Saving Verakko: Chapter 2

One Week Later

Verakko’s gaze raced over the multitude of screens in front of him, unbelieving. He knew of the Insurgents and their plan to abduct and experiment on humans. He’d even heard first-person accounts of their treachery from the humans themselves, but a small part of him had clung to the unreasonable hope that no member of their supposedly advanced society would stoop so low as to cage sentient beings in such a vile way.

Here, in front of his very eyes, was irrefutable evidence that his people were no better than any other. Feeds of miserable human females and a solitary male were being broadcast to his screen from over five different facilities across Clecania.

“Fuck,” Luka croaked from behind him.

Verakko shot a sympathetic wince over his shoulder at the glaring male and saw his face had paled and his eyes were searching the screen with an undercurrent of rage.

Was the anger glimmering in his eyes for himself or his mate, Alice? Both Luka and Alice had been held captive in a different facility identical to the ones covering the screen. They, and a small group of females—two of whom were still missing—had escaped a little over two weeks ago.

Arguably, Luka had received the worse treatment while prisoner. He’d been beaten and drugged, but as Verakko studied Luka, he felt as though this male didn’t care about his own experience at all. Bright blue mating marks, only the second to be seen on a Clecanian in centuries, ran over the large male’s wrists and hands, and as Luka’s gaze darted from the facility feeds to the exit of the small cabin they were currently in, he continued to absently run his fingers over the marks.

Verakko returned his attention to the task at hand and attempted to clear his mind of the unwanted pangs of curiosity nibbling at his senses. It wouldn’t do to start daydreaming about someday finding a mate for himself.

His nimble fingers flew over the holographic control panel to his right. Almost ready.

To his relief, there were only about two or three guards manning each facility. For the past few minutes, Verakko had been trapping them as quietly as he could. Most had been easy to lock up as they sat in their facility’s control room and didn’t notice the sound of their door locking. But others had been wandering the halls. He’d lured them into vacant cells by broadcasting the sound of static. When the guards had investigated the faulty equipment, he’d sealed the door behind them. Only one guard remained.

Verakko felt his fangs pulse in anger. The last of the guards was currently in a room with a female. She was strapped to a chair, facing away from the camera, and he was seated on a stool next to her. At present, they were only speaking, but Goddess knew what the abhorrent male had planned.

The idea the Queen had devised to free the captured humans was imperfect, to say the least. Remotely opening the facility exits and releasing humans into the wild with no idea of how to survive seemed idiotic at first glance. But the alternatives were worse. The Insurgents, otherwise known as PRIC, were not yet aware they’d been found out.

If the Queen and her army spent resources attempting to find each secret facility, word might get back to the Insurgents, and they may decide to discard the evidence—namely the humans themselves—before being revealed as the traitors they were.

The strategy they’d settled on to free these humans had been more disheartening than hopeful, but they couldn’t allow them to be locked up any longer. Verakko shuddered to think what may have already been done to them. It boiled his blood that he couldn’t figure out a way to access the locations of the facilities.  

“I’m almost ready for Alice to come in,” Verakko said as he tripped an alarm down the hall and watched the last of the guards leave to investigate. When the guard was a safe distance away, in an unused corridor, Verakko sealed the only exit and inspected his work. Many of the trapped guards were banging on their doors, and some, those in the control rooms, hadn’t noticed they’d been trapped at all. Verakko sensed no movement behind him, so he repeated himself. “You need to retrieve Alice now.”

Luka’s frown matched his own. He said nothing. It was clear he was very unhappy about Alice being here at all, but the persuasive female seemed to have a hold over this stubborn male that was quite impressive.

If I had a mate, I’d never allow her to be this close to danger. Never.

When Luka still made no move to leave, Verakko debated whether to sway the male. Normally, swaying was frowned upon, but he imagined that in this situation, a small nudge wouldn’t be too bad. Whether Luka’s mind would accept the sway was another matter. The ability of his people, the Swadaeth, to use their minds to influence the thoughts of others was unique and, like most unique things, often feared by those who didn’t understand the practice.

Verakko shrugged off the idea. Although Luka was distracted and likely stressed, which were perfect conditions for a successful sway, it’d be…bad if Luka realized what Verakko was attempting to do.

“I’m ready now. Call her in. She needs to speak with the females and explain how to escape—”

Shouting from outside made both their heads spin to the exit. Luka flashed a worried glance toward the feeds then back to the door.

“Go!” Verakko barked, instinctually infusing the command with sway, but Luka was already dashing out of the small cabin.

Dread laced itself around his throat as he began to secure access to the communication system in the first facility. How much time do I have? The echoes of pummeling fists and pained cries boomed through the doorway, and Verakko stiffened. There wasn’t time to talk to each human individually as they’d planned.

Someone or something was thrown into the side of the building with a heavy thud, just as Verakko focused himself on the task at hand.

Originally, they’d planned for Alice to speak to the humans, judging Verakko’s voice and word usage to be too alien and thus untrustworthy, plus there was no guarantee all the humans had been implanted with a language translator. If there was ever a time to use his gift, this was it. He quickly programmed the comm systems to link and spent precious minutes making sure only the speakers in the humans’ cells would produce sound.

A thundering bellow outside was followed by a loud crack. “They have Yulo gloves!” shouted a male from outside.

He forced his eyes closed and took a calming breath, willing his mind to focus. “Hello, humans. I am a friend.” A flash of annoyance speared through him as almost all of the twenty or so prisoners flinched or jumped at his words.

He forced calm to leak into his voice as he swayed. “Listen. In a moment, your doors will open. You need to run. Look for a spinning stairway and run to the top floor, then out through the front doors. Once outside, you’ll want to get as far away from this place as possible. Try to find a city and gather as much attention to yourself as you can. You’ll tell them you wish to speak to the Queen of Tremanta.”

A booming, anguished roar shook the house. That could only mean one thing—Alice must be in danger. He needed to help.

Mustering all the command he could manage into his sway, he said, “They’re open. Leave now!”

He watched with bated breath as they rose and moved to their now-ajar cell doors.

Verakko spun and bolted to the cabin door, wrenched it open, and bared his teeth. He felt the sting through the roof of his mouth as his fangs filled with deadly venom. With one last glance to the screens, he slunk silently into the night.

He managed not to attract any attention as he assessed the scene, clinging to the shadows around the building. His secondary eyelid slid into place and disguised his glowing eyes. A Strigi male was soaring underneath the dense canopy, readying to shoot using an incredibly illegal Yulo glove. The other two-winged Strigi males were grappling with Luka and Kadion.

Three against three? Please. Verakko chuckled low and moved soundlessly until he was poised behind one of the males aiming a glove at Luka’s head.

Strigi were notoriously hard to kill because of their lethal wings and ability to fly out of reach. Although their wings were their greatest strength, they were also their greatest weakness. The massive wingspan created blind spots while fighting, and the inability to bend their wings behind them made their backs particularly vulnerable.

The Strigi male stiffened, sensing Verakko behind him a moment too late. With one hand, Verakko gripped the male’s chin from behind, and with the other, he wrenched the top of his head down until he heard a sickening crack.

Luka peered over his shoulder at Verakko and gave a quick nod before dashing into the dark forest near where Alice must’ve been standing only minutes ago.

Verakko kept his eyes trained on the two remaining Strigi, now circling overhead. He hefted the substantial weight of the male whose neck he’d just broken and shielded Kadion and himself from the Yulo glove blasts.

“Did they make it out?” Kadion rasped while attempting to strip the Yulo glove off the Strigi’s limp hand.

Frustration made his fangs ache, and he grimaced. “I did what I could under the circumstances.” A bolt of green light sizzled through the dead male’s wing and whizzed past Verakko’s ear. The acrid scent of burnt feather, mixed with the pools of blood at their feet, invaded his nostrils. “What’s your plan, General?”

Kadion finished strapping the glove on and shot Verakko a lopsided, dimpled grin. “My plan is to shoot stuff.”

How elegant. Verakko rolled his eyes and readied to toss the winged male aside. “Just get them close, and I’ll do the rest.”

In a moment, the boyish grin on Kadion’s face vanished and was replaced by the hard, cold indifference the male was known for in battle. The swift and abrupt change in demeanor even had Verakko itching to scoot away.

Kadion crouched, and rivulets of blood ran down his upturned face from a nasty headwound. “We’re aiming to incapacitate, not kill, so keep those bites to yourself unless we’re about to die.”

“Understood.”

At Kadion’s quick nod, Verakko used all of his considerable strength to launch the Strigi corpse into the air, giving their attackers a moment of shock that would last long enough for the Yulo glove to do some damage.

These males were smarter than the others, however. They kept to the air rather than fighting on the ground, as their deceased counterparts had done. Verakko searched the area, seeking any means to attack or delay. If he could give the females enough time to escape by preventing any of these Strigi from getting to the control center inside the cabin, at least this night wouldn’t have been for nothing.

A furious growling hiss tore from his throat. There was nothing that could be used as a weapon and no way to reach the airborne assailants unless he climbed a tree and leapt. There were many reasons why that idea would never work, though. What he wouldn’t give for a shade spear right now.

The males dove away from each other suddenly. Verakko kept his gaze trained on the Strigi hovering above him. When the male opened fire, he vaulted into the shadow of a nearby copse of trees. He felt the slice of a Yulo beam tear through his hip and stifled a shout. He crawled across the dark ground, allowing his skin tone to deepen even more and camouflage him as it was designed to do.

The shots ceased, and he peered out into the clearing. To his horror, a third male, who’d been lurking in the woods, was now silently sneaking up behind Kadion, long blade in hand. Had he not joined the fight before because he didn’t have a Yulo glove?

The male gripped the handle, and rage roared through Verakko at the dishonorable position. The lingering venom in his fangs ached to be released. Chancing a quick glance above him, he saw the Strigi had sped toward Kadion, an attempt to distract him.

Verakko dashed toward the attacker at Kadion’s back, making sure to keep his footfalls light. Just as he came within a few feet, the large Strigi turned and clumsily jabbed with his sword before trying to sweep Verakko’s legs with his wing.

Verakko ducked and rolled, then sprung up and trapped the male’s left wing between his forearm and ribcage. He used his other hand to grip the thick but hollow bone that ran from his shoulder to the apex of his wing and wrenched it downward, cracking the bone in half.

The male screamed and swung his blade wildly in Verakko’s direction. He jumped out of reach and squared off with the Strigi. Verakko hissed a laugh between his teeth. “You can’t fly away now, can you?”

The Strigi male was larger than most and had the furious and slightly vacant glare of an overeager warrior. One who rushed into battle with little regard for honor or loyalty. Only looking to kill and prove themselves powerful. The male’s eyes flashed to Verakko’s side, where blood still poured from the open wound at his hip. If they didn’t win this fight soon and he kept exerting himself like this, he knew he’d succumb to blood loss. Verakko studied the male and let his limbs relax. He shifted his weight left to right in a fluid motion, drawing the male’s confused gaze. “Your wing is broken, but you could still get a lucky shot in if you rushed me right now.”

Verakko could see the sway take hold. The male’s eyes glossed and narrowed. The corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk, as though he’d had a grand idea about how to dispose of Verakko.

The poor idiot had no idea what he was in for. Verakko clutched at his wound weakly to aid the sway, and as he expected, the male let out a loud howl and rushed toward him. When he was within a foot and confidence was etched into his features, Verakko dodged, grabbing the male’s sword arm as he went. Before the Strigi could right himself, Verakko had sunk his fangs into the flesh just below his elbow and released a few small drops of venom.

He stood back as the massive male shuddered and dropped to his knees, eyes wide with terror. Verakko crouched before him, put a single finger on his chest, and watched as he tipped and then sprawled on the ground. “You were going to stab him in the back like a coward. Now you’ll die like a coward.”

The male made a gurgling sound in his throat, and his eyes glossed over. Verakko clenched his jaw. Fuck. He deserved to die, but unlike some of his people, Verakko didn’t revel in the suffering his victims experienced.

A stray tear leaked from the male’s eye. His limbs shook as though he were trying with everything he had to lift them. Verakko couldn’t stand the sight anymore.

Leaning forward a fraction, he whispered, “Sleep now. And feel no pain.”

Immediately, the tension left the male’s body and his lids grew heavy. The blood lust Verakko had felt a moment ago ebbed as the life faded from the Strigi’s eyes, and as always, a sliver of regret knotted in him. His mother would’ve been ashamed if she’d seen him grant that small mercy.

A booming voice echoed through the clearing. “We need one of them alive for questioning.”

Before Verakko could regain his composure and jump back into the fray, a sizzling thud hit the back of his head, and then everything went black.

***

Shards of ice pelted Verakko’s face, rousing him. His head was pounding furiously, but his body felt weightless. He peered below himself and froze. Fear coursed through his veins, dissolving all of his pain and leaving terror in its place. One of the Strigi was holding him by the arms and flying, its wings buffeting the chilled air around them.

Being this high up was Verakko’s worst nightmare come to life. His heartbeat banged out of control in his chest, and his breaths grew shallow.

He needed to find a way down. Now.

Closing his eyes, he forced his mind to calm, the way he always did whenever he had to deal with heights. You aren’t afraid of the height, you’re afraid of the fall and the ground. All you need to do is get closer to the ground.

Below him was the Sauven Forest. It had to be. He couldn’t possibly have been unconscious for that long.

He glared up toward the Strigi holding him. Cuts and fresh bruises marred the male’s face, and a wince was permanently etched in his expression. How could he sway the male? What might he have already been thinking? A communicator strapped to his left bicep caught Verakko’s eye. He shot a glance to his own bicep and found his communicator missing. Shit!

As they passed through a particularly dense, low-hanging cloud, shards of ice stung their skin again. The male cursed under his breath, and Verakko had his answer.

“It would be much easier to fly lower. Out of the path of these clouds.” Verakko kept his voice low yet audible.

Without glancing to Verakko, the male suddenly scanned the ground, eyes searching for any signs of life.

Verakko swayed again. “There are only trees down there. No one to see if you don’t follow orders.”

The male dipped, heading out of the clouds and down into warmer air. He leveled out into a glide several hundred feet above the forest.

Still too high.

“Your wings are so sore from all this extra weight. Maybe you should find a spot to rest for a moment.”

The male dipped until the treetops were only a few feet away but then squinted and shook his head. The sway wasn’t holding. Verakko glanced down again, and his insides twisted. He might survive a fall from this height, but…the pain. Memories of cracked bones and limbs twisted at odd angles assailed him.

One more try.

“Your throat is dry. There’s a river up ahead. A perfect place for a drink.”

The male’s eyes narrowed on the river in question, but then they widened, and Verakko knew he’d shucked off the sway entirely.

Mustering all the strength he had left, Verakko shot his legs up and wrapped them around one of the male’s large wings. They banked sharply, spinning and diving into the dense trees below. The male flapped but couldn’t dislodge the tight grip of Verakko’s legs while also holding him by the arms. Wrenching one arm loose, Verakko grappled to pull the communicator free, but the device slipped between his fingers and tumbled into the rushing river below. Verakko cursed and clutched the male’s forearms, lunging and snapping his teeth at any bit of flesh he got close to.

He managed to inject the few remaining drops of venom he had left as his fangs scraped across the male’s upper arm. It might not kill the Strigi, but it would do damage.

The male looked at his oozing cut, aghast. As Verakko had feared and hoped, the male let go.

For a moment, Verakko hung in midair. Then, he was falling. He tried to make his body go limp, knowing a stiff form would only cause more damage. The navy-blue sky disappeared a moment before his shoulder crashed into a branch, sending stars dancing across his vision.

He tried to grab onto the small sticks and twigs that tore at his skin, but every time he caught sight of a suitable limb or sapling in the darkness, it was too late. The trees continued to batter his body until one particularly dense, low-hanging limb cracked his head. His vision wavered. Soft ground could be felt underneath him. He was no longer falling. As the world went dark once again, he recalled lying in a ditch in a similar position. Broken and wondering if he’d ever be found.

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