There Be Mature Content Here
Please be advised that the following is intended for mature readers only.
(Finished – 10/16/2021)
Luna the Baby Bunny
Early morning light is filtering through Briarwood’s upper canopy and finally reaching us anxious and sleep deprived folks hiding in the undergrowth.
Yeah. I’m talking about me and Gary. And now that some sunlight has reached us, I can see across the tiny glade. He’s sitting just like me, settled amongst the thick roots of a massive Briarwood tree with his back against the trunk.
He looks worn out and thoroughly confused. Plus he’s dirty, covered in minor scraps and bruises, and probably in desperate need of three day’s worth of sleep.
I feel ya, Gary. I feel ya.
If only I could make it all better for us.
“I suck at this.” I grimace.
Just like an idiot, I’m blurting out a total downer at the start of our first full day of being ‘On The Run’.
I flick my gaze to Gary.
The poor guy’s staring at me like I’m gonna disappear on him. Ever since I’d pulled him into Briarwood, he’s kept his eyes on me.
I scramble to recover. “But, you know what? Who cares if I suck at survival? All that matters is that you and me, Gary, are gonna keep on kicking butts.”
“Can’t kick any butts if they just evaporate us,” Gary says grumpily, kinda like he’s complaining about it not being a fair fight.
“Not gonna happen, Gare.”
But of course that’s exactly what’s gonna happen. I am still sorta sick, Gary’s only human, and Emys is The Last of the Akupara. The odds, as well as the facts, are not in our favor.
But, I’m just gonna keep on ignoring all that truth in order to keep our hope alive. I’m doing a fantastic job, too. Go me.
“Emys didn’t evaporate Pyx.” And yeah, I sound a little bit peeved. I’ve been going over this with him all night. “There’s no such thing as an evaporating…um, ray gun.”
How do I know this? Because it takes something the size of a spaceship power core to produce matter-reducing rays. The scientists who got zapped when the barge’s core when into cascade failure know that as well.
Well, they knew that for less than a microsecond before the arcing anti-matter totally reduced them to their base atoms.
“So then where’d he go?” Gary sounds baffled, not confrontational. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Because he broke up with me.”
“Are ya sure?”
“Sure about Pyx dumping me?” I swallow back the bitter lump in my throat. “Yeah. Super sure.”
But it would still be totally super if he was here right now. Gary’s life is kinda forfeit because the Akupara do not share secrets with Outbalers. I’ve got no clue how to fix this…manhunt? Alienhunt?
I just wish I could get a redo. To get a chance to figure out why Pyx chose to use his speed before an Outbaler in full view of his commander. Because his reason for breaking his Bale’s most important rule…?
I don’t get it.
“I don’t get it,” Gary says, echoing my confusion.
“Same here, Gare.”
“I mean, he really likes you.”
Oh. Gary’s confused about something else. “I thought he really liked me, too.”
He wrinkles his brow. “No, I mean, like really, really likes you. He’s kinda obsessed.”
All I do is shrug. I’d thought pretty much the same thing. That Pyx and I’d shared a mutual obsession for one another.
Apparently, I’m the only one obsessed because I didn’t sleep at all last night. I wasn’t waiting for Emys to pounce on us like hares in a snare. I was hoping—am still hoping—that Pyx would—
Something is charging through the undergrowth, snapping fallen sticks and rustling the huge leaves as it heads straight for us.
Gary and I push to our feet as Howie and Bianca stumble into our pathetic little glade.
I blink as I shake my head. Yep. I’m not delirious. Howie and Bianca are bent over, their hands on their knees, as they ramble and gasp for breath.
“What?” I step toward them. “What are you—”
“Wolves!” Howie wheezes as Bianca points back the way they’d came.
Gary looks from the thick foliage to the kids. “Attacking Two-Four-Kay?”
“No. No.” Howie huffs. “Chasin’ us. Here. Chase us here.”
I slowly turn, raking my gaze over the surrounding forest. The hair on my neck tingles as my stomach cramps.
A stick cracks behind me.
I turn to the sound of another snap, off to my right.
Rustling leaves come from my left.
Gary rushes forward, gathering the kids in his thin arms and starts to hustle them off.
I stand, stunned. This… this isn’t—
“Come on, Luna!” Gary whispers harshly, like he’s afraid to make any noise.
Which is pointless. The War-wolves have us surrounded.
“Luna!” Gary calls.
He sounds so…scared.
I take off after him, ignoring my pounding head as my heart pounds against my chest.
This is bad. This is bad. This is sooo—
I almost smack into Gary’s back. He’s at a dead stop. Which means the way must be blocked.
Using a touch of my speed, I step around Gary and the kids. My hands heat as I brace for…
I blink, but the view doesn’t change. Benny’s still standing there, right in front of me.
Confused, I spread my hands out. “What the hell’s going on?”
A War-wolf howls—which is really more of a roar—and several haggard looking men bolt outta the forest and into the small glade.
Gary tucks the kids closer to him. “Luna?”
I lock wide-eyed gazes with Gary.
I shake my head in denial, because it sure looks like a pack of War-wolves is rounding us up.
“They sure are,” Howie says. He’s clutching onto Gary as he gapes out into the forest. “We’re eggs in a basket.”
Pyxis The Restrained
“Know you’re there, Fanboy,” Joia says as she places rocks in a basket.
By ‘there’, she means ‘here’, at Luna’s cabin. Where I’m currently lurking in the dense undergrowth at the edge of the clearing made for the cabin. Jo, though? She’s crawling around, searching for rocks in the undergrowth.
“Ain’t rocks,” she says without looking at me.
Whatever. I don’t care. What I care about is that Jo appears to be the only one here.
When I’d shot outta Two-Four-Kay at my true speed, I’d blazed through Luna’s territory in Briarwood. Didn’t run into a single War-wolf. Not even a War-mouse was scurrying beneath the undergrowth. There was nothing to run off before Luna arrived.
The fact that Jo is here? And that I didn’t know it?
I don’t like that.
“Course you don’t,” Jo says as she tosses more ‘not-rocks’ into the basket. “You was hoping to find Baby Bunny here.”
Jo looks over at me and arches a brow. “Before your sister finds you.”
That’s entirely true.
Emys can drag me back to the Bale for sentencing and punishment—hell, I won’t even resist—after Luna gets here.
“Cuz clearing the path for her was just something you had to do.” Jo rolls her eyes. “You know, instead of coming here with her.”
“Yes.” Because I don’t want to hurt her anymore.
Jo scoffs dismissively. “That’s only part of it. Ya took off at your full speed so that Emys will have to deal with Gary.” Jo points at me. “Which is a fucked up thing to do. Especially since Emys is honor bound to kill Gary for what he saw.”
Jo’s got it all wrong. “Luna will—”
“I know. I know.” Jo waves me off. “She’s got a soft heart. She’ll defend Poor Gary. Stomp her tiny foot and demand that Emys take them all to the Bale and live happily ever after.”
“That… that was the plan.”
“So I’m just gonna drop a helpful tip for ya, Fanboy,” she says as she stands, dropping the rock-like-things into the basket. “Because you’re shit at planning.”
“A tip would be fabulous.”
She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you know what a tip is?”
“Got it.” I nod once. “A tip sounds really fabulous. Go on.”
“Sometimes you gotta tell things—out loud—about yourself.”
I go to answer her.
“You gotta,” Jo cuts me off. “You really do. You need to talk about the stuff you keep locked up inside.”
I shake my head. “I can’t do that.”
Jo nods. “You can.”
“I can’t because—”
Jo grabs my hand.
“You can,” she says as she squeezes me, her knuckles turning white. “Because it’s a fucking gift to be able to tell someone something that isn’t bullshit.”
I look at our hands. Jo’s tiny ones are squeezing one of mine with a lot of pressure for a human. It’s as if she’s trying to force me to understand.
But it’s not that I don’t understand. It’s that I know too well. Every time I tell something about myself, then everyone else knows I’m not normal. A real Akupara doesn’t say the things that I do. They don’t do the things that I do. And when I’d tried to let go of the restraint that I’d placed on myself—to just be me—I’d hurt Luna. Somewhere in my intense focus on her—my impulsive, single-minded, protective obsessed with my mate—I’d failed to see how I’d effected her.
Just like with everyone else, I’m a distraction. A burden. A useless thing.
“Alright,” Jo nods. “I see this is gonna take more than one pep talk. So answer me this, Fanboy. Ya left Luna so you’d stop hurting her. How do you feel now?”
Broken. Shattered. Shredded to pieces.
“Good thing all that hurtin’ stopped, right?” Jo pats my hand before releasing me. “Heads up. We got in-coming.”
Jo turns away from me, drawing my attention to the direction she’s facing.
She’s facing the Bale.
Rez bursts into clearing moving faster than I’d ever seen her. Her chest is billowing as she’s taking huge gasps.
“Luna. Not. At. Bale.” Rez rasps as she raises her arm. With a trembling finger, she points behind her. “In. Coming.”
Jo walks up to Rez and pats her back. “Already said that. But it’s good for Fanboy to hear how right I always am.”
Rez rolls her eyes as she grunts. “Always. Shit. Talking.”
“Always, always,” Jo sings.
Four armored warriors charge into the clearing. Well, three warriors and Bracys.
My gaze shifts from Emys to Kinixys. Before I was mated, my siblings—working together—always managed to just overpower me. That means that Skalixys, the fourth member of my Bale’s retrieval unit, must be here to tip the scale.
“Another tip for ya, Pyx,” Jo says as she stares down my people. “Don’t tip that scale just yet.”
Bracys steps forward. “We’re here for—”
“I’m here to parlay!” Ryorin—Emys’s former suitor and challenger—and another Akupara stride outta the forest. “I’ve come to—” Ryorin jerks to a stop as he looks around. “What are all of you doing here?”
Ryorin the Bastion of the Alast is fucking no where on the list of people I would have thought would even remotely be here—at Luna’s cabin—while I’m being apprehended.
Was Ryorin on her list? Because I know Jo has a list.
I glance down at her and silently ask my question.
Jo groans as she rolls her eyes. “Can’t take anymore of this fucking bullshit.”
I look from Ryorin to her. “That’s not an answer.”
She shrugs. “But it’s the truth.”
Ryorin continues to look around, then turns to his companion. “Jarvys, read that message to me again. It said nothing about—”
“Checking, Commander.” Jarvys says with a heavy sigh as he pulls a comms handheld from a compartment on the cuisse covering his thigh.
“The Alast are not welcome in Umara territory,” Bracys says. “As a trusted advisor to the High Umara—”
Ryorin scoffs as he folds his arms. “Trusted!”
Bracys finches—as if shocked to be interrupted.
But it is Ryorin. Jo calls him Pompous the Ass for good reason.
“I—” Bracys bristles. “I demand that you withdraw, Ryorin the Bastion. Immediately.”
“Demand!” Ryorin does another overly huffy scoff. “This isn’t Umara territory. It belong to a human.”
Bracys slaps his chest, striking his armor. “It’s an Umara affair.”
“It’s an Akupara affair,” Ryorin shoots back. “So I’m here to parlay.”
Everyone—me, my friends, plus the retrieval team—all glare at him.
Ryorin hefts sigh. “For the Alast. I’m parlaying for my bale. It’s not my fault all the other bales are…” He turns to Jarvys. “Truly, read it again.”
“We gonna group parlay?” Jo crosses her arms. “Fine. Let’s get this parlay started. First things first.”
All the Akupara, with the except of me and my siblings, gasp at Jo’s crassness. First things first…
Rez, though, giggles gleefully as she adjusts the fit of her armored gloves.
Jo points her finger at my mother’s advisor. “Nobody harms a hair on Gary’s head.”
Bracys sputters. “That’s—that’s not poss—”
“Pompous, you’re up,” Jo says, keeping her eyes on Bracys as she points to Ryorin. “What ya got?”
Ryorin steps forward. “Firs—”
He bites back the word with a growl. Holding up a finger, he steps forward again. “One, that is not how one starts a parlay.”
“That’s how we do it, so…” Rez shrugs as she cracks her knuckles.
Ryorin stares at her with a slight tilt to his head. “So?”
“So.” Rez raises her brows as she stretches the word out. Her tone and expression are both calling Ryorin an idiot. “Either get your ass on board or jump ship.”
“Interesting.” Ryorin then nods. “I agree to these unconventional, yet utterly human, parlay terms.”
Rez rolls her eyes. “We’re all fucking thrilled.”
“Excellent.” Ryorin turns back to Jo and raises another finger. “Two. What’s a Gary?”
Luna the Baby Bunny
Gary is one badass dude.
Truly, who knew that beneath the surface, there was a really good guy just waiting to… I don’t know? Not asphyxiate or something?
And who also has a mean left hook.
Really? Who the heck—besides the Akupara warriors—has a ‘knock-em-out-cold’ left hook nowadays?
Gary does. That’s who.
The proof is right before me.
I gesture toward Benny who’s picking his sorry-punched-face off the forest floor. “And that’s the end of our ‘Was Never Meant to Be’ team up with Benny and his idiots.”
Our rag-tag gang of opposites has been at each other’s throats from the beginning. Benny’d tired to bully himself into the leadership role for the whole group, while Howie—and well, me too—had mocked him every chance we would get.
The wolves didn’t help matters, either. For whatever reason—you know, instead of tearing us into bite-sized morsels—they’d kept nipping at us. Through all of last night and most of this morning, they’d been driving us farther south. No one’s slept, and now everyone—hell, even Gary—has a nasty, grouchy edge to their abject terror.
You would think that having a pack of War-wolves rounding up you and your closest enemies for an ‘All You Can Eat’ feasting frenzy would have everyone setting aside their differences.
Well, no. It did not.
“You’re gonna follow that little shit instead of me?” Benny glares at Howie while covering his other eye.
“Yeah,” I say, pointing at Howie with my thumb. “Totally gonna follow the master survivalist over there who showed us how to get water from the leaves. While you didn’t even leave our group to take a piss.”
Benny huffs. “We were circling up for protection.”
“You pissed inside the circle.”
“Luna!” Howie does the whole whisper-yell-call thing we’ve all been doing.
Which is stupid.
The wolves obviously know we’re here.
And even though they’re keeping themselves hidden in the forest, never more than a minute passes without a snarl or howl coming from somewhere close by.
So, we know they’re here, too.
Really, it would all be so incredibly stupid if it wasn’t so terrorizing.
“Hey!” Howie calls again. “You coming or not?”
“You follow him,” Benny spats, “you’re dead. Out there, we can see ’em coming.”
Benny jerks his head to the left.
Again, for reasons known only to the War-wolves, us humans have been kinda escorted—but mostly driven like cattle—to the edge of Briarwood. To my left is the Chaparral, which is nothing but an empty, rust-colored dusty steppe. Only a few scrubs are scattered throughout the almost unobscured, 180-degree view before us.
Benny is right. The Chaparral is a wide-open landscape. We’d be able to see the wolves coming. But also…
“Because there’s nothin’ to hide behind.” Idiot.
“That’s my damn point,” Benny says.
“It’s also Howie’s point, but the difference is he ain’t an idiot.” I shrug and then turn. “Best of luck not dying out there.”
“Where the hell’re you goin’?” Benny grabs my sleeve and yanks me, spinning me back around.
I bring my opposite hand up, grasping for his wrist. He releases me and shoves me away.
Kinda shocked, I look up at him just as he’s flicking his gaze away from my hand.
Maybe Benny isn’t a complete idiot after all.
He sweeps his hand toward our right—toward Briarwood. “Them War-wolves ain’t gonna let you leave.”
“Yeah, well…” I suck at comebacks. “I’d like to see them try.”
See? Even when in mortal danger, I’m still so me.
Then inspiration hits. “You have first-hand experience with trying to keep me confined.”
Ha! And a pun! First-hand experience…
“Those fucking aliens busted ya out, Lunatic.” Benny jabs a finger at me. His face’s flushing a bright red. “So drop your fake bullshit attitude. Ya ain’t leaving. And when them War-wolves drive ya back here, ya best be crawling to me on your hands and knees as you’re begging to team up again.”
Benny rakes a leering gaze over me and smirks. He’s not an idiot, but he’s also not clever. I know what’s coming.
He scoffs. “You best be offering to suck—”
I’m lunging for Benny’s ugly smug face just as someone snags me from behind. At the same time, Benny stumbles back—looking stunned—as a rock ricochets off his head.
“Hey!” I shout as I’m yanked back by Gary. “I was handling it!”
As Benny falls onto his butt—for a second fabulous time this morning—Gary continues to haul me away.
“Yeah.” Howie rolls his eyes as he starts walking away. “You totally had him right where you wanted him.”
I pull free of Gary’s grasp. “I can fight my own battles.”
Bianca, who’s still glaring at Benny with another rock in her hand, shifts her hard stare to me. “You take too long.”
Pyxis The Restrained
“This is taking too damn long,” Rez grumbles grouchily.
She sitting next to me on the front stoop of Luna’s cabin. The sun has been up for hours, and still the parlaying— negotiating the terms of my surrender into custody—is still not finished.
“Damn right,” Jo says, speaking through her wide-mouth yawn. She’s sitting on my other side. “It’s bullshit.”
I don’t agree. It’s fabulous. While Bracys has scoffed at Joia’s only two demands—that I’ll only go once Luna and Gary are safe, Emys is trying to settle on a way to bring me in without destroying all of Warren’s. Their endless arguing is biding time. It’s giving Luna a chance to get here.
“It makes no sense.” Ryorin is standing on the other side of Jo, his shoulder supporting him as he leans against the cabin. “What makes Gary so… important?”
We all ignore him.
Jo nudges me as she juts her chin toward Emys and Bracys. “It ain’t what you think. I told ’em to just take you.”
Rez snaps her spine, sitting upright. “You did what now? Whose side’re you on, Joia?”
Ryorin pushes off the wall. “Is it Gary’s side?”
“Team ‘Fucking Not Emys or Bracys’s Side’.” Jo frowns as she points toward my sibling and my mother’s advisor. Standing close by, at the ready, are Kinixys and Skalixys. “You both know they’re using Fanboy’s demand to stall.”
“As do I.” Ryorin nods. “That makes it threesome that know.”
Jo blows a frustrated exhale, flaring her nostrils as she stubbornly locks her stare on Emys and Bracys.
Rez looks from the Umara retrieval unit to Jo. “Huh?”
“It’s all bullshit because they’re using what he wants,” Jo cants her head to me. Then she cants the opposite direction. “To get what they want.”
Rez and I just stare at her. Don’t know what Rez’s thinking, but my thoughts are turning dark and disturbing.
“Is it Gary?” Ryorin’s voice deepens. “It’s Gary, isn’t it.”
“Luna!” Jo snaps. “They’re waiting on Luna, same as Pyx.”
I don’t like that. At all.
I’m sitting up right, just like Rez, and the plates of my carapace click sharply as my spine snaps straight.
Even though I’m in my armor, the sound of my carapace locking into place must’ve carried. Kinixys—who’s been watching me with intense alertness—lets his joints soften just a fraction.
“Shit,” Rez hisses under her breath.
She must have seen her mate’s slight movement as well and knows his tell. That Kinixys is getting ready to strike.
“Yeah,” Jo says as she sits up straight and languidly rolls her shoulders. “Some shit is about to go down.”
Ryorin steps away from her. “If you need to—”
“Shut it, Pompous,” Jo turns to him. “I’ve given you like a dozen warnings—”
“Eight.” But when Jo snarls, he graciously gestures to her. “Do go on.”
“This ain’t about you. It’s about Luna and Fanboy here.”
Ryorin raises his hand.
“And Gary, too.” Jo sighs.
Ryorin curls his hand into a fist and gives it a solid pump. “I knew it.”
Jo’s right eye starts to twitch. “Jarvys!”
“What?” Ryorin wisps his head around, looking for his attaché. “No. I’ll stop talking. This is all about…other people.”
Jo squints at him. “Which other people?”
“People…” Ryorin tilts his head.
Jo tilts hers to match his.
She jerks her head toward Emys and Bracys, dismissing him.
Ryorin sniffs. “Very well. I’ll go parlay for the Alast Bale.” He stomps off. “Whom I’m certain will be thrilled once I’ve been awarded the Gary human.”
Rez watches Ryorin’s back with a disgusted look on her face. “The fuck?”
Jo snaps her fingers before Rez’s nose. “Focus.”
Rez frowns. “Sure, whatever. Where were we?”
I’m glaring at my people who are on the other side of the clearing, negotiating for my mate.
I snarl. “They want Luna.”
Rez shakes her head in confusion. “Because she’s working on the whole egg thing?”
Jo shrugs. “Sure.”
I don’t know. I don’t care. If Luna wants to go with either Bale, then fine. She goes. But if she doesn’t want to go…
“Tipping that scale prematurely again, Fanboy,” Jo says in a low tone, just for me.
I am. I’m tipping it toward Luna.
“Well, if they’re waiting for her to come here, she won’t.” Rez huffs, as if amused. “She’d literally be walking into a trap and she’s smarter than that.”
Jo and I say nothing.
Rez flicks her gaze to us. “Right?”
I don’t know Jo’s reasons for keeping silent, but I sure know mine. I honestly don’t know if Luna will come. She can’t stop herself from helping people. It’s in her nature. But in this situation, the only one in need of saving is me…
…and maybe Gary…
But I really don’t want to know the answer if the only one in need of saving is just me. Because if it’s just me and Luna doesn’t come…
Rez flicks her increasingly frantic gaze between me and Jo.
Finally, she blinks and her shoulders droop. “Shit.”
“So,” Jo says, “we all agree that Luna’s idiotic Best Intentions woulda had her charging in to save the day, like, a whole day ago?”
Rez mumbles in agreement.
I say nothing.
Jo shrugs her ‘whatever’ shrug. “Two outta three ain’t bad.”
Rez is glaring off into the forest. “Bracys and Emys don’t know were she is either, or they’d already have her. She’s not at the Bale or Two-Four-Kay. Chalk Downs?”
Jo scoffs at the suggestion.
“Chaparral, then,” Rez says with certainty as she curls her hands into fists, cracking her knuckles. “She’s probably in trouble, too.”
“Oh, she’s totally in need of some butt saving.” Jo nods. “But I ain’t in the rescuing mood right now.”
I stand up.
I’m in the rescuing mood. I so fucking am.
“Yeah,” Jo sighs as she looks up at me, “And ya always will be.”
Bracys snaps his attention toward us. “Pyxis the Restrained, you are not permitted—”
“Shut it, Brack-Ass.” Jo waves him off without looking away from me. “Why’re ya going?”
“To save Luna.” I answer her.
She narrows her eyes at me. “Not where’re ya going. Why?”
I hesitate because I’m about to tell Joia something. But, I suspect she already knows. So I’m really just telling myself. “Because—”
Bracys gestures to Skalixys. “Restrain him.”
“Not gonna happen.” Rez strides forward.
She squares off against the armor-clade unit sent to retrieve me. It’s my sibling-by-mating—who’s a lone human female—facing my siblings-by-birth, my mother’s advisor, and some guy named Skalixys.
Oh, and a baffled-looking Ryorin.
Kinixys goes rigid.
“Here’re your choices.” Rez points to the ground. “Sit your asses down or we’re gonna kick your asses. Pyx’s got someplace to be.”
Kinixys swears and stomps toward Rez.
I go to move, but Jo stays me by placing her hand on my arm.
Rez and Kinixys are standing, chest-to-chest, glaring at one another.
Rez raises a brow in challenge.
Kinixys moves—his massive size flowing like running water—as he stands shoulder-to-um, well, the top of Rez’s head.
“Really?” Rez flicks her gaze up to my sibling. “You had to think that long about it?”
“When you get that look on your face,” he says, still facing the rest of the retrieval unit and Ryorin, “disaster always follows.”
“That look?” Rez huffs. “A disaster? You know what? Never mind.” She points toward Emys and the others. “Get your ass back over there so I can kick the shit outta it.”
My sibling doesn’t move.
And I’m kinda stunned and confused that he doesn’t obey. His mate just ordered him to leave.
Kinixys shakes his head. “There was never anything to think over, my mate. You know that.”
Rez huffs as she stares down the others across the clearing. “Then why all the damn theatrics?”
“When you’re mated, there’s only ever one side.”
“Yeah?” Rez is shifting on her feet. It’s her nervous tell. Right now, she’s unsure. “Which side is that?”
“Your side.” Kinixys dips his head down and stares directly into his mate’s eyes. “Always by your side.”
Rez gapes up at him as she leans closer—as if she’s being irresistibly pulled toward him. Rising up onto her toes, she reaches for Kin’s blank faceplate, the expression on her face a mixture of tenderness and heat.
Kinixys let out a low growl of pleasure. I would too, if my mate were looking at me like that.
Rez, though, blinks. Confusion, then irritation, crosses her face.
She snaps her attention back to the rest of the retrieval unit. “You bet your ass’ll always be by my side.”
“As I’ve said, yours.” My sibling shifts into a battle-ready stance. “Out loud, even.”
Rez continues to mumble, her prickliness making her movements sharp and agitated. “Seriously, what other side would it even be on?”
Instead of answering, my sibling oh-so-subtly nods to me.
And I get it. I do.
For Kinixys, there’s no choice once Rez makes her desires known. As a mated Akupara, he’s wired to give Rez what she wants. Always. Even if it’s squaring off against his own people to defend me—his fuck up of a sibling.
Because this is what it is to be mated.
Kin doesn’t have one ounce of regret or any conflicted feelings about it. And he just admitted this before his commander, a respected advisor, and that tagalong shit, Skalixys.
Oh, and Ryorin.
But what I don’t know, is how Kinixys knew to stay when Rez told him to leave. That’s—
Jo nudges me. “So why do you?”
“Why do I?”
Jo cants her head south, toward the Chaparral. “Why go after Luna?”
I tell her the real answer. “Because I’ll never change.”
I am who I am—a fuck up, and I am mated to Luna. Just like Kinixys had announced to everyone here, the undeniable pull to always be by Luna’s side will never change.
Jo arches a brow at me. “Ya hear that?”
I listen. Nothing.
But this is Jo asking, so I’m not sure. “No?”
“Exactly.” She jabs her finger, poking me in the center of my plastron. “That’s the sound of the folks—the people who really give a shit about you—saying absolutely nothing about you changing.” She pokes me again. “Listen to them. Got it?”
She pokes me a third time. Hard, too. I can feel it through my armor as well as my plastron.
“Fanboy!” Poke. “Ya listening?”
“Don’t change.” I nod once. “Got it.”
“Good. Now change places with me.” Jo takes me by the arm and pulls me. “Come on. Get moving. We’re switching up.” She points to Ryorin. “Been wantin’ to kick your ass since I first met you.”
Ryorin jerks, then stands straighter. “Truly?”
I have no doubt Jo can handle Ryorin. As I size up the others, apprehension rolls through me. It’s just Rez and Kinixys against Emys and Skalixys.
Bracys is just sorta… there.
I shouldn’t leave Jo, Rez, and Kinixys against such horrible odds. I can’t—
Jo turns to me an tisks. “We got this.” Then she points to the basket of rocks she’d been collecting. “Take those with you. And they ain’t rocks.”
Bracys points to me. “Restrain him!”
Skalixys moves toward me. Kinixys tackles him.
Ryorin throws himself at Bracys. “For Gary!”
“Get gone, Pyx!” Rez shouts, her voice urgent with warning as her flash hairs crackle.
Luna the Baby Bunny
I glance back at Gary, my gaze passing over Howie’s and Bianca’s drooped heads. “Is it still back there?”
It’s been several hours since we’d left Benny and his goons. The War-wolves are continuing to drive us along the boundary of Briarwood and the Chaparral. The pack has us surrounded on all sides. The ones in the forest stay outta sight, but we hear them howling and snarling. The ones out in the open are matching our slow and steady pace, their massive, clawed feet dragging through the rust-colored dust of the steppe.
Based on the number of wolves traveling in the Chaparral, plus the snarls coming from multiple points at once within Briarwood’s dense undergrowth, the number of wolves surrounding us has increased. So, I’m kinda hoping our rearguard might have moved out to the Chaparral, giving us at least one escape route.
“Yeah, it’s there,” Gary says grimly without turning around. “Keeping the same distance, too.”
No. It’s not great. It’s freaking terrifying. Plus, I’m so dang tired. Every last bit of my body is exhausted. My feet. My eyes. My teeth…
Vicious snarls erupt to our left. Gary, the kids, and I all look over in unison. Huge plumes of dust swirl around brawling War-wolves.
“More territory clashing?” I ask.
This’s not the first fight to breakout amongst the wolves, but we still can’t figure out why.
Why’d they round us up only to separate us? Why lead us here, to the edge of the forest? Why keep us moving? What the heck are they waiting for?
Yet, no one answers me because we’re all outta guesses.
But what we do know is that any time we stop for more than a few minutes, a wolf prowls outta the undergrowth and snarls at us.
Yeah. We get it. Keep moving, meat.
So even though the wolves are tearing into one another, we keep walking.
A flash of yellow streaks overhead. I look up, whipping my head around so that I can track the yellow dart as it shoots out over the Chaparral.
I blink. Was that a War-nary?
The undergrowth around us explodes with charging War-wolves. Gary rushes forward, pushing Howie, Bianca, and I toward a tree. This close to the Chaparral, the trunk is not as massive as the ones deep in the forest. But as a makeshift shelter, it’ll do.
“Luna?” Howie cries.
All I can do is shake my head as I watch about two dozen War-wolves sprint past us, shaking the ground with their pounding strides. They streak out into the Chaparral, traveling the same direction as the War-nary.
I look at Gary. He looks at me. And we’re totally on the same page.
Something bigger and badder than a mega-sized pack of War-wolves is coming.
A low, deep growl—more menacing than the War-wolves’—rumbles all around us.
No. Not all around us. It came from the left.
“This way!” I whisper harshly and start to run to our right.
We break cover from our tree and skid to a halt.
“That—” Gary swears. “That ain’t natural.”
And it’s not.
Before us is a War-wolf standing upright with broad shoulders, knees and elbows that are not canine, and hands with very long claws.
I exhale a shuddering breath. “Huge eyes.”
“Yeah.” Gary gulps. “Huge.”
I keep raking my terrified gaze over the beast. “Big teeth.”
“Yep. That, too.”
The beast snorts as strands of drool sway from it’s mouth.
Yeah. So, I guess, at this point, there’s really no reason to keep on keeping on. My choices are letting this thing slaughter us or save the day and swear Gary and the kids to secrecy.
Okay, Luna. You got this.
You just gotta.
I keep my eyes on beast as my hands heat up. “Gary, grab the kids and—”
Gary lunges at the beast as he bellows. “Run!”
Stupid, idiotic, badass Gary.
I heave a frustrated sigh as I use my H.A.R.E. speed to snag him by the back of his shirt.
But the beast…
It swipes at Gary.
And it’s fast.
Like, really fucking fast.
Blood sprays from Gary’s chest as I scream, yanking him back with everything I’ve got. I’m not H.A.R.E. strong like Rez and Joia. All I can do is leverage my plumpness against Gary’s stick-thin frame.
I whip Gary back and release him. Then using my speed and my momentum, I strike at the—
My face smacks into the dirt.
But fuck it.
This is absolutely the most fantastic time for me to be me. First, the beast’s massive hand just missed my head as I fell. Awesome.
Second, I don’t have to fix shit right now. I’m close to its feet which is perfect for what doing what I’m good at.
Fucking things up.
I’m really good at fucking things up.
My hands ignite, blazing to life like a fired-up engine thruster. I grip the beast’s ankle.
It howls in agony and anger.
As the beast staggers back, it drags me through rough brambles.
Rock after rock, courtesy of Bianca who should be running, pummel the beast’s head.
Okay. So it’s down to this: Can I burn this fucker to the bone before it flays us all alive?
Or, you know, before Bianca runs outta rocks.
A massive black blur slams into the beast. The two interlocking mammoths go barreling off, plowing through Briarwood’s dense leaves and solid trees.
While I’m left, sprawled on my belly in the dirt, holding a foot.
“Oh shit!” I bolt up.
Smoldering on the ground in front of me is a severed, furry foot. My stomach cramps as I gag—
“Luna!” Howie bellows.
But I’m still gaping at the wide swath of Briarwood that’s been flattened by the brawling beast and—
“Gary!” Howie cires. “Gary needs help!”
I zip over to Howie, who’s kneeling next to Gary. Bianca is standing over both. With rocks in each hand, she’s facing the direction of the vicious snarls and roars.
“Heya, Gare,” I say softly.
He’s pale and his eyes are glazed over with pain and shock. “Heya, Luna. Pyx here?”
“Yeah.” I nod, smiling as the sounds of rending fleshing and meaty blows fills the forest. “He’s here.”
The terror that’s been riding me hard for almost twenty-four hours is gone. Pyx is here. He’s gonna kick that thing’s ass.
But as I pull back the ruined and blood-soaked fabric of Gary’s shirt, I’m still scared.
Bianca shifts on her feet and adjusts her grip on the rocks. “What the hell was that black thing?”
“Pyxis the Restrained,” I say as I flex my hands, giving them time to cool.
Bianca scowls. “Who?”
“Her warrior,” Howie says, then he snaps at me. “Fix him, Luna.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Then what fucking good are you!” He shoves me as tears streak through the dirt on his face. “What fucking good—”
“I can stop the bleeding.” I place my hands on the deep gashes as I look Gary in the eyes. “This is gonna hurt.”
He gives me a shaky laugh. “Already hurts, Lue.”
Ah, Gary. “The depths to you are kinda vast, aren’t they, Gare?”
His brow wrinkles. “You mean that?”
“I said it out loud, didn’t I?” I give him a bright smile. “Okay. Here we go.”
My hands tremble as I touch him.
Gary screams. I shift my focus for second and knock Gary unconscious as his skin continues to sizzle.
I exhale and let my body relax. I’m doing what I can do. It won’t be done well. Gary’ll have scars but he’ll be alive.
So, I’m fine with this. Absolutely fine.
Because this is enough for me.
And I don’t even know I’m crying until Joia is there, wiping away my tears with her hands.
“Bunny.” Jo’s cooing and her hands are trembling as she gentle swipes my cheeks. “Baby Bunny, you can stop now. Gary’s fine.”
Someone—an Akupara—makes rough, deep scoff. “This is Gary?”
“Shut it, Pompous,” Jo snaps.
Ah, Ryorin is here.
I don’t know why he’s here. Kinda don’t care.
I sniff and wipe at my nose with the back of my hand. “Where’s Pyx?”
“Dunno,” Jo says. “What’s up with the piles over there?”
Rez sinks down next to me. I didn’t know that she was here, either.
“They’ve been organized,” Rez says as she frowns. “The piles are…arranged.”
“Oh,” I sniffle again. “Then Pyx probably knows.”
Jo doesn’t say anything. I look up at her.
Jo gives me a flat, unreadable look. “They’re organized piles of fur and bones.”
I take a second to absorb that. I’ve got nothing to say.
“I never thought he would…” Rez’s got a haunted look as she gazes off into the forest. She exhales a shaky breath. “That he’d really do that.”
“It’s why he’s The Restrained,” Ryorin says.
Rez glares at Ryorin. “And what the fuck does his name have to do with it?”
“Because the Akupara are assholes.” Jo rubs her temple. “Pyx is named for what he does, not for who he really is. To us, he’s Pyxis The Fanboy. The Akupara don’t know what to do with him.”
Jo’s glaring up at Ryorin.
He holds her gaze. “The Alast don’t want him.”
“They ain’t gotta want what they need.” Jo shrugs. “Besides, a parlay is a parlay.”
Ryorin huffs. “So it is.”
Then he nods—a brisk, sharp dip of his chin—as if he’s decided something.
Jo nods as well. “Go find Fanboy so we can get outta here.”
“Wait.” I grab Jo’s wrist. “Gary and the kids—”
“Joia the Ruthlessly Cunning parlays well,” Ryorin says as he walks off. I am—assuming—in search of Pyx. “The Alast will shelter them.”
“Good. Good,” I say as I start crying again.
Heck, I’m sobbing.
Jo again brushes away my tears as Rez rubs my back.
“We got ya, Baby Bunny,” Rez says.
I nod. “I’m glad. I’m really glad. Because I don’t think I’m sick.”
“Course ya ain’t,” Jo says with an amused huff.
Of course I ain’t.
I sniffle. “Think I’m gonna, like, swoon or something.”
“Ya’ve done good, Luna,” Jo says. “Go on then. We got ya.”
“Good. Great,” I say, but I think I’m slurring my words now.
I’m just so dang tired.
“Find Pyx,” I mumble as I close my eyes. “Find him.”
This chapter is complete! I’ve enabled commenting and have added my own thoughts as well.
As always, thank you so much for reading!
From Slow & Steady: The Velveteen Tortoise
Copyright © 2020, 2021 by Bex McLynn
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