The LaPorte Caves – Revised – Ch 12-14 – In and Out of the Swamp
Written by circes_cup :: [Saturday, 18 April 2020 23:29] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 31 May 2020 21:23]
INTO AND OUT OF THE SWAMP
A wrong turn in a Kentucky cave dropped Howard and his girlfriend Julia into an alien world – a world run by amazon women whose supernatural strength was derived from a mysterious drink called Nourishment. Julia had promised Howard that she would refrain from touching the transformative elixir, but she later broke that promise: quickly became a four-hundred-pound woman, two heads taller than her boyfriend, hundreds of times as strong, and beautiful. She began to develop second thoughts about returning to Earth, much to the distress of Howard. Meanwhile, her enhanced libido raged, sexual urges wracking her body and her mind. Conflict between the lovers ensued, until Julia lost control of her temper. She bound her boyfriend to a post with an iron bar and then went away to satiate her pent-up sexual desire, the joys and the needs of her new body having, for a time at least, supplanted her romantic commitment to Howard.
This story contains adult sexual content. If you are not of age to read this stuff, don't. No resemblance between these characters and real people on Earth is implied or intended.
Think, Howard! Think!
He couldn't. Emotion overwhelmed him as he watched his girlfriend's hulking form recede into the coastal haze. The disappointment of being marooned in this world was almost too much to bear. His breaths came in deep gulps, each spasm of his ribcage digging the iron bar more painfully into his side.
Acting purely on instinct, Howard found himself suddenly fighting for his freedom. He thrust his torso forward, testing the firmness of the drainpipe to which the bar was attached. BAM. His chest smarted in pain, but wait – yes, there was a little bit of give.
UUUGGHGGGHH. Howard slammed his torso forward again – BAM – and felt the pipe give a little bit more. UUGGGH. After several more tries, POP. He felt the thing give way: the junction of two pipe segments, located about four feet off the ground, had come apart. With his feet tucked beneath his butt, Howard slowly lifted himself up, wiggling back and forth until he was finally free of the pipe. The bar was still wrapped around him, producing a straight-jacket effect that kept his upper arms pinned to his sides. But he could deal with that later, after getting away from the house.
Propping his face against the side of the shed for balance, Howard slowly struggled to his feet. Then, he ran out into the darkness, as fast as he could. A few miles, that was all he needed – just get out of sight long enough to get the damn bar off of him and make a plan. What sort of plan? He had no idea. He would improvise. He would do whatever he needed to get away from the women who wanted to subordinate him, to rob him of his old life.
With the bar pinning his arms to his sides, running was more complicated than Howard had expected. He couldn't move his arms up and down, as a runner normally would. And without the stabilizing effect of that motion, his torso jerked back and forth with every stride. He fell more than once, slamming into the earth without the use of his arms to brace against the impact, and then having to struggle back to his feet. Only the swamp heard his grunts of pain.
But he was free, the master of his own fate, Howard told himself. And there was no other way to live, was there?
"Think, Julia! Think!" she hissed to herself as she once again surveyed the environs of the broken drainpipe.
Howard was gone. Not in the house, not on the beach – he had fled the area entirely.
What the hell have I done, Julia fumed silently? The carefree cavorting of the prior night felt like it had occurred in another lifetime. She slid the night’s flirty clothes off her body and replaced them with short-cropped denim and a practical bikini top. An UnClaimed man, wandering around the backwoods on his own – an unscrupulous woman could decide to keep him for herself, or just play with him a bit. No longer overwhelmed with unsated sexual need, she saw the situation with far more perspective than her body had previously allowed. The possibilities of what could happen to him out there made her shudder.
As the pink hues of dawn crept over the horizon, she set off on a brisk walk down the path along the beach houses, looking and listening for any sign of him. Each house was complemented by a large rack on which hung sea kayaks, ladies' swimming fins, and late-model cars. Some houses were pulled closer to the water, but some were sitting on their permanent footings further inland, unoccupied for the weekend. Those empty houses offered plenty of places for Howard to hide.
But something – an instinct, perhaps – told her that Howard wasn't here. Her feet wanted to follow the off-road trails, ones that lead further inland.
And so she did. The fresh and salty smell of the ocean gave way to the dankness of a swamp. The WHOOSH-WHOOSH of the waves receded behind her and was replaced by a chorus of insect noises. There were houses here, too. But the structures were smaller and older. On some, the paint had peeled. On others, a tarp had been spread across a faulty roof, or cardboard had been inserted where window glass had been. Cars – mostly decrepit – rested not on racks but on their wheels. This is where the UnClaimed live, Julia knew – men who don't have a woman to provide for them.
She saw a man making his way slowly down a dirt road. He walked with a severe, Quasimodo-like gait, his limbs unsteady.
“Have you seen a man wandering through here, youngish, with a…” Julia hesitated, embarrassed at what she had done. “… with a bar wrapped around him?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t see much anymore.”
It was only then that Julia noticed his glassy, unfocused eyes. She surveyed his broken body. “How did all this damage happen to you?”
Julia surprised herself with the degree she had assimilated the local attitudes. What would have been a discourteous question on Earth was normal in the Weald. Women need not concern themselves with offending a mere man.
“Some of it is age and neglect,” the man rasped. “But this…” he thumped his back “… just a couple of girls experimenting, having fun. Who can blame them? They were young.”
This is what Howard is running away from, Julia realized as she resumed her search: living in a broken house with a broken body. I’ve tried to reassure him that it will be only a few months, that I will protect him as long as we are here. But he must wonder what would happen to him if I grew tired of our relationship. And the argument we had last night could have been no reassurance. If I were him, she realized, perhaps I would have been terrified, too.
As Julia walked, the path thinned and at times even disappeared. Large clouds of vapor issued from the water wherever it was touched by the rising sun, creating a thick grey screen on either side of the path.
You mistreated him, Julia admitted to herself. Puppetmaster was never a threat to you. The fact that he went for it was, more than anything, a sign of his desperation. At heart, he is actually a kind and noble soul – a man who jumped at a chance to help the beleaguered pre-Nourishment Julia back on Earth, the man who refused to take a swing at her out of some deep, Quixotic sense of chivalry.
No, the real reason you got angry at him wasn’t any misdeed of his. It was because you wanted to stay. And you wanted him to want the same thing. And he didn’t.
Julia stared into the fog. Her vision extended beyond the male range of the electromagnetic spectrum into infrared and other types of light. But even so, the fog was thick, refusing to give up its secrets. She wished for a horizon line – for something against which she could orient herself. What was normal in a relationship where staying meant incredible sacrifices for him and going meant incredible sacrifices for her? What was normal in a relationship in which one member had a superhuman sexual appetite, and the other had no ability to satisfy it on his own? The fog, grey and formless, had no answers.
She called out to Howard, repeatedly, for an hour. Her supernaturally powerful voice boomed across the swamp like cannon fire. But the massive sound was simply swallowed up by the thick, grey air. Occasionally, a bird would appear on a branch and object to her presence, but its voice, too, quickly faded into the grey murk. In the stare of each bird, Julia couldn't help but see a glint of accusation: he is terrified of you.
Beyond the cries of swamp birds, Julia heard something else as well. It was more mechanical, like an engine repeatedly revving. It seemed to be coming from just around the next bend in the path, but when Julia arrived, nothing was there.
The sensitivity of your hearing is playing tricks on you, Julia realized. The source of the sound might be miles away. She picked up her pace, her long female stride covering ground so fast that a male would have had to jog to keep up. Two miles later, the origin of the noise finally revealed itself: a pickup truck, stuck deep in the mud. The truck's heavy duty tires sprayed a shower of muck skyward as they spun. A large winch on the front of the vehicle was also in motion, its cable wrapped around a large tree. The winch produced a pathetic whine.
Julia approached the open driver's-side window. "Are you stuck?"
He was older, and dirtied with mud, but there was a serene beauty to the man, too. His eyes were glacial lakes – pure blue water reaching to untold depths. Julia felt an involuntary warmth inside when she looked at him.
His expression was originally of surprise, followed by something else. Recognition, as if he had been expecting her? Julia couldn't be sure.
"Yes indeed." He cut the engine.
"Is a tow truck on the way?" she asked.
"No, the tow trucks take forever out here. They prefer the beach neighborhoods, where the women give fat allowances to their men. Those men tip twice as much as I."
"Can I help?"
"Of course. No sane man would refuse a woman's help."
Howard would, Julia thought. Howard would say no out of pride. He would try to figure it out himself.
She circled the truck. The front tires, the front bumper, even half of the front grill were buried in the muck. Julia thrust her hand downward into the brown goo, searching with her fingers for the undercarriage handle built specifically for a woman's hand.
"Been a long time since I've seen a woman so deep into the swamp,” he observed. “Are you lost?"
Julia could remember the route back with unbelievable precision – every tree, every rise and fall and twist of the trail. But all the precision in the world couldn’t help her with her real problem. “In a way, yes, I am.”
"Being lost can be good. It's how we discover."
Howard could hear his girlfriend’s voice booming across the swamp from miles away. He ran the other way.
After hours of running, he could feel his right foot had shifted inside his boot. He stopped at a pile of rocks to check it out.
As his lungs billowed for air, Howard took in his surroundings. The light of dawn was present now, but its usual pink hue was swallowed up by the grey of the swamp. Thick fingers of dampness seemed to form a fist, grasping him and slowly squeezing the life out. Howard could barely perceive where he was going, or where he had come from. Normally, he would have been diligent about noting and marking his path. But his state of mind today was anything but normal. Did he come from between those two trees? Or from the right of the other one? He couldn't remember.
The rock on which he sat was located on the edge of a pool of water. The air was made heavy by thick, grey clouds of vapor. They carried the dank smell of standing water.
He examined his boot. The shoelace had snapped. Out here, that would normally be a problem – a huge one. Nothing in the wilderness could substitute for a shoelace, and walking more than a mile or two without a shoe was out of the question.
But Howard always kept a length of nylon cord and a utility tool in his pocket when on an expedition, and last night had prepared for the caving in exactly that way. He silently congratulated himself for the foresight.
He reached for his pocket. But with his arms pinned to his sides, his range of motion was limited. Extracting anything from his pocket was a challenge.
He got his finger on it, but then, THWIP. The nylon cord slid from the opening of his pocket into a narrow space between two large rocks. He watched it skitter down the fissure and settle at the bottom.
Oh no, he thought. Howard got down on his knees, the wetness of the dirt soaking his kneecaps. He would have to move a rock the size of a beach ball to get at the substitute shoelace.
Howard braced his back against it and pushed backwards as an UUGGGGH escaped his lungs. The rock didn't budge.
Julia could lift this thing easily, he admitted. And that was humiliating. He threw himself into it again, the awkwardness of his arms only adding to the challenge. UUUGGH, he screamed.
It went nowhere.
Five more times he tried. The moisture on his cheeks could have been condensation of the wet air, or sweat. He wasn't sure. He was failing.
He threw himself into the rock, heaving his body against it. Still, it did not budge. Howard realized that he might just be too weak.
Julia realized that she might just be too strong. The truck weighed only a few tons, and it would be easy to tear the thing apart as she tried to raise it out of the thick mud. Her fingers wrapped around the truck's carrying handle, she directed her supernaturally enhanced bicep to increase the force by just five hundred pounds at a time until the truck began to shift upward.
The vehicle's emergence from its muddy trap was announced with a loud SLURP as the wet earth slopped off. Julia used her left hand to reorient the object so that it rested vertically, nose down, on her right hand. Where even the winch had failed, her muscles succeeded easily. And the truck – it felt so light in her hand! She almost had to remind herself that, for a man, a truck was an impossible weight.
"Where would you like it?" she asked.
"I was thinking you could put it over there, in the other pool of mud. It likes variety."
Julia laughed. He isn't intimidated, she thought.
"On the ground is fine."
She looked at the dirt road ahead. It was unusually wet. There was perhaps enough dry ground for people to walk, but getting a truck down it would mean another encounter with the thick mud.
"The water rose last night for some reason," he explained. "There's something going on in the mountains – something powerful."
Those eyes, that depth of blue! Although the sun had left his lips fractured with cracks and his skin populated with freckles, Julia could tell there was more to this man than trucks and mud and the calluses of time. "There's no way you can get this truck through that mud. How far away is your home?"
"Two miles, I'm afraid."
Julia considered her situation. She had been looking for Howard over the course of several hours to no avail. And this man seemed to know the swamp well. He might be able to help her, if she did the same for him. At least, that was what she told herself. Something else in her simply didn't want to be alone right now.
"I can walk it home for you," she offered.
The man's face initially reflected gratitude, but then shifted to – there it was again – recognition. "That's too kind. Please don't inconvenience yourself."
Julia started walking, the vehicle balanced in her hand, her genetically enhanced tricep barely swelling. "It's no problem," she assured him. "After all, your truck is only eight thousand pounds."
Howard had to give up on the nylon cord, resuming his flight ever deeper into the swamp. Without the cord, the boot was loose and it would only be a matter of time before the blisters formed.
But this is better than being trapped, better than being entirely beholden to whatever Julia had become, Howard tried to remind himself.
Pains and aches began to form also in his shoulders, his back, his right calf, his feet. The grey clouds of wetness suffocated his breath and drew the warmth out of his limbs. He wondered how much further he could go before his body needed another break.
I feel like I could walk forever, Julia thought to herself. The truck felt to her new body about as heavy as a bowling ball felt to her old one. What was more, the endurance of her muscles was phenomenal. Even the weight of a bowling ball would grow tiring over a long-distance walk. But this truck – she felt like she could carry it endlessly.
Julia had started the walk hoping that she could limit the chat to small talk. But the man, who introduced himself as Sallan, was too good a listener. Before long, the distress in her thoughts began to fight their way through her composure.
"Sallan," she began.
"I think I did something terrible. Something that will lose me a man that I love."
Before she knew it, she had shared nearly everything – where she was from, how recently she Nourished, how she had attempted to help Howard adjust to the situation, and how poorly that had gone. She even came close to describing the events of the previous evening, but stopped short of that, wondering whether the strangeness of what she had shared so far was too much.
It wasn't. Sallan took all the information in stride, listening but never judging or even reacting. Despite his ragged and muddy clothing, he had an inner dignity that seemed to rise above the lowliness of the swamp he occupied. "You seem unfazed by all of this," Julia remarked. "Somehow I get the feeling you are experienced in more than … this place."
His gaze was distant. "I am alone in life now, but I was Majordomo to a great woman once. She was a member of parliament for one term, a self-made business success, and even a poet, although she would never admit it. And I managed her entire harem. Her Claimed, the Borrowed, the UnClaimed that from time to time became guests of her bed. When the men misbehaved, had disagreements, or needed assistance – those situations almost always came to me. And on the matters in which she personally intervened, she always sought my advice, and followed it."
"And now what do you do?"
"I live in a shack in the swamp."
That seemed odd and tragic to Julia, but she did not dare probe. "This Majordomo role – it is the first time I have heard of a woman in this world seeking a man's advice."
"Nourishment increases the processing power of a woman's brain, but not her wisdom. My mistress told me repeatedly how much she valued my advice. So great was her trust in me that, even though it is illegal for men to touch a Diana tree, she allowed me to pick some fruit from the tree from time to time. Such respect for a male partner is rare among women here and receiving it from her of course made me work all the harder to help her. She brought out the best in her men, and I think this was part of her success."
"So, she treated you as an equal," Julia concluded.
He laughed. "Never. Far from it. She was far superior to me, as every woman is, in every way."
Superior. Despite the efforts of her conscious mind to play the killjoy, something deeper in Julia loved hearing that word! The reminder of the power she had over men involuntarily caused her nipples to harden far beyond the hardness of rocks, their distended roughness scraping with agonizing delight against the fabric of her shirt.
“A woman is the head of her house,” Sallan continued, “and responsible for everything that happens in it. She provides not only for her children, but also for whichever men she takes into her fold. She defends the family interests against outside threats, and must ensure that the family's internal dealings are harmonious. With responsibilities like those, her authority must be beyond question. Now, she can choose to be kind, or not. She can choose to respect a man's wisdom, or not. But make no mistake: a woman's benevolence toward her men is built upon the men’s unequivocal deference to her authority. Without this, there can be no peace in the home."
Each must know their role, Ruth had told her.
"I asserted myself with my man a bit last night, far more than I ever would have done on our home world. And he fled."
"That is odd," Sallan replied. “Clearly there is more to your relationship than meets the eye.”
One hand still holding the truck aloft, Julia paused. “I'm scared for what could happen to him out here.”
“You will find each other when you are ready.”
That was hardly reassuring. "I hope it is soon enough. Howard might have been annoying in recent days, but he is still very much the man that I love. And our relationship is on the rocks. Even if I find him, I have no idea what will become of us."
"Perhaps my experience in the administration of men may be of some help to you. Would you like to tell me more?"
As Julia thought about this, the air filled with the clicking and whining of insects. The day's heat was intensifying. It was one thing to confess your troubles, but another to invite advice from a stranger. Should she do it? Take the plunge and tell him everything? The chatter of the insects got louder as the hot, angry sun raked over her skin. She looked over at Sallan, and saw only acceptance on his face. The cool glacial pools of his eyes were inviting her to jump in.
Howard's shoelace had come completely apart now, leaving his right boot dangling on his foot with no more grip than a beach sandal. It made walking doubly awkward, so Howard gave up and kicked the loose boot off. He began walking with only a sock on that foot, hoping that a false step would not injure him.
But his hopes were misplaced. His foot came down on a sharp stick, a pain shooting up his leg. He pulled it out of the mud and screamed at the woods.
Howard had a first aid kit in his pack, he knew, but that was now, thanks to Julia, several miles out to sea. He was soon walking again, a red splotch on the ground behind every footfall.
One of her feet came down on a sharp stick. She paused, feeling the tickle of the point trying to penetrate her skin . How to describe last night's events? Where to begin? She absentmindedly ground her foot back and forth into the pointed stick, reducing it to splinters.
"I guess it all started at a party. Ever since we arrived in this world, my life has been nonstop anxiety. It started with the stress of being lost, the stress of finding myself in a foreign land, the stress of wondering if I was ever going to get home. But Howard made it worse: he made me promise not to take the Nourishment, and then became absolutely furious when I did. Ever since that point, he has refused to do anything but try to get home."
"Why all the urgency?"
"Even back on Earth, Howard couldn't stand being in a situation where he was not in control. But here, it's so much worse that he's started living in denial. By now, he ought to know that I’m nearly indestructible, and yet he packed all the same caving gear for me that he would have packed for an un-Nourished. In fact, if he hadn't seen my strength over and over again, I bet he would have denied I had any strength at all. That's how much trouble he has with being bested, especially by me."
Julia absently rotated the eight-thousand-pound truck like a weathervane, watching the sun's reflection slide across its exterior. Talking about this is hard, she realized.
"So, a few days ago," she continued, "I found a way home. I was so proud of myself at first, until I realized what a mistake it was. I had thought that just showing Howard the route home – proving to him that it was for real – would have been enough to buy me some more time in a world that I love. But it wasn’t that way with him. He pestered and pestered and pestered me. Until last night when some guys built a bonfire and grilled this incredible seafood. There was music, and everyone was getting into a great mood. And for the first time, I began to let my hair down."
Julia closed her eyes for a moment and reminisced about the party. The rich taste of the seafood, the music, the red hot coals on the bottoms of her feet. It was all coming back in detail, and it made Julia yearn all the more for another carefree moment like that.
"I let my hair down," she continued, "because I was finally growing to understand the reality of my situation. I could run a hundred miles without even feeling tired, smash my fist through solid granite like it was made of sand, process information at almost computer-like speeds. Caves that would have killed the old Julia were just amusing to the new one. There should be no rush to get back, I thought: when the time comes, nothing can stop me from taking us home. I felt there should be no reason we couldn't have lingered here a while longer."
As they walked, the motion of her stride caused more mud to fall off the truck – big brown globs that dirtied her arms, stained her bikini top, matted into her hair. But she didn't care. Talking to him was cathartic. She much preferred feeling dirty on the outside to feeling dirty on the inside.
"So, I told Howard that we were going to stay here a while longer. I didn't ask him. I told him. For the first time in my life, I told him."
Sallan answered only with soft footfalls. The silence quickly grew as thick as the swamp air, an accusation without words.
"It wasn't like I was asking him to stay a century, I thought. Just a few months, at the fucking beach, no less! He could just relax and sip umbrella drinks if he wanted to! But no, that is too much for him to bear. Back on Earth, give the guy three weeks in a strange place and he would have explored everything – hiked all the trails, seen all the museums. But here, because this is a place where I am actually stronger than him, he's got zero interest in exploring it. He couldn't even give this place a chance. And that really pissed me off."
"Your knuckles are turning white," Sallan observed.
Julia ignored him. "… I wound up realizing that I was sick of it. Sick of his nonstop drumbeat about going home. Sick of how he couldn't possibly live in a world where he is dependent on me for a change. Sick of how he couldn't even acknowledge the realities of his situation, so fragile was his ego. And I finally thought, I am so done with this shit. And then… and then he had the gall to go out and try to buy Puppetmaster – to control me! So I wrapped his ass in a bar and walked away."
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the groan of steel.
"It's OK," Sallan volunteered. "It can be fixed."
"How?" Julia asked, her anger at herself building. "You don't even know him!"
"I meant the handle."
Julia looked. "Oh, no, Sallan. I'm sorry."
The truck's steel handle had collapsed under her angry grip, the thick, reinforced material helpless under the contraction of her fingers.
The contraction of his fingers around the iron bar did nothing to it, but the strain did bring renewed pain to his fingers. Howard chided himself for even trying to bend it.
The puncture in Howard's foot was not getting any better. It smarted with every step he took, and he didn't know how many more of those there would be.
He was well into the thick of the swamp now, Howard knew. And there was no telling how to get out – of this place, of this world, of the dungeon his relationship with Julia was beginning to resemble. She had made him happy in ways that other women had not, but now she was scaring him in ways that other women could not.
So lost was Howard in his thoughts about this that he didn't notice the swamp insects quieting their chorus. He didn't notice the uneasy calls of the squirrels to each other, or the crushed vegetation indicating that a creature of considerable size had passed.
It wasn't until he heard the rustling of underbrush that he realized he wasn't alone out there.
Julia tried to control her angry emotions, deliberately relaxing her grip on the truck handle to prevent further damage.
Sallan gave a wary glance at the deformed truck handle. “So, you are upset with him. Is his behavior the only thing that is upsetting you?”
“No,” Julia admitted, her spirits sinking. “I’m upset with myself as well.”
Sallan nodded. “Men cannot bring contentment to you if they do not have it themselves. The choice to stay should have been his."
"I know. I knew it then, too. But somehow my thoughts were not so clear at the time."
"My arousal was at a fever pitch. Howard had been avoiding me since the moment I Nourished. He finds muscle on a woman to be ugly. And my greater height, my far larger muscles, my overall size – all of that intimidates him, too. I remained celibate for him until last night."
"A Nourished woman – celibate? For multiple days? I had never known that to be possible."
"It was… it was torture. My discipline finally broke down last night, and I found myself in the shower with one of the men from the party.”
"Only one man, after multiple days of none?”
“In a way, having one man only made it worse. It was like going all day without food, and then eating a few pieces of popcorn. It only made me hungrier for what I didn't have. I tried to put it out of my mind and went to meet Howard at the location we had arranged. But my thoughts were a blur. I don't know how exactly I wound up wrapping him in a bar. It just, sort of, happened."
"It happened because you did not respect your body's yearnings, and therefore overlooked their power. Desire was supplanted by anger, and it overwhelmed you.”
Julia slowly nodded. "By the time I was twisting that bar around Howard, my body was a bonfire of its own."
"You are new to the Nourishment, and did not listen to what your body was telling you. Howard is out there somewhere, and you will find him. But the path back to him begins with understanding yourself."
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 deep into the mud.
The trunk was also narrow, only about the width of Howard's thigh, which made Howard wonder whether he might be able to move it.
He braced his lower back against a boulder and pushed the tree with his legs. Branches scraped and punctured his midriff and legs as his thigh muscles screamed with the pain of exertion. AAAARRRGH he shouted into the swamp. But the swamp’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. Pain exploded in his injured foot, but the most forceful of his kicks didn't even remove any bark.
Howard collapsed, overwhelmed by frustration, shame, and the feeling of powerlessness.
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, but much narrower than the pine they had used for the bonfire.
"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. Easy."
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 shattered in the middle, the two halves of the trunk forming a “V” in front of them.
Julia propped a svelte foot underneath one of the halves and made a kicking motion forward. The trunk sailed over the canopy of the standing trees, and then, farther away, came down with a BOOM. Julia could see branches and leaves rained down from above like confetti. Julia did the same to the other half of the trunk, sending the multi-ton object flying over the top of another stand of trees.
The destruction she had wrought left Sallan covered in twigs and leaves. With her free hand, she brushed them off his head and shoulders, feeling a slight tingle whenever she touched his skin.
He smiled. Those glacial pools of blue … Julia found herself biting her lip to counteract the stupid warmth that was forming inside. An unexpected look of recognition – and peace – had overcome him.
“It’s nice to be around power again.”
Howard remained tightened up in a ball by the side of the tree. He was powerless to get around it, and powerless to budge it. So upset was he by his failure, it took Howard several minutes to notice the deep indentations in the mud. They were tracks. But by their shape, they were not human ones.
“Maray alligator” Sallan said, pausing at the large indentation on the trail. “Biggest carnivore in the swamp. Eats men, but nothing that would be of concern to a woman.”
“It’s weirdly reassuring to know that I’m not the only monster in the swamp.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
Julia shifted the truck to another handle, exposing the deep indentations her fingers had gouged into the first one. “Power changed me – changed how I see the world. Changed how I see him. It’s horrible.”
“Allow me to ask you a question. If you were lost in the desert, had gone weeks without Nourishment, and were starving for it…”
Julia’s body nearly convulsed at the mere suggestion.
“… and a man, of his own free will, crossed many miles of hot sand to offer you a gallon of the Diana’s juice, would you feel love for him?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.
“But I have told you nothing about him.”
The question bore into Julia’s sense of right and wrong like a spinning drill bit.
“Sometimes, we love a person solely for who they are. But sometimes we love them partly because of what they do for us,” Sallan said. “And in the same way, when our partner goes from being a benefactor to being a burden, this can affect how we feel about them. Howard probably senses a change in your feelings, and he is terrified of it.”
Julia wondered whether this could be true. Only hours earlier, she had lectured him on the folly of tying his self-worth to his chivalry. But maybe Sallan had a point.
“Before you can truly love him again,” Sallan said, “you must first determine how his labor can enhance your contentment.”
To Julia, the notion was equal parts offensive and appealing. “A friend of mine said last night that a man’s value was his ability to make his mistress happy. It sounds like you agree with her.”
“Yes, but I personally believe that what makes a mistress happy varies greatly from woman to woman. I suspect you have yet to fully understand yourself.” Sallan pointed to the path through the swamp. “Only by better understanding what now enhances your contentment can the two of you find the path back to each other.”
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, the foot with the boot still on it sank into the mud. And it kept sinking until his leg was submerged to the knee. With some significant effort, he was able to extract himself. But when his leg emerged from the mud, his only remaining boot stayed behind, entombed in the mud.
Now completely barefoot, 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?
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, very 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 an aluminum roof was a half-mile away, 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."
"They cut just like blades. Or worse." Sallan pointed to a section of the truck. “They did that to my truck when I veered off the roadway once.”
Still holding the truck above with a single hand, Julia turned it around for a better look. The passenger-side valence and door panels had been gouged out in rows – the metal cut clean through – as if by the claws of some supernatural beast.
“A plant did that?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a plant in this land did supernatural things.”
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.
"What do you mean?," Sallan said.
"Good." She put the truck on its wheels. "It's nice to see someone else bewildered and confused for a change."
Without ceremony, Julia hoisted her mud-covered bikini top over her head, allowing her magnificent breasts to wobble free. She slid her shorts down over her hips with equal efficiency, leaving her 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. They smell better.”
Julia hoisted the truck back onto her shoulder 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 having no effect on her – to separate the mass from its roots. She could see Sallan step with extra care around the discarded tangles of sharp vine on the ground.
The edge of the thicket, was the densest part of all, but Julia plowed into it without a second thought, the knife-sharp thorns scraping and snapping against her invulnerable skin.
Once they were in the clearing, Julia continued toward his house. Sallan jogged a few steps to catch up. He extended her clothing toward her, but she shook her head.
“I like being topless in front of you. It’s a strange new feeling for me – to be on display like this.”
“Why is it strange?”
Julia had to think for a moment to phrase the response correctly. "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. If I am in love with him, then my body is for him alone. Even the sight of my body – naked, that is – would be for him alone."
“That may have been right for what you used to be, but is it right for what you’ve become?”
Unbidden, Julia's mind returned to the beach. More than a dozen 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.
But her logical mind resisted. "It seems selfish 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 will exceed their capacity for pleasure – all of them, collectively – long before they exceed 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 so much more sensitive than a man’s. Your body was built for sex."
Built for sex. Julia didn't need the reminder. The warmth between her legs became an ache.
“But don’t you feel jealous – to know that your mistress had her eye on other men as well?”
“I felt safe. 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. “Considerations of bodily endurance aside, it seems to violate some basic principle of nature.”
"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. "We’re both still people," she protested.
"Your superiority is established not by virtue, but by design. You have the ability to provide and protect, he has the ability to comfort and please. You can deny your role 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 more than a dozen men 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. Last night’s conquests weren’t enough. She was ready for one more.
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.
He stepped onto a boulder with a flat, steeply sloping surface covered with thick slime. Something rippled the surface of the pond. Howard took his eyes off his footing long enough to glance. He felt his foot slip and – BAM - landed on the rock. In an instant, he was up to the knee 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.
He kept a utility tool in his pocket. 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.
But his muscles immediately felt the strain of the task. It would be slow going.
A hundred yards later, they arrived at 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 composed of dilapidated wood board and 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."
"Is mysticism 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."
As he leaned against the sloping surface of the boulder, metal dust filled his lap. The slanted light of early morning gave way to the brighter sun of midday. 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 heat continued to bear down. 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.
Julia continued to peruse the shells. “I used to have a necklace that reminded me of Howard. But it melted away when I had a tension suit fitted. Perhaps I will buy a new pendant from you, when I have some money.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” Sallan said. “It will be my gift. And if you have been separated from the object of your love, well, then there is only one shell for you.” He pulled a pendant 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.
Gradually, the sun slid lower in the sky, and the rest of creation seemed to droop, too, with the intensity of the sun’s heat. 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 afternoon sun.
"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."
"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, no longer serviceable as a handle, was in her hands. Sallan had removed it from the truck 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 folded the handle in half with absent-minded nervous energy. The metal bent like dough under the force of the muscles of her hand – some of the smallest muscles in her body, but still 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.
"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?"
"You should be able to pick up something, However faint."
"In this huge swamp?" Eyes still closed, Julia tore at the deformed 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 a product of human invention." 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. Like Byrnham, Sallan talked about her in ways that Howard never would. Like Byrnham, he was comfortable with her power – and even admired it! What was more, the Sallan gentleman had made her more comfortable with herself – and her hankerings. Once again, 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. She felt her body softening – rock-hard muscles relaxing to accomodate a man’s touch.
"Yes. 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 sank in further, half-way up his thighs. 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 strained his arms outwardly against the metal bar, hoping against hope that he could simply loosen it. But the bar only dug painfully into his arms. He tried to undo the twist in the metal that Julia had used to cinch the bar shut. Her fingers had twirled the metal as though it were no more than salt water taffy. But his fingers only whitened against the bar. The exertion brought redness to his face and increasing pain to his fingers. 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 Byrnham, 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, her breath faltering.
"I’ve never understood it," he replied.
Julia didn’t care about understanding anymore – not when she was on the verge of having that magnificent specimen inside of her.
Sallan had settled into a kneeling position, butt on his heels. 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, in a single slow descent.
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 sun slid ever lower in the sky, now nearly touching the treetops. The day was waning. To survive much longer, Howard knew he would need freedom of movement. Howard went at the sawing 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.
He resumed his activity, frantically.
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 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."
With her arm draped over Sallan, she flexed her bicep, 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 she did not let it bother her. She could simply tear the animal in half if she needed to.
“So you used to be a … ‘Majordomo’, you called it? How exactly is that different than a First Among or a husband?
“‘Husband’ is an outdated term – something your friend’s grandmother would have used hundreds of years ago. Now we simply say ‘Claimed’. The two terms mean the same thing: a man who has agreed to be permanently bound to his mistress, and serve only her, for the remainder of his days. The ‘First Among the Claimed’ is the most senior member of that harem – the one she has had in her collection the longest. But ‘Majordomo’ – this is a man she appoints from among her Claimed to arrange all of her romantic partners and the other services she needs. Not every harem has one. But in those that do, it is an esteemed position because, unlike First Among, it is not based upon seniority. It is a designation that a man has to earn.”
"And so, tell me, Sallan, why you are no longer this woman's Majordomo?”
He rotated onto his back so that he could look at her as he answered. His fingers coursed down the auburn rivers of her hair. "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."
"I am deeply grateful to have found you. Making love to you was… delicious."
The lizard emitted a loud hiss. 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.”
“Just for that?”
“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, and yet so many lived out their lives without this assistance. 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 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 prophecy." Sallan grasped an oak gall that adorned his neck on a cord. "I had a visit from a Teller once. They are mystics that can see truths the rest of us cannot. The Teller prophesied that, for me, this swamp is a bridge between two great mountains – - on that I have climbed and one that I have yet to climb. Good fortune is set to reside on the mountaintops, but I have no idea which mountain the Teller had in mind for me, or even whether it is climb-able without a woman’s help.”
“What do you take all that to mean?”
“The Teller is never wrong, although we recipients of their prophecies often struggle to understand the ways in which the Teller is right. To my understanding, my time in this swamp is one of transition, and that I should attend carefully to the opportunities I encounter. Any one of them could be a path up the second mountain.”
“Is that what you are doing out here in all this solitude – searching for the next chapter of your life?”
“Not searching. The Teller said that the next chapter would come to me.”
Howard peered into the dank gloom of the swamp water. 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.
An alligator, Howard realized. Or this world's equivalent of it, swimming just underneath the surface of the water.
The ripples 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 shift 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?"
"Two, three 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."
"I was outside gardening when he jogged by and stopped in mid-stride. He said I was doing it all wrong – the spacing of the plants, the root balls, a bunch of stuff. 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 had been on the street only for exercise and didn’t know me at all was now on his knees helping me garden.”
“Why do you think he helped you?”
Julia paused. There was an odd, anxious warmth in her chest that had not been there before. She shook it off.
“Because he likes to help. He likes to provide for somebody. He just needs somebody in his life who wants to receive all that generosity.”
“And you did?”
“I loved the attention he doted on me. And I really needed it. He made me feel looked-after, and safe. At least, he used to." Julia held an arm skyward and ran a finger over her twenty-eight-inch bicep, watching her digit ascend the thick mound of muscle enhanced to hundreds of times the strength of Howard's.
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. He was never a threat to me. The threat was 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."
As she continued to lay on her side, Sallan 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 were easily twenty pounds. Julia cocked an eyebrow, cupped her breast and shifted it upward, easily performing the feat that Sallan could not. As her cleavage opened, the glow of the conch pendant spilled out.
It was glowing again, but this time, a different color.
"Go to him quickly now. He's in trouble."
Howard tried to slide himself away. But the mud was all the way up his thighs now, and it held him in its cold embrace. He tried to stand but his legs only sank further in the mud.
The creature, meanwhile, was taking form. The ridge of its long torso had broken the surface now, a full fifteen feet in length. And even through the murk of the water, Howard could see even more of the animal. Two eyes, grey and malevolent, poked up through the flatness of the water to focus on him. Its jaw emerged next, sagging downward, drops of saliva spilling out. It was hungry.
Howard watched his hands fumble with the utility tool. He had wanted to fold away the file and extract a blade. But his hands were shaking beyond his control, and the tool tumbled into the water with a PLOP.
The creature moved toward him. Time seemed to slow down. Howard's breath came in rough gulps. He could get away from it, with luck, if he moved gingerly.
But the alligator-type beast was emerging from the water more rapidly now, its fearsome girth spreading the water as it rose. This thing is larger than the Florida version, Howard realized. Its jaw is the size of my leg.
And it’s opening.
Julia thundered through the forest, her 375-pound mass moving in a blur that belied its weight. She had to pause occasionally to pick up the scent of her "quarry", but after a moment of examination it quickly came back to her, and she was soon again blasting through the underbrush.
The shell burned at her insides the way that no physical fire could imitate. Something was wrong with Howard. And it was getting worse. She tried not to speculate what it might be. She tried not to think about how empty life would be without him.
After only a mile of following the vague traces of his scent in the air, it suddenly grew sharply stronger. At her feet was a boulder the size of a bale of hay, with an unusual splotch of liquid on it. She picked the rock up – just two tons – and gave it a sniff.
Yes, this was a drop of his sweat. She was on his trail.
Tossing the rock over her shoulder with a perfunctory flip of her wrist, she was a hundred yards away before a BOOM announced the boulder’s impact with the ground.
Julia covered nine miles in just over four minutes then, her maximum speed clocking in at a hundred and thirty miles per hour. It wasn’t her fastest speed, but given the amount of underbrush she had to navigate, it was phenomenal. It would have taken a man three full hours to cover the same distance. A number of trees and shrubs paid the price for being in her way. Her clothes, which had been minimal to begin with, were further shredded by the violence of her movement. She didn’t care.
Howard's scent grew stronger. But Julia could tell that it was changing too. The smell of his sweat was laced with something that reminded her of fear. And there was a new smell, rich with iron.
The alligator-type creature lumbered towards him. Howard tried to slip away, but the boulder was against his back, its slime covered surface giving his fingers no purchase. He tried to inch up the rock, but his grip gave, his body slipping only further down into the mud.
The creature was only one body-length away now, so close that Howard could see the drool dripping from its hungry maw. Howard desperately tugged at the submerged parts, to no effect.
I didn't want it to end this way, his mind told him. And I didn't want to leave her this way. He and Julia had always promised each other that they would never go to sleep angry at each other. He didn’t want to go to his death that way either. Howard found himself wondering who would take his place in her heart. Perhaps it would be that ‘Byrnham’ man that had already taken his place between the sheets.
Howard found himself thinking about their first date – when he had taken her out for dinner. She had tried to pay, the fool. She didn't have enough money for a car or for anything else, and of course girls never pay for a date to begin with, but nonetheless she tried. Julia was the only person in his life who had never wanted to take advantage of him, had never asked anything of him. And for some reason, that had brought out the generosity in Howard like no other relationship had. He found himself giving her everything he thought she needed – and more.
The beast's snout was only a few feet from him now. The time was close.
The time might as well come, Howard thought as he felt himself sinking further into the muck. She doesn't need me anymore. And life was a lot more meaningful when I was needed.
The ground darkened for a moment. And then the space between Howard and the alligator seemed to explode in a shower of water and mud and grass. Julia had arrived with a flying leap, clearing twenty feet of water before landing in front of him like a human artillery shell.
With her immense weight, her body was already submerged up to the chest before Howard reopened his eyes. But that didn’t seem to inconvenience her. Her arm shot out with lightning speed, and in a flash the creature was in a headlock. Then she began to rise out of the water, her feet apparently able to find purchase on parts of the boulder too deep for his to reach.
With only a few steps, her towering musculature erupted out of the mud and water. An arm flexed to unreal girth held the creature easily in a headlock. And the creature turned out to be even larger than Howard anticipated – perhaps twenty feet in length rather than fifteen. It thrashed violently in Julia's grip, its tail throwing water forty feet in each direction.
But Julia seemed to have no difficulty constraining the monster. She was a column of pure power: thin denim shorts and a shredded bikini top did nothing to conceal the extreme musculature of her body. Mud coated the prodigious swells of her muscles in a brown-black shine, given them an appearance as other-wordly as the supernatural genetics hidden inside.
As she and the creature rose out the mud, it shifted suddenly to fill the cavities their movement had created. He felt his body tipping over and into the mud. He threw out a hand to brace himself, but with the bar pinning his upper arms to his sides, his movements resembled those of a penguin. He was about to go face first into the muck when he felt her grab the bar that encircled him. Then Howard felt his body being violently yanked out of the mud.
She raised her forearm until he was eye-to-eye with her, his feet dangling several feet above the surface of the water. It was like being lifted by the hydraulics of an elevator, a smooth motion that did nothing to suggest muscle strain.
"I was SO fucking worried about you, Howard.” Her face was flush with emotion. "What in the WORLD are you doing out here – trying to get yourself killed?"
Julia was distracted, Howard could tell. He could only watch in horror as her headlock on the creature loosened and the creature began to wriggle free. The creature turned its head toward Julia, reaching back with an open jaw.
“Howard, you didn’t answer my question…”
The beast opened its mouth further, the top of its jaw rising like a drawbridge.
"Julia… watch out!" Howard pleaded.
The creature closed its jaws on her leg with vicious force. Howard watched the muscles of its mandible flare as its teeth sank into her skin.
Or rather, the teeth tried to sink. To the degree the creature was causing Julia pain, her face sure didn't show it.
Julia rolled her eyes. "Still trying to protect your helpless girl. You never change." Without bothering to turn her head, Julia yanked the beast off her leg with one hand. Broken teeth plopped into the mud. Then she shoved the twenty-foot-long beast into the air – a disdainful, one-handed thrust that sent its frightening mass hurtling through the air for fifty yards before hitting the water with immense force. A plume of water rose high into the air.
She had never taken her gaze off of Howard. His body was still wrapped in the bar like an oversized hors d’oeuvre, feet swinging uselessly in the air.
"I was reclaiming the freedom you took away from me. That’s what I was doing out here."
"How?" Her voice rose in upset. "By drowning yourself in a lizard-infested swamp?"
“I figured it could use a snack,” he quipped.
"Ugh!” She could only shake her head, exasperated. The beginning of a smile crept across her lips. “I am SO going to kill you for this."
It’s just a phrase, Howard told himself. Just a phrase. She would never actually do that. But then again, it was hard not to think of the darker possibilities when she could explode his skull with a flick of her finger.
Carrying him over her shoulder, Julia strode off the rock, through the muck, and onto dry ground. She crouched on one knee to examine the bar. Her thumb traced the notch that Howard's hours of effort had created. "How did this happen?” She asked softly. “Did you try to saw your way out?"
Howard nodded. The muscles of his hands ached at the memory.
The corners of her eyes curled up in mirth. She suddenly started laughing – not the laughter of mockery, Howard knew, but the laughter of relief. “That’s my Howard. So determined, and in the most adorable of ways.”
WHUUUNG. With a quick tug of her hands, she snapped the steel like a piece of dry spaghetti.
At the sight of the severed bar, Howard felt his breath catch. His hours of painful work had produced nothing compared to the casual might of her superhuman body.
"But your stubborn side scares the crap out of me, too." She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, swallowing Howard up in her muscle before releasing him again.. "Do you have any idea how upset I was when you'd gone missing? Ruth had to take me inside I was in such hysterics."
"Good." Howard shrugged out from under her arms and collapsed on a log, shoulders on kneecaps. "That's what you get.”
“And so you got back at me by feeding yourself to an alligator?"
“You did once say I looked scrumptious.”
Julia laughed. ”Maybe so, but today you look like shit.”
“Ha. Take this!” Howard extracted a wad of mud off his body and tossed it at her.
She joined him on the log, her weight elevating his end like a see-saw. She seemed too lost in thought to notice that, as a result of her weight, his feet were dangling off the ground. She held the remains of the bar in her hand, and eventually brought her hands together, collapsing the metal as though it were nothing more than a cylinder of soft clay. A distressed GROAN emanated across the swamp, reminding Howard of the sickening extremes of her power.
“I’m sorry. For taunting you, for treating you like a little kid, and most of all for wrapping you in this.” She held up the crumpled bar. “I said we would be equal partners and then I didn’t live up to that promise. I said I would be exclusive to you and I didn’t do that either.”
“It’s OK,” he replied. “I’m not sure any of that is as bad as trying to control your partner’s mind.”
She shook her head, laughing. “This is a pretty fucked up conversation, isn’t it?”
“So, what do we do now?”
“There isn’t any chance that I can talk you into getting a Claim, can I? Claimed guys live a great life here – great beaches, great skiing, a woman to provide your needs, and most importantly protection against every scary woman in the Weald.”
Howard raised an eyebrow. “Except one.”
“Shut up, you!” She giggled, nudging him on the shoulder. So great was the force that it almost knocked him off the log.
“To be totally honest, I’m never going to make it here Julia. A Claim is not the right thing for me. I need to go home, and I hope you will come, too.”
Howard waited with bated breath for a reaction. Julia, by contrast, breathed deeply, her muscled back flaring from one wide “V” to an even wider one. It was a sigh of grief.
“OK,” she said simply.
Howard watched the woman absentmindedly squeeze the bar with such force that her knuckles whitened. The metal oozed out from between her fingers like toothpaste. Howard felt familiar, primal fear – the fear any smaller, weaker animal feel when it is confronted by an apex predator.
But then Howard noticed that her gaze was distant rather than angry. Her hands worked and reworked the reddening metal as though she were kneading dough. She was kneading something, too, her mind, Howard could tell.
Howard waited. He could feel the heat released by the deformation off the metal and could smell small wisps of smoke as hot globs of iron dripped onto the grasses below.
“OK,” she repeated, as if to convince herself. “I can respect that. In the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had two separate people tell me that the primary purpose of a man is to enhance the happiness of his mistress. That will never be you. We’ll use tomorrow to replenish your energy and then make the trip to Earth the day after that. That good?”
“Yea, that’s good. That feels really good.” He laid a hand atop of hers. Air the temperature of kettle steam rose from between her fingers. But Howard kept his palm there, willing himself to ignore the pain. “And what about you then? Will you set the fruit juice aside, stay with me on Earth, and join me on the next adventure in our lives, whatever that may be?”
“I will,” she said, finally serene. “Who knows where our path ends up, but I want to take the next step together.”
Howard planted a gentle kiss on her shoulder, the part of her body level with his lips.
“Thank you,” he whispered, tracing a grateful path of kisses down the chevron that formed the swollen base of her trapezius.
The skin was soft as silk. But his lips could compress it only one eighth of an inch before they met with something that Howard could tell was harder than iron. Even after everything he had seen, he found the muscles of these women beyond belief. But then, as the kissess continued, he felt a softening – as if her body was soothed by his touch, as if her body wanted more of it.
She let out an unsteady breath. “Let’s get you back to civilization, before I rip your clothes off right here. And that’s not a figure of speech.”
Howard immediately stopped. The thought of her ripping his clothes off made him feel small.
Julia then rose from the log, her immense body filling the space above him. She extended her hand to help him up, but the absence of her weight caused the log to drop with a CLUNK. Howard was thrown off balance and tumbled to the ground. Giggling she reached down and lifted him to his feet.
It made him feel even smaller.
The hot water of the shower felt better than he cared to admit. It washed away so much mud and dirt that he had to unblock the drain with a sweep of his foot. Would that it washed away the unease and the fear, too.
His muscles relaxed under the caress of the heat and the steam. Despite the fact that the last remnants of daylight still streamed through the windows, the comfort of the shower seemed to flood him with a sensation of drowsiness. He was yawning before he even got to the bedroom.
It turned out that Julia was already waiting for him in bed, herself freshly showered and adorned in a diaphanous silk-like nightshirt. "I need some shuteye, too," she admitted. "It's been an emotional twenty-four hours for both of us."
Clad only his boxer shorts, Howard reclined alongside his girlfriend. His skin was bruised from the falls he took and his struggles with the bar. It was scraped by the underbrush and lacerated by scimitar thorns. But hers showed no such damage. It was a flawless expanse of bronze. He couldn't even find the place where the "alligator" had bit her, as if the razor-sharp teeth of the animal were so feeble that they didn't even merit an acknowledgement from the superhuman surface of her superhuman body.
He tried to snuggle up to her, placing his head on her shoulder and letting her drape an arm around him. It was how the couple has been sleeping since the night they first shared a bed. And doing it now introduced a scrap of normalcy into Howard's entirely abnormal life. After all the insult he had suffered, he still had a deep connection to her, he realized. He hoped it was enough to get him through this awful world.
But if the activity cuddling was normal, the sensation was anything but. Being sandwiched between her torso and her arm was like shoving his body into the crevasse of a granite mountain. He could hear her humming happily at his embrace and felt her granite arm pulling him into her the way she might pull a sweater tight to ward off the cold. He felt the wind leave his lungs and her breast bear into his ribcage like a battering ram.
"It's nice to have you back," she whispered. "I was so worried you were going to get hurt – or worse."
Howard tried to reply, but there was no air to do it with. Her body was like an industrial compactor, squeezing his lungs shut.
She could crush me to death without meaning to, Howard realized, as his cheek came up against the rounded granite of her shoulder. From this angle, he could appreciate the thick layers of pectoral muscle that undergirded her breasts – slabs of pure power that she had obtained without ever sitting down at the fly machine at the gym. Howard tried to squirm out of her embrace, but she seemed to interpret the motion as a desire to be even closer together, because her herculean bicep tightened just a little bit more, causing Howard to feel as though someone had piled a boulder on top of him.
Howard wanted to tell her that she was crushing him. But his lungs couldn't expand enough to get the words out. He tried to avoid the instinct to panic. He ran a hand over the cobblestone street that her abdomen had become, the hard swells of muscle there yielding nothing to his touch. Her body responded by relaxing a bit. Howard found himself almost panting with relief.
Contentment filled Julia's body as she snuggled with her boyfriend. He was safe. Their relationship was alive. And her new body was hers to enjoy for a bit longer.
Howard's presence felt good, so good, to her. Julia found herself wishing that she could simply tear the clothes off of him and feel him inside of her. But that was not his wish, she knew – not with the body she now had. She willed herself to respect the choice, she concluded, settling for an extra snuggle with him. Julia could surely Borrow a few members of Ruth’s harem before the night was up.
Howard didn't need to see, didn't need to know. But it would feel so good to scratch that itch. She began to drift into sleep.
But soon the darkness of sleep was followed by something else.
She and Howard were walking along the beach, arm in arm. The tide was in, and the water was high. It coursed over the sand and lapped at the bases of the houses.
The houses were too far forward, Julia realized. Why hadn't they been moved back? And why were some of them askew of their concrete footings, as if someone had tried to move them and failed? There were no voices, no footfalls only the SLAP SLAP SLAP of the waves against the buildings to keep them company.
Julia felt her hair. What had once been silken and resilient was now coarse and frayed. She felt her muscles. They were still large, but not as much as they used to be. And her feet – the cold ocean water had chilled them to an uncomfortable degree. When was the last time Julia had felt uncomfortable, she wondered? Before Nourishment.
Something was wrong.
Julia was scared. She nestled Howard closer to her, glad of his presence.
Without warning, Howard felt Julia's arm contract, not gently, but with anxious force. The breath went out of him again as her superhuman bicep collapsed his torso and then began to bend his ribs inward. Her rounded shoulder muscle, which had already been an uncomfortable pillow for his head, swelled with tension now, jamming his head to one side. His body was being pulled into hers with remorseless, industrial force. Her breast, soft in appearance, proved far firmer than him collapsing his windpipe and jamming his head backward.
"Julia!" Howard rasped. But his tortured body could manage no more than a whisper.
She stirred slightly, seemingly mollified by the sound of his voice. Her body gave his a little squeeze, doubling the amount of pressure her Herculean arm easily exerted. Howard's rib cage was on the verge of snapping now.
I'm being crushed to death, Howard knew. He put a hand on her ribcage and pushed away with all his might. He might as well have been trying to move a mountain. His muscles shook from the exertion but did not move her arm an inch, or even a millimeter.
Panic overcame control. Howard drove his knee into her side, but her thigh was like iron. He tried to scream at the pain but it came out as only a hiss from his collapsing lung volume. He reached for her face, hoping that a poke there would wake her. But she took his movement as an invitation to grab that arm and pull it tightly around her. Howard shifted his body as best he could to avoid the limb being pulled clear out of its socket. It was only a matter of time before he perished, he knew.
The shift in Julia's position dragged Howard's lips closer to her ear. He had an idea. With his final moments of coherence, Howard exhaled a whisper, "Julia, it's me. It's going to be ok. I'm right here. And I'm not going anywhere."
That seemed to relax her a bit, and Howard felt his breath returning to him. In a whisper, he reiterated, "I'm not going to leave you, honey."
And for the first time in a long time, that was unreservedly true. They were in this together now. And soon, they would be getting out of this mess, together.