Keel kept his gaze fixed on the rock Violet sat on, his heart pounding in his chest.
Violet had her eyes closed tightly, her breathing quick and uneven, but she didn’t move at all.
A small swell of pride filled him to know that she trusted him.
Moving slowly, Keel slipped his fingers under the sleeve of his uniform shirt and eased out one of the slim, silver throwing knives he had in a special harness on his forearm.
Waiting for the perfect moment, he took a calming breath, then struck. The knife flew from his hand, his aim true, and speared into the soft underbelly of the Manara that was seconds away from stinging Violet. It let out a horrible screech as the knife impaled it into the trunk of the tree right beside the rock.
Violet jumped, her eyes flying open as she spun around to look at what was making such a noise.
“What the fuck is that!” She cried, stumbling to get away from the creature.
She stared at it for a moment, then turned wide eyes to him. Her mouth was hanging open and her hands shaking. She still had only one boot on, the other laying by the rock.
“That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen,” She cried, “It’s got the head of a viper, the body of a giant centipede, and the stinger of a scorpion! I mean, don’t you guys have any normal, cute bugs on this planet?”
He grinned, “We do. Many, in fact. But very few here. Cute and normal in the Dense makes you a meal.”
She turned back to watch the arm sized creature writhe and squirm, trying to get free as it slowly died.
“Hell of a throw, hot stuff.”
He chuckled, “Thank you.”
“Are there more of these things around? A nest… or a hive or whatever?”
“No. They are solitary hunters. They fight for territory. This one was a fully grown male. No others will come near its territory for a few days. Once it’s scent markers fade, another will move in and take over. We should be alright for tonight.”
“Do they sting or bite? Look at the fangs on that thing.”
“Both. They bite their food, to paralyze it, and sting their enemy to kill it instantly. A single dose of its venom can kill a grown male in seconds.”
She shivered, gingerly reaching for her boot, then taking a few steps away from the now dead Manara.
Scanning their surroundings, Keel nodded when he didn’t see any other small threats heading their way. Not to say they wouldn’t come. Night was falling on the Dense, and most of the more dangerous creatures would be waking up soon.
Turning, he threw more of the blue moss onto the small fire still burning in the bike. Thick, pungent smoke billowed from the flames, making him cough and step back. It should be enough to keep the larger predators away for a few hours, but not all of them.
Panic began to build inside Keel. A team of warriors would find it almost impossible to survive in the Dense for more than a few hours. How was he going to keep Violet safe? With no weapons, no coms to call for help and no idea how to get out, their only option was to go deeper into the jungle and hope they found Spot and this building he was being kept in. If not… He dreaded to think about all the ways they could both die out here. From the insects, to the stinging, carnivorous plants, the larger beasts and the birds of prey. Everything hunted in the Dense. And everything that called this place home had evolved to be the most deadly hunter it could. From poison, to venom to claws and fangs.
Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, Keel turned back to the emergency supplies bag he’d taken from the shuttle. There wasn’t much of use in it. Most of the medication was in electronic injectors, which didn’t work in the Dense. There were a few laser wound sealers, also no good to them here.
Tossing all the unusable equipment to the side, he took stock of what was left.
They had five water purification disks, a small pack of the green pain pills he gave Violet, a small tub of the healing gel. Some cleansing wipes, three packs of food, one water bottle, and a set of striking sticks to make fires with.
Glancing over at Violet as she tied her boot, he thanked the Great God that she had changed into her warrior uniform.
The fabric their uniform was made of was a strong, durable material that would protect them from insect bites and stings, as well as thorns from plants.
She also had her daggers in their sheaths on her hips. He didn’t miss the two wrist straps he’d given her for her birthday strapped to her arms. All the small silver throwing knives were in their places. They would need every one if they were going to survive.
Taking a moment, Keel thought about what might happen once Tark and the others noticed he was missing from the command vessel. How long would it take Tark to start looking for him? Would he wait for the first meeting to be over before he tried to contact him? Would he try to find him tonight to see how things went with Violet? Or would he simply make an excuse to Bor on his behalf, thinking that he and Violet needed some time alone?
He hoped it wasn’t the last one. If they were very lucky, Tark would already know something was wrong. He may even be speaking to Bor and Korom right that moment. For all he knew, Korom could show up in the jungle at any second. His thick black mist would be a welcome relief.
As the last of the sunlight faded, and the jungle grew dark, he stood and went over to Violet. She was standing with her arms wrapped around her waist, her eyes nervously scanning the bushes and trees around them.
Placing the bag on the ground, he reached out and pulled her into his arms, holding her close to his chest.
Her small frame was shivering, her breaths quick and panicked. He had to calm her down. To reassure her that everything would be fine, even if he wasn’t too sure of it himself.
A warrior that is filled with fear or panic will make mistakes. It was the first lesson any warrior was taught at training camp.
“Try and stay very still and quiet,” He whispered.
She tensed, “Oh crap. Is it another one of those Manara things?”
“No. Nothing like that. Trust me. Stay still and quiet.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist, holding on tightly to him as they both waited.
After a moment, the low growing Night blossoms began to glow with a stunning pale blue color.
Violet gasped, making the luminescent in the large blue leaves jerk and fade.
“Wow,” She breathed, turning in his arms to rest her back against his chest. He circled her in his arms, holding her tightly to him as they both stood silently and waited.
After a moment, the illumination began to fill the leaves again, casting a soft glow on the ground around them.
Violet relaxed as she looked around at the gently pulsing light, her shivering easing and her breathing growing calm.
Keel bent to whisper softly in her ear, “My father taught us this verse when Tark and I were young boys... When the darkness of the night falls, before the light has faded, gone, be sure to find the bluest leaves, its five wide hands and proud stem, long. Be still, dear young one, and hold your breath, for only in silence, will it light your path.”
As he spoke, Keel pointed to the five large blue leaves around a single thick stem. The glow on the leaves pulsed, its light growing brighter. A moment later, another plant a few feet away began to glow.
“Amazing,” Violet whispered, turning to beam up at him. He smiled, loving to see the blue of her eyes shine from the glow around them.
A distant squawk from a bird echoed off the trees, making the light draw back into the stem, plunging them into darkness.
He turned Violet in his arms, content to just hold her for a moment.
Finally, he sighed. Placing a soft kiss on the top of her head, he said, “We best get some sleep. We will have a long day tomorrow.”
“Okay. How are we going to do this? Should we take shifts? I don’t mind taking the first watch.”
As much as he loved how she cared about his well being, he couldn’t allow her to deprive herself of rest.
“I have trained for a long time to function on little sleep. I will watch over you tonight. You rest.”
She frowned, “Um, I don’t think so, big guy. We’re a team. There’s no I in team. I can take the first watch, and in a few hours, I’ll wake you up and then I can sleep.”
“I will take the first watch. I still have a few things to take care of with the bike and our supplies.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “Why don’t I believe you?”
He smirked, “Would I lie to you?”
She grunted, “Uh, yeah. Especially about this.”
“I swear to you, I don’t need to sleep. I am used to going days without rest. You have not trained in that yet. Please, little fighter, allow me to give you what you need.”
She grinned, one brow rising. “Oh, I need a whole lotta somethin’ somethin’, but it ain’t sleep.”
He chuckled. It had taken him a while to understand her slang, but now that he did, he loved hearing it.
“Come,” He gently moved them towards the bike and sat down with his back to it. He pulled Violet down between his legs and waited as she settled against his chest.
Wrapping his arms around her, Keel placed a soft kiss on her head and began to hum the same tune his mother had hummed to him and Tark when they were very young. It was the same one that always helped Violet fall asleep.
After a few minutes, Violet’s breathing evened out and she went limp in his arms.
Smiling to himself, Keel held her a little tighter and eased his head back against the warm metal of his bike. His eyes moved around them constantly, searching for the slightest movement, while his ears and nose worked hard to pick up on anything coming their way.