Rearing up again, the croggle prepared to lunge in another attack.
I screamed again at the scout. “Run!”
He stayed frozen in place between me and the croggle.
As the monster arched forward then plunged down, I ran full out, smashing into the scout, my body throttling us both forward. The monster’s hot breath rushed past us ahead of its jaws slamming the empty space where the scout had stood seconds ago.
The scout rolled twice with the momentum from my blow, which must have shaken him out of his stupor. Jumping up, he yelled something at me that I couldn’t hear over a loud whine.
I was too busy scrambling away from the monster now that the scout could save himself. When I turned to see the beast’s position, a massive claw swung toward me with hyper-speed.
I twisted to dive away, but didn’t move fast enough to dodge the sharp tip of a claw the size of my forearm. It raked a burning slash across my stomach and side. Arching in pain, I forced myself to keep scrambling, barely avoiding the solid thump of a foot pummeling the ground where my head had just been.
“Ayeeee! Here! Here!” I heard Callan shouting somewhere nearby. “Croggle. This way.”
Smart guy. Taunt the monster away. Then what?
Rolling my head to the side, I saw the scout sprawled on the ground with Etoi on top of him, a spear at his chest.
The tek-nah-tee yelled up at her, veins in his throat standing out.
I couldn’t make out anything he said.
Etoi pushed the tip of the spear into the scout’s chest and yelled right back. That shut him down.
Further away, Callan kept distracting the monster as he shot back and forth so fast in front of the creature that I could barely see Callan’s legs move. But a person could only do that for so long before he gave out or made a mistake and got caught.
I couldn’t leave him to deal with the croggle alone, not when he could’ve gotten away with the others if I hadn’t stayed to save the scout. Callan’s enemy.
Clenching my teeth, I clamped a hand on the wound gouged deepest at my side and struggled to my feet. Where had the power within me gone? What had brought it on?
The scout heading toward the child.
If that’s what it took to bring on the energy, I imagined the croggle turning on that little boy after it killed me and Callan.
At once, heat churned in my middle. I staggered toward the croggle now down on all its limbs, pounding the ground and snorting, snapping at Callan. Power swirled inside me, building. I started jogging.
Callan split his attention for a second, glancing my way, and roared, “Stop. Nooo!”
I couldn’t look. No distractions. Moving my feet faster forced blood to gush around my fingers. I felt dizzy and shook it off, growling. The power coiled tight then expanded. I yelled at Callan. “A spear!”
Fury made the veins stand out on his forehead.
Two more steps and I’d reach the croggle.
I jumped on the monster’s tail that was taller than me at its thickest part. And almost fell off. Grabbing a scale, I hoisted myself back to my feet. Would the monster notice something that weighed little more than one of its scales? I climbed toward the air flap that moved in and out, just as it had on the smaller croggle, only this was like climbing a mountain, not a hill.
Callan dodged right and left, keeping the monster confused as he worked his way around to the monster’s side. He yelled at me. “Catch!”
I braced my feet to free one hand. If I moved my hand from the gash, I’d bleed out faster. When Callan threw the spear, I caught it and flipped the spear around, ready to stab the monster the second its breathing hole flapped open again.
The beast howled, shaking its bulk and snapping its jaws, the sound of giant teeth grinding. Massive feet stomped and the smell of raw sewage reeked in the air. Its twenty-foot tail lashed back and forth then curved, the tip swatting me off like an annoying fly.
I cartwheeled in the air and landed on my back with a dull thud when I hit the ground, my fingers still clutching the spear.
Callan had raced away, yelling and waving his hands to hold the monster’s attention. Even with his speed, he was too far away to reach me in time to offer any help.
Jaws as wide as the transender pod swung around to me. Black eyes streaked with yellow rage turned on me.
Callan’s voice reached me above all the noise. “Rayen!”
He said my name.
A small thing, but hearing that gave me a renewed surge to fight. I had to tap the red-hot energy I felt spinning inside me, but how?
Callan bellowed at the top of his lungs, running straight at the monster.
The croggle paused, head swinging over to Callan for just an instant before whipping back around to lunge at me. Razor-teethed jaws opened to cut me in half.
That was the extra second I needed.
Power detonated inside me once more. I knew it wouldn’t last.
I rolled to my feet, pain lashing my middle and the world spinning around me. I yelled, “Tenadori!” and grasped the spear with both hands, ramming the lethal point into the croggle’s massive foot.
I focused all my thoughts on die and burn!
An inferno of heat pulsed through me into the spear and blasted into the foot. Blue flames and smoke shot from the monster’s air flap. It bellowed in anguish. Scales glowed fiery red.
I released the spear and fell backwards. Warm liquid gushed from my wound and ran across my stomach and chest. My heart thumped slower and slower.
The croggle kicked its legs then crashed over on its side, shaking and emitting a screech that rattled the trees.
Closing my eyes, I drew a gurgly breath, sick of smelling the stench of death.
What about Callan and the others?
Footsteps pounded up. I peeled my eyes open.
Callan walked up to me, chest heaving for air. He dropped down beside me, his eyes now reddish-golden. “You look worse than the croggle.”
“I don’t want...to hear grief...for killing him.”
Shaking his head, he released a breath that almost sounded like a chuckle, but raspy as if he hadn’t done it in a while. Warm hands covered my stomach. I gasped and jerked at the pain racking my body.
What humor I’d seen in Callan’s face a moment ago fled quickly beneath a grim mask, the severity of my injuries written in the worry lines creasing his forehead. “Got to get you out of here before that thing bleeds out and you drown in croggle blood.”
“Doubt I’ll make it. Go. Save the child. But–” I drew another rattling breath. “Please...let my friends go.”
Zilya’s face popped into view. Confusion scrambled the color in her eyes. “You should have let that scout die.”
I breathed out, “Couldn’t let that beast...kill anyone.”
“He’s an enemy.” She placed her hands on her hips. “Why would you help a tek? Protecting your own?”
“No.” I scowled at her, gritting my teeth when Callan pressed harder. “Can I just die . . . in peace?”
Callan’s gaze never left mine when he said, “Leave her alone, Zilya.” Then he told me, “You will not die...yet.”
Now that Zilya had pointed out how I’d, once again, protected their enemy, I wondered if Callan wanted the honor of killing me himself.
I closed my eyes, trying to separate myself from the pain snaking through every inch of my body.
The cries of a child approaching forced my eyes open to find Etoi hovered in my line of sight. She told Zilya, “I think this little one is reacting to the Sphere. He already has a rash on his arms and legs.”
Callan kept his hands in place, applying pressure that tortured me as he turned to address Zilya over his shoulder. “Where’s the prisoner?”
“Tied to a tree.”
“Take the child to Jaxxson.”
“What about her?”
Now I’m her again? I fought to stay alert when all I wanted to do was close my eyes and withdraw from the jagged ache clawing my stomach. Had Callan been telling the truth that I wouldn’t die?
Callan shook his head as if debating with himself. “Leave her with me. We’ll follow once she can walk.”
He expects me to get up and walk? After losing a couple of quarts of blood and with a gaping wound?
As usual, Etoi had an opinion. “This one killed a fully grown croggle. She protected a tek. Why save her?”
Hmph. I’d graduated to ‘her’ then back to ‘this one.’ At this rate, I’d be ‘it’ next.
Callan still pressed on the wound.
I hissed, nauseous from the streaking pain.
The struggle to figure out something warred in Callan’s face. “How’d you kill these croggles? Our spears can’t pierce the hide of a grown one, but you stab him in the foot and he dies.”
Something I could do better than warrior-guy? Sweet, as Tony would say.
Throat dry and fighting dizziness, I opened my hands but couldn’t lift them from where my arms had flopped down beside me. “With these. Not sure how it works.” I took short breaths, which was all I could handle. “I feel an energy. . . then I think about...what I want to happen. That’s how I killed the flower vine that...attacked Tony. Just worked.” My eyes fluttered closed. Too much effort to keep them open.
No doubt they’d think I was insane and lock me away in that isolation hut forever...if I lived.
“Wake up,” he ordered.
I didn’t want to, but forced my lids halfway open, just enough to see the blurry image of Callan still kneeling next to me and arguing with Zilya. “She doesn’t wear her hair like the tek-nah-tee females and no obvious marks on her body.”
Zilya glared an easy message to interpret. She didn’t want Callan discounting her theory that I was the enemy. “We’ll discuss this later, but no matter how great a warrior you are, you risk someone like her using that power to kill you.”
Looking up at Callan, I tried to speak, but it came out as a whisper.
He leaned closer to me. “What?”
Licking dry lips, I whispered, “My word...as a warrior. I will not use my power against you.”
The respect that had shined in Callan’s eyes earlier took on new meaning now. He believed I was not tek-nah-tee or at least he had reservations about condemning me. I could see it.
He said nothing to me, but he told Zilya, “Get moving. The child needs Jaxxson. I’ll deal with this. That’s final.”
Did I have the beginning of an ally in Callan? An alliance that might help Gabby and Tony once I made it back to the village.
If I made it back.
“The blood still flows too fast,” Etoi pointed out in a smug tone. “The decision of her fate may no longer rest in your hands. Staying here may draw another croggle.”
He snarled something at Etoi I didn’t get and scooped me into his arms.
Bad move. Pain ripped through my chest. Felt as though the croggle chewed on me. I’d lost too much blood. I licked my dry lips and tried to say, “Please don’t hurt Gabby and Tony,” but nothing came out.
Darkness closed over me.