Freeing Luka: Chapter 24


With every second that passed, Luka was less and less sure he’d be able to get through this night without spilling blood. Nerves frayed, he watched his mate pace, muttering to herself every so often.

When Verakko had called, he’d told them they had an opening to move the prisoners tonight and they had to take it. Her face pale and her eyes round, Alice had bravely nodded, declaring she was ready.

She hadn’t said more than a few words to him since leaving his home and arriving at the edge of the woods near the outpost. Her attempts to disguise her true feelings were in vain. The bitter scent of fear coming from her was so strong it made him want to tear his hair out. Every instinct he had was urging him to take her back home, but this was her choice, not his. All he could do was be here and help her if he could.

As she paced in front of him yet again, he pulled her into a tight hug, ignoring her squirming until she finally relaxed. Into her hair, he murmured, “I’ll be here the whole time.”

She gave a few jerky nods into his chest but said nothing.

Movement in the distance had him shoving her behind his body. Two cruisers were gliding toward them. He swallowed a snarl when he felt his mate’s shaking hands clutched at his back.

Verakko stepped out of the first cruiser, but the second remained sealed. The Swadaeth male was covered in black. True to his race, the normally green color of Verakko’s skin had darkened to a deep midnight-blue. This evolutionary camouflage and his glowing, bright green eyes, were an asset in the pitch-black of the deserts where his race thrived.

“Luka. Alice.” He nodded to them both.

Alice stepped to the side of Luka, her fists balled. “Verakko.” She nodded, her voice almost too quiet to hear.

Verakko’s nostrils flared as he approached, but his face remained passive. “Sal has agreed to help whether or not you speak with him, but if you’re willing, he’d like to repent.”

A wave of bitter fear hit Luka’s nose. He twisted his neck from side to side, the satisfying popping and cracking doing nothing to settle his nerves.

Rounding her lips, Alice took a deep, shaking breath in through her mouth and out through her nose, then said, “I’ll talk to him.”

Verakko crossed to the second cruiser and gave it a few swift knocks. Alice slipped her hand into Luka’s, gripping his fingers with what seemed like all the strength she had.

The first person to exit was Kadion, a military general and member of the Tremantian Council. It made sense one of the Queen’s most trusted generals would be assigned this task.

Behind him, Sal emerged, scowling. As the two males made their way over, Sal’s yellow eyes scanned his surroundings then settled on Alice.

Luka had to concentrate all his energy on not clenching his fists and pulverizing his small mate’s hand. He leaned down and pointed to a thick metal band circling Sal’s neck. “Do you see that?” He then pointed to a smaller metal band circling Kadion’s large bicep. “It’s magnetically attached to the one on the soldier’s arm.” Alice peered up at him while nibbling on her lip. “He won’t be able to walk more than a few feet away from Kadion’s band.”

Alice pressed a soft kiss to his shoulder and rested her other hand on his forearm. “Thank you.”

Kadion halted, forcing Sal to stop as well, about five feet away. Both male’s noses crinkled for an instant, picking up the scent of his mate’s fear.

She and Sal stood staring at one another, the silence becoming deafening.

“Say what you want to say,” he barked at Sal, making Alice flinch.

Sal didn’t so much as glance at him but began speaking to Alice in a croaky voice. “I want to apologize for my role in your abduction.”

Seeming to find her voice in anger, she snapped, “Why? Why are you sorry? Why are you helping now? You didn’t seem to give two shits when you were pushing me into a cell with a stranger.”

A vein ticked in Sal’s forehead, his gaze swinging briefly to Luka. “I knew he wouldn’t hurt you, even drugged, but you’re right. I didn’t care. I was angry with our world and how our people have been forced to live, but when I found out what Helas did, what they all did, I knew I had to do what I could to make amends.”

“What he did?” she repeated quietly.

Sal’s throat worked, gaze going distant before he spoke again. “I was told the non-human and non-Clecanian prisoners were transported to another facility. But—” He looked to the ground and shook his head. “I didn’t sign up for indiscriminate slaughter. I wanted to help our people. To make a difference. I didn’t understand the lengths they’d go to.”

Luka glanced between Alice and Sal and inwardly groaned. He could see it on his mate’s face. The compassion he loved was welling inside her. This traitorous animal who didn’t deserve acknowledgment, much less her pity, would earn her forgiveness.

To his surprise, rather than softening, she dragged her hands onto her hips and nodded imperiously. “You want to redeem yourself? Fine. Prove it. Show us how to free everyone who’s still trapped.”

Pride swelled in him. His mate was compassionate, yes, but not weak.

Turning, she presented Sal with her back. Instinctively, Luka stepped between them to shield her.

After Kadion and Sal had walked away, Alice faced him. She pressed her hands to his chest and whispered, “Are you okay?”

He gave a humorless chuckle. “I won’t be okay until we’re gone from here, but I’m content to sit back and admire you for the moment.”

“I’m glad.” Her smile became nervous. “But I’m worried how you’re going to handle this next bit.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to like this, but I need to talk to Helas.”

“No, absolutely not,” he growled, wrapping his palms around her wrists. He would rip Helas apart before he allowed the male to so much as look at Alice.

“Luka,” she said, her voice pleading, “I have questions. Questions only he can answer.”

“I’ll ask him for you. Tell me your questions.” A stone dropped in his gut. The look spreading over her face was one he’d seen before. “Why do you think he’d tell you the truth, anyway?”

“Because he’s a pompous ass. Whenever he came to talk to me, he’d always talk about himself and his plans. He craves attention, and he probably hasn’t talked to many people while locked up. Besides, there’d be no point in lying about the things I want to ask. There’s nothing to gain.” She pushed her shoulders back and raised her chin. “I need to do this for me, Luka. This is how I’ll get closure.”

Verakko motioned for the party to start moving through the forest. Sal led the way. Luka glanced toward the second cruiser again, fury and frustration edging his thoughts.

From the dark interior, Helas emerged, face as smug as ever. Luka’s muscles burned. His fingers itched to wrap around the male’s thick neck.

Alice pulled him back. “I think it’d be better if you hung back and let me talk to him on my own.”

Luka felt as though he’d been slapped, and the look of concern that flashed over her features told him she clearly saw his hurt.

“I wouldn’t ask except I don’t know if you’re going to be able to control yourself. You seem like you’re ready to tear his head off, and you’ve only just seen him. I’m worried you’ll maim him as soon as he says something negative to me, and he most definitely will.”

“He deserves to be maimed!” he snarled.

Alice rested a soft palm on his cheek. “I agree, but right now he’s our best chance to free those women. I need to talk to him, and I need for his head to be attached to his body when we get to the cabin. If you honestly believe you can keep your temper in check, you can come with me.”

Luka wasn’t entirely sure he could keep himself from killing the abhorrent male, but he couldn’t leave her alone. Blood rushing in his ears, he nodded. She searched his face for a moment, then began walking toward Helas, who was bringing up the rear of the group along with a large armed guard Luka had never met.

When Helas caught sight of them, his brows rose and a courteous smile curved his mouth. “How nice to see you both again.” Eyes roaming over Luka, he added, “Covering those marks, are we?”

The urge to rip off his paint and rub the male’s nose in his marks roiled through him.

Luka decided the easiest way to keep his temper in check was to focus on the one thing that grounded him. Alice. Never taking his eyes from her, he saw her small frame grow stiffer and stiffer until she stood, muscles bunched, mere feet from one of the vilest males he’d ever met.

Alice fell in line beside them as they walked and without pretense said, “I have some questions for you, and I want answers.”

“Is that so?” Helas laughed.

She clenched her jaw and, without warning, stood in front of them, halting their progress.

She addressed the guard. “Hey, what’s your name?”

The large, older male, glanced to Luka in confusion before answering, “Traef.”

“Traef, do you know what he did to me? To hundreds of others?”

Traef swallowed, his expression growing cold. “I do.”

“Great!” she said, her eyes flashing angrily to Helas, who still appeared amused. “Then you’ll have no problem giving him a little shock with that electric prod thing if he refuses to answer me, right?”

The guard stared at a disbelieving Helas for a moment. “I cannot.”

A smug grin spread over Helas’ face.

“I do, however, have permission to zap the prisoner if he doesn’t move fast enough.” Traef held Alice’s stare until understanding lit her features.

Moving aside, she kept pace as they walked deeper into the dark forest, light from the moons illuminating their path. Helas glanced from Alice to Traef, and Luka couldn’t help but grin as he saw the male’s gaze grow concerned.

He could only hope Helas refused to answer her questions.

***

“What happened after I was taken from Earth? Why can’t I remember anything?” Alice demanded.

When Helas only smirked, Traef slowed his steps, the cuff around Helas’ neck forcing him to slow as well. From his side, the guard retrieved and activated the shocker, allowing Helas to see the crackling weapon.

With the metal stick only an inch away from his thigh, he finally sputtered, “You were held in stasis.”

The guard picked up his pace again, and Alice swore to find a way to thank him. Peering behind her, she saw Luka a few paces back. His body was stiff, and anger and frustration radiated from him. She had to get through this quickly. It looked like this was killing him.

“Yes, but why was I in stasis for so long?” she questioned.

Helas grimaced but explained, “The Cae were tasked with finding two suitable females. Once they grabbed you, they didn’t know how long it would take to find another, so they put you into stasis. They delivered Jade first, and when she escaped, I told them to hold on to you and leave our orbit until I sent further instructions. They ended up leaving their ship cloaked on an uninhabited planet and taking a jumper to a nearby trading port. The pishot revealed too much to the wrong people at a bar and were captured, I’m assuming by your mate’s brother, although I can’t prove it.” Helas’ eyes narrowed on Luka then returned to her. “It took us quite some time to find the cloaked ship and retrieve you after we lost communication.”

Stranded? She’d lost five months of her life because her captors had decided to go out drinking and ran their mouths? Part of Alice was relieved.

“Why did they pick me? Or Jade? What made us suitable?”

Helas’ eyes brightened, and Alice knew she had him on the hook, ready to brag about whatever clever but dastardly way the Insurgents had been able to pluck humans from Earth for this long.

“I perfected the technique, actually.” He grinned. “We choose an area we know to be developed, with an intact healthcare system, and then we hack into their records and search for fertile, single females of a certain age with minimal health issues, or at least ones we’re able to cure. And…” his eyes twinkled evilly “no emergency contacts. Once we have a list to work from, whoever we’ve hired to execute the abduction surveils the females and takes any who live alone and can be snatched without attracting attention.”

Alice’s steps faltered. Her mother was the only family she knew, and before she’d passed away had always been her emergency contact. When Alice had gotten sick last year and had to visit a new doctor in her new town, she hadn’t had an emergency contact to put down, so she’d left it blank.

“Why would you care about whether we have emergency contacts? It’s not like our family could follow you into space and retrieve the women.”

Helas rolled his eyes. “We aren’t monsters. We studied Earthlings enough to know that your people remain, more or less, in family units. Taking unattached females seemed the most humane.”

“Humane?” Alice growled. Wait, that can’t be true for all the women.

“What about Rita and Vanessa?” she demanded.

“Who?”

Alice felt her whole body shoot tight with fury, and Luka was behind her in an instant, gripping her shoulders.

A snarl exploded from him. “The females you abducted and caged like animals,” he bellowed.

Through clenched teeth, she bit out, “Rita, the older woman, and Vanessa, the tall brunette—she has a sister.”

“Ah.” Helas stepped over a fallen tree, appearing unconcerned that he didn’t know the names of the women he’d kidnapped. “Well, I don’t know why Vanessa didn’t list her sister, but she didn’t. As for Rita…” Helas scowled. We made the mistake of hiring the Tarfoo to retrieve females after the disappearance of our Cae contacts. The imbeciles didn’t learn enough about humans and misread her age.” He curled his lip and narrowed his eyes on Sal, walking ahead of them. “Good help is hard to find.”

Luka’s grip on her shoulders tightened, and she saw a small stone building come into view ahead of them. She had to wrap this up. “How many women are still being held?”

“Many.” His matter-of-fact tone made her skin crawl.

“Is there someone in charge of all the Insurgents?”

Helas’ face paled. Interesting.

Traef slowed his steps again when Helas remained silent.

“You can shock me all you want. There are some things I’ll never tell. That zap is like a clippet bite in comparison to what’ll happen if I’m found to be disloyal.”

Before Alice could argue, Verakko called from the head of the group, “Bring Helas. We’re here.”

“One more thing,” she said, halting Traef, who’d begun to drag Helas toward the cabin. Both men turned to look at her. Helas appeared bored. “Your group—Purity. Reform. Integrity. Clecania.” She waited for Helas’ attention to shift back to her after angrily flashing toward Luka. “On our planet, PRIC means tiny dick.”

She let the unnecessary blow hang in the air and repressed the cruel mirth she felt when undisguised fury roared onto Helas’ face. Traef gave a hearty laugh and dragged a glowering Helas away.

Some of her tension lightened. Knowing why and how’d she’d been taken had helped her come to terms with her situation, and she was excited to be able to provide the other human women with some answers as well. Rounding in place, she leapt into Luka’s outstretched arms.

As if sensing she just needed his reassuring touch, he stayed silent. Cupping her nape and leaning his cheek against the top of her head, he held her.

Eventually, when her heartbeat slowed and the lingering nausea rolling through her subsided, she moved away. Grasping his hand without a word, they walked slowly to the cabin.

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