I wanted no argument and made that clear with my tone. “I’ll go. You two stay here.” When Tony stood, I shook my head. “If I don’t reach the little girl, you won’t either, so don’t follow me.”
When Tony opened his mouth to argue, I gave a pointed look at Gabby whose attention remained locked on the kid.
He caught my meaning to watch out for her, but clearly struggled to make the right choice. At the blowhard’s core, he was male and had probably been raised to protect females, but based on what had happened with that deadly vine, we both knew I had the best shot at saving that child. Even Tony had to admit that I was far faster than either of them.
With a reluctant nod, he finally said, “Don’t hit a pothole, Xena.”
The whole exchange took seconds I couldn’t afford to waste so I had no time to ask what a pothole was.
Gabby had been paralyzed by the deadly scene unfolding until I gave her shoulder a quick squeeze of encouragement, ignored her terror and shoved to my feet. I took off running toward the child.
“Rayen!” Gabby shouted behind me, delayed reaction kicking in.
I couldn’t turn around. Had to trust Tony to do his part to hold Gabby back and keep her safe. This was now a foot race against the roaring creature that had emerged all the way out of the ground. Dull orange scales with bright blue swirling lines covered its body in dizzying patterns.
It shook off dirt like a wet dog and swung its enormous head toward where Tony and Gabby hovered at the tree line.
I risked a glance over my shoulder, relieved to see that Tony restrained Gabby. They were in the open, but not far from the jungle’s edge.
Booming steps rocked the ground.
I whipped my head back into the race.
The strange croco-monster had dropped down on four of its limbs and ran with a side-to-side movement at a thundering speed. Bulging black eyes streaked with yellow veins flared wildly at me then dismissed me as too insignificant to get in the way of reaching its initial, and easier prey–the little girl. Two thick arms dangled from the monster’s upper body. Hands large enough to rip a human body in half or swat a grown man into next week had three thick-boned fingers each, with curled claws.
This was not the Beast that had chased me in the desert. This was worse.
The child let out a hair-splitting cry.
With the ground shifting the closer the monster came, I did a quick double-step to stay on my feet.
Forcing my legs to spin faster, I matched pace with the monster and angled my body into a headon collision course. I waved my arms and shouted wildly for the child to get up and escape.
She didn’t move.
“Get away. Move. Run!” I bellowed. Using all I had left, I sprinted the last few yards toward her.
The little girl crawled to her knees, twisting about, staring at the monster. Wide-eyed, her panicked cry was drowned out by the thud, thud, thud of the predator bearing down on her.
With an extra surge, I threw myself toward her, scooping her with my arms and hitting the ground hard, rolling to the right. But I had her safely cocooned.
The ground rumbled and vibrated as the croco-monster catapulted past. So close I could smell its strange sour odor, feel the blast of its hide scrape my upper arms.
Not hardly. Maybe Tony had been right to focus on the pod to get out of this place.
Pushing back to my feet and hugging the child to me, I made a quick sprint to the jungle edge on the other side from Gabby and Tony. I careened around, facing the back of the monster. It skidded to a stop, snorting and stomping the ground.
The little girl in my arms quivered. Too scared to make a noise. I felt her heart beating like bird wings as I stepped deeper into the jungle edge. I moved us behind the biggest, baddest palm-like frond, hoping to soothe her by being hidden.
Where was the monster?
Had it given up chasing me and the child. Why?
I heard shouting. Inhaling air into my starved lungs, I shifted the child against my chest and eased back out into the open space until I could see Gabby and Tony. They waved their hands and shouted taunts at the croco-monster.
They were the reason the monster had lost interest in us, but that appeared to be the extent of Tony and Gabby’s planning.
How was I going to keep those two from being eaten?
I couldn’t leave the little girl alone. Neither could I risk her life by rushing back into the monster’s path.
Before I came up with a plan, the creature lunged forward and barreled toward Tony and Gabby who stopped yelling and turned to run back toward the jungle.
Chugging air as if I’d never get enough, I set the girl on the ground.
She crumpled to her knees, clinging to my leg as a lifeline.
“Stay here. You’ll be okay,” I gasped, trying to untangle my legs without harming her and hoping she understood my words. I patted her feather-light hair to keep her calm. Would she stay put?
No time to think as a cry of wild noises went up from deep in the jungle on Gabby and Tony’s side of the clearing.
But Gabby and Tony had stopped shouting. They were looking around then all of a sudden stood transfixed at the edge of the clearing.
Who, or what, was making all that noise?
“Keep going!” I leaned forward to punctuate my words with my body. I waved at Gabby and Tony, yelling, “Don’t stop. Run!”
Neither one moved, two bodies as rigid as trees.
What was wrong with them?
In a blink, twenty children varying in ages, sizes and looks exploded from the jungle on both sides of Gabby and Tony. The newcomers raced toward the monster, rather than away.
There were others in this place. And they were crazy.
None appeared younger than ten or older than me. All of them followed a tall male I’d call a boy, who appeared to be seventeen or eighteen. Hard muscle wrapped his body and he carried a rough-looking spear as a warrior would.
Not a boy. And dangerous.
He took two long strides on powerful legs and used his forward movement to throw his spear, stabbing the croco-monster between plating in its chest.
The monster bounced back as if it had hit an invisible wall, then fell over on its side, writhing in pain. A couple of the kids levitated, hovering in the air over the beast, shouting taunts and waving sticks and fists.
How’d they do that?
Even from here, I could see the terror in Tony and Gabby’s faces.
I pulled my leg free of the child’s grip and took a step toward them.
Something sharp stuck me in the back, and felt like it broke the skin.
Swinging around, I almost tripped on the little girl as I prepared to fight whatever had hit me...two boys maybe twelve or thirteen at the most. Both pointed lethal looking, if primitive, spears at my chest. Where had these boys come from? The jungle?
Finding more people here would be good news if not for these two trying to skewer me.
The boys wore ragged, mud-splattered tunics to their knees. One youngster had flame-red hair spiraling out from his head and his face was mottled in leaf-colored hues on one side of his forehead. Skin colors that shifted and changed to pale yellows. The other boy had brown hair to his shoulders and glowing purple eyes.
Was everything in this place weird? And deadly? Even little boys?
That redhaired one was the shorter of the two and had a threatening look for someone that young. He ordered, “Get down on your knees. Hands on your head.”
Good news? I understood their words. But I ignored his order, demanding, “Who are you?”
They pointed the razor-sharp tips closer to my chest. “Move, and you die.”
And I’d thought the school had been a trial.
My back stung where one of them had already stabbed me. Nothing worse than a cut...as long as that stick had no poison on the tip.
So I know what poison is?
This was not the time to add a check mark to my ongoing list of what I did and didn’t know. What I knew for certain right now was that this little warrior meant what he said.
But I didn’t care. “That thing.” I hitched my shoulder toward the still-roaring croco-monster. “Is going to kill...my friends.”
“They’re safe...from the croggle.”
“A croggle?” I glanced over my shoulder. Ah, the monster.“If this is just my scrambled brain having a nightmare, I hope I wake up soon,” I muttered and gently untangled my foot again from the child at my ankles. When I did, both boys looked down.
Not trained very well to lower their guard so easily.
I twirled around, catching both spears at once and pitching them aside then spun back to check on Gabby and Tony. Same spot.
What was that monster, the croggle, doing?
Nothing, because that band of shrieking children were beating it for all they were worth. They used a net of woven vines, crude three-pronged weapons, clubs and spears like the two boys had held on me. Their mighty leader called out orders and took the lead in beating on the croggle.
Why didn’t he just grab another spear and kill the thing?
Did he want to kill it or was he only training his little warriors? The kids I’d seen floating before were no longer in the air, but had joined the others. Maybe their ability to remain airborne was limited.
I took a step and heard from behind me, “Last warning. You move, you die, tek-nah-tee.”
What was a tek-nah-tee?
When I turned around, both kids had their weapons again. How’d they manage that without my seeing them? I’d pitched the long sticks a good distance to my right, far enough I should have heard or seen them going for the spears.
Didn’t matter. I had to get to Gabby and Tony. But if I ran toward my friends, one of these two–or both–might gut me with a spear.
Maybe I could move us in that direction. “Why aren’t you helping your friends with that monster?” Neither one answered. “What are all of you doing here?” I made sure they heard the lack of patience in my voice. “What is this place?”
Still no answer.
The little girl huddled in the same spot near my legs, eyes glazed over in shock, probably over how she got here since she wasn’t dressed like this bunch.
I had a hunch that she’d gotten spit out of a pod, too.
I could appreciate that scared, shaky feeling.
More annoyed this time, Red Hair raised his voice. “Down on your knees. Now!”
“No.” I waited to see if either one would make a move. When all they did was exchange a look of confusion with each other, I angled my head around to see how the battle was going.
Their tall leader had a club in one hand and something that could be a sword in the other, not giving the monster–croggle–an inch. Stab. Thwack. Stab. He had golden-brown hair and strange light purplish skin with aqua and dark-blue markings. Broad shoulders and muscled arms that swung a club the size of my leg with no more effort than if he held a thin stick.
But spearing the thick-hided creature with sharp points and clubbing it just enraged the thing rather than scaring it off or killing the monster.
In spite of now being stretched out on the ground, the croggle howled all of a sudden and lashed out with its giant tail, knocking two children out cold.
Then it rolled onto its belly, trying to right itself.
I could hear the boys behind me suck in their breaths.
Things were not looking good for the humans–assuming anyone present was human–and here I stood being useless, pinned in place by two half-sized guards.
I twisted toward the boys once more, surprising them for the second time when I yanked away both spears. “I need these.”
Mouths open, they stared at their empty hands.
Nodding at the little girl at my feet, I shouted, “Take care of her.”
And I was off.
To commit suicide? Possibly, but I’d bet there were kids with spears standing behind Gabby and Tony, too. I couldn’t just hang around and wait for that croggle thing to kill the attackers then go after Gabby and Tony the minute it got tired of being beaten.
And to be perfectly honest, charging toward a threat felt bone-deep right, as odd as that sounded. As natural as breathing, I knew I’d done this before...somewhere.
I was almost upon the monster before the other kids noticed me. The guy in charge whipped around with shock riding his face then a fierce mask slipped into place. The younger ones seemed confused, as if trying to figure out if I was friend or foe.
No time to explain.
The leader kept his gaze on me, all the while roaring orders at the children, drawing them away from the croggle, and me.
Tossing down one spear to free up a hand, I flipped the other spear over in my right hand into a natural position for attack. Energy swirled in my chest, like before, but faster and stronger. Power shot through my arms and legs until I thought it would consume me.
Using my speed to run up the blunt scaly tail of the croggle, I pushed off and landed on its back. When my momentum slowed at the thing’s neck, I clenched a curved horn sticking out the back of its head to hold myself steady as it moved underneath me. My muscles expanded and thickened with every blasting beat of my heart.
The spear began to smolder under my fingers as if burning.
That was new.
I ignored everything except focusing on killing this threat, and trusting instincts I sensed were as much a part of me as the strange energy building inside me. I didn’t think I could reach the monster’s side eyes, or break through the skull to its brain. But I had to try.
When I drew back with the spear, a row of scales around the neck flapped out and back, out and back. Breathing?
Just as had happened in the jungle when I battled the vine, more energy rushed through me, but this time it was like molten lava.
I held the spear poised above the neck flaps.
The monster exhaled. Its scales flipped open.
A shout of “Tenadori” burst from my throat. I thrust the spear downward between scales in the neck.
The sharpened stick struck membrane that resisted.
My muscles bunched. Heat exploded through my body and rocketed through my arms. I powered another shove deeper into the monster until something inside gave with a spurt of stinking gray-blue ooze that spewed out.
The croggle thrashed hard, tossing me like a leaf, high and far, in an arc through the air.
I slammed on my back, knocking the breath out of me. My lungs begged for oxygen. After a few seconds I sucked in air, head ringing and the rest of me feeling like a flattened bug. My body complained from head to toe, but I pushed up on my elbows in time to see the monster spasm again, glow bright then explode into blue flames.
The high-pitched squeal of an animal in agony rolled on and on until the thing shuddered once more and collapsed on the ground with so much force I felt the blast in my chest.
Scales curled back in the intense heat that blew away from the monster and rushed across the flattened grasses, scorching my skin just like the desert had earlier.
That seemed years ago.
Young voices started shouting in anger then a deep male voice boomed orders to back away and said something else I couldn’t hear.
Probably the leader.
But the monster was dead. A croggle, whatever that was. Within seconds, the thing turned into a bubbling mass of scorched skin and scales.
I’d never get that acrid smell out of my nose. My head spun from the effort of pushing myself up. I let my aching head thud back to the ground, unable to force my body to move another inch.
Gabby started yelling and chaos erupted.
I should move. Get to Gabby and Tony.
Can’t breathe yet. Wheeze, pain, wheeze.
Who were these people, all kids, and that older boy? A guy, I corrected myself. Anyone that powerfully built was no boy.
But why did everyone sound so angry? The threat was dead.
Thoughts skittered through my head. I coughed and pulled in air, breathing in short gasps, staring up during brief snatches of lucidity.
Purple sky. Single red moon.
No green streaks now.
I closed my eyes, hearing a groan. Mine. I hoped Gabby and Tony were safe now that the croggle was dead.
Quiet. Then footsteps marching toward me. That same deep voice I’d been hearing ordered, “Stand up.”
I opened my eyes. The violet-skinned leader’s face suddenly shifted into view. Hair, more gold than brown now, fell to his shoulders. Were my eyes playing games with me? His hair changed to multi-colored browns, grays, and burnt orange, all muted colors. Interesting.
Different, but interesting.
Brown and black straps that looked like leather crisscrossed his chest, if such a thing as leather existed here. Loops on the straps held dagger-type knives and flat metallic discs with jagged hooks. Throwing blades. He wore woven links of the leathery material around his waist like a belt that drooped over a short groin covering created out of a plum-colored tanned hide. A longer blade hung at his hip. Bold aqua and deep-blue designs slashed along legs of roped muscle that stopped at short, dark-gray boots with orange and green fur.
Strange didn’t end there.
His eyes were unusual, too. Almost too light to be human and they were first aqua then hazel...now reddish-brown and glowing with fury. I noted several of the kids with similar skin, but theirs changed as if shifting from camouflage colors to one shade of violet.
Maybe I’d hit my head too hard. Again.
The dark markings, graphics actually, on the leader’s skin remained fixed in place. I had a feeling that meant something significant about him.
He repeated, “Stand. Up.” But with more force.
Hopefully, I could reason with him since I’d helped slay their monster. I forced myself to roll over onto my stomach and pushed to my knees then my feet. When I stood I had to bend my neck to look up at him.
He studied me from the ground up, much like someone would observe a new species. Had he not seen a girl before?
An idea came to me.
Back when I first met Gabby, I’d thought shaking hands was a form of friendship. I dug through my brain for any help. I believed it was a sign of not being hostile so I took the risk of extending my hand.
He ignored me, his eyes burning like hot coals when his nostrils flared in anger.
I’d been sure that shaking was some universal sign of non-enemy, but maybe not.
“Two hands,” the leader demanded, voice as grim as his face.
I didn’t think I was familiar with this greeting. Then again, I don’t know what I do and don’t know. It wasn’t as though I could remember ever being taught protocols any more than I knew where I’d learned how to fight. And I definitely didn’t remember ever being chased by a morphing beast or fighting a croggle, but I’d survived both, so I saw no problem in going along with the request, even as terse as it sounded.
I stuck out my other hand, both palms up to show I was no threat.
The leader raised his spear to my throat. “Don’t move.”
I figured that out on my own.
A skinny kid around fourteen I hadn’t noticed before came out of nowhere and lashed red vines around both of my wrists before I could blink.
I glared at the leader. Purple just topped the list of my least favorite colors. “A little unappreciative after I helped you kill that thing.”
“You destroyed it.”
“Agreed.” I enjoyed a moment of pride over having the skill–and strange internal power–to defeat a monster that huge. Something flickered in my memory.
A ceremonial moment after I’d completed a similar kill.
But the look on the leader’s face didn’t say thank you.
Instead he snarled, “You destroyed all the croggle, leaving not an inch of skin or bones to be used. You ruined meat that could have fed our village for two weeks. And now that we have to deal with your arrival our hunting trip is curtailed."
Just. My. Luck. “Only trying to help you keep these children safe.”
A female, maybe sixteen, stepped up to the leader. So there were girls here. She wore a muted burgundy tunic with a braided gold edge that stopped short of her knees and ankle-high skin boots like the rest of them. The boots were made of material that reminded me of animal skin, supple and breathable. Her hair fell in dark ringlets woven of blond and black, surrounding a stunning face...until her dull gray eyes slapped me with icy hatred.
Ignoring my claim about trying to help, the leader spoke to the girl. “Is the child safe, Etoi?”
“Did you contain the other two?”
“Yes. The second team has them bound and waiting for your signal to return to the village.”
Just as I’d figured, this group had caught Gabby and Tony.
What little good will I had toward anyone at this point was quickly sliding away, but I had to stay calm until I could figure out how to free Gabby and Tony. And after that, a way for the three of us to escape.
I’d draw on that strange energy inside me when the time came. I just had to be careful around these small children.
This Callan guy wheeled around to address the glum-faced pack of children circling him. They ranged in ages from ten to fifteen with mixed eye, hair and skin colors as if none were related, but dressed in three basic colors–mostly browns, a smattering of deep-reds and one golden color.
Their leader might be older than me, maybe even eighteen or nineteen now that I’d studied him more. Hard to tell when someone had the honed edge of a warrior. He told his band, “We’ll find another food source we can defeat, or we’ll find something better for food. But now we must return to the village.” I heard a couple of rumbling grumbles, quickly suppressed. The leader obviously had the unhappy group under control.
Someone poked me with the tip of a spear to get me moving. “Ouch.” I called out to Callan, “Would you tell them to stop stabbing me?”
He again ignored me, striding ahead to lead the way.
Just let me get my hands on another spear and I’d put a couple of holes in him. As I had no choice but to follow, I asked him, “Why are you taking us prisoner?”
He didn’t slow his stride or turn around. Instead he ordered, “Silence, tek-nah-tee.”
That word again. What did it mean?
Hopefully someone at this village we were going to was more open-minded than this guy.
The two boys behind me spoke between themselves. One mumbled, “What do you think he’ll do with three tek-nah-tees?”
When the second boy answered, his voice was flush with respect...or fear. “What would you do if a tek-nah-tee killed your brother the way his died? You saw what–”
“Don’t talk about that. I couldn’t eat for two days after seeing the vid of what happened to him.”
Who was this “he” they were talking about? Their leader?
Should I be more concerned about being thought of as a tek-nah-tee, whatever that was, or finding out what this Callan had in mind for us?
Both sounded deadly and unavoidable.