“Mia. Kahrya is bossy. Kahrya mia… bossy little mouse.” Thia handed her the medical pack. “On Andaria, they see mice as brave, aggressive creatures. Fearless… Of course, on Andaria, like everything else, the mice are ferocious, fanged and much scarier than they are on most other planets.”
Sumi could just imagine. “Do they suck blood and eat small infants, too?”
Thia pressed her lips together before she answered. “Actually, they do.”
“We really should be going,” Hauk groused again.
While Sumi continued to deal with the surly, stubborn attack beast, Thia searched through the pack for water and the zip stove and cooking cup so that she could start boiling the root to soften it and release the juices they needed for an antidote.
Hauk was torn between the pain of his body that begged him to lie down and the need he had to keep his family safe. “Where’s Darice?”
“He went to the bathroom,” Thia answered.
Thia’s eyes widened as she set the root into the water, while it warmed. “I haven’t seen her in a while. And now that I think about it, Darice should have been back before we were.”
That cleared his head immediately. “Sumi?”
She already had her weapon drawn. Thia pulled in to stand on his six.
“Illyse!” he shouted.
Normally, the lorina would have come running immediately. But there was no sign of her.
“Stay together,” he said under his breath. “Hands on, flank guard.” Which meant they walked backwards with one hand on his body to let him know where they were. It was a tight formation normally used for narrow, low-light situations. But with his senses dulled, it kept him focused on only one thing.
Whatever was in front of them. And it allowed him to know that so long as they touched him, they were all right while they scanned for attackers coming at their rear.
The downside was that it lined them up for easy targeting.
Willing to chance it, he started forward. “Darice!”
No one answered. Hauk cursed under his breath. Why hadn’t he noticed Darice’s absence sooner?
Because he felt like utter shit. Even now, he feared he’d vomit and fall.
You’ve been through worse, Hauk… and under heavy fire.
Still, his heart was in his throat as visions of past missions and bodies played through his mind. He’d seen too many teens die over the years in battle. Darice was a major pain in the ass, but if something had happened to him because of his inattention, Hauk would never forgive himself.
And with every step he took, the past slashed into him with vicious claws.
Over and over, his mind tortured him with the sight of Keris laughing at him while they climbed, and Hauk hesitated to put his hands, cams, and feet into crevices because of the hidden charges Keris had set on the mountain to “up the ante” of their mission.
“Stop being a pu**y, Dancer. What are you going to do in battle when you find an XD or someone lobs a grenade at you? Deal with it and move forward.”
But having already been buried in twisted debris and surrounded by flames, Hauk had been skittish of repeating the experience, especially since his body had still been healing from the last round of skin grafts. He hated the sound of an explosion worse than anything, and it had seemed like Keris had lined the entire mountainside with explosives. Every time he touched something on the mountain, it exploded in his face.
With a disdainful sneer, Keris had allowed himself to hangdog while Hauk ascended to tie in. Keris had shoved at him. “Go on and take lead, belay bitch. I’m tired of waiting on your pansy ass to catch up.”
Hauk had glared at him as Keris pulled out a small bottle and inhaled it. Last thing he wanted was their lives in the hands of a stoned belayer. “Give that to me.”
Jerking it away from Hauk’s reach, Keris had hit him so hard that he’d slipped and lost his hold on the mountain.
Hauk had slammed into the wall and set off another charge. Rocks had rained down all over him as he tried to find something to hold on to that wouldn’t explode when he touched it. Worse than that, the percussion of that charge loosened Keris’s anchors and belay.
One second Keris had been laughing at Hauk’s fear and in the next, he was falling, too.
Cursing, Hauk had somehow managed to catch himself, while he attempted to pull Keris up with his other hand or swing him toward a ledge or crevice. Upside down, he had one anchor still holding, but it was slipping as more rock rained over them. Worse, he hadn’t had time to properly tie in.
Keris also felt it. There was no chance the remaining anchors would hold their combined weights and the gear. Hauk’s rope was slipping from its belay device. And once those gave way, there was nothing that would stop them from free-falling. He tightened his bleeding hands on the rope.
For a full minute, they’d silently stared at each other, knowing that at this altitude death was imminent. His face grim, Keris had pulled his knife from his sling.
Hauk had stared in horror as he realized what his brother intended. “What the hell are you doing, Kerry?”
“Take care of Dari for me. Tell her I’ll always love her.”
But it was too late. That fast, that cruelly, Keris had sliced the rope and was gone.
Unable to move or breathe, Hauk had watched as his brother plummeted, and when Keris had finally slammed into the ground, he’d landed on the controls for the charges.
In that instant, it’d seemed as if half the mountain had detonated. The blast had sent him careening down. He’d tried to grab on to any and every thing. Petrified, he’d feared he’d never stop falling.
Until he’d slammed into a ledge so hard, it’d knocked the breath from his bruised body, and broken his arm, collarbone, nose, and ribs. For several minutes, he’d lain there, staring up at the perfectly blue sky, unable to believe what had happened. Unable to believe how much pain a single body could hold and not kill the one who felt it.
The rest of the day was a blur to his memory. He had no idea how he’d managed to climb down to his brother’s broken body.
All he remembered was sitting in the canyon, holding Keris against his chest and screaming out for help while Keris’s blood dripped down his arm. It was a nightmare that had haunted him every time he closed his eyes.
One he couldn’t escape.
A horror that burned out his blackened soul. And now he might have to bury Keris’s son.
Please, Darice, don’t be hurt…
He couldn’t take seeing someone who looked that much like Keris lying dead again. Nor would he be able to live with the guilt of it. It was hard enough to cope with the past he already had. He couldn’t stand more being heaped on his conscience.
As they drew near the caves, Hauk paused and cocked his head to listen.
Thia tightened her grip on his shirt. “Hear something?” she whispered.
Suddenly, Illyse whined and hissed.
Angling his blaster, he rushed forward, into the nearest cave. And what he found there enraged him to a level he wouldn’t have thought Andarionly possible.
In that one heartbeat, he could taste the blood he wanted to spill. Could feel its sticky texture on his hands as he choked the life out of the ass**le in front of him.
Holstering the blaster, he put his arm out to catch his weight against the rock wall.
“Darice! You selfish ass**le!” Thia snarled as she moved forward to confront the spoiled, petulant brat. “What are you doing?”
He jerked his chin toward Hauk. “I’m not going anywhere with him until he apologizes for what he said! He had no right to impugn my father’s honor! Unlike him, my father was a hero!”
Sumi put away her blaster before she yielded to the desire to lay open Darice’s skull with it. Had she not been so worried about Hauk, Darice’s life would have been in even more danger.
As it was…
Hauk looked like he was about to collapse and die.
She rushed to Hauk to check his fever. He was shaking to the point his teeth chattered. She forced him to sit with his back against the cave wall. The adrenaline from this had caused the toxin to spread even quicker through his system and infect more organs.
“Thia? I need you to run back and grab the root. Fast as you can!”
She went without hesitation.
Total fear consumed her at the sudden pallor of Hauk’s skin. She cupped his face in her hands. “Dancer? Stay with me.”
He blinked so slowly that she wasn’t sure if he heard her or not.
“What’s wrong with him?”
For one, he has you for a nephew. She barely managed to bite those words back. “He’s been poisoned.”
“Last night. The Partini was using a knife coated with a very slow-acting poison.”
Darice’s lips quivered as he finally realized how sick Hauk was.
Hauk’s eyes rolled back in his head.
“Dancer?” Darice grabbed his shirt and shook him.
Hauk hissed in pain. “I’m coming, Kerry. I just need a second.”
Darice backhanded him. “Get up!”
Sumi shoved at him and discovered the truth of what Thia had said. Andarion males were heavy bastards.
Darice exposed his fangs at her.
She pulled her blaster out and flipped it to stun with her thumb. “Hit him again and so help me, Darice, I will make your mother weep at what I do to you.”
“He’s not your family!”
“Funny, between the two of us, I’m the only one acting like he is. Now get away before you do any more damage to him.”
Darice curled his lip. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means had I been able to get the antidote into him twenty minutes ago, instead of searching for a spoiled, pouting brat, he’d have had a better chance of survival than what he has now. Thanks, by the way.”
Darice didn’t say anything as he took up post on the other side of Hauk.
Ignoring him, Sumi helped Hauk to lie down as they waited for Thia to return. Minutes dragged by as she began preparing the berries she’d need to mix with the root. Luckily, they had still been in her pocket.
Please, let this cure work for Andarions, too. For that matter, she hoped she’d guessed the right poison the Partini had used. Never in her life had she tasted panic like this. She barely knew him, but she couldn’t stand the thought of losing him.
Not like this. Not over something so stupid and wrong.
Hauk hissed as if he was being tortured. He shook all over.
Sumi cupped his face in her hands. “Dancer? Can you hear me?”
“Munatara a la frah.”
Darice sucked his breath in sharply.
“What does that mean?”
Thia handed her the small pot of burned root as she rejoined them. “He just called you the most precious lady of his life.”
“He has dishonored my mother!”
Thia turned on him with a snarl. “When, Darice? Tell me? When has he been alone with Sumi where one of the two of them wasn’t wounded, and us within earshot? Please strain that limited brain capacity you have and think about it.”
“Why would he call her that, then, huh?”
“I don’t know,” Thia snarled. “Maybe because she’s been nice to him, which is more than your mother has ever been. Or, brace yourself for this concept. Perhaps the poison has made him so delusional, he doesn’t know who he’s talking to or what he’s saying. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d rather try to save his life than deal with the fact you know your mother’s a bitch who has treated him like shit, and your fear he’ll finally come to his senses and leave you without your father’s lineage.” She knelt down by Sumi’s side. “I salvaged what I could. But it burned while we hunted the knuckle-dragging degenerate.”
Sumi added the berries and mixed them together with the root as best she could. “It won’t taste good, but hopefully he won’t notice.”
Once the ingredients were blended into a thick syrup, she had Thia hold his head up to drink it.
Unfortunately, it was too thick to pour.
Thia panicked. “What do we do now?”
Sumi considered her options. With no better thought, and afraid of diluting it with water, she dipped her fingers into it and placed them in his mouth.
Thia held his head as he tried to turn away from the burnt taste. But after a few minutes, he finally licked the antidote from Sumi’s fingers.
Bit by bit, Sumi fed it to him and prayed it would still work like this. That they hadn’t boiled all the necessary nutrients out of the root while searching.
As soon as it was all dispensed, she wiped her hand off on an antiseptic cloth, then used it to clean his wounds again.
Darice continued to stare a hole through her.
Thia hissed at him over her shoulder. “What is your problem now, Darice?”
“My mother has long suspected that he hasn’t upheld his pledge to her. It’s why she has yet to accept him.”
Thia gave him a mocking stare. “Oh, okay, that’s the reason, huh?”