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Excerpt for Power Struggle and Other Stories from the Bete Novels by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Power Struggle

and Other Stories from the Bete Novels


by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Stephanie Barr


Discover other titles by Stephanie Barr at Smashwords.com

Conjuring Dreams or Learning to Write by Writing

Tarot Queen

Beast Within (First of the Bete Novels)

Nine Lives (Second of the Bete Novels)

Saving Tessa

Musings of a Nascent Poet

Curse of the Jenri

Legacy

Ideal Insurgent



Dedicated to Stephanie, Roxy and Alex, always.

To Chuck, Mirren and many other beta readers, proof that good beta readers are worth their weight in gold but I'm too scatterbrained to keep track of who read each story.


"Power Struggle," "Storm Front," and "Gauntlet" were first published in the anthology, Legacy.


Cover Art by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents

Power Struggle

Storm Front

Blood Moon

Gauntlet

About the Author


Power Struggle.



The scream of a body moving unfathomably fast brought everyone from their huts. No planes or ships flew this far over the wild. It could only be Drakken.

Sure enough, the missile, wine-red, plummeted from the skies, wings folded over a body made to fly. At the last moment, the wings extended, long and so thin they were nearly translucent, but sturdy enough to slow his progress so that he landed rather than crashed in the village center on three of his four legs. There were scrapes along his shimmering scales, a few scales broken or scratched with sword or arrowhead, but nothing that a dragon like Drakken would notice.

His snout was elongated and his body was sinuous, the wings delicate but functional, the body almost snake-like as if he were a head and a long, pointed tail with legs and wings. His eyes whirled green and were brightest when he was enraged, a fairly common occurrence, but they were profoundly bright now.

In his slender talons, a child was clasped, gasping for breath and well stained with blood.

"Drakken, what have you done?" the village archivist hissed, a trait he was prone to when he was close to losing his own temper. "Where are the others? How many times have you been warned not to raid the human villages? Do you wish them to come and destroy us?"

You worry too much, Fryll! Drakken thought to him. Call the healer. I did not steal a human child but saved a Bete.

"You lie!" Fryll retorted, but he was already checking the child for injuries and gestured his son, Cil, to find the healer. "There hasn't been a spontaneous Bete born in the human villages for years, not one that's lived past infancy, what with the humans' hatred of any sign of deviation. Any who show the slightest touch of magic are killed as Bete, even if they don't change shape."

Drakken transformed to his human form and stretched, cracking the bones in his neck. He was tall and golden-skinned with bright green eyes and long black hair. "His mother hid his nature. They killed her, brutally and with torture. It was her death scents that led me there. Those bastards killed her while the kid listened, smelled it from outside where they chained him."

Fryll's careful hands uncovered the child's wounds, most notably deep gouges from the chains that had been on him, neck, wrists, ankles, leaving his belly exposed for the wild creatures that roamed outside the human village, leaving him to die where even his other nature couldn't save him. Fryll turned and spat. "Is he Prime?"

"Aye, and strong," Drakken said, wrapping a robe someone handed around his slim person. He met and held Fryll's pale green eyes, reptile to reptile at that moment. "Fang panther, magnificent and strong enough to pull his neck from the collar that bound him, though perhaps not without damage. He killed two direwolves with only his teeth before I sent them running and freed him."

Strong Prime were, even now, at a premium, seemingly rarer with every generation since the Prime had no choice to but mate with humans. Dangerous enough when Bete mated with Bete but Prime could not take that risk. Prime, those Bete who could transform and gave the tribe its name were difficult and touchy, hard to control, but so necessary. They were reckless and dangerous, but they were the only protection the village had against the far more numerous human villages around them.

The healer, Gaal, not Prime but highly skilled, knelt next to the boy and began to treat the wounds, the neck injury first. Under his hands, the boy began to breathe more easily, his larynx repaired. "He'll live," Gaal said, "if the mental trauma's not too much."

"He'll live," Drakken insisted. "This boy is strong, a deep will to live, to fight. He'll never give up. I only wish my worthless son had half his courage and spirit."

"You did well to save him," Fryll said, but his suspicions were not laid to rest. "If you did no more than rescue the Bete child, how did you get your own injuries? It's not like they'd attack you. That's why they leave them exposed that way, those ruthless bastards."

"I torched the village," Drakken said negligently. "One way or the other, they'll learn to treat Bete better."

Fryll hissed, his eyes blazing, his tongue forked in his rage. "It is because you are so recklessly destructive to the human villages that they hate us, why they torment those that would protect Bete children. You are the reason we live in constant fear."

"Don't hiss at me, snake, unless you'd care to fight, snake to dragon. I'll fight you any time. We only keep the humans back with fear. If we're not brutal, what keeps them from attacking?"

"They can contact their governments, the same one that provides the schools where our children are sent," a cool voice said from Drakken's elbow and Drakken pulled back his arm as if to slap him for his insolence. Probably, if he had been alone with Xander, he would have. For the first years of Xander's life, Drakken had treated him like so much air, but now he'd taken custody, a brutal custody that left no doubt of physical punishment. Everyone had noticed the bruises, the marks of beating on Xander's fair skin, but Xander said nothing so no one challenged Drakken.

No one ever really challenged Drakken.

Just as now, as Fryll grappled with his temper, no matter what rules Drakken dismissed, no matter what damage he brought the villages as a whole, no one would stand against him.

No one except Xander.

"Perhaps we can beat the local humans even though they outnumber us twenty to one," Xander said, with no outward sign of fear. "But the government could come with ships and weapons, could destroy our village with mechs the explorers use. If they send enough of them, none of us could prevail against them. Not even the Dragon." Xander made an insult of the name, though he also transformed into a dragon.

Not even the audience could keep Drakken from backhanding his own son, but Drakken addressed the other council members there. "You see? Fearful! No spine at all! He should have been a mouse rather than presume to wear the skin of a dragon!"

Fryll had his other form in hand, his heart heavy at the mistreatment of the slender boy and even heavier that there was nothing he could do to protect Xander in the future. If it came to fighting between his constrictor form and Drakken's, Fryll was too practical not to know how it would end.

No matter how vital the Prime were to the safety of the Tribe, Drakken wouldn't hesitate to destroy one if they challenged his authority. He'd done it before, when it was Alya's ravaged body he'd brought back, an innocent woman assaulted and impregnated against her will by Drakken. Then it was Lucial who had challenged and who perished though he'd been a magnificent Kula Tiger and was a wise man besides.

But Drakken worshipped nothing but might, perhaps because that's all he had.

If Drakken had been a reasonable man, he might have acknowledged his son's unassailable logic, might have appreciated the danger the entire village faced due to Drakken's vindictiveness. But he wasn't.

So, Fryll held his tongue, both on this travesty and Xander's mistreatment. Someday, for Drakken had made no strides in destroying Xander's intellect or defiance, Xander would challenge Drakken.

And, of course, that's why Drakken had taken Xander from the loving arms of his mother and all but isolated him from the rest of the village, in hopes to crush his spirit because he knew. Even at eight years old—much the same age as this unconscious boy—it was clear that Xander's dragon form would be a far more magnificent beast when he reached full growth. And it was equally true that the boy was already twice the man Drakken was though he had not yet attained his first decade. And Drakken was just sharp enough to understand that Xander was the only threat he really had.

Xander had picked himself up after the vicious blow and made no move to retaliate though all the trainers said Xander was the best student in generations at hand to hand. But he also did not looked cowed nor bow his head. "I speak only the truth. Your recklessness puts us all at risk. Smacking down a child will not change it. Nor does saving this one."

"If I want your opinion, I'll ask for it!" Drakken said with such venom that Fryll was suddenly visited with the notion that Drakken was not above battling his own son now, while he was still a child. Such was his megalomania.

Fryll tried a reasonable tone. "What's done is done. We can only hope Xander's scenario is unlikely. Nor will I lose any sleep for the monsters that did such horrible crimes to a child." He lifted his head and held Drakken's eyes with his own. "As only a monster would do to a child."

There was just enough shame in Drakken that he broke eye contact first and strategically moved further from Xander to keep from striking out again. Fryll ground his teeth. "Cil, does the boy rouse?"

Cil, Fryll's own son, a fine thoughtful child at eleven, was helping the healer. Cil was pale, paler than all the other Bete, his eyes a pale yellow. The unusual pallor only added to his differences with the other children, magnified by the unpopularity of the snake, as Fryll knew all too well.

Cil shook his head. "Not yet, though I think his worst wounds are healed. He may need several sessions. His throat was damaged so it might affect him in some way."

Gaal, no more fond of snakes than any other Bete, cut him off with a click of his tongue. "Can do my own speaking, boy."

Fryll sighed internally but said nothing. Even adults bullied Cil, and Fryll's own protection would do nothing but make it that much harder for Cil to adapt when Fryll was no longer there to protect him.

"He is rousing," Xander said. "It's a nightmare now, or perhaps a memory, but it's very close to the surface."

Gaal said nothing to Xander, not only because he was the future leader but because, as a telepath even in human form, Xander would know best on this subject.

"How soon—" Gaal started but the boy in his arms interrupted with a cry, no, a primal scream of unbearable pain, fear, and rage.

Somewhere buried in it, Fryll caught the sense of the word "mother" but it was too distorted to know for sure.

"He's changing! Stand back," Xander said, pale and shaking, violet eyes wide at whatever he was seeing from the boy's mind. The vision must have been devastating because Xander fell to one knee, his own face distorted with the memories and trauma from someone else's mind.

Cil and Gaal scrambled back from the form that was growing, doubling, tripling in size, growing a coat of shining black hair, its golden eyes dilated with fury and stress. A fine Fang Panther indeed, but not easily subdued in form and wild with remembered anguish. Fryll was prepared to transform and hold the boy in his coils until the boy had found some semblance of sanity, but Drakken was faster. Drakken caged the panther in his talons and then placed his whole weight on them so the panther could not escape. When the enraged panther attacked his armored talons, Drakken flexed them so the panther was pushed downward to the ground, immobilized by the crushing weight, his claws and teeth useless in his posture.

Fryll knelt just a handspan away and spoke in a calming tone to the boy. "You were saved. You aren't going to die and no one here will hurt you. But we can't let you free until you calm down."

Still deeply linked with the raging new Bete, the same pain ripped through Xander. Fryll could see it in Xander's eyes, hear it in the occasional growl, but Xander's control was such that no more than that escaped his calm features.

Fryll eyed Xander. "Can you talk to him? No one can shield their minds from your telepathy."

Xander breathed in, centering himself, extending his natural calm to even his face, even his voice, everywhere but his still haunted eyes, purple mirrors to the pain in the panther's golden eyes.

Xander's projection was so strong everyone heard it, rather than just the trapped panther. What is your name? We do not intend to hurt you so you don't need to fight us.

Based on the foaming mouth and growls from the panther, the words were not making a difference.

Xander's eyes narrowed for a moment with perhaps his own emotion before he said with at least as much force and a good deal more censure. Will you back down, you dumb child? We are trying to help you! Has no one ever told you that attacking those that would offer the hand of friendship is insanely stupid?

This tone was sufficiently different than the kinder tones used previously that the panther was stunned silent for a minute. You calling me stupid?

You need only cease thrashing like a beached fish if you wish to indicate the slightest sentience.

What does that even mean? The mental argument seemed to have stilled the physical reaction.

It means you're acting like a toddler.

The panther receded along with the crazy rage, with this more childish argument taking its place. "I'm a child?" the boy demanded with his human mouth. "You're not exactly a grownup yourself."

I'm enough of one not to throw a tantrum, Xander said implacably. He nodded to Fryll who nodded to Drakken. Drakken let up the pressure so the boy could stand again.

The boy immediately marched to Xander and gave him a push at the shoulder. "Who the hell are you and why are bullying me?" He narrowed his golden eyes. "And how are you talking in my head. You're not in form!"

I am Xander, Xander said. At this point, of course, Xander could have spoken clearly, but he seemed intent on needling this child and continued broadcasting his thoughts to all assembled, including the boy. I can speak to anyone anytime with telepathy. No one is safe. Xander's smile was downright wicked. Now do you have a name or are you, in truth, the beast you act like?

"You are pissing me off," the boy said. "My name is Laren and you've got some nerve talking to me that way after all I've been through…" and, just like that, the rage was supplanted as the pain, the anguish of this boy's day, of the mother he lost, of the village that turned on him, killed his mother and left this boy to die hit him. Of the betrayal only human beings seemed capable of.

Laren threw back his head and wailed, but this was pure sorrow, pure devastation and his form stayed unchanged. Xander said nothing but stood before him, his own eyes echoing the pain the boy was clearly feeling.

Fryll turned at the sound of pounding bare feet to find Rem, Xander's boon companion, pounding up, Alya, Xander's mother, at his heels.

Drakken narrowed his eyes but said nothing. It was confounding for Fryll as, despite his treatment of Alya, she had remained and raised her child, and had, through methods unknown, not only kept Drakken civil in her presence but had kept him from repeating the original act again. Fryll had asked but Alya tended to be closed-lipped with any but children, perhaps aware that any friends she made would be punished by Drakken since he could not manage to punish her.

Except in taking her beloved son.

Alya bent to the weeping child, stroked his hair, then rose and confronted Drakken with the same resolution as her son had before. "Let me have this child."

"You can't handle him," Drakken said with a snort. But he didn't meet her eyes.

"You have taken my son. You have made me promise not to demand him back. Give me this boy. Let me help him heal."

"I said, you can't handle him."

Her eyes, a liquid brown that turned hard very rarely, turned to stone. "I handled you. Give me this boy. Let me help him."

Drakken met her eyes for a second, but he turned away almost at once. "Fine, but don't make a great weakling of him as you've made of my son."

Alya spared a glance for her son, who looked stricken in a way neither Laren nor Drakken had managed before, his eyes swimming in tears Fryll felt confident he would not let fall.

Laren was not the only one who had been abandoned.

Alya gathered the sobbing child in her arms and turned to her own hut, Rem pausing only a moment to share a stare with Xander and clasp his hand before following. Fryll wondered how often Xander spoke mentally to the carefree Rem and why such an easy-going child had attached himself so completely to someone as serious as Xander.

Behind Fryll, other Bete, Drakken's own contingent of Prime buddies who raided with him, stumbled into the village, several more than a little worse for wear. Gaal's stance—akimbo—argued he wasn't much inclined to do more than standard first aid.

"What kept you?" Drakken growled.

Even Fryll rolled his eyes. They were powerful Prime, but none of them could fly. Drakken just wanted a target for his own frustration.

"Come, Cil. Let's go." Fryll decided he did not want to be a target himself, even though he knew Xander would most likely get the bulk of the unpleasantness. Sure enough, he could hear Drakken start railing behind him, complaining at Xander's weakness in channeling the emotions of the boy Drakken himself had brought in.

"Father," Cil asked as he came in. "Can nothing be done to stop Drakken's excesses? Xander is a difficult person, but he's right. And you know it."

"Oh, aye, he's right. And you'd best make friends with Xander. Sometime, and not too far in the future, Xander will be the real power of this village. You want him on your side."

Cil frowned. "Xander doesn't like me. None of them like me."

Fryll nodded as if that were only natural. Maybe it was. It had always been so for him, except for that brief moment when he thought the human woman would be different. No sense giving Cil false hope. "None of them will like you," Fryll said, "but they can be made to respect you. Learn. Watch. Be ready to strike when you have to but not before. If your counsel is sage, those who lead and those who are popular will all still need you by their sides. So, I urge you, my son, to cultivate the young dragon. I am confident he will become the strength of this tribe. And the new one, the panther as well."

"Why, father?"

Fryll thought back to how Xander diffused Laren's fear and rage with needling, but how his own temper was tested by the new boy. "Because, my dear boy, I suspect Laren will be a weakness for the young dragon. And you will need every edge."




Storm Front



K'Ti wasn't empathic but she could feel it, the tension, swirling around the tribe, an ugly smell that cloyed and clung, stronger here as someone hurried by, fading here until she could almost think the trouble would disappear and, tomorrow, they would return to normal.

Almost.

She'd been bathed and dressed in a freshly woven skirt, her long hair braided. She'd been fasting for two days, ever since K'Lan had first felt them coming, the ones K'Lan called the cold ones.

"Soon," he had said and no one questioned the wise one, however many decades he carried on his stooped shoulders. So the four had been prepared: K'Tsuri to safeguard the skills and talents that made the strongest warriors, K'Pan to hold the weaving and crafting skills and the magics that made the work go quickly, K'Ti would be gifted the healing skills, and K'Jel, K'Lan's own grandson and K'Ti's fiancé, would be the one to protect the Wise One's skills and secrets.

K'Ti felt her own fear swamp her and fought it back. It would serve no purpose when they were already doing all they could. She searched for a distraction and found herself wondering again if she was right to ally herself with K'Jel. She cherished him at least like a brother, perhaps like a lover, but as a soulmate? She had still not offered her soul's own name and, even now, she wondered why. But that circled her back. Would she ever have the opportunity?

They lay on pallets in the healing hut and T'Del, the gentle healer who was both K'Ti's mother and mentor, whose hands had soothed countless wounds, laid her hands on each head. K'Ti was hard pressed to express the sensation that lingered as the hands left her. She was conscious and her mind was aware, but she felt expectant. It was as if her mind had been reordered, tidied, her mind was left hungry to fill the new spaces.

As T'Del moved to the next pallet, K'Lan approached K'Ti before the healers who would impart their gifts. His seamed face, brown and worn like aged wood, was lit with his inner beauty, perhaps a gift for her so she would not be paralyzed in fear. He touched her head gently, a gesture of comfort and she felt it, like a wave, a calm that stilled her galloping heart and shattered breathing. When the next healer came, K'Min, K'Ti was ready and accepted her gift, that of empathy, then cringed at the fear K'Min projected that she could barely keep in check. Two more healers gave their gifts until there was only T'Del, finished with the other recipients, there to pass her great gift of direct healing to her only remaining daughter.

As T'Del lifted her hands, K'Lan grew agitated. "Hurry, they must be hidden and we must use all our powers to muddy their trails. If they are found, all our magics will be lost."

K'Ti, still reeling from the new magics churning in her head, gasped at that. Safeguards, yes, but only a precaution she'd hoped. K'Lan spoke as if it were inevitable no one else of the tribe would survive.

She wanted to ask, but she was bundled off by gentle but insistent hands, others still passing their magics off to the others as K'Lan urged them to hurry.

K'Ti was given a straw and placed in a hole dug in a field of reeds where her straw would not stand out. A blanket of special fibers waited for her there and she was placed upon it before they wrapped it over her, gave her the straw, a skin of water, and a single fruit. Then, carefully, a chunk of earth was placed over her body, the earth growing reeds to make it indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain.

K'Ti knew not what the blanket was made from—was that one of the secrets K'Pan carried?—but she hardly felt the weight of the earth and could only vaguely hear the sounds of activity as the others were readied in their own hiding places, distant so the discovery of one would not mean the loss of all.

The sounds had not yet subsided when she heard—no felt—something, a rumble she could feel throughout her body, quivering through her skin until it prickled almost painfully, her lungs backing up despite the fresh air afforded by the straw.

She understood now, her empathy open to her people, to the events unfolding so she would be cognizant, why K'Lan called them the cold ones.

It was as if they were empty, the invaders, no emotion, no souls, no light. They were implacable and they felt as cold as the winter winds in the mountain as if they could scour the life of the world away with a single breath. She felt their lack of anythingness before they arrived, in machines built for destruction. She felt the pings as arrows and slung stones hammered fruitlessly at the machines they rode, with never a check in their forward movement.

She couldn't hear the screams. The ground hid them.

But she felt them as the people she loved, the whole world of people that she knew, fought against a force who killed callously and thoroughly. She clung to their lights with K'Min's empathy so she felt when K'Min was snuffed, K'Lan's great warmth was stifled, T'Del's music was silenced.

She swallowed her sobs, holding on to her duty, to protect the gifts at any cost, to not reveal herself whatever the provocation, whatever the pain. She could not be found or all their efforts and sacrifice would be for naught.

All of those who had fought for them and hid them died as she "listened". And then the machines moved forward again and found K'Tsuri, crushed him under the weight of their deadly technology. Alerted, the cold ones searched for the others, if there were others. They found K'Pan and sliced her where she lay, letting her blood run free, her magics lost.

Perhaps it was too much for K'Jel, too much pain for him to take for he cried out—she could feel it—and they found him as well, shattered his heart, left him to die, for which he thanked them in words they didn't know or cared nothing to hear.

Then, there was only K'Ti.

She bit her lip against her wails. She willed her sobbing breaths toward quiet. She could do no more for those she loved most than preserve her gifts.

And, after an eternity of nothingness that ate and chomped at her soul, they mounted their horrific machines and wandered once more into the world, searching for others to devour.

K'Ti fell into a fitful sleep. She had saved the skills, but for what? Who could she use them on? How would she impart them further? What was there to heal in a village of darkness without a single beam of light?

It was a rumble and clank she felt rather than heard that woke her. She took the last sip of water and contemplated her options. Staying here meant death. Her food and water were gone and her spirit was badly shaken. She would only weaken and die.

But, she was loath to sacrifice her gifts after she'd managed to preserve them.

Still, the sense that came with these clanks was different than before, not an empty wind of bone-chilling stillness, but lights, smaller but warm in their own way. They were souls and perhaps she could pass on her gifts and find release from her torment through them.

So, with the last of her strength, she pushed aside the chunk of earth atop her and crawled from the hole, trying not to see the carnage around her.

She saw them, machines like huge spiders but she felt humans inside. "Kill me," she found herself begging. "Silence the screams."

But they made no move, aggressive or otherwise, until one spider's body opened up to reveal a pale human, her hair like autumn leaves, her eyes sad. She came to comfort K'Ti with words K'Ti didn't understand. K'Ti struggled in her arms, too tired, too scared, too broken to want anything but an end to it.

When she was darted with an anesthetic, she took it without changing it, grateful for even a temporary oblivion.

Surely, she would find a way to use the skills the gods had helped her preserve, she told herself as her mind faded. Surely, then, they would allow her to silence the last screams of her people that still scarred her soul.

The gods could not demand more of her than that. Could they?




Blood Moon



It was all Sinda El could do to stifle her tears. She had never seen such devastation.

Of course, in the beginning, humans on the planet Pol had avoided the deep wilderness, where tigers were ten times the size of a man and dragons flew overhead, where spiders half the size of a man lay in wait and ants could attack in such numbers that parties of men had been taken out with a single attack. There were more hazards than that, of course, as Sinda El knew, but most of the early explorers never lived to bring those stories back.

Later, humanity—not the vestiges that made their homes in the dark dangerous recesses of nature, but those that had built their homes in "civilization," realized how integral to the planet's health those wildernesses were with all their dangers and diversity. Therefore, they took pains to preserve it and kept themselves to the edges of the large continent, with only the bravest living at the interfaces between civilization and wilderness where they could take advantage of some of civilization's boons like education, drugs, and energy sources, without really giving up their affinity for their local environments. That made languages fairly ubiquitous and allowed taxation of everyone as well.

Humanity had advanced comfortably, sticking to the relatively safe coasts and building technology using resources from the nearby mountains, conquering the ocean—without destroying them—even discovering limited space travel and teleportation.

Now, when explorers like herself and her companion, Kindren Forn, came through to study and map the wilderness, they had mechs that could protect them from all but the most dangerous critters their planet had to offer. The mechs, much like over-sized spiders, were also intended to have minimal impact to the environment they were studying. Even the tribes of humans that flourished in the depths of the wilderness, cut off from all intercourse with their technologically adept fellows, were left unmolested. Evaluation, per orders and Sinda's own natural inclinations, was to be done without contact, leaving perhaps recorders to gather information about language and behavioral patterns or to watch their activities, but with the intent to study, not interfere.

Sinda swallowed her tears and ran another sweep with the mech's sensors. Her pity would change nothing.

When the planet had come under attack by the alien Mil less than three years ago, the Mil had first come to the bastions of technology and were repulsed with energy weapons. Attempts at diplomacy had ended tragically with all lives lost. Attempts to make a planet wide energy field to repulse the Mil had also failed, though they managed to make one large enough to cover their moon and its nascent colony.

Their successes had not been without costs. The secondary continent had been devastated by air strikes. Several coastal cities were badly damaged and under constant threat. As a safeguard, school-aged children, parents with preschool children and other vulnerable people had been evacuated to the lunar colony. Or rather, were in the process of evacuating. The last ships were loading at Minar Spaceport even now.

It was an aerial survey that let humanity know the Mil had managed to insert ground forces in the wilderness the Pol people had carefully preserved. Explorers like herself had been sent to survey the results via use of the carefully placed jump pads that allowed limited teleportation.

It was brutal. Every quiet, harmless village she had visited, studied, and admired, had been eradicated, bodies left to rot in the sun.

Kindren Forn, a picture of stoicism, was openly weeping over the intercom from inside her mech. Sinda wanted to do the same. No one was spared, not children, not the elderly, no one.

There was only one more village on the map she needed to check and possibly evacuate if she could. If it was too late, then she might try to follow the Mil to see if they were heading to some of the fringe villages closer to the more protected areas. There was supposed to be air support providing protection for them, but their military forces were spread so thin...

"Sinda," Kindren said. "There are tracks here. The Mil beat us to them."

"We have to check, Kindrren. Just in case there is someone we can save."

"There's no one," Kindren sobbed. "There is never a survivor and I can't bear..."

Sinda blinked away her own tears. "I understand. Then, you guard my back. I don't want the Mil circling around and taking us by surprise. I'll go on ahead."

The first two villages, they had buried the dead, using the mechs. After five more, they had given up. But Sinda had to be sure. She had to know.

She followed the trails of the Mil machines that tore up the ground with their sharp heavy treads, crushing plants and animals indiscriminately. The village, a delightful one perched on a lake and in the shadow of the Daman mountains, was in ruins, every hut crushed, every member destroyed. Sinda picked her way, encapsulated in her mech from the smell and direct sight, through the carnage, her heart broken. No survivors. Again.

She opened the mike to call Kindren, when she spied something with her side camera, something different. Two of the victims were in indentions in the ground, hastily excavated. Had the villagers been trying to protect some of their younger members, hide them from the Mil? How would they even know to do so? And were there any others, perhaps undiscovered?

She had databases of their language, incomplete of course, but she might be able to call for any hidden villagers to come out. Would they come? Could they come? The devastation was a day old at least, based on the insect activity.

She ran her heat sensors over the ground, but could find nothing out of the ordinary. If there was a living body under the ground, the signature was too faint to stand out.

"On your nine o'clock," Kindran said. "I got worried waiting for you," she added in a strangled voice. "You were taking so long."

Sinda was turning per Kindran's direction and, sure enough, someone was pushing a slab of earth out of the way, and trying to rise to her feet. A thick cloth fell away leaving her wearing a skirt but leaving the rest of her lustrous brown skin uncovered, her hair back in tiny braids. The girl needed two tries to stand and then said, tears pouring down her face, "Du na! Sil luca duel don gal. Du na pe no sol lernat."

Sinda didn't hesitate to open her mech, not understanding the words, but understanding the meaning.

"What's she saying?" Kindran said through her speakers.

"She knows what happened. The girl has been traumatized," Sinda said. "That's why she's not looking around. She knows what she'll see. She wants us to stop the pain."

"You know her language that well?"

Sinda approached the girl with open arms, unsurprised when the girl came to her without hesitating and wept on her. "Poor baby. No, I didn't think to study up. But I know people. And this girl has been hurt badly."

The girl kept babbling, the pitch increasing as she trembled. "She's getting hysterical. We'd better tranquilize her until we can get away from here."

Kindran shot her with a tranq gun. "Should we take her to the hospital?"

"We definitely need to get away from here, that's for sure. I'm getting a bad feeling. Kindran, take her with you."

"Why me?"

"Because I'm the one with the bad feeling and she'll distract me. Let's take her to Minar. She's just a kid. We'll send her to the moon colony with the rest of the kids."

"What? No one there will be able to help her or even talk to her!"

"Then we'll go with them. I was told to get on a transport if I could since I have experience with children. They're short on supervision up there."

There was a pause. Kindran was probably checking the newsfeed. "Last transport of children goes in less than three hours. Can we make it? Can we go on a later transport? Wait, the city is under attack as we speak!"

"All the more reason to get her out of there, out of here, off planet," Sinda El said, more sure with every syllable. She never questioned her instincts, and for good reason. "Open up."

Kindren did, studiously not looking around her, and gathered the unconscious girl in her arms. "She barely weighs fifty kilos," Kindren said, another pair of tears leaking.

"Close up and let's roll to the nearest jump pad. Top speed." Sinda slammed into her mech, set the canopy closing while she brought the weapon systems to life. Her camera followed Kindran, her mech already scurrying forward at top speed.

Sinda calculated. They had maybe an hour, at top speed, assuming nothing bothered them, to get to the jump pad, which would bring them directly into Minar Spacestation. It was certainly plausible they could make that last transport.

She found herself concerned with the Mil still at large. If they turned their attention—and the direction they went argued they would—toward the fringe settlements, would there be more carnage? As soon as they could do so safety, she'd radio HQ and let them know the danger.

She scanned the cameras and sensors, looking for movement or something artificial. The cameras were supposed to be able to pick up something like that, but, in the end, it was something her eye caught. "On your seven, Kindran. It looks like some sort of tank, camouflaged. Keep going. Radio HQ as soon as you get there that they're camouflaged and to provide extra protection to the fringe villages."

"What are you saying, Sinda? Are we fighting?"

"You're running as fast as you can. I'm going to play decoy. If I can follow, I will, but I don't know their speed so I can't just let them follow. Get her out of here and call for help."

Kindren didn't say anything and she didn't have to. She had just figured out that Sinda had arranged them for just such a contingency, but it was too late to change it. As ordered, she moved at full speed, leaving Sinda to cover their backs.

Sinda tried a couple of weapons: lasers and missiles. The missiles bounced off without impact. If the lasers had impact, it was not enough to stop them. The tank turned in her direction and moved a large weapon to follow suit.

Sinda crouched her mech and then jumped while shooting her grappling hook into the trees. Good luck following her there in that monstrosity, she thought. As soon as she reached branches, she scrambled among them to try to make sure they couldn't get an easy bead on her. A blast zipped past where she'd just been, leaving a gaping hole in the canopy. She kept moving, but she didn't think much of her life expectancy. Plus, she wanted to do more than survive this encounter. She wanted to shut them down. But how? She dropped a camera on a branch below her and clambered into the higher reaches, studying what the remote camera told her. There was one large tank and several smaller vehicles with the smaller ones unarmored and open so they could fire their hand weapons. The bulk of the Mil appeared to be safety tucked in the larger conveyance. And it looked large and heavy enough to push down trees, including the one she was in. Think, Sinda, think.

They couldn't see her from there, unless they had infrared sensors of their own—which they probably did—since she'd moved from one tree to another. It was only a matter of time.

Even with her weight, the tree branches around and beneath her swayed and shook. She had all she could do to maintain her position. She looked up and her jaw dropped. A dragon! She'd read about them, heard about them, even seen a few grainy photos of one seen the generation before.

The huge beast was coming to roost not a meter away from her, its huge translucent wings beating ferociously. It was more sinuous than she expected, deep blood red in color with the wings nearly pink in their delicacy. It sported four legs as well, but they were short especially in comparison to the long body and even longer tail. The snout was also long but squarish with two huge brilliant green eyes shining above it and long yellow teeth extending beyond the closed lips. It had something clutched in one of its large talons, something about the size of a man, a container of some sort. The dragon was not aggressive—she could have been squashed or at least tossed off the tree readily. Instead, it curled its lips back, revealing more teeth, and let a few tendrils of green smoke escape.

Your move, human, she heard in her head.

Telepathy? Was this a real dragon or... "Are you a shapeshifter? A—A Bete?"

The eyes gleamed and more smoke slipped out. In the flesh, human. We've a common enemy below. Which one will take precedence?

She was taken aback and impressed he could hear her, given she wasn't using her mic. "I'm no enemy of yours. You'd best keep moving," she said. "They're gunning for me."

You keep moving. They're unlikely to do me much harm and I can be a decoy. Do you wish to help us?

She moved as he suggested. "Gladly. What is your plan?"

She guessed he chuckled based on the puffs of smoke. I have friends below getting into position. Perhaps you could distract the nasties below in say three minutes. We'll attack those on the outside and I'll get those inside that cowardly tank to come out.

"How?"

He lifted the container and shook it. Volcano ants. Took me an hour of judicious fire breath to corral them in this container.

She moved again and a blast ripped through foliage less than two meters to the right.

"Why are you doing this?" She felt she had to ask. She'd never heard any but horrible stories about the Bete tribe in the south. Maybe these were western Bete that were more in tune with humans.

This is our planet, too. Our far-seer has said that the planet is doomed if these aliens aren't stopped. We've seen the destruction in their wake. Perhaps we can't stop all of them, but we'll do what we can.

She nodded. "Thank you."

You're a strange human. Perhaps I should know more of your kind. Another human I know is also something out of the ordinary, but that bridge, well... The dragon grinned. I'm all too good at burning things. One minute, human. You might want to move down.

"Should I help fighting?"

You'll only be in the way. Once we're engaged, go after your companion. We'll cover your retreat.

With half an hour lead or so, Sinda was certain Kindren and the refugee would be on the way to the moon by the time she got there, but she'd do her best.

Sinda set another grappling line on a strong branch and then released a length of line. She counted down mentally and, just as her internal clock zeroed out, she jumped from the branch and swung on her line, not unlike a real spider, peppering the Mil in the open vehicles with her lasers and guns. The Mil wore some sort of armor, but they weren't immune and she managed to take down three, maybe four with her attack.

As she swung back, she could see burning arrows sticking out of several more of the Mil soldiers while the red dragon was now carving his way his way through the top of the tank, having already ripped the primary weapon out of its socket. A war bear was beating back Mil with heavy smacks of its paws while two Kula tigers, one white and one gold, tore through many of the others. A huge constrictor slipped among the Mil, catching several in its coils.

Carefully timing it, Sinda released her grappling hook and landed lightly in the middle of the fracas. No one accosted her, neither Mil nor Bete, even when the dumped volcano ants sent another dozen—this time unarmored—Mil out into the open, many already debilitated with volcano ant venom.

She wasn't needed here so she followed the dragon's advice and sent her mech to follow Kindren at top speed. Maybe she couldn't follow them both to the moon, but she'd escape and pass along what she learned if only to help battle Mil. In fact, as her mech walked, she dictated a detailed report so she could transmit it as soon as she was in Minar.

As she spoke, she tried to absorb her encounter with the Bete. She couldn't have been more excited if she'd encountered a real dragon. She'd never met any Bete before, though she knew of them in the west. She hadn't managed to meet one, though.

She had also heard tales of them in the south. Those tales, however, were couched in terms of loathing, with stories of night raids and demons, unholy deals with the dark forces, and the like. She knew that children that showed any sign of psionic talent born to human villages in the south were killed when discovered. With her instinct for danger, she might have been killed herself if she'd been born in such a backward location.

She had feared that the southern Bete had been eradicated but she now she wondered. And she wondered how they had really known to come. Would they attack more Mil? Could they be the difference between total loss of their planet to the Mil and survival?

She let herself get distracted for she was unprepared when her mech was lifted into the air as she crossed the savannah that led to the jump pad.

"What? What?" She hadn't been paying attention to her sensors, which was foolish beyond belief.

You intrigue me, strange human. My son thinks we need not be at odds with humans. I always thought him a fool, but you make me wonder.

"Dragon!" she screeched, as cameras showed that she was, in fact, clutched between two of the dragon's talons. Despite her mech's mass, he did not seem to be laboring and he flew much faster than she was capable of going on foot. "Are—are you helping me?'

Why not? And my name is Drakken.

"Why would you?"

I begin to wonder if we will not need each other to survive. Fryll says a journey is begun with a first step. Will you tell other humans what we did?

"I will."

Then we will learn if my son is right by if those from the cities bring their machines to kill us or to kill the Mil.

"Will you defend other humans?"

Perhaps. It's early yet to trust. Is that where you're headed? It seems your companion waited a bit for you.

Sinda's proximity sensor beeped. Sure enough, Kindren's mech could be seen through the telescopic lens. Sinda ought to scold her for waiting against orders but, thanks to Drakken, Kindren hadn't waited but a few minutes.

Drakken flapped his wings to slow himself and bring himself just a little closer to the ground before releasing her at almost the same speed as her top ground pace. Fare the well, strange human, in case our paths never cross again.

"And to you, Drakken. I hope you learn your son was correct."

Hmm. Don't think I'll tell him, though. He's already far too cocky by half.

With two more steady sweeps of his great wings, he was up and swirled out of her sight.

Within five minutes, Sinda El had reached the pad and Kindren disappeared just as she got there, probably to avoid an immediate scold. Chicken heart.

Sinda followed immediately and staved off the questions Kindren pounded her with by telling her she'd explain as soon as they lifted. She had already contacted the last ship that was all but ready to leave, despite the direct attack on the space station she heard on her radio. She'd transmitted her report and found the location of the last freighter of child evacuees, this one mostly older children.

Kindren and she sent their mechs to enter the special mech bay in the ship in question autonomously while they made their way, the survivor still locked in Kindren's arms.

What would this poor girl's fate be? What would any of their fates be? Would they be safe on the Moon? And what of the planet they leave behind?

Sinda El didn't know, conflicted as she had been ever since the Mil had first attacked. Still, after her brief encounter with Drakken and the many Bete, she felt more hopeful for their planet than she'd been in quite some time.




Gauntlet



"I say we go back," Cil said with finality. "We haven't heard anything and going with the rest of the evacuees, all humans, is too dangerous for us in an enclosed environment."

Xander rubbed the bridge of his nose, the only sign of his frustration except for his natural sarcasm which infected his tone. "What are you talking about? We can't go back. The city is sealed since it's under attack. You do realize they are evacuating us for our own safety, right? Did you see the streets coming here? The rubble, the destruction?"

He paused and the sound of explosions could be heard outside the huge spaceport, the sounds of drones dropping bomb after bomb on buildings and pounding hard on the spaceport's shielding. Xander, Cil, and the rest of the Bete clan had met in this waiting room at Cil's insistence when Xander tried to lead them all to the last transport to the Lunar colony.

"We haven't heard back from the tribe," Cil said implacably. "We should not expose ourselves this way without permission from the tribe."

Xander knew he wanted word from his father, the tribe's archivist. Xander understood his fear, but Xander's responsibility was the children here. "I understand your concern, but not hearing from them makes going back seem like the worst possible option. We didn't take the first transport we were assigned to because you wanted us all to be together. Since we were spread in different schools, I agreed with your reasoning, but we're all here. Direct ground attack—not just with drones—is imminent and this is our last chance."

Most of the children and teenagers were silent, outwardly human but well aware of their differences. They also all understood the risk they would take moving to the Lunar colony which was all underneath a natural dome of rock, a huge air pocket protected by the planet's best electronic defenses. That would protect the Bete from the interplanetary invaders, the Mil…hopefully. But it wouldn't protect them from destruction if the humans there discovered the Bete were shapeshifters and magic users—demons to many of the humans.

All thirty-five Bete looked to their makeshift council—really the teenagers Xander's age of sixteen and older—to decide for all of them. Xander and Laren, his foster brother, were the youngest. The oversized blond, Tinel, was the eldest at twenty. But Xander was the leader because he was the Dragon in his other form and the power of the Prime—those who could shapeshift—trumped all.

Xander didn't want to impose his leadership authority and overrule the council, not just because he wasn't comfortable with it—he was one of the youngest, after all, and that was his father's method—but also because he wasn't sure he could. If he challenged the council and they rebelled, what was he to do? Torch them all with his fire breath?

Damn it, Cil, he thought to himself, then said it. "Damn it, Cil. If you wanted to go back, you should have done so earlier. It's too late." He knew it was fear for Cil's father that stayed Cil's hand but they couldn't afford such luxuries. "We don't know what's happening outside the cities, out where the Bete village is, but I wouldn't bet on it being pretty. And we can't stay here. The adults have already sent everyone else who couldn't fight to the colony. If we stay, we'll be fighting Mil."

"Fine," Cil said.

Xander looked around at faces, some as young as ten years old, like Donel and Danai, two prime twins who stared at him with identical blue eyes, rounded in fear. "No, we can't. We stay together and we stay as peaceful as we can. No way we could fight for our lives against Mil and not give our natures away."

The room shook with a blast and dust fell. Xander hadn't taken a vote, but he knew others saw things the way he did. Tinel and Rem, his best friend, were definitely with him. The older twins, Lin and Kim might be on the fence, though Findal was undoubtedly going to side with Cil. Nala only knew how the hot-headed Laren would vote. But they were running out of time.

"They're coming," Rem said. Rem was precognitive and he had the blank look that said he was in the throes of his foreshadowing. "We have to take this last transport or perish." Rem shook his head as if he'd woken from a short nap.

"Do you know that, absolutely?" Cil sneered.

"Yes," Rem said, without any hesitation, and even Cil was taken aback. Rem had proved himself time and time again.

"Why didn't you say anything before?" Laren asked, obviously frustrated. Xander guessed Laren had intended to fight it out. Pugnacious pussy cat, as usual.

"We need to take this transport and we need to take it right now."

Laren thinned his lips with irritation, but that was enough for him. Rem was his best friend as well. That was at least a tie and Xander won by default in such cases. Cil took in a huge breath. "Fine. Let's go."

They opened their door into chaos, running into a foot soldier, armored and well-armed, almost at the door. "What are you kids doing here? They're right outside the spaceport. The last transport is taking off now. Get there, Bay 113A! Run!"

Xander didn't hesitate and everyone else followed suit. Xander grabbed Laren and pointed toward the transport visible several hundred meters away. "Get us to the right access!" Laren was a finder, he wouldn't lead them to any dead ends. How long did they have?

More dust, the occasional piece of fallen masonry, and the occasional collapsed cable tray all told their own stories. The Mil were coming and time was desperately short. Laren pounded down a wide gangway where a squat red-faced man guarded the entrance.

"What the hell, who are you?" the man demanded, looking at his tablet computer.

"Peling clan," Xander huffed.

"Peling clan? Some of you were supposed to be on an earlier transport! I don't have room enough for all of you! How many of you are there?"

"Forty-three."

"Only twenty of you are supposed to be on here. And I only have twenty seats of reserve. You folks that aren't supposed to be here, are stuck."

The officer—his badge said Cargo Master Torno—narrowed his eyes. "You look a little different to me. I mean, look at your eye color, kid," he said, indicated Xander's violet-blue eyes, "and his." He pointed at Cil, with his white hair and pale yellow eyes. Fortunately, Cil had his other form in hand so his pupils weren't slitted.

"What's the hold-up?" a female voice said from behind the Bete. "Time is of the essence. The Mil are attacking here directly." The voice was young and lyrical, but had an undeniable note of authority. Xander didn't doubt that the owner of such a voice knew her own worth and wasn't prone to taking much shit from anyone.

He wasn't the only one who heard it. The Bete instinctively cleared a path to the officer, who, perhaps unconsciously, stood a little straighter, though he was still head and shoulders taller than the slight redhead that strode to him. Behind her, a far more solid female, carrying a person wrapped in blankets, followed in her wake, but with deliberation, not angst.

"Who are you?" Torno asked, but with more politeness than he showed Xander and company.

"My name is Sinda El. We've just stowed our mechs below. You were expecting us?"

"Oh, right. And they told me you had a survivor from the wilds. I've got a jump seat for her in sick bay."

She was an explorer! No wonder she was getting respect.

"Perfect. We'll go in after you let these kids in," she said with perfect equanimity, then gestured Xander to precede her.

Torno stomped into the way. "I don't have room for them all. Some are going to have to stay!"

Sinda El, shorter than all but Laren and those younger than he, looked over the youthful faces, the children and teenagers, then turned around. "Aren't all the school-agers supposed to be evacuated?"

"Yes, but some of them are old enough to stay and fight."

"All the school-agers, which goes to twenty. Whether they could fight or not. People who can fight in a pinch may be as necessary on the colony as they are here if we don't beat them back. Let them on board."

"I told you I don't have room for them!"

"Make room. You don't have time for this. Neither do I. Neither do they. Any of these youths who were supposed to be evacuated that you force to stay behind, well, their blood is on your hands as much as the Mil. Let them in."

"And I told you…"

"What is going on here? We needed to lift ten minutes ago. What's the hold-up?"


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