When he’d passed through a thicket of trees, Verdok slipped into his original form, enjoying the feel of his own skin. His scales were green and camouflaged into the forest nicely. Once he’d traveled into the cave he’d made his temporary home base, Verdok’s mouth began to salivate. He’d hardly been able to tolerate the charred meat that the females of the Scowotz had offered him. The animal, whatever it was, had been roasted over a hot fire for too long, and the meat had no flavor. He needed something fresh. Something with its blood still flowing.
When Verdok slipped into the cave, the familiar smell of prey filled his nostrils. The firelight danced across the cave walls, but Verdok ignored the nuisance. As a shapeshifter, Verdok adapted easily to his environment, even when not taking on the appearance of another. The Petigrens were warm-blooded animals and needed the fire to survive, especially in this cold region.
Three Petigrens scurried around the open cave, as Verdok slithered into the area and coiled his long tail around his body. They looked up and startled backward before correcting themselves and bowing low. Their instinct told them to fear him, but it was their law that told the Petigrens to serve Verdok. A law that the Saverus had created.
“Master! Master!” the Petigrens said in unison between clucking noises. They scurried around, picking up rocks and then dropping them. Digging into satchels while looking around bewildered. The Petigrens were the size of small men, but they had the ears, whiskers and facial features of a mouse. Tufts of hair grew in random places on their faces and body.
“Were you successful?” the first Petigren asked, bringing forward a bowl of fresh water.
Verdok ignored the offering and instead appraised the Petigren. The three had traveled with him for a week now, although when he had set out, he’d had twice the number. He might need more Petigrens soon.
“I was not, unless determining where the boy has not been is considered progress,” Verdok said.
Another Petigren rushed forward, sliding down to his knees and bowing his head. “Are you hungry, master? It would be my honor to gather food for you.”
Verdok considered the offer. The Petigrens weren’t horrible hunters, but usually what they came back with was small and unfulfilling.
“I’ll eat in a moment,” he said, feeling dirty after his short stint with the disgusting tribe.
“I ventured into the town at the bottom of the mountain,” the third Petigren said nonchalantly.
Verdok spun around, his yellow eyes widening. “You did what? I told you not to leave the cave.”
“I realize that, but I figured I could be of use to you,” the Petigren stated, kneeling beside the fire, scratching at the dirt and kindling like trying to make a bed out of the stuff.
“How did you have such a mistaken notion?” Verdok asked, swaying back and forth, his form stretching tall. Across the cave wall, the shadow of Verdok danced.
The Petigren hiccupped. “I simply went to the village and asked for help.”
“You what?” Verdok nearly exploded.
“I said that I needed a safe place, the safest,” the Petigren stuttered. The other two were now huddled together by the far wall.
Verdok didn’t say anything, instead he watched the Petigren shuffle nervously.
“As a vulnerable race, they didn’t question my requests for safety,” the Petigren explained, continuing. “And you said that the boy was sent to a safe place.”
“I did,” Verdok said, revolving to face the other two, who seemed to wet themselves from the eye contact. “Apparently, you don’t have a pea-sized brain like your brothers.”
“I assure you, we can think when allowed,” the rebellious Petigren said, regaining Verdok’s attention.
“What did you learn? Or did you only attract unnecessary attention to yourself?” Verdok asked.
The Petigren hiccupped and scuttled forward on all fours before rising to stand in front of Verdok. “I learned that there are many safe places on Nexus. The planet is considered mostly peaceful.”
Verdok’s forked tongue slipped from his mouth. “That’s not helpful. I’ve garnered that much information over the last several days.”
“But I heard rumor of a place considered safer than all the rest,” the Petigren stammered, visibly shaking, but still holding his chin upright.
“Go on,” Verdok demanded.
“The people in the village said that, for those who pose no threat, the inhabitants of Sunex welcome them into their borders,” the Petigren stated, hiccupping still. “They don’t allow savages, like those in Scowotz, or other bullies or predator types. However, they will protect those who can’t protect themselves. The people are supposed to be very peaceful, and the land absent of any dangers.”
Verdok mused on the idea. That does seem like the safest place on Nexus. Can it possibly be where the hologram sent the kid with the Tangle Thief?
“Did I do well, Master?” the Petigren asked, not at all cowering now. “Did I prove my worth to you?”
So that was what this Petigren was after? He was trying to prove he was more than a pile of bait or a servant to the Saverus.
Verdok swiveled to face the other Petigren, cowering in the corner. Even shivering in fear, they looked interested to see how this bold behavior would be interpreted. Verdok had to set a precedent. This Petigren’s behavior could have far reaching effects. He’d made himself useful by finding valuable information.
Verdok whipped around in a blur and struck the rebellious Petigren, sinking his razor-sharp fangs into the middle of its body. The rat-like man froze, his entire form rigid with fear and adrenaline. He began to convulse in Verdok’s wide jaws, which clenched his body tightly, not allowing him to move.
From Verdok’s peripheral, he spotted the usual fear from the other Petigrens as they watched one of their kind being struck. But this death served a purpose. The Petigrens were allowed to be mildly useful. They were allowed to sacrifice themselves in battle for the Saverus or to feed the greater species. But they served the Saverus. They did as they were told. What they didn’t do was go off on their own and find valuable information that would in turn make them more powerful.
Verdok’s body wound tighter around the stiff Petigren, constricting until it was in the perfect position. Then Verdok released his fangs, but kept his jaw wide as he slipped his mouth over the Petigren’s head, swallowing it whole.