Burning Space - Mitzi C - ebook

Burning Space ebook

Mitzi C

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A NEW ORDER IS RISING... Kandi failed to protect Earth, Juan, and her true name. Now she serves under the control of TIME, who wishes to manipulate all mortals into serving him, thereby granting him the power to conquer worlds without end. Juan is a Hero in some circles and a traitor in others. For over a decade he has been a slave on an alien world, and he has lost any drop of hope he had left after the demolition of Earth. It is not until the announcement of a new Monarch who shall reunite the last Six Worlds that a spark of hope returns within him. When LEISIL, the new goddess of Appetite, chooses him as her Mate, the spark is once again snuffed from existence, and it is all he can do to simply survive day to day. The galaxy is in peril, and only Kandi and Juan together can save it. Unfortunately, every immortal being is working tirelessly to pull them farther apart. It is only a matter of time before DARKNESS, an entity which grows parallel to the willful depravity of souls, consumes the very source of light in the cosmos. Will Kandi be able to break the bonds of Time and save all mortal souls? And will Juan be able to muster hope in an ever-darkening world?

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Mitzi C

Burning Space

The Edinön Trilogy: Book 3

This book is dedicated to Mom, Dad, Grandpa Worrell, aliens, the great men and women who have sacrificed their lives for freedom in the United States, and butterflies.BookRix GmbH & Co. KG80331 Munich

Copyright

Burning Space

MITZI C

© 2018 Mitzi C

http://mrcbooks.blog/

All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Published by Kindle | Direct Publishing https://kdp.amazon.com/

Cover Art by Damonza https://damonza.com/

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This book is dedicated to Mom, Dad, Grandpa Worrell, aliens, the great men and women who have sacrificed their lives for freedom in the United States, and butterflies.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real events or real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

A NEW ORDER IS RISING...

KANDI failed to protect Earth, Juan, and her true name. Now she serves under the control of TIME, who wishes to manipulate all mortals into serving him, thereby granting him the power to conquer worlds without end.

JUAN is a Hero in some circles and a traitor in others. For over a decade he has been a slave on an alien world, and he has lost any drop of hope he had left after the demolition of Earth. It is not until the announcement of a new Monarch who shall reunite the last Six Worlds that a spark of hope returns within him. When LEISIL, the new goddess of Appetite, chooses him as her Mate, the spark is once again snuffed from existence, and it is all he can do to simply survive day to day.

The galaxy is in peril, and only Kandi and Juan together can save it. Unfortunately, every immortal being is working tirelessly to pull them farther apart. It is only a matter of time before DARKNESS, an entity which grows parallel to the willful depravity of souls, consumes the very source of light in the cosmos.

Will Kandi be able to break the bonds of Time and save all mortal souls? And will Juan be able to muster hope in an ever-darkening world?

Prologue

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUEPywan: The First Sacrifice

 

1000 Earth years before Kanídia

“Is it done, then?” Pywan rose from the edge of a crystal fountain to meet Deinor, who approached her from her chamber’s primary archway, clad in a simple, multilayered black robe with emerald embroidery. He smiled and dipped his head.

“Preparations have been made for our departure.” He extended his arm. She took it and followed him through a gossamer curtain to her bed. They sat upon its edge. Pywan, the goddess of Hope, looked into the gleaming green eyes of Death.

“No second thoughts?” she teased, though there was a hint of doubt in her voice incited by Deinor’s own creeping hesitation.

“No... No,” Deinor murmured as he took her hands and skimmed his thumbs across them. Pywan felt his devotion and sighed. “I can feel its spark, Pywan.” He breathed in. “It is already so strong.”

She looked down at her slightly protruding belly and tilted her head. “I felt her the moment she was conceived.” Her eyes grew moist. She released Deinor’s hands and stood.

Deinor clasped her arm. “She?”

“Our daughter shall align the seven worlds and restore order to the galaxy. It is time, Deinor. Come with me.”

 

Navigating the world between mortality and immortality was near impossible under Time’s control. Deinor’s and Pywan’s combined power prevented them from falling into an endless, unproductive time loop. Their motivations differed, but they were united in objective: hijack Time’s ship and destroy his fleet.

One of Time’s soldiers appeared behind them. Deinor sensed him long before Pywan was aware of the soldier’s presence and killed him with a glance over his shoulder. They continued up the Life Stream to Time’s space fleet. Below they could observe the planet Bynivul in her smoldering glory, surrounded by flashing lights and glittering stars. If Pywan was more susceptible to pain or sadness, she would be overwhelmed considering the state in which they were leaving their planet. However, all she could see was what Bynivul could become: a blossoming civilization and celestial masterpiece. Her inhabitants would not suffer forever. Pywan knew her plan would succeed.

Time’s fleet was the largest of all the Immortals’ and consisted of over 50,000 ships, which equated to approximately 50 million soldiers, all of which Deinor and Pywan would have to destroy if they were to fly to Vuen. Pywan knew they could not accomplish this on their own. Even Ledyn’s contribution would not push this plan forward. Deinor would have to make a sacrifice... a sacrifice which Pywan was not prepared to witness, but for the sake of Bynivul and the Universe would have to. She hadn’t yet broken this news to Deinor.

They finally made it to the head ship and paused at the gel-like entrance. Deinor had been reading her thoughts and tilted his head. “You want to destroy Time’s entire fleet?”

“We must.” Pywan insisted. “And destroy Time.”

“You know his son will take his place and pursue us.”

“Yes.” She bowed her head. “And we cannot accomplish this alone.”

Deinor blasted the ship rotating to attack them. It erupted in eternal emerald flame. “You want me to summon my Ancestor.”

“He will help us get to Vuen.”

“You are essentially asking that I sell my soul for a planet I was ordered to destroy.”

Pywan smiled and touched his smooth jaw. “But if we fail....”

Deinor’s vivid green eyes bore into hers. He gently removed her hand from his face and secured her arms to her sides. “Whom shall I sacrifice?”

“I selected two willing souls with no ties to Bynivul.” She snapped her fingers, and the mortals appeared, dressed in dark green. One adult female hybrid with dark skin, black eyes, and sleek black hair and a young female Edinön whose entire family was slaughtered in the War. Their smiles fell when their eyes cast upward to Deinor, the head of the Death Bloodline. The child’s eyes were large, round, and brown, gleaming with tears of admiration and resignation.

Deinor waved his hand, and a ceremonial blade appeared in his grasp. Pywan’s first instinct was to turn her back, but a witness was required. She forced herself to watch Deinor slash the girl in the throat and slam the knife directly into the hybrid’s heart. She watched their spirits exit their vessels and fade away. She realized her hands were shaking and clutched them to her chest.

Deinor uttered the Prayer of Summoning and ordered the blood pooling on the ground to float and coalesce into the shape of a man.

Pywan sensed commotion and released a circle of electricity that expanded into a defensive shield. A loud pop followed by 10 seconds of impenetrable silence preceded the appearance of Time, the King of the Adönen. Clad in shimmering robes of ebony and silver, Time was an imposing figure. Even Deinor, the Prince of the Adönen, did not stand a chance alone.

“Death and Hope have failed me,” Time boomed. “They have betrayed their kind and the planet they swore to protect. Their time has ended.”

The blood between Pywan and Deinor solidified and began to glow. The light grew and ignited a green flame that consumed the form entirely. Deinor stepped forward to stand beside the Mother of Hope.

Ledyn, God of Appetite, materialized on the Life Stream and released the first blast of energy toward Time and his soldiers to no effect. Deinor and Pywan utilized the distraction to bind Time’s wrists in threads of golden light.

Iden ran behind Ledyn and burst through the invisible entrance of the ship before the battle commenced. Ledyn shielded the door so none of the soldiers could follow, then destroyed them in a single sweep of her arm. Time broke through the bonds and sent her to another dimension.

The First Death answered the summoning with an ear-shattering explosion that rocked the Stream connecting the mortal dimension to their own. The stars flickered out, and the entire fleet ceased to emit light. They were consumed in pure darkness.

“The end of Time is coming,” Denboïrn prophesied. “A new Order will replace the Old.”

“Impossible,” Time growled. Pywan heard a snap, and the ships’ silver auras returned to shed light upon them. “Time will always exist. Mortals could not exist without it. Without Time, there could be no Death.” He glared at Deinor. Pywan didn’t think his jaw could appear any sharper than it did in this light.

She knew that if their plan was to ultimately succeed, Deinor’s final sacrifice would have to be himself. She wondered if he realized it, too. There could be no Death.

***

 

CHAPTER 1

Juan: The Hero

 

~15 years after the destruction of Earth

The Day of Combat (ENTO)

Ento always knew the human hybrid was more than he appeared. Despite his relatively small size and unusual skin tone, Juan (or as many call him, Aun, since his name is difficult to pronounce) is a force to be reckoned with. Ento was the first to reckon with said force when he met him in Jarbakül, the Slaver’s Capital on Bynivul. It was Juan’s first day on new soil.

He looked blearily at his unfamiliar surroundings. The transporter hovered past the trees behind him, blowing his black hair and summoning more moisture to his eyes. He was dressed in common human-wear that drew attention to his skinny legs and left the neck completely bare. The boy appeared unable to breathe. Ento walked across the flat, paved courtyard to shake the human from his stupor. The humans behind the boy backed away in fear, while Juan remained still, carefully absorbing the environment. As the boy watched the transport zip out of sight, Ento noticed the mark on his throat. He has been cleansed, Ento thought, puzzled. This was the first human he had encountered to have undergone the ritual. It was a grisly process that involved slicing the victim’s throat, draining him of all his blood, praying over the blood to “purify” it, and transferring it back into his system. It was a procedure required for all potential Mates to endure. The gods could not mate with any mortal, after all.

Why was Juan chosen for cleansing?

The courtyard was soon bustling with slave traders and Lords anxious to take their pick of the new meat. This shipment was all human, mostly adult males. One adolescent female was already stolen away by a trader affiliated with a cult known for its unhealthy obsession with the Deioïn Bloodline. The female screamed as she was carried off into the towering marble structure at the opposite edge of the clearing. Like the other new slaves, she was to be tagged, bathed, groomed, fed, and evaluated by the Lords. Once evaluated, a price would be branded into her arm, and she would be kept within the Slave Tower until purchased and shipped to another center of trade.

Ento knew Juan would be singled out in seconds, so he made sure he nabbed him first. The boy was not like the others. He was cleansed, he was sturdy, and his eyes matched the Appetite Bloodline, which led Ento to think he might be a notable figure to humans... Perhaps a prince. He would be expensive.

Ento grabbed the human’s arm and pulled him toward the tower. He wasn’t surprised when the boy resisted. He was surprised, however, by the strength of the resistance.

Ento looked down at the human. There was pain in his eyes. Real, raw, unadulterated pain. It dawned on Ento that Juan would not willingly follow him.

“I will not hurt you,” Ento promised, tugging the boy’s arm again.

Before he could anticipate anything, Ento was on the ground, the wind knocked out of him.

The human said something in his native tongue and knocked another trader on his back. Other traders gathered to take the human, some with electric rods. Ento feared the boy would be harmed beyond repair, which would knock his price down a notch, so he quickly rose from the ground and rushed between the traders and the human, arms spread. “Do not harm him!”

“You have no claim on the human, Ento,” a trader by the name of Rüt said, pointing his rod at the slave.

“His value will decrease if a single hair is singed, Rüt,” Ento argued.

Suddenly, Rüt lost his electric rod and fell to the ground. The human stood above him, cracking the rod over his knee. He looked crazed now, poised for a fight, and Ento knew the boy was more than human. Humans were generally slower and weaker than Edinön, whereas this particular specimen moved faster than his eyes could track and managed to break an advanced piece of machinery in half with his bare hands.

A burst of light nearby drew the crowd’s attention from the boy to an indistinct, shadowy figure that only took a corporeal form after a few blinks. The newcomer was obviously Appetite itself, disguised as an impossibly attractive Edinön female with golden hair and red eyes. Her garment glittered like the night sky and clung to every feminine curve. She tossed her head back and walked toward the boy, leaving a trail of red flame blazing across the soil.

Ento had already forgotten about the human prince.

“This one is mine,” Appetite said, gazing at Ento directly. Ento’s throat shrunk.

The human collapsed to his knees, hands shaking. “Kandi?”

Appetite lifted him up by his arms and caressed his face. She spoke human words to him, which instantly calmed him. Ento could not believe his eyes.

She smiled seductively at Ento and said, “Ento, you are coming with me as well.”

Ento lowered his gaze to her feet. “I am not a slave, Leisil.”

She pulled him forward by the golden tassels on his collar. Ento could not tear his eyes away from hers as they changed from red to green. He inhaled a scent manufactured specifically for him. It twisted his insides and rewired his brain. His sole purpose was to please her. He was hers, and he realized she was the piece of him he’d felt had been missing all these years. His life was complete. His soul was whole.

The world darkened around her flawless form. Her ruby red lips curved, and she released a sigh so blatantly sexual he nearly burst with ecstasy. A thread of consciousness insisted that he was not a slave. He was a trader. He was a master.

“Not a slave,” he heard himself whisper, even as the heady fragrance weakened his knees. Not a slave...

Appetite hummed. “You are to me.”

 

Ten years later, Ento watches the annual Combat competition commence from the slavers’ booth, a platform hovering close enough to the pit that the spectator screens on either end are unnecessary. He is Juan’s handler. His job is to keep Juan alive, healthy, and valuable. With Appetite’s permission, he entered Juan into this annual competition because it would reflect well on Appetite’s slave house and Appetite herself if a slave sponsored by her won. If Juan wins, the slave house will be rewarded 100 more slaves, 50 spools of golden thread, and other delicious prizes. If he loses, he dies.

Ento has grown fond of Juan over the years. He certainly would not enter his name if he thought he would lose.

The pit was created a thousand years ago when the gods left and the War began. Combat began as a way to settle land disputes and gradually evolved into a form of entertainment. Without actual gods to worship, Bynivul-dwellers started worshipping the winners of Combat, dubbing them Heroes. The Heroes of Combat were immortalized in statues, murals, scripts, and monuments throughout the world.

Eventually, as slave trading became commonplace, Combat was used as a form of punishment, then as a game for slave traders, Lords, Ladies, and other wealthy individuals to enjoy every year. The names of each victor are now written on the tablet in the Combat gallery, and the owners they represent are rewarded generously.

Ento doesn’t care for the wealth as much as he does the fame and the possibility that Juan will be freed. If Appetite sees potential in him, she might promote him to soldier or trader. Anything could happen.

He sits on the edge of his seat, anticipating the first contenders to enter the pit via the portal in the center. Nearly 100,000 people are cheering and placing bets in the pods surrounding the arena (millions more watch on the screens at their homes). The weather is perfect – crafted especially for this occasion – dewy, cool, and breezy. The names and faces of each contender are flashing on the curved screens. Ento’s long-term female partner, Weida, grasps his hand and leans forward. “What did he say to you before you sent him to the pit?”

Weida cares about Juan almost like he was her own child. She resents Ento for giving Juan’s life away so easily. He hasn’t yet been able to convince her that they are about to make a fortune.

“I told him he would win,” Ento replies.

She rests her face on her pale hands. The pink flower petals in her auburn hair gleam silver in the moonlight.

Ento rubs her back. “He will win. I promise.”

She shoves his hand away. “You can’t promise that.”

A voice on the monitor announces the first 10 contenders. Weida whimpers when Juan’s name is listed among them.

Ento peers closely at the pit below. The black light of the portal is spinning more rapidly. It is about to open.

The crowd is sufficiently rallied. Ento uses vocal command to activate the shield around his booth in order to block out the noise. “Come on, Juan,” he whispers, willing his boy to appear.

The portal opens. Each slave is pulled into the arena by half-naked females of every color – blue, violet, green, red, gray, white, black, etc. – with leashes attached to their collars. Contenders must fight in skin-tight armor decorated in gems that represent the color of their sponsor. Juan’s collar and sleeves are encrusted with rubies. His hair has been trimmed to an inch above his scalp and tamed with product. So far, he is the only contender free of face paint and other aesthetic enhancements.

He is also the smallest.

Ento glances at Weida and pats her forearm. “Don’t you want to watch this, ela?”

She peeks through her fingers. “Just tell me when this is over.”

The devices recording the event zoom in on Juan’s face. The announcer provides a brief background and description for each slave while the female escorts unfasten the leashes and exit through the portal.

Ento rubs his hands together. “It has begun.”

***

 

The Day of Combat (JUAN)

The first face that meets my fist belongs to a blue-skinned slave named Adurmaut. He falls, unconscious. I swing my arm, connecting my elbow to the face of a human named Bo. He takes one more blow to the gut before he meets his end on the compact sand.

I am now the target of the remaining eight contenders. Unlike me, they thirst for blood and glory. If I still had a soul, I might laugh. They actually think they have a chance.

It has only taken me about a decade to learn actual moves besides smashing and flailing. I am glad Ento finally gave me this chance to legitimately use them.

I kick the next guy under his ribcage before he can lift his leg to attack. I roll forward, over his motionless body, and lift a red-skinned man over my head. I toss him into the two men reaching for my arms.

After ducking to dodge a kick, I flip and kick another slave in the throat, cutting off his air supply and twisting to punch the biggest contender’s nose. I feel the crack beneath my fingers and pause to shake my hand. That one stung a little.

When the last two see that I’ve knocked out the giant with one punch, they have the sense to hesitate for a moment.

I should feel sorry for them. Their masters forced them into this position. They didn’t know that this would be no contest for me. I shouldn’t be allowed to participate in this game.

But the crowd is roaring, the flowers are falling, and the adrenaline rush is refreshing. I flash to the slave on my left and swing my fist around, impacting his left temple. The last one is just as easy to subdue.

I bask in the victory for as long as the clean-up crew takes to carry the bodies out of the pit. Traditionally there is a ten-minute break between rounds, but I hear the announcer say that since the first round was so short, they are going to send in the next ten immediately.

I crack my fingers. I’m not even sweating.

***

I exit the arena as the sun begins to shine over the horizon. I am immediately met with a swarm of record-makers and escorts congratulating me on my new status. They are calling me the Hero of Combat.

The escort assigned to me reattaches my leash and leads me back into my cell, where my handler is supposed to meet me within the hour. The wall re-solidifies as Beada departs. The brand on my upper left arm marking me as a slave prevents me from using portals and automatic “curtains” (I don’t know how else to translate the term for walls that liquify and split open) without escorts. I have thought about removing the brand, but the only way to do that would be to chop off my arm, as the brand is several skin layers deep and forms a ring around my bicep.

My cell feels like the inside of a model organ, like giant intestines made of gooey plastic. The illumination is a dull red-orange, and if I touch anything I will receive a healthy dose of electricity. So, I just sit in the center of the small enclosure and pretend the membrane doesn’t seem to be closing in to swallow me.

Ento enters soon enough along with his companion. The two are overjoyed. Weida slaps my chest – her culture’s version of a hug – and insists she knew I would win all along. I act as if I believe her, even though I could hear her thoughts the entire journey here.

“Come, Aun, we can talk more on the transport,” Ento says, placing his arm behind my neck as we walk out of the cell. Typical buildings on Bynivul don’t consist of hallways, rooms, and doors. Most are fairly open, with padded pathways directing you to enclosed areas, somewhat like an ant farm. This underground building is no different. Cool air blasts through filters in the ceiling, keeping the large room fresh and breathable. The ceiling is about nine feet high, and the room extends about the length of an American football field. Ento leads Weida and me on the red path. The pressure of each footstep triggers soft light from the floor. I used to find this effect irritating, but now I am so accustomed to it, I hardly notice it exists.

Few rooms are lit by anything but the floor lights, since Edinön possess night vision and are generally nocturnal. Other species, however, such as the Zedihz (black-skinned mortals) and the Sidüns (red-skinned), are not so lucky, so accommodations have been made for them in more populous places. Many other species lacking the ability to see in the dark unaided wear lenses that grant them that ability. The lenses look like tiny gemstones when initially placed in the corner of each eye. When activated, the stones expand to cover the eyes. The covering is invisible to everyone but the wearer. I have worn these before just to test them out, and they work quite well as the opposite of sunglasses.

At the end of the red path, Ento presses his status symbol (a brand on the back of his hand that indicates his occupation) to the eye-shaped scanner on the gray wall. The scanner buzzes, clicks, and a female voice says, “Ento Vid Mintat Ergondes, your transporter is ready.”

The wall parts, and we enter a five-seated pod with a glass casing. As soon as we are buckled in, the pod blasts out of the room through an opening in the ceiling. For a brief moment, I take in the wide view of our surroundings: blue, green, brown, cherry-red foliage blankets the landscape. A small volcano lies dormant in the middle of the dense forestry. The Combat arena is huge. Pods of various colors, classes, and sizes are zipping all around us, some taking off, some landing, and some hovering.

Ento’s pod slows and halts as mechanical arms latch onto its shell and pull it into the transport. The light in the pod dims and flickers, then shuts off completely. With a loud clank and a hiss, the glass casing opens, and a metal platform extends from the main floor of the ship to grant us access.

Ento rises first to assist Weida across the short bridge, then returns to unlatch me. I could break these bonds without help, but I’d rather not cause any unnecessary trouble. The belts aren’t supposed to unlatch unless masters grant permission.

“Weida, summon an escort. Aun needs to get cleaned up before the feast.”

I stop and turn to watch the pod sink into the ship’s floor. Soft, synthetic fibers grow over the metal to form a thick carpet that covers the entire deck. Two hover pads on opposite ends of the deck (width-wise) lead to the raised platform where the navigators control the ship. Weida taps her ear to communicate with the escort in charge of my appearance, or a stylist who tells me what to wear and bathes and grooms me whenever called upon.

The escort appears via a portal straight ahead. She is a tall, thin Edinön with buzzed turquoise hair and sun-tanned skin. Her hazel eyes are shadowed with black powder and green liner. Clothing is a measure of status on Bynivul; the more one’s body is covered, the higher the rank. Calwen, my stylist, typically covers everything but the front of her thighs, elbows, neck, and midriff. She is an escort, sure, but escorts with special skills are paid more. Her rank is just below that of slave trader.

Calwen smiles at me. “Congratulations, Aun,” she says in monotone Gídnei, nude lips permanently pursed. She has not had an easy day.

“Calwen, please prepare Aun for tonight’s festivities,” Ento orders, dipping his head before he and Weida take their leave through the portal.

I am now alone on the transporter with Calwen and the navigators on the upper deck.

Calwen attaches a magnetic leash to my collar and leads me across the deck to the shower stall. Once we’re inside, she pulls the satin curtain shut and commands the water to run.

Edinön showers consist of smooth, water-resistant floors and walls, two water jets on either side, and a soap jet on top. The jets spurt water in all directions and are programmed to thoroughly wash whoever stands in the center. No scrubbing required.

I undress and step inside. Calwen presses the pad that closes the shower space, activating the program. I hold my breath and close my eyes. The first time I used one of these, I thought the combination of boiling water and extreme pressure would shear my skin off.

When the shower is finished, air blasts in the place of water, drying me in thirty seconds. Lastly, a gentle, moisturizing spray settles over my skin.

Calwen unlocks the door and presents a new outfit for me to wear. Male slaves aren’t allowed to wear shirts except on special occasions. This time Calwen is requiring me to wear a black, one-piece suit that covers pretty much everything, including my feet. It feels like cotton.

In addition to the suit, Calwen presents a single-layer robe with sleeves and a gold chain connecting one shoulder to the other. The gold, which usually denotes a venerable status, conflicts with the brown hue and coarse texture of the robe. It feels nice to have an extra layer on anyway given how often I am practically naked.

After my escort fiddles with my hair and face, she nods approvingly and lets Weida know I am ready by her invisible ear piece.

The transporter arrives in Melidön, the capital city of Appetite’s region, a short time later. Melidön is famous for its diversity. It houses every type of mortal that exists in the galaxy. At the center of the city lies Appetite’s palace and slave house, enormous structures that would have made the Empire State Building look small. That is, if it still existed...

Once off the transporter, a cluster of soldiers marches me through the Victory Parade to the slave house. Common citizens wave from their balconies and hovercrafts. Plenty of women throw themselves at me and praise me as their “hero.”

I am wearing a slave’s robe, a collar, and a leash. I am not a hero.

***

My best buddy, a fellow slave named Yuter, greets me in our shared quarters on the fifth floor with a forehead touch – which would definitely be an overly intimate gesture if he did not look like an oversized lizard. Yuter is an Imitun, so he possesses rough, gray skin, yellow eyes with tiny black pupils, no hair whatsoever, and a forked tongue. He is like a creature straight out of Star Trek, and that fact alone made it easy to befriend him. He speaks a little Gídnei (enough to understand the soldiers, escorts, and masters) but his native language is Veirditumu, which is one of the most difficult languages in the universe. There are no standalone words, just phrases, and depending on the context in which you use certain phrases, they can mean completely different things. “Edumekizahd,” for example, means “how are you,” when used as a greeting. But if you use it after “jetifuevnar,” which means “bring to me,” it translates to a specific midday meal served on Yuter’s home planet. I still don’t have the language down enough to call myself fluent, but Yuter is patient with me. He has even learned a few English phrases while I’ve practiced pronouncing the Veirditumu term for “hello.”

Our quarters are not quite spacious enough for us to lie down at the same time, so we sleep in shifts. The toilet is a hole in the corner connected directly to the sewage pipes. Our bed is a thick fur mat that could sharpen a knife.

“How was your trip?” Yuter asks, habitually brushing his hands on his threadbare trousers.

“Long overdue,” I answer in Gídnei, adjusting my metal collar so it stops pinching my Adam’s apple.

“I heard you won.” Yuter attempts to smile, and I laugh. Imita express themselves primarily with their eyes. The rest of their facial features don’t move at all without practice. Yuter tries to communicate his emotions like I do, unaware that I already know exactly what he is feeling all the time.

I shrug and gesture to the plastic curtain dividing our room from the lush green yard. “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“Appetite is hosting a feast in my honor.” I slap Yuter’s arm.

“And I’m invited?” Yuter says excitedly.

“Don’t be an idiot. Come on.” I shove the plastic curtain aside and make my way across the yard, fenced by other “rooms” just like ours. We walk underneath a marble arch guarded by naked statues in compromising positions and follow a cobblestone-like pathway through a grove of tall yellow bushes. The air in Melidön is clean and only occasionally moves since the weather is controlled, so it always feels like I am indoors. I suppose conditions could be worse.

It is late in the day. I haven’t eaten since last night. I cannot wait to stuff myself until I feel bloated and pass out on the hard floor of our tiny room.

The feast is to be held on palace grounds, so we are going to require escorts to fetch us a pod. I locate a communicator on the wall next to the white stairs leading down to the fourth floor and request their services.

“Juan, your handler is here. He will meet you at the West Gate,” the com controller says.

I raise my brows. She pronounced my name correctly. She sounds human. “Gracias. What is your name?”

No response. I turn the ‘terminate call’ key and relay the message to Yuter.

“Where is my handler, Aun?” he asks, wringing his hands. He does not like stepping out of his comfort zone. He thought attending a party on the palace grounds sounded exciting until he realized he would be faced with possible conversations in which he might have to participate.

“I don’t know. We’ll ask Ento when we meet him at the gate.” I start down the stairs.

“Are you sure it is safe?”

No. Not really. “Of course.”

“Who else is invited?”

“I’m not sure.”

At the bottom of the stairs, I make a left turn and navigate through many stone paths and circular patches of grass before finding the next set of stairs. Several minutes later, we reach the ground floor, which is divided into three sections: Sorting, Healing, and Recreation. The Sorting area is one we want to avoid, since that is where soldiers collect and sort new arrivals based on race, height, gender, health, and a host of other factors. The Healing section is like a hospital. The Recreation center is basically a large, flat expanse of dirt where slaves can spar and tear one another to shreds.

The West Gate is outside past the West Gardens on a white field vertically divided by a single crystal-stone trail. Pods made to traverse short distances are parked on either side of the gate, lidless and vibrating midair.

As we approach, a handler straps his slave into one of the pods and situates himself in the seat beside him. With a fleeting signal to the soulless operator standing behind a waist-height operating system, the pod kicks into gear and zooms quietly down the trail toward Appetite’s palace.

The operator eyes Yuter and me, her yellow gaze sharpening. She is the clone of a deceased red-skinned woman by the name of Darbati. Clones are exact replicas of their parents, like daughter cells to the parent cell. They have no agency or will. No emotion, no desires, no soul. They might as well be machines.

“Aun!” Ento exclaims from the shade of a tall, white and pink yooderry plant. He is accompanied by his partner, Weida, and both are dressed elegantly. Apparently, this is a rather formal affair. No wonder Calwen gave me a full-body suit. The Immortal bloodlines do not appreciate seeing slave skin unless they find the overall appearance of the slave desirable. Plus – and this applies especially to the Appetite Bloodline – they really enjoy ripping clothes off as a prelude to foreplay. Handlers certainly wouldn’t want to rob their bosses of that particular activity.

I step toward Ento and Weida, chest rising. Edinön are tall on average. Most men are six feet or above. Since landing on Bynivul, I have grown an inch or two, which would make me about six feet tall. Ento is over six inches taller, however, and I always feel small in his presence. If not for my superior strength, I might find him intimidating.

“Ento, my friend Yuter would like to join me at the feast,” I say, gesturing to Yuter, whom he has met only once before. My friend slowly looks up, shaking like a leaf.

“In that case,” Ento says, squinting and sighing, “he is going to need more clothes.”

I gather from my handler’s thoughts that Calwen is unavailable. Her daughter just passed away from this year’s plague. “Perhaps Weida knows where to find suitable apparel,” I suggest.

Weida nods. She and Ento are normally not so willing to do me favors, but since I won them a slightly higher status and more wealth earlier today, they see fit to reward me in some way. “I will return to our summer quarters for an Imitun suit,” she offers, purple lips thinning into a smile. She reaches for my arms and caresses my bicep. She smells like gordania fruit, which is native in this region and reminds me of pineapple. The scent tickles my nose.

Weida presses the device around her wrist to activate a portal behind her. She turns and steps through, and the fiery black rift in the air collapses and disappears.

Other slaves, handlers, escorts, and soldiers arrive at the Gate to use the pods. They are attending a feast in my honor, yet none of them acknowledge my existence when I am standing right in front of them. Most of them despise me more than they did before.

“They should show you more respect,” Yuter mutters bitterly. “You did what none of them could.”

I remain silent. They are afraid. To this point I have hidden my full strength from all but a few, so I caught most by surprise. Not to mention I am a human, which is the weakest species on Bynivul and by far the priciest. The majority of the audience bet against me. My victory came too easily. It was not entertainment, it was slaughter.

Weida returns moments later with a small, gray-scaled case containing a simple black suit. She assists Yuter as he slides into it and refastens his collar. She ushers us toward the nearest pod and pulls the straps around Yuter while Ento attends to mine. As soon as we’re all seated, the pod accelerates to approximately 20 miles per hour. I watch the white, open field move by and look up at the monstrosity ahead.

The palace is more than a castle. It is a complex, multidimensional set of structures made of granite, steel, crystal, redstone, and plesidus, the pliable, unbreakable material with which most spaceships are constructed. The main building is layered like a wedding cake, red as blood with a black/bronze granite, moving staircase. The top layer is hazy to the naked eye due to its sky-scraping height. The vermilion walls are accented in gold. The upper edges of each layer are frosted with white, yellow, green, and black vines budding with soon-to-bloom blossoms. The garden surrounding the castle would put any garden on Earth to shame. Nude golden statues guard the ground floor all the way around. A small stream between the end of the trail and the palace spurts sparkling sea-blue water and sings a soft, seductive melody that attracts bird-like creatures with butterfly wings. As the pod slows to a halt, I gather a wider view of the garden and the white, luminescent ribbons suspended from each genetically-perfected tree.

Ento leads us through the garden. The slaves assigned to landscaping were hand-picked by Appetite herself, so they mainly comprise of beautiful women in short, flower petal skirts and gossamer shawls. Every one of them stares at me as we walk by, some contemptibly and some suggestively. The majority are Seviks (green-skinned humanoids), who, like me, were abducted from their home planet and brought here years ago by slave traders.

The crystal path ends at the clearing several yards from the staircase. Directly above my head are powerlines that are only visible when the sunlight strikes them at a certain angle, like spider silk. The powerlines stretch across the entire city, tied to the tallest trees on Bynivul every mile or so.

“Diada, Ento,” a Zedihz (black-skinned) soldier says in Ento’s native tongue, standing in a triangle formation with five others identical to him. This soldier and my handler grew up in the same building. “The festivities are within the Goddess’ terrestrial home. Follow me.”

Weida is ecstatically tapping her right temple as we stride toward the moving stairs. This will be our first time entering the palace. Personally, I hope it will be the last. The last time I was this nervous was the night a soulless physician seared Appetite’s insignia on my collarbone with a branding instrument.

“I am scared, Aun,” Yuter whispers. We are crossing the polished bronze flooring leading up to the guarded archway.

“Just try to have fun, Yuter,” I tell him. The only reason I’ve insisted he come is because Ento told me that Appetite always provides slaves specially trained in intimacy at her celebrations. Since I met him, Yuter has complained, or rather off-handedly mentioned the fact that he is a ninety-two-year-old virgin. I promised him I’d find him an opportunity in which he could legally mate with – preferably – one of his kind before he reached 100. This is opportunity #1.

The interior of the palace is exactly what I expected: vaulted ceilings, golden pillars, curtains made entirely of rubies, and white floors that sparkle. Plush piles of pillows are strewn about the room for socializing, private stalls concealed by black satin sheets line the back wall, and a thick red carpet that divides the room in half is covered with more food than I have ever seen in one place. The room smells like fresh meat, sugary delights, and fruity perfumes. It is heaven.

Yuter’s anxiety melts like butter when he sees the amount of refreshment next to the dozens of whores sashaying about the room. He looks at me with wide, yellow eyes and nods, thinking he might get lucky tonight. I smile and nod in return. There are at least three Imitun females in the crowd that would undoubtedly enjoy a night with my friend. These women love men who are inexperienced.

Suddenly, my name is mispronounced for the room by Appetite’s eldest younger brother, Lidret, who materialized next to me without warning. He is a monstrous man dressed in three layers of red and gold. Like any offspring of an Immortal and mortal, Lidret has mixed genes combining red eyes with brown skin and curly light blond hair. And apparently, he is our host.

The announcement is met with forced cheers. Lidret turns to me, grasping my shoulder. “Your performance was spectacular today, Aun. You should be proud.”

“Thank you. I am.” I am also very queasy. I didn’t realize the Appetite Bloodline lusted after virtually every humanoid creature they encountered. Lidret’s unflinching, lustrous gaze is making my skin crawl. I need a cold shower.

“Come! Enjoy the food. Drink. Be merry.” He summons an escort who happily brings him a special black cushion featuring my face on the front in red and gold thread. The escort sets it on the floor at the front of the food train and offers to feed me.

I whisper in the girl’s ear, “No, thank you, but can you make sure my friend, the Imitun behind me, gets a spot next to the girls at the end of the train?”

The escort smiles knowingly and taps her nose. I thank her before she grabs Yuter’s arm and drags him toward the females he fancies.

Lidret sits on my left, and Ento and Weida sit on my right. I look around the room, filled to capacity with thousands of attendees. “Where is Leisil?” I inquire, reaching for a chunk of cooked meat.

Lidret clears his throat. “She is... occupied. So sorry she couldn’t make it.”

I don’t have to be a mind-reader to know how insincere that apology was. Regardless, the assurance that Leisil will not attend this party allows me to finally relax.

“I heard the gods are currently electing a monarch to unite the 27 kingdoms and end the War,” Ento remarks, swallowing a jera fruit whole.

Oh, interesting. It’s not often I have the chance to tune into political conversations. The War Ento mentioned is the same war that began when the gods left a millennium ago in pursuit of Death and Hope. I have seen some of the damage left by the War... Armies of thousands are fighting every day. Still, in a world where the population is eleven billion and still growing thanks to the affordability of spaceships and slaves, the death toll barely leaves a mark on the world. The real conflict is subtle, nearly invisible. And potentially catastrophic.

When the gods returned a decade ago, the world did not know how to react. They feared the gods would assume control or slaughter them all. After a thousand years, they had begun to believe the gods were myths. Very few left on Bynivul still dedicated their lives to them as they were... rather than the twisted versions conjured by word of mouth over centuries.

The world changed rapidly in the wake of their return. New religions popped up out of the dust. Cities and countries became more organized. The general hierarchy was altered to include the Immortal Bloodlines at the head. World leaders met peacefully for the first time in forever to discuss how they would move forward. Still, the gods’ presence did not stop the ongoing battles, the political turmoil, nor the interstellar conflict. Rather, the gods’ return encouraged the exchange of slaves, the number of which has nearly doubled in ten years. The number of death sentences passed to imperfect people has increased since the beauty standard was set by the likes of Appetite and Love.

So clearly there is room for improvement.

“Not electing,” Lidret says. A red-skinned slave pops a piece of green meat into his mouth. “The monarch was chosen before our return. She has simply been undergoing some training before her coronation on the Day of Peace.”

I sip my drink, a fruity concoction with a minty aftertaste.

“Is she mortal?” Weida asks.

“No, she is one of us.” Lidret smiles.

I accidentally inhale my drink and retreat from the cushion to cough into my elbow until my lungs are clear of the liquid. When I return a moment later, my face is undoubtedly flushed, and I might be a little teary-eyed. I wipe my eyes and apologize. Thankfully, I am ignored.

Lidret is thinking of her. The monarch. He hasn’t seen her, but he knows her name. Or, what she is to be called. The room temperature ratchets up thirty degrees as my train of thought derails into territory it hasn’t explored since the cleansing ritual on Time’s ship. I cough one more time, forcing myself to remain neutral.

“How will this monarch end the War?” another man beside Weida asks, scratching his ear as he tastes a powdery pastry.

“She will reestablish the power structure we had before the War,” Lidret replies. “One Immortal is absolute ruler over all while the rest of the Immortals rule separate kingdoms on Bynivul.”

“Directly?” Ento says. “Will the gods rule on the planet’s surface?”

Lidret flicks his nose, meaning ‘yes.’ “Why do you think these palaces were constructed?”

Ento licks his lips. “Who is this monarch? Love? Conscience? Or is it... Appetite?”

“She is none of the above. I suspect even my sister is envious of her beauty. She often takes her form when she visits Bynivul.”

Weida looks at me. “Aun, you look unwell. Something wrong?”

I shake my head.

There is only one woman in the universe whose physical attractiveness could spark envy in the Goddess of Beauty.

I eye the stalls near the exit. “Please excuse me.”

As I rise to my feet, Ento protests, “Aun, I must summon an escort before you can leave.”

I ignore him. I rush to an empty stall and close the satin sheet behind me. This is not the most secure space in the world, but it will do.

These stalls were built for one purpose, and that purpose is made clear by the pile of sheets and cushions in one corner and the bucket of liquor in the other. The space is approximately big enough to fit ten people and is lit only by the power that keeps the bucket in the right corner cool. I grab a pouch and squeeze the thick black substance down my throat. It tastes like ashes, but it immediately dulls my senses the moment it hits my tongue. This is what I need. I need to forget.

The flap abruptly opens as a group of multicolored women enter the stall.

“Hero, we are at your service tonight.” The female who speaks is black-haired, pale-skinned, and blue-eyed. She looks nice. But she is nowhere near perfect.

And I have seen perfect.

A brunette crouches beside me and rubs my back. “We can grant all of your desires. Just say the word.”

The other women approach with more confidence. The brunette fingers my collar while the blue-eyed girl moves behind me to breathe on my neck.

“I appreciate the offer, ladies,” I say, swallowing bile. “But I am afraid I must decline. Perhaps some other time.”

They collectively sigh with disappointment. As soon as they are gone, I imbibe another pouch in one breath.

“Purification. You must participate in the ritual before you are matched with a Hïndonen.”

“Do I not have a choice?”

“Think of the right choice, Juan.”

“You are doing the right thing.”

“Please, no. I don’t want... No! Please! Stop! I don’t even know what you mean! Please! Don’t...”

I grasp my neck and wince. My hand goes limp and drops the empty pouch on the carpeted floor. The room spins. My limbs are shaking.

“Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”

“What will happen to you if you stay?”

I have already consumed three pouches. One more, and I might slip into a coma. I prop my back against the wall and stare at my fingers as they quake. For a split second, I believe they are caked in dried blood, until I blink again and the blood disappears.

I can’t even imagine what sort of “training” she has undergone while I have been slaving away on the planet’s surface. Those screams that rattled Time’s spaceship still echo in my ears. Even after all this time, I cannot forget. I haven’t forgotten her face, her voice, her scent. As hard as I try, she will always be in my head. I don’t know if it is the result of our long-dead psychic connection or my own delusions.

My nails are imprinting crescents into my palms. I release the tension in my fists and slow my breathing. For ten years I have felt unbearably guilty for my inability to rescue her from Time. I recall her voicing her fears to me on Earth about the infinite number of ways Time could exploit her immunity to death.

There is no way Time would crown her monarch unless he had complete control over her. She could easily vaporize him if she didn’t possess that one weakness that will spell the end of all life as we know it.

Time’s torture must have been successful. Kandi revealed her true name.

I snatch the fourth pouch of fermented shuskade and gulp it down.

***

Twenty days later...

“Hero! Get up! To work!”

The soldier kicking me is going to lose his leg if he isn’t careful.

I open my eyes. Yuter is already up and working in the caves. I grab and twist the soldier’s shin before his foot hits my face. The soldier cries out and stumbles while I get to my feet. I crack my neck and stretch. My mouth tastes salty, and my head feels as though it is being pounded on both sides. The air is sharp and cool. A light breeze blows some beige dust up from the rocky ground. A few bare trees dot the edge of the cliff. This mountain, particularly at this elevation, will soon be covered in several feet of snow.

The Zedihz soldier spits at my feet and stalks down the trail to his own camp. I look up at the cave opening, where many of Appetite’s slaves are mining for whatever precious metals they can find. After a few hours of sleep using a rock as a pillow, I am ready to return to work.

I walk to the water spout a few feet from my sleeping mat and douse my face in water. I try to rinse the horrible taste from my mouth as well with no success. Another brave soldier urges me to keep moving up the trail. I glare at him as I drink, and his dark eyes widen. He raises his hands in surrender.

When I am finished, I continue my march. The air inside the caves is stale and metallic. All the slaves are dressed like me: sackcloth over the most important parts and nothing else. Edinön love the cold. Me, not so much.

I navigate through the maze of tunnels until I find Yuter setting up a miniature robotic device on the side of the rock wall. That device is going to eat the rock until it locates something valuable.

“How was your rest?” Yuter asks in a low voice, forked tongue peeked out in concentration.

“Rewarding.” We have spent enough time together by now that Yuter understands and even appreciates sarcasm. The corners of his mouth stretch into the best smile he can achieve, and he nods. I pick up a long, electric chisel and stab the opposite rock wall. “Any trouble while I was asleep?”

Yuter shrugs. “Only the usual. Wezegifara.”

“What?”

“They talk about you. The soldiers and slaves, even. They want to hurt you.”

“Ah.” I chuckle and activate the chisel. It zaps the rock wall and causes a web of cracks to form around the tool. I set the chisel on the ground and retrieve a smaller, pointier device from the pile of equipment.

As I begin hacking away, Yuter continues, “Are you afraid they will hurt you?”

I pause. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because they have never killed a god.” I hack with more feeling.

Yuter is quiet for a minute, thinking about whether or not he believes me. I told him my whole life story a couple of years ago, after we had been roommates for eight Bynivul years. He still doesn’t believe a goddess fell in love with me or that I killed Adarein, the former God of Energy, with my bare hands. Although, after my performance at Combat, my story is slowly becoming more believable to him.

Yuter also thinks about his home and family on Imita. He has been away from them for so long that he fears they might be dead. Bynivul technology and medicine has extended his life expectancy one hundred years.

I think about my final moments with my mother and wonder every day if she is still alive. Since physical perfection is considered the greatest achievement of genetic engineering by Edinön, my hope is that her life was spared. I just pray that she hasn’t been abused like I have. She had experienced enough of that with my father.

“You’re saying my mother is going to die, and there won’t be anything I can do about it?”

“I hope I am wrong. I won’t let anything happened to her, Juan.”

I hear other slaves nearby chattering about the whores they recently slept with. Fortunately, their voices are soon drowned out by the loud chewing of Yuter’s robot as it begins to work.

The speaker implanted in my ear suddenly squeaks as it is activated. An authoritative voice informs me the Warden requests my immediate presence. I drop my rock-breaker. Yuter hears it clatter to the ground.

“What, Aun?”

“The Warden wants to see me.” I sigh and start heading out. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“It might be a trap!”

I laugh and wave as I round the corner.

I leave the caves and make my way down the uneven terrain to the soldier’s camp, where the Warden is stationed in his house-sized tent. The Warden is an Edinön/Sidün mix with red hair, pinkish-yellow skin, and yellow eyes. He might be one of the most abominable creatures I have ever seen in my life.

His tent is surrounded by a couple dozen Zedihz soldiers in gray uniforms, which consist of two straps of cloth over the chest in the form of an ‘X’ and shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. I stop at the entrance and smile at the guards before they permit passage. The interior of the Warden’s tent is humble by noble standards, with a hoverdesk displaying a holographic map, a nest of softcloth, white furs covering the ground, several hanging baskets overflowing with food, and of course I couldn’t forget to mention the goddess standing in the middle wearing red robes and a golden tiara.

The tent material is sound-proof, so the only sounds I can hear within its walls are the portal humming, the hologram machine buzzing, and my own breathing. The Warden is missing.

Leisil, the Goddess of Lust, raises her perfectly sculpted chin and smiles. Her eyes are enhanced by golden glitter, and her lips are painted bronze. My body reacts instantly to her stunning appearance while my head reminds me she is an impostor.

“Juan...” She glides forward and touches my face. I turn my head and scowl. She speaks proper Gídnei – no slang, no shortened vowels, no odd inflections – while mimicking Kandi’s smooth, feminine voice. “You know who I am?”

I say nothing.

“I watched your Combat performance,” she says, small hands skating down my chest. “You didn’t receive a single mark, did you?” She is examining my body for any sign of harm. “These scars are from years of labor, not from battle. What happened to the last man who struck you?”

I stare down at her, holding eye contact in spite of how much it pains me to see Kandi’s eyes minus her soul behind them. “He died.” I try to keep my voice even. “What is it you want, Leisil?”

“I want you.” She wraps her arms around my neck and kisses the cleansing scar on my throat. “In my chamber.”

Pleasure bubbles like molten magma in my core. I push her back and step away. “I respectfully decline.”

She looks at me skeptically, eyeing me up and down. “Why?”

“You are... wearing her.”

“Who?” Leisil laughs and runs her palm against the grooves in my abdomen.

The answer is lodged in the back of my throat. I shake my head and push her again. “Please, do not touch me.”

“Is this not what you want?” she asks, pulling her robe open to reveal much more skin than I ever saw on Kandi. I quickly look at the fruit basket hanging a foot from my face. “You are clearly aroused, Juan, so tell me...” She inches closer and runs her fingers along the upper edge of my very secure loincloth. “How could you refuse?”

I close my eyes, beyond tempted to give in, to escape the labor camp for even a moment and experience all that the Goddess of Pleasure has to offer. I can’t help but remember the visions I had on Earth of Appetite... and what those visions led to. My free will was taken from me. If I go with Leisil to her chamber, I may never come out the same person. I might become like her clones... without personality, memories, or sentience.

“I do not want you. You will never be what I want. I don’t care what skin you wear.” I wrap my fingers around her wrists and twist them away from my waist. “The real question is, why do you want me?”

Leisil smirks and pulls her hands back to her sides. “You may be the only male on this planet capable of resisting me.” Her irises flash red. “What do you really want? To remain a labor slave? Perhaps you would prefer to be a sex slave... or...” She rises on her tiptoes and whispers in my ear, “a subject for cloning. That can be nasty business.”

I could kill her. I could kill her right now. Or at least die trying.

“What do you have to live for, Juan?” Leisil asks, retreating to look at the map. “Your home planet is gone. The woman you love is dead. You will never see your mother again. Once the new monarch is crowned, the Bloodlines shall rule the six worlds forever. Humanity may or may not survive. You will die alone, perhaps working in the fields or in the mountains, or of old age in a room barely wide enough to breathe in.”

“Sometimes, when someone you care about is in pain, all you want to do is ease their burden. I wield the power to erase it entirely.”

“Is it strictly physical pain, or can you ease emotional trauma as well?”

“I can erase pain of all kinds. I can erase mental disorders, diseases, physical and mental trauma, and even the anguish that comes from guilt or sorrow.”

“How does it work?”

“Tell me about your most traumatic experiences.”

“Why?”

Kandi looked into my eyes. I could not look away. “Start with your greatest mistake.”

I shut my eyes briefly and opened them, sweat forming on my brow. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t inflict any damage that I will not accept willingly. It’s okay. I can heal.”

I shook my head. “I have never told anyone the full story. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Let me show you so you may understand.”