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Tracker (Outcasts Book 3) by Cyndi Friberg (1)

Chapter One

Determined to remain calm despite the harrowing circumstances, Sara Sandoval took a deep breath and looked around. There were only two doors in this strange room, and she’d already tried both. One led to a lavish bedroom and the other was securely locked. There was no handle or triggering mechanism on the inside, no way to pry the door open. Shoving against the thing had gotten her nowhere. Sara’s current captor might not be as overtly threatening as her predecessor, but clearly Sara was still a prisoner.

The walls, even the ceilings, were rough-hewn stone. Had this lair started out as a natural cave, or had the elves excavated the entire area?

Elves? Even in her head the word sounded ridiculous. Until a few hours ago, she’d thought elves were fictional characters in fantasy novels and movies, or plump little pointy-eared cartoons that sold fattening cookies on TV. Then her small group of friends had been attacked by the very beings who weren’t supposed to exist. The attack had been so sudden and so strange that she was still struggling to believe it was real.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. Life in general had stopped making sense about a year ago. After decades of secretly observing Earth, a group of aliens—yes, real live aliens—Rodytes they were called, casually revealed their massive spaceships and announced that they had an outpost inside the moon. Sara had always known the moon was hollow, so she felt vindicated by the sudden turn of events. She’d also been fascinated by how similar the aliens were to humans, and yet how different. Rodytes were larger than humans, their rugged features and muscular bodies immediately appealing. Yet they were aggressive, almost savage, despite their advanced technology. She’d never admit it, of course, but she found their alpha tendencies just as attractive as their handsome faces.

Sara had just about adjusted to the idea of interacting with peaceful aliens when a group of renegades called Outcasts rounded up and kidnapped several thousand human females. The Outcasts were burned-out mercenaries determined to establish a society of their own. They insisted their settlement would be free of prejudice and corruption, a place where everyone could thrive as long as they worked hard and obeyed the seven rules outlined in the Outcast Charter. Apparently, thou shalt not kidnap human females didn’t make it onto that all-important list.

The Outcasts couldn’t build this outlaw utopia without mates, and humans had the unwelcome privilege of being genetically compatible with all sorts of humanoid species. So that was how Sara and her friends ended up on this seemingly uninhabited planet. Only trouble was, the planet wasn’t uninhabited at all. It belonged to a group of cave-dwelling elves. If that sequence of events wasn’t enough to make someone doubt their sanity, Sara couldn’t imagine one that would.

Shaking away the counterproductive thoughts, Sara continued her visual inspection. In contrast to the primitive setting, the furnishings were rich, even elegant, and there were overt indications of sophisticated technology everywhere. Their rescuer/captor, a female elf with long iridescent hair, had accessed this suite with a palm scanner, which triggered the motorized door. Lighting in the rooms, and in the corridors, was shaped like torches, however the flames weren’t real, more like holograms. Sara had only seen a few rooms and several passageways, but she suspected there was much more to this underground labyrinth than anyone but the elves knew about.

Why would a technologically advanced society live in caves like animals? None of this made sense.

“If they’re going to kill us, I wished they’d just do it,” Heather muttered. “I’m so tired of being afraid.”

“It could be worse. If we’d been kidnapped by ogres we’d be marinating right now. Or dwarfs. Aren’t dwarfs the ones who—”

“Oh my God! How can you joke at a time like this?” Color came back into Heather’s cheeks and spirit flashed in her blue eyes.

“Humor is my coping mechanism. If I don’t laugh, I’ll totally lose it. Would you rather watch me fall apart?” Heather had been assigned to Sara’s cabin aboard the Viper a few days ago, so they didn’t know each other as well as Sara’s other two cabin mates. Lily and Thea had been together since leaving Earth, which had been five, maybe six weeks ago.

“I’d rather be back on Earth where my life wasn’t threatened at every turn.” She sounded almost petulant.

“No one is going to hurt us,” Sara insisted. “The female elf won’t let them.”

“How will the female elf keep the males from hurting us if they come back with reinforcements? The guy with the greenish-blue hair looked really pissed. I doubt he’ll let this go.”

Sara sighed. Heather might be a perpetual pessimist, but there was truth in what she said. The teal-haired male elf had been leading the group who kidnapped them from the forest and he’d been furious when the female elf intervened. He was bigger and stronger than the female, so why had he allowed her to interfere? The female must be important, a leader of some sort.

After a short pause, Sara said, “I wonder if the female elf is the same one Arton has seen in his visions.”

Disbelief scrunched up Heather’s pretty face, then she shook her head. “You honestly think Lily’s mate sees visions?”

A similar expression twisted Sara’s face, but for an entirely different reason. “How can you still doubt it? Arton warned everyone about the elves days before anyone else saw them.”

Heather shrugged. “I suppose.”

Obviously, Heather was in denial, so Sara gave up on the conversation. There had to be some way out of here, or at least something they could use as weapons. A sofa and three contrasting chairs had been arranged in front of a rather ornate fireplace. The intricately sculpted hearth and mantelpiece looked out of place in this primitive room. A dining table and matching chairs were arranged against the far wall while a small desk and chair rested near the door leading to the bedroom. Everything was neat and orderly yet highly decorative as if the pieces had been brought here from some fabulous palace.

“Why do you think they took us?” A hint of challenge crept into Heather’s tone and she pushed to her feet, though she stayed close to the corner. Having a stone wall at her back seemed to give her a sense of security.

“Haven’t you heard? Earth girls are easy.”

Heather just rolled her eyes, so Sara answered the question honestly. “With the male, I think we were a power play. The elves want us off this planet, so they were going to threaten the Outcasts with our safety, even our lives.”

“Oh my God,” Heather cried. “You think they’re going to kill us?” Her eyes widened and color drained from her face again. It must suck to have red hair and the paper-white skin that often went with it. Every emotion Heather felt was broadcasted by her complexion.

“I didn’t say that.” Heather was six years younger than Sara’s twenty-eight years, but the difference had never seemed so glaring. Sure they were in danger, but hysterics never helped anyone.

“You said the female will keep us safe, but you’re wrong.” She shot past Sara, crossing the room in an agitated jog. “She insisted that she’s our enemy! She looked at us like she wanted to strangle us both. That female is more dangerous than the male! And you...” Her hands folded into fists and she glared at Sara. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Heather’s confusion was understandable, but why was she so angry? Worse, she seemed angry with Sara. “Do you blame me for this?”

“No,” she snapped much too quickly. “Well...” Rather than completing the sentence, she averted her gaze.

What the hell? “How in God’s name is this my fault?”

Without looking at her, Heather spoke in a low, shockingly hostile tone. “If you hadn’t been determined to gawk at those shirtless Outcasts, we wouldn’t have been in the forest today. I wanted to stay in the commons, safely inside the ship.”

Sara just stared at the side of Heather’s face, dumbfounded by the ridiculous conclusion. Sara had not been the only one enjoying the view. The Outcasts were building a barracks and the workers frequently stripped off their uniform tops when the heat became oppressive. She’d seen Heather’s gaze focus on the construction site across the river more than once. Lily and Thea might be happily bonded, but Heather was still waiting for her potential mates to court her, and Sara was determined to reject all seventy-two of hers.

Guilt trickled through Sara’s annoyance. She’d suggested the location and Heather indicated her uneasiness about leaving the ship. Several guards and a couple of humans had been attacked by huge, armored cats while hiking through the forest, so everyone had been cautioned to remain close to the Wheel. That was what the Outcasts called the structure they’d created by arranging twelve identical ships together like giant pieces of pie. Next they’d fitted each ship with enclosed walkways, allowing people to pass from one ship to the next without touching the ground. Though it looked rather odd, it worked quite well and made the ships—and more importantly the females—easier to protect.

Unless those females went into the woods so they could lust after shirtless males.

“I’m sorry,” Sara said. “Obviously, I had no idea this would happen.”

Heather sighed and finally looked at Sara. “I know you didn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that—”

The main door slid open and they both swung toward the opening. Sara expected their captor, but a smaller, prettier female entered carrying a tray full of food. The sides of her pastel-blue hair had been pulled back and braided while the rest hung loose and silky to her waist. Like the other elves Sara had seen, this one had white skin and features so delicate they appeared almost doll-like.

She glanced at the humans, then crossed the room and set the tray on the dining table. Sara had just about dismissed her as a delivery person when the elf reached into the pocket of her dress and took out a small vial. Okay, what the hell was inside the vial? The elf unscrewed the tiny cap and picked up one of the glasses off the tray, then poured the contents of the vial into the glass.

Seriously? If she was going to drug them, she should have done it where her intended victims couldn’t see what she was doing. Hadn’t she ever seen a spy movie?

The blue-haired elf poured a small amount of pinkish liquid into the glass and swished it around, then crossed to where Heather stood and offered her the glass.

“I’m not an idiot,” Heather sneered and turned around, presenting the elf with her back.

The elf said something, her tone pleading, but Heather was having none of it. Instead, she moved to the dining table and sat down.

Plainly frustrated by Heather’s refusal, the elf crossed to Sara. “Biren wanta.” She lifted the glass toward her own mouth and motioned as if she would drink. “Saun. Ro. Fee.” She stressed each word or syllable as if speaking slowly would help Sara understand her language.

Each of the human females had been injected with a translator gizmo shortly after they were kidnapped. It allowed them to communicate in Rodyte, but other languages required additional uploads to the basic unit. It was doubtful elfin was even in their language database.

When Sara still didn’t take the glass, the elf sighed heavily. “Not is bad.”

Okay, that sounded almost like English. Was she trying to say the drug wouldn’t harm her? “But what does it do? Make me sleepy?” She pressed her hands to her face and closed her eyes, making soft snoring noises. The elf laughed, so Sara opened her eyes. Just to make sure they were actually communicating. She pointed to herself and said, “Sara.” Then pointed to the elf.

“Arrista,” the elf provided.

The word was pretty enough to be a name, but how could she be sure? “English? Are you trying to speak English?”

“Yes.” She nodded enthusiastically. “Bad but English.”

Sara smiled, hoping to encourage her. “Your name is Arrista?”

“Yes, Arrista name mine.”

Okay, that was definitely a reply. “What’s in the glass?”

She seemed to think for a moment, likely searching for the correct English words. “Talk.” She paused again, then said, “You talk Sarronti.”

Sarronti was what Arton called the elves. Was she saying that drinking the liquid would allow her to speak their language? Was it a magic potion or some sort of technology? She’d seen scanners and holographic controls in the underground fortress, so chances seemed about fifty-fifty. “Are you sure it won’t hurt me?”

“Yes, not hurt you.”

“Don’t do it,” Heather insisted hurrying over to where they stood. “You have no idea what she put in that glass.”

“If they wanted us dead, we’d be dead,” Sara argued. “If she wanted to drug us, she wouldn’t have done it right in front of us.”

The elf watched them closely but said nothing.

“Make her drink some first,” Heather suggested.

“Me talk Sarronti,” Arrista replied, another clear indication that this was about communication not poisoning.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained? With a frustrated sigh, she made her decision. “All right, I’ll do it.” Sara held out her hand and Arrista gave her the glass. The liquid was cool and fruity, sweet but not cloying. Arrista motioned for her to finish it, so Sara drained the glass. Her pulse accelerated. Had her trust in Arrista been misplaced? A few minutes passed as the other two stared at her.

“Do you feel anything?” Heather asked, looking concerned rather than smug.

“No. Nothing.”

They waited another minute or two and then Arrista said, “Meltin tranfor tarke ia moment more. Can you understand me now?”

“That’s bizarre. I still hear your language, but I know what each word means.” Sara shook her head, eyes wide and filled with wonder. “How is this possible?”

“Translation lenitas. I believe humans call them nanobots or nanites.”

“How do you know that? Have you been to Earth? I understand that nanites are doing the actual translation, but someone had to teach your software English. When and why did your people interact with mine?”

Arrista glanced toward the doorway, her delicate features tense and unsure. Was she afraid someone would catch her talking with the prisoners? “The Sarronti have interacted with humans for hundreds of years. But humans fear what they don’t understand and often become violent. So the Sarronti began to alter their appearance and blend into human societies. Many live there still.”

“Do the Sarronti have spaceships or... How do you get back and forth from Earth?”

An enigmatic smile was Arrista’s only response. Then she returned to the original topic. When and why had she learned about Earth? “Lady Isolaund’s grandparents were a couple such as I described. They lived on Earth for many decades, changing their strategies as humans evolved. Lady Isolaund grew up on stories of their adventures, and dreamed of one day joining them on Earth.”

“Lady Isolaund?” A shiver raced down Sara’s spine as she thought of the female who had originally come to their rescue. “Is that the female who took us away from the teal-haired male?”

“Yes. She is very powerful and can be horribly cruel. Do not defy her.”

Sara nodded, taking Arrista’s warning to heart. Yet this glimpse into Isolaund’s personality left Sara with a bunch of new questions. “So Lady Isolaund learned English so she could visit her grandparents. When was she last on Earth?”

“Her grandfather promised to send for her, to allow her to visit for an entire solar cycle once she was old enough to make the journey. That is when she learned your language, and also when I was given lenitas. Ladies of her designation do not travel without a companion. So we both studied human cultures and customs in preparation for our adventure on Earth.”

If Isolaund was so fascinated by Earth, why was she so hostile? “Did you ever make the trip?”

Arrista lowered her gaze with a heavy sigh. “Her beloved grandparents were murdered by an inebriated woman who should not have been operating a vehicle. Isolaund’s fascination with all things human turned instantly to bitter distain. It does not matter which emotion my lady feels, she feels them all intensely.”

It wasn’t fair to blame an entire race for the actions of one, but it was understandable. Many would have reacted the same way. “How long ago was the accident?”

“Thirteen solar cycles, or human years. My lady is very slow to forgive.”

“That’s tragic, and clearly your lady was devastated, but it doesn’t excuse her attacks on my people. We had nothing to do with the incident.”

Arrista’s only response was a solemn nod.

They had drifted far off course, so Sara narrowed the focus of her mental ramblings. Start with communication. What were the lenitas capabilities? Would she be able to read as well as speak Sarronti? “Will other Sarrontians be able to understand me now?”

Arrista smiled patiently. “We are the Sarronti, not Sarrontians. And any Sarronti who has lenitas will be able to understand you, but only after their lenitas create a connection with yours. No one will command their lenitas to do this unless they know you have ingested them, so this can remain our secret.”

That made sense, and there were obvious advantages to her captors not knowing she understood what they were saying. “Do the Sarronti interact with a lot of other species, or is it just humans?” That seemed rather arrogant, unless there was some sort of connection between the two worlds.

Arrista just motioned toward the table. “Your meal is getting cold.”

Sara nodded and moved toward the table. She wasn’t really hungry but it seemed rude to refuse.

As she passed Arrista, the elf caught her upper arm and Arrista’s expression turned intensely serious. “You must tell no one what I have done. I would be severely punished if Lady Isolaund realizes you can understand us.”

“I will say nothing. You have my word. But what does she want with us? Why did the male take us in the first place?”

Arrista shrugged, but secrets lurked within her crystal-blue eyes. “I know only what Lady Isolaund tells me, which isn’t much anymore.”

“But the male? Who is he?”

A violent shudder shook Arrista’s narrow shoulders. “Lord Toxyn Jow. He is not nearly as important as he believes he is. The Guiding Council will not be pleased by his actions. They do not want war with your people.”

Sara started to ask more questions, then changed her mind. Arrista had risked enough already just to give Sara this advantage. “Thank you.”

She nodded once, then stressed again, “Don’t let her know you can understand our language. I am the only one who could have made this so.”

“I won’t.” Arrista started to leave, but Sara stopped her. “Why are you helping us?”

Looking back at her, Arrista’s eyes filled with pain and something darker, maybe shame. “I know what it’s like to be powerless. Those of my designation have no control over anything.” She said nothing more as she hurried from the room.

“Wait! What about me?” Heather cried in a soft but urgent tone. “I want to be able to understand them too.”

“You didn’t want to communicate with her,” Sara pointed out, and Heather went back to glaring.

“What did she tell you?” Heather asked as she wandered back toward the dining table and the food waiting there. “She jabbered away forever.”

Sara’s mind was still whirring with all the info Arrista had given her. “The female leader’s name is Isolaund. The male who originally took us is Toxyn Jow. The female is every bit as powerful as she looks, but the male has an exaggerated concept of his true worth. However, Arrista called them lady and lord, so I think they both have some authority.”

“Arrista? Is that the one who just left?” Heather returned to the seat she’d occupied briefly and slid the tray closer to her.

Sara nodded. She moved to the table as well, but rested her hands on top of one of the chairs rather than pulling it out. “Arrista didn’t know why Toxyn took us, but he didn’t have permission from their Guiding Council. He’s probably in big trouble.”

“Maybe they’ll order Isolaund to free us once they find out we’re here.” Despite her apparent interest in the food, none of it had made it onto the plate she’d set in front of her.

“That would be nice.” Sara didn’t want to be pessimistic, but she thought their chances of being freed were pretty damn slim. “Oh, Arrista will get in horrible trouble if anyone realizes she gave me the translation nanites. You can’t mention it, and I can’t react to anything they say in Sarronti.”

Before Heather could reply, a disruption erupted in the corridor. Deep voices shouted, though their words were too distorted for Sara to understand. Then she heard the distinct thuds and clatter of a violent altercation. Suddenly, the door slid open and a massive, armored Sarronti warrior stomped into the room. He was burly as well as tall, and his hair, which was dark gold like antique coins or heirloom jewelry, had been cut short, accenting his brutal features. Damn he looked mean. His amber gaze was sharp and assessing.

“Where is she?” he demanded in Sarronti.

Sara stared back at him as if she hadn’t understood the question.

He stalked toward her and grabbed her arms, giving her a firm shake. “Where is Lady Isolaund?”

She quickly lowered her gaze and allowed her fear to show. “Please don’t hurt me. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

Just as abruptly as he’d grabbed her, he shoved her away. She rubbed her bruised arms, but silently thanked God that was all the enraged warrior had done.

The door slid open again and Isolaund stood framed in the opening. “How did you get in here?” Her tone snapped with resentment and anger as she glided into the room. “Where are the guards I stationed outside this door?” She motioned toward the door that had just slid closed behind her. “Explain this intrusion immediately.”

The elves scowled at each other and spoke in their lilting, almost musical language. Thanks to Arrista, Sara understood every word.

The male elf turned on Isolaund with the same lethal calm he’d used on Sara. “I told you to stop going above or your curiosity would blow up in our faces.”

His even tone and nearly expressionless features seemed to calm Isolaund. Her shoulders relaxed and she tossed back her hair. Iridescent color rippled through the knee-length strands. Sara had never seen anything so beautiful. Like Arrista’s, Isolaund’s features were sculpted and well proportioned, but there was a hardness to Isolaund’s face that didn’t exist in the younger elf. Arrista’s eyes had been pale blue while Isolaund’s were colorless. They shimmered like faceted crystal or priceless diamonds.

“My refusal to heed your warnings is what caused you to attack my guards and force your way into my private chambers?”

So the rooms belong to Isolaund. Sara had figured as much, but it was nice to know for sure.

“They have my son,” the male sneered the admission between clenched teeth. “You sent your lackey above to snatch a couple of females and—”

“Toxyn acted alone,” Isolaund snapped, soft pink staining her pale cheeks. “I had nothing to do with this. And last I checked, Toxyn was yours to command, General Alonov.”

He moved so fast his image blurred and Sara gasped. Suddenly his fist was tangled in Isolaund’s hair and her head was tilted way back. He towered over her, face a mask of rage and barely suppressed violence. “You might browbeat the council and terrorize everyone with your ridiculous cats, but it takes more than insolence to intimidate me. I went off to war with your father when you were still playing with dolls. Show some godsdamned respect!”

She stumbled back a step as he shoved her away, then her head snapped back to its haughty angle. Those diamond-bright eyes gleamed dangerously for just a moment before she gained control of her expression again. “I apologize for my disrespect, but what I said is true. Toxyn acted alone. I had nothing to do with his decision to take prisoners.”

“Toxyn isn’t smart enough to think this up on his own.” The general dismissed the suggestion with an impatient wave of his hand. “What really happened up there? Did you send him on a recon mission and he decided he wanted to play with a couple of human females instead?”

She strolled across the room. Her movements seemed casual, but she put as much distance between herself and the volatile general as possible. “Why are you so certain I had anything to do with this?”

“Because Toxyn is a fool and we both know it. If he was aboveground causing trouble, he was doing so because you sent him. Now stop mincing words and tell me what happened.”

She smoothed down the back of her hair, a hint of irritation showing in her tense expression. She stood in front of the fireplace now, shoulders squared, chin slightly raised. “He was supposed to burn down whatever that is they’re building near the river.”

Sara’s eyes widened, so she quickly turned her head. They hadn’t been Toxyn’s target. As the general said, Toxyn had seen some helpless females and couldn’t resist. What a bastard!

“The Outcasts captured Farlo during their interaction with Toxyn, so now they’ve got a problem with me.” The general’s voice became a menacing rumble.

“Farlo, your youngest? I didn’t realize he was old enough to serve?” Isolaund’s voice softened, so Sara looked at them again. The table was at her back, which meant Heather was as well, but the elves were far more interesting right now.

“He has only served for two moon cycles. I can’t believe this is happening.” Suddenly the fearsome general was gone and a worried father had taken his place. His broad shoulders sagged and the lines creasing his face seemed to deepen. “If they harm him in any way...”

“They won’t,” Isolaund insisted, but she kept the breadth of the room between her and the general. “He’s a bargaining tool, nothing more. They want their females back, and they know the only way to make that happen is to offer an exchange.”

“Or find one of the entrances to our world and start slaughtering everyone they encounter until they find their precious females.” He shook his head, expression hardening again. “You’re too young to remember the Roriton raids, but I’ll never forget.”

Sara shivered. No wonder these elves were leery of strangers.

“The Outcasts are not the Roritons,” Isolaund said with sudden conviction. “They’re surprisingly devoted to their females. They will agree to the exchange.”

“Offer one, see how they react. I would like the opportunity to question the other before she’s returned.”

Isolaund didn’t look happy about the suggestion. “I doubt they’ll accept, but I’ll make the offer.”

The general’s gaze swept over Heather, lust and cruelty smoldering in his amber gaze. “I want the red one, but I won’t endanger my son to have her. Offer to trade for the dark one and make them believe it’s the only offer they’ll get.”

“Of course.” Isolaund was obviously trying to conceal her reaction, but a hint of resentment bled through. Maybe she had a soul after all.

“We’ll speak again tomorrow.” Without another word General Alonov left.

How were they triggering the door? There was no palm scanner and they hadn’t used a voice command. Sara had tried everything!

“Who leads the Outcasts?” Isolaund asked in English as she moved slowly toward the table.

Sara paused to see if Heather would speak, but as usual she remained in silent-watcher mode.

“His name is Kage Razel,” Sara told Isolaund. “The others call him Overlord.”

“And the one with silver hair, what do the others call him?” She didn’t halt her ambling progress until they stood toe to toe.

“Depends on the day.” A hesitant smile bowed her lips, but Isolaund’s expression didn’t soften. Sara hesitated to reveal too much. Isolaund might have protected them from Toxyn, but she’d made it clear from the start that they were enemies. “He likes to be called Arton the Heretic, but the Rodytes also call him a harbinger.”

“What are Rodytes?”

Maybe if she answered some of Isolaund’s questions, the elf would return the favor. There was no harm in providing general information. Was there? “Rodytes are from a planet called Rodymia. Most of the Outcasts are hybrids, a mixture of Rodyte and other nearby races.”

Isolaund’s face revealed no reaction or emotion. All of these elves had incredible poker faces. “And harbinger? What is this?”

This information wasn’t quite as general as the other, so Sara tried to downplay the importance. “They claim he can see the future.” She waved dismissively. “I’ve never seen any evidence that he actually can. It’s just a rumor.” Except Arton had known about the elves long before anyone actually saw them. She also knew for a fact he was a strong telepath.

A strange little smile parted Isolaund’s lips, then she motioned toward the table behind Sara. “Why are you not eating?”

Sara shrugged. “Don’t have much of an appetite. Being kidnapped will do that to you.”

Isolaund chuckled. “I’ll make your stay as quick as possible. Have something to eat.”

The door slid open and Arrista returned before Sara could repeat that she wasn’t hungry. The younger elf moved immediately toward Isolaund. Thankfully, Isolaund moved toward Arrista too, which gave Sara a minute to catch her breath.

“They know about Weniffa, mistress.” Unshed tears swam in Arrista’s eyes and her panic seemed real. “They’re going to kill her. We must do something quick!”

“Where is she?” Isolaund demanded sounding nearly as upset as Arrista.

Who was Weniffa? Did Isolaund have a daughter? If so, who was about to kill a helpless child? Sara took several deep breaths, forcing herself not to react to their obvious fear. You can’t understand them. You know nothing.

“I moved her to my room, but that won’t fool them for long. We must get her out of the Underground. The council is determined to teach you a lesson in the cruelest possible way.”

Dear God. Did these elves really murder children to teach their parents a lesson? Her stomach cramped and her lips began to tremble. She pressed them together until they stopped.

Isolaund fisted her hands, and cried out in exasperation, “Even if I hide her above, she will not stay there. She knows the way back too well.”

The child must be relatively old if Isolaund was considering hiding her aboveground by herself. It didn’t matter! Even at twelve or thirteen, a child was helpless.

“Send one of them.” Arrista motioned toward the two humans. “Tell them the cost of their freedom is to care for Weniffa. Tell them you will check on her wellbeing and if you ever find her abused or neglected, they will pay a horrible price.”

Suddenly Sara detected cunning in Arrista’s expression. What the hell was going on?

Isolaund was too upset to hear the hint of insincerity in her servant’s voice. Was Arrista trying to help free one of them? Had she arranged this “crisis” for their benefit? Carefully keeping her expression bland, Sara remained silent and let the drama play out.

“Which should I send?” Isolaund gestured toward the table without taking her gaze off Arrista. “Did either attempt to communicate with you?”

“The dark one did. She is bolder than the red one, more compassionate too. I would send the dark one. She will be a much better protector.”

But that left Heather alone down here, with general whatshisname panting after her.

“You.” Isolaund motioned Sara over. “Arrista will take you to the surface, but it will cost you two things.”

Sara swallowed hard, already hating herself for what she was about to do. “Please send Heather instead.”

Isolaund narrowed her gaze, looking irritated and surprised. “You don’t want to be free?”

“Of course I do, but I saw how that soldier looked at her. Heather needs to leave more than I do.”

Isolaund scoffed and tossed back her hair. “General Alonov will happily shift his focus to you if your red friend is gone. He craves the novelty of bedding a human. Are you willing to take her place for that as well?”

Suddenly Heather was right beside Sara, squeezing her arm. “Please, Sara. I can’t stay here. Let me go instead.” Now Heather was on the verge of tears and Sara wanted to scream. Why did everything have to be so complicated?

“I did not make the offer to the red one,” Isolaund snapped, tearing Heather’s hand away from Sara’s arm. “You will go and go now! Arrista will explain the conditions.”

Shit. She looked at Heather’s panicked face and felt tears sting her own eyes.

“Please,” Heather sobbed. “Don’t leave me down here alone. Don’t—”

“I said go!” Isolaund shoved her toward the door.

Sara tried one last time. “But, Heather—”

“I will protect your red friend as I have protected you. Go!”

Arrista took Sara’s arm and pulled her out the door.

“I can’t just leave her here. If that bully wants Heather, Isolaund won’t be able to stop him. Toxyn might back down, but Alonov is different. You know I’m right.”

Arrista made a soft, scoffing sound that closely resembled her mistress’s. “You don’t know Lady Isolaund.”

They rushed down one corridor and then another. Sara quickly lost track of which direction they turned and had no idea where they were going. As she’d thought, the tunnels went on forever and countless rooms were situated off short passageways that branched off from the one in which they ran. The elf stronghold was massive, and its primitive appearance was a disguise concealing the true level of their technology.

“Who is Weniffa?” Sara asked as Arrista’s pace began to slow. “Is she really in danger?”

“Yes. One of my friends told me the council intends to kill little Wenny. I was on my way to warn Lady Isolaund when I realized we could help each other.” She dragged Sara down one final corridor and paused before a nondescript door. “Do you like animals?”

Sara scrunched up her brows. What did that have to do with anything? “I’m a vet tech.”

Arrista shook her head. “I do not know what that means.”

“I work at a hospital for animals. Most days I like animals more than people.”

“Good.” With a hesitant smile, Arrista carefully opened the door, and hurried Sara inside.

The room was tiny, even smaller than Sara’s apartment, which she frequently referred to as her closet. There was a chair, simple desk, and a bed, held off the ground by a functional wooden frame. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she noticed something curled up on the middle of the bed.

“This is Weniffa,” Arrista explained as she crept toward the bed. “She’s the sweetest karron you could ever—”

“Karron? Isn’t that...Weniffa is a battle cat?” Holy shit! Isolaund wanted her to rescue one of her battle cats? Sara’s system lit up with the strangest combination of fascination and fear. “Why is the council out to get, what did you call her, Wenny?”

“We cannot let them find her,” she said firmly. “Let’s get above, and then I’ll explain everything.”

Sara hadn’t actually agreed to take the cat, but already her animal-lover instincts were kicking in. Who would kill a baby animal just to torture their caregiver? That was as reprehensible as killing a child, well, almost.

Arrista slipped her arms under the blanket on which Weniffa slept. “This has her mother’s scent on it. It helps calm her when she grows anxious. Karrons are very perceptive. Wenny might not comprehend all the details, but she knows something is very wrong.”

The cat was still relatively small. She looked like she weighed ten, maybe fifteen pounds. Once Arrista had the cat bundled up in its mother’s blanket, she passed her to Sara. “She needs to start bonding with you.”

The cat was heavier than she looked. More like twenty pounds. All Sara got was a glimpse of dark brown, almost black fur and tufted ears before Arrista urged her toward the door. Not willing to risk waking the cat, they hurried without running. Luckily most of the distance to the surface had been covered before they picked up Weniffa. Sara had done her best to memorize their path and catalogue everything she’d seen as they hurried past. Unfortunately, all the corridors looked the same, carved-out stone with sporadic wood and metal supports. They’d passed at least ten larger chambers, but Sara hadn’t been able to see how large or determine what purpose they served.

Arrista opened an ancient-looking door and motioned Sara out into the shadowy forest. As the elf carefully closed the door, it seemed to disappear into the foliage. Were they using some sort of masking technology, or was it simply effective camouflage?

Arrista quickly led her away from the well-hidden entrance. There were no paths, no indication of which way they were headed, yet Arrista obviously knew her way around. “You heard everything they said. Do I need to explain what Lady Isoland wants from you?”

“No. She expects me to convince the overlord to trade General Alonov’s son for Heather, and take care of Wenny until she’s old enough to survive on her own.”

“Exactly.”

“Do all the battle cats belong to Lady Isolaund?” Sara asked when Arrista didn’t say anything else.

“Karrons don’t ‘belong’ to anyone. They choose to follow Lady Isolaund because she has earned their respect.”

Like an alpha wolf or the strongest female in a lion pride. Sara understood the concept. She just wasn’t sure how a human would prove their worth to a group of predatory felines. Instead of debating the issue, she focused on the practical details of caring for a karron cub. “How old is Wenny? Does she eat meat? I know a good amount about Earth’s big cats, but I don’t know how that equates to karrons.”

“She’s twelve weeks old, has been weened, and she’s a carnivorous predator. What else do you need to know? Keep offering her raw meat until she stops eating. Wenny knows when she’s full. She has just begun to hunt rodents and other field animals. Encourage this, but she is not yet skillful enough to live only off what she hunts. You will need to feed her for at least four more weeks.”

Sara shifted the karron, supporting her weight higher against her chest. “She’s manageable now, but how fast will she grow. I’ve only seen karrons from a distance, but I’ve heard they’re huge.”

Arrista sighed and stopped walking. “She will require your assistance for two maybe three moon cycles. After that, she should be strong enough, and skilled enough, to survive on her own.”

“Moon cycles?”

“What you call months, though it takes our moons slightly longer to cycle.”

So approximately ninety days. She was willing to do it, but how would the Outcasts react to having a baby battle cat aboard one of their ships? She wasn’t sure this was her decision to make. But Heather’s safety, perhaps her life, depended on Sara convincing the overlord to make the trade and allow the karron to be fostered. God, what a tangle. “Why does the council want Wenny dead?”

“They don’t care about the cub. They want to prove their power over Isolaund. She has a tendency to stir up trouble and they’re determined to put her in her place. The easiest and most effective way of hurting my mistress is to harm one of her cats. She is utterly devoted to her pride.”

“But how will the council justify killing an innocent animal?”

“Wenny is sweet. She is loveable and utterly passive. These characteristics are not desirable in a battle cat. She failed her final exam, so Lady Isolaund was supposed to turn Wenny over to the labor pool.”

“Labor pool? That sounds horrible.”

“It is. Retired battle cats, or those not aggressive enough to be used in battle, are trained as beasts of burden. Karrons are very strong for their size, which makes them useful in certain areas of the Underground, mainly the mines and expansion projects. Lady Isolaund’s predecessor simply ‘disposed of’ the battle cats once they’d outlived their usefulness. The council reluctantly approved this alternative, but I’m not sure it’s any better.”

“Do the Sarronti choose to live underground or is there... Why do you do it?”

With a heavy sigh, Arrista raised her face to the sky. Moonlight filtered through the tree branches, and stars were visible in several places above their heads. “We have no choice. We were overcome by an illness meant to wipe us out of existence. Most died, but those who didn’t were irrevocably changed. Sunlight makes us sick. If we are exposed for long, we die. Like it or not, we are creatures of the night and must forever hide from the daylight.”

“When did this happen? How long have you lived underground?”

Arrista hesitated. “It is hard to remember you are my enemy. Are all humans as likeable as you?”

Sara smiled, but she was also aware Arrista had avoided the question. “You just caught me on a good day.”

“I need to return, and you must get Wenny inside the safety of your ship. Your freedom can be revoked like this—” she snapped her fingers “—if anything happens to the cub.”

“I get it. I’ll make damn sure she’s safe and well cared for.” She quickly licked her lips, struggling to believe she was actually free. “What about Heather? How do I contact you if I can get the overlord to agree to the exchange?”

“Have the silver-haired male contact Isolaund. And it better be when, not ‘if’, the overlord agrees. General Alonov is used to taking anything he wants and your friend has caught his attention.”

“I don’t know how much sway I have with the overlord, but I’ll do everything I can.” Arrista started to leave, so Sara stopped her. “One last question. Which way is the Outcast settlement?”

A patient smile parted Arrista’s lips and pointed to a shimmer barely visible through the trees. “That is the river that runs beside your ships. Walk the same direction the river flows.”

“Thank you, and tell Lady Isolaund not to worry. I’ll treat Wenny as if she were my own.”

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