“So, again…where are we going?” Ivy asked.
“As I said, you will know soon, my nyleea.” Ketahn glanced at her over his shoulder, and his violet eyes glinted in what little sunlight managed to break through the jungle canopy.
She rose off his hindquarters just long enough to peck a kiss on his hard cheek, smiling all the while. When she’d first ridden on him like this, she’d felt a bit silly. Her feelings had changed drastically in the time since.
Ketahn’s eyes narrowed in that particular way that meant he was smiling before he faced forward again.
Ivy sat down, making Ketahn’s bag—which was currently slung over her shoulders—bounce on her back. She tightened her arms around his chest and turned her head to rest her cheek against his broad, plated back, where his largest purple-and-white markings were located. His hearts thumped in a steady rhythm; she could feel it through his back most clearly, but her sex was still sensitive enough to feel echoes of it in his hindquarters, too.
It hadn’t taken her long to realize they weren’t heading toward the nest after they’d left the waterfall. Ivy hadn’t questioned Ketahn immediately. Her body was languid in the aftermath of their lovemaking, and she’d been content to simply enjoy the ride—and her continued closeness to him. Yes, she was a bit sore, but it was the best kind of soreness.
And the smooth movements of his thick hindquarters beneath her was equal parts soothing and arousing.
Of course, she wanted nothing more than to get back to the nest, nestle against him, and relish all the good feelings with which she was flooded. Contentment, happiness, euphoria, and, most of all, the feeling of being well and thoroughly loved.
Was that what was happening?
She couldn’t deny that she and Ketahn had developed a deep, meaningful relationship. He’d become her best friend—better than any human friend she’d ever had. He considered them mates, and she had accepted that, but it had only altered their relationship in a few ways.
There was the sex, of course, and God, it was mind-blowing. He’d also been more possessive since declaring his claim on her, and more affectionate. But none of that necessarily meant love. Could it be blossoming between them even now? Had it already? Did…did vrix believe in love?
She didn’t even know exactly what being mates meant to Ketahn and his people. Was it a temporary state, or was it meant to be lifelong? Was it just about sex and reproducing or did it mean more?
And yet whenever she thought about somehow finishing the journey to Xolea or returning to Earth, something in her chest ached. That ache had only strengthened over time. Though she’d never wanted this, had never asked for it, she found that she didn’t want to leave this planet—she didn’t want to leave him. And she…she didn’t want him to leave her.
Ivy had never been happier in all her life than she was in this alien jungle with her spider man. What did she have to return to on Earth but painful memories and meaningless struggle? What awaited her on Xolea? The work would never have bothered her, but there’d always been the implication that she’d eventually be expected to take a husband and have children, not because she’d fallen in love, but because it was necessary for the future of the colony.
Part of her had hoped things would’ve progressed naturally, that she would’ve met a decent man and built a relationship with him…but the scars of her past had still been too raw to really believe that, even years after Tanner.
She’d boarded the Somnium dreaming of a new life. There was no question that she’d found that here with Ketahn—and that it was impossibly, amazingly better than anything she could’ve imagined.
Her mate just happened to be a vrix instead of a human.
The surrounding shadows grew thicker, and Ketahn slowed his pace; the change was enough to jar Ivy from her thoughts. She lifted her head to glance around. They were close to the jungle floor, much closer than Ketahn normally traveled, where darkness pooled and the gnarled roots and branches seemed sinister. All the usual jungle sounds were muted here, like they were coming from a great distance—or even from another world.
Still, she was thankful that he’d not asked her to cover her eyes this time. As long as she was with him, she didn’t care where they were headed. He’d protect her.
Ketahn halted abruptly, straightening his torso and twisting slightly to look back with his spear raised. He remained that way for some time, his muscles tense, his eyes visible only due to the tiny points of reflected light within them.
“What is it?” Ivy whispered.
A soft rumble sounded in his chest. “I heard something.”
Eyes wide, she looked in the same direction he was, but all she could make out reliably were dark shapes amidst the shadows.
After a while, he relaxed and stroked a rough palm down her leg, easing her tension. “It is fine. The jungle makes many sounds.”
He continued forward, his pace steady and unhurried as he navigated obstacles she could barely see. “Here we are.”
She leaned to the side to look ahead. Pinpricks of sunlight were visible amidst the dense, black vegetation in front of her, each so miniscule and yet so brilliant in its contrast to the darkness.
Ketahn reached forward and parted the leaves with his spear.
Ivy squinted against the sudden light that struck her. This was more than a shaft breaking through the jungle canopy; it was pure, undiluted sunlight. As soon as her eyes began to adjust, she lifted her gaze.
The canopy overhead was torn wide open in a huge circle, baring the blue sky and fluffy white clouds in a space nearly as large as the one at the waterfall. The boughs around the edges of the clearing swayed in the wind, their leaves rustling.
Her gaze fell, and her heart sped. The reason for the huge break in the trees was impossible to miss—a huge pit gaped before her, its steep walls fraught with dangling roots and plants, spans of loose dirt, and jutting stone. Tangled vegetation had grown across the pit farther down, but it wasn’t quite so thick as to hide the impenetrable darkness beneath it.
Ketahn stopped at the edge of the pit, bracing his forelegs on a large boulder. His mandibles twitched. “This is the place, Ivy.”
“It’s what place?” she asked, staring into that dark pit, but inside, Ivy already knew the answer.
“The place where I fell into my fate.” He closed a hand around her knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Where the Eight led me to you.”
She understood what she was looking at now—not a pit or a natural chasm, but an impact crater. “You’re bringing me to the ship?”
“We will need to climb down.” Ketahn leaned forward, angling his head to stare into the crater. He released a huff. “Take a rope from the bag so I can lash you to me, though you will still need to hold tight.”
Ivy slipped the bag off her back and pulled out a length of silk rope. Excitement and trepidation made her hands tremble. After she slung the bag over her shoulders, she wound the rope around her waist and held the ends out to him. Together, they wrapped the rope around their torsos several times, with Ketahn adding knots and twists to keep it secure. When they were done, the rope was snug, but it left a little leeway between her and Ketahn.
He passed her his spear. She wrapped some of the rope attached to it around her hand and laid the weapon across her lap, tucking it horizontally between their bodies.
As Ketahn faced away from the crater and backed toward the edge, Ivy’s heart stuttered, and she clung to him. It wasn’t simply the idea of descending into this huge, dark pit that had her on edge—it was the question of what she would find when they reached the Somnium. She’d wanted this so badly, had asked him to bring her here so many times, but now that she was on the verge of getting what she wanted…
Would she be able to bear what awaited her? Perhaps she’d find closure, but it wouldn’t likely provide her any comfort. There was a high chance that whatever hope she’d held on to all this time would be obliterated down there. That this would force her to accept the worst-case scenario as reality.
That…that she really was the only one left.
Her stomach lurched when Ketahn tipped back, and she squeezed him even tighter to fight gravity’s insistent pull. Closing her eyes, she buried her face against his back, trying to focus on his scent, his heat, the feel of his rough hide. She tried to focus on him instead of the million what-ifs swirling through her mind with all the ferocity of a tornado tearing across the Great Plains.
She didn’t let the little rasps of falling dirt and tumbling pebbles bother her. Ketahn would get them down there safely.
And whatever is down there, whatever we find…I’ll still have him. That is enough. He will always be enough.
As Ketahn carried her lower, she became aware of a new sound, one that only occurred erratically but was nonetheless easily identifiable—the echoing bloops of tiny objects hitting water far below.
Ketahn slowed his descent to a stop. Ivy knew they hadn’t reached the bottom yet, but she risked opening her eyes and pulling her head away from Ketahn.
She found herself looking straight up the steep side of the crater to the open blue sky. Vertigo threatened to make the world spin around her, but she clamped her jaw shut, took in a steadying breath, and kept her eyes open. Though she dared not look, she could feel the drop behind her. She could feel the distance to the bottom of the crater.
Ketahn won’t let me fall.
That thought had barely finished when he began to rotate, turning his body like he was the spidery hands of an antique wall mounted clock. Ivy’s eyes widened, and she squeaked, clenching her thighs around his waist and digging her nails into his chest in her desperate need for a solid hold. When he was done, they were both looking straight down.
The tangled vines growing across the crater were directly in front of Ketahn, but there were gaps aplenty for Ivy to see through. The darkness below wasn’t complete—just enough light broke through to vaguely outline the debris at the bottom, to give her a ghostly hint of what would be there to catch them should they fall.
With his upper arms, Ketahn tore through the vines. Though he was taking care, each of his movements sent tremors through his body and into Ivy. Leaves, branches, and debris fell, clattering against the crater wall and plunking into the water somewhere below.
Once he’d opened a big enough gap, Ketahn righted himself and continued climbing down.
“You said you fell into this?” Ivy asked.
“From the trees above.” If the climb was strenuous for him, there was no sign of it in his voice.
“How did you survive the fall?”
“I threw my spear, and it hit a trunk. It was enough to stop me, but only for a moment, and when it came free, I fell again. The spear caught on these vines and stopped me again before I hit the bottom.”
As they passed through the layer of vegetation, everything grew dark. Beneath the living growth was a tangled network of dead, dried branches; from the underside, it looked like the nest of some impossibly large bird. Watching those vines rise higher and higher above was surreal. The way the sunlight struggled to penetrate them was almost reminiscent of light shining down through the ocean’s surface.
That was unsettling, but it was nothing compared to the smell—decay and stagnant water, a stink that hung thick as fog in the air beneath the vegetation. Ivy couldn’t ignore it even by breathing through her mouth. Somehow, despite her stomach revolting, she managed not to throw up.
They reached the bottom without incident. Ketahn stretched his rear legs far behind him and pushed away from the wall. He trudged through the black water pooled at the edge of the crater, kicking up that foul odor anew, and followed a gradual incline that led onto land. Not dry land, but it was better than nothing.
An orange glow lit up the crater, bathing the debris in eerie light and casting solid black shadows.
A huge shape jutted up from the darkness and muck ahead, terrifying and familiar.
It was the Somnium.