The Boy Who Touched Fire

*

Seventeen pieces of a star,

Seventeen pieces of a hope

Seventeen pieces of a world.

– Author unknown

*

The boy had no name, nor was he truly a boy—young man would have been more fitting, for at seventeen, he hardly could be called a child anymore. He could not think of himself as anything, however, but the boy with no name. He had never had a name, save “boy,” the term the barkeeps he occasionally worked for labelled him. Or worse, “sand eater,” a derogatory term for a person considered unintelligent.

     Of course, the boy was not unintelligent. He was brilliant, actually. But no one would ever see that, because of three things: he was an orphan, abandoned to the streets at the age of four—he only knew this because the kindly woman who had rescued him and taken him in had told him. He could not remember his parents. His memories began in the hut of the woman who cared for him until she died and the flies began to eat her and he fled to the streets, not knowing what else to do, being only seven years old.

     The second reason was because he had never had a chance to go to school. The rich boys went to school, while the boy with no name grubbed the streets for garbage scraps and begged for coins. Without school, what hope was there for learning? The boy with no name did own a single book. He had found it in a heap of discarded scraps. He didn’t know what it said, because he couldn’t read. But he tried to piece it together bit by bit every chance he got. Maybe, if he could teach himself to read, he could go to school.

     The third reason, was the condition.

     He didn’t know what else to call it, because no one knew what to call it. He’d been born with it, he supposed. It was why his parents had abandoned him, he supposed. The old woman had taken him to a shaman once, before she died. The man’s charms and potions had done nothing. Once, the boy with no name had attempted to go to a real doctor, scrounging up enough coins to pay the fee just to have the man tell him that he was a freak of nature and that nothing could be done.

     The boy with no name could feel nothing with his hands.

     He had sensation in every other part of his body, but his hands felt nothing. He could not experience what it was like to touch someone’s face, to pet a soft furry creature; he did not feel the prick of a needle, the cut of a knife, or the heat or coldness of an object. His first job had been to chop vegetables for a cook in a tavern, but he’d lost it when he severely cut his finger and didn’t notice until he had bled all over a guest’s meal. He lost his second kitchen job when he carried a scalding hot plate out and a nobleman had burnt his hands because he hadn’t realized the plate was hot. The third kitchen job went with a stack of dishes he failed to hold on to.

     After that, he tried other odd jobs, but his lack of feeling made most menial tasks too hard. He would always make some mistake, or injure himself on something sharp or hot, or drop something he couldn’t feel. Then it would be on to the next thing. This was part of the reason he wished to go to school. He believed, if he could learn, that he could find a job that would allow him to think rather than touch things.

     Otherwise, the boy with no name was also the boy with no hope.

     His current circumstances were working for a bar owner in a small desert oasis town. He had drifted here with a caravan he’d hired on with. He’d tried to explain his condition to the caravanners, saying he might seem a bit clumsy or slow at times, but that he really was quite intelligent. The first few mistakes he made, they laughed at, calling him “sand eater” and “oily fingers.” When he kept making mistakes, they abandoned him in this run-down little town with less than half the pay he’d been promised.

     He’d gone into the bar, intent on drinking his newest earnings away—he didn’t know why he was doing it; it was just something he’d seen older men do—but then he’d seen that the barkeep needed an assistant and he’d been hired. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t try to explain his “condition” to the man who’d hired him. It had never worked before. Better to just try his very hardest and hope he didn’t get fired. At least he might not endure as many insults about his physical disability if he didn’t let on about it.

     “You got a name, boy?” the barkeep had asked.

     He’d shaken his head. “Boy will do fine,” he had said demurely.

     That had been about three weeks ago, and so far, things had been going fine. Now it was night, and the boy with no name was waiting tables like he was supposed to, getting comments from half-drunk patrons on the random cuts and burn marks on his hands and arms. He avoided giving direct answers, as he had firmly decided to pretend the condition didn’t exist and hope he could keep up the imaginary life he’d created for himself here in this way stop in the desert.

     “You don’t suppose it’s that boy, do you?” one of the more drunk men, a ruffian with a thick beard asked his tablemate as the boy with no name passed by. “The one they talk about? The cursed one with no sense of touch?”

     The boy froze, shocked to hear his story in the mouths of others, shocked that he had become so famous in his little corner of the desert. He supposed he had, indeed, told his story to enough people in an attempt to earn sympathy or at least understanding that it might have spread. He just had never imagined he would be the talk of a couple drunks at a bar table three days journey from the area he’d spent most of his young life.

     “Well, boy, are you?” the bearded man’s companion, a wiry, clean-shaven fellow, asked.

     “Am I what, sir?” the boy with no name asked hesitantly, the pitcher of pelaf he carried shaking slightly in nervous hands. He’d wanted so badly to pretend to be ordinary here, had thought maybe it would change his life for the better. Now his secret was about to slip out.

     “Trying to be cute, boy?” the bearded one asked, taking a long draw on his pipe. “Now close your eyes and hold out your pretty little hand.”

     “Please, sir, I—”

     “Do as he says, boy,” the wiry man said, grinning, “Or we’ll tell your master we ain’t pleased with your service.”

     The boy swallowed and obeyed, closing his eyes and extending his hand, palm up. A moment later, he heard muted gasps from the two men. He opened his eyes and looked down. There, in his hand, was a pile of glowing pipe embers, red hot. His flesh was turning red and blistering, but he felt nothing.

     “It is true,” the bearded man said. “Damn well looks like a cursed child, don’t it?”

     The wiry man glanced warily at the boy with no name.

     “Please, no, I’m normal,” the boy said.

     “Normal? What kind of normal person don’t feel nothing?” the bearded one asked. “They say the Rashki don’t feel anything either.”

     “Please, please don’t say anything,” the boy begged, shaking the embers from his blistered hand before drawing any more attention.

     It was, however, too late.

     “We got some Rashki spawn over here!” the bearded man called.

     In moments, there was a crowd gathering around, and the barkeep shoved through.

     “What’s this?” he demanded, his voice its customary bellow.

     “You know you were harboring a demon spawn here?” the wiry man asked, pointing to the boy’s hand.

     “What the hell’s that?” the barkeep asked.

     “Nothing, sir, I—” the boy began.

     “He’s the one they talk about,” one of the patrons who had gathered to see what was happening said. “The one with no feeling in his hands. His parents died, I hear, and so did his elderly caretaker. Everywhere he goes, things go wrong. Downright unnatural, I’d say.”

     “I’m not cursed,” the boy explained, desperately trying to make his case before an audience he was rapidly losing to. “It’s just a skin condition.”

     “Never seen a skin condition that makes people not feel anything,” a middle-aged woman said, spitting.

     “Sure, there’s lepers,” another put in, “But they’ve got a wasting disease. Why, this boy was born with no sense of touch from what I hear, and look, not a mark on him but what he’s unintentionally inflicted on himself.”

     “He never gets infections neither, I hear,” the woman added.

     It was true; the boy couldn’t even begin to deny it. For all the burns, cuts, and injuries he sustained, he had never once had an infection, never once been sick. He had heard of lepers, with skin diseases that both damaged their flesh and made it so they could hardly feel anything, but all of them would get serious infections from injuries they took. The boy never once had.

     He looked at the barkeep and saw the man was quickly turning against him.

     “I won’t have no cursed child in my service,” he growled. “Come here, boy. Out with you!”

     “I’m not cursed!” the boy cried. But it was too late. In moments, the barkeep had grabbed his shirt collar and hauled him out of the tavern, tossing him in the sand.

     “Get out of here and stay away!” the man snarled.

     The boy knelt in the sand and cried. He didn’t know what else to do, honestly. His three-week dream of being anonymous and making things work had fallen apart. He should have told the barkeep his story from the beginning and hoped the man had been generous. He’d had no idea what a sinister reputation he’d developed. It was outrageous, but the weight of superstition was a heavy thing.

     And now what was he to do? It was unlikely he had any chance of employment in this town, and he had no money with which to leave it. Miserable and afraid, the boy continued to weep and felt ashamed of his own tears but couldn’t stop them.

     You should act like a man, he insisted to himself.

     But that was no use. The boy with no name could never be a man, not ever.

     “Well look at what we found,” a voice suddenly said.

     The boy whirled and looked up into the eyes of a young woman, perhaps a few years his senior. She had close-cropped hair, jagged edged and jet black. Eyes like coals looked out from rich brown skin. She was muscular and squat built, looking like a wrestler the boy had seen in one of those fighting pits. He thought she was rather stunning and realized he’d never thought that of a female before.

     Behind the young woman, there was an older woman, her black hair beginning to give way to silver, her tall, well-muscled frame more wiry than her younger counterpart. A huge, hulking man, two older men of similar builds, and a handful of others behind finished off the group.

     “Can it be?” the older woman asked. “The boy who touched fire and didn’t feel the flame?”

     The boy winced at that. It had been one of his latest attempts at finding work. He’d hired himself on to a traveling show, his act being touching real fire and not getting hurt. He’d received a lot burns for it, but he had managed to be fairly successful . . . until the crowd realized it wasn’t a trick and started calling him a demon.

     He sighed, resignedly nodding to the strangers who now stood over him like vultures around a carcass. Perhaps joining that show hadn’t been such a good idea—it had given him way too much attention. He probably had developed a good portion of his reputation from those shows.

     “Down on your luck, eh?” the older woman said.

     “Just moving on,” the boy replied, sticking his chin out a bit. He didn’t want to be cowed by these people, but he was also on the verge of crying.

     “That explains the boot print on your ass,” the younger woman snorted.

     The boy blushed furiously.

     “Enough, Tehla. Let’s not abuse the lad too much,” the older woman said. “I’m Qardia.”

     She touched her brow in a traditional greeting. The boy did the same but didn’t respond.

     “You got a name, kid?” Qardia asked.

     The boy hesitated, then shook his head. “Not that I know of,” he admitted.

     The ruffians glanced at each other with upraised eyebrows.

     “Well, let’s give you a name, then, since you’re going to be working with us.”

     The boy perked up a bit at that, but he also felt a wave of indignation. What did this woman mean he would be working with them? How dare she assume she could just tell him what he would be doing! And give him a name? He was not her pet dog! Yet, he also felt a thrill at the thought he would finally be called something other than “boy.”

     “What do you mean?” he finally asked in what sounded in his own ears like half interest, half submissively-phrased indignation.

     “I mean that we are embarking on a great adventure,” Qardia said, “One which we have already attempted and failed at, one for which we need a condition just such as yours. I’m calling you Ben’ha, by the way. It was the name of my son before he fell down a fissure in the earth and died.”

     The boy blinked in surprise, both at the flatness with which Qardia spoke of her son’s death and the notion that his condition would be of value to anyone.”

     “My hands?” he asked, holding them up.

     “Indeed,” Qardia said. “You see, we are treasure hunters, and we seek an item of exceeding rarity—a red jewel. We have discovered its location but have been met with a problem—to touch the item, one experiences a pain like the sensation of burning. It is all within the mind, but, nonetheless, it is agonizing to the point where neither I nor any of my companions could endure it long enough to remove it from its spot.”

     “Why not wear gloves, or something?” Ben’ha asked. He was surprised to already be thinking of himself by the name the woman had given him. His desire for an identity that mattered had been greater than he had realized.

     “We tried. It changes nothing. It is as if the crystal knows it is being handled by a human no matter how many layers we put between ourselves and it. You, however, might be able to touch it and not feel the pain, since you can’t feel anything else.”

     The prospect was intriguing to Ben’ha, but he had questions still. “How will it help you to have me retrieve it, though, if only I can handle it?”

     “We have hopes that its power is connected to its location, that there is some spell of protection around it. We believe if we can get it far enough away from the source of its defense, it will cease causing pain to those who hold it.”

     “And if not?”

     “We’ll deal with that when we have to, but the primary objective is getting it out of its resting place. So, what do you say? You’re fresh out of work, kid. You want a job?”

     “What will you give me for doing this?” Ben’ha asked.

     “A spot on the crew, a share of the profits—which are, I must add, considerable.” Qardia gave a slight shrug. “Honestly, what more could you want?”

     Ben’ha hesitated. This was a very sudden thing, and a part of him warned against rushing in. After all, he doubted anyone else had his strange condition, so it wasn’t as though they would jump on the next candidate in line. There was no line, Ben’ha was it. But the prospect of adventure, of having a place with someone, and of being able to use his weakness as a strength was too glorious to ignore. He found himself saying yes before he could even formulate the words to say no.

*

Hot desert days, weary with travel and blistering sun were followed by cold desert nights, shivering beneath meager blankets. Yet Ben’ha had never felt so free, so truly himself. He had been given a name by someone, and he had people now. He could not say that they were the best people, this ragtag band of treasure hunters who seemed little more than outlaws. Nevertheless, he belonged with them, at least in some small way.

     There were twelve, including Ben’ha. It was a small group but an efficient one. Qardia was a capable leader, Drenqo, a wiry man with squinting eyes her second in command. There was Mürg, a tank of a man who did most of the punching when the gang got in a scrap with another group—which was far from infrequent. There were Zida and Veneliha, sisters with a knack for thieving and bags full of strange charms. Then there were Haj, Meqam, Borhen, Divar, and Qeset, unremarkable men in many ways, but still fiercely loyal to the crew.

     And finally, there was Tehla. Tehla—a girl only a few years Ben’ha’s senior, who, despite her somewhat blocky features, had come to take up Ben’ha’s every dream and much of his waking thought. She was witty and clever, so much so that Ben’ha didn’t even take it personally when she directed most of her sarcasm and cruel humor at him. She was fierce and determined, and Ben’ha believed her capable of anything. She was as strong as most of the men, and twice as vulgar. In many ways, she was Ben’ha’s opposite. Somehow, he liked her all the more because of it.

     That she disliked him more than any other member of the group was evident, but it did nothing to dissuade him from his infatuation. Ben’ha was used to rejection and had gotten fairly good at accepting it. He decided to hold onto this dream for as long as he could and deal with the pain later.

     Ben’ha’s role within the group was pretty much nonexistent. He rode in the hauler pulled by one of their Splinterskiffs every day. At night, he would help where he could with setting up camp; however, his condition made it hard for him to do anything that required delicate touch. He found that a surprising number of things in the group required delicate touch. Since there was little he could do, Ben’ha would spend much of the night sitting away from the others, trying to read his book.

     One such night, he was surprised when Tehla plopped down beside him. “What you reading?” she asked in her straightforward way.

     Ben’ha blushed. “I can’t read,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying to learn the words in this book for years.”

     Tehla plucked it from his hand without ceremony. “Tell you what,” she said after a quick perusal of its contents, “I’ll teach you to read it if you touch my tit.”

     Ben’ha gaped at her. “What?” he asked.

     She grinned. “I got a bet with some of the others. They said you’d be too embarrassed. I said I could convince you otherwise.”

     Ben’ha swallowed. He’d never touched a girl before, not like that. Barely at all, actually. It was a strange idea, because he knew he wouldn’t feel anything even if he agreed to do it, but the very thought of placing a hand on a female’s breast . . . he felt his face grow warm and knew he was reddening all the more.

     Tehla laughed at him. “Come on, sounds like a fair trade to me. You get to touch a tit and learn to read. I win my bet and make some coin.”

     Ben’ha hesitated. He had some vague idea that touching Tehla would be bad, in a moral sense. He wasn’t sure how religious he was, not because he didn’t care, but because he didn’t know much about religion. He’d had few role models in his life for such things. Still, he knew he shouldn’t do it. He also knew it would lead to more heartache. If he touched her, he would probably be even more attached, and then her rejection would hurt more. But still . . . he could finally learn the secrets of his book, and touching Tehla’s breast wouldn’t be unpleasant.

     He pushed back his doubts. He was a man now, wasn’t he? Not some silly boy. This woman was offering to let him touch her, and by el’Ajyh, he would!

     “Fine. I will,” he said. “First, give me your oath you’ll teach me to read.”

     Tehla grinned wolfishly at him. “On my mother’s own soul,” she said.

     Then she started to undo her shirt.

     Ben’ha felt myriad sensations across his body as he watched. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, a few of the other crew members glancing their way and could hear a few coarse laughs break out. As Tehla untied the top of her blouse and started to pull it down, Ben’ha almost looked away in shame, but he forced himself to keep his eyes riveted on her. He wasn’t a child to be scared off by a bit of skin. Not anymore . . .

     “What’s going on here?”

     Qardia’s steely voice cut through the moment, slicing like a knife. Ben’ha drifted back to reality, and Tehla immediately stopped pulling down her shirt. She glanced up, a bit sheepishly, at the older crew leader.

     “Nothing. Just playing around,” she mumbled, diverting her gaze from the harsh look Qardia gave her. Ben’ha had never seen her so cowed before.

     “Well, stop it,” Qardia replied. “Pull your shirt up and quit teasing the lad. I didn’t hire you for your tits.”

     “Yes, crew leader,” Tehla said.

     “Now get the hell out of here.”

     Tehla nodded and shuffled back to the fire, where Mürg shoved her and let out a bellowing laugh. She swung at him with a fist, which he took to the jaw with barely a flinch before chucking her unceremoniously onto the sand.

     Qardia looked down at Ben’ha. “Don’t get too attached,” she warned him.

     Ben’ha looked away, shamefaced.

     “It’s not your fault, lad. She’s a problem, always has been. Just heed my advice. I know a moon-face when I see one, and you should just forget about her.”

     Ben’ha nodded, numbly.

     “Good. I promise you, boy, it’s for your own good.”

     Ben’ha nodded again, and Qardia walked away. He still felt the stinging warmth on his cheeks, still pictured the brief glimpse he’d gotten of rounded flesh, and still imagined what it would have been like to see more. He tried to get back into his book, to forget, to do as Qardia said. He knew she was right about Tehla; he was better off not being too attached. No amount of convincing could get him to feel the reality of that truth, nor to get him to try reading his book again.

*

Days turned to weeks as the crew traveled on. It was remarkable how far they had come searching for him, though it seemed they had not known of his existence until they got closer. They were deep into the desert now, wandering in a portion of the wilderness that was nearly uninhabited, save for by desert tribesmen and the occasional town of outlaws.

     It had been days since Ben’ha had so much as spoken a word to Tehla. She had become aloof since their encounter, mostly ignoring him, seeming ashamed every time he was around. It was a strange thing for her, given her normal brash personality. The night after the incident, Ben’ha had happened to see Qardia talking to Tehla. Their tones had been harsh, but Ben’ha hadn’t caught any of their words. When they happened to see that he had noticed them, their conversation stopped.

     It had been from that night on that Tehla could barely even look at Ben’ha.

     It saddened him. He had known, of course, that she was uninterested in him, save to torment him. Nonetheless, Ben’ha had held out some hope that she would come around to liking him, and they could at least be friends, if nothing more.

     Of course not, you idiot, he told himself. This is what Qardia warned you about!

     On the bright side, he had gotten closer with the other crew members, who were, more and more, welcoming him as one of them. They gave him stiff pelaf to drink at night, until he was light-headed, his face hot. Then they would all sing bawdy songs. One night, he danced around the fire with Veneliha. Though she was significantly older than him, he felt some of the same tingly feelings he had gotten being near Tehla, especially when she pressed close to him, her pelaf-soaked breath on his face.

     But the closer the crew got to Ben’ha, the farther Tehla seemed to drift away, until she no longer seemed part of the crew at all—a wisp, a ghost in the background of their nightly gatherings around the fire. And try though he might, friends though he made, Ben’ha couldn’t stop thinking of Tehla, so much so it drove him mad. The lack of her presence became so oppressive one night, that he left the fire and the singing and the pelaf and Veneliha straddling a drunk crew member, kissing him while the others laughed and cheered. He found the darkness at the edge of the camp, away from the eyes of the others, a small Splinter-powered lantern his only light, and he opened his book.

     “What you reading?” came the voice from the dark a few minutes later.

     Ben’ha looked up in surprise as Tehla crept out of the night and squatted beside him. She took the book and sat cross-legged with it next to him so that their knees touched.

     “I’ll teach you to read,” she said softly.

     Ben’ha stared at her, mouth gaping.

     “Don’t sit there looking like a fool,” Tehla said. “You want to learn to read?”

     “You mean it?”

     “Yes, I mean it, mule brain! Come on!”

     Tehla read the first page of the book to him. It turned out to be a religious book containing Ahavan scriptures, something that made Tehla laugh aloud, joking that she had tried to make him touch her tit in exchange for learning about God. Ben’ha laughed with her, and suddenly the fire and the pelaf and Veneliha’s wild behavior seemed less appealing. They sat together in the dark until late into the night, and by the time they went to bed, Ben’ha could read his first words.

*

“We’re here,” Qardia announced six days later when they came to a ridge of rock in the middle of the wild desert. They had seen no sign of human civilization in days, the place they were in so remote it may as well have been another world. It had been six wonderful days, each night spent around the fire with the crew but, once the carousing was winding down, Ben’ha would slip off to the edges of the camp, and Tehla would come sit with him and teach him to read more.

     He could now read the entire first page of his book. He had learned fast, so eager had he been to consume the words for so long. He devoured them voraciously, like a man starved for weeks in the desert, subsisting on stale crusts, put before a king’s banquet. Indeed, it felt much that way. The language he had known—only what he could speak—seemed but spoiled rations now that he could also read it.

     Tehla had demanded that he keep their nightly ritual a secret, especially from Qardia. “She wouldn’t be pleased,” Tehla had explained. “She doesn’t want me associating with you.”

     “But why not?” Ben’ha had asked. “You’re not teasing me anymore.”

     Tehla had been silent, refusing to explain. “Come now, read some more,” she had said when Ben’ha pressed her.

     So, he had, and now he felt as though, with a little help from Tehla, he could read the whole book.

     And now they had arrived at the place where Ben’ha would pick up the crystal no one else could touch, cementing his place in the crew. Then Qardia would warm up to he and Tehla being friends, and she could teach him to read even faster because they wouldn’t have to be so secret about it. The thought made Ben’ha smile.

     The place itself turned out to be a tiny fissure in the rock, so narrow that the largest of the crew couldn’t even squeeze through it. Qardia, Drenqo, Qeset, Tehla, Ben’ha, and the two sisters made their way into the narrow space. Ben’ha felt claustrophobia set in as he squeezed through the crack into the narrow space. It felt as though they would be squeezing through it forever, as if eventually they would simply get stuck between the shoulders of rock. He wondered how Tehla felt, since she was stouter built than he. She made no complaint, however, simply sucking in her breath and pushing through immediately in front of him.

     Qardia led the way, a splinter-powered glow rod held before her. Twice, they disturbed a few solitary bats, who flew through the fissure in a flapping whir of wings that nearly made Ben’ha cry out. Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the fissure ended, giving way to a more open corridor through the rock. The corridor sloped down, becoming an underground network of narrow tunnels.

     “Silence,” Qardia whispered fervently to the crew. “There are things in these tunnels that we do not wish to disturb.”

     That frightened Ben’ha all the more, but he had come too far to turn back. This was his chance at a better life, at having a place and a people, at being able to learn to read. No, he would stick it out, whatever might lurk in these tunnels.

     They crept through the dark, Qardia’s light forging the way ahead, the only luminance the group had. Ben’ha stuck close to Tehla, who kept a wary grip on the handle of her qedhir, the shorter bladed version of the traditional qedhan she preferred to use. They saw none of the creatures Qardia had warned of, though there were signs of them. Trails of dark ooze on some of walls, scratch marks on the tunnels’ sides. Ben’ha hoped they couldn’t see, because Qardia’s light seemed to him a beacon signaling a free and easy meal.

     When the passage curved and revealed a dull red glow ahead, Ben’ha feared they had found the beasts at last, but Qardia’s drawn breath was one of excitement, not fear. The glow resolved itself, in moments, into a crystal, a little larger than Ben’ha’s fist, implanted in the rock at the end of the tunnel.

     “That’s it,” Qardia whispered in his ear. “That’s the crystal we came for. Grab it and bring it to us, and you will have your reward.”

     Ben’ha could see now why it would have been nearly impossible for the crew to get the crystal out before. Carrying the glowing object in complete silence through the maze of tunnels and then squeezing through the fissure with it, all the while feeling as though your hands were on fire, seemed an extremely difficult task. Ben’ha only hoped the magic of the crystal wouldn’t find a way to repel him as well.

     The thought that he could come this far only to discover that the one thing his strange condition had seemed good for really wasn’t filled him with abject terror, but he forced down the fear and advanced. As he drew near the crystal, he could feel its warmth on his face, but as he reached out with his hands, there wasn’t even the slightest sensation in them. Emboldened, he grabbed hold of the crystal and pulled it free.

     Immediately, there was a tingling in the tips of his fingers, so shocking, so surreal, that he hurled the crystal from him with a stifled cry. It hit the stone floor of the corridor and clinked its way toward Qardia’s crew, who dodged out of its way, unwilling to touch it or even go near it.

     Ben’ha fell to his knees, staring in shock at his hands. He touched his face and, to his amazement, there was sensation in his fingertips and palms. Warmth and feeling where cold numbness had existed so long.
“I can feel,” he gasped softly, amazed. “I can feel!”

     Qardia stared at him, dumbfounded, then, slowly, bent and touched the crystal. Her hand reflexively jerked away, but then shock overcame her features, and she reached down and closed her hand around it, lifting it off the floor. She stood a moment, staring down at the object in her hand, then at Ben’ha.

     “Remarkable,” she breathed.

     Tehla stepped forward, her eyes filled with wonder. “You can feel?” she asked in amazement.

     “I can feel!” Ben’ha exclaimed, barely able to keep his voice low in his excitement. “I can feel!”

     He reached, and Tehla grabbed his hand, sharing his joy . . .

     Then cried out in pain and fell back.

     Veneliha rushed to her side and helped her up. “What happened?” she asked.

     “His hands are like . . . like fire,” Tehla breathed.

     The crew gathered around, reaching out toward Ben’ha. He touched them, recoiling in horror as each one reeled back in pain from his touch.

     Qardia looked down once again at the crystal, her face hardening. “Very well,” she said. “Let’s go. We’ve been here long enough and made enough noise. Let’s get out.”

     “What am I going to do?” Ben’ha asked desperately. His dream come true was swiftly becoming a nightmare. His hands had gained feeling only to imbibe the power of the crystal, the power to cause pain to any living thing he touched.

     “I don’t know what the hell you’re going to do,” Qardia said coldly, “But you’ve served your purpose with us, so you can find your own way.”

     “What? No! Take me with you!” Ben’ha begged, shock and betrayal quickly replaced with terror. They wouldn’t leave him here, would they?

     “You really think we’d keep you, boy?” Qardia demanded. “You’re useless. You were useless before when you couldn’t feel anything, and you’ll likely be even more useless now. You had one job, one purpose. You served it, and I thank you. God, you’ve made my life better than I could have imagined. Not only do we have the crystal, but it doesn’t burn anymore. That said, you’re worthless now. You’ll just take up space.”

     Ben’ha looked desperately at the other crew members, seeking sympathy, but he saw none, none save for Tehla, who looked at him with sad eyes. She had known, he realized. They all had. Qardia had warned him, she’d told him not to get too close. They’d treated him kindly with every intention of abandoning him once they got what they wanted.

     “I might have killed you, since you knew about the crystal,” Qardia admitted. “But now, I won’t have to. You won’t survive long anyway.”

     She nodded to Qeset, who, without warning, swung the iron bar he carried as a weapon into Ben’ha’s leg. Ben’ha screamed as the bone cracked, and he collapsed.

     “Quick!” Qardia snapped. “Let’s get out before the Qarzaq come.”

     “Please,” Ben’ha begged through tears of pain and fear and hurt. “Please don’t leave me.”

     Qardia ignored him, as did the sisters, and Drenqo and Qeset. Tehla hesitated, looking down at him as the others moved swiftly away.

     Qardia slapped her roughly. “Come on, girl! Now!”

     Then even Tehla turned and began to flee. Ben’ha tried desperately to follow, but he could barely move, his broken leg dragging on the ground, causing agony. The light of their glow rod and the crystal faded, and Ben’ha was left alone, in the dark.

     And the dark began to move.

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