Dragar swore silently as he watched the human female slip out of the small mountain cabin and start walking down the narrow trail to the lake. Why would her male allow her to be out alone at night? Even if the humans were somewhat deficient in their ability to detect prey via their senses, surely her male would have wanted to accompany her and provide protection against the more routine dangers that could occur with a dark evening and a steep rocky trail.
Shaking his head at the foolishness of human behavior, he cautiously approached the cabin. Perhaps with the woman out of the way, he could determine why the Serigali ship had landed here. As far as he could tell, this cabin was only the habitation for miles. Why were they so interested?
Dragar had been back-tracking the path of an Ithyian slave ship. The ship had picked up the escape pod used by his Chief and the woman they were contracted to protect when they were forced to abandon a sabotaged ship. Unfortunately, the slave ship had also crashed and, while both Chief Jakkar and the woman had escaped, there wasn’t enough of the ship remaining to determine if it had been part of the plot. Despite his original certainty that the Ithyians had been involved, his investigation indicated that it really had been a coincidence that the paths of the escape pod and the slave trader had crossed. Because his Chief had been badly wounded, the Ithyians had picked up a prisoner from Earth to render the medical aid that they were unwilling to provide. The fact that they had picked up a human female with no medical experience only confirmed Dragar’s assessment of their failure to be part of the plot—and their lack of intelligence.
Just as he had confirmed that this planet was the source of the human captive, his long range scanners had picked up the approach of the Serigali ship. Earth was a primitive planet, not sanctioned for Imperial contact, and whatever they were doing here could not be legal. He swore again as he considered the all-too-likely possibility that the Ithyians had revealed news of the planet, and the presence of desirable women for the slave trade, to the wrong parties. However, as unfortunate as that might be, he was here merely to make sure that there was nothing else concealed in this cabin to explain the Serigali interest and to confirm that they had not had a part in the larger conspiracy against his species.
Moving silently to the uncovered windows, he took a quick look inside the cabin. The interior consisted of one large room and it was easy to see why her male had not insisted on accompanying her—there was no one else present in the empty room. There were two closed doors against the back wall, but he couldn’t detect any sign of life behind either one. Pausing for a moment, he extended his senses. He could hear the faint noise of the female’s feet as she moved slowly but confidently down the trail. He could also distinguish the faintest hint of her scent—a delicate sweetness that caused a stirring in his groin, a stirring that was both unexpected and unwelcome. Forcing the feeling aside with practiced ease, he stepped quickly up onto the porch and through the unlocked door. Foolish female.
Inside the ceiling soared up to the roofline, creating an unexpectedly spacious feeling in the small room. Skylights opened between the beams and would fill the room with sunlight during the day. One end of the room contained a wood stove and a small food preparation area. A bed covered with colorful fabrics and pillows occupied the other corner next to the stove. The rest of the cabin consisted of a workspace, and it was immediately obvious that the woman was a painter. Finished and unfinished canvases were hung on the walls and stacked along the edges of the space.
After his brief, initial survey, he moved to the two closed doors. One led to a storage room and the other to a small bathing facility. Both were empty. Returning to the main room, he started a quick but thorough search, checking for any signs of advanced technology or any hint of why the Serigali might have chosen this area to land. As he searched the bed, he caught more of the woman’s scent. Unable to resist, he picked up her pillow and inhaled the tantalizing aroma. This time his cock undeniably stiffened. Cursing himself for a fool, he returned the pillow and moved across to the workspace. A similar search revealed nothing. Frustrated, he stopped and looked around once more, his eyes traveling across the dozen or so paintings on the back wall twice before he finally realized what he was seeing.
The central painting was of the Albringar, the Place of Judgment, on his home planet of Sardor. There was no mistaking the vast natural amphitheater carved out of massive black rocks, stern and forbidding against the pale sky. Not the current sky, marred by swirling red clouds as the planet’s core gradually disintegrated, but the clear white sky that had loomed overhead when he had faced the Council and been found Outcast.
Too stunned to move, he gazed at the painting until his sensitive hearing suddenly processed the increased noise from the surrounding woods. He had made a terrible mistake—the Serigali weren’t looking for slaves, they were hunting.
Beth closed the cabin door and took a deep breath, enjoying the crisp pine scent of the surrounding forests. The weekend in Seattle had been exciting and the gallery opening gratifyingly positive, but she needed to get back to her cabin and her work. She had always been unusually sensitive to her surroundings and the constant pressure of people and their emotions in the city left her feeling drained and tired. The solitude of the isolated cabin and the absence of neighbors usually gave her a sense of rest and peace. Yet, for some reason, tonight a curious sensation of unease was making her feel restless and uncertain. Pushing aside the feeling, she flung a towel over her shoulder and headed for the lake. She didn’t bother with a bathing suit since there was no one within miles of her cabin.
The night air had turned cool but the sun had been shining all day, and at this time of year the lake water would still be warm enough to be enjoyable. She loved these late night swims with only the moon for company, but with every step down the path, her uneasiness intensified. By the time she reached the lake shore, her hands were starting to shake. She stepped out of the dark woods on to the small beach, expecting to feel a corresponding sense of relief as she entered the open space; however, her tension ratcheted up another notch, with each rustle from the bushes seeming ominous.
This is ridiculous, she scolded herself, heading for the edge of the water. The lake was as serene as always, rippling gently against the bank under the pale moonlight, edged by the heavy forest that climbed the sides of the surrounding mountains. She dropped her towel and kicked off her shoes before easing her sweatpants down her legs. Another, louder rustle sounded behind her and she hesitated with her hands at the hem of her sweatshirt. It’s nothing. But even as she tried to convince herself, she was turning back toward the woods.
The trees were dark and silent and she tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but before she could catch her breath, two creatures emerged from the undergrowth as if they were emerging from a nightmare.
The strange beasts were tall and covered with dark fur, although she could see surprisingly complicated metal cuffs around each wrist and an equally complex belt around each thick waist. Long arms ended in hands equipped with vicious claws and their upper bodies hunched forward as if ready to drop to those clawed hands and move on all fours.
Other than the metal bands, they were completely naked and all too obviously male. Enormous snouts with heavy jaws dominated their faces while small, green eyes were set far back in their skulls. Pausing at the edge of the woods, they surveyed her and something unpleasantly like a laugh emerged from the one on the right. Before she could react to the sound, they started to move toward her, still upright but using an odd shambling gait that covered a surprising amount of ground.
The movement startled her out of her frozen shock and she ran for the trail, her heart pounding. Before she could go more than a few steps, one of the creatures was in front of her and she stumbled back to avoid its outstretched claws. The other one was behind her and the pair began to circle her trembling body. She tried to turn with them, keeping them both in sight, but they moved too quickly and one was always behind her. Feinting to the right, she tried to escape to the left but a clawed hand flicked out and a searing pain tore across her thigh.
The pain was mind-numbing and she looked down in shock at the blood seeping down her bare leg. The disturbing laugh sounded again and she looked back up to see the one who had clawed her leg was licking her blood from his hand with every evidence of enjoyment. Even worse, his other hand was stroking a slick, red erection, making bile flood her throat so quickly she had to choke to keep from vomiting.
Her body was shaking from fear and pain but she refused to stop fighting. She made another abortive attempt to escape the pair and this time the claws caught her across her arm, slicing straight through her sweatshirt and deep into the skin beneath. Unable to help herself, she cried out and the noise seemed to spur them on. They came closer, striking more rapidly—quick, shallow cuts that drew blood each time they connected with her skin. Both creatures were now enormously, hideously erect and terror kept her moving but her legs were tiring and the blood loss was making her dizzy.
Once more she tried to feint but her wounded thigh betrayed her and she stumbled, collapsing to the ground. Dazed, she crouched against the sand as the pair approached, one at her head and one at her feet. Her mind was screaming denial but her body was locked in frozen horror as they started to bend over her.
A deafening roar split the quiet night and all three looked up to see a massive figure emerge from the path. He was enormous, easily topping the two assaulting her and, despite the leather vest he wore, she could see muscles bulging along every inch of his massive arms and broad chest. Beth knew there was something different about him; his eyes were glowing white, and even in the dim moonlight his features were not quite human. She should have been even more afraid. Instead, she felt the oddest sense of calm push back her fear.
The creatures attacking her apparently did not share her relief and both of them rushed at him simultaneously. She cried out and scrambled to her feet, swaying a little but determined to help her rescuer. He didn’t need her help. Before her startled gaze, he drew a long knife and sliced the first creature’s throat. The body collapsed to the ground in a spray of blood, dark in the moonlight. The second creature circled, slicing the man’s arm with one those lightning fast claws and Beth cried out again as she saw blood well up in the wound.
Moving just as quickly, the man hooked the creature’s leg with his foot and sent him sprawling. Before he could recover, the man followed him down and there was another spray of dark liquid blood before the creature went still. The man wiped his knife and stood up.
His movement triggered her own and, without thinking, Beth ran across the short distance, threw her arms around his waist and buried her face in the massive warmth of his chest.
Dragar stared down at the small woman clinging to his body in disbelief. Between his size and his scars, most women feared him and he knew that the battle rage made him even more intimidating. Even Sardoran women who were used to warriors tended to approach him with caution—or at least they had before his actions made him undesirable. Instinctively, his arms enclosed her tiny frame and she nestled closer. She was small, but the soft body pressed to his was undeniably female, and as her delicate fragrance reached him, his cock sprang to instant rigid attention.
Cursing himself as ten kinds of a fool, he forced his attention to the current situation which was rapidly going from bad to worse. Not only did this woman have a painting of his home world—a painting that should have been impossible—they now had two dead alien bodies on a planet which could not know that aliens existed. He was going to have to destroy the bodies, but even as he started to consider his options more noises reached his ears. Goddess dammit, there were more Serigali loose in the night.
“We have to go. Now.”
The woman looked up at him with wide, startled eyes, understanding his urgency if not his words, and damn if he didn’t get even harder. He looked at her bare legs and bare feet and realized that she wouldn’t be able to run. With a muffled curse, he slid an arm under the smooth skin of her ass and picked up her slight weight. She understood immediately, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck with a trusting gesture that pulled at something long forgotten inside him. Pushing the unfamiliar emotion aside, he headed up the path, determined to reach the questionable protection of the small cabin before the rest of the Serigali pack arrived.