Hanging vertically from the pole that was more rigid than it first looked, Tony struggled against the vines, but nothing gave. He sucked air through the slim opening allowed by the leaf covering his mouth. Smelled like one of those cinnamon candies cheap restaurants had on their counters.
He wasn’t sucking any mints ever again.
When the kiddie army stopped, someone cut the vines wrapping him and he hit the ground as hard as a bag of cement. That hurt.
Mathias stepped into view, found a handhold between the red vines still wrapping Tony like a neon-red mummy and hoisted him to his feet.
For a second, he thought he was in a different village. This place looked like Party Central with hanging strings of multi-colored flowers, twined vines and a whole bunch of globe plants that reminded Tony of Mr. Tan’s Japanese lantern flowers.
Did this bunch celebrate executions?
Gabby walked into view. She shadowed the healer, Jaxxson, who was no longer looking at her as if she topped his list of inconvenient chores. What had happened for him to be giving her the eye, the guy look that said he was interested and waiting to pick the best time to make his move?
Gabby would shut him down in a heartbeat. If Rayen didn’t get to him first.
But at least Gabby looked healthy again. When her gaze danced over the crowd and landed on Tony, she broke into a run.
Never thought he’d be so happy to see Psycho Babe.
Mathias put his arm up to stop her from getting close.
Instead, she leaned her head past Mathias. “You okay, Tony?”
Do I look okay, babe? He shook his head, trying to talk, but the only sounds that came out were garbled noises.
“Uncover his mouth,” Gabby demanded of Mathias.
You tell him Gab!
Well, at least she tried.
When Gabby’s attention shifted past Mathias, Tony followed her line of sight and, halle-freakin-lujah, Rayen stepped out of that feather structure with Callan, Etoi and some skinny punk kid. Rayen would find a way to get this leaf off Tony’s mouth so he could tell Rayen and Gabby he’d found their way home.
But that red moon had dropped pretty low by the time this bunch of munchkins had carried Tony through the fog wall around the village. By his estimate, they had something like forty-five minutes left to call up the transender.
Maybe less. Cuttin’ it short here, people.
Etoi peeled off from Callan, heading over to where Zilya spoke to Neelah and some other girls who were busy hanging a bunch of feather balls from vines looped between tree limbs overhanging the area. Like the old ladies in Camden draped green, red and white bunting to celebrate St. Anthony’s day. Except these colors were weirder–purple, oranges and some crazy green blue. Etoi did spare the time to send Tony one more death glare on her way.
“Where did you find him?” Callan asked Mathias when he reached Tony.
Mathias pointed toward the forest area. “On that side of the village. We flushed him from where he hid. Alone. There’s no sign of the TecKnati, but I doubt the scout’s still here.”
Callan nodded. “Take this one to the Isolation Unit.”
Tony started shaking his head and grunting noises in Rayen’s direction.
Rayen stepped forward. “I want to talk to him.”
Callan turned on her. “He has proven himself TecKnati.”
“Just give me a moment. Please.”
He worked his jaw back and forth then rolled his eyes and said, “And you’ll believe what he says?”
Rayen’s gaze shifted to Callan. She stared hard into the badass dude’s eyes before saying, “Sometimes you just have to look a man in the eye and take his measure to decide if he’s telling the truth.”
Was that some kind of jungle alpha talk?
Callan didn’t speak for or against Tony, but he shifted his gaze to Mathias who granted Callan’s silent request by giving a jerky nod of his head. “Do it quickly.”
Rayen turned to Tony. “Were you leaving me and Gabby?”
Tony shook his head, hoping Rayen would believe him, but why should she, just based on Mathias bringing Tony back strung up as if he’d abandoned his friends?
Rayen studied on it a moment then asked Callan, “Will you loan me your blade?”
No, Rayen. I swear I wasn’t leaving! But Tony had no way to shout beyond making panicky sounds.
Accepting the knife, Rayen reached for Tony’s hand that was pegged against his thigh by the vines. But instead of a slice, Tony felt a prick at the end of his finger. What the heck?
Rayen lifted the blade point with a drop of blood perched on it. She turned to the little guy who had followed Callan here, but Rayen spoke to Callan. “If you’re so certain Tony is TecKnati, then ask V’ru to test this blood for the K-whatever ink.”
What? Tony watched as Callan gave V’ru a hand sign to call him forward. The kid touched the blood and rolled it between his fingers.
Just great. Now my life depends on some kid in middle school playing chemist with my blood?
After cleaning his fingers, this V’ru character lifted his palms and a holographic screen appeared, Tony forgot about blood, MystiKs and TecKnatis. How had junior pulled up that wicked screen from nothing but thin air? So frickin’ awesome.
Lowering his hands after a moment, the kid announced, “There are no trace elements of the K-enzyme metallic ink in his blood.”
What did that mean? Was it good news? Or bad?
Rayen lifted her fist and gave it short pump. “All right.” She swung around to Callan. “There’s your proof.”
So good. Unless . . .
“However,” the pipsqueak kid added. “I must complete a full analysis for a final determination.”
“Now wait a minute,” Rayen groused. “You have your proof.”
Callan shook his head. “That’s one marker, a simple one. We’ll give V’ru time to be thorough.” That forced smile popped up on his face again. “Send the prisoner to the unit. It’s time to start the celebration.”
Rayen took one look at Tony and suggested to Callan, “Why do that when he escaped from there once? Wouldn’t you prefer to keep him within sight until you make a final decision? Besides, don’t you want everyone here for your party?”
Mathias considered this. “The prisoner can’t break the bindings.” When he seemed ready to agree to anything to get this celebration moving, Mathias snapped fingers at two of his hunters and pointed. “Seat him there.”
Gabby followed Tony and sat down next to him. She leaned close, whispering, “Rayen and I believe you. We’ll figure a way to get you out of here.”
He owed Psycho Babe a hug … and to stop calling her Psycho Babe. He nodded and made a grumbling noise.
Gabby whispered, “I don’t know what you’re saying, but I have a way to find out...if you’re game?”
He nodded. At this point, he’d play Ouija Board with his nose if she could figure out what he needed to tell her and Rayen.
“It means having to speak to you mind-to-mind,” she explained.
Just when he was ready to kick her nickname to the curb, she says something like that. He rolled his eyes, glad he couldn’t speak right now because he was sure she wouldn’t want to hear what he thought of her crazy solution.
Mathias stepped up and told Gabby, “Move away from the prisoner.
Instead of blindly jumping, she held up her hands. “I don’t have a knife.”
She stood, but growled her discontent, making sure anyone close by knew she thought Mathias was a tyrant.
Now Tony wished she could’ve at least tried the Vulcan mind meld or whatever she was talking about.
The celebration turned out to be what looked like a birthday party. Tony couldn’t believe while the time for calling up a transender ticked off the red moon clock, this bunch was serving some kind of fruit cocktail like it was a birthday cake and each one coming by to hug Mathias and saying goodbye.
Was this a farewell party?
Where’d they think Mathias was going?
Some kids beat gourds and blew through reeds, while others twirled and danced with orange and yellow vine streamers. The littlest ones clapped their hands and threw flower petals into the air like confetti, then they’d stare at them for a second and the petals would remain suspended. Several others were concentrating, and around them spun vine streamers and whole flowers as if they were mind activated. Everything seemed frenzied though, as if they were forcing happiness.
Finally the main whoop de doo ended, with Zilya saying a few words, holding a politician’s smile in place. Her eyes held a boat load of denial, not believing something about this party.
Mathias took time with each of the kids, praising them for the decorations and laughing at their antics.
When Gabby had left Tony’s side, she’d passed by the healer who frowned when she bypassed a seat next to him.
She’d planted herself shoulder-to-shoulder with Rayen.
She and Rayen had both kept visual tabs on Tony throughout the party.
Like I can go anywhere being wrapped up this way?
Rayen whispered something to Gabby who nodded, then winked at Tony as if she sent a message.
If I get out of this, I’m going to teach Xena and Psycho Babe some useful hand signals.
Mathias finally stood and everyone applauded. He lifted his hands for silence. “Thank you for a BIRG Day celebration that exceeded my greatest expectation.”
You got some low expectations there, buddy.
Mathias continued, “I must go now, but if I’m given a choice know that I will return. However, until that happens you must stay united and follow Callan’s leadership.”
Zilya spoke up at that. “I am the next highest in rank from the Governing House.”
“That is true,” Mathias agreed. “But I am designating Callan who is better prepared to lead our group in this Sphere. As you well know, I hold the power to make that decision at any time our people are under threat such as we are here.”
“As you wish.” Zilya shrugged as if she couldn’t be bothered. The minute Mathias turned from her, Zilya whispered something to Etoi who chuckled, as if they both thought this whole production was funny. Maybe they didn’t expect Mathias to leave at all. That would be a mean trick to play on these little kids. Tony wished he could hear what Zilya and Etoi were whispering, but Mathias kept talking.
“Protect and watch over each other. Never give up hope of leaving. We will win this war. Our families will find us. This I believe with all my being.”
Mathias gave a pointed look at Callan who came to his feet and offered, “I will join you on the walk.”
What walk? And would that be the time to make a run for the transender? But how could they when he couldn’t even talk to Gabby or Rayen?
Giving Callan a quick head dip, Mathias added, “I ask Rayen to join us as well.”
Noooooo. This was a bad time for Rayen to leave. We probably got less than twenty minutes now.
Mathias’s statement also startled Zilya and Etoi whose confused gazes darted from Mathias to Callan to Rayen. Zilya jumped to her feet, mouth open to protest.
With a lift of his hand, Mathias cut her off. “This is my choice.”
Rayen didn’t stand, but she did say, “I want to know that Tony and Gabby will be safe while I’m gone if I agree to go.”
You tell ‘em, Rayen. But don’t go.
Callan addressed Zilya and Etoi. “As long as those two don’t attempt to escape, they’re not to be harmed. To do so will result in painful punishment.”
Etoi blanched at whatever Callan alluded to, which gave Tony a moment of relief about being left tied up.
With that settled, Rayen spoke quietly to Gabby then stood and followed Callan and Mathias from the common area.
Gabby got up and crossed to Tony. She squatted down and reached up to pull the gag off his mouth.
When she did, Etoi shouted, “Do not touch him!”
Gabby didn’t even look back when she answered, “Chill. I’m only letting him breathe.”
Etoi grabbed her spear and rushed over to point it at Gabby’s back.
Tony shook his head. Much as he wanted to tell Gabby what he’d found out, he didn’t want her hurt.
Gabby shoved up to her feet and pivoted to face the spear, looking down as she scoffed. She slapped aside the tip. “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but you’re abusing the privilege. Taking his gag off doesn’t constitute trying to escape. But if you want to stab me then argue that point with Callan. I’m game as long as I get to watch you being punished.”
Careful, Psycho Babe, but man that is so hot. Tony let out a muffled chuckle when Etoi backed down.
Sulking, Zilya stood off to the side, not offering an opinion.
Jaxxson strolled up. “There are better uses for your energy, Etoi. Such as helping the others clean up, and making sure the smallest ones retreat to their chambers before moonset.” When she turned away sharply from him, he added, in a lower, tighter voice, “Please follow Mathias’s example by giving the children encouragement. Do not spew venom when they face enough hardship.”
Etoi stomped off without agreeing or spouting another snotty comment.
Jaxxson’s serious gaze bounced from Tony to Gabby. “Do you give your word you’ll not attempt to escape or help him escape, Gabby?”
“Then you may remove his mouth covering.” The healer moved on to each group of children, touching their heads lightly and issuing compliments on the decorations and food.
When Gabby sat back down, Tony noticed her hands had been clenched, ready to fight.
He had a whole new respect for Psycho Babe.
She slipped her fingers inside the leaf across his mouth and started tugging it down, whispering to Tony as she did. “If Rayen can’t talk sense into Callan then maybe Jaxxson can. I’ve gotten to know him today.”
Tony sucked in a deep breath of air and sighed. “Finally. We don’t have much time.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I followed the scout back to his transender location.”
“You did break him out of the prison hut?”
Tony didn’t know whether to be impressed that she thought he was capable of that, or insulted at her you-did-try-to-leave-us tone. “No, someone here shut down the power. When the scout jumped out, I did, too. Barely made it before the power zapped back up. Has to be someone in this village who helped him, but that’s their problem.”
“We have to tell Jaxxson.”
“We can tell him on the way out, but right now we need to grab Rayen, because I’ve found our ticket home.”
Gabby’s lips parted. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw how the scout called up the pod. Then I tackled him and made him tell me everything about how to get into one. I think we have to call up our original transender to go home, but we have to do it before that red moon sets.” He nodded to the darkening horizon. “I’m guessin’ we don’t have more than twenty minutes, tops.”
“But...I don’t want to go home. I’m staying here.”