Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Bewitching Exclusive Excerpt – Beyond the Next Star By Melody Johnson

Delaney collapsed into a snowbank, protected from the cold by her custom-fit, fur-lined, hooded onesie and protected from the hard ground by the snow. She tried to catch her breath. Her lungs were burning. Her legs were jelly. Her sides were cramping. From her cocoon of fur and snow, she watched the first sun rise, its muted glow backlighting a blanket of clouds, and seriously considered the chances—and merits—of death by exercise. Of all the ways to die on an alien ice planet, exercise hadn’t been her largest concern. Hypothermia, possibly. Infection from a bacteria her body couldn’t defend against, certainly. Murder at the hands of the bitch who had shot Keil, most definitely, especially after yesterday’s close encounter. But not exercise. Granted, she’d never been particularly athletic, but she’d never considered running a lethal pastime until now.
This wasn’t her first collapse. She’d dropped exhausted into three different snowbanks this morning, so she knew that Torek would circle back when he realized she’d fallen behind. He’d yell. He’d cajole. He’d tell her that she was a sweet, beautiful little diva, prop her back on her blistered feet, and take off again, commanding her to come. And she would, because where else did she have to go?
The torture had begun nearly three hours ago. Torek had risen two hours before dawn, as usual, but instead of disappearing for an hour and twenty minutes, he’d dressed her in one of her new fur-lined snowsuits, complete with a fitted ­sheet now—ha!—and dragged her along on what was apparently his early morning routine. He ran.
Mystery solved. No wonder he returned a stinky, sweaty mess every morning. No wonder he was so strong and muscular, his thighs the size of big tree trunks. The true wonder was that he expected her to keep up. The top of her head just reached his chin, she took two strides for each one of his, and he outweighed her by at least 80 pounds, but no, she was a diva for collapsing in a snowbank after two hours of keeping pace with him in an arctic tundra.
As she caught her breath, Delaney’s thoughts drifted back to yesterday’s hike. She’d thought that outing exhausting at the time. Granted, worse than Torek’s proclivity toward exercise had been the unexpected company.
Torek knew the woman who had murdered Keil. More than that, he was friendly with her. He’d saluted her. He served her. And Delaney had lost her cool. Luckily, Torek just thought her shy, but the woman, Dorai Nikiok Lore’Lorien—commander of the entire planet, if she’d translated her military rank correctly—was more perceptive.
Delaney shuddered.
Several minutes later, Torek still hadn’t circled back. Delaney sat up and stood of her own volition. Her thighs were shaking. She locked her knees to remain upright and finally took real stock of her surroundings. The first sun had fully risen. If today had been a normal morning, she’d be enjoying a nice bowl of gigok in the comfort of Torek’s dining nook. Maybe pretending to eat another page out of his book on dirt and dressing for rounds.
Instead, she was—well, she didn’t know where the hell she was, but she was cold and surrounded by ice and snow and spiny thorn bushes, the closest thing this planet seemed to come to vegetation. Presumably, she was somewhere on the Onik estate, but that was about as helpful as knowing she was somewhere on the planet Lorien. Her knowledge of local geography was too limited; she had no way of finding Torek or, preferably, escaping back to the castle.
Or just escaping.
Nostalgia choked her as sharp and radiating as a bee sting, and as potentially deadly. Delaney tipped her head back and breathed into the falling snow. The flakes were so thick that the white blanket of fluff high overhead might not even be clouds but the dense blur of cascading snowflakes. They melted on her face at first, then started to chill her cheeks and stick. If she ignored the tundra surrounding her—the ice sculptures and jagged landscape and spiny bushes attempting to pass as plants—and if she kept her gaze filled with snow and sky, she could almost pretend she was back in north Georgia, high up on the Appalachian Trail just outside Hiawassee in deep winter. There was even a section of trail that resembled this one, kind of, with its briars and the serene silence that snow and solitude gives any place.
She’d hiked that trail dozens of times, content in its silent solitude, until that one January morning she’d been alone in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now she was here on Lorien, once again surrounded by snow and silence, but not content at all.
She could escape the remainder of the run if she found her way back to the castle, but there was no permanent solution to her overall captivity. There was no more Hiawassee, no more Appalachian Trail, no more north Georgia in her world. There was no more Earth. She brushed off the snow and slush that had accumulated on her face and took in the tundra surrounding her.
Granted, there were no more burgers to flip, and there was no rent to hustle for either. She snorted to herself. The positives didn’t outweigh the negatives, not by a long shot, but this was it. This planet and its furry inhabitants, Torek and his regimented schedule and doting baby coos, and the hovering guillotine of keeping her silence: this was her life. Dwelling on the past merely poisoned the future. No matter how impossible her present circumstances seemed, nothing was more impossible than returning to Earth.
She’d thought she’d come to grips with her circumstances during the five-year space journey to Lorien and that her acceptance had been solidified by witnessing Keil’s murder. Funny how quickly a little fresh air and a brief, false taste of freedom could make her long for so much more. She’d been dealt a shit hand, no question, but crying about it didn’t change it. She’d have to play it through to the end.
She had three choices: she could try to avoid more running by backtracking to the castle; she could attempt to catch up to Torek by following his trail; or she could stay put in the hope that Torek returned for her again.
Delaney trudged forward in the wake of Torek’s footprints. The trail wound up a rocky incline, down into a spiny-bush-filled ravine, and meandered through another grove of ice sculptures. She paused to read one of the plaques—maybe they were directional signs—but they were just names and numbers. A field of statuary with plaques listing names with numbers.
They weren’t plaques. They were grave markers.
She was in a cemetery.
Delaney accelerated her pace into a steady jog. Her thighs, screaming and rigidly stiff, were going to kill tomorrow morning. She focused on that pain and found a rhythm in her breathing to push back the panic. The grave markers and ice sculptures eventually transitioned back to wilderness. The air changed slightly, becoming not just cold but damp, and a dull rushing noise swelled in what was once silence. But she ignored her surroundings, keeping her eyes and mind tunneled forward as her aching legs carried her onward.
An indeterminate amount of time passed, long enough that other lorienok were strolling the trail now, flying and walking—not running—their animal companions. They eyed her with surprise and concern, glancing about for her owner. Finding her alone, they proceeded to coax her to approach them. Delaney ignored their calls. She ducked her head, avoided eye contact, and trudged onward until she reached the mouth of a five-way crossroad.
The snow had nearly completely leveled Torek’s tracks, so his weren’t the only ones anymore. All five trails had tracks now, some fresh, some filled in by the falling snow, but none of them obviously produced by Torek.
Damn it, she should have stayed put.
Her muscles were shaking, not just with overuse, but with cold now too. She was lost. On an alien ice planet. Strangers were staring, and now that she’d stopped, they were starting to converge on her from all sides. She couldn’t ask for help because she wasn’t supposed to have the intelligence to speak. She didn’t want to be a pet. She didn’t want to be on this planet. She didn’t want this life!
Someone touched her shoulder. The hand was gentle and warm. She looked up, nearly limp with relief. Torek had doubled back. Of course he had, why wouldn’t—
The fur, arched ram horns, and muscled build were right, but the face and eyes were all wrong. The face was gentle and concerned, but it wasn’t scarred. His hair was cropped short on his head and chin. Both his eyes were brown. His muzzle was more pronounced. He was murmuring something about poor and dear and scared, but his lips were fuller, his voice smoother, and Delaney couldn’t help it: her heart rate spiked, and her body recoiled. She spun away and slammed back into someone else.
At least five lorienok had surrounded her. As that first lor murmured sweet nothings to her, another lor reached for her collar. Delaney willed her heart to slow and tried to calm the adrenaline urging her to run. She didn’t particularly like how they had bullied around her, but they meant well. They were here to help. Considering Torek’s status in Onik, they must know she was his animal companion, and they’d return her to him.
Despite her very logical reasoning, she couldn’t quite bring herself to allow them to take hold of her collar. She ducked their grabby hands, and as she spun out of reach, she noticed something metallic glint in the morning sun. A lor was approaching who wasn’t murmuring sweet nothings. His expression was intense instead of soothing. His gaze darted from her to the surrounding crowd and back to her, a little panicky himself.
He shouldered through to the front of the crowd and approached her, but something was wrong with his arm. He was holding it immobile at his side and had angled his wrist to tuck whatever he was holding out of sight.
She feigned left and lunged right, avoiding another pair of grasping hands, and spied what that lor was hiding.
A knife.
Delaney lost her battle against panicking. She let loose an ear-splitting scream, and as the surrounding lorienok recoiled in surprise, she leapt from the crowd and tore down one of the paths in a blind sprint.
Her heart beat through her entire body, as if even her fingertips, ears, and scalp were contracting in rhythm. The panic drowned everything: the muscle fatigue, the sharp pain of the icy air in her throat, all thought and reason. Suddenly, none of it existed except for the honed singularity that she needed to escape.
Footsteps pounded behind her. She risked a glance over her shoulder. Shit. The lor holding the knife wasn’t chasing her, but three others were, one of them only a few strides away. And behind him, the crowd was staring and pointing. Encouraging.
It wouldn’t be enough. Even with the extra speed and strength that panic had lent her, she was still only a small human attempting to outrun a massive Sasquatch. She sensed more than felt him reaching for her—all of them reaching for her—and she lunged into the foliage.
The spines on the bushes were needle sharp. Her onesie protected her arms and legs, but the fabric caught on the thorns, slowing her pace. She twisted and screamed, tearing and raging against the spines. She had to yank free of their grasping hands. She had to escape. Where was Torek? Where was she? Where the fuck was she?
Something ripped. The resistance holding her back gave as she threw herself forward. The ground disappeared from beneath her feet, and she pitched ass over head down a ravine.
The sky swapped with the snowy slope in a whirl of soft white, spine bushes, and jagged boulders. Her shoulder cracked on something hard. Her hip hit the ground with a jarring thud that stung both her side and her tongue as her teeth clacked together. Her momentum upended her forward into another somersault, and something stabbed into her rib. She rolled, ricocheted off a boulder, and pain exploded through her knee. Spiny bushes and more boulders blurred past. She clawed at them, trying to slow her fall, but the ground’s frozen slick beneath its serene, snowy surface shredded her palms without giving them purchase.
She was midair, falling instead of sliding. Her vision became a kaleidoscope of a thousand magnified glimpses: the edge of a cliff, her trail down the ravine, the lorienok still watching, still chasing, the white slope blending into the white of the sky blurred with the white snowfall.
She landed flat on something level but unforgiving. Her head whipped back. A crack split her skull, and all that white winked out into blackness.

Torek was finally running. Really running. His legs ate the ground beneath him, pounding in rhythm with his breath and racing heart. The straining burn in his muscles was delicious, and he fed off that pain, gorged on it, pushing himself to the edge of exhaustion, driving his legs to move faster, stride longer, lunge harder. He delved deep into that pain, pinched it wide until it bled, and turned it into fuel, rocketing past all walls, all sanity and reason until he was nothing but his heart and legs and pumping arms. Finally!
He slowed when he neared the path’s end, chest heaving, but his energy nowhere near depleted. The exhilaration of intense exercise was the only perk to staying in shape for combat and the sole reason he forced himself from bed horrendously early every morning. He glared at the height of the sun and shuffed through his flared nostrils.
It was no longer early morning.
A wave of frustration drowned his endorphin-induced high. He was grossly behind schedule. He should already have eaten breakfast and conferred with his guard. At this very moment, he should be meeting with the household staff. Considering the scant distance he’d managed to run, he may as well have stayed in bed and slept away the morning. At least if he’d done that, he’d be on schedule.
He combed his fingers through the fur on his forehead, and some of the strands stuck upright, slick from his sweat. He needed to double back for Reshna.
Another tide of frustration swelled, but he tamped it down this time. He should have known, considering her size and disposition, that including her on his morning runs wouldn’t work. She simply couldn’t keep up, and if the heat in her dagger-eyed expression was any indication, she had no desire to. He’d need to carve an extra hour out of his schedule and dedicate it to an exercise regimen appropriate for her. As if he had another hour of time to spare.
He nearly shuffed again, but caught himself and swallowed it this time. She needed to build up her strength and stamina, same as any creature—just not exactly the same as him.
Torek about-faced and doubled back over the path he’d just run, quickly reestablishing a vigorous pace. The entire morning was shot, anyway; he might as well enjoy the tail end of his run, since the beginning had been such a complete waste.
He approached the waterfall, hiked its slope, and had reached the second ridge when he noticed the shape of another lor approaching. The lor—a boy, Torek realized as he drew closer—was sprinting, but where Torek was regimented and focused in his pounding strides, the boy looked desperate. His eyes were wide, his breaths were ragged and gasping. When recognition dawned on his face at the sight of Torek, the boy’s body nearly overran his legs. He was obviously shaken.
The boy stumbled to a halt and immediately doubled over. He removed a hand from his knee in an attempt to genuflect and almost collapsed.
Torek took him by the shoulders. “Steady.”
“Torek Lore’Onik—” The boy inhaled in a long wheeze. “Weidnar Kenzo Lesh’—” He gasped noisily. “Aerai Renaar.”
Torek reeled in his impatience. This was simply not his morning. “Yes?”
“You have a new animal companion.” He straightened, still panting. “The newest, yes? Long, bare limbs, wearing custom fur coverings? About shoulder high and hair like an ice drill?”
He tensed his grip on the boy’s shoulders. “Yes.”
“She looked lost and scared. My father tried to catch her for you, to bring her back to the estate proper, but she ran away. She—” The boy’s ears, still too big for his adult body, lowered in distress.
“Is she all right? She listens to commands. She can—”
The boy shook his head. “She took off and fell down the ravine into the Zorelok River.”
Torek leaned down into the boy’s face. “Into? Did she actually break through the ice and into—”
The boy’s ears completely flattened against his head. “I don’t know! I didn’t see! Everyone said she fell, and then Father was running for her and telling me to run for you and—”
“It’s all right. You’ve done well. You—”
The boy was shaking his head, his eyes wide and frantic as they avoided Torek’s face.
Torek shook him. “Look at me!”
He did, his ears quivering against his skull.
Torek reined in his emotions and forced a quiet calm into his voice when he spoke. “I need you to be strong just a little longer. You found me, like you told your father you would. Now, I need you to continue on to find someone else, yes?”
The boy hesitated, his ears still flat, but his eyes were sharp and focused now. He nodded.
“Do you have a daami?”
“Not with me. We were visiting my forefather.”
Torek unfastened the strap and buckled his daami to the boy’s wrist. “You’ll take mine. Run until you’re out of Graevlai and have clearance to use it. You don’t have far to go. Just down that last ridge and past the waterfall.”
The boy stared at his wrist, his ears slowly perking.
“Once you have clearance, contact Brinon Kore’Onik. Tell him what’s happened and help him however he requires.”
The boy was still staring. The daami chirped a reminder, and the boy blinked.
“That’s an order,” Torek said, but the boy still didn’t look up. Torek shook him by the shoulders again. “Repeat my order. What are you going to do?”
“I—I’m to run out of Graevlai, where I’ll have clearance to call Brinon Kore’Onik,” he said, whispering Brinon’s name with a reverence usually reserved for the Lore’Lorien herself.
Torek swallowed back the urge to growl, but even so, he could still feel his hackles rising. He hoped the boy was so distracted by his task that he didn’t notice. “Yes. Now, before you go, where is your father?”
“Up the third ridge then across Viprok d’Orell. That’s where she slipped down—”
“Viprok d’Orell?” Torek thundered. “Why would she—”
“She ran! We tried to catch her, but—”
“All right. You did well. Now go!” Torek squeezed his shoulder—in thanks and comfort, but the boy winced—and took off in the opposite direction.
Viprok d’Orell. Had it been too much to expect Reshna to stay put after throwing herself into that fourth snowbank? As if her tantrums weren’t enough, delaying his schedule for hours, now she’d taken a stroll down the most dangerous, treacherous terrain in Onik.
She looked lost and scared … tried to catch her … but she ran away.
The boy’s words echoed in Torek’s mind, and his frustration soured in his gut. He sprinted up the second and third ridges, pounding over the terrain as hard and fast as his body could possibly be pushed. But each stride stabbed through his heart: Reshna lost. Reshna running scared. Reshna falling. Reshna broken. Reshna dying.
He’d known this would happen. He’d known the moment the court had mandated that he obtain an animal companion that both he and the poor animal would be doomed. And he’d been reminded of it again when he’d first glimpsed Reshna and her too-long, high-maintenance hair. And again when he’d begun reading her massive tome of a manual. He’d been consumed with keeping her clean and warm, avoiding all foods seasoned with ukok—which didn’t leave much variety in their diet—and attending to her well-being, which always seemed to be on the brink of being unwell. It was only recently, after having integrated Reshna into his schedule and achieved some success with her training, that he’d forgotten the inevitable: that he would kill her. The act of killing was inadvertent, but she would be just as dead—and he just as devastated—all the same.
Any deep emotion is fuel, and Torek used the terror stealing over his mind to drive his body. He finished his sprint over the third ridge, made the sharp turn into Viprok d’Orell, and immediately halted to assess the scene before him.
A line of several dozen lorienok were braced on the near-vertical slope, holding hands in a chain down the ravine. Several more lorienok were using the chain of bodies to painstakingly descend toward the frozen Zorelok River. They were a few people short of the river’s edge. Several yards downstream and adjacent to that last lor was a fifteen-foot drop, below which lay the object they were trying so diligently to reach: Reshna.
She was lying on her back atop the ice in the middle of the river. Unmoving. From this distance, he couldn’t see much detail. She was shadowed by a mountainous overhang covering half the river, but he recognized her by her new fur-lined coverings and wild hair. Something was different about it, though. Darker. It was wet, and inky tendrils of something red expanded like a halo around her head.
The realization was like a focusing lens to his perception. Everything was red: the soaked tuanok bush thorns, the spattered snow, a glistening branch, a dripping smear along the side of a boulder, twin tracks leading to the edge of the cliff. At the end of that gory path was Reshna, soaking in the expanding puddle of her own blood on the splintered ice.
The ice must have fractured from the force of her fall, and the blood, still pouring from her wounds—being pumped by her beating heart, Torek hoped—was dripping into and seeping through those spiderweb cracks. It was possible that they were only surface fractures, that her blood would remain on the ice and not drip into the Zorelok River itself. Even if drops of her blood did seep through to the river below, the zorels might not be sufficiently awake from their hibernation to notice or care.
It was also possible that, even if they weren’t awake now, the scent of her blood would bring them out of hibernation.
The waterfall at the mouth of the Zorelok River had been gushing this morning and every morning for the past couple weeks, indicating the end of Rorak. The ice was already melting, enough so that the river was raging beneath it, feeding the falls. It would continue to thin, then completely melt, and Genai would be upon them along with another zorel season.
Torek suppressed the spike in his heart at the thought. As the world turned, there would always be a Genai following the Rorak and another zorel season. Whether it came early or late, it would still come. Minimizing mass casualties when it came, not saving individuals, was his sole concern.
But Genai hadn’t quite come yet.
Torek rushed forward to the ladder of lorienok and began the descent down the ravine.
Torek nodded acknowledgment to each one, but not slipping took most of his concentration. He couldn’t think of the worst, of someone breaking their hold, of the entire chain of lorienok from that person on—twenty-five, maybe thirty lor and lorok—falling down the slope and pounding into the ice. Reshna and her meager weight had cracked it. They would shatter completely through it. He couldn’t think of the loss of not just Reshna but the strangers who had banded together to help her. To help him. They were the civilians he’d risked life and limb to protect for ten Genai, but unlike his guard, they were under no oath to serve him or their country. But here they were, risking life and limb for him in return.
Torek’s right boot found a particularly slick patch, already bare from someone else’s footfall. His right leg shot out from beneath him, and his left leg, bearing all his weight, followed. He lost his grip on the waist of the lor anchoring him, fell on his side, and started to slide down the ravine. He flung out an arm and hooked his elbow around someone’s ankle. The lor gave a pained groan as he strained to keep hold of his neighbor’s hand. A chain reaction triggered up the line, groan after groan, each straining to hold the additional weight.
But they were two dozen holding one. They held strong.
Torek glanced down the steep, jagged terrain of the ravine and blew out a shaky breath. Reshna had scraped and lashed and bled her way down the entire treacherous slope. He stared at her for a moment—still on her back, the puddle of blood around her either growing or simply appearing larger the closer he got—and took strength. He had to reach her. These people, Lorien bless them, had given him the means unasked, and he could reach her. The boy would contact Brinon Kore’Onik, and Reshna, no matter how broken she was now, would be alive for Brinon to heal her because they’d all acted swiftly. He’d get to her in time, and she’d be fine.
Torek found purchase in a patch of rocky terrain beneath the snow. He climbed carefully up a leg, then gripped a hip and finally a pair of shoulders to pull himself to his feet.
The strain on the chain of lorienok eased as Torek once again supported his own weight.
“Are you all right, Torek Lore’Onik Weidnar Kenzo Lesh—”
“Yes, yes. Just Commander, please,” Torek interrupted gruffly. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Commander. It’s my honor.”
The lorok next to him was gaping. “You just saved Torek Lore’Onik Weidnar Kenzo Lesh’Aerai Renaar’s life!”
The lor beamed.
Torek squeezed his shoulder. “And I thank you.” He cleared his throat and raised his voice slightly. “I thank all of you.”
He continued down the ravine, slower and more cautious of his footing, testing his next step before transferring his weight. The pace was agonizing but steady. Eventually, he reached the river’s edge.
The last link in their lorienok chain was a young lor who hadn’t grown into his ears yet but was past adolescence, sporting a fully curved set of horns. His eyes widened, revealing the whites all around his brown irises as he took in the fact that Commander Torek himself was before him, and not just before him, but gripping his shoulder.
The young lor glanced at Torek’s hand and seemed to puff up, only an inch or two shy of Torek’s height. He looked up and met his gaze directly.
“What are your orders, Commander?”
His orders. Had he been with his guard, he’d have ordered a two-kair cadet onto the ice to rescue her. A two-kair had enough experience to pull it off and wasn’t so experienced that the Federation would lose an essential leader if he didn’t. To a teenage civilian, what were his orders?
“Stay here and be ready.” With any luck, readiness wouldn’t be needed.
“Stay. Here?” The young lor blinked at him. “You can’t be serious.”
Torek crouched down on all fours.
The lor grabbed Torek’s shoulder. His grip was surprisingly strong. “Commander, no! You can’t! To risk losing you when I could—”
Torek glared at the lor and then at his staying hand.
The lorok next to him leaned in. “You dare give Torek Lore’Onik Weidnar Kenzo Lesh’Aerai Renaar a command? Petreok, you shame me.”
The young lor—Petreok, apparently—immediately released his hold, stung. “My apologies, Commander. I meant no disrespect. I didn’t think. But you can’t—”
Petreok pursed his lips and turned to the lorok. “He can’t go on the ice.”
The lorok glanced sternly at her son, then at Torek, and opened her mouth. But she froze, the words unspoken. No one here had the power or rank to argue against him, and more importantly, no one would.
Torek flattened himself on his stomach. The ground was hard and cold, but not as cold as the ice was sure to be. He spread his arms and legs as wide as possible to distribute his weight—usually an unneeded precaution in Rorak, but the spiderweb cracks beneath Reshna’s body indicated otherwise. And there was no gauging their depth. He pushed off the edge of the ground with the toes of his boots and slid over the ice on his belly to Reshna.
The tension that descended over the ravine could have cut glass.
The shadow of the mountain’s overhang shrouded him as he reached her. The ice didn’t break. The fractures didn’t splinter further. Her blood did seem to have dripped rather deep, but there was no telling if it had reached the running river beneath the solid ice.
By Lorien’s horn, could a body lose this much blood and still live? She’d fallen with her entire weight on her back and over her leg, so her knee was angled unnaturally beneath her. Her coverings were wet from the inside out, stained at her knees and punctured at the abdomen, but his greatest concern, the one injury that would supersede the rest if it couldn’t be healed, was to her head—the epicenter of all that blood.
Her face was pale, as if all the life had already seeped from her. Her lips were nearly blue, and the skin under her eyes was smudged a dark gray. Torek glanced over her uninjured nose, chin, cheeks parted lips, and forehead, taking in the sight of her smooth, baby-soft skin like a balm, but nothing could ease the ache constricting his chest.
Torek reached out to grip her hand, knowing he couldn’t pet her head without hurting her, and stopped short. Her palms were scraped raw. Three of her blunt little claws at the tips of her fingers had ripped off, exposing the torn skin beneath.
He touched the soft curve of her cheek instead, the only place he could see that wasn’t bleeding or broken.
She didn’t move.
The pressure in his chest crushed the fragile sprouts of hope before they could take root. He balled his fingers into a fist, and the fist trembled.
No. This is not happening, not to me and not to Reshna. Not today.
Torek unbound her coverings and placed his palm on the center of her bare chest. For as pale as she appeared and as chilled as her cheek was, her body was warm. He took a deep breath, trying to calm the frantic thunder of his heart so he could feel hers beating. And he would. It would be strong and steady, and no matter her current injuries—Brinon Kore’Onik could heal nearly anything—she would live. She just needed to be alive now and stay alive until he came.
His heart wouldn’t slow. Even the silence of the ravine had a deafening quality, as if everyone’s collectively held breath had consumed sound. But as he watched her, he realized something about her face that he’d been too distracted by the sight of her injuries to notice. A small cloud of warm air puffed from her mouth. And then another puff several seconds later. And then another, several seconds after that.
Torek rested his forehead against his extended forearm in weak relief. Reshna was breathing. She was alive. For now, in this moment, Reshna was alive.
Torek jerked up sharply. The entire frozen Zorelok River quaked. He waited, holding his breath, but the spiderweb fractures in the ice didn’t crack. Nothing and no one had moved, not on the ravine’s slope and not on the ice, but he knew what he’d heard. He recognized what he’d felt. The noise wasn’t coming from the ravine or above the ice.
Her blood must have seeped through to the river beneath the ice.
The ice twitched under his body again. On the ravine, snow jumped up from tuanok bush limbs and fell to the ground. A line of gasps and guttural groans echoed down to him as half the lorienok lost their footing. The chain swayed like a wriggling snake as everyone scrambled for purchase. If the tremors didn’t cause an avalanche, the lorienok would.
“Commander?” Petreok asked. “Was that—”
“We’re going to keep steady and calm. And move swiftly,” Torek interrupted before the young lor could incite panic. Positioned within the valley of the ravine and under the concave curve of the slope overhead, his words reverberated in a slow echo. “Once I’m ashore with Reshna, we climb back up the ravine one at a time from the bottom up, the reverse of how we—”
Torek whipped his head up, surprised by the height of that second noise. The ice wasn’t fracturing under him. He wasn’t at risk of falling through, but—he squinted at the mountainous overhang shadowing half the river—Rak! A thick fall of snow was about to crush him.
He found some traction with the toes of his boots, gripped Reshna’s arm, and slung her body in an arc over the ice. She slid across the river to shore at Petreok’s feet. Torek’s right boot slipped as he released her, and he slid in the opposite direction, completely beneath the overhang.
“Take Reshna. Lead everyone off the ravine. That’s a command. Go! Now!”
A solid wall of snow pummeled him flat, smashing his face into the ice and crushing the breath from his lungs as it buried him. Its weight was incredible. He tried to breathe, but the air was thick and spiked. He waited for the ice to finally give, for his body to plunge into the river and come face-to-face with the zorel in its natural habitat for once. The zorel would have to race the cold and current to take credit for his death.

He waited, but the ice didn’t give. He tried to inhale air where there was only snow. The silence was more than just the absence of noise. It was the devouring of noise. The devouring of light, scent, and warmth. And the taste of blood.

Beyond the Next Star
Love Beyond Series
Book One
Melody Johnson

Genre: Sci-fi Romance
Publisher: Incendi Press, LLC
Date of Publication: June 23, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-0-5 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-1-2 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-2-9 (ebook)
ASIN: B0897S23JN (ebook)
Number of pages: 392
Word Count: 91, 815
Cover Artist: Robin Ludwig Design Inc.

Tagline: An intolerable order. A desperate charade. A deadly secret.

Book Description:

“She wasn’t dreaming, in a coma, having a mental breakdown, or in hell.
She was abducted by aliens.”

Before Commander Torek Renaar can return to active duty, he’s ordered to purchase an animal companion to help relieve his PTSD symptoms. But having been a caretaker for and lost a loved one, keeping even one little human alive is a challenge he feels doomed to fail. It doesn’t help that his animal companion is the newest, most exotic breed on the market, demanding constant attention, daily grooming, and delicate handling. If she doesn’t die first in his incompetent care, she’ll be the death of him.

After witnessing the murder of her domestication specialist, Delaney McCormick allows her new owner to treat her like the pet he believes her to be. If anyone suspects she’s more intelligent than a golden retriever, her murder would be next. She endures the humiliation of being washed, the tediousness of being trained to “sit” and “come,” and the intrigue of hearing private conversations. But in Torek’s care, she finds something unexpected on this antarctic planet, something she never had in all her years on Earth while house-hopping between foster families: a home.

As companionship grows to love, must Delaney continue the charade, acting like an animal and hiding from the murderer waiting on her misstep? Or can she trust Torek with her secrets, even if the truth threatens everything he holds dear—and both their lives?

About the Author:

Melody Johnson is the author of the “out of this world” Love Beyond series and the gritty, paranormal romance Night Blood series published by Kensington Publishing/ Lyrical Press. The City Beneath (Night Blood, book 1) was a finalist in the “Cleveland Rocks” and “Fool For Love” contests.

Melody graduated magna cum laude from Lycoming College with her B.A. in creative writing and psychology. Throughout college, she wrote contemporary love stories, but having read and adored the action and dark mystery of vampires her whole life, decided to add her fingerprint to the paranormal genre.

Melody's unique perspective on vampires lends fresh bite to a classic paranormal genre. In addition to a reimagined transformation—the requirement of night blood—vampires have gargoyle-looking, vicious day forms, an orgasmic bite, and as the series progresses to Sweet Last Drop (book 2), a mindless, rampaging, zombie-like breed is introduced. Melody is constantly upping the stakes, and Day Reaper (book 4) is no exception.

Beyond the Next Star is an exciting branch from Melody's paranormal romance roots, keeping the dark grit from her Night Blood Series and taking it to new worlds. Told from the dual perspectives of both human pet and alien owner, Melody's story weaves a slow-burn romance that explores the bonds of love in all its forms, navigating the main characters’ relationship in delicate stages from oblivious ownership to woke, romantic love.

After moving from her northeast Pennsylvania hometown for some much needed Southern sunshine, Melody now works as a digital media coordinator for Southeast Georgia Health System’s marketing department. When she isn’t working or writing, Melody can be found swimming at the beach, reading at the pool, and exploring her new home in southeast Georgia.

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