Veral turned to face her fully, anger radiating through him as his vibrissae lifted into the air, thrashing around him. “You will not disobey me!”
“Then do what I ask!” she snapped.
“Very well,” he bit out, his vibrissae flaring out around him as he focused his attention on the encampment below.
Without another word, he lifted Terri into his arms and raced toward the caravan, utilizing all his enhanced speed. Although he raced down from the slopes, he knew the Reapers barreling toward the encampment would make contact first. He would not arrive in time to prevent the slaughter. He growled viciously as Terri shouted when the first of the Reapers struck, bringing down a mature, unarmed male. The male valiantly attempted to fight him off, swinging his crude weapon through the air.
The Reaper toyed with him, laughing and taunting, delivering wound after wound with each retort until the injured male succumbed. The female at his side shrieked, rushing back to her mate with a club upraised. Even from his greater distance, his optical enhancements saw that her eyes were wild with grief even as he caught and zeroed in on the faint sounds of her sobs amid the chaos. The male circled her, trying to snatch up the female. Every time he came near, she struck him. It wasn’t enough to do any true damage but gave her a small reprieve before he was on her again. The final time she swung her club, he caught it and ripped it out of her hands. With a shout, he struck her with it. The crack from the delivered force was loud and the female fell to the dirt a short distance from her mate she’d attempted to defend.
The Reaper did not last long himself, however. Krono, outstripping Veral in speed, lunged upon the male, dragging him down. His terrible teeth quickly ended the pitiful human’s life. Chest heaving as he panted, gore splashed over him, Krono made a terrible sight, but no one seemed to notice him. They were too focused on the males spilling into the encampment.
All around males and females shouted in panic as the Reapers flooded in, some on small two-wheeled vehicles, riding alone or in pairs. Others were packed together on what Terri called pickups with males, jumping from the back amid the prey, snatching up females and bludgeoning men to spare the ammunition. The migrants ducked behind their wagon, seeking safety in numbers as they pulled knives and whatever else they could find to protect their offspring. Any female who resisted too much was killed in the attempt to restrain them. More were killed in obvious bouts of bloodlust among the Reapers. In consequence, many females died before Veral arrived. His processors recorded every scream into his memory. When the first offspring wailed helplessly for its mother as she was gutted by a laughing Reaper, it triggered something within his mind.
In that moment, Veral understood hate. Every offspring’s cry served to work him into a fury so that when he dropped among them, he was truly the likeness of death.
Setting Terri beside the wagon, he spun around and flung himself at the nearest Reaper, his long, secondary fangs sliding down over his primary teeth, and his retractable claws lengthening for battle. He did not have his blaster, but he did not need it. His processors targeted each male and he leaped upon them, shredding them with claws and fang in the old way. His brethren would find such a method of killing uncivilized and brutish, but such concerns didn’t touch him other than a distant acknowledgment. The old ways served him well, even better with his systems online calculating the most expedient way to destroy his target.
Blood flowed like a crimson river around him and he rejoiced in it, triumphant in battle as he conquered his foes. He was almost amused by the way the desert greedily sucked the liquid of the spilled blood into the parched ground with each human he tore apart. Yet, no matter in the intensity of his warrior’s bloodlust, he always kept Terri in his peripheral vision. His processors studied her as she crouched over the children huddled around her. The few remaining females, heavily wounded, scrambled to her side, their arms clutching their offspring.
He would allow nothing to get through him.
It was, in truth, a relatively small number of Reapers who had been sent after the caravan, yet only a pitiful handful of them had gotten away, dragging females with them. Veral snarled in frustration that even one evaded him. He snatched one off the back of a truck as it peeled away, the male’s body colliding with the ground before he opened the human’s belly. Still, it wasn’t enough. Those few Reapers who escaped did so with their shrieking victims flung over the back of their two-wheel vehicles or piled into the trucks.
Veral walked among the remains of the Reapers, his vibrissae waving around him, rattling their menacing song, and he surveyed the destruction he’d carried out on his mate’s behalf. He felt nothing but elation as he stared at the ruins of males he had destroyed by his own hand. Their deaths had given the females time to escape to safety. He felt satisfied by the great nest of corpses that surrounded him, their limbs tangled together wherever they overlapped. He could feel the wide, terrible grin of predatory triumph stretch over his face as he looked over the carnage.
It was the soft, shuddering cry of females that finally drew his attention. Spinning around, he stalked over to them, Krono loping to his side. His gaze fastened on none but his own female, watching him with a curious light in her eye. His lips quirked in amusement though it soon turned to a disdainful sneer as every female whose life he’d saved and offspring he’d preserved retreated, holding their younglings clenched to their chests. Not one of them remained near Terri as he approached, and he felt his contempt rise. They had no way of knowing if he was a threat to his mate and yet they abandoned her despite the fact that she’d done everything in her power to protect them.
He growled intolerantly at a female who recoiled from him, weeping uncontrollably. Terri frowned at the aggressive noise and attempted to soothe and reassure them. They didn’t respond other than to weep amongst themselves. One female, an older one among them with a pair of older offspring following close to her, eyed him warily as she conversed with Terri in low tones. Separated only by a short distance, he could have heard their conversation had he wished, but instead he waited for his mate to return to his side.
At length, Terri joined him again, a concerned look on her expressive face. Even covered in gore, she did not flinch from him like the other females did. Instead, she stood beside him fearlessly, her head tilted back to meet his eye.
He flung an arm open, gesturing to the cowering females in disbelief. “These are who you wish to preserve? You would stand between them and their enemy and yet all they can do is cower and weep when there is any possibility of you being injured.”
“They’re scared, Veral,” Terri argued. “I don’t expect them to stand between us. They don’t know you like I do. It is natural for them to be afraid. They were on their way to the coast, where they heard that a large sanctuary city was recently established. The Reapers aren’t an anomaly. Similar gangs have been striking all through the interior, but they hadn’t expected to encounter one out here. They lost half of their women and a quarter of their children to this raid.”
“They were careless and suffered for it,” he snapped.
Several females whimpered and shied away, while others shot him angry looks.
Good. Let them hate him and learn to be strong for their offspring.
He glowered at them in turn. “This is no universe for the weak. Learn this lesson well, for others shall follow behind me now that this world has been recorded and logged. That you dislike it doesn’t matter. Hate me if it makes you feel better but be stronger than you are. Your offspring are dependent on you. Will you curl onto the ground and allow yourself and your young to die because you are too frightened to continue by yourself?” he sneered. “Mate and forge strong alliances but remain strong, steady, and observant. Take nothing for granted.” He growled in parting before allowing his mate to pull him away.
Her brows lifted at him. “A little harsh, weren’t you?”
“I spoke nothing but the truth. Anything less would be dishonorable and teach them nothing of how to survive.”
“Maybe,” she agreed slowly. “But humans usually couch unpleasant truths in ways that are not quite as offensive to the one receiving them. It’s part of being compassionate.”
“Then I shall leave compassion to you. I am concerned more with the survival of their offspring. I do not hold with any adult who would allow their grief to damage their young.”
“Ah, you’re talking about your father then?” she said softly.
“I am speaking of him and them. Their offspring deserve better.”
Terri nodded slowly. She opened her mouth, the tip of her tongue touching her lip thoughtfully as she visibly searched for the words she wished to say. He waited patiently, his attention completely on her.
“Veral, we need to talk.”