Resisting Maxu: Chapter 33


Whispers floated up to the ceiling where Meg and Maxu were sprawled on their bellies. The short crawl space above the circular forum was dusty and stifling from the heat rising off the central fire. Meg’s body was protected, but every time the bare skin of her hands accidentally touched the metal, searing pain made her hiss.

They reached the round grate in the ceiling disguised as an artistic metal overlay, and Maxu peered through the small carved holes. He laced his fingers into the grooves of metal and twisted.

Meg lifted a hand to her mouth. The hot steel must’ve been burning his hands, but he didn’t even wince. Ever so slowly, he rotated the panel without a creak or scrape to be heard.

As soon as the panel was out of the way, Meg snatched up his hand, exposing his palm. A shudder ran over her—angry red welts covered his fingers. She kissed his palm, shooting an apologetic smile at him. Maxu silently kissed her hand in return, then his mask of determination was back in place.

He dipped his head through the opening and scanned the room. From her vantage point, Meg could see a few soldiers stationed around the perimeter, but not many. Maxu had expected that, arguing it was more likely they’d be sent to patrol the halls outside once they’d disarmed and disabled the Tremantian guards.

Tugging forward a long coil of rope they’d stolen from a malginash-handling storage cupboard, he passed one end to her, fed the other through a ratcheting winch, and activated the magnetic base. The winch cemented into place with a hollow clank. They froze, staring at each other, and listened. Had anyone heard?

When no ruckus from below sounded, Maxu nodded. His body stiffened, eyes roaming over her mouth, lips thinned. She knew he didn’t want to leave, but he had to. Their plan relied on him. She gave him an encouraging nod and smile.

“This is splitting me in two,” he whispered. Cupping the back of her head, he pulled her face alongside his cheek. His mouth brushed against her ear. “I’ve fallen in love with you. Neither of us can die until I’ve forced you to fall in love with me too.”

Inflating like a balloon, she beamed at him. “I knew I loved you the moment you chose not to torture someone for me.”

He smirked.

“And if I’m honest,” she rested her palm on his chest, “long before that.”

Lifting her hand to his lips, he inhaled her scent. With a tight nod, he crawled away.

Her heart was thundering in her throat as she waited. There were six soldiers she could make out. From the looks of the bloodied and bruised Tremantian guards sprawled over benches, they wouldn’t be much help. She prayed they’d find their second wind. If not, Maxu would have to fight everyone all on his own.

Gaze darting between all twelve captives, Meg finally spotted Daunet almost directly beneath her. She debated dropping something small onto her head to get her attention, but it was too risky. They were already lucky that the ceiling was so heavily ornamented that they could remove a person-sized hole in it and not be noticed.

She didn’t dare stick her head out, so the only view she had was of the envoy below and part of the far wall. Suddenly, one soldier did a double take across the room. He didn’t yell, but he took a step to the side and dipped his head left and right.

Shit. He must have noticed a guard had gone missing. Maxu had planned to take them out one at a time as quietly as possible until he was spotted.

“Tivi?” the male called. A soldier walking close by straightened, hand moving toward a sickle-shaped blade. Suddenly, something flew at his head, knocking against his helmet and laying him out flat. The other guard stared in disbelief for a long moment before springing into action. He began to shout for backup, but Daunet had already pounced.

She slid across the floor, swiping up the fallen sickle blade, and brought it down with a loud clang, connecting with the soldier’s own raised weapon.

Shouts from somewhere below and behind Meg rang through the room, making her blood turn to ice in her veins. Meg tossed the rope down to the floor and dipped her head out.

“Tara! Sophia!” she yelled at the two women closest to her. They whipped around, searching.

Tara spotted the rope first and looked up. “Finally.” She grinned up at Meg for a moment before bolting toward the guards and other humans.

Heleax limped over, pushing Camille and Rita ahead. Rita grabbed the rope, while Heleax wrapped it around her thigh to keep her stable. “Just hold on,” Meg shouted, getting into position so she could use her body weight to pump the winch ratchet. 

She pulled up and threw herself down over and over, lifting Rita slowly but surely. Her knuckles burned as they rubbed against the floor. Breathing grew difficult in the dense, humid air, but she kept going until Rita’s gray hair popped through the round opening.

With a wince when her hands touched the metal floor, Rita hauled herself into the ceiling space. Meg didn’t waste time checking on her, throwing the rope down again and readying the winch.

“Now,” Rita called, watching the ground so she could direct Meg.

“What happened?” Meg wheezed, ignoring the burning pain spearing from her knuckles to her shoulders.

“They bombarded us. A small army barged into our rooms, fought off our guards, and dragged us here this morning. They kept asking questions about some hidden women. We told them we didn’t know anything, but the king wouldn’t accept it.”

Rita reached out just as Camille’s arm stretched in and planted on the metal floor.

“Fuck,” she screamed, dragging herself through the opening, then waving her arms. “That’s fucking hot.” She blew on her scalded palms as Rita and Meg dropped the rope once more.

Camille shuffled over to Meg when she noticed her labored breathing. “Let me take over for a minute.”

Meg didn’t have the strength to argue, spots already dancing in her vision from the heat. She crouched over the opening instead and watched Sophia and Heleax working to strap an unconscious Nirato to Lucy so both could be lifted together.

Rita groaned and joined Camille at the winch. “This one will be heavy.”

When Sophia gave a thumbs-up, Meg panted, “Okay, go.”

Rita and Camille used their combined body weight to work the winch, grunting with the effort. After painfully slow minutes, they lugged the unconscious guard and Lucy through the opening.

The sounds of fighting ebbed, but the metal of the tower rumbled ominously. Meg’s hands shook as she untied the knot affixing Nirato. “That has to be an alarm.”

“Hurry,” Camille shouted through panted breaths. Lucy joined her at the winch.

Uthen helped support Tara, who’d somehow injured her shoulder. As soon as Uthen crawled in, though, he collapsed onto his front, blood running from a crack on his head. When the rope dropped again, Kel and Malinu glanced around the room with wide eyes.

“Where’s Sophia?” Meg breathed, switching off with Lucy and Rita at the winch as they lifted Kel.

“She’s making it difficult for the soldiers to fight. Girl picked up a sword and started swinging. She was pretty good too. Mostly, though, she knows the soldiers have strict orders not to hurt any of us, so she keeps putting herself in the way.”

“Damn,” Meg hissed. It was brave, but it was stupid. “And Gamso?”

“We haven’t seen him. We’ve been asking. I hope the king isn’t hurting him.” Lucy crawled over Uthen and Nirato, checking their pulses, and then helped pull Kel into the cramped space.

“Shit,” Meg panted, feeling the skin peel from her knuckles. “It was him. Someone from our group told Sikthand that the Queen had humans hidden all over. That’s why he believed it.”

Tara froze, her face reddening. She glared in Meg’s direction.

“That little shit,” Rita wheezed. Tara moved to bump Rita out of the way, and she shrugged her off. “Don’t be dumb. Your shoulder’s busted from trying to bash your way out.”

Meg didn’t have the breath to comment on Rita’s swift personality change, so she just lifted a brow.

“It’s been a long day,” Rita grunted when she caught her looking.

“May I?” Kel gestured at the winch, and Meg immediately moved aside. He might have been a timid politician, but he was also a large Clecanian man. He began pumping the winch and had Malinu climbing in in half the time it had taken Meg.

“Maxu is gone,” Malinu coughed. “There’s one soldier left, but Heleax and Sophia seem to have him handled. Daunet and Atolicy are covering the door to take out nearby guards as they filter in, but I’m sure more are on their way as we speak. Soon they’ll be too many.”

“Maxu’s heading to a landing bay to get our transport ready,” Meg explained. “We need to meet him there.” They’d just dropped the rope again when someone let out a yowl of pain.

Daunet appeared below, hefting Atolicy over her shoulder in a fireman carry. She grabbed the rope, wrapped it around her forearm, and used her other arm to keep the male steady as they lifted her.

Meg’s brows furrowed. “Damn. I didn’t realize my guard was Superwoman.”

“Well, this isn’t really the time, but…” Tara shot Meg a wide grin. “She’s feeling a little stronger today.”

It took Meg’s tired brain a moment to catch up, but then her gaze locked on to Daunet’s hands. Bright blue mating marks were visible under splotches of red blood. “Congratulations,” she shouted. 

Sophia and Heleax appeared below a dangling Daunet and smiled up at them. Malinu and Kel were working the winch without breaking much of a sweat.

Meg yelled down to Sophia, who was still clutching a crescent sword. “I heard you’re pretty good with that thing. You never told us you could fight.”

Sophia grinned, flipping the sword in an impressive little twirl. “Ten years of LARPing have proved surprisingly useful.”

“What’s LARPing?” Lucy whispered.

The group all took fistfuls of Atolicy’s clothing and dragged him through the opening. Meg pointed to the curved passageway which they’d crawled through. “We need to drag the unconscious folks through there so we can run as soon as Sophia and Heleax are up.”

Daunet lifted herself through the ceiling as if it were no more difficult than exiting a pool. She’d heard Meg, though, and without needing anymore direction, she grabbed Tara and began dragging Atolicy toward the exit. Lucy and Camille worked together to drag Nirato.

Kel rushed to grab Uthen, leaving Rita, Malinu, and Meg grappling to drop the rope for Sophia. When it hit the ground, Sophia tossed her sword to the side with a clatter and locked her arm around the rope.

Malinu began ratcheting. She lifted a few feet off the ground, when a flash of silver hurtled through the air, severing the rope and embedding into the side of the metal wall with a crunch. Sophia dropped, landing on her back with a painful thud before curling into a ball on her side and gasping to get breath into her lungs.

Meg dipped her head through the opening and saw King Sikthand standing tall, eyes blazing, and his thick arm pulling back from his impressive throw. Soldiers streamed in, parting around him while he remained still as a statue.

Heleax must have realized he was outnumbered, but he crouched in front of Sophia anyway, weapon raised. Sophia finally regained her breath and rolled onto her back. “Run! I’ll be fine.”

Meg’s vision spotted, a ringing in her ears. She hadn’t crawled through filth and slimy rodent nests and put her mate’s life on the line just to leave someone behind, but before she could think of an alternative, Daunet was dragging her away with her newly acquired matehood strength.

Sound slowly came back to her. “We’ll come back. We’ll come back for them,” Daunet assured.

Meg sucked down the lump in her throat, trying to steel herself the way Maxu did, hardening her heart. She could let herself feel the guilt later. Everyone waited in the hall, gasping and bruised. Their expectant gazes helped Meg see things more clearly.

She had to be strong. She was the only one who knew the way out. Maxu had made her walk the path three times over before they’d crawled into that ceiling. They’d get Sophia back, but Meg couldn’t help everyone else if she was stupid now.

With a deep breath, she pressed through to the front and led the way.

They were slow moving as they took turns lugging the unconscious guards through narrow spaces and hoisting them over half walls until, finally, they emerged in the landing bay that she and Maxu had taken off from the day before.

Her mate was waiting for them astride Urio. He let out a visible breath of relief when he saw her, his whole body slumping forward until his head hit the back of Urio’s mane. He pointed to the two carriages, and they piled in.

“Anyone else?” he shouted, eyes fixed on the end of the hall. Meg’s mouth twitched, tears welling. All she could do was shake her head.

Meg held up one of the many long-barreled cannons that they’d piled into the carriages. “They’ll probably chase us. Shoot at them with these.” She showed them how the cannons worked and then ran over to the other bucket, clambering in. When they were all strapped and armed, Maxu guided Urio forward until she gripped their chains, and they lifted into the night.

***

Never in Maxu’s life had his body felt so eviscerated. He’d fought as long as he could until the soldiers had numbered few enough that he’d been confident the Tremantian guards could take over. Then he’d gone against every instinct shooting stabbing pain through his body. He’d left.

His mate had been crouching alone in a boiling metal ceiling, trying to lift eleven people into the air, and he’d left her there. He’d wanted to vomit with each step. Even now, when she’d appeared, his body had exploded, relief spreading through his limbs as a jolt, electricity skittering over his skin. And they weren’t even free yet.

The most impressive force Vrulatica had was its riders. If Urio didn’t make it to the cruisers in time, there’d be no escaping. Maxu dove for the ground, gliding just high enough for the carriages not to scrape through the sand.

He heard shrieks below, and his heart stilled. He peered over his thigh and found Meg pointing a gun into the sky, dark hair flying around her face. Formidable.

Three malginash were on their tail, diving in a way he was unable to with the added weight of the carriages. Meg waited until they were close, until it would affect the creatures most, then fired.

The tubes of cloud seed weren’t used as weapons in Vrulatica, which meant they hadn’t been guarded. Almost too easy to steal. As the green chemical exploded into the air, creating a wall of sparks and thick green fog, the malginash gaining on them were forced to rear back.

It was only a second’s hesitation, but it was enough. The creatures swerved, diving through the fog, only to be met with another explosion.

He thanked the Goddess that Sikthand needed the humans alive, otherwise they would’ve been shot out of the air within seconds. Their escape plan had gotten them a few minutes’ head-start, and as they zoomed closer to the cruisers, he prayed it was enough. An explosion to his right had Urio swerving. A malginash had attempted to intercept, guessing their direction, but one explosion had stopped him.

Maxu guided Urio lower and lower until the carriages clanked onto the ground, dragging violently through the sand. He brought the creature to a stop before the cruisers. Fumbling with the ties holding his legs to the saddle, his burned fingers having lost sensation, he finally unlatched himself and jumped down.

He swept his palm over Urio’s neck, whispering his thanks. The group was already half piled into the largest cruiser. He scooped the last unconscious guard over his shoulder, dragged an argumentative Meg along with him, and loaded them both into the cab.

“Stay in here, or I can’t focus on making this work,” he growled at Meg.

She stayed put, but she glared outside toward the conscious members of their group still shooting bombs into the sky to buy them time.

The resonant clicking roar of the approaching malginash boomed outside. Maxu plugged in his override device and ripped off the metal sheet hiding the cruiser’s manual dials.

“Get in,” he bellowed to the others. They dove inside, piling on one another, while Daunet brought up the tail, backing in and sending a final bomb into the sky before the door closed.

He forced the cruiser to lift into the air faster than the old safety protocols allowed. The cab shuddered as a malginash crashed into its side, the screech of gilded antlers against metal made his brain pulse angrily.

Maxu threw the controls as high as they could go and barely managed not to tumble backward when the ball jetted away at a speed faster than any malginash could match.

He watched their progress on the cruiser map and lowered the windows once he felt they were far enough away from Vrulatica not to need shielding. The scenery zoomed by underneath as only a rush of color. When greens, browns, and reds dissolved into solid blue, he finally let out a breath of relief.

The tension in the cab was palpable. Kel and Malinu were scrunched in a corner on the floor, while Rita and Camille tended to the injured guards, digging through the cruiser’s emergency pack for a healer.

Maxu’s own body vibrated when he gave his mate a once-over and found her shaking, tears building in her bloodshot eyes. When the autopilot was reengaged, he lifted Meg from her seat, then collapsed back with her on his lap. He clutched her head to his chest and forced himself to remember to breathe as her tears leaked through his torn shirt.

Eventually the heavy breathing settled, adrenaline leeching away and leaving them all in puddles of exhaustion.

Daunet took in steadying breaths, then used the cruiser communicator to connect with Tremanta. They all waited in silence. No answer.

No one dared to speak. The cruiser belonged to the Tremantian envoy. The communicator should’ve been registered to connect directly. But it wasn’t.

Daunet tried again, a different line this time. After a small eternity, a quiet “Hello” rang through the space.

“Metli, this is Daunet. We’ve gotten free from Vrulatica, but we need reinforcements. Two of our group were left behind. One human and one guard. Are soldiers already on their way? What’s the Queen’s plan for dealing with Sikthand?”

Silence pulsed through the cab. Maxu’s fingers tightened around Meg.

“Metli,” Daunet barked.

“Don’t come back,” Metli whispered.

Over the years, Maxu had come to know Metli rather well. They despised each other, yet he always had begrudging respect for the female and her unbending will. Her fierce loyalty was a testament to their city, even if he felt it a bit misplaced at times. Never once had he heard the wobble in Metli’s voice that he heard now.

The sob she released on a breath had Maxu’s throat going dry.

“The Queen is dead.”

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