What’s this? I’m back?? Yes, dear readers, I am. I have returned from vacation victorious! I slayed and conquered and roared my triumph up to the night.
What? That’s how you do vacations, right?
All said, it took me a while to get back on track with my life and my writing. But now I can say that I am…getting there. I at least managed to get Chapter Six down on paper, though I’m not sure how good it is. Similarly, I have an idea of where I’m going with Chapter Seven, but I’m not sure how good that will be either. I believe you are sensing a pattern. Just have mercy is all I’m saying. This stuff is all so raw still.
If you missed any previous chapters, here is a link that you can easily navigate from:
By the time she turned three, Joss’ hands were flying; she had proved to be a very talkative child.
It had started with just a couple signs. Two taps on the top of her head with the flat of her hand meant she was calling for daddy, whom she’d never seen without his brimmed hat.
Touching the lips meant hungry.
Closing her eyes and putting her hand over them meant sleepy, nap, or sleep, depending on the context.
Rath picked up on all of this as quickly as she imagined it. When she created a new word, he always confirmed it with her first before sharing with the group.
Like when she’d discovered she had the ability to fly.
At four years of age, she was in a very inquisitive phase. The concept of hearing fascinated her. Every move she made, every action she took, was followed with the same question.
Two head taps, pointing, hands going from closed to open by the ears, palms placed against each other and rubbed back and forth.
– Daddy, this noise make? –
It didn’t matter what she was doing – eating, lying down in bed, jumping up and down, bothering Molt – she was always asking. And Rath would always patiently reply.
– Yes, sweet. That noise make. –
Then she’d let out her weird little giggle and ran off to do something else.
One morning, when Rath came into the room, she ran up and jumped on him. He lifted her into his arms and allowed her to kiss him on the cheek. Then of course she leaned back and asked – Daddy, this noise make? –
In order to reply, he had to set her down. It took him until he’d made it to the sign for “noise” to realize that her feet had never reached the ground. Following his alarmed look, Joss looked down at the ground, which was several inches beneath her bare feet.
She squealed with delight and plopped to the ground, falling unsteadily onto her rump. Then she jumped up and began floating again, rising up several feet into the air this time.
– Sweet, what you do? – he asked slowly.
She had replied with a new sign. Essentially the word “up” repeated twice in quick succession.
– You up up? – he confirmed.
– Yes yes! – she signed back excitedly as she began floating around the room. Then, still hovering, she turned to look at him. – Daddy! Daddy! This noise make? –
Rath recovered from his surprise as quickly as he could and replied. – No, sweet. That no noise make. –
She let out another delighted squeal and began floating all over the room. It turned out that she could only sustain her flight for short periods of time, but that didn’t stop her from landing and taking off over and over again until she was exhaustedly signing that it was time for a nap.
Now, several years later, Joss awoke in her bed. They had recently moved into an old storehouse of sorts, but only after they had spent months staking out the area to make sure that it was, without a doubt, abandoned.
Joss had her own room, which she’d fashioned for herself out of old sheets and some empty boxes they’d found. Thea had followed suit. Then the twins. Molt had made himself a hammock in the rafters, and Het-Lei tended to fall asleep wherever he pleased.
Rath always slept on a cot by the door, so if trouble was coming he’d be the first to hear it.
As Joss rolled out of bed, her fingers automatically found her bandu pole. It was always within arm’s reach, if it wasn’t already in her grasp. She got hold of it and rolled carefully out of bed, keeping the end of the pole pressed to the floor. The vibrations she caused as she touched the floor were barely noticeable. She was getting better at this.
Keeping one hand rested gently on the center of her neck, she began to move out of her room. The pole let her know that no one but her was moving nearby. Maybe the others were already awake. She couldn’t tell how late it was, though she was sure that Thea would still be asleep, since her friend had a penchant for sleeping in.
Joss continued to sneak toward the main room, where she glimpsed Rath and Kanid conversing by their makeshift kitchen. It must have been earlier than she thought, since they appeared to be the only two awake.
Kanid was facing in her direction, but Rath’s back was to her. She smiled mischievously, keeping the fingers of her free hand on her throat. Rath had taught her to do this so she could feel when she accidentally made sounds, or when she successfully produced some after trying. Now she was trying to make sure that not a single thing would give her away as she snuck up on her father.
She moved her feet gently across the floor, sliding them more than lifting them. Kanid glimpsed her as she moved out into the open, but did her the service of pretending not to see her. He continued nodding along to whatever Rath was saying.
She was almost upon him now, so she allowed herself to hover slightly. Just an inch or two. Just enough to ensure she didn’t make a single sound as she closed the gap between her and Rath.
Then, just as she reached him, she lifted her bandu pole, preparing to strike.
Daddy, does this make noise? she thought, grinning, as she brought the pole down toward his head.
His hand shot up quicker than she could anticipate and caught the pole right before it made contact with the top of his hat.
Pouting, Joss landed and waited while he pirouetted, keeping the pole in his grip as he turned to face her.
His smile was smug.
She pulled her stick out of his hand and rested it against her chest while she used both hands to sign.
– How you always know? –
– I your father. –
– I noise make? –
– No, sweet. No noise. –
– Then what? –
– Felt your breath my neck. –
Joss rolled her eyes. Of course. It was always something. In two years of trying, she’d never once been able to catch him by surprise.
Kanid just shook his head.
Sleep well? he asked, and by the way Rath turned to look back at him, she knew that Kanid had made the question audible to both of them.
She nodded. – Well enough. –
Kanid’s voice was the only one she could hear. And that had taken some doing. When he’d first tried to communicate with her telepathically – the only way Kanid could – she hadn’t been able to process it. Having never heard sound before, she had no idea what to do with the echo of his voice in her head. It took lots of practice and explanation before she was able to distinguish words. But of course, he heard nothing from her. While she obviously had thoughts, they weren’t audible to him.
Which was interesting.
“What’d we miss?” Click asked, exiting his room. His hair was rumpled, and he was rubbing sleepily at his eyes.
Joss felt his entrance thanks to her bandu, and turned to look at him. He waved and repeated his question in a language she could understand. – What I miss? –
– I again fail surprise Rath. –
– I sad. This time I thought you succeed. –
– Next time. –
Switch emerged behind her brother then. Her hair was neatly combed, but she still looked tired.
They exchanged pleasantries, and Kanid began to hand out the breakfast he’d been preparing. Mashed berries on crackers.
They were all sitting around eating when Molt and Het-Lei made an appearance. Not from their beds, but from the door.
It was the only entrance to the building, which made everyone feel quite safe. Rath had had Switch and Click build a device to prevent intruders. It involved a stolen ID card reader and a few other things. Within a few days, they had a way to lock their front door. Everyone in their little family got a key, and anyone who tried to get in without one would set off an alarm. They would also be treated to a nice little shock, courtesy of Click’s wiring prowess.
When Rath turned toward the door, Joss followed his gaze. She had assumed Het-Lei and Molt were still sleeping, since it was still early, judging by the sun peeking in the tiny windows. At first Rath had considered covering up those windows, but in the end he decided it would be more suspicious to any outsiders if they were. Best to leave the building looking as untouched as possible.
“Well?” Rath asked as the two men entered, closing the door behind them.
Het-Lei was rearranging his body from some large, four-legged beast into his usual humanoid form.
“It’s confirmed,” Molt said.
“When?” Rath asked, still not signing.
Joss was used to reading Molt’s lips. He was the only one in their party who had outright refused to study her sign language.
Rath, however, was a different story. Signing when Joss was around had become second nature to him. If he wasn’t doing it now, it was because he was purposefully trying to keep her out of the loop.
“Tonight, it looks like,” Het-Lei said, signing as he spoke.
Rath shot him a warning look. “How many are we looking at?” He was purposefully moving his lips as little as possible, and using vague language so Joss was left as uninformed as possible.
Scowling, she hit his arm with her pole.
He ignored her.
“Ten to fifteen,” Het-Lei replied, still signing. “We think they might be expecting trouble. Might not be worth going.”
– Where go? – Joss asked.
“We’re going,” Rath said, ignoring her.
Joss pushed herself up to her feet and stood between her father and the other two.
– Where where where go go go? –
Whenever she wanted to emphasize something – usually excitement or anger – she repeated the sign. Three repeats on both words would easily convey to Rath exactly how she felt about his subterfuge; she was pissed.
– Please, Joss. This not for you. –
– It for you you you. It for me me me. –
– This time no, sweet. –
– What what what happening? – she demanded.
Rath sighed. – Raid. Free prisoners. –
– I go. –
– No. –
– Yes yes. –
Rath pinned her with a glare and signed “No” five times in a row. He’d never repeated it that many times before. Joss nearly backed down. But that was before Het-Lei oozed up to them and stood where both Joss and Rath could see his hands.
– Why not? – he signed. – She good fighter. We can use her. –
Joss turned to smile at him.
“Het-Lei,” Rath growled. “Go wake up Thea.”
Het-Lei’s eyes widened. “Rath, come on.”
“Do it. We need her here.”
“Punishing me isn’t going to make you feel any less guilty for keeping Joss in the dark,” he grumbled before squelching off toward Thea’s room, his version of stomping.
Rath sighed and looked at Joss. She glared right back at him.
“We’ll uh…we’ve got some new tech to check on back in our room,” Click said, leading his sister away from the scene.
Kanid didn’t leave the room, but he did cross over to the kitchen where he began to idly sort berries. Molt just grunted, spread his wings, and took off for the rafters.
– I want come. – Joss signed.
– I know. –
– Why you no let me? –
– Because I want you safe. Always always always. –
– I want you safe also. –
Rath sighed and reached out for her. She came closer, allowing him to pull her into his lap even though she had long since outgrown it.
They just sat like that for a while, neither saying anything. Then Rath reached out his left hand – the one that she could see – and signed again.
– Please, sweet. Please do this for me. Please stay safe. –
Joss didn’t respond right away. She wanted more than anything to go with them on their raid. But Rath was looking at her with his big, fathomless eyes. They pled with her, making her buckle.
– One time. – she said. – Next time I go. –
Rath smiled and hugged her tight. She pulled away almost immediately and stared at his left hand pointedly.
He shook his head, still smiling, and signed – Deal. –
Then and only then did she smile back and hug him for real.
An otherworldly screech rent the air as they sat together, and though Joss didn’t hear it, she felt it vibrating through her and the bandu.
Het-Lei had finally worked up the nerve to wake Theabella.
He emerged a moment later with one of Thea’s throwing knives embedded in his chest. Wincing, he reached up to pull it out, the fluidity of his form allowing him to heal almost instantly.
“She’s up,” he informed them, signing halfheartedly with one hand.
“Thank you. I promise I’ll make Molt do it next time.”
“Make Molt do it every day for a week. Then we’ll be even. You know healing takes a lot out of me.”
“Sorry, but you were undermining my parenting skills.”
“Rath, that was not my intention. I was attempting to balance you, not undermine you. As a parent, you are soft. I wanted to offer the perspective of someone who sees Joss as an ally, not a daughter.”
“As a friend, I thank you for that,” Rath said after a moment. “As a father…if you ever try to put my daughter in danger again…”
He didn’t finish the statement; it was unnecessary.
Molt, having sensed it was safe to return, dropped to the floor. Click and Switch soon found their way out of their room, and Kanid wandered back from the kitchen area.
Joss turned to Rath. – I want be here. – she signed.
– You can stay. – he replied.
She thanked him and went to sit across from him, knowing that would give her the best view of everyone’s hands. Click and Switch settled in next to her, smiling and waving. She smiled back. Kanid sat next to Rath.
Molt, his wings folded tightly behind him, snorted impatiently and went to lean against the wall by the door.
“I don’t see what the fuss was about,” he said. “If the girl wants to get herself killed, it’s not our problem.”
Switch helpfully signed everything he was saying for Joss, since he refused to. Joss just shook her head, turned to Molt, and offered him just one sign. He didn’t need to know her language to understand what it meant.
“Filthy trink,” he muttered.
The room went dead silent. Then, almost as quickly as that happened, it began to rumble and shake. Dishes rattled. Crates splintered. Molt had to fly into the air to keep from falling over.
Rath stood slowly, the ground shaking even more violently around him.
“You are required to like neither me nor my kin,” he said, his voice low yet somehow audible over the din he was causing. “However, I will not tolerate disrespect, Morlinz Nebolzer. Let this be your final warning.”
The ground instantly stilled, the silence returning.
Molt dropped to the ground and glared at Rath.
“I was already up!” Thea shouted, walking into the room. “What made you think you needed to…” Her voice trailed off as she looked from Molt to Rath. “Oh.”
She made her way over to the little kitchen and grabbed a plate of breakfast. Then she settled down to eat.
Rath was still staring at Molt. The silence was palpable. To everyone but Joss, who simply smiled and reached over to steal a berry off of Thea’s plate, completely ignorant of the tension in the room.
“Sorry,” Molt said, finally.
Rath smiled. “No problem. Have a seat. We’ve got to discuss tactics.”
Switch waved to get Joss’ attention, then signed – Bird boy say sorry. –
Joss laughed. – Dad accept apology? –
– Yes. –
– Then I do also. –
It took less than five minutes for them all to get situated. Despite the drama between Molt and Rath, when it really counted, Molt was right there offering his suggestions and clarifying when he was asked to. He and Het-Lei were an excellent reconnaissance team. They’d been working together for years, and their information was always good. Joss felt her uneasiness slipping away the more they talked; it was clear that they had done a very thorough job, as usual.
Everything would be fine.
Still…she hated saying good-bye.
Even with Rath’s nearly insurmountable telekinetic abilities. Even with Click and Switch decked out in so much high-tech armor that they had both doubled in size. Even with Het-Lei’s ability to transform and heal at will. Even with Thea’s teleportation, stealth, claws, knives, and speed. Even with Kanid’s ability to hear what an enemy was planning on doing before they managed to do it.
Even with all that, she hated saying good-bye. She felt strange doing it. She felt like maybe everything seemed too perfect. That something had to go wrong.
Molt was the last to leave. He shot her an unreadable look before he stepped out the door. It sent a shiver down Joss’ spine.
Then he was gone and she was alone.
She waited a full hour before going out to explore.
Rath had told her before he left that she could go out to search for food and supplies. As long as she stayed close to camp, kept her bandu pole on her at all times, and was back before dark. She’d heard these rules plenty of times before, of course. He’d made a point of listing them for her every day from the moment she’d developed enough to understand them.
One – Never let your guard down.
Two – Always be one step ahead.
Three – Never leave camp without your bandu pole. The bandu pole is your best friend.
Four – Always ask for help if you need it.
Five – If you can’t win a fight, run!
Six – Never go anywhere alone, unless given permission to do otherwise.
Seven – Don’t let on that you can’t hear, if you can help it.
The list went on. Most of it was about her safety. Rath had made her practice screaming for help, much to the others’ displeasure. Young Joss had had way too much fun keeping her fingers on her throat and trying to produce the biggest possible sound vibrations.
“Just be safe,” Rath had said before he left.
She had hugged him tight, knowing how hard it was for him to allow her to go out alone without a partner. If he’d had his way, she would’ve stayed locked up the whole time they were gone. She suspected Het-Lei had had some influence on her situation.
So she struck out. Bandu pole tight in her grip, canvas bag hung over her shoulder. She had her hair tied back, but several wavy tendrils had escaped. Still, it was out of the way for the most part.
Kanid had planted some small, edible plants in a clearing in the nearby woods when they had first moved to their new home. She went to check on those first. They were still small, but the leaves were green and healthy looking. She offered them a sprinkle of water from her pouch, hoping they would thrive. So far Switch’s invention was keeping away the various woodland creatures that might be tempted to snack on Kanid’s garden. It was essentially a small, electrified fence. It delivered a small shock to anyone who tried to pass through it. Hartlings and cornils were deterred without being harmed. Insects were fried on the spot.
Joss, meanwhile, knew how to step over the thing. She did so now as she left the garden to soak up the bright sunlight.
There was a stream not too far from their home. She figured she could catch a few fish for her dinner. But as she turned to push her way out of the trees, she felt it. Just the slightest of vibrations in her bandu pole.
Someone was coming.
It was too big to be a Hartling. An Enforcer, perhaps? Or was she just being paranoid?
She kept her bandu pole pressed into the earth, not showing any sign that she had noticed something approaching.
The vibrations were getting stronger. He was behind her now. She took a deep breath. If it was a Goliath, she would employ Rule Number Five (If you can’t win a fight, run!). If it was a Kreech or a Bortol, she would fight. She’d been able to take those guys on since she was seven.
She waited just a moment longer, still feigning ignorance. The vibrations were stronger now. It was time.
She hefted the pole, spun it over her head, and whirled to face her attacker.
He seemed just as surprised to see her as she was to see him.
Despite the Enforcer armor he wore, Joss paused before attacking. He was limping terribly, his eyes wide and panicked.
Human? she thought.
She’d never seen a human Enforcer before, but there was no doubt that she was looking at one now. His skin and hair were dark, his hands worn and scarred.
Blood was seeping out from between his fingers where he was clutching his side, and he was holding most of his weight on his right leg. She noticed that his left leg was sticking out at a strange angle, as if the bone had been broken once and then set wrong.
As her eyes moved back up to his face, she realized he’d been talking.
When she just cocked her head and looked at him, he repeated himself. This time she was able to read his lips.
“Help me,” he pleaded. “They think I killed the Overseer.”
Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
Look out for Chapter Seven over the next couple days! Hopefully tomorrow, but I can’t promise that.