Malsa moved like a serpent through the jungle.
Though night had fallen, the full moon had allowed her to pick her path carefully. Still, were she not an experienced tracker than she’d likely be cursing the consequences of her choice all the fiercer. The rest of the tribe was already packing up, having been disturbed from their current campsite by the falling star. When she had voiced her interest in seeing the star for herself, most of the tribe had disagreed. Quite loudly at that. Still, she insisted. It wasn’t often one got to see a star up close, after all. And she was curious as to what could bring one down.
The rest of the tribe was waiting for her. But she would have to make this quick. They indulge her because she was the top tracker, and just that very night the tribe had been preparing to feast upon the fallen beasts she had slain. But their patience would not last forever, and rightfully so. Between the full moon and the pillar of smoke, her destination was clear, even if her path was not. The smoke, while a marker, also worried her somewhat. It had rained recently, but even then the fire might have spread. And if it did so too quickly…
Well, regardless of her own curiosity it may still be a good thing that the tribe was packing up.
She ducked under a branch, cursing the way it had nearly snapped into her face, and the spray of water it had slapped her with. The sound the falling star had made was loud. Very loud. Most beasts would be scared away by it, which helpfully accounted for the easy time she was currently having on her lonesome. Still, she kept her spear ready just in case. She didn’t get this far by not being duly cautious.
The transition was as jarring as it was sudden.
One moment she was using her spear to shove aside a particularly large batch of leaves she knew for a fact secreted a slime that wasn’t quite poison, but still itches painfully, and the next she was stumbling over an overturned dirt mound, then falling into a crater. She adapted quickly, turning her fall into a roll, before snapping up into a jump, spear held at the ready. Even as her hard green eyes did a quick, instinctive scan she couldn’t help but gasp at the sight before her.
It was like an angry god had slammed its fist down onto the jungle. Everything had been blown away, trees and grass, plants and animals. Whatever had existed here before was simply eviscerated. Only churned dirt, smoldering from the force of the blow and broken into a crater, remained. Fires burned here or there, small things: Far from the inferno she had feared. Rain would see them gone in quick order, if they lasted that long to begin with. But that soon filtered from her mind when she saw what lay at the center of the crater.
Some sort of giant metal ball smoldered there. It was in the unpainted gray of the Uplanders, the parts that weren’t marred by vicious scorch marks at least. Steam wafted up from it, hissing from the force of impact still. Something was on the side of the pod, some sort of symbol, but the blackened metal only deigned to reveal that something had once existed there, and had ruined far too much to tell what, exactly, it was. At the center was a pane of glass, and Malsa couldn’t help but marvel at the fact it was still intact. Only Uplanders could create that kind of hardy glass, but even with her limited knowledge of them, she doubted they could make something as sturdy as that surely must be.
Yet for all the strangeness of the ball, Malsa couldn’t help the rising disappointment that stung at her. This is what a star looked like? For all the grand beauty and bounty of navigation they provided her people, she was expecting something…grander. Brighter. Foolish of her, because it was dangerous to hold assumptions about anything, but she couldn’t help it.
She jumped, smashed from her thoughts by the ball hissing open. She held her spear at the ready before she even realized what she was doing. Though she was far from the ball, at the edge of the crater where she had stumbled upon it, a rising thought popped into her mind. That, perhaps, it may have been foolish of her to come in search of the fallen star. Especially all alone. She shoved that regret out of her mind as quickly as she could. Perhaps it was. But she was here now, and there was little time for regrets of any sort.
So she stood at the ready, to fight or run as needed, and watched the ball carefully.
All the monsters she had fought, which now swirled in her mind at what terrible creature that must surely inhabit the stars, was chased from her mind by what actually crawled from the fallen star. She almost lost her grip on her spear when the baby plopped to the ground.
Bigger than any child she had ever seen, the baby was exactly that: Just a baby. It looked around curiously, apparently unbothered by its rough landing. She stood there, paralyzed by dumbfounded disbelief, as the child worked its way to its feet. Bare of any hair save for a few wafty black tuffs, the baby stood with an assuredness that looked somewhat ridiculous on a child, especially one so young looking. Suddenly feeling foolish, Malsa lowered her spear. The motion caught the child's eye, and it looked at her with an awareness that should have been beyond a baby.
They considered each other for a moment, before the child smiled.
As Malsa stared at that wide, sloppy smile, she knew there was only one thing she could do.
Malsa sat by the fire, rubbing her sore shoulder.
Around her the Bodan tribe gathered, drawn by the tales of a star-child. No tent was big enough to hold the whole tribe, and so the elders decided to hold the gathering around the great fire pits that were always the center of the tribe's encampments. The low hum of chatter filled the area, a stark contrast to the grim, hurried silence that had suffused the camp only hours earlier. Beside her, the star-child sat staring curiously back at the score of eyes that observed it—him. Him. Not it. The star-child had been heavy, not really more than she had expected. But between her spear and the child she was a little sore. She was a tracker and a hunter, yes, but she wasn’t ashamed to admit she was not the strongest out there. Physically, at least.
The star-child had refused to leave her side since they had entered the encampment, even when she tried to coax him to stay with the elders, so they may properly decide how to interpret this omen from the gods. But he had refused no matter what was tried. And so, to her own great embarrassment, she was dictated to sit by the elders by the Chief-Warlock, so that the star-child could be properly examined without him squirming from the elders' wrinkled hands. Many looked upon her with some jealousy, to be granted the honor of sitting by the elders when they gathered was great indeed, even for a tracker such as her.
The only one the star-child didn’t seem to squirm from was the Chief-Warlock, the wizened sage hummed and hemmed as he poked at the star-child, meeting those gold-flecked gray eyes with little surprise at the intelligence that lay within. The star-child examined the Chief-Warlock in turn, as ridiculous as it was to say. His poking's with those pudgy fists seemed random at first, but she could start to parse out a pattern to it. The star-child was drawn to the Chief-Warlocks guardian tokens, random pieces of the world that had been attached to his robes, and thus him, that had apparently gained some significance or another.
The low hum of conversation died out when the Chief-Warlock raised a hand. The old man cleared his throat, rising up from his examination and turning his gaze to the elders. “He has the touch.”
A ripple went through the crowd. Only Warlocks held that touch, that gift of nature which allowed the Bodans to survive the increasingly harsh wilds in ways few other tribes could match. It was dangerous as it was beneficial, and while some days Malsa was bitter she had not been granted it, she was equally glad that Nisha’s touch had passed her. With proper training, the touch was a powerful tool. But without it…
Well, there was a reason that everyone who had the touch must become a warlock.
“What do we do with him?” A voice shouted from the crowd. “We barely have enough food as it is! Look at the size of him, he can’t stay.”
A murmur filtered through, and before she knew what she was doing Malsa was on her feet, hands clenched into fists as her red hair snapped through the air at the force and speed of her rise. “And what are you going to do about it, Jor?” She snapped. The crowd parted, revealing the hunter. Tall and powerfully built, his was a frame of corded muscle and scars. His own reddish-brown hair was pulled back into the ponytail of all hunters and trackers. Despite his size, he looked vaguely put out at the crowd shuffling out of Malsa’s way. Though he stood his ground still.
“You know we’re struggling.” Jor said, crossing his arms. “This ground is bad. We were moving already, and your damn curiosity has brought us another mouth to feed. We could-”
“Could what?” Malsa snarled with such ferocity that she surprised herself. At her feet the star-child shifted uneasily, sensing the tension in the air. “You don’t have the balls. In fact, you try anything and I’ll make sure of that.” With that, she spun away from him, turning to the elders imploringly. “I’ll hunt for him myself if I have to. Cook for him, clothe him. Everything. But we…we can’t just leave him here. He is a gift from Nisha! He has the touch! He is no ordinary child, he could be a great warlock one day.” She paused, less so because she was out of things to say and more to do with the soft hand that had clutched at her leather pants.
Looking down, she saw the star-child shuffling close to her, and smiled despite herself.
Silence greeted her words, and the elders shared glances. Children were not often raised solely by their parents. There was too much to do, and the demands of the tribe weighed heavily on them all. So children were passed to those most available at the time, and learned at the feet of the whole tribe more often than not.
One man grunted, leaning forward. A giant of flesh, Chief Harlo was a great warrior, and even in his autumn years he was something to behold. Barrel chested and littered with scars, his grand white beard flowed down to his stomach, and great bushy eyebrows made his gaze hard to see, almost like he was squinting.
“You’ll go that far? Even when your duties call you away from the tribe?”
Malsa shivered under that old gaze despite herself, but stood tall still. “Yes.”
The old chief grunted, staring at her. Around him the elders whispered to each other. For what seemed like an eternity that muttered to one another, conferring in quiet. Then, one by one, they stopped. The last one to speak was the Chief-Warlock, who shuffled over to Chief Harlo and whispered into his ear.
The Chief nodded, bringing a massive hand to his bead and stroking it. “A noble sentiment.” He rumbled. “But we Bodans are not so poor to each other to force such a thing. You will be his primary caretaker…but he will be a Bodan, and will be raised as such. He is a gift from Nisha, as you say. Who would we be to refuse such a thing?”
The relief almost toppled her. She could barely hear the words spoken behind her, Jor’s angry stomps little more than a distant flicker of imagination. She had barely known this child for a few hours, but already she cared so deeply for him. It was astounding. She had never thought she would be a mother, everything involved seemed far too painful. But now…
She smiled down at the star-child, laughing softly at the way the boy tried to copy her.
“Come, my fallen star.” She said softly. “We must pack up.”