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Itʼs a horrible thing, to be in love. The stories never tell the real truth, never describe the
claws that rip open the barriers to mind and heart and display all that you are before
your beloved.

Everyone searches for this magical thing, this pinnacle of emotion; they spend their
lives, their money, their hopes and dreams all on that one thing.

If theyʼre lucky, they never find it.

To the unlucky ones, I say welcome, my brothers. Welcome, my sisters. Iʼm sorry youʼve
joined our ranks.

I can hear the dissenters already. Love equals happiness, equals laughter and a shield
against harsh times. A partner by your side for always. They know nothing of the fear
and the agony, know nothing of the cost of what they desire above all else.

Would they want it if they knew the price?

There are those who will tell you time heals and the wounds you feel now will dwindle
slowly, then simply fade away. If youʼre truly one of us, you know the truth. There is no
such thing. Time will do nothing but march ahead of you and laugh with glee at the
empty space by your side.

I tire of love stories with their happily ever afters that leave so many with hope. Such an
evil, hope is. It twines about our hearts without a peep from us to dissuade it. It lodges
deep and spreads so that our very blood runs with this thing called hope.

I tire of hope. I will fight it in the only way I can.

I will tell you a true love story. There is a man, and a woman, and a quest, death and
danger, heroes and villains. There is a love that will never die.

I warn you now - there is no happily ever after.

There is only the truth.

Ch. 2

“Stay to the tree line, they wonʼt think to look there. And remember water, itʼs your best
defense against their tracking skills, and - Miri?” My father turned his head from the
steering wheel.

I didnʼt see his face, I wasnʼt watching it - instead, I saw the whiteness that banded his
knuckles as he kept the car steady and straight.

That described my father perfectly. Steady and straight.

“Miri. Pay attention. We donʼt have much time,” he said and turned his eyes to the road.
I could feel his attention on me, the frantic worry that tightened his muscles and made
his eyes squint.

“I know, Dad. Stay to the trees, use water to cloak my scent,” I repeated. I sat in the
passenger seat with the leather knapsack my father had packed on my lap. All that I
was allowed to take with me.

The countryside passed in a blur outside the window; a mixture of greens and browns
overseen by the blue of the sky.

Our ancient Volvo crested the grassy hill in front of us and there was the mansion. It
rose from the ground, a white monstrosity that had been built before the war and was
the current residence of the Commander. It sat on thousands of acres of forests,
jungles, swamps and even a bit of desert.

I knew because Iʼd spent the past three weeks memorizing every inch of it; every hill,
every creek, every rock. Iʼm sure the land would soon become just as intimate with me.
It would taste my blood, my sweat. It would judge me, and no doubt find me wanting.

I didnʼt care, though. Iʼd beat it.

Something of my fear must have showed because the car slowed. Stopped.

“Miri,” Dad began.

“We donʼt want to be late,” I interrupted, even though all I wanted was to be late. So late
that they would forget about me and I could hide away, forever. But it would mean not
only my death, by my familyʼs too.

I looked at my fatherʼs sunburned farmerʼs face, his thick wrists and calloused palms.
The smokey eyes heʼd passed down to me. I smelled the farm on him and I knew Iʼd
never forget that, the smell of home that lingered on his skin.
“I donʼt have a choice, Dad. You know that better than anyone,” I said quietly.

He said nothing, just extended his hand so that it cradled the right side of my face. I
rubbed my cheek against the warmth, as close to a hug as we got.

Then he started the car and we drove up the paved road to the mansion.

He was silent as he stopped in front of the massive carved doors that guarded the
entrance to the Commanderʼs home. The car was thick with the silence between us and
I found it difficult to breathe.

A male, his unmarred, unlined perfect face proclaiming what he was, appeared and
smoothly opened my door.

I looked into his night dark eyes and what I saw made my skin shudder and my fingers
tighten on the knapsack. There were stories about women who took one look at a
Soldier and were immediately obsessed, sanity taken away by their beauty.

But I saw his eyes and shuddered.

“My lady?” The vision of perfection said quietly.

Right. I was still in the car.

“Miri…” My father started and I could see him start to reach for his side.

The Soldier tensed, his fingers clamped on the door and I could see the metal begin to
dent. In only a few seconds he would attack; there would be no holding him back.

No. I would not allow it.

“Coming,” I said and smiled my big farm girl smile. The one that said I was a couple
marbles shy of a bag. I forced my legs out of the car and onto the pavement and
pushed myself out of the safety of the Volvo.

Whether it was the smile or the fact that I was out of the car, the Soldier relaxed and
resumed his non-threatening guise. He wore the Commanderʼs colors - blue-gold and
silver-pearl, in the form of loose trousers and tunic. The uniform marked him as a
member of the household staff.

A good omen, I was sure; blood had almost been spilled and I hadnʼt even entered the
house yet.

“Family is not allowed past this point. Sir,” the Soldier said politely as my father got out
of the car.
My father paused, his hand on the hood, and looked at me with eyes slightly edged with
red. I could feel the burn of tears and blinked them away. I reached across the car and
touched his fingers with mine. “Bye, Daddy. Donʼt forget to take off your shoes.”

A bad joke, but all I could think of. He never remembered before entering the house
and, since I was the eldest, it was me who always had to clean the mud he tracked in.

“I promise, Miri baby. You remember what I said.”

The signal heʼd made me memorize before we left the house. If I used it, he would
come for me. No matter the cost.

I nodded. “I remember.”

He gave a short nod, then sank back into the car and closed the door. I watched as he
turned the key, shifted into drive, and slowly, so slowly, drove forward, away from the
mansion. Away from me.

“My lady?” The servant Soldier was still behind me.

I turned to face him. “Time for the fun to start, right?” I asked with the big smile still on
my face.

“This way, my lady,” he tilted his head to the right and down, a tiny bow, before turning
and walking to the big doors that were now open. Waiting.

I followed the male through the entryway and entered a huge foyer dominated by a
grand staircase that curved up to the second story, then split off into two directions. I
felt, more than heard, the doors close behind me.

No escape.

My skin prickled and stung, my heart started to pound and the hairs on my arms and
neck raised, but I kept my feet steady. Running just made the predators give chase.
There would be plenty of that later.

“Whatʼs your name?” I asked the male who waited at the base of the stairs.

“Tyros, my lady,” he said. His right foot moved a few inches to the right, then the left.
Impatient with me already.

“Mineʼs Miri. Well, Miriam really, but no one calls me that. Just plain Miri,” I babbled and
watched his foot move faster. Donʼt like me, donʼt approve, do you, Tyros. Isnʼt that too
damn bad.
“Yes, my lady,” he said in the same tone that others had used to say stupid farmerʼs
daughter. “Are you ready to proceed? Your rooms are prepared and Iʼm sure that you
wish to - ” he paused and looked me over thoroughly, and found me thoroughly wanting
- “freshen up.”

I looked down at my outfit then back at him in confusion. “But why? Iʼm in my Sunday
best.” I used my addled cow impression to great success if the slight sneer that passed
over Tyrosʼs face was any indication.

The outfit wasnʼt my best, but they didnʼt know that. In fact, the rough denim trousers
and wool sweater with cotton undershirt were some of my oldest clothes. But they were
warm, strong, and allowed me ease of movement, all necessities here.

Before Tyros could make another subtle insinuation, a voice behind me purred, “You
heard her, Tyros. Sheʼs in her best. No need to delay her entrance to the court.”

I tensed, but luckily my clothes hid that instinctive response. I turned around slowly as
Tyros bowed low, almost to the floor. “Yes, my Lord.”

Capital L on that one, I thought, even as I met eyes as pale green as smooth glass.
Death, those eyes whispered. Death by pleasure. Youʼll scream for more even as your
heart shudders its last beat.

I grinned, made sure my eyes were wide and wondering, and held out my hand. “Iʼm

The male, at least a foot taller than me, was dressed in Soldier dress uniform and from
the insignia etched into the perfect black skin on his right arm, he was one of the
reigning elite.

There were twelve elite - one for each military district on Earth. From the water symbol
that was swirled in silver on his skin, I pegged him as the Pacific Islands district. It
included Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and dozens of smaller islands in the south

He studied my rough, tanned hand for a moment, then accepted it and brought my skin
to his lips.

“Myrtan, my lady. A pleasure.” His voice rolled over me, warm, smooth as honey, and
just as thick.

“Wow,” I giggled at him, and blushed. They wouldnʼt know the flush on my face was
from the fight or flight instinct screaming through my system.

“Indeed,” Myrtan said and kept my hand in his. He tilted his head to the door on his
right. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what?” I asked and stared at him like he was the moon and the stars and the
sun all rolled into one.

He paused again, and I saw the skin at his eyes tighten for a second. He wasnʼt buying
my stupid act as well as Tyros was. Better throttle back.

“Oh, you mean - ” and I waved at the door heʼd indicated. “Of course! Thatʼs why Iʼm
here, right? Lucky, lucky me.”

The breath froze in my lungs - had my sarcasm leaked through?

But Myrtan just smiled a glorious smile and pulled me toward the room of the court.

The room was octagonal in shape, with gleaming golden hardwood floors and white
molding on the walls. It had more light than the foyer, mostly due to the glass dome in
the center of the ceiling that let natural light flow down.

Soldiers in servant garb were stationed at all entry and exits points, I saw in a quick
scan of the room, most likely to “help” the guests stay where they were supposed to.

To my right were the others - the women who, like me, had been called. They lingered
around the buffet tables heaped with luxurious, expensive food; caviar, champagne, real
butter and lobster, and most treacherous of all, chocolate.

I felt a brief yearning when I saw the dark squares, but stomped on it. Hard. Accepting
food from the Commander was an indication of good faith on my part, and I had none to

To my left were the Soldiers, grouped together in such a way as to suggest casual
conversation, but I knew that it was actually in optimal configuration for defense against
an attack.

Thatʼs just how Soldiers thought.

Off to the side, was a small group of Soldiers, seemingly innocuous, but at its center
stood a pale Soldier. His hair, white as a star, fell down to shoulders covered in skin that
gleamed the cold blue-white of snow. The gold symbols - a sword superimposed over
the Earth - etched into his right arm proclaimed his title of Commander.

A burst of giggles caught my attention. A couple of the other women, girls really, were
laughing at me behind their hands. I looked at them in their silk dresses that their
families had probably sacrificed to give them and felt only the heaviness of pity.

How could they have forgotten so soon? Didnʼt they watch last year? Didnʼt they see?
You canʼt save them, Miri. Concentrate on survival. Pity will only hurt you and it wonʼt
save them.

My fatherʼs voice rang in my head and I turned away from the giggling girls.

“We must present you to the Commander,” Myrtan murmured in my ear. He had waited
patiently while I observed; he probably thought I was in shock at all the fancy decked
out in the room. His warm breath brushed my ear lightly, just enough to entice, not
enough to leave spit on my skin.

Yes, Myrtan had most definitely been trained as a seducer. Wonderful.

I wanted my skin away from his, but instead I smiled and said, “Do I look ok? I donʼt
want to insult him or anything.”

“You look ravishing, my lady. Good enough to eat,” he said without looking at me. He
lead me toward that small circle; or, more accurately, towed me.

“Great. Just great,” I muttered, but kept the smile on my face.

I saw the girls on the right giving the males on my left shy glances. Not one of them was
over the age of twenty five, including me. At twenty four, I just squeaked by the age


Myrtan stopped us a few feet away from the pale Soldier even as the group that
surrounded the Commander shifted into tactical positions. I noted them even as I met
the deep ocean blue irises of the Commander.

“My Lord, may I present lady Miram Laetin, of Grovesdale?” Myrtan bowed low and his
ebony hair slid over my hand where it rested on his arm. It wasnʼt lost on me that he
already knew my name; but then, Iʼd been expecting it. All the Soldiers would have
complete dossiers on all the women in this room.

“Call me Miri; only my father calls me Miriam, and only when Iʼve done something very
wrong,” I grinned and put out my hand as if to shake his. I didnʼt bow, I didnʼt curtsy and
I didnʼt lower my gaze. A big no-no in Soldier culture - it meant a challenge.

The Commander watched me for a moment, a hunter judging its prey, and his lips
creased up a bit before smoothing out, and he took my hand. “Miri it is then, lady. You
may call me Phen.” He gripped my hand, then released me.

And I felt triumph. Heʼd bought it. He thought me an easy hunt.

“Itʼs nice to meet you, Phen. Thank you for the honor of your invitation,” I said, belatedly,
as if remembering my manners. Invitation, ha. Try command performance.

“The honor is all ours, lady.” No smile, thank Goddess. Just the smooth beauty that
characterized all Soldiers, and that was disturbing enough.

Then a movement behind Phen caught my eye. It was another Soldier, probably Phenʼs
personal guard, and I was ready to dismiss him when a stray ray of light caught his

His scarred face. In fact, the gold skin looked as if someone had poured fire onto his
face, the edges of the burns smooth and, somehow, graceful. Odd, because Soldiers
didnʼt scar. Their skin didnʼt allow for it; obviously, there was some way to mar that
perfect armor they wore, otherwise their rank insignia wouldnʼt be carved into their flesh,
but no normal human had ever discovered it.

A memory teased the edges of my mind, fluttered around the outside, a story that my
grandfather had told me, something about a Soldier who bore scars...

His black eyes met mine and an invisible fist plowed into my stomach. For a moment, I
settled back into a defensive form with loosened hands and set feet.

Look away, my common sense whispered. Resume the role. Stay safe.

I didnʼt; I couldnʼt. The darkness in his eyes surrounded me, shut out all light, a vacuum,
where it was just him, just me. My body began to warm, to heat from the inside; the
initial punch turned into a caress inside my skin. My fists tightened.

Then I remembered. Kyren. My grandfather had spoken of him in tones of respect. One
of the original Soldiers, heʼd been used as a guinea pig to test just how indestructible
his new skin was. No one knew what happened in that lab, only that Kyren came out,
scarred, and then the building had exploded.

Stop it, Miri. NOW!

This time my sense of survival screamed and it woke me from the dangerous place Iʼd
been sucked into. I resumed my normal posture and looked away from Kyren just as a
little balding man rushed up to the Commander. “The cameras are in place, sir. The light
is perfect. Weʼre set to begin broadcast,” he hurried through his statements, the words
stumbling together like drunks on a street corner.

“Excellent,” Phen said, but didnʼt take his eyes from me. He didnʼt look at Kyren but he
angled his body just enough that there was now a clear space between me and Kyren.
We faced each other, but I knew better, and looked at the floor, nice and meek.
I could still see Kyrenʼs arm as it lay against his side - the gold of his skin was warm,
like liquid sun had been poured over his body. Even the scars, the burns, seemed to
writhe with heat - a swirl of flames that licked its way up his arm. He was a stark
contrast to his Commander, who seemed to have been carved from some frozen tundra.

“The Welcoming is about to begin, lady Miri. Please take your place at the dais,” Phen
said, and looked to his left, to a stage that had appeared out of the wood flooring.

I kept my eyes lowered. “Oh, right. Can I say hi to my family? Theyʼll be so excited!”

There was a smothered throat sound from Myrtan, an abbreviated snort or laugh. My
lips curved on their own, just a bit, before I fought them back into their normal straight
lines. Hubris never sat well with the divine beings - they inevitably felt the need to strike
down the mortal foolish enough to express it.

“Perhaps a wave will do, lady. This way,” Myrtan said and maneuvered me to the end of
the line of females who had all staked out their places. The males who would hunt us,
the other ʻcontestantsʼ as some of the talk shows had labeled us, lined up on the other
side, from highest to lowest rank.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Kyren stood at the head of the line, directly next to Phen, who took his place at the
center, facing both lines. Kyren would be hunting.

But not me, I told myself, before I could start useless hyperventilating. No Soldier would
want the woman I was projecting. Weak, stupid, not beautiful with my straight brown
hair and stocky, solid-looking figure. If they knew it was solid muscle, maybe. Not they
didnʼt. No, he wouldnʼt hunt me.

I felt a brief flash of heat at the thought of whoever he would hunt, then it was gone,
buried, as Phen began to speak.

“I extend the protection of my house to the potential mates of my Soldiers, and

Welcome you,” Phen said, and tiny cameras, the size of crab apples, buzzed around his

That was our cue and all the women, except for me, said in unison, “We accept your
protection.” I kept my head bowed and no one noticed that my lips didnʼt move with the
rest. To accept the protection of a Soldier meant that you were under his authority. In
essence, every girl here had just given herself to the Commander.

“It has been over one hundred years since the tradition of the Hunt began,” Phen
continued in the same speech he had given last year, and the year before that, and the
year before that, for decades.
Another trait of Soldiers; they outlived normal humans by at least a hundred years.
Many people envied them, hated them, worshipped them for that. I pitied them. But
then, I knew from personal experience how high the price was for longevity.

I tuned Phen out; I didnʼt need to hear his sanitized version of the history of the Soldiers.
I knew the truth.

I knew the truth because my great-grandfather was a Soldier; one everyone, including
Phen, thought was dead and gone.

It was better for everyone that they continued in that belief.

Because the truth was that Soldiers, for all their beauty, were savage, terrifying
monsters. A hundred years ago, humans had known that, respected that, and had
walked carefully around them. But that time was gone and the world was peopled by the
young and unwary.

The Hunt was a compromise reached after the Fourth World War, when the brutality of
the Soldiers had blazed in headlines and on television screens for six years and no one
wanted to ally with them. Or against them, either.

The Soldiers had demanded women as part of the concessions in the treaty
negotiations. Without mates, they would die out. That would not, could not be allowed to

I looked up at Phen and somehow got caught, again, in Kyrenʼs black gaze.

No matter the cost, Soldiers would survive.

Ch. 3

The festivities were over. The contestants had been introduced. The food had been
eaten, the champagne drunk, and it was the night before the Hunt would commence.

I should have slept; who knew how long it would be before I would feel safe enough to
sleep an entire night through.

Instead, I stood in a small side garden just outside the kitchens, my feet bare to the
ground, and looked up at the stars. The white points of light would guide my steps and,
hopefully, get me home.

“You should be resting, Miri,” Kyren said from behind me.

I tensed, braced for impact, but kept my face upturned. “So should you.”

I heard the grass rustle and crunch as he stepped forward, felt his body heat when he
stopped next to me. It wasnʼt a punch this time, maybe because I was determined not to
face him. “I donʼt need much rest.”

I snorted. “Thatʼs what idiots always say.”

“You think Iʼm an idiot, then,” he said, and it wasnʼt a question, but it wasnʼt a statement.
More like a lure - take this, little girl, and let me see what you do with it. A game, a
gambit. A chess move.

And I didnʼt feel like playing. Not tonight.

“No. I think youʼre the most dangerous one here, except maybe Phen. Maybe,” I told
him honestly. Probably a mistake, but Iʼd live with it.

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