In a universe starved for power, the Conglomeration rules societies with an iron grip on all trade and by the power of the eMpaths with eXtra abilities they have enslaved.
Claire, a sheltered eMpath, finds herself involved in treacherous negotiations that leave her stranded on a barbarian world of violence and danger.
Koda, the ruthless barbarian Warlord, controls the vast resources of energy of his planet. Refusing to bow to the Conglomerate, Koda plunges Claire into a violent world of deception and greed where the rules of survival suddenly change.
When it is evident that the Warlord Koda has no intention of giving up his eMpath, Claire is forced to trust the barbarian with her life. As the future of her kind hangs in the balance, she must also decide if she can trust him with her heart.
Claire kept her face impassive while waiting for Calks to finish speaking.
“I am concerned about being on this assignment alone,” she said.
“You’ll be with the clients. I know it’s unusual, but they specifically asked for you without any handlers. They require our strongest empath and that is you.”
Claire looked down and bit her lower lip. Calks was as hard for her to read as ever.
He continued: “The Conglomerate needs these warlords to become part of us for trade purposes. Our survival as a superior society depends on convincing them to trade exclusively through the Trade Center.”
Claire knew that was not true. The primary goal of the Conglomerate, controlling trade and thereby insuring that they retained more power than other societies, necessitated that they force everyone else to go through the Trade Center. If denied admittance, the people of those societies struggled to stay alive. Greed ruled the Conglomerate. Claire despised everything they represented. She also knew their excesses had finally caught up with them. Some of their people now suffered. The Conglomerate needed what these barbarians had.
A facial tic drew up the left side of Calks’ face. “The clients are not members of the Trade Center. The Conglomerate plans to take control of their energy resources. We depend on you to gather as much information as you can to help us toward that endeavor.”
In other words, the Conglomerate planned to steal the energy resources and they wanted her to help them. Claire knew how to act, knew what Calks expected. It kept her alive. Nothing showed on her face when she lifted her eyes to him.
“I understand. I will, of course, do my best on this assignment.”
Calks smiled at Claire.
Koda nodded to Dare. It was time for the first face to face meeting with the MX Handler Calks.
Calks followed Warlord Dare into Koda’s chamber and looked around the room.
Koda sat on his wide leather bench. He greeted Calks and motioned to the chair in front of him. Koda smelled the man’s fear when Dare closed the chamber doors. Koda had only four warlords in the chamber with him, but they were all dressed in black leather and they were armed.
Calks lifted his left shoulder at the same time a facial tic distorted his features.
“Good day, Warlord Leader Koda.” Calks rubbed his hand across his short-cropped gray hair.
“Greetings, MX Handler, Calks. These are some of my warlords.”
“Var, my second.” Koda motioned to his left.
Koda smirked at Calks’ reaction. Var’s disfigured face was just as intimidating as his size. The only thing more frightening than the scar that ran from the corner of his eye to his mouth was the battle he fought to obtain it. Koda remembered it well.
There was a reason Var never smiled.
Calks’ left shoulder drew up in a quick, nervous tic.
Koda noticed the man’s nervous tic. He would make good use of it in the negotiations.
“You remember Dare from the vid conferences.” Dare’s large frame slouched against the door. He gave a quick nod to the Handler in recognition. For all his communication and technical expertise, Koda knew no warrior was more capable of guarding the meeting.
“Dren and Lodi have joined us as well.” The tattoos that covered the right side of Dren’s body did more to make him appear menacing than to denote his status as a holy man. Lodi, ever the social one, lifted his right hand to Calks in greeting. “Not to worry, we have had our raw meat for the day.”
Koda shot Lodi a look as Calks’ eyes widened in apprehension. As his cousin, Lodi was able to get away with more antics than the other warlords. Still, more fear would not yield a better result for this meeting.
Calks cleared his throat. “I’m more convinced than ever that the MX program will end.” He looked over his shoulder.
“How much time do we have?” Koda said.
“I believe it will go to vote within the lunar cycle. The Conglomerate is in trouble, the abilities of the MX are under close scrutiny by several high-ranking officials.”
Calks looked around the room again. His left shoulder rose and his face drew up for a moment. The appearance of the warlords definitely triggered a fear response in the man. Koda wished he wasn’t so fearful of them.
“I would have the strongest MX. The one called Claire,” Koda said.
Calks nodded, “I can deliver her to you directly. The Conglomerate has approached the MX Facility and asked for an MX to assist in your trade negotiations.” Calks paused. “Don’t be upset, everyone is talking about it. You’re going to the Trade Center to negotiate trade agreements for the Krystiles. It’s big news. There are no secrets in the Conglomerate.”
“The ruse is agreeable to me.”
“Understand, Warlord Leader, the MX girl is a slave. She doesn’t know it, but she’s a slave. She’s always been told what to do and when to do it. She’s never even chosen her own clothing. Her social skills are limited to the vids we allow her to watch and the training we’ve given her.”
“Does she not interact with the other MX?”
“No, we keep them separated. Each MX has her own cell, uh, room. We don’t allow them to mix with anyone. She’s intelligent and well educated. She’s been trained to obey the handlers in every way. I don’t expect she will be a discipline problem for you. She’s the most powerful empath we have.” Calks said.
“MX is eMpath with eXtra abilities,” Koda said. “What can you tell me of her extra abilities?”
Calks lifted his left shoulder and cleared his throat. “We do not talk about that unless you have a specific need. She is the most powerful.”
“I would have her first,” Koda said.
“I’ll get as many of the others as I can to the grippers. I can deliver only the one to you.” The facial tic distorted the MX Handler’s face for a moment.
“Slavers,” Var said. He despised the grippers who traded slaves on the black market. Koda knew Var would do his best to retrieve the MX who were taken by the grippers.
“Dare will send you the coordinates of the meeting location,” Koda nodded toward Dare who still slouched against the closed doors with his arms across his chest.
Calks glanced at Dare, his shoulder length blond hair was shorter than the others.
“It’s nice to meet you in real life,” Calks said.
Dare made no response.
Calks cleared his throat and looked at Koda again. “I’ll rush the documents on my end and fudge a little on the preparation. I don’t think we have much time.”
Koda nodded silent agreement.
“There is one more thing,” Calks hesitated, “we um — we give them drugs to make them manageable. We mix it in their food. There will be no withdrawal per se… ”
Koda lifted an eyebrow.
Calks broke eye contact, “We can’t predict the outcome of taking her off the drugs. You’ll be on your own with that.”
“I would know what you expect,” Koda said.
“Her empath and other abilities will increase. And – she’ll experience her own emotions. She might become difficult to control after the drugs wear off. We have tried to prevent the MX from experiencing their own emotions so that they might better ‘read’ the emotions of others. She will probably adjust to that in time. She um… The drugs also suppress their sex drive.”
Silence filled the room while Koda digested the Handler’s words.
“We will be prepared,” Koda looked at Var, his second. He knew Var did not approve of him buying the MX.
Koda nodded to Lodi. Calks jumped and half stood when he realized Lodi had moved closer to him holding a bag. He looked back to Koda.
“A down payment,” Koda said, “to cover expenses.”
Calks nodded, his facial tic twisted his features for a moment before he accepted the bag. Though Lodi handled the bag as if the contents were light, Calks fumbled it, almost dropped it, as if it were heavier than he expected.
Dare opened the double doors to indicate the meeting’s end.
“We will see you when you hand over the MX,” Koda said.
“Good night, gentlemen,” Calks said as he hurried out the double doors.
Koda saw Calks check the med unit on his wrist before Dare closed the doors behind him.
Koda looked around the room.
Dare leaned against the doors he had just closed.
“That is one nervous man, cousin,” Lodi drawled. “He was checking his med unit. You must have made his blood pressure go up.”
“Could his nerves have anything to do with the swords strapped on your back?” Koda asked.
He looked at Dren who took the chair to his left.
“It is too early to tell, my liege,” Dren answered Koda’s unspoken question. As their holy man, Dren was the most familiar with their ancient prophecies.
Var raised an eyebrow. He did not believe in the prophecies and he did nothing to hide his displeasure.
“I’ll bring everyone up to speed at the same time,” Dare said, glancing back to Koda after a look at Var’s face. Checking his small, clear hand com, Dren continued. “What I have found so far is that all of the MX are prisoners. Their empath abilities alone cause their own people to distrust and fear them. Those who claim to have seen their extra abilities are terrified of them. The MX Facility has never verified the extent of their power. The girls are drugged and kept under strict control their entire lives. Fanciful stories of their abilities abound, but it is difficult to get reliable information about them. The MX Handler, Calks, is risking his life to help us, yet he has been evasive and we know nothing solid about the extra abilities.”
“The girls. Are they all female?” Lodi asked.
“Yes, all are female,” Dare said. The MX Team consists of Handlers. The Handlers are all men who are chosen because they are more difficult for the empaths to “read”.
Koda watched as Var rubbed his hand along his scarred jaw. “It might be a trap. I do not trust the Handler.”
“Would you have me do nothing while they are slaughtered?” Koda asked.
Var answered only with his eyes. He did not abide the slaughter of innocents and Koda knew it.
“Even without the prophecy, I would offer them sanctuary,” Koda said.
“We have to save them,” Var admitted, “but we have no hard evidence that they are the ones spoken of in the prophecy.”
“The timing and signs are right. They appear to be the ones,” Dren said.
“The future of our race depends on them and we do not even know if they are the right ones.” Var clenched his jaw.
“Whether they are or not, Koda is right, we must do this,” Dren said.
“So, we will have an empath with unknown powers reaching puberty and becoming sexually aware,” Var said.
“What could go wrong with that?” Lodi quipped.
“After we get the first one, we can get information from her about the others. Make ready to collect the one called Claire.” Koda stood. The meeting was over.
The sun was setting low in the sky when Koda and 10 of his warlords slipped through the woods that were well back of the area where they would meet Calks and take possession of the MX girl. They stopped when they heard Var’s whistle and waited for him to approach.
“The raiders are in a clearing over the next hill,” Var whispered.
“The ones who attacked our people?” Koda asked.
“The same,” Var said. “About fifty. Definitely the ones who slaughtered our people in the camp we found yesterday. The trail is clear. They are having a meeting right now, but I think they will move out soon.”
“Them being here can be no accident,” Lodi said.
Koda surveyed his warlords. He knew them well; even in their armor he had no trouble identifying them. They were spoiling for a fight. The carnage done by the raiders to the innocent people in the camp had left them all with a need to stop the raiders. Koda knew they wanted revenge for the group of helpless farmers the raiders had slaughtered.
“Fools.” Vix shook his head.
“Let us go and make them dead fools.” Revi smiled while tying his long blond hair in a queue at his nape.
Lars looked up after he checked the blade of his heavy battle axe. The only time Lars’ expression ever changed was before or during a battle.
The rest of the warlords look eager.
“Move out,” Koda said as he started off through the woods.
Koda and his warlords moved stealthily as they surrounded the clearing in the wooded area where the raiders were meeting.
The band of outlaws listened to their leader. “Move to your positions closer to the meeting tent now. Hide yourselves well. Tomorrow we will defeat Koda and steal ourselves an MX. Remember, the most important thing is to kill Koda, a special bounty is offered for his head. We must also kill the MX team and capture the girl, alive. With Koda gone, his people will offer no resistance. We will control the Krystiles and all the wealth that goes with them!” The raiders cheered, and made ready to move out of the clearing.
At Koda’s signal, the warlords stepped out from hiding to reveal themselves.
It took the raiders a few moments to realize they were surrounded. Most drew their swords, some of them hastily strapped on armor. Most of them cursed.
“Why wait,” Koda said. “I am here now.”
The raiders looked around to determine their odds.
“You are early to the meeting,” the leader said to Koda.
“I give you an opportunity to surrender,” Koda said.
The leader of the raiders smiled. “I think not.” He spread his arms wide. “There are more of us than of you.”
“We tracked you from the village you destroyed yesterday,” Koda said. “I would know why you come into my territory and slaughter my people.”
“It was easy. We take what we want, where we find it.”
“You do not take from me without a price,” Koda said.
“Attack them now!” The raider leader shouted.
Koda and the warlords advanced, closing their circle around the raiders. A raider ran forward to attack Koda. Both swung their swords. The raider stared in disbelief as he fell.
Koda moved forward to the next raider and stabbed him through the chest. Then he stabbed his dagger into the man’s side until it pierced his heart. Koda kicked the dead raider off the end of his sword.
Koda was aware of Foord on his right as he avoided a sword thrust and kicked out with a foot to the chest of an attacker. He spun his extended sword took the head of the raider.
Mack said, “After you kill them, they are not much fun anymore.”
Koda heard Foord behind him as he spoke between grunts and sword thrusts. “I know that, brother, but at some point, they do have to die. All these murderers have to die.”
“True be that, and a sad thing it is, brother. I will leave you one or two, maybe,” Mack said.
“Not that I am keeping score, but that is two for me, right?” Foord said.
Koda dispatched a raider and turned to see Foord wade into the fray again.
The heavy swords the warlords carried made a singing sound as they whirled through the air. The raiders were not well trained. Koda was always aware of the overall battle and tried to keep an eye on his warlords while they fought.
To his right, Revi and Vix were back to back, each of them fighting two of the raiders, when Lars walked by and sliced one of the raiders almost in half with his huge battle axe.
“Not fair!” Revi called out, “find your own, Lars.” When he saw Lars’ target he had time only to yell a warning at Koda.
Lars never slowed. Koda turned to see Revi. They both watched Lars moving steadily toward a raider with a huge battle axe. The raider had already begun to swing the heavy axe at Koda’s back when Lars moved between them and felled the raider with his own battle axe.
Lodi swore at the close call. “Lucky that Lars saw that!” he said.
“Yes, lucky.” Was all Koda spared. He turned back to see Var fighting off two raiders. Koda let his whip fly. It broke the sound barrier then wrapped around the wrist of a raider who stood behind Var with his sword ready to take him down from behind. Koda jerked the whip and the sword left the raider’s hand. He laid the second lash of his whip across the raider’s eyes. The blinded raider sank to his knees screaming. Var shouted, before he turned his full attention back to the two raiders he was engaging.
The sound of metal on metal rang out through the forest. Whips cracked in the air when they broke the sound barrier. Var moved in close as he thrust his sword through one of his attackers while at the same time he used his well shielded forearm to block a blow from the one on his left. He came up under the raider’s sword arm and sliced his throat open with the edge of his sword before turning to finish the blind one who still knelt screaming on the bloody ground behind him. Var looked up to nod at Koda.
Foord’s knives found three raiders in rapid succession. Each went down. Foord let go flying stars that severed the spines of two who were running away. One of them continued to scream after he fell.
Koda turned to face four raiders who charged him at the same time. Vix and Revi were beside him in an instant. The three of them cut down the charging raiders.
Ache broke the arm of a raider as he moved to the side to avoid being pierced by the blade.
The leader of the raiders attempted to flee when he saw they were going to be defeated. He ran to mount his paccar, but Mack’s whip snaked out and circled his ankle. He hit the ground hard. With a mouthful of dirt, he struggled to disentangle himself from the whip. Before he got loose, Var and Lodi were on him, grabbing his wrists and pulling his hands behind his back.
It was over now. The battle had not lasted long and no raiders had escaped.
Koda pulled off his helmet while Var and Lodi tied the captured leader’s wrists together behind a tree. Then they spread his legs wide and tied them on either side of the tree.
“I would know who gives you orders,” Koda said as he stood in front of the leader.
“My name is Couthar. I have nothing else to say.”
Var’s knife cut Couthar’s vest away. Then Var began to cut long stripes across the bound male’s chest. Couthar screamed as Var’s knife repeatedly sliced him. Var moved the knife to his face and drew the blade down the raider’s cheek. Couthar was breathing heavily. Var sliced deeper with every stroke.
“I have little time for you,” Koda said.
When Couthar began to shake his head, Var’s knife slid slowly into his stomach. “Stop! Stop!” Couthar’s voice was hoarse from shouting. “No one sent me. This is my own group. We hoped to get control of the Krystiles.”
“And yet you show up here. No Krystile trade is happening here,” Koda said.
Couthar took a deep breath. Var sliced into the raider again. The raider jerked and screamed.
“Why do you come here and slaughter my people if your goal is to control the Krystiles?” Koda leaned closer, his face only inches from the raider. “A quick death if you answer me raider.” Koda looked into Couthar’s eyes and nodded. “I vow it.”
“We were going to take control of the Krystiles.”
Couthar shuddered when Var brought his knife up again, the raider continued.
“And we were going to steal the MX and sell her.”
“Ahh, there is the truth of it. How did you know where and when to find us? Who told you of the MX?” Koda asked.
Couthar eyed Var’s knife. “A foreigner sent us a message.”
“Do you frequently communicate with foreigners?”
“No. I swear, no. I do not even know who it was.”
Dare checked Couthar’s pockets and pulled out a com device.
“We have no leader. There are several groups of us. We knew only that you would be here tomorrow and that someone would approach us to buy the Krystiles if we could take them.”
“And steal the MX,” Var said.
Dare viewed Couthar’s com. He looked up with rage in his eyes. “He took pictures of the slaughter.”
“Sick,” Lodi said.
“Did you find it necessary to rape the females and kill even the children when you raided the settlement of my people?” Koda asked.
Couthar made no reply.
“Last chance. Who sent you?” Koda asked.
Couthar said nothing.
Koda showed no expression when he slid his sword into Couthar’s belly. He sliced across and then pulled the sword upward into the male’s chest. The raider’s entrails fell on the blood-soaked ground at Koda’s feet. “Do. Not. Kill. My. People.” Koda said before wiping the blood from his blade on Couthar’s clothing. Koda turned his back and moved away to stand alone facing the peaceful beauty of the forest.
“Perhaps there are just several small factions working independently,” Var offered.
“They should organize,” Koda said.
Reaf met them as they returned to camp. He was the oldest and the only mated warlord. Married to Osiria, he had helped to raise Koda along with Lodi, their own son, after Koda’s parents were killed.
“The guards are posted,” Reaf said. “We found no sign of any other raiding groups. We have an outside and an inner ring of warriors surrounding the Meeting Tent. They will stay in place all night.”
Koda nodded, “Good work, Reaf. Send some warriors to take care of the bodies of the raiders.” Koda turned to Var. “Someone is sending them against us. They have inside information.”
Var nodded. “I think the ones who come here, like Couthar today, do not know who is organizing these raids. If they did, someone would have told us by now. But, I agree, we might have a traitor.”
Koda and his warlords mounted their paccar and moved in closer to the meeting tent where they waited for the contract signing with the handlers in the morning. The tent was large enough to hold 40 people. It was dome shaped with a tall ceiling. Sitting outside their shields, it was a convenient place to meet foreigners.
“Get some rest,” Koda told the warlords. “When we ride down in the morning, leave the armor here, I do not expect a fight from the MX Facility’s team.”
Behind him, Revi laughed.
Just before sunrise, the shuttle carrying the MX team arrived. Koda and the warlords watched as the foreigners filed into the tent. It was easy to spot the girl. She was smaller than the men in her group and dressed in light brown. The men wore the red and gold that designated them as handlers at the MX Facility.
Dare pulled his com device from his pocket. Moments later, he nodded to Koda. “They are alone. They left only two on the shuttle, probably pilots. There are no other shuttles.”
Koda waited until the sun began to creep over the horizon before he saddled and mounted his paccar. Then he and some of his warlords rode down to the meeting.
As they approached, Var looked at Koda, “I hope you know what you are doing, my liege.”
“I am following the prophecy.”
“I hope the prophecy is correct,” Var said.
Calks stood in the entrance to greet them. They dismounted and followed the MX Handler inside the tent.
Koda was curious to see the empath he had purchased.
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