Chapter 12: They are the Prey
Chapter 12: They Are The Prey
Speaking of people who I should have killed while I had the chance:
“Over here!” my new partner yelled.
I used the knobby walking stick I held to navigate the skeleton of some dead building. I jumped over a fallen support beam and scrambled up a collapsed floor to where my new partner, Kaeza, stood. He stood over a body barely visible through the rubble.
“So ask him your questions,” Kaeza said.
“We’ll need to freeze him,” I said.
“Freeze him?” Kaeza asked exasperatedly. “Why can’t you do whatever it is here?”
“We will be taking him to Taerose.” I could already see the question forming upon this man’s lips, so I preemptively answered: “Yes you are coming as well. If I can’t question him, I will hold you accountable for his death.”
Hobbling out of the city, the group left the roads and plunged into the dense forest that rose before them. Without path or trail in sight, they forged ahead into the thicket. The foliage above was thick with evergreen trees, the ground moist from the last snow that melted, and the prospects for food bleak. The water situation was not near as bad, thankfully, since there were pockets of snow still in a handful of the dark places hidden from the sun under rocky outcrops.
The first night in the Selan woods brought quick relief. Sitting around a blazing campfire, the soft hoot of an owl met their ears a few trees behind. Joshua, too busy stooping over a sleeping Kael and feeling his forehead sent Gianna off to hunt it. She snuck up to the base of the tree and delicately placed her fingers on the bark. She shot a tremor of energy up the tree and into the owl. It wasn’t much food, but it was precooked. Lucky for them all that the life force principles that protected humans didn’t work on animals for some reason.
Halfway through the next day, Joshua was the first to spot a lean depala in the distance.
For the first time in a week, Joshua, Kael, and Gianna had enough food on hand to completely fill their empty stomachs, which, as it turns out, was a very large amount of meat. Even with the animal whittled down to its thin sinews in the sparse winter months, it tasted divine as far as they were concerned.
They sat quietly by the fire that night. No one talked. There hadn’t been much talking since leaving the city. Everyone was hurt, exhausted, and utterly defeated in their own way. Joshua kept an eye on Kael closely examining him over the roaring fire. Kael did the same. Joshua had been acting like he would during his episodes, but Kael could hardly blame him. Admittedly, there was little difference between Joshua’s mood and Kael’s right now. The only outlier was Gianna who never failed to be an unreadable storm of dispositions. Although, she seemed more dour as well, even if neither of the boys could describe just what that looked like.
Two weeks in and the group made it back to civilization through various means of hiking, hitchhiking, and stowing away until they had traveled through three small countries and ended up at the border of another. Joshua and Gianna both leaned against a rail looking down into a gorge with rivers from both sides spewing a cool froth downwards. This gorge was known as the Cataract. It was a massive gash through the center of the continent which all rivers drained into. Joshua stared blankly and yawned. He had seen it at least a dozen times and the wonder just wasn’t there anymore. It was hard not to come across it as it was smack dab in the middle of the continent from end to end. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, it started in Taerose and didn’t hit the ocean on the eastern end.
After the sound of skidding tires sounded in the distance, Gianna, all the while looking down into the foamy waters churning below, said, “I don’t see why we don’t just go to Dania. If you want the Book so much that is?” Gianna said.
“We’re broke. Starving. Injured. And all around, um, out of sorts,” Joshua said. “There’s something to be said for a few months’ worth of rest after being on the road for half a year.”
“Wimp,” Gianna breathed, as Joshua raised an eyebrow. “Have you two ever robbed a bank?” Gianna overemphasized, trying to change the subject. “They have banks in this city.”
“If Kael doesn’t get back soon we can try. It’s always been on my to-do list.”
“His plan isn’t going to work.”
“We need money woman. I wouldn’t care if he planned to sell your kidney. I’d go along with it.”
“Carve your kidney out with a spoon,” Gianna muttered under her breath, just loud enough for Joshua to hear-- an intentional choice Joshua decided.
Over the past few weeks, Joshua had become progressively more ornery, and he could recognize that in himself easily enough. He knew it would benefit him greatly just to keep his mouth shut, but that didn’t always come naturally. Just for a moment though, he took a deep breath and just watched, studied, Gianna. Her eyes darted along the walls of the canyon, to the cross-stitch of houses woven into each side. The city on the north side where they were, Jibeou, looked identical to the city across the Cataract, Errez. Further down the road, perhaps a mile or two, there was a great bridge that covered the expanse, but they lacked money for a toll.
“Did you just say the word ‘sigh’?” Gianna said with a sigh herself.
A few more moments rolled by until a faint sound started and slowly built up in the air: sirens. Joshua and Gianna ignored them at first but they began to get louder, only a few streets over. Just as Joshua was about to open his mouth to say something, Kael skidded up from behind, unrecognizable at first, covered in a cheap blue poncho he must have lifted off a tourist around the city; they were always wearing those things to stave off the spray of the falls.
“We most certainly need to go now,” Kael said. Joshua and Gianna both raised an eyebrow with a question in their look. “Don’t give me that. I know. But my picture is probably going to make the paper tomorrow so let’s go.” His speech elicited no response from the other two. “I threw the police,” he pointed to the fading sound of sirens, “but we should go.”
“Did they see you use your powers?”
“I didn’t. I’m still being cautious about that anyway. My head still feels like a mess. Still. We should go.”
Joshua waved his hand. “Fine, let’s grab some food on the way out though.”
Three days later, the group sloshed through the mud walking alongside the Cataract, the roar of the falls echoed as the rivers from the north and south side of the continent funneled into this massive canyon. The gentle sound of rushing water was always a soft hiss in the background. Joshua watched as one foot pulled out of the mud and the other planted its self in the slop. In theory, adventures were fun, but he had learned over the years that about 90% of adventures were comprised of this tedium.
Gianna slogged along pensive, listening to Joshua and Kael’s semi-hourly bickering. She hadn’t said a word the last three days. Whenever she did talk around them they gave her such odd looks, so silence seemed to serve the tense situation better. At least I’m getting better, talking normally. It was all in the inflection. And emotion, or something. It was all new to her and she was getting better at it. She’s hadn’t heard any jokes about her seemingly random over and under-emphasis in weeks. This she took as a good sign.
“Hold on,” she said hesitantly, a sudden realization hitting her. Kael loosened his headlock on Joshua and they both shut up and looked to her quietly. “You didn’t run out of money because of me? Food, travel, these clothes?.” She considered her own words of concern as if there was something novel about them.
“It’s probably a contributing factor,” Kael said coldly, Joshua’s head under his right arm.
“Maybe, but I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” Joshua said. “It’s far less than we spent with one of Kael’s diversions back in Tyré.” Gianna looked curious so Joshua continued. “There was this orphan house in the capital. Maybe you heard us mention the one we dropped Bartholomew’s daughter at? So Kael thought we could make a donation. He bought them all a nice meal to celebrate the end of the year. Gianna looked skeptically at Joshua now. “I know,” Joshua shrugged, “but Kael only puts up the tough guy act to shield the world from ever finding out about his cute puppy complex.”
“What’s that?” Gianna asked not sure if Joshua was making this entire spiel up.
“It is just something I came up with to describe him. If he sees something small and cute, he is compelled to pet it, hug it, and love it forever. And in this case, it was the little orphans.”
“He’s messing with you, you know,” Kael said, tightening his grip on his brother. Joshua flailed wildly and kicked Kael in the back of the leg, causing Kael to let go and Joshua to plop down in the mud.
“Not the mud!” Joshua screamed squirming around trying to get up quickly. “Why do you have to scare me like that Kael!”
Gianna’s head nodded off to the side. “You are afraid of mud?”
Smiling his most devilish grin, Kael began to speak, “Joshua has a weird phobia. He is afraid of--”
Joshua sprung up at Kael and tackled him to the soupy ground. The two toppled over, thrashing around.
That night as they lay on a dry patch of ground next to a small but warm fire, Joshua and Kael both sat opposite each other almost unrecognizable with a dry layer of mud pancaked on. Gianna sat on her own curled into a ball looking back and forth, not feeling like this was a situation where she could make things better. Joshua to Kael. Kael to Joshua. The two looked at each other blankly, but then Joshua cracked a smile. Kael started laughing. Just like that they were both in tears and trying to control their laughter.
Gianna sat blank watching them but all the while she thought: this is nice.
Joshua was a little surprised later that night when Kael sent Gianna off into the forest, half asleep, to find more wood for the fire. It wasn’t her turn, but she didn’t question it when Kael set her to the task.
“I’ve been meaning to find a minute to talk to you J,” Kael said across from the smoldering fire. Joshua nodded knowingly. There had been an obvious fact between that neither had addressed after it was first brought up. “Dad runs the Dark Element,” Kael continued. “Something needs to be done about this.”
“I’ll go where you lead,” Joshua said. “I always knew we’d be going down that path after finding the Book. I do have to wonder though, does this change anything? He was still a monster even without commanding the Element.”
This question seemed to bother Kael who contemplated it for a while. “I suppose not. We’re finding the Book first regardless. Still, it’s something you should start thinking about; the day is quickly approaching.”
Joshua leaned back and pushed the thought from his mind. Finding the Book always seemed stupid to him and killing or otherwise stopping their father seemed doubly so. All the same, he would go where his brother lead, on whatever ill-advised adventure he had in mind.
By the time Gianna came back with a bundle of sticks between her arms, the boys were both silently staring at the flames. She had missed the last words uttered that night.
Joshua woke first the next morning, uncomfortably jostled by the chilling cold. He brought his arms in and hugged himself as tiny flakes of snow fell onto his forehead. The fire had smoldered hours ago and died, and the air was dense that morning with a thin layer of fog beginning to descend below the mountain tops.
Joshua’s foot poked Kael in the stomach waking him up. “I’m cold, so start me a fire, if you don’t, frostbite is dire,” Joshua demanded rhythmically.
Kael rolled onto his back and squinted, taking in the early morning light. “Get some wood for the fire and I’ll start it,” Kael gurgled, waving him off. “Holler if you find food.”
Joshua lumbered to his feet with a yawn and headed into the denser portion of the woods where Gianna had retrieved some kindling the night previous. Ducking under an overhanging branch, he scoured the ground for some large chunks of wood, sticks, really anything that would work. In the middle of his quest for fire, he halted behind a tree and dared not make a single movement more; someone stood just within eyesight, someone he recognized.
A blood-red cloak swished against the underbrush of the forest. The man’s sandy-haired head was looking away. They’d only seen each other briefly back in Sela, back in the diner, but Joshua had a feeling he’d still be recognized. The man and Emile had both flipped out when the words “Dark Element” were dropped. Across his shoulder, he haphazardly hung on to metallic poles with blinking green diodes on the end. Joshua didn’t know what that was about, and it didn’t seem particularly important relative to his presence in general.
Joshua looked down began to back away while looking down at his feet. He knew better than the step on a stick or rustle up any more noise than needed.
“Joshua? Is that you?” the man asked, his back still turned.
Joshua froze on the spot, not the faintest inkling of what to do. Call for help? Kael and Gianna were too far away.
“My name is Niles,” the man continued. “It’s alright. Come out here and talk to me.”
Stepping around the tree that hid him, Joshua brushed leaves, twigs, and general scraps of nature that had accumulated on his clothes. “How do you know my name?”
The man turned and smiled a wide smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I followed you into Ilporta the day after I first saw you. I found out enough to put the rest together-- if you catch my meaning.” Joshua desperately hoped he had caught the wrong meaning.
“Are you Emile’s Commander? He said he was meeting him when he left us?” Joshua thought back to that day on the train. It felt like it could have been years ago at this point for everything that had happened in-between.
“Not an unintelligent guess, but no.” The man pulled one of the poles he was carrying from the rest and shoved it into the ground, the blinking light facing to the sky. “Walk with me,” he said still smiling-- always smiling. “I have to get these other three in the ground soon.” Without waiting to see if Joshua followed, Niles marched away into the woods.
“How did you know I was hiding behind you?” Joshua yelled, trying to catch up. The man was only walking, but he glided through the underbrush at an incredible speed.
“I am Conduction.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ah. I shall phrase it in a way you know then. How about: I am Lightening?”
It was a weird way of phrasing it but Joshua thought he understood. “You’re a Lightening Syche. Are you also a member of the Dark Element?”
Niles stopped to grab another pole and shove it in the ground at the base of a gnarly old tree.
“What’s the opposite of the Dark Element?” Joshua asked, confused. “The Light Element?”
Niles almost quit smiling, almost. “It would be easier to show you. Let me get these two things in the ground and then we’ll head over to the Dark Element base. They have a hollowed-out mountain nearby they are operating from. I’m assuming that’s why you are here?”
“If what you are saying it’s true, then it’s entirely on accident. We’re trying to stay away from the Dark Element right now. And I’d prefer to stay away nice and safe like, if you don’t mind.
“They’ll be dead soon. Would that be safe enough for you?”
Joshua followed silently for the next two poles contemplating on these words. It was too late to find Kael or Gianna; Joshua didn’t have the foggiest idea which direction the campsite lay at this point. Another pole entered the ground and the two began to climb in elevation. Joshua racked every nook of his brain to make sense of this man but couldn’t come to any conclusions. At least Niles didn’t seem hostile, at least not yet.
Joshua and Niles arrived at the top of a bluff at which point the man shoved his final pole into the ground. Niles stooped down and swung his feet over the cliff face and pointed to the right where a large crack ran vertically up and down the mountain. Joshua sat down beside Niles with far more caution, placing his legs over the edge but leaning back a good way.
“That right there,” Niles said, pointing to the fissure, “is the entrance to the Dark Element’s base. Oh and before I forget. . . .” he paused. Niles brought his hand to his ear where a small receiver hung. “Sensors all down, you can start the drill whenever you want.” A short silence hung in the air before Niles laughed and said: “That too.”
“Who are you talking to?” Joshua asked.
“Patience Joshua,” Niles said. “After we’ve watched the show I’ll take you to meet him. You and your half-brother.”
Niles gestured out to the clearing in front of the Dark Element’s base. “Soon.”
Joshua rocked back and forth impatiently. He had walked in silence for about two weeks, but this one in particular was painful. “I have a question,” Joshua spoke up.
“Okay,” Niles nodded. “But I get to ask my own. All things must have their opposite.”
Joshua didn’t actually have a question in mind as he was just trying to fill space so he quickly tried to come up with one. He had never attended any real school, but it always seemed awful to him. People expecting you to ask questions. “If you’re a Syche, then aren’t you obvious up here? A Syche is like a beacon compared to a normal human.”
“Normally,” Niles said, “but I’ve got a trick (we’ll call it) to hide. If they felt in our direction, they’d only feel you.” Niles squinted his eyes and looked out to the treeline opposite the bluffs. “How did you survive the wave?”
Joshua gave a wholehearted shrug. “Haven’t really thought about it. I just kind of woke up alive.” He had thought about it, but couldn’t come up with a reason.
“Second question: why are you always smiling. It’s creepy.”
“Is it?” Niles said, refusing to drop the smile. “It’s a cultural thing, that law of opposites I mentioned. I’d explain but it’s starting.” Joshua followed the direction Niles’s eyes pointed and braced himself.
There was movement in the trees. Joshua couldn’t place the specific kind of movement, but something was happening on the opposite end of the clearing. A new distraction met his ears as screaming filled the air. Not screams of pain but screams of panic and surprise. Joshua jerked his head right to see a trail of putrid yellow smoke wafting from the fissure. Are we downwind? He thought. The smoke didn’t seem to be coming in their direction.
Quickly, the screams became louder and from the haze of the caves emerged men and women dressed in the customary black robes of the Dark Element. They collapsed to their knees one by one and threw their hoods off if they still wore them. Soon they were joined by more people pouring from the caves wearing street clothes. By the end, the last stranglers were barely dressed or not dressed at all.
Joshua had been so transfixed on the rabble pouring from underground that the sudden clamor of gunfire scared him. Joshua watched dumbfounded as the assassins furthest from the cave dropped dead in an instant. Joshua jerked his head to the woods. Soldiers dressed in woody camouflage and flak jackets emerged in a semicircle, surrounding the clearing. Small steel canisters rocketed out of the trees spewing a thick grey fog into the clearing, giving the soldier marching forward cover.
It looked like the same smoke grenade move he had pulled on the Taerose battleship. There had been a lot of gunfire then too. Joshua tried to push that memory away. The ending of that memory was a bad one.
As the impending wall of smoke transfixed the Dark Element and obscured the unit of commandos. Those unscathed under the hail of bullets ducked down, screamed, panicked. Joshua could hardly blame them. He’d like to think he’d react on his feet, but he’d only ever been shot at two or three times; it wasn’t something he was particularly acclimated to.
Random explosions fired off in the smoke now. Joshua saw the metal canisters get flung far off into the trees even though it was too late to get rid of the smoke. A few assassins managed to keep calm and pull a group around them. Two Blood Syches pulled out a barrier of thin blood and erected a wall between them and the commandos. With their fellow assassins contributing their own blood, the barrier grew and crystallized outwards. Those still out in front that were still alive were simply out of luck. From his vantage point, Joshua watched some semblance of order form. Those still alive grouped behind the walls. He couldn’t see any intimidating figures like Zagan in the crowd. No Deputy Commanders and certainly no Commanders like Mal.
The soldiers sortied and moved as if every action had been a rehearsed dance. Half of the squad sprinted across the gap running straight for the Element’s bloody walls. With covering fire behind them, they slammed into the makeshift defenses, an explosion racked the ground to the side. Two soldiers moved to the corners of the barrier and fired blindly around while others vaulted over the wall with help and fell onto their prey. With the two groups of combatants just feet apart, the battle was ended with lightning quick efficiency from the attackers, dispatching the best Element Syches as if they were nothing more than regular humans.
It was almost too much for Joshua to keep track of, but he was loving every second of it. People, with nothing more than weapons and training, trouncing Syches. Still, he wondered what it would have looked like if there had been elite Syches to contend with.
As the soldiers walked through the strewn bodies, a single man lurched to his feet after they passed. He sprinted to the woods and took an enormous leap halfway there as electricity swirled over his body. Joshua held his breath; he found himself almost rooting for this underdog. But then a loud crack rent the air and the man rag-dolled into a tree.
Joshua took a deep breath and looked back to Niles. “That was exciting,” Joshua conceded. “Is it time for you to tell me who you are, what this is about?”
Niles held out a finger for a pause and held his out hand to his ear. “Right you are,” Niles said to Joshua. “Time to meet the man in charge of all of this.”
Niles pushed forward and dropped off the cliff. Joshua looked down at the man looking back up. Sighing, Joshua swung his legs over the side and worked his way down the thirty-something foot drop. Niles was already walked towards the throng of soldiers grouped around the slaughter of dead Element assassins. Joshua broke into a run to keep up and quickly skidding to a halt as Niles was engaged in conversation with some grizzly looking man at the center of the group. Something was said between them about cleaning the area, Joshua couldn’t be sure. As he started to hold out his hand to this man, surely the one in charge based on the stripes adorning his uniform, Niles put heel to toe and was once again gliding off, waving for Joshua to catch up.
They were past the clearing and into the woods once again in a matter of seconds. Joshua thought back to Kael and Gianna. They had surely woken up by now and were scouring the area for him. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be long before Kael or Gianna stumbled into these soldiers, and Joshua wasn’t sure the result would be to anyone’s benefit. He considered stopping Niles and telling him about Kael and Gianna, but at the same time, he almost felt it better that those two remained a mystery for the present. If there was a chance for his brother and Gianna to stay out of this, all the better. Not without knowing who these people were or what they wanted.
Joshua and Niles trekked through the woods for a good half hour. Joshua was not averse to moving long distances, but with Niles smiling all the time, it quickly seemed to be some sort of joke. The longer Joshua looked at his joyless eyes, though, the more he took him seriously. For all of Zagan’s loud brashness and rage, the man before him scared Joshua far, far more in the flicking moments when he looked into those dead eyes.
Moments before Joshua mustered the courage to ask where they were going, they broke into a clearance and a large black shape rose before them. In a city, or anywhere else with man-made things, Joshua would have recognized the shape before him immediately, but in the woods, it took his mind a second to catch up. It was an airplane, of sorts. Giant, monstrous, with huge jet turbines. They began the march towards its backside.
“Why is there an airplane here?” Joshua asked.
“Well we couldn’t park right next to the Dark Element’s fortress,” Niles laughed. Joshua wasn’t sure what answer he expected, and while it wasn’t the answer he wanted, he figured it was easier just to accept it.
A giant gangway was opened on the back end of the airplane exposing a cargo hold within. Their feet rushed from soft grass to cold steel as Niles crossed the threshold to another door and held it open for Joshua to enter.
Forcefully gulping some intangible thing stuck in his throat, Joshua nodded and entered.