Pure and cool, a breeze rustled a curtain of lustrous ivy, casting a wavering pattern of sunlight and shadow on Althea’s body and the wall behind her. She crouched, motionless beside a crumbling barrier of mismatched stone and rusting metal, listening to the raven calls of bickering old men flutter away into the sky from the other side. The tribal elders couldn’t agree on which direction to send the Seekers.
Althea smiled to herself. That they still talked about it meant they hadn’t yet discovered her missing from the Cha’dom.
She clutched her hands in the dirt, stalking low to the ground toward the end of the hanging greenery, her motion quieter than the faint hiss of wind in the vines. At the edge of the wall, she paused, waiting for the path ahead to clear of villagers.
When opportunity came, she burst out from ivy, bounding on pale sinewy legs hardened by many hours spent running. Tattered leather strips that served as a skirt bounced around her as she careened down a curving walkway. At the end of the path, she ducked under the front end of an ancient car jutting out from the second story of the spear-maker’s home.
One wheel, long devoid of rubber, intoned a song of rust to the wind, spinning in the light wind. The village wall, a collage of ancient, dead vehicles, stood at the end of a row of scrap metal dwellings. She ran to a gap only a child could squeeze past, and climbed in, gazing up at the wall’s interior.
Althea leapt up and grabbed a horizontal spar, pulling herself upward, a spider monkey climbing a lattice of metal bars, struts, and old machines. Her breaths came rapid with fear and anticipation while she worked her way up the vertical maze toward a beam of daylight far above. Near the midway point, she slid into an old, crushed car, its door long absent, and scooted across the crumbling upholstery to emerge out 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 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. She hooked her toes on the bumper of a flattened truck and pushed herself onto another hood.
Minutes later, she propped herself against metal tubes and leaned her face out a round opening. Once sure she wouldn’t be caught, she grabbed an overhead bar, pulled herself up, and threaded her legs into the portal. She sat on the edge for an instant before letting go and sliding down corrugated metal 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. She stretched forward, peeking through a veil of her tousled flaxen hair around the wall.
A dozen Seekers, skin the color of sienna, gathered in a circle under the shade of the Spirit-Tree. Except for the youngest, they had powerful, sinewy bodies. All but one kept their raven hair cut short. Palik, who fancied himself a half-chamán, wore it down to his belt, loaded with baubles.
Den stood among them. She stared at the lean contours of his muscles as he helped the older seekers gather supplies. The sight of the only boy in the entire tribe who didn’t radiate terror being around her made her smile, but delight faded to a sense of worry. The past night’s sleep had left her with a foreboding feeling something bad would happen to him today.
The elders of this village had been kinder than most 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. The elders didn’t permit to leave the Cha’dom, much less the village. The chamán expected her to assist with the rituals, even if she didn’t understand them. To earn their trust, she obeyed. 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 leather skirt while she watched the Seekers prepare, thinking she needed to add more material. She made it around two years ago, when she’d been ten years of age by her best estimate. Collected scraps of leather armor, old belts, shoelaces, and such had made for a tough garment. Most tribal Scrags wore only what they made or found on their own, or what a courting Seeker gifted them. She did not wish to wait for the latter. As the Prophet, she doubted any boy would court her, and tired of having nothing to wear. Little Scrags, unwanted women, and inept warriors ran about with only air for clothing, and Althea didn’t consider herself little anymore.
Roughly two years later, the steady process of repairing and adding to it had created a tangle of mostly leather tatters down to her knees. The garment served its purpose well, though the dingy grey chest-cloth Den had given her wouldn’t last as long. Althea squirmed, still unaccustomed to the feeling of wearing anything above the waist. The thin shirt left her arms bare, only two thin strips of fabric over her shoulders. It seemed utterly without purpose.
She continued wearing the itchy before-time scrap only because Den had given it to her. As much as it annoyed her, tossing it away would feel like being mean to him.
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 didn’t go, Den would have no warning of danger and she feared he would die.
It didn’t make for much of a choice.
As soon as they walked 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, she clawed her fingers at the tall grass. At the woods’ edge, she leapt into the first bits of underbrush and clamped onto the nearest tree. Coarse, wet bark scratched at her skin, but at least her dirt-smeared figure blended like camouflage. She stood on her toes, frozen for almost a minute, listening for any trace of danger.
Motion attracted eyes.
No shouts arose from behind, no one came running, and the hunting party didn’t react. Her keen ears detected 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 growing distant in 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 could be far quieter than the boars they preyed upon. Moving from tree to tree in a series of sprints, crawls, and leaps, she soon came within sight of them.
A birdcall echoed, one of the Seekers making a signal. In response, the spread-out group gathered close. The boys collected around something on the ground. The eldest, a grown man named 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 crept closer, crawling into a thick patch of fern for cover. She sat back on her heels and craned her neck for 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. The boys radiated fear, wonder, and hunger in varying degrees.
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 and chest into a pattern resembling war paint.
He leaned on his wooden spear, looking anywhere but at the pig. He exuded fear the way incense gave off smoke. His gaze swept toward her, and he gasped, pointing. 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, head bowed.
“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.”
“She is running from the village,” barked Palik.
Althea glanced at Den’s hand, dark brown 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 hadn’t protected 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. Killing anything, even for meat, seemed evil.
Nalu’s expression grew stern. “It is not that you are a girl. You are the Prophet.” He frowned. “You promised you would not flee.”
Althea scooted behind Den and clung to him. “I am not fleeing. I came to warn you.”
Den smiled at her touch, but the others continued radiating fear. “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 glanced down at his one large boot and one torn shoe, fruits of a previous trip into the Lost Place. “I go with you.” She gradually lifted her gaze up his body, past the agate arrowhead hung around his neck, and stared into the eyes of a man set in the face of a boy. “Please trust me.”
Jake shook his head. “Glow-eye will bring bad luck.”
The other Seekers shifted with unease.
At a brief gust in the wind, Althea’s hair tickled the center of her back and strands of leather caressed her legs. Nalu turned his gaze up to the whispering treetops and sniffed.
“Prepare.” He dropped into a fighting stance with his machete held high.
Den grasped Althea’s arm and dragged her to the nearest tree of decent size. “Up. Animals approach.”
Once she started to climb, he grabbed her about the waist to help, then cupped her feet and pushed her higher. Within seconds of her perching on a high branch, grey furry streaks emerged from the brush. Skinny, disheveled dogs with charcoal hued fur formed up in a line, staring the Seekers down with intelligence beyond what seemed natural for such animals.
Bonedogs. She bit her lip. They didn’t usually attack large groups like this. Something felt wrong.
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 focused on Jake. The others followed his direction, noting the weakest of their prey. Althea gazed around, bewildered by the rapid eruption of emotions from the Seekers. Nalu gave off annoyance, Den guarded confidence, Jake terror. The others were frightened, but not to the same degree as the youngest boy.
When the alpha dog again tossed his nose in Jake’s direction, the pack ran at him.
Nalu grabbed the boy by the shoulder and hauled him back, shouting for the others to circle around. Den remained close to the tree to protect her. Delight at his concern faded when she sensed the embarrassment surrounding Jake become rage. He didn’t 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 let off a high-pitched cry and leapt out from behind Nalu, rushing at one of the creatures.
The bonedog ducked, leaving Jake stabbing at dirt, then nipped at him while backpedaling to lure the boy away from the much bigger Nalu. Jake followed with a bloodthirsty grin, mistaking the dog for being frightened of him. Two others distracted Nalu with a flash of snapping teeth and drool while the last one crept around, taking advantage of the boy’s fixation on the ‘scared’ dog. It lunged, sinking its teeth into the boy’s calf before wrenching him to the ground with a twist of its head.
Jake screamed. Nalu turned 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 in an angry glare at Nalu. Protecting its meal, it snarled, refusing to back off.
“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.” A huge mass of black fur loomed up behind him. She pointed and yelled, “Den! Look—”
He turned as the Alpha pounced, managing to wedge his spear handle sideways into the beast’s mouth before it clamped its jaws around his throat. The weight and momentum of the animal knocked him flat on his back. With one twist of its great neck, the enormous dog thrashed the spear out of his grip and tossed it to the side. Den scrambled backward on the ground, but the dog stepped on his chest, pinning him. When it swung its head back to lock eyes with him, it radiated delight.
“Nalu!” Althea screamed. “Help!”
The eldest hunter wrestled with another dog in an effort to keep it off Jake. The boy had become frozen in fear. He didn’t cry, but couldn’t defend himself. The others traded superficial wounds with the rest of the pack in a roving skirmish through the trees. Nalu couldn’t do anything for Den in time to matter. Althea couldn’t change Jake’s emotions fast enough to matter for Den.
She looked down as the alpha snapped 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. After a few feet, it twisted and bit him on the forearm. Den grunted, kicking at the dog’s underside, not that it appeared to notice.
“No!” Althea slid from the branch and landed 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, growing in strength. The alpha’s bloodlust kept it focused on Den. It didn’t react to her charge until the spear tip plunged into its side. The shock of impact knocked her grip loose, hands sliding forward over the leather cording on the metal bar. Emitting a belabored groan, the Alpha wheezed and released Den’s arm before stumbling sideways. Althea jerked the spear free, and the animal collapsed on its side.
The other four dogs abandoned their prey and converged on her, enraged at the death of the alpha. She spun to face them, standing over Den with the spear aimed forward. He grasped her ankle, then slid his hand up to squeeze her calf.
“Run,” he wheezed.
Determined to protect him, she gathered a telempathic emanation of fear. The perpetual azure glow in her eyes brightened. She glared from one monster to the next, daring them to attack while projecting dread into their minds.
Stalled in their tracks, the animals hesitated for mere seconds before their tails swung down between their legs and they backed away with hesitant growls. Althea took a step at them, thrusting the spear in a menacing gesture not intended to hit anything. 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 didn’t 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.