He heaved in a breath. It's not me, it's not me. I can breathe.
He focused on breathing . . .
Then the pain and constriction went away. Only the residual pain of the fight remained, spiking as the Evil fem shoved up to her knees and searched Ausone's belt pouch and found his knife. The sharp stone cut the ropes around her wrists and ankles.
She stood up and looked around. "Son of a syphilitic camel and a mangy hyena. 'An empty area away from the few Neanderthals on Corsica' my precious ass. They stole my ute!" Her hands were on her hips as she looked around at the scatter litter on the floor, but her gaze swept back to him regularly, and finally stopped there. Studied him.
"You don't have any shields at all, do you?" She winced and . . . all of her aches and pain disappeared.
Who the One Hell is this boy? I'd barely realized the flapping thing running at me was a boy in a grubby white shirt ten sizes too big for him when he screamed—and that was a psychic scream the like of which I've never heard. Blasted through my habitual privacy shield like it was tissue paper.
She scooped up a discarded dinner box and poked the heat button. Strolled closer. "You look pretty underfed. What are you, eight or nine, maybe?"
Tears on his face, and he's damn near fetal. He felt all of that fight. Felt what that scream did to me. A strong Oner, or maybe a Fallen magician. But how did a child come to be stranded here?
She stopped a few meters away as his eyes started darting around, looking for a place to run. Rael kept her mental shield as soft as she dared, her head still throbbing from the waif's scream. The boy's scream. She was pretty sure he was a boy. Starved and cold. Desperate. Powerful. huddled in the corner.
"Are you hungry?" She put the box down on the concrete floor and slid it toward him.
He wiped tears from his cheeks and eyed the box, looked back at the door like he was about ready to run for it.
She sat down and reached out for the box. Popped the lid. Steam rose, rich beefy smell.
That caught the boy's attention.
She pulled out a strip of ersatz roast and nibbled at it. Shifted and nudged the box his direction.
He snapped out a hand and snatched the box. Crammed food into his mouth, darting quick glances her direction.
Rael tried to dig out memories from her recent disaster . . . were those men Neanderthals? I couldn't hardly see around the pain . . . that last guy . . .
She looked around. He was still laying on the floor, but his eyes were open and he'd been silently creeping for the door. He met her eyes, sprang to his feet and bolted out the door.
No, that wasn't a Neanderthal. So are there Cro-Magnons here too?
And . . . did my scrambled brain try to turn their yells into English . . . or have we got a marooning from somewhere with both magic and a history similar enough for the language to be recognizable?
She looked back at the boy as the last scrap disappeared down his throat. "Hello. I am Rael. What's your name?"
He glanced doorward, back at her, down. "Ghost."
"Where are you from? I live in Paris." Anyone from an Earth that's split off in the last two millennia should recognize Paris.
The boy flicked a glance out the door. "Volsk." A bit guttural.
Russian influence? I never really studied the dead languages. "Is that a big town?"
He eyed her suspiciously.
"Were you born there or did you come from somewhere else?" Generations ago, perhaps? "Are your mother and father from Volsk?"
That received a glare. But there was calculation growing behind those eyes.
"Why did you and your friends attack me?"
The pale child watched her, wary . . . testing me? "There are these horrible people who come around sometimes."
"The Evil Ones. They're like the Vikings in the history books. Loot, rape, pillage and burn. Then they go away for awhile."
Vikings? History books? Yes, marooned modern humans. "From another town? Has this been going on for long? Years?"
The boy's brows drew together in puzzlement . "Forever. A century at least. They like to rape the daughters of the last group. And their daughters. Especially the girls with the power. That's what everyone says. M'mom was one. She couldn't even stand to look at me."
"The grannies said we use to trade with other tribes, but the water came up. Now there's only the hundred villages and the Evil Ones."
"The grannies say their grannies said they weren't always evil. They bring stuff, they always did. Tools, books. They taught us how to speak like Oners . . . what?" He pressed deeper into his corner, hands covering his ears.
Trying to not hear me, not feel my emotions.
She tightened her mental shield. "Sorry."
Oners. Action Teamers. A century. I'll bet the entire population of Corsica is at least Halfer. And some are going to be like this child who knocked me on my butt with a single mental scream.
"Well. That explains why the reception committee looked a whole lot more like humans than Neanderthals."