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There are snakes,” he said quietly, “and there are bears in this prison. The snakes are the ones who have ice in their veins. They kill and torture for the thrill of causing pain. They slither from place to place, live in shadows and stare out of them to choose their prey. And they have no remorse. A snake only gets caught when he gets too greedy. Picks a prey too prominent to be overlooked. The bears…” He trailed off. The bears kept the snakes here in line. But she wouldn’t believe that. She still thought the guards were the law. Hell, the guards were the worst of them.

Tristan picked up the book he’d tossed away and tore out a random page, crumpling it into a tight ball. He sent it flying out the doorway, over the catwalk, and down into the abyss. “A soldier killed my parents when I was ten. A boogeyman in a Shadow blue uniform.”

He felt the frown in Dara’s mind when she timidly asked, “Shadow? As in…?”

“Be good, or the Shadows will get you,” he finished the dire threat every parent used to get bad children to behave. If only they knew the truth… “He invoked his right to be housed in our living quarters. We had no choice but to let him in.” To refuse a soldier shelter or food was punishable by imprisonment. “Bastard stuffed his face at dinner and wouldn’t shut his mouth. Asking my parents whether they were supporters of the Union. Whether they were ready to contribute to the effort and give their son into the service. When my parents didn’t jump at the offer, he tied my father to his chair and made him watch as he raped my mother. Over and over again.” Ten pages came loose in his grip and he balled them up so tightly that his nails bit into his palms.

“And when she was dead and he was so weak he could barely stand on his feet, he took out his gun, put it to my father’s head, and pulled the trigger. I was closed away in my room. They thought it would be safer for me. Thought if something happened, I would be safe locked away. But I wasn’t.” I was in my father’s mind. Saw it all through his eyes. And when his brains exploded all over the floor, I screamed.

Dara made a small sound, but would not look at him. Her hands fisted in her lap. He knew she’d heard him in her mind. He’d felt her shields give way. Now they were up again. “He found me there,” he continued. “Took me with him to the front. ‘Congratulations,’ he’d said. ‘You’ve been given the privilege of serving the Union to better mankind.’” Those words would never leave him, so long as he lived.

The book in his hands ripped in two. How he wished the bastard was alive so he could get his hands on him again. “I trained in their army, built up my strength, learned how to work every weapon ever invented. Mastered techniques outlawed on seventeen planets.

“I discovered my mind was the greatest weapon of all.” And what a weapon it had turned out to be. Once he’d learned to channel and control it, there’d been nothing to stand in his way. Men had tried to hide the soldier, protecting their own. Snakes writhing in their nests. The harder they’d fought, the more determined he’d become. And the more they’d suffered.

“It took me twelve years, but I found him eventually. There wasn’t much left of him by the time I was done. But the others, an entire outpost of sadistic sons of bitches just like him… I made them piss themselves in fear of the shadows they lived in.”

“T-that’s why you’re here,” she said.

If only it were that simple. “No,” he replied. “I am here because I gave myself up. They wouldn’t have caught me otherwise. After the soldier was dead…” He shuddered at the memory. Blood everywhere, covering him from head to toe, and still he’d known they would never be able to link him to any of the deaths. That had made him sick to his stomach—the thought that after everything, he’d become one of them. A monster walking around with blood on his hands and no one to point a finger at him.

Tristan looked at his hands and they were bloody. He dropped what was left of the book and shook his head to chase the memory away. He wouldn’t go back there again. Not ever. His hands were shaking when he forced himself to look at them again, but this time, there was no more blood.

“I was finished. No more need to hunt. Snakes get greedy. Bears only kill to survive.”

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