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Alien Hunter’s Fated Mate: Chapter Four

Ashur

Maybe I shouldn’t have let that name slip.

“What in all the hells do you know about Lita?”  Her face colored red, her eyes wide.

For a brief moment, I thought I had made a fatal mistake. Never had I seen such a ferocious expression. Was she a Frostling?

“She’s fine,” I said.

“You grabbed her, too?”

“Me? No. Well, I’ve escorted her. That’s not the same thing.”

“Escorted?”

I took a long breath. “She’s safe. Comfortable. Not to speak for her, but I believe she’s happy.”

The Frostling sputtered, but when no fire shot from her fingertips, I figured I was safe.

“Lita is in Zashi. My home. The capital of the kingdom. It’s a pleasant place. I could take you to her.”

I could see her mind whirling as her eyes looked at something I couldn’t see, but she shook her head.

“I’ve got a… I’ve got business to attend to.” Her chin raised. “You said she’s safe?”

“The safest. In the safest tower of the castle. My people like her.”

“Kingdom?” she said. “Castle? Your people? How many people are we talking about?”

“In the city, or the whole kingdom?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never heard about your people. Shakai? We were taught there were only humans here. And the monsters.”

I snorted. Monsters?

“What do you say? I could show you around,” I said. “You might like it there.”

For a few moments, she blinked.

Thinking it over?

“I can’t. I’d like to see Lita. Just to know she’s okay. I don’t know her that well. But I can’t.”

“North-northwest then?” I sighed. “C’mon. Let’s ride. It’ll be faster. Safer.”

She didn’t say anything, merely walked off.

In the wrong direction.

“That way,” I pointed.

She looked down her robe again. Turned. Walked off.

I paused, breathing deeply, focusing on my own breath. The Valti opened my eyes, my ears.

Nothing prowled the forest nearby. Not within range of my heightened senses. But that wouldn’t last long. These weird woods were crawling with predators.

We walked uphill. After a time, the trees went from leafy to thorny and needled. From beneath the skirts of evergreens, I saw the gentle motion of tangle vines seeking a meal.

“Are those plants moving?” Mila glanced at me over her shoulder, brows knit.

“Don’t get close. Tangle vines will thrash you to bits. They have poison thorns. You’ve never seen tangle vines?” This girl had led a sheltered life. “Stick to this animal track.”

We topped a rise, disturbing a flock of pink and blue bridil. I reached into my saddlebags and drew the bow and quiver. I strung it, nocked an arrow, hoping to bag some fresh dinner meat.

“Those are pretty,” Mila watched the bridil flock rise.

“And delicious,” I said. “Too far to shoot now, but I’ll be ready if they’re closer.”

She eyed me, then the bow. But she didn’t comment.

For hours, we walked on. It took half the day to reach the top of the highlands. We descended in shadow. Somewhere ahead was the Meadowspan. I’d never been in this place before, but I’d seen maps. It was a wide plain that ran from the piney ridges to Lost Swamp and the Kalinda Jungle.

These lands were outside of the Kingdom of Zashi. Unsettled, barely explored, and wild.

Did Mila have any idea what she was headed for?

“We should make camp soon,” I said.

“Camp? I just want to keep going,” she said.

“You can’t. Not in the dark. Remember the last time? Face injury? Falling on a tree branch?” I said.

“Won’t happen again,” she murmured.

“Plus the night predators will start to stir.”

She eyed me. “Predators?”

“Best to find shelter,” I said.

“Oh, what, so you can have your way with me?” she said.

“I didn’t think that was part of the plan,” I said.

But something deep inside me stirred at the thought. The brief touch of her skin when I’d checked her leg had set me on fire.

What would the rest of her be like?

“I can’t stop,” she said. “There should be plenty of moonlight.”

“The moon is just past new,” I said. “The night won’t be bright.”

“You have an answer for everything.” Her face shifted, jaw setting. She lifted a hand, about to gesticulate to get her point across.

A low roar issued through the trees. Not close, but still loud enough to shake my innards, my bones.

Her eyes went big as her voice went small. “What was that?”

“Rangungi. Probably hungry from hibernation. The snows left the highlands recently.”

“What’s a rangungi?”

“A little smaller than Murbai. Lots of teeth. Six legs, claws. Disagreeable.”

“Will it hunt us?”

“We are moving slowly. So maybe. What’s worse are the monsters who hunt rangungi.”

Her pale face went impossibly paler. “What hunts rangungi?”

“Darkav.”

“Sounds bad.”

“You have those little bugs that spin webs? Catch other bugs? Eight legs.”

“Aye,” she said. “Spooders.”

“These are bigger. They tend to hide in clusters of mushrooms. Sometimes, they get infected by fungus. It makes them more intelligent hunters. Nature is full of mystery.”

“Holy stie,” she said.

I nodded. “Better to have shelter. A fire will keep most anything away.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do that.”

Instead of pacing far ahead of me, Mila dropped back.

“You said it’s safer if we ride?” she asked.

“Less time to catch our scent,” I said.

“Ah.”

“Plus there’s the getaway factor. Not many animals can outrun a bagart. Even with riders.”

“Maybe we should get on her?” she said.

I hung the bow over my shoulder, putting the arrow in my teeth, then I lifted her into the saddle.

“If anything comes at us, just dig your heels into her sides and hang on,” I said around the arrow.

“What about you?”

“I need to make sure whatever wants us for dinner is dead,” I said, nocking the arrow again.

“Let me down. I don’t know how to ride this thing,” she said.

The roar issued again, louder.

Closer.

“Stay up there,” I whispered.

“Ashur!” she said.

I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. A stirring. The way my name sounded on her tongue was musical.

But darkness gathered between the tree trunks. I had to stay focused. As we moved, I heard the sound of the river.

“Keep your eyes open for shelter,” I said.

“Let me down!”

“You have a better vantage,” I said.

A rustle. The breaking of a stick. Snuffing breath.

“I’m not staying—”

“Shh!” I pulled back the bow string.

“Get me off this animal!”

“Mila, be still!” I heard my voice drop an octave.

Unbidden, the Valti emerged. I was happy to have the night vision of my animal passenger.

But it was more than in my consciousness. I grunted with the transformation as my shoulders swelled, muscles growing. My canines extended. I hunched forward, legs deeply bent.

I was glad for the growing darkness so that Mila couldn’t see the awful change in me.

Forcing myself to keep calm, I kept my Shakai focus. Giving into the animal would force a physical confrontation and I needed to use my weapon.

It charged from the blackness between the boles. Six legs made it swift. Plate like teeth gnashed. A juvenile. At least they tasted better than adults.

I shot an arrow between its eyes.

To my dismay, it kept coming.

Nocking, firing again, I hit it where the heart should be. But the greasy-haired creature kept on.

I just managed to free my sword as it plowed into me.

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