Galaxy’s Way: Chapter 2

Galaxys_Way_web_smallGalaxy’s Way

Chapter 2

FREE FALL INTO A VOID with no visible bottom was absolutely petrifying. Anna’s stomach abandoned her, recklessly jumping ship. Her mind blurred; the only thought that remained clear was that she did not want to die here.

She was still screaming when she hit black water.

The impact was almost as much of a shock as the cold that enveloped her. The force with which she smacked the water drove all the air from her lungs. She plunged deep beneath the surface with a gigantic splash, driven down by sheer momentum. Her feet did not touch bottom.

Panic and a desperate, blazing need for oxygen brought Anna back to herself. Frantically, she began kicking her feet for all she was worth, trying to drive herself back up to the surface. Her lungs burned; it was all she could do to keep herself from opening her mouth and dragging in a deadly draught of water. Bright spots danced before her eyes.

Just when she thought she was done for, Anna broke through the water to clear air. She sucked in a gasping breath and promptly choked on the water she’d inhaled along with it. Coughing, she nearly went under again, but managed to keep her head above water at the last second. It was difficult; her arms being tied behind her back shifted her weight and made it difficult to keep herself afloat in such a fashion that she could still breathe. Her boots made her feet felt like they had been encased in lead blocks.

These ropes have got to go, she thought frantically, writhing her hands behind her back. One hand came free of the ropes and she went under again while she ripped her other hand free of the knotted mass. She popped back up again to breathe, cough, and resume treading water, but she did not let go of the rope.

Not yet. Not until I know I don’t need it.

Old habit, that. When you lived on the fringes of society the way she, her brother, and their crew did, you tended to hang onto things for a while in case they might prove useful.

The water and the cavern walls magnified her harsh breathing and every cough; aside from a ripple or two, it was all she could hear. The water was cold, but probably not cold enough to prove dangerous. At least, she didn’t think so. Hysteria bubbled up in her chest, but she shoved it down and took herself firmly in hand.

Stay calm. You’re alive. That means you can get out of this.

Whatever this was, exactly.

Anna still couldn’t see anything. She blinked a number of times, even tried bringing a hand out of the water long enough to wave it in front of her eyes, but still‌…‌nothing. Lobai’s minion had disappeared with the lantern, leaving her alone in the blackest black she’d ever experienced. And considering the Iliana had once lost power‌—‌including the backup emergency life-support system‌—‌in deep space, that was saying something.

“I must say, lass, that scream could have woken the dead,” drawled a deep, accented voice from the darkness somewhere behind her.

Anna jolted in fright, inadvertently splashing and nearly dropping her rope, and turned instinctively toward the male voice. Fighting hard to keep her voice from quavering, she called out, “Who’s there?”

“Got on old Lobai’s bad side too, did you?” the voice asked conversationally. “He’s remarkably short-tempered.”

“Who are you?” Fear and annoyance made Anna clench her teeth. “Where are you?”

“There’s a bit of land over here. Found it after a great deal of pointless swimming around, I might add. As for who I am … ” the man sighed, rather theatrically. “You may call me Colin.”

Colin. Great.

“Are you going to tell me your name?”

Anna arched an eyebrow through the dark in his direction. “Don’t know yet.”

“I see. Well, are you going to tread water all day?”

“What?”

“I told you, there’s a bit of land over here. Swim toward my voice‌—‌you can swim, I hope?‌—‌and you’ll find it.”

“Swim toward you?” Anna felt like she was lagging a step behind. “Why would I do that?”

“If you’d prefer to drown, you’re welcome to do it. I must say, though, I don’t fancy having to listen.”

Blinking again, though this time from sheer confusion, Anna considered her options. I can stay out here until I’m so exhausted that I drown myself, I can swim around trying to find a way out, or I can take him up on the dry land thing and go from there.

She stayed where she was.

“Why did Lobai throw you down here, Colin?”

He did not reply for a moment. When he did, his voice was deceptively light. “Let’s just say it was a business deal gone wrong and leave it at that.”

Right.

“Look,” he said, after another awkward pause, “if it makes you feel any better, my hands are tied behind my back.”

That startled Anna; she instinctively flexed her own fingers in the cold water. “You couldn’t get free?”

“No,” he said shortly. “In fact, I almost drowned after his thugs dropped me in the drink. Blasted double-crosser.”

Anna bit her lip, thinking furiously. “Okay,” she said at last. “I’m coming toward you. But I warn you‌—‌my hands are free.” The threat was implicit.

“I’ll not lay a finger on you, lass, unless you wish me to.”

Anna could hear the smile in his voice and it made her bristle. “I don’t think you’ll need to worry about that.”

Colin actually had the gall to chuckle. “If you say so, darling.”

Reluctantly, Anna struck out toward the sound of his voice. Her leather jacket made her movements more cumbersome, but she was not about to shuck it off.

“Keep going,” Colin called out. “You’re getting closer.”

It was very disconcerting to swim toward something she couldn’t see. Anna’s strokes gradually became shorter; without knowing what this ‘bit of land’ looked like, she was afraid of smacking into it and hurting herself.

Colin’s voice grew closer with every stroke as well‌—‌and she wasn’t sure about that either.

“You can take him,” she muttered to herself.

“What was that, lass?” He sounded amused.

With her next stroke, Anna smacked her arm onto something solid instead of black water. She winced, but was too grateful to have found solid ground to worry about the pain shooting up her arm. Looping the rope over one arm, she latched onto what felt like a rocky ledge jutting out into the water with both hands.

“I said — ” she hauled herself up out of the water and sprawled on the rock for a few seconds to catch her breath, “ — how long have you been down here?”

“What time is it?”

“After seven.”

“In the evening?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, well, then I haven’t been down here more than a few hours. I met Lobai at three.”

A few hours? Anna gaped in his direction. “And you couldn’t get free in all that time?”

“As I said, his minions were rather‌…‌thorough.” She heard the grimace in his voice. “I believe they’ve cut the circulation off to my hands.”

“Ouch.” Anna made a face. I guess Lobai was serious when he said he didn’t want Viktor as his mortal enemy. There’s no other explanation, other than sheer incompetence.

“I don’t suppose you could — ”

“I’m not untying you,” Anna interrupted flatly. “Not yet.”

Colin changed tacks without missing a beat, “ — tell me your name now?” He paused. “I mean, if we’re going to be bodiless voices in the dark, it’d be nice to at least put a name to yours.”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth. What could it hurt? “Anna,” she said shortly. “My name is Anna.”

“Anna.”

The way her name rolled off his tongue absolutely did not send shivers down her spine.

Scowling, Anna dropped the rope on the ledge beside her and pulled off her boots one at a time. She dumped out the excess water and shoved her feet back into them. The last thing I want to do is lose something in this pitch black. “Ugh. I hate wet boots.”

“That makes two of us, darling.”

“Stop calling me that,” she said, without looking in his direction. It was difficult to gauge his precise location with the way sound bounced around in here, but she thought she was probably within two meters of him on the ledge.

“Force of habit.”

Next, Anna stripped off her leather jacket, shook it to relieve it of as much water as she could, and proceeded to wring out her shirt and vest. Her pants she was forced to give up as a lost cause; the only way she’d get anything out of them was if she took them off‌—‌and that was definitely not happening.

A terrible thought stilled her fingers. What if Lobai threw me down here with this guy so he wouldn’t technically be responsible for something happening to me? Given what she knew of Lobai’s thought process, it made a disturbing amount of sense.

“You’ve gone awfully quiet over there, lass.”

Anna pressed her lips into a thin line and glared through the darkness at his invisible form. I wouldn’t put that past Lobai at all.

“What are you thinking?” An edge slid into Colin’s otherwise jovial tone, as though he was deeply suspicious of the gears turning in her mind.

“I’m thinking Lobai wouldn’t personally harm me because he’s afraid of my brother, but he’d be perfectly fine with arranging for a stranger to take care of things,” she said boldly.

Colin made an exasperated sound in the back of his throat. “I told you, lass, I’ll not lay so much as a finger on you unless you want me to. My mother raised me a gentleman.”

“Oh, really. A gentleman, what? Thief? Pirate?”

“Businessman,” he said curtly. “I run a small shipping company.”

“I see.”

“I hope you mean that figuratively, lass.” Colin paused. “Although‌…‌if you could see in the dark, that would come in particularly handy just now.”

Anna rolled her eyes, scraping her bedraggled braid off the back of her neck and wringing it out. Water splashed down into the black lake. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I’m also in pain. My arms are throbbing, and have I mentioned I can’t feel my fingers?” Though his tone remained conversational, irritation threaded through it.

Anna considered her options. If he’s telling the truth, he could be useful in getting out of here. “Say I untie you — ”

“I’d kiss you for that.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Anna cleared her throat and began again. “Say I untie you. Will you swear to help me get out of here? I have to get back to the — ” she broke off before she gave away their ship’s name and continued, “I have to get back and tell my brother Lobai double-crossed us.”

“Won’t he figure that out pretty quickly?”

“Depends,” Anna said darkly. “At least one of our crew is involved.”

“Ah. That does pose a bit of a problem, doesn’t it?”

Anna ignored this. “What do you say?”

“I swear it. On my honor.”

“All right then. I’ll untie you.”

Picking up the rope, Anna looped it around her waist before rising to a crouch. The ledge was too rough on her knees for her to try crawling, even though the complete darkness surrounding them was affecting her balance. She winced; her boots made a horrible squelching sound with every step. “Talk to me.”

“You have a lovely voice.”

Her cheeks pinked, even as she rolled her eyes. Should have seen that coming. “Will your crew be missing you?”

“I should hope so. I left them strict orders, but it’s unlikely that they will find me here.”

“Let me guess. You met Lobai elsewhere?” Blindly stretching her hands out, Anna began patting insubstantial air and expecting to find a solid body.

“Yes.”

His voice was almost in her ear. Frowning, she shifted toward him and her left arm whacked into something solid.

“ … I believe you’ve found me, lass.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Anna retracted her arm enough for her hand to find a shoulder covered in damp leather jacket and trailed her fingers down a muscled arm to his hands.

Her questing fingertips encountered cold, still-damp coils of rope, and she winced in sympathy. Lobai’s henchmen had tied Colin’s bonds so tight they were biting deep into his wrists. She felt around the ropes, searching for knots, and was not entirely surprised to find something that felt suspiciously like tacky dried blood on his skin. His hands themselves felt stiff and cold.

“He really didn’t want you going anywhere, did he?”

“So it would seem.”

Anna set to work on undoing the knots, but the process was made difficult by the fact she could not actually see what her fingers were doing. Just pretend you’ve got your eyes shut, she scolded herself. You can feel them just fine‌—‌don’t overthink this.

Kneeling this close to Colin, with the damp chill of the lake cavern surrounding them, Anna could feel the warmth radiating off his body. It wasn’t much‌—‌not after he’d spent over four hours down here, but he was considerably warmer and drier than she herself at the moment.

“So.” Colin cleared his throat. “First double-cross?”

Anna snorted. “Not by a long shot.” There had been others, over the years. This one just hurts more.

“Ah,” he said wisely. “But not like this.”

Anna prided herself on being able to take things in stride; her fingers did not even falter. “What do you mean?”

His clothes rustled; he was probably turning his head to peer sightlessly in her direction. “You know what I mean, lass.”

“Actually, I don’t.” She didn’t like the tone in his voice.

“I see. Well, it goes something like this.” He paused dramatically. “You, I’ll wager, knew there was a chance Lobai might attempt to double-cross you‌—‌he’s not exactly known for his loyalty in the face of a bigger threat‌—‌and prepared accordingly.”

Anna narrowed her eyes, but kept her mouth stubbornly shut.

“Obviously, those plans failed, which means that he paid off your partner. Am I right?”

He was, but Anna couldn’t bring herself to admit it. “What makes you think I had a partner?”

“Oh, please.” Colin chuckled; it was more pleasant a sound than she’d expected. “You have a brother, and Lobai clearly meant you no great harm. You had a partner. And,” he added, only a slight strain in his voice as she yanked on a particularly stubborn knot, “you weren’t suspecting him or her to sell you out.”

Talking to Colin and working on freeing him had helped Anna shove Berenger’s betrayal aside a few minutes, but now a mix of anger, hurt, and utter bewilderment came flooding back. She had to stop and retreat for a second to keep from hurting Colin‌—‌and not caring.

Perhaps sensing this, Colin refrained from commenting.

When she had her breathing and the tears that had stung her eyes under control, Anna resumed her work on his bonds. “Didn’t see it coming,” she said grudgingly. At all.

“He got you good.” A beat. “Was a ‘he’, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Anna left it at that.

“Such a gentleman.”

Anna frowned at the back of his head through the darkness, but then her fingers finally gained purchase and the ropes loosened. “Ha. Got it!” She quickly freed him. “There you go.”

“Thank you, lass,” Colin said with feeling.

“No problem.”

Next Chapter

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Galaxy’s Way is © 2016 by E.R. Paskey

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Galaxy’s Way: Chapter 1

ThisGalaxys_Way_web_small book was a lot of fun to write–the twists and turns it took kept me guessing until the end. Here’s the first chapter.

Galaxy’s Way

Chapter 1

THOMAS BERENGER PULLED ANNA DRAYEK aside ten minutes before they were set to rendezvous with their buyer. He was a head taller than she was, with a stocky torso and broad, powerful shoulders. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked in an undertone, pinning her to the bulkhead with dark, serious eyes.

Anna quirked an eyebrow at him. “Of course I’m serious. Viktor can’t leave the ship this time‌—‌we need him here keeping an eye on things.” She smiled, punched his arm affectionately. “That’s why you’re coming with me.”

Still, he hesitated. “If you’re sure … ”

“I’m sure, Bear.”

He shrugged. “Good enough for me.”

“See you on the landing ramp in ten.” Anna clapped him on the shoulder and threaded her way through the freighter to find her brother. Her knee-high black boots thudded lightly against the metal grating that made up the deck in the lower half of the ship. The Iliana was a Delta-class Pythian freighter, which tended to resemble large rectangular boxes with tapered ends. She had four decks, and a cargo hold large enough to carry just about anything they’d ever encountered.

The Iliana was also faster than she looked, which was important when one needed to make a quick getaway from Federation forces.

“Anna!” Viktor’s deep voice called from down the rust-gray corridor.

She whirled around with a smile; the braid keeping her brown, curly hair contained thumped against her back. “All set?”

“All set.” Viktor‌—‌her elder by three years and taller by a head, but similar to her in coloring‌—‌met her halfway and handed her a small leather satchel. “They’re all there. Packed ‘em as carefully as I could, but you don’t want to be dropping that if you can help it.”

“Got it.” Anna slung the satchel over her head and let it slide beneath one side of her battered black leather jacket.

“Hand off at the same time,” Viktor instructed, “or else make him give you the jewels first.”

“I got it, Vik, don’t worry.” She raised her eyebrows at him, smiling slightly. “Bear’s coming with me‌—‌we’ve got this.”

“I know you do.” He patted her on the back. “I just don’t like Lobai.”

“Can’t say I’ve run into many people who do, but … ” Anna shrugged. “At least he pays.”

Her brother huffed a laugh. “True. Okay, get outta here, kiddo. Knock ‘em dead.”

Anna saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Leaving her brother behind, she made her way to the landing ramp. Berenger was already there with one shoulder propped against the strut, waiting for her. She nodded to their crewmates who had gotten their ground transport ready and turned to him. “Ready?”

He shoved off from the strut. “Let’s do it.”

Anna climbed into the driver’s seat; Berenger would be keeping an eye out for possible ambushes or any other signs of betrayal. She put the transport into gear and they rumbled their way down the landing ramp and out into the late afternoon sky.

Not that anyone unfamiliar with this world would know it was afternoon instead of twilight. Primus was not known for an abundance of sunshine. It was actually more famous for the network of caverns that honeycombed just below its surface. Some had been renovated for comfortable human existence, but others remained in their natural state‌—‌dark and damp.

She and Berenger were headed for one such natural cavern, known as Ninh’s Cavern.

“Stay sharp, Bear,” she said as they made their way through thinning traffic to the edge of the city. “Ninh’s Cavern is more out of the way than I’d have liked for a drop.”

“Don’t know why we couldn’t have just met up over a drink like normal people.” Berenger’s dark eyes scanned their surroundings, checking for anything out of the ordinary.

Anna snorted. “Chalk it up to Lobai being eccentric. At least he pays well.” She nodded to their right. “Ninh’s Cavern, coming up. Where do we park?”

“Hit your lights and just coast in. Park far enough in that nobody could see us from the outside, but not so far in that we can’t get back out in a hurry.”

“I like the way you think.”

A moment later, Anna parked and killed the engine. She paused before exiting the vehicle. “Bear, if anything smells fishy‌—‌if anything looks wrong or something strikes you as out of place‌—‌we cut our losses and scram. Got it?”

“Understood.” His smile was a sharp flash in the darkness. “There are other stars in space.”

“Exactly.”

Here at the cave system’s entrance, the rocky walls and floor were only slightly damp from condensation. Anna had never been in here before, but she and Viktor had done as much research as they could. Unfortunately, all they had been able to determine was that Ninh’s Cavern contained an underground lake somewhere, which the City eventually planned to tap.

“How far in is the meeting place?” Berenger asked in an undertone, hovering protectively just off to Anna’s right flank. He shone a small light ahead of them.

“Third cavern,” she replied quietly. “Lobai said we couldn’t miss it.”

He was right.

Their cavern gave way to a smaller tunnel with several bends. Around the second bend, they saw a faint glow ahead of them.

Bingo. Anna tightened her left hand on the satchel’s strap. She wore black fingerless gloves; had worn them for years.

The glow gradually grew brighter the closer they approached, until they left their tunnel behind and stepped out into a larger cavern.

Their buyer‌—‌Lobai, a short, slight man with graying hair and an iron face to match his iron will‌—‌stood in the center of the cavern, his hands wrapped around the handle of a cane. Two burly men stood behind him, and two lanterns sat on the cave floor behind them.

“I see you brought more company than you were supposed to.” Anna stepped out of the tunnel ahead of Berenger.

Lobai turned cold brown eyes on her. “I prefer to hedge my bets, dearie.” His eyes flicked from Berenger to the pistol holstered at her right hip. “I see you brought a friend.”

“Never leave the ship without one,” she said cheerfully.

“Do you have my merchandise?” Lobai extended a hand to her.

Anna lifted the leather satchel in one hand, but did not unsling it. “Do you have our jewels?”

Lobai nodded to his bodyguards and limped forward. “I do.” Thrusting a hand into his breast jacket pocket, he withdrew a small black velvet bag.

So far so good. Anna nodded to Berenger and met Lobai halfway. Unslinging the satchel, she dangled it toward him with one hand while reaching for the velvet bag with her other.

They smoothly traded items and she stepped back to inspect the jewels. Untying the bag, she shook its contents out into her gloved palm and turned them this way and that in the light. Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and one particularly large emerald winked up at her. She fished a jeweler’s piece from her pocket and inspected a few of the jewels, before nodding in appreciation and sliding them all back into the bag.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Lobai. Viktor sends his regards. You know how to get a hold of us if you need something in the future.” The bag disappeared into her shirt and Anna nodded to Berenger. Time to get out of here.

“Not so fast, dearie.”

The back of Anna’s neck prickled; she felt ice trickle down her spine. Now what? They’d dealt with Lobai before‌—‌she’d dealt with Lobai before‌—‌and there had never before been a deviation from their usual exchange. Slowly, she pivoted to regard Lobai. Her hand hovered over her pistol butt. “Yes?”

Beside her, Berenger’s hand dropped to his own pistol.

“I’m afraid we’re not finished here.” Lobai shook his head, tapping his cane against the cavern floor. “We have one other matter to discuss.”

What is he talking about? Anna arched a haughty eyebrow, belying her internal consternation. “Is that so?”

Berenger drew his pistol in one fluid movement‌—‌and jabbed it into her side. “You’d better listen to him, Anna.”

Anna stared at him, her brown eyes wide with shock, before her face froze over. Out of their entire crew, Berenger was one of the few people she and Viktor both trusted. One of the few people she was reasonably certain wouldn’t screw them over for anything short of a vast, vast fortune.

When she found her voice, it sounded very thin and cold, like it was coming from the top of a mountain. “How much are they paying you, Bear?”

“Enough,” he said shortly. He pressed the muzzle of his pistol a little harder into her side. “Give me the jewels, Anna. Easy, now.”

He promptly relieved her of her pistol.

“Don’t suppose you’d reconsider?” Anna asked lightly, while she raced through all of the different ways things could go from here.

“The jewels, Anna. Left hand.”

She twitched her shoulders in a semblance of a shrug. “Had to try.” Slowly, she brought her hand up and fished inside her shirt for the velvet bag. Stony-faced, she pulled it out and held it up for Berenger to snatch.

“Toss them here,” Lobai instructed.

Anna expected Berenger to comply, but he hesitated. “You never told me what you’re going to do with her.”

Oh, galaxies.

“Do with her?” Lobai smiled‌…‌it was not a pleasant sight. “I don’t intend to do anything much with her.” He turned his cold eyes on Anna. “Your brother is not a man I’d wish as a mortal enemy.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “You have a funny way of showing it.”

“Oh, please.” Lobai waved a wrinkled hand. “He’ll be bitter for a few months, no doubt, over the loss of the jewels, but you and I both know there are more to be found out there.” He tipped his head toward one of his bodyguards. “Tie her up. You,” he looked back at Berenger, “toss me the jewels, if you please.”

Berenger obeyed, and Lobai caught them one-handed.

“You could just let me walk out of here,” Anna offered, as one of the burly men approached her with a length of rope. Her heart started to pound in her chest. With Berenger a traitor in possession of her pistol and holding a gun to her ribs, the odds were not on her side. “Leave me here, drop my pistol in the vehicle, and go out first.”

“I do intend to leave you here, dearie, but I don’t trust you that much.” Lobai’s eyes glinted with sharp amusement.

Anna just barely restrained a snort. He doesn’t trust me? After all this?

“Pirates have a certain‌…‌reputation, after all.”

“That was a giant misunderstanding, and you know it,” Anna retorted, glaring at him as his minion wrenched her arms behind her back and trussed her up.

“I’m afraid I know nothing of the sort.” Having safely stowed his jewels away, Lobai took this moment to investigate the contents of the leather satchel. A little of the tension cording his lean frame eased; he looked up to meet her eyes. “You and your brother are meddling in things far beyond your ken. When you get back to Viktor, tell him that.”

Anna gaped at him, confusing rapidly outpacing fear and irritation. “You came to us, remember?”

Behind her back, she tested the bonds around her wrists; they were tight, but not so tight that she couldn’t work her way free. She fought to keep her expression steady. His help is rather inept‌—‌I could just walk out of here after them. This is his plan? She swallowed. Either that or he knows about ‌—‌

She squeaked in surprise as the burly man abruptly picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. “Hey! What are you doing?”

“I promised we wouldn’t lay a hand on you,” Lobai said with a nasty smile, “but I can’t have you following us out of here too soon.” He waved a hand toward his minion. “Do it. And mind what I told you earlier.”

Anna barely had time to wonder what that meant before her captor picked up on one of the lanterns and she realized she was being carted further into the cavern. “Hey!” She kicked her legs, but it was futile. His arm was like iron over the back of her thighs, and with her hands bound, all she could do was stare down at his back‌—‌and uninspiring rear end. I don’t want to look at that.

“Where are you taking me?” she demanded. “Lobai, this’ll get out! You can’t just double-cross us and waltz away!”

“Except that I will, dearie. Remember what I said,” Lobai called after them, his voice echoing weirdly through the tunnel. “Tell your brother you’d be best off packing up and flying to another sector.”

“Wait!”

Anna’s heart leapt for an instant at Berenger’s shout, but at his next words, it plummeted like a stone.

“She’s still got her comlink.”

Lobai laughed. “She shan’t need it where she’s going, but if it makes you feel better … ”

Well, that doesn’t sound good. Fear filled Anna like a choking cloud, but she forced herself to turn it into anger. She glared at Berenger as he hurried toward her. “You’ll regret this.”

Berenger just shook his head, slipping a hand inside her jacket and relieving her of her comlink. “We’ll see about that.” He tapped her captor on the shoulder to let him know he could resume walking before turning and heading back toward Lobai.

Sensing further argument would accomplish nothing, Anna shot his retreating form another poisonous glare and settled down against her captor’s back to seethe and work on slipping out of her bonds.

And to wonder exactly how far into Ninh’s Cavern she was being taken.

This lout’s only got the one lantern. That means I’ll be finding my way out in the dark. Gulping, she glared at the cavern floor. Can’t be that hard to get out. And it’s hardly darker than deep space.

With a tiny jolt of trepidation, she realized her captor’s footsteps were echoing louder than they had just a moment before. We’re in a bigger cavern. She worked harder to free her hands.

“This is where you get off, girlie,” the man said, in an unsurprisingly deep voice. “Have fun.”

“What are you — ” Anna broke off as he stooped to pitch her off his shoulder‌—‌and the light from the lantern revealed that they stood on the edge of a dark, gaping maw. “No!” she gasped in horror. “Please. Don’t — ”

The man unceremoniously tossed her over the edge.

Free fall ripped a terrified scream from her throat‌—‌the sound bounced off the cavern walls and echoed.

In the distance, Lobai smiled and continued on his way.

Next Chapter

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Galaxy’s Way is © 2016 by E.R. Paskey

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Release News: ‘Galaxy’s Way’

I am Galaxys_Way_web_smallabsolutely thrilled and delighted to announce that Galaxy’s Way, my newest stand-alone space opera novel, is finally available!!!

The ebook is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords.

The print edition will be available in a couple of weeks.

Here’s the jacket copy:

Galaxy’s Way

Anna Drayek and her brother unintentionally crossed the Federation and got themselves branded pirates. Now they and their crew work on the fringes of the civilized galaxy.

Their latest job should have been easy. Bring the goods to a little backwater planet, get paid, and disappear again. Instead, Anna finds herself betrayed and stranded…and, thanks to an archaic law…accidentally married to a complete stranger.

Colin Dupree is flirty, handsome…and he just so happens to own his own freighter, the Galaxy’s Way. What’s a pirate to do?

Team up with her new husband and his crew to track down the buyer who double-crossed them both, of course.

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End of Year Update

Dream_Soul_Awakens_ImaginationLast day of 2015, and all’s quiet on the western…er…blog front. 🙂 I had aspirations of posting a series of updates over the past few months, but, as you can see, they didn’t happen. (This is why I love calendars and scheduling things, because otherwise time is far too slippery.)

Life has been more of a whirlwind than usual since my last update. We finally finished our big family project in August, I got married and moved the end of September, and since then I’ve been settling into being a wife and a stepmother.

I love being married, though I’ll admit being a stepmother is not a direction I ever thought my life would take. That said, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. (It has, however, given me a new sensitivity to all of the stories out there involving evil stepmothers—after all, who wants to be in the same nominal category as the evil Queens from Snow White and Enchanted, or the evil stepmother from every version of Cinderella? Not me, that’s for sure. :P)

I’m blessed that my husband finds being married to a writer fascinating. I knew fiction writing can sound a little crazy to non-writers, but until I really started explaining things to him, I never realized how much I sound like a crazy person when I’m describing all of the different worlds and characters inside my head. He jokes that I shouldn’t tell too many people that I write down what the voices inside my head say. So don’t tell, okay? 🙂

In writing news, I’m excited to announce that not only have I finished my pirate/smuggler novel, but after months of lacking a proper title for it, I finally found one. The book is now called Galaxy’s Way, and I’m finishing up the last read-through before I send it off to my betas. It’ll be out sometime in the first quarter of 2016. I’m excited about it—writing Galaxy’s Way was definitely a wild ride.

Book 4 of The Guardians has taken me a little while to get off the ground, thanks to the spaghetti-like nature of the many plot threads at the end of Treason’s Edge, but it’s going well. The story is already taking unexpected twists and turns and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out. (No idea as to a title yet.)

At the moment, I’m calling the second half of the Ink Realm duology Ink Realm.  (I know, I know, usually the first book in a series bears the name of the series. This one’s come out backwards.) It’s off to an interesting start, and I may have already found cover art for it.

With all the general chaos of the past few months, I guess my brain decided it needed to make up for lost time, because I’ve also begun writing a fantasy stand-alone novel tentatively titled, The Stone General. The idea came to me about five years ago, on a trip to Florida with my family. (If I remember correctly, I had one of my brothers jot notes down for me because I was driving at the time.)

It’s been banging around my head since then, but, quite honestly, I’ve been scared to tackle it. I’ve been terrified that I won’t be able to do justice to the story I can see unfolding inside my head. What I’ve learned over the past few years, though, is that no matter how many years I write and how much I grow, I’ll never feel like I’m good enough. So…I’ve decided to just sit down and write it. That way it’ll be out of my head and won’t bother me anymore.

I’ve heard other writers say for years that every book wants to be written a different way, and I’ve written enough myself now to know that’s true. TSG is taking a back-and-forth scene approach with the characters that I’ve not done in a book before. It’s intriguing.

My superhero series, meanwhile, is still brewing. Every so often, it spits out new bits of story and the occasional new character, and the number of peripheral novels that will be connected to the main series keeps growing. I’m starting to suspect I’ll have a monster by the tail with this one. 😛

Hope y’all have a good end to 2015 today, and a great start to 2016 tomorrow. I’ve always thought beginning a new year was exciting—it’s a whole year brimming with promise and potential.

My goal for 2016 is to tell more stories. Better stories. Stories I’d love to read. And to post regular updates. (I also want to read more—that’s important too. Feeds the creative side.)

Happy New Year!

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Release News: ‘The Guardians: Treason’s Edge’

The pTreasonsEdgewebsmallast few weeks have been pretty busy, but very productive. I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Treason’s Edge, Book 3 in The Guardians series, is finally out!!!

The ebook is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords.

The print edition will be available in a couple of weeks.

Here’s the jacket copy:

The Guardians

Treason’s Edge

In the wake of their unofficial NCDC mission gone haywire, twins Lilia and Kevin Strong are struggling to cope with reality. Their brother is dead, their interplanetary shipping business is space dust…and they’ve somehow got wormhole-based transporters embedded in their nano-armor. Something is very wrong in the Nanotech Coalition Defense Corp.

On top of that, someone’s trying to assassinate their grandfather.

Meanwhile, G.U. Ambassador Leo Kedis isn’t about to let the Triumvirate’s refusal to open peace talks stop him. He’s got a plan—a crazy plan—and he has his sights set on someone crazy enough to help him.

Lilia and Kevin are about to find out what it truly means to love your enemies…and they’ll have to decide how much they’re willing to risk for peace.

 

 

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Lady Ink: Chapter 3

Lady_Ink_ebook_lined_webHere’s the third chapter of Lady Ink. Enjoy!

Chapter 3

NOW THAT INK WAS WALKING IN EARNEST, her mother and nurse encountered a bit of a snag. Stairs delighted Ink. The grand staircase in the Manse was an obstacle she made up her mind to conquer—one step at a time. Getting down was trickier; she had nearly fallen several times. Only Phaidra’s quick intervention—or, on the occasions Ink had slipped away from her, one of the servants’ intervention—prevented her from having a serious fall down the steps.

One morning, however, Ink took advantage of a conversation her mother was having with Myrtle, the head cook, to head for the back stairway. She toddled down the hallway and started up the staircase, ponderously climbing one step at a time. By the time Phaidra realized she had disappeared, Ink was halfway up the staircase.

“Ink!” Phaidra made an exasperated sound in the back of her throat. “You had better not be on those stairs again, my love!”

Hearing her mother’s voice, Ink giggled to herself. She loved this game they played. Soft footfalls told her that her mother was rapidly approaching the staircase; she climbed faster in order to reach the top before her mother’s strong arms scooped her up and took her away from her fun.

At least, she tried to climb faster.

In her haste, Ink tripped over her own feet. She had one startled second to wonder what had gone wrong before her world tipped upside down and she fell backwards. All the air was knocked out of her little lungs as she tumbled down the steps.

Ink!” Phaidra cried, picking up her skirts and racing toward the staircase in a desperate bid to catch her daughter before she hit the stone floor at the bottom of the steps. She dropped to her knees on the second step from the bottom and her arms closed around Ink’s tiny form, snatching her safely up to her chest. Her heart thudded wildly against her bodice as she closed her eyes for a second in relief, visions of what could have been flashing across her mind.

Ink’s chest expanded as she sucked in a breath, and then her mouth opened in a wailing cry. Her head ached, her body ached, and she had not reached the top of the stairs. She fisted her hands in her mother’s clothes and bawled.

“My lady!” cried Myrtle. She was a stout, ample woman, with blonde hair now streaked liberally with gray. She reached Phaidra, puffing a little, and placed a hand on her side. “Is she all right, milady?” She took a closer look at Phaidra. “Are you all right, milady?”

Phaidra drew in a shaky breath and kissed the top of Ink’s head before she unfolded herself and sat back on her heels to examine her child. “I think so, Myrtle. I don’t think she’s broken anything.”

As Phaidra brushed Ink’s hair back to check her head, Myrtle gasped and took an involuntary step backward. Phaidra’s next breath caught in her throat and stuck. Ink had hit her head on the way down—and the cut oozed black liquid.

“Lady Phaidra…” Myrtle stammered, raising a tremulous finger to point at Ink while her other hand rose to her throat. “She—she—”

Drawn by the commotion, several of the kitchen maids and two footmen popped their heads out of the kitchen doorway. Their eyes were wide and round.

In the blink of an eye, Phaidra overcame her own astonishment and recovered. “Someone’s left an inkpot out again,” she said briskly. She patted a still-wailing Ink’s back and struggled to her feet. Her knees ached, but she did not feel it. Right now the only thing registering in her mind was the fact that her baby had been hurt.

“Send someone to fetch Elsa for me, please, Myrtle.” Phaidra dismissed the cook with a flick of her head and continued smoothing one hand down Ink’s back. “There, there, my darling,” she cooed softly. “You’re all right. This is why Mother and Father don’t want you climbing up the stairs all by yourself.”

Black ink continued to drip down the side of Ink’s head. Phaidra wanted to tell herself that Ink had to have been drawing on herself, but the fact that she could faintly make out split skin beneath the ink made her stomach churn. Who has black blood? she thought, a little wildly.

Common sense finally overcame shock. Black blood or no, it won’t clean itself up, said a practical voice inside her mind. The child has had a shock and so have you, but you’ve got to stop the bleeding.

Forcing her shaky legs to support her weight, Phaidra hitched up her skirt with one hand, renewed her hold on Ink with the other, and sailed upstairs to Ink’s bedchamber.

Elsa came rushing around the corner a moment later and practically flew up the stairs after them. “Lady Phaidra!” she gasped. “Is she all right?”

Ink was still wailing.

“I think so,” Phaidra said above the noise. “She’s had a bit of shock and she seems to have hit her head.”

Elsa’s face paled as she got a good look at Ink’s injury—the black liquid dripping down Ink’s face contrasted wonderfully with her skin—but she kept her head. “We must take care of this, milady,” she said, and hurried out to get a basin of water and clean cloths.

Phaidra sank down in a chair in Ink’s chamber, and cradled the little girl to her chest. “You’re all right, my love. No need for tears. You’re quite all right.”

Ink’s wails slowly turned to sobs, and then finally to little hiccups. Phaidra held her still while Elsa helped clean her up. The nurse did her best to maintain a straight face, but the frightened look in her eyes as she cleaned the wound told Phaidra what she herself had feared.

Ink’s blood was black.

Nevertheless, Phaidra forced herself to speak. “Can you tell what it is, Elsa?”

Elsa swallowed heavily. “I—I’m not sure, milady. If it were—if it looked like normal blood, I’d say it is blood, but it’s—” she cut herself off, unwilling to say more.

“But it’s not.” Phaidra held back a sigh. Turning Ink’s face toward her, she examined the cut at the little girl’s hairline. There was no trace of anything remotely resembling red blood around it. Phaidra could not even determine what color the flesh inside the cut was; her black blood—or whatever it was—discolored everything else.

The only thing Phaidra knew for certain was that Ink’s body was somehow producing the black liquid.

Shifting her grip on Ink slightly, Phaidra swiped a fingertip to along the gash and then touched the tip of her tongue. Instead of the familiar metallic taste of blood, she tasted ink. For half a second, she sat frozen in bewilderment. She could not give way to it, however; too much depended on these next few moments.

Straightening, Phaidra met Elsa’s frightened gaze and modulated her voice to sound calm and matter-of-fact. “It’s ink.”

Elsa’s eyes widened comically. “But why—”

“I don’t know.” Phaidra motioned for the nurse to hand her a cloth; as soon as she had it, she pressed it gently to the gash. “We’ve always known Ink is a little… different.”

“Where did she come from, my lady?”

Phaidra shook her head. She was not about to tell Ink’s nurse—no matter how much the girl loved Ink—that a strange man had pulled her from a piece of paper. “A kingdom very far from here.”

Elsa knelt beside the chair and looked somberly at both Phaidra and Ink. “We can’t hide something like this forever, milady.” She watched Ink rub a tiny fist in her puffy, tearstained eyes and something like deep grief settled over her features.

It sent cold chills pirouetting down Phaidra’s spine, and her voice, when she spoke, was sharper than she had intended. “We shan’t shout it to the world, girl, if that’s what you mean.”

“I mean when she grows up, milady. Black ink instead of blood…” Elsa shook her head. “It’s not natural.”

I know, Phaidra thought, her heart aching in her chest. But all she said was, “No matter what, Elsa, she is my daughter. You will do well to keep this to yourself.”

For a second, Elsa’s face whitened as though she had just been slapped. Then she leaned closer to rest a hand on Ink’s back. “On my word, milady, I’ll never do anything to harm this little one.”

A tight knot of grief welled up in Phaidra’s throat, preventing her from speaking. She could only nod and tighten her grip on Ink.

~oOo~

That night, when she was certain they were safely alone, Phaidra told Nicholas what had happened. She showed him the black ink on the cloth they had used on Ink’s head and watched his face pale behind his brown beard.

“Best not let the old hags in the village hear of this,” he growled, pacing back and forth across the length of their bedchamber. Ink lay asleep two rooms over, with Elsa to guard her. “They’d have her branded a witch by midmorning.”

From her seat on their bed, Phaidra watched him pace with worry written all over her face. She clasped her knees to her chest, taking care to avoid touching the spots where she had hit the stairs earlier. “What do we do, Nicholas?”

“Do?” He pivoted to face her. “What can we do, save continue to love her as our own?” He threw his hands into the air. “Yes, if the stranger had told me at the start about this, I might have hesitated to accept her. But…” He dropped his hands, thinking of Ink’s tinkling laughter and the joy her presence had brought to their lives, and looked helplessly at his wife. “She’s our daughter now, Phaidra. I can’t imagine our lives without her.”

“Neither can I,” Phaidra agreed quietly. She opened her arms to her husband and he came, folding his own arms around her in turn. She looked at him, the same question reflected in both their eyes.

With what looked like ink for blood, was their daughter even human?

And if she was not human… what was she?

~oOo~

The discovery that even Ink’s blood was different precipitated a few changes in Phaidra and Nicholas’s plans to raise their daughter. They resolved to keep this new information to as small a group as possible—which meant themselves, Elsa, Guyre (since Nicholas decided it would be unwise to keep it from him), and, unfortunately, Myrtle. They hoped the cook chalked the black blood up to Ink touching her face with inky hands; it should certainly make more sense to her than the alternative.

How to keep Ink from hurting herself again was a different—and more complicated—matter.

Having once been introduced to the outdoors and the flower gardens, not even the threat of sunburn could keep her inside for long. Vegetables thrived under her care, but her real love were flowers. It mattered little what kind; Ink loved them all. She would ooh and ahh over big, bold, vivacious blooms and then drop to her knees to cradle a delicate little blossom in her hands.

Over the next few years, Ink and her mother fought many battles about how much time she spent in the flower gardens. Phaidra always insisted Ink wear gloves and a cloak to shield her from the sun’s rays, and Ink vehemently protested this encumberment until she was old enough to understand the direct correlation between her time outside and the painful sunburns she experienced.

“Maybe you were meant to live under moonlight,” her father teased her.

“Maybe so,” Ink huffed back, wrinkling her nose, “but I’d miss the sunshine.”

Nicholas eventually promised Ink a steady supply of paper and canvas for her sketches if she limited her time out in the sun to the early mornings and late afternoons, when the odds of her being burned were less likely, and if she diligently worked with her mother to learn how to run the Manse.

This was difficult when she was little, since Ink did not always have control over when black ink dripped from her fingertips. But, just as Phaidra had hoped, she did learn how to turn it on and off. This made mundane tasks like mending, sewing, tatting, and other fine arts less likely to be ruined by an inopportune spill of ink.

Realizing Ink’s penchant for bright colors, Phaidra took care to dress her in as colorful an array as they could afford. One of their older servants, a woman who had been in charge of fabric production for most of her life, took a shine to Ink when she saw how interested she was in plants. She taught Ink the different plants used in dyes.

Ink even became a regular—and well-loved—fixture in the village. She made the rounds with her mother, cheerfully—though sometimes shyly—greeting people. The villagers themselves fiercely guarded her; the only people ever allowed to make comments about strange little Lady Ink were they themselves. All outsiders were to be pummeled for such remarks.

In the afternoons, she spent an hour drawing and an hour or two reading everything from the poetry to the history of Traxlin and its surrounding kingdoms. Nicholas oversaw this portion of her education; he was more than content to have his daughter occupy a corner of his study while he and Guyre went over various matters pertaining to the management of Dittforth.

At the beginning, Ink never used a brush, pen, or pencil. She drew with her fingers, sketching lines and curves—sometimes with both hands—across the paper. Ink flowed from her fingertips and, to her parents’ astonishment, modified itself at times to fit whatever she needed, be it thin strokes or fat.

Nicholas put a stop to that, however—or at least he attempted to. He sat Ink down one day and explained to her that from now on, she needed to use a brush or a pen like other people. He demonstrated how to dip a pen into ink and draw with it and Ink copied him, though privately she thought the entire thing was quite silly. What need had she for an inkpot when she could simply achieve the same effect with her fingers?

The day before her twelfth birthday, Ink’s life changed forever.

________________________________________________

Ink Realm: Lady Ink is available at:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo
Smashwords

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