Dud the Fourth

“Val’Tia, seventeen,” Val’Tia said with a bow of her head.

Zeibs were identified by the number of people they killed. Their leaders were those of highest rank.

Val’Tia held a sword in each of her four hands. She was standing in the center of a combat arena. The arena was an oval, surrounded by stands that were packed with spectators. Standing on the gritty sand opposite her was a large male Zeib, with dark bronze skin, wearing nothing but a loin cloth. Hav’Nek had a white handprint on his face, that was a blessing to him from his master, the Baroness.

“Hav’Nek, two-sixty-seven,” he said, grinding his horse sized teeth as he attempted a smile but it came out as a sneer instead.

Two-hundred-sixty-seven kills made Hav’Nek elite. If number two-hundred-twenty-two hadn’t been murder he would still be leading a fair sized tribe of his kind. Hav’Nek wasn’t sad about that though. His sentence had been bought by the Baroness, who gave him the ability to keep killing. Bottom line he hated leading, loved killing.

Val’Tia had broken the laws of the space station Sanctuary, and was now to be put to death. That tended to be through execution, but since a Zeib can only be guaranteed a place in the Afterworld by dying in combat, Hav’Nek asked the Baroness to intervene.

Val’Tia was as good as dead either way.

The tone sounded to start the fight, and Hav’Nek caught glimpses of microdrones buzzing around sending video footage to different broadcasts, but mainly the projection that hung above the arena to make sure every spectator got a full view.

Most important to Hav’Nek was making the Baroness proud. She was the only spectator that mattered to him. He engaged Val’Tia, seeing three different openings he could have dispatched her in, but taking none to draw the fight out and make a good show.

The faster she attacked the more the world slowed down. Hav’Nek was once one of the best pit fighters on his home planet, and this duel was hardly even a spar. He had trained with and defeated the best..

To him the slightest twitch of her muscles gave away her next move. He let her weapons pass between his arms, listening to the gasps of the crowd. Parrying her attack he kicked her away. She stumbled and fell. He made a long, slow, executioner’s swing to give her enough time to dodge.

When she got to her feet, he resumed the dance. As slow as everything felt to Hav’Nek, from the outside it all happened in a blur.

Dud, a Terran crew mate of Hav’Nek, sat with the Baroness. Like Hav’Nek, Dud was also a slave. On the prison planet Dud grew up on he was trained to never get into a physical fights with Zeib’s. Most situations he was taught to just avoid Zeib’s. They weren’t much for bartering, but they were big on killing.

Sitting there next to his owner, he couldn’t get over the speed of Hav’Nek. The four armed man looked like a whirlwind of death. He was a spinning blur that Dud struggled to even track.

Two minutes into the fight, Hav’Nek sliced Val’Tia’s top right arm off at the elbow. At no point did she make a sound while she continued the fight. Her florescent green blood, that was so thick it was almost a gel, dripped to the floor of the stadium.

It was clear that Hav’Nek could finish the fight at any moment, but continued to prolong Val’Tia’s existence. Each time they clashed she slowed, her life flowing out of her.

Dud found it strange that this was a Zeib’s way of caring; to kill someone slowly.

Val’Tia dropped her weapons and fell to her knees. She crossed her remaining arms over her chest and bowed her head.

“May your victories be many, Hav’Nek two-sixty-eight,” Val’Tia said.

Hav’Nek took post beside her and raised one of his swords high into the air before slashing clean through Val’Tia’s neck.

Her head fell from her shoulders and the crowd went wild. The main screen showed her green blood oozing from her body, while all around Dud people jumped to their feet to cheer the combatants.

Dud, still fascinated by the computer wrapped around his forearm watched a stream of betting payouts. The odds were stacked in Hav’Nek’s favor, but people bet down to the fraction of a second that Val’Tia would be killed.

He had considered asking Hav’Nek to end the fight at a certain time, but cheating, like all crimes committed in Sanctuary, were punished by death. Sanctuary was a space station that housed thousands of people and served as a safe haven for a group of solar systems called the Commonwealth. This was necessary because the Commonwealth was a set of systems that no major civilization existed in, and was populated by pirates and mercenaries. It was a place that existed without any actual laws, and where anyone could set off to if they wanted to avoid the governing bodies of any other system.

The Baroness never got to her feet. She continued to sit as everyone celebrated the fight. Dud followed her lead and stayed seated. A Stiation female in purple robes walked in front of Lillith and then disappeared into the crowd.

Lillith took Dud’s hand and panic shot through him. She rarely touched him, and from what he heard of the outcome of all of her partners he feared her contact more than he did a Stiations.

Put that under your tongue, Lillith communicated to him through the metal implant at the base of his skull called a SLET. In Dud’s palm was a small gummy object about the size of a pupil. Dud didn’t hesitate, since he liked his brain in solid form, and placed the gum under his tongue. Immediately the gum molded to the bottom of his mouth and permeated into his body.

His head kicked back and his neck stiffened from an electrical current pulsing through the back of his neck. He covered his eyes, but it didn’t stop the swirl of images and words from passing through his vision.

“Let’s go,” Lillith said, getting to her feet. The crowd parted for her while the two of them made their way out of the arena stands.

They traveled down a corridor and to a bank of tubes that carried people through the Sanctuary at high speeds. A few minutes later they had arrived in Lillith’s personal apartment, a luxury that was worth most planets.

Waiting for them on arrival was her synthetic BOB.

“BOB, run a sweep for me,” Lillith ordered.

BOB, stood just as still as he had been when they entered, but a few seconds later he spoke in his sickly smooth voice. “You are safe to speak.”

“Then may I ask what I just put in my mouth, Baroness?” Dud asked.

“An information pellet. Information is genetically programed into the pellet, which is then absorbed by the body and relayed through the electrical signals of the body to the SLET. I had you take it in case it was poisoned and then took the information from your SLET.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said, but didn’t mean the thanks part. He had come to expect death at every turn, but the issue with always expecting it is once it becomes the normal status quo its harder to notice. He understood he was her property, and she would use him to shield herself from danger, but for just a few minutes he wished he could let his guard down.

“My dearest Dudley, we’ve got a new job,” Lillith said.

All the details flooded into Dud’s mind. A Terran emissary needs an escort through the Commonwealth. The emissary was going to travel through the Commonwealth on a Stiation ship, but she needed to keep her identity a secret, the best cover was to be the newest slave in Lillith’s group. No one questioned Lillith in the Commonwealth, nothing would guarantee no questions like being in Lillith’s crew.

“You won’t have your ship on this mission,” BOB said.

“Thank you, BOB. It is neccessary to have it appear to my brother than I am still on Sacntuary.”

Despite the fact that Dud had pretty much never seen anything he was seeing these days, a Stiation Cruiser was about as mind blowing as it could be. They were taken to the Cruiser in a small skiff like the one that had tried to pirate them, but the Cruiser was a sight to behold, both inside and out.

On the approach it looked like a fat arrowhead. Tallest at the top then fading into a narrow point. Dud didn’t get a chance to lay a hand to the outside, but it looked like a dull gray flesh, nothing like the Terran metal ships he had seen at Sanctuary. The last time Dud had seen the color of the Stiation was when he had seen a man drown back on Terra-One.

Inside the Cruiser Dud confirmed his suspicion that it was skin on the outside of the ship. His first three steps were full of caution as the spongy floor of the ship sunk ever so slightly with each step. An inch above the floor there was a hovering mist. The veins in the walls stood out against the gray flesh that made the corridors. Dud guessed the ship grew to its present size, as the corridors were in no way symmetrical.

“Keep up, Dud,” Lillith said, as he trailed her and Abastia through the hallway of the living ship.

Leaving the others behind seemed strange to Dud, since his second life had begun he had been with them. The plan was built for everyone to think Lillith was still on Sanctuary, but Dud felt vulnerable without the full crew. Especially knowing he was always the expendable one.

A voice came echoing through the corridors in Stiation, which Dud couldn’t understand, but based on tone and pacing he was pretty sure it was a count down. Not knowing what was being said, he continued following Lillith since he didn’t want to do anything to cross his owner.

Dud wondered if he was walking through areas that were similar to the WORDS in his own heart, just on a much larger scale, which made him them wonder if the animal ship thing felt him like Dud did when he had something caught in his throat. He tried not to wonder what would happen if the ship coughed him up in space.

Abastia and Lillith stopped as they entered a large oval room that was higher on the sides and sunk in the middle. Dud, with his head still searching in child like awe, walked into the back of Abastia who wrapped her long fingers around his arm to steady him. His heart took off waiting for some form of hell to course through him, but nothing happened other than the cool touch of her skin against his.

The walls of the central room were different than the walls in the corridor. They had a pinkish hue, covered in wrinkles and there was a slight crackle of electricity in the air. This was the command deck for the Stiation Cruiser, with two dozen Stiation’s at different stand-up stations.

A male Stiation came forward with a Terran female to meet them. She was identified as Jahnavi of the Kotapati and was the Terran they were hired to escort. They exchanged words with Lillith and ignored Dud and Abastia as if they were nothing more than breathing statues. After a small discussion Lillith sent Dud and Abastia to a room to wait in.

Dud wanted nothing more than to explore, but he knew he had to stay where he was put or risk death for disobeying. Since he wasn’t told he couldn’t sleep and Abastia wasn’t the creature he cared to converse with he decided to close his eyes and take a nap until he was called on again.

He wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but the wake up call was not one he expected.

The entire ship shuddered as an impact ripped through the entire hull. Dud was knocked from his feet, and as he caught himself on the floor he felt a sticky liquid creeping up his hands. The goo was cool on his skin. When he got to his feet there was already a foot of the gel filling the room.

He wanted to ask questions, but he knew better. Else in the room was panicking from the growing liquid level. Having no frame of reference for how to handle such a situation, Dud decided to do nothing.

The goo crept higher than his hips, then shoulders, then he truly felt a moment of fear as he couldn’t keep his mouth out of the rising liquid. He didn’t like the way the thick gelatinous goo felt sliding into his mouth. He held his breath as long as he could, but eventually his lungs won out and he had not choice but to inhale the mass that was filling the room and climbing over his head.

To his surprise it wasn’t like when he had fallen into the Trench and almost drown, his lungs worked the liquid in and out as if it was nothing more than air. It did require a little more effort to inhale and exhale, but from what he expected his lungs to have to fight, he was more than pleasantly surprised.

And he must have shown it on his face, since the baroness was smiling at him through the clear goo, which may have been the first time he had seen her smile.

It made her look far less terrifying, which wasn’t to say she didn’t still look terrifying, but just hat she was slightly softer, like a knife with a pretty handle.

Then there was a vibration. Not one he could hear but one he could feel. In his core. Like his own heart was the source, but he could feel it all around him, through him, and then there was nothing.

He was weighless. The world had gone black.

Then a speck of light. A flash. Like the stars were trying to signal him.

He was most definitely no longer in the Stiation ship. His entire room of people was floating with him through the vast nothingness in only the liquid blob that had surrounded them all.

Something in the back of his head said he should be scared as he hurtled toward a planet, but all he felt was the cool penetrating caress of the goo around him. For a moment he pondered if he was out of shits to give, or if there was some type of drug in the gel that was creating the euphoria.

Then the darkness was broken by a blinding light as they crashed into the atmosphere of a planet. As red fire burned around their encasement, he couldn’t grasp why the gel wasn’t heating up, or breaking apart. He had seen enough shooting stars to know what happened to objects that hit an atmosphere. And it was nothing good. Nothing good at all.

Somehow, beyond his realm of reckoning they passed through the atmosphere and into a night sky, hurtling toward the ground.

In all the falling and spinning and other motions that should have probably cost him his lunch, he was facing straight at the ground they were approaching. Somewhere in the back of his head a hardly whispering voice said put up your hands to catch yourself. It was totally asinine but he did it anyways.

He braced for impact. But the goo touched down as lightly as an insect on a flower. As if it hadn’t just been moving at asteroid speeds a moment before.

There was a brief moment as the goo ball reverberated with the settling, and then all at once it melted away into a puddle on the ground around them.

Dud dropped to his knees and began expelling the remaining gel from his lungs. It wasn’t until he looked up at the night sky that he knew where he was. He was home. Back on Terra-One.

The last place in the universe he ever wanted to be again.

Dud got to his feet and went to Jahnavi of the Kotapti and lended a hand to get her to her feet. Her hand was delicate on his forearm, but he could feel the power in her grip. She wasn’t as tall as most the people Dud had seen at Sanctuary, but she was nearly eye to eye with him. And those eyes. They were a steel gray, like metal untouched by air. Pure, and strong. There were dark lines snaking through the steel gray as if her pupils had sprouted roots.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No need to thank him, any more than you would a chair for letting you sit,” Baroness snapped, and Dud removed his arm from the Princess.

Jahnavi didn’t respond but gave him a wide smile, one that couldn’t be faked, He wasn’t sure if there was anything about her that could be faked. Which seemed totally out of character for a person of royalty, and made him question if she was just really good at faking everything.

Dud took in a deep breath of the familiar air. He hadn’t noticed the difference between what he inhaled here and what went through his lungs back on Sanctuary. He wondered if other pods might land around them, but it seemed like it might just be the four of them.

Abastia was still crouched with her knees high in the air like a frog ready to hop, while here beady eyes scanned in the darkness.

“Do we know what planet this is?” the stiation asked.

“I have no idea what we were near when the ship jettisoned us,” Lillith said.

“Were we just shit out? Was that how it works?” Dud asked.

“We have more important things to figure out, Dud, than give you a lesson.” Lillith snapped.

Dud shot her a glare, it was probably the most bold action he had ever taken against her, but for once he had the upper hand.

“The more important question is who attacked us and why?” Dud said his eyes darting between to two human females. He had a princess and the baroness with him, it was hard to say which was the higher target.

“I’d rather figure out where we are and find a way off this rock before whoever is after us comes looking,”

“We are on Terra-one, about ten kilos from where you picked me up,” Dud responded.

“How can you know that?” the baroness asked.

“First that star is called the Guiding Light, it never moves no matter the season. Second we are in the barren but not the desert. This area only exists in a small section around the Trench. Third that constellation is the Big Spoon. Fourth the air tastes like it always has. Do you need me to continue or do you trust that I know my home?”

Baroness just glared at him. Her piercing blue eyes would have been making him tremble, except he knew what reason number five was.

“You call Terra-One home?” Jahnavi asked.

Not knowing much about the universe didn’t mean he was too dumb to understand the connotation of calling a prison planet home.

“I was born here. Now might I suggest we head for water since we have no supplies or equipment and we are going to need a plan to make it anywhere that we can call for help from,” Dud said.

“I can just signal BOB,” Baroness said.

“Unfortunately you can’t. I am not even sure if you can melt my brain right now. The owners have many defenses set up against technology. Namely you can’t call out or in from Terra-One. So, before we are in need of water, I vote we are going to the Trench and from there we can figure out our best options.”

There weren’t any good options. He wasn’t ready to tell everyone that yet though.

“I will follow you,” Jahnavi said.

Even in the dark it was clear to see the grimace on Lillith’s face. Her teeth shone like bared fangs. Dud knew he would pay for this dearly, but at least for the first time in days he could think without worrying about his brain frying, even if it was on the shit hole that was Terra-One.

“Take us to the water then,” Lillith said, somewhere halfway between an order and surrender.

“If you guys want to live long enough to get to the water, make as little noise as possible when we hit the tree line. Night time is not the best time for us” -he shot a look at Abastia- “fleshbags to be wandering around.”

Dud looked at the sky for just a moment to get his bearings and set off at a jog. He knew Abastia would have no trouble bounding along and the two other humans would be augmented for speeds far beyond his range so no one should have trouble with the pace.

The barrens were an interesting area. They weren’t sand desert, but dried mud plains. Some of the mud flakes were as big as a rhinophant hoof, and others were as small as a hand. The cracked lines running through the dried flats gave them the look of shattered glass, if glass was brown and not transparent.

What he found more interesting was each step he took in the direction of the Trench his old senses rekindled. He could practically count the hairs on his arms from his heightened senses. The one thing that always held true on Terra-One was you were always hunting and being hunted at the same time. The Flats weren’t as bad for nocturnal predators, but if he had suggested his group camp there until light, they would have been dead by morning.

In the trees, they might not make it that long. But there was a chance they would see the morning light.

His best chance of survival would be to leave them as soon as he hit the tree line. They might all be stronger and faster than him, but none of them would be able to navigate the jungle in the dark like he could. Then he’d have three easy pieces of bait to distract whatever would come.

Only issue with that was if he let Lillith die, he would unlikely ever get off Terra-One again, and there was a chance the SLET would still kill him in the process. Neither of those outcomes sounded appealing to him so he would have to do his best to keep her alive. The other two time would tell.

The flats eventually gave way to short grassy patches, which in turn led to taller grass, which then became thicket, and shortly following they found themselves in a dense jungle of trees. The canopy was so thick is blocked out all the stars so Dud stopped to let his eyes adjust. To his dismay, and great strike against his pride, he was the only one breathing hard when they entered into the jungle. The good news was they were nearly halfway to the Trench and nothing had tried to kill them yet. Bad news was they still had a ways to go in the pitch black with plenty of predators to track them, not to mention the fact that the Trench alone was filled with plenty of things to kill them.

“Why did we stop, Dud?” Lillith asked.

Dud turned to face the three females. His eyes were adjusted to the dark, and he could see them on in the soft gray that night fades to when ones vision can pick up just the faintest of light. The two Terran stood tall and proud, and Abastia had returned to her animal like pose, sniffing and watching the dark.

“If you haven’t noticed it is a lot darker in here and there are a lot of things that will literally eat you alive. I’d like to see them coming,” Dud responded.

“Just hit the flashlight on your wrister,” Lillith replied.

“I’m not an idiot despite what you might think. Any form of light will attract all sorts of trouble, from any number of things trying to kill us.”

He was in fact an idiot. He didn’t know his wrister had a flashlight, but the reasoning to not use it was all the same.

The smell of rot was normal under the canopy as there were plenty of organics decomposing, but the scent that caught in his nose had something distinctly different to it. There was a slight pungency, the kind that came from old clothes when they had been too long without a wash.

His head snapped around and he let his eyes focus in the direction the wind was carrying the scent.

“Abastia, can you smell that difference or is it just in my head?” Dud asked.

“What difference?” Lillith asked.

“Yes, what is it from?” Abastia responded.

Dud should have felt all of the hairs on his arm stand on end in fear, but he didn’t. He was smelling rot wolves, but his body wasn’t telling him he should be running for his life.

“I need all of you to stay perfectly still and do nothing no matter what happens. Slime skin, that goes double for you, if you so much as activate a gland they will be on us immediately,” Dud ordered.

“What will be?” Lillith asked.

Dud ignored her again, enjoying his brief respite from being at her mercy and knowing the odds of getting off of Terra-One left little room for her to take retribution.

He took a careful step forward, extending his leg as far as he could and setting his toes to the earth as delicately as possible. The last thing he wanted to do was bring death to them all. Besides he might need the other three as bait to save himself before this was all over.

Part of him felt bad for thinking of using them as bait, but he was a slave who was purely bought to be used up on the job. If they could use him like that he had no gripe returning the favor. Especially on Terra-One where the name of the game was survival.

In all his time on this planet two people had actually cared for him, one had suffered a horrible death and the other was one of the very few who died of old age on Terra-One. The latter had accomplished all of that by making himself invaluable to everyone. Both had taught Dud important things about staying alive.

Dud had moved far enough away from the others to deem them safe. He could practically feel each of their eyes, not just on him, but exactly on him where they were looking.

During his short life Dud had many poor ideas, but this one was pretty high up there. He let out a high whistle which terminated before coming to completion and followed it up with a quick tweet.

Leaves rustled as the rot wolves, which he couldn’t see barreled for him. He held his arms out at his side and waited. There were three. Closing in from all directions. He still didn’t feel like this was the moment he was doing to die so he didn’t have to struggle to stay calm.

How wrong he was.

They hit him practically as once. Targeting both arms, and one of his legs. His body wanted to fall to the ground in three different directions which spent him spinning on his planted foot like an intoxicated ballerina.

Before he could plant his other foot they hit him again, this time all three from one direction pinning him face down on the forest floor. He had seen wolves hunt enough to know this wouldn’t end quick, and he wasn’t going to enjoy it.

He thought really hard about killing Lillith, thinking that if the SLET was working she might kill him and save him from being eaten alive.

Then a long rough tongue drug along the back of his neck, followed by another and another. Dud shook from laughter as his pack went about cleaning him.

This was truely a home coming for him.

“I missed you little shit sticks,” Dud said getting to his feet and patting down the rot wolves and for the first time realizing just how dirty they were as his hand came away covered in all kinds of gross. Last time he was equally if not more gross than they were, but now knowing what clean was made it slightly different.

Rot wolves were a cross between a large dog and a gigigigigantic rat. They were canine in most their features, but they could collapse their bodies to lay flat on the forest floor, and could even snake their way around like that. Their fur was in fact hair, but to the eye it looked like matted grass and leaves.

Dud’s wolves which he had raised from pups he called V, W, and X. V was a dark green and the tallest of the three, W was more brown and the stockier of the pack, while X was a light green and fell between the other two in height and weight. All three were circling him, rubbing against his legs, and fighting for their turn to be pet.

The joy of seeing them again had made him totally forget about his less civilized companions.

“All clear,” Dud called.

The females came forward, which put Dud’s wolves on alert as they put themselves between him and them, their fur raising to match their growls. The girls stopped, and Dud couldn’t help himself from smiling at the look of fear on Lillith’s face.

He had never seen anything like that from her in the limited time he had been with her, but it brought him great amounts of joy to see she wasn’t invincible. Though with all her augmentations he didn’t know if the three wolves couldn’t take her even if he let them, but he didn’t want to see that happen just yet so he gave two quick whistles which settled his wolves.

V and W went to sniff out the other companions, but X didn’t move from Dud enjoying his undivided pets all for himself.

Jahnavi held a hand down and let V sniff her before she pet the creature, but Lillith and Abastia looked anything but comfortable. They looked like stranded swimmers being circled by a fin.

Dud would be lying if he didn’t say it brought him great joy.

“I,” Lillith gulped, “don’t see any collars. How do you control them?”

“I don’t. I communicate with them. If they trust my judgement they listen, if they don’t they go for self preservation. I’m one of the pack, not the owner,” Dud replied.

Jahnavi let out a giggle as V ran her long, rough, tongue across her hand. “They are your pets?”

“What’s a pet?” Dud asked.

“You don’t know what a pet is?”

Dud looked to Lillith for help, she was none. Abastia saw the pleading in his eyes and saved him.

“Dear child, it is an animal a person owns, and it serves them as a companion.”

“Like a slave?”

W had moved behind Abastia and was lowering her haunches and wiggling her hips. X spotted his pack member moving to position and let out a short huff pulling away from Dud.

Dud’s eyes met with W’s and he looked her off, X seeing they weren’t hunting Stiation returned to Dud.

Jahnavi laughed, and Dud felt his cheeks go warm. A feeling that he wasn’t accustom to. On Terra-One he knew just about everything there was to know, outside of this damned planet he knew nothing.

“No, not a slave. They’re like a friend,” Jahnavi said.

“Do they have free will?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do they get to make their own choices? Where they go, what they eat, when they eat, breeding, all of that?”

“Well, no. They are part of your life.”

V, X, and W patrolled around the group, and Dud wondered how they would feel about being pets. He had been stolen from this planet and they carried on just fine without him.

“What about their life and wants?” Dud asked.

“They are kept safe, and know where their next meal is coming from. Pets are happy to be pets.”

Dud gave a shrug, it still sounded to slavery to him, but he figured pissing off the princess would be a good way to piss off the Baroness and that could lead to his brain being fried if they did survive this ordeal.

“We still need to get to water. We can discuss pets later,” Dud said.

Before anyone could get the conversation going, Dud whistled and the rot wolves moved out with him. The three others jogged to keep up with what was a fast pace for him.

Which pissed him off to no end. He was exerting himself, someone who had lived his life in the wild, not some sit on his ass jobber, and these people who could pay for their strength were just magically able to keep pace. Terra-One may be a prison, and in many ways a nightmare, but at least everyone had to earn what they had.

Things were going well on the run. He didn’t see the glow from any of the nocks, and he hadn’t heard the hunting cry of a burrock. They might just make the water without incident.

Then he realized it wasn’t just the predators he wasn’t hearing, it was all the creatures of the night. He stopped in place and the others skidded to a stop.

“What?” Lillith said, her eyes searching the darkness. He could practically smell her fear, which meant the girl in the darkness could as well.

The girl was sleek, a feline, a glossy black coat that looked like a shadow in the darkness. The cat was somewhere nearby, it was the only excuse for the lack of sound.

To confirm his suspicions the wolves started whining, and for good reason. A female pantera was larger, stronger, and faster than X, Y, or Z. Females of the pride did the hunting, and a prowling pantera was the last land predator Dud ever wanted to face.

Not wanting to make any more noise, Dud pushed his palms toward the ground and his three wolves went flat like carpets of grass. He waved the women in close though Abastia was the only one he cared about. Once she was in reach of her, he pulled her close, then slid his hand under her robe and placed it roughly where a Terran’s kidney would be.

“Take you hand-” Absastia started but Dud had already removed his hand. He knew everything he needed to know. His time on Terra-One had taught him how to tell which glands a Stiation had and which combinations that could make. Assuming Abastia’s missing fingers didn’t prevent her from doing what he needed they might actually live.

His heart rate picked up. The pantera had to be getting closer. Dud picked a branch off the ground that was around two meters long and snapped it in two thirds to get as much of a point as he could.

“Fire,” Dud ordered holding the sharp end of the branch up.

As Abastia ignited a small flame with a snap of her fingers, Lillith grabbed Dud’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“We’re being hunted. Shut up before you help it close in. Please,” Dud replied while Abastia made a charcol point.

“Poison the whole spear,” Dud said.

“You can’t hold it then,” Abastia replied.

“You’re sentiment is touching.” Dud rolled his eyes, hoping she couldn’t see it in the dark.

“Do what he says,” Lillith ordered.

Abastia rubbed her middle fingers together. Slowly a clear viscous liquid ran down her fingers and coated her hands. She rubbed it all along the piece of wood Dud was betting his life on. He took his makeshift spear back from her and wished he had his wrist rocket with him, but this would do.

“Laydown, all of you,” Dud said, and the three women laid on the ground. He gave a short whistle and X, Y, and Z crawled on top of the ladies, making them look like small mounts on  the forest floor.

Dud stepped away from everyone else and wished he wasn’t the hero right now. All three women were biologically more equipped for this, but he didn’t know if their speed or strength would substitute for his years of note being eaten.

The spear was warm in his hands as he walked forward. The toxin Abastia had was more potent than ones Dud had faced before, and he hoped that it wouldn’t get the best of him before he found the eyes in the darkness.

He had worked hard to build up a tolerance to most of the Stiations more debilitating abilities during his time on Terra-One, but as his hands started to burn he worried hers would best him. The only plus side was he doubted he would need more than one good attack to drop the feline.

“Come on. I’m here. Let’s get this over with,” Dud called into the darkness and the eyes responded.

Four meters in front of him the pantera was ready to spring. In the low light all he could see was the gleaming green eyes that were locked on him. They always had the same effect on him, also known as him fighting not to shit his pants. He carried many scars from many enemies, but these ladies of the night had cut him the deepest.

The green eyes disappeared, and if you listened ever so closely you could hear the soft pads of the cat pushing off the ground as the feline lept for its prey. Dud didn’t listen. Didn’t care to listen. He knew there was one hundred or so kilograms of clawed death in the air heading for his throat. That he did care about.

If he dodged he’d be dead. The pantera would relaunch the moment she hit the ground and be on him before he could find her in the darkness.

If he lifted the spear point first the cat would corkscrew, land, and then have him.

With his only option being what it was, he wished one of the women was in his place. Perhaps Lillith, but he worried his death would be tied to hers so maybe the princess instead.

His only chance was to let her take him to the ground and then fight to see who would walk away.

The claws wrapped into Dud’s back and sunk into his shoulders like the world’s worst hug. In his lover’s embrace he went to the forest floor, bringing the spear up only once the claws were hooked. He caught her broadside in the open jaws. As she closed down her teeth were close enough to just barely graze the skin on his neck before getting stopped on the wood.

The poison burned his hands, but the good news was he hardly noticed over the ten hooks in his back. She trashed against the toxin, whipping him around under her like he weighed less than a leaf.

He just had to stay alive until the second opening. They were locked together closer than if he had been trying to bed her. She wanted to pull away, but her claws were set. She was going no where until one of them was dead. Dud hoped that would be her. Like really, really hoped. And if she killed him, the wolves better finish her off. And then possibly Lillith afterward since it wouldn’t matter to him if his dead brain fried.

The pantera gave him the opening by turning her head to free her jaws from the poisoned wood. Dud didn’t pull the spear away, but checked it across her face, dragging the charcoal tip down her neck. The cut wasn’t deep. Hardly more than a scratch, but it would be enough. The stiation poison would enter her blood and soon she should be done.

The lady of the night let out a frustrated cry from the pain. A heart wrechning sound from a creature so beautiful, but Dud remminded himself that she was trying to eat him an couldnt feel bad bout staying alive. Her claws pealed his shoulders as her body spasmed and she pulled away from him.

She attempted to flee, but only made it a few steps before collapsing to the ground. The poison would take a while to kill her, and there was a slim chance she would survive it, but her scent would keep other predeators away until she died. A cover that Dud and his could use.

Struggling to get to his feet, Dud felt the full damage to his back. Blood was running down his tattered shirt and coating it to his skin. The pantera might cover their scent, but it wouldn’t be long until the blood invited the rest ofthe jungle.

The next part was something Dud hated more than the pain. He called the wolves over and they eached urintated on the same spot creating a mud puddle.

“You’re not about to do what I think you are?” Lillith asked.

“Would you like to get eaten?” Dud replied.

Abasita was at his side, with a tender, by Stiianian standards, on his shoulder. “I can put a healing salve on it.”

“Which will only bring more death to us,” Dud said.

Terra-One was unforgiving. Survival required endurance. Dud flopped back first into the piss puddle and rolled his wounds around until he was certain that his bleeding would be stemmed and he smelled horribly enough that the blood wouldn’t be the leading scent.

As he got to his feet the looks the three women were giving him made him feel like the peon he was. However he was still breathing and that counted for something. Until he collapsed facefirst into the puddle of piss.

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