The snowball hit the back of my head dead-on. Bam.
I stumbled forward from the force of the blow. The flakes created a halo of white powder around my head in the cool, crisp air then settled all over my face and neck.
What the…oh no he didn’t. A growl rose in my throat. I turned to confront my foe. I creased my eyebrows and I glared at him, mean-like.
With a smug expression on his face, Marin stared back, tossing another snowball between his hands.
“Elizabeth, you appeared distracted. I wanted to help.” His voice was smooth, deep like aged rum, and echoed in the unique way of his people, the Fost, almost like he was being dubbed. The sound got me every time causing me to shiver, or maybe it was the snow dripping down my back.
“That was helping?” My ass.
“Yes, you were about to walk into a tree,” he said dryly, dropping his ammunition.
I whipped around. Sure enough, a tree loomed in front of me. Dark-gray bark, feathery fronds interspersed with lethal spikes, blue moss climbing its trunk. Yep, that was a tree. Well for here anyway, not like on Earth.
I glanced back at Marin, who stood so trustingly under the boughs of another nearby tree laden with snow. A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth. See, I could help too. He looked hot, literally and figuratively.
With a thought, my power twisted deep inside, and I sent out a burst of air through the branches. They shuddered in response and unloaded their cold, wet contents on Marin’s head with nary a sound.
The snow dusted his brows, his cheeks, and obscured the single streak of dark green that coursed down the left side of his mahogany hair and framed his face. A single flake melted on his lips.
Our gazes met and held. His light brown eyes had a slit pupil that dilated then contracted as he focused on me. I used to find it…disconcerting, but it was just him, along with his long limbs, sharp features, and elaborate tattoos called jatua. All small differences but strange enough to have unsettled me in the past. Now it was so damn unfair how sexy I found him, alien race and all.
Marin raised an eyebrow and licked at his bottom lip, watching me watch him. My gaze followed the path of his tongue.
Heat spread through me as I imagined myself tasting those lips. I tucked a strand of red hair behind my ear. My breath slipped out in a sigh.
He smiled wide. “Lands, I love how you look at me.”
“Stop.” I blushed, twirling back and starting down the path we’d been walking before he ambushed me.
“How much farther?” I asked when he caught up and bumped into my side.
“We are close,” Marin replied. He was so busy shaking the snow out of his hair, he didn’t see my smile.
“Are we there yet?”
Ha, so literal. “Are we there yet?”
His hands stopped and his brow crinkled. He looked so confused I had to laugh. Then I tripped flat on my face in my clunky snowshoes and it was Marin’s turn to snicker. He picked me up and settled me against him, my face tucked into his shoulder.
“You all right there?” His words whispered past my ear.
“I’m fine.” My voice came out a lot breathier than I intended. Damn it.
The corner of his lips curled up. He traced the side of my face. Tingles trailed along my skin. I put my fingers over his and stood on tiptoe in invitation. Marin obliged and brushed his mouth along mine. Our lips clung for the briefest of seconds before he shoved snow down the back of my coat.
I shrieked, dancing backward. Cold, cold, cold.
Marin bolted down the path, much more sure in his steps than I.
The jerk. He was lucky he got out of range, or I would have gotten payback.
I fiddled with my jacket to get the rest of the snow out, shuddering at the feeling of wet fabric sticking to my back.
God, I hated winter. The first snow, I marveled like everyone else. Oh, so pretty. The world sparkled underneath the coating of white. Then the freeze set in, the biting wind, the forced isolation. And did I mention the cold? Give me spring or summer any day.
We were traveling to the mines outside the city of Groos. The miners had reached a type of rock they’d never seen before. It was dense and coarse. They couldn’t blast through it, and their efforts were destabilizing the tunnels. They tried to dig around it, but so far they’d had no luck. Nobody knew how thick the vein was or how far it reached. They wanted me to try magical means to remove it. Fat lot of good that would do.
When I caught up to Marin, I gave him the evil eye.
Marin grinned. “What?”
I flipped him the bird.
He grabbed my middle finger, “What does that mean? You do it all the time.”
His brows wrinkled again. “Woman.”
“Man. And don’t talk to me. You put snow down my back.”
Marin laughed. “Sorry.”
“My ass, you are not the least bit sorry.”
“Wait, what does your bottom have to do with this?”
I blinked. Ha, I forgot sometimes that certain expressions didn’t translate. “Nothing.”
He growled and kissed my knuckle before dropping my hand. “I hate when you say that.”
“I know, thus, why I do it.” I grinned and stepped ahead of him with a wiggle in my step.
He swatted me on the ass as I passed. While I acted angry outside, inside I loved when he played. He only ever did it when no one could see him. He was Clan Chief after all, even though he was only five years older than me at twenty-five. The position left him little time for fun and his own sense of responsibility precluded it.
A few minutes later and we reached our destination. A box canyon opened up in front of us, filled with barren trees and snow. At the far end of the canyon, a cave entrance loomed, braced by wood. A single railroad track led out of the opening to the left and a snow-laden press stood to the side, up against the high stone walls.
Con waited outside the entrance, his red and green Mohawk vivid against the backdrop of white. His stout form and kind face emphasized his resemblance to a Santa, A badass one. No fluffy red suit for him.
Marin inclined his head, straight to business. “Show us this rock.”
With a flourish, Con gestured ahead, and we entered the mines with cautious steps. Just past the entrance, the light from the two suns outside faded and darkness fell. I slowed and Marin’s hand brushed my lower back.
“Let your eyes adjust for a moment,” Con muttered from behind us.
As I stood there, the walls started to glow. Streaks of aqua phosphorescence lit the pathway ahead.
“What is this?” I asked in wonder, moving in a circle.
“Theris, a weed. It grows in the caves. When you break its shell, it glows.” Con held out a small stick almost like an aloe branch that he snapped before our eyes, and a thin, clear liquid trickled out. “The glow lasts almost a week. We carry some on us at all times. Come, follow me.”
Con led the way down the cramped passageway. Gravel and ice crunched underfoot. The smell of dust filled the stale air. My breath steamed. Damn it. I shivered and rubbed my arms through the jacket. Marin ran his hand down my spine.
It took about five minutes of hiking to reach the antechamber. When we got there, Con stared at me with a hopeful expression.
“Okay, you want me to, you know.” I made woo-woo gestures at the wall.
“Yes,” Con replied.
Four months ago, I’d escaped from an E’mani spaceship and ended up here on Solum. The Fost, Marin’s people and the sworn enemies of the E’mani, took me in and hid me from their foes, but the E’mani didn’t give up easily. In one of their attempts to draw me out of hiding, they set bombs at these mines. Several people had been trapped inside. I’d used my magic to move the rock—how I got magic, I still don’t know—and created a new entrance. Now they wanted me to do it again. No pressure, right?
I reached out and touched the wall. The dark surface crumbled under my fingertips. All throughout the flaky stone, a silver metal streaked. Not dust or ore. This was metal, hard and thick. No wonder they couldn’t get through it.
With a deep breath, I closed my eyes. The power sprang eagerly to my summons. Heat spread outward from my core and my palm tingled where it touched the rock. The chill from being deep in the cave during winter faded.. A pulse vibrated in the air around me, pulling me deeper. I concentrated on that sound, letting it center me. My heartbeat synchronized to the sensation.
One. My skin grew tight. I let my breath rush out in a slow exhale.
Two. The stone warmed underneath my fingertips.
Three. The ground shook in response to the power rushing to my call. I kept my hands square on the wall.
Four. My hair stood on end, strength rushing through me, filling me until the force of the earth beneath my hand made me feel stretched like taffy. My mind screamed from the pressure and I squeezed my eyes shut. I needed to hold it as long as I could. My body shuddered until every pore sweat and my body strained from the contact, pushed to its limits and beyond. And then I shoved all the power out with my mind into the rock.
Please move. Please.
“Anything, Beta?” Con asked right next to my ear.
“Nope,” I squeaked out, trying to bring my pulse under control, oddly empty.
“Keep trying,” Marin said and touched the rock to my left. Con did the same on my other side. We all focused this time, but unlike the time we freed the miners, there was no movement. The metal seemed inert. Its light gray color contrasted starkly with the dark-brown stone.
My shoulders slumped. “Nothing. I’m sorry.”
“And this means we cannot mine the ferok, doesn’t it?” Marin asked, rubbing his forehead.
“Correct, it covers the veins,” Con said.
My fists clenched. The Fost had found another metal--ferok. It was pliable and could be imbued with magic. With it, they could shatter the technological defenses of the E’mani. That was a good thing, but the metal kept us from it. And we had so little of the ferok to begin with. This was not happy news.
“Land’s sake, why can it never be easy?” Marin echoed my thoughts.
Marin slapped Con on the back. “We will search the library for more information. You continue to try to mine this rock. See what you can do.”
Con nodded in agreement as Marin gathered me up and we trudged out of the caves. Silence reigned for the next half hour.
“Stop worrying,” Marin said.
“I’m not worrying.”
“I can practically hear the thoughts racing through your head.”
“I am not worrying.” I enunciated slowly, my steps deliberate
“Yes, you are.”
“Well, fine, I can’t help it. I can’t stop thinking about the E’mani. Without the ferok, we only have our magic and we need more. And there’s this feeling of dread,” I splayed my hand across my chest, “right here, and it’s getting stronger. The E’mani are out there. I know it. I’m not sure why they haven’t attacked us yet, but they will. We need a weapon.”
The E’mani wouldn’t have forgotten about me or the Fost. I didn’t hold out hope that they’d forgotten about the men they’d lost in their attempts to recapture me either.
“The land protects us,” Marin replied.
A snort escaped me. “Magic vs. machine. That didn’t work out so well for you guys the last time.”
Marin tossed me a chiding look. “We survived, did we not? That is what matters. And we have lived as we are meant.”
God, his words made my teeth itch. “You can’t think the E’mani aren’t planning retaliation. They are not a forgiving race.”
I’d know having been their prisoner and all. And the more I thought about the E’mani, the more hatred stirred inside me. I loathed those pale freaks. They’d destroyed my world, in their never-ending quest to “make things better.” Then they brought me here. I didn’t remember much of my time with them, not yet. But I recalled enough to despise them. They were not kind masters.
White eyes stared at me through amber glass, E’mani eyes.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” Xade crooned. Light flashed off the razor sharp edge of the scalpel in his hands. “Time for more samples.”
Marin’s words snapped me out of my memories with a jolt. “We all know the E’mani are coming. But the winter has been harsh, more so than usual. And before they came after you, it had been ages since the last time we saw them. They left this world long ago to recoup their losses after the war. They left even while we were still fighting and maintain only a small presence out in Industry.”
My jaw set. “Good. Industry is where I need to go. I need to find one of their labs.”
Marin sighed. “We have talked about this, Elizabeth. First, you have no idea where to find a lab. And second, you have no idea what you need to do if you did find it.”
“I remember some of what they taught me. And being in the labs, where they kept me, will help me remember even more. I scared them, Marin. Me. When I confronted them—”
“It might not have been you. It might have been all the lightning you were throwing around, or the blade Zanth wielded,” he argued.
I grit my teeth until my jaw hurt. Damn him. Why wasn’t he listening? Tears blurred the path in front of me.
“It was me; I could tell. I know something that can hurt them, I can feel it. The E’mani were frightened enough of me that they came in force to capture or kill me and it has to do with the labs. I know there is something I’m meant to do, and soon. If not, something bad is going to happen.” Chills shivered down my spine. I heard the faint echo of screams—men’s and women’s—from long ago. They had a plan for us, just like they had for Earth. How could I stop it? “Marin?”
“If I asked you to, would you leave with me, today, and travel to Industry?”
Marin blinked. “Today? No, we need to plan these things, you know that, Elizabeth. To go now would be stupid.”
I stomped forward on the trail. “Of course it would be. How silly of me. You’re right.”
“Elizabeth, please.” Marin caught up and put his arm around my shoulder. “We will go to Industry soon. I promise.”
“Yeah, yeah, you keep saying that.” I let my head fall against his shoulder. Arguing with Marin never seemed to end how I wanted it to. No use being pissy about it now. And he was right, which was even worse. To go during winter would be foolish, but still…
A few minutes passed. The snow crackled beneath our feet. It was cold enough, I’d long since lost feeling in my toes.
The entrance to the city of Groos came into view. There was a large chiseled gate built into the natural arch that fronted the valley. They built the gatehouse into the valley walls itself and tunneled above the gate, giving the guards a clear sight line of anyone approaching.
Bas-relief scenes covered the arch’s surface blending with the rock face. One scene depicted a Fost couple embracing in a corner their arms wrapped around one another. In the other corner was a Coreck, a catlike creature that stood on two legs, with a long tongue. Yet another showed a battle. Men fought with swords and spaceships flew overhead. The pictures were so vivid, they seemed to flow across the rock, lifelike and real. My fingers itched to touch the stone. Every time I saw it, I was struck by how natural it appeared. It fit.