Authors: Lena Hillbrand
man would be executed, so it didn’t matter what Byron had done to him, or that
it hadn’t been meant for him at all. The government couldn’t risk a cannibal in
its midst, one who might realize his true strength. Even this one, who hadn’t
yet discovered his added strength, had enjoyed the energy too much. He would do
it again, thinking he could use it as some kind of high, like a drug. And if he
did it again, he might realize the strength it gave him. Thirds couldn’t know
that. Mistresses had to report any such request for that very reason. And the
men who made those requests quietly disappeared on their way home.
this cannibal might realize his strength before his trial, it was Byron’s duty
as arresting officer to make sure he never had such an opportunity. He would
take back the man’s stolen strength. Maybe he’d take all his strength, leave
him as limp and lifeless as he was now. Of course, once he drew from the man,
he would have to kill him. Otherwise, the scum would scream it all over the
jail as soon as he was reactivated. He would carry on about the injustice,
protest that he was being put to death while Byron, who had done the very same
thing, received no punishment.
would be executed one way or another, though. It didn’t matter how he died.
Byron was saving the government the expense of calling a panel of Seconds to
judge a trial, and ridding them of one more piece of Third garbage. Illegals weren’t
even people, according to the government. They had no papers, and therefore did
not exist. So what did it matter what he did to one? He couldn’t very well
murder a man who didn’t exist.
pain upon waking was still considerable. Draven had slept a night and a day, waking
the evening after he’d gone to sleep. He pulled the cord to open his sleep sack.
Cali sat with her back pressed to the rock wall of their shelter. Blue-lipped
and shivering, she clung to the blanket wrapped around her.
light had nearly gone from the sky.
Draven said, and Cali came to him with Leo in her arms. “Wrap the baby in the
blanket and set him down.”
Cali did as told, trembling all the while. Draven unzipped the bag and beckoned for Cali, who squiggled into the sleep sack with him. He zipped it after her entrance. The
sleep sack, made to hold one person, strained over the curves of Cali’s body, but he managed to close it to her shoulders.
are you warmer than me?” Cali asked through chattering teeth.
warmed myself at the fire before sleep. This is a mummy bag. It has a layer of
foil inside that lets no heat escape.”
I’ve been freezing for two days, and you’ve been all toasty inside here?”
was only a day. You had a baby to warm you. Why didn’t you light a fire?”
tried, but it went out, and I was afraid you’d get mad if I used all the fuel.
I tried about ten times before I gave up.”
would have been upset,” Draven said.
soft solidity of Cali’s body pressed against his stirred something within him.
He could not remember the last time he’d touched someone so thoroughly, been so
close to another being. “I must eat,” he said, focusing on that hunger.
lifted her chin. Letting his lips linger on her skin for a moment, he released
a warm breath upon her neck, moving his mouth over her throat and inhaling her irresistible
scent. Sap pulsed beneath the delicate membrane of her skin, just beyond his
lips. Her cold skin under his warm lips, the strange reversal of their usual
temperatures, disconcerted him slightly. Added to his pain and hunger, it fogged
his mind with a distant desire. His breath caused the fine hairs at the nape of
her neck to rise with a chill, and he smiled before penetrating.
gripped her body against his, ignoring the stab of pain it sent through him.
Already he could feel her heat spreading outward to dispel the cold, her warm
sap flowing into him and replenishing his strength and life. She was cold on
the surface, hot inside. A sound escaped his throat, some expression of his
animal enjoyment of her, jolting him back to reality. Quickly he reached behind
her and unzipped the bag all the way down in one movement, letting her spill
onto the ground.
out,” he said.
looked stunned, and a bit hurt. She recovered quickly, scooped Leo into her arms
and struggled to her feet, shooting Draven a well-deserved look of
chastisement. He zipped the bag once more and rolled to his stomach, cursing
the strange stirrings until they dissipated. He’d been hungry and in too much
pain to think clearly. Once he thought of it rationally, the incident struck
him in its ridiculousness. He sat up, wincing as he did so, and slid out of the
sleep sack. The cold air hit him and instantly sucked at the stored warmth he’d
kept from it for the last day.
rolled the sleep sack and deposited it atop the tracker’s backpack. At least
now he had a few of the essential supplies he’d lost to Sally’s family.
began scraping the leaves from the opening of the shelter until he had cleared
an area for the fire. After lighting the fire close to the mouth of the shelter
but not blocking the entrance, and making sure his human companions had warmth
enough for comfort, he returned to the fire near the river. It had burned out while
he slept, and animals had done away with the remaining traces of the trackers. For
a moment, after killing the tracker, he’d imagined drawing from him to reclaim
the strength the tracker had taken from him. But the idea turned his stomach,
and he could not get past the horror of it long enough to seriously consider
one who had drawn from him had died for that act. Draven would have avoided killing
the tracker if he’d had the chance. He’d thought, even while he fought the man,
that if he could disable him for a moment, he would retrieve the chain. But when
he’d felt the strength draining from him, he’d panicked. In his hundred years,
he’d never been so frightened, not even when Sally’s people had tortured him.
The certainty that they would eventually kill him had made him crave death, not
he had no wish for death, but instead, a fierce urge to protect his stolen
sapiens. He had a responsibility to ensure their survival. In order to do so,
he’d killed another man, and not out of obligation. This time he hadn’t been
under contract—he had done it by his own volition. Unlike his previous kill,
the choice had not been so clearly the choice to die or to kill. Trackers did
not kill their captives. Perhaps this tracker had only meant to weaken Draven
so he could return him to Princeton. There, Draven would have stood trial for
theft and for the other tracker’s death. He would have faced execution if
convicted. But his decision to kill the tracker instead of facing trial seemed
an act of premeditation as well as cowardice—or it would have if he’d planned
he had reacted too strongly to the tracker, and then strangely to Cali. He
shook his head in an attempt to quell his disquieting thoughts, but they
continued circling his mind along with the nagging concerns over his dwindling
body had fared no better than his mind. When he’d examined the knife wound above
his hipbone, he’d found it fairly clean. He’d wrapped a shirt tightly around
himself to stop the bleeding and prevent contamination, so it would heal well. The
next wound he examined, he’d incurred when the tracker had thrown him into a
tree. A branch had gouged his lower back and run a jagged track to his shoulder
blade. Though he could not see it, he knew the wound covered a much larger area
than the puncture in his side. It hurt much more than the other wound, as well,
although experience had taught that it would heal more quickly than the deeper
wound in his side.
bite on his forearm, which looked horrific, would heal rapidly. He’d licked it
thoroughly before he slept, and now he did so again. Already it had lost the
gruesome appearance of the previous evening.
had survived the battle, wounded yet in possession of his two stolen saps. Though
he doubted the baby would live much longer, he’d had these doubts before. The
boy was more resilient than Draven had imagined a sapling could be. Perhaps his
incessant wailing would drive both Draven and Cali mad, and he’d outlast them
Draven had never envisioned this life when he’d stolen two sapiens. But he had
known simply stealing one made him a traitor to his government. Now he had
killed for her, for Cali. And though she had killed as well, that murder lay in
his hands as surely as the one he’d committed himself. After all, he had made the
knife. He’d shown Cali how to use it. He’d put her in the situation where she’d
need to use it. And he’d put it in her hands. He’d told her to kill, and she
had. He’d armed a sap against his own people—the greatest possible betrayal of
the Superior race.
act forced him to consider the saps’ worth. Were they worth all he’d gone
through, all he’d done? Killing a Superior to save a sapien—likely the first
time anyone had committed such a ludicrous act. He could not fathom a greater
act of treason. But in truth, he’d already decided their worth. In arming Cali,
in teaching her to kill a Superior and instructing her to do so, he had elevated
her importance above the entire Superior race. He could never go back. He no
longer had a place in the Superior world.
a time, he returned to the shelter and sank down across the fire from where
Cali sat holding the sapling. “How is your child?” he asked.
don’t know. He sleeps most of the time, and when he’s awake, he screams
must be difficult for you.”
gave him an odd look before turning her attention back to the sleeping child.
should have turned you over to the trackers.”
glanced up sharply. “Why?”
would have a better life. I promised you something better, but look at yourself.
You’re cold and hungry and injured. I’ve brought you only danger and harm.”
yeah, I guess that’s true.”
stood. Of course Cali would not disagree. He had not given her a better life. “I’ll
find you some food.”
she said. “I mean, what you said is true, but I think…well, at least here I’m
not in a cage getting…bred. It’s almost like I’m free.”
fetched the net and set off to the river to set it up.
back at the shelter, he sank down on the sleep sack, still weak. When he bent,
a streak of pain went shrieking down his shoulder and back where the branch had
gouged him. He bit his lips closed to refrain from making a sound that would
alert Cali to his condition.
heard her movement before she entered the shelter. In the small space, even
sitting against the far wall, her heat reached out timid fingers to tickle him.
“You’re hurt,” she said quietly.
shirt has blood all over it. Did one of the trackers do that?”
it bad? Can I see it?”
let me do something. I’ve only gotten in the way. If it weren’t for me, they
wouldn’t even be following you. Just let me see if you have splinters,” she
said, and this time the timid fingers that touched him belonged to her body,
not just its heat.
waited until he’d had a chance to speak, and when he did not, she drew his
shirt up. The fabric had sealed into the flesh beneath, and Draven had to grit
his teeth when Cali broke the bond. She studied his wounds in silence. After a few
moments, he pushed himself up and pulled his shirt over his head. It seemed
every new shirt he wore wound up stained with blood. He couldn’t remember
ruining more than one or two previously in his entire Superior life.
made no comment. He did not want her pity, and only accepted her aid when he
had little choice. Already he depended on her for food. And though, like all
Superiors, he’d always depended on saps for food, it had never made him feel
vulnerable until now. He’d never felt indebted to them, or as if he were at
their mercy—and never guilty for it, either. Of course he regretted hurting
them when he ate, but it could not be avoided and had bothered him but little, just
as the pain bothered saps but little. He made every effort to lessen their
pain, and thought little of causing what pain he could not prevent. But having
to draw from Cali after he’d asked her to give up her mate and run away with
him, only to make her walk when she clearly lacked strength or endurance, and having
failed so completely to deliver the life he’d promised, left him awash in guilt.
cursed himself for his weakness as Cali’s warm fingers trailed over him. When
she leaned forward to study his wounds, her hair swept across his skin, and he
tried to focus on the soft, tickling sensation instead of the painful one
swelling in him as she began to explore his injury. After a time, she switched
on the flashlight and continued to prod at his wound. With each splinter or
shard she removed, his skin seemed to sigh in relief. Satisfied with her work
at last, she moved from the fresh wound to some of the splinters still embedded
in him courtesy of Sally’s people.
dozed, allowing the coldness of the air on his bare skin and the warmth of
Cali’s fingers to lull him into a place near sleep. A halt in her movement
brought him back to awareness. Her flattened palm rested on the small of his
back. After a moment, she ran her hand up his back, slid a finger under the
edge of his bandage, and began to work her fingers to loosen it. He rolled away
but captured her hand before she could withdraw. For a moment, their eyes
caught. Then he pulled her down on the sleep sack with him and scooted her onto
her back. A flicker of alarm crossed her face.
you,” he said, and bent to draw from her. He kept his arm around her, his hand
under her back, stroking her arm with his other hand, the way he sometimes did
to soothe saps while he drew. Focusing on the old habit of measuring a ration
settled his mind. Things would have to change. He could not remain strong
enough to defend her by eating only once every few days. Like any good animal,
she would adapt to the change.
girl,” he said when he’d finished two rations and sealed her neatly. “Now I
will bring food to you.”
returned to the creek and waded in to retrieve his net. It contained only five
or six fish, all very small. As he made his way to shore, he slipped on the
shifting stones. He caught himself and looked down at the net in disgust. He’d
lost all but one small fish, and soaked his clothing in the process. It seemed
that, despite the best intentions, he could never properly care for a human.
the pathetic offering was more likely to offend than appease, he carried the
fish back and cleaned it. For the amount of nourishment it would provide Cali,
it was hardly worth the effort. Certainly not worth two rations of sap. Cali seemed
not to notice the meagerness of his offering. Upon seeing the foil parcel
Draven placed in the coals, her eyes lit up, and she sat close to the flames,
never taking her eyes from the food as it cooked. When Draven judged it done,
he drew it from the fire and flaked it apart with his knife before delivering
it into Cali’s eager hands. She ate quickly, licking her fingers thoroughly following
each bite, and used her tongue to clean the foil afterwards. Finding her
unabashed enthusiasm both fascinating and somehow obscene, Draven turned away, suddenly
a bit disgusted by her animal enjoyment of food.