In Darkness Reborn, a futuristic romance, Morena, a shy orphan nanny, has always struggled to find her place in her adopted world. When she is made the caretaker for the heir to the throne, she believes she has found a place. Until her planet is overrun by a race of parasitic invaders. Mikos, a warrior mage and the last of his kind, who has completely shut down his emotions in order to atone for his selfishness, has dedicated his life to eradicating the parasites. Each time he’s forced to kill those who were once human, another piece of his soul disappears. Can two emotionally scarred individuals find strength in themselves and each other to win back their lives and defeat the invading parasites?
The Anatta left her alone to watch Jaxon die. A suffocating sensation tightened her throat. Morena leaned against his bedside, her legs shaking with the effort to keep her standing. With a hand that refused to stop shaking, she stroked her ward’s hot cheek, sliding her fingertips through the damp, copper hair lying in limp strands on his moist skin. He moaned, his head moving from side to side. Agony etched deep lines into his skin, giving his young features the illusion of old age.
Jaxon wouldn’t last much longer. His terror-filled wails, soft now, came farther and farther apart. Each ragged inhale and choked exhale drew him from her. When he died, she’d have failed to keep her promise. Failed to do her duty.
And you’ll be all alone. She shuddered at the reminder she couldn’t escape and pulled her hand back. Folding her arms about her waist, she held tight and rocked. Anguish squeezed her heart, making it impossible to take a deep breath. Unable to watch his pain, she closed her eyes. He made a slight gasp and for a brief moment, silence hung heavily in the room.
A tiny noise, a whisper of silk brushing against stone, grabbed her attention. Her eyes snapped open and she pivoted. Her gaze swept around the room. Faint light from two luminas cast numerous shadows on the smooth, granite walls of the large chamber. Flickering darkness mocked her attempts to see the secrets hidden within.
“Who . . .” She swallowed against a tight throat. “Who is there?”
One of the darkest shadows moved. She flinched backwards, placing her body between the intruder and Jaxon. The shadow drifted into the light, materializing into a tall figure dressed in light-absorbing black.
An impression of the sleek, ebony liicat of her home world flashed through her mind. Like the great mountain predator, the intruder stalked toward her, each careful step a pursuit. As if he was hunting. Her or Jaxon?
The thought of her ward acted as a key and released the lock on her voice. Morena drew in a breath and opened her mouth. To call for help? To scream? She didn’t have the chance to find out.
In the space of a blink, the stranger stood in front of her. Gloved fingers pressed over her mouth and an unyielding arm dragged her against his body. The scent of leather mixed with the warm musk of the male raised bumps along her arms.
Oh yes, he was male. Very male. Even with her limited experience, the solid crush of his lean form against hers left no doubt. Her throat tightened, the pulse at her temple throbbing. Unable to take in a deep breath, she looked up at him sure that her eyes were wide and staring.
The fingers on her lips pulled back slightly. She gulped a shallow breath. Enough so she could take in air. Not enough so she could cry out.
Enough so she could. . . She shoved at his chest. At the same time, she stomped down on the inside of his foot. He hissed. The hand around her waist slipped, and Morena shoved again, this time sending him stumbling back a few steps.
He stood still, his stone-cold glance locked onto hers. She felt her chest heave, fear and determination fighting an equal battle. She whispered a brief thanks to the palace guard who had shown a young, lonely girl a few basic skills.
With only a faint flicker to telegraph his intentions, the man leaped at her again. She whirled to evade him. He grabbed her wrist, spinning her back around to face him. This time, he yanked her up against him so tight she couldn’t move. His feet locked hers in place. The heat of his body soaked through his clothing into her skin.
Goddess save her.
He bent his head, his masked face expanding, filling her vision until all she could see were fathomless eyes. And what eyes. Blue-black, the shade of the rare onita mined from Lourvain’s desert valleys, with a web of glowing gold in their shadowy depths. Such a deep dark the eyes appeared black.
“Do not,” he murmured, a soft and seductive sound and tinged with an accent she recognized even though she had never met someone of his race. An Outlander.
Her eyes must have widened further for he continued, “I am not here to harm you. Will you keep quiet?”
Would she? Did she dare?
What she knew about Outlanders would not fill a page. Beyond that, there were only stories. Stories told of their ruthlessness. Of their barbaric behavior. Men hired out as assassins. Killers with no moral guide except that which made them money.
No shift or stir in his countenance suggested he intended Jaxon or her any harm. Which meant nothing. What she did know of the Outlanders said if he intended harm, he’d have done so before she’d even become aware of his presence.
At this point, what could she do? Morena’s fingers clenched, crumpling the fabric of her tunic. If she cried out, the Anatta would come and Jakk would die. If she remained silent and the Outlander decided to kill them, Jaxon would still die. Either way, they were lost.
So, the evil she knew or the possibility of one?
Whispering a silent prayer she’d made the right decision, she bobbed her head. After searching her eyes, he slid his fingers away from her mouth then released her completely.
Instinctively, she fell back a step and bumped into the edge of the bed. The chill of the room slapped against exposed skin. She splayed her right hand over her heart. Loneliness tore through her. It had been so long since anyone, even Jaxon, had touched her with warmth. With tenderness. The Outlander’s touch hadn’t been tender, yet, it had been human.
Morena tilted her head to one side and stole a slanted look at him, her glance sweeping him from feet to head. Despite her uneasiness, the thrill of danger tickled her spine. Exciting. Intoxicating.
A shiver of a flashback rippled through her. Of crouching behind heavy wolla curtains with the other girls from court. Of peering over the stone parapet while Jaxon’s father spoke to a small group of Outlanders. Low pitched giggling as the girls mocked the men’s barbaric ill-mannered appearances.
Much like those Outlanders of her youth, this Outlander’s edge-tattered jetta enveloped him from head to ankles in ebony folds. Laced boots reached to his knees. No skin peeked through the unrelieved darkness at his neck and wrists.
The Outlander returned her scrutiny with one of his own. But different. Penetrating. The gold web in his eyes flared. A velvety stroke against her consciousness as if someone physically caressed her mind. Reaching into her thoughts as if he sought her truths. Her secrets.
Nervous tremors rippled through her body. Her secrets were her own.
An oddly primitive warning sounded in her brain, the urge to flee rushing over her. Goddess, not even the repulsive attentions of the Anatta left her so shaken. Even as her insides twisted with fear, Morena lifted her chin, meeting his hard gaze without flinching.
Just when she thought she might scream or faint from the pressure in her head, the stranger spoke. “You are not of them.” A confident statement. “Who are you?”
She rubbed her palm over her forehead. “Morena Naadhira,” she answered. “I’m the caretaker of Prince Jaxon of Lourvain.”
Morena clapped a hand over her wayward mouth. Had she taken leave of her senses? Wincing at her behavior, she forced herself to turn away. To look away from those eyes that coaxed a response against her will. By the Goddess, what was wrong with her?
From the corner of her eye, she watched the Outlander scan the shadow-draped room. What did he see? The small table and chair standing in dejection in one of the corners? Tattered floor coverings? The young boy with the sunken cheeks and gray-washed skin? Did he know what happened here? Was he allied with the Anatta? She’d heard of races that had aligned themselves with the parasites.
The Outlander looked back at her, his expression unreadable. “How long has he been like this?”
Framed as a question yet not questioning. A command. Again, her mouth opened as if moving independently from her mind, and her lips formed a reply. Snapping her traitorous mouth shut, she pressed her lips into a thin line. Foolish girl, her common sense chided. What if he were in league with the Anatta?
As the thought passed through her mind, the Outlander captured her gaze again. Compelling eyes held her still. Morena took a deep breath. “No,” she murmured even though she didn’t understand what she protested.
After a moment, the corners of his eyes drew downward, and he tilted his head. The pressure growing in the room lifted as if something heavy had pulled away from her body. A warm glow eddied through her, gently tugging at her fears and leaving behind contentment. How odd. She hadn’t felt content in many Turns. Not since the Anatta had come to her world.
And destroyed it.
“My apologies, liria.” The Outlander offered her a slight bow. “Please tell me how long the young prince has been like this. I will not harm him. You have my word.”
At his low-toned request, Morena heard the clear tones of honesty. “For three weeks.” Her throat threatened to close. She swallowed then continued, “He is getting worse.”
“Indeed. He will continue to get worse. Until….” The Outlander’s words trailed off. A flicker of something frightening glinted behind the compassionate demeanor.
She held her breath. “Until what?” she breathed out the question when he didn’t finish.
“Until he dies.”
Her hand flew to her parted lips. She knew of her prince’s impending death, yet to hear of his dying spoken aloud-
“I don’t understand. What is wrong?” Even as she spoke, she wanted to cringe at the ridiculous question.
Of course, she knew what was wrong. If she never gave it words, she could continue to believe Jaxon’s illness was a common child’s malady. A chill. A reaction to extended exposure to the dank and cold air of their prison.
As if he heard them, Jaxon moaned and started thrashing. Morena spun around. His thin body whipped from side to side. The ebony-clad Outlander came up beside her. She gulped, rigidly holding tears in abeyance. Wringing out the linen from the bowl beside the prince, she placed cool cloths over his fevered forehead.
“The obruo has begun. It won’t be long now.”
“The obruo?” Her gaze snapped upward as she tasted the word on her tongue. She hadn’t known the rape of the soul had a name.
At the bleakness in his midnight eyes, she took a steadying breath. Stars, he did know what was happening.
A gloved hand came up to her cheek. She froze. Rough, yet supple leather that spoke of years of use, brushed aside a lock of hair from her face. Before she could stop herself, Morena flinched and skittered to the side.
“You do not know?” He let his hand fall. While she struggled for a response, he tilted his head. “Ah, but you do. Why do you deny it?”
With her cheek tingling from the caress of his gloved fingers, she turned away. She fisted her hands, resisting the urge to put her fingers where his had been. Her lips firmed. She wouldn’t share her reasons or her pain with an Outlander.
* * *
From the deepest pits of Mikos Borril’s stomach empathy swelled, rising upward until it lodged in his throat. Great Father, it had been annum since he’d felt compassion or any other such emotion that weakened him. Since Before.
He shoved off the debilitating sentiment and studied the caretaker. A beautiful girl. Young. Likely fresh from a teaching center and ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities forced upon her.
Chestnut hair hung in a single braid down her back and gleamed under the dim lights like the crystal raybon found on his home world. Defiant sapphire eyes, haunted by sadness, had met his stare without flinching. Frightened, yes. Still she faced him with courage.
Slender to the point of gauntness, otherwise, she appeared healthy. And whole. No sign of an Anatta occupation showed in her bright eyes or fair skin. An enigma.
How had she survived? Courage wouldn’t have saved her from the Anatta; assuming the obruo had been tried. If not, then why? In all this time, he’d never heard of an inability by the parasites to overwhelm a mortal soul. Not even the Shakkaian were immune. Even age did not offer a barrier to occupation. Only the diseased and infirm were inviolate. The Anatta considered their bodies too weak and flawed to possess.
In this girl, Mikos sensed a difference. Something. A familiarity that teased his mind, never becoming solid. A wish, perhaps. This close to her, his shandon reached out, seeming to recognize the caretaker on the most basic level. Was this the reason he was drawn to this room?
But that was impossible. He was the last of his kind.
With a mental twitch, he shrugged away the intrusive and unwanted yearnings to the dark depths of his mind. This distraction he did not need. He turned a questing gaze on the writhing boy. A prince, the girl named him. Of Lourvain.
Mikos knew of the world although he’d never been there. A quiet planet, a peaceful people if a bit too simple. From what his uncle told him of his visit, Lourvain women were cherished and cosseted, much like the women of Dead Earth stories.
Dank tendrils of hair curled on the boy’s forehead. His frame twisted, back bowing. Mikos heard Morena’s soft gasp but didn’t turn to face her. She’d have to find comfort on her own. He had little enough time to find out why he’d been brought here; none to ease her mind.
The boy’s seizure stopped and he lay still, panting. Despite the urge that drew him to them, Mikos hesitated. He should leave. Get back to his ship. The information he carried in his jetta was valuable. Too valuable to risk on a healing.
Yet. . . He reached out a hand to the shivering boy. His fingertips lightly touched the boy’s forehead.
Mikos’s fingers convulsed and his head snapped back. Broken images, ragged and unclear, flashed into his mind. He gritted his teeth. A groan rolled out, forced through his tight lips. From a distance, he heard the girl make a startled sound but couldn’t move.
Fragmented images moved faster, giving him bits and pieces of a future. He tried to grab hold, to lock them into place. A few came to him. An older Jaxon, shadows in his brown eyes, standing before a large group of men and women of various races. He gestured. His mouth moved. The words didn’t come to Mikos. The crowd cheered.
The images sped up again. Bile rose into his stomach from the fast movements. With a dizzying wrench, the images froze again, this time on Jaxon standing triumphantly on a battlefield, Skapti spaceships shattered into thousands of pieces around him.
Another wrench and Mikos was back into the present. He fell to his knees. Muscles screamed with fatigue. He swallowed, trying to choke around a desert-dry throat. Kozoil’s Light, of all the times for him to experience a vision.
Mikos felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. He started and lunged to his feet, whirling to face Morena. Even through his heavy clothing, the shock of her touch ran through his body. Great Father, what was it about this girl?
“What happened? Are you all right?”
He nodded, not trusting his voice. His eyes fastened on the boy’s face. Mikos swallowed heavily a few more times. Despite the disjointed nature of the vision, one thing was clear. The boy lying on the bed before him – the one currently dying from the forcible occupation of the Anatta – was destined to save their universe from the parasites.
Qlad’k, I will be bringing a guest. Mikos thought-sent the command to his sentient ship.
That is illogical, Mikos Borrail. The metallic voice eased into his mind. I will not be able to hold off their scans much longer.
I do not have time to argue with you. Just do as I command. Mikos knew the value of the information he had. But something far more important had supplanted the knowledge of the Anatta fleet base.
Acknowledged. If his ship could have sighed, Mikos was sure the Qlad’k would have sent a large one through the connection. Thankfully, it could not.
Only when he felt as if he could speak without sounding like metal screeching against metal, Mikos turned and focused on the girl kneeling at the boy’s bedside. She looked up at him and blinked rapidly; the only outward sign of her agitation.
Much like the dainty, lovely orosah of his home world, this female had a strong core hiding within the delicate outside. Most women of his acquaintance would have been a quivering mass of emotions by now. He’d witnessed many strong women reduced to tears around the Skapti.
“I can help your prince.” He paused. “And I will take the boy to safety.”
Morena’s mouth dropped open. Her fingers dug into the bed coverings, her skin turning white over the bones. “You can help us? Who are you?”
“Not us. Him.” He ignored her question as to who he was. “As I said, I can help the boy and take him to safety. That is all you need to know.”
“You would leave me behind?” Her question ended on a high note as if her emotions clutched at her vocal cords.
Mikos knew she would balk at staying behind, yet he had no choice. He had to take the boy with him; he was important. The girl was not. Even as the thought filled his mind, the weak side of him cringed that he could be so callous.
“Caretaker, you have done well in keeping the boy alive this long. My ship does not have the space for two extra passengers.”
Sure she would agree to save the life of her ward; Mikos had turned back to the boy. He swung his head around and pinned a stare on the woman. “No?”
Morena flushed and for a moment her gaze dipped. As if something had solidified in her mind, she raised her eyes to his again. “I can’t let you take him.” Her chin lifted. “Not without taking me too.”
* * *
Ignoring the mocking voice in her head berating her for her bold stance, Morena kept her gaze firm on the Outlander. She refused to let him see her distress. Her fears.
In truth, did he think she would let him take Jaxon without protest? Without coming? She pulled back her shoulders. A female she might be, however he was her responsibility. If it meant she had to fight, or die, to protect him, it was her duty. She’d already failed once. Jaxon was necessary. She was not.
“You do not have a choice in this matter.” The Outlander’s words were light, but there was an edge of irritation in his eyes.
“Of course I do. The prince is my responsibility and you will not leave here, with Jaxon, without taking me with you.”
He leaned close. His dark eyes glittered, the web a pale blur of gold. A hair’s breadth from her face he stopped, so near she saw the gentle movement of the mask as he inhaled and exhaled.
With a violent jump, her heart landed in her throat. Rich, earthy scents tickled her nose, spinning her senses into a whirlwind of sensation. It took all the willpower she possessed to remain still and not back away. She would not cower before this man. Deadly assassin or otherwise.
“Outlander,” she began, anger heating her cheeks at the refusal in his eyes. “You . . .”
A sudden, choking cough from her ward halted her tirade before it began. Pivoting, Morena went to him and knelt. Her breath caught. Jaxon struggled to take in air, his mouth open. Soft whistling sounds came from his throat.
The obruo, the process by which the Anatta murdered the soul, as the Outlander named it, seemed to be more physically draining for Jaxon than it had been for others. Because he was so young? To her knowledge, the Anatta had never successfully taken a child. Often, neither host nor parasite survived.
She touched his hand. Skin that used to be firm now felt sticky like bread gone soft and old against her fingertips. Teeth tugged on her lower lip as she stared at him. What was she going to do without him?
“Caretaker,” the Outlander’s tone softened, a gentle rumble instead of the harsh bite. “I gain nothing by hurting your prince. By not allowing me to help him, he will die. Wouldn’t it be better to give him this chance?”
He was right. If the Outlander had wanted him dead, he would be. How selfish would she be to let a chance to help Jaxon pass by because of her fears?
* * *
Mikos watched the range of emotions crossing Morena’s face. Anger, frustration, fear, concern. She likely thought him harsh. Of necessity, he was. Time slipped by on swift feet. The longer they delayed, the higher the risk of being caught.
She raised her head and met his gaze straight on. Resolve lit the sapphire depths, and she nodded. Standing, she moved away from the prince. But not far.
He crossed to the sleep platform. Murmuring an incantation, he extended the shandon and scanned the young royal’s form. Just how much of the obruo was complete?
As if the parasite recognized the threat, the boy’s slight figure arched, his fingers digging into the bed covers. Mikos stretched a hand over the thin, trembling body. Killing a human soul took time. If caught early enough and the host was strong, the parasite could be purged. For this boy . . . he did not know.
A wall of white-hot pain slammed into him. In an ordinary human, the pain would be crippling. Even for him, the soul’s death-knell had the sharpness of a knife blade slicing his skin with thousands of tiny cuts. His jaw tightened. The boy was almost gone.
The deeper he went, the stronger every struggle, every gasp, of the soul’s death ripped through his own body. He gritted his teeth against the waves of agony. Only his willpower and resolve gave him the strength to push the pain aside to do what needed to be done.
After wrestling control over the sensations, he lifted his gaze. “Woman, no matter what you see, do not interrupt. The prince will die if you do not follow my instructions. Do you understand?”
She clamped her lips together for a second then nodded again. Ah. Still wanting to quarrel, but she kept her mouth closed. In this matter, her dedication to her ward prevented her from doing anything that might harm him. This suited Mikos. Any distraction, no matter how small, could prove potentially fatal for him and the boy.
Mikos knelt on the floor and leaned against the edge of the bed, placing his left hand over the boy’s forehead. He tented the fingers of his right hand on his own forehead then closed his eyes.
As he called the full power of the shandon, the life energy possessed by the Shakaian filled his soul in a rush of warmth and light. Now, the only time he felt any peace.
However, the gift had not always provided succor. There’d been a time when having the power was a curse, not a prize. When he’d been ripped from his family, given no choice but to join the Shakaian. To learn to control and use the energy. To a young boy, not much older than the one writhing on the bed before him, all that mattered was being separated from his people. His brother. His sister.
His promised wife.
All that having this – gift – meant was he had to leave everything behind. Learning to control the gift had taken fifty Turns. And when it was done, he had nothing to return to.
Except loss. And death.
Pushing aside the agonizing memories, Mikos bent his thoughts to manipulating the shandon. He Sent a thin thread of energy into the body, carefully directing the stream to the boy’s heart. The resting place of the Anatta as it took over the soul.
With acute precision, the energy filament honed in on the intruding organism. Mikos dragged air into his lungs as he fought to exorcise the parasite.