Chapter 9: Two Faces of the Enemy
Chapter 9: Two Faces of the Enemy
I came in with the tide to Ilporta. From the dock district, I looked up to skyscrapers-- architectural and engineering marvels the like of which Psychics never accomplished. Never could accomplish. The curse of being born exceptional is to only excel at that one thing.
Why won’t you admit that?
“Uh Kael, it looks like roid-rage is here, and he would like a word with you,” Joshua said, stumbling backwards.
Kael snapped to and stepped into the aisle picking up Joshua scarf he had left on his coat. “But don’t those make your--” Kael ducked without finishing his sentence as a small crystal of blood whipped past his ear and dug into the floor behind. Gianna shrank back in her seat and tucked her legs underneath in a ball. Zagan’s eyes flitted to her and back.
“Where is the man? The one that you broke out?” Zagan’s booming bass voice shook the window panes.
At Kael’s nod, Joshua threw himself out of the isle head first, not really needing any prompting. “I decline,” Kael spat. “No point talking to a dead man.”
Joshua tentatively popped his head just about to cover. He wasn’t just not going to watch.
As Kael raised his hands preparing for a fight, his eyes popped wide from shock as Zagan already crashed down onto him. Kael’s instincts acted before his mind could catch up. Kael whipped the scarf out in front as if to tangle a punch but it burst with a small pop and pushed the two apart. It hadn’t even been an attack, Kael had just needed space.
Zagan lurched forward again with Kael yet to gain steady purchase. Blood seeped through the skin roiled around Zagan’s right arm, warping in a spiral like a twister into his hand where it coalesced from liquid to jagged solid. He brought down the deadly point aimed squarely at Kael’s forehead. Kael used both hands to catch Zagan’s wrist; his eyes stared up to the point of the blood-sword-- only a fraction of a hair away.
Kael couldn’t combust any part of Zagan directly, but his own body was fair game, and he had some skin to lose “Burst.”
Zagan howled a bloody scream and wrenched himself free from Kael’s grasp as the smell of burnt skin assaulted Joshua’s nostrils like the smell of a sizzling, hairy steak. On his wrist, a glossy white handprint was emblazoned. Zagan stood mouth agape, flexing his hand. The pain wouldn’t set in yet, Joshua had enough sunburns in his life to know that, but that was no trivial burn. Zagan’s eyes flashed rage at Kael who was equally astonished. Kael reached his raw hand around to his back and touched the small shiv of blood that impaled him just below the left shoulder blade. Joshua looked on with equal shock as Kael’s blood mixed with the melting blood shiv, until Kael pulled it free in one violent jerk, growling as it came out.
Zagan hadn’t just whipped that at him earlier wastefully, a Blood Syche had to be careful with their ammunition after all. He was planning a pincer all along. If Kael hadn’t broken his concentration when he did. . . . Well, that shard of blood could hit his heart at that angle.
As the two combatant’s eyes locked once more across the mere feet that separated them, the door to the next car slid open. Joshua ducked again, but then thought better of it and poked out, seeing who dared to interfere.
“Excuse me,” a man’s voice politely apologized as he pushed past Zagan’s men by the door.
They gave grunts and curses as they were moved but gave no further resistance. The gray-haired man sauntered into the room. Head slightly cocked, he slowly walked to Zagan.
This could no longer be ignored.
At this moment three things happened at once, and Joshua nearly went cross-eyed trying to keep up: Zagan pivoted, throwing a haymaker at the newcomer as a haze of blood pooled through his clothing and shield his backside from Kael. Kael slid under the pitiful barrier Zagan had erected and sprung up with his uninjured palm aimed at Zagan’s temple. Finally, the gray man lazily spun around Zagan’s punch with a crackle of electricity running down his body and intercepted Kael’s attack, placing a hand on his chest and throwing him through the bloody mist and onto his back.
Joshua lost track for three-quarters of a second as the man ducked the blood-mist turned liquid noose. He weaved through the attack and grabbed Zagan’s black robes at the chest. With nothing more than a meager pivot, he maneuvered Zagan over his knee and sent him sprawling into Kael. Kael in turn uttered some weird guttural noise as Zagan crashed down on top of him. Neither moved nor showed any other signs of wanting to fight-- or being conscious for that matter.
A grin broadened on Joshua’s face until it fell to a grimace thinking how much it had to hurt to have that huge giant landing on top. Still, he was thankful it wasn’t him in that mangled pile.
The intruder who created the mess grabbed the bottom of his jacket to straighten it. “Now everyone will remain calm,” he said directing it at Zagan’s cronies over by the door. “I’ll only be a second, so nothing stupid please.
With those words, he disappeared back the way he came. He wasn’t gone for long, but in the meantime, no one dared move. The silence was oppressive, and everyone just about jumped when Joshua sneezed. Joshua’s gaze wandered around the room, trying to avoid eye contact with the three Dark Element assassins at the door, instead looking at a blank wall, at his own ragged shoes, anything. As the grey-haired man reentered the car, the people obstructing the door actually moved out of his way this time. His hand clutched a water bottle. As he approached Zagan and Kael in an ungainly pile, he unscrewed the cap and held the bottle over their heads. One after the other, a thin trickle of water fell on their faces. After a few moans and twitching movements from the two, he nodded satisfied.
“You will leave immediately,” the gray man ordered, his voice falling low and gravely.
Zagan rolled onto his knees and looked up with a snarl. He waited until he was on his feet to answer. “What makes you think I would obey any order you give?” Without warning, Zagan threw a punch at the gray man who in turn moved his head just slightly enough to dodge the blow, a faint arc of electricity running down his neck.
Standing his ground he spoke: “You may be a Deputy Commander where you are from, but this is my territory.” The gray man continued. “You have no power on this continent unless otherwise ordered, and I certainly haven’t heard of such an order given. Quite the contrary really. Halfway through the night, I received a call about a certain Deputy who fell off the radar. It seems you failed to report this little excursion before leaving. You’ve been given fifty-six hours to reestablish contact and confirm that the targets have been eliminated, otherwise we are to assume you have gone rouge.”
“You report it,” Zagan spat indignantly. “I didn’t think it would take so long to catch a bunch of children and an old man, but clearly I’m working on it.” He gestured to Joshua violently, who shied away in his seat.
For a second, it seemed like the gray man would laugh. After his open-mouthed smile faded, he continued calmly, “I don’t have to do a thing to help you. So I don’t think I will.”
“Then leave!” Zagan bellowed. “You can’t stop me.”
The other man pursed his lips and nodded. “Don’t want to stop you. But I do want to speak with these three which I can only do before you kill them. And since I’m stronger than you, I can do what I want. Take your goons, go to another car, and piss off until I’m done.”
Zagan stood as tall as he could, attempting to counterbalance a defeat that had crept into his eyes, his bottom lip quivering. “The newest Deputy Commander we have and it goes straight to your head.” Rolling his shoulders, Zagan straightened up and pushed past the man, waving his men into the next car.
Joshua, Kael, and Gianna looked on confused not sure what just happened. The conversation between the two Deputies was under hushed breaths and entirely unclear.
The man sat down at the nearest booth and motioned for the three to come over. Gianna looked at him hesitantly not sure what to do. Joshua was behind Kael, looking at the injury he had suffered. Joshua looked up at the man’s beckoning and nodded.
“Please sit,” he said, motioning them to come over. “My name is Emile.” Still, Joshua, Kael, and Gianna didn’t move. Gianna actually scooted further back. “I just saved you. Did I not? Sit.” This last word came out as a firm command.
Joshua slid into the seat across from Emile with Gianna on his heels. Kael walked over slowly with a slight limp in his step.
“You shouldn’t have intervened,” Kael said. As he sat, his face skewed in pain as his back touched the seat. He held his red palm in the air and flexed it repeatedly. “It was a one on one fight.”
“Oh quit sulking,” Emile returned. “This is why people don’t like bratty children.”
“Hold it,” Joshua paused. “Why would you help us at all? You are one of them aren’t you?”
“We’re not all brainwashed into the same cult, so to speak.” Emile chuckled. “Grant it, most are like that. Me on the other hand? I have an appropriate idea of self-worth; I know where the line is drawn and what will be tolerated relative to my position. They won’t do worse than yell at me for this. Assuming Zagan would even report it.” Emile paused and eyed everyone else. “Before we go any farther, arms out.”
“What?” Joshua and Kael asked together.
“Show me the underside of your forearms,” Emile’s said, his voice with a tinge of aggravation.
Joshua and Kael didn’t know what he meant but put out their arms anyway. Gianna did as well, but she had only her left arm out and the sleeve up. Blotched across her forearm was a sickly spider webbing pattern of black.
“Curious,” Emile mumbled. “How have you not been drafted into our fine establishment’s ranks?” he asked, looking directly at Kael. “The Element is not one to miss potential recruits.”
Kael only shrugged. “Maybe they missed me. More importantly what is that tattoo?” Kael glanced again. It didn’t look solid; it had a shimmer, a movement.
“It’s not a tattoo, I’m not sure what it is exactly, but we all have one-- part of the initiation,” Emile said. “More importantly it’s unlikely they simply ‘missed’ you. Even not using your powers you’d get sensed eventually by someone who just happened to get close enough. Do you live somewhere extremely remote?”
Kael opened his mouth to answer, but Joshua swiftly delivered a kick to the shin that shut him up.
“Fine, you don’t have to answer the question,” Emile said, “even though you did answer the question.” A knowing smile shown on his face. “Now you.” He looked at Joshua. “Why is someone normal like you traveling with two Syches?”
“I’m a traveling pantomime artist backpacking my way across the country. Pretty simple really.”
“We’re on a train and it’s a small country. It’s not going to take that long to get where we’re going. So cut the crap?” Emile said and then sighed. “The idiotic story aside, shouldn’t you be in school or something?” He paused and looked at Kael. “You too.” Joshua didn’t reply, his eyes firmly planted on the part of the table where his feet would be. “Fine, don’t tell me anything.” Finally, he turned his gaze to Gianna. “Last we have you my colleague: will you tell me anything?”
“What do you want to know exactly?” she asked, her voice cracking.
“For starters, why is big and ugly chasing you? Also, how did you join up with these two clowns?” Emile asked.
“I was stationed in Tyré up in the mountains on lookout. Three guys decided to go AWOL while I was on duty. Walked right out. Nothing I could do to stop ’em. So I chased after ’em, tried to get away. The other Deputy Commander, Helvsing, tracked us down in half a day. I was the only one they took alive. Waiting for a fate worse than death, when these two showed up. I’ve stuck around since I don’t want to die, and they do seem protective,” Gianna answered promptly.
“Who doesn’t want to save the girl and beat the bad guys?” Joshua smirked, loving his inclusion in the story.
“Quite the hero complex you have,” Emile hummed. “Your ego is going to get you killed”
“I have no problems dying,” Joshua returned, a clear pride in his voice.
Kael let out a low grumbling sigh. “It’s bad enough you do it, don’t go bragging about jumping headfirst into certain death.”
“Anyways,” Emile said, “I should say that I didn’t help you guys as much as I could. As soon as I’m gone, they’ll be right back on your tail.”
“Well thank you for what you have done,” Joshua said.
“Yes, thank you,” Gianna nodded in agreement. “But why? Why would you risk sticking your neck out at all for us? You really shouldn’t.” She stared blankly at Emile, her eyes wide open to a disturbing degree.
Emile’s hand balled into a fist, his nails digging into the palm. “A little rebellion is good for the small bit of soul we have left intact. Take that away and you go insane.” He looked up smiling again. “Enough of that morbid stuff though. I don’t have to leave yet so let’s relax.”
“Hold on,” Kael said. “I have a few more questions.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers kid. And I’m tired of talking.”
“I hate that cliche,” Kael sighed.
“That’s because you’re a beggar,” Emile said as Kael rolled his eyes.
Now that the conversation was over, Emile reached into his jacket and fumbled. His hand emerged holding a weathered deck of playing cards. The back bore a red lattice pattern while the corners were heavily worn, showing bits of brown. Even the faces of the cards were cracked and aged. He began laying them out before him, arranging them into groups.
“What are we playing?” Joshua asked.
Emile looked up with a quizzical glare. “I’m going to play a game. You can sit there quietly.”
For the next hour and a half, the train chugged along weaving through the foothills. The ocean ebbed to the left and a dense forest sprinted along to the right; Joshua could just see mountains in the distance hiding amongst the trees. They’d be heading that way, south, before too long in so much as they could get away from their pursuers. Wouldn’t want to bring the Dark Element back home.
Throughout the train, people went along with their own business. They read newspapers, books, or browsed on their phones. Some people slept. Others talked. They stayed out of the last car, however. Zagan saw to that. Zagan and his men held vigil by the door. All of the other passengers who had been in that car stayed, willfully ignoring Zagan and his men with persistence and determination. To pick up and move to a different car would be to admit that they noticed him in the first place, which would be a very rude thing to do indeed, no matter how uncomfortable his presence made them.
Joshua and Kael moved to another table and restlessly lounged in the seats. There was nothing to talk about, not with Emile around. There was nothing to do-- period. Gianna sat across from Emile still, staring at the cards he picked, placed, and shifted through his fingers. She barely blinked. She barely moved. It was the most disturbing thing Joshua had seen in a while. He was mostly preoccupied on ignoring her, something he couldn’t quite do.
“Question,” Joshua said mindlessly, his head bobbing to the click-clack of the tracks as he stared at the cards in his hand. “Seriah. You and the guy in red were arguing about it at the diner.”
Before the sentence finished, Emile shook his head subtly as his eyes wandered to the doors. “I was eating alone. Whatever do you mean?” Joshua stifled a grin and felt Kael kick him under the table all at once. “That’s why you’re helping us!” Joshua exclaimed. “You don’t want anyone to know about that. It’s either make sure we aren’t captured or kill us.”
Emile’s teeth clicked as the muscles on his neck tightened, looking from his cards to Gianna to Joshua. He sat there stiffly for an unusual amount of time, the kind of time it takes to come up with a convincing lie. He relaxed slightly as he looked back to his cards arranged into a semicircle before him. “My boss already knows. I told my Commander already.”
Gianna nodded her head in simple belief, much to Joshua’s disgust. She’d need to learn when someone was lying to her, he thought.
Kael leaned across the table seething. “Shut your mouth next time, you almost convinced him to try and kill us,” he whispered in the lowest grumble he could conjure.
Joshua let out a quick pft of air in disbelief. “If I die, it will be through heroic sacrifice.”
Kael shook his head in a mixture of disgust and disbelief, his fingers creeping over his shoulder and massaged the wound on his back.
Some immeasurable time later that only comes with endless boredom, Kael noticed the peak of a skyscraper looming on the horizon. Emile noticed too. With a single clean motion, he palmed up all the cards and tucked them back away in his breast pocket.
“I have to go now,” Emile said while gazing out the window. “I should have gotten off about fifteen minutes ago. Boss wants a word.”
“Mellach?” Kael perked up, using the name Gianna had said earlier.
Emile shook his head. “Don’t know who that is, and you’re not tricking my Commander’s name out of me. Good luck to you guys though. Rooting for you.” He stood up and straightened himself. “I do have some advice, but I’m not sure how to phrase it without being too obvious right now. I’ll think on it. If you make it through today alive, and we see each other again, I’ll tell you. In the meantime follow me. I have an idea to keep you alive a little longer.” Before the words even left the air, he was taking large strides to the door.
Everyone jumped to their feet and jogged along to keep up, not wanting to be left behind. Emile waved the guard at the door aside and entered the next car, greeted by hostile stares and confusion. The four people marched down the aisle of the car until their parade met with Zagan. After a short staring contest, Zagan sidled over leaving just enough room for Emile and company to pass by. After that uncomfortable squeeze, they continued on to the next car and then the next. All the while, Zagan stalked behind, always keeping a car’s distance from Emile. Finally, arriving at the first car, Emile stepped over to an empty booth with only a sleeping old man with stringy white hair. Kael and Gianna slid beside him quickly, understanding the basic idea.
Joshua whispered, “A Syche can sense another close by right? They’ll feel you’re gone.”
Emile’s hand grasped Joshua by the shoulder and pushed him firmly down into the seat. “You’re not wrong,” Emile said cautiously, looking around the room and back to where Zagan was. “I actually didn’t consider it, but I think I have a fix. Hold your hands out and apart like this,” Emile ended, mimicking the movement.
Joshua did so with a look of consternation on his face as Emile moved to the side, shielding him from the rest of the passengers the best he could. Electricity sparked at Emile’s fingertips and arced in a circular motion, never leaving the invisible area he seemed to grasp. More sparks softly bounced around and very soon he held a ball of frazzled light and color made purely of electricity. As Emile passed it over, Joshua’s back went rigid and eyes wide.
Joshua let out a yelp of surprise as Emile let go. He held it loosely and struggled with the electric orb. Kael looked on as his brother fidgeted with the thing. Constantly moving his hands and readjusting. Curious himself, he reached out and placed a hand on the thing. It wasn’t solid, but it wasn’t anything else either. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be trying to force two poles of a magnet with the same polarity together. That coupled with a tingling sensation in the fingers.
“What is this?” Joshua asked, hands shaking and moving, trying to contain the thing.
Emile started, “Never actually done anything like this before, but it should last. The energy is mine so it should feel like me. In theory. Hard to say. I’ve never had anyone try something like this against me.”
“How is it persisting if you aren’t controlling it,” Kael asked with genuine curiosity and wonder in his voice.
“It’s a permanent field I guess? Best way I know how to describe it.” Emile wavered. “We’ll just call it a Sy field. The energy I put into it will fade over time, but it’s stable on its own.”
Kael grunted his understanding but looked at the lightning storm with something resembling malice. He wanted to try it himself right then, to prove that this feat was trivial to what he could do, but even so, he didn’t have the faintest idea how to create a sustained explosion. It did nothing to improve his mood seeing Joshua holding the thing. He had always imagined that if Joshua was born with the gift, that he would dream up things that Kael had thought impossible. In a way, this was proof of that. Proof that with all his gifts he was inadequate compared to Joshua. That he had failed to even scratch the surface of what he could do.
Gianna leaned in and acted as if to poke the thing but then thought better of it. She turned to ask Emile a question but he had vanished.
Kael looked to the next car worryingly, seeing the stringy-haired blond guy fogging up the small window on the door. “This old guy’s hair isn’t even the same color. I should cut the inevitable short and blow the train in half.”
“People convince themselves of whatever they can when they don’t want to die,” Gianna suggested. “They’ll think he’s the same because it suits them, not because they believe he is.”
“Guys, little help here,” Joshua said. He was facing inwards with the electric ball pulled to his chest but his hands shook. Sweat pooled on his forehead and his cheek twitched. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Lightening was the hardest element to use by an incredible degree. Pure energy interfered with a Syche’s abilities and controlling it was dubious. It’s why Combustion Syches generally didn’t control explosions, they just set them loose on the world.
“Relax,” Kael said, “they can’t see it. You’re doing a fine job.” He had absolute faith in his brother.
“I’m not worried about them! This thing is really hard to hold. I don’t think it’s as stable as he said.” The electricity did seem to taking greater arcs, trying to push outside the invisible barrier.
“We’re almost in the city,” Kael said. “I’d rather risk the fight than that thing stopping your heart.” One look outside the windows proved that to be true. The hills were calming, and the train was almost on flat land, running alongside a narrow highway. Sparse buildings, old run-down dwellings, and the like were dotted here and there.
“Escape Plan 3A it is,” Joshua replied, his voice high pitched and strained.
As Kael rolled into the aisle and skidded towards the door, Joshua gave the storm he held a light underhand toss into the aisle. Kael’s palms smacked the dirty carpet as the lightning crashed to the floor and exploded every which way. The strands of electricity seared the walls and shattered lights, Under Kael’s hands, a molten line formed and ran laterally along the floor and then up the walls before meeting on the ceiling. As a chorus of screams sounded behind from the lightning, the rending explosion that tore the train in two deafened even them.
The guard didn’t even have to inform Zagan, he burst through the door and stopped looking on at a picturesque mosaic of chaos. The train lurched and separated down the middle as the last strands of electricity faded away in the darkened compartment. Where Kael had cut the car in two, the train began to separate, showing the tracks below and the sky above. A rush of wind buffeted the car’s occupants. Nothing was about to halt Zagan however.
Kael lurched to the left and grabbed a book the nearest person was reading. He infused it with as much Sychakenetic energy he good and lobbed it. Zagan ducked under the tepid explosion but the book-- turned fireball-- continued on and caught the bald man behind Zagan. It propelled him backward, lighting his clothes on fire and burning the exposed skin with just the heat. The gun in his hand slipped to the ground-- not a horribly dangerous weapon to a Syche, but it could catch anyone off guard.
Zagan moved forward, much like before, threatening to smother Kael, but in his rage forgot where he was, and his foot came in contact with nothing but air and the ever-widening gap. As he was falling, the small woman behind vaulted and caught him by with a handful of his robes in her hand. As Zagan stared down at the clicking tracks, a pulse of electricity spread through her body and she hefted Zagan back onto solid land with nothing but ease.
Kael threw a napkin holder infused with energy and, instead of being dodged, was met by a thin shield of blood. Kael danced left and right grabbing what he could to overwhelm the giant, but the barrier wouldn’t break and he was quickly running out of convenient projectiles.
The two halves of the train car were coming apart now. Just a little more.
Kael looked over his shoulder, ready to call for help, but Joshua was already pushing Gianna forward and into the fray.
Zagan whipped a crystallized projectile at Kael like had had before and Kael avoided it easily enough as he had before. The arrowhead of blood dug into the floor. Kael turned sideways, unsure which direction the next attack would come from. Gianna marched up and stood by his side as Joshua dumped a load of napkin holders, plates, and shoes on the table next to them.
“I’ve got our back covered. I’ll keep anything he sends over surrounded by my energy. If he wants at it, he’ll have to use blood to connect it back to him,” Gianna said.
Smart, he thought. That must be what Gianna meant when she said she would block Zagan. Combat between a Syche and a normal human was all about the physical control, but between Syches there was this additional layer. This intangible fight for space. Kael had ignored this earlier and ended up with a shiv of blood to his back.
“I need to make a tether,” Zagan screamed to his men as Gianna spoke on the other side. “We have to keep the cars together.”
The woman nodded and offered him her arm. Freely given, the barrier that projected humans from Syches meant nothing. One by one, he took about a pint of blood from his men, the red haze misting painlessly through the skin. It formed into a liquid in the air and then slammed down through the floor as a solid. He willed the tether across the gap and forcibly linked the two cars together. There was about two feet in between them now, and that wouldn’t change.
With the stage set, the combatants moved like fencers. Forward and back. Small steps. Deliberate movement. Kael tossed around explosions in vibrant oranges, Gianna in crimson reds. Joshua was somewhere behind and Kael couldn’t keep track; he just knew every now and then Joshua would drop off more materials for him to explode.
Kael was so transfixed on the duel that he failed to notice as the train pulled into the station. Screams filled the air, multiple people shouted for the police on their phones or into the air. They ran and rightfully so.
“Josh, Gianna, I’ve got the big guy,” Kael screamed, ducking under a red crystal threatening to give him a lobotomy. The other three are yours. We meet,” Kael paused moving aside from a stray whip of blood “as soon as we’re done, the usual spot.”
As sirens filled the air, Kael stamped energy into the ground and then exploded himself across the gap and landed on the roof behind Zagan.
“I’ve got this one. Go after those brats,” he heard Zagan bark before hearing the room of the train rattle. He looked back to see Zagan pulling himself up, his robes holding a reservoir of blood that he recouped below.
Meanwhile, Joshua and Gianna exited the car trying to blend in with everyone panicking the chaos. They knew the other three assassins were somewhere behind them, but specifics were an issue. Joshua and Gianna exited calmly through the main entrance not looking around and trying to seem as inconspicuous as possible. As they left a group of police officers with guns raised came charging into the building. Finally, they strode past a group of cop cars surrounding the location. They tucked their heads down as the police waved them on with the other pedestrians and then continued along the street. As soon as they were free, they broke into a run.
“Where is the usual spot?” Gianna asked in between breaths.
“That means we meet up at the same spot that we split up,” Joshua answered. “Or a close approximation. Feel it out.”