Before the blade could strike, a strong hand grabbed Violet’s arm. She spun, her heart already racing, only to find a large, butt naked man standing behind her. He was covered in what looked like dry grey mud. His long hair was in a thick braid, hanging over one shoulder, and his dark colored eyes were fixed on her.
“What the hell?” Violet breathed.
Keel growled, shifting to get up, but another mud covered naked dude emerged from the trees and knelt beside him. Then, three more showed up, each of them kneeling around Keel.
The one holding Violet’s arm gently lifted her to her feet and pulled her back. Normally, Violet would have used her skills to take this guy down. But there was something unsettling about seeing five huge, muscular, naked men covered in mud coming out of the jungle in the middle of the night.
“Let her go!” Keel roared, fighting the four males that were now trying to pin him down.
The one holding Violet released her arm and stepped around her, putting himself between her and Keel.
A moment later, another male came out of the shadows. This one looked much older, with a hunched back, and strange looking feathers in his hair.
He eased down on his knees by Keel’s leg, examining it for a long moment.
“Please,” Violet whispered, “Please, don’t hurt him.”
The one that had grabbed her arm turned to her, his huge body blocking her view of Keel.
“Black Web Vine sting, yes?” He had a deep, low voice that sent a shiver over her skin.
She nodded, “Yes.”
The four males around Keel all grabbed him, pushing him down to the ground. They held him down as he cursed and struggled, but these guys were really strong. They pinned him down with ease.
Violet was about to launch herself at the males, ready to fight each one of them to protect Keel, but the huge guy blocking her way held up one hand and shook his head.
The old man bent forward and placed his hands around the now bulging black sting mark on Keel’s leg and began pressing it like a giant zit.
Keel howled in pain, his body twisting and writhing under the firm grip of the males around him.
“No! Please, stop!” Violet cried, trying to push past the male blocking her way. He shot out an arm and grabbed her around the waist, pinning her arms to her side and lifting her off the ground.
She tried to struggle, but it was no use. He was bigger, stronger, and he had her arms trapped.
Keel roared, his pain clear as the old man squeezed the mark again. Looking over, Violet saw thick black ooze coming out of the sting. There was a strong smell of rot coming from it.
But what happened next had her feeling sick to her stomach.
The old man grabbed some leaves from a nearby bush and wiped away the black ooze. Next, he bent over and locked his toothless mouth onto the sting sight, sucking so hard, his cheeks hollowed out.
Keel screamed again, his voice so rough she worried he might tear something.
A moment later, his head rolled to the side and he went still.
“Keel! Keel!” She screamed, fighting against the male holding her.
“Easy, little one. He has lost consciousness. It is good, he will not want to feel what happens next.”
“What are you doing to him?”
“Saving his life.”
The old man released the wound with a pop, turned to the side and spat out a thick blob of black gung. Then he went back to sucking at the wound on Keel’s leg. He did this another four times, before he sat back, examined his work, then nodded.
Without a word, he looked up at the four males holding Keel down. They all gave him a bow, and spat out chewed up leaves of some kind, into the old man’s outstretched hand.
Violet watched with a disgusted, stunned fascination as the old man began forcefully rubbing the chewed up pulp into the wound.
“That’s disgusting,” Violet mumbled as she watched.
“Perhaps,” The guy holding her said in her ear, “But it will save his life.”
“It will?” She asked, turning her head to look at him. She was trying very hard not to think about the fact that she was pressed against his completely naked body. That thing hitting the back of her thigh was just… just a branch.
“Yes. He will need more care. You and your mate will come with us to our village. The healer will tend to him there.”
“Your village?” She asked with trepidation rising inside her.
“You do not want this male saved?”
“I do! Of course I do. But… I’m not sure I trust any of you.”
“That is your problem, not ours. Either you both come with us, or we leave and he dies. Tell me your choice, female.”
Shit, Violet thought. What the hell was she supposed to do? Should she trust these bear assed tribe men with hers and Keel’s lives? Could she risk not going with them and letting Keel die?
“What is your choice? Be quick. The Felit pack will return soon.”
“Shit,” She breathed. The big guy holding her gently placed her on her feet and stepped back. “Okay. We’ll go with you. But if you try anything,” She spun to him, who had to be at least seven feet tall, and glared up at him, “or hurt either of us in any way, I will skin you all alive and wear your flesh like a party dress, got it?”
He tilted his head to the side as he considered her. There was the tiniest hint of a grin on his lips.
“I see why he calls you little fighter.”
Before she could answer him, he raised his gaze to the others and said something in a guttural language she didn’t understand.
One of the males moved to Keel and bent to pick him up. He lifted him with ease, slinging him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
The old man came over to her, his wrinkled dull brown eyes staring into hers with such intensity, that it made Violet take a step back. The huge warrior behind her said something, making the old man shake his head and turn away.
“What was that all about?” She asked.
The huge guy gestured for her to follow the one holding Keel, then spoke.
“He thinks you are a death shadow.”
“Death shadow. It is what is left behind after we die.”
“A ghost? Why would he think that?”
“Death shadows have red eyes, like you.”
Violet turned her face away, crossing her arms protectively over her chest. Somehow, now that they were walking with these tribesmen, there seemed to be a path to follow.
“If you are not a death shadow, then what are you? You are not a Torian female.”
“No. I’m human. And my eyes are none of your business.”
He grunted what she thought might be a laugh. “You are not very polite, are you? What is a human?”
Feeling a little bad for being so rude to the people that were saving Keel’s life, she sighed and said, “We are a race of people from a planet called Earth. We came to live here when Bor and his warriors came to my planet to save us from a Spinner attack.”
“Do all your kind have red eyes?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I see you do not wish to speak of this. I understand.”
With that, he moved forward to the guy holding Keel and spoke in a hushed voice to him. Two of the warriors were walking behind her, while the old man strolled rather quickly at the front.
Violet felt really bad now. The big guy was just making conversation with her, and she had been so rude to him. But she was so scared for Keel that her mind couldn’t think about anything else.
After a few more minutes, they came out in a vast clearing covered by a thick canopy above.
She could see, because all around the clearing were roaring fires burning in large rock circles.
In the center was a square hut made of thick branches, vines and leaves.
They were led to this hut by the big guy that she’d spoken to. All around her, hanging from the trees above were what looked like ladders.
Taking a quick look up, Violet almost stumbled when she saw dozens of faces looking down at her from an elaborately built system of connecting bridges and treehouses.
It was incredible. Something she would have expected in a fairytale, not in the middle of a deadly jungle on an alien planet.
The large tribesman ushered her into the hut, and she watched as Keel was carefully laid down on a grass weaved cot. With a small bow of his head, the male carrying Keel ducked out of the hut, closing the flimsy door behind him.
Violet moved to kneel beside Keel, her heart aching to see such a strong, skilled warrior in such a weak and vulnerable state.
“What is your name?” The tribesman asked, sitting down on a thick stump in the corner of the gently lit space.
“Violet. And yours?”
She nodded, unable to tear her eyes away from Keel’s pale, sleeping face.
“He will live, Violet. The healer is preparing the treatment for him and will be here shortly.”
“Thanks,” She swiped at the tear that slipped out, then wiped the red liquid on her pants.
“You cry blood?” Arak asked, leaning forward to study her intently.
She shook her head. “It’s not blood. It’s some kind of residual enzyme left over from when I was poisoned. That’s why my eyes and tears are red.”
“Is there no healing for it?”
“No. The doctors at the Keep tried everything, but… It’s fine, I’m used to it.”
“Hmm,” Arak hummed, sitting back.
Violet glanced over at him, forcing her eyes not to wander lower. The guy had no shame at all. His huge body was relaxed, his legs resting wide apart and his… She tore her eyes away as her cheeks heated.
“Um, I don’t mean to offend you, but… Is there any chance you could put some clothes on?”
“Clothes? Does my body shame you?”
“No. There’s just a bit too much of it on display, that’s all.”
Arak stood, “And they call us primitive,” He mumbled as he reached for something in a chest behind him. She heard the rustling of material, and finally risked another glance.
To her relief, Arak had a long fur blanket wrapped around his waist, covering himself up.
“Thank you,” She smiled up at him.
As he settled on the stump again, the door to the hut opened and the same old man that had sucked the poison out of Keel’s leg came in. He was holding a large wooden bucket in his arms.
Arak stood and rushed over to help the male, placing the bucket on the floor beside Keel. Violet peered over the edge, but there was some kind of lid on it, so she couldn’t see what was inside.
The old man spoke to Arak for a moment, occasionally gesturing to her. Arak shook his head, his voice taking on a harsher tone, before the old man nodded and moved to settle on the floor on Keel’s other side.
He kept looking up at Violet, his eyes filled with curiosity.
“Is there something wrong?” Violet asked Arak, but kept her eyes fixed on the old man.
“No. He is only curious about you, that is all. We have never seen a female not of this planet.”
Violet smiled at the old man, “If you have any questions, you are welcome to ask me.”
“He does not understand you,” Arak said, moving to kneel beside the old man.
“Why not? You understand me, so why doesn’t he?”
“Only the tribe leader is taught the Torian outsider language. I am the only one who can speak with you.”
Violet’s brows shot up as she took in the big guy. He still had that grey mud all over his face and chest, but now that there was more light in the room, she got a better look at him.
Under all that hair and mud, there was a handsome male there. If Violet had to guess his age in Human years, she would say he was about thirty five or so. His masculine features were strong, the ridges on his nose longer, and thicker than Keel’s, and his ears had sharper points at the tips. When he spoke, she noticed an extra set of fangs as well.
“You’re the tribe leader? I didn’t know. Thank you for coming to help us. For saving Keel’s life.”
Arak nodded, “I have… other motives for doing so. There is something I need from you and this male.”
Violet tensed, her body going on alert. She should have known there would be a price to pay.
Arak smiled, “Easy. I only wish to ask for your help. Do you have access to the Torian King? A way to speak with him?”
“You are very suspicious, little Violet. Good. Always question everything. But my reasons to speak with the Torian king are my own. Do you have contact with him or not?”
Fearing that if she told him no, he would toss her and Keel out into the jungle and Keel would die. But what if she said yes, and this guy tried to use that to hurt Bor?
“I can’t contact him right now. He’s off planet, and my com is broken.”
She placed a protective hand onto Keel’s shoulder, her eyes pleading with Arak not to let him die.
Arak glanced down at her hand, then up to her eyes. He grunted one sharp word at the old man, then sat back and crossed his arms.
The old man reached for the bucket, pulling a long black blade out of it that Violet hadn’t seen earlier.
As he moved towards Keel with the blade, Violet shot up and grabbed his arm, twisting it away from Keel as she glared into old brown eyes.
Shock rounded out the old man’s eyes as he gasped in pain.
“Release him!” Arak growled, getting to his feet.
“I warned you, Arak. If any one of your males tried to hurt either of us, I would do all kinds of painful things to you.”
Arak’s hand gently came down over hers, slowly prying her fingers off the old wrist in her grip.
“He was only going to cut away your mate’s clothes. He needs access to bare skin.”
Violet met his eyes, looking for the slightest sign of deception, but all she saw was a look of honest concern.
She let go of the old man and sat back, keeping a close eye on the blade as it sliced easily through Keels uniform.
“You care for your mate deeply,” Arak stated.
“Yes, I do. I love him.”
“I wish I knew what that felt like,” Arak mumbled.
She looked up, “You don’t have a mate?”
“No. There are no females left. My tribe is dying… I am of the last generation born to the once mighty Jungle clan.”