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Ensnared: Chapter 20

Ivy’s stomach fluttered as Ketahn tipped back and climbed higher. Though her hold on him already could’ve been considered a death grip, she somehow tightened it further, pressing herself flush against his hard, muscular back. The silk rope tied around their waists would hold them together. She trusted it because Ketahn trusted it. But that couldn’t stop her reflexive reactions—especially while she was blindfolded, and it felt like the world was being turned and tilted to wild angles every few seconds.

If this went on much longer, her arms and legs would be so sore from clinging to him that she wouldn’t be able to move come morning.

Not that her current position—sitting on Ketahn’s hindquarters like he was her mighty arachno-steed—was a bad one. His body was hard all over, but it was warm, and there was a suppleness to his hide that she appreciated a little more every day. Pressing the side of her face against his back and listening to his hearts beating was always soothing. She could just do without all the times when he started climbing and she felt like she was on a roller coaster that was heading up an impossibly steep peak.

Her disorientation would’ve been assuaged by removing the blindfold, but Ketahn had insisted she wear it. He’d said he wanted to show her something, but he only wanted her to look once he had her in the perfect place.

All she had to focus upon was Ketahn’s feel and the sounds of the surrounding jungle. There was the usual rustling of leaves and the night calls of animals—many of which had taken on a certain beauty as they’d grown more familiar—but she’d also heard running water somewhere nearby for the last several minutes. That last sound seemed to be steadily growing in volume as Ketahn traveled.

“Are we almost there?” Ivy asked. It wasn’t the first time.

“Yes,” Ketahn answered. It also wasn’t the first time.

She laughed, but it was cut off by a squeak when they suddenly dropped. It felt as though her heart had lodged in her throat. Ivy pressed her face more firmly against his back and dug her nails into his chest. Ketahn landed with a heavy thump, the impact jolting through him and straight into Ivy.

“Oh my God, did we just fall?” she asked breathlessly.

“I…intended to do that,” Ketahn replied.

“I really hope that hesitation was because you had to think of the right word.”

He responded with a thoughtful grunt and gently patted one of her hands before he continued moving.

Ivy frowned. “That isn’t reassuring.”

Ketahn chittered. “I will not let anything happen to you, Ivy.”

Though she felt him climb a little higher, he thankfully didn’t tip straight back again. Before long, the sound of running water had reached a dull roar, and there was just a hint of cool mist in the air.

Ketahn came to a stop and covered her hands with his, one of his thumbs stroking her skin. His other pair of hands settled on her legs, and he smoothed his palms up and down. “Now we are here. But do not look until I say.”

His touch made her skin prickle in goosebumps and sparked heat low in her belly.

“Is it okay to get down?” she asked.

He released her hands and loosened the silk rope. As he drew the rope away, it sagged, running along her thigh to enhance the sensations created by his touch. She relaxed her legs and let them slowly fall until they hung straight down either side of him. Ketahn lowered himself enough for her bare feet to touch the ground. The earth underfoot was soft, spongy, and cool. Releasing her death grip on his chest, she scooted back on his hindquarters and swung one of her legs over, turning to slide off him and onto the ground.

Ketahn took hold of her arm as she did so, ensuring she didn’t lose her balance. Once she was standing, he placed another hand on her hip and slightly adjusted the direction in which she was facing.

“Are you prepared?” he asked softly.

Ivy thrummed with anticipation. “Yes.”

He stroked her skin ever so delicately as he gathered her hair and swept it over her shoulder. His clever fingers then rose, untying the blindfold. But he didn’t let that blindfold fall; instead, he took both ends of it and slowly, sooo slowly, lifted it away. Ivy opened her eyes. Her breath caught and her eyes flared.

The waterfall ahead commanded her attention first. It was at least a hundred feet tall, the water sparkling blue and silver in the moonlight as it tumbled down over several tiers into a wide pool at its base. The mist rising from it glittered like it was full of diamond dust. Bare stone and clinging vegetation flanked it on either side.

Overhead, a large swath of the sky was visible, scattered with more stars than she’d ever seen and painted with the purples and blues of distant nebulas. Two moons hung nearby each other amidst those stars. The larger one was almost pure white, marked by only hints of gray and blue. The other, much smaller, shone a faint pink.

The jungle around the clearing was aglow not just because of the moonlight, but the bioluminescence of countless plants—leaves in iridescent blues, purples, and greens, and mushrooms and flowers adding more splashes of brighter color. All of it, along with the light from the night sky, was reflected on the rippling surface of the pool, which was a good forty feet below Ivy’s current position.

Movement caught her eye. She turned her head to find several insects fluttering nearby. Their large, glowing wings were mothlike. The little creatures danced and flitted through the air, occasionally drawing together and twirling before breaking apart again. As Ivy swept her gaze around, she realized that those bugs—and similar creatures—were everywhere, as though reveling in the moonlight.

“Ketahn, this is beautiful,” Ivy said.

“It is.”

She looked up at Ketahn to find him staring down at her, his markings glowing more vibrantly than she’d ever seen.

“It took me a long time to realize it”—he brushed a finger along her jaw, stopping it on her chin—“but it is very beautiful.”

Ivy’s lips parted, and her heart quickened in response to his words and that thrilling, rough yet gentle touch. Was he…was he saying she was beautiful?

She stepped closer to him and reached up, cradling his jaw. He turned his face into her touch and closed his eyes. Though his face was not an expressive one, she could have sworn he appeared…content. As she slid her palm up along the side of his headcrest, he opened those eight glowing, violet eyes and raised his mandibles.

She could never call Ketahn handsome, not by any human standards, but he was striking and beautiful in his own right. Yes, he was alien to her—that couldn’t be denied, couldn’t be ignored, and it wouldn’t stop being true no matter how comfortable she was around him. He’d always make her think of a spider. But that wasn’t bad, wasn’t frightening or upsetting. Not anymore.

Because he was Ketahn. His eyes were so deep, so mesmerizing, as capable of ferocity and intensity as they were of compassion and understanding. His hands, with their long, clawed fingers, could easily deal death—but they could also soothe away pain, work the finest threads, and rouse pleasure with their every touch. His plated chest was hard and unyielding, more like armor than flesh, but when his arms were wrapped around her, it was the warmest, safest place she could ever be.

Ivy smiled and smoothed her hand back until she could trail her fingers through the loose, silky strands of his ponytail, pulling them forward over his shoulder. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

“You have taught me, Ivy. Not every moment in the Tangle must be a struggle.” Ketahn turned his head toward the waterfall and lowered his mandibles. “After the queen’s war was done, I would come here sometimes, and I would think. It was the only place that brought me peace…where the sound of the water could silence the spirits of the past.”

She frowned, studying him quietly. In a way…Ivy and Ketahn were alike. They were both alone, both outsiders, both separated from the places they’d once called home. She could feel his pain and loneliness. He’d lost so much already, and Ivy wondered if he felt like he was losing his sister now, too.

Ivy glanced toward the waterfall, but her gaze soon rose to the sky, where beautiful, unfamiliar stars glittered against the bright nebulas. Of course she understood how Ketahn felt. Hadn’t she left her home planet behind to move on from the past, to forget what she’d lost?

“I don’t even know which direction to look if I wanted to gaze toward Earth,” she said softly. “I don’t know how far away it is, how long it’s been since I left…” She looked up at Ketahn and flattened her palms on his chest, calling his eyes back to her. “But I know that I’m not alone. And neither are you, Ketahn.”

He covered her hands with two of his and leaned down, gently touching his headcrest to her forehead. “I know, Ivy. Thank you.”

After standing like that for a little while, Ketahn straightened and sank into a sitting position, dropping a hand to her hip to draw her down with him. She settled naturally between his spindly front legs, leaning back against his body with those claspers brushing her sides and hips.

With her head resting on his chest, she tilted her face toward the sky. “The stars are so different here than they are on Earth.”

Ketahn wrapped his lower arms around Ivy, cocooning her in his warmth. “I cannot think what another world would be like. Or that there is even anything beyond the Tangle. What was your Earth like, Ivy?”

“Some places are like this. Of course, not just like this, but similar. There are oceans, too, where it’s water as far as the eye can see, and deserts, which are hot, dry, and sandy. There are also mountains, giant rocks that go up to the sky, some covered in snow.” She glanced at him with a smirk. “I bet you don’t know what snow is.”

He shook his head. “Tell me.”

“It falls from the sky like rain, but it’s lighter, softer. They’re little white flakes that cover the ground.”

“Is it like…ash, from a fire?”

“Yes! Except it’s cold. So, so cold. And when it melts, it turns to water.”

Ketahn looked up, tilting his head. “So…your world rains ash that turns into water?”

She chuckled. “Only in the winter, when the plants either die or sleep until spring, which is when everything wakes up and regrows. Not all places get cold, but it did where I was from.” She nestled closer against him, curling her fingers around his forearms. “I was born in Wichita, Kansas, where everything was very flat. We didn’t have giant trees, waterfalls, or mountains. But we had buildings. Think of them like your nest or…or a cave, but made with wood, stone, and metal, some even taller than any of these trees.”

Ivy wasn’t even going to get into cars, computers, holograms, and the countless other pieces of technology humans used every day. Explaining those things would be too difficult, and it wasn’t like Ketahn would ever see any of that stuff. None of it really mattered anymore.

“Takarahl is shaped from the stone under the ground,” Ketahn said, “and vrix in other places are said to have made stone usilika that stand tall in the jungle, but none so big as what you say. You must have lived among a great many humans to have dens so large.”

“No, not really. Most of those places were used to work in or they were split up into apartments. Smaller…dens. I didn’t live in those.”

“Tell me of your Earth den, Ivy. Your broodmother and father, your broodbrothers and sisters. How many broods did your mother hatch?”

Ivy laughed. “Humans don’t lay eggs, Ketahn. And it’s usually only one baby at a time, but sometimes it can be two or three, or even more, but that’s rare.” She took one of his hands and placed it low on her belly. “We carry our babies here for nine months as they grow inside us.”

His hand flexed, and a thoughtful rumble sounded in his chest, pulsing into Ivy. “There are creatures in the jungle that do the same.”

“As for family…” She frowned, and that familiar tightness in her chest returned. “I don’t have one anymore. I had a brother who was fourteen years older than me, so I never really knew him, and my mother and father… I wasn’t planned for or wanted. I think they simply felt obligated to care for me, and when I look back, I don’t know if they ever really loved me. And when I ended up angering and disappointing them when I was older, they saw it as a way to finally be rid of me. I was no longer their responsibility.”

Ketahn was silent for a time—long enough that she wondered if she’d used too many words that he did not understand. When he finally spoke, his question caught her completely off guard.

“Did you pursue a mate?”

Ivy tightened her grip on Ketahn’s arm. “There was a man who pursued me.”

He stiffened around her, his hand clutching her stomach possessively. Even his claspers curled around her waist from behind. “Did you accept him?”

“I did. He…he was the reason I angered my parents. He said he wanted me, and I believed him. He always seemed to say the right things. Always had the right words. I thought he loved me as much as I had thought I loved him. But he just used me and threw me away.”

Ketahn growled. “The right words do not matter if a male does not do the right things. He was not worthy of you.” He caught her chin in his hand and angled her face up toward his. “You are worthy of so much more than a male like him could ever offer, Ivy.”

She smiled, and that tightness in her chest faded. “No, he wasn’t worthy. It took me a long time to realize that. That I deserved better.” Ivy looked toward the waterfall. Once more, a sense of peace drifted over her, and she let her head tip back against Ketahn, relishing the feel of his claws stroking her hair.

“When I was young,” she continued, “I always dreamed of finding a man who’d love me completely, who’d sweep me off my feet and carry me right out of the lonely life I’d known. A man I would someday marry. I would wear the most beautiful white wedding dress, and we’d have the most beautiful ceremony in the spring, surrounded by a million flowers.

“But that never happened. After that guy, I struggled for several years, and then I joined the Homeworld Initiative so I could start over. I wanted to take part in this big, new adventure, to go to a new world where I could start a new life, a world where my past didn’t matter.”

Ivy looked down, grasped the hem of her worn, discolored shirt, and laughed. “Well, I can’t say I’m wearing white anymore, but I’m definitely on a new, alien world where my past doesn’t matter.”

“What is marry, Ivy?” Ketahn asked.

Ivy glanced up to find him staring down at her. “For humans, it’s when two people who love each other make a bond by exchanging vows and rings. They become mates.”

“And a wedding dress?”

“A wedding dress is… It’s… Here, let me show you.” She gently pried his arms off her and disengaged his claspers so she could stand. She walked around him to a nearby bush with big leaves, each of which was at least as long as her arm. She broke several off at their stems and tucked them around the waistband of her shorts until she’d made a crude skirt, then picked one more leaf before returning to Ketahn.

“A dress is kind of like my shirt, except instead of stopping here”—she touched the hem of her shirt with the side of her hand then dropped it down to her knees—“they are longer. And a wedding dress is made of finer material…like silk! And they’d have the sheer cloth like your sister wore. Except wedding dresses are white. And sometimes, they come with a long veil.” She draped the spare leaf over the top of her head and grinned at him. “Do you like it?”

Ketahn rose slowly, unfurling his long legs and lifting his powerful body with entrancing grace. He closed the distance between them in a couple long strides. Ivy did not resist when he plucked the leaf off her head, turning it in his hand to examine it.

“I would see you clad in silk.” He dropped the leaf and cupped the underside of her jaw, angling her face toward his as he took her hips between two of his hands. “I will see you clad in my silk.”

Warmth flooded Ivy, and something fluttered low in her belly. Ketahn was not attractive by human standards, but that didn’t stop her body from reacting to him. He towered over her, a dominating force, charging the air with raw lust and enveloping her in his presence, which was equal parts possessive and reverent.

And Ivy knew at that moment she’d wear anything he told her to—even if that meant wearing nothing at all—just to feel his heated touch again.


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