Ensnared: Chapter 28


Whatever words Ketahn had meant to say fled him. The emotions remained in a raw, tangled, writhing mass lodged between his chest and throat, but they were distant—a discomfort for which he spared no attention.

The faint sounds in the hallway drew nearer to the entryway and ceased.

Ketahn should have trusted his instincts earlier, when he’d first suspected he was being followed. It would have been much easier to deal with a threat out in the Tangle. Now, he and Ivy were trapped in a chamber with only one way out. Yet he wasted no time admonishing himself. Regret could not undo what had occurred.

He raised his barbed spear in his upper right hand, readying it to throw. Turning his head aside just enough to see Ivy at the edge of his vision without losing sight of the doorway, he said in a low voice, “Take shelter.”

Her skin was pale but for the hectic pink on her cheeks. Her big blue eyes glistened with tears, more of which trickled free when she blinked. She nodded, wiped the moisture from her face, and hurried to the nearest cryochamber. He watched until she had braced her hands against the pod’s exterior and crouched down before turning his full attention to the doorway.

The pit would have deterred most of the Tangle’s predators; few beasts would risk such a treacherous climb save in utter desperation. Ketahn knew of only one manner of creature likely to have followed him despite the danger.

Vrix.

And, more than anything else in the jungle, other vrix posed an immense threat to his mate.

Ketahn took a smooth, silent step forward as he called, “Show yourself.”

The quiet that followed his command made the quick, steady rhythm of his thumping hearts seem eightfold louder. The ship’s cool, oddly clean air was flowing out of the room, meaning he could not scent anything from the hallway, and the unnatural hum that pervaded this place—even this chamber, while the door was open—made it impossible for him to sense the subtle vibrations that might’ve signified movement in the corridor, but Ketahn knew.

Those sounds had been made by a vrix creeping closer.

He would not ignore his instinct this time, and he would not accept that it was too late to protect his mate.

“You are summoned, Ketahn,” said Durax from the hall, his voice echoing off the ship’s walls. “The queen demands your immediate return.”

Ketahn’s hand tightened around the spear shaft. He knew in that moment how this had to end, even if he didn’t allow his thoughts to dwell upon it. Durax was too great a threat.

“Show yourself, Claw,” Ketahn said.

Long, black fingers curled around the doorframe, grasping it. Durax’s head came into view immediately after—half of it, anyway. Four of his pale blue eyes shifted as he surveyed the room in which Ketahn stood, widening slightly before they settled on Ketahn in a glare. His visible mandible rose and swept aside.

Durax raked his claws over the wall. “I would have expected Takarahl’s greatest hunter to have spotted me long ago. But it is as I have told our queen many times—you are not the mighty male she thinks she sees when she looks upon you, jungle worm. The Queen’s Claw is already led by the most capable male amongst our people.”

“You speak as though your hunt is over.”

The Prime Claw chittered and drew himself into the doorway, exposing all but the ends of his legs. He held a barbed spear in one hand and the rope attached to it in another, the slack between the two drooping nearly to the floor. The head of the weapon was angled downward, and his axe hung casually at his belt.

With at least twenty segments between the two vrix and solid walls to either side of Durax, the fact was clear—the Prime Claw had ample time to evade should Ketahn thrown his spear.

“My hunt is over,” Durax said. “You are trapped. Return peacefully to Takarahl, and I will inflict minimal pain upon you. Of course, the queen is not likely to be so merciful.”

“I refuse.”

“I will deliver you to my queen,” snarled Durax. “I will lay you before her like you are nothing more than a chunk of meat, nothing more than ragged, rotting scraps.”

Now Ketahn chittered, though the sound was harsh and humorless. “If Zurvashi truly wanted me in her presence, she would have sent someone capable of taking me.”

Durax snapped his mandibles together. “You will return to Takarahl, grub belly, even if I have to drag you across the Tangle to get you there.”

“Neither of us will be returning to Takarahl, Claw.”

Extending his arm, Durax pointed the head of his spear at Ketahn. “When I bring you to her, the queen will finally know that I am only male worthy of her. And when I toss her that ugly little creature”—he angled the spear in Ivy’s direction—“and whisper all your secrets, she will forsake you once and for all.”

Ketahn growled, mandibles spreading. The chaotic swirl between his chest and throat thrashed with newfound ferocity, becoming impossible to ignore. “You will not touch my mate, you fangless coward!”

Durax reared back as though stricken, his blue eyes widening and his mandibles twitching. “You…you have mated that soft, pale, pathetic thing? I should not be surprised a jungle worm would thrust his stem into anything with a large enough hole. You are no better than the beasts you share the Tangle with.”

“But still…” Durax brought his mandibles together slowly and extended his tongue to trail across their fangs. “Perhaps I will sample her meat and learn if it is as sweet and tender as—”

Something ruptured within Ketahn. The fury of ten thousand raging storms blasted through him, destroying every thought in his mind but for one, the only one that mattered, the only one that ever would—protect Ivy.

A ragged, thunderous roar tore out of his chest as he threw his spear.

Durax snarled and darted aside to take cover behind the wall. Ketahn was already charging forward, catching the rope to halt his spear’s flight before it could pass through the doorway. The weapon clattered on the floor just short of the entryway. He yanked the rope back hard, making the spear leap off the floor, and plucked it out of the air an instant before he lunged across the threshold.

“I have always known your hearts are those of a traitor, but this…” Durax’s spear was already in motion, speeding toward Ketahn in a twohanded thrust. But Ketahn was faster, deflecting the blow with a swing of his own weapon.

The corridor’s light was redder than ever—but Ketahn would not rest until it was painted the deep red of Durax’s blood.

He turned toward the Prime Claw and lashed out with his claws and spear in a relentless assault.

Durax defended himself frantically. He tore the axe off his belt as he backed away, legs skittering across the walls and floor, his ragged breaths broken by pained snarls and hisses each time Ketahn’s blows landed.

The scent of vrix blood danced on the cool air.

Ketahn barely registered the damage he inflicted upon his foe—he was aware only that the threat to his mate was still moving.

“She offered you everything,” Durax growled, swinging his axe in a quick arc that forced Ketahn to block with his own weapon. The blackrock head caught the barbed spear’s shaft and sank into the wood.

With a twist of his spear, Ketahn wrenched the axe from Durax’s grasp.

Durax switched his barbed spear to a single hand. “By the Eight, all I ever wanted was her. But spirits curse you, you blinded her to me!” He wildly thrust his weapon.

The blackrock spearhead glimmered in the red light as it darted straight for Ketahn’s face. He swayed aside, and the sharp edge sliced across his cheek, leaving a trail of dulled fire behind.

But Durax had put too much force behind the weapon, and the glancing blow had not hindered his momentum. The spear shaft continued past Ketahn’s head, and the Prime Claw stumbled forward until his forearm was beside Ketahn’s face.

Ketahn snapped his head aside and clamped his mandibles down on Durax’s extended arm. The large fangs pierced hide, shredded muscle, and crushed bone.

Durax’s howl of agony echoed off the walls, its vibrations overcoming the ship’s ceaseless hum. He grabbed his arm at the elbow and tugged back on it as his spear fell to the floor.

Ketahn bent his forelegs up, braced their tips on Durax’s chest, and pushed with all his might, swinging his head away from his foe.

Even Durax’s howling couldn’t shroud the sound of tearing flesh and cracking bone as his arm was ripped off at the midpoint of his forearm. He staggered backward, spurting blood all over Ketahn, the floor, and the nearby wall, clutching his mangled arm.

Ketahn relaxed his grip on the severed limb and shook his head to dislodge it from his fangs. It hit the floor with a muted thwap.

Grunting and hissing like a maddened beast, Durax clumsily spun about and fled down the corridor, his legs clattering and scraping the walls and floor in his desperate struggle to remain upright and keep moving.

Ketahn could not allow that. No matter how bloodied Durax was, no matter how severe his wounds, he was a threat to Ivy so long as he drew breath.

Without conscious thought, Ketahn flipped his grip on his barbed spear and threw it.

The spear struck Durax in his lower back just as he neared the doorway that led into the chamber through which they’d entered the ship. His legs crumpled, and he tumbled to the floor, sliding past the doorway and down the angled floor on the opposite side of the break, stopping at the edge of the flooded portion of the corridor.

Ketahn strode after his foe, winding the rope around his hands to keep it taut as he approached.

Durax, face down, struggled to push himself up on trembling arms. He was able to raise his head barely a handspan above the water before Ketahn was there.

“Mercy,” Durax hissed. “Broodmother instill you with mercy!”

Ketahn dropped down on Durax’s hindquarters and grabbed the shaft of the barbed spear. When he pulled on it, the Prime Claw writhed and spat.

“The eightfold eyes of the gods are upon you,” Durax choked out. “Spare me, and the queen shall never know! You…you will keep your creature, to do with as you please.”

Bending his forelegs, Ketahn slammed them down over Durax’s arms and leaned forward. He clamped a hand around either side of Durax’s neck, the other two on the Claw’s shoulders, and growled, “You will never so much as speak of her again.”

“Never! By the Eight, never again!”

Ketahn shoved Durax’s head down, plunging it into the thick, murky water.

The water bubbled and splashed as Durax struggled against Ketahn’s hold. Ketahn simply clenched his jaw shut and leaned more of his weight onto Durax’s upper body. His muscles bulged and strained with exertion as he squeezed his foe’s neck with increasing strength.

Cold, stinking water splashed on his arms, chest, and face, contrasted by the warm droplets of blood that occasionally spattered his skin from Durax’s savaged arm.

“No one will harm her,” Ketahn roared. “No one will take her!”

His voice boomed along the corridor. He felt Durax’s neck giving way to his crushing grasp but did not ease his hold. All Ketahn could perceive at that moment was red. The world, his body, his thoughts; all red.

“Ketahn?” That soft, uncertain voice seemed so out of place there, in that moment. It beckoned him, dragged his attention up and behind him.

Ivy stood several segments away, her back against the corridor wall, her eyes huge and rounded, and a barbed spear—Durax’s spear—clutched in her shaking hands. Her brow furrowed as she met his gaze.

He realized only then that Durax had stilled—and had been still for some time.

“Are…are you hurt?” Ivy asked, taking a tentative step closer.

She was safe. She was alive, and she was unharmed. The fires in Ketahn sputtered and faded, leaving his body thrumming.

Ketahn released Durax and rose to stare down at the dirty, bloodied carcass. Durax’s hair floated on the surface of the murky water like a tangled mass of webbing, and the blood oozing from his arm ran into the floodwater, indistinguishable from it under this light. Ketahn would not mourn this vrix, would not feel guilt for fulfilling the only duty that mattered—safeguarding his mate.

But when his eyes fell upon the filthy, matted black fur draped over Durax’s shoulder, the fur that marked him as a Queen’s Claw, heavy dread gathered in Ketahn’s gut, threatening to drag him down entirely as it slowly sank.

“Ketahn?”

“The Queen’s Prime Claw is dead,” he rasped. “By the Eight, what have I brought upon us?”


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