The bonedogs darted into the shifting greens and browns of the wood. Althea stood guard over Den, clutching the spear, motionless until no trace of the animals remained in sight or hearing. She let the tip of the heavy spear sag to the ground, no longer able to bear its weight. After dropping it entirely, she knelt and pulled Den’s mangled arm into her lap.
He moaned at her touch, lolling his head toward her in a half daze. “You… killed it?”
She frowned, ashamed. “I’m sorry! He bit your arm and I—”
“It’s okay… only a bonedog.” He let his head fall back to the ground. “You saved me.”
Althea stared at the large mound of dark fur, on the verge of tears at the sight of its lifelessness. True, it would have killed Den, but that didn’t weaken her guilt at ending a life. A drip of hot blood on her leg brought her attention back to him.
With a firm grip on either side of the bite wound, she reached out with her mind, searching for a connection with his body. In seconds, his heartbeat and the ebb and flow of his breaths entered her awareness. In the blackness of her closed eyes, Den drifted toward her. She perceived the discrete parts within him as amorphous masses of color: white for bone-shapes, dull red for muscles, bright red for blood-shapes, and dark blobs for the important things in the middle. Althea poured her power into him, commanding his body to repair itself. After detaching his mind from pain, she pulled and twisted his mauled arm, the bones scraping over each other while she worked the limb back to its natural shape.
Her breaths came deep and rapid as she poured her energy into him. Charged with her power, his body’s normal healing process sped up by an order of magnitude. Slender white forms flowed whole from splintered fragments. Crimson strands launched threads over black chasms that pulled closed as his muscles re-grew, before at last, new skin spread over the wound. Within a few minutes, a pink blotch of tenderness remained as the only hint of a formerly destroyed arm. She opened her eyes and let the link fade. Den drew in a hiss, cradling the tender spot.
Althea knew full well why everyone in the Badlands wanted to own her.
At a presence hovering nearby, Althea looked up. Nalu stood over her cradling Jake in his arms. The boy’s leg had shattered, but the older hunter’s quick reaction had prevented the bonedog from tearing half the limb off and fleeing with it. Nalu set him down beside her. The boy tried to scoot away as if she would devour him.
“The Prophet will not harm you.” Nalu held the squirming lad down with one hand.
She made a sad face and radiated calm, overpowering the fear inside him. His trembling stilled. Althea set her grimy, blood-soaked fingers upon his wounded leg and concentrated. He tensed as his muscles undulated, rebuilding themselves. At the sight of his skin sealing without a mark, he gasped.
“They guard their kill.” Nalu pointed at the pig carcass. “They have fed from it, it is unsafe for us to eat. We must move before they return.”
“The bonedogs hunt too close to us,” said Palik, glaring at Althea. “This is omen.”
Den sat up, his attempt to speak stalled by a loud gurgle from his gut.
Althea giggled. “Making hurts go away makes hungry.” She offered a weary smile, fatigue evident in her voice, and mended Nalu’s superficial wounds.
Jake scrambled to his feet, stumbling as soon as he put weight on his leg. Nalu caught him, lowering him back to the ground.
She looked from Den to Jake, then up at Nalu. “The hurt will be sore for a time, maybe an hour. Please let them rest.”
Nalu shook his head. “Understood… but not here. We must distance ourselves from their food before they return in greater numbers.”
He carried Jake and gathered the others. Althea stood and offered a hand to Den to help him stand. A chill spread over her when she noticed the alpha bonedog had vanished. Where once had been a body, threads of shadow seeped into the trees, black wisps the only trace of its presence. She pulled Den away from the spot as fast as she could coax him to go.
They followed Nalu for a while before he decided to let them rest at a spot where an old crumbling concrete wall faded back into the earth. After arranging the group in a defensive circle, he set Jake down against a fallen log. Other Seekers migrated further south, away from her. She sighed at Nalu ruffling the boy’s hair. She couldn’t remember anything like the brotherly affection they had ever shared with her. Not since the Wagon Man took her. She’d been five or six then, and scarcely remembered her caretakers. The men and boys of this tribe even cringed away from her healing caress, enduring it only as long as it took to mend them.
Not one wanted to touch her, much less hug or carry her around—except Den. He wandered over to where she had flopped, sitting next to her in the shadow of the tiny wall before putting an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. Astonished, she held her hands to her chest and leaned into him. The others thought him crazy for being near such a creature as her. Even Den’s father Braga expressed dismay that his son chose her. The talk among the elders hinted at their expectations Den would ask permission for the joining ritual soon.
Althea grinned at the thought of joining. She didn’t know what it meant beyond it happening between two people who liked each other a great deal. She could see in Den’s thoughts he wanted it, and his emotions toward her gave her comfort.
“What are you smiling at?” He glanced over, swallowing a bit of dried meat so he could talk.
She helped herself to a piece of it and tugged at her ragged shirt. “Braga’s face when you gave me this.”
“Yala is still angry.”
Gnawing on the hard ration, she glanced up at him with an inquiring expression.
“Before we found you, father had set her aside for me because I had not chosen.”
Althea looked off to the right, muttering. “She is pretty… her hair is so long and beautiful.”
“You’re pretty, too.” He poked her in the side.
She scrunched her face up at him and squirmed. “I’m too pale.”
“You are of a different tribe. Still beautiful… and Yala’s eyes don’t make the night run away.”
A blush settled on her face for an instant before sorrow gripped her. “If I wasn’t… I mean if I was normal…”
“I’d still want you for a wife.”
“What?” She shot upright and stared at him, a hint of a tremble in her. “They said we were to be joined, not that I was to be wifed!”
He took her hand, eyebrows drifting closer. “What do you mean? Getting joined means you are my wife.”
Althea shivered. Her eyes reddened and she rubbed at a lump in her throat. “I thought it meant something nice.”
Den fixed her with an unblinking stare. “What do you think a wife is?”
Her head pitched down, she cried. “I have seen slaves get wifed.”
He beckoned her close again. “It is not the same. We are not raiders.”
“So if we are joined, you won’t wife me?” She sniffled back tears, looking at him.
“Someday, you’ll want to.” He looked up with an impish smile. “I hope.”
Althea glared with confusion and peeked into his mind. His feelings seemed quite different than what she expected. Getting wifed had been the most evil thing she had ever seen. The women always either tried to fight or beg them not to, but the raiders never listened. She would never allow that to happen to her. However, the contents of Den’s thoughts didn’t look anything like what she’d seen in raider camps. He believed a girl would want to do that. His thoughts proved a little embarrassing, and she couldn’t keep looking at him without blushing. He probably didn’t know what ‘wifeing’ really meant, and used the word wrong.
Relieved, she settled back against him. “Would you like me even if I wasn’t the Prophet?”
“Uh huh.” His adrenaline had worn off, leaving him sounding about ready to sleep. “Maybe… As long as you still had glow-eyes.”
She poked him in the side. “I like it here.” The tiny lie made her bite her lip. Den she liked, the rest of the village—not so much. However, it beat being a captive of killers and crazies. Even if this village made her go back in the cage, they didn’t roam the Badlands attacking people.
He laughed. “I’m glad.”
Althea traced her fingers in lazy circles across her bare stomach. “Den?” She lifted her head, waiting for him to look at her. “Why are they scared of me? All I want is to help everyone.”
“They fear the stories.” He brushed a finger across her forehead, moving her hair off her face. “The old one says darkness will follow you.”
Althea stared down, focusing on the agate arrowhead hanging at the center of his chest. “Bad people always take me.” She cuddled closer, reaching an arm across to play with the pendant. Adoring the feel of warm skin on her cheek and his breath on her head, she enjoyed a sense of contentment.
He smiled, watching the bit of agate move over her fingers. “They want what you can do. Stop giving medicine and they will leave you alone.”
She looked up with a gasp. “I can’t let people hurt.”
“If you had to choose ’tween bein’ with me or bein’ the Prophet, what would you do?”
“I…” She stared, unable to balance her happiness against the needs of so many people. Her gaze fell to the ground; she could neither give voice to her answer, nor lie to him.
“Time to go.” Nalu’s shout fell on them both like a bucket of cold water. “Watch her. Make sure she does not run.”
“You know the stories,” said Den, gesturing at him. “The Prophet does not run. She has promised.”
Althea studied her lap.
They rested for a little while more while Nalu went about rousing the others into motion. Althea sat up, hiding her face so he couldn’t see the deepening red around her eyes. Nalu had punched a hole in her bubble, reminding her she was the tribe’s possession and not a member. Den ambushed the exposed skin at her sides and continued to tickle her after she leapt to her feet, until she grabbed his hands. Out of breath from laughing, she smiled.
He flashed a mischievous grin. “I like this face more.”
The others gawked at him as if he tried to play fetch with a wild tiger. Den didn’t react to them, holding her hand and walking with her at the rear of the expedition toward the Lost Place. As the group marched on through the woods, the others cast occasional worried glances their way. Althea ignored their frowns, adrift in the dream of a girl being with a boy she liked, free of the burden of her gift.
In time, the trees parted to reveal an expanse of strange stone obelisks dotted with scattered glimmers of reflected sunlight. Flat strips of black rock covered the land that stretched out in front of her, between rows of one-branched metal trees with bizarre bulbous pods. Some of the immense stone spires had split open, revealing hollows inside with dozens of separate spaces. Althea shivered, dreading the size of the wasps that must have built such nests.
Cool dirt and grass gave way to hot black stone under her feet. Althea jumped back, giving Den a frightened glance. The boys laughed at her reaction to the paving, all except for Nalu, who glared with annoyance. With Den coaxing her, she stepped cautiously over the foreign surface and stared in awe at where the rising buildings cut apart the sky. She had heard stories of the Lost Place, but had never imagined how big or how frightening it might be.
“Put her in there,” barked Nalu.
She jumped at the sudden command. The man pointed at a large green creature standing by a crumbling wall where a patch of rough weeds forced their way up from cracks.
“Inside that beast?” The expression of utter revulsion on her face made everyone laugh.
Nalu grabbed her wrist. “It is not alive. It is a driving machine of the before-time. It is a war box that will protect you until we return.”
“We shouldn’t leave her alone.” Den tried to interpose himself between them.
Nalu, much stronger, shoved him aside with ease. “She will slow us down.”
Althea glared as he dragged her along. “Because I’m a girl?”
He whirled on her once they had reached the shadow of the old machine. “No. You are not a Seeker. The Lost Place is dangerous, and you will get hurt. You cannot kill without hesitation; you are a burden here.”
Den clasped her other hand. “We can protect her.”
Althea looked back and forth between man and boy pulling on her arms, a wishbone in a tug of war.
“If you are fool enough to enter the Ritual of Joining with her, then you can do with her what you will. For now, she belongs to all of us, and I will not be blamed for losing her.”
Nalu grasped the top of the vehicle and pulled a hatch—the entire back—down. The screech of protesting metal made her shiver.
Had it opened fully, it would have formed a ramp, though age and debris caused it to stick half way. Unlike the driving machines she had seen among the raiders, this one had many small metal wheels wrapped in a band of interlocking pads, and thick, windowless sides. Nalu hauled her into the air and set her on the half-open ramp.
Den grabbed his arm. “Be gentle with her.”
Nalu ignored him, shoving her forward with a hand on her backside.
Althea skidded on the steel floor, falling into a hard bench seat along one side of the wall a second before the heavy door slammed closed behind her. From the muffled shouts outside, she assumed her yelp started a fight between Den and Nalu. She ran to the hatch, pushing at it with her whole body, but couldn’t budge it.
Althea gave up trying to open the door and yelled. “Stop!” She slapped at the wall and shouted again, louder. “Please don’t hurt him.”
Her voice echoed to silence inside the metal box, leaving only the sound of her breathing. She had delivered her warning, saving him from the alpha bonedog. The dread of this great enclosure filled her, and she stared at the floor. Fear of what Nalu would tell the elders about her leaving the village brought shivers.
If it kept Den alive, she would tolerate the cage again.