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By KATE DOUGLAS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kate Douglas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe crystal mines beneath Lemuria
The steady drip, drip, drip and the soft hum of overtaxed air purifiers were the only sounds Selyn heard as she cautiously pushed herself away from the cavern wall and moved silently through darkness to the sleeping quarters.
With any luck she might be able to catch a couple hours of rest before her shift started, but she'd missed the evening meal in order to make her clandestine meeting with Roland of Kronus. It would be a long time before she had another opportunity to break fast.
A hulking shadow suddenly filled the narrow passageway. Light glinted off pale eyes set in a massive frame a full foot and a half taller and three times wider than her own.
Nine hells. As usual, her luck sucked. Selyn straightened to her full height, raised her chin, and looked the guard in the eye. That alone should be enough to piss him off. The vicious wardens who kept the Forgotten Ones imprisoned here in the mines were quick to anger. If she could truly infuriate him, he might even forget to ask why she was wandering along a passage so far from the slaves' quarters.
"Ah, Birk. Fancy meeting you here." She folded her arms across her chest and hoped he couldn't see how she trembled. Showing fear was the same as giving up.
Selyn never showed fear. Never would she give up.
The huge guard didn't say a word. His fist came out of nowhere. The crushing blow to her cheekbone left her lying dazed and barely conscious on the ground.
He planted his hands on his hips and leaned over her. "So, bitch. You want to tell me what you're doing out here?"
Blinking back the shooting lights blinding her, Selyn slowly shook her head.
He grabbed her hair in a meaty fist and jerked her to her feet.
"Ouch! Nine hells!" She twisted away. He grabbed her breast through the thin cloth of her robe and squeezed. Thick fingers dug into soft flesh.
"Ah!" Excruciating pain blinded her. Frantically, Selyn bucked and writhed, but his grasp only tightened on her breast and in her hair. She lashed out with her bare foot, and connected just below his right knee.
Birk cursed. His leg buckled, and he lost his grip on her breast. Selyn jerked her head up as he fell. She slammed him hard under the chin, but her long hair was still tangled in his fist. He pulled her down with him.
Scrambling beneath his massive weight, she broke free, kicked again, and caught him soundly between the legs. Birk roared in pain and clutched his balls, but her hair was still tangled in his thick fingers. He jerked her head sharply down and caught her between his thighs.
Twisting, turning, Selyn struggled for freedom. Birk flipped her beneath him, clamping down on her head and shoulders with his powerful legs. Enraged, he tore his hand free of her hair and punched her with both fists, landing powerful blows across her chest, along her ribs.
She felt one rib crack, and then another. Gasping, unable to move or catch her breath, her vision clouded. She couldn't breathe, couldn't fight, could not give up. Not this close. Not with freedom only days away.
Blow after blow slammed into her ribs. Frantically, Selyn sucked in a breath of life-giving air and tasted blood. Darkness broken by fitful flashes of sparking lights closed in on all sides, but the terrible pounding continued. Then, somehow, she floated free, apart from the hammering fists, as if she hovered in a separate space, beyond pain, beyond fear.
Maybe freedom would finally come as her mother's had—in death. Did it really matter anymore? Selyn no longer felt the blows, even as Birk continued to pummel her unresisting body.
A beautiful, achingly familiar face swam hauntingly just beyond her reach. With split and bleeding lips Selyn whispered her mother's name.
There was no answer, no sign of recognition, but it was all right. Her mother, once a proud warrior who long ago fought demons beside battle-hardened Lemurian men, had found peace in death. Only days ago Elda had come to Selyn in her dreams. She'd told her daughter she'd been reborn to fight again—reborn in a crystal sword called DemonSlayer.
Was that to be Selyn's path out of this hellhole? Through death? No matter. Not anymore. Giving in to the darkness, Selyn gratefully embraced the only freedom she had ever known.
Freedom, and darkness, and death.
* * *
Finally. After mere days of frantic discussions, they were moving against the Council of Nine tonight. Though Roland had been part of Alton of Artigos's plans since the beginning, he still feared what their actions against the ruling body would mean should they fail.
Failure is not an option. The fate of Lemuria—of all worlds—depends on us.
Alton's words still rang in Roland's ears as he reached Selyn's level in the caverns. He cast out his thoughts. Though he'd only known the young woman for a few days—since first venturing into the mines in search of proof of the terrible rumors of slave-keeping—she'd always responded immediately, even if he awakened her from sleep.
This time, he heard nothing. A great void where her active mind should be. He glanced along the shadowed tunnel and prayed to the gods he'd not be discovered. He had no business at this level. None at all, but Selyn should have answered by now.
He grasped his crystal sword and walked purposefully down the dark passageway. The lighting was dim and did little to dispel the shadows. Calling silently for Selyn, he rounded a slight curve and stopped dead.
A body lay in the middle of the corridor. A woman's body. From the long tangled mass of her coal black hair and the coppery color of her skin, it could only be Selyn. Roland glanced both ways, saw no one, and raced to her side.
"Ah, child ... what in nine hells have the bastards done to you?" Kneeling beside her, he pressed his fingertips to the big artery in her throat and felt for her pulse. Erratic, unsteady, it fluttered beneath his fingertips. Her eyes were closed, her face battered and swollen, her rough-spun robe badly torn. Bloody saliva foamed at the corner of her lips.
Roland couldn't risk a call for help. The only ones strong enough to have hurt Selyn this badly were the wardens who guarded the Forgotten Ones. Selyn's latest trip to meet him at the upper level must have been discovered, but how could anyone have done such a horrible thing?
He glanced about, saw and heard nothing but his own harsh breathing, and accepted his duty. Though Alton had sent him below to warn the Forgotten Ones of tonight's coup, he had to get Selyn out of here, and hope like the nine hells she lived long enough for him to find a healer.
Carefully, Roland slipped his hands beneath her slim body and lifted her as gently as he could. He cradled the broken young woman against his chest and carried her down the dark tunnel, passing through portals and eventually reaching the first set of steps without anyone spotting him. Then he began the long climb to the surface. But where could he take her? Not to anyone in Lemuria. Members of the aristocracy claimed ignorance of slavery's existence.
Roland hadn't wanted to believe Lemuria kept its own citizens as slaves, but fear the rumors were true had driven his search. What he'd found was worse than anything he could possibly have imagined. All those poor young women, daughters of Lemuria's brave warrior women who'd been secretly purged from society, condemned to lives of slavery in the crystal mines.
Condemned, it appeared, by Alton's father, the head of the Council of Nine.
No, he'd not find help for Selyn in Lemuria. It would have to be someone in Earth's dimension.
She was still alive, but barely, when Roland finally reached the upper levels and made telepathic contact with Alton. The young aristocrat didn't hesitate. He set his earlier plans for tonight's coup aside and told Roland where they could safely meet.
Less than an hour later, Roland passed through the Lemurian portal that led directly into the energy vortex in Bell Rock, a large formation outside of Sedona, Arizona. Alton waited in the dark chamber with his woman, Ginny Jones, close beside him.
The Lemurian heir to the council took one look at the battered woman in Roland's arms and cursed, shaking his head in dismay. "Ah, Roland, my friend. How could this be?"
Roland was shocked to see Alton's eyes sparkling with compassionate tears—tears that reaffirmed Roland's decision to follow the young aristocrat no matter where he might lead. This was not a man interested in power. No— Alton's only goal was a strong and vital Lemuria, and equality for all its citizens.
Ginny gasped and stepped close. "Oh, my God." She lightly touched the pulse point on Selyn's throat and looked up at Roland. "She's still alive, but her pulse is so weak. Who did this to her?"
Roland shook his head. Anger, frustration, and his fear for the girl's life had him blurting out, "One of the gods-be-damned guards, I imagine. I hear they treat the women most cruelly, but I've never seen anyone so viciously beaten."
"Will she live?" Alton's soft question calmed him.
He sighed. "I don't know. I'm sure she's got broken ribs, internal injuries. She's a tough one, though. At least she's still breathing."
Alton wrapped his arm protectively around Ginny. "I had no idea when you contacted me that she was so badly injured." He glanced at Ginny. "Do you think Dawson can help her? He's a veterinarian, after all, not a doctor for humans."
Ginny stared at Selyn so intently, Roland felt as if she were trying to force the injured woman to heal by the strength of her will alone.
"He's going to have to," she said. "Alton, we have to see if Dax and Eddy can bring BumperWillow. Willow might be able to help, but we need to hurry. Roland? Can you come with us?"
He'd not spent much time in Earth's dimension, and never here in Sedona. It was forbidden, after all, but a young woman's life was, literally, in his hands. "Yes," he said, gazing at the battered girl he held as gently as he could. "I can."
Chara would understand. His wife was used to the long hours he kept, though she had no idea the danger he faced. It was just as well. What was the point of alarming her?
Alton led the way through another, smaller portal. They stepped out into a cavern almost identical to the first. "We just moved from one side of Sedona to the other using the vortex," he said. He pointed to a shimmering gateway on one wall. "That's a secret portal we've discovered that leads directly to the chambers of the Council of Nine, but do not use it to return. The risk of being caught by a member of the council makes it too dangerous. We'll go this way." He nodded toward another glowing portal. "We're meeting a friend of ours here who should be able to help the girl."
Lightly he touched Roland's shoulder. "I can take her if you're getting tired. He'll have his vehicle waiting nearby."
Roland nodded. "I'm okay. Let's hurry." Even though his arms ached from carrying her, Roland didn't want to risk further injury to Selyn by shifting her to Alton's grasp. She hadn't stirred, but she drew soft, shallow breaths, proof she still lived. Thank the gods she was unconscious and, hopefully, unaware of pain.
They stepped out into a star-filled night. Roland had seen stars once before, when he'd fought demons a few days earlier on the flanks of Mount Shasta, but he knew he'd never get the chance to see them enough. Damn it all, but his people had lost too much when their continent sank beneath the sea.
They had survived these many millennia, but at what cost?
Life without stars, without the warmth of the sun. Anger gave Roland strength for the short hike down the dark path. He was still grumbling to himself when they rounded a curve in the trail. Alton flashed his handheld light at a large vehicle waiting in the shadows. A dark-haired man—tall for a human—climbed out and quickly opened the back door. Roland nodded without speaking and carefully slid into the wide seat with Selyn still in his arms.
"Who in the hell did this to her?" Dawson Buck leaned in the open door and pressed his fingers to the girl's throat. He was surprised by the strong pulse he found.
The big Lemurian holding her nodded tersely. "One of the guards must have caught her after our meeting. Her name is Selyn—one of the Forgotten Ones. Can you help her?"
Dawson nodded and raced around the SUV to the driver's seat. His hands shook as he turned the key in the ignition, though he had no idea if it was from fear of the job ahead or rage at what had been done to an innocent young woman.
Her face was battered beyond recognition, eyes swollen shut, lips badly split. Her gown was drenched in blood. From the bloody froth at her lips, he figured she probably had a punctured lung, which meant broken ribs.
He was still shaking when they reached his house just a couple of miles away. Dawson got out, walked quickly to the house, unlocked the front door, and held it open.
The Lemurian guard held the girl as if she were the most fragile of china. He walked briskly down the long hallway to Dawson's small home clinic at the back of the house. Carefully he laid his bruised and bleeding burden down on the examining table.
Then, with an exhausted sigh, he turned and focused on Dawson. "You will save her life, healer. You must. She is much too fine a young woman to die like this."
Before Dawson could reply, Alton grabbed the guard's arm. "Come, Roland. We'll leave the healer to his work. You need food and rest."
Nodding silently, the big man followed Alton out of the room. Dawson raised his head and stared at Ginny.
"I'll help," she said. "Just tell me what I need to do."
He breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you."
He could do this. He had to.
Clearing his mind of everything but helping this young woman survive, Dawson went to work.
Finishing up after a long day at his clinic in town, Dawson had been prepared for another quiet night at home when his cell phone rang. He'd certainly never expected to hear Alton's voice. When he'd recently offered to help his new friends in their battle against a demon invasion, Dawson honestly hadn't thought anyone would actually call.
He was, after all, merely human. What good could a mortal do among creatures who were not only virtually immortal but capable of things he'd only read of in his favorite science fiction novels?
But when Alton told him one of their kind was badly injured and in need of medical attention, Dawson hadn't hesitated. He'd quickly finished up the nightly feeding of his canine and feline patients, locked the doors to his clinic, and raced to the parking lot at Red Rock Crossing near the energy vortex at Cathedral Rock.
And there he'd waited. He'd had plenty of time to think about the changes in his life since that morning, a little over a week ago, when he'd arrived a bit late at his veterinary clinic and discovered the place was already filled with dozens of animal patients—all exhibiting the same unbelievable behavior.
He knew his staff thought he was slightly nuts when he'd suggested the pets were all possessed by demons. Of course, he was well aware that his capable young assistant as well as the women who worked for him looked at his offbeat diagnosis as part of his charm.
They loved to tease him about his easy acceptance of the mystical stories about the land around Sedona and the energy vortexes. Most folks thought of the stories as nothing more than fodder for the tourist trade.
His Aunt Fiona had been the only one who truly understood him. When he was little and talked to his imaginary friends, she'd called him fey. As he'd grown older and lost himself in books with tales of the unusual and unexplained, she'd merely nodded and said he was learning to understand things that a lot of his real-life friends would never be able to see.
The imaginary friends had eventually faded away, cast out by a teenaged boy's need to act like everyone else, but Aunt Fiona had understood. She'd told him that when he was ready, they'd come back.
Excerpted from Starfire by KATE DOUGLAS Copyright © 2011 by Kate Douglas. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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