Authors: Michael Phillip Cash
“Slowly, warrior.” She pulled the cup away from his dehydrated lips. She had a deep voice that reminded Zayden of liquid mercury, both soft and smoky.
“Where am I?” the words came out in a croak.
“This is my den.”
Zayden attempted to rise. “Stay still. You are safe, for now.” His shoulder ached as though acid had drenched it. He raised an unsteady hand to touch it, and she caught it within her own.
“Don’t touch it.”
“What…was I shot?”
“By me,” she smiled down at him. “My needle. I have branded you.” She ran her hands down his gray, pebbled chest possessively. “I saved you, and you belong to me.”
“I don’t think so.” Zayden groaned from his gut as he rose, attempting to get off the pallet. “What is your name?”
“Denita.” She turned her back and went to her cooking fire to fill a plate from a bubbling pot. “You will be hungry, I am thinking. Darracians are meat eaters, yes?” She ladled an overfilled spoon into a crude bowl, and Zayden’s stomach growled loudly in
the tiny room. Sick as he was, he still noticed her tight-fitting black jumpsuit that hugged every curve. She wore high black boots that ended on the middle of her long thighs. She had a great pair of legs; Zayden eyed them with admiration. Though he wasn’t interested, he still enjoyed looking at an attractive woman, and she was attractive. They were in close quarters, clearly in the rear of a noisy graphen den. It was dingy, a beaded curtain the only privacy from the patrons in the next room. Drafts blew through the chinks in the walls; his skin contracted with cold. He shivered involuntarily, and Denita threw a wrap around his wide shoulders, caressing him possessively until he shook her off. Denita had a pallet, two mismatched chairs, and a table that listed with a broken leg. Zayden walked unsteadily to the table, sitting down heavily on the chair, his head feeling miles above his body. The girl dropped the bowl before him. Zayden pushed his snarled hair from his face. Denita stood behind him stroking his head lovingly.
“Stop that.” He slapped at her weakly.
“You didn’t mind last night,” she told him seductively, taking a brush and beginning to comb through his tangled locks. “Oh, it is a mess. I am going to braid it.”
He felt her tugging on his scalp and moved his head away. She tapped him on the shoulder with the brush. “Don’t make me hurt you, otherwise I’ll just cut all your hair off. You’ll feel better after you eat. You’ve been out of it for a couple of days.”
Zayden knew the days were longer than on his native Darracia, this planet being so far from the suns.
“How many?” His voice was a rusty scrape.
She looked at him with a question in her eyes, which he noticed were a rich, dark brown, framed by two dense rows of mink-colored lashes.
“Days, how many days have I been here?”
She shrugged. “Oh, I found you four days ago. You
were trying to attack a group of robbers. One slightly broken Darracian against fifteen thugs. No matter how talented you are, the odds were not in your favor.”
“Why did you help me?” Zayden shoveled a spoonful of potted meat into his mouth. It was delicious, and he was ravenous.
Denita observed him with a possessive smile. She filled a glass with a white liquid and put it on the table. “Drink it. It will help.”
Zayden took a gulp and recoiled at the overly sweet taste.
“It is good for you.”
“I don’t want it.” He pushed it away, slightly nauseated.
“But you will drink it.” Denita pushed it back and finished, “My warrior.”
“Stop saying that. I’m not your warrior.” He touched
his cheek, wincing at its tenderness. His hand moved up, and he realized his patch was missing. “Where is it?” he demanded.
“You don’t need it with me. I have seen far more of you than that.” Denita laughed as she threw his frayed patch onto the table.
Zayden hastily put it on, feeling his shoulder pull. Looking down, he saw a strange blue circle within a black circle covering most of his shoulder. He touched it lightly.
“It tells everyone you are mine. I saved you, and now you belong to me.”
“I belong to no one.”
“You owe me, Darracian. A life for a life.” She swiftly rolled her sleeve up, showing him a white bandage. Deftly she removed it, revealing a long gash. “This is the price I paid. We are hardly even.” Turning, she left him to eat alone. He heard her commanding voice rapping out orders in the next
Suddenly weary, he staggered to the lumpy cot, his head hitting the spare pillow to fall deeply into a healing sleep.
He awoke to silence, the rich time before the suns rose, when dew graced the ground, coating the grass like sugar-spun crystals, untouched by the filthy rabble inhabiting the planet. Zayden flexed his legs, feeling stronger than he had, and rolled to his feet. The room was empty, the wind barely moving the ragged curtains. He looked around, spied his pistol on the table, rolled upward to snatch it, and put it in the back of his pants. He staggered up, finding the place he needed, his body’s urges making themselves known.
“Ah, so you’ve finally passed water. Is it still bloody?”
Zayden felt his face heat up. “It’s no business of yours.” He pushed himself into the small kitchen, weaving just a bit.
“Sit down, you big lunk. You are going to ruin all my handiwork.” She plunked another bowl of something steaming onto the crude table. “Was me that fought off those hired baboons and sewed up your cuts. Around here that deserves a bit of gratitude. I own you, warrior.”
Zayden laughed. “You can’t own a dead man. I died a year ago.”
“You mean Hilde?”
Zayden stalked to her and grabbed her arm, surprised by the strength in her corded muscles. “How do you know about Hilde?” he demanded, his teeth bared.
“Settle down before you fall down. You talked is all.” She shrugged out of his grip as he sat heavily onto the chair. “She’s dead. I’m not. So accept your new reality.”
“By the great Sradda, you will not tell me what to do!” Zayden shouted, but the fight was leaving him.
“There are no Elements here, warrior. They left us to
the Planta years ago. On Venturian, we only have our wits, and this.” She reached down and held up a Fireblade in her strong hand.
“Where did you get that?”
“I took it off a dead man. The one who had taken it from you.” She threw it to him, and he deftly caught it. “Now you will teach me how to use the Fireblade.”
Zayden shook his head. “I cannot teach you. It has no power.” He tucked it into the loop of his pants.
“It does so…”
Zayden dropped his spoon, his amber eye narrowed. “How could you know?”
“I’ll show you.” Denita held out a calloused hand. “When you hold it with both hands…”
“You had a flame?” Zayden asked quietly.
“Well, it was weak, but I am sure if you showed me how to…”
“What color was it?” Zayden demanded.
“What difference does it make? Relax, warrior, I think it was a light blue; I admit it was weak.”
“Don’t touch it. It’s forbidden. Don’t ever touch it ever again.” Zayden stared at her hard. She was younger than he first thought, but years of living in this hellhole had hardened her. He thought her to be a few years younger than him. “Why do you want to learn?” The room became so still, the air seemed to solidify.
Denita spoke almost in a whisper. “The Planta have something of mine, and I have to get it back.”
“None of your business.”
“Fine…Thanks for all you’ve done.” He picked his jacket off the back of a chair, sliding his arm painfully into it.
“You can’t leave, you owe me.”
“Give me your address and I’ll have my people send you something.”
“Oh very funny, Your Highness…”
Zayden turned and grabbed her wrist, his knuckles white. “What do you mean by that?” he asked, a fine white line rimming his lips.
“Nothing.” Denita pulled away, her mouth thin with hatred. “You’re hurting me. I don’t want your money, I want your help.”
Zayden shrugged. “I left my ship at the harbor. It’s probably on its way to Pagil 7 in a million little pieces. Besides, I don’t know Planta or its terrain. I don’t even know what you’re so hot to find. You don’t even know me.”
“I know enough. When you walk around Venturian asking questions, everybody is aware of you. Just get me to Planta and I’ll do the rest, Zayden.”
“How do you know my name?” he demanded.
“Everybody on Venturian knows your name. They also know that I am the only one willing to help you. If not for me, you’d be nothing but fertilizer.”
“Whatever.” Zayden shrugged. “I will not help you. I am looking for Staf Nuen.”
“So am I,” Denita told him.
Zayden’s knees shook, so he sat down, abashed at his weakness. “Not gonna happen, sweetheart.”
“We’ll see about that,
,” Denita called back nastily as she left the room and their debate.
Zayden’s lips split into a grin in spite of himself. She was as ornery as the horned toads of Fon Reni, but he had to admit she had a great little…He stopped to wonder how she had gotten the flame to turn blue.
The attack came the next morning without warning. Planta raids were ruthless, as well as indiscriminate. The cries of the locals mixed with the blades of the invaders. He heard Denita’s defiant voice fill the small den.
“He’s not here, I tell you.” A scabbard screamed as a blade was raised. Zayden grabbed his Fireblade from the floor next to his cot, feeling the flame of it come to life. He hadn’t touched it as a weapon for almost a year, but instinctively reached for it when he heard Denita’s arguing. Looking at it with loathing, he looped it in his pants and took out his pistol. Hiding behind the beads, he saw Denita surrounded; a small nick in her neck dripped red with blood. His head heated up with rage, his amber eye glazed with hate.
“Even if he was here, I wouldn’t let you have him!” she shouted.
As a great sword arced upward, Zayden cursed loudly, bursting through the curtain, firing off two rapid rounds, taking out both the man holding a knife to Denita’s throat, and the other one by the door. Denita withdrew a small, wicked-looking blade from a sheath attached to the boot by her calf and gut-stabbed the last raider.
“Why did you do that! I was fine without your help!”
Denita spun on him.
“Yeah…I can see just how fine.” He touched the droplet of blood dripping down her long neck.
She recoiled, her back ramrod straight, looking like a proper little soldier. “You’ve ruined everything. I had it under control.”
“A regular general,” Zayden said sarcastically.
Denita touched her neck, cursing at the pain. “We have to get out of here,” she said urgently. “There’ll be more coming now.”
Zayden ripped a piece of his shirt and with an intimate gesture dabbed her neck. She pulled away, and Zayden grabbed her arm, forcing her to bare her neck. Their eyes locked. Her skin was soft, and he touched a rough knuckle to the vulnerable underside of her chin. She moved her face higher. It almost felt like an offer, he thought. She moistened her lips, her lovely lashed eyes wide in her small face. They stared at each other in silence, until she hissed in
pain. Zayden muttered softly, “Well, I have nowhere to go.”
“Your ship,” she told him, her lips inches from his own.
Zayden looked down at her. Time seemed frozen, when he suddenly threw the scrap of cloth in a corner, angry at himself for caring. Feelings were for others, not him. “My ship is gone and of no use,” he said flatly.
“No, no, it is safe. It was missing a binding plug, and a masen board. I had them replaced.” She grabbed his hand. They stopped at the door; the icy streets were striated with blood. Still warm, it made a miasma of steam and filled the air with an irony odor. Venturians were murdered as they stood; screams pierced the air. Smoke swirled around them, obliterating the shabby storefronts. Zayden coughed, his ribs protesting mightily. Fires dotted the street where Plantans threw lit torches onto the wooden roofs.
Zayden hung on the door, breathless, his head wound weeping, falling to his knees in the icy slush.
Where are the Elements now?
he demanded. How could they stand by and watch beings mowed down, letting them be plundered by tribes that knew no mercy?
“Move, warrior!” Denita placed a shoulder under his arm. “This way.” He turned to watch her home go up in a blaze, falling when an explosion rent the air. Her home went up in a fireball, raining debris over their heads. Ducking his aching head, he watched burnt pieces of flesh splatter the icy, rutted lanes.
“The graphen.” Denita smiled, her face lit up by the flames. “It’s highly unstable. I hope those bastards were still inside.”
He pointed to smoking flesh. “Looks like your wishes came true.”
“If only…” she replied harshly.
“Well, this bastard is ready to go,” Zayden told her, holding her by the elbow. “Which way, Denita?”
They sprinted through the back alley, slipping in the freezing mud. Zayden panted as they weaved between the burning buildings. All around him, he could hear cries for mercy, and the sounds of rampage. The Plantans pushed in doorways, carrying whatever they could on their backs, including the young women of the colony. Zayden gripped his sidearm, turning to enter the fray, when he felt Denita tug his arm. “This is not your fight.”
“It seldom is,” Zayden responded. “They are carrion.”
“They have my sister. I need you,” Denita implored him.
He looked at the carnage. His amber eye narrowed as he turned to help the victims.
“You won’t make a difference here! They do this all the time. Look, do you want me to beg?” she demanded. They stood frozen, eyes locked, and
Zayden swore he saw all the way to her soul. It was just as bleak as his own.
Denita pushed him into a small building, Zayden gasped when he recognized a familiar outline underneath a tarpaulin. Sweat glistened off her almond-colored skin. “Warrior, help me,” she urged him.
With his good arm, Zayden pulled the heavy material off the dulled surface of his ship, his ribs screaming in protest.
“You didn’t wax it?”