Tempting Auzed: Chapter 2

“Are you sure we should be going this way? You look even more nervous than you did at the river.” Alex knew Wilson couldn’t answer her, yet he seemed to know what he was doing, always pulling or urging her in one direction or another.

She trusted her new little friend, but as his eyes grew wider and wider and the forest grew darker and darker, she found herself wondering whether he now realized he’d made a mistake. Maybe he hadn’t understood how slowly she moved compared to him. He kept rolling away at high speed, only to return, knock against the back of her legs, and roll away again.

Five days ago, when they’d left her muddy recovery room, Alex and Wilson had walked along the river while the shore had still been exposed and then trampled through the overgrown bank when the shoreline had eventually disappeared. Using the knife-making skills Lily had taught her, she’d managed to manufacture a small blade. Although she wanted to believe that Lily would be able to track her if she somehow got close enough to her trail, the intermittent rain flooding the river and washing all signs away made her doubtful. So, every so often, when they stopped for breaks, Alex would carve a sloppy message into a heavy piece of wood high on the bank of the river. It was a long shot, but at least she was leaving some kind of trail.

 Her soft, gray Henley had gotten shorter and shorter with every note as she’d cut pieces off to use as flags. She’d tried to place her notes in plain view, but she remained pessimistic as to whether anyone would ever see them.

On the third day, after slow, miserable trekking due to her constant headaches and bruised body, they’d made it to a fork in the river.

Dense forest had loomed on one side, and a brighter forest leading to black, craggy mountains lay on the other. Alex had stood, miserably staring in each direction until Wilson nudged her toward the ominous tree line.

It hadn’t taken much convincing. Alex was no rock climber, and if there was one thing she’d learned from movies about climbing mountains, it was that the higher you got, the colder it was. In the dark, warm forest, at least she wasn’t in constant danger of hypothermia. She’d been living in the forest for weeks anyway; the landscape in this section would just be more of the same, right? Better to dance with the devil you know.

She found herself regretting not thinking harder about her choice now. This part of the forest wasn’t only dark, it was sunlight proof. They’d slept near the river the last two nights, and if she guessed at the time based on when she’d woken, it should be about midday, yet there was absolutely no sunlight or sky to be seen. For all she knew, she could be sleeping through the days and it was actually night right now.

The ground sloped farther and farther downward as they hiked, but the treetops didn’t sink along with the ground. Their expansive canopies remained at the same height, while the ground dropped lower and lower until they towered over her, taller and wider than the largest redwoods. Maybe even than skyscrapers, but it was difficult to perceive how tall they really were from the ground.

The ceiling of the forest was just that, a solid ceiling of veridian and teal leaves, blocking out the sky and sealing the forest in its own humid microclimate. The air was thick and perfumed by the fragrant scents of the luminous plants and flowers that were the only light source down here.

Prickly yellow vines shone brightly as they wrapped around the massive trunks of the trees and put off a bitter citrus aroma. Large radiant blossoms in a rainbow of colors littered the ground and lit their way. Even the insects and animals glowed.

Gauzy, luminous thread hung from the low branches of the trees like ethereal Spanish moss. Wilson scampered along the branches of those trees. Whenever he paused, he almost disappeared against the moss. Perfectly camouflaged. He’d probably urged her in this direction because this was where he was from. Was he leading her to his home?

Looking around this magical place, she could almost pretend she was merely reviewing a movie for her job at the paper. And yet she didn’t have the words to describe the unearthly beauty of the place the way she normally would in her weekly article. An out-of-place chuckle lit in her chest. If she ever made it back to Earth, she’d end up being that whackjob who wrote a whole book about her abduction experience. Mind wandering, she clambered over a fallen branch the size of a mature tree trunk. How many of the people who claimed they’d been abducted actually had been?

A large floating worm bobbed by in the distance, and Alex took a moment to study it from a copse of seven-foot-tall, neon-pink-speckled mushrooms. A four-winged bird with sparkling aqua wings swooped down from the treetops, targeting the worm.

It opened its small beak to scoop the wriggling creature out of midair, but suddenly the worm changed. Sharp stripes lit up behind the worm, revealing that the wriggling object rested at the tip of the nose of a creature twice the size of Alex and not floating at all. Its body was massive and rough, and its nose was long and pointed like the horn of a rhino. The little worm at the tip was a flap of skin used to lure prey. Before the poor bird could change direction, the creature swallowed it, gulping it down while the glowing stripes on its body shimmered with joy.

Alex slapped a hand over her mouth and scuttled away toward the thinning river. Wilson leapt onto her shoulder and wrapped his warm, fuzzy body around her neck, nuzzling her cheek with his long snout. He always seemed to know what she was feeling. Maybe he was psychic. Had that been how he’d found her and known exactly what she’d needed to heal? Had she sent out some kind of psychic cry for help that her little savior had responded to?

Alex scratched his large, fluffy ears and continued on more cautiously. Wilson used his flexible trunk to pluck a nearby insect from the air. He crushed it between two long fingers and handed it to her before catching another for himself. Just like taking a pill. She swallowed, grimacing as its wings scratched a path down her throat. How much longer would she have to eat bugs? Forever?

Since she’d started eating them, her weight had managed to hold steady and her energy was getting better each day, but still…they were bugs. Wriggly and flavorless, unless they were sour. Memories of Sunday dinners at her brother’s house infiltrated her mind. She sighed and allowed herself to remember them for a moment, if only to try to somehow taste Cynthia’s cooking by focusing on it hard enough. No more Sunday dinners. Her chest expanded, and she gulped. Immediately she shut down her thoughts. She neither had the energy nor safety to break down right now.

The trees in the distance looked no different than they did here. How far were they going to venture?

“Okay, Wilson. Where are you leading me? I need to find people, no offense.”

Initially, when she and Lily had fled from their alien captors, she’d been positive she never wanted to run into another alien again. But after a few weeks, the fear had worn off, and desperation for real food and a warm bed had settled in its place. She and Lily had decided to go searching for a city before being violently separated, so that was what she’d try to do now. The people of this world couldn’t all be bad, right? They couldn’t all want to lock humans up and run experiments. At least that was what she kept telling herself.

Wilson hopped off her shoulder and spread his arms, gliding to the ground. His large, yellow eyes met hers before he curled into a ball and rolled farther along the river and out of sight.

Alex followed, trying not to think about how she may be wandering aimlessly all because a little alien wanted her to. He’d return on occasion, handing her small fruits and nuts and sometimes water. She consumed the foods gratefully but paused before sipping the water.

She’d been too worried to voice it aloud or even concentrate on it, but her stomach had started feeling a little funny yesterday, and it hadn’t gotten any better. Lily had warned her again and again about drinking unpurified water, but dammit, she wasn’t Lily. She couldn’t just MacGyver a fire out of sticks.

Alex sighed and drank the water. “I’m in it now anyway.”

Without warning, the forest grew silent. Alex froze, scanning desperately for Wilson. Half of the millions of glowing objects in the forest had gone dark as well; only the plant life remained illuminated.

Bad. Bad. Bad. This is really bad. Not knowing what else to do, Alex crouched low and held still. Something had scared the creatures of the forest into hiding. Her insides turned to liquid and bubbled, grumbling and breaking the silence around her. Fuck.

Scurrying noises in front of her had every muscle shooting tense. Wilson rolled through a collection of tall razor-sharp grass and unfurled by her feet, looking as terrified as she felt. He wrapped three fingers around her wrist and urged her forward, his now-dimmed eyes shooting in every direction. Just as she began to move, a heavy vibration rattled through her palms pressed flat against the ground. The hair on the back of her neck rose. Something very large was nearby.

Wilson froze in place too, his long trunk trembling. Another vibration, more intense than the first, rattled under her palms. Something snapped in Wilson, and he heaved her wrists, trying to drag her in the direction of the river. Alex resisted for a heartbeat before dashing toward the water.

Don’t look back. They always die whenever they look back. If you look back, you’re gonna trip on something and fall, and it’ll get you. Alex now understood the urge every movie character who’d looked back had felt. She shouldn’t do it, but not knowing what was following her or how far away it was, was almost more torturous than being chased.

Thunderous footfalls vibrated through her legs, and she tried to pick up speed. Up ahead she could see Wilson flapping his short arms around from a large rock sticking up in the middle of the river.

Heart thundering in her chest, she strained to reach the water. A flash of black sailed overhead and landed with a bone-jarring crash in front of her. An eight-foot-tall monster blinked each of its three inky-black eyes at her. Its thick, four-legged body and large, round face squared off between her and the river. Without another thought, she screamed, spun, and dashed in the opposite direction.

Crashing through glowing leaves, she slipped and slid through the forest as fast as her feet would carry her. She could feel the hot breath of the creature wafting against her shoulders. Was it toying with her?

A small opening in a knotted grouping of roots at the base of a tree came into view to her right, and she dove, scraping her hips along the roots as she struggled to squeeze into the dark space. Alex pressed her body as far back from the beast as she could. Its meaty arm and claw-tipped paw swiped at her between the roots, only inches away from her chest.

Unseen creatures squirmed under her legs and hands, unhappy about an intruder suddenly invading their space. After a few more missed swipes, the creature slid its arm back through the opening. Alex could hear her heart pounding in her ears. Between the gaps in the roots, she could just make out bits and pieces of the horrid creature’s face. What was it waiting for?

A large yellow frill of skin that she’d thought was some kind of marking on its back lifted and collared its neck like a satellite dish. Her blood turned to ice in her veins as its smooth black face contorted, opening wider and wider until a cavernous, round mouth was visible. Rows upon rows of sharp teeth dripped with saliva. The hulking chest of the creature expanded as though readying to roar, and Alex instinctively slammed her hands over her ears.

Instead of the lion-like sound she’d been expecting, a pulsating shriek filled her mind, slicing and stabbing inside her skull until she was screaming in agony. She forced her eyes open despite the pain, desperately searching for an escape through her blurry vision. Sticky, hot wetness from her ears dribbled down her wrists.

The sound cut off abruptly. Alex saw the creature take another large breath and knew she’d be dead by the end of its next roar, the insides of her brain liquefied by the terrible sound wave.

A flash of silver and black darted above the creature suddenly. It stumbled back, and Alex could just make out an oozing slice in the yellow skin around its neck. The skin now lay rumpled against the sides of its face. As though it was only just realizing what had happened, the monster let out a fragmented shriek, still painful to her ears but not quite as debilitating. It lumbered away, shaking its head in pain.

Alex lowered her trembling hands and peered down at the bright-red blood on her palms. She took a few deep breaths to battle the nausea building in her gut. She clutched her head in her hands as a series of sharp, painful stabs pulsed and enhanced her ever-present headache. Straining her ears, she tried to hear…anything. Was the forest still silent? Or had she lost her hearing?

“Testing, testing,” she whispered. With a sigh of relief, she nodded. The sound was tinny, but she could hear it.

Steeling her resolve, Alex forced herself to move toward the gap in the roots. There was no use hiding here like a sitting duck. Maybe Wilson was still—

She yelped as a shining black arm shot through the roots once more. She retreated back into her alcove, her vision temporarily wavering from the shock. Covering her ears with her hands again, she studied the arm. Her hands dropped at what she found. This wasn’t a claw-tipped paw…it was a hand. A very large hand, but humanoid nonetheless. Five normal-looking fingers led to a thick forearm, all clad in some kind of black material.

“Come on. The sefa will be back soon. We need to leave,” whispered a deep male voice from outside. He flexed his fingers.

Alex lifted her hand, then paused. A man had somehow found her here. Was it just a coincidence, or was he one of the men who’d orchestrated her abduction and imprisonment? And how could she understand him? She’d been able to communicate with the men who’d abducted her. They’d put a translator in her ear. Did this man have one too?

Did she have any other options? She had no idea where Wilson was, and even if she did, how much longer could she survive out here with beasts like the sefa running around?

Praying she didn’t live to regret it, she took the outstretched hand and allowed herself to be tugged out of the knot of roots. When she was back on her feet, she pulled her hand away and stared up at the man. There wasn’t much to see—rather, there was a lot of him to see; he was massive, after all—but he was covered head to toe in a black suit of some kind. She couldn’t discern any hints of his features.

“Are you hurt? Can you run?” he rumbled in a tone that made her stand a little straighter. He stood stiffly, unmoving, and although she couldn’t see his eyes, she felt as if they were inspecting her.

A pained roar rang out, and they both snapped their heads in its direction.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” Alex said, taking a deep breath and preparing to run.

The man gripped her elbow and sprinted in the opposite direction of the sound. His steps were quiet and quick. Alex felt like a blundering elephant in comparison.

“I slashed its ruff so it shouldn’t be able to kill with its sound waves anymore, but it won’t stop until you’re dead now that it has your trail,” he explained while leaping over a downed branch the size of a large tree on Earth. “You need to move faster.”

Alex heaved in deep breaths behind him, surprised she was moving as fast as she was. He didn’t even sound winded. “I’m not…the bionic…woman.” The furious shriek of the sefa grew closer. They weren’t going to be able to outrun it. Correction—she wasn’t. “Just leave me. I’ll hide again,” she panted, looking for another concealed spot and finding none.

He stopped, turning his head this way and that, and a lingering dread set in. She’d made the offer, but she really hoped he’d refuse to leave.

The sound of the sefa crashing through the trees was only a couple of yards away now. With a frustrated roar of his own, the man snatched her around the waist and leapt onto an overhanging branch high in the air. One second she’d been on the ground, and now she was dozens of feet from it. How had he jumped so high?

Before she could think about his feat of superhuman strength too much, he backed her against the broad trunk of their tree perch, then spoke in an odd language. The black material of his suit folded away until the most handsome man she’d ever seen crowded her. The suit coalesced into a small square of fabric stuck to his shoulder. A faint shimmer glinted all around them as if they were standing in a giant bubble.

The roar and the sound of the sefa crashing through the trees quieted, the rustling footsteps halting. Had it stopped its pursuit? Or just temporarily lost their trail? She wanted to ask the man what had happened, but between the adrenaline spiking her fear, the sefa lurking somewhere below, and his newly revealed visage, Alex was momentarily lost for words.

His golden-blond hair was tied into a knot somewhere behind his head, and his light-green eyes flicked over her face as she studied him. She opened her mouth to speak, but he pressed a large rough palm over her lips and whispered, “The more sound we make, the more energy is depleted. My suit isn’t used to concealing two people. I don’t know how long we have before it fails.”

Alex nodded into his palm, ignoring the faint scent of warm spice on his skin. He removed his hand and placed it flat on the trunk just above her shoulder. His gaze angled to the forest floor, and she took his distraction as an opportunity to explore the rest of him. Straps leading to the pack on his back accentuated his large shoulder muscles. A short-sleeved maroon uniform top spanned his broad chest. It was tucked into black pants at his narrow waist.

She found herself drawn to his sturdy, unflinching demeanor. He stood with muscles taut, not in anger or fear but in preparation. Something about it screamed competence and skill.

Her attention drifted to the forearm near her ear, and she followed the progress of the corded muscle as it traveled to his impressive bicep. Thin iridescent tattoos curled and twisted upward, enhancing the perfection of his arm, until they disappeared under the edge of his thick shirt. A long, sheathed blade was strapped just below his shoulder, and a damp spot of purple blood seeped through the sheath fabric and marred his smooth, pale skin.

The forest floor remained quiet, and Alex began to calm. Had they done it? Escaped?

She tried to keep her attention dutifully focused on the problem at hand, but she found her gaze continuing to wander toward the man. Maybe she was so enthralled by him because he’d just saved her life. Or maybe she’d been stuck with Ray for too long. This guy was no Ray, that was for sure.

Her boyfriend back on Earth was good…fine…acceptable for the time being. But she’d known for a while now that he wasn’t the one. Small hints of his controlling side had been making an appearance more and more often. Not to mention her tía Vero hated him. She couldn’t imagine ever being with someone her family didn’t like long-term.

Movement from below drew her eyes downward. The sefa prowled through the trees, pointing its wide mouth in different directions. Did it use its mouth to hear too? The man had told her they’d be shielded, but Alex found herself inching away from the creature anyway. Even standing above it, unseen, it still oozed an otherworldliness that made her skin crawl. How long would they have to wait here before it abandoned its search?

The shimmer surrounding them flickered, and a line of alien symbols scrolled by. The flicker continued to pulse intermittently like some kind of warning. Danger, Will Robinson.

The man exhaled through his nose with a tight jaw and eyed her. He glanced to the shimmery bubble, then to her, as if trying to tell her something. When she only stared back, his brows fell in resignation and he stepped toward her. He pressed his body into hers. She sputtered. This was no time to get fresh, as her best friend’s mother liked to say. He looked down his straight nose at her and tilted his head back toward the shimmer. It was no longer flashing.

Ah. Not getting fresh, just conserving the battery. Got it.

His rich smell and the warmth radiating from his big body cocooned her. All at once, her brain became too aware of his muscled stomach and chest plastered against her torso. And farther down, where his hips pushed into her low belly, she thought she even felt—

From just below them, the sefa let out another shriek. The sound didn’t pound inside her head like before, but it was still incredibly loud. Before she could guard her ears against the attack, the man had flattened his palms on either side of her face. She glanced up at him and saw the shadow of a wince. She lifted her own hands to cover his ears. His eyes widened briefly, the flecks of gold in his irises seeming to gleam. They stood like that until the shriek ended, awkwardly clutching each other’s faces instead of their own.

The sefa must’ve realized they were close by because it was prowling in small circles below.

When it finally quieted, the man let his hands drop and whispered, “The suit won’t hold for much longer. I need to kill it.”

“Kill it?” Alex balked. Sure, he was a big guy, but that thing didn’t even need to be close to do harm, and from what she could tell, he only had a knife. Before, he’d managed to injure it with a surprise attack, but how the fuck was he expecting to kill it? “How?”

One side of his mouth dipped, and his lids narrowed a hair as though he were insulted, but then his focus returned to the sefa. The flicker along the sides of their shimmery confines started flashing once more. He peered down toward the animal now pawing at the base of a small grouping of tall grass. “I’m not sure, but…” His determined gaze met hers again. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

Alex let out a nervous laugh. He started to pull away, drawing his deadly knife from its sheath, but she stopped him with a hand on his wrist. This guy was, in all likelihood, going to die, after refusing to abandon her.

He peered at her hand, then at her eyes, his dark-blond brows raised in confusion. Not knowing what the hell had come over her, she rose to her toes and kissed him. It was quick, and she didn’t wait for him to kiss her back before moving away.

He stared down at her, his head still tilted slightly to one side. If anything, he looked more confused.

“What’s your name?” she asked as the flashing around them picked up speed.

Taking a few steps back without tearing his gaze from her, he answered, “Auzed.”

“Try not to die, Auzed.”

His brows relaxed, and his features grew determined once more. With a silent nod, he turned, scanned the ground for the animal, and jumped.


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