My heart slammed my chest with every ear-splitting wail from the massive pink flower at the base of the tree.

Had I killed Gabby and Tony by attacking the vine?

The tension wrapping their bodies snapped.

All at once, thick vines connecting them to the tree splintered as strips of the plant shriveled.

I drew a breath and staggered over to reach down and grab them each by one hand, then I pulled, dragging them from the bindings still wrapped around their bodies. Uprooting one of these trees would be easier. Where had that wild energy gone? I still had adrenalin pulsing through me, but not that hot power. I yanked harder.

Their bindings splintered this time, allowing me to drag them clear of the bush.

Tony clawed his hands over his head until every last clinging stem remnant had disappeared, leaving cuts. His skin was flush, his breathing heavy. He reached into his shirt, yanked out the metal disk and kissed it hard.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Saint C.” Tony eyed me. At my blank expression, he added, “You know. St. Christopher. Patron saint of travelers.”

I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

Gabby fell over on the ground, hissing, cradling her wrists, which flushed bright red.

Feeling lightheaded myself, I knelt beside her. “You okay?”

She released her wrists, sat up and shoved hair off of her face, visibly shaken, but she took a breath and muttered, “I will be after I kill Tony.”

“That thing attacked me,” Tony mumbled, the fight having gone out of him.

“After you attacked another flower. Maybe it wanted to eat your phone.”

“My phone?” Tony lifted his hand, realized he still had his phone and said, “Hallefreakinlujah.” Relief spread across his face until he frowned at Gabby. “What the heck are you talkin’ ‘bout the flower bein’ mad? It’s a plant.”    

Everything in any world is alive,” Gabby said. “Just because you can’t make something fit into memory chips, processors and motherboards doesn’t mean it lacks value or survival instincts of its own. We have to be careful in this place.”

“It was a freakin’ flower, for cryin’ out loud. Who woulda thought it’d try to eat me?”

“You’ve got a point. I’d expect a plant to be more discriminating.” She rubbed the raw skin around her wrists.

A leaf fell out of Gabby’s hair. She picked it up and shrugged to herself then gave up a half-hearted smile. She did look a year younger physically than I was, but she had the tough core of someone who’d fought her own battles for a long time. Whatever life she’d led had taught her how to adapt, because she’d been taking everything in stride better than Tony had so far.

More than anything, this plant attack proved how much we needed each other. I hoped Tony realized that now. “Let’s call this progress on the learning curve and move on. No harm, no...” I almost had the word, but it vanished.

“No foul?” Gabby smiled.

“Yeah.” That sounded right, though I didn’t have a clue where the saying had come from. Another crumb from my brain.

Tony muttered something in my direction that sounded like, “I’m gonna have to start callin’ you Xena after that.”

Another name that meant nothing to me.

Once Gabby reached her feet, she dusted off her ripped dress and asked me in the quiet voice of a conspirator, “What did you do to that vine?”

Not a question I wanted to answer. Or could answer with any confidence.

“Don’t know,” I admitted, and decided a lie would be better for now until I could figure a few things out for myself. Besides, that battle had drained me to the point it was hard to dredge up thoughts, much less words. Muscle fatigue from the inside out. “It all happened so fast. Everything’s a blur.”

Though I had figured out something just now. Where I’d been out of my element in that school, there was something primitive here that called to my blood. Did my family live in a place similar to this? I didn’t think I’d ever seen anything like the vegetation or bats in this place, but I had a strong sense of having survived off the land at some point in my life.

That I’d been expected to fight and protect. Or die.

Gabby stared at me again with that deep look, as if trying to read everything I hadn’t said about getting away from the vine, but the sound of Tony thrashing away from us drew our attention.

“Where you going?” she called to him then shot a questioning look at me as if I had a clue what that crazy Jersey Jerk was up to now.

“Home,” Tony flung over his shoulder, steadily stomping deeper into the jungle, evidently trying to retrace the route the vine had dragged us.

“There’s nothing back there,” I called out.

Tony stopped as if pulled taut by an invisible wire. He turned partially to say, “Back in this direction is where the pod was. Might come again. Who knows? Gotta be better than dyin’ in this hole.”

Now he sounded worse than terrified.

He sounded defeated.

I glanced at the quivering bush, the one that had nearly devoured the three of us. My gaze traveled up the towering trunk where I caught sight of the small faces I’d noticed before. One looking more and more like a sad child in the shadows of the dim forest light.

Gabby’s gaze bounced between Tony and me, searching for an answer in a place that held none. “You think we should go with him?”

“No.” I meant it. My gut told me the pod was dangerous. But then, standing around or going deeper into the jungle could be, too. I shook my head and admitted, “But splitting up isn’t an option either.”

In the few seconds that I hesitated, leaves and branches started weaving across the path behind Tony. Once we left this place the chances of finding our way back here, or anywhere else, were dismal.

We were stronger as a unit of three. We could survive this if we kept our heads. I believed that at a level deep enough that it drove me to compromise.

I headed for what I could see of the path he left. “Let’s go, before we lose him.”

“We don’t have that kind of luck,” Gabby grumbled close behind. “But I’m not jumping in again if he gets attacked because of stupidity.”

“How long do you think that’ll be?” I asked, afraid we’d find out sooner rather than later.


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