Jerella Montegro pushed through the dense crowds of the market square. People gathered too close for comfort in the hot, sticky weather. Bodies pressed closer, jostling for position in front of the vendors. Strange dialects peppered the air, as did the sharp scent of spices.
Somewhere in the glut of humanity, he stalked her.
His whispered voice in her head had grown terribly quiet when she'd entered the city proper some two days before. It unnerved her. More so than having his words and thoughts in her head. At least with those she knew what he was thinking. Now there was nothing but a block. However, the feel of him remained imprinted on her subconscious until she knew he'd come to this square in the full height of day for some desperate purpose.
Something involving her.
That was the sole reason she'd traveled from the Sophite hiding place in the Druma settlement: to discover what he wanted from her.
She didn't know what she could do to help the Unarions' plight, but she planned to try.
No matter what it took.
The theocrats had gotten too powerful. Too controlling. Their influence had reached critical mass.
She inched her way around a produce stand and got her foot stepped on for her trouble. The thin sandals she wore were no match for a heavy foot. She stuck a pointy elbow in the person's side and moved on.
The crowds, rabid for their share of choice food and goods, were a direct result of the damned theocrats' hold on the country.
Along with their systematic genocide of those with gifts of mindspeech, organic and inorganic manipulation, or communing with the spirit world, they had begun to place rations on staples. Underground vids reported on riots over food and clean water. It was no way to live.
Determination speared her on.
If it weren't for people like her and the rest of her Sophite sisters and the entire Druma nation, there would be no hope. The Sangrah Provinces would cease to exist as a sovereign country, and her people would live as nothing better than slaves to the theocrats.
Jerella came around the south end of the stand, heading to the meat and dairy kiosks.
"Meet me at the statue of Theomacus. I have something to show you."
The voice touched her mind like a lover's caress.
Jerella stopped. People brushed and bumped by her. So he had decided to lift his silence.
She watched the faces of those passing by. How was she to know him when she reached the statue? There had never been the barest hint as to his physical appearance in any of their psychic connections. What she knew about him would fit on the head of a pin. Other than the fact he was a Unarion and the sexy slide of his voice through her mind, she knew no other details.
Her nipples hardened at the thought.
He'd been there with her during her journey, speaking to her in the night when she sat alone, wondering what she'd gotten herself into. Alone, but not lonely. Not with him around.
The statue dedicated to Theomacus stood at the direct center of the town proper. Worshippers who had succumbed to the theocrats' violent sermons genuflected at the idol in holy prayer. Their chants filled the square as a counterpoint to the bustling foot traffic and roar of the transport rovers' thrusters.
Jerella's powers flared with their calls. The charismatic devotion struck a chord low in her abdomen, much like the pull of sexual desire. She pushed the feeling away, hating herself for the natural tug of her body to another's need.
She neared the statue, holding her hood as a strong wind threatened to blow it from her head. The last thing she wanted was to be noticed or possibly recognized.
The theocrats had begun circulating holo-vids of those Sophites who remained at large after the last sweep of what the theocrats called "moral cleansing."
She took a place by the worshippers and began to chant. As she said the words, she glanced around, trying to see the faces of the faithful.
How many of them were like her, only going through the motions for the sole purpose of self-preservation?
"I'm standing three people from your left. When I bow and leave, follow me."
Jerella swallowed and chanced a look to the man in question. He was tall and broad. His large, dark hands were folded before him in the gesture of forgiveness and repentance. He bowed and stepped away.
Jerella bowed as well and followed a few paces behind him. His long strides covered the ground quickly. If she wasn't careful, he'd outdistance her, and she'd never catch him. Maybe that was part of the plan--a little game of chase. Besides, he'd only promised to show her something, not to meet her face-to-face.
Anything she could send back to the others would be appreciated. Personal contact need not occur.
He stood at the corner where a rover shuttle waited. When she was within a few steps of catching him, he climbed on board and took a seat near the front.
"Get on the rover, but do not sit near me. Move to the back."
Jerella followed his instructions, finding a seat near the emergency exit. The hooded cowl he wore obstructed any view she had of his face. Perhaps he didn't wish for her to be able to identify him later.
A few more passengers climbed on board before the shuttle lifted and trundled through the city. The scrolling marquee above the driver indicated it headed for the Oma Flats--an area outside the city where low-rent housing gave way to slums. It was a harsh environment she'd not yet ventured to for fear the criminal element who called the Flats home was worse than the theocratic guards who patrolled the city proper.
Now it seemed she hadn't a choice.
"No fear, I will protect you."
He read her emotions as surely as he did her mind. It was disquieting, but at least he assured her he had recognized the peril she faced by venturing into the Flats alone.
All around her the scents of unwashed bodies assailed her. Between the stench and the sway of the shuttle's thrusters, nausea rose. Her stomach roiled and throat burned.
"Not too much longer."
She lifted her hand to hold over her nose, filtering the smells with the thick homespun of her follower's robe.
Over the roar of the thrusters, a baby cried, an old man coughed, and several people mumbled prayers. Why was this of all the cities so infected with the religious fervor spread by the theocrats? It was far enough away from the Tabernacle that the theocrats should not have had such an influence. Even in Parakhan City the people had retained a sense of independence and resentment for the theocrats. Here it seemed as if the citizens had just given up and refused to fight for their rights.
Despair clung to the people as surely as their dirty clothes hung from their emaciated frames. Why did the theocrats turn their backs on a city that had buckled under and taken the teachings of Theomacus to heart? Was that any way to treat the faithful?
Not to Jerella. Not in any religion.
The shuttle stopped and several people got off. She watched from under the fall of her hood to see if her contact rose, but he remained seated.
After two more stops he still hadn't exited the shuttle. The ride was coming to the end of the line. They were far from the city now. Too far for her to walk back to her lodgings.
The shuttle stopped running at sundown. She hoped whatever her contact had to show her wasn't too much deeper into the flats. Judging by the color of the sky there were only about thirty minutes until the sun fell over the horizon.
By the time they reached the last stop there were only three people remaining on the shuttle. Her contact got off first, next a little old lady carrying a basket. Jerella followed at a sedate pace.
Her contact waited by a busted-out street lamp.
"Turn right at the first intersection and walk two blocks to the boardinghouse with the vacancy sign. When you reach that, go past it to the alley. I'll be right behind you."
Fear did a serpentine along her spine. Shadows lengthened as the sun dipped low enough to be obscured by the buildings. The streets had a film of water, though there hadn't been rain in the region for days. A strong scent of urine and decay assaulted her from all directions.
With senses on overload, Jerella hurried to the alley he'd indicated.
His heavy footsteps sounded on the pavement, then disappeared as if he'd turned into one of the many buildings.
She glanced out of her hiding place. No one walked the streets. Most people had gone into their homes ahead of the curfew bell.
She opened her powers wide to search, but nothing of him registered. Had he the ability to block his organic signature as he had his mind voice? No. Impossible.
Heavy hands capped her shoulders, and she jumped.
"Shh. Don't scream. It's only me."
Hearing his physical voice sent a shiver down to her sex. A delicious thrill hardened her nipples. He sounded so different outside her head.
Jerella turned and tried to see him in the dim light coming in from the street. He was tall and broad as she'd observed before, but he was so much more. His skin was a dark bronze, his head shaved close to the scalp.
A tattoo of twisting, thorn-laced vines was visible above both ears. She was sure it must run all the way around his head but knew not what it signified.
High, wide cheekbones were smooth, suggesting he was not as old as his soul felt to her on the astral.
She knew she stared but couldn't seem to stop. For months she'd wondered what he looked like, wanting desperately to see him in the flesh.
He lifted his hands and drew her hood away from her face. "I've dreamed of you."
She couldn't catch her breath. The feel of his warm hands on her fevered skin sent a jolt of desire pulsing through her. "Is this what you wanted to show me?"
He lowered his face to her hair and took a deep breath. "No, but I couldn't help myself. It's been torture waiting for you to find me."
"You stopped talking to me." She opened her mouth wider as he caressed her bottom lip.
"I had no choice." He moved closer, placing his lips by her ear. Warm breath fanned her face. "Come, we need to hurry. I'll explain everything after I show you what the theocrats are building."
The words were enough to pull her from the sexual fog.
He took her hand and pulled her to the end of the alley to a recessed door. They walked into a lobby of sorts. People sat in a room heavy with smoke and the choking mire of despair.
He paid them no mind as he showed her down a hallway to a lift. When the doors closed, he pushed the button marked Roof.
The car rattled and hesitated. Jerella gripped the safety rail with one hand and her contact with the other. He didn't speak or otherwise acknowledge her but for the touch of his hand.
The lift jarred to a stop, nearly knocking Jerella to her knees. The doors opened to show the vast cityscape of the Oma Flats. Out in the distance the lights of Ostako sparkled like grounded stars. From this distance, with darkness approaching, it was hard to see the dirt and graffiti that marred the once pristine city.
"Look over there." He pointed to the west. Floodlights illuminated an area of what appeared to be a construction zone out past the urban sprawl.
"What is it?"
"We haven't determined that yet. So far it's only metal scaffolding, but we've picked up thought patterns from the workers that suggest it's every bit as frightening as the monoliths were." He stroked a hand down her hair. "Thank you for your part in bringing those down. You can't imagine what a relief it was to have full use of our mindspeech again."
Jerella swallowed. "I didn't do much."
"You made it possible. I know." He moved in close again. This time he stood behind her, bringing her back to his chest. The press of his erection slid between the cheeks of her bottom.
Her eyes closed. "I don't even know your name, and yet I know the feel of you so intimately."
He wrapped his arms around her. "Veric."