*insert Snoopy dance here* I love release days. Even after twenty one books and short stories, it still doesn't get old. I hope it never does. If I ever lose the joy of being published, I might as well stop writing. But for today, I'm Snoopy dancing!
By Shayla Kersten
Copyright © SHAYLA KERSTEN, 2010
Coming soon at Ellora's Cave
Terra offers sanctuary to both Angellum and Virkola. Unknown to the humans, a truce exists there. To Terrans, the two species exist as myths. One is a frail, winged creature from religious texts. The other, a demon of the night, living off blood. Both are far from the truth…
Because of the Angellum, Patrea, a Virkolan, has spent his life afraid of loss. When darkness descends on his ship in the form of a strange angel, Patrea feels he can't stay on the Avere. But departing would mean leaving behind the only light in his life—his bunkmate Hadreal. He needs to find the courage to tell Hadreal how he feels.
Hadreal has always felt more than friendship for his younger bunkmate, but bitter past experience keeps him from acting on his feelings. When a new danger brings them closer, he decides it might be time to live again. But now his chance at happiness may end before he's able to sample it.
Sometimes it takes a brush with death to make life worth living.
Publisher’s Note: While a standalone, for maximum reader enjoyment, we recommend reading Angel Moon first.
Unease shuddered down Patrea's spine. No sign of danger. Just his close-cousin Koris draining a gasa into a pitcher. The succulent promise of fresh blood after rationing should distract him. But this sense of danger wouldn't let him be.
He'd felt it before, although this time was different. Like a slight variation in tint to a familiar color. The first time, he hadn't recognized the feeling. Now he'd never forget it, different or not. His memory flashed to the sight of white Angellum feathers splattered with the spray of Virkolan blood. His clan's blood. His family's blood.
As the mealhall erupted with voices and footsteps, he shook his head clear of the vision.
Hadreal poked his head around the doorframe to the galley. "Where's the feast?"
His gaze fastened on a clear vessel full of crimson liquid. "Man, that smells good!" His mouth drooped open and his tongue swiped against an extended fang.
Even Patrea's unease couldn't stop him from smiling. Five years as Hadreal's bunkmate, Patrea had come to regard him as a friend, although he'd like to be more.
"Here." Koris handed the pitcher to Hadreal. "Take it out to the table while I put the other bird on to roast.
Hadreal wrapped both hands around the pitcher as if it were more precious than all the credit in the galaxy. His face dipped over the opening then he inhaled deep. With a sharp grunt, he left Patrea alone with Koris.
Patrea's discomfort grew until fear mixed with adrenaline. Angels couldn't be on board. Something else was setting off his internal warning system. The new captain? Maybe the old one? The Terran--Jenkins--had admitted to colluding with angels. The new captain--his name was Teo--should have killed Jenkins right then and there. Maybe the Terran had sent a signal. His angel friends could be following them right now.
Then again, the feeling had been just as strong--if not stronger--on Captain Teo's old ship. Patrea chalked it up to Jenkins' insistence that Teo was harboring an angel.
A round of cheers came from the mealhall.
Koris, his hands full of feathers and fowl, shouldered Patrea toward the door. "No sense in missing out on the fresh stuff."
Nodding, Patrea wandered into the room where part of the small crew toasted with fresh blood. Snagging a cup, he almost drooled at the sweet aroma.
Since Jenkins had taken over the Avere, they'd had few opportunities for celebration or even a decent meal. Now Patrea understood Jenkins' reluctance at allowing blooding for meals. Terrans had an aversion to drinking blood.
Captain Teo stood in the middle of the room with his cup raised. "To a profitable venture and a victorious fight!" The toast was familiar. While most smugglers--freighters of any kind--were in the business for the money, they also dedicated their lives to fighting the Angellum whenever the opportunity arose.
The other two crewmen, Hadreal and Narndo, echoed his words. Missing was Sorin, the captain's mate. Strange he wasn't there to celebrate his lover's acquisition of a new ship.
As he tried to drain the cup, Patrea's uneasiness thickened, clogging his throat. He fought against choking on his drink.
The captain drained his cup then set it on the table. He sucked his top lip under the bottom then released it with a smack. "I hate to put a damper on a good celebration but I have some serious issues to discuss."
The hair on Patrea's neck rose. A flush of heat washed over him. One hand clenched into a fist. The other wrapped tightly around the metal cup. Irrational hate threatened his control.
"I have information about an Angellum project that bodes very ill for our people." Teo motioned toward the seats around the table, but no one moved to sit. "A couple of weeks ago, my mate Sorin was kidnapped by angels."
Patrea sucked in a sharp breath. His nails cut into the palm of his hand. Knuckles whitened on his other hand as he gripped his cup harder.
"He doesn't seem injured." Hadreal echoed Patrea's thoughts.
Teo shook his head. "He was captured. The angel Jenkins was looking for was part of a group of Angellum rebels. They were trying to stop Angellum scientists from experimenting with Virkolan DNA. She was mortally injured defending my mate."
Trembling shook Patrea's arms. He planted one fist against his thigh to hide his shaking. Pressing the cup against his stomach, he pushed hard to stop the roiling unease. Grateful his voice didn't crack, he asked, "Why would they do that?"
Teo's gaze flitted from man to man before locking with Patrea's. "They were trying to design an angel who could inhabit the lowlands."
A collective gasp rocked the room. Voices cried out in various stages of indignation and disbelief.
Angels couldn't survive at lower altitudes for more than short periods of time. They lived on mountain peaks or floating cities hovering over Virkolan territories, dropping to the lowlands only to torment or kill Virkolans and their food beasts.
"They failed." Teo's voice rose above the din as he signaled for silence with an upraised fist. "Mostly."
"What the fuck does ‘mostly' mean?" Hadreal's voice growled as he took a step forward.
"They created a hybrid creature, but the Virkolan DNA was evidently dominant. He is loyal to us, not the Angellum."
"You let it live." Patrea's voice wasn't so steady this time. His nails bit harder as warm liquid seeped into his palm.
Voices rose in fury, each clamoring louder than the next. Questions, accusations belted out like projectiles from a weapon.
"What the fuck…" "Angels…" "Didn't sign on…"
Teo's bellow reached above the fray. "Silence!" His dark gaze glittered with a hint of steel. "He's harmless. He's newly hatched and his loyalty's imprinted on Sorin."
"He's here. On board." Patrea wasn't really asking a question. He knew the answer as his tension ratcheted up to a feverish pitch.
"Yes." Teo planted his fists on his hips. "As Sorin's offspring, he's a member of my family and therefore a member of this crew. You've sworn loyalty."
Hadreal shook his head. "Under false pretense."
"How so?" Teo's hard gaze landed on Hadreal.
Some of Patrea's admiration for his older crewmate seeped out from under his anger.
Hadreal stood his ground and didn't flinch under the intense scrutiny. "We didn't know you had an angel in your ranks."
"He's more Virkolan than angel. And he's still young. Mentally anyway."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Koris sounded more curious than upset.
"He hatched full grown. Maybe all angels do or it had something to do with being a hybrid. He doesn't talk much. Though he's learning fast."
"I heard something like that." Narndo had kept his mouth until now. "About angels hatching grown or nearly so."
"Where is it?" Hadreal asked."In the corridor with Sorin, waiting to meet the rest of my crew."
By Shayla Kersten
Copyright © SHAYLA KERSTEN, 2010
Ellora's Cave, Available now!
Sorin thought sanctuary was the answer to their problems. Terra with its plentiful creatures, full of fresh blood and off limits to the millennia long war with the Angellum--who wouldn't think it paradise? Except paradise comes at a high price. Claiming a bounty on a renegade angel hasn't ended up the way he planned.
Teo loves his ship, his life in space, but he loves Sorin more. The plan seems sound but the bounty is a fraud and now the price is on him and Sorin. He'll make the best of the rest of his life with Sorin, even if it were only a few weeks.
But when hope appears from an unexpected source, both men grab chance by the wings.
"You and your fucking bright ideas!" Teo dodged behind a stack of crates as heat sizzled past his leg. The acrid smell of ozone raised the hair on his neck. Popping out from behind his cover, he squeezed off a burst of return fire. Sweat matted his hair and kept trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. The thin atmosphere made every breath a chore. He rubbed his coat sleeve across his face but the water-resistant material just moved the sweat around and added grit to the mix.
Sorin rested his ass against the wall. The heavy bundle draped over his shoulder forced him to lean forward. His ragged breathing spaced out his words. "If you...would have landed...closer we'd be in flight by now."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah... We've had this argument already." Thin air and hard exercise was a bad combination. "Sensor blind spot here...other side not. Almost there." Teo didn't bother to look for a target. Sticking his hand around the corner, he fired a fast volley. He jerked back as another blast from their pursuers smoked the corner of the crate. "Move!"
With a deep breath, Sorin pushed away from the wall. He resettled the burden on his shoulder then took off at a fast trot. Even as big as he was, Sorin struggled with their prize.
"Better him than me." With a final random blast toward the men chasing them, Teo followed his shipmate.
Even if this crazy idea weren't Sorin's, he'd be doing the muscle work. Sorin was taller than Teo by at least six inches and his body broader. He was bigger than any Virkolan Teo had ever met. Almost considered a giant, Sorin brought a certain amount of prestige to the ship, and to Teo.
Heat singed Teo's right arm. Gritting his teeth against a yell, he switched his blaster to his left hand and returned fire. No sense in giving their pursuers the satisfaction of knowing they'd hit something.
As they rounded a corner, the warehouse door gaped open like a giant mouth. Dawn lightened the darkness to a heavy gray.
"Damn..." Teo wanted to be off planet before first light. Less likely for the angry mob behind him to see any identifiable markings on his ship. The entire mission was gone to hell. He should have known better.
The small smuggling and cargo jobs they'd scrounged up lately had barely paid enough for provisions, but at least they hadn't had anyone shooting at them.
"Move it!" Teo stopped at the corner. Sorin would need at least a few seconds lead to get the ship's hatch open. Firing off a couple of shots, Teo chanced a quick peek around the corner.
Even in the dim lights of the warehouse, the Angellum were easy to see. Their milky skin almost glowed. With no room for lift, they'd furled their wings, leaving a small vee of white feathers jutting skyward to frame their heads.
A shudder sped down Teo's spine. He'd never been so close to the Angellum before. His war efforts were spent on the Compensa. While it looked like a small trader, he'd retrofitted it with weapons. He laid claim to bringing down an enemy troop transport. A small one but it counted. He'd also taken out three of their long-range scouts. Although those were mostly self-defense. Smuggling decent weapons to Vikola was his most valuable contribution to the eons-old war.
Teo fired another volley, scattering the creatures. A flurry of return fire slammed into the wall. Wood splintered under the impact. Scorched wood added to the odor of burning air.
The low-charge warning on his blaster beeped. "Fuck!" Ready or not... Teo squeezed off one final shot then sprinted toward the warehouse door. His lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Muscles all over his body screamed for more. He darted through the door then made a sharp left. Blaster fire peppered the wall near the opening.
The Compensa squatted thirty-something feet away. The ungainly ship looked like a fat-bottomed gasa squatting on a nest. The wide bottom normally held cargo. Today, the door gaped open to an empty hold.
Another few yards... Lightheaded, Teo stumbled, feet dragging. Sorin...love you...
"Come on, asshole. Don't you dare quit on me now!"
Who you calling asshole? Indignation increased his resolve. Kick your ass... Gasping for air, Teo dove for the open hatch.
Blaster fire flew over his head in both directions. Sorin stood over him with a long gun, returning cover fire as the hatch slid closed. Thuds marked the Angellum's continued volley. Sorin kicked an oxygen tank toward Teo.
Grabbing the mask, Teo inhaled deep for the first time since they left the ship over an hour ago.
"Come on, flyboy. Let's get this bitch out of here." Sorin grabbed him by the arm, almost dragging him toward the door.
"Where's your load?" He'd be pissed if Sorin lost it after all. Teo glanced around. The heavy canvas bag was stuffed into the open enviro-suit closet.
A secondary hatch slid open. Teo ran into the corridor. "You get that secured." Reenergized by the oxygen-rich mix in the main part of the ship, Teo climbed the short ladder to the helm right above them. "I'll get us out of here."
Slamming into his seat, he grabbed the flight yoke. His left thumb hit the standby button on the left control, freeing the yoke and the engines. His right thumb pressed the comm control. "Hang on!" He took a deep breath. Yanking hard on the yoke, Teo took the ship straight up. The back blast from the engines pointing down on full thrust should take care of anyone too close.
Acceleration sucked him back in his seat. High gravity forced the air from his lungs.
"Fuck!" Sorin's yell echoed through the comm, making Teo smile.
Serves him right after this mission. Then again, if his mate was correct, this could be their last mission. Once they delivered their booty, they'd have enough credits to retire to Terra.
As the atmosphere thinned, the welcome sight of black space greeted him. Teo wasn't sure he wanted to retire. He knew he'd miss this. He'd been reared on a ship, with nomadic mothers seeking solace from the war in the quiet of space. And what about the war? Running off to the sanctuary of Terra made him feel like a traitor.
However, Sorin was a dirtsider. He still had bouts of space sickness on occasion, but at least here he was safe from slavery--or worse--by the Angellum.
Vicious creatures, the Angellum had occupied parts of the Virkolan homeworld for nearly two millennium. Pockets of Virkola stayed, fighting a war of resistance or just eking out an existence in hiding. Others fled for the stars, entire families stuffed into ships too small with nowhere to go or cold space stations--living off dried provisions or meager prey. A few other planets had outposts where Virkolans were able to live, but they existed because the Angellum let them. Most assumed it was because there was no room for angels to fly.
Virkolans were a peaceful people, they didn't have many weapons to fight off invaders. Since they hunted with the intention of taking their prey alive, most of their weapons were nonlethal.
Teo had done his part by smuggling real weapons to the resistance. He'd met Sorin on one of those trips. It had taken a lot of convincing to get him to leave with Teo. And Sorin's clan wasn't happy losing the gentle giant.
He grinned as he set the heading for the rendezvous. The convincing had been a lot of fun. Finally Sorin had agreed. Now they were bonded, living apart wasn't something they'd even consider. And Teo liked making Sorin happy.
For whatever reason, the Angellum ignored Terra. The few who lived there stayed hidden, living as legends and myths. Since Terrans had very short lifespans, beings like the Angellum and Virkola were easy to believe as folklore.
As the ship's sublight engines kicked in, a noise from below warned Teo of a visitor. Flipping the ship on auto, he pulled his weapon from the holster. Pain screamed through his wounded arm.
"Yes." Sorin's voice floated through the open flood hatch. "You were expecting someone else." Sorin's head popped up. "I brought you something to eat. Plus, I need to treat your arm." He shoved his medkit across the floor then came up the ladder to the helm.
Teo's good luck had someone with a healer's skill fall in love with him.
One hand carried a small, heavy plas-board box. Scratches and small growls indicated the occupant's irritation. "Here." Sorin held out the cage.
"I don't need that." Even though it would help healing. "We don't have many live ones left."
"I know, but once we're finished with this job, we won't have to worry about it. We'll have plenty."
If they finished this job. A sense of foreboding had hung around since Sorin first got word about it. Supplying arms to the resistance was one thing. Quite another to deal with the Angellum themselves.
While the creatures displayed a pale, ethereal beauty, their souls were as dark as space. And twice as cold. They'd invaded Virkola without any provocation. Even now, no one knew for sure why. Envoys sent to talk were returned dead, shredded into pieces by vicious claws. Virkolan slaves might have an answer, but no one ever escaped captivity.
The Angellum ruled Virkola from the highest mountains or sky cities. Not easy places to escape. Or attack. Of course the height wasn't a problem for the winged angels.
"Just take it. You need the strength. I can't keep this bucket of bolts flying with you laid up in the infirmary."
"Well, that's not exactly true."
While Sorin knew the basics of flying the Compensa, he wasn't very good at it. Taking off and flying straight were about his limits. Landings had been...interesting.
"Ha, ha. Drink."
Teo took the offered meal. Maybe it would get rid of the rest of his lightheadedness.
"Let me see that arm."
"I can't do both at the same time. Make up your mind which."
Sorin's left eyebrow rose in a delicate arch. Sure sign of the beginning of an argument. "Eat first."
"Thanks." Arguments could be fun because they were usually settled in bed. Then again, between his aching muscles and the searing pain from the blaster, he didn't know if he'd be up to sex. Best not to irritate his mate when he was in no shape to distract his ire.
Teo opened the cage. The small, ugly creature protested with a flurry of squeals and squeaks. Teo wrapped his fingers around the dark brown rodent then lifted it to his mouth. Teo's fangs slid free. A quick bite on the soft underbelly filled his mouth with blood. Sucking hard, he drained the rat. He slipped the carcass back into the box. He and Sorin would eat the meat later when they were settled in flight.
Rats were never enough to sate a Virkolan but it helped stave off a range of illnesses brought on by lack of fresh blood. The jolt would help Teo heal but not much more than that.
If this deal went down the way it was supposed to, they'd be able to retire on Terra...called Earth by the local population. It was said that Terran blood was almost intoxicating. And some people were pleased to let them feed. Although Teo couldn't think of the specifics, humans had another name for Virkolans. Even had legends about them and their origins--all of them so far from the truth it was funny.