Brushing the gauzy, moss-green wisps from his hair, Callan warned Mathias, “If Etoi sends me on another fool’s errand, she won’t like the punishment.”

“But you said it might have been a serious breach in our security.”

“If the fog had actually corrupted, it would have been. She knows the difference between a hollow eucalypoon mist that’s floated loose and a break in the fog curtain.”

Mathias swatted a swatch of green off his shoulder. “They look similar and it was quite a large mist cloud, taller than either of us and twice as wide. She can be annoying, but sometimes you just have to overlook it.”

“And that is why you govern and I protect,” Callan pointed out. “I don’t have your patience. Where’d you send her?”

“To check on the prisoners.”

Callan chuckled. Etoi hated guard duty. She’d probably sneak off and find Zilya to gossip with, but he didn’t care as long as they were both out of his hair. “What are you going to do about the captives? We can’t keep them without feeding them, and we don’t have enough food to share.”

“I don’t know.” Mathias sounded weary and not from just the trek to check on their defenses.

Callan offered, “In her usual bloodthirsty way, Zilya suggested we stake out that Tony as croggle bait.”

Mathias’s lips quirked at that. “She does have a homicidal streak.”

“I do, too, when it comes to TecKnati,” Callan admitted, though he’d never kill in cold blood. That would put him on the level with his enemy, lower than scum on the bottom of his boot.

“You would execute someone without a fair judgment?”

“No, but we’re at war and many of ours have died. If you’re right and there’s no sanction happening back home, SEOH owes us TeK deaths in return for the children we’ve lost. It’s the treaty. It’s the law. Right?”

“Believe me, I’d like to personally enforce that law if we could use it specifically against SEOH,” Mathias muttered.

The dire sound of his tone caused Callan to poke at him. “And here I thought only the Warrior House sought to solve issues with fighting first–as we’re so often accused...” He paused until Mathias swallowed a grin and added, “Rather than negotiate a problem to death like the Governing House. It’s your House that preaches against vengeance.”

“Living here has caused me to reevaluate many things, but I digress. We’re agreed that the mouthy one with the skin ink mark is a TecKnati, right?”

Callan nodded. “He’s the best candidate of the three. What about the girl with bi-colored eyes, excessive earrings that only the most powerful MystiKs are allowed to wear and...did you sense anything from her?”

“Yes. She has a gift or gifts, but she clearly wasn’t going to admit that to us. Not unusual for a Hy’bridt MystiK, the only explanation for those eyes. Except the colors she wore were all over the place...but so were the clothes on the TeK one.” Mathias paused. “And what was a Hy’bridt doing with him?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen TeKs dressed that way. Based on what little we know, I’d say she’s as MystiK as that Tony is TecKnati.”

“We’ll have to talk to the Hy’bridt some more and see if we can figure out what she’s doing here. Makes no sense.”

Callan swallowed a growl of irritation. Why would Mathias believe anything that Hy’bridt said? “I don’t trust any MystiK that hangs out with a TecKnati. I told you when I first got here that I think a MystiK traitor has to be working with the TecKnatis to help them trap us. Who’s to say that person isn’t a Hy’bridt?”

Mathias slowed next to the hut where several girls and a couple of young boys prepared food. He gave them a word of encouragement and snagged a bowl of buri berries, then continued on toward his chambers, not missing a beat in the conversation. “Hy’bridts are supposed to be as loyal as they are powerful.”

“Maybe,” Callan allowed, taking a handful of berries to refresh his dry throat. “But loyal to whom? And what about the other girl?” The taller one with midnight-black hair and skin the color of brewed tea. His mind fought to sum her up in one word, but narrowed it down to two–deadly and attractive–much like some of the plants in this Sphere. She was a prime example of whatever group she belonged to, with her keen blue eyes, slashed cheekbones and a body that filled out her strange clothes nicely.

But anyone who associated with a TeK, even an exotic female, fell clearly within Callan’s definition of enemy. Especially after watching her single-handedly annihilate a croggle.

“That one with the black hair throws me,” Mathias admitted. “I didn’t understand her name. Xena?”

“I don’t think that’s her real name. I heard both the TeK and the Hy’bridt call her Rayen and she doesn’t strike me as a TeK. Rayen has the skills of a Warrior. You know TeKs would rather push a button than dirty their hands fighting.”

“Except for their Scouts.” Mathias sounded resigned.

“They are the exception.”

“But that Rayen has no TeK markings, nor does she have marks such as those of your Warrior House.”

“I know,” Callan admitted, trying to put the pieces together. “Plus she has that device attached to her leg.”

“Do you think she meant to destroy the croggle?”

Callan hated all things related to the TecKnati, but to falsely accuse anyone would be dishonorable. Without honor, a man was nothing. “Much as it still angers me that she destroyed our food, she did so with only one of our spears and the croggle had neutralized two of our hunters with its tail right before she attacked. That supports her claim that she thought children were in danger.”

“How did she destroy the beast?”  

“That was strange. Her power burned the croggle from the inside out. Blue flame, very hot. No TeK has ever been known to have our gifts, and few of our own have that level of power.”

Mathias munched quietly on a mouthful of berries for a moment. “If she’s not TeK and not MystiK, what then? Could she be a different type of G’ortian?”

Callan stared off, considering that possibility. “I don’t know. What I do know is that she’s the most dangerous of the three.”

“But in spite of the power she displayed in battle, she didn’t try to harm any of you on the way to the village?”

“No.” Callan could see why Mathias hesitated to pass judgment on the two girls, but the mouthy male was a TeK.

And no TeK deserved to walk away free.

When Mathias looked up at the sky, Callan did as well, noting the subtle shift of color overhead that had begun undulating from the deep blue-purple shade toward a vibrant red-purple. A hint of green stripes began appearing above the forest side of the village.

Mathias sighed, a sound heavy with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. “We’ll have to figure out what to do with those other two captives later, but the TeK does not spend the night in our village.”

“Agreed, but wait to deal with him until I return from checking the original transender site for new arrivals.” Callan didn’t want anyone at risk while he was gone.

“We need our strongest four to make that run and Jaxxson can’t go. He has to watch the little girl we brought back for any signs of reaction to the Sphere.”

True. They couldn’t wait until Jaxxson declared the child stable or they might risk losing another one dumped in the Sphere with no defenses. Callan said, “I’ll have to take just Etoi and Zilya.”

“No.” Mathias shook his head. “Not after losing Sebi. You can’t go with fewer than four capable fighters and we have no one old enough or experienced enough yet to take Jaxxson’s spot. I can’t risk losing any of you and definitely not all of you. I’ll go.”

Callan understood the worry in Mathias’s voice, but he couldn’t include Mathias on this run even though he was capable in battle. Mathias had been too distracted lately with problems inside the village and now he had three captives to pass judgment on...

The captives. That gave Callan an idea how to convince Mathias to stay behind. “You can’t leave the village with those three in the Isolation Unit. That’s a security risk.”

Mathias lifted his large hand and rubbed his temple, thinking. “Are any of the younger hunters capable of joining you?”

“None are ready to face TecKnati Scouts. The captive, Rayen, easily disarmed two of my best-trained young hunters.”

“That still leaves us with only three runners. We have to stick with working four in teams of two. Otherwise it’s too dangerous.”

Callan suggested, “Maybe Zilya’s idea about the TeK deserves consideration. If he dies, it’s on the heads of the TeK Scouts.”

“To use Tony as croggle bait?”

“Why not?”

Mathias laughed. “I’m not sure a croggle would have that one. Even if we did want to take the TeK with us, I sense that the dark-haired girl will not allow those other two to be harmed. That’s why we have to be careful how we deal with this Tony.”

Callan held up his hand. “I’m not concerned with any leniency for the TeK. And as for this Rayen, she may be strong, but she has not proven herself to be a MystiK as yet. If she is aligned with that Tony, it means she has to know a TeK will turn on his own mother to save his life.”

“True. What’re you suggesting?”

“With the right motivation,” Callan said, weighing his words. “Rayen may not fight us to take Tony and, even if she does, she can’t stop both of us.”

“You would stake him like a sacrificial–”

Etoi came running up. “Mathias!”

Callan growled under his breath, but Etoi never gave him a chance to say a word.

“The girl captive with the strange eyes is very ill. The other two are yelling for help. They say she is dying.”

Callan looked to Mathias, inspiration firing his smile. “Now we’ll find out which one Rayen is willing to save.”


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