Excerpt for Tordan 1.0: Episode 1: Cyborg Warriors by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Tordan 1.0


Cyborg Warriors


Immortal Angel


Copyright


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Tordan 1.0

All rights reserved.

Published by Fallen Press, Ltd.

Copyright © 2017


This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.




Other Works by Immortal Angel


Angel Warrior: An Angel Warrior Romance

The Complete Series


Alien Rogue Warrior: An Alien Rogue Romance

Episodes 1-5


Alien Rogue Warrior: An Alien Rogue Romance

Episodes 6-10


Alien Invasion: A Warrior Prince Romance

The Complete Series


Alien Mating Frenzy: A SciFi Fantasy Romance

Episodes 1-5


Tales of Flouriant: A SciFi Erotic Romance

Escape

Imprisoned


A Human Sacrifice: Star Squad Brides

Episodes 1-5


City of Disorder: A Vampire Succubus Romance

Episodes 1-5


A Touch of Death


DEDICATION


For my father.


You said I could be anything I wanted to be,


and then made me believe it.


Because of you, I have wings.


͝ ͡ Immortal Angel ͡ ͝





P.S. Yes, you still get the edited version.


Table of Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

About the Author

Preview of Tordan 2.0


1

The only sound in the room was the tap…tap…tap of the general’s claw on the arm of the stone throne. That was exactly the way he liked it.

Finally. I can hear myself think.

His feline hearing was so acute, he could still faintly hear his slaves working the mine several caves below. The natives of this backward planet liked to call them cats. But he wasn’t a cat. He was an Ardak. A panthera sapiens. An upright walking, talking, growling, roaring, slicing, slaying humanoid-eating tiger that could run forty miles an hour and jump fifty feet with one leap.

He’d conquered six other worlds before this one, slashing his way to the top with the razor-sharp tips of his fangs and the needle-like points of his claws.

These pathetic humanoids never had a chance.

Their pride in their five realms and their elves wielding magic had done nothing to stop his invasion.

And finally, in the immediate vicinity, there was silence.

It hadn’t been this way until recently. He’d had to beat, torture, and kill countless of the native humanoids in the past solar revolution of this tiny, insignificant planet around its tiny, insignificant sun to bring this blissful silence to the mountain.

To my mountain.

First, there had been the war cries, roaring from his troops – which could be heard for miles, the clanking of swords, and the high-pitched sounds of ray guns as they had conquered the people who had originally inhabited the Mountain Realm.

It didn’t take long.

Then there was the screaming and protesting as his forces had enslaved the survivors of the invasion.

Finally, there had been the crying as the pathetic creatures couldn’t keep up with even the most basic workloads. He'd had to make examples of many of them so the others would work harder.

And through it all, he’d had the same pounding, splitting headache.

Through trial and error – although he had to admit there was rarely error – he had found that death was the only sure way to quiet these beings.

But now, there was peace.

Briefly.

It would be short-lived. He still had a mission to complete.

He could feel his tail start to thrash, his right eye began to tic with rage. He’d been here for just over a year, and still the crystal evaded him. The blank monitors of the command center mocked him.

The mission should already be complete.

If he’d had his entire force, the crystal — and the whole damn planet — would already be his. But although he had landed with 10,000 Ardaks, the king took half of them to fight other battles three days later.

And then took the rest of his troops gradually over the next six months.

Now, all he had left were twenty six Ardaks, and just under two hundred Cyborgs. His tail began to thrash again and he tried to contain it. Losing control of himself would make him look weak in front of the others

There should have been over 800 Cyborgs. But less than one in four of the weak natives he captured from the mountain realm could withstand the excruciatingly painful process. Only those with an insatiable, unstoppable will to live.

Tap…tap…tap…

He snarled at the two kneeling commanders before him, their fangs bared in shame. Worthless. He began to recite the king’s words to them. “Find the Dravitian crystal for me, General Slash. It is so large it can power our entire fleet for decades. Don’t fail me, General Slash, and together our might will be unstoppable!”

The general realized he had his fist in the air just as the king had – the great leader of the Ardaks who had entrusted this mission to him. The Dravitian crystal the king sent Slash to find was the largest they had ever detected. Finding it should have been easy. But it disappeared from his scanners the moment their troops landed on the planet.

He turned back to his commanders. “This was our only mission. It’s why we were sent to this archaic, stinking planet.”

The entire room dimmed. The sickening moment he’d been waiting for. He narrowed his eyes, his gaze going immediately to the power level of his fortress – where the crystal resided that used to power his ship. His body trembled with a rage so powerful he could control it no longer.

There is not enough power left for us to leave this planet unless we find the crystal.

And I’m not going to die here.

His vision turned as red as the power warning lights that flickered on all around them. “You have failed,” he roared, the sound trembling the rock around them. “It’s time for two new commanders.”

General Slash was on the first commander before the Ardak’s eyes could even widen with surprise, ripping out his throat and evading the dying soldier’s claws. The commander grabbed at his throat as blood sprayed outward, but it was pointless.

Slash sprung from him to face the other commander. Striker. His death would be a shame, he was the first to volunteer at my side for this mission.

Slash paused for a moment, his breath coming in heavy pants. He could smell the stench of the commander’s fear, and it made him nauseous.

He knows his skills are no match for mine. Striker’s body shivered with dread, but he was too proud to run or to beg for his life.

Slash respected that, despite himself.

Striker met his gaze, his tone even. “After you kill me, remember, your last hope is the elf. I’m sure she knows something, but even Budut has been unable to break her.”

Slash licked the blood from my fangs, tasting it. I had forgotten about the elven princess. He had captured her a year ago, trying to steal his crystal. And she’d been uncomfortably close to success.

On second thought, maybe I won’t kill Striker. “Tell Fang he’s just been promoted. Find out what the elf knows. Then find the crystal. Do not fail me.”

Striker nodded swiftly, decisively.

“And take that body with you.” He gestured at the bleeding corpse, then prowled across the floor toward the exit. A visit to the torture rooms might cheer me up.

At the last moment, he turned back. “If the old elf won’t turn over the crystal, at least he will be as miserable as I am. You have one more day to break his daughter and find out what she knows. If not, I’m sending back her head.”


2

Aielle awoke to the sound of the dirty tin tray being kicked under her door. She started, half waiting for the door to open. Although she knew it was feeding time, she’d been tortured too often not to prepare herself. Just in case.

When she realized it was safe, she sprang forward with muscles that stiffened in protest, desperately trying to get to the water before it disappeared.

But it was too late.

The cup had already toppled, her water ration sloshing over the side, soaking into the stone floor below. She pressed her fingers against the wet stone and licked the moisture from her fingertips. It did little to curb the painful need for a real sip of water.

It’s not enough. It’s never enough.

But dirty drops of water are better than nothing.

She continued pressing her fingers to the cold stone and licking her fingertips until she was sure there was nothing left. Because really, what else was there to do? She’d been locked inside that prison cell for over a year. Never eating enough food or water. Never seeing the outside.

Occasionally, she heard the screams of other prisoners as they were tortured or killed. Or the snarls and roars of cats. That’s the only way she knew the outside still existed.

Aielle sat back and looked to her tray. The only thing left was a thick mush that was crusted around the edges. She tried to wet her parched lips and tongue to eat it, but the lack of water day after day meant that every part of her was dry. Her eyes felt like sandpaper, her skin itched, and the dust in her cell made her cough in dry heaves. Scooping up a bite with her fingers, she grimaced. The bitter taste never varied, only the consistency. She preferred it to be soupy. There was more water content that way.

Taking the gruel, she walked back the seven steps it took to get to the corner of the floor where she usually slept. Sitting down, she pondered the small sets of jagged notches she'd carved in the wall beside her as she choked down the rest of the bitter gruel. The rest of the notches were near the solid metal door, where she'd begun carving them when she'd arrived. When I had hope.

The notches beside her, though, those had been carved in a different frame of mind. After the torture had begun. When she couldn't make it to the door.

I hate them.

Despite her weakened state, she could feel the rage begin inside her again. The cats were smelly, vicious creatures, and now that they were making Cyborgs, they were turning even the people of Aurora against themselves.

Aielle’s mother was killed in the invasion, and she had been captured trying to save the very people who now held her captive. After her mother died, they decided to try to steal the Ardak’s crystals, rather than use up the power of their own crystals fighting them.

It should have been easy.

Well, relatively easy.

Actually, everyone had said it was a suicide mission, which was why she had fought with her father and brother before leaving, stubbornly refusing to listen to their pleas. In the end, she and a small team of seven warriors had set out on a secret and urgent mission to capture the Ardaks’ crystals – which had turned out to be just one tiny crystal and a few slivers.

The had crystal sat in the center of the Ardak mission control room, and was the source of the Ardaks’ technological power. They had retrieved the crystal, even gotten out of the mountain. But somehow, the Ardaks had learned of their plan, and they were surrounded by the feral, tiger-like monsters as they fled.

Aielle had never fought anything like them. Much taller than ordinary elves or men, they possessed fangs, claws, and enormous strength in addition to their red-bladed swords and ray guns. And they could cover enormous amounts of ground quickly. They were the most vicious, merciless warriors she had ever seen.

She had watched all of her team fall one by one — the green fire in their eyes dying – until only two of them remained. Once they realized the Ardaks meant to capture them, she and Leithe had turned their guns on each other, trying to die with the others rather than being taken captive. But although her aim had been true and Leithe had died, Leithe had missed her completely.

Then the Ardaks had shot Aielle with a beam of red energy that had knocked her unconscious.

Aielle had awakened in this cell and hadn’t seen the outside since. Three hundred and seventy five long, painful days. Some more agonizing than others, to be sure.

If we had been successful, the mountain people would be safe and we’d be home.

Her fists clenched in helpless anger. They stole my mother, my planet, my freedom, and the freedom of everyone else on Aurora. And there’s not a starry thing I can do about it.

Her Ardak captors had come in nicely at first, treating her almost as a visiting dignitary, attempting to befriend her and fool her into giving up the hidden entrances to Renwyn, or the location of Aurora’s largest crystal.

But I won’t be the reason these monsters are able to defeat us. Even if it means my death.

When she hadn’t talked, they had threatened. Then they turned to torture. But the cats hadn’t tortured her themselves.

For that, they’d sent the Cyborgs.

The wide scars on her arms and legs attested to their brutal treatment of her, and there were more on her back and the back of her legs that she had never seen. The whips had been the worst, their ends spiked with nails. She had not cried out or screamed in the beginning, not wanting to let them break her. But as the torture went on day after day, month after month, she began not to care. In the end, she had screamed until she had no voice left.

There had been nothing to wrap the open wounds, her skin flayed apart and no magic left to heal it. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t died, but enough of her people’s magic must have remained in her to get her through the worst of it. Or her mother had intervened from the other side.

I can’t believe the Cyborgs were once mountain people. They were warm, kind.

Now they are monsters.

But I swore never to tell them what I know, and I have been successful, at least in this.

Even to this day, my people are safe. The Ardaks haven’t breached the shield surrounding my realm. Why else would they keep me?

At least that’s what she told herself to hold on to hope in her darkest moments.

The only other thoughts she held onto in her despair were thoughts of her father and brother. But they were riddled with guilt. I shouldn’t have left them that way. Shouldn’t have argued. Our last words to each other were terrible – and after all of it, I still haven’t avenged mother’s death. Even worse, I left them without someone to operate the crystal.

Because something the Ardaks didn’t know, something they could never find out, was that she was the only elf who could wield that large of a crystal. Only the women could do crystal magic, and her line was the most powerful.

And I am now the last of them.

Her shoulders hunched in shame.

And I let myself get captured.

She curled up into a fetal position, half wishing for death to absolve her of her misery.

But then she heard the dreaded scrape of the bar outside her cell. She heard that scrape in my nightmares far too often these days.

I take it back. I don’t want to die by torture.

Her entire body began to tremble with fear, and she couldn’t stop it.

The door began to open.

3

I am malfunctioning.

Tordan slammed his fist angrily into the wall of the tunnel, feeling a surge of satisfaction as cracks appeared across the surface.

Until a few months ago, he hadn’t cared about his enslaved existence. Or anything else, for that matter. But for some reason, he’d been waking up.

Keep working. Keep moving. Never slow. Never stop.” The constant stream of commands in his mind were low in volume, but insistent. No matter the time, day or night. At first he and his fellow Cyborgs had almost gone mad from the relentless commands, but over time they became more like background noise.

It must be the prisoner.

Against all logic, he was starting to believe that there was something special about the prisoner in the last cell. Although I don’t know why I’m bothering with logic. Before the Ardaks had come, he wouldn’t have believed in aliens, or in technology advanced enough to travel through the stars.

His thoughts turned to the prisoner. She had brought back his emotion, he was certain of it. The chip severely dampened a Cyborg’s emotions – it had made him feel dead. But as he’d interacted with her over the past few months, his ability to feel emotion had slowly returned.

And it’s becoming stronger.

I have to hide my anger.

If I’m discovered, they will rechip me.

That thought sent a shiver of terror through him. If they rechipped him, he would lose the rest of himself. The mind can only take so much. All that would remain would be the blank numbness, the lack of feeling. His only job to obey the voices in his head.

But instead of thinking about himself, his mind went again to the female elf. A prisoner. A filthy, weak creature that he often had the task of guarding and feeding. At least that’s what the others said.

But I don’t see her that way.

His processor paused.

Why don’t I see her that way?

His mind slid to how she carried herself, even in chains. She never begged, nor wept. And even after 375 days, she kept her silence. Refused to betray her elven people, even to end her own suffering.

I…admire her.

And yet, it had become something more.

When he could, he snuck her extra food and water. In a moment of extreme weakness, he had covered her in one of his old shirts. Two days ago he had even distracted his Cyborg brethren from their task of torturing her.

None of these things make sense — unless I am malfunctioning.

Going against the chip should be impossible, even to do the smallest tasks. Especially inside the mountain fortress, where the Ardak’s mind control signal was the strongest. And yet, lately…he’d felt almost as if his chip had less and less control over his behaviors. Which is impossible.

He should ask to be reassigned. He should push the little female out of his mind. But instead, he counted the moments until he would see her again. Each time he saw her, he felt a little more free.

“Tordan?” Roian, his best friend, hurried down the tunnel into his private cave at the end.

“What?”

“The General is in a killing mood. We must make sure we don’t give the Ardaks cause to punish us today.”

Haven’t we been punished enough?

He and his fellow Cyborgs had been experiments, chips inserted at the backs of their necks which made them lose their memories, their limbs and parts replaced at the will of the General to make them better workers.

Then the voices had begun. And after a while, he’d begun to lose hope.

Until now.

Keep working. Keep moving. Never slow. Never stop.”

He let himself hear the voices, forced his face to remain blank. “I will go to my post.”

The briefest hint of relief reflected on Roian’s face. “One last time. I heard you may be reassigned after today. Perhaps you could ask for mining duty again, rather than the prison.”

Tordan frowned. “Why am I being reassigned?”

“Didn’t you hear? The Ardak General is going to execute the elf.”

No, he hadn’t heard. Because as his control over the chip improved, he’d learned to tune out the voices of the others.

But if it’s true, I can’t let it happen.

He moved toward Roian, who was blocking the tunnel that would take him to the prison cells.

Suddenly, Roian abruptly straightened. His eyes glowed red and his face went blank. Forced override.

I hate when they do that. Forced override made them nothing more than machines.

“Cyborg T.O.R.D.A.N. Report to your post at once,” Roian instructed in a monotone voice.

“I’m on my way.” Tordan pushed the other Cyborg aside, heading for the prison.

As he sprinted down the twisting tunnels, all he could think of was her. And how, even if he utilized the chip to push his legs past their limit, if she was to be executed today, he couldn’t reach her in time.


4


The Cyborg stepped in and stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowed.

Her gaze swept over his enormous, muscular form. How can such evil exist in a being?

He appears to be nothing more than a man. But he’s not.

Before a year ago, she never would have believed in Cyborgs. How is it possible to control a man with a blinking light at the back of his neck? Even magic couldn’t suppress free will for long. But magic is natural, and something tells me that the chip is as unnatural as a thing can be.

At first, she’d thought the Cyborgs were lying, that they were simply following orders. But she’d had so many interactions with them that she’d realized they had no will of their own left.

An awful smile curved the Cyborg’s lips and he grasped her by the hair, dragging her toward the door.

We’re leaving the cell?

Aielle gripped his arm with both hands, trying to lessen the pain on her scalp. As much as she wanted to let him simply drag her along like a rag doll, her mind elsewhere, the pain always brought her back to the present. At least for the first few hours. After that, my mind will be free to fly into blackness.

The Cyborg yanked her down the hall, and she tried to peer into other cells, but they were all sealed. He drug her into a large room, which looked like a torture chamber. There were all manner of devices hanging on the walls — knives, spikes, cutters in all sizes, and some technological devices, as well. Sprays of old blood decorated the walls, pools of it on the floor. She’d seen some of these tools before, when she’d been tortured in her cell. Others looked more advanced and she could only guess at their use.

Why do they use medieval tools when they have such advanced technology?

Maybe the Cyborgs don’t know how to use it.

As the Cyborg encased her wrists in the shackles hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room, her gaze went over to the corner. A dunking tank. The smell of water reached her nose, making her almost delirious with need.

Water.

Her focus narrowed; every cell in her entire body drawn to the scent of the liquid life. She hadn’t seen that much water since her imprisonment. She couldn’t see herself, but she knew her golden hair hung lifeless, and the green fire of magic in her eyes had long since disappeared.

I need that water.

She forced herself to look away.

I can’t let them know my secret.

The door opened again and another Cyborg walked in. Her heart sank into her stomach when she saw his face.

Budut.

He enjoys every ounce of pain he inflicts. She’d had several torture sessions with him where he didn’t even ask any questions.

He leaned back against the wall, crossing his large arms in front of his chest. His gaze swept over her and a look of immense satisfaction twisted the sharp lines of his face. “You look ready for some fun.”

When she didn’t answer him, anger flashed in his pale eyes and he stalked in her direction with the predatory air of a voracious jungle beast. And I thought the Ardaks were monsters. He strode to the far wall and picked up a whip. He uses the ancient tools because he enjoys it.

When he turned back, he noticed her glance at the water. He laughed. “Feeling a little parched, are you?”

Internally, she felt a sense of satisfaction. The Cyborg thought he was torturing her as he used the instruments — but he would never know that the real torture was the proximity to water she could smell but never touch or taste. He can’t know how important water is to me. That I draw my magic from it.

He flicked his wrist and the lash burned across the front of her legs. Internally, she flinched, but bit down any sound of shock. This is nothing; he didn’t even break my skin. Yet.

Aielle refused to give in to his taunts. I’ve told them nothing in over a year. And he won’t find out anything else today.

He flicked his wrist again three more times, but she didn’t give any signs of pain even though her flesh acknowledged it. Her pain tolerance had grown with practice. Her mind had grown better and better at separating itself from the wounds on her body.

With one swift movement, he reached out and grabbed her hair, yanking her head back.

She couldn’t control her gasp at the pain in her neck.

Budut’s face was above her and his eyes bored into hers. “Growing fond of the pain, are we?” he asked silkily. His tongue reached out and licked up the side of her face, leaving a wet trail. “So defiant! I love torturing you. Breaking you with my whips. If the general didn’t have plans for you, I would keep you for myself, just to hear you scream.”

Aielle marveled at how far she had come. Her body used to shake with rage when he would say these things to her, but now she simply hung there.

Let him do his worst. You can control nothing, except your reactions.

And the more you give, the more he’ll take from you.

He backed away and started whipping her legs and back, leaving marks at first, then lines tinged with blood.

To her surprise, he stopped abruptly. “I wish we could chip you. Then you would have to tell me what you know.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, the chip also makes you lose your memories. So that option is unworkable.” His voice dripped with disappointment. He crossed the torture chamber and took down three small, thin spikes from a nail on the wall. He turned toward her, caressing them lovingly. “Today, we’re going to try something new.”

Her eyes widened as he walked back to her, standing by her hand.

“Do you know what these are for?”

She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of an answer either way.

Budut caressed her fingers, then took one of the spikes and slid it under her nail sharply, so she could feel the bite. “These little spikes will give you the most delicious pain.” His voice was thick with anticipation. “I will give you one last chance to tell me the answers I want. Where is the crystal?” The question was shouted into her ears.

She narrowed her eyes. “I will never tell you.”

He raised the hammer and her entire body cringed in terror. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.

He hit the end and shoved the spike under her nail.

Pain shot up her arm and to her brain, and with it the certainty that she could never, ever tell them where the crystals were. Or how to bypass the shields.

If I give in to the torture, they will hurt my people like this. And worse. These creatures are merciless monsters, and I am all that stands between them and my people.

So I must be strong. No matter what I must endure.

The torture continued. More whips, more questions, two more spikes shoved under trembling fingernails, until she blacked out and felt no more.

5


Budut is going to die, Tordan thought as he peered through the tiny slit in the door of his prisoner’s cell. She appeared to be barely breathing, her temperature far below normal on his visual heat scanner.

His entire frame was shaking with adrenaline and rage, and he inhaled sharp breaths.

He’d been told in hushed tones what Budut had done to her when he arrived. The torturer was so sadistic that even the other Cyborgs avoided him.

But the little elf was not dead, as he had feared. She is still there in her cell, her body rising and falling as she breathes. Thank the gods.

He hadn’t needed to rush through the winding maze of tunnels in a killing rage. He heard a noise and looked over, his eyes narrowing as Budut strutted down the hall toward him.

Maybe a killing rage is still needed. Budut is a rarity among us, one who didn’t require programming to become a killing machine. “Tordan.” He grinned. “You missed the fun.”

Tordan gritted his teeth. “Shut up, Budut.” Quit talking, so I don’t have to kill you yet. Because he definitely planned on killing Budut at some point. He wondered how the other Cyborg still seemed to feel such pleasurable emotion despite the chip. Maybe it doesn’t work on sadistic assholes.

Budut either didn’t hear him, or didn’t care. “I thoroughly enjoyed finally making that elf break.”

Time seemed to stand still and his vision darkened. “She told you the secrets of her people?” He couldn’t hide his disbelief. What did you do to break her, you bastard?

Budut glared. “I might not have gotten that information from her, but after a year of trying, I was finally told not to hold back. I got the screams I was looking for. I enjoyed every second of driving those spikes one by one under her—”

Tordan spun, his hand wrapping around the other male’s throat.

Never kill unless instructed or to defend the king.” The command broke into his mind, the chip trying to exert control over his body. But he pushed it back, controlling his own actions.

Budut’s eyes widened. He clawed at the hand that was crushing the life from his body, but Tordan only squeezed harder, letting his rage flow through his fingers. He felt no mercy, no remorse at what he was doing. When at last he heard the sound of bones crunching, and saw the other male’s eyes deaden, he let go. The torturer’s body crumpled to the ground.

Today, I killed because I wanted to. A feeling of power surged through him. Budut deserved what he got. But this feeling…this freedom…it’s not something I have time to consider.

Tordan moved quickly, picking up the body and moving with purpose to the pits at the end of the row of cells. Opening the grate, he tossed the body inside. A few moments later, water splashed, and then the hissing of the water beasts filled his ears.

The cats won’t know what I have done. No one will know.

Except me.

A slow sense of satisfaction spread through him.

Keep working. Keep moving. Never slow. Never stop.” He heard the voices in his mind, but this time, he didn’t have to obey them.

There was no longer any doubt, his programming had indeed failed, and he knew exactly who was to blame. The elven prisoner.

Now the only question was what he would do about it.

6

Aielle awoke back in her cell, her mind snapping to awareness as intense pain flared to life.

Oh gods, are my fingers on fire?

Slowly, she raised her hand so she could see her mangled fingers. Two of the nails were gone, but the third was still attached on one side. She shuddered, lowering her hand to rest on the freezing stone. I’m going to have to pull out that nail myself.

She realized she was shivering, so she weakly unwrapped the shirt she used as a pillow and pulled it over her. Then she heard the clank of the tin dinner tray and realized the noise must have awakened her. The metal crack was open, and he was looking for her.

Every night, after carefully pushing her tray through the door, gray eyes appeared through the crack, searching for hers. They never spoke more than those words, and he never stayed more than a few seconds, but that small connection warmed her soul in a way that she hadn’t felt since before her capture.

Can’t get to the door tonight. Otherwise my skin will tear in a hundred places.

She wanted to cry, but she had no tears left.

"Eat up, little one." The roughly spoken words were the same every evening, but she waited in anticipation to hear them anyway.

They were the only words resembling kindness that had been spoken to her in over three hundred days.

She whispered her usual, “Thank you," her parched lips barely moving. She didn’t think the sound made it to the door.

There was a pause and the hole in the door stayed open.

He’s checking on me.

Her chest tightened. Am I so desperate that I’m beginning to think he really cares? She berated herself for the thousandth time.

Aielle knew that she should hate him. He might have been one of the mountain people before the invasion — but he was a slave of the Ardaks now. He’s probably as helpless as you are in this situation. You can’t hate him. But you can’t trust him, either.

The other guards rarely used the opening, simply throwing, or even kicking her meals under the door, allowing what little she had to spill upon the floor. She mourned each loss, not of the gruel but of the precious water, which brought with it the scent of the open air and sunlight.

Sometimes when her guard was missing for several days, the other guards forgot to feed her. On more than a few of those occasions, she’d been so hungry and thirsty that she’d considered eating the few roaches and mice that came from the cracks in the walls, hoping for some of the remains.

But not him. Not the special guard. He carefully placed the tray so her water stayed intact. Sometimes there was even extra water.

She snuggled deeper into the shirt that covered her. She was fairly certain it had been from him. As well as other small items after the torture had been at its worst.

She couldn’t prove it was the guard who checked on her who gave things to her. But who else could it be?

Aielle wondered what the rest of him looked like.

Is he handsome? The largest race on Aurora, the men of the Mountain Realm had stood head and shoulders over even her race. They were known for their dark hair and eyes, and rugged good looks. The strength of their men had been legend, their enormous, muscular bodies carving out the mountains, trading their bounty of precious gems and metals for all the races to enjoy.

The Cyborg torturers she’d seen had a beauty that would have been handsome if it hadn’t been so dark and terrifying. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine him, as she had a thousand times before. But it was impossible. The pain was too intense.

And besides, the guilt was too much. If I had accomplished my mission, stolen the crystal, they would be free. We would all be free.

The hole in the door seemed to stay open forever. Much longer than usual.

But finally, it slid slowly shut.

And I can’t even make it to the door for the water.

A solitary tear leaked out of the corner of her eye before she found her way back into the comfort of sleep.

7


Bang! Bang! Bang!

Aielle's swallow stuck in her throat as the loud bangs on the cell door echoed through her cell like a death knell. All of the prisoners knew what they meant. Three knocks in the morning means death by nightfall.

The Cyborgs liked to torture them with the knowledge that they had only a few hours left to live.

Did our shields fail? Did the Ardaks finally capture my people? She thought desperately. And then the worst thought imaginable crept in. Did they get our crystal?

As much as her injured hands still burned and her body ached, she forced herself to sit up a little straighter. I can control only myself. If I must die, I will die with dignity.

She had been one of the most powerful healers among her people, and trained to be a warrior. When they had first invaded, she had wanted to fight against the Ardaks on the battlefield, but their warriors were so fierce, she had been convinced that the secret mission would be the better option.

Where history will show I failed. Her heart wrenched. I led all my warriors to their deaths, including myself. I failed my father and my people. And left the mountain people to their doom. We were their last hope.

Her shoulders slumped. How much dignity can a tortured prisoner have, anyway?

Aielle spent most of the afternoon looking at the door in anticipation. Nothing else matters but that today my torture will finally come to an end. Dignity or not. She waited for her cell door to open, but it didn’t. Time seemed to drag on, the neverending twilight of her cell wearing on her. She wanted to sleep, but such solace wouldn’t come. Instead, she simply pictured what it would feel like to finally come to the end of her suffering.

Where are they? Have they forgotten about me?

Just before nightfall, her door creaked open on its hinges. Two guards stood before her.

She searched their eyes, hoping to find the soft gray ones of the guard who had been so kind to her. Two dark sets of almost black eyes stared mercilessly back. Her head dipped slightly, the simple gesture all she would allow to betray her deep sense of disappointment.

It was ridiculous to hope for something so small. So pointless.

The guards came forward, and she realized by their movements they were both Cyborgs. She didn’t fight it as they dragged her to her feet.

“Why are you executing me now?” she croaked. “Did you get through the Renwyn shields?”

Neither of them answered. She tried to hold her head high, despite the fact the guards carried her by the elbows more than she walked. She felt no shame in going to her death this way, in not betraying her people to the enemy.

Although I failed my mission, I can assume my people are still safe behind their shields. And I am only one person. I could never sacrifice their safety for something as small as my life.

As they walked through the tunnels, they passed more cells than she could count. Sometimes she heard weeping and cursing from the prisoners, male and female, but what struck her the most was the silence. The shuffling sound of footsteps on the cell floors and muted clanking of chains were overshadowed by the silence of the hopeless people within them.

They finally emerged from the prison to take a tunnel traveling upward. Her heart lurched. I might see the sky one last time.

The tunnel emerged aboveground at the bottom of a large arena that must once have been a place for sporting events. The area in the center was covered with dirt, and the steps carved from pure stone around the outside were half-filled with desperate beings — mountain people, Cyborgs, and Ardaks, most whose lives were probably no better than her own.

But then she noticed that the only men she saw were Cyborgs. Did the Ardaks turn every male from the mountain kingdom into a Cyborg? she wondered. But there are so few of them!

Aielle looked up at the sky, her eyes desperately seeking the spots of blue amid the gray clouds. But instead, everything was shrouded with a red glow. Their shield.

She felt a deep sadness for the slaves she saw surrounding her, waiting to cheer for her death. The mountain people — women, children, and Cyborgs — were only shadows of what used to be a free and proud race, before they were taken over by the Ardaks.

But now, their clothing dirty and torn, their faces weathered and bruised, they looked desperate for a moment of happiness. A moment to escape their own torturous lives. Those that were Cyborgs probably had no feelings either way.

She looked down at her hands. If they knew how I failed them, how the crystal was in these two hands until I lost it, they would be cheering even more loudly for my death.

The Cyborgs led her to the far end of the arena, where the Ardak general sat on a large granite dais. It looks like an evil throne. She saw a tiny sliver of red crystal on a staff in his hand. So small, but he could still kill with it.

As they approached him, she couldn’t help but raise her eyes to take one last look at the reddish gray sky above.

Soon I will escape this place with its evil red shield. I will fly even above those clouds, touching the sun. See the beloved face of my mother, who will welcome me home.

Then she stood before the general, dirty and bedraggled in the face of his terrifying majesty. He had all the strength and power typical of an Ardak, but was somehow more evil. He stood over seven feet tall, his black and gray striped fur heavily marred by scarring. Muscles bulging, fangs moist, his yellow slitted eyes pierced her angrily. His fingers were long, their claws pointed as he steepled them in front of his chest.

He roared, the sound filling the arena, its terrible power sending shivers down her spine. It lasted for long seconds, shaking her eardrums, vibrating her very bones. Then he took a deep breath, and spoke. “The time has come to send a message to your father, Aielle, daughter of Ardair.”

She couldn’t hide her shock. Not only did he know who she was, but he spoke the words in the old language of her people, rather than the common tongue shared by all. That language was secret. Known only among the elders. How does he know it?

Before she could respond, he waved the crystal staff in front of him.

“Unfortunately, my dear, since you won’t tell me what I need, that message is your head.” The words were smooth and at the end he gave a hearty, roaring laugh that Aielle knew she would never forget as long as she lived. Then he whispered into the crystal, and suddenly the ground opened beneath her. She fell through the opening as a cheer rose up from the crowd.

Aielle landed hard on her backside, scrambling up from the rock beneath her as quickly as she could. It appeared as though she was in an underground maze. She couldn’t see very far, but some of the rocks glowed dimly, giving a twilight feeling to the tunnel.

Suddenly, an enormous roar seemed to shake the very walls of the maze.

She began to stumble in the opposite direction of the roar, her legs shaking, looking for a means of escape. But the walls and ceiling seemed to be made of solid rock, too smooth to climb, nowhere to hide.

She heard the beast grow closer. It roared a second time.

Suddenly, an enormous, strong hand grabbed her arm.

She turned and looked up into gray eyes.

His gray eyes.

In a complete, perfect, beautiful face.


8


He picked her up, and with one enormous lunge pushed her through a hole in the side of the tunnel. It was a second passage, with the same glowing rocks at intermittent intervals.

She stumbled in the second tunnel, catching herself, and turned around just in time to see him raise his arm in front of his face as the enormous brown-and-black beast leaped onto him. What is it? It’s not an Ardak.

Its strong, powerful jaws clamped around his forearm, its spiked teeth tearing at the tissue until she could hear the scrape of metal. Does the beast have metal teeth? A shiver ran through her. Not just Cyborg men, but Cyborg beasts, as well?

The man tried to fight it, but the sword he'd pulled out from between his shoulder blades simply bounced off the jagged metal spines on the beast's back and shoulders. He grunted, every muscle in his body standing out as he slid backward from the momentum of the monster’s leap.

What can I do? That beast will kill him!

Its growl sent shivers down her spine.

She tried to stand, but her legs crumbled beneath her. If only I could help!

Man and beast slid together, locked in combat. At the last moment, the enormous man turned sideways, using his leverage to slam the beast into the wall. As he turned his head, she saw a tiny red light at the base of his skull and gaped in disbelief.

He’s a Cyborg!

No. It can’t be!

Her steel-eyed guard wasn’t just a slave, but he’d been turned into one of those beasts who had tortured her! She’d thought he was still human, just a prisoner like herself!

But a Cyborg?

One of the brutal half men, half metal monsters!

Why is he helping me?

Her first instinct was to run. She looked around helplessly, realizing she didn’t know where to go. And even if she did, she wouldn’t make it far in her current state. Can I trust him?

As Cyborg and beast disappeared from view, she found herself creeping forward until she could see them. They had parted for a moment, sizing each other up.

The beast came at him again, and the muscles bulged in his arms and torso as he threw it backward once more. The muscles flexed in his thighs as he followed it with two powerful strides and delivered a massive blow to its jaw, stunning it before it could rise.

The Cyborg leaped through the hole toward her, taking a body from the shadows and throwing it back inside for the monster. Moments later, a triumphant howl went up from the other side of the boulder, and dimly they could hear the answering sounds of cheering from above.

She heard the sounds of wet chewing and flinched.

That could have been me.

The Cyborg seemed to understand her thoughts. As he walked around her, his warm fingers squeezed hers for a moment.

The gesture was so human that she didn’t know what to think.

His fingers lingered for a moment, and a spark of magic shot through her. My magic? It’s not gone!

Then she stifled a cry as her mangled fingers belatedly protested the squeeze.

He brought her hand up so that he could see it, and his eyes grew hard. Then he looked over the rest of her, his startlingly handsome face grave.

What is really beneath his skin?

Is he metal — or man?

She cringed when she realized that his eyes must be taking in her bloody, filthy appearance. And I’m wearing nothing but his old, dirty shirt. Not even shoes.

She looked at the arm that the beast had bitten and saw the metal beneath his flesh. She wondered if the injury had hurt him as it would a normal arm.

"Can you run?" he asked quickly, striding down the tunnel, looking back at her.

"I’ll try." She staggered a few steps after him.

He stopped and shook his head. "Never mind. We need to get out of here before that poor beast gets the wrong head to the king.” He didn’t wait, but bent down and lifted her over his shoulder with an easy strength that was almost frightening. “I apologize, this ride may not be comfortable.”

He’s not only gorgeous — he’s incredibly strong.

And he’s saving me.

She couldn’t believe it.

Then logic took over.

You can’t trust him, Aielle. No matter what he looks like. That chip in his neck makes him a slave.

Why does he want me?

The Cyborg took off with long, loping strides down the path, going farther into the mountain.

Aielle could feel her skin tearing in a hundred places with every step. She grabbed on to him reflexively to stop the jostling, and almost screamed when her torn fingers got caught in his shirt. Finally, she decided just to relax as much as possible.

They headed into the blackness and she could see nothing but his back in the intermittent lights that lit the narrow path. He ran from one tunnel to the next, through caverns, and the path arced upward, then downward again.

“Shouldn’t we try to get to the surface?” she asked when he finally slowed.

“No.” His voice was firm. “The surface is too open, and we wouldn’t be able to get through the shield. If we can go through the mountain to the other side, we’ll be past the shield and have a better chance of getting you home.”

Home.

She hadn’t dared to think of it in so long, had resigned herself to a lonely, painful death far from everyone she loved. Can he really take me to Renwyn? Her eyes closed and she imagined her home. The sweet fruit of the trees, the wind in her hair.

Then she opened them again. Forget stealing the Ardak’s crystals. If he takes me home and I get to our crystal, we have a chance at defeating the Ardaks. Even if my father wants to preserve it, we need to use its power to get these monsters off our planet.

But then a terrible, sinister thought crept into the back of her mind. Is this why the Cyborg wants to take me home? Maybe this was the general’s plan all along.

Her heart hardened. I will never let this Cyborg through the shields into Renwyn. Even if he’s not a spy, that chip makes him a danger to all of us. If he’s really on our side, he will understand.

The Cyborg stopped suddenly.

She peered into the blackness behind them, but saw nothing. There was someone else there, though.

She could feel them. Hear their breathing.

Cyborgs.

9

“Tordan?” Solon questioned, peering at him through the dark tunnel. “What are you doing?”

Shit. Why do we have automatic night vision and heat scanners? There was no way for him to hide.

Tordan faced the three Cyborgs, keeping his stance casual. He hadn’t known Solon well before the invasion. But after they had become Cyborgs, they had spoken occasionally if they had the same job duties. He didn’t know the second Cyborg at all; he was smaller, so perhaps he had been from another realm before the invasion. But the third was Roian.

He stared directly at the Cyborg who had been his only friend since they had awakened. Roian didn’t meet his gaze.

Tordan really didn't want to fight them. We’re all victims of the Ardaks. Our minds and thoughts controlled by the chips, our bodies helpless to do anything but obey their commands.

Keep working. Keep moving. Never slow. Never stop.”

How can they think over the voices?

They can’t. They’re not supposed to.

But I can. Maybe I can help them wake up. He eyed them skeptically. Probably not.

So he tuned in to the voices, trying to maintain the stiff formality of the Cyborgs. “Orders from the king himself, Solon,” Tordan lied. “Let us pass.”

And that’s when the voices started buzzing louder, and a stream of orders came in through the chip. “Missing prisoner. Lock down the base. No one enters, no one leaves.”

Shit.

“You heard the orders, Tordan,” Solon said without emotion. “Turn around.”

“My orders came directly from the general. This is not the prisoner they are looking for. He wanted her removed before the lockdown began. You know I cannot go against my orders.” He sized up their surroundings out of the corner of his eye, hoping that they would simply let him pass.

The walkway they were on was very narrow, carved into the side of a steep cavern wall. The inside of the mountain was filled with hollow caves and caverns, but there wasn’t one to help him now.

He could get rid of one of the Cyborgs right away over the side of the path, but unfortunately, whoever it was probably wouldn’t die from the fall.

It takes a lot to kill a Cyborg.

“Neither can we. We must call base to be certain,” the second Cyborg stated without inflection.

They cannot do that. Or everyone will know where we are.

“Of course,” Tordan replied casually as he turned and set down the female in his arms, pressing her against the stone side of the path.

She gripped the stone as hard as she could, her eyes unseeing in the near darkness.

As the second Cyborg touched his finger to his forehead, Tordan sprang forward, using his powerful forward momentum to kick the smaller Cyborg off the edge of the path, into the abyss below.

The Cyborg briefly cried out in surprise, but then was strangely silent. They all waited for long moments, but never heard him hit the ground.

How far down is the bottom of the canyon? He swallowed. Better not to find out firsthand.

He stared down the other two. It was clear that they didn’t know what to do.

Solon broke the silence. “How is this possible? Order Number Four: Killing is forbidden unless given a direct order or defending the king.”

“Because the chip does not control me.” He caught his friend’s gaze and held it. “The Ardaks lied to us. We can break the chip’s control. I did. You can, too.”

Roian looked confused for a moment, and Tordan realized he was trying to fight the chip.

“I can hear the commands, but I don’t have to obey.” Tordan repeated. He heard the commands coming over his chip, but they didn’t affect him.

“How—?” Solon began, but his words were instantly cut off.

Both Cyborgs’ faces went blank, and their eyes began to glow red.

Hard override.

Even worse, this time Tordan couldn’t hear the commands.

Did they turn off my chip? Why can I no longer hear the commands? He didn’t have time to answer that now.

I wish I didn’t have to do this, but I must. Sorry, my friends.

He kicked, aiming for Solon’s ribs.

But the other Cyborg was ready — he grabbed Tordan’s leg and pulled him forward, then tried to push him over the side of the narrow path into the abyss.

Tordan threw himself forward, head-butting the man into the wall of rock. Solon’s head flew back and they heard a sickening crack before he sank down, landing in a heap on the path. To Tordan’s relief, the other Cyborg didn’t move.

Tordan’s eyes were hard as he turned to his best friend. “Roian, stop this,” he commanded. “Fight the chip.”

His friend hesitated, pain darkening his face for a moment before it went blank once more. “You have broken the laws of the Ardak Empire. Prepare to be nullified.”

“Nullified? That’s new,” Tordan commented. “Usually they try to keep us alive.”

There was no recognition in his friend’s eyes. Roian struck out, and Tordan blocked him just in time. They exchanged several heavy blows, Tordan using his cybernetic arm and Roian using a cybernetic leg to land blows much harder than any human could.

Then he heard footsteps behind him. More Cyborgs.

He’s not as good a fighter as I am.

“I don’t want to kill you, Roian — Ronnie.” Why did I call him that? Tordan didn’t recognize his voice. It was higher, almost a plea. “Please let us go.”

At hearing the name, Roian stopped, his face creased with pain. “Go…now…” he said through gritted teeth. Blood started to drip from his nose.

If he isn’t injured, if it doesn’t appear that he fought me, they will take his life.

“I can’t do that yet.” He body slammed Roian into the cliff face, knocking him unconscious. “Don’t get up. Please don’t get up.”

Tordan relaxed when his friend stayed down.

Then, he heard it. The footsteps were getting closer.

Time to go.

He looked back at the elven female and was struck by her beauty. He lifted her over his shoulder again and started to run, but kept her image at the front of his visual cortex. She had been abused in the prison, and was covered in blood and dirt. But he could tell her hair would be golden in the sunlight. Her tall, lithe form would be strong, like her spirit. Her pale green eyes seemed to take in everything around her. He wondered what she thought of him.

What am I doing? He asked himself for exactly the eight thousand and eleventh time since he had made the decision to rescue her. It simply didn’t make sense.

Rescuing this elf is a death sentence, even if my cybernetic programming has gone haywire or my human half gone mad.

And now that I have her in this maze of caves, tunnels, and Cyborgs… we’re probably going to die.

10

Aielle awoke with a groan. She was still over the Cyborg’s shoulder and that last jolt had been particularly painful. How could I fall asleep while he was still walking? I must have been beyond exhaustion.

This part of the cave system was so black that Aielle couldn’t even see the Cyborg’s back, though it was only inches from her face. She was grateful for his apparent night vision.

She tried to slide back into unconsciousness, but couldn’t. She was painfully, horrifyingly awake.

After what seemed like an eternity of agonizing steps, he stopped and set her down.

"Climb onto my back." His words were hurried as his hands reached out of the darkness and guided her hands to his shoulders. She groaned as she raised her arms above her head, and he turned away, kneeling, so that she could put her arms around his neck.

Her skin felt a spark of electricity again when she touched him. What is that?

She wrapped her legs around his waist, and felt it again.

It can’t be attraction, it’s so dark I can barely see him!

She heard a shout and running footfalls behind them. But her mind was awhirl with questions.

My magic wouldn’t choose a Cyborg, would it?

Her mother had told her that her magic would spark when it chose a mate. But I thought he would be… like me.

An elf. Or at least normal.


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