Pure and cool, a breeze filtered through a curtain of lustrous ivy, casting a fluctuating camouflage of sunlight and shadow on the face of a young girl. Althea crouched amid the dancing lights, motionless against a crumbling wall of mismatched stone and rusting metal parts. The raven calls of bickering old men fluttered away into the sky from the other side. The tribal elders could not agree on which direction to send the Seekers. She smiled to herself. That they still talked about it meant they had not yet discovered her missing from the Cha’dom.
Her hands clutched the dirt as she stalked, low to the ground, toward the end of the hanging greenery, quieter than the faint hiss of wind through the vines. At the edge of the wall, she crouched and waited for the path ahead to clear of villagers.
When opportunity came, she burst through the strands of green, carried on sinewy legs hardened by many hours spent running. Tattered leather strips that served as a skirt trailed behind as she careened down a curving walkway, under the front end of an ancient car sticking out from the second story of the spearmaker’s home. One wheel, long devoid of rubber, intoned the song of rust to the wind as it spun in the moving air. At the end of the row of scrap metal dwellings, the collage of dead vehicles, the village wall, offered a gap through which only a child could fit.
She hooked her hands and toes here and there, a spider monkey climbing through the lattice of metal bars, struts, and old machines. Her breaths came rapid with fear and anticipation as she worked her way through the vertical maze toward a beam of daylight far above. At the midway point, she slid through the long absent door of an old crushed car, scooting across the crumbling upholstery to emerge through the shattered rear window. Althea stood and crept to the edge of the trunk, cringing as the metal beast creaked. A short jump sent her lithe figure slipping higher into the tangle, legs flailing for purchase as she grabbed a bit of rebar; maroon footprints in dust the only trace of her passage over the car.
Minutes later, she propped herself against metal tubes and leaned her face through a round opening. After a glance outside to be certain it was clear, she grabbed an overhead bar and pulled herself up until she could slide her legs through. She sat on the edge of the hole for an instant before sliding down corrugated plates into the thick growth at the base.
The plants, laden with the dew of morning, tickled her with cold, wet fingers as she crawled toward the sound of the boys preparing for their foray into the Lost Place. Her toes dug into the cool dirt as she stretched forward, peeking through a veil of tousled flaxen hair around the wall. A dozen Seekers, skin the color of sienna, gathered in a circle of powerful bodies under the shade of the Spirit-Tree. Their raven hair all cut short, save for Palik, who fancied himself a half-chamán and wore it down to his belt, loaded with baubles.
Den was among them; she watched the lean contours of his muscles shift as he helped the older seekers gather supplies. The sight of the only boy in the entire tribe who was not terrified of her made her smile, but delight faded as a sense of worry entered her mind. The past night’s sleep had left her with a foreboding feeling something bad would happen to him today.
The elders of this place had been kinder than most villages that found her. It had taken a mere two months before they trusted her promise she would not try to run away. Only two months of pleas before they no longer kept her in the cage. Den believed her; as the son of Braga, the chief, he had demanded her release. She was not permitted to leave the Cha’dom, much less allowed out of the village. The chamán expected her to assist with the rituals, even if she didn’t understand them. To earn their trust, she did. Althea feared the cage more than the bizarre wild-eyed man with a dead wolf skin upon his head and paint upon his face. She had done as he told her to do, holding the bowls and spreading the powders, even swallowing the odd plants that made her feel funny and see strange things.
Fear knotted her gut at the thought of running outside, even though she had no desire to flee. The elders would be furious, but she had to warn Den no matter the consequence. With any luck, the sleep she had given the chamán would still be upon him when she returned.
Althea picked at her frayed leather skirt while she watched the Seekers prepare, thinking to find some more material to add. She made it around the time she turned ten. Collected scraps of old belts, shoelaces, and leather armor had become a tough garment. Most tribal Scrags wore only what they made or found on their own, or what a courting seeker gifted to them. She was not content to wait for the latter. Roughly two years later, the steady process of repairing and adding to it had created a tangle of tatters down to her knees. It served its purpose well, though the dingy grey chest-cloth Den had given her would not last as long. Althea squirmed, still unaccustomed to the feeling of wearing something like that. Wrapped about beneath her arms, it left her shoulders and stomach bare and seemed utterly without purpose.
She kept the itchy before-time scrap only because he had given it to her.
The boys marched off in a line, following a rocky trail down out of the hills. Althea looked between the wall and the hunting party with a desperate grimace. If they caught her, the elders would think it an escape attempt and put her back in the cage. If she did not go, Den would have no warning of danger, and she feared he would die.
It was not much of a choice.
As soon as they were out of sight, she closed her eyes for the span of a breath and dashed from her hiding place. The clearing between the wall and the forest blurred as she sprinted, tall weeds smacked her shins, fingers clawed through the tall grass. At the woods’ edge, she leapt into the first bits of underbrush and clamped onto the nearest tree. Her dirt-smeared figure blended against the coarse, wet bark scratching at her skin. She stood on her toes, frozen for almost a minute, listening for any trace of danger.
Althea knew motion attracted eyes.
No shouts arose from behind, no one came running, and the hunting party did not react. Her keen ears found only the soft hiss of the wind in the branches. She let out a gasp of relief, pulled her hair out of her face, and followed the rustles and snaps drifting into the forest.
She stepped around rocks and roots, brushing vines aside, walking as fast as she could without creating noise. The hunters had trained senses, but she was far quieter than the boars they preyed upon. Moving from tree to tree in a series of sprints, crawls, and leaps, she soon got within sight of them.
A birdcall echoed as one of them made a signal, gathering the spread-out group close. The boys collected around something on the ground. The eldest, Nalu, crouched and stuck a large knife into the dirt, picking at his beard while the scent of something dead teased at her nose. Trying to get a look at what they found, she circled through the dense brush. She drew closer, crawling into a thick patch of fern for cover. Sitting back on her heels, she craned her neck to get a better view. The cause of their delay, a huge dead boar, had been torn open from neck to groin. Her eyes widened at the sight as she tried to imagine what could have done such a thing.
Jake, the youngest of the group, backed away from the mangled beast. Scrawny and small, he was about the same age as Althea and clad in a pair of boar-hide shorts he had made after his first hunting trip. Pants had let him feel as though he left his boyhood behind and had become a man; he had spent several days showing them off to everyone. Unlike her, he had taken the time to smudge the dirt on his cheeks into something resembling war paint.
He leaned on his wooden spear, looking anywhere but at the pig. She sensed fear on him the way incense exuded smoke. As his gaze swept across the trees, he gasped and pointed right at her. Althea stiffened as they all turned and stared at her one by one. Den smirked and waved her over. With a guilty face, she rose to her feet and trudged out into the open.
“You have the sight of a hunter already.” She smiled at Jake.
“Did you forget your eyes make light like the stars and your skin is pale?” Den tried not to laugh. “Why did you follow?” He jogged over and put his hands on her shoulders. “Girls should stay safe at home. The elders will think you are running away.”
Althea glanced at his hand, dark against her skin. “The Alamos tribe has more girl seekers than boys.” She folded her arms in defiance. “Their boys are lazy.”
The other six fixed her with uneasy stares. Jake took a step back with his spear all but pointed at her. Nalu stood, turning away from the dead pig, and shook his head. Like Althea, he wore a garment resembling a skirt made from leather strips, only his had a rectangular orange metal plate hanging in the center with strange marks on it. She had seen similar things attached to old cars, and thought it silly to use such a thing for armor. They did not protect the cars at all. He pulled his machete out of the ground and approached.
Den poked her in the belly. “You can’t be a Seeker. You won’t kill anything. You don’t have trouble eating the boar, but you refuse to kill one.”
She thrust her lower lip out, unable to argue his truth.
Nalu’s face grew stern. “It is not that you are a girl. You are the Prophet.” He frowned. “You promised you would not flee.”
Althea clung to Den after scooting behind him. “I am not fleeing. I came to warn you.”
Den smiled at her touch, but the others looked fearful. “Warn us of what?”
“I had a bad feeling.” She tried to touch the blue light on his back cast off by her eyes. “I dreamed you would be hurt today.”
“You should go back.” Jake’s voice quivered as he gestured at Den. “Glow-eye says you will die.”
Den puffed his chest up and hefted his metal spear. “I’m not scared.”
Althea looked down at his one large boot and one torn shoe, fruits of a previous trip into the Lost Place. “I go with you.” She looked up, past the agate arrowhead hanging around his neck, into the eyes of a man staring out from the face of a boy. “Please trust me.”
Jake shook his head. “Glow-eye will bring bad luck.”
The other hunters shifted with unease.
The wind picked up; scraggly blonde hair tickled the center of Althea’s back and strands of leather caressed her legs. Nalu looked to the whispering treetops and sniffed.
“Something comes.” He dropped into a fighting stance with his machete held high.
Den dragged Althea by her arm to a tree. “Up. Animals approach.”
He grabbed her about the waist and lifted. She took hold of a branch and stepped on his shoulder. No sooner was her weight in the tree than grey furry streaks darted through the group and circled around. The creatures stood in a line, staring the humans down with intelligence beyond what one would expect from such animals.
Five canines with bright yellow eyes and jagged, mismatched teeth protruding sideways from their snouts snarled in unison. The largest, as tall as Nalu’s chest, sniffed at the air and stared at Jake. It seemed to tell the others he was the weakest of their prey. Althea’s gaze jumped around as she sensed emotions; Nalu radiated annoyance, Den confidence, and Jake terror. The others were also frightened, but not to the same degree. As the alpha tossed his nose in Jake’s direction, the pack ran at him.
Nalu grabbed the boy by the shoulder and hauled him back, telling the others to circle around. Den remained close to the tree to protect her. Happiness at his concern faded when she felt a wave of embarrassment surround Jake and become rage. He did not want the others to think of him as a little frightened boy, even if he was only eleven.
She bounced to her feet on the branch. “Jake, no!”
Spear held high, he leapt out from behind Nalu and went for one of the creatures with a high-pitched cry.
The bonedog ducked the attack, nipping at the spear and backpedaling to lure him out. Jake followed with a bloodthirsty grin, mistaking the trap for the dog being frightened of him. Two distracted Nalu with a flash of snapping teeth and drool while the last one crept around, taking advantage of the boy’s blind focus. Jake screamed as teeth sank into his calf and the animal wrenched him to the ground on his chest with a twist. Nalu turned at the noise and sliced at the ambusher, exposing himself to the two distractors.
The dog with a mouthful of Jake’s shin leapt away from the machete strike, baring bloody teeth with an angry glare. Now it protected its meal.
“Bonedogs. They like ta rip off arms or legs and run away with ‘em.” Den looked up, amused at her lack of squeamishness.
“I know. I have seen them before.” She pointed past him, yelling. “Den! Look―”
He turned as the Alpha pounced, managing to wedge his spear handle sideways into the beast’s mouth before it got him by the throat. The weight and momentum of the animal knocked him flat on his back. The wind flew out of him as he hit the ground. With one twist of its great neck, the enormous dog thrashed the spear out of his grip and tossed it to the side. When its head swung back to lock eyes with him, she had the sense it grinned at him.
“Nalu,” Althea screamed. “Help!”
The eldest hunter wrestled with another dog in an effort to keep it off Jake. The boy had seized with fear. He did not cry, but was defenseless. The others traded superficial wounds with the rest of the pack in a roving skirmish through the trees. Nalu could not do anything for Den in time to matter.
She looked down as the alpha lunged at Den’s face. He grabbed it by its cheek fur and held on. Teeth snapped at his nose and drool sprayed in his face as its effort to overpower him pushed him along the ground. It changed tactics, twisting to bite him on the forearm. Den grunted, kicking at the dog’s underside, not that it appeared to notice.
“No!” Althea slid from the branch, landing on all fours like a wildcat.
She ran to Den’s spear, urged into a panic at the sound of bones splintering behind her. With a feeble attempt at a roar that came out as a wail, she lowered the point and ran at the giant canine. Desperation flared in her face; her body empowered by unconscious command. The spear hit it in the side, its bloodlust having distracted it from her approach. The shock of impact knocked her grip loose; her hands slid over the leather cording on the metal bar. The dog wheezed and released the arm, stumbling sideways several feet before it collapsed on its side, emitting a belabored moan.
The other four dogs abandoned their prey and converged on her, enraged at the death of the alpha. She turned to face them, standing over Den with the spear aimed forward. His left hand circled her ankle, sliding up, squeezing her calf.
“Run,” he wheezed.
Her determination to protect him emerged into the world as a telempathic emanation of fear. The perpetual azure glow grew brighter as her gaze jumped at random from one monster to the next, daring them to attack.
Stalled in their tracks, the animals hesitated for a moment before their tails swung down through their legs and they backed away with hesitant growls. Althea took a step at them, thrusting the spear and wanting them to feel frightened of her. The pack turned as one and vanished, smears of grey into the woods.
The hunting party, except for Den, gawked at her in silence. Nalu did not seem to know what to make of this, while the younger ones looked at her as though she had become a dangerous entity, not some child to be protected or a precious commodity to be guarded.
The Prophet had killed.
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