Iced, page 3part #10 of Valos of Sonhadra Series
“Akshiba...” Bodybuilder whispered.
His expression of wonder turned to outraged anger as his head slowly turned toward me. A growl rose from his throat. Wrestler placed a restraining hand on Bodybuilder’s chest, preventing him from advancing towards me, and spoke to him in an urgent tone in a language I didn’t understand. For the first time since my arrival on Sonhadra, I kicked myself for not having learned the local language like the others had.
I tapped my chest and shook my head in the negative, while pointing at the alcoves, praying they would understand I had nothing to do with it. While Bodybuilder’s shoulders relaxed, and he unclenched his fists, I believed Wrestler’s words—more than my pathetic pleas—had swayed him. They continued talking for a moment when I caught the word ‘human’ amidst a sea of foreign words.
“Yes!” A spike of hope shot through me as I frantically bobbed my head in agreement and tapped on my chest. “Human! I’m human!”
But what if they hate humans?
Eyes wide, I held my breath while my fingers tortured the fabric of my tunic. They exchanged a couple more words, and all signs of aggression bled out of Bodybuilder. His gaze slowly roamed over me, studying me like an odd insect under a microscope.
Wrestler took a step forward, and I stiffened.
He pointed a finger at me. “Human,” he said, with his deep, rumbling voice. Gesturing between him and Bodybuilder, he said, “Valos.”
Oh, God yes! He’s trying to communicate!
I nodded with great energy. “Yes. Human,” I said, pointing at myself.
Wrestler put his hand over his heartstone. “Duke,” he said before turning towards his companion and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Zak,” he said.
Those are their names. How oddly human!
“Duke,” I repeated pointing at him. “Zak,” I said pointing at Bodybuilder, then placing my hand over my own chest, I said, “Kira.”
Duke tilted his head to the side and said, “Kira.” A slow smile stretched his lips, revealing two rows of razor-sharp, white teeth.
I couldn’t say if it was the deep, somewhat gravelly texture of his voice, the way he rolled the r in my name, his feral grin, or the stress of the day finally taking their toll, but I suddenly felt weak in the knees. A single thought kept replaying in my mind.
I’m so fucked.
The small female reeked of fear. She had awakened my protective instincts, and they demanded I appease her. Her eyes lowered to my mouth, and her throat worked as she swallowed audibly. I realized my sharp teeth probably made her uncomfortable. Lydia had often teased her mate, Qaezul, about not using them to eat her. She no longer minded them, but Kira would need time to get used to us.
That implies she would stay with us.
My mind bade me proceed with caution. Where did she come from? How had she found our lost tribes that we had all but given up hope of ever tracking down? How did she know of this place my brethren and I had not discovered in over a thousand years?
When the secret door first opened, and I saw her standing there, my heartstone nearly imploded thinking the Creators had returned. She could have been Tarakheen’s daughter. Our Creator had a similar pale complexion, pointy nose, and hair texture as Kira. If not for her smaller stature and softer features, she could have been one of the Strangers. However, the Strangers, and their leader, Tarakheen, had chiseled, angular facial features and notably bigger eyes than humans.
Her ignorance of our language, but especially that negative head gesture Lydia so often made, convinced me she wasn’t a Creator. But where had she been all this time? Lydia had come to us five moon cycles ago. No other human who had survived the crash of her prison had reached E’Lek alive. A few corpses in their orange prisoner clothes had washed up along the river. The Hunters and Gatherers had also found a few half-eaten corpses on the plateau while harvesting produce that couldn’t grow or thrive in our frozen lands.
And where has she acquired those clothes?
The fabric of her tunic and footwear wasn’t of human fabrication. While the pattern of her coverings screamed of questionable tastes, the material itself rivaled those used to make Tarakheen’s dresses and other outfits.
There would be time to get answers later. For now, I needed to send Zaktaul away from her. I no longer worried he would harm her, but the two of us towering over Kira terrified her. As much as I ached to go check on our people, I needed to get the situation with the human under control first.
“Go assess the situation of the tribes,” I said to Zaktaul. “I will handle the human and check for others.”
“Yes, Duekeln,” Zak replied.
As soon as he stepped forward, Kira moved back until the wall stopped her retreat. Her chest rose and fell in quick succession as she eyed his approach. Zak kept close to the railing, as far as possible from her, which seemed to alleviate some of her fears. I felt grateful for his considerate behavior.
Her gaze followed his retreating back as he headed for the alcoves, then flicked back to me. Communicating would be a challenge we’d need to resolve quickly.
“Kira, one human,” I said, raising a finger before her. I raised a second finger and waved at the room. “Two humans?”
She stared at my fingers, looking slightly confused at first until understanding marked her features. Judging by her expression, and the way she bit her bottom lip, I realized she wanted to lie. I narrowed my eyes at her, and she swallowed hard again.
After a short hesitation, she appeared to come to a decision. She raised one finger and said, “Kira.” She raised a second finger and said, “Amber, human,” before pointing out the window at the cave’s entrance.
If she meant a human named Amber was outside in the blizzard, then her companion had likely perished, if not from the elements then from the creatures that preferred hunting during the storms when the lack of visibility allowed them to catch their prey unaware. But Kira wasn’t done.
She raised a third finger. “Mishal, valo.” And a fourth, “Pel, valo.”
I frowned, wondering if I had correctly understood that two valos had been with her.
Kira pointed outside, then showed me three fingers and repeated, “Amber, Mishal, Pel.”
She then made a whistling sound like blowing wind and covered her eyes. She once more pointed outside then, bowing her head, she placed her palms in front of her, as if to protect her face from strong winds. I understood they had been walking through the blizzard.
The petite female raised three fingers on her right hand and named her three friends, then raised one finger on her left hand. She placed both hands side by side before moving them apart.
She got separated from her friends in the blizzard.
I nodded in the human fashion. While it had become second nature for Qaezul to use these gestures learned from his mate, I rarely did, aside from the shrug which I found handy in many situations. Kira’s shoulders relaxing, and her careful smile, told me it had been the right choice. But I needed to know more about Pel and Mishal.
“Valos?” I asked, showing two fingers.
She nodded and rummaged through the pocket I hadn’t noticed in her tunic. My eyes widened at the sight of the fiery glow stone.
“The City in the Caldera?” I asked, not hiding the surprise in my voice.
It was her turn to look stunned before her smile blossomed. A strange feeling stirred in my belly. Kira’s voice distracted me from dwelling on it.
“Yes,” she said. “Mishal, Pel, Amber, and Kira kaim frum Caldera to E’lek.”
I didn’t understand half her words, but her gesture in a straight line, when she said the name of our respective cities, made her meaning clear.
What could Fire Valos possibly want from us?
These questions would have to wait until her translation device understood me. At least it explained her Creator clothes and how she learned to operate the hidden switches.
I cast a glance a
That odd but pleasant feeling stirred again in my belly, and my heartstone warmed. She looked so different from Lydia, whose dark skin and puffy hair still fascinated us. Her skin never changed color like Kira’s just did. Then again, maybe it did but its darker shade kept it from showing. I found myself wondering how the texture of Kira’s hair would differ from Lydia’s.
But more importantly, I wondered how she would fare in our cold climate.
In the months that followed Lydia’s arrival in E’Lek, she had told us much about her homeworld and that humans came in different shades, heights, and sizes, with ethnic traits that distinguished the different cultures that made up the human race. I couldn’t have imagined such a notable difference.
Gesturing for her to follow me, I moved towards the other rooms of the hidden laboratory. While I didn’t think she had lied about being alone here, I needed to make sure the location was secure and that nothing would jump us while Zak and I tended to our people. I especially needed to know if other members of my family had survived.
It took little time to complete the tour of the lab. Aside from the sink in the kitchen still being wet, the place hadn’t been used in a while. It supported her claim that she became separated from her companions during the blizzard, which only started hours earlier.
And it will last at least another two days.
Kira shadowed me from a safe distance, although the space between us had decreased since I first began exploring the rooms. Discovering the backdoor into the underground tunnels that ran the length of the vast frozen plains above left me speechless. The odds of stumbling upon this entrance had been slim to none. It was a blessing that Kira and her companions should have been traveling in this area just as the blizzard struck.
And a greater blessing still that Zaktaul and I should have sought refuge here.
She eyed Zak warily as we joined him by the alcoves. My heartstone throbbed looking at so many familiar, loved faces we had believed forever lost to us. Without the human, we might never have found them.
“Something is wrong with them,” Zaktaul said in a somber tone.
My head jerked toward Coelvek, the U’Gar tribe leader, frozen in the alcove before us. At first, I saw nothing wrong with him, then a slight swelling and darkening skin around his heartstone casing caught my eye. Zaktaul gave me a quick rundown of his findings about the state of our kin. The sickest valos had been grouped in small chambers, divided by tribe. The first room contained my people, the A’zuk tribe. The second room contained Coelvek’s U’Gar tribe, and the last two rooms housed respectively the O’Tuk tribe and the I’Xol tribe. The central room mixed the healthiest members of all of the tribes combined.
That’s why they haven’t made their heartstones inaccessible.
Before they returned to the stars where they came from, our Creator, Tarakheen, and her people, the Strangers, had trapped our heartstones so we couldn’t reach them; leaving us mindless servants with no master to follow. Without Lydia’s blessed arrival, we would still be trapped in our endless hibernation, dying one by one. But our kin of the lost tribes couldn’t free themselves from these prisons. Even if they did, whatever was causing the infection spreading through them would finish them off in time.
“We must inform the others at once,” Zak said.
“Agreed,” I said, “but we cannot travel until this blizzard calms.”
Zaktaul gave me a shocked look. “Wait? With such news?”
“There’s a reason we stopped in this cave, my brother,” I said with a patient voice. Zaktaul was always eager to take action. It sometimes made him impulsive and often got him in trouble. “The tribes have been here a thousand years. Their heartstones still shine bright. Two more days will not make a difference.”
I turned to look at Kira who was looking at us with concern, unable to understand our words.
“She also won’t be able to keep up with us, and it would be unconscionable to make her travel under these conditions,” I added.
Zaktaul gave her a once-over, and she hugged herself, realizing we were discussing her.
“Then you stay with her,” Zak said. “I will return with the Elders in three days.”
From his stubborn expression, Zak wouldn’t be deterred, so I didn’t waste my time arguing. Alone, it would be easier for him to reach the city safely and dodge any creature lurking in the blinding snow. Although he belonged to the Miner class, he had become a Hunter once the gems and ore beneath the city had been stripped bare. In spite of his bulkier mass, he had learned to move swiftly and efficiently, detect prey and predators, and the best tactics to take them down or avoid them. As a Builder, I couldn’t make similar boasts.
“Very well,” I conceded.
Zaktaul faced Kira, although he addressed me. “Will she require sustenance until then?”
Once again, my heartstone warmed at the unexpected, considerate offer. Kira would indeed need food, especially if her appetite even remotely compared to Lydia’s. I would have gone into the tunnels to seek some small prey and hoped not to stumble onto anything massive, such as an orzarix, but he would fare a lot better than I would.
“She will,” I said, before giving him a brief summary of what she had told me about getting separated from her companions, including the two Fire Valos.
“All the more reason for me to return to E’Lek and warn the others of incoming visitors,” Zaktaul said. “They can send out a search party if they don’t show up after the blizzard has calmed.”
On this point, I agreed. Curiosity gnawed at me as to the purpose of the Fire Valos. At least, they should be able to look after the other human.
“I will go hunt for the female,” Zak said, heading for the backdoor.
“Thank you, my brother,” I said, touching two fingers to my heartstone in a gesture of gratitude.
I watched him until the massive door closed behind him, then turned towards Kira. Her yellow-green-blueish eyes locked with mine and, for a moment, time stood still.
Perched on the awkwardly high dining chair, I watched Duke chop up the animal Zak had brought back from the tunnels before taking his leave. I didn’t quite know why Zak had left in such a hurry, in the raging storm, to return to E’Lek—at least if I’d understood correctly. Although I wouldn’t admit it, I was grateful they hadn’t forced me to face the blizzard and especially grateful that Duke had stayed with me.
He still freaked me out... a little. But it beat being alone with over a hundred frozen valos, lost in the middle of nowhere, with vicious creatures eager to eat a piece of me. It also spared me the worry of some other valos stumbling in and going berserk when they laid eyes on me.
I couldn’t quite reconcile Zak’s initial, aggressive ‘I want to pound your face in’ reaction, to this generous food offering. He’d ventured into the tunnels on his own and returned maybe half-an-hour later with what looked like a cross between a goat and a midget sheep with shark teeth. They called it a rikshu, or something along those lines. It was big enough to feed both of us for a few days. I didn’t even care about the lack of salt here; at least I wouldn’t starve for the next couple of days.
My eyes kept stealing furtive glances at Duke while he methodically skinned, cut, and sliced the animal, not with a knife, but with his own hand morphed into a crazy sharp ice blade. His alien face struck me as oddly attractive with his broad forehead, square jaw, and that taunting, plump bottom lip of his. The way his muscles rippled and danced with each movement had my mouth watering even more than the promise of food.
I couldn’t understand why my mind kept wandering back to naughty territory. Romantic involvements—or friends with benefits—shou
But for all the butterflies that Duke’s scrumptious body and handsome face elicited, his constant babbling had to be the biggest turn-off of the century. The man simply wouldn’t shut up. I wouldn’t mind so much if I understood what he said, but I didn’t! Every time I pointed it out to him, he would give me an indulgent smile, nod in understanding, then carry on like I hadn’t said a thing.
The contrast between the calm and dignified valo that had kept his buddy in check left me reeling. Once in a while, I’d think I’d recognized a word but it would drown in the endless flow of his verbal diarrhea. So, I tuned him out and made no effort to hide it.
That didn’t faze him. At. All.
I stopped counting how many fake trips I made to the bathroom for a reprieve. His amused smirk told me he wasn’t fooled. He’d go quiet while I made my exit, granting me a few moments of blessed silence. The minute I returned, he’d droned on again. Bewildered, I didn’t know whether to yell at him to shut up, walk out, or just cover my ears with both hands. The worst part was that he didn’t even seem to care about the stories he couldn’t stop telling. His voice, although beautiful, spoke dispassionately, like a student reciting a lesson he needed to memorize.
When he finally finished with the meat, I picked two thick steaks for myself and asked him which pieces he wanted. He indicated that he didn’t eat. That came as no surprise since the Fire Valos had also lost the need to eat once the Creators had transformed them into valos. Duke gave me a disappointed look when I insisted on cooking my own food.
Halfway through cooking the meat, I decided I’d had enough. His eyes widened, their glow intensifying as I marched up to him and covered his mouth with my hand.
“Quiet!” I hissed. “Not another word from you. Enough!”
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