Mad Panther

Alien Guardians of Earth #2

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Sugar left on sentient blade business. She came home to a very mad panther.

When the sentient blade sends her on a rescue mission, Dr. Sugar Jennings sneaks out of her Bad Panther’s bed without saying goodbye. Why? Because a woman’s got to do what she’s got to do.

Okay, not really. Sugar’s more of a straight forward kind of person who would have preferred having the freaking fight to all the subterfuge. Axel’s father, Rodu—a fellow blade host and her mentor—says asking forgiveness later is far better than asking for permission which she’s never going to get.

Sugar doesn’t understand why her alien panther shifter slash next-in-line for the Lyran throne mate is all up in her sentient blade business. She thinks Rodu should have done a better job teaching his thick-headed son about the concept of maintaining some personal space while in a relationship.

Sugar’s blade business turns out to be saving another sentient blade host. This one is a silver-spooned, cocky kid fresh out of college whose ineptitude and negative attitude makes Sugar look like the best blade host ever selected. The younger man is amusing and adorable but also a big pain in everyone’s rear, especially her new alien-sister-in-law’s. But like it or not, the kid is the host of the other Protector blade which means he’s Sugar’s freaking counterpart. She had to tolerate him… and train him how to stay alive if she can.

Honestly? All this blade drama is starting to wear on Sugar’s last nerve. She needs some space to be what she needs to be. Her alien panther isn’t the only one getting mad over the situation.

CHAPTER 1

In the palace of Queen Nyomi, leader of the Alien Guardians of Earth…

Sugar thought of herself as a laid back kind of person—the kind who went with the flow instead of fighting it. The result was a less stressful life which let her sleep better.

Normally.

Tonight, action dreams where she was fighting had kept her tossing and turning for hours.

On top of that, she’d had weirdly vivid dreams of rock walls and stone terraces. During the dream, part of her had felt like she was walking some ancient site. This was a fairly common dream for her because she was an archaeologist, but she hadn’t stayed in the dream long enough to figure it out where she was.

After being jolted awake from that somewhat pleasant dream of exploring an ancient site had come other dreams—dreams of freaking numbers—dreams of 13.1631 degrees south and 72.5450 degrees west. How weird was that?

Wait though…

Sugar rolled over and groaned quietly. Those numbers were more than regular numbers. Those numbers were grid coordinates. But to where?

Since she wasn’t able to sleep, Sugar decided that she might as well go to the library and find out.

She lifted the giant male arm thrown across her body and laid it gently on the bed as she slid from under it. Luckily, there was no worry about waking her softly snoring lover. Axel always slept deeply after the kind of sex they’d indulged in last evening.

She knew from their months of being together that Axel wouldn’t wake up until late in the day tomorrow, probably not until mid-afternoon even. Her half-alien guardian remained in human form for her most of the time, but his feline side loved, loved, loved to nap.

Sugar grabbed her robe from a nearby chair and padded softly across their bedroom to her growing closet of clothing. The ancient artifact buried in her chest had cost her all her previous possessions. Not long ago, she’d been forced to wear the discarded clothing from Axel’s previous conquests. Luckily, sleeping with a Lyran prince came with perks. Among them was that she now had enough gorgeous clothes that she could change daily for several weeks without wearing the same outfit twice.

Her hands reached for items on auto-pilot. Sugar smirked at the functional denim over her arm and the layers of shirts now in her hands. Her arms were filled up long before her mind grasped the significance of her choices. Apparently, she was getting some help dressing from the sentient blade she was still coming to terms with.

There was no use getting pissed at the artifact over the clothing intervention. The sentient blade she hosted had taught her a whole new level of patience. She’d learned to go with the flow because it was less trouble in the long run.

“Hey, Artifact. Got something to tell me?” she whispered softly as she consciously gathered warm socks and sturdy boots as well. They matched the rest of her ensemble.

Affirmative. Entity Sugar will be surprised.

“Like that’s something new?” Sugar quietly grumbled.

State problem. I will amend communication.

“Sorry. Forget I said anything snarky. Save your surprise until I’m dressed and out of earshot of my alien cat, okay?”

Request acknowledged. Haste necessary. Protector Sugar needed.

Sugar nodded. Well, that was her, whether she was happy about the fact or not.

Dreading the artifact once again taking control of her body and morphing her into something superhuman, Sugar ran an agitated hand over her shorter hair. Axel hated that she kept cutting it off these days, but long hair and fight training hadn’t worked out for her. No one had forcibly dragged her down by her ponytail in a long damn time. Prince Picky was just going to have to deal with her butch look. It sure hadn’t seemed to slow down his libido any.

Sugar bundled her clothing and her boots inside a light-weight brown leather jacket before letting herself out in the hallway. A night guard passed by and bowed politely. She inclined her head as she shoved her clothing bundle under her arm in an attempt to shield what she carried. She assumed the benevolent smile she’d been forced to develop for the sake of all those living in Nyomi’s alien queendom.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Sugar explained quickly. “I thought I’d go to the library—didn’t want to wake the sleeping prince.”

The guard bowed his head. “Long live, Prince Axel of Rodu, firstborn son of Queen Nyomi and future leader…”

Sugar ran swiftly to the guard and put a hand over his mouth until his head raised in shock. She was careful not to touch his feline whiskers or she’d have him screaming in pain.

“You know what? I’d like to live long as well. He’s a very cranky feline when he doesn’t get his rest. Let’s not wake Prince Axel up, okay?”

At his nod, Sugar moved her fingers away. “Good. Now, as I said, I’m headed to the library.”

“Long live, Dr. Sugar Jennings, Ancient Earth Historian and…”

“Shhh…” Sugar hissed, putting a finger over her lips. “Let’s not worry about protocol tonight. Continue your…” she flicked her hand as she waved at the hallway, “your prowling—I mean, guard duty.”

Sugar snickered softly when the guard ignored her sarcasm and bowed his head once again. She took advantage of him finally looking away and ran soundlessly down the metal hall. One of the first abilities the artifact had given her was greater speed. Hopefully, she’d moved too swiftly just now for him to have seen her robe billowing open. Public nudity wasn’t condoned here any more than it was on Earth.

She hastily waved her hand over the security panel of the library and entered when she heard the click of the lock releasing.

“Finally. I thought you’d never get here.”

A deep masculine voice came from her favorite chair and startled her. “What the… Damn it, Rodu—I almost screamed when you spoke to me,” Sugar chastised, bringing a hand to her racing heart. She glared at the near replica of the male she’d just snuck away from… and a fellow blade host. “You’re dressed for travel. Where are you going this time of night?”

Rodu snorted and pointed to the clothing clutched to her chest. “Same place you are. My blade informed me that you’ve been given our travel coordinates already. Despite not yet knowing the destination, I took the liberty of acquiring our transport.”

“Transport? Is it a flying saucer like Axel’s? I don’t remember riding in his flying machine. Both times I was in it, apparently I was knocked out. Gina told me they’re really cool though.”

“You can trust it’s a suitable transport for our task which is the critical information you need to know at the moment,” Rodu said with an eye roll. “Why are you wearing a sleep robe? Why didn’t you dress in your room?”

Sugar grunted. “If I had accidentally woke up your son, it would have taken hours to get away from him. Plus, I only thought I was coming to the library to check the numbers in flashing in my head. My blade didn’t say anything about me having to go somewhere.”

In answer, Rodu grunted his disbelief. His reaction made Sugar smile.

Axel might be half-alien but there were times he acted just like his human father. They both had a chest-thumping arrogant male thing they did as they bent the world and everything in it to their will. Such a male attitude in Rodu drove Queen Nyomi crazy, but Sugar found it easy to ignore Rodu’s masculine anger.

When it came to Rodu’s son though, Sugar reacted quite differently. He was so very sure of himself that she was always amused by Axel’s chest-thumping. Good thing she found him humorous because it would be highly problematic, not to mention tiring, to have to kick Axel’s half-alien ass every damn day.

Her mind had obviously wandered too far off track because Rodu was now glaring at her. Sugar giggled as she ducked behind a stack of books to get dressed.

“So do you have them or not?” Rodu demanded.

“Have what?” Sugar asked. One of the servants would find her robe in the morning, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d left her clothing in the library. Axel had a habit of tracking her down there and seducing her away from her work.

A series of numbers suddenly appeared again in her mind. “Oh… you mean the coordinates?” The artifact’s abilities were a kind of magic she never took for granted. She didn’t wait for Rodu to make a sarcastic reply. “13.1631 degrees south and 72.5450 degrees west. I haven’t had time to look up where that is on the map. The artifact said I was going to be surprised.”

Sugar heard one of the workstations chiming softly as Rodu punched in the numbers. “Huh,” she heard him say.

“What? They’re longitude and latitude, right?”

“Machu Picchu—specifically those coordinates are inside the Temple Of The Moon. There appears to be a door carved into a rock wall at that exact spot.”

Sugar carried her socks and boots out to find a seat where she could put them on. “What are we supposed to do? Go there right now?”

“You tell me, Protector. My blade hasn’t withheld information from me in hundreds of years.”

“Guess our blades must want us to work together on this.”

“That would be the logical conclusion,” Rodu said dryly.

Sugar grinned as she fastened both her boots and stood. “You know something, Rodu? You’re every bit as cranky as your son when something wakes you up from sleeping.”

“You can’t be awakened if you haven’t been to sleep. I couldn’t rest because of the urgency I have for us to be underway. We should leave as soon as you’re finished dressing,” Rodu said,  as he turned to erase his original search from the workstation.

“Leave? Without telling anyone?” Sugar asked.

“Do you want to explain going to Machu Picchu in the middle of the night to two cranky cats and a whole army of those in their service who’ll all insist on going along? I’ve found it much easier to explain my absence after I return, and far easier to discover what is happening without the distraction of Nyomi and her elite. The royals will both get mad over our departure, Sugar, but they’ll get over it. It’s beyond time Axel learns to trust the power inside you.”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Sugar said with a sigh. “Okay. I guess I’m ready to go. The numbers keep flashing in my brain like a Las Vegas sign. I’m not able to ignore them. I wasn’t sleeping either.”

“Precisely. That’s how it works,” Rodu explained as he stopped them at the door. He turned to look down at the one human who was connected to him in a way no other being had been in his very long life. “Does Axel’s reaction to your departure truly worry you?”

Sugar chuckled a little. “Not like you’re probably thinking—but some I guess. He’s used to protecting me so he’s going to be one mad panther when he finds out. Axel doesn’t even like me doing the fight training. Going off on a mission with you… and without him? Yeah, I imagine that’s definitely going to piss him off.”

Rodu nodded. “I understand your dilemma. Despite his advanced age in human years, Axel is more child than you are at times. Fine—you can formulate a transmission to send him once we’re underway.”

“I can what?” Sugar asked as she laughed. “Speak English, Rodu. Earth English—the kind I can understand.”

“I was speaking of a note, Sugar. You can send Axel a communication from the airship explaining that the blade called you to duty tonight. Tell him he’ll have to get used to it happening now and again. He’ll seek out Nyomi who will explain it to him.”

“Oh,” Sugar said as she picked up speed. Rodu moved faster than his son did when in panther form. “Okay. That should work. I guess.”

Rodu grunted. “It may ease your guilt at leaving, but don’t count on it working to maintain peace in your relationship. My eldest and his mother are… they are…”

“Emotionally complicated people?” Sugar suggested.

“I suppose that is nicer than calling them clingy,” Rodu said with a shrug.

“Clingy?” Sugar snorted at the term, snickered at Rodu’s frustrated expression, then let herself actually laugh even if Rodu thought she was rude. “Yeah, you’re right. Axel is a bit clingy. Guess I don’t mind it most of the time.”

Rodu didn’t answer. Nor did he laugh with her. He just picked up more speed as they headed for the “transport” he’d arranged.

They entered what appeared to be an enormous area where not only one but at least ten flying vehicles were stored. They varied in size and shape, but all of them seemed like something from a science fiction movie. Some floated and were tethered to the floor by chains. Others had wheels like airplanes used.

Sugar’s gaping mouth closed as Rodu went directly to one and walked up its open ramp without stopping. Her boots ringing on the metal echoed in the giant room as she followed him.

The idea of actually flying somewhere in the machine gave her goosebumps.

Her excitement doubled again when she buckled herself into the passenger seat and listened to Rodu start up the engines. Why had none of the guards tried to stop them from leaving? All the guards they saw along the way just bowed their heads to her and Rodu and went back to their tasks.

Their craft rolled out into the open space in the center of the space. It got airborne before Sugar could gasp in surprise and shot out of an opening into the middle of what looked like a thousand stars. Wherever they were, something she still didn’t know, it must be nighttime.

She peered out a window that didn’t let her see far through the darkness and wondered again where the Lyran palace was located. As if to mock her attempts to discover her whereabouts, seconds later the craft was flying down through clouds and leveling out like a plane.

“Are you ever going to tell me where the palace is located?” Sugar asked.

“Not if I hope to keep sharing Nyomi’s bed,” Rodu answered.

Sugar laughed at his reasoning but she believed it too. She had no doubt Axel’s mother would make Rodu pay dearly if he told.

“I’m going to figure it out, you know. It’s just a matter of time.”

“It’s been over ten months and you still haven’t,” Rodu pointed out.

Grinning over how sure everyone was about her remaining in the dark, Sugar leaned back in her seat and got comfortable. She knew something they obviously didn’t know, which was that finding out secrets was a way of life for her.

She’d have to pay more attention on their return trip. All she could really see at that moment was what was out the front window of the craft. The view was expansive though and she really did feel like she was flying through clouds.

As she wondered about why they were headed to Machu Picchu, all thoughts of a potentially mad panther left her mind.

CHAPTER 2

On top of an Andes mountain at the site of Machu Picchu…

Lake Wright wandered the ancient stone-lined paths bored out of his twenty-two-year-old mind. Despite the panoramic views, all Lake could do was wonder about the number of people and amount of energy it had taken to build the megalithic citadel.

What were the ancient Incans trying to accomplish when they hauled all those giant rocks up the mountain? Lake figured they probably were thinking the same thing his father had been. They thought that when Lake got to the top of the mountain, he’d be awed by the majesty of their accomplishment. And he was, at least a little bit, but at the end of the day, this place was just rocks and dirt and stories.

It was nothing life-changing for him.

His father had meant well with his Peruvian going away gift. To be fair to the man, Lake had used the word exotic when he should have used words like tropical and island during their conversation about where he’d like to go. It was a typical mistake for him. Lake had never known how to communicate clearly with his absent-minded yet academically brilliant father.

Inventor and futurist Frank Wright hadn’t been the best at listening to his one and only child. Born late to parents in their mid-forties, Lake could look backward and see that he’d been way too much trouble for them to manage gracefully. He’d had too much energy and too much curiosity. He’d been too much of everything really. Their answer to the question of what to do with such a child was to send him away to school.

He’d been away when his mother died. He’d come back for the funeral before returning to school two days later.

Self-reliance had become a matter of survival.

Over the years, friends drifted in and out of his life, but he never mourned their loss. Lake just made new ones and moved on. And girls—girls were fun but a bloody enigma. They all seemed to want things he couldn’t find it in himself to give them—like marriage and babies.

God, the last thing in the world he ever wanted was to create another version of himself.

His father’s sudden heart attack just before his graduation had taken away Lake’s secret goal to force his father to connect with him. Whatever was said during the last conversation ended up not mattering one whit. His father was just as dead either way.

Ever the good son though, here Lake was on top of a Peruvian mountain suffering from oxygen deprivation. Either that or he was being haunted by his father’s ghost because he could swear someone kept calling his name.

Lake…

Lake looked around and felt instantly embarrassed by his mental breakdown. Had anyone else noticed? There were others walking the paths, but so far not a single tourist or guide had looked his way. It was like he was invisible. Maybe this was what being dead was like, Lake thought as he walked. You wandered among the living while they didn’t know you existed. 

Shaking his head at his strange thoughts, he trudged on following one path after the other.

How many stones had the Incas carried up here anyway? He’d read the history. The Temple Of The Sun was not all that impressive to him nor was the whole of Machu Picchu unless you were into all the legends.

He’d traveled to Cambodia on a school trip his father had funded a couple of years ago. The temples of Angkor Wat were far more interesting to him—all the giant heads and giant gods. It was creepy to most visitors but he’d oddly felt right at home among those ancient buildings with trees dissecting them.

Lake followed the winding path to the end of the stone walls. He listened to a guide talking about “The Temple Of The Moon”. A strange rock throne, several rooms, and some peculiar yet pointless doorways were carved out of what appeared to be an open cave or at least part of a cave.

He stepped around the other tourists who were still politely listening. He pushed his hair back and bent his six-foot frame to fit through the first genuine opening that went inside. No one paid any attention to him as he walked to one of the many fake doorways. They were just part of the rock wall that hadn’t been excavated.

Lake…

Lake’s head whipped around. What was the hell going on here? That time his name had been louder and clearer. His imagination was probably being affected by the lack of oxygen at Machu Picchu’s high altitude.

His gaze scoured the cave area looking for the owner of the voice but came up with… well, nothing. There was no one else in there but him.

Snorting over his idiocy, Lake glared at everything around him. He finally turned back and glared at the closest “fake” doorway that went nowhere. There were all listed in the visitor brochure to make sure tourists didn’t miss seeing them. All Lake saw was unfinished work and places the builders hadn’t managed to get around to carving before they’d abandoned the temple.

Following some urge he couldn’t refuse, Lake reached out a hand and placed his palm on the rock surface of the wall in front of him. Though solid at first touch, his hand with the slightest push went completely through the cold stone.

“Fuck,” Lake yelled as he yanked his hand back. Not really believing what had just happened, he reached out a second time. The rock surface seemed to melt as his hand, wrist, and finally, his whole arm went through.

Then he felt a tug. And there was a humming sound like a jet engine gearing up for takeoff. It seemed to be coming from the opening his hand was passing through.

What the fuck was this place?

Lake…

And how in bloody hell did the person with the voice know who he was?

“Shit,” Lake yelled loudly as the rest of his body got yanked through the stone.

CHAPTER 3

“Are we there yet?” Sugar bit her lip to keep from laughing when Rodu turned to glare at her.

“Why do you keep asking me that question? It’s only been fifteen minutes.”

Sugar shrugged. “I don’t know. Guess I figured a flying saucer should travel faster than an airplane. It feels like we’re not even moving. I’m pretty sure I keep seeing the same clouds.”

“Peru is very far from the palace,” Rodu said carefully, turning his attention back to the sky in front of them. “Earth physics apply to all craft moving through its atmosphere. Perhaps it would help you to know that we are moving at triple the speed of the fastest commercial airliner. That is all the acceleration our human bodies can handle, even for you and I who are aided by the artifacts within us.”

Sugar made a face. “So are we talking more than four or five hours to get there?”

Rodu turned to glare again. He pressed a button on the panel in front of him. “Calculate and report the estimated time of arrival when maintaining current speed.”

“Four hours fifty-two minutes and twenty-eight seconds,” the craft’s programmed voice reported.

Sugar giggled at the information and how Rodu got it. She couldn’t help it. This was definitely a flying saucer, and it had an onboard computer—just like in the movies. She turned a wicked grin his way. “Are you sure the calculation is right?”

Rodu grunted. “No wonder you tamed my son. The uncertainty you create is like trying to walk through cement. He probably never knows where he stands with you.”

“Not if I can help it,” Sugar agreed with a smile.

She stared out of the window. All she saw was the early morning sky. Skywatching had stopped being amazing after the first hour. Now it was just tedious.

“Actually, I don’t try with Axel. It’s like we meshed without all the common struggle two people experience when they’re attracted to each other. My relationship with him is not like any I had before him.”

Rodu shrugged one shoulder. “Nyomi is as foreign a female companion as a male could ever find. We have nearly nothing in common except that we are obsessed with each other. How it came to be that way remains a mystery to me, even after all this time.”

“That sure doesn’t sound like an easy relationship though.” Sugar grinned when her comment finally managed to get Rodu to smile.

“No. It is not easy. But being with her is more wonderful than anything a human male could ever dream of finding. Her adoration alone is worth living for, no matter how many lifetimes it costs me—and it’s cost me several already. The blade I carry would have probably found a new host long ago if it had not agreed with her regeneration plans.”

Sugar sighed in understanding. “All mine says about the potential end of our connection is host alive until death. It doesn’t seem to get how that kind of statement is not reassuring to me.”

“If you’re expecting it to develop emotional nuances, give that up now. My blade is as direct as it was in the beginning. The only thing I’ve gained over time is that it doesn’t seem to have an opinion on every action. Sometimes I forget it’s in me.”

Sugar chuckled. “My blade and I are far away from that place. I still call it ‘artifact’ when I talk to it because I can’t talk to something that doesn’t have a freaking name. Honestly, everything that’s happened to me still seems completely surreal. Hearing you talk about your blade seems surreal too.”

“After all the years it has been with me, I assure you the being I carry is very real,” Rodu answered. “Soon you will come to understand your bonding with your blade is a natural state. Your blade sought a host for a long time and it finally found one in you. It was created solely to make its host superhuman, as trite as that sounds.”

Sugar nodded. Being superhuman no longer seemed like something fictional, but her brain still couldn’t accept it yet either. The only reason she stayed silent was that too much had happened for her to debate Rodu’s description… or his conclusions.

Sugar?

Sugar glanced at Rodu then returned to staring out the window. Private mode, artifact. Understood?

Affirmative. Urgency now recommended. Protector is awake.

Sugar closed her eyes. Yes, but don’t you think the Protector needs sleep too? I’m still tired.

Response is unclear. Please restate for clarity.

Sugar rolled her eyes behind closed lids. Like the artifact was making sense tonight? Never mind, Artifact. Explain things to me. I’m listening.

Choice is now made.

Sugar felt her eyebrows draw together. I know and I get it. You chose me. You and I are a team.

Affirmative. We are team. New Protector chose Lake.

Her eyelids squeezed tighter as Sugar tried to sort out what the artifact was trying to tell her. Are you saying the new blade is now in a lake?

Previous answer remains valid. Protector now in Lake.

Sugar opened her eyes and stared out at the much brighter morning sky. They were flying through acres of blue with fluffy white vapor puffs. Funny how from the ground the sky always seemed more interesting than when you were moving through it for real. Is that where we’re going? To retrieve the Protector blade?

Negative. Retrieval will result in death.

Whose death? Sugar demanded, her eyes widening at the warning.

Death of Lake.

Sighing, Sugar leaned forward in her seat. Usually, the artifact was much clearer. At the moment, she was getting a headache. That hadn’t happened in a while.

“Getting airsick?” Rodu asked.

“No,” Sugar replied, wincing about keeping things from him. She hated doing it, but the instinct to protect him from feeling too much concern overrode her guilt. “But I’m getting sick of trying to figure out what the hell the blade is trying to tell me about this mission. She says the other protector blade is awake and in a lake. She says if we try to retrieve the blade, the lake is going to die.”

Rodu pondered the possibilities. “Perhaps the blade is speaking of Lake Titicaca. It is the closest lake to your coordinates. There is a science base beneath its depths staffed by a variety of aliens from other planets.”

“Are you telling me real aliens are living underwater in Lake Titicaca?” Sugar exclaimed.

Rodu snorted at her disbelief. “Many visitors from other planets have limited capabilities. There are aliens living in lots of places on Earth, probably in places you’d never believe unless you saw them there.”

“You got that right,” Sugar exclaimed.

“How can you be so shocked when you’re sleeping with a half alien male yourself? You now know for certain that aliens exist, Dr. Jennings. How can you not accept that there are more of them than just the one species you have met to date?”

Sugar let a long breath escape. Because it was incredible that Earth had been invaded long ago and not many knew it. She chuckled over bumping up against the limit of her willingness to believe.

“Guess you got me on that one, Rodu. It hadn’t crossed my mind.”

Rodu grinned. “In Earth terms, Lake Titicaca hosts a scientific observatory where other species study Earth’s ecosystems and biology. But there are no humans there. Human bodies simply aren’t made to be handle pressures down that deep. Only certain aliens can do so.”

Sugar nodded. What else could she do but accept all the new knowledge Rodu kept dropping on her. 

“Okay, I got it. Blades only go into humans, and there are no humans in the nearest lake to the coordinates. We’re now officially back to zero understanding of what my blade is trying to tell us. I think we need to go to the coordinates and look around for clues until I get clear on the message.”

Rodu frowned as he nodded. “It makes sense that you should trust your instincts in the matter. I will take us to the Temple Of The Moon. We will pretend to be explorers and hopefully find our answers.”

Sugar felt her lips twitch. Her wicked side was never far away. “I actually am an explorer. Remember?”

“I suppose that’s true,” Rodu said, nodding. “Our ruse will be highly believable then.”

Sugar didn’t bother explaining that if it was true, then it wasn’t a ruse. Rodu was concerned enough. She’d save her sarcasm and her semantics debate for another day.

CHAPTER 4

Nyomi sat on her throne brooding. She hated this. She hated it every time it happened even though she’d accepted the reality of its demands on her mate before Rodu had come to terms with them.

She’d been a warrior for the entirety of her long life. She well knew the cost of that kind of service. It was impossible not to respect that he’d had to make similar choices.

“Mother, my bed is empty and there is no trace of my mate in your queendom. Where is she?”

Nyomi straightened and faced the male stomping toward her. “Where is who, Axel?”

“You know who I mean.”

Nyomi huffed—then narrowed her eyes at her son. “I do not know where Sugar is. Ask your father.”

“Very well,” Axel said, looking around. “Where is my sire? I’ve checked the training room and the library.”

“I don’t know where your father is either,” Nyomi said stiffly. “I will not know where he has gone until he returns to me. That’s how this works, Axel. The blade calls him to duty. He follows its directions.”

Axel frowned. “Are you saying the blade made Father do something? Do you think Sugar went with him? Do you think her blade made her leave me?”

Nyomi shrugged. “I do not know the answers to any of your queries.”

“Well, what do you know then?”

Nyomi lifted her chin and glared at her angry son. “I know I will have my guards lock you up if you continue to yell at me. Do not forget that I am your queen. When I sit on my throne that trumps being your mother. But—if it helps you—I’m just as concerned as you are about them.”

Axel turned away and stomped off, hissing loudly with frustration. A low growl rose from deep within him and echoed throughout the room. When it died away, he took some calming breaths. 

Then, and only then, did he turn back to his queen?

He approached the throne and knelt at her feet. Axel schooled his expression to calmness when he lifted his face to hers. “Forgive me. My human emotions have made me unreasonable.”

“Will my forgiveness stop you from being mad at Sugar for leaving?” Nyomi asked.

Axel grunted. “No. It will not.”

Nyomi waved a hand and glared. “Get up then, Axel. Fifteen hundred years ago, every time your father left I reacted as you are doing. Now? Now I know it is a waste of my energy to get so emotional over what cannot be changed. I suggest you turn your anger into quiet seething and find something purposeful to do while Sugar is gone. That is your destiny as the mate of someone merged with a sentient blade.”

Axel rose to his feet. “Father disappears from you without a trace? And you accept this as normal?”

“Yes. The blade tells him what he must do and he goes to do it. He doesn’t tell me because he knows I would go along. He will call if he needs help. That is our agreement. For the last thousand years, he has kept his word.”

“What is so wrong with wanting to help?” Axel demanded, lifting a hand. “The blade hosts need protecting. Isn’t that our job as their mates?”

Nyomi sighed. “I hear the echo of my own thoughts coming from my beloved son’s mouth and I can’t even enjoy it. I can only answer that I do not know what our role is where the blades are concerned. They allow our mates to be with us, but Rodu has always insisted that there are things he must do alone. I have no choice but to accept his words as his truth.”

“That is you,” Axel said, smacking his chest with his fist. “But I will never accept such a thing. I have seen Sugar helpless and in need of care. After she fights, she sleeps like death before she is reborn.”

“I know the full worry of what you speak and yet you must somehow find a way to bear it emotionally,” Nyomi said firmly. “If you do not give her freedom willingly, Sugar will leave you to seek the freedom she requires to obey the blade.”

Axel grunted. “Sugar will not leave me. All I’m asking is that she not go out alone and unprotected.”

“She will leave you again and again to serve the blade, but from that, she will always return,” Nyomi said more firmly. “But if she flees your fears and your hovering, she will be gone for many, many years. By the time you find her again, your human love might be on death’s door. Then you will watch her regeneration and pray that her frail human cells allow themselves to be remade. It is a torture that goes on for months, and sometimes years, and one that cannot be adequately described.”

Axel shook his head. “It does not have to be that way. No matter where Sugar goes or what she does, she cannot escape me following. I have ways to find her.”

Nyomi shook her head and kept on shaking it. “You will never find her unless the blade within her wants you to.”

“Before she was merged completely with the blade, I put a bio-tracker in her. At the time, I thought I was doing it to protect a mere human. I’d forgotten about it until now. My craft is equipped to track her through that chip I implanted. I merely have to activate the program.”

Axel paced in a circle in front of the throne.

“I’m going after her, Mother, and I will tell her she is not to go without me ever again. We will come to an agreement.”

“Or to blows,” Nyomi warned.

Axel stopped and stared at his mother. “Didn’t you ever go after Father?”

“Of course I did. I chased him many times until I realized that loving him was not my only purpose in this life I am living,” Nyomi said, lifting her chin. “I learned my lesson about it the hard way. While I was gone searching for someone who didn’t wish to be found, there was no one here sitting on the Lyran throne. My son refused to sit it for me. Being gone too much and too often nearly cost me my people. I cannot abandon my duties, not even for the only male who has ever owned my heart.”

Axel’s guilty gaze dropped. “I’m sorry, Mother. Truly. If I had known what was happening…”

“I’m not attempting to inflict guilt on you for your decisions. I could have ordered you here and you would have come, but a reluctant ruler cannot lead well. And your father’s relationship to his blade was nothing I could tell you about back then,” Nyomi said with a shrug. “The bottom line was that Rodu didn’t want me following him around. Like you, I consoled myself with finding clever ways of tracking him.”

“How?” Axel asked.

“Your brilliant sister developed nanotechnology that I placed in the fabric of his clothing—all of it. So long as he remains dressed, I can find his whereabouts. When he stays too long in one place, I send my elite guard to see why. However, I learned the hard way to not directly interfere with the blade’s business. Please learn that lesson from me and not from your own mistakes, Axel. It will save you from angering your mate and from the grief I suffered when the blade helped Rodu avoid me.”

“When the blade owns Sugar completely, it undresses her without thought. Does Father always remain dressed when he is gone from you?” Axel asked bitterly.

“No. Not always,” Nyomi admitted.

“Sugar is mine, Mother. She will undress only in my presence.”

“Axel, try to remember that you are Lyran. Human jealousy is not part of Lyran logic. Do you not trust Sugar’s love for you is complete and unchanging? Do you not see that your lack of trust in her is about your own feelings of unworthiness?”

Axel bowed his head. “I hear your words, my queen, but the need to find her is great. If there is wisdom in your advice, my heart is not able to hear it.”

“Very well then,” Nyomi said finally. “Go and search for her. I have warned you of what could happen. That is all I can do. You almost didn’t win Sugar’s heart back the last time you messed up with her. I caution you once more to reconsider your course of action.”

“In this instance, I cannot heed your advice,” Axel said tightly. Bowing once more to his queen, he turned and walked quickly from the room.

Nyomi sighed heavily as she watched Axel go. She could have told him where to start searching, but Axel seemed to need to learn his own lessons.

As for her, she might brood about Rodu’s absence, but she would stay focused. Rodu the Destroyer was with Sugar the Protector. No one knew yet what two blades working together could do, but given what she’d seen Rodu do alone, Nyomi suspected their combined power would exceed even her imagination.

She would cling to that knowledge until her lover returned to her arms.

CHAPTER 5

“This place is majestic,” Sugar declared, looking out over the valley below.

“The Temple Of The Moon is this way,” Rodu said, forging ahead without glancing at the scenery.

Sugar sighed as she hurried behind him. “How can you keep so focused? Are you jaded from all your years of seeing humanity’s greatest glories?”

Rodu slowed and glanced over his broad shoulder. “Perhaps I am. I forget you chose to explore the earth for a living. I never longed for those sorts of adventures.”

“Well, I did try to make a living as an explorer, but I ended up teaching instead—like most explorers do. Before finding the blade, I was certainly no Indiana Jones when it came to archaeology,” Sugar joked.

“I do not recall hearing of that historical figure.”

“He’s not historical.” Sugar stopped and chuckled. She hadn’t seen any TV or even a movie for months. The Lyrans didn’t have that kind of entertainment. “Indiana Jones was a fictional archaeologist who went on great adventures. I used to watch movies about him when I was a kid. It made me want to see places like Machu Picchu. When I walk these paths, my mind fills with images of the builders. What were they like? How long did it take them to haul all these massive rocks up here? I think of stuff like that while I appreciate how beautiful this place is.”

Rodu stopped and snorted as he turned to face her. “Do you honestly think humans of that time could have hauled such massive stones up a mountain on their own? The Incans weren’t as physically fit as we are today. Limited diets as they grew up and poor gestational care while in the womb kept them quite short of stature—not to mention the lack of oxygen at these altitudes requires a human to adopt a slower pace of existence. A thirty-year-old then would be like a fifty or sixty-year-old now except they were in worse shape for having had to struggle to survive.”

Sugar shook her head. “That slant on human history has never been conclusively proven. We find human skeletons of large stature all the time at historical sites. The evidence I’ve read has not convinced me that humans of that time weren’t capable of all sorts of surprising physical feats.”

“You don’t need academic proof when you have seen the ancient Incans with your own eyes,” Rodu stated before turning to resume his walk.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me aliens helped the Incans build this place.”

“No, I’m not,” Rodu said as he walked. “The aliens built it for the Incans who traded gold for it. Many alien species visit Earth for its gold and other minerals which they use for energy creation on their home planets. I think somewhere along the line, Nyomi told them all that they had to stop mining our planet’s gold. As I understand it, Earth used to have about a million times the gold resources that it does now.”

Sugar stared at his rigid back and thought once more of how much Axel and Rodu had in common. Their logical arguments were real conversation killers. If they weren’t so good looking, their socially inept asses would never get laid.

“So how much longer until we get there?” Sugar grinned when Rodu grunted at her annoying query. Rodu shook his head but didn’t turn around.

“I refuse to answer that question. Keep walking and you will soon see for yourself.”

She lapsed into silence then and let her gaze wander. The mountain citadel was truly a marvel no matter how it came to be.

Haste required. Merge imminent.

Sugar’s concerned gaze scoured the terrace. “Let’s hustle, Rodu. I think the new Protector blade has found its victim—I mean, its host. Mine is warning me that merging is imminent.”

“The Temple Of The Moon is just ahead.”

“Where? I don’t see it.”

Rodu raised his arm and pointed. “See the overhang with the rock surface carved out? That’s the Temple Of The Moon. It’s a cave.”

“A cave? I’m not sure that rock overhang counts as a cave,” Sugar said.

“Tell that to the dead Incan empire. I’m sure they will care about your idea of what a stone temple should look like.”

Sugar wanted to growl. His sarcasm was starting to grate on her nerves. “Did you eat before we left? Because I definitely hear hangry talk. I offered you a protein bar in the flying saucer.”

“It’s not a…”

Before Rodu could utter a defense of the craft that had brought them there, the whole mountain shook from within. The echo that followed shook nearly all the rock walls and buildings. They rattled and rumbled before settling right back into place.

Rodu turned and grabbed her arm as they worked to steady themselves. People around them were already on the ground. Sugar knew most would think it was an earthquake because they were common in the area.

“There was an explosion inside the mountain. My artifact is activating,” Rodu said. “I thought you said the blade’s awakening was happening in a lake.”

Sugar pulled away from his grasp. It was hard to tune out the panicked discussions happening all over the plateau and focus just on what Rodu was saying. “You’ve been speaking with your artifact longer than I have mine. Sometimes what it says confuses me, but dude, it definitely said lake. I got that much right.”

“Lake makes no sense. Come on,” Rodu whispered. “We have to move fast. The guides are making everyone leave. Keep your head down and walk quickly.”

Sugar nodded as they nearly jogged the remaining distance to the rock temple and stopped to preview all the doors. Some were in front of empty rooms. Others were fake or unfinished. Nothing appeared to be happening in the cave housing the Temple Of The Moon.

Sugar walked close to the wall and put a hand to her chest when it instantly vibrated. “Talk to me, Artifact. What am I not seeing?”

Travel portal. Hidden room. Protector blade now in Lake.

Sugar snorted and patted her chest. She turned to Rodu who was standing guard. “Ever heard of a travel portal?”

“No.”

Sugar shrugged both shoulders. “My blade must be malfunctioning. It says there is a travel portal and a hidden room. Then it said the blade was now in the lake… and it definitely said lake.”

Rodu hurried to her. “My blade has never had a malfunction—not once in all the years of our merging. You’re not understanding.”

“Are you calling me stupid, Rodu? Because I’m feeling stupid enough without hearing it from you. Normally, I get what it tells me. My blade is literal to a fault. It said lake.”

“No,” Rodu denied. “I accuse you of nothing. Let’s just say you’re misunderstanding. Clarity will come in time.”

“Look… I translated Athena’s original language looking for where the other two blades were and I dreamed the coordinates of this place. I am not misunderstanding all of it… I’m just…” Sugar looked around. “Maybe the travel portal is going to throw us into a hidden lake or something.”

“I think the ‘or something’ is where we will find agreement eventually. Start searching for all the clues you can find,” Rodu ordered before walking away to peer into one of the empty rock rooms.

He then trailed his hand over the nearest faux doorway and over the rock face inside its carved edges. Sugar watched but there was nothing to see.

“We need to move quickly. Guides will be searching for stragglers soon. When your chest vibrates, you’ll know we’re close to an answer.”

“I can’t tell if you believe me or not,” Sugar told him. 

She ran her hand over the rock surface of the doorway she now faced. Nothing. No vibration.

She put a hand on her chest. “I feel like I’m playing Blade Jeopardy. I’ll take travel portals for five hundred, Artifact. Show me the answer.”

Sugar moved to the next fake doorway. Her whole body shook in vibration. “Rodu,” she called, trying to get her breath. “I’m having my own personal earthquake here. Damn, I always forget how much that shit hurts until it starts happening.”

He came running over and grabbed his chest when he got within arm’s length. “Yes. It always hurts—every single time.”

“Great. Now I’m panicking too,” Sugar said, venting her pain through sarcasm. The pain was so intense it was all she could do to stand upright.

Rodu put a hand on the rock face. He slid it down until he felt the answering vibration in the rock. “This must be the hidden room,” he whispered.

“Where’s the travel portal?” Sugar whispered back.

Rodu let the rock pull on his hand. Moments later it passed through the stone.

“Damn,” Sugar said, putting her hand next to his. “It’s sucking me through it. Do you think the lake is on the other side?”

“Only one way to find out,” Rodu said, pushing his arm through until it got to his shoulder. He looked at Sugar. “Follow if you can. Be careful if you can’t.”

Sugar huffed. “I’m not staying here by myself.”

Her breath caught when the rest of Rodu’s body disappeared through the rock wall. She touched the place again and felt it vibrate against her hand. 

Sugar swallowed nervously. What if she got stuck? People would find her and she’d be half in and half out of the rock. That wouldn’t be good for her low profile. Right?

Sugar needed. Merge incomplete. Host at risk.

“Okay. Okay,” Sugar answered out loud. She couldn’t let Axel’s father face whatever was beyond that wall alone, could she? “Prepare yourself, artifact. Here we go.”

Sugar let her hand be pulled through and winced as her shoulder bumped against the solid rock face. She squealed when something grabbed onto her fingers and yanked her the rest of the way.

Sugar called out but her yelling cut off when she saw the sparkle of gold that covered every surface that wasn’t part of the dirt floor or made of rock. 

And in the middle of all that gold was a pedestal with the outline of a box still visible on it.

Been there and touched that, Sugar thought, sighing out loud.

“Looks like we found the hidden room,” she announced. Rodu nodded and left her where she was. Sugar turned back to the rock wall and reached out to feel the vibration where she’d passed through it. The portal was still there. “Hey, Artifact. Is the vibrating rock wall the travel portal?”

Affirmative.

“Great. Now, where’s the mysterious lake you keep talking about?”

Search cave floor. Host requires help.

“Right,” Sugar grumbled in reply. “First, an earthquake—then a potential lake flood—and if that’s not enough, we’ve also got a blade host in jeopardy. Who gets out of bed for this? I could be cuddled up to my sleeping cat right now”

Help is needed. Protector must save.

“You know, you do guilt really well for never having been human. Guess you’re showing me who’s the boss,” Sugar complained, frowning as she started walking the same path Rodu had taken.

Boss?

“An employer—someone who trades work for money,” Sugar said flatly. “Isn’t that word in your lexicon?”

Negative.

“Well, it is now,” Sugar said dryly. “Any human who has a job also has a boss, unless they work for themselves. In that case, their customers are the boss.”

No boss. Prefer partner.

“Me too, but that hasn’t always worked out well for me.” Sugar talked on, knowing Rodu wouldn’t think badly of her speaking out loud to her blade. Sharing thoughts without talking often gave her a headache that lasted for hours.

“Sugar! Come quick. I think I’ve found the new host… and he’s in trouble.”

Ignoring the gleaming objects on both sides of her, Sugar covered the rest of the path in a run.

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