Fiction~~The Last Pure Human~~Ch. 31
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Chapter 31 - Good Max Hunting
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Claws digging into his palms, Kasan watched the shokan panting on
the ground. It was hard not to yell at the thing to get up and find
Max, but he knew it was trying. It looked up at him with pained eyes
and he swallowed. No, not ‘it.’ He. If the shokan was helping them save
Max, he at least deserved some acknowledgement beyond ‘thing.’
And Ando-kees was trying; they could all see that. As soon as his wounds had stopped bleeding, Ando-kees had attempted to rise. His back legs had collapsed instantly, ripping open the stitches on one side. After sewing him back up again, Uncle Frodi finally added a few piercings, warily, watching Ando-kees for any sign that he was about to take a swipe with his claws.
Kasan glanced at the scabbed wound on Ando-kees’ side, searching for the metal hoops that were already gone. He’d always known that shokan nanites were different, but he’d never seen them in action before. Zonta used to blather on about it all the time, the Saviors using what they had on hand to try and combat the kouloc: medical nanites of their own invention, barely more than a prototype themselves, better at healing than destroying the disease. Aosh usually tuned that all out until Zonta starting discussing the technology. A number of species that had caught the kouloc in the end had been used to try and perfect the nanites, but the shokan were the first one it worked on. Maybe only one in four couples made it through the heat, but it was better than none at all.
And the tradeoff in rapid healing was…amazing. Kasan never actually witnessed a piece of metal dismantled by nanites so fast that is was visible to the naked eye.
And he’d never been more grateful to see anything in his entire life. When Ando-kees first collapsed, Kasan had nearly dropped to his knees with him. The big animal was their best chance at finding Max. But now, Kasan could already see Ando-kees gearing himself for another try. The stitches had absorbed along with the metal hoops, and if the healing was just far enough along….
Ando-kees shook as he tried to regain his feet and Kasan held his breath along with the rest of the waiting men. There was an uncomfortable grunt, and the shokan wobbled, but he didn’t go down. He took a step and kept his feet. Kasan met Leero’s eyes and saw the same triumphant rage there that he felt in his own gut: now they could go get Max, and destroy Waran. They had brought in extra weapons, just in case, and most now had a spear in one hand and a long knife or shield in the other.
Kasan glanced quickly at the others around them, making sure no one was there who shouldn’t be. No guards with female consorts or mates – they couldn’t afford to lose anyone who had a chance at having children. Roto was watching Aosh. Tisu was guiding other groups through the city to keep searching. Nolluz was talking with their allies about some problem on Tien’sa involving Max’s family. And Jolan and Ko were directing everything from inside the citadel.
They’d wanted to come, but father had claimed first right in hunting down Shovak now that his people had attacked the family again. Leero stood next to him on the other side of Ando-kees, red collar twisted up on itself and hanging down his bare chest.
Zonta hovered behind them, clutching his spear awkwardly. They’d all tried to get him to stay back, too, but Zonta had simply stared at them as they talked, and then stated that he was coming and he’d accept whatever punishment they deemed necessary afterward. Kasan was farily certain that even if they locked him in with Aosh, he’d find a way out. Better to have him with them, then, rather than unprepared and on his own.
Kasan heard a sharp intake of breath and stared at Andro-kees again. He’d taken another step. The couple dozen cousins surrounding them held their breath. One more step, then another, then three steps without falling. Someone let out a quickly shushed cheer. Andro-kees managed a fourth with a heavy limp, back legs still not working properly, but he was stable. He could move. He could find Max.
Everybody in the corridor quivered, trying to gauge where the shokan was going. It stumbled once and they scattered. The thing might not have attacked anyone yet, but no one was comfortable around it. One irritated moment and a swipe of claws could gut them. Even the Elders, although they had approved, were cautious.
Every man in the passageway had a vial of antidote to the shokan’s poison. It was probably the city’s entire supply.
Ando-kees slowly turned, falling once to lean against the wall, and trundled back the way he’d first come from Kasan’s room. Kasan followed as closely as he could manage, backing off a couple feet when the shokan paused to glare at him before it started moving again. There was silence behind him for a few moments and then everyone else gathered their courage and followed.
He glanced back. Men’s faces just as grim as his own filled the corridor. He hoped they wouldn’t all be needed.
He hoped they could all be trusted more than Waran.
Keeping pace with Ando-kees, Kasan stumbled himself, pain flaring through his veins. He shook his head as Leero opened his mouth to comment. Kasan wasn’t down yet, just…damaged. Even thinking about how close he was to the heat’s edge brought Max to mind and he tried to banish the image. He couldn’t think of what might be happening to Max or he couldn’t function. How easily anyone could restrain the little one, or hurt him, made Kasan froth at the mouth.
Kasan growled low, his hand shaking around the heavy spear. If those fucking bastards damaged one fingertip of Max’s, they’d find out that Kasan was tougher than all of them put together. He wouldn’t leave them with so much as a strip of skin still attached.
Keeping his eye on Ando-kees, Kasan tried to avoid looking down. The dried blood trail from Aosh and Ando-kees had been cleaned, but Kasan knew exactly where it had flowed over the floor. He didn’t want the reminder.
The shokan stopped at a corner, looking between the hallway ahead of them and the passage on either side. Kasan froze. Ando-kees lifted his head, scenting the air. Kasan couldn’t catch even a hint of Max’s scent anymore, but seeing the beast looking brought the sweet smell to mind. It made his chest ache, remembering the strong smell of fear that had laid over it.
The shokan shook out his broad head, fur fluffing around his ears. They flattened against his skull and the eyes narrowed dangerously. Kasan backed off as it growled. With a snarl, Ando-kees turned to the left and stumbled down another corridor, growling as he went, picking up speed.
This wasn’t the way to Kasan’s room; it wasn’t where the blood trail had gone. Ando-kees had them. He’d found Max’s trail!
While everyone came after them, Kyoru sent off a runner to the nearest box to keep the Elders updated on their progress. There were a few hand-held boxes, but no one in Kasan’s group had them. They’d be more useful to the search parties in the city, where permanent boxes were rare and communication would be more difficult.
Leero made his way up to Kasan so that they trotted side by side, scanning the side corridors as they passed, just in case. The shokan paused at another intersection of corridors and picked another direction, then another, then they were on a long stretch headed into the residential quarters. Where the hell had Waran gone? Was this why they couldn’t find him: he was hiding somewhere inside the citadel?
“Max will be all right,” Leero said.
Kasan nodded, gripping the spear tighter and ignoring the pain enveloping his body to keep up with Ando-kees.
“We’ll find him, Kasan. I let you down before-”
Kasan glanced at him while they moved. “Don’t be ridiculous. When have you let me down?”
Leero’s ears were flat against his head, the too-bright green of his mid-heat eyes highlighted by the deep red of the collar around his throat. A flush covered him from his face down to the mounds of his chest. “You would have died in that cell, if Max hadn’t been brought to you.”
“That’s Shovak’s fault, not yours.”
“And now…you’re newly mated. I’m the one who’s responsible for the guards when you’re otherwise occupied, Kasan. I’m the one who should have seen what Waran was, but I- I can never apologize enough for what my own negligence has brought to you and your consort.” Leero’s voice was a whisper at the end. He stared after the shokan like it offered salvation. Kasan whipped out a hand and slapped the back of his hand against Leero’s chest with a meaty thump.
“Shut the hell up, Leero.” Leero stared at Kasan, his face looking almost as feverish as Kasan felt. “It is not your damn fault for anything but letting Max go when he pissed on you. Shovak is at fault. Waran is at fault.” I’m at fault. “But not you.”
Leero blinked at him with too blank eyes.
“Leero?” Kasan had to turn away for a moment to follow the shokan as it turned another corner, and Leero looked a little less dazed when he looked back at his face. “Leero…how long have you been in heat? You’re not close, are you? Don’t you fucking dare come along on this if you’re too close and-”
Leero shook his head. “No, it’s only been a few days. I’ve got over a week, yet.” He rubbed absently at the spot Kasan had slapped. “And I know what I’m culpable for, Kasan. I’m responsible for my own actions.” He turned his eyes to Kasan, not even looking where his feet stepped. “I just wanted you to know that no matter what happens, I’ll make sure Max is all right. I’ll watch out for him, if he… if he can survive without his mate.”
Kasan looked back behind the others behind them, wincing. He had to believe Max couldn’t contract the kouloc or he might go insane. “Thank you,” he said, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat. “I’d rather you take care of father, first. He shouldn’t be coming. Shovak might have something planned.”
Leero stared back at the Lord King as well; he got a questioning eyebrow quirked in his direction from the larger man jogging behind them, and then they both faced forward. “I’d never be able to stop him; he’s too stubborn. But I’ll stay close.”
Kasan was moving too quickly to thank him again. He wished he could take the undeserved guilt out of Leero’s eyes, but he settled for nodding and following Ando-kees further into the residential area. If they were lucky, maybe Max’s disappearance had been discovered early enough that Waran hadn’t been able to leave the area. If he and Quim had been thinking of stashing Max away until things died down, they wouldn’t expect to be found, not with the citadel’s defenses in place.
They wouldn’t think to be careful about a shokan sniffing them out.
Kasan’s lips compressed to the point of pain and he doggedly followed Ando-kees around another curving corner.
“What the hell!” Someone had come out of their apartment and let out a shocked scream at the sight of Ando-kees. Kasan knew that the Elders had sent word out, but coming face to face with a shokan was shocking no matter how well prepared you were.
One of the guards stopped to urge the man back into his rooms until everything had been taken care of, or go offer his services to some of the other search parties already in the city and other areas of the citadel. A few more women and men poked their heads out – all the rooms were residential in this area – and Kasan let the others field the questions. He was following the shokan, feeling a growing urgency to find Max and ensure that he was all right and unharmed. His belly burned acidly.
They made a few more turns and Kasan suspected he knew where they might be headed. Someplace few people would look, that would be out of the way. He growled under his breath as the corridor they were on curved around to the right and Kasan saw the doors to one of the family storage rooms come into sight. Ando-kees headed straight for it.
“We’ve fucking got him, Kasan,” Leero snarled.
Kasan couldn’t even nod; he was vibrating with the need to get to Max. They were almost there. There was only one exit from the storage room. Max was in there. But if Waran were cornered, he might be more vicious. He might try to hold Max hostage…he might be capable of anything if he didn’t even care if Aosh were killed.
Ando-kees stopped at the door, looking back at Kasan. He didn’t paw it, but his impatience was clear.
At least he’d make a good distraction. “I’m going straight for Max.” Kasan didn’t need to say it; everyone had already figured out what their role would be, whether their trail led to a room or a hunt through the city. But somehow getting the words out, and hearing them, helped center himself.
He would get Max out unharmed.
Leero nodded. “And I’ll guard your back.”
The men piled up behind them and Kyoru stepped up next to Leero and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll guard your back.” Leero jumped at the touch of his hand, looking back up behind him. That wasn’t what they’d agreed on. “They aren’t getting a chance to harm another of my sons.”
Leero took a shaky breath – his eyes were glowing green now with the dimmer light outside the storage room – and nodded. “We.”
Kasan tightened his hand over his weapons, and kept his voice low as he turned behind him. “Keep a look out for the guard inside. He might not be involved, but don’t take any chances.” The others close enough to hear nodded – he saw Niku and Davin near the front - and Kasan heard the order passed back to the others.
As soon as they triggered the door, the heavy slab slid open. Andro-kees leapt inside. No one yelled out in surprise, and Ando-kees didn’t act as though he saw another soul, so Kasan took a chance. Rather than scan first with Leero from the other side of the doorway, he simply went in low and silent, slipping to the side. He saw Leero and his father shift to the other side and knew the men would be coming in behind him. Ando-kees was already bounding down one of the aisles and Kasan tried to scan everywhere around him while he kept up.
The broad desk in the corner was empty, and the brief glimpse of the aisles he had before he was running down one of them were empty as well. There was no sound other than his breathing, the shush of his loincloth against his legs, and the faint brush of bare feet against the stone floor behind him, his men spreading out to check the other aisles.
Max was silent. Kasan’s claws emerged, digging into the haft of his spear as he imagined what it would take to keep Max that quiet.
Ando-kees turned a corner among the high shelves and Kasan followed, staying low, counting on Waran’s shock at seeing Ando-kees to give him warning when they’d found him.
There was still no sound. Kasan couldn’t smell them. And with no sound and no scent, Kasan’s hackles were rising. What was wrong? Why couldn’t he smell Max? Even with the citadel trying to rid itself of the scent, there should be something with Max still in the room.
Ando-kees couldn’t have lost the trail, could he?
Another corner and Kasan realized they’d reached the end of the room. Expecting Ando-kees to turn left or right, he wasn’t prepared when the beast stopped dead. He had to throw himself backward not to run into it. He heard Leero and his father do the same behind him.
Ando-kees didn’t move, staring at the wall, blocking Kasan’s view. For a horrified moment, Kasan couldn’t breathe, sure that the animal must have discovered Max. Max in some condition that he wasn’t making a single sound, not even the soft sigh of his breathing, and that’s why-
He shoved Ando-kees out of the way, slamming his shoulders against its side and ignoring the growl. His lungs started working again as he realized there was no small, broken body on the floor. Kasan shuddered as he struggled, gasping, unable to move as his heart tried to restart.
Nothing but the wall. Thank God.
But…nothing but the wall. Where was Max?!
Ando-kees gave another growl and bumped Kasan out of the way so hard he stumbled and nearly fell onto his ass. The shokan sniffed along the edge of the wall and finally started a frantic digging at the floor with his nails.
Pain flared in Kasan’s veins, coursing through his body, and Kasan bent over at the waist, panting his way through it. Leero and his father were at his side by the time the heat spike finished. Ando-kees was still digging at the wall. A few of the other men had made their way through the aisles and were making negative signals for finding anyone.
“What is it doing?” Leero whispered. “It acts like they’ve gone through the wall.”
Ando-kees paused, looked over at them with a rather scornful expression, and went back to digging. Kasan stood behind him, staring at the wall, a suspicion growing in his mind that he didn’t even want to contemplate.
The citadel was riddled with secret tunnels to various Havens, but there hadn’t been a complete list of the havens for centuries. Every once in a while they stumbled over one, and the booksters worked on the mechanism for opening the doors. But that took weeks, sometimes even months, to do. If Waran had escaped into an unknown haven, he and Quim could already be out of the city with Max.
Kasan didn’t have weeks to figure out how to get through this damned thing. And the thought of what the purists might do to Max in the meantime….
“Shit!” Kasan slammed his hand against the wall, pressing his head against it until his ears crumpled. Ando-kees continued scraping his claws against the stone, favoring one of his legs. The sound grated against Kasan’s ears. The men were collecting behind them, emerging from aisles up and down the room, still finding nothing. The shokan’s dedicated clawing made Kasan sure that there wouldn’t be anything, or anyone, for them to find.
He clenched his eyes shut as Ando-kees let out a small, mournful howl. The rhythmic scraping of his claws didn’t let up for a moment. Turning his head, feeling his eyes tear at being so fucking close but stopped by his own damned home, he snapped at it. “Stop it, you stupid beast! You can’t-”
Kasan caught a whiff of Waran’s scent against the wall and his nose twitched.
He hadn’t detected it until he was up close to the stone, but it was definitely there. Bastard must have triggered the secret door himself; the citadel always did take longer to get the scent off the walls.
Kasan inhaled again, eyes widening.
It took longer to get the scent off the walls.
“He’s touched this section of the wall,” Kasan murmured. His head snapped back and he turned, grabbing Leero. “Here, put your hand right here. Don’t move it!”
Leero laid his hand over the spot while Kasan pressed his face close to the wall and started to sniff in great bursts of air. He shouldered Ando-kees to the side again. It made a growling harrumph and then sat on its haunches and watched with flat eyes.
“Kasan, what are you doing?”
“I can tell what he’s touched. There’s still enough scent left!”
Leero leaned forward to sniff next to his own hand and shook his head. “Glad we have your nose with us,” he murmured.
“So am I.” Another block of stone was bright with scent “Here! I need someone to mark this spot, too!” His father stepped up and pressed a hand against stone. Kasan looked up to find him grinning fiercely.
Kasan grinned back, just as feral; all he could think about was sinking his teeth into Waran and getting back Max.
He had more of the family mark two other spots as he found them, finally stopping after he went over their section of the wall twice more. Ando-kees watched them all carefully, not growling at anyone who touched the wall, but narrowing its eyes at everyone else to keep their distance. Rui hunted down some sticky strip to mark off the four blocks of stone. One of Kasan’s cousins went to the box outside the door to keep the Elders and Jolan updated again and arrange for more help. If they had to leave the citadel and enter a Haven, who knew how many people they might have to be dealing with?
Before they’d finished with the sticky, Zonta moved up to the blocks of stone, staring at it. Mumbling under his breath, he almost bumped into Leero without noticing until Leero got out of his way. Ando-kees tilted his head oddly to watch, nostrils flaring, and Kasan was glad Zonta barely even saw the animal. It might break his concentration. Baby brother hadn’t yet deciphered the patterns to open any of the lost escape tunnels – he’d been too young when the last one was found – but Kasan knew he’d researched it.
Most littles dreamed of finding one of the lost Havens and making it their secret hideaway. Zonta and Aosh had been worse than most, when they’d been small. Between the two of them, they’d probably researched more about this than all the archivists put together. With Aosh unconscious and injured, Zonta was the best hope they had.
“Can you get it open?”
Auburn hair curling in frazzled strands near his forehead, Zonta nodded curtly. His eyes hadn’t lost the strained look they’d developed since he’d seen Aosh bleeding all over the floor.
“What do you need me to-”
“I need you to be quiet.” Zonta answered before Kasan even finished the question. He sighed and rubbed his hands back over his ears once, closing his eyes. “Please.”
Ando-kees turned his head to stare at Kasan and bared a fang at him before watching Zonta again. After a deep breath, Zonta stepped up to the wall and tapped at the blocks, one after the other, changing the order each time and pausing after each try. His ears flattened against his head the more attempts he made that failed. Kasan’s tail started lashing and he accidentally hit Zonta’s leg.
Zonta tensed even more. “I’m going as fast as I can, Kasan.”
“I know.” It was just that Max was in trouble and he wanted to be after him now.
His father pulled him away. “Son, stay calm, remember?” Kyoru said softly.
Kasan breathed deeply, doing his best to ignore the pain in his limbs and his gut, and worse, the thoughts of Max and everything that could happen while they were trapped behind this damned stone wall.
Another minute passed, Zonta steadily working his way over the blocks as they all let him be. When another minute went by with no change, Kasan gnawed at his lip to keep from saying something, but he couldn’t help it in the end. “Zonta, how long-”
“Most of the tunnel triggers in our citadel use a block only once, which means with four blocks, there’s only 24 combinations. Since you were able to identify the triggers, it won’t take long to check.”
Kasan caught the edge to his voice and swallowed. “What about if we might have to touch a spot more than once?”
“Then it’s over 200 combinations. Which means I don’t have time to talk to you about it and lose my place, so please, Kasan, be quiet.”
Kasan waited impatiently but held his tongue, even when another wave of pain would have dropped him to his knees if not for Leero and his father’s support.
When he heard the sliding grind that was the wall pulling back, at first Kasan thought it was his imagination. But Ando-kees flattened against the ground and Kasan crouched automatically in response. Zonta stumbled back, startled even if this had been what he’d been trying to achieve.
Kasan slid to the side. Ando-kees hadn’t leaped through the doorway and Kasan was worried as to why. There was always the slight chance that someone was coming out, or lying in wait just inside the tunnel opening.
He didn’t have a chance to see anything other than the open corridor stretching on ahead of them, however, because Ando-kees suddenly leapt through the opening. He stumbled, his hind leg nearly collapsing, then righted himself and limped quickly down the passageway.
“Dammit, wait, beast!” The animal ignored him and Kasan swore under his breath. “Zonta, stay here and wait for the others. You can come in with one of their teams, but I need you to tell them where we’ve gone. We have to keep up with the shokan.”
“We’ll box you if we can.” Kasan heard his father murmur. “We’re not keeping you out. Just come with the next group of guards. Stay safe.”
Zonta’s protests faded behind Kasan as he trotted forward to catch up with Ando-kees. That was the best they could do for his brother, keep him out of the main fight and leave him part of the clean up. Hopefully.
If they were lucky, they’d be able to find a working box in the haven. Hand-boxes didn’t work inside them, not well enough to reach anyone in the citadel. But there were always a few on the walls. It was whether they worked or not that was the issue.
The tunnel sloped down, lights dimmer than those in the citadel. The floor wasn’t as uniformly smooth, either. This had to be one of the earliest havens; all but the first few matched the citadel for color and polish. Kasan tried to see ahead past Ando-kees, but the tunnel had a slight curve that wove back and forth. There were no doors or side tunnels.
Ando-kees moved quickly, but his first few bounds had slowed to a rapid, limping walk with pauses to sniff the air. Crude placards decorated the walls every few feet and Kasan read them quickly as they went past. Encouragement, advice about how to close the tunnel doors behind them if raiders were in pursuit, details about supplies and where to find them in the Haven. But no information that was useful. No actual map – probably didn’t have that until they’d made it into the Haven itself.
And it wasn’t as though they knew where Waran was holding Max. They’d need the shokan’s nose for that.
Ando-kees slowed and Kasan stumbled, pain putting a bob in his step. His father and Leero were right behind and caught him between them, helping him through it. “You should go back and stay with Jolan, father,” Kasan gasped out, trying to move – he couldn’t lose Ando-kees and the shokan wasn’t stopping. With a wobble, Kasan managed a few steps, gritting his teeth until the pain ebbed to a dull burn.
“Worry about yourself and your consort, Kasan, not me. I’m doing what I need to do.” Kyoru let go so Kasan could continue under his own power.
Kasan didn’t try to argue again. He knew his father well enough to recognize the body language. Ears flat, teeth bared – he wasn’t going to change his mind.
They continued in silence, long minutes of breathing and sweat and dust scented air. Kasan kept his eyes forward, banishing thoughts of Max in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. His little one was down here somewhere. They’d find him. They had to.
Kasan had panted his way through two more nasty heat spikes by the time the tunnel finally led to the Haven. He only realized how lucky they were when they passed the massive door designed to seal it off from the citadel in case of slavers or invaders. If the purists had bothered to close this door rather than rely on the Haven remaining a secret, Kasan never would have made it through.
Swallowing, Kasan slowed to match Ando-kees’ pace. The scents of the place changed, now. People, food, a small hint of blood and urine. Ando-kees walked carefully, but he didn’t pause as he followed his nose through the doorway and to the left. Kasan glanced right into the empty hallway and went after the shokan. A placard with a map was up on the wall opposite the entrance and Kasan tried to hiss at Ando-kees to stop so he could look at it, but the beast ignored him.
Cursing, Kasan paused long enough to get an impression. He cursed again almost immediately. This wasn’t one of the small emergency havens. This was one meant to house a good portion of the population. It was huge. He scanned for areas that they might need to know: dormitories, cells, kitchens and, most important, exits and entrances. He stumbled after Ando-kees, hearing the same annoyed cursing from the men behind him as they tried to pick up details from the map. He thought he heard someone pulling out a hand-comp to sketch it out.
The corridor they were in now was as dimly lit as the tunnel leading to the citadel, but there were numerous doors and hallways leading off from it. Everyone was tense and growing tenser, keeping watch for anyone who might catch them unaware. The longer they remained undetected, the better it would be for Max. Kasan didn’t want Waran or anyone else to think they could use him as a hostage.
Following Ando-kees straight down the corridor as they crossed another side passage, Kasan turned to whisper to his father. “I-” There was a shout from the right.
Everyone but the beast stopped. Three purists stood flat-footed in the middle of the side hallway, shocked. Two of them charged and the third turned to run.
“Shit!” Kasan and Leero looked at each other and gave a quick nod. Kasan ran after Ando-kees with half the men, and Leero took the others to the side with Kyoru. They had to keep anyone from knowing they were there until they found Max!
Kasan heard them meet each other, a short scream, grunts and scuffling, and he caught the iron tang of blood before he and the others were too far to sense any more. But Leero and Kyoru didn’t come up behind them immediately. Kasan’s shoulders tightened and he focused on Ando-kees to keep himself sane.
If they didn’t catch that one who’d fled, and if he somehow got word to Waran that they were here…
They had to find Max now.
“Kasan…” Davin stepped up to him with his consort, Mick. They kept him from stumbling against a wall that he hadn’t even realized he was close to. Both their eyes were worried. “You can rest here. We’ll find the little one. You don’t have to-”
“I need to find Max.” Kasan pulled himself free, barely, and stumbled again behind Ando-kees. “Can’t you go any faster?” he muttered at the thing. It looked back at him and stumbled itself, barely picking up speed, but it was something.
He could hear Niku murmuring to Davin and Mick behind him but he ignored it. Max was the only thing that mattered. As long as he stayed upright and moving, following Ando-kees, he’d find Max. Eyes on the shokan’s feet, part of him noted the small details around them through a haze of pain.
The walls were still rough and gouged, done speedily, early work when slavers were still a huge threat. The lights remained dim. The dust at the sides of the corridors disappeared with a wide clear space in the middle of the hallway. He knew some of his men would be making small streaks in the dust up close to the edges of the hallway, to mark the way for Father and the others when they came. But the lack of dust in the middle matched what Kasan was scenting in the air. This hall was well traveled.
This wasn’t simply a large Haven; it was a large Haven with a large number of people. Kasan couldn’t even imagine how many people would willingly engage in betraying the family; he hoped most of them were outsiders. Not that it made them any less of a problem, but better that than they end up fighting members of their own families. And no matter what, they might have a real fight on their hands. More people meant it could take longer to get to Max. It meant more time for them to hurt Max.
Better for them all if this place was empty as a tomb.
Another spike of heat sliced through him and Kasan felt his spear slipping in his hand as he convulsed. He clutched at it, keeping his feet by sheer luck. He tightened his other hand and realized that he’d dropped his knife. Niku picked it up and placed it back into his hand with another murmur about stopping.
“No.” He had to focus, no matter that his body felt battered from the inside out.
One single mistake could make the difference between finding Max, and finding Max’s body.
Kasan dug his claws into his spear and knife, keeping them clamped in his hands, and controlled his growling, turning another corner.
They came to another branching of tunnels and Ando-kees hesitated, head raised in the air, before taking the left fork. Kasan would never stop thanking his aunt for making them heal the beast, as long as he continued to lead them to Max. With the length of the tunnel leading to the Haven, he was sure they were already directly underneath the forest. Trying to go out of the citadel and finding the Haven from above would have been impossible at this time of year. The shokan had their litters early in the season and they were wildly protective and hyper-aggressive over the pups.
And the tosa made it worse. They were usually harmless, clearing the detritus off the forest floor, but if they ever ran across a shokan pup they would kill it if they could. The shokan tended to patrol the surrounding forest to ensure there weren’t any of the pink leaf-eaters too near their den.
Trying to get a group of Kyashin through the forest in these conditions, dodging maddened shokan and hunting for a Haven that had been lost for hundreds of years – impossible. Max would be lost without Ando-kees.
Kasan tensed as they turned a corner and the shokan crouched down. He could hear voices approaching from the side: another passageway. The others behind him paused, noticing the shokan, but he didn’t think they could hear the voices yet.
He passed the word in a hissing whisper and they all crept up to the hallway, including Ando-kees. The large beast was hot next to Kasan, panting next to his face, and it stared forward before looking back at Kasan with its intense amber eyes.
“They took Max straight?” he whispered. The thing stared forward again, bunching its muscles as though it were going to leap despite the group coming. Kasan made a quick decision and whispered to the men behind him. “You five – with me. The shokan looks like he’s going to cross the corridor. If he does, follow. I’m sure we’ll be seen. If we’re lucky, they’ll come after us and the rest of you can surprise them here. If they run for help…you need to go after them yourselves. But I have to stay with Ando-kees and find my consort.”
They nodded, and sure enough, a few seconds after he finished, Ando-kees shot across the hallway, Kasan and the guards he’d chosen right behind him. There was a startled break in the purists’ low conversation. His ears could pick up soft, rapid footsteps following.
And then shouts as the purists were jumped when they rounded the corner, thinking they would be able to follow Kasan and get the jump on him. He tried to ignore the fighting behind him; Niku was with them. The old guard knew how to keep his head; he’d make sure they made it through. He hoped the sounds were soft enough that no one else would know what was coming, though.
With a jerk, he turned right as the shokan suddenly veered into a long, narrow side tunnel. This place smelled even more used. Lived in, and there were enough scents around, filling the air, that Kasan had trouble distinguishing any one individual. But they were closer. The scent was strong enough that he knew the guards behind him to could smell it, too. Kasan could hear his men breathing, but no one said a word as they crept down hallway after hallway.
One last hallway and suddenly the shokan lowered his body to the ground, creeping forward now in a sinuous glide, the limp gone. Either he was ignoring the pain, or he had actually healed up already. The beast started towards an open doorway on the left hand side. Kasan could hear the murmur of voices again. He gestured back at the others to let them know.
And then he caught Max’s scent. Just a hint, but it was the first time since they’d left the citadel and the small hint of fear and sweat with it made Kasan see red. If they’d hurt him…
If they’d caused the smallest, most insignificant bruise…
The shokan slowed. They spread out, staying out of sight from the doorway, readying themselves as they drew closer. Voices echoed up the corridor – either it was a very large room, or they were down another hallway - and Kasan focused on them as they crept forward.
“...heat-blinded moron! You didn’t even check its cage!”
“It’s not my damn job to maintain the cells!”
That was Waran! Kasan almost leapt in ahead of the shokan and caught himself only because he stumbled against it. Ando-kees glared at him and then carefully oozed around the corner. Kasan followed and saw an open doorway at the end of a short hallway. There was movement inside, more than the people currently arguing, but no one cried out. None of them had glanced down the hall yet. Ando-kees eased forward ahead of Kasan. The men and Kasan inched behind him.
Don’t look this way, Kasan thought. Just keep arguing.
“You will go find the Elders, Waran, and explain to them exactly how you managed to lose the human!”
“No I damn well won’t! You’re the one who’s in charge of the cells!”
“A competent Kyashin would have double checked all the cells before he took care of his heat, not try to make excuses after the fact!”
“Are you calling me incompetent? You-”
There was a snarl and Kasan saw a streak as one body jumped on another. The other men in the room tried to intervene, focusing on the fight, and Ando-kees and Kasan’s men sprinted forward.
Ando-kees leapt through the door with a screaming snarl. Kasan snarled just as loudly as he sprang after him. Everything was a focused blur. Ando-kees streaked past the fight, into a darker area with broken light globes. Kasan heard a scream and a small laser pistol discharged into the ceiling. Another man on the side was bringing up a laser pistol to bear as Davin and Mick charged him. Waran was turning from his fight with a blond cat to face them. Two of the others with Kasan leapt at the blond, and Kasan went for Waran.
Waran was trying to bring a gun of his own to bear just as Kasan slammed into him and brought them both to the floor. The pistol clattered to the ground.
He could hear his men fighting, snarls and grunts echoing in the room, along with a shrill scream as Ando-kees roared, but most of his focus was Waran. Shocked, familiar eyes looked up at him, eyes that Kasan had trusted. They both snarled and went for the throat. Kasan took a punch to the side of his face, avoided one in the throat, and smashed Waran’s head against the ground. He let himself take the battering from Waran’s fists, welcoming the pain as he clawed at the man’s skin until the smell of his blood was thick in the air.
They rolled over once, Waran getting the advantage for a wild moment and then Kasan managed to slam his elbow in an arc against Waran’s head hard enough to stun him for a moment, getting a knee between his legs and snarling as felt it connect. Waran slumped back, dazed and gagging.
Kasan slammed his hand against Waran’s throat, claws out and embedded in the skin. Just a little more pressure and he could rip out the bastard’s throat and bathe in his blood and Waran would never, ever hurt Max again.
He almost did it. He wanted Waran to suffer. Pain slammed into him again, the heat searing his body. Kasan yanked his claws free just before his hands convulsed into fists as his muscles locked. He recovered before Waran realized what was happening. The room was quiet except for murmurs and a pained groan from the back.
Shuddering, Kasan pushed himself off and grabbed the spear Davin handed him. He hadn’t even realized he’d tossed it away, so focused on getting his claws into Waran. Kasan clenched the weapon tightly. He couldn’t kill him. Max wasn’t in the room, so they still needed to find him and Waran knew where he was. Breathing in gasping pants, Kasan swiveled his ears.
He could hear one of the guards giving a wounded man the antidote for shokan poison – Ando-kees hadn’t held back - but he didn’t know if it would really matter. With the size of his claws, Kasan couldn’t imagine the wound would be minor. But no one knew if the purist had a mate or consort who was innocent in this; they couldn’t let the man die. Not until they knew.
But there was no fighting, nothing that needed his attention but Waran.
“Where’s Max?” Kasan snarled.
Waran looked up at him, one eye swelling shut, blood running from both nostrils and out the corner of his mouth. It ran in rivulets down his body from clawed gouges in his torso and arms. His ears were going crazy atop his head.
Kasan pushed the spear up to the man’s throat, pressing in against the soft flesh underneath his jaw. Waran and Shoru were in on this together; Shoru could give answers just as easily as Waran, when they found him. Kasan had no compunction about wounding him fatally. None at all.
“Where is my consort? Where is Max?”
Waran swallowed and looked to the side at the doors lining the room. For the first time, Kasan noticed the locks on the outside of the doors. They were cells! Maybe Max was silent because he couldn’t hear them!
“Max? Max, are you there? It’s Kasan. You’re safe now!”
A disembodied voice spoke as Waran clamped his lips shut. “He ain’t with you?”
Kasan’s eyes snapped to the wall next to him, frowning at the familiar sound coming from the other side of the door. “Shoru?”
“And the prince wins a prize. Goody for you, dumbass. Now let me outta this shithole.”
“Let you out…” Keeping the spear tight to Waran’s throat, Kasan looked up at the door and realized it was bolted from the outside. “You’re a prisoner here?”
“No shit.” Kasan was so surprised he couldn’t speak. Shoru snarled through the door. “What, you think I’m actually with this asshole? Like I’d do something that stupid.” There was a litany of incomprehensible grumbling curses that gave Kasan time to wrap his mind around Shoru being held prisoner. “And before you go there, ‘cause I know you will, I’ve never been with Waran and whatever jack-assed, dick-brained plan he has to mess with you and yours. Fuck. Who gives a shit if you’re a throwback or not, doesn’t make you any more an asshole than every other bastard I’ve met. Or any less, obviously.”
Kasan opened his mouth and nothing came out. He still thought Shoru was an ass. But if he hadn’t kidnapped Max….
“So let me outta this damn cell already!” There was a snarl and a thump against the door.
Kasan focused more completely on Waran, noting the nasty little spark in his eyes as he glared at Kasan, even with the spear pressing in hard enough that a drop of blood was beading up. Kasan pivoted the spear, whipping it around in his hands to hit Waran in the head not quite hard enough to kill him. The man collapsed against the wall. Kasan nodded to Mick and they opened the door to Shoru’s cage. He stepped back, holding the spear, as Shoru came out. Kasan couldn’t quite stand to think that Shoru had actually been innocent in all of this, not completely. Not yet.
Shoru came into the light of the room and Mick sucked in his breath. Someone had beaten the ever-loving shit out of the man. One of his ears was torn, his face was a wreck, and his chest looked more spotted with bruising than patterned fur. He walked with a careful limp, and watching him, Kasan didn’t think that was from a fight. Shoru looked down at Waran and kicked the unconscious man in the side before spitting on him.
“See how much they believe your shit now, asshole.”
Kasan swallowed, shaking his head. Shoru wasn’t…Shoru wasn’t part of this. And Waran had betrayed them all…it was too much to deal with at the moment. He needed Max.
“Where’s Max?” Kasan couldn’t keep his voice steady. Shoru looked up from Waran with another less-than-casual kick in the side.
“He went to find you.”
Kasan’s stomach dropped to his toes. “What?”
“He escaped.” Shoru spit on Waran again and kicked him viciously in the ribs. Kasan heard one of them crack. “Skinny little rail, ain’t he?”
“But…he never found us.” What had happened to Max?
Shoru paused and snorted. “Yeah, somehow I figured that one out.”
Kasan grabbed Shoru by the shoulder and ignored the man’s wince as he spun him around. “Where did he go?!”
“The hell should I know?” Shoru jerked back, ears flattened. “It’s not like I got out and held his hand for it! Just figured he’d have a better chance outta the cells so I told him how to escape and he made a run for it. He was supposed to try for the citadel. If he didn’t make it, it’s not my fucking fault!”
Kasan stared at him a long moment, while Shoru’s scowl got deeper and his ears went flatter. He’d…tried to help Max. Kasan still disliked the man, but…he’d helped Max escape from the purists.
“Thank you,” whispered Kasan. He reached out a finger and touched Shoru’s lips and Shoru stumbled back, his eyes popping wide.
“Hey, none of that shit! I mean it!” he sputtered angrily. “You don’t like me, and I sure as hell don’t like you any more than I used to, so back the hell off.”
Kasan nodded and stepped back, swallowing as he realized that if Max wasn’t here, he could be anywhere in the haven now. Or out of it. They’d been so close, dammit! They-
Shoru kicked Waran one last time, ignoring Kasan now, and walked over to the cell next to his. He turned the lock.
“What are you doing?” Could Kasan have been wrong? “Who-?”
“Nobody you know. Don’t worry, go get your damn consort. Anyone can see that your dick’s about to fall off, it’s so swollen for that ass.”
Kasan growled under his breath. The door opened slowly and a small body hurtled out of the cell door at Shoru. Kasan almost shouted, stepping forward with his spear up only to find himself staring at a young throwback male who had wrapped himself around Shoru’s waist, whimpering. The little one had a thin, black tail that curled defensively around the youth’s thigh.
“Well fuck. Hey, kid, none of that shit now. You’re outta the cage, just like I said, right? These guys won’t do shit to you like the last ones. They’re assholes, but no worse than any other asshole.”
The boy seemed to be trying to burrow itself into Shoru’s skin.
“Fuck.” Shoru sighed heavily and glared at Kasan as he put one hand over the smaller head nuzzling his waist. “Look, see, one of them is just like you, and they don’t beat him up or anything.”
Kasan blinked as a small, dark head turned to look at him. He winced as he looked into those eyes: total and utter distrust. The little one’s back was covered with bruises and striped with scars. Kasan swallowed.
“What…what happened to him?” Kasan whispered.
“What do you think? Same thing that was gonna happen to your consort. These purist psychos take samples from his body to do their shit genetic testing, and then they beat on him when they get in a bad mood. Fuck, what do they do to him – what a fucking stupid question.” He turned down to the kid. “See? He’s so stupid he doesn’t even know people are that shitty. You got no worries with him. Why don’t you let go and hang out with one of these bastards, eh? They’ll take care of you.”
The young Kyashin shook his head and buried his face against Shoru again.
“Oh for the love of- Fine, hold on like a fuckin’ chicken-shit lirling for all I care. See if it makes a difference.” Shoru crossed his arms and stood there, glaring Kasan as though daring him to laugh at him. Kasan had no problem swallowing a smile. The sight of what they’d done to a little wiped any mirth from the situation.
And they’d been planning that for Max? He shuddered, the pain in his body indistinguishable from the hollow ache in his chest.
Kasan looked down at Waran’s unconscious body and barely contained himself enough not to kick him as well. Dammit, Max was all alone now, among these insane monsters. He had to find him.
“Do you know which way Max went?” he asked hoarsely.
Shoru shrugged. “Made it out the main door here, I’m pretty sure. That’s the only way out. I told him to try for the underground tunnel back, but if he didn’t find that, then I’d guess he’s still in the base, or he got out into the forest.”
“The…the forest? But-” No. Not out with the shokan ripping apart anything that came near their territory. Max would have no chance. He was so helpless, and he’d been counting on Kasan to take care of him and-
Kasan’s tail began to puff out against his will. A low, whimpering growl started in his throat.
The shokan came out from the shadows at the end of the room where it had been watching and Shoru seemed to see it for the fist time. “Holy shit!” He shoved the kid off him and back into the cell before turning to face the beast. Claws came out of his fingertips.
Kasan blinked. He felt numb, disconnected as he stared at the claws. “You’re a throwback,” he murmured.
Max was out in the forest.
“Do you see a fucking tail?” Shoru snapped, eyes on Ando-kees. “Just got the claws, and what the fuck is wrong with you…why the hell is that thing not ripping you apart?” His ears quivered up and then back against his head as he tried to figure it out. He wouldn’t let the youngster out of the cell.
“He likes Max,” Kasan said quietly. His chest burned as though someone had ripped out his heart. Max….
Shoru looked at him. “The shokan likes your consort, and that’s why he’s not killing you? You realize that sounds insane?”
Ando-kees walked up and sat next to Kasan, staring at Shoru. The boy peeked out from behind him and Shoru shoved him back into the cell again, arms held up defensively. With a soft whuff, Ando-kees made a small head bob and backed away a few steps. When it didn’t make another move, Shoru finally started to relax. The small throwback peered from underneath one of Shoru’s elbows, still not saying a word, and wrapped his arms around Shoru’s waist again.
Shoru sighed and rolled his eyes. Kasan noted his jaw tightening as he looked down and patted one of the emaciated arms holding onto him.
“Here, we’d better get you back to the citadel and get you some damn food, kid, or you’ll never grow. You don’t want to be as short as Kasan, now, do you?” The little one looked at Kasan and slowly shook his head. “Okay, then c’mon.”
Kasan looked at Ando-kees and found the amber eye trained on his own face. “You can still find Max, can’t you, beast?” he whispered. He had to believe that. Kasan shoved the terror for his consort down into his stomach and stared at Ando-kees. He heard Shoru moving toward the doorway behind him. “We don’t have the rest of the base secure,” Kasan pointed out hoarsely.
“I can find my way back just fine. Trust me, they’re not going to get the drop on me again.” Shoru kicked Waran one more time and the unconscious man groaned. “You guys can set him up in the cells, right? We still got at least a couple years before the heat ends.”
Kasan swallowed, nodding. He didn’t turn to watch them go. Staring at Ando-kees, Kasan groaned as another spike hit him hard enough to have him stumble against the wall. The adrenaline had helped him fight off the pain for a few minutes, but this spike was hitting him like a falling tree. He sank to his knees.
“Kasan?” Davin came over and he waved them off.
He managed to grit out, “Heat spike. Don’t worry.”
“But to be that bad, you need to-“
“Need to get to my consort.”
Davin nodded slowly. The guards spoke amongst themselves as Kasan pushed himself up off the wall. They had all the men in cells by the time he managed it. The one left bleeding by Ando-kees had a bandage already around his abdomen. It would be up to his nanites to see if he healed well enough to survive.
“We can come back for these ones later,” Mick said. “We want you to know…We’ll help go into the forest to find Max, if he made his way there. We won’t abandon him.”
Kasan nodded, shaky and grateful beyond words. Ando-kees seemed to take their words as a sign and finally headed out. Kasan supposed he should be thankful it hadn’t left while he was trying to pick himself up off the floor. At the end of the hallway, Ando-kees paused and turned left, the opposite direction that they’d come from. Kasan caught a wisp of Max’s terrified scent and pushed himself forward. He had to believe Max was all right. There was no other possibility.
“I can’t believe they would do such a thing to a child,” Davin murmured behind him to another guard.
Kasan didn’t respond, but the same horror was in his mind, too. Mistreating littles, betraying the family – he’d always thought the purist group was misguided and bigoted, but he’d never thought they were insane until the last few days.
He stumbled and instead of a Kyashin arm steadying him, Kasan fell against Ando-kees. He automatically reached out to grab hold and touched the fur on it’s back. It was surprisingly soft for being so bristly. The animal looked at him, made some strange kind of sound – almost like a small yip – and waited to move again until Kasan had recovered himself.
Kasan sucked in his breath as he looked down the nearest wall, a corner before another corridor intersected their own. A small set of footprints marred the dust by the wall, side by side. He reached down to touch them. Max had been here; he must have been looking around the corner before he moved.
“Just keep being careful, little one. We’ll find you.” He rubbed his fingers over the spot and stood up with a lurch as he heard voices. Ando-kees whipped his head around to stare at him. The voices were coming from around the corner, and even Kasan could see from the small scuff in the dust that Max had gone in that direction. And there were more voices than the seven of them could fight.
They’d have to hide.
They started to creep back down the hallway, listening as the words grew clearer.
“Don’t know why they’re taking so long to bring the little mutant.”
“They sent Zoru.”
“Oh fuck, you’re shitting me! Why would they even do that?”
“He’s Elder Sean’s son.”
“So what? The other Elders know what he’s like! I know the throwbacks are abominations, but there’s no reason to beat on that kid as often as he does. Gonna kill him one of these days. And they think he’d be safe to take the human to the lab? Fuck. You should of told me; we’d better hurry and make sure the damn thing’s okay.”
Kasan stumbled back down the hall, the others half-dragging him as they dashed down a side corridor and around another curve, holding their breath until the men had passed. Kasan cursed under his breath as he and the others came back out and followed Max’s trail again. Any minute now, they’d reach the cells, find them empty of the prisoners they were supposed to have, and word would be out. And Waran might be free…fuck!
But they had to find Max. They couldn't stop to fight more people than they could win out against and chance leaving Max to these bastards. And if Max was up in the forest already – no, he’d be fine. He was small, and quick – they’d all seen that in the Greeting room. Max just had to hide until Kasan found him.
And more men would be coming soon from the family, might already be here helping clear out this nest of insanity. They were so close.
Another corner, and then another, and then Andro-kees paused, his head swiveling back and forth as he searched the floor. Kasan looked down and caught another of Max’s footprints, the small imprint of a toe. And then another overlaid on it…from the same foot – had he come this way more than once? Kasan looked up at the placards on the walls, seeing directions back to the citadel and for the nearest exit up into the forest. He wished he or Zonta had taught Max to read. At least he might have been able to find the passage back.
As soon as they found Max, Kasan was making sure the little one wouldn’t be in danger from his own ignorance ever again.
They turned, following Ando-kees, and this time there was no warning. A group of men came around the corner and they ran into them so fast that one of them literally bumped into Ando-kees and his surprised yell was cut off as Ando-kees batted him against the wall. They were fighting in the thick of things in seconds, battling a group of men the same size as their own. Kasan caught a glancing cut off his forearm when he was too slow to block it, and was almost gutted before Ando-kees knocked another attacker off his feet. The others took care of the rest, but not without a few more cuts and bruises.
Kasan swayed on his feet, pain ripping through him again as the adrenaline pumped through his veins, and Mick came towards him, concerned. Kasan waved him away again. The five guards looked at him and pulled back to talk on the other side of the intersection. He wasn’t sure they wouldn’t try to force him to go back – he knew he’d nearly got himself killed, he’d been so clumsy during the fighting. But he wasn’t damn well leaving without Max!
He leaned against Ando-kees. “I’m not going back,” he murmured. He opened his mouth to say more and choked as men burst out from the side hallway separating them. They didn’t seem to see Kasan, leaping around the corner and over the other fallen purists to attack the other guards. Shit! They must have heard them fighting!
Ando-kees jumped into the fray, managing to get one purist from the back before they realized he was there, but then he had to leap back to avoid being gutted by a spear.
Kasan tried to join them, but another stab of pain hit him so hard he dropped to his knees before he could take a step. He planted his palms on the floor, trying to move, and almost died yet again as a purist got by Andro-kees and stabbed down. Kasan managed to roll in time to get his spear up and the man impaled himself.
Kasan shuddered as he pulled the spear free. Ando-kees backed up and let him lean on him. They faced the few men who weren’t after the other five guards, bodies lying limply on the ground around them.
Davin shouted, not visible through the mass of bodies. “Kasan, just go!”
“Not a chance in hell,” Kasan shouted back. God, there were too many of them.
Mick yelled back. “Go! You can’t fight them! GO!”
Kasan looked at the mass of bodies. If he and the others had been on the same side, they could have backed into a defensible space and held it until help came, but divided, he didn’t see how they could succeed. “Pull back, then!” He yelled, pulling back himself. They were on Max’s trail still. He and the shokan might be able to make it. He couldn’t leave Max out there alone, but to leave them like this….
Kasan glared at the spot – he knew that tone of voice. They weren’t going to pull back. They’d keep at the purists to try and force them to stay and not to follow Kasan. And nothing Kasan was going to say could stop them. Damn those stupid, self-sacrificing idiots.
Kasan closed his eyes, feeling the sting in them that he blinked away. But he had to rescue Max. He was his consort’s only chance.
“You’d better not get your sorry asses killed or I’ll come back and kick them down this whole hallway!” Kasan yelled back.
He heard a chorus of agreements, telling him the same thing, and then he and Ando-kees backed down the hallway as fast as they could. Only a few purists followed them – probably didn’t want to face a shokan and couldn't understand why Kasan was right next to it, unharmed.
Andro-kees and Kasan backed around a corner and took two of the purists as they tried to follow. Both fell with a scream, bleeding. Another fell at the next corner. Ando-kees’ claws and Kasan’s spear blade were red. He wiped the blade clean on his loincloth as he continued to back down the hallway, but minutes later, there was still no one following down the hallway. Whatever courage their pursuers had had left them after losing men to a shokan…or they left to get reinforcements first. Cursing, Kasan stumbled on with Ando-kees, picking up the pace. He couldn’t keep thoughts of just how many people he loved were in danger right now; he’d go insane.
He concentrated on moving as fast as he could, instead, following Andro-kees. After a number of turns, they tracked Max’s trail until they hit a staircase heading up to an exit into the forest. They followed it up just a few steps before it ended in an old cave in. Kasan swallowed the lump in his throat, looking at the rubble. Peering into the small area, Kasan could see a few smears along old dust where Max had crawled in. And gouges where other Kyashin had tried to drag him out.
Had they succeeded?
“Max? Are you there? It’s safe now. You can come out.”
Kasan didn’t really expect an answer. He couldn’t even hear breathing, so there was no reason why he should be disappointed that Max hadn’t answered, but it still hurt. Andro-kees prowled at the base of the rubble, grumbling and growling, and Kasan despaired over what to do next. Did someone else have Max, or had he made it out? Standing there, swaying on his feet, Kasan tried to use his numbed mind to actually think, and he felt a thread of air snaking down through the jumble of rocks. It smelled strongly of flowers and dark earth.
Someone had left the door open to the forest. It had to be Max. No one else would be that ignorant. He’d made it into the forest.
Kasan’s skin felt like ice over the heat inside his veins. Max was out there, alone. Not being tortured, but the other shokan….
“We have to find another way up.” Andro-kees looked at him and they both climbed down the stairs. Kasan looked at the small signs in the hallway and found another exit, only a few hallways down. They made it all the way up to the doorway outside without seeing another soul. There was no guard – who would even find the doorway, from the forest side? – and Kasan stared out into the woods.
The air was thick with the smell of the forest, so thick that Kasan could barely smell the shokan next to him. They wouldn’t be able to track Max until they found the other exit, but he thought he knew where it would be. He’d tried to keep track of the turns underground so he could pinpoint it above.
Kasan took a deep breath and looked over at Andro-kees. It was just the two of them. “All right, shokan. Let’s go get Max.”
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