A.N: I own nothing.
A.N#2: This is not an Atlantis-gang centred fic.
"Dum Vivimus, Vivamus"
"Wake up, Little Dagger."
The young woman stirred, the low growl startling her awake. For a long second she couldn't see anything; it must have been dawn, or very early morning, the world still dyed a thick blue. She continued to lay under her nest of dried leaves in caution. Her heart churned within her ribs as she imagined the dreaded Atlantis team around the ridge.
"What is it?" she asked, eyes flickering beneath the layers of vegetation. Their dark perfume clung to her nose. "Do you hear something?"
Her answer was another growl. "No." A pause. " But you have slept long enough."
The young woman gave a low sigh of relief, her breath a puff of air. Relax, Little Dagger, she thought. She was acting foolish. With a shake of her head, she emerged, the curled fingers of the leaves clinging to her wool shirt. Beyond her, she made out the hunched form of Lynex with difficulty. He was sitting on his haunches, looking out across the landscape. It had been three days since they had used the Ring to travel to this world of sparse boreal forests, and had maintained a tight vigil against whatever lurked out there. This night had been no exception; once again he had stayed awake while Althea slept and regained her strength. The young woman felt a rush of feelings toward her closest companion. Perhaps one day she would find the right moment to repay him. But for now, she shook the last leaves off of her and made her way to Lynex's side. The pale blueness of the chilly dawn cut him a marble cast, stoic and stationary. But the moment the young woman kneeled by him his unhuman eyes softened and fixed her with an alien gaze.
"We should return to the homeworld," Lynex said, his voice low and sweet. "They would be expecting us."
The last part could be considered a joke; of that moment, they were almost two months overdue. Althea sobered. They were the only surviving members of the fateful hunt that had uncovered Lynex's love for Althea, had tested their courage and cunning beyond any other trial, and had changed Althea's life forever. How they had survived was beyond her: imprisoned by the Genii, held by Atlantis, tested upon, almost starved . . . only fate could have spared their lives.
Althea lowered her eyes.
Almost all of them. There was an inaudible sigh that lengthened the silence between them before Althea raised her head again. Lynex continued to look at her with a strange expression, his green-almost-black eyes hooded beneath white lashes. She knew some part of her continued to blame herself for her caretaker's death, and some part always would. But there was little she could do now. Mourning was not an option in the dangerous worlds beyond the Hive.
"We're not far from the Ring," Althea said, standing up. Lynex followed her movement with his eyes. "If we move quick enough, we'll get there for noon."
The Wraith stood as well. His height easily surpassed her own. He stared at her with his black-green eyes, pale in the first gray streaks of dawn highlighted. His long white hair hung in thick sheaves along his shoulders, smelling of cobwebs and dust. He was not of a muscular build—rarely were Wraith 'muscular' in her clan but he still gave off an aura of lean power, of ropy strength. It was this strength combined with the firmness of his gaze that drew her in as one does towards a fire on a winter's night. With sharp-taloned hands he cupped her chin. The coolness of his skin gave her shivers the chilly air failed to give.
"He died nobly. Accept it," he said, revealing his sharp fangs and purple gums, before closing it again. A curious awkwardness stole over him, making the adolescent Wraith seem as shy as a wild animal. It was his inability—his lack of humanness—that failed him to find the choice words. Althea felt a warmth inside the pit of her belly, that aching affection that now dominated many of the days' moments. His clumsiness itself seem to dull her pain, to make Warrior's death easier to bear. To remind her that Lynex was her future; Warrior was her past. Lynex gave a guttural snort before turning around to retrieve the small, half-eaten carcass of some small animal unfortunate enough to have been caught by the Wraith's deft and ruthless hands. Althea watched him, unable to hide the half-smile of tenderness, amusement, and concentration at Lynex's actions. He was trying so hard to keep up with her human emotions . . . it was a small wonder he didn't go mad.
"Eat and I will take watch." Lynex's voice pulled her away from her musings. She looked to where he crouched, his greenish-tinted fingers laced around the animal. A cold wind stirred up some leaves, causing a few to snag on her wool shirt. She gave a Wraith-like cough of distracted exasperation.
"In a minute, Lynex . . . let me get these leaves off."
As Althea plucked the vegetation off, Lynex gave a snort. "I still can't believe what you had to pull off to rescue me, Little Dagger. Recanting your garments for humans'? And especially your hair . . ."
Almost wistfully, Althea ran her fingers through her cropped, jagged tawny hair. It had once reached lower than her shoulder blades; now it hung in a ragged mess around her neck. Despite the look of horrified acceptance from her strange companion, Althea felt the first true feelings of light-heartedness of the day. Yes, she had done many sacrifices that day, but she would have done them again and again and again would it have meant saving her kin and kith in some way. She, Althea, was a human, the only one of the fierce and formidable clan she called 'family'. She had been adopted in the most basic sense of the word, raised and taught the customs and laws of her adoptive peoples by none other than the highest-ranking Leader, whom she had named Warrior. It was he who had secured her a future—however rocky it may be—in the harsh society of the Wraith-folk. It was he who taught her how to fight, how to track, how to hunt. Warrior, the stoic and aloof elder. Her elder. Her mentor.
A familiar prickling started behind her eyes. Almost angrily, Althea brushed the back of her hand against them, quickly looking at Lynex to see if he had noticed. He hadn't. Weakness was not coddled amongst the Wraith, and strangeness was marked for a weakness. Only she, with her human eyes, could cry easily; Wraith lacked the ability. But it was different, and Althea with all her heart wished that these differences would vanish. She hated her tawny hair, her sea-gray eyes, her unmarked cheeks and human complexion. She bore no resemblance to the white-haired, greenish-skinned, cat-eyed race she gave her loyalty to.
The dawn was now breaking into a lead-coloured and miserable morning. Althea rolled down her wool sleeves against another cold wind. The sounds of the creaking pines and moaning leaves caused her to look around uneasily. It set her on edge. Behind her, Lynex stiffened, noticing Althea's nervousness.
"Eat," he repeated, now walking away velvet-footed to his rocky outcrop that out looked much of the tundra landscape; they were on the edge of a stunted forest out looking a vast plain of nothing but dun grasses and howling winds. If Althea had ever been on earth, she would have thought she was looking at the Siberian Tundra. The emptiness filled her with a strange ache. She wished for dense trees.
"Lynex, you haven't slept in days," Althea said, picking up the mangled creature. The cold, skinned meat felt slippery in her hand. Lynex sounded absolute as he sat on the lichen-covered rock.
"I do not require as much sleep as you do."
That warmth, so strange yet so right, filled her belly. He would do anything for me, she thought, banishing the eerie moaning of the grasses beyond the ridge.
"But you're tired too," Althea said. She walked over and sat besides the Wraith, completely unafraid, completely trusting of the human-eater not six inches away from her. But it was true: he bore lavender circles under his eyes. The shadows from his brow ridges and the circles gave him a haggard look that his square shoulders and easy posture belied. The Wraith cast her a look he only reserved for her, a look a Wraith only shows in private to those who are graced with its affection. "Just eat so we can return to our world. I tire of these adolescent clothes."
Althea had been right. It was just about noon when they had made it to the solemn, solitary stone Ring. The winds had been picking up all morning, squalling worse every hour. Its bitter chill bit at any exposed flesh. The sea of beige grass bowed and swept in unison before it, laughing, crying, whispering. There was no end; she could have been lost with all this monotony. What a place to live in, she couldn't help but think. A firm grip on her upper shoulder pulled her out of her revere.
"Are you ready, Little Dagger?"
"Look who is now holding us back, Lynex!" She had to shout over the wind. It was stealing her words from her teeth. She almost couldn't hear his answer when he moved toward the dialing device. For a sky-rocketing second, Althea had the fear that Lynex forgot the code to go back home when his long fingers paused on one of the symbols. Her fear dissipated when, with confident movements, the brown-leathered Wraith pressed out the address. A new apprehension surged: they were going home. May whatever gods aid them. The gurgle of the blue portal burst forth before quickly settling in a glistening pool. Lynex's black-green eyes shone brightly, his lips pulled back in a kind of wolfish grin. Althea eyed him aslant, him to her never more handsome. He nudged her toward the stone steps, growling in anticipation for what lay on the other side. Despite herself, she felt a trill of excitement that tempered the apprehension. They were going home.
It was just as Althea remembered it the second she slid through the blue pool: the ancient, towering pines that filled the air with their resinous aroma, the two amethyst moons that stood out in clear contrast to the sky, the cool wind that swayed the trees' sprays. Home. Their home. Besides her, Lynex's growling had become louder. He was eager to don the dark-tanned clothes and embrace the rank of adult, Althea mulled. She was surprised that she was eager for something else, something she couldn't name, not just about changing rank, as she would have been before undergoing the First Hunt. It would be later that she would realize that it wasn't a depressing awareness, but a liberating one. Without a pause her companion strode forward, heading toward a bank of trees that hid the seven or eight Hive ships nestled in the landscape. The young woman had to jog to keep up.
"Lynex, the ships aren't going anywe—"
She fell silent as the young Wraith's hand flew up and formed a fist in a hunter's desire for silence. Quickly, she fell alongside him, shouldering sprays of boughs. At first she was a little confused for his need for peace, but after she lay her eyes upon the Hive ships, she finally understood her Wraith companion. Her heart quickened at the sight of the ominous yet comforting ships, the vast and languid monsters. Home. Suddenly, her blood was rushing. She felt jittery, alive, wholly aware of her surroundings. It was as if she had been hyped with adrenaline. Soundlessly, Lynex intently headed toward the central Hive ship, hardly pausing or stopping, his eyes fixed upon it. He hardly checked when a score of bone-faced guards appeared out of the central gangway, each hoisting a stun-rifle. Instead, he seemed to welcome the sight with a feral, high-blooded grin sliding over his face. Althea was amazed. How can he act so calm? she thought, eyeing the hulking, silent Wraith. Then again, when a Wraith's adrenaline was up, it didn't go down easily. Warrior, give me the strength, she thought.
Lynex stopped just before the lead drone, eyes burning green. Behind them, Althea kept a wary eye on the flanking others. It had been only two months and four days since she had seen other Wraith than Lynex, but she still couldn't draw her eyes away from them. The pale bluish-green skin, the dreadlocks, the slabs of muscle . . . Do we need a further rite of recognition? she suddenly thought. A skirl of dread nestled in her belly like some poisonous nadder. She didn't survive just to get beaten by some bone-faced guards. Not without a fight. What she didn'tprepare for was the most beautiful she-Wraith to appear from the top of the organic gangway, dressed in the whitest of garments. In that split second before Althea averted her eyes, she observed her with open awe. The hair that cascaded over her bare shoulders was the most brilliant crimson, matching the rare ice-red irises of her eyes. The slender curve of her neck was bare, free from any black tattoos. Small, graceful pieces of twine parted her hair from her face, giving the face a sharp look.
Wordlessly, the score of drones parted to let her face, each watching her slink past eyelessly. Before her, Lynex dropped to one knee, submissively lowering his gaze. Althea didn't need to be told; she would have done so even if Lynex hadn't been there. She felt her mouth go dry. She kneeled, suddenly petrified by her astounding beauty. She hadn't expected this at all. Her tongue was numb, her fingers trembling. It was the physical incarnation of splendor. It had been to long, far too long that Althea had been away from her. Her royalty, her superior. Her queen. She knelt just behind Lynex, eyes downcast and inside positively quaking before the aura of power and dangerousness the she-Wraith possessed. It was the same Queen as her childhood, the very same that she had seen Warrior walk with occasionally. Even from a distance, she had been glad she wasn't noticed. How Warrior managed to not bolt at the very sight of her had always been beyond her. And now, not five feet away, stood the very she-Wraith.
A hiss easily cut through a small afternoon breeze. The sun beat down in heatless rays.
"Are you the hunter from the Rite?"
Lynex answered from his kneeled position. His voice was confident and firm, but only Althea could detect the slimmest of nervousness. "Yes, my Queen."
"Are you the only?" the she-Wraith asked. Her voice was like the smoothest of velvets. It both soothed and repelled, and yet Althea's soul quivered in awe.
"Yes, my Queen. Our path's footing has been treacherous."
Althea could feel her eyes rest upon her. She braced herself for what she knew what was coming.
"And this human behind you, hunter; she is your prize?"
A prize. Something locked within her throat, making it hard to breathe. She? A prize?
"My Queen," Lynex muttered, "do you not recognize Little Dagger, ward of the First Leader?"
The stare upon her intensified. Althea kept her eyes glued to a fold in Lynex's leather, trusting herself only the shallowest of breaths.
"So she had survived all these years . . . this is the human he had brought all those years ago," said the Queen after a pause. Above her, Althea could image her cocking her head, as if to truly see her for the first time. "She had been brought along with the rest of the others and lived?" Surprise laced her voice.
"Yes, my Queen. She had faced and confronted the same perils I have," Lynex responded. His eyes flickered upward before returning to their original position. "She has proved herself as much as I."
At this the Queen gave a sharp snort, completely unfeminine compared to her willowy figure. Dismissively she growled, "Whether she has done what you have said she as done is beyond my concern."
"My Queen, I do not lie." The eyes flickered, then rested boldly upon the face of the she-Wraith. Lynex remained calm, almost cool. Althea felt a cry itch at her lips: No, Lynex! Do not defend me! but it was too late. The two Wraiths had made eye-contact. Her heart stopped. Only the highest of ranked Wraith may have eye-contact with the Queen; in Wraith society, the lower ranked one were, the lower they kept your gaze. Lynex hadn't even been officially listed as an adult yet. Only the most dire of punishments would await him now. Yet it wasn't a wrathful snarl that descended upon the kneeled Wraith, nor a lethal slash of the talons; for a moment, the she-Wraith actually chuckled, a low, burbling growl that gave Althea chills.
"As bold as the Leader. I will overlook this, young hunter, and maybe I will one day come to accept what you say." With a seamless movement, the she-Wraith bent and gripped Lynex's arm, forcing him to his feet. "Be hailed, hunter, and find welcome amongst the ranks. You may go. Your attire and quarters will be waiting."
With a curt bob of his head at these ritual words, Lynex moved aside and begun up the organic plank. Althea felt cold, as if the warmth of her blood had seeped away. Lynex, don't you leave me, she thought in fear. She raised her eyes, fixed on the retreating figure, so comforting and safe compared to the unknown dangers behind the red eyes. As if almost sensing her beseeching gaze upon him, Lynex looked over his shoulder. She caught the helpless expression on his face just before he disappeared from view. It was tradition; each returned hunter must face the Queen before allowed admittance back into the Hive. Lynex had done his part; Althea now had to do hers. The weight of the Queen's attention quickly torn her from Lynex.
"Why should I trust the word of the hunter," the she-Wraith hissed, "and believe that you have underwent the First Hunt?"
My Queen, if only you could know what I have been through, she thought.
"I am Little Dagger, my Queen, and I would never lie to you," she said. How Lynex had managed to keep his voice so confident was beyond her.
"I let you stay because I admire my First," the she-Wraith said. The drones looked on impassively. The sun beat overhead. "I had let him keep you, human. But was that wise?" The eyes rolled lazily in their sockets as the Queen began to circle around her. Althea kept her eyes locked to the ground, focusing on a little sliver of grass. It kept bobbing up and down, like a nodding head. She could tell that the Queen was inspecting her. The feeling was so unbearable. She moving towards her, to touch her. Althea let her, let her inspect her with her long, elegant claws. Trembling, Althea let her eyes travel over her, over her body, her deadly hands.
"I trust," she was saying, while toying with a ragged lock of hair, "his word. But you? You wear the clothes of humans—even your hair is theirs! You first must be of our folk to successfully undergo the First Hunt! You are clinging to ways not of your own," she dribbled. Her voice became sly. "You mouth our talk, mimic our ways. Look at yourself. You are human."
Something clenched deep within her, a primitive creature that slithered and writhed, like some great speckled nadder. It filled her with a hot coal of anger. She kept quiet out of respect, the respect and awe she could never loose for her Queen.
"You can escape," she growled, "here is your chance. Run through the Ring. Never come back, hie to the other human villages where you will live safe and long. Here is your chance . . . take it . . ."
The creature within Althea snarled a serpent's snarl; her spirit welled. Not caring for her own safety, the young woman looked straight at the she-Wraith. She had suffered too much, had sacrificed too much, had given too much to prove herself. She would not just abandon herself for freedom. She would not trade freedom for admiration, acceptance, and even love. Should she die here, upon the grasses for the consequences, then so be it. At least she would die in what she would believe in and not as a coward.
"Wraith I am and Wraith I will be, no matter who denies it," Althea said. She raised her head. "Would you be still a Wraith if some mischance cut off your ear? Your arm? If you were missing an eye? My shape may be wrong, but my heart's a Wraith's and I will fight any who deny it. I will not run. I will not escape, so you can keep your promises."
Her words rang out boldly across the clearing, the only thing to rebound against the ancient pines ringing the clearing and ships. One of the guards shifted, then fell still. She felt a flush of heat rise to her cheeks, but she continued to steadfastly look upon the Queen Wraith, terrified and thrilled at the same time, reckless and fearful. Lynex, I wish I could have told you I loved you, she thought wildly before turning her gaze from the impassive she-Wraith's face to the same blade of grass bobbing and waving in the wind. For a long, suspenseful moment, the Queen said nothing. All the drones were watching now.
Then, "The First Leader may have judged your spirit correctly, human, but I will retain judgment. You may enter the ranks as an adult,"— Althea felt the roots of her hair try to stiffen with shock: she was forgiven. She could become an adult— "but I will see what he has to say."
Althea's joyful somersaulting heart suddenly froze and slammed into her ribs. It suddenly hit her: she didn't know. Swallowing, the young woman felt her teeth with her tongue.
"My Queen, the Leader is dead. He was killed . . . in combat. He didn't make it."
Perhaps it was the first time that the she-Wraith realized he wasn't there. No, my Queen, Althea thought dully, feeling the rusty blade of heartache stab her again. He will never come back. Above, the she-Wraith stiffened. The pacing stopped short. A short intake of breath sliced through the air. Althea risked a glance at her Queen, half out of surprise and half out of apprehension. Something had happened. The aura of assuredness, of deadliness, had faltered for a split second. It was as if a candle's flame had flickered. For that split second of time, the young woman seemed a glimpse of something she had never felt from the Queen: confusion and shock. It was unsettling. It cast a crick of unease though Althea. It was out of this newness she had looked up, her eyes training upon the Wraith. For a moment, Althea made eye contact with her. What she saw made her tremble. The garnet eyes were filled with such alarm it took her aback. In fact, the she-Wraith seemed so confused that she didn't seem to notice Althea's gaze upon her. A hidden whip-poor-will sang once, sweet and liquid, then fell silent.
Suddenly, the she-Wraith leaned close to her face and unleashed a ferocious snarl, her features contorting. Althea fell back, thoughts of any sort of defense running dry in the face of the menace. She gazed, wide-eyed and trembling, before the Queen. Just as quickly as the attack happened, it ceased as, slit-eyed, the white-clothed Queen spun around on one heel and left Althea alone in the grass. She didn't look back once all the way up the gangway. As if by an unspoken command, all the Wraith guards followed suite, leaving Althea where she lay. Shaken from what she had witnessed and weak with relief, Althea felt no pressing need to get up. Instead, she remained where she sat, counting the panicky beats of her heart. That had been too close, Althea thought. The reaction had been totally unexpected, not to mention frightening. It was just as confusing as the flash of emotions she had seen on the Queen's face. Were they somehow tied?
Perhaps it was the first time Althea came to realize that she was now—officially—of adult rank. She could now don the dark leather of a full grown, could now have all the privileges that came with that age. She had survived the First Hunt and the Queen. The grasses filled the air with swishing, swaying in the rhythm of her heartbeat. For some reason she wished nothing else but to sit there, not trusting her legs to support her weight. All that she had suffered and had gone through was almost nothing compared to the Queen's questioning. Never had she felt so in the centre of attention, where survival depended on everything. One false misstep would have most certainly spelt out her death. Having skirted so nimbly a dangerous ground made Althea reflect on the final moments with the Queen. That look that she held when she learned of Warrior's death. Her reaction to it. At least she didn't hurt me, she thought. Althea climbed to her feet. She had to stick out an arm to steady herself. What a silly figure she must have cut, standing there alone and staring at nothing.
Nothing? No, not at nothing, but at herself. She stared at her deep-hued woolen shirt, her baggy, leather pants, her unslitted human palms and ragged, tawny hair. I did it, she thought, uncomprehending. It took a moment for the gravity of the situation to sink in. I did it. She managed it, despite everything, she had managed it. She looked high into the sky, realizing that she would live for another day, that she had survived one of the greatest challenges yet.
Althea hadn't put one foot into the Hive when suddenly Lynex appeared by her side. His pupils were dilated, but from the darkness of the interior of the ship or from excitement, she wasn't sure. All what she was positive of was that she was home, and by the gods it was good to be home.
"Hey, Lynex," Althea said, running her fingers through her short hair. She smiled up at him tiredly, weary beyond anything. What she would give for a rare slice of meat in her own bed.
"The Queen allowed you admittance," he said, his controlled voice thick with delight. Despite the dark speckled array of lights, Althea could clearly see his excitement and pleasure. Though she had never seen him like this, she knew enough about Wraith moods to recognize it when she saw it. It filled her belly like hot milk, comforting and welcomed.
"It wasn't easy, I'll tell you that," she said, allowing him a hint of what had passed. Though it wasn't tradition, nor written in blood or stone, it was something of an unspoken rule to not speak of what happened during rites or rituals, such as the First Hunt. A Wraith thing, Althea surmised. Wraith are almost unnaturally paranoid about their private lives, and especially about moments of high importance in their lives. Rarely will two Wraith confide about their lives' fulcrums. Lynex lowered his head while growling softly, sobering slightly. His eyes took on a softer light, though none of its fire was lost.
"I cannot begin to speak of how . . ." His words faltered, leaving him with a slightly foolish look on his face. He tugged a ragged lock of her hair shyly. His sharp talons brushed against her cheek lightly. A sudden fire consumed her at his touch. Althea shrugged, lifting one shoulder in a Wraith-like way of saying, I know. Too bad there was no motion to speak of she was feeling now; she couldn't put trust into words. Lynex growled deeply in the back of his throat, as of pleasure. Unable to help herself, she reached up and mimicked his motions, feeling a thin strip of white hair.
"How about we go change clothes?" Althea said, suddenly shy under the unabashed warmth of his gaze. It was so rare for a Wraith to express what they were feeling that it made her awkward, as if she was questioning why she could be graced with such intimate knowledge. "I think the Queen had said something about our quarters being ready for us . . ."
"All what you can think about is our garments, Little Dagger?" the Wraith said, shouldering her down the long, darkly-lit corridor. Cobwebs frosted the organic walls. Lights as thin as amberfly wings lit the passage. It smelt of cold, if the cold ever had a smell. Althea felt heat rise to her cheeks at Lynex's teasing tone but felt as if her tongue had suddenly fallen sluggish.
"Wasn't it you who spoke of it since we left the City?" she asked.
Lynex's response was a soft exhale of air. He continued down the corridor, Althea falling in step. When he made no other move to signal his desire to speak, Althea allowed her attention to range. She gazed attentively at the high-vaulted surroundings, taking in the height of the ceiling and the length of Lynex's stride. The floor was covered with a thin layer of sand, intermittently splashed with hues of yellow, red, and blue. Atlantis had no hues like this, she thought. They passed around a bend. It had been all solidly lit in Atlantis, with no variations. Not to mention they had windows. Plants. Bubbly statues that made funny guggling sounds and so mesmerizing to look at. Althea suddenly snorted to herself, guilty at her wandering thoughts. Atlantis was of the past. She was home. She had no reason to think of the City that had held them captive. It will pass, she thought, just like anything else. But unintentionally, she began to innocently compare Atlantis to her Hive ship. The organic walls to the steel and metal. The cobwebs to the stark cleanness. The heavy plod of the drones as they walked stoically past to the in-step tramp of the emotionless guards. The very darkness to the very light.
Lynex stopped in front of a set of membranous doors, following the contours of the them with his eyes. Althea frowned.
"Is this . . .?"
Lynex growled in affirmation, never taking his eyes off of them. He placed one long, slender hand before them and with a hiss, the doors opened. Pausing only for the barest of a second, Lynex strode inside, Althea a half-pace behind him. It took a moment for Althea to collect her thoughts enough to realize what this room was. Although she had never been in there before, she guessed this was the place to exchange the clothes of a half-grown to an adult's attire. It was a small room, simple and relatively bare; there was a small row of shelves where the clothes lay. There was a single Wraith present in the room, a heavily-tattooed creature with short, deft fingers. He looked up when Lynex and Althea entered, intent and shrewd. Lynex bared his teeth at him, half-friendly, half-savage. No words were exchanged; no words were needed. The only time people entered this room was to exchange their clothes that marked them as adolescents to the darker-tanned garments. There was another room for the simple maintenance of clothes, but Lynex wasn't just here to mend a scratch.
The smaller, stouter Wraith eyed Lynex with a sharp eye. He cocked his head this way and that for about half a minute, growling in his throat once and a while. Throughout it all, Lynex didn't move once, keeping his eyes fixated upon the other. Althea watched all from the corner of her eye, making sure she didn't break the concentration of the tattooed Wraith. Although she knew her adoptive peoples' customs and traditions, Warrior had failed to teach her most of the rituals that came with the Rite of Passage. It was making her unsettled. What if she did something wrong? What if she embarrassed herself—or worse, Lynex? Carefully, so not to draw attention to herself, she focused on Lynex's actions so she would have to repeat them. This was a fierce kin, and an ever fiercer way of life. The weak were oppressed with a vengeance, while the strong were obeyed. If she acted in any way with hesitation or confusion, she may be considered weak, and although she was a good fighter, she didn't stand a chance against a full grown Wraith without any extra weapons, which she didn't have at that moment.
With a guttural snort, the tattooed Wraith had seemed to have reached a conclusion with Lynex. He walked over to one of the shelves, his deft fingers opening drawers and pulling out things. Lynex took on an eager expression. He licked his thin, pale lips with his tongue. To Althea, he reminded her of a forest cat straining to get at a mouse. I will probably be the same, she thought, aware that she was laughing at Lynex. Why wasn't she as excited as she once was? One time it had been all what she could have dreamed about—and yet, here she was, waiting to receive the supplely tanned leather of an adult, and all she could think about what how amusing Lynex must have looked. Why? Maybe it was the fact Warrior wasn't there to see it. Her heart clenched. She had gone through so much over the course of the fateful two months. She now looked at the world in a broader, shrewder spectrum. She had grown up, but at a heavy price.
The unmistakable feeling of being watched wrenched Althea out of her musings. She looked up and saw that the tattooed Wraith was now walking toward her, yellow eyes narrowed and calculating. Lynex stood off a little ways, a mysterious black package now held within his fingers, alert and vigilant. Despite his watchfulness that was tinged with protectiveness, he made no move when the Wraith went right up close to Althea.
The Wraith was just a little taller then Althea, only making her rise the level of her eyes just a bit. Althea braced herself. She returned the Wraith's glare but sustained a confident air of assuredness that she didn't quite feel. She knew this drill well. Never break eye contact; sometimes it was caused disastrous effects if one didn't follow this simple rule. Wraith obey those who rank higher than them. Simple as that. The eyes narrowed further, the upper lip curling a bit. Althea narrowed hers as well. She knew this Wraith, though she had never seen him before, was aware of her presence in the clan. All Wraith knew. There was not a soul who didn't know of Warrior's ward, the little she-human named Little Dagger. She was no stranger to this ship.
"You know me," Althea said. She lowered her head, but not her eyes. "Grant me what is mine by right." How sure she must have sounded, how confident she must have cut. But oh, how her hands felt icy and her eyes, hot. She was used to her fearsome kin, there was no question. She could handle herself well amongst them. However, she was unsure of these rituals and the proper method of performing them. It was catching her off guard, making her on edge. Somewhere to her right, Lynex shifted his weight, eyes switching from the tattooed Wraith then back to her. Outside the door, a pair of guards trudged past.
"Hunter or pleasure?" the Wraith rasped, for once looking over her sturdy, lean build. His voice bubbled like an unpleasant-smelling potion. When he spoke at Althea, a thought skyrocketed through her mind in a space of seconds. She knew this. It was common knowledge, one that Warrior had taught long ago.
'There is two types of females, Little Dagger,' Warrior had said. 'One that serves her purpose as the pleasure and continuation of a male's line . . . or a female that hunts along side her fellow hunter. Since you are a female, it will be your choice."
'I can decide?' she had asked, wiggling with anticipation.
A strange expression had flitted across Warrior's face, one that little Althea had not discerned. He said dismissively, 'In time.'
Althea had seen them before, females clothed in delicate garments, free-flowing or forming to the shapely contours of their bodies. They were beautiful, breathtaking creatures, pale-skinned and sly-eyed. In Althea's clan, the tendency of the 'pleasuring' females, females who would join harems or just be free-roaming mates, was to wear seamless clothes and an ornament or two in the hair, which was always kept unbound. Although Althea had never stepped foot on another clan's Hive ship nor observed their females, she knew that the 'style' changed from clan to clan. In her clan, tattoos weren't common occurrences and many males held their hair in the traditional style of keeping long and loose. The delicate females formed the greater part of the female members. The huntresses, however, were rare. Althea hardly recalled ever seeing a female donned in the attire most full-grown hunting males wore. The she-Wraith who chose the path of a softer life didn't hunt; they ceased after their First Hunt. Huntresses kept up the fighting and training. Whether or not they were ever sought after for brood was outside Althea's knowledge. The answer was simple. She lifted her chin.
The Wraith hissed to himself, eyes flickering more sharply over her figure, as if taking in measurements. Then he turned away and headed toward the shelves where he had retrieved Lynex's own attire. Althea caught Lynex's black-green eye. He was wearing a strange expression on his face, another one that she had not seen before. It a mixture of concentration and something else. A guttural growl pulled her attention away from him. The short male had pulled away from the shelves and was heading toward a smaller, almost knee-high cabinet. He kneeled before it. He took something wrapped in a black fur out. Althea's blood suddenly quickened. Her curiosity stirred in her like a high-bred filly. How quick I was to laugh at Lynex, Althea thought, rueful. The hairs on her nape raised. Above her, the dragonfly-wingèd lights glowed yellow and red. She schooled her expression as the stout Wraith handed her the package. He gave her one last appraising look, a hint of contempt at her ragged woolen shirt and baggy pants, then turned away. Lynex gave a low cough, leading her through the doors. Gripping her soft-furred parcel, Althea followed, not at all unhappy that it was over. Are there other rituals I don't know about? she thought. She needed to sleep soon; her eyelids were stinging from the urge to fall into a dreamless state. I'll have to ask Lynex. The doors closed behind them, leaving Althea and Lynex standing alone in the empty hallway. All around them were the splashes of lights coming from the walls and the ceiling; Lynex was standing in a beam of red that made his hair look like it had been immersed in blood.
"We've done it, Little Dagger," he said, contented and satisfied for once. Althea suspected that if he would be killed right now, he would have died happily. Althea couldn't help but smile despite her tiredness. All the trials of the day had drained her.
"Yes, Lynex. We're back."
"Much more than that." Lynex stepped closer to her; now he was bathed in reddish-yellow, highlighting his long white hair. It was like amber sunlight. "We have survived against all odds."
"And now, I would like nothing better than to curl up between some furs and fall asleep," Althea said. She ran a hand through her hair. "Where are our quarters?"
Adults each had their own lair; adolescents shared 'apartments' or slept all in the same training area in the centre of the ship. She had slept in a small room annexed to Warrior's quarters before the First Hunt, but now that Warrior was dead, both rooms would be given to the next First Leader. As of that moment, Althea was without a quarter, and she didn't have the faintest idea of where to go next.
Lynex's eyes flickered once before growling, "Come with me." Without waiting to see if Althea would follow, he began to walk away down the long, winding corridor. Althea jogged to match his pace, his long stride outdistancing hers. When she fell in alongside, she noticed that he slowed his gait, as if considering her shorter stride.
They had fallen in a comfortable silence, not speaking as they climbed the branching staircases, crossed the endless passageways and made their way over hundred-feet drops across gaping, open areas on nothing more than narrow bridges used as cargo drop-offs. How Lynex knew where to go gave her a crick of surprise. It was almost as if he knew something she didn't. When she asked, Lynex only gave a snort. Secrets, Althea thought, finding it difficult to be indignant or irritated with Lynex. All Wraith had their secrets, she included. In fact, she couldn't imagine life without secrets. She shuddered. Did humans prize their secrecy as much as the Wraith-folk? She remembered the Athosian feast with the humans sharing as one, all a conversing, laughing mass. Nothing compared to the solitary of Wraith. Contrary to many beliefs, Wraith are not some tight-knit group, but are extremely solitary tolerating each others presence, only truly becoming the 'Hive' most people believe them to be during times of large-scale danger.
"Ly—" Althea began, fingering the fibrous ropes holding the package in her hands, only to stop and jerk around. It was a feeling too powerful to be ignored. She was being watched. There was no doubt. It felt like two twin arrows skewing the back of her head. Lynex continued walking for a few feet before noticing Althea wasn't following. His eye ridges drew together in concentration.
Althea didn't answer. Her eyes remained on the solitary figure alone on the third cargo drop-off above them. It was a she-Wraith, clothed in ethereal white and hair brilliantly crimson. The distance made her look like she had dunked her head in blood. It made Althea sick. Even from the great distance, she could still feel the sear of the Queen's eyes upon her. It felt as if something cold had wound its way around her stomach. Gooseflesh erupted under the tatty woolen shirt along her arms. Why was she just staring at me? she thought, guilty and anxious for no apparent reason. She felt as if she was being framed for a trespass she had not committed. Just stop looking at her, Althea thought. But try as she may, she couldn't tear her eyes away from the still, slender figure of the Queen. It was as if an invisible thread held them together, freezing her to the spot. A cool, slender-fingered hand gripped her upper shoulder. It startled her, causing her to tear her away from the Queen's eyes and found herself looking at Lynex. The black-green orbs dispelled the coldness within her.
"Little Dagger?" Lynex repeated, watching her face closely.
"Sorry. A little distracted," she said, confused and shaken. The Queen had been looking at her—why had she? Did she think I killed Warrior? The thought suddenly rose, traitorous and plausible. Her stomach tied itself in a knot, despite the severed eye-contact. "I just thought of something, that's all."
Lynex hesitated for only a moment before releasing his grip on her arm.
"You are tired, Little Dagger," he concluded at last. "Are you sure you're fine? You haven't eaten since this morning."
"Don't worry, Lynex, I am not that hungry." It was the truth; eating was the last thing on her mind, despite the fact that her belly had rumbled more than once in the room with the clothes. Something about the Queen's sudden appearance threw her off guard, making her interest in eating reach its lowest ebb in her entire personal history.
She gave him a light nudge. "You were taking me somewhere?"
" The quarters are this way. Not long now."
Althea shot one last uneasy look over her shoulder as Lynex began to walk away. She gave a sigh of relief. Her royalty wasn't there. I will have to watch myself, she thought as she realized she was falling behind. Her footsteps pattered lightly against the cold, slightly sandy ground of the long channel. In the background the raucous whine of the one-manned ships there could be heard.
Althea's mind was so preoccupied and tired that it felt like years before Lynex stopped in front of a small set of branching, organic doors. There were other, identical doors spread out along both sides of the corridor, with enough distance between them to fit an entire one-manned ship. This corridor seemed lighter and cleaner. It was also quiet down this wing, away from the regular footsteps of the drones and the occasional swift-walking Wraith.
"This is it – our quarters," Lynex said, letting his eyes wander over the doors approvingly. He splayed his long fingers for a second then let them rest easily by his side. He watched her reaction, drinking in the sight of her rove her eyes around the contours of the doors. Althea looked at him with a small frown on her face.
"How do you know this room is unoccupied?"
Lynex moved a shoulder slightly: a shrug? "I just know. I sense no one has used this one. It is unclaimed." He paused. He gave a low snort. Althea raised an eyebrow.
"What is it now?"
"Nothing. Just don't get too comfortable in these quarters, Little Dagger." Upon Althea's look of confusion and concentration, he gave a rumble of laughter touched with scorn, not at her, but at what he added: "These are quarters for the lowest-ranked adults. I trust we will move up in rank very soon." He smiled at her then, something Wraith hardly ever did in public. Then, his small fangs were less concealed as the warmness transformed into something more wolfish. Althea recognized it. She raised both eyebrows in amusement.
"Just rest well. I will meet you later." He turned to go, package held loosely to his side. Althea admired the length of his legs, the curve of his neck, the sleekness of his hair.
"Wait! Where are you going?" she called to him, suddenly shaken out of her thoughts. He was leaving her.
Lynex looked over his shoulder lazily. "To my own quarters. Mark me, Little Dagger, this will all change soon . . ."
Then he was gone, disappearing around a corner, his heady scent of autumn leaves and rosehips lingering behind. Althea continued to watch where he had walked, a small look of concentration crinkling her brow. She shook her head, as if to rid her of the clustered hair around her neck.
"I need rest," she muttered. "Days and days and days . . ." Exhaustion gripped at her with large, clumsy hands. The fur in her hands felt soothing and comforting, just as comforting as Lynex's presence. The doors hissed open, sounding like a disgruntled Wraith. The young woman walked through, scratching an arm distractedly, head craning all around as she took stock of her surroundings. It was a small room, bigger than what she had previously had with Warrior, but still small. There was a simple table on the far right side of the room; to the left, a small bed. To this Althea stumbled to, emotionally exhausted and physically fatigued. She carelessly placed her package of adult leather upon the small membranous table before quickly falling upon the bed, falling into a dreamless slumber the second her head touched the warm, graciously thick furs.