Syche: The Dark Element

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Chapter 16: Metal-Sea

Chapter 16: Metal-Sea

Another conversation I shall paraphrase for you. Not because it’s important this time, but because I want you to know I completely understand your feelings about your older brother by blood:

“What do you mean the King is not here?” I asked.

“It is as I said, the King is away,” a young man that looked shockingly like you answered. “You will simply have to make do with my substitution. As little as he’s been here lately, I should be kept abreast,” he said with a wave of his hand.

He looked down on me, a rehearsed coldness in his demeanor. Every moment he wouldn’t be experiencing pain in this conversation would be altruism on my part. “Where is he?” I spoke flatly.

The boy hesitated but finally relented. “Father, the King, sent Mal out looking for my long lost brothers. Now he’s in the wind, and Father is looking for him. I heard that Mal found them, my brothers, for what it’s worth. He was supposed to bring them back but. . . . Honestly, Father didn’t care when they ran off so I can’t see why--”

“I understand that he likes to gallivant around the globe for whatever reason seems best to him on that day, but this is important. Get him here, or there will be another child missing.”

###

The third month of the year had just begun, and spring had just lurched into being. Lush green grass was finally growing outside and flowers would soon be blooming, a cold snap aside. The air was crisp, cool, and refreshing. Just a month and a half ago, Joshua, Kael, and Gianna had arrived home, but now the day had come when they would finally be on their way once more, but it wouldn’t just be them; Avonly would be coming too. Joshua and Kael weren’t complaining despite their initial uneasiness about the idea, and she was bursting with excitement.

With bags packed, a full meal in their bellies, a wad of large currency tucked against Kael’s (not Joshua’s) chest, and feeling ready to take on the world, the group of four stepped from their cozy farmhouse into the crisp morning air. They had said their goodbyes and were ready for the upcoming hardships of the desert. Alma had begrudgingly given out hugs, and Noel gave a kiss on the forehead as Agassa ran down a checklist of do’s and dont’s. They were out the door surprisingly early, due in part to Avonly’s enthusiasm to keep things moving, considering how slow Joshua had been all morning complaining of a splitting headache.

He was having those often as of late and each one seemed to be worse than the last.

As they entered the little town about an hour later and veered onto a side street heading for a bus station, Joshua snapped his fingers. As he was about to say something, Gianna held up her hand calling for silence and spoke as softly as she could. “There’s someone following us.”

Kael teetered but then pressed forward, moving faster and forcing the group to match his pace.

“Two people actually,” Joshua said, “a man and a woman.” He wasn’t a Syche, but he had to imagine it couldn’t be that hard to keep an eye (or feel) for other people at all times.

“How long have you known?” Avonly asked, her voice trembling with a mixture of excitement and dread.

“Well, you know, the woman just now. Pretty much when we got to town. And the man--”

“Excuse me!”

All eyes turned to a woman who was running up from behind. At least she wasn’t trying to be stealthy. The group stopped now as she was on them. She stood tall and gave a quick salute.

“We’ve seen her before,” Gianna mumbled, sidling partially behind Joshua.

“Um, yes.” The woman stammered. “Just for a moment I think.” Clearing her throat, “the Commander sent me to bring you in.”

“So you want a fight do you?” Kael said, a devilish grin working its way across his face

The woman jumped back, her words failing to articulate. Kael moved to chase but stopped when Joshua’s hand caught his shoulder.

“She’s talking about Ell,” Joshua paused and looked around before continuing in a whisper, “not the Element.”

“Well, that’s what—“ she began to say; Kael held up a finger. “I’m here to take you to the transport,” she quickly finished. “I was told we were expected.”

Kael crossed his arms and glared at her. “This is not where we agreed. We were to meet a few hours from now and a few cities away.”

The woman’s entire body gave an exasperated sigh. “I was not told any of this. Only to meet you here, in this town, and escort you to the ship.”

“How did Ell know we’d be here? I specifically avoided letting him know where we lived.”

The woman swallowed hard and nodded. “Shall I take you to him?”

Hooking through the side of the town, they headed west along a barren road. Joshua craned his head around, looking for anyone else following. “Where did that other guy go?” he asked, “you didn’t come alone.”

She too scanned her surroundings, the city behind, the flat nothingness of the farms around them. “I came alone. But I’m armed if it comes to that. They can hardly approach in this terrain without us seeing anyway.”

For the first time since they had met her, she looked like a soldier, a soldier completely out of her element and unprepared. She walked stiffly for a full mile along the earth-painted road before Avonly started to laugh. She had suppressed it so far, but now she laughed, and the woman turned in bewildered confusion.

“There’s no one following us,” Gianna said crossly.

“It’s good to be thinking about that stuff with your job and all, but we’re safe. If anyone was coming, I could feel it,” Avonly added with a chuckle.

“And what, exactly does that feel like?” the soldier asked

“Oh, uh. That is a weird question.” Staring at the ground, Avonly shuffled her feet against the road in thought. “I’m not sure you can really explain how to feel something. You reach out with a sort of energy and pick up the desired element and move it around a bit. If it hits another Syche’s energy field, then you can try and overpower it and push through. But if it comes into contact with another human or another Syche’s element then it’s like you’re faced with a black hole and you just bounce off a wall.” Avonly stopped, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “Although, I can’t feel anything right now. It’s like I’m being smothered.”

“Tell me about it,” Kael huffed. “Ever since Gi joined up, it’s been impossible to feel around. She is almost always already doing it first. There is always an empty bubble around us I can’t get at.”

“Oh,” Gianna mumbled trailing behind. “Just overpower me if you want to sense around. I’m not exactly keeping it that strong.”

“I’m not going to waste energy fighting you. Anyway, it’s not really a problem as long as one of us is doing it,” Kael shrugged.

Joshua took large strides to place himself alongside the soldier. “You guys should really learn this stuff. You need every advantage you can get when fighting Syches. Shock tactics work against anyone, but the second your crew is in a fair fight, you are all going to die.” Joshua took a long breath and looked around. “Food for thought.”

###

“Oh, you made it faster than expected,” Ell said, bent over a table with his head resting loosely in his propped up hand. He sat in the meeting room they had first met him, inside the bowels of his giant aircraft. “I guess it paid off sending my most patient woman.” He nodded to the soldier who had accompanied them, and she walked off. “Give me the coordinates so we can be on our way.”

“How about we first talk about how you know where we live?” Kael said crossly, taking a seat across from Ell.

Ell’s eyes rolled up as he looked to the ceiling. “I had Niles follow you to make sure everything was on the up and up. It would have been a real shame if the first thing you tried to do was contact Taerose. We had no guarantees about the relationship with your father.”

Kael nodded mulling the words over. “Whatever. Let’s get going. We’re heading for a place called Dania. It’s somewhere in the Eula Desert. I guess we can fly around until we see something?”

Ell rolled his fingers on the table and muttered something to himself. “Great. I’ll get us in the air and my men suited up.”

“Your men?” Joshua asked. “Are we expecting trouble?”

“What? Are-- are you not?” Ell asked, an eyebrow raised.

Joshua took a seat once Ell left the room. “What do you think Av? Now that you’ve seen this whole shtick. Kael thinks it’s going to work out fine for us.”

“Well hold on I didn’t say--” Kael started.

“I wouldn’t,” Avonly cut in, “if you didn’t agree to help them in return. We know the palace and the grounds—born and raised—and they have this dope plane. Seems like a fair trade to me.” As she cut off, a slight lurch signaled the plane’s ascent. “How long do you think it will take?”

“Can something this big land on sand?” Kael asked slowly, the problem being worked through in his brain.

“I’m sure they’ve got it all figured out,” Gianna shrugged, staring at the ceiling. “Wanna look around?”

“Should we? I’m not sure we want to make them mad,” Joshua said.

“I wouldn’t think you would care about that,” Gianna said wryly.

“It’s just that, you know, this is so much nicer than having to get through the desert on our own. Let’s not ruin it is all I’m saying.”

“I’ll go with you.” Avonly stood up and opened the door. “I think I saw a kitchen just over here. Let’s see what they have.” Together the two girls marched off side by side.

###

An hour later, Kael and Joshua lounged in the conference room with their feet on the table. Gianna and Avonly had been back and forth and no one seemed to care about their wanderings. Kael found such exploration pointless if he could see no practical value in it and normally chose to sit in place and scowl at the wall until something more worth his time came along. He was surprised by Joshua though. Joshua looked even angrier than he did, and he couldn’t even fathom what was going through his mind.

Kael turned to say something, but a quick rap on the glass stole both of their attention. Ell stood on the other side and jerked his head, motioning for them to come over.

“Where are the other two?” Ell asked. He followed their eyes over towards the front of the ship. “Eh. That’s fine. Better actually. Here I wanted to show you something.” He walked over to one of the portholes and tapped on the glass.

Kael let Joshua follow Ell over as he hung back and looked through a different window.

“The desert?” Joshua breathed almost inaudibly. “We got here fast. And we’re so low.”

Kael imagined the belly of the ship lightly scraping the top of each dune they passed. He couldn’t help but crack a smile. This was undeniably cool.

“One other thing as well I want to show you. Do you know why this window is different from all the rest on this side of the ship?” Ell asked. He waved Kael closer, herding him towards Joshua at that specific porthole.

Kael raised an eyebrow skeptically but dragged himself over all the same. It would be great to figure it out before he was told, and yet he could see nothing different about this particular window. He lightly leaned against Joshua, trying to shove him out of the way for a better view.

“It’s this,” Ell said. With a single opaque finger with faint red veins running along it, he ran the tip of his finger down the wall until there was a slight click and then the wall pushed out and then opened up, the blistering, dirty, hot wind pouring inside. “I told them to slow us down. We’re moving about as slow as we can to stay in the air right now,” Ell yelled over the dry, whipping wind.

Kael stepped back with Joshua in sudden fear. But as the seconds ticked, Ell stood calmly with the wind flinging his extensive locks all around and gazed below them. In unison again, Kael and Joshua nerved themselves and stepped towards the open door, specks of sand shooting past their faces and stinging their skin. It was almost surreal, seeing the high dunes almost crest at their height. One after another. Almost in a rhythm.

“Here, hold this for me,” Ell yelled again and held out a large canteen to Joshua who grasped it unthinkingly still staring out over the orange desert. “You see what direction we are going, yeah? Meet you there.” He was talking quieter now, they had to lean in to hear. And then his hands caught them both in the back and shoved.

Kael reached out and grabbed Ell and almost had a good enough grip to pull him with them. But a fraction of a second later, a million gritty particles in a maelstrom of sand assaulted his and Joshua’s faces and delved into every fiber of their clothes ad body as they fell, skidding down a curve of a dune at considerable speed and rolling to a crashing stop, burying into a second sandy hill. Joshua hacked and coughed next to Kael rubbing his eyes thinking he had gone blind. The sand rolled off Kael’s head as he jumped up quickly and blindly launched a fist full of sand in the air that exploded in a firework crackle. Spitting, rubbing the sand out of his eyes, he screamed. Yanking Joshua to his feet he surveyed the bleak desert around before realizing the bag he had slung over one shoulder had gone missing. He scavenged around still fuming. Meanwhile, Joshua turned his back to the stinging wind and grabbed his overstuffed sack off of his back. He dug around its recesses until his fingertips felt exactly what he was looking for: goggles. He rubbed his eyes free of the last of the sand and put them on. He brought out a beige cloak and fastened it over his shoulders and throwing the hood over keeping the sun from drilling into his skull. All the while Kael followed suit fuming.

“What do you suppose that was for?” Joshua asked, picking up the canteen of water Ell had handed Kael, which had embedded in the side of the dune they crash-landed in. After tasting a drop of tepid water, he dropped it in his bag.

“Going to kill him,” Kael yelled back.

“I’ve been saying not to trust them for months now,” Joshua said crossly.

Kael sprinted up the nearest hill of sand in the direction the ship was heading. As he started to throw more curses into the wind and then quieted all the sudden. He turned questioningly looking backward. Then left and right. He spun in a circle, frantically looking around.

“Where are we J?”

Joshua eyeballed his surroundings hesitantly. “I was going to guess the beach.”

Kael was absolutely not in the mood. So, without another word he climbed up the small hill to join him, the sand sliding under his feet.

There were dunes of equal height in three directions. But following the path of the airplane, what lay in that direction was flat and shimmering in the desert heat. It was that fuzzy shaking that can be seen on the horizon on any sweltering day.

Kael sprinted down the dune first yelling for Joshua to follow. After one dune, a second, and finally a third, Kael slid down and approached the flat expanse of desert before them. What lay beyond wasn’t sand but some facsimile of it. The writhing and wriggling from far away was no mirage or illusion from the heat. It was gray and actually subtly rocking like waves in the ocean. Joshua skidding to a halt beside him and pointed to the horizon.

“You see that?”

“It’s moving.”

“No you idiot. Look to where I am pointing.”

Kael squinted looking as far ahead as he could. “Something big over there. Mountain. Building. I have no sense of scale here.”

Joshua nodded.

“What do you make of that?” Kael nodded down to the writhing gray. It did look like sand except for the color. And movement. Far, far away, almost at the edge of sight, there was some large rounded structure in the far off line connecting heaven and earth.

Joshua stooped down and poked the moving, gelatinous stuff. “The sand is alive.”

“It looks like water.”

“What is it? I’ve been in quicksand before and this isn’t it.”

“Well, if it’s like quicksand, try not to lose a shoe this time.”

With a moment’s pause, Joshua put his foot out and slapped the surface of the undulating gray matter. Nothing. A little braver he once again put his foot out and leaned forward placing the tiniest bit of weight on his limb. The metal-sea held him up. Kael leaned towards Joshua hesitantly, ready to spring after him if something went wrong. Joshua shrugged and much to Kael’s chagrin he vaulted out onto the sea without warning. He giggled like a small child as he skipped around in circles before coming back. Kael let an exasperated sigh escape him. Joshua stopped in front of Kael still on the shifting sand.

“It’s just like running on gelatin. The green, lime-flavored kind.” Joshua stopped moving and looked to Kael. “Oh.”

Kael sprung forward as the completely expected happened. Joshua was sucked down to the ankles. Standing on the firmly anchored ground, Kael grabbed Joshua’s arm and pulled. Joshua squirmed incessantly still sinking down— to his shins now. Grunting, Kael lowered himself and put his free hand onto the sand and ignited a powerful blast, blowing him backward and hoisting Joshua out of the mire. He picked himself up to find Joshua howling in pain. His socked feet danced on top of the molten sands which was bad enough, but his leg was shredded in a mess of goopy red, what looked like a million microscopic cuts had shorn through the pants and turned his leg into mincemeat. Joshua flopped onto his butt to get his feet off the hot sands and put his bleeding legs in the air.

“Is that as bad as it looks? Kael asked.

“Well I don’t have shoes and that sucks.”

“The blood idiot.”

Joshua pulled a leg close in and ran a finger along the shin bone. “Actually no, it’s not so bad. It hurts something awful but it’s all superficial, like a road rash.”

“So you can move?”

“Sure. Let me just bandage my legs and put on some more pairs of socks. I’ll basically be good to go.” Joshua inched closer to the undulation and used two fingers to carefully pinch part of a tiny wave. “It’s more metal than sand. In fact, I think this thing is entirely metal.”

“Okay,” Kael muttered over and over, looking into the gray expanse. “We’ll head for that dome-thing at night when the sand cools,” Kael said and sat next to him. “Ell said ‘meet you there’ so we can probably kill him when we get wherever ‘there’ is.”

###

The two giant moons rose in the sky with a plethora of stars that night more clearly than the boys had ever seen them. The sand sea of the desert was acting more violently than it had early that day. Actual waves were rising and crashing into the solid land before slipping back into the basin like some thick sludge.

Yawning, Joshua woke up and threw his cloak off, tossing a spray of sand in his wake. The night was calm and tranquil as could be until Joshua hurriedly woke Kael up, urgently throwing off his brother’s cloak and accidentally bringing down a torrent of sand on him. Off in the distance was something that had only appeared with the coming of night: lights. Directly ahead in the direction they were traveling was a group of lights that didn’t look too far off. When Kael finally did get up, Joshua pointed it out and they agreed in a split-second that they were headed in the right direction. Not only that, but the two first realized that the dome, those lights, they might just be Dania.

Deserts are a thing of extremes: blistering in the day, freezing at night. To a Combustion Syche, both states of being were uninteresting and unbothersome. Joshua on the other hand stood shivering, curling and recurling his toes. He put weight on one leg and then the other-- painful but otherwise perfectly usable. As well, he had prepared for the frigid nights and brought plenty of extra clothes. After throwing on another layer on top of the grimy clothes from earlier, he was ready to go with three pairs of socks rolled snug on his feet. The boys took their goggles off and hung them about their necks as the winds stood still.

Joshua, a little more tentative than Kael, stepped onto the metal-sea with a little pace in their step to stay afloat. Even with the waves rippling under their feet, the metal-sea held them aloft. Joshua quickly danced in place, sheer glee on his face. Fifteen minutes later, they ran lightly through the night towards the far off lights. Outside of being pushed from a moving airplane, the trip was already turning out to be rather calm and enjoyable. If they quit running they died a horrible, painful death that shredded their bodies into something akin to ground beef.

At one point, they ran into a sand bar in the middle of the sand sea: solid, firm. Mistaking it for a sign that the sand sea would soon be at an end, they found disappointment. The metal-sea stretched on endlessly and the lights of the city grew no closer.

It wasn’t until an hour later that the lights actually seemed to be closer.

“Hey Kael, we’re in great shape and all, but we can’t run this fast forever.”

“We’ve passed by a few sand bars. We can take a break if you need one.”

Cold and tired, Joshua wasn’t going to let that get in the way of such an insolent challenge. He sprinted ahead of Kael, not about to be shown up. He turned around and ran backward as a dozen not-so-intelligent quips ran through his head. Before he could shout one to Kael, his jaw slackened and he almost tripped and fell as he violently twisted his body to face forward again.

“Kael would you kindly join me up here at the front of the pack.”

“Just slow down,” Kael shouted back. “We both know you are faster, no reason to prove it now. Just slow down.”

“Kael. The race commissioner demands you meet Joshua in front, post-haste.”

Without the will to argue, Kael surged forward, to reprimand Joshua for speaking in the third-person if nothing else.

“Hey,” Joshua greeted coolly.

“Hey”, Kael returned annoyed.

“Just look straight ahead and remain calm when I tell you we are being followed.”

Kael quickly jerked his head left and right looking through the endless metal-sea. With one last jerking motion, he spied directly behind at the sand reforming in their wake.

“Holy crap!” Kael said startled.

“I told you. Sand sharks,” Joshua whispered.

“Stop making up things before you know what they are,” Kael spat. “This isn’t even sand.”

The rise and fall of metal shards behind Joshua and Kael were being sliced in two by some unseen force from under and behind. Far back, perhaps thirty seconds at the speed it was moving, something beneath the surface was churning sand in violent waves behind them. The sand rose and fell silently in sludgy crests as the stalker followed.

“A thought has occurred to me Kael. What if we rode it?”

“What!?”

“Ride it. Like riding a dolphin.”

“That’s not a real thing,” Kael blurted, trying to get his wits back. He couldn’t use fire against something under the sand. “Anyway, dolphins don’t eat people.”

“Well in my imagination,” Joshua countered, “sand sharks don’t eat people.”

“Just, keep, going,” Kael panted.

Any talk of sand sharks was immediately dismissed. A patch of the sea in front of them burst open and a thin, cylindrical creature like a tube eel coated in chitinous plating burst out of the ground at him. He ducked left as the creature soared over him. It was very long. Even as it lunged over Kael, the back end of it stayed completely buried in that gray abyss. The long tube of an animal disappeared for a few seconds as Kael and Joshua looked around wearily for its return, but something was off. The giant upturn of gray was still following them from far behind.

Metal shards were thrown into the air as the ground burst open again. This time the creature jumped out at Joshua. He jumped to his right managing to get a good look.

It was an eerie blood-red color under the moonlight with what looked like rigged sections of metal fused into the skin. Long, very long. No eyes either. The tip of its head was just a mouth that ran from the top to the bottom. Jagged teeth overlapped each other on the left and right side, keeping the mouth clamped shut.

“This is ridiculous!” Joshua shouted to Kael as he dodged the creature who had come around for another pass.

“Is it? Have you tried riding it?” Kael answered back, dripping with sarcasm.

Joshua ran in zigzags over the metal-sea as he looked behind at the mass approaching from somewhere underneath.

Kael glanced over to his brother’s new running pattern and was taken by surprise as another eel jumped from the sand. Kael barely had time to react and was forced to throw himself to the side as the creature opened his maw. The metal-sea tried its best to glomp onto Kael and drag him into whatever abyss lay below, but he rolled to his feet and continued his sprint.

“Kael I don’t think it’s trying to eat us!”

“What?” Kael said confused. “Why would you not think that?

“Well…,” Joshua paused as he jumped out of the way as the one following him made its move, “when that thing opened its mouth and tried to bite you, it didn’t have a mouth.”

“You just contradicted yourself!”

Joshua dipped and ducked trying to answer Kael. “When its mouth thing with teeth opened, there was an eye, not a throat.”

“Well guess what?” Kael was breathing much harder now. “Those teeth are going to slice right through you whether they can swallow or not.”

Kael jumped over another snake creature as it aimed lower trying to trip him up. As he floated through the air about to land, the second monster sprung out of the sand aiming straight for him. Kael roared and punched the creature right in its open jaw. It thrashed back and wiggled in the sand violently before disappearing. In synchronization, the giant mass of moving sand groaned violently. The second snake-like monster disappeared, but the giant mass behind them still stalked.

The lights were close now. They could begin to see the shape of buildings, but that didn’t mean they were safe yet. The sand around them, in all directions, was thrown violently into the air as several of the creatures jumped out from both directions. The ensuing dipping and dodging took every bit of their mental and physical capabilities. It was all that Joshua and Kael could do to not be tripped up or bitten by the jagged teeth. This violent onslaught lasted for no less than a minute before Kael made a small combustion in the air that did little else than glance off them. Still, they retreated.

Joshua looked back. Whatever followed them had disappeared.

As Joshua and Kael quickly darted around looking for the tiny little snappers, the heap of metal-sea beneath them shifted as something truly monstrous heaved up through the surface. They were thrown up and out as eight of the little snapping things dove through the explosion of sand at them. The mouth-tentacle creatures made one last-ditch effort to catch their prey. All the eyes except the one burnt out focused on Kael. Rolling on the waves of the sea, Kael spouted tiny explosions in each direction in the air, flailing frantically to keep them away. One of these monsters pushed through the machine gun bursts of smoke and found its mark: it’s head latching on to Kael’s right shoulder, its teeth filed like saw blades cutting straight to the bone. As he fell into the metal-sea, he grabbed the creature, pouring the energy directly into it. An explosion quaked out from its guts tearing it in two.

“Kael!” Joshua screamed in panic as his feet touched something more solid than the gray.

He moved towards Kael, but his foot hit the metal-sea and started sinking. He could see no way to pull Kael up without standing on dry land. Joshua jumped back to the very edge and held out his hand.

Kael’s palms pushed against the stiff sand but couldn’t stop the sea as it pulled him further and further down, almost devouring the entirety of his legs at this point.

Do I run out? Dive in? In that moment, Joshua’s ears buzzed. A high pitched sound like a signal trying to get through on the radio. There was a voice, somewhere. What was it saying? His head exploded into pain and Joshua had enough. Throwing his cloak to the side, he prepared to jump in.

“Hold on!” someone shouted, sprinting towards the scene.

Kael gasped and tilted his head up, trying to breathe for as long as he could. Joshua could see him sending sparking bits of sychakenetic energy into the metal to combust it, but it didn’t ignite. That shouldn’t happen.

As Kael took a deep breath and prepared to find out what lay beneath he felt something wrap around his stomach. He tried to grab hold but his arms couldn’t move through the flow of sand. The pulling continued though. With another great heave, Kael’s head ascended back into the world of the living. Slowly, painfully, Kael watched as two men and Joshua used a giant hook to hoist Kael towards them.

The tug of war for his life over, Kael gasped and then howled in pain, writhing on the ground. He momentarily forgot about his shoulder gushing blood as every other inch of his skin was now raw oozing. The further down his body, the worse it was. Joshua had gotten off easy, Kael’s legs looked mangled. Even his breaths were coming threw ragged and pained.

“Hurry!” one of the men said. “The platelasher’s venom is spreading. You’re going to wish the Metal-Sea took you if we don’t hurry.”

In a daze and his vision growing blurry, Joshua and the other man forcefully yanked him to his feet and began dragging him, somewhere.

Joshua glanced backward as he helped carry his brother, finally able to see the town clearly for the first time. The buildings were what could be expected out of a desert-- square and made out material the same orangy hue as everything around them. However, a large, partially constructed metal half-dome rose from the north side of the town. It had been constructed in a makeshift way with bits of sheet metal patch worked on and rising into the sky. In what appeared to be the very middle of the little town was also a large building much more ornate and impressive than the others around it. It had the vague hint of some religious construction. Across its roof, three windmills churned. They looked exactly like the kind of windmills other countries were using to harvest power. All three rose above the dome and faced the direction it shielded.

The two men, who Joshua barely paid any mind to at this point, hustled through town leading past one building and then another with no light irradiating from them. They continued through the dusty road to the very center of town where the giant temple rose. In front of the steps that led up to mammoth iron doors was a grand fountain that poured water out into the sky, falling in trickles in a deep basin. The men hurried Kael up the giant steps past two statues, one of a young man beckoning and another of an old man with a halo. The rustic doors were cracked open with a dim light that permeated out. It was just enough room for the two men to squeeze through with Kael. Joshua followed and entered a large chamber. Pews were lined on either side of the room with a large red carpet leading down the isles towards a raised pulpit. What seemed like the entire town was seated in the pews and they all turned to watch the spectacle. The man at the pulpit, a thin wiry man with long shoulder length hair that flowed pure white, watched as they dragged Kael down the aisle, leaving a streak of blood behind.

Whatever sounds should have been coming from this room, there were none at the moment.

“Father,” the man who led the way said.

“I know,” the man at the pulpit said with a soothing voice. “Bring him, and I will see if we can’t save him.”

He outstretched his arm and pointed to a door at the side of the chamber. It was the only other door aside from the main entrance.

The minister ushered them through the door. They emerged into a hallway that led further back. Candles lined the hallways shining a dim light over several doors lining the hallway. The minister opened one of these many choices, and they were brought into an office.

At their direction, Joshua helped lift Kael onto a plainly fashioned desk. The priest from the pulpit was standing over Kael and reciting something as he poured a clear liquid from a phial into Kael’s open mouth. He looked to Joshua as he finished, and, almost embarrassed, stashed it into his sleeve.

“My child!” the priest exuberantly welcomed Joshua to the room. “Our great God Raitheous has found favor with your friend for he shall live!”

The entire speech was more of an overly flowery performance than anything else, and Joshua zeroed in on that fact in the first two words. You don’t think I know your type? Don’t try me with this nonsense.

“By “favor” of your great god, you mean that the antitoxin you just gave him will work?” Joshua said. He knew he should be quiet right now, but his mind was too frazzled to think rationally.

The priest’s face suddenly became perplexed and before he could stutter something, another voice sounded out behind him.

“Enough Father Peska, allow me to talk to the child,” a woman’s voice sounded from behind.

The wiry priest nodded and bowed low as a commanding woman entered the room. She was even more ornately dressed than the first priest in a flourish of purples, reds, and yellows. A golden tiara crowned her brown hair. She was middle-aged but younger than everyone else who seemed involved in this church and seemed to be amused at the situation developing in the room.

“I am High Priestess Valetta,” she introduced in a soft voice. “Selim, Greigre,” she said. The two men who had carried Kael the entire time turned around and gave a deep bow. “Please go and inform the congregation that our young visitor has found favor with Raitheous and will live.”

“Yes ma’am!” they sung out in holy fervor together and scrambled out of the room and back down the hallway.

“And now,” the priestess addressed Joshua, “What is this heresy you were saying about antitoxins? Do you deny the miracles of the All-Light?”

Idiot, don’t start a fight. Joshua bit his lip and mulled over his situation very clearly. He stared at the priestess, his mind slower than he was used to. A question in her eye formed as she waited for his answer. He had to answer.

“I,” he stuttered buying time. “No. Of course not. It would be rude for a traveler to come to your city and say such things.”

This seemed an adequate answer and even to please the woman.

“Do you have an inn around, or some place, that my brother and I can rest and recuperate?” Joshua pressed on. Best to change the topic if he could. “We’ll leave once he’s on his feet.”

“Your brother,” the woman coughed, clearing her throat, “will stay here as he heals. We are well versed in such injuries and will look after him. You,” she said, eyeing Joshua over, “will be put up in an empty residence. We will provide everything you could desire: food, salvation, and shoes.” She ended looking him over.

“I’d just as well like to stay here near my brother,” Joshua said.

“Quite impossible,” the priestess said sharply. “Quite. And as long as your brother is here, I am sure you will cause no trouble in our city. Outsiders are always welcome so it would be a. . . shame if you took advantage of our hospitality.”

“As you say,” Joshua answered back, tired and defeated.

He’d need some time to work out just how much of this conversation had been a veiled threat.

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