I stalked behind Zilya who followed Etoi as Callan led all of us through another tunnel in the green fog that protected the village. The air seemed to have thickened, clawing at my skin and making each breath labored, even though we were not yet in the jungle.
Zilya had traded her queenly robes for a leaner, two-piece look similar to Etoi’s. The tops covered their breasts and tied at the necks. The bottom parts stopped mid-thigh. Pants...no, I’d heard them called shorts.
Where? At the school? Or somewhere else?
The material hugged their bodies like soft deerskin.
But deerskin was tan colored. Not spotted like a leopard.
Leopards have spots. If that was correct, more fragmented memories and knowledge were sifting through the black hole in my mind.
We exited on the opposite side of the village from where I’d originally entered. I set my bearings according to the red moon–as Gabby had labeled it–that had moved halfway across the sky. Hard to believe that a full day hadn’t passed yet since we’d arrived here. Or had it?
Callan picked up his near-silent pace, moving us quickly over a narrow strip of open land, through dead grayish and yellow-orange vegetation to a copse of trees that looked more like forest than jungle. The minute the four of us reached the first tall trees with ghost branches, gnarled and white, Callan swung around and said, “This is good.”
Etoi carried two spears and whispered something to Zilya as they both stopped.
When Zilya’s gaze intercepted mine, she lost her chuckle and fumbled with the short spear Etoi handed her. Could the delicate Zilya handle that weapon and hold her own? Guess I’d find out soon.
Callan ordered, “Etoi will lead, then Zilya, me, then her.”
Her? “My name’s Rayen.”
Etoi protested, “I won’t have her behind Zilya or me.”
So much for trying to get on a first-name basis. I felt a smidgen of sympathy for Callan who always seemed one word from losing his patience with Etoi.
Zilya didn’t interfere, other than allowing Callan to see that she, too, wasn’t comfortable with me following her.
Callan’s skin deepened in hue when he drew a long breath as if that would wash away his frustration with outspoken Etoi. “If the three of us don’t return to the village, the other two prisoners will be executed. She–” Callan nodded at me. “–knows this and won’t try to escape or harm one of us. And since you should know the most vulnerable position is the last in line, does that mean you wish to take her place?”
Understanding brightened Zilya’s eyes once she grasped Callan’s logic. “Good plan. How do you want to split up?”
Etoi opened her mouth to voice her opinion and Callan glared her into silence. “You take Etoi, Zilya, and I’ll take...her.”
“Why?” Zilya demanded.
That snapped the latch on Callan’s temper. He stepped over to her, his body swelled with restrained fury, his color one shade now–deep violet. “Etoi is too impulsive to be put with her and heeds only you. I’m the best one to deal with the captive if she creates a problem. We don’t have the time to argue with a child’s life potentially depending on us. You’re of the Governing House, not the Warrior House. Need I remind you who is in charge out here? Force me to waste another breath explaining and you’ll regret it.”
“We’ll discuss this further with Mathias when we return.” Zilya stood firm and spoke with authority, but everything else about her seemed to shrink back from his anger. Flags of embarrassment waved in her cheeks. She didn’t wilt like a flower that had been trampled, but withdrew in respect of the foot that could smash her.
Interesting dynamics. Now if only I could use that tension to my advantage to get myself, Gabby and Tony free.
Callan sent me a look of discomfort at having his group’s flaws laid out in front of a stranger, but when he spoke to Etoi, his voice was that of a leader. “Are we clear?”
She’d answered in a respectful tone that I didn’t believe for a minute, but it seemed to mollify everyone’s temper. I didn’t know why I wanted to do it, but I decided to help out Callan by distracting his attention from the other two.
I asked him, “How long is it going to take to get where we’re going?”
“Not long. Let’s get moving.”
Etoi took off into the undergrowth with Zilya right behind. Zilya’s white-blond spikes of hair bounced above the vegetation, keeping her visible.
Callan stepped away and tossed over his shoulder, “Keep up.”
I smiled and waved my hand in a keep-moving motion. “I won’t lose you.”
He headed into the forest at a brisk pace, slapping chocolate-hued branches out of his way with sharp swings of his sword. I noticed which plants he tended to sidestep—orangish pink, and deep blue ones. Some were spiky and others furry like soft chick-down. So I knew what chick-down was, huh?
A loud caw overhead alerted me to a gray-yellow bird. At least I thought it was a bird, except for the long scaly tail that drooped behind it. The tail broke off into four individual lengths, like different sized whips.
“Watch that,” Callan ordered, halting me in my stride.
I shoved my gaze in the direction he pointed and saw a very small bear-type animal, all fluffy and furry until the critter’s neck extended once again as long as its body. Half its head opened up to expose three rows of lethal, slicing fangs that were almost as large as the animal’s wide paws.
“What is that?” I didn’t realize I’d spoken out loud until Callan made a snort sound.
“It’s called a muttrapper.”
“Is it as lethal as it looks?”
“Worse. Each of those teeth is tipped in poison.”
“Nice mutt-whatever. Be a nice mutt-rapper,” I murmured as I sidestepped around the critter. “Guess this means you’re saving me for the croggle.”
He glanced at me, puzzlement staining his expression. “If I wanted to feed you to something, I’d have told you to pet the muttrapper.”
He’d sounded insulted. What’d I say wrong? “Just joking. I appreciate the warning,” I said to his back as he marched ahead. This bunch didn’t have much sense of humor.
Fine by me. Now, I could drop my mask of subservient prisoner and focus on the important things, like keeping track of where I was in relation to the village.
Callan followed a trail deeper into landscape thick with vines as large as my legs, leaves of yellow, red and rust.
I tried to memorize as many landmarks as possible in order to return on my own if I needed to, but the trees were so huge they blocked out any distant view. So I started noting shapes of trees like the one I’d just passed that hunched over like an ancient elder. Another towering one dead ahead split into five arms, with long, thin branches like fingers reaching toward the changing sky. Everything in this place seemed oversized, twisted and lethal.
What made this place a sphere? That’s what Mathias had called it. Who were Callan, Mathias, Zilya and the others, and where had they come from if this was not their home?
They clearly weren’t happy about being here and it wasn’t by choice, so what had happened? Were they prisoners, too? Maybe I could convince them to work with us and find a way home...but where was their home?
And what was the possibility of Callan working with Tony–the one he’d deemed an enemy tek-nah-tee beyond any doubt–in any lifetime? Zero.
That put me back to where I’d started, which wasn’t much of a place to be, considering I had no idea what the word “home” meant to me either. And if I didn’t get back to the Institute, I wouldn’t find out what information my fingerprints had revealed.
Even if I did, would that give me my memory?
What about that healer who was hopefully taking care of Gabby? Could he heal more than the body? Like finding my lost memories? I asked Callan, “Can your healer work on any part of the body?”
Callan snapped at me, “You feeling ill?”
“Then be quiet and keep up.”
So much for a friendly conversation.
I managed to stay on pace just fine and, like Callan, I moved ghost-quiet in this setting, which made me wonder if being in the wild was familiar to me. Had I hunted at one time?
Slipping up close to him, I whispered, “Right behind you.”
Smooth muscles flexed with his fluid movements. The mottled colors on his skin shifted a tiny bit. Did emotion affect the change? He’d never admit I’d surprised him.
With Etoi and Zilya moving along seven to eight steps ahead of Callan, I tried once more to engage the hard-nosed warrior in a conversation. “Why are you here?”
He wouldn’t answer.
“What is this place? Did you get into trouble to be sent here?”
He sent an implacable expression over his shoulder that should unnerve me if I had that kind of temperament, but I was finding I didn’t have many docile bones in my body.
I kept verbally poking at him, telling myself it was only to get information. Not because I wanted to break through that stony wall and make him interact with me as someone other than a prisoner. “How long have you been here?”
“Be quiet, tek-nah-tee,” he growled.
“Thought I made it clear that I am not a tek-nah-tee.”
“Anyone who walks with the enemy and protects the enemy is the enemy.”
That told me the cost of defending Tony and stepping in to take his place. “You going to tell me what a tek-nah-tee is?”
“Vermin. You’re all vermin.” He spat the words.
Vermin? That sounded familiar. “You think I’m a...rodent? A rat?”
He shook his head as if to himself and muttered something that would be dark if it had color. “Calling you a rat would be unkind–”
There was hope for this conversation.
“–to rats. Tek-nah-tee are more like cockroaches. Single-minded, stupid insects with no regard for what’s decent. No other creature than the cockroach has survived every devastation in our world.”
His attitude annoyed me on a level I couldn’t explain. More than feeling irritated. He compared me to something disgusting. That cut me when I shouldn’t care what this stranger thought. I changed the direction of my next question. “So where do the tek-nah-tees stay in this place?”
He swung around so fast I almost ran into him and had to throw my hands against his chest to stop myself.
My pulse pounded at touching him.
He stood there for a second, long enough for me to feel his heart thrumming a fast beat before he backed away from my touch. I dropped my hands, fighting an awkward feeling at the way he made it clear how much he detested being touched by me. He walked backwards so I had to follow, but not as close as before.
After a silent couple of steps, he said, “You know tek-nah-tees only visit this world to drop off incoming mystik passengers or spy on those of us who still live. Why do you ask these questions?”
I juggled what I knew to this point. I could understand his hostility if the tek-nah-tee forced kids into this scary place and killed them, but I still didn’t understand why he seemed convinced that I was one. I had no mark on my neck like the one on Tony that had created a stir with them.
“You’re an intelligent person, Callan. Think this through. You have no solid proof that I’m a tek-nah-tee. If you could open your mind to the idea that I might not be your enemy, then maybe we could help each other.”
To be fair, there was some chance I could be a tek-nah-tee since I had no memory prior to this morning, but I would not harm a child and, without any real proof, I refused to be marked as a child killer.
Callan turned around and picked his sure-footed way through an undulating area of roots–had that root just moved?–and uneven, hard-packed red dirt when the path leveled out.
Was he actually entertaining the possibility of what I suggested?
I thought so, until he muttered, “I will not be tricked again by a tek-nah-tee.” He turned to me again and jabbed the spear at my chest, point first, but stopped short of breaking skin.
Furious at the mere threat of attack, I caught the shaft before the tip had any chance of doing damage. Yanking the end up and toward me, I brought us face-to-face, feeling smug when we stood so close I could see sparks of red firing through his eyes that were now a somber brown in this shadowed light. His nose flared as if he’d caught a wild scent and his gaze dropped to my mouth.
My thoughts skidded to a halt, long enough for the anger to bleed out of me. I had the craziest thought of wanting to run my finger across that sculpted mouth to force a smile, just to see what he looked like happy.
A flash of movement drew my eyes to a flutter of rainbow-colored wings the size of my two hands spread open. Four flapping wings on a furry body that had a chipmunk-looking head, beady black eyes and small legs with claws that were extended as it flew towards Callan. Large and lethal claws.
Shaking himself from whatever had happened for those few seconds, he snarled at me. “Don’t think to use your powers on me without suffering repercussion.”
I ignored his words, too focused on the threat. I spun away and broke a dead limb thick as my thumb from a tree and leaned back, prepared to throw my make-do spear at the attacking bird.
Callan took one look over his shoulder and dove at me, grabbing my arm. “No!”
We both lost our balance. I toppled backwards, landing hard against the ground, one shoulder scraping a tree. He came down on my chest with a thunk, knocking the breath from me. I groaned, but kept my eyes open, searching for the threatening bird thing.
The flying critter had landed on a small sapling at Callan’s feet but now flew back up into the tree, squeaking in terror the whole way.
The little bird animal landed on a branch and turned to keep an eye on me as if I presented the real threat.
I let out a pained breath and relaxed my guard. The minute I did, I noticed every curved muscle, and other parts, draped over me. A distinct masculine scent tangled up my next breath.
The heat I felt building inside this time had nothing to do with preparing to fight a battle.
He pushed up on his arms, sharp breaths squeezing out between clenched jaws. I could swear embarrassment skittered across his face before his eyes hardened and he snapped, “Have you no brain?”
“Evidently not, because I try to save you from being attacked and end up catching the devil for it.”
The surprise on his face was comical. “Save me? From a dallymoth?”
“Moth? Aren’t those like butterflies? That thing’s no moth. I saw teeth and claws.”
He growled another dark word I didn’t catch. “Teeth for eating insects with hard shells and claws for grabbing branches as it flies around spinning thread...which we use for weaving. You frightened it so badly I bet the thing doesn’t make a strand of thread to harvest for another week. Do you have to kill everything that helps us survive?”
My face heated so fast I had to be glowing red with humiliation. I shot back at him, “I only meant to protect you. Wasted energy on my part.”
My answer must have stalled his brain because he stared at me slack-jawed.
I’d have laughed at his expression if I could find one thing funny about this situation. “Get off me.”
Now he looked embarrassed. Good.
He shoved up to his feet, stood there a minute debating something, then offered his hand.
I slapped it away and struggled to a standing position. “How am I to know what’s dangerous or not in this place? You got a book or a list of things not to kill?”
Callan had no answer to that. He just stared at me for several long seconds then lifted the spear and turned back to whatever trail he followed.
“Is there a problem?” Zilya called out, coming back to us, her eyes a deep purple with intensity.
I watched Callan’s face for a sign of how he’d explain this. Depending on the way he answered, I could end up with my wrists bound again...or worse.
He waved off Zilya. “A dallymoth frightened her.”
Etoi roared with laughter. “Our youngest children don’t fear dallymoths.”
I narrowed my eyes at Callan who ignored me, his don’t-cross-me mask back in place. By the time I’d dusted myself off, Zilya and Etoi were waiting for us.
Etoi kept a sly eye on Callan, whose curt voice made it clear he blamed me for this delay, which improved her mood significantly. Especially when Callan stepped over to me and dropped his voice to a menacing level. “The sky is changing faster. Hold us up again and I’ll leave you staked until we return.”
I held up my hands. “Just a mistake.”
“Don’t make one when we reach the transender,” he warned. “If you cause us to lose a child, I’ll kill you myself and leave what’s left for the croggle.”
Just when I thought we might have reached a friendly understanding, but no. “I won’t let anything hurt a child.”
Whether Callan believed me or not was yet to be seen, but I saw something in his gaze that hinted at a change in spite of his cold voice.
That he might truly believe I’d tried to protect him.
If so, that had to fly in the face of my being a tek-nah-tee. Didn’t it? But it probably also rubbed for any girl to protect a warrior such as Callan.
What had he said? That he would not be tricked by his enemy again. In that case, I might be reading more into his reactions than was there.
This time, Callan set a faster pace.
I jogged in step behind him, waiting for Etoi and Zilya to pull ahead once more as they had last time. Over roots, around trees growing thicker, beneath leaves everywhere. Easy to get lost in a matter of minutes.
When Callan gave a hand signal with two fingers, Zilya split off to the left with Etoi. Callan spoke over his shoulder to me in a whisper. “Follow me. Do not make noise.”
“Don’t make noise means to keep your mouth closed.”
I mimicked him silently behind his back at his snippy tone and whispered, “I can’t help you unless I understand what’s going on.”
He looked up at the changing sky for answers to his silent questions and hissed.
I started to ask what now, but saw the green stripes whipping across the sky like giant brush strokes.
Callan started running. “The sky’s changing faster than before.”
“What does that mean?” I jumped over downed trees, chasing after him. “Why’d you split up from the others?”
He answered in a low voice sharp with impatience. “The sky stripes when the transender arrives to deliver children and sometimes scouts. Our teams divide as we approach...” He must have decided I really was confused, because he kept explaining. “That way, if one team is penned in by a croggle or a different threat, the other team can help the child. We may be too late.”
“Shhh,” he snarled. “When a child is delivered, Zilya and Etoi will distract the threat. I’ll hand off the child to you to protect then I’ll draw the croggle away so they can escape. Each team knows their duty. No arguments.”
That sounded like Callan had to be the last one to escape the croggle. Wouldn’t that be harder to do alone? When the forest started to open up ahead, Callan stopped abruptly and dropped into a crouch behind paper-thin bushes that barely hid anything. I dropped into a crouch beside him.
I studied the quiet area, thinking this might be the wrong place when I heard his sudden growl of anger.
Something was up.
Searching further to my left, I spied Zilya and Etoi hunkered down, too.
I could feel the double beat of my heart racing as I inhaled the acrid scent of the blood-colored earth. Sweat ran down my face and dripped into my eyes, blinding me.
I leaned my mouth near Callan’s ear, noting how he forced himself to remain still when he obviously was bothered by me being so close. Could I use that to my advantage at some point?
I asked, “What’s the problem?”
Lifting up, inch-by-inch, I braced myself on my arms and managed to see through a gap in the intense orange-and-black leaves. An area that looked similar to the same grassy field where I’d fought the croggle monster earlier fanned out before us. The trampled rubbery grass here had gray-blue bloodstains darkening the ground.
But there was no dead monster carcass. Was this the right field?
So what happened to the croggle? Or were those bloodstains from something else?
A sudden movement to the left snagged my attention.
No monster, but two people. The tek-nah-tee scouts? Both males in their early twenties, each holding the arm of a little boy, a toddler, no older than three or four, with bright red hair and horror etched in his tear-streaked face.
The two guys wore shiny, metallic gray one-piece clothing that covered them from neck to boots. The way they carried themselves, their demeanor reminded me of the people in uniforms who’d arrested me near the Sandia Mountains this morning. That seemed forever ago and these two scouts were far more lethal looking than the elders who’d carted me to the Institute. Dark, short-cropped hair gave these two young men an aggressive and harsh appearance. Unmerciful.
And they both had menacing designs painted–inked?–in black on their exposed forearms. Tattoos.
So those were tek-nah-tees, huh?
Now I understood why Mathias thought Tony was one since he had that same short hair with an arrogant cut to his chin, a scorpion tattoo and he strutted with attitude the way those two moved.
One scout clutched a metal instrument. A flint-gray box that fit in the hand he raised and pointed at the child.
The other scout, with a wide forehead and dull eyes, shook his head. “You know we can’t kill any of them unless you want to explain a tek death back home.”
The first male laughed, a cold chilling sound, eyes trained on the small boy stumbling between them. “Don’t be so serious, Phen. I won’t kill the package. But I can play with the furkken brat.”
I wanted to ask Callan what furkken meant, but from the way a muscle jumped in his jaw I took it as a curse or derogatory term.
“Not with me here. Do it on your own time so I don’t get charged with misconduct. SEOH could have vids in this area. Let’s get our surveillance done and go home. This is as good a place as any to dump the incomer.”
“A little further in the middle. That way the croggle has a better chance of catching dinner. Need to keep the livestock fed, and feeding him there means we won’t have to walk through the blood to reach the transender to leave.”
The child cried out, startling the guy with the gray box.
His hand twitched, or he must have hit a button and the child screamed in pain. A single burst of terror.
I launched myself forward.
Callan shouted something at Zilya, but I’d already exploded from cover, racing toward the little boy.
The scouts were so surprised by the toddler’s sudden wailing they weren’t looking up as I charged them.
The guy holding the box lifted his head a second before I reached him, and I took advantage of the shock on his face. Moving fast and hard, I hooked an arm around his neck, slamming him to the ground.
The small box dropped from his fingertips.
I punted the strange weapon further away and spun to meet the second scout who’d abandoned the child to jump in.
Then the battle really started.
The second guy attacked me. A child’s terror-filled cries clawed the air.
Hurt a child? Pay the price.
I drove jabs at him over and over, not sure how I knew to fight this way but going on instinct. Connected with soft flesh a few times, hard bone more. Callan had joined the fray with Etoi standing back, her spear pointed at all of us.
I lost my balance. The ground had shifted beneath me. One too many hits to my head maybe?
My gaze strayed to the child just as Zilya snatched him up and rushed away from the battle.
The distraction cost me a rock-hard fist in my ribs. I sucked air at the blow, the only pause I took before immediately returning the favor with a brutal right cut to the scout’s face.
Cartilage shattered. Blood geysered from a broken nose.
That was worth the ache in my knuckles.
But the tek scouts were well trained. They didn’t back down. Continued to rain hammering blows just as punishing and with vicious precision.
Staggering back, I stumbled, then caught my balance in time to see that the scout I’d been fighting now stared past me, toward the trees.
Where Zilya held the child.
The scout sneered at me and moved toward Zilya.
Protect the child.
A blazing haze of fury clouded my vision. Hot energy started building inside me.
I yanked the scout back around. The tek-nah-tee only laughed, fists up and moving like lightning, raining hits over me again and again, the strikes pummeling my shoulders and head.
Anger so molten it threatened to sear my insides whipped through me. Strong enough that I wouldn’t back down either. Instead I fought the scout harder, forcing him away from Zilya and the boy.
Over the grunts of the attackers, I heard Callan shouting at Zilya and Etoi to run.
With one last surge, I knocked the scout backwards ten feet, rolling over and over, with me right after him.
The scout landed on his feet, spotted the gray box and scooped it up. He swung around, pointing it at Zilya.
I ignored everything except charging forward and knocking the scout’s hand away just as the box buzzed.
The gray box went flying another thirty feet away from the tek-nah-tee. My next punch landed under his jaw, snapping his head back and causing him to stumble around, arms flailing to keep his balance.
But then I stumbled sideways, too, trying to keep my own feet stable again.
That’s when I realized the ground really was shifting back and forth beneath me. My feet flew out from under me. I hit hard at the same time the scout went down.
Callan and the other grappling scout hit the ground as the earthquake erupted.
Not an earthquake, but a violent tremor. One I recognized. If I was right, that shaking announced a greater threat.
Rolling to my knees, then my feet, breathing hard, I glanced around. Callan and both of the scouts had snapped to their feet, shuffling with their arms stretched out to keep upright. Dirt and rocks exploded into the air when the croggle burst from beneath the ground.
Callan hadn’t been joking about this beast being larger than the one I’d killed earlier.
This one could kill all of us with the swipe of one claw.
Struggling to keep Etoi on her feet and moving the child deeper toward the tree line, Zilya looked back first at me then at Callan who yelled, “Protect him,” then turned back to face the croggle.
Zilya stared at me as if she couldn’t believe I would stand next to Callan and fight the croggle.
Callan glanced at me and shouted, “Go!”
I shook my head. Seeing Callan’s eyes warm, even for a fleeting second, sent my heartbeat thudding at a crazy speed.
The trembling stopped. Everything went deathly silent.
Callan raised his spear toward the monster, as if one weapon was going to stop that thing.
A toothpick against a mountain.
With the scouts stunned, watching the greater threat, I inched slowly over to stand within a few steps of Callan, my voice soft. “Got a plan?”
“Good as anything I’ve got.”
He spared me a quick glance, but in that moment I saw something I wanted to call respect in his gaze. Probably my imagination, but it gave me a warm feeling I needed right then.
If I ran now, I’d have no chance to prove I was not tek-nah-tee. If I fought alongside him and convinced him I wasn’t his enemy, I had a chance to save myself and my friends.
The scout who’d zapped the little boy turned to run toward a spot where the transender pod had beaten down the grass.
The second guy held his ground. No, he stood locked in fear, his face pale beneath blood dripping from where I’d damaged skin and bone. Callan had pummeled the other guy worse.
So three against one giant beast. Not favorable odds.
Didn’t matter. We’d never make the woods before the thing reached us. Facing the beast gave us a better chance than being caught from behind.
The fleeing scout stopped before he reached the transender landing spot, searching the ground for something.
He dove for it, grasping in a smooth somersault move that landed him back on his feet in position to aim the device at the monster.
Callan and the second scout both shouted, “Nooo!”
The tek-nah-tee with the metal box paid no heed to their warning yells. He hit the button.
Must have been a stronger charge than what he’d used on the child. Blue bolts of electricity arced all over the croggle’s head, lighting up his skin where it shocked him. But whatever zap that little box had spewed out meant nothing more than spitting in the eye of a wild beast.
The croggle stood up on its two hind legs, tall as a five-level building, and roared so loud I thought my eardrums would burst. It lunged forward, pounding the ground when it hit, tossing all of us off our feet again.
Enraging the croggle with an electric charge had accomplished only one thing–to zero the monster in on the person who’d zapped him. The idiot scout had no chance to move before the croggle swung its massive jaws at him.
The first bite cut him in half at the waist, leaving two legs standing. The rest of him disappeared between churning earth, spewing blood and severed body parts.
With the croggle distracted, Callan shouted, “Runnn!”
Sounded good to me. I scrambled to my feet, ready to sprint toward the forest cover.
I caught sight of the other scout, paralyzed with fear.
“Get out of here,” I called, but the guy either couldn’t hear me, or was so petrified nothing registered. If the fool stayed where he was he’d be dead in moments. The croggle was already shifting his ungainly size around, seeking new prey.
Leave the guy? He’d die for sure.
“Let the croggle have him,” Callan yelled at me as he dashed toward safety.
At that moment, the croggle’s bulging black eyes streaked with yellow veins flared wildly in the direction of the tek-nah-tee and roared, ready to kill.