I kicked my legs and struck something that gave. Freed from the grip pulling me across the ground, I rolled, reaching for the shock wand I dropped when I’d been grabbed and yanked away from the wall. A heavy weight pounced on my back, shoving me into the soil. I inadvertently took in a mouthful, spitting and coughing. “Ugh. Ggg, groff!”
The stuff was like fine, powdered dust when dry and a sucking mud that clung when wet. I was in a mix of both from the heat of the fire and the damp of the morning dew. The weight of my suit was a fraction of what it could be, since it was made one of the latest models made from the lightest metals, but it was enough to hamper me when the thing attacking me bounced, pushing me even farther down.
My heart pounded as I struggled to get my hands and knees under me and push. If I wasn’t mauled and killed, my vulnerable head crushed like a melon, then the next risk was suffocating. My hands slid, and I fell flat after only gaining the barest of gaps and room to suck in a tiny breath.
“Oof!” My heart pounded in my head, throbbing like a drum as my chest began to ache. New strategy. I braced with my left arm and leg and pushed.
The weight on my back suddenly disappeared, but I was already committed. I rolled and kept rolling over the warm remains of the fire until I hit the wall. Freed for at least the moment, I slapped the button and triggered my helmet. Sure, I was still covered in dirt, but I it was better than being covered with the slavering jaws of—
I blinked. Chirp. Chirp? I shook my head, blinking rapidly to dislodge the dirt tearing up my eyes. “Saint’s balls, you have to be kidding me.” I dropped my head back against the rock wall.
The adolescent red sprinter had followed me. It was sitting, ears forward, tail wrapped around its legs, spikes laying flat on its neck as it stared at me.
Standoff. Except he kept chirping. What was up with that bird noise? Bird. Young animal. My brain, which had been running slowly due to the massive adrenaline spike triggering or flight impulses, came back online.
“You can’t think I’m your mother. I fed you once!” Of course that reminded me my parents. My father wanted to know why they had to stop working to feed me—a habit I’d gotten used to since an infant— because if I could ask for food, why couldn’t I get it myself?
Staff had been hired to teach me after that. Or, as my father crowed to my mother. “Give a boy food, you have to keep feeding him. Hire someone to teach him how to feed himself, and you’re off the hook.”
I’d given the beast food, and now he wanted more. Or he’d pounce.
“Chirp?” This was paired with an ear swivel and slow blink of those white eyelids over that intent black stare.
Definitely a demand. “I don’t see any grubs here, buddy.”
Nothing moved around us, to be honest. He was a predator; the teeth and claws paired with the powerful build made that obvious. But his thick skin, plates, and spines? Those were defensive characteristics, meaning one of two things. Either there were bigger predators or his kind hunted big animals that could do some serious damage.
Either could be dangerous for me. I regretted not bringing along more weaponry. The shock wand had already proved useless. Still, I stretched out a hand slowly, watching him watch me, and curled my fingers around the shaft. Lifting it out of the dirt, I pulled it closer, trying not to startle him with any sudden movements. “I’m going to sit up now,” I said.
Using my free hand, I leveraged my body back against the wall, tucking my feet in so he couldn’t grab an ankle again. My suit was undamaged, thankfully, at least where I could see. No display readouts showed integrity or structural problems.
The adolescent sprinter was still spindly, his chest deep enough with long legs showing he’d probably reached full height unless males were larger than the females in his species, but he wasn’t filled out. Skinny due to lack of food or age?
Immediately latching on to me could indicate one or both. I sighed. What was a guy to do?
My parents had been self-involved. The staff had been paid to care. I’d taken an interest in biology because I’d been fascinated with animals and learning about their habitats evolved from that. Everywhere we went, I ended up adopting something. I usually couldn’t keep them; animals didn’t belong in the house, my parents insisted.
Still, I befriended animals everywhere wildlife of any sort thrived. I hadn’t done it on purpose this time, it was more just trying to stay alive and do a good job to prove myself worthy of my last name.
But I’d done it nonetheless.
I sighed and reached for my pack. I’d have to spend some time searching out food for him later as well as analyzing what might be edible and palatable to humans—they were not always one and the same—as we continued on.
Clearly he was hungry, and I was too. I wasn’t going to eat and not feed him, if he’d even let me without pouncing again. Odds were, if I did what I planned to do, he was just going to stick with me. Well, I’d be the only Ardra expert anyway, so I’d make it part of my research.
How to raise up a red-striped…. “What should I call you?” I mused as I rifled through my rations.
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