In More Ways Than One

Rihas repels a wave of nausea while struggling to remain seated, desperately clutching the bulkhead to prevent himself from being thrown off. He realized his mistake the moment Mehetabel propelled the vehicle into motion. He wishes now that he had decided to follow the transport on foot from behind.

“As a child …burp …ugh, I would watch stones tumble down the entire slope of a mountain and wonder how it would feel to be those stones,” Rihas looks pleadingly toward Tamah, who seems unaffected by the bedlam.

“Following today, I will no longer wonder.”

Tamah smiles at Rihas’ attempt at humor to counter his distress. She worries for his well-being all the same. Given his ability, he has likely been masking emotions most of his life. If she were in his position now, she would surely be just as wary of herself and Mehetable. He has nothing to gain by lowering his guard simply for the benefit of unfamiliar empaths he has known only a few hours. Still, it is no less aggravating.

Being deprived of her natural empathic sense has forced her to compensate by focusing on his facial expressions and verbal inclinations. A small part of her wants to reach out and throttle the emotion out of him. Some good has come from this experience, however. She has learned more about body language and tone these past few hours than from all her prior conversations combined. While frustrating, being unable to lean on her empathic trait may not be such a terrible thing at all.

She has enjoyed conversing with Rihas. He is quiet and contemplative while still clever and witty in his own charming way. Yet he somehow remains guarded and unapproachable. What he needs right now, more than anything, is comfort. But he is unwilling to allow her close enough to provide it.

Tama smiles sadly for the distance he is imposing, “You’re doing great, Rihas. This is a new experience for you. Your body will adapt.”

His response is an impassive glare, “Are you certain she is qualified to operate this machine?”

As if to reply, the cabin lurches drastically upward and immediately downward, threatening to launch both Rihas and Tamah out of their seats. The vehicle slows until coming to a jolting stop a few moments later.

“No blood.” Mehetabel observes calmly while emerging from the helm, “That’s fortunate.”

Tamah glares fiercely at Mehetabel but holds her tongue, selecting to project her precise feelings regarding the older woman’s demeanor instead. Rihas had been jarred violently enough to necessitate an exam for a mild concussion. She releases her restraints and moves to begin inspecting him. He responds to her gentle questions with simple, affirmative grunts.

“Oh, my.” Mehetabel smirks lustfully at the younger woman, “I’ve made you angry, Tamah. Perhaps you will permit me to demonstrate my regret later?”

Tamah turns away, flustered and blushing in response to Mehetabel’s projected emotional and verbal innuendo. Tamah has not attempted to hide her attraction to Rihas, so Mehatabel is perfectly aware of the dynamic she is working to foster with the nomad leader. Her heart sinks at a spontaneous bout of realization. If Rihas is an empath, he has sensed it as well.

“We’ve stopped, ” Rihas finally intervenes, relieving Tamah from her embarrassment.

“Correct, ” Mehetabel confirms in a belittling tone. “It is growing dark. Traversing in this terrain will soon become impossible, even in daylight.”

Rihas nods, “Good. We made good progress today.” He pauses to release his restraints and then stands upright as much as the cramped interior will allow, “I welcome solid ground and open air. I do not fit very well inside this space.”

Mehatable takes a final shot at him before exiting the transport, “In more ways than one, scout.”

Crystal lenses produce fire with great ease and efficiency by capturing the sun. As evening approaches, however, diminishing sunlight renders them useless. Having collected tufts of fibrous material from nearby tree barks and grasses, Rihas demonstrates striking flint stones against a metal blade to create sparks and then gently incubates them within a loosely compacted nest of weblike tinder. Before long, the fire is sustainable enough to prepare a meal.

In preparation for their excursion, Rihas procured items counted among the tribe’s most valuable salvage and stocked three traveling packs with provisions and gear necessary for surviving the Graves. Each was outfitted with three fire-making implements; a tinderbox, a crystal lens, and small containers of chemical accelerants. Various blades and utensils, twine, hygiene, and mess kits are standard requirements for a scout’s pack. Dried rations were also included but would only be used if hunting proved unsuccessful.

Good fortune smiles upon them, allowing Rihas to return quickly with three small rodent-like animals he had spotted and then dispatched with help from a weapon he had received from his father.

The device borrows principles from more common recurve bows and is fashioned from old-world salvage. It employs mechanical tension rather than relying on the wielder’s arm strength. The bow is mounted horizontally on a handheld wooden stock. Its design allows it to be wielded with one hand or both, requiring only one finger to trigger the tension release mechanism and lose a dangerous metallic spike with frightening velocity.

It was a bonding gift given to him the day he departed from his birth tribe. His father had called the weapon a spikard. The intrinsic value of this gift warranted better care than daily hunting duty, so it has sat well-maintained and well-practiced but ultimately unused in his wikiup until today. Undoubtedly, it was intended for a situation such as this.

Having successfully employed the weapon for something other than training, admiring, or reminiscing, Rihas beams with a small measure of self-satisfaction and delight.

“Well, somebody is pleased with himself!” Tamah laughs.

“Aye!” Rihas says, nearly bellowing. Then after taming his zeal, he continues holding up his spikard for display, “A gift from my father nearly twenty cycles ago.”

Rihas grins proudly, “Thanks to him, we eat plentifully tonight.”

Mehetabel had done well in finding this location to make camp for the night. Their increasingly steep, rocky ascent into the Graves eases to a somewhat level plateau upon which a sprawling series of second-world structures had been built. Although most now lie in ruins engulfed by wilderness, some of these structures are still sound enough to provide shelter for the night.

The tired trio eats and then disposes of their remnants in the fire. Rihas stands wearily as flames from the cooking fire start dying off into glowing embers, “We have all worked hard today. Rest yourselves inside the transport.” He says, shouldering his pack, “I will retire within the ruins.”

Tamah begins to protest but cannot find the words. Instead, she simply calls out to him worriedly, “Rihas?”

“Rest well. We will continue at first light.” He says this while walking a short distance to the ruins.

“Mehetabel…” Tamah looks desperately to the older woman for help, “He can’t be serious about sleeping alone out here.”

Mehetabel looks after Rihas with her eyebrows raised. Even she is surprised about the abrupt arrangement, “Go ahead inside the transport. I will speak with him.”

Thick darkness has descended upon the Graves, bringing the savage sounds of nighttime with it. Mehetabel proceeds cautiously into the ruins, quietly calling out to Rihas, “I would have a word with you, scout.”

“Why are you here? It is dangerous,” she hears his voice but cannot see him or sense his emotional presence. His voice and the sounds of rustling from his clothes and bag are the only clues he is nearby. She becomes aware of his proximity only after his massive hand rests on her shoulder. She manages to stifle a frightened squeal but jumps from being startled.

“These ruins go on deep into the Graves overgrowth. You could have become lost,” he says with an unexpectedly concerned inclination coloring the tone of his voice.

Being unable to see him or sense his emotions, Mehetabel reaches out unconsciously for some sensory input. Her hand meets his firm midsection, which is covered with thin hair growth. Having never before touched a male, she finds the sensation unusual but not unpleasant.

“You would have found me,” she retorts offhand, her sly smile concealed by the darkness.

He snorts quietly, “Don’t be so sure.”

They stand like this for a time before Mehetable removes her hand from his abdomen and then speaks, “Why did you feel compelled to sleep alone, out in the open, scout?”

Whether attributed to nature, skill, or both, Mehetabel has developed an exceptionally keen empathic trait. Rihas’s ability to thoroughly mask emotions is impressive and admirable. But it is not perfect. He is prone to falter, allowing her to peek around the edges of the mask. Now is one such occasion, and what she notices causes her distress. It is gone as quickly as it appears. It is an emotional presence as bright and, therefore, as dangerous as Cedar’s.

“I have slept alone, in vigil, since the death of my mates twelve cycles ago,” Rihas says flatly.

“I was at the cusp of puberty when I was given to the tribe as a bond mate for Kyria and Sarai. We were all three the same age. We became adults together. We were inseparable.” Rihas’ voice grows quiet and grave, “A short time after Japhia was born, our tribe was pillaged by a band of murderous criminals and deviants while I was hunting with our scouts.”

He takes a deep breath and exhales unevenly, “I f-found…” The remaining words are lost, choked up in his throat.

Mehetabel replaces her hand on his abdomen and moves imperceptibly closer to him, “It’s okay. I understand.”

A wild scream from some sizable, terrorized beast writhing within the jaws of a much larger predator breaks the mood, instinctively drawing Mehetabel and Rihas closer together. Its piteous cries are instantly silenced amid the audible brutality of crushing bone and rending flesh echoing throughout the ruins.

“As much as it pains me to admit, we cannot do this without you, scout,” Mehetable works to control her panic, “I suspect you have already surmised Tamah’s infatuation with you. I respect your vigil, but I urge you to reconsider your sleeping arrangements for tonight.”

With Rihas’ emotional mask securely affixed and the inky, black darkness preventing her from seeing his facial expression, Mehetable’s only insight into his state of mind is his careful, protective embrace and a vacant, weary affirmation,



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