lthea watched the creatures dart into the shifting greens and browns of the wood, standing motionless until the sound of their passage faded to silence. She let the tip of the heavy spear sag to the ground, no longer able to bear its weight. Tossing it aside, she knelt and pulled Den’s mangled arm into her lap. Her touch made him moan, and his head rolled around in a half daze.
“You… killed it?” Den blinked at the dead alpha.
She frowned, ashamed. “I’m sorry! It was on your arm and I―”
“It’s okay… it was just a bonedog.” He let his head fall back to the ground. “You saved me.”
Althea stared at the mound of charcoal fur, on the verge of tears at the sight of its lifelessness. True, it would have killed Den, but that did not weaken her guilt at ending a life. The 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. She sensed his heartbeat and the ebb and flow of his breaths. Upon the back of her eyelids, she made out the discrete systems within him as amorphous masses of color: white for bone-shapes, stringy red for blood-shapes, and dark blobs for the important things in the middle. Althea commanded his body to work. After detaching his mind from pain, she pulled and twisted the arm, feeling the bones scrape over each other as she worked it back to its natural shape.
Her breaths came deep and rapid as she poured her energy into him. His body’s normal healing process sped up by an order of magnitude. A pale grey form flowed whole from splintered fragments as the bones knit. Crimson strands launched threads over black chasms that pulled closed as his muscles re-grew, before at last, new skin covered 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. The shapes receded to nothingness. Den drew in a hiss, cradling the tender spot.
Althea knew full well why everyone in the Badlands wanted to own her.
When she looked up, Nalu stood over her with Jake in his arms. The leg had shattered, but the older hunter’s quick reaction had spared the boy a missing limb. As Nalu set him down, the youngest hunter scooted 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. As the trembling left him, her grimy, blood-soaked fingers touched his wounded leg and she concentrated. He tensed as his muscles undulated, rebuilding themselves. When he saw his skin seal 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.”
“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 got 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, and 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 up. A chill spread through her when she noticed the alpha bonedog gone. 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 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, watching Nalu ruffle the boy’s hair. The brotherly affection they had was something no one dared share with her. They even cringed away from her healing caress, enduring it only as long as it took to mend them.
Not one of them wanted to touch her, much less hug or carry her around―except Den of course. He wandered over to where she had flopped, sitting next to her in the shadow of the tiny wall. An arm around her shoulders pulled her close. Astonished, she held her hands to her chest and leaned into him. The others thought him crazy for being around such a creature as her. Even Braga sounded dismayed 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 did not know what it meant, but she could see in Den’s mind he wanted it, and it felt comforting.
“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 gave him a mute inquiring look.
“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 it went white. “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 was the most evil thing she had ever seen. She would never allow that to happen to her. However, the contents of Den’s thoughts looked altogether different; and a little embarrassing.
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.”
He laughed when she returned the side poke.
“I like it here.” Her fingers traced lazy circles across her bare stomach.
She exaggerated. Den she liked, the rest of the village not so much. However, it was better than being a captive of killers and crazies.
“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 fleck of green rock 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 through 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. It was impossible to balance her own happiness against the need of so many people. Her gaze fell to the ground; she could not give voice to her answer.
“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 relaxed a few minutes more as Nalu went about rousing the others back into motion. Althea sat up, hiding her face so he could not see the deepening red around her eyes. The eldest of their group had just 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 winked over 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 did not react to them, holding her hand as they walked 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 jet 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, thinking of the size of the wasps that must have built such nests.
Cool dirt and grass gave way to hot black stone. 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 was.
“Put her in there.”
She jumped at Nalu’s 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 through 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 between them.
Nalu was much stronger, and shoved him aside. “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 the middle of 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 pulled the large hatch on the vehicle 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. The windowless sides looked thick and solid. Nalu tugged at her wrist, hauling her up onto the ramp.
Den grabbed his arm. “Be gentle with her.”
Nalu ignored him, putting a hand on her backside and shoving her forward.
Althea skidded on the steel floor, falling into a hard bench seat along one side of the wall as 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, tugging at the inside handle with a two-fisted grip, unable to move it.
Althea gave up trying to open the door and yelled. “Stop!” She slapped at the wall as she cried 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, and saved him from the dog. The dread of this great enclosure filled her, and she stared down 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 a little longer.