A tap on his shoulder alerted him. Kyber awoke to find Sandow gesturing for him to follow. Gaveer, Massapa, and Mellori were already gathered by the opposite side of the room. They were crowded around Gaveer, who held the translation box.
He gently extracted himself from Kelen, lowering her to the floor. She’d finally succumbed to sleep, for which he was grateful. Her bleeding was playing havoc with her body, on top of everything else she’d endured. Although she was managing to keep herself together, in spite of the added stress of their current situation, he could sense she was close to breaking. And there was nothing he could say or do for her to make things more bearable, other than to keep reassuring her of his presence and support.
The others in the room were asleep when he soundlessly padded over to where the three men were gathered. When he drew close enough, he caught the sounds coming from the translation box.
Mellori quickly shushed him.
Kneeling beside them, Kyber leaned in to listen. It was sometimes difficult to understand what was being said. The box translated in a flat tone, which meant it pronounced certain words with strange inflections. But it soon became clear something was up.
He gave Mellori a quizzical look. The engineer nodded. “They’re getting ready to enter the room,” he whispered.
“We cannot tell how many, but it will not be just Hoov,” Gaveer told him.
“Do we know why they are coming back?”
All three men shook their heads.
Kyber glanced at the doorway. “When?”
“We must be prepared.” Getting to his feet, he went over to wake Kelen as the others roused the rest of the group.
“Kyber.” Kleesod got his attention, then looked around to make sure everyone also paid attention. “If we try to attack them when they enter, they could easily back out before we manage to overcome them.”
“He’s right,” Fullgrath chimed in. “Somehow we need to lure them inside so we can take them all at once.”
Fullgrath laughed at Dox’s unexpected suggestion, but Kelen added her voice.
“He’s right. If we pretend to be asleep, it may lure them in.”
Sandow broke in. “Remember, they’re wanting us to eat their food and drink their water. After watching Hoov’s reaction when he saw those untouched bowls of food, I no longer doubt that it’s tainted. If we pretend to be asleep, they may think we’ve gone ahead and eaten it, and we’ve slipped into a comatose state as a result.”
“Then that is what we will do.” Kyber got to his feet. “Hurry. Hold onto your bundles and do not move until I give the signal.”
He hurried over to Kelen and settled himself in front of her. Hunching over, he dropped his head and rested his arms across his knees. Closing his eyes, he waited. Behind him, he felt Kelen get into position so she could quickly flee.
The room grew quiet. Kyber concentrated on listening for the creatures to come through the doorway. He tried to release the building tension by clenching and unclenching his hands, but by the sounds of the others’ ragged breathing, he could tell they were as nervous as he was.
There was a movement to his left. Casting an eye in that direction, he noticed Gaveer shifting positions. In any other circumstance, he would take it as someone readjusting themselves in their sleep, but not this time. With their nerves raw and on edge, muscles were on the verge of cramping from the strain.
He was on the brink of thinking the creatures had changed their minds and decided not to invade, when a clicking sound came from the far wall. Kyber froze. When everything in him wanted him to turn his head and look in that direction, he forced himself to remain as still as possible.
Their limbs made tapping sounds on the rocky floor as they entered. The noise grew as more of them came through the doorway.
A creature approached him and Kelen. He couldn’t tell if it was Hoov or another one. It stopped beside him and made clucking noises. Across the room, something clucked back. He sensed another one moving to his left. A shuffling sound came from the dispensing wall. Kyber then realized they were pairing up one of their own for every one of them. They were trying to be as quiet as possible as they moved into position, but they weren’t quiet enough for his Seneecian hearing.
He took a slow, deep breath and tasted the scents filling the room. How the creatures planned to take them down, if that was their intent—and there was no reason to believe otherwise—was no longer relevant.
The time to rebel had come.
Kyber launched himself at the closest alien with a roar of defiance. Almost simultaneously, the others rose to defend themselves. Blasters went off as Kelen and the Terrans fired point blank at the creatures which had clustered around them.
He slashed at the creature, who stood petrified at the unexpected onslaught. His talons ripped through the thin, armor-like plating covering its body, shredding it and eviscerating it with two swipes. Grabbing one of the thing’s limbs in his mouth, he tore it from the creature’s body with a jerk of his head. The alien screamed, a high-pitched squeal that sent shivers down his spine, and pitched backwards, falling against the wall. When it threw up its arms to stop its fall, Kyber noticed the oddly-shaped claw at the end of both its upper appendages. Claws that were straight and tube-shaped. Claws that had not been there before, and he realized what they were for.
“They are venomous! Watch out for their stinger!” he yelled. Grabbing a handful of Kelen’s uniform, he pulled her closer and began making his way toward the doorway. She snatched up her bundle of supplies as she followed him.
The intended ambush was over before the creatures could react. Massapa was first to make it outside of the room. The others quickly joined them, and they peered down the empty corridors.
Fullgrath stopped next to him. “That was a walk in the park. They never thought we’d hit back, or how hard.”
“Did you see Hoov among them?” Mellori questioned. No one admitted they did. The engineer shook his head. “Then it’s possible these things were supposed to take us out and report back to Hoov when it was over.”
“If that is true, we do not have much time,” Kyber announced, turning to Jules. “Lead the way.”
Jules turned and hurried down the tunnel with them close behind.
“How long before they discover we escaped?” Gaveer called out as they made their way through the darkness.
“Not long enough,” Sandow responded.
Jules took the lead, using his tablet to guide them toward the next cavern. The corridors were unusually straight, with hallways intersecting every dozen meters or so. Twice the navigator took one of the interconnecting tunnels, backtracking only once when he overcorrected.
Kyber and Kleesod watched their rear. Everyone knew Hoov and its people would come after them once they discovered their dead in the holding room. It was imperative they got as far away from there as possible.
“Jules, are you sure we’re not going around in circles?” Fullgrath huffed.
“There are no circles down here. Only straight angles,” Tojun stoically noted. He got a snort in reply.
At the next juncture, Jules paused for a moment to check his information. He pointed to their right, indicating another turn. “That way. Not far.”
They took off and within seconds, Kyber thought he detected a brightening ahead of them.
“Look! There’s a light!” Kelen voiced.
They automatically picked up speed.
They entered a cavern filled with natural light. The roof arched nearly fifty meters above them. Thin, horizontal slits located right below the ceiling allowed the sunlight to filter in. The rough stone walls, rising at least ten meters, reminded Kyber of the maze in the first temple.
“What color is this place supposed to be?” Tojun inquired.
“Don’t look pink to me,” Fullgrath muttered.
Jules wove a path through the intricate design. “Almost there! Almost there!” he eagerly announced.
“Oh, shit!” Fullgrath, in the lead, suddenly skidded to a halt with another expletive. The others clustered protectively behind him.
Kyber felt the ruff at the back of his head and running down the length of his spine rise with anger and fear. Lifting their weapons, the others gradually spread out behind him and Fullgrath as they came face-to-face with Hoov and nearly a hundred more of its kind, who were waiting in silent anticipation for their arrival.