“Stop! You lie and then dare to throw things at me?” Ducking, Sotarios endured the bite of icy water splashing across his shoulders as the next projectile skidded along the base of his skull. Stinging impacts peppered his cheek as the thin glass splintered loudly against the wall. Warily, he backed up toward the doorway.
“Enough!” Sotarios said. “I saw you purposefully veer your transport onto the sidewalk. That was no accident. The female did nothing to you. Do you even comprehend your actions? She is badly injured. The authorities cannot be far behind me. You will pay for this craziness!” His breath caught as the object of his ire quickly rounded the kitchen counter, emerald eyes flashing fire and fists clenched into tight balls.
“I was well within my rights. She was trying to steal you from me.”
Shocked at the incredulous statement, Sotarios took another step back as the demented female began searching for something else to heave in his direction. He hauled in a few breaths to keep from lunging forward and ending her madness, yet couldn’t stop the disgust from saturating his response.
“Are you insane? She is a seamstress, and I spoke with her briefly about repairing my uniform. You were standing right there.” A low growl crawled ominously from his throat the second her upper lip curled and one eye narrowed. He knew that look all too well. Her voice rang just as evil.
“I saw how she stared at you. A familiarity passed between you both. You are lovers.”
His anger rose upon the venomous statement. Throwing his hands high in defeat, Sotarios shook his head in disbelief. “There can be no more of this insanity. We are done. I do not love you and fear I may never have. You make it impossible. This ridiculous bond must be broken before I go mad.”
Turning, he shoved out into the brightness of the day, yet felt as if a heavy cloak of dread clung to his back, leaving him tired and sluggish as he sought the long-craved freedom. Searing pain immediately followed the chills running his flesh. Grasping his elbow, Sotarios felt the warmth of his blood as it flowed freely around his fingers and spattered heavily against his boot.
“Gods damn you, Maratinia! You cut me!” Quickly glancing over his shoulder, Sotarios knew he had mere seconds to move before the deadly blade could slide firmly into his back.
The forest edge seemed to stretch far into the distance, yet he knew it was only a mere fifty meters from his doorstep. Lungs burning from sucking in the cool air, Sotarios looked down, believing weighty hooks had latched onto his thighs as he valiantly struggled to gain more distance from his pursuer. Instead, he found the tall golden grass twisting furiously in the brisk wind and darkening around him.
Glancing upward, Sotarios found no surprise to see the spectacularly iridescent sky morphing into a churning swirl of gray. There was no way the beauty could remain intact as her shrieking cries filled the air. Nothing but familiar lies struck his ears.
“I love you, Sotarios. Stop running! I did not mean to hurt you. I slipped.”
Daring to glimpse back, Sotarios stared at the knife gripped firmly within her hand, the blade still tinged with his blood as she made her ridiculous claims. Long black hair swayed from side to side in streaming waves as she tried to keep up. Emerald orbs widened with innocent confusion as their eyes locked, though her unchecked, dissenting thoughts blasted into his brain like a hammer.
Who does he think he is? He will pay dearly for embarrassing me.
How had he ever thought her to be beautiful? He could find nothing there that would ever bring that belief back to him. She had destroyed it.
Leave me be, Maratinia. I do not want to hurt you. He tore his gaze away, mind screaming for calmness as the forest consumed him. Barriers slamming shut to block her vitriol thoughts from slashing through his mind, Sotarios burst into mist and rolled quickly into the accepting darkness. Not once did he slow his progress, pushing steadily onward until he drained himself and her weakening cries could no longer be heard upon the howling wind.
Drifting down to the firmament of his beloved world, Sotarios let Insedivertus have him. It enveloped his essence in warmth, love, understanding, and an infusion of pristine energy as he sank into the welcoming land. It knew what he needed and locked him within his pure state, refusing to relinquish the hold. Sotarios released all of his angst to the benevolent entity and experienced something he hadn’t felt for months. Peace.
Yesss. Thank you, thank you.
* * * *
Groggy, Sotarios tried to reconcile the deep voices assaulting his contented, mindless fog.
“There he is!”
“Sotarios. Amici. Wake up!”
“Check his pulse.”
“Thank the gods.”
“Quick. Roll him over.”
“Careful! He’s injured. See the blood on his arm?”
Sluggish, Sotarios cracked open a lid, immediately grimacing against the brightness of the day. Confused at the pain radiating through his palm, he slowly woke to the fact that he gripped his mating necklace hard to his chest. Realization that it was cold against his skin brought a smile to his lips. He stared up at the familiar faces circled around his prone body. Haemon, Altair, Keos, and Geleon each carried the same wary expression, something he was used to seeing these last trying months. Altair’s head began swiveling from side to side, dark eyes darting to and fro as he spoke in a low rumbling whisper.
“Where is Maratinia?”
Sotarios felt his cheeks stretch wide and whispered back, “Hopefully, the demon rots in a cell for what she has done. How fares the seamstress?” He lost his smile when each pursed their lips, heads shaking in unison. Geleon sounded bereft.
“She passed from her injuries not long after Maratinia fled and you gave chase.”
Rolling to his side, Sotarios felt his stomach heave. “Aw, gods! That poor female.” Hands latched onto his shoulders and waist, lifting him from the ground. He realized he’d been mere inches away from the bottom step to his home with no memory of returning. Keos’s worried voice sounded close to his ear.
“We called out to you for three days. Where have you been?”
Three? I only closed my eyes a moment ago. Clearing his parched throat, he gestured toward the forest edge.
“In the mountains. Hiding. She tried to kill me again.” Someone tapped his fist. He looked up to find Haemon’s turquoise eyes wide with expectation.
“Have you fractured your mating?”
Sotarios grunted as they lowered him onto the top step. Keos’s grip tightened to keep him from toppling over. Opening his hand, Sotarios stared at the glittering tooth.
“It appears so. The conprobatus is as cold as her vicious heart. I am free.” He found no surprise upon seeing the relieved faces and quick nods of approval. Even though they had never voiced their concerns, the knowledge of her increasing torment was evident in their sympathetic eyes. Shame heated his face.
Geleon squatted in front of him, patting him gently on the knee. “You must come with us, Sotarios. Something is wrong. The emperor has sent us away to tend to our families. The females are severely ill. Your mother calls out for you, so you must move in haste.”
A flash of white light exploding across his vision drew a harsh curse from his throat. Heart racing and world tilting on its axis, Sotarios reached out to his friends, yet their images quickly receded into oily blackness.
* * * *
Grunting, Sotarios endured a lash of pain racing frantically across his left shoulder and bicep. A sharp gouge to his side pushed out a hard groan between clenched teeth. Blinking rapidly, he found himself hanging facedown off his bed, legs tangled in the sheets, and upper body wedged between the dresser and mattress. Sweat slid in rivulets down his cheeks, stinging his eyes.
Cursing, he shoved the furniture away and instantly slammed onto the hard floor. Rolling over, he blinked up at the barracks’ shadowed ceiling and fought to calm his racing heart.
“Gods damn dream. Six years and you still come to me. Enough!”
Pulling his arm out from under the bed, Sotarios gripped his elbow while running trembling fingers over the jagged raised scar left from Maratinia’s macabre show of love from long ago. He’d kept it as a reminder that females were not always gentle and kind like his mother. Perhaps it’d been a mistake to keep the demented creature’s handiwork after all. He voiced his discontent to the empty room.
“For the love of Dii! Why do you still haunt my dreams? Go away. You’re dead. Accept it and move on.” Familiar anger bled through his emotions at the continued remembering of the fateful mating that had lasted exactly two months, four days, and twelve hours. It’d felt like an eternity. Despite everyone’s protestations that he’d had no control over her actions, Sotarios knew he still carried the burning shame that his mate had killed another. He scrubbed at his face, moaning into his cupped hands.
At least I’m not alone in what I bear. Even her father had shown his disgust at her behavior by refusing the ritualistic burning to honor her passing, opting for a quick burial at the spot she’d fallen instead.
The image of Atilius returning to the city grief stricken and covered in dirt flew through his mind. The once proud male had openly wept as he informed the authorities that he’d finally located his only child’s body on the edge of the forest—his lone consolation in knowing that his beloved mate wasn’t aware of their child’s treachery before eventually succumbing to the poison. He’d rarely spoken of his daughter again, withdrawing from the tribe consulate as further show of his remorse to the seamstress’s family. Maratinia became just another number added to the female’s growing death toll at Basilius’s hand. Maybe this explained her constant haunts from the spirit world. She’d never liked being ignored.
Knowing that he needed to yank himself from this continuous vortex of regret, Sotarios pulled himself up from the floor, arms shaking from the effort. A quick shower cleaned his body, yet his mind refused to release the sludge from the repeating nightmares. They’d returned with a vengeance since his rescue from Glaxon-8. Despite his efforts to bury the past, the pain remained as raw as the moment it had occurred.
Perhaps this had been the forewarning his mother had bestowed after she’d relayed her desire for him to cease his quest in killing Basilius on that damnable planet. Her whispered words before she’d melted back into the spirit realm rang loudly within his addled brain.
You rest within a prison of your own making, my son. There are no bars to stop your escape, yet you continue to pace an invisible edge. Just open your eyes and see the truth of things. Free your heart and the body will follow.
How was that even possible? Placing his palm onto his chest, he felt that very same organ beating wildly beneath his fingers, yet his vicious mate had all but cut it from his chest. Had she not been felled by Basilius’s poison, she probably would’ve succeeded that day. All these returning dreams accomplished were a reaffirmation that he should never allow this numb, beat-to-shit piece of meat to be that vulnerable again.
Subduing the growl rumbling within his chest, Sotarios tried to think of something else before he broke out into a sweat again. A smile lifted his lips as he thought of his encounter with Makar and Baruch last night at the gym. Keely had been firmly ensconced between them as they showed her the beast’s horn the Elite guards had brought back from Glaxon-8. Their glowing mating necklaces rode proudly upon their chests as she’d gazed at them with pure sweet love. Such a worthy female. If only I’d been so fortunate.
Sighing, Sotarios dressed, made a half-hearted attempt to straighten the bed covers, grabbed his duffel, and flung the door wide. He halted, eyes widening at what he’d found. Geleon sat on the corridor floor, thick arms folded on top of his raised knees, and light green eyes peering up at him. As expected, he took his time in speaking.
“I knocked, but you didn’t answer. I heard your struggles, amici. Have your dreams returned?”
Releasing his breath on rush, Sotarios stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. “Yeah. I was tired. They come when I’ve exhausted myself. It probably didn’t help that I visited Atilius last night to see how he fared. He suffers as I do, yet continues to welcome me as if I’m still a son to him.”
Shaking his head, Sotarios felt a wave of sadness pass through his emotions. “I dreamt of the day that you found me by the steps while his are nightmares filled with horrific images of Maratinia’s hands clawing their way out of the dark soil. Atilius retains the guilt of her actions, yet regrets not burning her in the customary honor. It twists him inside. No father should suffer in such a manner.”
Upon Geleon’s understanding nod, Sotarios leaned against the wall and tried to figure out why his friend was here instead of inside his own room. He raised his brows upon noticing a black duffel bag held close to the male’s side.
“Where are you off to, my friend?” He waited as Geleon rose from the floor and secured the bag over his shoulder.
“With you. I learned that you’re returning to Earth to seek the progeny. I want to go.”
Snorting, Sotarios shook his head and beat feet down the long corridor, Geleon tight on his heels.
“Nope. I’m going alone. I’ve already had too much ‘Insedi togetherness’ from bringing everyone in for the festival. I think some of my butt’s still fused to the helicopter seat. Besides, you know nothing of Earth’s ways. I don’t have time to guide you.”
“That’s untrue, amici. I studied Cato’s training manual as you have. I’ve also taken all of the new courses for mundane activities. I was Luna’s test subject before Drusus approved it for the training center. The only thing that remains is learning to drive. You can teach me as we travel. Lucien has given his approval for me to assist in your task.”
Glancing over, Sotarios furrowed his brow. “That’s all well and good, but you think I’m a slob, Geleon. You’ll easily tire of my ways, and we’ll find ourselves at odds once again.”
“I won’t tease you, but I can help you with that problem. It’s nothing more than establishing a pattern of behavior until it becomes second nature.”
Sotarios snorted. “I’ll be too busy chasing down the targets to endure your training. And when did you get so damn talkative?” A firm grip to his bicep stopped him in his tracks, sending surprise to skitter through his senses. His brows rose at the desperation emanating from Geleon’s wide eyes. This was new.
“Then I’ll leave you alone and say nothing. You can do as you please. Just take me with you. I can’t stay here a moment longer.”
Sotarios clasped his friend’s broad shoulder, concerned to feel the trembling beneath his palm. “What is it, my brother? Has something happened that you wish to flee your home?”
Nodding, Geleon swallowed hard. “Yes. I need to locate my mate. It’s time. Whether I find her with the progeny or elsewhere, I don’t care. My energy cries out for its other half. I can’t ignore it any longer. This urgency tasks me. You’re not the only one suffering from his dreams.”
Sotarios knew that the confession was difficult for Geleon. He rarely shared his feelings, if at all. Humor was needed to break the tension emanating in waves from his body.
“On one condition. You must forgive me for accusing you of stealing my boot while aboard the Athenian.” He found instant relief upon seeing Geleon’s growing smile.
“It was forgotten the moment I punched Keos’s eye for inadvertently making us adversaries in the first place.” He raised his chin and cocked an eyebrow. “However, you must be willing to admit that the Earth saying you suggested to the others isn’t true. My cock is every bit as intimidating as yours is, no matter the size of your feet.”
Bursting into laughter, Sotarios clapped Geleon on the back and guided him down the hallway. “Very well. I concede that we’re both males worthy enough to make a female’s eyes widen in anticipation. Consider the debate settled between us.”
“Done. So tell me. Where are we going?”
“Austin first to see Cato and then on to Houston. It sits close to the edge of the land. I’ll make a point to fly above the ocean when we approach.”
“Ah. That would be nice. I’ve often wondered if the water will be as pretty as I’ve seen in the training images. Uh, Sotarios?”
“I understand that there are two potential progeny. Will we bring them back if their marks are confirmed to be legitimate?”
“I’m not sure. I think we’ll just give them money for submitting the picture to Luna’s website and then wait for Kallon to join us. He’ll need to verify their DNA and then convince them to return here to fully transition. I doubt Lucien wants us exposing our race unless we’re absolutely sure they’re true Insedi.” Glancing over, Sotarios watched Geleon shifting the bag to his other shoulder, discerning green eyes studying the marbled floor as they walked the long, silent hallway.
“I hear that one’s a female. I look forward to meeting her.”
Sotarios nudged his shoulder and smiled. “Perhaps she’ll be compatible to your energy.”
Snorting, Geleon finally lifted his gaze. “That would be welcomed, but I won’t hold my breath. I know how difficult it is to find our true mates. Who knows? She may very well be yours.”
Rolling his eyes, Sotarios pushed out of the barracks door into the warmth of the afternoon sun. “Nope. Not even going there. I don’t need to add to my nightmares. I’ve plenty already.”
They were secured inside the transport and slipping quickly away before Geleon spoke again.
“You can’t be alone forever, my friend. It’s not natural. I remember the wise words you spoke when you accidently frightened the Nawiens at the releasing ceremony. You were correct. The odds are low that the universe would ever create another with Maratinia’s disposition.”
Barking out a laugh, Sotarios shook his head. “You describe her with a softness she doesn’t deserve, my friend. She was insane. Trust me. There are more around. Just ask Caelius. There seems to be a pattern with nutty females and the use of vehicles as their weapon of choice. Be vigilant, Geleon. The signs will be glaringly obvious. Don’t let your wish for a companion make you blind to them as it did me.”
Sotarios snorted. “Where to begin? Let’s see. At first, Maratinia showed patience, interest, concern, and always carried a beautiful smile for me. Yet when I think back with clearer vision, her demeanor would subtly change when we were around others. She would cling possessively to my arm when another female was present, even my mother. Our conversations began tilting more toward her needs and expectations until hers became the only topic. After initially being happy to see my friends, she began feeling unwell when any of you would come to visit or ask us to join in activities. Eventually, all of my free time was spent with just her. Now, I can see that she was steadily isolating me from everyone. I misinterpreted it as love, but in truth, she was controlling and manipulative. She had two faces, my friend. I only focused on one. All I can say is, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Geleon appeared to mull over the sage advice before his eyes widened and he leaned forward, gesturing toward the vortex exit site.
“I thought a majority of the festival goers would’ve gone over by now. The line’s longer than I anticipated.”
Chuckling, Sotarios slid the transport alongside the others and powered down. “Too much revelry. I’m sure they all slept in a little longer than expected. Patience, Geleon. We should be on Earth in no time.”
Geleon frowned as they stepped from the craft.
“I’m not so sure of that, Sotarios. It appears that they’re sending some away in transports. Something’s not right.”