“Get with the program, Decker.” Lieutenant Harper frowned. “Sir,” she added to be safe.
“It’s alright, Katie,” Keng smiled for them all. “I was just getting ready to leave. The village is not far behind.”
“You’re older,” Alexis said.
“I’m older than I was when I died,” Keng responded. “I guess that sounds a little strange.”
“From you?” Lockhart shook his head.
“Mind if I write that one down?” Lincoln asked.
Keng just broadened his grin and retrieved the crutch the other man had been holding. “See you,” he said and went away. A woman took his place and several people gasped except Mingus who merely nodded.
“Keng and Xiang are genetic reflections,” he said. When the others did not appear to understand, he added, “They share the exact same genetic code altered only for male and female. They are like identical twins of the opposite sex.”
Alexis hit her father to quiet him. That was not why they gasped. Xiang was bent over. Her spine was cracked though not yet broken. One knee looked like it was shattered and healed badly, and her ribs were wrapped and caked with dried blood like she had a wound that would not close. Above all, her face was twisted. It looked raw as if the flesh itself had been beaten off of her.
“I’m dying,” Xiang said. “Everyone knows it. You might as well know it, too.” The young man beside her bowed his head. Xiang tried to smile for him. “But I won’t let go until all of my friends and neighbors are safe.”
“But what happened?” Boston could not contain her words.
“My husband.” Xiang spoke without flinching. “The chief demon leading the ones who are chasing us. I have no doubt they have something like this in mind for us all if they can catch us.”
The young man beside her spoke up. “They pulled Nanhai’s skin from his body and all of it, even after he was dead. They left only his face intact so we would know him.”
Everyone looked at Xiang with mouths agape. “They pinned his eyelids back,” she said. “They left his mouth open in a scream so we would find him that way.”
“And they are chasing you?” Lincoln looked off in the direction they had been walking as Xiang nodded.
“Now!” Xiang got their attention before she had to pause and cough. The coughing looked painful. “Mingus, please get a fire started. The wood is wet and it will need your help, but don’t wear yourself out. You will probably have to help several families start their fires. Blossom – sorry Boston. Blossom, go and say goodnight to your husband but come right back before dark – darker. Roland, take Boston and Katie on the hunt. Shengi has made the game plentiful, so the hunting should be easy.”
“Take them on a hunt?” Roland asked.
Xiang paused to look up at the encroaching darkness. There was a chill in the air that was far colder than the end of a cold rain should be. “I don’t want anyone alone.”
“We can set up camp here,” Lockhart waved and Captain Decker leaned his rifle against a tree so he could shed his backpack and get his tent.
“Can I help?” Alexis’ eyes never wavered from Xiang.
Xiang shook her head. “Some warm bread I have heard so much about, and some water. That is all I need.”
“No, I mean –“
“I know what you mean, You can’t help me. Shengi and Nagi can’t help me. It is time for me to pass on, you see? If I don’t die, how will I be born again?” Xiang began to hobble away.
Alexis stepped up and pulled Xiang’s good arm over her shoulder. Xiang was willing. “Actually, Shengi already said I was not allowed to heal you, but I thought I would ask anyway.”
“Not a good idea to do what the gods have forbidden,” Xiang said, but she smiled. It was not easier for Xiang to have help walking, but not any worse and she did not mind the company.
“Where are we headed?” Alexis asked.
“The top of that little hill,” Xiang answered and stopped. She turned her head to be sure no one was watching. Then Alexis found her arm around a twelve-year-old boy whom she recognized right away.
“Uh-huh,” Pan said. “Race you.” They ran up the hill. Alexis was winded at the top though Pan was not.
“I am young again.” Alexis caught her breath. “But not that young.”
Pan just laughed, sat down with his back to a tree, got comfortable and traded places with Xiang once again. “Well I certainly could not run uphill,” Xiang said.
Alexis sat beside her and for a long time they sat in silence as they watched down below. The people came in and set up makeshift tents and shelters for the night. Campfires were lit, though they appeared dismal and dim in that atmosphere and no doubt provided little warmth against the cold. Alexis finally had to ask.
“It is the ones after us,” Xiang explained. “Their very nearness projects a terrible pall around everything. I am not surprised with your magic you are still sensitive to it. All my little ones are.”
“Boston, Katie, Lockhart and Captain Decker are sensitive to it, too.”
Xiang nodded. “Not Lincoln?” She asked.
“Him most of all,” Alexis answered and smiled before they were interrupted by the arrival of the goddess, Nagi. Alexis turned down her eyes.
“Shoot!” Nagi said. “I thought I was getting good at appearing like a normal mortal.” She turned to Alexis as she sat on Xiang’s other side. “Xiang is teaching me how to do that and how to block my mind to the thoughts and lives of others so I can walk among people and see and hear for myself. You know, it gets quite boring after a while knowing all the answers up front.”
Xiang just smiled at the goddess. “It might work better if you didn’t appear out of nowhere.”
“Oh, yeah.” Nagi apparently had something else on her mind. She was smiling too much. “Stop it,” she told Alexis. “I know you are older than I am, though I can’t imagine how that is possible.” Alexis simply looked at Xiang. “I should have guessed.”
“She was born an elf,” Xiang confessed.
“No way,” Nagi reached for Alexis’ hand and Alexis found that a very curious thing for a goddess to do. “You see, I didn’t know that in advance. It is so much more fun this way. But –“ She turned again to Xiang. “I didn’t know you could do that. That is remarkable, for a mortal I mean.”
Xiang shrugged as well as she could and changed the subject. “You and Shengi getting along?”
Nagi let go of Alexis’ hand and looked away. “Is it obvious.”
“Even without reading minds,” Xiang nodded.
“He said if I was willing to help clean up the mess, we might form a partnership. We sealed the bargain with a kiss, a real kiss.” Nagi looked up at Alexis. “But you are married. You know.”
“Husbands have their good points,” Alexis admitted before she remembered and looked at Xiang. Xiang’s husband was demon possessed and leading the ones chasing the people. It was an awkward moment, but in the perfect timing the Little Ones so often show, Truffles the fairy chose that moment to zoom up.
“Lady, Lady!” Truffles spouted. “Your children are looking for you and Myming is crying.”
“Husbands have their good points,” Xiang said as Truffles acknowledged the two other women. They watched as the fairy paused, got big eyes and turned again toward Nagi.
“Lady,” the fairy breathed and curtsied properly.
Xiang started to get up. It looked painful so Nagi interrupted. “Let me,” she said and Xiang, Alexis and Truffles found themselves at the bottom of the hill where the children were gathered.