Malachi's eyes took in the flattened wasteland which stretched in all directions as far as he and the others could see. There was literally nothing left here, nothing but a blackened desert where, in the days of the Ancients, a city once stood. And it wasn't the only one; all over the world, there were places like this, sites which had borne the brunt of the Obliteration and, even after five-hundred years, remained as bleak wastelands. Malachi could see nothing alive here apart from himself and his four companions.
Slowly, he crouched down and touched one of the disembodied shadows on the ground. The size of the silouette suggested that the person who had cast it had been about his own age, someone who should have had his or her (it was impossible to tell) whole life to look forward to. But the Obliteration had put paid to that, incinerating the unknown youngster until all that was left was a shadow . . . Malachi shuddered as a thought occured to him; had he been in Denver five-hundred years ago, this might very well have been his fate.
At length, Katie's voice cut through his sombre train of thought. "We should go - I don't want to stay here too long."
The others agreed. This place, this burnt remnant of a city, was too eerie for their liking and the thought of what had happened here was just too terrible to comprehend. Indeed, given the choice between the blackened devastation that surrounded him and facing the Sheriff and his men, Malachi would gladly have chosen the latter. Though he knew full well what they would do to him if they caught him, he felt anything had to be preferable to staying in Denver for much longer. This place and others like it stood as silent testaments to the power of the Obliteration, that storm of fire which had caused so much destruction in the world.
They continued their trek through Denver in silence, not stopping to look at the ruins, their eyes focused solely on the path in front of them. There was no communication; even Malachi, Katie and Roxane made no effort to transmit their thoughts to each other, prefering instead to keep them private. Consequently, the first communication any of them received was a transmission from Latoya to Malachi, asking for an update on their progress.
"We haven't run into the Sheriff's men," Malachi replied. "We're just crossing Denver . . ."
On receiving this thought, Latoya's transmissions took on an edge of concern. "You're in Denver? A city destroyed in the Obliteration?"
"Get out of there right now!" Latoya ordered. "The ground could still be contaminated! It may be killing you every second you remain there!"
Malachi broke off communicating with Latoya and turned to the others. "Latoya says we should get out of here," he explained. "She says we could die here if we stay for much longer." As he spoke, he thought of how Jenny had suggested that, after five-hundred years, the poisons unleashed by the Obliteration might have lost strength to the point where they were no longer a danger. But, if that was the case, why had no living things tried to recolonise this place? Why was it still a blackened desert?
He did not know and, right now, he did not care. The only thing on his mind was getting out of here as quickly as possible; he did not want to remain in this black desolation any longer than necessary. Not for the first time that day, he shuddered at the thought of what had happened here, a city incinerated and the ground on which it had once stood turned into a barren wasteland.
Mindful of Latoya's warning, they quickened the pace. However, Katie, the group's unofficial leader, was careful to accomodate Roxane and Duncan, to allow for the fact that they were the smallest members of the party. She did not want to think about what could happen to the two children if they got left behind because they were unable to keep up. For instinct told her that anyone who lingered too long in the ruins of one of the Ancients' cities was doomed to die there, from starvation (there was no sign of anything edible) if not from the effects of the poisons. And she knew that, if anything happened to any of the others, she would never forgive herself. Malachi certainly wouldn't; it had been his impulsiveness that had led to their being here.
After what felt like an eternity, they left Denver behind them. None of them looked back as they left the outskirts of the desert that had once been a city.
Once she was satisfied that they were clear of Denver, Katie called a halt. Grateful for the chance to rest, the five young travellers slumped down on the ground and began to take stock of their progress so far.
"How long have we been travelling?" asked Jenny, examining the contents of her pack as she spoke. They still had a little of the travelling food Debra had given them, but they were having to ration it ever more carefully, though even that might not make it last until Latoya and her people found them. It would not be long before they had to start foraging for themselves.
"I don't know," Malachi replied from where he was sitting with his back against a tree. "The days seem to have . . . merged somehow." He looked down at himself, noting as he did so that, in addition to the travel grime he already carried, he was covered in a black grime that had not been present before he and the others crossed Denver. "Soon as we find water, I'm cleaning myself up," he added. He did not want to have the dirt he had picked up in Denver clinging to him any longer than necessary; the thought that it could still be carrying some of the poisons unleashed by the Obliteration made him shudder.
"We could all do with a wash," Katie agreed. "But that'll have to wait till morning."
In the meantime, they elected to spend the night here, knowing the Sheriff and his men would take a while to get this far, assuming they elected to take the long way round Denver. Which, Malachi reflected as he stared into the flames of their first campfire for several days (one they had risked lighting in the hope that their pursuers were too far away to see it), seemed a dead cert. After what he had seen in Denver, he would not be setting foot in another of the Ancients' cities; even if the Sheriff was right behind him, nothing could tempt him to cross one of those black deserts a second time.
The next morning, Jenny went to scout the surrounding countryside and soon came back to report the discovery of a river.
"This way," she told the others, pointing in the direction she had come. "We can fill our water carriers while we're there - and get some of this dirt off," she added, looking down at her dirty clothes. In fact, looking at the others, she noted that they had all picked up a good deal of travel grime in the last few days. She could not remember the last time she had been reasonably, if not completely, clean.
Once they had broken camp, Malachi scraping dirt over the remains of their fire in case the Sheriff and his men passed this way, the five of them headed in the direction Jenny had indicated. They arrived to find a small river, one which flowed calmly; the scene looked so tranquil that Malachi and the others briefly forgot they were supposed to be on the run. "Can we stay here a while?" asked Duncan, peering over Jenny's shoulder as she filled her leather water-carrier by dipping it into the water and holding it there until it was full.
Jenny, straightening up, nodded. "Don't see why not. Katie?"
"Yes," Katie replied. "We could all use a break after what we saw in Denver." The image of the blackened desert that had once been a city was imprinted on all their minds and, no matter how hard they tried, they could not stop thinking about it. Maybe a little time to relax was what they needed and, if the Sheriff and his men had taken a detour round Denver . . .
"Besides," she added, "I seem to recall we were going to clean ourselves up." She pointed in the direction of a bend in the river, then at Jenny and Roxane. "We'll bathe there. You two," she said to Malachi and Duncan, "can bathe here."
Moments later, Malachi and Duncan were crouching up to their necks in cool, lapping water, their clothes lying on a rock on the riverbank. To Malachi, it felt as though they were the only two people in the world; though his mind was still picking up stray thoughts from Katie and Roxane, he paid them no heed. And, though he was at an age where he was developing a curiousity about the opposite sex, the thought of going to spy on Katie and the girls as they bathed never occured to him. Even if she hadn't been his sister, Katie was seven years older than him and Roxane was someone he loved as a sister. He wasn't sure what his feelings for Jenny were, but he currently thought of her as a friend and nothing more.
"Malachi?" Duncan ventured at length. "Are you glad you had to leave your Village?" He had heard a little about what life had been like in the Village, how Malachi, Katie and Roxane had been treated by those Superior to them, and it disturbed him enough to make him wonder if, even without the current crisis, the three young telepaths would have eventually left anyway.
Malachi had never really considered the question until now, but he gave it some thought. "Yes, I guess I am," he said finally, recalling various events which had taken place during his life in the Village. He had never felt like he belonged there and nor had any of the others; they had only stayed because they believed there was nowhere else they could go.
"And you're never gonna go back, are you?"
"No," replied Malachi, looking the younger boy full in the face. "And, even if we wanted to, we can't. Katie, Roxane and I are condemned as witches - we'd all be killed if any of my people caught us. And, as for you and Jenny, my people think they're the only ones who survived the Obliteration, so your presence would upset them. They'd see you as a threat and . . ." He broke off, not wanting to share the rest of his fears with Duncan. Duncan was only nine years old, after all.
But Duncan was frozen with fright, his gaze fixed on something Malachi could not see from his position. "Malachi . . .!" he gasped in a barely audible whisper, pointing over his friend's shoulder.
Catching the warning tone in Duncan's voice, Malachi turned. There was the Sheriff, standing on the riverbank, flanked by Christopher, Nathan and Simeon. All four Uppers were looking at the two boys with expressions of disgust and loathing, mixed with a slight uncertainty. And Malachi quickly realised what they were uncertain about: Duncan. They did not know what to make of a boy they had never seen before and who, according to their deeply held beliefs, could not possibly exist.
"Come out of that water immediately!" barked the Sheriff.
Shocked by the sudden appearance of the Sheriff and three of his men, neither Malachi nor Duncan moved. They had thought they had put some distance between themselves and their pursuers (whom they had expected to take a detour around Denver) but they could now see that that hadn't been the case. The only question was, assuming the Sheriff and his men had gone around Denver, how had they managed to catch up?
The Sheriff was not a man to allow disobedience from a person of an Inferior Rank to pass. Even if Malachi had not been a condemned "witch", he was still a Lowly and, as such, had to be taught to obey orders instantly and without question; his failure to move when ordered out of the water angered the Sheriff, who found himself longing to give the boy a thrashing he would never forget. "Simeon," he said, turning to the Upper youth standing beside him, "get them out of there. You two," he said to Nathan and Christopher, "go back to camp and wait with the others. And, if you see Katie and Roxane on the way, you know what to do . . ."
Malachi knew he had to think fast; already, Simeon was taking off his shoes in preparation for entering the water. "Duncan," he whispered, "go to the bank and grab our clothes. Then, we'll have to run for it . . ."
"But what about . . .?" Duncan started, refering to their current state of undress. He was still too young to be embarrassed, but, for some reason, not wearing any clothes was making him feel vulnerable.
"There's no time to get dressed!" Malachi's tone of voice conveyed the urgency of the situation. "We'll just have to carry our things and . . ." He broke off as he realised Simeon was already wading into the river, a satisfied smirk on his face. And, Malachi knew from past experience, when Simeon smiled like that, he (Malachi) was in for serious trouble; it was the sort of smile a bully adopts when they know they have their victim at a disadvantage. There was only one thing he could do, try to keep Katie and the girls out of trouble.
"Katie, Roxane, listen!" he transmitted. "Duncan and I are in trouble - the Sheriff and three of his men have found us . . ."
"But I thought . . ." Roxane started.
"I know that," Malachi told her, knowing she was refering to their belief (now proved wrong) that they had managed to outrun their pursuers. "But they just showed up. You and Katie have got to get out of the water - Jenny too. Hide in the forest and don't let them catch you."
"But what about you and Duncan?" asked Roxane. Young as she was, she knew how high the stakes were, what could happen to the two boys if they were caught. She and Katie had already been separated from Malachi once and she did not want it to happen again.
"Don't worry about us!" Malachi transmitted back. "Just do as I say!"
Katie had received Malachi's thoughts in silence, not transmitting anything back to him. This latest development disturbed her and she too wondered how the Sheriff and his men had caught up with them so quickly. Had they, despite all expectations to the contrary, travelled across Denver? If so, if they had indeed risked setting foot on the ruins of one of the Ancients' cities, that meant they would stop at nothing to catch the young fugitives. Wading out of the water, she picked up her dress from the riverbank and pulled it on without stopping to dry off. Then, she turned to the two girls still in the water.
"Quick!" she told them in an urgent whisper. "Get out, grab your clothes and come on! We've got to find someplace to hide - the Sheriff and his men are near!"
Catching her tone of voice, Jenny and Roxane climbed out of the water without argument and quickly grabbed their clothes from where they had left them. They too did not bother about the fact that they were still wet as they pulled their dresses over their heads. "OK," Katie said, once both girls were dressed. "Come on! I'll transmit a signal for Malachi to let him know which way we've gone."
Meanwhile, Simeon was advancing on Malachi with a triumphant grin on his face. Finally, that weird brat was going to get what was coming to him - and it would be more than just a beating. No, he was personally going to drown Malachi, make sure the last thing he ever saw as he was thrust under the water was Simeon grinning at him. For as long as he could remember, Simeon had wanted rid of Malachi, but had not dared do anything about it; though the Uppers had power over all Middlings, Lowlies and Outcasts, the line was drawn at murder. But killing someone who was under sentence of death anyway was a different matter.
"Duncan! Run!" Malachi shouted, as Simeon drew closer to him.
As Duncan made his escape, Simeon shrugged. Let the kid (whoever he was) run; the Sheriff and the rest of his men would take care of him. He turned to face Malachi.