BACCHUS 2020 CHAPTERS 1-3

CHAPTER ONE

Loneliness and desperation can devour one’s soul until only the beast remains...

 

On the Planet Zaron, light years away from Earth lay the beautiful, crystal city of New Atlantis. Nestled against a mountain range, surrounded by purple treed woods, the city fanned out around a central palace that twinkled like a multifaceted jewel under the light green sky. A vast lake with a smile-shaped shoreline marked the end of the city limits.

Built after a disaster on Earth required the Atlantean people to flee the planet, New Atlantis now thrived. The Atlanteans lived a peaceful existence with their Walled City neighbors, the Phantom Warriors. The new Atlantean King, Eros and the Phantom Dark King strived to keep it that way.

Both cities shared in their bounties and technological advances. Yet, for all their advancement, both suffered from the same societal issue—a lack of females. Men so outnumbered women that a quest to find fertile females on other planets had begun.

It was a race against time and the future of both kingdoms hung in the balance.

Within the walls of the Atlantean palace, tucked inside his private, Moorish living quarters, Phantom Warrior Bacchus removed his royal guard uniform, then stared critically at his reflection. The blood-thirsty beast inside him stared back.

Throughout the years, he’d been told that he wasn’t unpleasant to look upon… for a Blood Clan member. It was not a compliment. He turned his head from side to side. His face was appealing enough, though his vertically-shaped pupils and forked tongue did disturb some.

To outsiders, the Phantom people looked like one large shifter group, but they were actually made up of four distinct species: Claw Clan, cat-like creatures known for their sensual, playful natures due to the genitalia protuberances on the males and the matching internal versions in the females. Tooth Clan, bear shifters, who could walk on two or four legs and were the largest and most fierce of the four shifter groups. Winged Clan, avian shifters blessed by the Goddess with the ability to fly. They had massive wingspans and could travel thousands of miles without resting. And then there was Bacchus’s clan—the Blood Clan. A group both feared and revered due to their reptilian battle form and unusual appetites.

The other clans could easily pass for human. The same could not be said for the Blood Clan. With their odd pupils and large teeth, Earthlings would mistake them for vampires or walking vipers.

For the most part, that was true. Like snakes, their fangs transferred venom, but Phantom venom could pleasure, paralyze, or kill, depending on which venom sac the warrior accessed. And like mythical vampires, they fed on blood, though they could digest solids like snakes.

No matter what clan they were born into, all Phantoms grew up protecting their people’s secrets. In the past, it had been a matter of life or total destruction. Today, it was much the same, except their common enemy was time. With so few females, their species was dying. Hopelessness had set in. If they didn’t find a compatible female population, they would soon cease to exist.

Recently, the arrival of the lost Atlanteans renewed hope. They’d transported from Earth to Zaron with their human mates in tow. The successful matings proved that the alien planet’s inhabitants could save the Atlanteans, but uncertainty still reigned within the Phantom Warriors. No one knew if Earth’s women and shifters were breeding compatible.

Until he tested the theory, Bacchus would have to live with the driving need that plagued him night and day. He might have a high rank, respect, and plenty of credits to his name, but those accomplishments meant little without someone to share them with. And none of those things could shield him from the sheer loneliness living inside him.

The pain was relentless and always at the forefront of his mind. It had been going on for so many moons that Bacchus could no longer hide the naked need carved into his features. The harder he tried the more visible it became. Like a light, it shone, growing brighter and brighter by the day. Its palpable nature kept everyone, but those paid for companionship, at bay. 

The reminder of his only option made his expression sour. He was weak. For only weakness could drive him to this moment. The female hadn’t even arrived, and Bacchus was already having regrets. He was so starved for affection that he was willing to debase himself for temporary release.

He sneered at his reflection. “Who on Earth would want you?”

Bacchus scrubbed a hand over his face and through his dark hair, letting it fall to his shoulders. Tonight, had been a mistake no matter how well-intentioned. He glanced out the window at the light green sky to judge the time. The dual orange moons were rising fast. If he was going to cancel the appointment, it would have to be now.

He walked over to the com device on his desk. It sat next to the classified Earth documentation that he’d been studying earlier. Bacchus had memorized all he could for his covert mission tomorrow but had no way of knowing if it would be enough.

He placed his hand on the crystal. Before it could connect to the Pleasurer’s Guild, his door chimed, announcing the arrival of his guest. Too late. He lifted his hand and sighed. 

Bacchus straightened his clothes and took one last look at his appearance. He needed to lose the scowl on his face. He forced himself to pause and smile, taking care to only flash a sliver of fang.

There was no sense in taking his foul mood out on the woman. She was only doing her job. It wasn’t her fault that he was weak. He pressed his hand against a panel on the wall and the door to his quarters opened.

With a seductive smile curving her full lips, the ebony-haired Pleasurer looked up from the device in her hand and... flinched. To her credit, her smile never wavered, and she quickly recovered. 

“My, what big fangs you have.” Her hand fluttered to her neck and she swallowed hard, then her expression turned sultry. But the move did not have the desired effect she’d hoped for.

Bacchus felt a flush of shame heat his cheeks and his fangs receded. He shouldn’t have shown them. He’d made the move to be playful, to put the woman at ease, but it had been a mistake. This whole night had been a mistake.

“Don’t retract them on my part.” Her smile widened but the warmth did not reach her eyes. “Biting only adds to the pleasure.”

His chest clenched, squeezing his two hearts as disappointment set in. He wasn’t surprised by the Pleasurer’s declaration. It was well known in Phantom circles that some Pleasurers sought out Blood Clan members just so they could experience the hours’ long ecstasy that came from an injection of euphoric venom. If sex lasted for a time, those hours could stretch to days.

If that was what this Pleasurer was hoping for, then she was going to be bitterly disappointed because Bacchus had no intention of sharing his euphoric venom with this woman. He was saving that particular venom sac for his future mate, whoever she may be.

Assuming this Pleasurer was a venom chaser would be a mistake. It was just as likely that her initial reaction came from fear-based prejudice against the Blood Clan. Some Phantoms believed that his clan shouldn’t be part of the Phantom people. Those vocal shifters claimed that the Blood Clan’s reptilian appearance and lack of fur made them too different to belong.

Prejudice was something Bacchus had learned to live with. He’d had to since he’d been experiencing those types of reactions his entire life. That didn’t mean the slights still didn’t occasionally hurt.

Like so many other Blood Clan warriors before him, Bacchus could’ve left Zaron, but he refused to allow prejudice to drive him from his home. He and his clan had just as much right to live here as the other clans.

“Are you going to invite me inside?” the Pleasurer asked, pulling him from his troubling thoughts.  “Or would you rather I service you here for all to see?” Her greedy gaze raked him, and she licked her lips. “Either way works for me.” She snaked a finger down his chest, then trailed even lower.

Bacchus captured her hand, stopping her progress, then stepped aside. “Please enter and know you are safe here.”

She smiled and entered his living quarters. 

The moment the door closed behind her, she hit a button on the device in her hands. No doubt to mark the beginning of their session. “The clean health scans are in order. No diseases or biologicals detected for either of us. Warrior, did you receive your copy for your records? If not, I can send you a report now,” she asked, matter-of-factly.

“I have,” Bacchus said. No Phantom could book a Pleasurer without mandatory testing.

“Good, then let’s get started.” She dropped the device into her bag. “Are you ready?”

Bacchus nodded, but his regret over hiring her was growing stronger by the minute. He’d thought to relieve some tension before his unauthorized mission but realized too late that nothing and no one could take away the stress. It would remain with him until he’d completed the task.

The Pleasurer held her smile and immediately began to undress. “By the time I’m finished, you will have forgotten whatever is troubling you.”

Not likely, he thought.

There was no hesitation, no small talk, and no seduction. It was a simple business arrangement and as such, she would not waste time. 

She pointed to his fur covered rest pad in the corner of the room as she kicked away the last of her clothes. “Take a seat.”

Bacchus did as she requested, but he did not get undressed. Instead, he made sure to unfasten the front of his clothing before he sat.

The woman began to fondle her body. He stared at her hands as she played with her nipples. She popped first one brown peak, then the other into her mouth and sucked hard. The unusual move was a feat few Phantom women could accomplish. Not many were so bountifully blessed.

A soft, feminine musk filled the air as her arousal intensified. 

Bacchus didn’t want to respond to it—to her, but the sensual aroma beckoned him. It had been too long since he’d last lain with a female. His body was starving for a woman’s touch. Every one of his muscles tightened, tensed, and quivered. He curled his hands into the furs beneath him to keep from reaching for her.

She slid her fingers lower, threading them through the soft curls that promised a warrior salvation.

Bacchus licked his lips. His gums ached from the insistent press of his fangs, but he ignored the discomfort. He shouldn’t have denied his body of its basic needs. In doing so, he’d weakened his control. A very dangerous position for a Blood Clan member to be in. In his current state, it wouldn’t take much to trigger his blood lust.

She continued to stroke herself. The more the woman played with her body, the richer her scent became...including her blood.

The Pleasurer was lovely, but he wanted to be with a female who wanted him. Someone who’d be his and his alone. Not someone he had to share with other warriors. He wanted someone who’d be there for his triumphs and defeats. Someone to laugh and mourn with. Someone who wouldn’t flinch when she looked at him. Someone who’d be the ultimate keeper of his two hearts. Hearts that he could only give to his one true-mate.

Bacchus had already waited years for a true-mate. And, if his mission to Earth failed, he might have to wait many more. The thought of having to swallow his pride and schedule more appointments with a Pleasurer numbed him, leaving only a hollow void.

He was grateful for this female and her guild. They were invaluable to the Phantom people, but their company was no longer enough for him.

Bitterness welled, dousing his desire. He needed to ask the woman to leave. There was no point in her staying.

He opened his mouth to cancel the session. Before Bacchus could utter a word, she slipped her hand into the front of his clothes and stroked him.

“Be here with me now, warrior.” She tightened her grip on him. “I know not what troubles you, but those problems can wait. Give yourself over to me.”

Bacchus groaned. How long had it been since a woman touched him? Nine months? A year? He couldn’t recall.

She caressed and squeezed, knowing just how to work him. Her moves pulled the breath from his lungs. “That’s it, give your body to me,” she murmured. “Allow me to bring you pleasure.”

His thoughts scattered, leaving him trembling and aching for more. Bacchus closed his eyes and imagined this was his mate touching him, stroking him—loving him.

“Feel free to bite me. I give you my permission.” The Pleasurer rimmed the head of his shaft with her rough tongue.

Bacchus’s fangs unfurled. The urge to bite was strong, but he resisted the temptation of that intimate act.

“What are you waiting for?” A small frown marred her brow. “Do you not enjoy this, warrior?” Her hot breath teased his aching flesh.

“I do,” Bacchus grit out between clenched teeth.

“Then bite me, scratch me, do whatever will bring you release,” she said. “I’m open to anything that will help you.”

“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s me.”

Bacchus couldn’t relax. Didn’t really want to. All he could think about was what would happen to the Phantom people if he failed. His body clenched. Not even having a woman’s face buried in his lap helped ease his tension. 

The Pleasurer purred, her cat side coming out to play. “I know something that will make you relax,” she said, a devilish expression on her face.

“We should wait and try this some other time.” He tried to close the front of his clothing.

She pushed his hands aside. “Not so fast, warrior,” the Pleasurer said, and climbed onto his lap. She grasped his hard shaft, squeezing it none too gently, and lowered herself onto him. “Yes!” she hissed. “You’re big, but fear not, I can take all of you.”

Bacchus groaned as her hot body swallowed him, sucking him deep. She didn’t stop until every long, thick inch of him nestled inside her, then the tiny ribs in her moist channel began to move.

After that, he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Didn’t want to as pleasure engulfed him and swept him away. His muscles strained as he thrust up each time she lowered herself. The heat was incredible. Sweat broke out across his forehead, dampening his dark hair. 

“You feel so good,” she said, encouraging him. The woman gyrated her hips and the fleshy protrusions inside her began to vibrate.

Bacchus fisted the furs beneath him and heard the material rip as his claws unsheathed. He ground his teeth so hard that he lacerated the inside of his mouth with his fangs. Blood pooled on his tongue, then poured down his throat.

He swallowed the hot liquid to take the edge off his hunger and to keep from doing something he’d regret for the rest of his life.

“More!” He growled and thrust mindlessly, imagining this was his mate in his arms, riding him—loving him.

“That’s it. Harder.” A moan escaped the Claw Clan Pleasurer as she tossed her head back.

The sound of her voice brought him out of his fantasy, and he began to soften.

“No!” she snarled. Her hands glided up his arms and rested on his shoulders. She tapped him lightly with her fingertips, then she unsheathed her claws and tore furrows into his skin.

It was a calculated move. One done to make him lose control.

It worked.

Bacchus’s nostrils flared as the coppery mint scent of his blood filled his lungs and ripped away reason. He hardened and shot forward, latching onto one of her nipples. He sucked in time with her bobbing movements.

She mewed, arching her spine to get closer.

Bacchus tongued her flesh, wrapping his forked part around her swollen nipple.

The Pleasurer bore down on him and her breathing deepened as he teased her with the tips of his fangs.

“Bite me,” she begged, grabbing his head and burying his nose in her glistening flesh. 

The aroma of her blood beneath her skin wafted like flowers on a breeze. Bacchus gripped her back and held her in place. Goddess, he wanted to bite her so bad. He wanted to pump his venom inside her until she screamed his name...

But he wouldn’t.

Because he knew she wouldn’t scream his name. She didn’t care what his name was, might not even know it. To her, he was just another warrior client, a number and an address in her device.

The woman wiggled closer. “What are you waiting for?” she panted, her voice a volatile blend of confusion and need. “Please, I want to feel your fangs in me, feel your venom filling my veins.”

Bacchus quaked under the weight of temptation. His resistance wavered. What was he waiting for? He didn’t have a mate. Might never find one. The woman in his arms wanted this—wanted him.

He looked at her, saw the need in her eyes. It was real. Then he noticed her eyes weren’t focused on him, but on something over his shoulder.

Cold washed over Bacchus and his hearts sank. He didn’t have to look to know that she was staring at the credit unit on the wall behind him.

This woman didn’t want him. Never wanted him. She only wanted the venom in his bite and the credits in his pocket. It was time to end this farce.

He kissed her breasts one last time, then stroked the Pleasurer at the base of her skull where a hidden bundle of nerves existed.

She cried out, then slammed down onto him, once, twice, three times, before tumbling over the edge.

Bacchus held her quivering, purring body as it twitched from the explosive aftershocks. He wasn’t sated. Wouldn’t be tonight, but at least the woman would leave here satisfied and far richer. 

Her red eyes glowed in the dim lighting. “You didn’t find your release, warrior,” she said once she’d recovered. 

“It’s okay,” he said. “Tonight, it was not to be.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but in the guild that is not acceptable unless a warrior is injured. Are you injured?”

“No.”

Her expression darkened. With cat-like speed, the Pleasurer’s mouth latched onto his shoulder. She blazed a trail of kisses to his neck, then sank her sharp, feline teeth into his skin.

Bacchus hissed in surprise.

Pleasurers never bit clients. It was against guild rules. She'd made an exception for him.

His hips jerked and before he knew it, his release rolled through him.

“That’s more like it,” the Pleasurer said, wiping the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand. She slipped off his body, taking her warmth with her. Pulling out a cleansing cloth from her bag, she cleaned herself up. She didn’t offer him one. But then, he hadn’t expected her to make that kind of gesture.

Bacchus rose from his fur-covered rest pad and sealed the front of his clothing. He didn’t say a word to her as he crossed the room to the credit unit secured to the wall. The unit had five colored stones on it that he had to press in the correct order for it to work.

His hands flew over the stones, moving too fast to clock. A moment later, a green credit crystal popped out. He picked it up. By the time he’d turned around to hand her the crystal, the Pleasurer was already dressed.

She dropped the credit into her bag and pulled out a scheduling device, then looked at him expectantly. “Would you like to book your next session? I have availability seven ripe moons from now.”

Bacchus shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.”

Something flashed in her eyes. With any other woman he would’ve thought it was disappointment, but not a Pleasurer. They saw nothing beyond the green of the credit crystals. “Notify the guild if you change your mind.”

“I will.” Bacchus had no intention of calling on them again. This was his last time. He walked the woman to his front door. “Thank you for your services.”

She stepped into the corridor, a faint smile ghosting her lips. “My pleasure. Thank you, warrior.”

He gave her a curt nod and watched her walk away, then closed and sealed the entrance behind her. Bacchus let out a sigh and rested his forehead against the door.

Tomorrow, everything would change. It had to change.

Or he and his people would soon cease to exist.

* * *

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

The next morning, Bacchus cloaked his presence and stowed away on the ship bound for Earth. It was the first time he’d ever disobeyed an order. As a member of the royal guard for the Atlantean King, he took his duties seriously.

He’d never questioned an order until King Eros commanded him to remain on Zaron with the other Phantom Warriors, while allowing Atlanteans to journey to Earth in search of mates.

Bacchus had gone straight to the Phantom Dark King and volunteered to lead a covert mission to Earth. He was to find out if human females were compatible with shifters and report back.

King Hades hadn’t given him much time to accomplish his mission. He’d purposely kept the timeline short because he didn’t want to damage relations or worse, risk war with the Atlanteans. Everything was riding on this trip. Bacchus could not, would not, fail.

 

One week later…

 

Bacchus slipped off the craft shortly after it landed on Earth. They were in a place called Los Angeles, a city filled with millions of humans. Bacchus hoped those millions included females.

Commander Orion, brother to Ares, had dropped off an Atlantean woman named Cassandra at the ocean’s edge. Once she was at a safe distance, Orion had taken off for someplace called New York to locate the Atlantean Queen’s friend, Brigit. No doubt he’d notice a weight discrepancy but would otherwise remain blissfully unaware of Bacchus’s deception.

Bacchus had studied as much as he could about Earth before departure. Although he didn’t feel comfortable on this new world, he knew he’d survive long enough to complete his mission, or he wouldn’t return home at all.

Left alone with only time to think, he’d made that decision on the journey to Earth, though that hadn’t been his initial plan. Bacchus knew if he failed, he couldn’t face his king or his people again.

He tilted his face up to the sun, soaking in the heat. This place was warmer than Zaron and the air smelled different. The crisp ocean breeze tickled his nostrils and caressed his hair, leaving the faint taste of salt upon his forked tongue. There were so many exotic flavors and colors. The biggest of which was the sky itself.

Bacchus wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to seeing a blue sky. The color was unnatural.

Earthlings began to arrive on the beach, shattering the tranquility of the early morning. Many ran in tight formation, wearing loose gray clothing that sagged on their bodies. 

Bacchus watched in fascination. There seemed to be no ritual behind their actions. They neither trained for combat nor executed stealth moves. No predator was chasing them, which meant there was no reason for running. At least none that he could see.

Strange, even for a primitive species.

Several people passed, including a couple of females. He followed one of the women down the wave-swept beach, taking care to blur his image so he blended in with the environment. To the untrained eye, he would appear as a glimmer of light, a flash of sun on the sand, invisible to all until he deemed otherwise.

The woman’s firm bottom sashayed side-to-side with each step she took. Her appearance was pleasant to the eye and she smelled fertile. Bacchus considered approaching until a nearby male called out her name. The woman waited for the man to approach, then kissed him. Together, they continued down the beach.

There was nothing to indicate that she’d already been claimed. She wore no bites, no male scent, no nothing. That discovery was going to make Bacchus’s mission harder. He’d read about marriage and the exchange of rings, but he had also read that not every mated couple wore rings. So, if they didn’t have rings or bites, then how did Earth males mark their mates? Without marks of some kind other males would assume that the females were available to be claimed.

Earth’s customs were very confusing.

More people appeared on the sand. Much like the lack of claiming marks, their activities made no sense to Bacchus. Why were they running? Why were some splashing in the water? Did the act have significance? And what was the disc they kept throwing to each other?

Bacchus needed to learn more about this planet and its people. The vidlink had been helpful and so had the reports from the Atlantean’s human true-mates, but much information had been omitted. The only way to make up for the discrepancies was if he absorbed the knowledge.

Despite it being fast and effective, the thought of using osmosis made Bacchus’s stomach churn. This was his least favorite way to learn. The process required choosing a male subject with care and allowing the male to pass through him. It always left Bacchus dizzy and disoriented. He frowned, not looking forward to what he had to do next.

He searched the sands for a suitable Earth male, one that was alone and looked like he might be intelligent. Bacchus did not want an audience in case something went wrong and he had to eliminate the man.

He’d prefer to learn from a woman, but he couldn’t since there was a chance he’d pass along his genetic coding and accidentally mate with her.

It was only a slim chance, since he had no idea if shifters and humans were compatible, but still too great of a risk. He could not afford to squander his genetic coding indiscriminately. His life and the future of all Phantoms was riding on his decisions.

Somewhere on this planet was his true-mate. Bacchus refused to believe that might not be true.

Minutes passed without any obvious candidates. All the males looked dim to him each in their own way. Listening to their inane conversations hadn’t changed his opinion. Bacchus kept away from the water, since the Atlantean female was nearby. He had to be careful. He couldn’t afford for her to somehow spot him and contact Orion.

Bacchus stared down the beach, wondering if he should leave this place and go search another area. He was about to do that, when Cassandra peeled off her clothing and took a step into the water.

From what he’d read, nudity wasn’t a common practice on this planet, so he had no idea what she was thinking. 

Like the other males on the beach, Bacchus had stopped what he was doing and watched her strip. He couldn’t seem to move or tear his gaze away from her natural beauty and innate sensuality.

He had lain with a couple of Atlantean women over the years, so he knew about their enormous sexual appetites. Their hungers were tame compared to his true nature. Despite that knowledge, Bacchus’s body responded even though he had no desire to be with her. 

She stepped farther into the water and dove under an oncoming wave. A minute later, Cassandra surfaced and began to giggle like a child. She seemed to be unaware that there was anyone else around her.

Utterly uninhibited, Cassandra bobbed on the surface, exposing her full breasts. She splashed around like a newly freed water nymph. Her actions began to draw a crowd. Some male Earthlings held hand devices, which they pointed at the Atlantean.

Bacchus tensed. He didn’t know what the devices were for, but he didn’t like how they were aimed at her. They felt like weapons. He was going to have to interfere and put an end to her escapades. And when he did, his covert mission would be over. Failure beat at him, but he couldn’t allow this to continue. It was his sworn duty as a Phantom Warrior to protect all females. He stepped forward, his image wavering like heatwaves on an endless highway.

No one looked his way. They were too focused on Cassandra. He was too focused on the Atlantean woman, which was why he didn’t hear the man’s approach on the sand until it was too late.

Firm-framed with a shadowed jaw, the man stormed through him. Bacchus had no choice but to absorb his essence. Knowledge, experiences, and memories flooded him.

The man grabbed his head and stumbled, but quickly righted himself. It was a testament to his strength that he recovered from the process so fast.

Bacchus felt a wave of nausea as information and the man’s buried feelings bombarded him. He couldn’t seem to pull air into his lungs.

So much pain. So much disappointment. Yet, he suffered from no injuries. And beneath the emotional chaos was something called love. Bacchus had read about that last emotion but had never experienced anything like it. The feeling was indescribable and overwhelming. It left him off balance.

Love was dangerous, especially to one such as him.

More details from the man’s mind flowed into Bacchus at a dizzying speed, filling him with knowledge about the planet, its customs, and its people. There were so many customs to be aware of—too many for anyone to master. Even this human struggled with the task and he was quite intelligent for someone from a primitive species.

The male’s name was Brady Rittner, but he preferred to go by Buzz. Odd that, Bacchus thought. Why would a human not use his own name? Brady, or Buzz, fancied himself a space warrior underneath his unassuming façade. But it wasn’t just a title he’d assigned himself. This man had been to space.

The news shocked Bacchus. He was aware that Earthlings had gone into space. The numbers were few and they didn’t have the technology to travel far. That made this man very rare indeed.

Which begged the question, why was he in so much pain?

Bacchus caught a glimpse of a woman crying in the man’s mind. Looking past her watering eyes, blotchy face, and red nose, he could see she was...stunning. Who was she? Buzz’s mate? And why did it hurt him—them—so much to see her like this? For Bacchus also felt the pain of her suffering. It sliced his two hearts.

Carrie, the name whispered through his mind. The word sister followed.

Sister was a familial term that described siblings. So, definitely not his mate. 

For some reason that news relieved the tension in Bacchus’s shoulders. He hadn’t liked the idea of this man being Carrie’s true-mate. In fact, the very thought of it made him want to hurt Buzz.

The information he’d garnered from the Earthling wasn’t enough to understand the situation that led to Carrie’s tears, but it did pique his curiosity. Bacchus wanted to know more about her.

He waded past the pain, ignoring a fresh wave of nausea, until he found what he was searching for. Carrie had been engaged to Buzz's best friend, Ryan. The broken bond had left her shattered and guilt-ridden.

Rage enveloped him. Bacchus wasn’t sure what engaged meant, since humans didn’t form true-mate bonds, but he wanted to hunt Ryan down and inflict the kind of pain he’d put Carrie through. He ruthlessly searched Buzz’s memories. One of them had to hold the location of Ryan.

This time Bacchus saw a large box being lowered into the ground. A gray stone above the hole had Ryan’s name chiseled on it, along with two dates. The memory showed Carrie and Buzz standing over the box. Carrie was crying and holding her brother’s hand.

Instead of comforting her, Buzz had said, “It’s your fault he’s dead,” then he’d pulled out of her grasp and walked away, leaving her alone at the graveside.

Buzz was angry with his sister and needed someone to blame, though deep down he knew Ryan’s death wasn’t her fault. His best friend had been far from perfect and hadn’t been good to Carrie, but his passing had sent Buzz spiraling out of control.

He’d lost his job and didn’t feel like he had much to live for. The only thing that kept him from total destruction was his fear for Carrie’s future. Their parents were dead, and he didn’t want her to be alone.

Bacchus couldn’t believe the man’s selfishness. Buzz's sister needed him and all he could think of was himself. His hearts ached for her. Drawn by a force he didn’t understand, Bacchus needed to see for himself that she was all right. If Buzz wasn’t willing to check on her, he would.

Seeing to Carrie’s welfare would delay his search for a compatible female, but what choice did he have? Bacchus couldn’t call himself a Phantom Warrior if he turned his back on a female in need.

There was little time to complete his mission, so he’d have to locate her fast. Once he observed that she was safe and no longer in pain, Bacchus’s hunt would begin in earnest.

“What are you all looking at?” Buzz’s sharp tone brought Bacchus out of the man’s memories and back to the present.

He glanced at him, looking at the man with fresh eyes.

Buzz shoved his way through the crowd, then halted as his gaze locked onto Cassandra.

Bacchus could hear his heartbeat accelerate and sense his growing arousal.

With a snarl, Buzz spun around and faced the gawking group. “Don’t you all have something better to do with your time?” He stormed toward the small crowd.

The beach goers grumbled and pointed the devices in their hands toward him.

“Get out of here, you vultures!” he yelled.

Alarmed, they scattered.

He glared at a few, who tried to linger until they, too moved on. Then, he shook his head and turned back to Cassandra. Determination stamped on his stern face, he strode purposely toward the lapping waves.

Buzz didn’t stop until his feet touched the water, then he glowered at her. “What are you doing? Don’t you know this is a public beach?” He sounded stern, but there was no hiding the naked hunger on his face.

Bacchus considered dissuading him. His anger over Buzz’s actions toward Carrie was still running hot. If he hadn’t known that Buzz had no intention of harming her or any other woman for that matter, he would’ve stepped in. Not that the Atlantean needed his help. She was more than a match for any human male.

They spoke for several minutes. Buzz’s gaze greedily devouring her nude form. He did nothing to control the lust wafting off him. Pheromones filled the air. His desire was so strong that it matched the waves rolling in from the Pacific. Cassandra watched him in amusement, lapping up his undivided attention.

The duo must’ve reached some kind of understanding for she climbed out of the water and got dressed. Much to the disappointment of those still on the beach. Buzz took her hand and led her toward a paved lot full of various shaped transports.

Bacchus followed them to a red one with white stripes and slipped inside the transport before they pulled out onto the street. He kept his body cloaked in invisibility as he pondered his next move. Los Angeles was a very big city. It could take days to find Carrie, especially without a transport of his own.

He culled Buzz’s memories and watched him closely as he operated the vehicle. Bacchus was confident that he could drive one.

The ocean crashed onto the shore in white waves as they raced down the highway. Sea birds squawked above the water, dipping in for a quick meal amongst the shallows. A few came up with small fish flapping in their beaks, only to be swallowed a second later.

Bacchus stared out the car window amazed at the shapes and colors of the various females wandering along the beach. He'd never seen so many women in one spot. Some dressed in modest clothing, while others wore Pleasurer attire. There was something for every warrior on this planetary oasis.

He smiled to himself. He couldn’t wait to inform the other Phantoms. Bacchus immediately pulled back. He mustn’t get too far ahead of himself. There was still a very good chance that the females here wouldn’t be sexually compatible with shifters. Their physiology was fragile compared to the Phantoms. Their primitive systems might not be able to handle the transformation process that occurred after a Phantom mating.

Unlike Atlantean mates, Phantom mates physically changed after they bonded with a shifter. They became Phantom. Was bonding even possible for a human? And if they somehow managed to pass that obstacle, would the transformation kill them?

He didn’t know. 

Bacchus had faced many enemies over the years and fought more battles than he could recall. None seemed as daunting as the task before him. How was he supposed to choose a female, when there was a possibility that in doing so he’d sentence her to death?

The thought horrified him.

As much as he was determined not to fail the Phantom people, Bacchus knew he couldn’t randomly select a woman. He needed to find someone who would understand him, accept him for who and what he was—someone who’d want to be with him. The latter was imperative because if it turned out that they were compatible, they’d be together for life. Willingness would also go a long way to increasing the woman’s chances of survival. If a female fought the transformation, it might kill her.

There were so many obstacles to overcome. The task almost seemed impossible, but he couldn’t give up, wouldn’t give up. The numbers on this planet were in his favor.

The odor of fish and salt filtered through the transport window as they pulled up to a red light. More women rushed across the road, carrying towels and bags, their eyes hidden beneath black lenses and large hats.

To distract himself from the temptation of so many females, Bacchus replayed the memories he’d imprinted from Buzz’s mind. The man seemed at a loss when it came to dealing with his sister, even though he’d caused the rift. His pride and stubbornness kept him from seeing the truth.

Buzz loved Carrie, but believed she was making up stories about Ryan’s various indiscretions in an attempt to garner his sympathy and attention. Which made no sense since he, himself, had witnessed indiscretions and ignored them. So, he'd stayed away, hoping the distance would make her face reality even though he couldn’t. He refused to see his friend as anything but perfect.

The poor woman...

Bacchus shook his head in disgust, then released the lingering guilt and sadness he'd sensed beneath the misplaced blame. Reluctantly, he dove deeper into Buzz’s memories for more information about Ryan and Carrie. He saw them laughing and sneaking kisses, making plans for a future that would never come.

His gut clenched and Bacchus shoved the memory away. He didn’t like seeing Carrie and Ryan together. Didn’t like how happy they’d looked. Picturing them as a couple made him want to put his fists through the glass of the transport.

Other memories came, but Carrie wasn’t in them. These memories had Ryan with other women. In several of them, he could be seen apologizing to Buzz after getting caught and swearing to him it wouldn’t happen again. He’d also begged him not to tell Carrie.

Bacchus didn’t fully understand the memories, but he knew he didn’t like them. The moments felt...wrong. Dishonorable.

They continued driving down the coast.  From what Bacchus could tell, Carrie’s home lay this way. Was that where Buzz was taking Cassandra? Did he want her to meet his family?

That would make things much easier if that were the case. He wished he could check his transport device to be sure, but it would require him to materialize and that wasn’t going to happen.

A few minutes later, the transport pulled in front of a building. Crisp white shutters covered the building’s windows and a discreet sign by the road displayed its name. Bacchus frowned. This wasn’t Carrie’s home. The address wasn’t the same. This was something called a hotel.

He exited the car, when Cassandra and Buzz climbed out and followed the couple inside. After producing documents and a plastic card to a man behind a desk, they walked down a sand-colored hall to a room that faced the ocean.

Buzz opened the door and ushered Cassandra inside, shutting the portal behind him. The abrupt action left Bacchus standing in the hall, staring at the closed door. He grimaced at the momentary inconvenience, then concentrated to shift his molecules and walked through the wall.

Light from the open shutters bathed the pale gray room. Rich blue-green fabrics covered the rest pad, making it feel as if the hotel brought the ocean indoors. As Bacchus looked around, sudden understanding dawned. So, this was the kind of agreement the couple had reached on the beach.

Cassandra moved fast with the Earth man. Not surprising given her sensual nature. Perhaps, despite being an Atlantean, she had a touch of Pleasurer in her after all.

“I’m going to rinse off.” Buzz strolled to the bathroom. Water came on a moment later.

Cassandra tilted her head, listening. Her gaze strayed again and again to the closed bathroom door.

Bacchus felt guilty for intruding upon their privacy, but he needed to ensure that Cassandra was going to be okay before he left to find Carrie.

More splashing came from the shower. Bacchus laughed to himself, counting the seconds it would take for Cassandra to give into her curiosity and join him.

One…two…three.

Cassandra stripped out of her clothing. She’d shaved her mons, leaving a whisper of blonde peach fuzz behind. She padded down the same path Buzz took, her bare feet silent upon the carpeted floor. When she reached the door, she hesitated, then looked straight at him—though Bacchus knew she could not see him.

Could she?

“I’ll be fine, warrior,” Cassandra said, then grinned. “You can go now...unless you want to watch. I wouldn’t mind, though I’m not sure about the male.” She licked her lips.

Tempting, but there was no time, Bacchus thought, while he held his breath and waited. He dared not move a muscle and reveal his position, in case her taunt was simply a good guess.

“If you choose to leave, take the keys to his transport. He won’t be needing them.” With that said, she turned back to the bathing area door. Cassandra didn’t knock. Instead, she twisted the handle and walked in.

“About time you joined me,” Buzz said, his voice husky, as she closed the door behind her.

Bacchus stood for a full minute frozen in shock. No one should’ve known he was in the room, especially not an Atlantean. How had she done it? Special senses? New spying tech? Intuition? He didn’t know, but he would find out since whatever it was could be a threat to the Phantom people.

Torn by conflicting needs, Bacchus hissed. There was no time to investigate now, but when they got back to Zaron... Yeah, he’d get his answers.

He strode across the room and slipped Buzz’s transport key off its ring, then dropped the rest of the keys back onto the table. Unless the human looked closely, he wouldn’t notice that the key was missing. He then picked up Cassandra’s discarded clothes and reached into the hidden pockets. They were full of replicator-created money.

Bacchus grabbed a fist-full of hundred-dollar bills and shoved them into his pockets, then headed to the door. He didn’t bother to walk through the wall. Given the pleasurable sounds coming from the bathroom, a whole regiment of Phantoms could march through the room and they wouldn’t notice. 

Besides, ’twas time to blend in and adhere to Earth customs, so Bacchus did. He opened the door like an Earthling and slipped outside, then made his way to the parking lot. Once he found Buzz’s transport, he decided to search it, since he hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do so at the beach.

He found a tote bag wedged in a hidden compartment in the back of the vehicle. He tugged at the zipper. Filled with T-shirts, a pair of jeans, sand-covered shorts, and rubber soled shoes, the bag held more than he expected.

Bacchus examined one of the shoes. With their flimsy-floppy construction, the shoes wouldn’t be good for combat or anything else he could think of, so he threw them back inside the bag.

Bacchus looked down at his flight suit. He needed to blend in, and Buzz’s clothes would help him. He pulled them out of the tote, ignoring the stains and wrinkles. Shrugging the clothes on over his flight suit was more of a challenge than it initially appeared. The clothes were tight. Bacchus wondered how Buzz could breathe after he squeezed into the jeans and one of the T-shirts.

Maybe that’s why the male was so angry?

Once dressed, Bacchus morphed his appearance to lessen the red of his eyes and pulled his long black hair into a queue at the nape of his neck. Buzz may not know it, but if Cassandra got her way—and Atlantean women always got their way—he would be going back with her to Zaron.

The question was, how soon would the couple be leaving? And would she report the presence of a Phantom on the planet when she contacted them?

She had no proof, he told himself, then swore viciously under his breath because it wouldn’t matter what she chose to do. Once Cassandra called for a pick-up, the Atlanteans would follow protocol and scan the entire planet.

They would expect to detect two Zaronian lifeforms, Cassandra and Orion—not three. As soon as they saw that third blip, they’d know that someone unauthorized had journeyed to Earth, then the mission—his mission—would blow up in his face.

He cursed again and shut the lid to the hidden compartment. It popped back open as if to mock him. Bacchus scowled at the lid and slammed it, leaving behind a hand mark in the metal. This time the compartment stayed closed and would probably never open again.

How could his mission be failing, when he’d only been here for a few hours? Time ticked away in Bacchus’s head. Would he be able to save his people and see to Carrie before the ship arrived? She’d need his help especially after she found out that her brother would soon be leaving Earth forever.

The tasks seemed impossible. But he was a Phantom, and Phantom Warriors didn’t give up.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Driving ended up being a bit more difficult than Buzz made it look, but Bacchus eventually got the hang of it. He learned how to wave with one raised-fingered hand while honking and steering with the other, just like the drivers who passed him.

Bacchus didn’t understand why the humans put that red octagon-shaped sign on the side of the road or the yellow triangle one, but it mattered not, since they now sat in his back seat.

The signs joined a couple of orange cones, the car’s crumpled bumper, and a small pine tree. The latter shouldn’t have been planted so close to the sidewalk, anyway.

Finding things in Los Angeles was confusing with the city’s one-way streets here, no- entrance areas there. He’d barely missed the man holding the 'slow traffic ahead' sign. If he hadn’t dove out of the way into a nearby pile of dirt, Bacchus would’ve flattened his feet. He could still hear the man’s curses ringing in his ears and see his raised fist punching the air. The little human was far too excitable.

Bacchus arrived on Carrie’s street as darkness descended upon the palm-lined neighborhood. He’d seen the location in Buzz’s mind, but it hadn’t looked as lush and green.

He pulled over to the side of the road and parked, then killed the engine. He was grateful that he’d made it. For a while, he wasn’t sure he would arrive safely with the car in two pieces. 

Take a quick look to make sure she’s fine, tell her about her brother, then go back to searching for your true-mate, he told himself.

For some reason, he hesitated, which was unlike him. Once he’d decided on a course of action, he was the first to move. Why not now?

Bacchus sat in the car, listening to the sounds of the night. His forked tongue darted out of his mouth, scenting the air for predators or so he told himself. The streets were quiet, except for the constant low hum of traffic on the freeways in the distance. Nearby dogs barked as streams of water sprouted from the ground to moisten the plants. He pictured Carrie in his mind.

His skin tightened and odd pools of moisture sprang up across his body, including his hands. His two hearts raced for no apparent reason and his stomach fluttered. Something was very wrong with him. Bacchus ordered his flight suit to run a quick diagnostic on his body, but everything came back healthy and normal. It made no sense. So, he had it run another, but the prognosis was the same.

Bacchus frowned and focused once more on his surroundings. He could hear strange music thumping, couples making love, and murmuring televisions, yet no ocean. He listened for the gentle lapping of the distant waves, straining to hear it.

Buried beneath the cacophony of existence, the ocean swooshed and crashed. The rhythmic sounds calmed him. He stepped out of the vehicle, his feet silent on the pavement, and faded into the darkness.

Thick, high shrubs lined the sides of Carrie’s small yard, creating a green wall of privacy around her little white home. Fragrant red and yellow flowers buffeted the windowsills, adding a burst of color to the otherwise plain palette.

Neat and well-tended, the space was cozy and seemed to fit the personality Buzz assigned to her. Curious, Bacchus allowed his image to solidify. He stood in the shadows, searching the windows for any sign of life. His mouth felt dry and he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.

Would Carrie look like the image Buzz created in his mind or had he exaggerated her features like he’d done with the neighborhood? Would she still have short brown hair and a pixie face? Or had she changed it? Would she be fat? Thin? Or somewhere in the middle? Not that her size mattered to him, since Phantoms bonded with their essences.

The questions filtering through his mind brought Bacchus up short. Not only because he wasn’t poetic, but because Carrie’s appearance shouldn’t matter. That wasn’t why he was here. He took a step toward her front door, determined to do what he’d come here to do and leave, when a light came on inside the house.

Bacchus shrunk back into the shadows.

The sound of up-tempo music followed. Bacchus held his breath and waited to get his first glimpse of Carrie. A moment later, a fair-skinned woman stepped into view. He took one look at her and the air rushed from his lungs. The reaction to seeing her was like taking an Atlantean energy blast to the gut. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath and if his heartbeats got any louder humans would be able to hear them.

Bacchus recalled something the Atlantean King had said about the moment he’d laid eyes upon his future true-mate. He’d told him that it had felt like a simultaneous strike to the head and heart, but Bacchus had assumed he’d been exaggerating. Now, as he stood here trembling and addled, he wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t deny that something had happened. The question was what?

He peered through the window at the woman, who’d left him breathless.

Carrie had changed her hair since Buzz had last seen her. It was now shoulder length and blonde, without a trace of the brown that had been there before. Tiny boned but long of limb, she moved with the grace of a cat as she walked from room to room, lights twinkling on in her wake.

She came back into the main area with rolled colored paper grasped in her hand. Carrie brought the pages to her mouth and began to sing into them. She tossed her head back as she held a long note, while her hips swayed in time to the beat.

Bacchus had never seen such unbridled joy and had certainly never experienced it. At least not since he was a child. Her happiness gave him pause. If he went inside and told her about Buzz, it would wipe the joy right off her face. Might even take it away completely.

He didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to be the one to cause this female any pain. She’d been through enough.

He continued to stare, unable to look away. With its thick, cushioned chairs, colorful flower pillows, and cheerful, family photos that hinted of happier times, the space invited one to relax and stay a while. It was clear that Carrie felt comfortable in the little room.

Bacchus gazed at the images. He recognized Buzz smiling in a few and a younger version of Carrie, but not the older couple in the pictures. 

Carrie dropped the papers in her hand and bent over to pick them up off the hardwood floor. The material of her pants pulled tight around her bottom, framing the heart shape.

Blood rushed from Bacchus’s head straight to his shaft and his entire body stiffened. His fangs unfurled. A voracious hunger rose inside of him before he could stop it. He knew without looking that his eyes glowed red to match the heat churning inside of him. He could feel the color as it surged through his body, making demands.

She gathered the papers and unwound the pages, then placed them onto a side table before taking a seat in front of the flat screen television. Bacchus knew she wasn’t doing anything special, but he felt like he could watch her forever.

He realized that relaying a message to Carrie and leaving wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to get to know her, to discover her likes and dislikes—to possess her body and soul. The biological urge to do so was undeniable but wouldn’t act upon it. To do so would be wrong.

You don’t even know if it’s possible for a Phantom to mate a human yet, a little voice of reason reminded him. What if you harm her?

Bacchus blanched and his chest squeezed tight. Thinking of losing Carrie to death’s embrace left him oddly bereft. He didn’t want to think about why that was. It would only add to his confusion. All he knew for certain was that he couldn’t take the chance, not with her.

Walk away, the voice inside him urged. Protect her from yourself.

Bacchus couldn’t seem to get his feet to move. It was as if they were planted in the ground. 

Carrie pursed her lips in thought.

His dark gaze locked on her mouth. What was she thinking? What would she taste like? Sweet? Tart? A combination of both? Bacchus longed to sample those lips to see.

Hunger beat at his brow. Bacchus brought his hands to his temples and rubbed. The throbbing continued as he visually traced the curve of her mouth before dropping to her chin and settling on her throat. His fangs ached.

He could hear Carrie’s blood pumping below the surface of her milky skin. It called to him, demanding that he taste her, take her—claim her. His gaze dropped lower, brushing over her small breasts. 

Sweat broke out across his forehead and his hearts felt like they’d burst through his chest. Bacchus had never felt anything like this urge. This went beyond simple lust into something deeper, darker, and far more primal.

What was happening to him? Did humans possess a hidden pheromone that affected Phantoms? Something was causing him to lose control.

Tell her and be done with it, the voice inside him urged.

Even if Bacchus wanted to, he couldn’t approach Carrie now. In his current condition, he’d scare her to death. And that was the last thing he wanted. He’d had enough women fear him over the years because of his clan, he didn’t want her to fear him, too.

He’d have to approach her when his beast was under control. But how? The attraction he felt only complicated the situation. He hated the idea of lying to Carrie. She’d been through so much this past year. He didn’t want to deceive her, but he couldn’t exactly tell her the truth either.

Hello, I’m a Phantom Warrior from another planet and I’m here to find my true-mate. And oh, by the way, I think that might be you.

Yeah, she’d never believe the truth. He wouldn’t believe it if their positions were reversed. But logic was hard to accept when you were in a battle with your very nature. Bacchus fought the instincts that told him to mark her.

It was hard and exhausting, especially after the long trip to Earth. Only the Goddess knows where he found the strength, but somehow, he managed to stay hidden. Forced himself to be content with watching her.

 

No longer in the mood to sing, Carrie turned off the stereo and tuned into her favorite show. Despite the noise from the laugh tracks, the quiet pressed in around her. These days, she tried anything to fill the silence, but nothing helped for long.

Ryan and Brady had brought the house to life with their raucous laughter. Always ones to pull childish pranks, they kept her in stitches for the short time that she and Ryan had lived together.

Ryan’s goofy sense of humor was one of the reasons she'd said yes, when he'd asked her to marry him. Another had been the fact that he was Brady's best friend. Her brother had been over the moon about the idea of Ryan becoming family. He’d encouraged the union, even when her second thoughts crept in, which was almost immediately after saying yes.

She had always believed that she’d been in love with Ryan, since everyone loved him, but lately…Carrie wasn’t so sure. She was beginning to think she’d wanted to be in love so badly that she’d convinced herself that she was.

Carrie thought she knew Ryan well. Thought that at the very least they were friends. She thought she could count on him. Turned out, she didn't know him at all and counting on him for anything was a lesson in frustration.

Despite his many betrayals and the ugly breakup that followed, she still missed Ryan now that he was gone. Missed his laugh. Missed having him and her brother around. Missed the company. What she didn’t miss was the guilt because it never went away. Like blame, the guilt over Ryan’s death lingered.

Maybe if she hadn’t told Ryan that she never wanted to see him again when she broke up with him, he’d still be here. Maybe if she hadn’t tossed his car keys into the yard, then he wouldn’t have drove off in a fit of anger and crashed.

Despite what Brady had said at the funeral, Carrie knew deep down that Ryan’s death wasn’t her fault. The pain was no longer as acute as it had been in the beginning. Oh, it was still there, but no longer ached every day.

Even her brother’s desertion a year ago didn’t hurt as much as it once had. Carrie wasn’t sure what that said about their sibling relationship. Oh, she loved her brother dearly and knew that Brady loved her, but for years there'd been a darkness growing inside of him. Ryan's death and the loss of his job had only hastened its spread. As much as she wanted to, Carrie couldn't save Brady from himself.

She stared at the empty spot beside her. Loneliness rose so quickly that Carrie didn’t have enough time to tamp it down. She loved this house, but lately she'd been thinking that a change might do her some good.

A year was long enough to punish herself. It was time to close the door on the past and leave California. Time to get back to living. She wasn’t sure yet where she’d go, but she could decide that later. It would be easy enough to sell the place, since she was only a few miles from the beach.

With the money she’d make from the sale, she could settle Ryan’s gambling debt—a debt she hadn’t known about until strange men showed up at her door demanding money. There’d be enough left over for her to make a fresh start. She’d use the time to get back into her original field of study. There wasn’t a huge demand for herpetologists these days, but it was a field she loved.

She sighed and picked up her phone to look at her work schedule. She’d have to go in tomorrow to check on the animals. In a few more days, the female would be ready to breed.

There was nothing wrong with training and breeding dogs, but she preferred to work with amphibians and reptiles. That’s where her passions lie. Some girls loved warm and fuzzy, she loved cool and scaly. But then again, Carrie had always been a little out of step with her friends.

A particularly funny line from the TV show drew her back from her musings. Carrie laughed and put her phone down, allowing the silliness to distract her. The screen switched to a commercial and suddenly the skin on the back of her neck prickled and heated.

Carrie glanced at her alarm system to make sure it was set, then looked out her living room window. Darkness met her. Shadows clung to the bushes in the front yard, making them seem particularly dense for this time of night. Her eyes strained to penetrate the inky mass.

No movement came beyond the twist and spray of the sprinkler system. There was nothing to explain the wave of hyper-awareness coursing through her body. A wave that struck again, but this time stronger. It started at the top of her head and rolled down to her toes.

Carrie glanced at the front of her shirt, noting her tight nipples and frowned. Her gaze drifted back outside. Still nothing. Though it didn’t feel like nothing. It felt like someone was out there, watching her—wanting her. 

Heat moved through her, leaving warmth in its wake. Her breasts began to ache. Carrie crossed her arms over her chest. Frustrated and a little frightened. What was up with her body? It had been—she had been dormant since Ryan’s death, but now it suddenly felt alive. Tingly. Aroused. She studied the darkness once more, but the living-room light only illuminated so far.

“Shake it off. There’s nothing there,” she murmured. It made more sense to attribute everything to her overactive imagination than to believe a shadowy figure was watching her. She wasn’t the kind of woman that attracted that kind of attention. Carrie settled back in her chair.

 

Bacchus knew that somehow, she’d sensed him. He’d seen the changes in her body, could almost smell them. Male satisfaction filled him. He liked that Carrie responded to his gaze. What would she be like if he touched her? It was tempting to stay and find out, but for tonight it was best if he left her in peace.

As he turned to go, a silver transport pulled into her driveway and cut the engine. Two beefy men climbed out of the vehicle and headed straight for Carrie’s front door. He sank deeper into the shadows, as they climbed the stairs to her front porch.

The taller of the two men raised his fist and banged on the door, rattling the glass panes in the wood.

Startled, Carrie jumped out of her chair and hurried to answer the door. The light on the porch came on and she pulled the curtain aside. Her face paled when she saw them, but she still unlocked and opened the door.

“Carl.” She nodded to the bigger man. “Steg,” she acknowledged the smaller one.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries, shall we? Where’s Mr. Bing’s money?” Carl asked.

She took a step back. “I told you yesterday and the day before that and the day before that, that I don’t have it,” she said. “Ryan never gave me anything. Not a single dime. I don’t even know where he got the money to gamble in the first place. He wasn’t working when he died.”

Carl rested his meaty hand against the door. “Don’t care. Ryan’s dead. That means his debt falls on you. I don’t have to tell you that Mr. Bing is losing his patience,” he said.

Steg took out a small object from his pocket and flicked it with his thumb. Flame erupted from the end of it. “We’d hate for anything to happen to your house, while you’re in it.”

Carrie trembled and moisture filled her eyes. “I’ll get you your money,” she croaked. “I told you I would.”

“No more excuses!”

Bacchus shifted to appear more human, then stepped out of the shadows. “Good evening,” he said, startling both men. “Carrie, is everything okay?”

She gaped at him, her mouth opening and closing several times before she found her voice. “Y-yes, I’m fine.”

“Who the hell are you?” Carl asked, rounding on him.

Did he think he was intimidating? Bacchus almost laughed. “I’m an acquaintance of Carrie’s brother, Buzz...and a friend of hers,” he said smoothly. His gaze shot to Carrie, silently willing her to go along with the tale he was spinning. “Her brother asked me to look in on her to make sure she was okay.” He glanced at both men. “I see I arrived just in time.”

Carrie’s eyes widened in surprise. She didn’t contradict his claim, but she did shake her head in warning. Bacchus ignored her, though her concern made his hearts sing. He never had a female, other than his mother, show concern for his welfare. It felt… It felt… He liked it.

Steg moved closer and craned his neck to look Bacchus in the face. “Nice snake tattoo.” He pointed to the reptile peeking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. “I’m guessing you think that ink makes you tough.” He snorted. “You should go back to wherever you came from, pal. This doesn’t concern you.”

Bacchus arched a brow. “If it involves Carrie, then it most definitely concerns me.” He let a little of his internal predator show on his face, but kept his expression impassive. It took concerted effort to conceal the rage roiling inside of him. His fury prodded him to end these men so they would never upset Carrie again. The only thing that kept him in check was the fact that doing so would upset her.

Steg stumbled back. “Let’s get out of here.” He motioned to Carl for them to head back to their silver transport.

Carl followed but stopped at the edge of the porch. “This isn’t over, Carrie. We’ll be back tomorrow. Make sure your friend isn’t around and have the money waiting,” he said, then left.

Bacchus watched them go. When they were out of sight, he turned back to Carrie. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “Who are you?”

“My name is Bacchus,” he said.

Her brow rose. “Unusual name, even for L.A.”

He tilted his head. “I am an unusual man.”

Carrie ran her hands down the side of her pants. “You shouldn’t have interfered,” she said. “Carl and Steg are dangerous.”

“Those men do not scare me,” he said.

“They should,” she replied. “They shake down people for a living.”

He had no idea what that term meant. “Shake down?” 

“Hurt,” she expanded.

Bacchus stiffened. “Is that what they were doing here? Threatening to hurt you?”

She blinked. “You look mad.”

He was angry. If those men planned to hurt Carrie, then he would eliminate the threat. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Carrie bit her lip and changed the subject. “You said that Brady sent you? That doesn’t sound like something he would do.”

He wouldn’t, Bacchus thought. He was too selfish. “He cares about you,” he said instead because it was the truth. And he would offer her the truth whenever he could because it went against his nature to lie.

She scoffed. “My brother has a funny way of showing it. It’s been a year since I’ve heard from him.”

“That’s why I dropped by, but we should have this conversation in the morning after we’re both rested.”

Carrie rubbed the back of her neck, drawing his gaze to her soft skin...and pounding pulse. “I’m not sure there’s much more to say.”

“Perhaps on your part, but I have important news about your brother. News, you’re going to want to hear,” he said.

Her blues eyes widened. “News? What kind of news?”

“It’s late. Can we discuss it in the morning?” he asked. “You’ve had enough excitement for tonight.”

Carrie stiffened. “I don’t need anyone telling me what I can and cannot handle, Mr. Bacchus.”

“Just Bacchus,” he said. “And I meant no disrespect. I’ve journeyed far and I need to rest.” He also needed to eat and think. When he’d decided to walk away, he hadn’t expected to find out that Carrie was in trouble. Walking away now was out of the question. Bacchus needed to discover exactly what was going on, then deal with the threat.

She relaxed a little.

“Tomorrow?”

She nodded. “Tomorrow.” 

Bacchus waited for her to go inside, then slipped into the shadows. He watched over Carrie’s house until she went to bed.

What had she gotten herself into? Did Buzz know that she was in danger?

He searched the man’s memories. All Bacchus came up with was Buzz’s brief dismissal of his sister’s concerns. Carrie had tried to tell him that Ryan had gotten into bad money trouble, but he didn’t want to hear it.

Anger with Buzz resurfaced. He’d left his sister unprotected. That was inexcusable. He’d have a long talk with the man once he returned to Zaron. There was no way he was going to let this pass.

Bacchus stayed to ensure the men were not coming back. After Carrie went to bed, he returned to Buzz’s transport and drove around the neighborhood. He wanted to make sure there were no other threats lurking in the darkness. While he drove, he planned what to do next.

Carrie wasn’t safe—wouldn’t be safe as long as Carl and Steg were around. His hands squeezed the wheel until he heard the object groan. Bacchus forced himself to ease his grip. How dare these males threaten a defenseless female!

The open window delivered cool air to the inside of the car but did little to diminish his growing rage. He was so distracted by his strategizing that he almost missed a woman’s muffled screams in the distance. Bacchus hit the brakes and the car skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. He listened, his hearts pounding in his chest.

Silence ensued.

Had he imagined the cries?

He pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. Bacchus glided out of the seat, his tongue testing the air for danger. It took two turns to the right, but he eventually found what he sought. The trail of sweat and fear was faint, but strong enough for him to follow. He got back into the vehicle and made a U-turn.

It didn’t take long to locate the darkened alley where the scream had come from. As he killed his lights, Bacchus saw a woman sprawled across the ground. Cuts marred her knees and hands. Bruises covered her pretty face. Her brown eyes watered, and her body trembled as shock took hold.

The buttons on her shirt had been torn off and her skirt lay in tatters, leaving her skin and under garments exposed. A group of men surrounded her, taunting her like a pack of hungry sevlows. Each man had the word Fuegos burned into his skin.

Bacchus didn’t know what the word meant, but from the smell, it wasn’t anything good. Listening, he caught snippets of their conversation. They talked about pulling a train, which made no sense, since they were miles from the railroad tracks.

No one in the nearby houses responded to the female’s pitiful cries. It was as if they didn’t hear her. Or didn’t want to. The people turned up their televisions to their highest volumes and radios blasted distorted songs.

His forked tongue slithered out of his mouth once again. Bacchus tasted sexual need, along with depravity. So, they planned to take this helpless woman once they finished beating her. Now he understood.

Bacchus grinned savagely, grateful that he’d found the perfect release for the rage boiling inside of him. He stepped out of the car, his feet silent upon the uneven ground as he moved closer to the men.

When he was within striking distance of the eight-man group, one of the pale-skinned men noticed his approach. “You lost, man?” he asked.

“No, I’m exactly where I want to be,” he said.

The men exchanged confused glances.

“You’d better get out of here, punta,” a light-haired, pock-faced man said, stepping toward him in a threatening manner. “This isn’t a safe neighborhood for your kind.” Aggression oozed from his pores.

Bacchus’s brow pinched. He wasn’t sure what the man meant by the words ‘your kind’, since he was certain they didn’t know that he was a Phantom Warrior. But it mattered not. He was hungry and itching for a fight.

The man had no way of knowing that he’d faced a multitude of creatures in battle. Or that he’d proven time and again that he was a warrior. The human’s stern stance was little more than bluster. He was an annoyance that Bacchus could easily dispatch, no effort required. This group of multi-colored men believed they were the most dangerous predators out tonight.

They were wrong.

Bacchus’s gaze flicked to each man, before focusing on the woman who wept silently. Her brown eyes were both pleading and fearful. The beast inside Bacchus rejoiced.

The young man, who’d initially warned him off, pulled up his shirt to show Bacchus the gun hidden in his low-riding pants. “Leave now, punta. Get into that vintage car of yours and drive away. Not going to ask you again.”

A bullet couldn’t penetrate his flight suit, but it could leave a nasty hole in his head. Bacchus doubted any of these men were good enough shots to pull off that feat given he’d be moving in and out of their sights, but he didn’t want to be proven wrong.

He felt his power flow until his eyes blazed red in the darkness like a demon from their religious texts.

The men gasped and stepped back. Three took off down the alley, leaving five of their friends behind.

In the next instant, Bacchus opened his mouth and his fangs unfurled. Venom shot out, spraying three of the men in the face. Screams filled the night as the men scrubbed at their eyes, temporarily blinded by the toxins. That left the remaining two to deal with.

One of the men pulled a gun, aimed at Bacchus, then sprayed the area. Bacchus disappeared before the first shot left the barrel. Bullets arced through the air, zinging wildly into the night.

Bacchus reappeared and hissed, a rattling sound coming out of his throat. He surged forward, blurring his image until he was a nightmare come to life.

The man fired again, but Bacchus was moving too fast to track. The bullets penetrated a nearby wall, sending plaster raining onto the ground. More bullets pinged off signs and shattered glass in the nearby houses. Screams came from inside the homes, along with whimpering. The man kept firing until the gun clicked and nothing more came out.

Bacchus appeared in front of him like an apparition. He grasped the fingers, clutching the handle of the weapon and squeezed until he heard a crunch, then squeezed some more.

The man screamed in agony, as his bones crumbled to powder. He punched Bacchus with his good hand, but his fists bounced off his scaled skin. Bacchus ignored the blows and yanked him forward.

He sank his fangs deep into the man’s throat, tearing through tissue and muscle. Blood poured out of the wounds and pooled in his mouth. Bacchus gulped the hot liquid, ignoring the man’s struggles and terrified wails. He refused to release his prize. 

The man’s punches slowed, then ceased altogether. His body grew limp and sagged in Bacchus’s arms. The man may talk tough, but he behaved like prey.

Bacchus dropped him onto the ground and gingerly stepped over his prone form. He’d live but would remain paralyzed for the next few hours thanks to the venom he’d expelled. The three he’d sprayed in the eyes were attempting to crawl away, which meant only one threat to the woman remained. He turned his attention to the last man. 

To his credit, the man stood his ground. He had a knife clutched in his hand so tight that his knuckles turned white. “Come on!” he shouted, slashing the air with the long, serrated blade. “I’m not afraid of a vampire. I have a cross.” He pulled his shirt open to reveal a large silver chain around his neck, which he grasped like a talisman.

The hypocrisy of the move did not escape Bacchus. He threw his head back and laughed, then licked the blood from his fangs.  “Do you expect me to fear the metal pressed against your chest, when you do not?” he asked.

The man’s resolve wavered, but he stood firm. “Vampires can’t look upon crosses. It hurts them.” He glanced back at his buddy on the ground for confirmation.

With the blood loss and venom pumping through his veins, the man could only blink.

Bacchus brushed his clothing. “This will not end well for you.”

“Enough talking!” Knife man snarled.

Bacchus shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said, then disappeared.

The man frantically searched for him. “Where’d he go?”

“Run,” his friend on the ground croaked, his eyes wild with fright.

Knife man scowled. “Fuegos don’t run.”

Bacchus reappeared behind the knife wielder. The brush of breath on his neck was the only warning the man received before he plunged his fangs into his throat and drank deep.

The man tried to stab him, but Bacchus retracted his fangs and caught the weapon before it could do any damage. He bent the knife blade with little effort and dropped it onto the ground.

“Fight me,” he said. “Your struggles just make me hungrier.”

The man whimpered.

His friend on the ground sobbed.

“You should have listened to your fallen and left while you could.” Bacchus gripped the man’s chin and craned his neck for better access, then struck again without mercy.

He wanted this to hurt, wanted to leave a scar, so this man and his friends would always remember that they’d encountered a true predator. He wanted them to look over their shoulders when they thought about attacking someone weaker than themselves. He wanted them to be afraid.

Bacchus drank until he’d sated his hunger. The rich fiery taste of blood filled every cell in his body. He was enjoying feeding so much that he almost missed the sound of the man’s heart stuttering in his chest. He had no moral qualms when it came to killing, but there was no challenge in taking down human prey. They were weak. 

“Do this again and I’ll be back,” he said, then let the man fall to the ground next to his friend. He landed with a thump.

He glanced around to ensure there were no hidden threats. The three men he’d blinded had managed to grope their way down the alley. They stumbled into garbage cans. Tripped over rubbish, while urging each other to keep going.

The Fuegos would tell stories about the night they encountered a ‘demon’ in the darkened alley.

The woman remained on the ground, her eyes wide with horror. She bled from so many places it was hard for Bacchus to concentrate.  He took a couple of deep breaths. His body repeatedly faded and solidified while he wrenched back control. The smell of blood permeated the air like coppery perfume. Finally, he stilled, his mind and beast back under his command.

“It’s okay.” Bacchus held out his hand in a soothing gesture and lowered his voice. “I won’t harm you.”

The woman whimpered and hunkered down in an attempt to make herself smaller. She mumbled prayers under her breath and kept her eyes closed.

Bacchus hadn’t intended to scare her, but he’d had no choice. The men would not have let her go without a fight.  “Where do you live?” he asked.

He needed to get her home, so her family could get her medical attention. Bacchus didn’t think the men had sexually assaulted her, but he couldn’t be sure, and the shock of the beating wouldn’t wear off anytime soon.

He wanted to kill them all for what they’d done to her.

The woman glanced up tentatively, a mix of confusion, pain, and surprise on her face. Her gaze locked on his mouth as if she didn’t trust what she’d seen. Bacchus relaxed, then smiled without a fang in sight. Soon she would doubt her recollection, which was for the best. She’d been through enough.

She took a shuddering breath and clutched her tattered clothes to her chest. “Four blocks over to the east,” she croaked. “That’s where I live.”

“I’m not familiar with this place,” he said. “Can you guide me?”

Wariness filled her brown eyes as she looked at the two men on the ground. “Are they going to die?”

Bacchus’s jaw clenched. “Unfortunately, no,” he said.

Tears welled in her eyes and she sniffled. “They were going to kill me after…after...”

Bacchus clenched his fists. “Do you want me to kill them?” It would be so easy. He knew what they’d intended to do, even before he’d taken their blood and confirmed it. 

She shook her head. “No. God will take care of them.”

He nodded, respecting her wishes, though he really wanted to assist her god with the job. “They will not harm you again. They know if they do, I will finish what I started. There will be no mercy.”

The men whimpered in response.

The instinct to kill was tempting. This wasn’t the first woman to suffer at the hands of these men. Others had not been as fortunate. Bacchus could have easily killed them, but he wasn’t here to battle a weak enemy, however deserving of death.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“A-anna Martinez,” she said.

“Anna Martinez,” Bacchus repeated. “Come.” He held out his hand to help the woman to the transport. It was either that or put the men down for good.

She took his hand and rose to her feet, then quickly released him and wobbled out of reach. When Bacchus tried to stabilize her, she flinched and backed away. He understood. Her fear was justifiable. He wouldn’t touch her again unless he had to. Bacchus kept a close eye on her as she staggered to the vehicle. 

When they reached Buzz’s transport, Bacchus opened the car door and backed away as he waited for her to step inside. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Watching her struggle reignited his fury. 

He strolled over to the males he’d left incapacitated. The paralyzed men wept in fear as they heard his purposeful footfalls. Their eyes filled with terror as he came into view.

“If I ever see any of you around this woman again or in this neighborhood, I will kill you. I can do so at any time and you'd never see me coming." Bacchus unfurled his fangs as he bent over the paralyzed men. Venom clung to the sharp tips of his teeth, dropping onto one man’s white shirt. “Blink if you understand me,” he snarled.

The men blinked rapidly, and tears ran down their cheeks. One of them soiled himself.

“Good.” Bacchus smiled, flicking his forked tongue into the air. He could hear the rapid heartbeats of the three men who’d ran away before the fight. They’d found their blinded friends and were now hiding at the end of the alley. No doubt they’d retrieve these two the second he left.

Bacchus walked away before he could change his mind. He didn’t understand this planet. With all the resources here, including healthy women, why did they prey on the weak and take so much for granted?

* * *

© 2023 by Jordan Summers