There had to be a way to escape without harming a child, but I hadn’t come up with it yet and only young ones surrounded me. And even if I did figure that out, I wasn’t sure I could get Gabby and Tony free fast enough before one of these miniature terrors speared them. And the sticks they used were lethal.
I followed the blond-haired girl called Etoi who plodded along behind the leader. Callan. Nice name that didn’t reflect his personality.
I raised my voice. “Where’re we going, Callan?”
Not a word or motion of acknowledgment. Again. He just kept marching at a brutalizing pace through the thick and muggy forest. If he followed a path, I was having a hard time detecting it, especially with the way the jungle grew back so quickly. Something niggled in my memory that I should be able to read a trail. But why?
I spoke louder this time. “Who are you people?”
Etoi made a disparaging sound in her throat, “You teks really think we’re so easily fooled?”
I was tired of being called names I didn’t recognize, but doubted Etoi would believe me if I argued that I did not know what a tek was. Would she answer if I made it sound as though I talked to her this time instead of Callan? “Is the village far?”
“Is the village your home?” I pecked away at her, going for tiny bits of information in hopes she’d slip and give me something.
Etoi shook her head until her ringlets danced. She chuckled sarcastically, but finally spoke, emphasizing her words that had a funny accent beneath them. “Don’t be a dugurat.”
“As if you don’t know,” Etoi muttered. “You put them here.”
Walking third captive in line behind me, Tony spoke up. “Think she just called you a moron in another language, Xena.”
I cast him a droll glare over my shoulder.
Gabby, who was right behind me cut in. “Astute observation from someone who has probably been called that in every language.”
When I faced forward, Etoi turned around, walking backwards. “Make fun all you want because you will–”
“Enough, Etoi.” Callan cut her off.
Her eyes transmitted a promise of retaliation for getting her yelled at, as if I’d caused her to be in trouble. She spun around and stomped away.
“Never thought I’d miss being at school,” Gabby murmured as she moved closer behind me.
I gave a quick check over my shoulder at Gabby. She now wore a wary, distant look I started to think might be the first honest face she’d shown since I’d met her.
She trudged along looking like some exotic flower left out in the heat too long. Her ponytails and ribbons drooped, as did her shoulders.
Next to the droopy flower, I probably looked like a wilted weed. But I had a sense of this being my normal state.
Trudging along two steps behind Gabby, Tony had a grim set to his mouth and squared shoulders. As if he’d felt me watching him for a moment, he lifted his eyes and gave a half-smile with as much humor as a man going to his death. “The teachers will never believe us if we make it back to the Institute.”
What could matter so much for him to worry more about a school project than the trouble we faced? I tried to encourage him. “We’ll get out of this.”
A sharp poke in my ribs took my breath.
I swung back around to face forward and found Etoi walking backwards again with one of the sword-type weapons. Some kind of grayish-brown hardwood with the tight grain of dense wood that had been honed to a lethal edge and deadly tip. Her lips thinned with menace. That’s when I noticed Callan had moved several long strides ahead of her, providing Etoi a chance to speak freely again.
Fueling my own expression with plenty of foul mood from a long day chocked with pain, I lifted my vine-wrapped hands in a quick move and shoved the tip of her sword away from my chest.
She flipped the blade back in place just as quickly. “I’m not one of the children to easily disarm.” Her smile promised pain if I gave her reason to justify slashing my stomach open. In fact, her expression dared me to fight back so she’d have an excuse. “You have no value here and would be wise to remember that.”
She seemed to like hearing herself talk. I changed my tactic to a more friendly approach. “At least tell me where here is.”
“Don’t act as stupid as you look, tek-nah-tee.”
I turned that on her. “If you’re as intelligent as you look, you’d realize I’m telling the truth and have no idea what a tek-nah-tee is or where I am.” A pretty consistent state of mind for me today.
Tight lines across her face eased in thought. She clearly considered whether I spoke the truth, but in the end she scoffed at me. “Don’t think to play tricks with me. They won’t work. You know very well where you are since there is no way for you to be here without a tek knowing. And what’s that on your leg? We don’t wear anything like that.” She pointed to the restraint banding my ankle.
I hesitated to answer. I didn’t want to say I’d been cuffed as a security measure since that would give this bunch even more reason to think of me as a threat.
Etoi’s smug smile deepened. “Obviously another tek device you plan to use against us.”
Quick as a thought, Callan was once again marching only one step ahead of Etoi, his back an imposing figure that dwarfed her. She didn’t realize he’d returned. He swung his head around, dark eyes scanning over his shoulder. His gaze settled first on me, pausing long enough for me to cock an accusatorial eyebrow at him that turned his face even harder, then his eyes landed impatiently on Etoi.
He spoke in a quiet voice ripe with iron authority. “Take a flank position, Etoi.”
She tensed at having been caught disobeying his earlier order to be silent and clenched her lips in a rigid line before nodding. Moving six feet to my right, she took point over a string of children walking parallel with our line.
I slowed briefly, thinking. How’d I know the word point meant to take the lead? Another puzzle piece slipped through my fractured thoughts.
No one deviated from that arrow-straight direction until we approached a puke-green fog hovering just above the low-growing jungle vegetation. I could probably stretch my hands from one side to the other across the patch of mist.
“Is that green crap what I’m smellin’ that stinks so bad?” Tony asked no one in particular. “What is that stuff?”
Callan lifted his hand and signaled to his line of children as he angled his direction to avoid the green mist.
Never-let-it-go Tony quipped, “You fight monster croggles, but you’re afraid of a little fog?”
When Callan once again didn’t respond, Etoi couldn’t pass up an opportunity as her group came closer to ours with Callan’s shift in direction. She clearly wouldn’t be silenced for long, which made me wonder at her status in this group. Her smile lacked kindness when she said, “As if you don’t know the fog will peel the skin off your bones...slowly, and painfully. However, if you wish to pretend otherwise, by all means step into it. I’d enjoy hearing you scream.”
Tony scoffed at her. “Dream on, babe.”
Guess she didn’t rank being called sweet cheeks or sweet cakes.
In the next few steps, the fog was just ahead and to the left of Callan as he shifted the line right, giving the stench zone a wide berth.
I wrinkled my nose at the rotting sweet-sour smell. Just how dangerous could a patch of green translucent fog be?
As deadly as a pretty flower?
What gave it the rotting odor?
I tossed a warning over my shoulder to Tony and Gabby. “Let’s not test it, okay?”
Tony answered, “Got no plans to touch any of this crap even if it does sound like Amazon girl’s only tryin’ to yank our chains.”
Etoi pointed at a small, pink lizard-looking creature with a perfectly round head and eyes at the ends of two prongs that stuck off the top. “Perhaps the eegak will teach you a lesson.” She aimed her wooden sword to prod the funny-looking lizard that had brown and white dots splattered across its pink body. It scurried between the broad leaves of low-growing plants, the pencil-shaped body and tail stretched as long as my forearm.
All at once, the lizard paused, head sticking up, tongue flickering. Etoi poked the sword tip again and the lizard took off at a run, bulging eyes locked ahead as it raced and lunged into the fog.
At first contact, the lizard squealed a hideous high-pitched sound as its skin literally peeled off its little body. Small legs kicked at a phantom attacker as it writhed in a grotesque ball of muscle and bone. And then pifft, like water hitting a hot surface, it disappeared.
That explained the disgusting smell.
Gabby gagged as if she was going to throw up. “Gross.”
Tony just whistled. “Daa-yum.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Etoi’s calm face during the whole event. I asked, “It doesn’t bother you to see something innocent die that way?”
She kept marching forward as she spoke. “Most animals know to avoid the fog unless they’re being chased, except for the eegak. They are almost as stupid as a dugurat who has no survival instinct.” Then she added, “Nothing innocent should die, but–” Her gaze slid to me with lethal intent. “Teks aren’t innocent.”
Callan must have had enough of her. “Etoi, go ahead to alert Mathias of our arrival.”
That must have been something she wanted to do. Lowering her head, Etoi took off, quickly passing Callan and disappearing into the jungle ahead of him at a fast trot.
Would Mathias be the he I’d heard those boys talking about earlier? The one we were marching toward? The possibility that he might be more dangerous than Callan had me making another attempt at communication. “Is Mathias in charge of this place?”
Callan still ignored me.
At the mention of Mathias, the mottled, colored skin on most of the kids started moving, changing shape and position, even to different colors on some.
But nothing moved on Callan’s skin.
I couldn’t really fault him for his silence. A wise warrior reveals little to the enemy.
Who’d taught me these lessons that fluttered into my mind as if sent on the wind?
Callan lifted his hand and extended one finger up.
The children who had been flanking us moved over to our main line, some filling in gaps between me, Gabby and Tony. I glanced back to catch Gabby’s eye and she nodded, letting me know she was fine for now even if we were too far apart to hear each other without yelling.
Tony gave me a similar nod and mouthed, We’re with ya, Xena.
We might be in trouble up to our armpits, but we were finally in this together. First time I really believed that since we’d landed here.
In the next few steps, Callan and our party emerged from the jungle into a wide-open area...completely shrouded in another green fog.
But this band of green mist was huge, rising three times as tall as me and spreading a half-mile wide.
Had Callan marched us here just to force me, Gabby and Tony into a mist dense enough to kill all three of us? If so, Callan had better be prepared to die, because I wouldn’t go meekly to my death, or allow any of my group to step a foot into that stuff without a fight.
“We’re not going in there,” I warned him.
The stoic warrior finally turned to acknowledge me. “You’ll not be harmed if you follow directly behind me and your other two follow you.”
Could I trust anyone in this place? No. I didn’t know how I’d called up the strange energy that had helped me stop the killer flower and defeat the croggle, but I believed I could call it forth again if someone pushed me to defend myself and the other two.
I slowed my pace and asked, “What if we don’t follow you?”
Callan took a moment answering, a tight smile playing around his mouth as if he looked forward to a worthy opponent. “Please resist. Not that I need more proof that you are tek-nah-tee who have killed nineteen of our smallest children–so far. But it would simplify my life to gain a decision now instead of later. The question is what do you think I will do if you refuse to follow?”
In other words, walk forward and risk entering this fog that we might not be immune to even if Callan and his followers were, or stand firm and end up gutted.
Tough call since he thought the three of us were tek-nah-tees who’d killed children...and someone’s brother. I could understand wanting to punish anyone who harmed those unable to defend themselves, but even without knowing my true identity I was sure I could never hurt an innocent. Especially a little one.
I would not willingly die–or let Gabby and Tony pay the price–for someone else’s crimes.