I paced the isolation hut, cursing Mathias and Zilya. I couldn’t believe Mathias was going to let Gabby die.

Zilya might. She’d made it clear that Tony’s life meant nothing to her. But I’d thought for sure that Mathias had shown an unusual interest in Gabby, and in a positive way earlier. So why hadn’t they come to check on her by now?

“Come on, babe, keep your eyes open,” Tony told Gabby in a concerned voice that I wouldn’t have thought possible at one time. Tony sat next to her, using a strip of cloth I’d torn from the bottom of my shirt to brush sweat off of Gabby’s forehead.

For someone who could be so abrasive at times, Tony had picked up quickly on Gabby’s aversion to being touched. He’d been careful not to stress her worse by making any contact with her skin.

I could do no more than Tony right now since I had no idea how to help Gabby either. I’d taken turns calling for help again, but hadn’t heard a sound in a long while.

Gabby lifted her head. It wobbled a little as she leaned back against the arm and shoulder Tony had put behind her for a support. “Water. My throat’s burning.”

Tony looked at me.

I fisted my hands and turned to beat against the wall of the hut regardless of what the energy sizzling through the structure did to me. And it did hurt. Badly.

But a section the size of an opening started wavering.

I stepped back into a defensive position in front of Tony and Gabby.

When the opening finally appeared, Mathias entered first and stepped to the side. That allowed room for Callan to duck his head and walk in, a guarded expression in place. Mathias had a serene look, which I trusted as much as I trusted anything else in this strange, hostile world.

Not one bit.

Mathias started to speak, but my frustration knew no limit right then.

“What’s wrong with you people? You accuse us of being some murdering tek-nah-tees but you place no higher value on life either, do you?”

I’d expected Mathias to snap right back at me, not to turn rigid as a statue at my accusation as if I’d slapped him. Or maybe insulted him. I’d feel bad for yelling at him since he seemed to be the only calm one in the bunch, but Gabby had gotten worse during each minute that Mathias had ignored our calls for help.

He drew a breath and spoke with the authority I’d heard in our earlier meeting. “We have to make the run to check for new children dropped from the transenders.”

Tony piped up. “What’s that got to do with Gabby bein’ sick?”

Callan’s only reaction to Tony’s words was a tightening of his jaw. His gaze moved to me and his words came out with a hard clip. “We need four who are experienced enough to do this. The young ones lack the strength and skill to face the challenges of this transender location.”

“Still waitin’ on the punch line, dude,” Tony groused.

Callan turned on Tony. “Shut up, tek-nah-tee.”

I couldn’t deal with both of them. “Tony, please.”

Gabby moaned and shivered.

When Mathias’s attention shifted to Gabby, his face scrunched with concern. So he finally noticed the puffy red skin on Gabby’s arms? He demanded, “What’s wrong with her?”

Shaking his head, Tony gave him a look of rank disgust. “What the eff do you think we’ve been yellin’ about for so long? She’s having some kind of reaction. Needs a doctor. D.O.C.T.O.R. You got one?”

Dismissing him with a curt lift of his chin and speaking once again to me, Mathias said, “We do have a healer–”

“Great.” My relief flooded out in that one word.

“But as I was explaining,” he continued. “He is one of only four qualified to go on the observation run.”

“Be serious,” Tony argued. “You gonna send him out someplace to maybe find someone while Gabby gets worse?”

That stoked the fire that had simmered in Callan’s eyes since he’d walked into the hut. He turned all that fury on Tony. “If not for your kind, we wouldn’t have to go looking for children dumped in this place. If not for your kind we wouldn’t fear those children being eaten by a croggle or harmed by deadly plants. Don’t lay her sickness or possible death at our feet when your SEOH is behind all this.”

Tony looked at me. “Who’s he talkin’ about?”

“I don’t know.” And right now it didn’t matter, because I was tired of waiting on help for Gabby and didn’t want everyone to keep talking about her dying in front of her. I figured Callan wanted something and getting to that point sooner would be in Gabby’s best interest, but I posed my question to both Callan and Mathias.

“What’s it going to take for us to get help for Gabby?”

A vein in Callan’s neck pulsed, restrained power waiting to be unleashed. I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. His lips parted to speak, but before he uttered a word his gaze drifted down to where I’d torn the bottom half of my shirt off for Gabby. He stared at my exposed skin as if he hadn’t expected to see that and had lost track of the conversation.

I shifted my stance, crossing my arms as I did.

He jerked his attention up. I quirked an eyebrow to let him know I’d caught him studying my body. I enjoyed the moment of catching his control slip. It had been oddly…flattering.

Not something I’d let him know.

When Callan didn’t answer my question, Mathias jumped in, saying, “I have sent for our healer. We will see if he can do anything first.”

I hadn’t heard Mathias request anyone to come here, but in the next moment I heard a male voice outside the hut announce, “Jaxxson coming in.”

The opening appeared again. The guy who stepped forward had blond hair, a dark honey shade, and eyes so rich a brown and ringed by thick lashes that they appeared outlined in black. Naked chest showed above his skirt-like covering that reached his ankles. He was athletic looking, but had a lithe, sinewy build as compared to Callan’s muscular physique. I personally found Callan more attractive.

Not that my opinion would matter to either of them.

Callan’s gaze tracked over to me and I merely lifted an eyebrow in response. That sent his attention back to Mathias.

“Take a look at the girl’s arms,” Mathias directed the healer, his voice less hostile but no less authoritative.

As Jaxxson stepped past me, he nodded once, either a sign of respect or just sizing up the stranger in their midst. Then he knelt on the opposite side of Gabby from Tony, keeping his movements slow, as if not to overwhelm or scare her.

Wise move. Even the most docile animal would attack when in pain.

Gabby pushed herself to sit up straight, wincing with the effort. She’d been so tough all day I’d come to understand that putting up a strong front was a matter of pride with her.

Jaxxson reached forward, then paused before touching her and asked, “May I?”

She shook her head and raised glazed eyes to me.

I gave Jaxxson’s back a don’t-you-dare-try-anything threatening glare. I explained, “She doesn’t like to be touched.”

“I’m a healer.” Jaxxson spoke gently to Gabby, but hostility danced beneath his words as if coming here to care for a prisoner wasted his precious time. A possible tek-nah-tee prisoner.

“Can you open your arms just to show him,” I asked Gabby, wanting her to get the help she needed.

She gritted her teeth, but she forced her arms to unbend half way, which appeared to be all she could manage with her limbs swollen.

Jaxxson looked over his shoulder at me and asked, “How’d this happen?”

I unflexed my balled hands. “We had to fight off some monster plant that was trying to suck us inside a pink flower. Its vine wrapped her wrist.” They weren’t showing an appropriate amount of concern, so I glanced in Callan’s direction and added, “Gabby’s having a bad reaction to that...or those red vines your little soldier wrapped around her wrists.”

Mathias sent Callan a pointed look filled with silent questions. Callan asked, “Pink flower? Green spots? A frazzle vine?” He used his palms to air sketch a shape. “Blossoms this big? Then one huge flower head on the host bush?”  

“Sounds like it.” I stepped toward Gabby. “Whatever it was, she’s been the only one of us to react. I think your red restraint vines made things worse.”

Mathias asked Jaxxson, “Can you do anything for her?”

“Yes, but I’ll need to move her back to the healing hut.”

I immediately tensed. Last thing I wanted was to allow them to take Gabby anywhere alone. Especially if it meant her being isolated and vulnerable. “Why can’t you help her here?”

Callan cut me off. “Because his supplies are in the healing hut, but that will have to wait until we get back. We need Jaxxson and have to leave soon.”

Not good enough. I stepped toward Callan. “She’s getting sicker by the minute. She can’t wait for later.”

“She doesn’t have a house,” Mathias argued.

I snarled, “I don’t care if she doesn’t have a tent, she could die from this. Are you willing to let that happen after we saved that little girl?”

Guilt slid through Callan’s hard expression, but he looked as though he’d come to some conclusion. “I told you we have to run the transender lines then we also have to hunt for food.”

Not my fault, I wanted to answer but instead said, “What do you mean by running these lines?”

He drew a deep breath as if just listening to me took all his patience. “Do not play games with me. The tek–”

I’m not a tek-nah-tee!” I roared. “I don’t know who or what they are, but I’m starting to wonder about what kind of people you are if you’re willing to leave her–” I pointed at Gabby. “–in pain.”

“That is your problem,” Callan charged. “Mine is saving our children.” He paused as if wrestling his temper under control, then added in a calmer voice, “But we may be able to work out something favorable for everyone.”

Finally. The trade I’d been expecting. “What do you want?”

“A fourth person to go with us who defend against a croggle. I will allow Jaxxson to remain and tend to the girl, but in exchange we need another person. We’ll take the one who can’t deny he is tek with us.”

I looked at Tony, easily reading the thoughts behind his ashen face. He believed once Callan and Mathias took him away he’d never return. He’d already said once that he expected to get thrown under a bus. Was this the bus?

Worse, the resigned look on his face said he thought I would agree.

I didn’t want to leave Gabby alone, but neither could I let Tony walk out of here with someone who’d marked him for death. Keeping my eyes on Tony, I announced, “No. I’ll go instead.”

A whole swarm of demon flies could have set up camp in Tony’s open mouth before he recovered to shout, “Are you crazy?” He slapped his leg. “What am I sayin’? Of course, you’re crazy. First you’re talkin’ to an inv–”

Tony!” I gave that warning in a voice that threatened serious harm if he said another word. Then I turned to Callan, “What’s it going to be?”

He swung a stunned gaze on me. That had clearly not been the answer he’d been looking for, but that was the only one he was getting. I sensed a lot more not being said out loud between Callan and Mathias when they faced each other, the dilemma of what to do hanging between them.

Mathias started, “I don’t know that we–”

Divide and conquer came to mind, but I didn’t sense any real dissent between these two.

Cutting off Mathias, I swung to Callan, to get the terms straight. “Before I go though I want your word–as a warrior–that no harm will come to either of them while I’m gone.”

Something shifted in Callan’s eyes that made me think he rarely had to put his word on the line and, in that moment, I had a gut feeling that he took his honor to heart.

Then again, that perception might’ve been nothing more than the result of too many knocks to my head today.

Callan stepped in front of me, tight muscles in his face flexing as if fighting his temper again. When he spoke, each word had the bite of jagged ice. “And what if I choose not to agree to your terms?”

I crossed my arms and tilted my head up, our noses only inches apart. “Then prepare for things to get ugly. Because if you don’t help Gabby, or if you try to take Tony out of here, it’s going to get bloody and I promise you there will not be four of you in shape to make the rescue run when I’m done.”

Mathias asked Callan, “If there’s a child to save, would we be better served to take a trained warrior than a...”

Smooth approach on Mathias’s part to give Callan an out by suggesting that someone who could fight would be of more benefit than a tek-nah-tee they only wanted to sacrifice.

While everyone waited in silence, Callan finally gave a single nod of agreement.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I admired the fact that Callan put the needs of the children ahead of his desire to punish a tek-nah-tee.

That was until he added, “If the sick girl is with Jaxxson until we return, there is no way for this one–” he bent his head toward me.

If I told him my name, would he stop calling me this one?

“–to get to her if she escapes. If she runs or tries to interfere with us in any way–”

“I won’t.” I was tired of hearing threats. “I’m not going to abandon my friends or cause any long as Jaxxson heals her. Are we through negotiating?”

Mathias didn’t chuckle, but his eyes creased with an odd humor, as if stifling a half-smile at Callan.

Callan’s eyes still seethed, probably from my having demanded his word as a warrior again. “I have agreed but know this–if any of you try to escape while I’m outside the village, the other two will pay dearly.”

“Understood,” I said then turned and dropped down in front of Gabby. When I told Jaxxson, “I need a minute,” I made it clear that was an order, not a request.

Jaxxson gave me a testy look, but stood and moved to where Mathias and Callan waited.

Gabby still fought to hold herself upright. “Don’t leave, Rayen. They can’t be trusted.”

Tony had recovered from his surprise and leaned in. “Look, Xena...Rayen, I don’t want–”

I cut in, keeping my voice low. “Both of you listen up. Gabby, we need you healthy. Soon.” I gave her a meaningful look I hoped she understood – that she had to be in shape to run the minute we found a way out of here. When her infection-dulled eyes lit with understanding and she nodded, I turned to Tony. “I don’t know what a bus is, short or otherwise, but I’m not throwing you under anything. Take care of Gabby while I’m gone ready when I return.”

As if the day hadn’t been filled with enough surprises, for once Tony not only was speechless, he actually looked like he agreed with me.

I then rose and strode over to the three waiting for me. I nodded toward Callan. “You ready?”

“Rayen!” Gabby pushed up to her knees, refusing Tony’s offer to help her up, which would have meant his fingers touching her exposed arm.

Seeing her in such pain twisted my gut. “Yeah, Gabby?”

“Be safe.” Her eyes said a whole lot more. “And come back.”

“Plan on it.” My gaze slid to Jaxxson who had waited next to the opening that had once again appeared in the wall. He didn’t look any happier about the arrangement than I was, but I didn’t care. My words were as hard as stone when I warned the healer, “I promise you I will be back, and I had better find her safe and healthy.”

I didn’t wait for a reply as I turned, following Callan and Mathias out the door into the purple light that was becoming a noticeably darker reddish-purple.

Once outside and far enough away from the hut that neither Gabby nor Tony could easily hear them, Callan glanced over his shoulder at me. “It’s unwise to offer promises you have no way of knowing for sure you can fulfill.”

“What? Telling Gabby and Tony that I was coming back?” I’d already fought one croggle practically alone, so how much harder could it be this time? If he hoped to rattle my confidence, he wasted his breath. I simply pointed out, “Croggles don’t seem too hard to kill.”

Callan’s lips curved with a knowing smile when he cast another look at me. “The croggle you fought was a clumsy adolescent. The ones living around the transender site we go to now are full-grown creatures. Three times as large. Can’t be stopped with a spear and not the least bit clumsy.”

Now he tells me. “So how do we kill it?”

“That is the problem of the one keeping it busy if there is a child to save.”

I didn’t even waste my breath asking who he intended to send out to be croggle bait.

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