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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 13

Written by circes_cup :: [Sunday, 12 February 2017 16:51] Last updated by :: [Monday, 13 February 2017 09:12]

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CHAPTER 13

=================

Howard stopped walking. A downed tree was blocking his path. It was low to the ground, only the height of Howard’s kneecaps, but its densely arranged branches formed a screen through which Howard could not step, particularly with his arms bound as they were.

Howard considered going around it, but the ground on either side was so waterlogged that it shimmered in the sun. One wrong step would put him up to his waist in mud.

The trunk was also narrow, only about the width of Howard’s leg, which made Howard wonder whether he might be able to move it.

He braced his lower back against it and pushed with his legs. Branches scraped and punctured his lower back as his thigh muscles screamed in pain. AAAARRRGH he shouted into the swamp. But it’s humid thickness of grey just swallowed the sound and made no reply.

Howard tried again – AAAAARRRRGH – but the tree did not move. He kicked it in frustration. His injured foot exploding in pain, but the most forceful of his kicks didn’t even remove any bark.

Howard collapsed, overwhelmed by frustration and shame. So upset was he by his failure, it took him several minutes to notice the deep indentations in the mud. They were tracks. But by their shape, they were not human ones.

=================

Julia and Sallan stopped walking. A downed tree was blocking their path. The trunk was perhaps as thick as her forearm was long, but the tree’s dense branches held it up at knee level and formed an impassable screen. The trunk was long, too: perhaps forty feet.

“I do not recommend trying to go around it,” Sallan said. “The mud can be unexpectedly deep.”

Without putting the truck down, Julia rested a foot on the trunk and tested its weight, rocking the huge cylinder of wood back and forth under her foot. “It’s five tons, give or take. Walking around it is a waste of time.”

Julia cocked her leg back, her muscles swelling into deep curvatures. She swung her leg forward in a swift kick. A BOOM echoed through the forest as the thick mass of the tree flew forward and to the side. The airborne trunk slammed into a stand of trees on the side of the road, shaking the forest with a CRACK. Branches and leaves rained down from above like confetti. If the tree had been larger, Julia would have had to put the truck down before dealing with it. But it was only five tons.

“I had forgotten how convenient it can be to have a woman along for these walks,” Sallan noted.

Julia brushed the twigs and leaves off Sallan’s head and shoulders, feeling a slight tingle whenever she touched his skin. Those glacial pools of blue … Julia found herself biting her lip to counteract the stupid warmth that was forming inside.

“So, what happened after you wrapped him in the bar?”

“Back at the bonfire were six – count it – six guys set aside for me. I don’t think I need to spell out what happened next.”

Sallan laughed. “They probably did not know what hit them.”

They didn’t, Julia knew. She could have relied solely on her own attractiveness, solely on the men’s own desire for her, but her superhuman endocrine system had not been taking any chances. Her body had carpet-bombed that beach with quantities of pheromones so great that the men lost all ability to speak or even walk. She had kept six manhoods at rigid attention for hours upon end, her superhuman muscles delivering a non-stop pounding that left her attendants gasping for air and fighting for consciousness. Whenever one of their minds crawled out of its orgasmic crater long enough to survey its surroundings, another pheromone bomb would go off, knocking the mind’s mental functions down again. By sunrise, a casual observer could have mistaken her attendants for battlefield casualties, strewn as they were across the sand.

“It was nice,” Julia concluded wistfully. “So wrong. But so nice.”

“I do not understand why you describe it as ‘wrong’.”

His confusion was genuine, Julia noticed. That alone felt like a small boon of forgiveness.

“On Earth generally, and certainly in my relationship with Howard, the physical act of sex is tied to the emotion of our love for each other. To touch another man would have felt like cheating on that love.”

“Would have felt – it sounds as though you are talking about the past. Has Nourishment changed you?”

Julia hesitated. She gazed into the endless, formless swamp for an answer, her emotions lost in a swamp of their own.

“I suspect it has,” he continued. “For a woman here, the presence of multiple sexual partners in her life is never an obstacle to deeper love for one man in particular, or a few of her men. You can have both love and pleasure. And you should, for the sake of your own well being. A Nourished woman in the prime of her life should be helping herself to at least two men a day, and each encounter should be providing her multiple orgasms.”

Julia’s old Earth instincts wanted to object. What about disease? Pregnancy? But she already knew the answers. So long as the Nourishment ran through her veins, her body would never suffer disease. It would conceive only when she wished it to. She could allow herself the pleasures of a man’s affection unburdened of normal human anxieties. No, it was the larger, more emotional aspect of infidelity that made Julia most uncomfortable.

Sallan did not seem aware of her unease. “You can choose to form a harem of men dedicated only to you, as my lover did. Or if you prefer more variety, you can keep your family small – just your main lover or husband, for example, and then have additional men visit your home to satisfy the cravings that your permanent partner cannot.”

Indeed the latter pattern was the one Julia had observed at Ruth’s household-- a husband that was ever present, but other men who came and went with each passing day. From the moment Julia had first noticed what Ruth was doing, it made her extremely uncomfortable. “It’s not natural to have more than one romantic partner,” she concluded.

“Look not to the nature of your Earth to judge what is natural here. Look to your own body. What feels natural to you now?”

Unbidden, Julia’s mind returned to the beach. Six men, in the prime of their sexuality, all dedicated solely to her pleasure. Orgasms so numerous she lost count. Julia felt her cheeks flush with heat. Her super-strong heart pumped with increasing might. No, there was no doubt what her body thought about this. But her mind knew better.

“It seems selfish,” Julia objected. “For me to be enjoying multiple partners while my boyfriend is dedicated only to me.”

“The men in your life will lack for nothing. You’re face is beautiful, and no man is capable of ignoring the feminine curves of your body. For almost any man you will meet here, intimate time with you is a dream come true. And of course, you will exceed his capacity for pleasure long before he exceeds yours. In fact, your body has nearly limitless capacity for the physical act. Your muscles will never tire, your skin will never chafe, your most intimate parts are dozens of times more sensitive than in your un-Nourished state. Your body was built for sex.”

Built for sex. Julia didn’t need the reminder. The warmth between her legs became an ache.

But before Julia could object further, a cracking sound announced that a tree was beginning to fall. Julia turned and peered through the underbrush. The sound was coming from the grove into which she had kicked the large trunk. She had kicked it with such force that its impact had broken several of the standing trees, which were beginning to topple.

Sallan continued, “If you really care about the men in your life, you must indulge yourself of everything your body desires. The scale of the power you wield is effortless to you, but terrifying to men. An offhand slap on the cheek can take his head off. A hug that’s a little bit too vigorous can snap his ribs like dry kindling. That which is thoughtless to you can be deadly to him. Your body must be at peace, so that your actions are free of unwanted aggression. We have a saying here: if you want your man to see his later years, then share your bed also with men still in their earlier ones.”

Julia could hardly restrain a laugh at the absurdity of it. But Sallan was unfazed.

“This isn’t just about sex. Be it rich and fatty food, the adrenaline of adventure and exertion, and yes, countless hours of romance – give your body what it craves and you will receive not only satisfaction, but also the peace and balance you need to make the best decisions and perform your best. Keep your body in balance and you will earn the respect of other women, to the betterment of your career and your place in society. Indulge yourself of everything your body desires. It isn’t selfish; it is your responsibility.”

Indulge yourself of everything your body desires. Ruth had said something similar inside the bonfire last night. Julia felt another surge of warmth inside of her. Nine or ten orgasms a day --- that’s what Mindy was averaging, Julia had recently learned. The promiscuity of the women here was breathtaking. She felt a warmth between her legs --breathtaking in a good way, her body seemed to respond.

But her mind continued to rebel. “It’s unfair, Sallan, for me to have many partners while he has only one. That’s the part that seems unnatural to me: the lack of fairness.”

“What could be more natural than a superior being assembling around her a harem of inferior beings to serve her needs?”

Julia shuddered with unwelcome warmth. “I’m not superior to him,” she protested.

“Your soul is not superior, but the rest of you is. You are superior not by virtue, but by design. You can deny it no more than you can deny the color of your hair or your eyes.”

His words tasted like the sweetest honey. She searched the cupboards of her mind for castor oil. “I bedded six man last night, Sallan. Isn’t that promiscuous enough?”

“Was it? Listen to what your body is telling you.”

She caught herself stealing a glance at Sallan – his healthy frame, his sturdy stride, the pleasant curvature of his ass. Her gaze settled on his facial features – placid and rugged, like a weather beaten escarpment of a mountain, hewn by a lifetime of unfettered love, and unfettered pain. Her heart gushed a waterfall of emotion into the deep glacial pools of his eyes.

He was right, she knew, the warmth in her building. Whatever pleasure she had enjoyed so far, it wasn’t enough.

=================

Having given up on moving the tree, Howard circled it gingerly, hoping to avoid the mud. He tried to pick solid places to step, but looks proved deceiving. With a SLURP, his leg sank into the mud up to his thigh. With some significant effort, he was able to extract himself. But when his leg emerged from the mud, his loosened boot came off. It was entombed in the mud.

Wearing only a sock on that foot, Howard struggled on, falling more than he cared to admit and more than once stepping in more mud. Finally, he came face to face with a thicket of thorns. The bush’s spines were larger and meaner than he seemed to remember from home. But Howard was not daunted. How bad could they be, he wondered?

Bad.

He felt sharp pricks on his face, his arms, his neck, even his legs. He held up a forearm to see several lines of red. His pant legs were sliced open. He looked more carefully at the thorns: they weren’t just pointy, but also shaped like blades. What sort of horrific plant was this?

Howard tried another step forward but the assault on his skin, and the bleeding, just got worse. He must have had dozens of cuts. Slowly, slowly, he retraced his steps, collapsing on the ground once he was free of the vicious thorns.

He took in his surroundings – the rustle of wind through the leaves. And then, there was another rustle, accompanied by a snapping of branches. Something was out there, moving.

=================

“You can see my place through the thicket there.” Sallan pointed, but he quickly withdrew his hand. “Damn bush,” he mumbled. Sallan held up his hand, sporting several painful lines of red.

Julia stared into the distance. A ramshackle structure with aluminum roof was largely obscured by the underbrush.

“There actually used to be a path straight from this part of the road to my place, but it’s covered with scimitar thorns these days. Better if we go around.”

“Scimitar thorns?”

“They cut just like blades.” The red on his hand had worsened.

Julia ran her thumb over one of the thorns, its sharp edge glinting in the sun. She squeezed it between her thumb and forefinger. The thorn collapsed. She squeezed another lengthwise, driving the point into the pad of her thumb. It dimpled her skin before snapping apart.

“Would you like there to be a path?” she asked.

“I don’t understand,” Sallan said.

“Good.” She put the truck on its wheels. “It’s nice to see someone else bewildered and confused for a change.”

Julia hoisted her mud-covered tank top over her head, allowing her magnificent breasts to wobble free. She slid her shorts down over her hips with equal speed, now fully naked. She heard the now-familiar thump-thumping of the nearby male heart as his body took account of her extreme feminine curves and robust musculature. The old Julia never would have stripped in front of a stranger like this. But the new one was free of fat, with tits to die for, and covered in thick slabs of muscle that could surely turn a local man’s knees to jelly. She had no reason to be bashful.

“Which do you want to carry – my clothes or the truck?”

He laughed. “I’ll take your clothes. I see plenty of my truck.”

“Follow me.”

Julia hoisted the truck back onto its handle and strode straight into the thorny thicket. Hundreds of scimitar thorns scraped against her body, but they did no harm. What had opened up Sallan’s skin in a line of blood felt to Julia like the quartz exfoliating scrub last night: abrasive in a pleasant way.

Holding the truck high to avoid damaging the paint, she moved through the thorns like a plow through snow. The tangle of plants bunched up in front of her, caught on each other, and went taught. A ripping sound filled the forest as her forward progress uprooted the bushes from their sturdy moorings. With her spare hand, Julia twirled her arm through some more of the thicket like she was making cotton candy, and then yanked it sideways, the blade-shaped thorns doing nothing to her as she decimated the plants.

A hundred yards later, they arrived at the clearing surrounding Sallan’s home.

He surveyed the path of destruction behind them. “That would have taken me all day, wearing canvas gear head to toe. And I still would have come out bloody. I am in your debt.”

She liked the sound of that – the idea that the delivery of this truck was not the end of her acquaintance with him. Julia put the truck back on its wheels and scraped the ruined thorns off her body.

“So, this is my estate,” Sallan announced.

His home was dilapidated wood board with a corrugated metal roof. That structure was neighbor to an outhouse and crude outdoor shower stall. His days of opulent living in the care of a Nourished woman were clearly behind him.

The man’s “estate” also featured a number of clotheslines, but they weren’t hanging clothes. Instead, Julia observed strings of seashells.

“What are those?”

“The shells? I make them into clothing and jewelry and sell them on the boardwalk. That’s what I use the truck for, collecting shells.” He ran a finger over them, and they clinked like wind chimes in the heavy air. “Most are just decorative. But these here – these small iridescent ones – they have mystical properties.”

Julia held one of the iridescent shells up to the sun and watched the play of its colors – oily reds and greens and blues. “What’s this one do?”

“It tells fortunes.”

=================

Bloodied, one foot bearing only mud for footwear, arms still pinned to his sides, Howard ventured far away from the trail in search of a path around the fallen tree and the thorns. The wetlands grew wetter, and soon he was hopscotching across pools of water, clumps of grass providing the only dry ground. A pond or an inlet opened up to his right, and Howard skirted along the edge of it.

Something rippled the surface of the pond. Howard took his eyes off his footing long enough to glance. He felt his foot slip, and was instantly thigh-deep in the mud. He struggled to extract himself, but with arms pinned to his sides, it was little use. Panic began to overtake him, and Howard had to force himself to control his thoughts.

His bag was still accessible to him, he noted. And he had a utility tool – knife, can opener, whatever – in his bag. Titanium in composition, it had seemed an expensive indulgence when Julia had bought it for him as a gift. Now, the quality of the tool might prove invaluable, Howard realized. He extracted the tool from his bag, the sun glistening off the steel casing as he rotated open the metal file.

He began sawing.

His muscles immediately felt the strain of the task. It would be slow going.

As metal dust filled his lap, the greys of dawn were slowly replaced by the wan light of morning. Howard’s wrist hurt. He blew the metal dust away from the notch he had created. It was less than an eighth of an inch deep. He kept sawing.

The slanted light of early morning gave way to the brighter sun of the day. His wrist screamed at him with ache and exhaustion. He blew the filings away. His heart sank at the sight. Perhaps he was a full eighth of an inch through, now?

Keep up your spirits, Howard told himself. Every bit of metal dust was a sign of his coming freedom, of taking back control of his own situation. He kept sawing.

=================

“Can it tell my fortune?” Julia asked, running a finger over the shell’s iridescence.

“No, only those of men. The colors seem random to you and me. But in the right hands, unseen truths reveal themselves.”

Sallan placed the necklace in her palms and folded her fingers over it. “Keep it. Give it to your Howard. Have him wear it at all times. String some small currency on the necklace as well. When he encounters a trained Teller, he can use the currency as payment to have his fortune read.”

“That is very kind.” Julia took the necklace gingerly in her hand. “Is fortune telling popular here?”

“Only among men. The women mostly think it is garbage. But they know that their men enjoy it, so they buy the shells mostly to humor their men.”

“Why don’t women get into it?”

“Most of you women are unable to accept the idea that nature may possess certain forces greater than your own.”

“Try me,” Julia said. “I’m addicted to a fruit that science can never understand, separated from home by a pile of magical caves, I weigh three times as much as I used to and can run twenty times faster than I used to. Nothing is weird to me, anymore.”

“In that case, you might enjoy this.” He pulled another necklace off the rack. “Wear it close to your skin.”

The shell was unlike anything she had seen before. It was shaped like a conch from Earth, about the size of an apricot. But its surface sparkled in the sunlight as if it were covered by a layer of diamonds as tiny as grains of sand. “Sallan, this is simply extraordinary. It’s so beautiful!”

“And rare. These clams live in the waters of only a few islands.”

Sallan had to stand on his tiptoes to get the necklace over her head. As he did so, the undersides of his arms brushed her nipples, sending an electric feeling throughout her body.

Julia felt the conch tumble into the cavern between her bare breasts, as if burrowing into a new home.

Even in the dark shadows between her breasts, the conch nonetheless sparkled, spreading bits of light across the walls of its bosom chamber. A strange feeling came over her chest, as if her heart was being probed.

“That shell brings us tidings of those we hold dearest. Close your eyes and let your thoughts settle on him.”

She did. She thought about the rebellious curls of his hair, the rebellious glint of his eye. She thought about the way she used to nestle into his chest when he hugged her, back when he was taller than her. The sensation of probing she felt earlier was replaced by a sensation of contentment.

“Open your eyes,” Sallan said.

She did. The dark shadows of her cleavage had been replaced by a golden glow.

“He is well,” Sallan explained.

Julia felt herself smiling as the relief spread through her. “Can the shell tell us where he is?”

“No, the shell senses only his emotions, not the specifics of his situation. But there is another way you can find him. To do it, you have to listen to your body more carefully than you have in the past.”

“I’m ready to try.”

=================

The muted, pleasant light of morning had been replaced by the bright, harsh light of noon. And his hands were shaking, numb with pain. He cleared the filings away with another puff of air. Howard had been at it for hours. Perhaps the notch had grown to a quarter inch?

Howard kept sawing, his spirits bright as the hot mid-day sun.

=================

“Close your eyes again,” Sallan instructed.

Julia sat cross-legged on a blanket that had been spread over the grassy ground. The cool damp air tickled her body and caused her nipples to scrunch themselves into small rocks. The deformed truck handle was in her hands. Sallan had replaced it with a new one, and had given her the old one so that she could have something to hold while she concentrated.

The handle was about four times as thick as the crowbar she had wrapped around her boyfriend, and composed of higher-grade steel. Her fingers tore it apart with absent-minded nervous energy. The metal separated like dough under the force of the muscles of her hand – small, but superhuman.

“Take a deep breath and tell me what you smell.”

Julia inhaled deeply, and heard the man’s own breath falter at the upward swell of her bosom. She found that she enjoyed having an effect on him. “I smell a steel handle,” she said, folding it in half again between her thumb and forefinger.

“Very funny.”

“I smell lots of things. The swamp water. Trees. The moist earth. You,” She heard his heart thump a bit louder. The sound pleased her.

Sallan, however, was undeterred. “Deepen your concentration. What else do you smell?”

“The oil of the truck. The salt on the seashells. The jute you use for the cords. The aluminum sheets that cover your roof.”

“Go further still.”

“Two animals. I can smell the wetness of their fur.”

“Wild boar. They’re usually in a burrow, a half mile away.”

Julia’s eyes sprang open. “A half mile? My sense of smell is that sensitive?”

“Close your eyes again. Go further. Do you smell Howard?”

“No.”

“You should be able to pick up something. However faint.”

“In this huge swamp?” Eyes still closed, Julia tore at the ball of steel with nervous energy, her fingers ripping the metal apart with their gargantuan force. But she could not detect a trace of her boyfriend.

“Nourishment is not the product of human manufacturing.” His voice was soft and close. “It is the fruit of a tree that grows in the wild.”

She could feel the warmth of his body only a few feet away, and found herself wanting him even closer. In the blackness of her closed eyelids, she heard him speak again.

“Like the fruit, your body is a product not of civilization but of nature. Your abilities, although they may be useful in civilized life, are best thought of as adaptations to the demands of the wild. You must consume far more food than an un-Nourished, and consequently, you are designed for the hunt – to move easily across great distances in search of game, detect the presence of game with your enhanced senses, outsmart it, run it down with your greater speed, kill it with your greater strength. You are the apex predator.”

Apex predator. Sallan talked about her in ways that Howard never would. He was comfortable with her power. He even admired it! What was more, he had made her more comfortable with herself-- and her hankerings. She felt her resistance to this strange culture slipping.

“If you cannot detect him out here, then something is clouding your abilities. Something is distracting your body.”

The sweet timbre of his voice brought more warmth to Julia’s insides. My new body hungers for touch in ways the old one never would, Julia knew. Howard would not understand. But then again, he doesn’t have to.

He doesn’t even need to know.

“You must listen to your body,” Sallan persisted. “Think of your body as a machine: in order to make it operate at peak performance, it must be well fueled and well maintained. Only you can do that. Discover whatever is disrupting your balance and address it.”

Julia opened her eyes to see the glacial pools of his eyes gazing back at her. The skin of his face was weathered like the surface of an ancient mountain, rich with age and wisdom. His neck was scarred where the tattoo of his former Claim had been removed-- an outward sign of the inward pain, of a lifelong love now lost to him.

“Have you identified what your body is yearning for?”

A chill of expectation formed goosebumps on her skin.

“Yes, I have.”

=================

Another thirty minutes of sawing left his wrist and arm muscles dying in pain, and he had to stop.

His legs settled further into their muddy confines with a GLUG sound as he sunk in down to the hips. Howard wondered what would happen to him if he proved unable to get out of this bar. Would he wind up going under, drowning in mud? Or just sitting here, with no food and rancid water, wasting away?

He didn’t want to know the answer. He had no choice but to get out of this bar. Maybe I could pry it open, he thought? He strained his arms outwardly against the metal, hoping to pry the closed circle into a “C”. The bar dug painfully into his arms. But it did not deform in the slightest. He tried again, the exertion of his efforts bringing redness to his face and sweat to his temple. Nothing.

Howard sawed at the bar with unabated fury now. He hacked away at it violently, sometimes getting the saw in the notch, other times missing. With a wild grunt, he sawed with all his might.

The bar slipped, and his left hand stung with pain. It was a deep gash, a line of red that formed quickly. He cursed himself for losing control. It hurt like hell, but Howard did not pause. The longer he was stuck in mud, the more dangerous these wounds would become. His exhausted muscles went back to the sawing.

=================

She didn’t need to ask. Julia knew she was beautiful to him. She simply grabbed a handful of the blanket on which he sat and dragged him toward her. On instinct, he raised his hands for balance, palms out. Her body rose, as if filled with helium, filling his hands with the tips of her breasts. The tips, of course, were all that his hands could manage, his palms barely wider than her magnificent aureoles.

He kissed her gently at first, then with more passionate force. His lips tasted sweet to her. Even sweeter was the easy confidence she now felt with him.

“Take your clothes off,” she ordered. “Before I rip them off.”

He obeyed with the practiced assurance of a man who knew his place. The unbuttoning of his shirt revealed him to be trim, the leathery texture of his skin somehow reminding her less of his age and more of his experience, which only added to his sexiness. The removal of his pants revealed a manhood that a young guy half his age would have killed for – twelve inches of studliness, and a thickness to match. He was larger than Benjamin, and positively dwarfed Howard. Julia’s old body would have been fearful of the discomfort that such a size might cause her. But her new one knew no such fear. In fact, her body became flush with anticipation of having such an impressive organ inside of her.

She took his heft in her shaking hands. “You’re huge,” she said with admiration.

“It took years of work,” he replied. “I grow smaller with every year that she is gone.”

Julia did not understand what that meant. And she didn’t care. Sallan had settled into a kneeling position, butt on his ankles. Julia mounted him easily, her hungry womanhood dripping with readiness. She took him into her as slowly as she could bear, inch after delightful inch.

When her enhanced clitoris nestled into his pubic hair and compressed itself against his pubic bone, the skies seemed almost to open.

It was the first of eight orgasms he would give her.

=================

The yellow heat of the early afternoon sun now blanketed Howard’s body. Howard went at it with renewed fury, grunting with the effort. The bar restricted his breathing, digging into his ribs as he tried to breathe. The motions of his hand were wild and unsteady as he hacked away at the metal.

The file slipped again, and the momentum of his arm threw him off balance. He slid a few inches further into the mud.

Then, he saw something swish in the water.

=================

Julia dozed off for the first time in days, post-coital happiness sloshing around inside of her like the warm water of a bath.

The sex had felt entirely natural to her. Not a betrayal of Howard, but rather a testament to the power of affection, a reminder of how much greater her love for Howard could be if it was supplemented by his touch. She knew that this perspective on sex was brought on by the changes in her body – that the new Julia felt differently about this act than the old one. But the bodily origins of of her feelings did not matter to her. She felt how she felt.

Julia awoke to the sounds of a rustling in the bushes. And it wasn’t coming from Sallan. He had spooned into her, pressing his back into her chest, and had pulled her thick arm over him like a protective blanket. His breathing was erratic, and his skin clammy.

“What’s wrong?” Julia asked even as her elevated senses began to detect unusual sounds, unusual smells.

“Shadow lizard,” Sallan whispered. “There’s a nest of them around here. This one is only fifteen feet long, but they grow to twenty, and hundreds of pounds. A guy like me would be only one of the meals they eat every day.”

She watched the creature stomp out of the underbrush and begin to circle, assessing them with malevolent eyes.

“If I were here alone, my life would be in danger right now. “ He pulled the woman’s arm, as thick as his leg, more tightly around him. “But a shadow lizard wouldn’t touch me with you here.”

She flexed her bicep slightly, not so dramatically as to crush his ribcage, but just enough to reassure him of the scale of muscular firepower that protected him. She heard his breathing steady, felt his skin warm. Julia felt a warmth in her chest, too, at the knowledge that she could so easily settle his nerves. The creature circled them with growing agitation, but did not let it bother her. She could tear the animal in half if she needed to.

“Tell me why a man like you is all alone out here in the swamp, hiding from lizards, scraping by selling seashells at the boardwalk. That’s a far cry from being a rich woman’s … what did you call it?”

“Majordomo.” He rotated onto his back so that he could look at her as he answered. His fingers danced down the auburn rivers of her hair. “And she was more than rich; she was accomplished in many ways. I would have served her to the end of my days – if the end of hers had not come first.”

“I’m sorry.” Julia was embarrassed.

“It is no matter. Someone had to be her last Majordomo.”

His fingers left the river of her hair and began outlining the large, rounded promontory of her breast. “In the absence of her wealth, my life is quite meager. And in the absence of her assistance, basic tasks can be much harder. For that reason, I am deeply grateful about the truck.”

“And I’m deeply grateful about the fuck. And the advice. So we’re even.”

Sallan began to laugh, but was cut off by a loud hiss from the lizard. It was circling closer now, a menacing look in its eyes.

“That lizard is annoying me,” she whispered to him. “Would you like me to kill it?”

Sallan did not answer, clearly reluctant to inconvenience a woman. But she could easily tell what he wanted.

Propping herself up with one arm, she grabbed a fist-sized rock with the other, and hurled it. Her arm blurred with speed and the rock flew through the air with a HOFF sound. There was a wet CRACK from the direction of the lizard, and a fine cloud of pink sprayed into the air. The life went out of its legs, its body collapsing to the ground. She had blown its head off, the projectile moving with the speed of a cannon shot.

“We are no longer even,” Sallan said. “Once again, I am very much in your debt. The blood of the lizard, once spilled, will warn other shadow lizards not to approach. You’ve made my home a safe place for many months. I can even sell the blood to other men to spread near their homes, the profit from which will pay the bills for a long while.”

Yet again Julia was stunned by the degree to which an action that was so casual for her could be life-changing for a man. Julia settled back onto the ground and pulled him close. She contracted one arm, the bicep balling so greatly that it became a pillow for her head.

“I still don’t get it,” she said, fingering a shell that hung around Sallan’s neck. “Why would a man with your experience resign himself to a meager existence in the swamp, living in fear of alligators, or lizards or truck-eating mud. Surely you could find another woman who needs a majordomo?”

“I could, but I’m picky. After having served a great woman, I have no interest in joining the household of some twenty-two-year-old who still has much to learn. If I cannot join with someone who is great – mature, and one-of-a-kind – then I do not want to be joined at all.”

Julia traced a finger over the leathery dignity of his cheekbones.

“But the other reason I’m here, I suppose, is a belief in the shells themselves: they aren’t just a business, but a window into my own destiny.” Sallan grasped the small conch shell that adorned his own neck. “The Teller says that, for me, this swamp a bridge between two mountains. I take that to mean that my time here is a transition from the great life I used to another role that is equally great.”

“And so, is that what you are doing out here? Searching for the next chapter of your life?”

“No, not searching. The Teller said it would come to me.”

=================

Howard peered into the dank gloom of the swamp. Maybe it was his imagination.

The water rippled again.

He tried to slide away, but his feet only dug a deeper hole in the mud.

The ripples separated themselves to reveal a broad, log-like shape, covered in reptilian scales.

A crocodile, Howard realized. Or this world’s equivalent of it, swimming just underneath the surface of the water.

The ripples of in the pond distorted themselves. The creature was turning, toward him.

The tips of Howard’s fingers went cold.

=================

Julia rolled onto her back, enjoying how Sallan’s eyes followed her body as it turned. She felt her breasts slip from their usual teardrop shape to two skyward-pointing peaks. When she caught him staring, he bashfully directed his gaze into the distance. “Thinking about your fortune?” she teased. “That you were living life between two great mountains?”

“The Nourishment was kind to you,” he admitted, returning his gaze to the two slopes of the Julia Massif. “Can you detect Howard, now?”

Julia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. To her uncluttered mind, swamp was far richer with smells than it had been earlier. And something familiar was indeed part of that richness: Howard. “Yes, his scent is faint but clear.”

“Perhaps he brushed against a tree as he was walking. Or fell on the ground. Or a droplet of sweat landed on a branch. You should be able to pick that up.”

“From what distance?”

“Eight, nine, ten miles away.”

Julia stretched in post-coital bliss, these seemingly continual reminders of her body’s superhuman magnificence only adding to the happy warmth she felt. “Howard is wasting his time running away, isn’t he?”

“Only a fool thinks they can elude the Nourished.”

“That’s what makes me nervous about him. Back home, his determination was what made him successful. Here, it becomes just stubbornness, and it could get him hurt.”

Sallan laced his fingers over one breast and propped his chin on top. “Tell me about how you two met.”

“He told me I was an awful gardener,” Julia laughed. “I was living in a rental property, so I shouldn’t even have cared. But I got on this kick that I was going to get my shit together, and that somehow led to me being out in front of my place trying to create the perfect garden in an afternoon. Howard came by on an evening jog and saw me there.”

“Was he a neighbor?”

“No, that’s just the thing. The houses in his neighborhood were a lot bigger than mine, and he owned his. He lived a number of miles away, but the guy would go out and run eight miles between the end of his workday and dinner. For a guy, that’s more than an hour. That’s just the sort of guy he is – full of determination. And he gets results.”

“So, what did he do?”

“I’m sitting there trying to save my roses from dying and he says that I am doing it all wrong. The roots are being strangled, the mulch shouldn’t be touching the stalks, they need to be pruned way back, blah blah blah. I teased him that he could come and help me if he wanted to. And he actually took the earbuds out of his ears, got down on his knees and started clearing the mulch away. It made me giggle – this guy who was cut and healthy and could have had any woman in the world. And here I was, emotionally in the dumps, not that attractive to be frank, and yet my gardening was so bad that he couldn’t resist helping me.”

“What do you think attracted him to you?”

“The fact that I let him help me, that I recognized his lecture on the proper way to mulch roses as something he needed to do more than something I needed to hear. And he was right. When I moved out eight weeks later, the roses were doing great.”

Julia paused. There was an odd, anxious warmth in her chest that had not been there before. She shook it off.

“At first, I would sometimes call him Green Thumb. But that never quite fit. So my nickname for him gradually morphed into the Man With the Golden Thumb. It’s a play on an old movie title – a spy movie where the hero is sexy and sophisticated and can do anything. And that’s how Howard was for me. He made me feel looked-after, and safe.” Julia held an arm skyward and ran a finger over her twenty-two-inch bicep, watching her digit ascend the thick mound of muscle enhanced to five hundred times the strength of Howard’s. “At least, he used to make me feel safe.”

She rolled back onto her side, the gap between her voluminous breasts closing around her conch pendant like a book around a bookmark. “I’m missing him more than ever. After talking to you, I’m realizing that so much of my anger at him was really just anger at myself – at the pressure I was putting on myself to leave before I was ready, at the pressure I was putting on myself to be celibate in a body that would not tolerate it. I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him.”

Sallan nodded briefly, but then his brows furrowed. “Something isn’t right.”

He slid a hand between her breasts and tried to separate them by raising the top breast a bit. But his angle was poor, and of course, each of her breasts was easily twenty pounds. Julia rolled away from him slightly, re-opening the valley between her breasts and allowing the conch pendant to tumble free.

It was glowing again, but this time, a different color.

“Go to him quickly now. He’s in trouble.”

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