Want an inside look into my new story? Strange Waters, a Phoenix Fiction Writers anthology, will be published in October 19th with 9 new stories from some of the best spec-fic indie writers around. Enjoy this small taste of my addition: The Underground.
A forceful pounding jerked Hiya from her dream. Heart racing, she sucked in a breath and rose from the mat, trembling.
“What…?” Kef’s form jerked up from beside the dying fire, his features indistinct in the darkness.
“Someone’s at the door,” Hiya said as another fierce pounding jarred her ears.
“Really? I couldn’t tell.” Kef’s irritated tone, perhaps funny during the day, only grated on her nerves. Everything was worse in the middle of the night, including sarcasm.
“Oh, stop,” she said, pulling on a robe and shuffling to the door. The dirt was cool under her feet. “Who is it?” she asked, pressing her ear against the wooden door.
“Something is wrong with Kaila!”
She recognized the voice. Ballan was a neighbor in the adjoining Burrow. He had come this far in the middle of the night? Kaila must be ill.
“Hang on!” she called and reached to unlatch the door. It swung open.
Ballan’s anxious face was illuminated by bright moonlight. “Kaila has taken sick. Please, will you come?”
Kef moved to stand behind Hiya. He was tall and skinny, and only a single cycle younger than her. Still, he tended to try to act like he was the eldest. “It is late, Priori,” he said. “Can this wait?”
Ballan reached as if to grab Hiya, but Kef blocked his arm and shoved Hiya backward. She caught a brief glimpse of Ballan’s anxious face. No, not anxious. Terrified.
“She was attacked. Please! You are the best healer in miles.” He took a few steps backward, raising his arms is if in surrender. He meant no harm, but fear was apparently making him desperate. Why? Kaila was old – at least fifty cycles – and lived alone. Ballan was Priori, of course, and therefore responsible in a civic way for Kaila. But he didn’t carry the bond and responsibility of family; it wasn’t the Raizani way.
“I will come,” Hiya said, more from curiosity than anything altruistic.
Kef cast a sharp glance her way but kept his mouth shut. She held back a smile. They had been taking care of each other since they were children, but he had only recently stopped trying to dictate her life. Maybe he figured she was finally old enough. Five and twenty spans was considered almost old in their society. Death tended to come early for those of the Raized Domains. Death, or slavery. The Unknown Divinity had abandoned them long ago. He had taken the Deep with him. Kef always said that she was wrong, and the Divinity must have a plan. But Hiya dismissed it as fantasy.
Ballan was pacing outside when she emerged after gathering her medical pack. She had dressed hurriedly in her fala and head covering. Ballan dashed into the night as he caught sight of her. She grunted and quickened her pace, trying to keep track of him in the darkness.
The village was asleep, most of the huts built into the hillsides scattering the Green. A cat hissed as they passed; the only sign of life. A curtain ruffled on Juj’s place, but it might have been the wind. Hiya gripped the pack tight and squinted as she jogged to catch Ballan, who stopped and looked over his shoulder. He gestured, and she huffed, gritting her teeth. It wasn’t like she hadn’t just been awakened from a deep sleep two seconds ago. The man needed to relax.
It took them over an hour to finally arrive at his Burrow. The sun was hinting at breaking the horizon, casting gloomy shadows over the tops of the wooden huts. Where Hiya’s Burrow was built into the hills, this one was crawling up the massive trees of the Fathom Forest. Bridges spanned overhead, connecting huts, stores, and breweries. It gave an air of wealth to Fathom Burrow, one Hiya tended to dislike. Just because they lived above ground didn’t make them better than anyone else.
Maybe that’s why she was grumpy. Fathomers only deigned to befriend Hiya’s Burrow so they could use them when needed. Like now.
The sun broke through the trees just as they entered Kaila’s hut. It was on the ground, built around a giant tree, with a ladder leading to the rest of the clan’s dwelling in the branches. Last time Hiya had been here, Kaila told her it was because she was too old to be climbing anymore.
Kaila was stretched on her bed, barely breathing. Hiya scanned her frail body with a practiced eye, keeping her face stoic. Several of Kaila’s family surrounded her, pressing in, eyes anxiously watching.
“Move back,” Hiya ordered, kneeling at the bed. The family tried, but there wasn’t much room in the hut.
Huge gashes lined Kaila’s back, from an animal Hiya had never seen before. Not gashes, really. Had a cutter performed some sort of surgery? The skin from her shoulders, down her sides, to her buttocks had been peeled back, and someone had reattached the skin with crude stitches. So, no. Not a cutter. It looked as if she had been peeled like a fruit and then the skin glued back on.
“What is wrong with her?” someone asked. Hiya ignored them. A terrible feeling lodged in her stomach. She had seen something like this once before, long ago. It brought a surge of fear, so strong it made her dizzy. She laid a settling hand on the bed and took a deep breath. She couldn’t run, not now. Maybe she could finally figure out exactly what had happened to Gro and Gra.
“Everyone needs to leave this hut right now.” She tried to keep the tremor from her voice, so they could hear the authority behind it.
No one moved.
Hiya cast a glance at Ballan. “Make them do as I say, otherwise, I can’t guarantee their safety.”
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