Friday, June 7, 2019

BOOK: Dark Return, Belterra Book 2 by Carol Ann Kauffman

BOOK: Dark Return, Belterra Book 2 by Carol Ann Kauffman

Dark Return is the sequel to Belterra, Time After Time, and takes place about ten years afterwards. 

When Belterra was populated long ago by a select group of humans sent here by the ancients in the hope of saving the human race, the indigenous race of bat-like creatures called the Batrach were forced into the ocean and underground sea caves by a giant force field. 

The force field has now weakened. The Batrach have emerged from their watery prison and they want their planet back.

If you are one of the thousands who read and loved Belterra, you need to read this continuing adventure of Braedon and Neeka, as they try to save their planet without losing each other. Love. Scifi. Adventure.

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Read an excerpt before you buy:

“I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times, in life after life, 
in age after age forever.”
-Rabindranath Tagore

Chapter One

A Species Wants Its Planet Back

“Gar, ammo! Catch!” Braedon, Lord of War, threw the ammunition belt high into the air. 
Gar jumped up, caught it, and reloaded smoothly. He nodded to Braedon.
“Okay, cover me.” Braedon ran as Gar releaseda barrage of bullets in the direction of the Batrach cave, allowing Braedon time to get down the hill to where Anton lay bloody and injured. Braedon pulled him up, looping Anton’s arm around his neck.
“Can you walk or must I drag you back to safety?”
“I can walk,” Anton grimaced. 
“It is not as bad as you think, Anton,” Braedon lied as he looked at two gaping holes in the shoulder of his second-in-command. “Neeka will fix this. My wife can fix these little, um, bat bites easily. Just hang in there, all right?” 
The two hobbled close to the big rocks and the huge pile of human bones the Batrach left to display their complete disregard for human life. They dared not go any farther without cover. 
“Gar, now,” shouted Braedon, and again Gar fired shots in the direction of the cave entrance until his two companions were back in the safety zone.
“Force fields up,” Gar shouted and soon the bright blue-tinged containment wall was in effect.
“How bad is he?” Gar asked, startled by the condition of the bloody and ashen Anton. Braedon just looked at him, not wanting to react out loud.
“I believe he is in imminent danger of turning into a vampire,” he teased. “We need to get him to the hospital. Neeka can fix this.”
They loaded the wounded Anton onto his horse and rode back to Westwind Castle, where members of the warrior clan quickly unloaded him and carried him to the makeshift operating room.
The hospital corridors were filled with injured soldiers on cots, waiting for their turn to be treated. Soon Anton was resting comfortably in a room, his wounds tended. 
An exhausted Neeka came out to talk to Braedon, Gar, and Keng.
“Relax, boys. He will be good as new in a week or two. He will be very sore and weak for a few days, but he will recover. He was very lucky. The Batrach bite was not deep, just very wide. I had to cauterize it in two places, so he does not like me too much right now. Naturally, as a member of the big tough guy club, he refused pain medication. But he did allow me give him something to help him sleep when it was all over.” 
“That is very good news,” said Gar.
“Yes, good news,” said Braedon. “I am relieved.” 
“I sent a message to Red Village, telling Jennell he has been hurt and the extent of his injury,” said Neeka. “Maybe she will break down and come to hold his hand. That should make him feel better and maybe he’ll forgive me for the pain I caused.”
“You saved him. The Batrachs were the ones who caused his pain,” said Braedon. “Not you.”
He pulled his wife to the side.
“Can you get away for just a little while, My Love? 
This ordeal with these beasts has been a harrowing. I have never seen evil and blackness on such an epic scale. Bad vibrations. I could smell my own demise and the extinction of our entire species. I need something beautiful to replace the horrors I have witnessed this day. I truly need… some alone time with my beautiful wife.”
“Braedon, honey, I want to. I really do,” she said, reaching up and hugging him. She kissed him gently on the neck. “But you brought me back so many injured people. We are swamped. I cannot leave the hospital just because the Lord of War needs a little huggie time, now can I?”
She turned and went back to work.
“Lady Neeka,” said Gar. “I will come and help you. You need only to tell me what I must do, and I will do it.”
“Thank you, Gar, you’re so considerate. Come with me.”
Braedon watched them walk down the hall, shaking his head.
“What is the matter, Lord Braedon?” asked Keng.
“Oh, nothing. But some days I could just choke Gar. I need to get out of here. I need a drink. Or four.”
Braedon consoled himself that evening while Neeka continued patching up the injured. She slept in the hospital wing for a few hours and got right back to work.
* * *
Jennell, daughter of Lord Jamit of the Spirit Clan, rushed into the hospital wing early the next morning, her long red hair, a symbol of her clan, flowing gently over her shoulders.
“Neeka, how badly is he injured?”
The two women hugged.
“I am so glad you came,” said Neeka. “He will be so much better when he sees you. Batrach bite. Very wide, but he’s very lucky because it was not deep. Come, I will take you to him. 
“Now, Jennell, he looks bad. He has refused pain medication and I had to cauterize two different areas of his shoulder. So, there is still the smell of burned flesh and he is very weak. He has lost a lot of blood, but he will be okay,” Neeka consoled her friend. 
Jennell nodded. 
“Put on a brave face. Be strong for him.” 
Again, Jennell nodded.
They walked into the room.  Anton was still asleep. 
Jennell began to weep. “Look at him. He looks so small and frail. And pale. Are you sure he is going to pull through?”
“Yes. Do not mention the small and frail part when he awakens. These soldiers are running at eighty percent ego right now. They are fighting this war for the whole planet all by themselves. We of the Warrior clan, we’re not really fighters. We are herb gatherers and healers. Your people are more formidable, but there are not many of your clan left.”
“We are not skilled fighters, either, even if there were more of us left. We know the ways of future possibilities and can sense untruths and ambushes. That sometimes helps. The total number of Spirit clan survivors in Red Village has finally stabilized and actually increased by a few.”
“Great news. Some new births?”
“Yes. Four boys and three girls. We will grow strong again, thanks to you, Neeka, Braedon, and your father.”
“Oh, Jennell, we are happy to help. When we planned the new village, we made plenty of room for growth. Your people are welcome to stay with us as long as you wish. And you are welcome to live anywhere in Westwind, not all crunched up in Red Village.”
“We know, and that is very kind of you. But we want to live together. It is not self-imposed segregation. We feel lost, so we cling to whatever is left of our once large and strong Spirit family.”
“I understand. Hopefully, we can defeat the evil Batrach and the Spirit Clan can reclaim Southland as their home. I know that is what you all want. You all want to go home.”
“Yes, and to rebuild our once beautiful village and Manor House. What about Northford? Surely they can be of some help.”
“The Scientists? Are you joking?
“They are loud and brave, but only from a distance. Without their bag of tricks, they run from the slightest altercation and hide. And the front is right here at the seashore in Westwind. Also, did you hear the part about being brave? If he sees you crying or upset, it will make him feel even worse.”
“Oh, okay. I was just overcome for a moment. I am under control now.” 
“Jennell, Anton is a wonderful man. And he still loves you.”
“My father is not as tolerate as yours. He insists I marry a member of the Spirit Clan, or not marry at all. I need to marry a spiritualist or remain alone for the rest of my life. It is the will of my family. I am my father’s second. What would I do with a soldier husband?”
“Love him and care for him. Allow him to love you back. I know your father is prejudiced against the Soldier Clan, but I could not be happier with Braedon. He is a wonderful husband; kind, gentle, understanding. He would do anything for me. 
“And Anton is the same. What do you prefer, my friend? Be alone the rest of your life or marry a soldier who loves you and will put you first, always? So, your father does not approve. All our fathers want us to marry within our clan. It has been the way of our people for ten generations. But Anton loves you enough to leave the Soldier Clan and live among your people. Just think about it.” 
They approached the bed.
“Anton? Hey, tough guy,” called Neeka. “Guess what? You have company. A ravishing redhead.” 
Neeka nudged him and he opened his eyes. “I’ll leave you two alone and make sure you aren’t disturbed.” Neeka winked and left.
“Jennell!” He smiled up at her. “I am so happy to see you? Is someone from the Spirit Clan ill? It’s not Lord Jamit, is it?”
“No, Anton, I came to the hospital to see you.”
 She reached for his good hand. “I hear you were almost eaten alive.”
“Do not worry about me,” he laughed. “I am neither tender, delicate, nor juicy. I am tough and indigestible. I would have given him a very bad stomachache and a good, hard fight all the way down.”
“Oh, I am sure of that. But I would much rather you stayed away from them completely.”
“I do not think that is a possibility. The bastards will eat their way to total domination of our planet and eradicate every human if we do not soon find a way to turn the tide.
“How are things in Red Village? Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes, we are all well. Lord Mica and his people have been very kind to us. The weather here is as lovely as it was back home. The village is brand new and has all the latest conveniences. Father likes it very much. Our numbers are finally starting to grow.”
“I’m glad you like it. Cale and Neeka worked hard in planning the new development. It is a model city with its concentric rings. The well-thought arrangement of utilities and citizen services are far beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
“Yes, it is modern and very beautiful.”
“When time comes to return to Southland, I could help you rebuild, if you want.”
“Let’s get you well first. Then we’ll discuss it. What can I do to help you heal, Anton?”
“Nothing,” he smiled. “I am, uh, so surprised to see you. The last time we spoke you told me to forget about us, and never contact you again because a relationship between us was out of the question, never to be.”
“I came to see if you were all right, Anton, and offer my support in your recovery. I did not plan to lie naked by your side and cover your body with kisses,” she explained. “I do not wish to give you false hope. Father still does not approve of… us.”
“Oh.” He turned away from her.
“Can I help ease your pain?”
“No, thank you,” he said, thinking she had just doubled, maybe tripled it. The Batrach bite was easier to endure. “I am fine.” He forced a smile. “Maybe, if you want, you could read to me? Take my mind off… myself.”
“Yes, I could do that.” 
She went out into the hallway in search of reading material while Anton mentally regrouped, feeling sore and foolish. Jennell returned with two books. 
“Okay, will it be Var’s Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs? It is Neeka’s favorite book, I believe.”
He made a face and declined.
“Or a volume of old stories from the Soldier tribe? Neeka’s brother Vin said you would like this one. He said it is an old collection of family fairy tales.”
“My grandmother held those stories in very high regard, I will have you know. They are not simply little fairy tales for children, you see. She told us the stories when we were little. She said the stories were very important to the moral development and the cultural backbone of our society, but she could not remember from where they originated.”
“So, then I may possibly gain some insight into the nature of your people in the process of entertaining you. Are you ready, dear Anton?”
“Yes, my, um, Lady.” He adjusted his pillow and got comfortable.
“Once upon a time in a faraway land long ago, there lived a family of cart builders in the middle of the hot, dry desert,” she began. “The family had three sons. The oldest brother, a great hunter, was named Yessa. The middle brother, who was an excellent barterer, was named Maybee. And the youngest brother, a dreamer and a book reader, was named Noah.”
“Oh, I remember this story. The big flood.”
“And the Lord came to Noah one night and told him to build a very large boat. No one else heard the Lord give Noah this command. Noah began to plan.
“But everybody thought he was crazy and laughed at him, especially his older brothers. Noah’s father, Jean Luc, told him he looked very stupid.
“Noah’s mother, a rather large, devout woman named Catherine the Great, told him to do what he felt was right in his heart. Noah had a very young wife, Starbuck, who was little more than a child herself. He married her for her great beauty, not her brains. She offered no advice to her husband. So, Noah worked on the plan to build the very large boat in the desert by himself, despite ridicule from his father and brothers, and the fact no building material were readily available.”
She continued reading to Anton as he listened and laughed. She was happy to be near him for a little while. Soon he fell asleep. Jennell quietly slipped out of the room.
* * *
Neeka returned to their quarters in Westwind Castle, exhausted from yet another day of nonstop first aid, surgery, and damage control. 
“Braedon, where are you?” she called. “Braedon? Brae? Guess what, Jennell came to see…” 
But Braedon was not there. She gathered a few of her things and made her way down to the hot springs, where showers were located in the tunnels below the castle. It would have been perfect if Braedon were there with her, but she would be happy with a nice, long, hot shower, and a chance to sleep in her own bed. 
She stripped and entered the shower, fed by the local hot springs. Oh, the very warm deluge felt wonderful on her sore, strained muscles. Her arms, neck, and shoulders were aching from lifting injured soldiers. She let the water wash away the sweat of the day and the smell of the wounded and bloody survivors. 
She wondered how her people were going to survive. They were losing, not only the skirmishes, but also the war for the planet.
 The enemy Batrachs were larger, stronger, and without conscience. They were hell-bent on killing every human on the planet. She let her mind go blank as the hot water poured over her head. She found herself crying. 
At first, it was heartfelt sympathy for those who didn’t make it, those who lost their lives today trying to save their world from being overrun by the evil Batrach horde. Then it was a good, hard cry for the loss of the beautiful way of life her people had taken for granted before the war, when the castle was merely the residence of the Warrior Lord and his family, not sectioned off as a hospital, cafeteria, and barracks for all the humans left on the planet. She sobbed for all of her doomed race. They were losing the war.
Neeka returned to her room and curled up in a ball in the middle of the bed. In moments, she was fast asleep. But her slumber was not a peaceful and restful. Images of wounded men, human bones picked clean and left in the sun in open view for all humans. The smell of blood. Screams of pain. The look of fear in her patients’ eyes. Whimpers. Her own.
“Neeka,” called Lira at her door. “I hate to wake you when you get so little sleep as it is, but you are needed.”
“What is it, Lira?” she asked, putting on her robe.
“Your father. He is ill. I can do nothing with him. Will you come and see what you can do?”
“Of course. I will be right there. Call Ana and Fen.”
“They are already with him.”
Neeka dressed quickly and made her way to her father’s bedchamber. She opened the door to find a very ashen looking Lord Mica. She edged toward the bed.
“Father, I hear you are feeling poorly. What exactly is bothering you?” she asked, noticing his breathing was shallow and rapid. His coloring was off, grayish, pale. She touched his hand and head. No fever, a good sign.
“I am sick.”
“Yes, we got that part. Sick from…?”
“Sick of war, sick of death. Sick of looking into the face of the certain demise of our entire species. I’m sickened by my inability to rectify this situation. My heart aches. My people look to me for leadership, wisdom, and guidance; they expect me to figure out a way to save us all. 
“I am the Warrior Lord, but I am no good at this war stuff. We have lived in peace all of my life. I am no strategist. I can hold my own against any human adversary, but not these reptilian monsters. I am, my daughter, a blatant failure.”
“Ana, Fen, come here,” Neeka asked. “Help me.” 
She put her hand on his chest. Ana and Fen did the same. They closed their eyes and breathed deeply, sending their vibrations into his body. Soon Lord Mica was breathing easier and his coloring had returned to normal.
“May I speak with my father alone please?” 
Ana, Fen, and Lira left the room.
“Ashamed of me, Neeka?”
She sat and stared at him. This war had certainly aged him. 
“Of course not. You are the Lord of the Warrior Tribe, the head of our family, a man of healing and finesse. You know the ways of natural healing, of crystals, and light therapy. You know the natural cycles of the sun and the moon. You know the paths of the stars in the sky. You can predict the weather. And you can sense danger by sniffing the air. You know how to communicate with the plants and animals of our kingdom. You can handle any human problem that comes our way.”
“However,” he interrupted, “the problem facing us right now is non-human and I cannot understand or communicate with these damn bat creatures.”
“What does Lord Jamit say?”
“He’s praying. He’s cloistered himself away in prayer. He’s been praying for three days now.”
“How about Lord Milo?”
“Ineffective little punk. He never was leadership material. He takes orders well, but there’s not an original thought anywhere in his empty head.
“And Braedon? He’s the only one among us who is a true leader and a strong fighter. He’s out there on the front line from dawn to dusk, doing battle with these beasts day after day. When I do see him, he looks so tired, so exhausted. Your husband needs rest. And maybe some loving attention from his wife. Your man needs time to replenish himself. Where is he?”
“He wasn’t home when I got back from the hospital. I really don’t know where he is.”
“Well, I do, daughter. He’s out there. If he’s not fighting, he’s carrying back the wounded before they can be eaten. He cannot go on like this. Insist that your husband rest. Take him by his ear and put him to bed.”
“Yes, Father. He is not terribly responsive to that sort of wifely action, you know. But I will try, just as soon as I can find him. Now, back to you. Let’s see if I have this right. You’re having premonitions of impending doom.”
“You feel there is no way out of this.”
“You feel, as our leader, you have let down whatever’s left of the human race.”
“You feel we’re all going to end up dead.”
“Yes,” he shouted.
“And you’re making yourself sick over this.”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Oh, Father, you are anything but a disappointment, to any of us. Yes, we have our problems. I, too, have had nightmares and premonitions that these beasts are gaining strength and preparing to overwhelm us. But I know you’re going to find a way to pull us out of this. 
“And you are not alone. You have your wonderful sons, the love boys, Lars and Omer and Vin and Emil by my stepmother, Lady Tela. You have your own personal fire-breathing dragon, my daughter, your off-beat, but wonderful granddaughter, Ana, who adores you. You have Fen, too. I’m not sure what he is, but I know I’ve loved him since I first laid eyes on him as a sickly, lost, orphan child in Northford. He grows more mature, intelligent, and wise with every single passing day. He loves and respects you. 
“You have Lira, the third woman you’ve bowled over with your kind, gentle, and loving ways. She is the absolute epitome of patience and devotion to you. And you have Braedon, my fantastic War Lord husband, and me, your wild, impetuous daughter. You aren’t carrying this burden by yourself.”
There was a knock at the door.
“I brought you some tea, My Lord,” Lira came in with a tray. “It will calm your nerves.” She poured and handed him the cup. He drank it down quickly. Lira stroked his head and smiled.
“Rest now, Father. Things will look better when you awaken.”
He nodded.
 “Sleep, now, My Lord,” said Lira.

“I can’t sleep. I wish I could sleep, but I can’t, I’m so…”
“Of course, you can, My Darling. I drugged your tea. Rest now. I will be back soon to check on you.” 
Neeka and Lira left, and Lord Mica was soon sound asleep. 

Chapter Two

An Obstruction

Six hours passed. He was shaken awakened by his second in command, Cale. 
“Lord Mica, something is obstructing the view of camera three on the force field,” reported Cale.
 “I don’t like it. No, I don’t like it at all. They’re trying to obstruct our view for a reason. They may be building something, some large apparatus to break down our force field, then swarm us, and devour our flesh while we’re still alive. Do you want me to ask Lord Braedon to look into it?”
“No, Cale. Braedon needs to rest. I’ll get up, find Keng, and ask him to take a team and find out what it is.”
“Do you want me to go find him so you can rest?”
“No. I’m awake now.”
Lord Mica got up and found Keng in the dining hall. 
“Don’t you guys ever sleep?”
“We will sleep when this nightmare of a war is finally over, Lord Mica,” Keng answered. “We will eat like pigs, make love like crazy, get drunk, and sleep for a week.”
“I hope that day will be soon, my friend. Keng, something is blocking a security camera, number three, on the force field and Cale is getting all twitchy about it. He thinks it’s a big Batrach conspiracy to keep us in the dark until they find a way to destroy the force field. Do you think you could take a team and check it out?”
“Of course, Lord Mica. We will leave at first light,” Keng nodded. Keng looked around to find someone to go with him. He saw no one.
“Keng, what is it?” asked Braedon when he walked into the dining hall. “What is the matter?”
“Oh, nothing. I have to go out and check a blocked camera. I was just looking for someone to take with me, and I cannot find any of our soldiers.”
“I ordered them all to bed. Have you taken a good look at them lately? They are the most bedraggled lot I have ever seen. They look exhausted. But I will come with you. When do you want to leave?”
“At dawn.”
Braedon nodded.
* * *
Lord Mica conducted his weekly defense strategy meeting in the Castle Ready Room the next morning.
“The truth is we don’t know what we’re dealing with. What are they? We don’t know,” said Lord Mica.
“What would it take to bring back a dead one? We know nothing about them, except they are not mammals. We assume they’re amphibians, but ancient records show the indigenous race on this planet was a reptilian, non-intelligent species. If we could examine a dead one, we might find a clue to how we can better protect ourselves,” said Neeka.
“Dragging a dead one back here shouldn’t be a big problem,” said Cale.
“Oh, really? Says the man who sits behind a desk all day and pushes buttons,” said Gar. “We could do it, but they’re heavy and gangly. And they stink like hell. I would need a very big incentive to want to drag one of those slimy bastards back to the castle,” laughed Gar, casually looking over at Neeka.
“Our hospital facility can’t accommodate a Batrach. We would need something along the line of the labs in Northford. Milo, are your underground labs still intact?” said Lord Mica.
“Yes, and you are welcome to use them.”
“Wait! Now you want me to drag a big, smelly beast from the seashore to Northford? This keeps getting worse and worse.”
“But who would perform the operation? We have no diabolical scientist-surgeons since Seth’s death,” said Milo.
“Well, we’ll have to find a willing surgeon and take a look at the Northford lab facilities before we ask you to drag one back, Gar,” said Lord Mica.
“Good. Thank you, Lord Mica. And please take your time.”
“Dear father, Seth is not dead. He and Betta are living up at the Hermitage, the mountain lodge, well, not exactly Seth, but a Seth clone,” whispered Neeka to her father.
“My Lady,” said Fen, “I am not a diabolical scientist-surgeon, but I would be willing to perform an autopsy on a dead Batrach, if it will help us defeat these evil monsters.”
“Oh, Fen, that would help us. We don’t know what we are dealing with. It would probably be a good idea to take a good look at the Northford underground lab facilities and see what condition they’re in.”
“I will take a team and go,” said Fen. “I will take Tab. Tab is familiar with the underground facilities. We will leave tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Fen,” she smiled. “Take a security team with you, also.” 
He had come such a long way from the weak, sickly, little orphan boy she met while being held captive in Northford so many years ago. She thought he was growing up to be an extraordinary young man.
“Yes, Lady Neeka.”
* * *
Braedon and Keng found another huge pile of human bones blocking the camera very early the next morning. They buried the bones. 
When they returned with the news, the soldier army prepared another attack on the Batrach forces as a response. The army left immediately.
* * *
“Is everybody back?” whispered Gar.
“No, Keng isn’t here,” said Cam. “And the force field has already been activated.”
“Damn it, I will go find him. The rest of you, get back to safety,” Braedon said as he ran back to the hill looking for Keng. He saw him, down, but moving. Braedon ran for him.
“Can you get up?” 
Keng nodded. He tried but fell over. Braedon picked him up and threw him over his shoulder and ran for the hill.
“Hurry up, run!” the men shouted. 
“Cale, delay the force field. Braedon and Keng are almost here.”
“Can’t,” yelled Cale. “The Batrach are too close behind them.” 
Just as they got to the top of the hill, the blue tinged force field went up, separating Braedon and Keng from the rest of his army.
“Lord Braedon! No!” shouted his men as the Batrachs came over the hill and swarmed them.
“Gar,” shouted Braedon, “take care of her…” 
Gar nodded, a giant lump in his throat. Braedon knew he would take care of Lady Neeka. Excellent care. But Gar also loved and admired Lord Braedon. He was his third in command. They had been friends since childhood. Gar’s father, Lord Tom, had taken Braedon in as a child, when Braedon’s father died in battle and his mother decided she didn’t want to raise the youngest of their children all by herself. 
Gar was a member of Lord Braedon’s Royal Guard. He had pledged an oath of allegiance to Lord Braedon, promising him his loyalty and vowing to protect him for the rest of his life. He knew Lord Braedon would always be her first choice. Lord Braedon was indeed handsome and strong. He was the fiercest fighter and the bravest man on the planet. 
Gar knew that Braedon and Neeka shared a very special bond, some kind of connection that went far beyond the realm of the ordinary man-woman relationship on Belterra. Something beautiful and special, something almost supernatural.
“Oh, I would not want to be the one to have to tell her, or Hildy. How are you going to do it?” Cam said.
“Well, I will tell Hildy first,” said Gar. “Then Hildy will help me.”

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