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Tempting Auzed: Chapter 3

Zed hit the ground just behind the creature. His bhadsit suit used the last of its charge to silence his landing but then retracted until it lay clasped to his shoulder, an innocuous piece of black material. The sefa spun toward him all the same, likely picking up on the thundering rhythm of his heart. Could it hear his blood rushing in his veins? Could it smell the female’s scent on his lips?

He’d found her. She was covered in dirt, injured, smelly, and much too thin, but he’d found her alive. He still had trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that she and the other human they called Lily had survived out here for so long on their own, but there she was. Alejandra. And upon their first meeting, she’d pressed her mouth to his.

Why in the name of the Goddess had she done that right before he’d jumped into a fray? Had she been trying to get them both killed by distracting him so?

The sefa charged in his direction, its yellow frill flopping uselessly around the base of its skull. Zed dodged it, slashing into its side until the metal tang of blood hit his nose and warm liquid coated his hands.

She’d kissed him. Had performed that odd mouth play that humans seemed to enjoy with their partners. As he skidded past the sefa, mind focused on the kiss, its tail shot out, wrapping around his ankle and pulling his legs out from under him. Zed’s knife went flying just as the sefa used its strong tail to throw him bodily against a large trunk.

Zed got to his feet and wondered if anything was broken or if it just felt that way. She’s going to get us both killed! This was exactly why he’d had so much trouble controlling the males under his command these days. Human females were a confounding lot.

Although he’d never faced a sefa before, he’d certainly fought worse. It shouldn’t be taking him this long to dispatch the creature. And he needed to kill it quickly so they could flee. Now that they were within Sauven territory, the murder of a sefa was illegal, the creatures held sacred by the people of the forest city.

 He curled his fists, squaring off with the sefa while searching the ground for his weapon. He spotted it feet away beneath a pale white flower. The sefa thundered toward him, letting out its terrible pulsating roar that stopped most prey in its tracks. Covering his ears, he feinted right, but the beast knew better this time. It followed him, scraping its rows of teeth along his back and side just as he hurdled out of the way, landing in a clumsy roll. A long scrap of fabric fell from his shoulder, and he realized the sefa had torn his pack away.

A faint gasp sounded from the treetops. Did she really think he couldn’t best this animal? Is that why she’d kissed him? As a parting gift meant to be of comfort in his last moments of life? It was an affront.

He jumped up and whirled around, ignoring the sharp pain in his side and stooping to snatch up his knife. Its pounding footfalls were just behind him. The sefa’s foul breath wafted over his neck. Bending at the knees, Zed sprung into a backflip and landed, straddling the beast. Without giving it time to react, he angled forward and buried the knife deep into its middle eye. The other two eyes blinked out of sync as its brain slowly died.

Zed slid off the side of the crumpling sefa and took a quick swipe for his pack but was too late. The massive creature collapsed atop it. With a groan, he wiped his blade across his pants, then sheathed it. He straightened and watched the sefa’s body struggle against death. The haunting final song which the creatures were famous for should be coming any moment now.

Just as he’d predicted, the sefa’s great lungs filled with air and it released its final exhale along with a transcendent melody. Soft and calm, the song rode on its last breath, the gentle percussion sweeping over his skin and seeping into his bones until the melody stuttered out altogether. Zed found his chest tightening despite himself.

He dipped his head to the sefa and slid his eyes closed in a moment of respect. The creatures had been some of the few transported to this planet from their old world and were the last of their kind. Gently, he placed a hand over the sefa’s torso and, in a hushed voice, recited something he’d heard his father say once to a dying mojak soldier far from home. “You have traveled so far, and yet your journey has only begun.”

After another breath, Zed turned away. He glanced to where he’d left Alejandra and found her on her knees. Her dark brows were drawn, and silent tears carved tracks down her grime-covered cheeks.

With a deep, controlled breath, he moved to stand below her. Sticky blood oozed from his throbbing wounds and coated the inside of his arm. She was too high up for him to jump to without his suit and with the injuries he’d sustained. The sleek speeder he’d driven to travel here, now trapped in his pack under the heavy creature, was of no use either. It’d take at least three uninjured males to lift the sefa. “Jump down. I’ll catch you.” He lifted his arms, but rather than doing as he asked, she appeared shocked.

“I…jump?” She gave a pointed look to the red liquid dripping off his bicep and enunciated her words as she said, “You’re bleeding.”

He dropped his arms and tried to keep the annoyance off his face. He wasn’t so injured that he couldn’t catch her slight body. He placed his hands on his hips while continuing to stare up at her. So, she had thought he was going to die. The idea rankled for some reason.

“I can’t jump up there right now, but I can catch you. If you don’t want to jump, you could try to climb, I suppose.” He kept his voice even, though he wanted to command her to follow his orders the same way he did every day to the guards he oversaw. Auzed, or Zed to his friends—well, maybe more like his family, seeing as he didn’t have many friends—was the head guard at the Pearl Temple. The title was prestigious, something every Tremantian soldier aspired to. He, and the guards under his supervision, protected the small number of females who still existed in their city and lived at the Pearl Temple. As such, Alejandra was now under his care as well.

“Climb? Are you crazy? There’s nothing to hold on to. This is, like, the only branch,” she argued unhelpfully.

Zed felt his ire rising and fought it back. He was tired, injured, and ashamed he hadn’t just broken one law today by entering Sauven territory uninvited, but two, by killing the sefa.

For the last two weeks, various groups of soldiers and/or Temple guards had combed the forests searching for the two females who’d escaped an Insurgent facility and disappeared. First, they’d searched the Manta Forest and then lower into the dense Sauven Forest. The Queen had agreed that when they reached the ocean to the west, the Black Mountains to the north, and the city limits of Sauven to the northwest, their search would be over.

Auzed had believed the females to be dead, but he’d followed the Queen’s orders to continue the search anyway. Then, a few hours ago, the Queen had contacted his small search party scouring the southwestern border of the forest and alerted him to the fact that one of the missing humans had been found alive and well and was with Verakko. The Queen had described the last known location of the other female, and he, along with two other guards, had sped to the Chisnop River immediately.

He’d sent his two guards to search the east bank of the river and the forest beyond, while he’d traveled into the heart of the Sauven forest. He’d failed to mention to his guards the Queen’s additional private request to illegally search within Sauven territory for the lost human. He abhorred the idea of breaking any law, and he wasn’t too happy the Queen had asked it of him, though he understood why she had.

After the Queen had revealed the humans’ existence to Clecanian leaders worldwide, Sauven had been one of the cities to report they’d be forcing any discovered humans to participate in their marriage ceremonies, just as they did all their other citizens. Alejandra would be forced to do the same unless he could get her back to Tremanta, where there were already laws being put into place to offer the humans rights in concurrence with their culture.

Now look at him, begging the female he’d illegally rescued to allow him to help her further. If she only understood the state of his mood at present and how tenuously he was holding on to his temper, she’d obey without a second thought.

“Just jump, Alejandra,” he pushed through gritted teeth, holding his arms out again.

“Okay, okay.” She swept the matted mess of dark hair out of her face and sat on the edge of the branch. He could see her mumbling to herself as she rotated a golden ring around her finger but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. Even through the dirt covering her face, he noticed her warm, brown skin pale a shade as she scooted forward and glanced toward the ground. She slid her eyes shut and was about to let herself fall when her lids sprung open again, “Wait, how did you know my name?”

“Jump!” he barked, his patience snapping.

A voice from somewhere overhead called down, “Now, now. There will be no need for you to jump. But you’ll both need to come with us.”

Zed winced. They’d been caught. He spun and saw a small contingent of Sauvenian rangers mounted on floating transport platforms. They hovered above, their angry gazes drifting toward the dead sefa.

A small tuey crawled into view over one of the ranger’s shoulders and leapt, gliding toward Alejandra.

“Wilson!” she exclaimed, catching the tuey in a tight hug as it neared.

Vitriol boiled in his gut. He didn’t know precisely how it’d happened, but the human had gotten them caught.

The rangers descended. He allowed two of them to haul him toward an apathetic male, who produced an extra-large transport platform from underneath his own. The plethora of achievement bands circling his thick tail identified him as the highest-ranking ranger among the group.

As they flattened Zed into a seated position on the transport platform and cuffed his hands to a ring in the center, he wondered what his Queen would do upon hearing he’d been caught. His communicator, still strapped to his bicep, was plucked away by a ranger. Would she deny she’d given him the order and abandon him to his fate? Or would she confess and incur the wrath of the territorial Sauvenians?

He could hear Alejandra arguing in the background, but he tried to tune it out. The little tuey she’d befriended had brought these rangers to them. The human was the reason they were in this mess. If she’d only jumped sooner, they could’ve sprinted to the border half a mile away.

“I’m sorry for this, but it’s procedure when a sefa has died,” one of the rangers said to Alejandra as he gently guided her into position across from Auzed and cuffed her wrists next to his. The ranger handled her cuffs with care, making sure they weren’t too tight before moving away. Zed’s cuffs, on the other hand, had been tightened so much that he was sure he’d have lingering bruises.

She peered at him; the whites of her large brown eyes were marred by angry, burst blood vessels. That, along with her bleeding eardrums, were a product of the sefa’s deadly roar. If he’d gotten there even a few minutes later, she would’ve been dead.

“Why—” she began, but he cut her off with a shake of his head.

He didn’t want their guards to overhear anything before he figured out what his next moves were, and he also needed time to cool his temper. The logical part of his mind knew this wasn’t her fault. He was just angry with the situation he’d been put in and that she hadn’t helped their situation one bit. She’d actually stopped running at one point and asked him to leave her. What kind of male did she think he was?

The informant tuey glided down and settled in her lap, happy as could be. Then it opened its large yellow eyes and shot him a glare. He frowned back. The feeling is mutual.


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