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Resisting Maxu: Chapter 25

“This place is so metal.” As one, all eyes turned to Sophia. The aliens stared with confused tilts of their head, while the humans held back snorts of laughter.

Camille cleared her throat. “We haven’t spoken in hours since leaving Alacera and that’s the first thing you say?”

Sophia grinned and pointed at the imposing city of Vrulatica in the distance. “Well, it is! Both figuratively and literally. I’m mean, damn.”

When Maxu’s rumpled expression was still furrowed in confusion, Meg explained. “Metal is a kind of music from Earth that is very…hard and intense, I guess. It’s tricky to explain without a song.”

Her head swiveled when Sophia softly sang some lyrics to a rock song she vaguely recognized but couldn’t place. Heavy metal had never been huge on her playlists.

“You know, I followed Metallica on tour once. Lars made a divine cup of tea.” Rita’s gaze went hazy as she daydreamed about the drummer.

Lucy and Sophia stomped over, their interrogation only beginning.

Meg chuckled, then stared at the city again. Sophia wasn’t wrong. The sharp spikes of the gleaming charcoal tower rising in the sky were striking. Vrulatica was built in the center of a red desert, over an enormous metal ore. Vrulans were known for their impressive metalworking, and it showed in their forged dark spires and columns.

Heat waves shimmered off the monumental tower sitting amid the blood-red sand. All that metal baking in the sun. How did the citizens not have constant burns or punctures from bumping into the sides?

Though they’d settled here to control the mining and export of the vast metal ore beneath the sand, the same qualities that made the metal so prized for delicate use in electronics also meant that in great quantities like this it created a dead zone. The group’s cruisers couldn’t pass through the area, so they’d been instructed to wait at the edge of the city for transport.

The sun blazed down on them, but Meg felt as though there was a cold spot at her shoulder. Maxu had been off for a while now, retreating into a broody quiet place, his muscles stiffening with each inch closer to Vrulatica they drew.

Though she tried not to let his odd mood—or his refusal to acknowledge he was in any particular mood—irritate her, it did. For the last day and a half, they’d done nothing but have sex. Glorious, feverish, rough fucking that had left her sore, exhausted, and delightfully sated.

They’d slept as often as they could in between, which had usually only resulted in a few hours of rest before one or both of them had been coaxing the other awake. Meg didn’t know if the worn-off spell of silence from Alacera was making her worries worse than they should be, but she was viscerally aware of how much of a stranger Maxu still was to her.

How could she feel so close to him, like she knew his soul, but not know what foods he liked to eat, what his past relationships had been like, what his goals for the future were? Their relationship was happening in the wrong order, and it was throwing her.

She peered up at Maxu and found his gaze distant, the muscles of his jaw tight. We’ll get there, she told herself. She slipped her palm into his. Relief warmed her chest when he squeezed tight, as if pacified by the contact. Yes, they’d get through this. She was just being impatient.

A hollow clicking roar echoed through the sky and lifted the hairs on her neck. From far in the distance, specks in the blue sky neared, growing larger and larger with each second.

Meg’s breath stilled as the silhouette of massive, winged creatures sharpened into focus. They were bright white with shaggy hair that fell over their long-limbed bodies. The hair vanished at their hands, feet, faces, and tails, revealing thick gray scaled skin and deadly white claws. Their snouts were scaled as well. With slits for nostrils, razor-sharp teeth, and sloping foreheads, they reminded her of an odd mix of dragon and dog. Something out of a nightmare.

“I’m not riding one of those things,” Lucy whispered, staring in horror as the thirty-foot-long monsters spread their enormous spotted wings against the wind to slow for a landing. Gravel jumped off the ground when the creatures touched down, sending shockwaves up Meg’s shins.

They emitted the same clicking sound as they stood in place, waiting to be commanded by their riders. Their wide eyes were cloudy, as if they were reflecting the stormy sky, even though the heavens were a painfully bright blue today. Antlers rising from their skulls were pointed and cast in metal. These were not the velvety, rounded things on Earth deer. These antlers were weapons used to gore enemies in battle.

Meg shivered. She was always desperate to try new things, but even she hesitated to get within twenty feet of the monsters. The largest of the creatures stepped forward, its four-fingered hands flat on the dirt. Its rider dismounted, sliding to the ground, then walking toward them as if the ten-foot drop had merely been his first step.

He was tall and powerfully built. Meg couldn’t make out much more than that since he was covered in metal-plated black clothing and a dark silver mask. However, she could see he had eerie glowing eyes. Bright gold shone through slits in the mask like beams of light from the darkness. Sophia had been spot on. This place was very metal.

“Welcome, humans. We’re thrilled to have you here.” The man’s voice was cool. Not at all thrilled.

He aimed a gloved hand at a collection of bowl-shaped objects about the size of a round hot tub. The outside was overlaid with intricate lacy metalwork and spotted here and there with bright silver-and-gold paint. Chains formed a net cradling the underside, and Meg realized what they were.

“Please have a seat. The king and Guild are waiting to welcome you tonight at the—” The man’s mask, aimed at Maxu, froze. Maxu glared back with a stiff spine. A tense silence pulsed in the air. Finally, the armored man spoke. “Does he know?”

Know what? Meg’s eyes jumped between the Vrulan and Maxu.

“He does not,” Maxu answered in a cold voice.

“I’ll need to escort you to him first. Your human can join the others.”

“His human will stay with him,” Meg’s voice cut through the thick animosity more loudly than she’d intended. The creature at the Vrulan’s back let out a clicking growl and shuffled in place.

The glowing, golden light of the armored man’s eyes landed on her. His head tipped toward their clasped hands, and Maxu’s hold twitched, curling slightly as if he were trying to hide his marks. Pain lanced through her.

“Very well.” Cape whipping in time with the man, he spun, used his weapon-tipped tail to climb the rungs of his beast’s harness, and waited.

Whispered arguments ensued as the guards tried to get the humans to seat themselves in the metal bowls. Nirato dragged a hissing Lucy forward, her heels leaving ruts in the sand, but Meg’s focus was all on Maxu.

“What’s going on?” she whispered.

He guided her toward one of the bowls with a hand at her back, his stony gaze never leaving the Vrulan proudly mounted behind the gold-plated horns of his beast. Maxu helped her climb into the deep well of the bowl where a circle of red, cushioned seats lay, then hoisted himself over.

Daunet had been confident enough to allow Maxu to act as Meg’s guard in Alacera, but it seemed the uneasy buzz in the air made her nervous since she, too, joined them in the bowl.

Once they’d strapped themselves in, the creatures came to life, stretching their wings. Using the reins of their antlers, the riders guided the beasts.

“What have you not told me?” Daunet snapped to Maxu as one creature scooped up two looped ends of a chain in one hand and hoisted a shrieking Lucy into the sky. “If there’s an increased threat to my charge that I need to be aware of, you—”

“I wouldn’t allow Meg to come here if I felt she’d be unsafe,” he snapped back. Meg tried unsuccessfully to hold in a squeak of pain as his grip on her hand tightened with his mounting unease. His face fell, and he dropped her palm like it had scalded him. He took in a breath, shoulders rigid. “Any conversation that needs to be had will be had with my mate first.”

Daunet opened her mouth, ready to argue, but was cut off when the jolt of their carriage being lifted in the sky captured her attention.

What was going on? Why was he so closed off all of a sudden? The wind whipped through the open air of their transport, howling and making conversation impossible.

Meg caught Maxu looking down at her and saw worry lingering behind his stoic expression. What was he hiding from her?


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