Chapter 11: City of the Dead
Chapter 11: City of the Dead
I broke to the surface of the water. Alone. Rolling on my back, I breathed deep and utterly relaxed. I can imagine the accusatory tone in your voice as I write that. Where is the guilt? Where’s my humanity? At least now at the end I’m weighing the scales and trying to understand the differences between us.
But on to more information you will find surprising and new.
I ended up pulling myself onto the ledge of a three-story building after my head bumped against it, and as I did I met the gaze of none other than the man who tried to kill you, soaked head to toe in an awful workman’s onesie.
“I got pulled here,” he grumbled, “I can only assume that was you guiding the wave?”
“For what’s it’s worth,” I said absentmindedly, “I didn’t mean for the wave to drag you here. I must have gotten confused.”
“Then we don’t have a problem?” So much hope to put into a single question.
I shrugged. “You haven’t lost it have you? Can’t you just read my mind.”
“Yes. Um. Well. . . .” the janitor paused, suddenly refusing to look me in the eyes. “You’re here to see Somiel. I just killed him that tower there.” He waved to a giant green building that the wave had sheered in half. “I was fairly close to him when the wave hit, maybe what caused the confusion.”
“How long ago did you kill him, did you say?”
“However long it’s been since the wave hit.”
“Wonderful news. You’ll help me find the body. I have several questions I need answered.”
And that’s more or less how the conversation went. You can’t expect me to remember every detail. Take it as paraphrase.
Why am I so cold? Joshua Rasgard thought.
Cold and wet. Joshua could feel the wind brushing against his face. But his eyes were shut and all of his senses were dull. His first thoughts came hazy, questioning if he was even alive. His heart pumped stronger now and the blood rushing through his veins told him he was alive.
His brain kicked back into gear and began processing information again. Right when the wave hit, something happened. People said that when you die you saw flashes of your life. He had seen brief glimpses of people and places he had never seen before. Better than re-visiting his own life, but strange. He felt off. It was more than the ocean rising up and personally slapping him to the ground below.
Perhaps it had something to do with that insane janitor.
Joshua jerked awake with a gasp. The janitor wasn’t there. As a matter of fact, Joshua was no longer in the building. He was outside, somewhere. Realizing this, he laid back down and felt the throbbing pain pulsing through his head.
He waited. Waited for the pain to subside, if only a little. It never did, so eventually he stood up. Only then realizing the pain his entire body was in. He grimaced and moved slowly. One joint at a time, he determined nothing was broken, miraculously as far as he could see. Finally, he began to stretch as he looked around.
What had once been a thriving cityscape had now become a graveyard. As far as the eye could see, everything was either destroyed or submerged under black water. Most of the buildings that were tall enough to rise above the flood line had collapsed under the force of the wave or been knocked over. Joshua looked down and finally noticed just where he was. He was standing on a road elevated above the water. There were guard rails on each side, damaged and twisted. In both directions, the elevated freeway was destroyed. There was a side road that dropped off to an exit, but it only sunk into the water. A single car remained on the elevated road, smashed to pieces but whole. Specs to shards of glass scattered around the vehicle’s corpse. Joshua pivoted his neck and looked the opposite direction. The tower he was ripped from was right there. The top half of it at least. The tower had broken away from the bottom floors and was now leaning against another building at a forty-five-degree angle. Joshua looked around but couldn’t find where the other half lay.
“Is anyone here?” Joshua yelled at the top of his lungs. There were bodies floating all around, but there was no reply. “Someone answer me! How can I be the only one to be alive? Kael, quit taking a bath and find me!” He paused listening.
There was nobody.
A sloshing sound cut through the dreary air and pricked at Joshua’s ears. He looked back over the guard rail, but he didn’t see anyone in the water. He strode to the other side of the street and did the same. The sound continued and then grew louder. He looked back down the exit ramp and saw someone weakly splashing towards solid ground, struggling to stay afloat. He hobbled down to meet them but stopped halfway. Without making a sound, Joshua slowly tiptoed backward up the ramp, all the while keeping a close eye on the man that had emerged from the water. The person’s feet twitched and muscle spasms shook the body. The man pushed himself from his stomach to his knees and gave a terrible hacking cough. His hand reached towards his mouth and made a pulling motion-- water vomiting from his lungs. Along his gargantuan back, the dark robes of the Element clung like a layer of skin.
Of course he is alive! But then Kael, what happened to Kael?
Joshua wanted to hide but also wanted to watch. The man on the ground stumbled trying to get to their feet but only fell back down. With another attempt, he teetered to his feet.
At this, Joshua moved away quickly and ran as lightly as possible to the battered car, his only immediate cover. He slid behind it, obscuring him from view of anyone who would come up the ramp.
Zagan had lived.
How? Why? Where was Kael?
Pressing himself up against the car, he heard footsteps by the ramp. He held his breath waiting for Zagan to leave. Joshua sat tense, waiting. As blood pulsed through his head and throbbed at his ears, the sound of Zagan’s feet clomping around thumped in Joshua’s eardrums as if it was the loudest thing he had ever heard. Then the sound stopped. Brushing the glass away with a soaked sleeve, Joshua put his hands on the ground and shimmied himself so his head was just poking out from behind the car. He could see Zagan still standing there with his back turned. Annoyed, Joshua pushed himself back and moved higher, peaking out over the windshield.
And that’s when he saw it. The keys. The keys were still in the ignition.
A devilish grin crept across Joshua’s face as the visions of Zagan flying across the windshield filled his mind. Joshua dragged himself to the door, careful of his foot scraping broken glass, and then reached his hand over the jagged bits of the shattered window to flip the lock. He was in. Slowly, quietly, with as much stealth as anyone has ever opened a car door, he pulled the handle back and slid into the pleather seats. He grunted softly as he awkwardly maneuvered over the gear shift and into the driver seat.
Looking up, he stared down Zagan with his back turned. Joshua took a quick, excited, but rattled breath and pushed the keys into the ignition blocked to start the electric engine. Prrt. The car trilled. Again Joshua pushed the keys into the switch, his thumb protesting in pain at the amount of force used. Prrrrttttt. The engine choked and wheezed under its water-logged breath, but it would not start.
Slowly, painfully, Joshua looked back up to Zagan, who glared befuddled at Joshua in the driver’s seat. With one last look around the sunken cityscape for Kael, for anyone to come save him, he kicked open the door and stood face to face with Zagan. In another ten seconds, Joshua finally built the nerve to look up and meet the giant eye to eye.
“The day I’m having man,” Joshua said.
Zagan stared at Joshua in disbelief. “How are you still alive?”
“The hero always lives,” Joshua said indignantly. “You’re the bad guy, how are you alive?”
“Okay, I’m just going to kill you now,” Zagan said advancing.
Joshua held up a single finger. “Sure. But. Sky lasers,” he said stepping backward.
“I. . . don’t understand?” Zagan asked, his eyes shifting nervously left and right.
“I’m talking about giant laser beams that shoot into the sky for no apparent reason.” Joshua clasped his hands and continued, “I just have one question: why?”
“There’s no one here,” Zagan’s voice began to grate. “There is no one to stall for. Everyone else is dead.”
Joshua shrugged. “Kael’s alive somewhere.” He wasn’t even sure if he believed it at this point.
Zagan’s hand reached out but snapping back to grasp his forehead. He grimaced and grunted, and then looked down at his arm.
Is he too exhausted to use his powers? Joshua could only hope either Kael or the wave had drained the giant.
Arms falling lazily to the side, he gazed at Joshua with pure hatred. With a loud bellow he rushed forward.
“You see.” Joshua paused evading a clumsy punch aimed at the flat of his face. “Mental exhaustion and Syches are a nasty cocktail.” It was a guess, but it was looking more true by the second. Zagan unexpectedly lunged forward and Joshua jumped to the side causing Zagan to crash face forward into the road. “To your credit, you are handling it only slightly worse than Kael does, and he has undergone some rigorous training to toughen him up. If I had to judge what your mental capabilities are, you are a little stronger than my sister and a little weaker than Kael.” As he spoke, he sauntered over to the collapsed Zagan, delighted with himself.
The Deputy Commander sprung from the ground with a newly found ferocity catching Joshua unready and flat-footed. Joshua tried to dodge but only managed in moving the blow to the side of his abdomen. Eyes bulging and lungs desperately trying to suck in air, Joshua leaped back holding his side. What an idiot he was. He went from terrified dread to gloating on a dime and now something inside of him was probably broken. Even if Zagan couldn’t use his powers, he was still a hundred times more physically imposing than Joshua.
As Joshua coughed and grabbed his side in pain, Zagan sprinted at him again. He leaped into the air, his body a missile. He could out punch Joshua; he could outlast Joshua; and he sure as heck could smother Joshua with his weight alone.
Joshua had assumed without any powers he could win, but now he wasn’t so sure. Normally a Syche’s downfall was that they were useless without their abilities. And Joshua knew how to fight. Did he ever. But did it matter right now? How much did it matter knowing how to fight when your opponent was twice your size?
Gnashing his teeth together through the pain, Joshua moved into Zagan’s hurtling mass. Below Zagan’s wobbly center of gravity, Joshua reached up and grabbed the folds of the robes on Zagan’s chest, actually forcing Zagan off the ground for a second. And that second was all Joshua needed to throw him to the ground. Just like Emile had done.
But then again, that little move hadn’t been to cause injury. He wasn’t even sure he could injure the giant, barring a lucky blow to the head. If Zagan wouldn’t open himself up to that, then there was only one option left to win: He had to bluff. Not any kind of normal bluff. No. Joshua had to make Zagan believe he could use lose this fight, even if he couldn’t. He had to force Zagan to use his powers past the breaking point. Joshua might not be able to hurt him, but Zagan could self-destruct.
Cursing, Zagan rolled away from Joshua trying to get some space. Jumping back up, his veins popped and his muscles bulged. Confidence. Act like you can take him. So Joshua strolled forward casually, doing his best not to lean into his injured side but failing miserably.
With a violent scream, Zagan charged once more,
As Zagan bore down on him, Joshua braced himself. A dark shiv of blood formed in Zagan’s right hand. Would he pass out? Of course not.
“Crap,” Joshua muttered under his breath, trying to re-maneuver his body sideways in time. He had one chance to stop a knife. It was either that or he was dead.
In a flash of a second, Joshua moved as the crystal shiv of blood Zagan held in his right hand came down. But Joshua was outside the attack now. He had hold of Zagan’s right arm and brought his knee up, hitting the wrist and knocking the ruby-red crystalline dagger away from the fray.
He looked over to where it landed, thinking it could help, but then a bright white light blurred his vision. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground and it felt like he had been hit by a truck. Zagan had hit him-- or something. And it was hard. Even sitting, Joshua was dizzy. But there was no time to stay down now. He was dead if he couldn’t stand. Vision blurry, head spinning, he put his arms out to brace himself as he stood, and nearly gasped in surprise as his hand slid on something. Not just anything though. It had slid on the dagger.
Perhaps he was due some luck, being tossed in the direction of the only weapon around. He grasped it tighter, felt its cold surface like a porous gemstone and stood, staring down his opponent. He could barely see Zagan straight, but the man was wavering.
And then Zagan held his arm out and blood pooled along his skin where the robes were torn. It trickled over those deep black robes and into his hand. The blood coagulated and began to form a sword, lengths longer than the dagger Joshua held. As came together, Zagan let out a grunt and dropped the quasi-solid blade grabbing his head. And just as easily as the sword fell and scattered on the highway, Zagan crumpled over and hit the ground hard.
Ambling over to Zagan’s unconscious body, Joshua nudged violently with the tip of his foot.
“As weak as you can possibly get and it still feels like I got lucky,” Joshua mumbled, grabbing the side of his abdomen and shifting slightly to make sure he wasn’t too badly injured. Determining he was fine (in the relative sense), Joshua bent down and put to fingers on Zagan’s burly neck. The gentle thud, thud of his pulse sounded. “What to do?”
Joshua’s eyes wandered down to the ruby red shiv he still held and contemplated it. He took two steps towards the giant before his teeth ground and brow knit. Raising the dagger above his head, he smashed it into the ground, obliterating it.
He was wrong. I’m not a killer. You’re lucky. If a lunatic hadn’t been playing mind games with me, you’d be dead.
“Bravo! A bona fide pugilist!” A distant voice sounded throughout the air. It was gritty and held just a twang of brashness in it.
Jumping in place, Joshua looked around the dead city. There was no one.
“Over here you half-witted, cyan sanguineous peasant.”
Compounding Joshua’s frustration not being able to find who was speaking, he was unable to understand the jumble of words the voice communicated. It was a man, and it had shaky timber of someone unhinged.
“I’ll give you a hint,” the voice continued. “Take three right turns and then invert your gaze a few tenths of a radii.”
Joshua tried to work it out: “So I take a left and something. Hey what was that second part?” he shouted to open air.
“Look up you benighted ignoramus,” the brazen voice shouted in frustration.
Joshua craned his neck and looked up. At the very tip-top of the building he had been in when the flood hit was a figure sitting on the corner of the ledge.
The man had gritty, frazzled brown hair that was shoulder length and pulled behind his ears. His bangs were cut much shorter than the rest of his hair. He wore baggy black jeans and a black leather jacket open over a white t-shirt with a deep V-neck. His shirt fit him very tightly against a body that had little more fat than a twig. His demeanor was wild, like a feral lion stalking its pretty. He gazed down on the scene with an insane gleam in his eyes, loving every second. Joshua could only make out a fuzzy image that far away but he had a clear picture of the man in his head from the voice alone.
“First thing first,” Joshua yelled skyward, “English please!”
“Come on Josh, what’s the point of having a high school education if I don’t get to use it?” the man yelled back.
“What does that even…,” Joshua began to say but caught himself realizing something more important. “Hold on there. How do you know my name?”
“I was hoping to make this quick, but sure I’ll play along,” the man said with a chuckle. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember little Josh, but my name is Mal. It’s been so long since we last saw each other. Kael would surely remember, make sure you give him my regards.”
“I will if I can find him,” Joshua replied. “This whole disaster thing kind of threw our plans out ’a whack. Heck, I should probably be finding him now,” Joshua screamed back.
“No worries there, I couldn’t do much for you, but Kael and the other kiddo I kept safe from the flood.
“Kael and who?”
“Girl, younger, one of us,” Mal shrugged, not particularly interested in her.
“Gianna.” Joshua felt a tinge of guilt. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot about her.”
“That brings me back to why I’m here and who I am though, doesn’t it? I know you’re going there next,” the eccentric man guessed, “so I’ll give you a hint.”
The man raised his hand and snapped his fingers. The side of the building burst into flames. Flames of all colors: red, blue, and white. But also violet, green and black. The explosion arced through the air. Through the air! The entire landscape burned right down to the water and even a little into the murky depths. The heat was incredibley intense, and Joshua had to move away from the nearest building as the flames seared the hair from his skin. Like a conductor guiding an orchestra, Mal moved his hands apart and the fires snuffed themselves out all at once leaving the surrounding buildings still standing but charred and husk-like. It wasn’t as if he burned them; it was as if he had sapped every bit of energy and left a husk of the matter’s former self.
“That’s right!” Mal said enthusiastically and overly theatrically. “I am the Commander of the special forces of the Dark Element. I’m here to offer you a position in my division. We’re going to have a good time.”
Joshua stood dumbfounded as those final words rang through his ears. This was the guy who trained Kael how to fight! How could I forget so easily? “Uh.” Joshua stammered. “I’ll talk to Kael about it?” No I won’t.
Mal shrugged and sighed, “Fine you and Kael talk it over. Just remember, I won’t take no for an answer, unless it’s a double negative.” Joshua couldn’t see the man’s face clearly but he could swear he was grinning. “I could be a great ally. I can help you accomplish everything you’ve set out on. Not just the Book either. Everything.” Joshua’s heart skipped a beat as he said this. It almost sounded like he could help, and that he did know something. Was it possible? The Dark Element staying apprised of their treasure hunt was not reassuring in any case.
“Tell me,” Joshua said hesitantly, “just how would you know what I’ve been up to.”
“We’re family. Not literally of course, but we practically grew up together. And,” he cleared his throat, “the boss called a Commander’s meeting sometime to discuss how to deal with you and Kael. Something about having a tail put on you or something to keep tabs on you. I skipped out on the meeting because it cut into my personal time; arts and crafts baby!”
“The Element knows about us?” Joshua asked surprised. “And your leader called a meeting just about me and Kael?”
“Well yeah, it’s not like you two have been subtle over the years, and I mean. . . . Wait. Wait. Wait. No really. Wait. You don’t know? No. You really don’t know? You have to at least suspect.” Mal crescendoed in unbelieving glee.
Joshua’s eye’s widened as he realized just what Mal was implying. I hate my family.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen your dear ole’ dad?”
“Conversation over. How about that?”
Jumping from the building and gliding through the air in blinding flare of white, the man landed lithely by Zagan, an arm’s length away. Mal slid closer to Joshua, bending over him like a willow tree in a storm. “How you didn’t figure out the Element works for Taerose is beyond me. Unless you’re playing stupid. You do that a lot.” He winked. Rubbing his hands together, he ran them through his greasy hair and turned towards Zagan. “Shame about him though. I was really hoping you’d kill him. You still could, you know?”
“I’m not a murderer.”
Unhinging his jaw, Mal stared down Joshua with a sudden ferocity in his gaze. This was the first time Joshua realized just how menacing this man could be, and Joshua found himself afraid. He wasn’t prepared to deal with someone like this. Even if he was prepared, he wasn’t sure what he could do. Joshua backed away ever so slightly suddenly realizing how far out of his depth he was with this man. Even against Zagan at full strength, Joshua had a chance in a straight fight. There was always some trick you could pull. But this? Joshua had watched the man combust air, and that was the least impressive thing he had done.
Joshua edged back, nearing the side of the overpass. He could jump into the water if he had to. “Am I free to go?” He didn’t know what else to ask.
Mal craned his neck to the side and smiled. “You’re dad was specific enough. I was just supposed to ask. This time.”
“So I’m free to go?”
“Yes, but. . . .” Mal jerked his head back towards the unconscious Zagan. If you don’t kill him. I’ll send him after you again. And it’ll be worse next time. I’ll be sure of that. I’ll make you kill him and regret not doing it the first time.”
“You can’t make me.”
Mal threw his head back and laughed a howling laugh. “Oh but I can. I can. That’s the point. I take you back to Taerose if I want. And I can make you kill this oaf. You’ll see. Leave now and you’ll see.”
Joshua took a giant breath and turned, jogging down the ramp. He didn’t look back, he hoped Mal wouldn’t come. Sloshing through the streets, draining water up to his shins, Joshua trudged as fast as possible. As he ran through the desolate wasteland with cars overturned, lampposts toppled, and debris strewn everywhere, not a soul was to be seen—not a body alive or dead. Pulled into the ocean? It was the only possibility Joshua saw. He kept his wits about him and pressed on.
Joshua came to an intersection and stopped not sure exactly where to go.
Joshua wavered uncertainly not sure if he had heard something or not. He could swear it was just the wind, but then again, he probably swore more than he should already. He quieted his mind and listened a little harder but decided he had heard nothing. He continued walking with an unsure looked over his shoulder on occasion.
“Go back,” the voice came in clearer and undeniably distinct.
Joshua questioned the unseen voice, “Is anyone there?” After no response, he put his hands over his ears. “No more of this city. No more.”
After a few minutes of tracking, backtracking, and walking in circles, Joshua found the train station. He had passed it several times, as it had turned out, but he hadn’t recognized it because of all of the damage done to the aged brick structure by the disaster. He walked around looking for Kael and Gianna and found them standing on the opposite side, talking.
“How’s it going guys,” Joshua hollered as he approached them getting their attention. He stopped and gasped looking at Kael. To say he looked like death would have been a compliment. Dried blood stained his upper lip and just under his ears. His eyes were darkened by the blood vessels popping.
Kael gave a pitiful smile and hobbled over before embracing Joshua, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes. “How are you alive?′
“How am I alive?” Joshua asked through gritted teeth, “I’m the stronger swimmer here. What happened to you? Every part of your head is bleeding, or at least was.”
“I too have not died,” Gianna mused from behind them, her eyes shifting one side and then the other.
“I had pretty much put whatever mental energy I had into an attack right before the wave hit. I had to use so much more energy to fight the current and get somewhere safe. My head has never felt like that before. And fair warning, I’ve been fading in and out of consciousness. Gianna almost had to drag me here.”
Joshua looked back to her and smiled. She really was a good person. She had saved his life and done what she could to help Kael. He had his doubts breaking her out even if he would never admit them, so it was good to find evidence for what he already believed. Still, as he looked her up and down, she wasn’t even wet. No bruises. No injuries. How did she manage that?
Joshua ducked and looped Kael’s arm around his shoulder and supported him as they began walking out of the city. “Remember Mal?” And as they walked along, Joshua whispered to Kael, “He’s part of the Dark Element, and he basically confirmed they are led by Dad.”
They walked for five minutes before the befuddled expression on Kael’s face finally broke. “Say what now?”