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THE BRAKYS' LAIR CHAPTER ONE

Sloane lingered at the edge of the human camp, her vivid green eyes narrowing as she watched the settlement. She looked like a dark and menacing spectre, standing completely motionless in the shadows of the alien trees that surrounded the site. Not so much as a breeze ruffled her long blonde hair, and her fingers were gripped so tightly onto the sword at her side that her knuckles had turned an unnatural shade of white. She didn’t want to accept the reality of what lay before her, but there was no denying the truth. She hadn’t returned in time.

Her gaze was hard as she watched the camp, and it wasn’t difficult to miss the fiery anger that flashed across her eyes. Her thoughts were as wild as the foreign planet she stood on, and she struggled to control her emotions as she analysed what she was seeing.

It had been nearly two months since Sloane was abducted from this world, and so much had changed while she was gone. The camp that lay before her hadn’t been there when she was taken, but from the state of the settlement it was clear it had been established for several weeks now.

There were hundreds of white dome-shaped tents lining the outer rim of the field. Sunlight radiated blindingly off them and they were glaringly obvious in the light of day, especially against the lush green backdrop of Aeris. Larger communal tents were dotted throughout the centre of the camp, and a handful of buildings in the early stages of construction were dispersed amongst them. Most of the buildings were bare, unfinished wooden skeletons, but it still made Sloane’s heart sink to see how her people had already begun to destroy the tall and ancient forests of Aeris to create their new colony.

The settlement was sprawled from one end of the large clearing to the other. Sloane couldn’t see any lookout posts positioned around the perimeter, and it was obvious the place was in no way fortified for defence. The camp would be overcome quickly if they were attacked. It was as if safety hadn’t even been considered when they’d been setting up the camp. Surely that would change when she told them of the horrors she had discovered.

A hint of uncertainty flittered across Sloane’s eyes, and a small crease formed between her brows as she tried to estimate how many people had already arrived on Aeris. She could see large groups of people working on the buildings and moving about the camp, but it was impossible to guess an exact number. Whatever the population of the camp though, Sloane was certain of one thing: it was too many.

Her stomach sank at the thought, and she tried to ignore the feeling of unease that was building inside her. Judging from the number of tents, there had to be several hundred people in the camp, and each one of them was at risk from the terrible creatures she’d encountered in the world of the Unfaih, Ellysia. The Brakys were vicious, deadly and nearly impossible to kill. All they wanted was to cause violence and chaos. They would like nothing more than to turn each and every human in the camp into evil monsters like themselves and make their army even stronger.

The only way she could protect her people was by forcing them to abandon this world. They would have to leave Aeris and either continue searching for another habitable planet or return to Earth—a world on the brink of collapse. Who would want to leave the beauty of a place like Aeris, for the uncertainty of space or the chocking smog and chaos that waited back on Earth though?

Sloane wanted to groan at the task that lay before her. Persuading people with her words had never been something she was good at. She was much better at throwing a dagger at her problems, and that certainly wasn’t going to help today.

‘Coming, Sloane?’ Dean asked, pausing a few paces ahead to look back at her. He cupped a hand to his forehead to shade his eyes as he waited for her response. She could see so many questions lurking beneath his friendly gaze, and she was surprised to find he actually appeared relieved that she had returned safely.

She hesitated as she stared back at him. Part of her felt like she should just run back to the rift and return to the Unfaih. She had known it was going to be difficult to convince her people to leave the planet, but it would be almost impossible now that so many of them had arrived. The fact that her father was in charge of the settlement only made matters worse. He was the last person she wanted to see. The man was even more stubborn than she was, and it would be a struggle to make him listen to her, but she had to at least try.

Giving up wasn’t in Sloane’s nature. The people in the camp were all completely defenceless against the Brakys and wouldn’t stand a chance if the creatures found their way to the camp. If they turned the humans into monsters and added to their army, the Brakys would then be too powerful for Rhyn and the Unfaih. She had to go through with the task she had set herself. All of their futures depended on it.

Sloane gave Dean a small nod and stepped out from the shady protection of the woods and into the sunlight. She looked back just once before she followed him, allowing her gaze to scan across the woods behind her for any sign that Rhyn might still be there. He had disappeared the moment Dean had stumbled upon them in the woods, and she hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye.

She wondered what might have happened if they had been given even just one more minute together. Sloane had never been great with goodbyes, but she felt the loss of this farewell keenly and her stomach dipped as she thought of Rhyn. A hint of sadness flickered through her eyes as she realised the woods were empty and the Unfaih warrior was really gone.

She turned from the trees, pushing away any stray feelings that had gotten loose. She began to follow Dean past the many tree stumps that surrounded the expanding camp, her hand resting on the pommel of her sword as she walked. She didn’t feel like she was returning home as she approached the camp. Instead Sloane felt like she was being led into a large cage that was crowded with hungry wolves.

No one would be happy to hear of her return, and she was going to have to face the many problems she’d caused before she left. Her father wouldn’t easily forgive her for sneaking aboard the drop pod to Aeris and interfering with the first response team’s mission, but there wasn’t time for things as petty as forgiveness. Not when she had such a critical warning for him.

Sloane wiped the back of her hand against her brow and squinted her eyes up at the two suns overhead. Their heat radiated unforgivingly down upon her from above. It had been a while since she’d felt such high temperatures, and she was sweltering now that she was no longer under the cool shade of the trees.

She pulled the thick cloak from her shoulders to hold in one hand. Rhyn’s mother Orelle had given it to her for protection against the brutal cold of Ellysia, but the climate in Aeris couldn’t have been more different. Despite removing the cloak, sweat continued to drip from Sloane’s forehead. She had spent so long surrounded by freezing snow and ice that a pleasant day on Aeris made her feel like she was walking across the hot sands of a desert. She never thought she’d miss the frozen world she’d been confined to over the last two months, but a part of her already longed to return to it.

‘You really won’t tell me where you’ve been?’ Dean asked.

She slowly shook her head. ‘I need to let the Captain know first.’

He nodded, but she could see him watching her closely, studying every part of her, from the clothes on her back to the sword at her side. ‘You’ve lost some weight,’ he said. ‘But you still look healthy. Your clothes are too heavy for this climate and you look too clean to have been stuck out in the woods. It must be some story.’

Sloane frowned and looked away from him. He was too observant, and although he had grown quiet she could tell Dean was still watching her, silently analysing her for clues about where she had been all this time. He could watch her all he wanted; she wasn’t going to tell him the truth just yet.

As they approached the settlement, the air became filled with the sounds of hammers banging, the buzzing of drills, the distinct rubbing noise of saws scraping against wood, and men shouting instructions to one another. The beautiful silence Sloane had experienced when she first arrived on Aeris was completely gone, replaced by the bustling noises of construction. Sloane exhaled and scuffed her boot over the trampled, dying grass. This place would never be the same again.

‘There are so many people here,’ she said to Dean, as they passed several tents and came to the first wooden structure. About twenty men were busy working on erecting the bare bones of the building, and she could see even more people working on the other buildings in the distance.

Dean followed her gaze to the men they were passing. ‘You’ve been gone for almost two months; it shouldn’t be surprising really. We were able to re-establish communication with the Explorer the day you disappeared, and they started sending people to Aeris almost immediately,’ he said. ‘Other ships started arriving only a few weeks after that. People need to leave Earth as soon as possible. We expect to be a thousand strong by the end of the week.’

‘A thousand?’ Sloane exclaimed.

Dean smiled at her surprise. He didn’t realise that the shock in Sloane’s voice wasn’t because she was impressed; it was because she was worried. If the Brakys were able to poison one thousand humans and change them into ruthless, evil creatures like themselves, they would completely decimate the Unfaih. Not to mention the fact that one thousand innocent people would be condemned to eternal lives as bloodthirsty monsters.

‘My sister?’ she asked. ‘Did she come with the others?’ Sloane found herself glancing around the camp, her eyes instinctively seeking Rowe’s white blonde hair. A part of her felt like she could almost sense that her twin was close by, but she desperately hoped the tugging feeling in her gut was wrong. She wanted Rowe as far away as possible from this planet and the danger that loomed over the camp.

Dean nodded and Sloane’s stomach plummeted in response. ‘She’s been here for several weeks now, though she rarely comes out of her tent,’ he said.

She wanted to ask him how Rowe was, but she stayed silent. She was already worried enough just knowing her sister was on Aeris. She shook her head slightly and huffed out a frustrated breath as she pushed down any concern she might feel. Her emotions were causing her heart to flutter and her mind to become unfocused. She couldn’t be preoccupied when she reached her father. As much as she hated to admit it, Rowe was a major distraction.

‘You’ll be pleased to know Perry is fine,’ Dean continued, sneaking a glance at Sloane to gauge her reaction.

She merely shrugged in response. Her mind was too busy reeling over the magnitude of trouble they were in and trying to ignore the intense anxiety she felt over her sister’s presence on Aeris. Perry was the least of her worries. She may have shoved him in a cryochamber, and risked potentially killing him, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the only way for her to get to Aeris, so she didn’t exactly regret it.

Dean frowned at her reaction. ‘Wilson has also had surgery and is recovering,’ he continued. ‘He’s got some function back in his legs, but we’re not sure if he’ll ever walk the same again.’

Dean continued to watch her, waiting for a reaction. It was like he wanted to see that she cared. She did, sort of. She had saved Wilson’s life when their pod crashed on Aeris, but now really wasn’t the time to be reminiscing. She didn’t want to talk about Perry or about Wilson. Not when they would all be dead if she didn’t convince the Captain to order an evacuation.

‘Are we far from the Captain?’ she asked.

Dean’s shoulders slouched with disappointment. ‘No. He’ll be in his command tent, which isn’t much further from here.’

He turned from her and stayed silent for the rest of the walk. His stance was rigid and she knew she’d upset him. He clearly still felt the same watchfulness over her that he had when he was her teacher back at the Academy. But she didn’t need a teacher anymore, and she certainly didn’t need a guardian. She didn’t particularly like that he was disappointed in her, but he would understand eventually.

Dean slowed as they approached one of the larger tents. It was near the centre of the camp and there was a large clearing around its perimeter, setting it apart from all the other tents that surrounded it. Sloane knew her father would be inside.

Dean paused and took Sloane by the shoulder, pulling her gaze from the tent.

‘I know you may not feel any remorse for the things that you did before you went missing, but if you don’t at least pretend in there,’ he inclined his head at the tent, ‘I hate to think of what he’ll do to you.’

She sighed and allowed the mask of indifference on her face to drop for a moment. ‘I do care, Dean. But we’ve got bigger things to worry about now. Everyone here is in danger, and I need to warn the Captain before it’s too late. Though you may not believe it, the problems I caused for everyone before I left just aren’t that important anymore.’

Sloane turned from him and approached the entrance to the tent before he could probe her further. With her fingers reached out towards the canvas flap, she paused for a second and took a deep breath in. As she slowly blew it out, she pushed down any anxious feelings she could sense bubbling up inside her. She locked them tightly away and allowed her thoughts to become dispassionate and calculating. There was no way she could face the Captain if she entered the tent as anything less than detached.

It only took her a moment to return to the calm state she always felt when she was fighting. Feeling stronger and more certain of herself, she pulled back the flap from across the mouth of the tent and stepped inside.