connection to the heart of the living Arranon, Erynn managed to get Cace away from his captors and back to the alcove. There, with help, she’d protected a badly injured Cace, fighting off what seemed an unending stream of furious Shifters pouring through the access from their world and into hers. When additional assistance finally arrived to drive the Shifters back, Erynn’s energy was nearly depleted. She and Cace were taken to the Medical Unit and placed under the care of the unit’s skilled technicians.
Cale had ordered the doorway sealed. Did the Shifters re-open the passage? Is that what has happened to Jaer? Shifters?
Erynn shuddered, her step faltering. Shifters—tall and thin, but incredibly strong, with razor teeth and black oily skin, their foul breath tainted by the raw putrid flesh they ate.
Cale shook his head and whispered, “It can’t be Shifters, not from the alcove anyway. We would have known if they were attempting to re-open the passage.”
Erynn and Cale shared a special connection—a link that made it possible for them to understand each other’s thoughts. They shared this link with two others on the base, brothers Tiar and Sean.
The reason for this connection between them—their forbidden births. They each had one parent from the two worlds of Korin and Arranon. In Erynn’s case, her mother was from Korin, and Zander—her biological father was from Arranon.
Generations ago, the governments of each planet banned relationships between the people of Korin and the people of Arranon. They claimed the children of this mixed parentage were born with hideous defects, and always died. This cruel lie of infant deformities and mortality created tension, a separation of the two worlds. The intent was to stop further births, and not for altruistic reason, but because these children exhibited remarkable abilities. Abilities the governments believed could have made these extraordinary individuals masters of their worlds.
Cale held his hand up and stopped, slowing their headlong rush from the last landing before the alcove. His tone remained quiet, hardly a whisper. “I don’t sense Jaer’s presence, Erynn. There are guards stationed here at all times. They would have warned—”
“Maybe they weren’t able to.” Erynn’s attention snapped to Cale, her voice low and uneven with worry. “Why don’t they answer the COM? Why didn’t they respond to the base-wide alert?”
Muted light from the niche crept only as far as the lowest step. An ominous silence drifted up from the shadows.
Cale pressed his back against the stone wall at the third step from the bottom. He glanced back and nodded at the six-security team members clustered on the landing, weapons drawn, lining up behind Erynn.
Cale stepped cautiously to the bottom step, his staser raised, and peered around the corner. He relaxed his shooting stance and entered the alcove.
Erynn followed. There were no Shifters escaping through a mysterious cleft in the rock, no Jaer laying crumpled and bleeding on the cold stone floor. Nothing but the two guards stationed there.
“Why didn’t you respond to the alert?” Cale’s roaring voice echoed in the small alcove.
The guards glanced at each other. “General. Sir. There was no alert, no communication of any kind since we came on duty.”
Cale tapped behind his ear. “Dispatch, COM check. I repeat, COM check. Hangar Control, do you copy? Transport bay. Do. You. Copy.” He waited a heartbeat. “Nothing,” he growled. Cale turned to the security team leader. “Send someone to communications control. Try to find out what is wrong.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, sir.” She wheeled on a young man and ordered, “Stanik, go!”
Stanik was up the stairs and around the landing before she finished the order.
Erynn raked curls from her forehead with a shaking hand. “This is taking too long. The base is too large, and without reliable communication . . . we’re wasting time. We have to find Jaer before—”
“Then think, Erynn,” Cale demanded. “Use the same connection with Jaer that showed you his attack. That’s the only way we’ll find him in time.”
She needed to embrace her abilities—and find Jaer. Erynn closed her eyes, and took in a deep breath. The air around her buzzed with prickling electricity. Static crackled inside Erynn’s chest, running down her arms to her hands, building, ready to explode from her fingertips in a churning mass of snapping, popping currents of pure energy.
Breath rushed from Erynn’s lungs. “Level four, behind the dining hall.” Her eyes opened and as one, the group hurried back up the steps.
Cale got through to Aven on the COM when they passed level six. Aven was on level two and would reach Jaer in moments.
Distant shouts echoed down the murky corridor. Hurried boot steps reverberated on stone. Hands fumbled over Jaer, opening his jacket to reveal the extent of his injury. The pressure and warmth of Zander’s touch remained.
“Jaer! Can you hear me? Jaer! You’re going to be alright. You have to stay with me!” The strident demand filtered down to Jaer as if from a great height.
Aven. My little brother. I recognize his voice, but it is different. The timbre of a man, not a boy. Why is he here? Where is here? Think. You know these answers.
Jaer’s thoughts became difficult to keep in order. Memories as a young boy mingled with his Anbas training.
I am an Anbas Warrior.
A sense of pride at this accomplishment rushed through him. Being an Anbas Warrior was all he ever wanted, all he needed.
An image formed in his mind—a young woman with long curly red hair, a fair complexion, and startling ice blue eyes. His heart ached at the sight of her. She smiled and the darkness surrounding him was eclipsed with a brilliant light. The vision vanished with Jaer’s tumbling thoughts. Wings of unconsciousness spirited him away, and Jaer forgot . . .