I scratched at the wound that continued to heal on my stomach, still not clear on how I’d survived a mortal wound from the croggle.
“Leave the scab alone,” Callan admonished.
How had he known what I was doing when he walked ahead of me, navigating our way through the woods toward the village? “Itches.”
“Of course. The skin is repairing.”
I kept pace close behind. Following him had been no hardship since I had an unobstructed view of all that toned body. “I still don’t understand how you healed me.”
He tossed me another of his speculative glances, as if he just couldn’t make up his mind if I was telling the truth about landing here by accident in the pod without a TeK scout. “I did not heal you alone.”
“Don’t look at me as if I’m hiding something from you. I told you I don’t know how this power inside me works. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have fixed my insides without your hands involved.”
Pondering silently, he led us through the last fringe of woods before we reached the green fog wall coming into view. “Have to talk to V’ru. This is confusing.”
V’ru, whose mind worked better than a Cyberprocessor. Was he Artificial Intelligence? Some kind of computer? That reminded me... “What’s the big deal about computers?”
He slowed until I reached his side and turned to me. “There’s a myth about the very first computer from the sixteenth century. A technological creation with supernatural power that MystiKs and TecKnatis are searching for.”
“Why? I thought MystiKs didn’t like technology.”
“We don’t,” Callan admitted. “We just want to keep it out of SEOH’s hands, because he’ll use it to destroy all the MystiKs.”
A computer could do that? Maybe it was an AI unit. “Is he planning to use it here?”
“If this computer actually exists and he gets his hands on it, I doubt it will matter where we are when he hits the destruct button. Let’s keep moving.” Callan led the way to the green fog, then he opened the tunnel through it.
I stayed tight on his tracks, not touching the fog.
The minute Callan stepped inside the compound and closed the fog tunnel, he stopped suddenly, staring straight ahead, eyes unfocused. One blink and he dashed forward.
I caught up to him, striding step for step. “What’s wrong?”
“The new boy we saved is reacting violently.” He gave me a sharp look. “Your friend is killing him.”
“Who?” I was panting.
“The one with two eye colors.”
“Gabby?” Not possible. “Hurt a child? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Racing past a murky puddle of gray sludge and through hanging moss he slapped away from our faces, he said, “Do you hear humor in my words?”
Annoyed-distrustful-stone-face Callan was back.
When we entered deeper into the village, into a tented area I hadn’t seen before, Callan continued all the way to a pearl-white dome.
Zilya stood in front of the dome, pounding on the curved wall that surprised me by not budging. “Let me inside. I’ll stop her.”
I guessed Zilya meant Gabby. But how would she stop her?
Callan raced up to the dome. “Why can’t you enter?”
Zilya stopped pounding. “I don’t know. Jaxxson called out that the child was dying and he had to stop Gabby from...something. That’s all I got. I can’t pass through the protective wall.”
I placed my hand on the smooth, but shifting, surface that never appeared quite solid. The outer shell really didn’t give when I pushed on it. “What is this thing?”
Frantic to get inside, Zilya gave me a straight answer for once. “A personal space some of us can create. This one’s for isolating new arrivals.” She grabbed a fist of my shirt. “Stop that girl.”
I yanked out of her grasp. “Gabby wouldn’t hurt a child. But I can’t do anything unless you get me inside.”
Without another word, Callan grabbed my wrist then put his hand on the wall. Nothing happened. He slapped the wall and growled through clenched teeth. “What’s she doing to bar us from entering?”
I didn’t know what made me do it, but I put my hand over the one Callan still pressed on the dome.
He looked over at me with suspicion.
I told him, “Try again. Both hands.”
When he slapped his other palm on the wall, I covered both of his hands with mine and closed my eyes, searching inside myself for the swirling heat. My muscles tensed with the effort.
I didn’t feel anything like the power that surged when I’d fought the croggles and the flower, but my chest heated with warmth similar to when we’d healed my wound.
A second later, Callan said in a hushed voice flooded with surprise, “You did it. We’re in.”
I opened my eyes to find we were inside a giant white bubble…and I still held his hands.
I dropped them, suddenly embarrassed to be caught holding Callan’s hands. With a quick look around, I found the little boy stretched out on a puffy bed of air. His lips and fingers were a chilling color of blue.
Jaxxson had one hand on the child’s head and the other around Gabby’s throat. Her eyes were rolled back in her head.
I lunged at the healer, ripping his hand away from Gabby. She fell back and slumped on the floor. When I swung around to deal with Jaxxson, Callan shouted at me, “Don’t touch him!”
Jaxxson turned on both of us and ground out his words through clenched teeth. “Silence everyone! This child’s barely alive.”
I shook with the anger of finding Gabby being attacked. If not for holding a child’s life in his hands, this healer would be laid out flat. I’d been led to believe this guy would take care of Gabby. Dropping down on one knee, I checked her pulse and, lucky for the healer, I found one. I looked over my shoulder and demanded, “Why were you trying to kill her?”
Callan broke in. “I told you–”
I snarled, “No!” and speared the healer with the bulk of my fury.
Jaxxson’s hand never left the child’s head. “Gabby helped me heal the little girl from this morning.”
“Really?” Callan asked, sounding just as confused as I felt. “Then why were you choking her?”
He can ask questions, but I can’t? I don’t think so.
“I’ll explain later, Callan, but Gabby is truly a Hy’bridt. She has to be. Anyhow, she helped with that one, which was good, because I was drained from healing Gabby of the vine reaction.”
It took me a minute to realize that the healer was using his voice to soothe tempers in the room. Even mine was dropping a notch, but I still noted that there was a limit to what this group could do with their powers at any one time. That might work in our favor when I found a chance to escape with Tony and Gabby. And we would, as soon as I convinced Callan and Mathias to release Tony.
Turning halfway around, I took in the return of Gabby’s healthy color and that her arms were no longer swollen or streaked with infection. The healer had done some good. She stirred, lifting her hands to her neck.
Not understanding any of what was happening, I turned back to Jaxxson, “Why’d you heal her then try to kill her?”
Gabby coughed and sputtered, struggling to sit up at that point. “He wasn’t choking me. He had his finger on my carotid artery to slow the blood flow, which saved me from imploding mentally.”
I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but she seemed fine now. I reached out a hand to help her up then pulled it back before I made contact.
She smiled. “It’s okay. Jaxxson has been teaching me how to deal with casual contact. He believes I can help heal others, but when I touched this little boy he was screaming so loud inside his head and in such pain that I lost control and couldn’t disconnect from him.”
Jaxxson finished explaining, his voice still calm and soothing sounding, not looking at anyone except the little boy he hovered over. “By staying attached mentally to the child when she went into distress, Gabby was actually harming him...and herself.”
Gabby gulped. “I’m so sorry, Jaxxson.”
“No, that was my mistake. I didn’t consider that a child in this much anguish would overwhelm you, but once I intervened, you were actually healing him with me as a conduit between you.”
Callan glared at me, still angry from our shouting match. I put my hands on my hips and gave him back a glare of equal fury for his part in the confusion. He narrowed his eyes then turned to Jaxxson. “How is the boy now?”
“Still not stable. Gabby doesn’t have training. I need your help.”
“I’ll try, but I may not be able to do much for another hour or two.” Callan’s gaze strayed to me for a moment, letting me know he’d depleted his healing energy on my wounds.
Gabby butted in. “I’m not sure I can really help you, but now that I know to be careful I’m willing to try again.”
Jaxxson nodded at a spot on the far side of the boy and waited for Gabby to get settled before he sank down next to her. “You and I will work together.”
I wasn’t so sure I liked how easily those two seemed to mesh. Just what all had happened while I’d been out fighting croggles? Gone was the girl who normally panicked at the idea of being touched.
Callan dropped to his knees on this side of the child, eyes on Jaxxson who lifted Gabby’s hands and slowly placed one on the child’s arm and her other palm on the boy’s pale forehead.
Gabby flinched at first then nodded a few seconds later, acknowledging that she could handle whatever she was feeling through the touch.
Callan moved to place his hands on the child when I interjected, “Thought you couldn’t help for another hour?”
“I can’t heal but I can assess how he is and maybe help that way.”
I held my tongue, surprised I worried about Callan as I watched him place both of his hands on the little boy’s chest. He let out a guttural groan of misery.
Kneeling beside him, I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“This child has a damaged heart. We’ve lost others who had pre-existing physical problems, then reacted to the Sphere once they got here. None of those had as severe damage as this one.” He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth for several moments then looked over at Jaxxson and shook his head. “His life force is down to a whisper. I tried to reach the heart, but his pain blocks access from me.”
Gabby raised a desperate gaze to me.
I was not a healer, but Callan had proven his skill by healing me...after I put my hands over his. What kind of power did I possess? What was the chance I could help him now?
Or, what was the chance I might do this child harm with uncontrolled power?
Callan let out a slow breath that carried heavy disappointment, ending my debate.
I covered his hands again, murmuring. “Don’t give up yet.”
Heat swelled where our skin connected.
He looked at me sharply, but didn’t move his hands.
Jaxxson spoke in an excited whisper. “I felt a pulse in the boy’s life force, but it’s not strong. Everyone keep doing what you’re doing.”
I closed my eyes and hoped I was doing the right thing when I searched for the power coiled inside me, waiting to be released. What if I released too much?
This time, I used what I’d learned when Callan healed me. Fearful of endangering the child further, I drew slowly. Energy snaked through my arms and out my hands. When the blur in my mind cleared, I realized I was seeing through Callan’s eyes. I watched, amazed as he began working frantically to repair the child’s heart. With him taking care of the little boy, curiosity pushed me to ease back from watching the organ repair and open myself more to him.
I saw a warm glow deep inside him that drew me closer.
Noises faded away until all I could hear was Callan’s rhythmic inhale and exhale. A peaceful place I hadn’t known existed. Was this what home felt like? Safe. Welcoming. Intimate. I wanted to stay.
Warmth radiated inside him as long as he centered his energy on the boy. Gone was the fierce warrior ready to battle and the hard exterior he’d shown me all day. Here was a heart that beat strong and cared for others.
The minute he released that focus, I brushed up against grief...heartache...despair that he kept hidden and buried deep.
Hearing my name from a distance yanked me back toward consciousness. I struggled, not wanting to leave this place I’d found, but the voice insisted. I opened my eyes to find Callan, Gabby and Jaxxson staring at me.
Their faces were a mixed bag of relief.
That’s when I glanced down to find the little boy no longer blue around his lips and fingers. He was sleeping soundly and his skin was flush with natural color. “Is he better?”
Jaxxson stood, helping Gabby to her feet. “He’s healed. Callan repaired his heart and we infused so much healing energy into him that I believe he’s over his initial negative reaction to the Sphere.”
But instead of a smile Gabby shot Callan a look that threatened harm.
Callan’s lifted eyebrow smirked at Gabby for daring to think she could.
I had no idea what was going on between those two, but Jaxxson must have. He nodded at me. “And we have you to thank for lending Callan the power he needed. I was quite impressed by what I felt circulate in the child’s body.”
All eyes went to Callan to see what he’d say about my help.
Would he send me back to isolation in spite of what had happened here?
When Callan turned to me, he avoided my gaze and admitted, “We owe you a great debt for saving this child. We probably would have lost him without your aid.” He bowed his head an inch. “Thank you.”
That must have been what Gabby had wanted, because now her face had a cat-sly, cocked eyebrow and smile.
“You’re welcome,” I told Callan, aware how he could hardly accuse me of being an enemy if I’d saved this child. Twice. But would this momentary camaraderie bode well for getting Callan to lighten up on Tony?
Jaxxson stepped toward the wall we’d entered through. “The child’s safe here. We’ll let him rest.”
Once we were outside in the tented area again, Jaxxson walked over to a concerned Zilya and Mathias, quickly explaining what had happened.
I caught Callan before he could put me and Gabby back in the Isolation Unit. “We’ve proven we’re not here to harm you and that we’ll help you. Tony’s not a danger to your village. I promise if you release him he’ll not hurt anyone.”
Callan’s hard expression had returned. He clearly didn’t want to agree, but this time he at least seemed to struggle with the decision. “I’ll admit that you and Gabby have proven yourselves to not be a threat.” I noticed he didn’t say we were safe from retribution, but he was still talking. “But we knew with Gabby’s eye colors that she had to be MystiK.”
I turned to Gabby. “Really? I’m thinking that’s good?”
She shrugged in a self-conscious way.
If that made Callan happy with Gabby, I wouldn’t argue. One down, two to go. “And me?”
“I have no idea.”
Not what I was hoping for on several levels. “At least you’re honest.”
Callan added, “But V’ru will know.”
Mathias joined our group, asking what Callan was talking about. Callan explained what had transpired and Mathias agreed that V’ru would be the final word.
The infamous, all-knowing, all-seeing elite V’ru. I disliked him without even meeting the guy just because of the reverence in Callan’s voice when he talked about V’ru. Where was this infallible center of knowledge? Probably being worshipped somewhere. “What about Tony?”
Callan held up a hand, stalling me. “First, I want to interrogate the scout we captured. If he doesn’t give me reason to believe your friend is TecKnati then–” He looked at Mathias who said, “I’ll consider releasing him.”
I’d like to take Callan’s willingness to talk with Tony as a positive indication, but Mathias had stopped before sharing his entire thought. I asked, “What if you still believe Tony is TecKnati?”
Mathias didn’t hesitate when he said, “Then he and the scout will face punishment for the premature deaths of MystiK children who have perished here.”
I knew the answer and still pushed for clarification. “What’s the punishment?”
“We’ll give them the same chance they gave these children. The guilty TecKnatis will be placed in the middle of a transender docking location where they can pit their skills against a croggle. I understand from Zilya that I have you to thank for giving us the gray box we can now use to call up a croggle without endangering our own.”
Tony would never survive against a croggle. Neither would that scout. I had to find a way to sway Mathias and Callan from doing this even if they did find Tony guilty according to the rules of their world.
I didn’t know the rules of anyone’s world, mine included, but I did know I couldn’t stand by and watch anyone sacrificed to a man-killing croggle. But then again, I had not been forced to witness the brutal killing of innocent children either.
Before I had a chance to convince Mathias that killing TecKnati wouldn’t solve their problems, Etoi and several of the half-sized warriors came pounding into the village proper, the cleared area where the four of us stood.
“They escaped,” Etoi cried out.
Callan stepped to the center of the group. “The prisoners?”
I couldn’t believe Tony would leave me and Gabby to find a way home on his own. Or had something else happened to him? I wouldn’t put it past Etoi to vent her hatred of TecKnatis on a hapless prisoner and dispose of Tony’s body. Or had the scout taken Tony hostage? That had to be what happened, but what was the chance of convincing Callan or Mathias of that possibility?
Mathias pushed forward, demanding. “How did the TecKnati get out of the Isolation Unit without being burned to death by the energy enclosing the hut?”
“I don’t know.” Etoi’s dark eyes swung to me, accusing. “The scout was searched before being put inside the unit. He had nothing on him. We didn’t search these others for weapons or hidden technology.”
Callan raised his hand. “Neither of these two–” He nodded at me and Gabby. “Could’ve done it. They’ve been with me or Jaxxson the whole time.” He turned to Mathias and lowered his voice, though I could still hear due to standing so close. “There’s only one way to leave the Isolation Unit and that’s by the hand of a MystiK in this village.”
I caught the meaning beneath Callan’s words. He thought one of their own had released the prisoners. A traitor.
Someone working with the TecKnati?
Mathias merely nodded, his mouth pressed in a firm line. He ordered Zilya, “Organize a hunt. Find them.”
Zilya started issuing orders to Etoi and her small band of warriors. Within minutes, another thirty children around ten to fifteen in age flooded into the area, all carrying weapons capable of deadly harm. Some looked fragile and all were dressed in ragtag outfits, but their expressions were determined. A sort of shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later bunch, which wasn’t looking good for Tony.
I stepped up. “I’ll go.”
At the same time, Callan and Mathias said, “No.”
Then Callan added, “I can’t allow you to help your friend.” His next thought trailed off in his eyes.
One look at him told me what he was thinking. If I interfered, he’d have no choice but to use deadly force against me. My dying wouldn’t help Tony, or Gabby either, but that didn’t mean I liked the implied threat in Callan’s gaze.
Gabby moved close to me and whispered, “You think Tony abandoned us?”
“Strangely, I don’t either.” She glanced around before adding, “But I don’t trust that Etoi not to hurt him if she can catch him alone.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t stop Mathias and what had grown to be a formidable hunting party of armed warriors.
When Mathias made a motion with his hand for his hunters to head out, Callan stopped him. “I’ll go with them, Mathias. Take Rayen to see V’ru.”
“No.” Mathias spoke just as softly, but I heard him. “I can use the exercise and you take her to V’ru. While you’re at it, do me a favor and check on the preparations for the BIRG Day celebration. I know it sounds trivial at this moment, but we promised that to the children and those putting it together don’t want me to see what they are creating.”
Mathias rubbed his head, giving me the impression he found something tedious about this celebration.
Callan offered, “Sure you don’t want to delay it until tomorrow?”
“No. This is the first tradition we’ve upheld here. I’m not much for parties, but I’ll do it for the children. This Tony will be easy to track. Tell them to have the party ready to go as soon as I return.”
Callan gave him a long, concerned look.
The grim set of Mathias’s jaw softened. “Remember, our first responsibility after keeping these children safe is to give them hope. No matter what it takes to do that. No matter if celebrating is the last thing we feel like doing, always think of them first.” He offered a tight, half-smile. “The scout may know this land, but the other captive doesn’t. If I find Tony first, I’ll return with him, or his body, in time for the celebration. Find out who she is before I return. I must know.”
Then he pivoted away and took off running.
I had to be the she Mathias ordered Callan to find out about. But it was the dire warning in Mathias’s voice that worried me. Something had changed in the way Mathias viewed me and I had no reason to believe it was a positive change.
Callan snapped around, pointing at Gabby. “You, stay with Jaxxson. A warning. When I’m in the village, he can reach me telepathically if he needs me.”
So that’s what had been happening when Callan exchanged looks with Mathias and that’s how Callan had heard about the little boy being in distress. I asked Gabby, “You sure you’re okay with Jaxxson?”
I believed her. She didn’t have that empty, don’t-step-too-close look in her face she’d worn when I first met her. Something profound had happened while Gabby had worked with the children and the healer.
Or because of something Jaxxson had done to her.
“You.” Callan speared his finger at me.
How did I end up as ‘you’ again? “Forget my name?”
He ignored my sarcasm. “The girl is Hy’bridt and the escaped prisoner you call a friend is TecKnati. That leaves the mystery of who you are. I’m tired of guessing. You will answer V’ru’s questions. He can discover who or what you are. Follow me.”
My heart hammered my chest with two fists. He hadn’t even suggested that I might be MystiK. Not that I wanted to be, but right now that was the only winning side in the war these kids waged with the TecKnatis.
On the other hand, wasn’t that what I wanted? To find out who I really was? Could this V’ru know my history, know who I was? And where I came from?
If these children were from the future, maybe V’ru had information on the past.
On the surface, that sounded somewhat encouraging, until I considered the alternative.
What if this elite MystiK V’ru decided I had some type of connection to the TecKnati? Callan spoke of him in reverence and Mathias would make his final decision based upon what V’ru alone revealed.
What would Callan vote to do with me if V’ru declared me the enemy?