Fury crouched beside the rock face, the familiar heat beating down on her. She couldn’t help the sigh which escaped. She stood in an area that was completely shaded and it was still almost unbearable. For two sun cycles a day, Crais experienced an eclipse. This was the only time the tribe’s people could leave the caves.
Fury was weaker than they were for some reason, and could only be above ground for one cycle. This rendered her almost useless during the search for food, but still she persisted, hoping the forced exposure would increase her ability to withstand the heat. Plus she went insane being stuck underground all the time.
As she scanned the ground, her eyes squinting against the red glow reflecting off the dead surfaces, she couldn’t see any animals close by. She shifted her stance so her back was against the black rock, but she misjudged the sunlight and her arm grazed the edge.
Ouch. The sizzle was her first indication of a burn, followed by a sharp sting. The pain started quickly, but faded away as she healed. She’d always been a fast healer – luckily – since she burnt at first touch of the scorching Crais suns’ light, even during the eclipse. She took a deep breath, though she didn’t know why she bothered; there was about five percent oxygen above ground, and most of the air was carbon monoxide vapors. The inhabitants had adapted to survive, but it wasn’t pleasant. Fury thought it tasted a lot like ash.
Following the shaded rock face, Fury ducked from one overhanging crevice to the next. The land surrounding her was barren Red cracked rock spanned as far as the eye could see. On the surface Crais was a dead planet. Its two suns beat down with an intense heat that very few could survive. Except for two cycles a day when the larger, but weaker sun, Draini, would eclipse the smaller, Jarune. These cycles allowed her people to walk on the surface to hunt larger game. Otherwise they existed only on the animals and vegetation that survived in their underground cavern of tunnels and chambers.
A loud screech echoed directly above her. Fury dropped as adrenalin flooded her system. Oh, hell! She was in big trouble now; that sounded like a Dragoona. The large scaled creatures were the rulers of this land and, unlike the tribes, had evolved to withstand the heat. Their food was directly linked to the sun’s rays, so the lack of water and green nourishment did not weaken them. It took a large group of Crais hunters to kill a Dragoona and on these rare occasions the tribes ate well for months.
But Fury didn’t have a hope.
They not only had the strength of a hundred men, but were well armored with large spiny-tipped scales. They could fly and breathe fire. She, on the other hand, could do none of those things, and could not even step out from her shady prison. If the Dragoona noticed her, her best hope was that it left her alone and didn’t decide she was worth pursuing for trespassing on its territory.
She shifted again, dispelling the small stones that were littered around her feet. Today was one of those days she should have just stayed underground with the other females.
Another screech sounded. It was closer than before and Fury knew her luck was about to run out. The first indication that she’d been spotted was the large gusts of hot, dry wind blowing her white hair off her face. There was no breeze on Crais, so that could only be from the thrusts of powerful wings.
The Dragoona dropped over the cliff face and with its four taloned legs extended it descended toward Fury. She hit the scorching dirt, her arm and bare shoulder brushing the sunlight again with another painful hiss, but she had no time to worry about that right now. Dragging herself backwards, she headed for the tiny fissure that was about ten feet from her current position.
She’d moved just in time.
The Dragoona’s heavy body thumped into the spot she’d just vacated, ripping out large chunks of the solid rock in its attempt to grab her. Regrouping, it was now circling around to come in for another attack. Fury continued her scurry along the scorching cliff edge before finally reaching the crevice.
She dived inside.
The Dragoona would still know she was there, but it was too large to fit its talons inside. She hoped it didn’t think to use fire power, because then she was a goner.
It descended again, fast and torpedo-like, its screech almost deafening. Powerful legs tipped with large talons clawed at the rocks around her. This Dragoona had an almost iridescent green sheen to its scales and she was mesmerized by the unusual color, forgetting for a moment that the beauty she beheld was trying to kill her.
But colors were so rare.
On Crais everything was the shade of burning and death: red and black. The other main shade was the white hair of the nomad tribes, from where Fury’s mother was born.
The Dragoona had not given up. It continued to gouge away at the wall surrounding her, as if it knew that was the only barrier keeping her safe. One thing was certain; there were definite gleams of intelligence in its large yellow eyes. She could feel hot gusts of breath and smoke on her face as the creature labored away.
On top of that, the burning heat surrounding her seemed to rise a few more degrees as she stood there, and Fury knew she was in trouble.
She had maybe twenty more beats before the sun eclipse ended and, even standing in the shade, she’d become a desiccated husk. It took mere moments for the intense heat to dry flesh and bones, until they flaked away and were no more. Having seen this process on men who hadn’t made it back to the tunnels in time, her panic rose.
“Latierna ... cease.” The words echoed around her.
She closed her eyes as unfamiliar sensations rocked her body. She recognized the words and accent from their visits below and it looked like today she was about to see not only her first live Dragoona, but also a nomad wanderer. Curiosity and fear warred within her but eventually she couldn’t resist and opened her eyes.
The beast had moved back a few strides and was settled on its haunches, jagged talons resting between its rear legs. The nomad stood beside it, both of them in the direct sunlight.
“What are you doing out of the caves?” The words were in the same language as her own, but spoken stiltedly.
Fury straightened and without thought devoured the nomad before her. Well, devoured him with her eyes at least. In twenty life years she had never had an ounce of attraction to the Crais men she shared a home with. But this nomad was beyond her wildest dreams.
Unlike the dark, almost iridescent black skin of the tribe she resided with, his flesh was a burnt red, and there was an incredible white sheen covering it, giving him a glow. And like her he had pure white hair; short, though, which was unusual. He was taller than she was by a few inches and his face was all broad planes and solid features. A large, defined nose settled into heavily browed eyes. He painted the most devastatingly attractive picture. His gray eyes were locked on her. And he stood in the sun without discomfort or burning.
“You must return, Fury. You do not have much more time.”
She swallowed loudly and as he turned to leave she called out.
He paused, the Dragoona that had started to follow him also slowing, but he didn’t turn back.
“Who are you?”
He knew her name, but that wasn’t what intrigued her. Her mother had been a famous nomad. No, what she needed to know was why ... why she was so drawn to him?
“I am Dune,” he said, and then with a crouch he leaped onto the back of the Dragoona and with a few powerful flaps of its wings they were gone.
Fury pressed a hand to her rapidly beating heart. She’d had to physically stop herself from racing out to her death in the sunlight. The heat increased again, and she almost dropped from the sudden rushing of fluid through her system. The sun was draining her; she had to get back to the caves.
She had only minutes.
Crawling, because that was all the strength she had left, she pulled herself closer to the crevice which concealed the start of the tunnels. Luckily she hadn’t walked far that day, it would be close, but she should make it into the caves in time. The pain of each movement increased, but finally she tumbled into the opening. It was still hot near the entrance, but the immediate decrease in heat gave her a brief respite.
She dragged herself to the first of the markers, allowing the water that dripped along the rocks to coat her and replenish her lost fluid. Finally she could stand and she started the long descent down to her tribe.
The next eclipse Fury stood in the same position. She was trying to convince herself that she was out there to find food, that today was the day she would contribute to the underground tribes. Of course that would require an animal to just wander into her small patch of shade, since she couldn’t step into the sun.
She shook her head. Who was she kidding? ... She was waiting for him. The insatiable need she’d had to find him had kept her pacing the dark halls of her small chamber all night. Not that she ever needed much sleep.
“He will come.” She spoke out loud. “He must have felt the same draw.”
But as her time ticked away and the two suns moved across each other, slowly increasing the heat, there was no gorgeous nomad in sight. When her time was almost up, she had no choice but to work her way back along the shaded rock. Reaching the crevice, she turned for one last look and her heart stopped. He was standing on a rocky crevice many leagues from her. Alone. The sun surrounding him like the red halo of death.
Had he been there all along and she’d not noticed?
Fury jumped at the sizzling sound of her eyes leaking and the droplets hitting the ground. They dissolved before they could mark the red dirt with a wet patch. She couldn’t afford to lose fluid while above ground, so she stepped backwards, never tearing her eyes from Dune. Finally the shade encased her and the rocky outside disappeared from view. The flow of eye water eventually stopped, although she stayed near the water wall, letting her body be replenished.
She was the only one on Crais to ever have the eye droplets. It was very inconvenient that they appeared when she was at her most emotional; it was hard to pretend she was okay.
“You must stop looking for me.”
Fury spun at his words. And before she could stop her feet she’d launched herself straight into his arms. He was hot to touch, not like he would burn her, but like a warm water spring. And he smelt delicious, like woodsy smoke. Which was impossible; there were no trees above ground to burn. She had taken him by surprise but he didn’t drop her. Instead he drew her toward him, and encased her bodily in a full embrace.
“Please don’t leave me again.” The begging words fell from her mouth and, although she meant every one, she was a little mortified.
“The nomads want you, tresorina. You must not let them know where you are. I have protected your mother’s secret for twenty sun years. I will not let them have you now.” Dune spoke into her shoulder, where he’d buried his head. Suddenly he set her down and stepped away.
Although it was always hot on Crais, Fury felt a chill from his absence.
“I don’t understand.” She didn’t step toward him again, but it took all of her will-power. “You knew my mother?”
“She asked me to hide you away. And I have made sure that her last wish was fulfilled.”
“Why do the nomads want me?” Were there enough of them left to pose a threat?
“Just stay in the caves, Fury. You will be safe. And do not use your powers. The fire is a beacon for our kind,” Dune said, his voice low.
And then with one last look he turned and was gone from the caves, from her life, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
Later that day an exasperated exclamation drew her from a daydream. She was sitting at the long stone bench which served her small tribe as a dining table, the remains of dinner scattered around. Small whole cooked lizards were the first to be eaten; all that was left were their tiny frail bones. But she’d barely touched the second course, leafy stew.
“Can I finish your greens?” Her closest friend Luiz asked.
He was one of those people who just never seemed to be full. And he particularly loved the green stew made from the plant life in the underground grotto. The nutrients were so important for their health. And since there was a strict no-wasting rule, and all foods were tightly rationed, Luiz lived for the days when Fury wasn’t hungry.
“Yeah, sure go ahead.” She pushed the stone bowl toward him.
He grabbed it and bent his head to slurp at the contents.
Fury smiled and returned to her thoughts. She couldn’t stop thinking about Dune’s words. While the attraction she felt to him was unnatural, it was the powers he had mentioned that really had her wondering. How did he even know about them? She’d used them just once – and had no idea how or why – and had never tried again.
It had happened during an altercation with a girl from another tribe, when they’d all met up for the annual travels to the healing spring. Luckily no one had been standing close by, because for a split second Fury had burst into flames, her entire body encased in a blue fire which burned hotter than any she’d known.
And then it was gone, and she had not one mark on her.
Since that day she had tempered herself and her moods, always afraid her anger would bring a return of the flames.
And now Dune was telling her these powers were a fire signal for the crazy nomads. Great.
She was distracted as her tribe started to stir. She watched them move around the darkened hall. While Fury had a creamy red skin and long white hair, courtesy of her mixed nomad heritage, the tribes’ people were hairless with a skin so black she often lost sight of them as they moved amongst the shadows of the cavern.
She envied them their camouflage and protection against the suns.
She stood too, knowing there would be no after-meal entertainment tonight. In six sun hours from then they would all set out on the annual journey to the big springs. Fury couldn’t believe it was time again. But it was an important occasion for barter and exchange, and to bathe in the rejuvenating springs. Her reluctance to attend this year could only be because of Dune. She hated the thought that every step she took was leading her further away from him. Away from the very person who might have answers about her mother, her powers and how Fury came to be the very first half-breed on Crais.
The journey took them twenty eclipses of the sun. They marched and camped in the caves, and by the time they arrived at the springs Fury couldn’t wait to shake off the weariness of the trip.
The first activity upon arrival was for everyone to immerse themselves in the springs. Generally the tribes of Crais wore simple dry leaf belts and cocoons to cover themselves. But nobody bothered with such niceties in the springs. It was not about attraction, but rejuvenation and retrieval of the inner self that could be lost in the fiery world of Crais.
Fury lay in the warm water, a rock wall at her back and the spring stretching before her into the distance. They were at the deepest underground point of Crais where it was very dark, no light penetrating except for the centrepods that scattered the walls. The algae-like creatures cast small spheres of illumination.
Fury let the peace sweep through her, allowed her mind to expand and soar, to seek all that was denied it during the tough days under the suns.
No one spoke or interacted. Even Luiz was quiet beside her, which was unusual for her chatty best friend. The peace worked to keep the worry at bay for what the next day might bring.
Fury was not looking forward to the first meeting of the ten tribes. Drama wasn’t even close to describing the chaos.
Let’s hope my flames don’t come out to play this time.
Shouting echoed around the cavernous halls. The tribe leaders were discussing plans for dealing with the nomad wanderers. For many sun eclipses the tribes and nomads had had an amicable yet distant relationship. But from the moment the nomads had taken the first of the tribes’ women, war had been declared. Females had been sequestered to the underground caverns, no longer allowed to step above ground.
But still they disappeared.
“How is it that no one knows the reasons for the abductions?” an angry female voice shouted from the middle of the group. “If we had this information, we could be better prepared.”
“The nomads know we only have the eclipse to leave the caves. They’ve made a point to disappear during this period.” Jordan, the high priest, spoke. “And they not only disappear, they manage to sneak in and steal our women while we hunt.”
For the first time since her last fire experience a true anger coursed through Fury. Her blood was starting to boil; she tried desperately to blank her mind.
Luiz gripped her hand, his presence sending calming tendrils through her. It wouldn’t help anyone if she burst into flames during this session. She didn’t know the women who had disappeared – her tribe had been spared so far – but that wasn’t really the point.
Women were the slightly more vulnerable sex. Smarter, in her opinion, but vulnerable. Especially if these nomad men were planning on including rape in with abduction. No person should ever have to experience that type of degradation. It was an unforgivable sin and one they would pay for. She was determined that this end soon.
“Jordan!” The shriek echoed around the cavern, drawing the attention of all. “She’s gone ... they took her.”
A woman burst into view from one of the side entrances which led to the grotto. She tripped in front of the ornately clad priest. In one quick movement Jordan reached down and pulled the woman to her feet.
“Who, Mari-gold? Who is gone?” He sounded calm, although it still came out as a biting command.
Mari-gold was Jordan’s sister. Her black skin shone as she continued to shriek in a senseless manner.
“Excuse me.” Jordan addressed the tribes before he scooped his sister up and strode away.
They watched as he stepped into the water, and carried Mari-gold to the other side.
Murmurs spread through the tribes until the words finally reached Fury and Luiz. Some of the blessed women who tended the sacred grotto had been taken during this very session. Right out from under every tribe on Crais.
“They couldn’t have sent a clearer message; they do not fear us even in large numbers.” Luiz’s eyes were wide as he clutched at Fury’s arm.
“It could be that,” she acknowledged. “But what if it’s something even scarier? What if they’re getting desperate enough to take big risks?” She watched as chaos unraveled around them.
Men were trying to shepherd their women to safety, whilst the women were sharpening their daggers, prepared to search for their brethren. They tended to take offence to forced abductions.
“If that’s true, something tells me things are going to get worse, so much worse.” Worry lined Luiz’s eyes.
Fury could already see the battle looming on the horizon, and she couldn’t even use her flames to help. Not against the nomads. Dune’s warning was still fresh in her mind.
The session ended early that day when Jordan did not return from the other side. The four high priests and their mates lived here in the sacred area. They were the only ones permitted. There were no positions on Crais of higher reverence than theirs. All were voted in by all inhabitants of the tribes, and it was a position for life. They were only replaced after the death of one of the four.
Below them in ranking was the ruling panel of elders from each tribe. Fury had always had great respect for how this was decided; it was simply the five oldest living tribe’s people. Regardless of what family you were from, respect was paid to those with life experience. And anything that could not be resolved internally was brought to the high priests. They were also the ones to perform mating ceremonies, control the prayers to the sun gods and run these annual meet-ups. So with them sequestered on the other side there would be no further session that day.
Fury was with her tribe. They’d just finished their second meal and her restless energy was in overdrive. She paced in front of her sleep chamber. The others who were in the same area must have been wondering what was wrong with her. She had to step in and out of the doorway as different tribe members ventured in and out of their room, taking advantage of the early session. This was a prime time to find a mate, so socializing was high on their priority list. Not Fury’s, though.
“We cannot sit here and wait for those nomads to pick us off one by one.” Angry words spilled from her lips. “We have to act.”
She’d known of the abductions before, but never had it struck her so deeply. And she felt betrayed by Dune, although she had no proof that he was involved. Considering her tribe had never lost anyone, he probably wasn’t. But he was a nomad.
“What do you suggest we do?” Tasha said. After Luiz, Tasha was Fury’s next closest friend. “How can we save them? You’re from the nomads. Do you know anything which might give us an advantage?”
“I wish,” Fury bit out. “The only thing my half-nomad status has given me is white hair and an increased weakness in the sun.”
A visiting female leaned forward to whisper, “I heard that Jordan knows which of the caves the nomads’ leader uses around here. And he believed this was where the women were being held.”
“What?” Fury almost shrieked. “Why hasn’t he done anything to find them then?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I did manage to overhear the discussion about the location.”
“Tell me,” Fury demanded, before softening her approach. “Please, I need to be able to do something.”
“You can’t walk in the suns, Fury, even during the eclipse. Don’t kill yourself on a fool’s errand.” Tasha spoke to her again.
“I’ll use the Craisly leaf. Now tell me.”
No one questioned Fury again, or asked how she would procure the most precious and revered plant on Crais. Craisly possessed a large leaf that worked as a partial barrier against the suns.
Instead they all gathered close, listening as the female described the large mountains to the south of them. Fury knew exactly where they were. She’d made a point throughout her life to closely study the hand-painted maps of Crais on the underground walls.
And at the next suns’ eclipse she was going after the nomads.
Forget Dune and his cryptic warnings, she was done with hiding. She would use her flame and if they had hurt the tribes’ women she would destroy them. Old Fury was gone, the one who hid and ran from life.
She knew the reason for her flames: she was the protector.