The first time he revealed himself to his breeder she fainted.
Zurian caught her before she hit the floor. Left with a beautiful human woman helpless in his arms, he’d laid her down on her bed, covered her with blankets, and left her alone. It had taken a surprising amount of willpower to let her out of his arms.
He was not a warrior known for his mercy. He’d killed and executed many and, for a long moment, while he stood there staring at her soft human face, he’d been tempted to take her to his dwelling despite the fact that she was too small and delicate for life with a Zyrgin. Not taking her as his breeder so he wouldn’t break such a fragile woman had been an act of mercy from a warrior considered the most pitiless in the empire.
In the end he could not stay away from her and, when he revealed himself to her the second time his faith had been rewarded. She’d tried to shoot him. Julia handled the pistol well and, instead of crying when she couldn’t manage to hit him, she was furious. His Julia knew some words his translator did not have the meaning of.
He returned a third and fourth time, cloaked, curious to know more about her. Since then he’d gone to her many times. Sometimes cloaked, sometimes not. She intrigued him with her strange habits. She spent most of her time on the human communication device they called a TC, which seemed to be her means of earning a living. She liked to paint her tiny claws—nails he reminded himself, humans called them nails—many colors. Women on Zyrgin fre-quently adorned themselves but since no warrior with honor would look at another warrior’s breeder he’d only been vaguely aware of perfumes and lavish clothes during ceremonies.
He thought about her when he should be concentrating on his warrior duties. Curious to see what she would try next, he returned to her impoverished dwelling. She was clever enough to stay out of grabbing range. Sometimes he played with her, pretending he only moved at human speed. Countering her attacks, he grabbed her and enjoyed the feeling of her skin, of her body held briefly against him while she fought and squirmed. Once, she tried to knee him in the groin. Seemingly convinced she could harm him that way. He’d observed some of the women in the raider camps, the ones who were not broken, use that tactic with great success on human males.
It had been a week since he’d seen his golden human. At the back of her small house, in the settlement the hu-man’s called No Name Ttown, Zurian stepped forward and stopped, his boot lifted. A thin white powder covered the door entrance. Something gleamed on the windowsill and, as he moved to the side, more of it gleamed at the bottom on each window ledge. He pinched a tiny amount of the white powder and tasted it. Salt, the spice the humans put in everything. It had to be one of her curious tricks to try to keep him out.
He turned the handle of her dilapidated back door, quickly pulled back his hand. His fingers tingled, a very pleasant sensation. Wires wound along the handle of the door, carefully hidden. Clever of his Julia, using electricity in this way. He looked around but saw no one. Then he heard the commotion in the street in front of her house. It was the reverend, a little ways down the road, his followers beating one of his acolytes.
Zurian flashed his fangs in their general direction. He closed the door and the shouts and thuds dulled. She wasn’t in the kitchen and he stepped deeper into the small room. His breeder should not be living in such an inferior dwelling—with her beauty and especially her hair. And she belonged to a high-ranking warrior.
He’d already built a much better dwelling for her and made sure the other warriors knew she belonged to him. And he’d stocked human food. She probably did not earn much with her work on the TC because she did not eat enough.
He touched the scar on his cheek. She’d called him a slimy lizard during one of the times she tried to shoot him. He’d looked it up in their primitive databases and he did not see a resemblance. Besides, lizards were not slimy.
If he fed her well, protected her, and gave her many pleasure hours in the sleep place maybe she would not hate him, might even accept him willingly. He glanced at the small kitchen sink where unwashed dishes were stacked. A mug sat on the table. Everywhere he looked something cluttered a surface. Unfortunately, she lacked discipline. Whenever he came, he found some form of untidiness or chaos. It baffled him that every time he thought of her doing the same to his dwelling, he experienced the same kind of rush he did before a battle.
He tightened his hand on the large animal skin, his masking technology concealing it as well. Never in all the years he’d trained to become a warrior did he think he would present an Eduki pelt to a breeder. His breeder.
Zurian glared at the wooden club he also held in his hand. Even at their most basic stage of development, Zyr-gins never used such primitive weapons.
Zacar had a strange gleam in his eyes when he’d given Zurian the club. “If your chosen breeder wants you, she will hit you over the head with it.”
“Why should I care if she wants me,” he’d asked, sus-picious of the gleam in his leader’s eyes.
A Zyrgin warrior presented the Eduki pelt and the breeder became his to protect. As was proper. How else would they find women among their conquered?
“It is a human custom.” Zacar told him.
He’d told all of them Natalie hit him because she chose him. Azagor had believed him and had argued he should be given the ceremonial club but Zurian did not go through his third change recently. Not believing Zacar for one moment, he still retained possession of the club.
He stroked his finger over the scar on his right cheek where the sword had cut him. Would she realize he was not a born warrior? He knew she thought him frightening and ugly. She became angry and tried to fight him every time he approached her. Even then, he saw the fear beneath her brave actions.
If she didn’t hit him with the club this time, he’d get the information he wanted from the reverend and take his breeder home to the dwelling he’d built her. He glared at the small room, pulling his lips back from his teeth. She would not have to live like this much longer. Soon, she would be living in the dwelling he’d built for her, trapped with him on the mountain during the long winter.
Still cloaked, he stepped inside her living area, careful not to make a sound.
Gold hair like the precious silk spun by Solari worms shining in a beam of sunlight, she looked through her lounge window at the street outside. The way she’d fainted the first time he came to her still puzzled him. Since then she’d acted with courage and knowledge of weapons and equipment not expected in a human female.
The trap she set with the electricity would have been effective on a human male. A laser pistol held easily in her hand, she stood off to the side of the window. Not the ac-tions of a woman who would faint at the sight of a warrior. Blue jeans clung to her curves, the tips of high heels showed beneath the long hems. He could see her breasts rising and falling beneath the white shirt she wore.
He still had not decided if he liked her tiny delicate claws painted red. His leader’s breeder kept hers short, in their natural form. During one of his tussles with Julia, some of her delicate claws had broken and she had blistered his ears with her shrieks. He’d assumed it hurt when they broke so he had been careful to ensure it did not happen again when she fought him—it spared his ears.
From where he stood, he could see her profile—her strange delicate human nose, a chin more rounded than a Zyrgin’s but stubborn for a human. When she moved, sun-light made her skin glow like rare earth pearls. It worried him that she barely reached his chest. If he lost control he could break her.
She drew back from the window when the noise out-side came closer, pressed a fist in front of her mouth, obvi-ously distressed at the commotion in the street. Zurian had noticed the increased violence in town and a warrior now watched over her house whenever Zurian was unable to.
“Please, I swear that’s what I saw.” A human male screamed. The sound burst through the walls of her dwell-ing as the commotion outside moved closer and she flinched. Zurian tensed, preparing to defend her and then relaxed when it moved away.
Someone walked to the back of Julia’s house, a male judging by the heavier footsteps. The human made no effort to disguise his approach and pounded on the door. Zurian drew his sword and bared his teeth at her when she went to the back door. He’d allowed her to remain free too long if males came to her door. At least she showed some sense and stayed to the side of it.
Natalie could shoot and had some meager survival skills but Julia had greater skills he found suspicious.
“Who is it?” When she didn’t scream her voice pleased him, even when she spoke her hideous earth language. The sound reminded him of the crystal bells on Solaris. In his dwelling, when she had the translator implanted they would only speak Standard Galactic.
“Julia it’s Charles, let me in.”
Zurian narrowed his eyes at the door and extended his claws. A human male dared to approach his breeder, called her by name, encroached on his territory.
She went on her toes to look through the peephole. “Charles?” she exclaimed softly, a note in her voice he did not like. At least she’d made sure of the males identity.
Zurian glared at her when she put the pistol in the back of her pants and opened the door with unseemly haste. He fought the urge to growl at her for daring to entertain another male. If she planned to breed for this male, Zurian would kill him. No, he would kill him for approaching her.
With the noise of the reverend’s violence in the street in the background, she looked up into the human’s face. Zurian had seen the same admiration in Natalie’s eyes when she looked at Zacar. His claws lengthened and he battled the urge to slice the human into pieces. To show her this weakling was not worth her admiration.
“Charles, what’s wrong?” She sounded as if she needed more air in her lungs.
The puny human clenched and unclenched his hands. “I think Sarah’s been taken.”
“What, by who?” She stumbled, almost bumping into Zurian. He was tempted to drop the camouflage and teach them both who she belonged to.
“By the reverend.”
“Oh, Charles, no.”
Her face changed color, became the white of snow in winter. He’d seen Julia do that once before. When he visited her the first time and she fainted. He prepared to catch her before the human male could touch her.
“Taken,” she whispered.
Recently several of their probes had malfunctioned and it took Azagor, their tech warrior, weeks to fix them. Still they had enough probes out to be aware that people had disappeared from town in the last six months.
“I need to know if you saw anything.”
The human male brushed a hand over his head in a pathetic attempt to draw her attention to his yellow hair. Zurian supposed the females considered the human handsome, in a weak human kind of way.
“Oh God—not Sarah. I don’t believe it.” She looked about to regurgitate her food and Zurian wanted to step back, but he would not while the human stood so close to her.
The male daring to talk to Zurian’s breeder moved his hand down from his hair to rub his neck. “I’ve been telling her to join me on the mountain but she wouldn’t leave her mother and that old—her mother refused to leave town.”
“Do you think the rumors could be true? That the rev-erend is selling people.”
“I’m sure of it,” Charles said.
Julia moved closer to the human weak male and touched his chest. ”Her mother is one of the reverend’s most devout followers. Why would he take Sarah?”
Zurian held back the growl in his throat and focused on their conversation.
“This town is going to hell. What they are doing to that prick librarian is case in point.” He motioned toward where the sound of thuds, screams, and pleading came from. Zur-ian hated the imprecise way humans talked. Prick was an action but the male referred to a person.
“Is that who they’re picking on now? I couldn’t see them, only heard the beatings going on.”
“Yeah, he should’ve known the informant job wouldn’t turn out well for him.”
“Maybe he’s not an informant,” Julia said.
“Ever since the reverend arrived, he ran his chubby lit-tle legs off to him with information on everyone in this miserable town. He’s probably a joiner as well as an informant. Just never thought it could happen to him.”
“Surely not a joiner,” she said.
Zurian noted the word to investigate later. The human language, simple compared to the old language all Zyrgins spoke, constantly defeated them with its double meanings and strange references.
“Are you sure they have her?” Julia asked.
Zurian would find her friend and give her to Julia. She had a soft core and would not be easy until her friend was safe. He bared his teeth, first he would dispatch the woumber daring to come to her.
“No, but it’s the only explanation. When was the last time you saw her, Julia?” the human male, who still lived only because he did not enter Julia’s dwelling, asked.
“She had breakfast with me two, no three days ago.”
The walking corpse rubbed his head again. Zurian si-lently sneered at him for his continued attempts to draw Julia’s attention to his hair. He could not even protect his own woman and now he tried to obtain Zurian’s woman with his pathetic preening.
“I spoke to her on the TC four days ago, and after that I haven’t been able to find her. Her room doesn’t look as if anyone’s been there for a while.”
“Have you tried her mother?”
“That’s what made me suspicious in the first place. She’s very cagey and has this crazy idea that Sarah stole her diamond ring and ran. The old bat is hiding something.”
“I never liked that woman, and Sarah would never steal from her own mother,” Julia said.
“I’m going to see if I can find anyone willing to talk.” He walked away.
“I’ll ask around as well.”
The human turned back to her and looked her over. “Curvy figure, long blonde hair.” Zurian clenched his hand on his sword, took a step forward. “You’re very naïve if you think you’re not on the reverend’s list,” Charles said. “Get out of town fast. You’re lucky they haven’t taken you yet.”
Zurian checked his advance. He would kill the woumber later, where Julia couldn’t see. Human women were ruled by their emotions.
“I can’t just leave and abandon Sarah. It wouldn’t be right.”
Zurian approved of her loyalty, but he would not allow her to put herself in danger.
“You won’t do her any good if you are taken as well.”
“I suppose you’re right, Charles. Have you seen Na-talie? I haven’t heard from her in over a year.”
“No, but I’m sure she’s all right. She knows every inch of that mountain. My bet is her TC failed.”
Julia nodded and, with a wave, he turned and walked away. She closed the door and leaned her head against it, looking small and fragile. When he found her friend and brought her to Julia as a gift, she would smile at him the way she smiled at the puny male. Zurian dropped the cam-ouflage.
Still with her back to him, she went absolutely still. Like a deer scenting a predator, she froze in place. “You are standing right behind me aren’t you,” she whispered.
He placed the Eduki pelt on the floor where she could see it when she faced him.
“I am,” he said in the lisping human language and waited for her to turn around, curious to see how she would react this time. Maybe if he pretended to bite her she might hit him with the club.
Her shaking body screamed her terror and reluctance to look at him. She turned with slow, incremental little steps only to freeze in place to stare at the Eduki pelt he’d placed on the floor as proof of his worthiness to have her.
Every time he came to her he waited for that moment when she raised her eyes to his. That instant of recognition, when her eerie glance went through him like ice shards from one of the frozen planets. He experienced it like a physical touch, craved it like a drug.
Her eyes climbed his body in a caress that touched his feet and legs, lingering on his chest. She always took a long time to study his chest. He had to resist the urge to puff it out for her like a pre-change warrior. She couldn’t see his scars and he’d studied his chest in the mirror but couldn’t find any anomaly.
At last, she raised those alien, sky eyes to his and a shock bigger than the one she tried to induce with her elec-tricity trap struck through his body. Her gaze briefly flicked to his scarred cheek.
He held out the club to her and she stared at it, her trembling increased.
“But the salt,” she said weakly.
He held the club out in front of her, determined that this time she would use it. “If it was meant to keep me out, it failed.”
“Why do you keep giving me that, what am I supposed to do with it?”
“Choose what? Why do you do this to me?” She grabbed the club and swung at him. “I’ll show you choos-ing,” she screamed with that spirit that drew him back to her every time.
He stood still and allowed it to make contact with his shoulder. She’d aimed high but obviously her skill lay with pistols. Her screeching hurt his ears more than the club could harm his body. Noting with approval how she quickly stepped out of range, he reached over and grabbed the club from her, to return it to Azagor.
She went for the pistol in her pants and he grabbed her. Slid his fingers below her shirt and into her pants and slowly drew the pistol weapon out, allowing his knuckles to stroke her flesh. She shivered against him, made a high squealing sound that hurt his ears. If she would stop that annoying noise, he could enjoy how she felt pressed against him, enjoy the way she wriggled.
“Quiet, human,” he said.
“Let me go, demon.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Still, woman.” With great reluctance he withdrew his hand from her clothes and stepped back.
She gasped, a useless sound. “Give that back.” She jumped and tried to grab the pistol and then stepped back when he held it out of reach.
Zurian planted his feet wide and crossed his arms over his chest. “You will not shoot me. I have brought you the pelt that proves I am worthy.”
He stood a little taller. Never had he thought he would say those words to a female.
“Worthy of what?” She threw her hands up in the air. “Oh, never mind. Just leave me alone, demon.”
He waited to see what she would do next. Her contin-ued attempts to outwit him were somewhat amusing.
She looked at the back door. “How did you get through the salt, demon?”
She persisted in calling by him the name of a lower life form.
He made his displeasure known in strong Zyrgin, una-ble to articulate in her language at that moment. Julia flinched and he forced the angry words back down his throat. He paused, satisfied she understood his displeasure. Sudden, deafening silence. Even the humans outside be-came quiet and part of him wished they would come and investigate, so he could kill them—to show her that he was a fierce warrior and capable of protecting her.
“I am not a demon,” he said in English.
She shrank away from him, covering her ears with trembling hands.
“The salt was supposed to stop you,” she wailed and he braced himself in case she started that shrill screaming again.
“Superstitious nonsense and salt will not keep me out.”
If he hadn’t been so angry at her insult, he might have thought the confused look on her face was amusing. When they first arrived, they’d found the human’s ugly faces difficult to read. After spending a long winter—with his leader’s breeder going everywhere she shouldn’t—and Zurian spying on the humans, he’d learned a lot.
“Okay.” She spoke in a placating manner that he did not appreciate. “I’m gone anyway,” she mumbled. She probably did not realize he had superior hearing.
“Nothing can stop me from getting to you.”
“That’s what you think,” she mumbled.
“If you run, I will follow you,” he stressed.
“A—all right, I get it.”
He could see she still did not understand. No place on this planet could hide her from him.
“Don’t you want to go back to your family? You know the demon—I mean family—that is probably missing you right now,” she said.
Again he had to battle back the rage living inside him. “I do not have family. I am not demon.”
Julia nodded her head in agreement, in that irritating human habit his fellow warriors had picked up from his leader’s breeder.
She stared at his head. Did she prefer men with silk hair on their heads like the walking corpse who dared come to her door? He knew exactly where Charles of the yellow hair lived. Killing him would not take much of Zurian’s time.
“Uh, what exactly are you?”
“I am your warrior.”
“Is that a—”
His communicator bleeped and he was temped—for the first time since Zacar had allowed him to join his legion—to ignore his duty. He looked at her, wanting to remember her like this: her blue eyes flashing, her cheeks pink, and her toe tapping on the floor.
“I will return,” he told her and prepared to camouflage himself.
She waved him off. “Uh, really, don’t feel you have to.”
He walked up to her and pressed his forehead to hers. Her skin was cool and soft against his—so female—that, for a moment, he had to battle for control. She froze, not moving, barely breathing. Their scents mingled. He drew her sweet essence into his lungs while he stared into her eyes. Her forehead rested softly against his, much cooler than his skin. Those eerie blue eyes stared up at him and he thought he could see terror reflected there. He’d always thought the human’s habit of kissing to be truly revolting. But the soft skin of her forehead pressed against his and her sweet scent in his nose tempted him to try it.
His communicator bleeped again. She didn’t react to the noise and, even after all this time among humans, he still felt disgust at their inability to pick up sounds on cer-tain frequencies.
“I will return for you. Be ready to leave for your new home when I come for you.” He stepped back and placed the pistol on the table and remembered Zacar’s advice. “I am pleased that you are nice and round.”
He struck his chest with his fist and then camouflaged. He knew she thought him gone from her dwelling when she moaned and sank down on the floor, her arms around her shaking knees. With one last look at her, he left to execute Zacar’s orders.
“Nice and round,” he heard her mutter and was pleased he’d thought to compliment her.