The search for Ken Brody’s wife continues in this gripping second chapter in the Jaxxa Rakala saga, where perceptions are challenged and new alliances are born.
In an effort to learn more about her past, Ken and his team of pirate rogues head to Stacey’s home planet of Trynoruus, only to find an uninhabitable wasteland of raging electrical storms. That doesn’t stop Ken and his daughters from exploring the ruins of her home and finding several journals detailing Stacey’s past — tales of a life Ken isn’t quite sure he’s ready to hear.
But after an attack abruptly ends the expedition, separating Jacquline from her family and shutting Kahil’s systems down, the team retreats to Kahli’s home planet of Rega-One for help. Once there, secrets are stripped away to reveal the truth behind the legends and lies of the past, forcing everyone to look deep within their own hearts for who they are and who they want to become.
— 1 —
The sparring staff, which looked more like a wooden katana than a typical Bō staff, snapped across Jacquline’s backside with the bite of a wet towel whipped across a gym shower. No amount of rubbing could polish the pain away from this or any of the other dozen or so welts Tracey had popped along the curves of her thighs.
“God, Squint,” Jacquline said following an alleviating hiss. “Take it easy.”
Tracey spun the staff to rest gently under her armpit and set her right foot back. She lowered her weight onto her front leg, prepping a fresh attack. “This isn’t summer camp, Jacks. If you’re not hurting, you’re not learning.”
By Jacquline’s calculations, it would be days before she’d be able to sit comfortably again. But it was well worth it. Since officially joining the Equinox crew, there hadn’t been a lot of opportunities to do anything together. Tracey was a bit of an enigma following the battle on Xyneris, missing for hours on end, only to flutter past like a hummingbird on crack to get to her next self-appointed task. When she did take time to rest, Jacquline was either asleep or off doing something at the request of Qah-Shekel or Kahli. It was only when Jacquline learned Tracey spent a lot of time sparring with Qah-Shekel that she finally had a reason to spend time with her little sister — who wasn’t all that little anymore, given her sudden growth spurt since merging (as Jacquline liked to call it) with the gem that made her appear to be a young teen—
She’s still my eight-year-old sister, isn’t she?
—with a slim, toned body and a gluttony of hair that pissed Jacquline off for being so perfectly wavy. Her outfit didn’t help. Compiling a menagerie of accessories from Sentilla, Qah-Shekel and DovenJadden, she looked like a Disney fashionista if they allowed them to be hookers. At least she had those same magnetically periwinkle eyes that Jacquline loved so much.
Feeling her welts throb to the tune of her exhaustion (she had no idea it would be this physically strenuous, though she was aware she should have), Jacquline shook her head in defeat and squatted against the wall to catch her breath. She gripped her staff comfortably so that she could roll it up and down her thighs.
“You’re too good,” Jacquline said.
“Only because you allow me to be,” Tracey said, never once releasing eye contact. “Slacker.”
Jacquline didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended, but Tracey’s sly, adorable smirk was enough to fuel her determination. It was still a little uneasy wrapping her head around Tracey’s alien-induced abilities (not to mention the body art that spread like vines along her entire body; at least the tattoos didn’t dare rise to her face and blend with those brilliant crescents of hers), but when it came down to it, Tracey was nothing more than Jacquline’s eight-year-old sister. There was no way she would be outmatched — not while Jacquline was still taller.
In one fluid motion, Jacquline jumped to her feet and spun around to give her staff the momentum needed to tattoo a nice little gift on Tracey’s thigh. What she wasn’t expecting (or maybe she was and only fooled herself into ignorance) was for Tracey to swing her staff into a defensive position across her body and snap Jacquline’s staff so hard, it vibrated her hands to the point of numbness.
Jacquline dropped her staff and pranced around in circles attempting to swear the pain away. “Damn it, Tracey,” she spit out when she could finally curl her fingers without feeling they might break off. Tracey remained statuesque as Jacquline shook the residual sting from her hand and picked her staff back up. It wasn’t more than a second later that Tracey lunged forward. Without realizing, Jacquline hooked her hands around the thinly curved thorns coming off the staff in pairs about a third of the way up from either side and shielded herself from the attack. For a beginner, Jacquline was impressively agile. She sidestepped a downward thrust and somehow snapped the staff across Tracey’s back to push her off balance. The smile that beamed off her lips was nothing more than genuine shock.
From that point on, Jacquline remained on the offensive, soaking in a tremendous amount of confidence matched only by Tracey’s insistence on effortless defense. Every swing pushed Tracey a step back, eventually forcing her to drop to the floor so she could maneuver around Jacquline and slide back into the open arena. Coming to a stop, Tracey gently rested her fingertips on the floor and peered up at Jacquline, who took the maneuver as a sign Tracey was nearing defeat.
How wrong she was.
Jacquline spun around to whip her staff across Tracey’s stomach, but wasn’t planning on Tracey shifting just enough to block the blow and flip her own staff upward to knock Jacquline’s hands loose. As Jacquline sought to regain her grip, Tracey planted her staff into the floor and used it to slide between Jacquline’s legs. She transferred her staff from one hand to the other by wrapping it around her sister’s ankle and stood. Before Jacquline could make nuts and bolts of the situation, Tracey struck the back of her knee. For a split second, Jacquline’s leg went numb; she had no other recourse but to drop to the floor. As she did, Tracey pressed her staff across Jacquline’s neck, resting one of the thorns along the edge of her carotid artery. The pain piercing through Jacquline’s leg was nothing compared to the agony of defeat.
“What did you do wrong?” Tracey said, shoving her knee into her sister’s spine.
Jacquline knew the answer but couldn’t admit it.
“She was overconfident,” Qah-Shekel said. He walked into the sparring hall and picked a staff from off the wall near the entry, the only part of the circular room that had even a hint of an edge or a flat surface. He examined the staff carefully. “Overconfidence is your enemy.”
“The worst kind,” Tracey said. She stepped toward the center of the hall where the ornamental artwork on the floor met in a circle connecting the points of a disjointed star. She never once took her eyes off Qah-Shekel, who in turn never turned his sights from his staff as he inched his way toward her. Jacquline wasn’t paying much attention to any of this, having slid her way to the wall where she rubbed the unnecessary humiliation from her neck. When Qah-Shekel finally looked up to Tracey, he circled her like the vulture he was. No amount of growth could turn Tracey’s frame into being anything but half the size of Qah-Shekel’s. If he wanted, he could snap her in two like the brittle twig she was. But with the way the gem instantly lit up in his presence, if it came down to it, Jacquline was certain it would actually be the other way around.
Several minutes passed in silence as both opponents circled one another, matching the other’s movements with eagle-eyed precision. Jacquline grew weary (and a little dizzy) watching them.
Fight already! she thought — she wasn’t stupid enough to say it out loud. The second something like that left her lips, no doubt it would provoke them to turn on her instead. Jacquline’s abilities were green enough against Tracey; she could only imagine the whooping she’d get if she teamed up with Qah-Shekel. So she remained quiet as a mouse, moving only slightly to stretch her muscles — an action that inadvertently caught Tracey’s eye.
The distraction opened the door for Qah-Shekel. He raced forward with the snap of a dart, aiming his staff at Tracey’s upper arm. Before it hit her, Tracey twisted her body and brought her staff up to meet his. The force of the blow sent her reeling backward but did nothing to break her concentration. She steadied herself and found a strong footing before Qah-Shekel’s follow-up attack. She remained on the defensive for a bit longer, and though Jacquline thought at first it was because Qah-Shekel had much more training —
Tracey’s finally met her match!
— she knew it couldn’t simply be a defense. It was a strategy.
Tracey watched every move Qah-Shekel made as he attacked, studying the intricacies of his movement. When she was confident in her ability to use his habits (and in some cases, his weaknesses) against him, Tracey knocked him slightly off-balance with a strong counterattack. It wasn’t enough to disrupt his footing, but it was what she needed to start pushing her own offense. For the next several minutes, each participant took turns on the offensive, each one defending with the strategy of a master martial artist. Tracey rolled and sprinted like a playful kitten, using her agility to continually regain the upper hand; Qah-Shekel periodically changed the position of his feet, extending his fins to balance himself and using his strength to attain control of the bout.
Jacquline wasn’t sure who impressed her more. Before this entire mess with alien encounters and planetary exploration, the simple act of Tracey standing up for herself was enough to amaze Jacquline. Now she wasn’t only speaking in complete sentences, she was smarter than almost everyone Jacquline knew combined, exhibited skills that could rival a Jedi, and had as much confidence as George Clooney hunting for bunnies at the Playboy mansion. She knew it had everything to do with her connection to the gem. Regardless, Tracey was a completely new person Jacquline couldn’t help but admire. At the same time, Qah-Shekel had grown into a very close friend. Being stuck on board the Equinox felt like navigating the globe in a barrel and never once finding land, so when Qah-Shekel asked her to accompany him (usually at the behest of Kahli) to an exotic world to help trade artifacts they had picked up on a couple of deserted planets in exchange for parts they needed to repair some minor systems that had been destroyed during the vermon attack on Hasten-Jackai, Jacquline didn’t have to be asked twice. She felt a little insulted when she found out she was only asked because of her skills as a thief, but the exhilaration in stealing those parts right out from under that pompous alien’s nose was so refreshing, Jacquline disregarded Qah-Shekel’s initial motives. The point was, she proved herself capable and was asked to do the same on various other planets when the necessary goods or food rations couldn’t be attained through any amount of respectable trade. Qah-Shekel trusted her to get the job done and respected her skills to the point that he once allowed her to conduct a trade on her own. How Jacquline was even able to do it, she might never know, though Kahli told her it was because of the level of vibration in her voice. Whatever the reason, her sex appeal still won over the simplicity of the hormone-fueled male anatomy, regardless of whether they even had any genitals or not. The best part was Ken never objected, which was surprising to say the least, but no less appreciated. Qah-Shekel and Jacquline had become a great team despite the verbal barrier that kept them from being able to speak to one another. They learned how to speak by other means that were far more important than words. It was very similar to the way he and Tracey spoke to each other in battle, sharing secrets in the way they danced along their strategic ballet. Jacquline was sure it wouldn’t last forever; one of them would eventual find the other’s Achilles heel.
And as if on cue, Tracey allowed Qah-Shekel to push her toward the wall during a relentless attack from both sides of his staff. The moment she felt her back touch the smooth, cool surface, she pushed her own staff against Qah-Shekel’s and used the force of his strength to walk the wall. Her momentum (and possibly a little juice from the gem) helped her flip over Qah-Shekel and land just behind him. Before he was able to turn, Tracey sent a finishing blow to his torso — enough to drop him to his knees. Qah-Shekel was not one to concede in battle, but in this instance, he was happy to do just that with pride for his opponent. He lowered his staff to the floor and raised his arm, making sure to keep his head turned from his enemy. Upon doing so, Tracey took a few steps back and steadied herself with a defensive stance.
“Rise,” she said.
Qah-Shekel did as ordered, lifting the staff along with him. As he faced her, he laid the staff across both hands and bowed, holding it out until Tracey accepted his gift — his defeat.
“Well done, young one,” Qah-Shekel said.
“As to you,” Tracey said, presenting him with a respectful curtsy.
Jacquline took that as her cue to applaud. “Yeah, that’s my Squint. Take him down!” Qah-Shekel my have been a little upset for offering her praise to Tracey (with no accolades for him), but she threw him a wry smile in hopes of convincing him she would always respect his prowess.
“Do you know how I did it?” Tracey asked Jacquline.
“You used his strength and overconfidence against him.”
“You used a tried and true poker trick. You bided your time until you could read all of his tells and when it was time, you struck.”
“And why would I do that?”
“In this scenario? Probably because he’s a freakin’ beast.”
“Precisely. On paper, I’m no match for him. He’s bigger, he’s stronger and he’s had a lot more experience in combat. I should have been finished in thirty seconds.”
“But because I remained patient,” Tracey continued, ignoring Jacquline’s comment, “and didn’t allow my emotions to control me, it gave me time to come up with a plan that worked in my favor.”
“Yeah, I get it. It doesn’t matter how strong or experienced my opponent is, as long as I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything. I know this already. What’s your point?”
“My point is it goes both ways. You have to be just as patient and just as cunning when you’re the stronger opponent. The moment you let your guard down is the moment you get bit.”
“Never underestimate your opponent. Got it.”
“And never take anything at face value. Deception can only hurt you if you let it.”
“Understood, sensei.” Jacquline pressed her palms together and bowed forward.
Tracey quickly snapped Jacquline’s head with her staff. “Aye. Always look eye.”
Jacquline broke into painful laughter. Qah-Shekel stood bemused at her mirth but remained utterly confused.
“I’ll leave you,” he said, which only led to more laughter. He was gone shortly after.
As Jacquline got her amusement under control and wiped the moisture from her eyes, Tracey fell to her knee. She was able to plant her hand firmly against the floor but had to drop one of the staffs to do so. Jacquline was next to her within the time it took the staff to finish its song against the floor. She pressed her hands to Tracey’s back to help support her (or so she thought). “Tracey? Are you okay?”
Tracey didn’t answer.
Jacquline was down on her knees now, trying her best to get Tracey to look at her. “Tracey?”
“Yeah,” Tracey finally said. “Enough with the fun and games.” She handed Jacquline her staff. “Time to get back to work.” Tracey picked up the second staff and stepped away, deliberately hiding her face from Jacquline under her glistening hair. At first, Jacquline felt like forcing Tracey to rest; it was clear that the last few weeks had taken their toll on her. But then it occurred to her —
It’s a damn test, isn’t it?
Jacquline rolled her eyes. Tracey had just gone over this whole thing and here she was falling for it. Even though the pain in her thighs had become inflamed, she swung her head around in circles to crack her neck and then did a few jumps to pump herself up. “You ready, then?” she asked.
Tracey shifted her hair from her face and set her feet defensively.
I knew it, you little weasel! Game on.
Jacquline took her cue from the last challenge and waited as patiently as she could for Tracey to make the first move. After several minutes, and not one bite from Tracey, Jacquline realized that tactic wasn’t going to work.
“What was all that with the staff, anyway?” she said as she gently bounced the staff in her hand, apparently gauging the weight of it.
“It’s a sign of respect for when the student surpasses the master. An acknowledgment of an honorable defeat.” Not one inch of movement. Not one.
“You can expect the same of me when I have been mastered.”
“You better believe that.”
“But I can’t master any of it if we don’t fight, now can I?” Jacquline lowered her body, holding her staff out in front with both hands.
“I suppose not.”
But Tracey didn’t attack as Jacquline had expected. Instead, she relaxed her body and lowered her staff as if she had given up. Jacquline felt like doing the same, to question what was happening, but for all she knew, it was just another distraction.
Never take anything at face value.
So she stood her ground and waited.
“We’ll have to pick this up later,” Tracey said. “Duty calls.”
Thank God, Jacquline thought, hoping against hope that she hadn’t said it out loud.
— 2 —
“She’s growing stronger,” Qah-Shekel said as he crossed the threshold of the command center.
Sentilla sat quietly in the pilot seat, carefully monitoring the information produced by the ship’s sensors as she navigated the Equinox through a mind-numbing stretch of dead space — a laborious task that would make even the wild beasts of Lourou grow mad with tedious fever. Traveling through a galaxy full of stars was one thing; at least then the ship was able to calculate the presence of celestial objects and reconfigure flight paths accordingly. Not so with dead space, where nothing could be seen or documented, forcing pilots of some of the most sophisticated ships to navigate manually, else find themselves lost among the void or destroyed by some rogue comet, wandering star, or a debris field of scraps leftover from the destruction of a ship and other types of trash. Sentilla would normally have Lark perform such tedious tasks for her (as her own mother had tasked her to do as a child) if she hadn’t been so intent on hiding from Tracey — or more to the point, her precious gem.
“We knew she would,” Sentilla said softly. She fought hard to ignore the presence of the gem, which wafted from Qah-Shekel with a light musk.
Noticing her discomfort, Qah-Shekel asked, “Is it still bothering you?”
“Like a sore in my ass,” Sentilla said. “And it’s getting worse.”
“I can smell it now — it’s sweet, scintillating scent. It was bad enough listening to its damn song, but now I’m hungry for it. And you’re not making it any easier.” Sentilla’s hands shook lightly. She tried to hide it, but Qah-Shekel was far too clever for that. He took her hand and rubbed her palm with his thumb. It felt nice — relaxing.
“You can’t hide from it forever. If it’s growing stronger, it will eventually get the better of you. By then, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”
She pulled her hand away and held it across her chest. “Don’t worry. I’ll figure out how to control it.”
“And remain isolated in your quarters?”
“If I must.”
Qah-Shekel reached out to caress Sentilla’s head but was met with hostility. “You can’t do that,” he said, his voice now an octave lower.
“Lark” (the name of which still brought a slight dryness to her mouth) “knows the ship well enough to do what needs to be done if it comes to that.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Sentilla took a moment to relax her body but it was still extremely hard to look at Qah-Shekel with even the slightest of glances.
“What other choice do I have?”
“We can speak to Kahli.”
“And have me put back in the chamber? No thank you.”
“Sentilla, you have to try something.”
“It didn’t help the first time.” Sentilla was now on her feet, her voice raised. “What makes you believe it’ll work now?”
Qah-Shekel lowered his head and shifted his body in an attempt to calm Sentilla’s raging demeanor. He would need her calm for what he was about to ask. “Have you considered Jaxxa Rakala’s thoughts on the matter?”
“That I need to accept it for it to go away? Bullshit. The moment I accept it is the moment I become its slave. I am not about to allow that to happen. I am nobody’s slave.”
Qah-Shekel was silent. When the tension between them eased, he pulled her into a soft embrace, one she thought about fighting but accepted nonetheless.
“We’ll get through this.”
Sentilla nodded. She felt safe in his arms as she always has, but this time was different. This time, she felt seduced by the chill of his body. She wanted to taste him, to consume him. Gently resting her lips against his skin wasn’t enough; she had to lick him and nibble his flesh like a ravenous shark. But just the touch of his skin was enough for her to realize what was happening and push him away. Resting her hand to her lips, she stepped back, fear controlling every muscle in her body. She wasn’t sure what to do; she wasn’t sure what to say or how to make things go back to normal.
“We’re close,” Sentilla said, responding to the ring in her ear. “Go. I’ll be okay.”
Even though Qah-Shekel wanted to help her, he knew staying would only make things worse. He left her to be at peace, but the gem’s presence (even if it was just a hint) remained to agitate Sentilla to the point of shakes. She fought her tears with as much strength as she could muster — which as of right now wasn’t nearly enough.
* * *
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