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Authors: Rayne Forrest

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Chapter 21

 

Ryder
walked outside into the sunshine and joined the small group of waiting men.

“Is she
all right?” Tyree handed him his pack and his weapon.

“She’s a
wee bit drunk.”

Tyree’s eyebrows
shot up. “That’s not like her.” He put his hands on his hips and glared at
Ryder. “It’s your influence.”

“Of
course it is,” he agreed with his best urbane charm. It may not be his
influence but it was surely his fault. Why split hairs? And why stand in the
middle of the yard with a village full of witnesses and fight about it?

He
slipped the Eliminator into his pack. “Let’s get going, Tyree. I want this over
with.”

The
headman nodded and started for the gate. The men fell in behind him. Ryder cast
one last look at the women gathered just outside the door then turned to go.
He’d have plenty of time to ponder how she was as he walked.

It was
more than alcohol that had put Saba on her back. She’d carried a heavy load for
so long, it was bound to catch up with her sooner or later. He’d never fault
her for it. Hell, he’d never even mention it if he lived to make his way back
to her. She had a lot of pride. Embarrassing her over this was something he’d
not do.

She
needed to sleep it off, and he would be grateful for her forced rest. Certainly
she’d shorted herself on rest since she’d found him and nursed him back to
health.

They
entered the woods and headed roughly west. Two hours later, they stopped by a
small stream to rest. It wasn’t long before a young man jogged into the
clearing. Ryder guessed this was one of the runners who kept Tyree supplied
with information. He had the long, rangy look of a runner. The young man
disappeared back into the forest and Tyree motioned for them to move on. Ryder
joined him at the head of the line.

“What did
he tell you?”

Tyree
didn’t turn his head. “The
errol
is coming this way. On this trail. All
is as I told you it would be. The runners are following it. I’ve instructed
them to get closer to it and drive it to the caves.”

“That’s
taking a big chance with lives, Tyree.”

“I don’t
agree. It should just make the
errol
uncomfortable. He’s headed for the
caves for the night. We shall see it makes it there.”

“The
caves where you tried—and failed—to kill it before. It will remember that.”

“No, it
won’t.”

“You
persist in thinking this thing has no intelligence. I tell you that it does.”

“You know
less about it than I do, outsider. You’ve never seen it.”

Ryder
reined in his temper. “Not this one, no. But I’ve seen its brethren on a dozen
worlds you’ve never even dreamed of. It will remember you tried to bury it
alive.”

Tyree
blew out a breath full of the sound of annoyance. “We didn’t plan to bury it. A
runner was above it on the ridge and somehow started a landslide. It was merely
fortuitous.”

“You
think it can’t add up the pieces and come to a conclusion?”

“It’s
used the cave since then, Ryder Vaughan. How do you explain that? If it thought
we’d laid a deliberate trap, would it do that?”

The man
had a point. “Probably not. Don’t underestimate anything about it, Tyree.”

“I’m not.
Now. You will tell me the truth. Where did this thing come from?”

“Better I
see it first and be sure.”

“Do not
seek to anger me, stranger. We are far from the village and only I and my men
will know the truth of what happens out here.”

The hair
on Ryder’s neck prickled uneasily. “Well, then, here’s a truth for you. My
weapon will work only for me. The grip scans the hand holding it for the
configuration of blood vessels and the trigger is made of this incredible stuff
that reads an individual’s deoxyribonucleic acid. If the results don’t match,
the weapon won’t fire.”

Tyree
turned on him. His hands closed around Ryder’s biceps in a painful grip. Packs
hit the ground as the men hastened to surround them. One of the men tried to
push between them but Tyree wouldn’t release him.

Ryder
didn’t struggle. He and Tyree had been heading to this moment from the very
beginning, and he wasn’t backing away from it. They had to come to a real and
permanent understanding or else Ryder could never stay in the village.

Tyree had
to accept him as an equal, or lose his place as headman. And Ryder had to let
everyone know he was Tyree’s equal and yet supported Tyree as headman. In doing
that, Ryder could implement plans to improve the day-to-day lives of the people
Tyree couldn’t even conceive of, never having seen the worlds Ryder had seen,
and do it with the headman’s backing.

“If you
break my arms, I won’t be using any weapon, will I, headman?”

Tyree’s
lips curled into a snarl. “You are lying.”

Ryder
shook his head. “No. I was told the Ramalho do not commit murder. Do they,
Tyree? Do they also lie? I saw what passed between you and Saba. She believes
you won’t harm me. She
trusts
, Tyree. If you betray that trust, where
will you be?”

Tyree
thrust him away. Hands grabbed him and balanced him. He picked up his pack and
pulled out the Eliminator and held it out to Tyree.

“Take it,
Tyree.” The man didn’t move.


Take it!

He
thrust the weapon against Tyree’s chest. Tyree’s hand closed over it. Ryder let
go.

Tyree
stared at him with eyes gone cold, and spoke with a voice even colder. “Show me
how it works.”

Ryder
plucked the weapon from him, aimed, and fired at a rock. It vanished. The men
were deathly silent behind him. He handed it to Tyree, who took aim at a second
rock and fired. Nothing happened. He tried again. And again. Ryder held out his
hand.

“Give it
to me.”

Tyree
reluctantly laid it in Ryder’s open palm. Ryder flipped the weapon over, aimed,
and fired. The rock Tyree had shot at vanished. Ryder stepped in front of the
headman.

“I didn’t
lie. I don’t lie. Remember that, Tyree. You’ll have reason to question me in
the future, and that’s okay. But I’ll remind you of the here and now if you
do.”

Tyree
looked at him, his expression unreadable. “Can you hit more than rocks,
outsider?”

Ryder
returned his stare and matched his tone. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”

* * * *

Another two hours of walking found
them at the base of the blue mountains. Ryder had wondered about the reference.
It was self-explanatory. The rocks had a definite blue-gray cast to them. As
sun dipped lower, the rocks looked midnight blue.

Ryder
felt the effects of traipsing over rough terrain in his back, but he’d be
damned if he would ask for a break. It probably wasn’t wise to take one with
the sun dipping so low. They came upon a sheltered spot tucked against a high
rock face and a stand of thicket. The men made a rough camp with practiced
ease. Tyree disappeared for a few minutes and came back with some strange-looking
material he quickly had burning.

One by
one the men took their turn going into the woods and bringing back chunks of
the stuff. Ryder was about ready to suggest that a fire would be a dead
giveaway of their location when one of the men carefully arranged flat rocks
over the burning material. It didn’t take long for the rocks to glow hotly and
cups of water placed on them to heat. Ryder pulled his crockery mug out of his
pack, filled it from his water skin, and placed his beside Tyree’s.

“Now
what?” he asked as his tea brewed.

“A runner
will find us. The
errol
must be nearby or one would be here already. The
creature doesn’t move about much in the dark.”

Ryder
refrained from pointing out the Xenturans didn’t have any problems seeing in
the dark. It was the Ramalho men who couldn’t see in the dark.

“They’ve
got a highly developed sense of smell. They don’t need to move about to know
what’s around them.”

“We
know.” Tyree handed him his cup. “That’s why we all stink.” Several of the men
laughed softly. He opened his pack and drew out a flask, took a swallow and
passed it around. It got to Ryder and instead of drinking he poured a shot into
his tea. One of the men snapped his fingers.

“Hand
that back over here.”

Ryder
complied and the
akdov
ended up in all the cups. After a few sips and
slurps there were grunts of approval. Ryder sighed.

He wanted
to teach them improved building and communication techniques, not new ways to
consume alcohol. Well, something had to come first and if it helped get him
included as one of them, it was worth it.

Tyree
suddenly grabbed his arm. “Silence.” The word was whispered but everyone
snapped to attention.

Ryder
opened his awareness to the forest around them. He heard it, too. Stealthy
footfalls growing closer. A twig snapped and all sound ceased. The man sitting
in the deepest shadow suddenly faded away. There was a quick thud, the sound of
a scuffle, and then the man returned with a youth. The runner grinned. Tyree
seemed pleased.

“Well
done, young Niforr. You got very close before we heard you. Sit and eat.” Tyree
handed the runner his own cup and food from his pack. The young man drank as if
parched and all the men hastened to set their water skins where he could reach
them.

“What can
you tell us while you eat?”

“It’s in
the cave, Tyree. The one that is partially blocked. The other runners have come
to the edge of the forest.”

“Do you
think it’s aware of you?”

The youth
nodded. “Yes. It seemed to be. It kept looking behind itself on the trail. That
is something it never does.”

Tyree
nodded. “Very well. Ryder, get some sleep. You will not stand a watch. We need
you as rested as possible for when we move. Everyone else knows what to do.
We’ll move three hours past midnight.”

With that
he finished his tea and strode off into the woods again. This time he returned
with firewood. Soon they had a nice, warm fire. Ryder found a comfortable spot
to recline with his pack as a pillow. Before long, Tyree was lying beside him.

“Do you
snore, outsider?”

“Probably.”

“Well, I
can ignore your noise, but don’t mistake me for Saba and think me willing.”

Ryder
looked up at the stars. “If I were you, then, I’d move away. You do have a nice
ass.”

The men
laughed. Tyree grinned. Ryder burrowed deeper into his borrowed jacket and
tried not to dwell on the morning.

Chapter 22

 

A gentle
shaking woke Ryder hours later. He snapped to awareness and pushed up to a
sitting position. Tyree hunkered down beside him.

“We’ll go
as soon as everyone eats a bite. Here.” He handed Ryder tea. Ryder wrapped his
chilled hands around the hot mug. Their breath fogged in the cold night air.

“Thanks.”

“There’s
been no sign of movement from the
errol
.”

Ryder
took a sip of his tea. It burned the whole way down to his stomach. “Are you
sure he can’t get out the backside of that cave?”

“Yes.
We’ve explored all the caverns. They do not connect, nor are they deep into the
mountain. It’s got to come out and we’ll be waiting.”

“No,
Tyree. It doesn’t have to come out. It can go without food for weeks by
shutting down its metabolism. We could be in for a long siege.”

Tyree
responded with cheerfulness. “If it does that, we’ll just shove you in there
with it, Ryder Vaughan, and see who walks out.”

“Funny.
Ha. Ha. See me laugh?”

Tyree
clapped him on the back and moved off to speak with the runner. Niforr nodded
and disappeared into the darkness.

Ryder
tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it into his tea. It wasn’t the breakfast
he’d like to have—dry bread, dried meat and herbal tea—but it would have to do.
Maybe tomorrow, or the next day, he’d find out if Saba had ever heard of
flapjacks, and if the Ramalho’s version of flour could produce them.

He gulped
the last of his tea and fastened his pack. The others hastened to do the same.
He suspected they’d been watching him, not wanting to hurry him along.

The
remnants of the fire were quickly doused. Ryder snickered silently to himself
at their method but opened his pants and did his part. It was effective and
saved their water. He was sure the women would have a good laugh at them if
they knew the men did this.

The group
filed off, single file. Tyree gave him one last word of caution—be quiet. Ryder
didn’t bother to respond that he had already figured that out.

They
became shadows in the forest, spreading out. Ryder stayed a step behind Tyree,
aware of the movements to his right and left, but not able to define shapes. He
heard himself rustling leaves and snapping twigs and suspected it mattered
little. If the
errol
heard, it would hear only one clumsy being
approaching.

At the
foot of the hill, the trees gave way to a long, narrow meadow. A large black
opening yawned in the side of the mountain. When the sun came up, there would
be a moment where it would blind anyone coming out of the cave. That was the moment
Tyree hoped to catch the
errol
off-guard. Ryder palmed his weapon and
settled in for the wait.

Ryder
heard the sounds of small creatures in the forest. They seemed to call from all
around him. When Tyree made a tiny ‘mkk mkk’ in response to another, he
realized the men were responsible and began listening closer and counting.
Either there was a lot of moving around or Tyree had almost thirty men in the
forest.

He
thought wryly that thirty men was a large group to swear to secrecy should
Tyree decide that at least one of the Ramalho could indeed commit murder.

Dawn
arrived in the blink of an eye. The world was black one moment and a glowing
golden-pink the next. The sun broke over the distant mountains and the valley
became a verdant green. The men moved forward.

Tyree
selected a position directly between the cave and the rising sun. Their shadows
fell across the grassy expanse, elongated and angular, foreign creatures in
their own right. A single whistle sounded. Ryder saw movement at the mouth of
the cave.

“Kill it.
Now.”

“No.
Wait. I need to get a look at it.” Ryder snicked the safety off his weapon.

“Do you
know how fast it can move?
Kill it!

He
recognized the prudence of Tyree’s demand but he couldn’t risk a blind shot.
His weapon showed a full charge but if he fired and missed, it might not cycle
back up fast enough. There were just too many variables to fire blindly.

The
errol
finally stepped into the light. Ryder’s heart sank. It was Xenturan. No doubt
about it. He must have made some sound.

“What is
it? Kill it, Ryder. Now.”

“It’s a
Xenturan. A very old one.” Ryder lifted the Eliminator and walked forward. The
Xenturan saw him and snarled a warning. Ryder held his weapon at the ready,
took a deep breath and prayed he remembered the words.


Lik moru taka ka bihara na.

The
creature froze. Ryder kept his weapon aimed. If it so much as twitched, he’d
fire. He had no choice.


Lik mari taki ka bihara na.

Its voice was thin, and reedy. Not the voice of youth, or
health. Ryder had talked with Xenturans in their prime. This one was well past
that stage of life.

Ryder
sensed Tyree’s fury. It rolled off the man in scorching waves.

“What are
you doing, Ryder Vaughan?”

“Communicating.
I gave it the traditional greeting.”

“Give it
the traditional killing. Now.”


Bihara
nes cor eveni humani terrani
?

The
Xenturan nodded. “I have the language, yes.”

Ryder
could feel the shock ripple around the forest. He heard the rustlings. So did
the Xenturan. It hissed.

“No! None
of them will harm you. You know they can’t. You’ve been here long enough to
know that.” He opened his right hand and made sure it knew he had an
Eliminator. “I’m different. I can. You know this weapon and what it can do.
Your people invented it.”

The
Xenturan held its long arms out to its sides, shoulder high.

“Then
kill me,
terrani
. I am old, and weary of life on this world. My people
have abandoned me. I suffer.”

A fist
clenched around Ryder’s heart. “I, too, am stranded here. This planet is the
one we call Adena. No one has come because of the belief that nothing can
breathe the air here and live.”

The
Xenturan threw back its head and screamed. Every hair on Ryder’s body stood on
end at the sound of such abject misery. Tyree grabbed his left arm.

“Kill it
now.”

“Would
you have me kill it if I can convince it to go live somewhere else? It’s old,
Tyree. See its eyes? It’s an ancient one of its kind. That’s why its eyes are
so yellow.”

“You
should listen to him,
terrani
. You should kill me now. My life is almost
over. End it for me.” The Xenturan sank to its knees and bowed its head.

Ryder
took a few cautious steps forward. “I can’t kill you. These people will let you
alone if you do not harm them. Can you not find another valley to inhabit?”

Its
yellow gaze met his. “No. There is a grass found only here. Without it, I am in
great pain.”

The memory
of Jennica’s words, of Saba’s mother harvesting the red grass for her baskets
flashed through Ryder’s mind. A grass that only grew in one spot. A grass the
Xenturan had killed for.
Had it been in
pain that day?
He risked a look at Tyree.

“Get your
men out of here.”

“No.”

“Just do
it, Tyree. Wave them off and go with them.”

“What are
you going to do?”

“You have
to trust me. Now go. Go now before it changes its mind and attacks someone.”

“All
right. You’d better know what you’re doing, outsider.”

“I do.”
All
the gods help me, I hope I know.

He called
out to the Xenturan. “They are leaving. All of them. When they are safely away,
I will go, too.”

“Kill me
first. I no longer wish to live. You have the ability. You should use it. If
you don’t, I’ll come to their silly walls and bring them down.”

Ryder
nodded. “I believe you. I would know your name in case, one day, others come.”

The
yellow eyes lifted skyward. “None will come,” it said sadly. “I am Drisus.”

“I am
Ryder.” He walked to within six feet of Drisus. “The weapon I have has no place
in this world. If it’s truly your wish to go to your gods, I will leave it for
you and go.”

“It’s
truly my wish. Give me your hand.”

Every
fiber in Ryder’s body flinched at the idea of touching a Xenturan. If Drisus
dug a toxic spur into his skin, he’d surely die. He steeled himself and held
out his hand.

“I am
Drisus. A son of Jerta, a son of Ini. I was a warrior, and a king. My sons have
made me proud.” Drisus took his hand. Somehow, Ryder kept from flinching.

“I’ll
remember, Drisus.” Ryder took a few steps back and laid the Eliminator on the
ground. Then he turned and walked toward a charging Tyree. Tyree’s eyes were
fixed on the Eliminator.

“What are
you doing!” Tyree lunged past Ryder.

Ryder
grabbed Tyree, physically wrestling him to the ground. They rolled over and
over, one trying to escape a hold, the other trying to maintain it. “Be still,
Tyree. Trust me!”

Drisus
suddenly let out another cry, freezing them. There was a strange blue glow and
the Xenturan vanished.

Tyree
went limp beneath him. His mouth dropped open and his head hit the hard ground
with a resounding thud. He started shaking. Ryder released him then realized
the man was sobbing. He shielded the headman from the still-stricken gazes of
his men.

“It’s
over, Tyree. It’s over.” Ryder closed his hand around Tyree’s and squeezed. He
let out a jagged breath of his own. “You earned it, my friend. You earned it.”

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