“Anastha,” he repeated slowly, emphasizing the sharp click following the “n” and “th.”
Terri repeated it back to him. The clicks sounded muffled to him rather than sharp and concise, but it was at least an improvement. His lips twitched at her concentration as she devoted herself to sounding the word out under her breath.
“What does it mean?” she asked again.
“It is a term that translates to ‘fierce one,’” he replied. She bared her teeth with such pleasure that for the first time he didn’t feel his vibrissae tingle and twitch in response to what would normally have been an expression of challenge. Instead, the odd warmth returned again, and his lips curved in response. She thankfully didn’t see it as she turned her back to him to inspect the building once more.
“I like that,” she said with a distinct sound of satisfaction. “Okay, now boost this ‘fierce one’ up so I can take a look.”
“Negative,” he responded firmly.
She looked over her shoulder at him, a puzzled expression on her face as her pink lips dropped at the corners. “Excuse me?”
“We have a bargain for your assistance. I cannot follow you within to make sure you are not harmed. Letting you go in alone is disadvantageous for me when I could potentially lose your assistance.”
Terri stared askance at him and then snorted out a laugh. “I see why you’re encouraged to mate. You need someone to fuss over. You don’t need to worry about me, though. I’ve been in and out of these buildings all my life. Now help me up!”
Veral was not fussing, nor did he require anyone to fuss over. Yes, it was satisfying to have someone need his presence rather than just tolerating him, but that was all.
He did not require a female. Although he barely saw his sire after his mother’s termination, he was aware that the male had eventually been found deceased in their dwelling before the first year was out, lunars after his failed courtship. Although it was exceedingly rare, that dependency alarmed him, and he considered himself fortunate to have not been chosen. Most healthy mates survived the passing of a mate, but he and his line had already proved to be flawed.
He would be in the minority who would be dangerously attached.
With a low snarl, he stomped forward and set his hands upon Terri’s hips, ignoring the startling shock that tingled through his hands and up his arms at the contact. “Very well. If you insist on being foolish, I shall comply. I advise you to avoid harm. I will be severely displeased otherwise.”
Terri squawked in surprise when Veral effortlessly—and at a speed she hadn’t been prepared for—lifted her to the edge of the sloping roof. On her hands and knees, with her fingers digging into the shingles, she shuffled over to the one visible window of what had once been the fourth-floor attic space of the house. The window was smaller than she’d assumed when looking at it from the ground but still large enough to squeeze through—if just barely. For a moment, she didn’t want to go in. The interior was dark, and she caught traces of some kind of horrible smell coming from it.
Her throat working in a desperate attempt not to retch, Terri gripped the edge of the window and pulled herself inside, wiggling in such a fashion that she easily dropped within. She regretted her decision almost immediately when she landed on something that squelched beneath her as it folded under her weight. The musty smell of rotting wood and fabric flooded her nose.
How the hell did something wet end up in the attic? It hadn’t rained in months.
“Female?” Veral’s voice drifted up to her.
“You know damn well my name is Terri!” she shouted down, the distance giving her bravado an edge that it didn’t have when she was face-to-face with the intimidating alien.
He grunted in response. “Clearly you are well.”
“I’d be better if it didn’t stink so bad here. Fuck, it smells like something died.” She gagged as the nauseating smell of death bore down on her even stronger.
“The entire city carries the stink of death,” Veral said.
True enough. Setting down her pack, she felt around until she came across her lamp, and her small bundle that contained a portion of oil, flint, and steel. Setting the lamp down, she filled it and after a few attempts caught the wick with an ember, sending a soft light illuminating the tiny area around her. Picking up the lamp in one hand, she lifted it and stepped forward only to pale and stumble back. She couldn’t hold it in this time; she bent over and puked until her throat burned and nothing more came up but bitter stomach acid.
She rolled her eyes upward but admitted it was better than being called “female.” It was actually kind of sweet in a weird way.
“I’m all right. There’s just…fuck… there are a lot of dead people in this attic.”
She felt another wave of nausea as she looked at the bloody mess she’d made of the body she landed on. Her hand shook as she lifted the lamp closer to the decomposing body and blanched. Aside from the damage that she’d accidentally done, the body had huge bites taken out of it that made her stomach roil. Turning slowly, she lifted the lamp higher and crept to every single body, four in total, to inspect the remains. All of them had terrible bite wounds.
“Fuck,” she whispered, her eyes widening as her mouth filled with saliva and her throat worked sickeningly. “These people look like they’ve been eaten!” she called down to Veral. Silence greeted her observation until a low, angry snarl followed her into the cramped room from below.
“Retreat. Get out of there now!” Veral snapped.
“Yeah,” she mumbled, “I think that may be a good idea.”