VEERING TO the left, I allowed myself a quick glance over my shoulder. Not that I saw any chance of the elgoth having lost interest in me, because those fucking beasts never lost interest once they’d set their sights on prey, but sometimes a new prey might attract them more, which I’d have welcomed right then.
My lungs burned and my leg muscles smarted like hell from running like a rabbit through thick brushes and overgrown ferns. I even zigzagged around. Too bad I couldn’t find a rabbit’s hole to hide in.
I had no idea where Tom, Carson, and the rest of the team were, either.
We’d been separated before—it happened when gigantic Tash’Ba war beasts decided we looked good enough to eat—but I’ve never liked it. No, scratch that. Every time it happened, it put the fear of God in me. A gust of warm breath, mingled with some spittle, sprayed my neck. I squeaked and swerved to the right, vaulting over a stunted tree trunk. Seconds later, wood splinters sped past my head, and I lost my footing on the vibrating ground.
I sprawled facedown in the mud, panic sending bolts of confusing messages through my body. Maybe… maybe if I kept completely still, the elgoth wouldn’t touch me? The first time I’d made the acquaintance of one of these towering forty-foot-tall creatures, Tom had instructed me not to move, because they wouldn’t be able to locate us.
It had worked on Ligador and a couple of other breeding stations, but last time a team member tried this approach, the elgoth had roared and ripped him apart. All Tash’Ba war beasts seemed to be altering their tactics, making them even more unpredictable than before.
The mud around me sloshed, almost causing me to inhale some of it. I suppressed the urge to cough and kept my mouth shut as tight as I’d ever done, even though a whimper threatened to spill over my lips any second.
Another gust of foul breath struck my neck. My hair stood on end, my muscles locked in some kind of rigid stupor. That was it. I’d end my life as a morsel for an elgoth.
A blast echoed from the south, and the beast’s breath vanished from my neck. Gunfire followed the blast, and voices filtered through my terrified haze. They’d run right into the elgoth if I didn’t warn them. But… if I moved, or raised my voice, the elgoth would bite my head off. Literally.
Fleur would come in handy now, but she’d stayed on the ship with her baby, Jazzy, since Jazzy had seemed sick. Totally understandable but also utterly uncomfortable for me at this moment.
A light buzzing alerted me to the fact that one of our really big blasters would be used any second. Indeed, the sound spiked in volume. The elgoth roared, and then the deafening boom of the blaster cut off its scream.
Something thudded on the ground next to me, shaking the earth.
I still didn’t know if moving would be considered wise when heavy boots landed next to me and someone rolled me over on my back. “Berit!”
When I opened my eyes, I stared right into Tom’s impossibly wide brown eyes.
I forced a small smile on my face. “Tom, I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you.”
Tom’s tail roped around my waist and his hands cupped my face before he smashed his mouth against mine in a burning kiss. After he released my lips, he hauled himself to his feet, with me clinging to his shoulders.
My head swam at the sudden change of position. Or maybe that was the aftermath of too much adrenaline flooding my veins.
“I thought you were dead,” Tom whispered. “You didn’t move, even as the elgoth sniffed you.” Tom’s voice broke when he added, “I really thought this time I’d lost you.”
I patted his back—it was a weak, almost pathetic pat, because my hands were shaking. “I thought so too. Why the fuck did that damn beast take off after me, anyway? There were at least ten other people around, but it showed interest only in me.”
I crossed my legs in the small of Tom’s back, uncaring whether our team members would see me as a baby or wimp or whatever. I needed the close contact, Tom’s strong tail tethering me to his body, his one hand underneath my ass and the other one around the back of my head. Everyone else could just fuck off.
“You all right?” Carson’s worried voice drifted toward me.
Through chattering teeth, I said, “I can’t stop shaking.”
“I wonder why,” Carson replied dryly. “Why the fuck did it go after you like that, anyway?”
“That’s what we’re wondering too,” Tom said, his gravelly voice deepening another notch and sending a shiver through me.
Someone pulled at my backpack. My eyes still closed and my head resting on Tom’s shoulder, I helped whoever fumbled at me to pull it off.
I listened to someone open zippers and rummage through the contents of my backpack, before hearing simultaneous hisses.
Tom’s frill whooshed into life, and albeit reluctantly, I lifted my head off his shoulder. His eyes glowed an eerie red, and even the bright red and orange of his frill gleamed more intensely than normal.
“What?” I asked.
Tom set me abruptly on my feet, but his tail remained around me. I clutched at it, irritated at how much the ground moved and the way everyone eyed each other with suspicion lurking in their eyes.
Niyara sat crouched in front of my open backpack, holding a plastic-wrapped… something in her hands. It took me several seconds to understand what I was seeing. When realization finally dawned on me, my mouth fell open.
“Is that… is that some kind of blood and meat?” I asked.
Tom’s frill rustled as he grabbed the package and hurled it through the air. It smacked against a tall white-barked tree with a sick, wet sound.
“Everyone unclip their backpacks and search them for any other surprise packages,” I ordered. My voice dripped acid. “Whoever stowed this into my backpack will be in serious trouble.”
Tom’s nostrils flared, and his frill flapped like an angry bird’s wings. “Whoever did this intended you to get killed.”
I locked my knees to prevent them from buckling. Right. I’d figured as much, but hearing someone else say it out aloud put a new spin on it. Stupid, but that’s how I rolled. In an attempt to lift the mood, I said, “Guess I’ve pissed someone off really badly.”
“That’s not going to help in finding out who targeted you,” Carson growled. He bumped his shoulder against mine, and the fingers around his gun had turned white from the sheer pressure he applied. “You’ve pissed off way too many people.”
I grimaced. “Do you really believe someone’s trying to get back at me? Just because of me sleeping around?”
Tom’s tail tightened, and I hastily added, “Because of me sleeping around before I mated Tom, I mean, of course. I’d never do such a thing nowadays.”
“Why would anyone seek revenge now? That’s also a petty motive,” he said stiffly.
I shrugged. “People do weird things.”
“Or maybe someone wants you dead to hurt Tom,” Niyara said in a low voice.
Tom’s tail slackened around my waist. He exchanged a glance with Niyara before he withdrew his tail completely. I bit down on my lower lip to stop myself from blurting out something embarrassing. Instead, I closed my backpack and shouldered into it. From the sheepish glances surrounding me, I gathered I was the only one who’d carried around a bloody package.
“Guess I was the only one?” I asked, just to make sure. I received nods all around. “Well, am I lucky or what?”
Carson groaned and stepped aside to allow Tom to crowd into my personal space. I couldn’t blame Carson for seeking refuge at Niyara’s side; Tom personified “larger than life” quite well. Right then he also looked like a bull on the loose, ready to snap anyone’s head off. How very unfortunate that some of his anger seemed to be aimed at me.
I slapped a hand right into the middle of his chest, sighing. Tom halted. He didn’t need to—it was a concession to me that he did. When I gazed up at him, his frill was still out and shimmering in the sun. “Don’t, okay? You know how I meant it.”
Tom’s lips tightened as he reached out to jerk at my backpack’s straps. I barely managed to stay on my feet. He wound his tail around my left wrist before he turned his back on me. Oh, for fuck’s sake!
“It wasn’t my fault someone tried to get me killed,” I muttered.
Tom breathed in deeply and folded up his frill. Interestingly enough, it took him several tries, and he even had to push down on it with his hands. Wow. This wasn’t just anger anymore. This was rage.
He turned back, stooped, and smacked a kiss on my forehead. “I know it wasn’t. Whoever did this will be dead when I get my hands on him.”
Niyara cut me off. “Yes, he can. It’s a Nadisc law. If someone threatens our mate’s life, we’re allowed to take the offender’s life, no questions asked.”
“Seriously?” Carson demanded as we formed up.
“Yes,” Tom replied.
“Doesn’t that lead to false accusations and lots of deaths out of envy and jealousy?” I asked.
“No. Nadisc society doesn’t work like that. Finding our mate and keeping our mate safe, especially if our mate isn’t a Nadisc, is a hallowed tradition. No one tries to interfere with an established mating bond. It’s a sacrilege,” Niyara explained.
I opened my mouth to give them examples from human history in which hallowed traditions had meant nothing, but Carson nudged his elbow in my stomach, effectively shutting me up.
As I rubbed my sore belly, I glowered at Carson. “Fine, I’m not going to say anything.”
“Good, because right now, I’d like to leave this fucking planet as soon as possible.”
I shoved my blond bangs out of my eyes and heaved a weary sigh. “This is what? The sixth breeding station we’re on? Does it even make a difference?”
“It does,” Tom ground out. “The fewer populations the Tash’Ba have, the better for Earth. Come on now, we have to find the entrance to the watchers’ building and get the DNA decoder.”
“Right.” I squared my shoulders and set off at a steady pace, even though my thigh muscles screamed in protest. They weren’t the only protesting body parts. My brain took issue with the blasted remains of the elgoth scattered all over the ground.
A retching sound from behind informed me I wasn’t the only one objecting to the various elgoth parts.
Into the strained silence, Tom whispered, “I love you. Don’t ever forget that, and don’t ever give up even if the situation seems hopeless, Berit.”
I cast him a sideways glance and nodded. Of course, I could’ve told him I loved him too, that would be the appropriate thing to do, but I… couldn’t. Not there, not then. That was too intimate for me to blurt out on a beast-infested planet with people listening in. I’d make it up to him once we were back on the ship.
Tom’s eyes narrowed when I didn’t respond in kind. I licked my lips. “Let’s get this job done and get back onto the ship.”
The crinkles around his eyes smoothed out as he got my meaning. A lopsided smile appeared on his face, and I could at least reciprocate that. After all, I did love him.
WE STAMPED through the forest, our boots squishing and squelching in the sodden earth.
“Did it occur to you that all breeding stations have something in common?” I asked Tom.
Carson answered first. “Lots of beasts?”
I bestowed an annoyed eye roll on him. “Besides the obvious.”
Carson shrugged and grinned, but I could still see the strain of the last two months etched into his face. No one came out of these missions without suffering from nightmares or a general jumpiness. Not that I was complaining, because at least I’d survived all these missions, which couldn’t be said about some others.
The thought of all those who’d lost their lives had me grinding my teeth. The noise must’ve been audible, since Tom cast me a worried look.
“What do you mean?” Tom asked.
It took me a moment to realize he’d brought us back on topic. “The biota on each breeding station is the same—lots of large trees, thick brushes, and ferns. Only the temperature is higher than Earth, plus the humidity is higher as well. We’ve never needed breathing units or other additional equipment. It’s like Earth eons ago.”
A clapping thunder echoed through the air right before the sky opened its floodgates. Sheets of rain pelted us and drenched us within seconds.
“Well, this one is much wetter than all the others,” Carson sputtered as he wiped water from his face.
We formed up closer together as the rain drowned out most sound. Tom and Niyara straightened up even more, which meant they towered over us. They always towered, but right then they appeared alarmed.
“We need to hurry,” Tom said. “Predators can get too close to us in this rain.”
He was right. The smaller creatures especially could weasel through the thicket without us noticing. Not a comfortable thought. Mandrox populations could shorten our life span considerably. Not to mention they sometimes exuded a poison that was capable of paralyzing the whole body, or just parts of it.
“How far away is it? And why the hell can’t we just for once climb out of the freighter and go straight to that fucking watchers’ building? Why do we always have to take the scenic route?” I muttered.
“If that’s the scenic route then I want my money back,” Carson chimed in.
“You know what I mean.”
“I think this whole business with the Tash’Ba and their freaking war beasts sucks.”
“Amen to that,” I said.
We fell back into silence, our guns clutched in dripping hands, following Tom, who raced ahead, seemingly oblivious to the downpour. Thunder rolled closer to us, but none of it was accompanied by lightning. Weird, really weird.
The forest around us turned darker and even more unwelcoming. As the wind grew in intensity, the tree limbs stuck out, or tried to grab us. Leaves whirled through the air in sudden mad dances, and behind me several of our crew cried out in surprise.
Large puddles formed on the ground, leaving us no other choice than to wade right through them. Some were so deep we sank up to the knees. The icy water almost took my breath away, and I hurried even more to get back on dry ground. Well, drier anyway.
We reached the outskirts of the forest and stopped. A small clearing lay ahead of us. Another roll of thunder echoed around us, and the ground underneath our boots vibrated. The idea of crossing that open stretch of land didn’t sit well with me. Actually, my mouth decided to dry out, and my eyes scanned the area for anything out of the ordinary. Why did the grass have to be so high? It went right up to my waist, so how would I know what might lie in wait for us?
My gut clenched, then did a sudden nosedive. Whistling. Someone was whistling to the left. No, now it came from the right. My head swerved from one side to the other, and my breath came in shallow gasps, forming clouds in the frigid air.
“Rams,” Tom whispered.
A murmur with a distinctly panicked edge went through the crew. We all knew what that meant. Rams hunted in small packs of four to six, and they preferred open terrain because of their speed. How the hell were we supposed to outrun beasts that could run as fast as seventy miles per hour?
Someone dashed past me, right into the waist-high grass, whimpering as he did so.
“Stop!” I shouted. It all happened too fast to hold back the man who had lost his nerve.
We remained rooted to the spot at the edge of the forest, hoping against all odds our crew member would make it to the other side. Halfway across the grass, he yelled and went down. There was a second yell, but it was cut off and a triumphant trill disrupted the pattering of the rain. A large head covered in green and yellow scales lifted momentarily from the grass. Even though the light was dim, the blood drizzling from its long snout was undeniable.
The whistle to the left rang much nearer than before. I jumped. “The trees. Up. Rams can’t climb, right?”
Tom shook his head. “They can, but not high up, they’re too heavy.”
“Well, then, up we go!” I waved at the team to get going when two more whistles answered the first one. It sounded a bit like a song, an eerie one that chilled me to the bones.
Carson screamed. Without thinking, I aimed my gun at the openmouthed ram, splitting his head in two.
“Climb!” I yelled when Carson didn’t move an inch after the ram had fallen onto the ground next to him.
Niyara grabbed him by the belt and hauled him up on the first branch. He started climbing, Niyara ushering him farther up without giving him a chance to freak out.
Someone else cried out, and I whirled around. Parsol, I think was her name—it had become a challenge to remember all the names because on every mission we lost people, so many people—held up her right arm. A ram stood next to her, gnawing on the part it had just ripped off her.
I choked as I lifted my gun again. The ram trilled before it stared at me from cold, reptilian eyes. Parsol was still staring at her limb, which was gushing with blood, when her knees buckled and she sprawled on the ground. The ram’s head whipped around, the red ridge on its head flaring. Seconds later we listened to crushing bones and tearing flesh.
Tom grasped my hips in his hands and lifted me up, so I could reach a low-hanging branch. On autopilot, I grabbed for it and hauled myself up. I reached for the next one and had to assure myself with a glance at my fingers that I was indeed holding on tight because my fingers felt numb.
Tom patted my ass, probably to encourage me, but to me it felt like a slap, and not of the good kind. Startled, I moved up higher. Not a second too soon.
A ram showed up below us, tilted its head sideways, and inspected the tree trunk. After a snapped whistle, another ram appeared next to the first.
On our way up, Tom had made sure to destroy the low-hanging branches, probably to stop the rams from following us. How we were supposed to get down from the tree was his secret. For now, it was more important for the rams to stay on the ground.
We stopped our climb halfway up the tree. Not because we couldn’t go up farther, rather due to the gusting wind that threatened to blow us off. When I peered down through the pouring raindrops, my heart stopped for a beat. Seriously, it did.
With a trembling finger, I pointed at the scene below. “Tom? Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”
Tom’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. He wrapped his tail around the trunk and me, anchoring me. I had no time to process whether I should give him a piece of my mind or not because the first ram had finished climbing on the shoulders of the second one and now vaulted up on the first branch within reach. After its landing, it threw its head back and screeched.
Even through the thundering rain, the scream sliced through my body. Tom lifted his gun and fired right at the ram’s head.
The ram had ducked aside and was now steadily climbing the tree, winding around it like a slithering snake. No matter how hard we tried, our shots always missed the target.
I glanced down again, only to see another ram ready himself for the climb. I fumbled with the pocket on my right thigh, grabbed a bluster, and lobbed it at the two rams on the ground. As they tumbled down, the bluster went off, destroying both of them. Two less to worry about.
In the distance, I heard more gunshots and another bluster going off. Maybe we would survive this attack after all.
Right at that moment, claws appeared an inch below my boot. I reversed my gun and slammed the butt of it onto the claw. The ram screeched in pain but didn’t let go. Instead, it hauled itself up on a branch opposite Tom and me. Why the fuck didn’t the bough snap under the ram’s weight?
I swiveled the gun around to aim, but the ram’s claw closed around the muzzle. Even though I pulled the trigger, the ram pulled and flung my gun to the ground.
Tom withdrew his tail from the trunk—not a second too soon, because the ram tried to snatch it with its claws—but kept it around my waist. We moved farther away from the trunk, carefully balancing on the narrowing branch. Another blast of wind almost chucked us off.
The ram’s head peeked out from behind the trunk for a moment, then withdrew. Was it pondering its options?
“I’ll throw you to that tree in the back. Do you think you’ll be able to get a hold on a branch?” Tom whispered.
I froze. “Excuse me? What do you mean by ‘you’ll throw me’? We’re like… like high above the ground, and I don’t have wings or anything.”
Tom jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at a tree close to us. “You can’t jump this kind of distance, but I can throw you. Will you be able to hold on?”
“I have no idea!” I burst out. “I’ve never tried before!”
“Berit,” Tom said, his voice so soft it hurt. “I know you haven’t done that before, but if I can’t trust you to find a handhold, I can’t risk the move.”
“I can’t promise,” I said in sheer desperation. What would be worse—getting killed by a ram, or falling to one’s own death? “Can’t you just shoot the damn thing?”
“It always ducks behind the trunk, so, no, I can’t. Ready?”
“Berit!” he snapped. With his free hand, he grabbed for one of my hands and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll follow right away.”
“If you can follow, maybe that beast can too,” I protested.
“It has to come out of its hiding place, and that’s when I’ll kill it,” Tom replied.
“Oh. Well, that sounds reasonable.”
Tom squeezed again, and this time I reciprocated.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Now is probably not a good time to confess that I’m not the adventurous type, huh?”
Tom chuckled. “I’d beg to differ anyway. On three.”
My heart leaped in my throat when Tom voiced “three.” I sailed through the air, yelping.