Syche: The Dark Element

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Chapter 17: Dania

Chapter 17: Dania

And now I begin to answer a question you’ve surely had: why did it take us so long to come find you? In short, we didn’t know as soon as we could.

I strode into the room where Kaeza sat, spying on a group of researchers who were doing their best to obtain data on the frozen specimen.

“You’re angry,” he said to me as a smile struggled to extend across his face.

“I must be if you say so.”

“It’s just the look on your face.” He splayed his limbs out in all directions to stretch before standing up. “So what’s the plan.”

“You decide: to wait for the King, or. . . try a more alternative method of interrogation.”

Kaeza craned his neck to gaze at the scientists. “There’s more than one way to interrogate a dead body?

###

Joshua was as much a prisoner as Kael now. Two senior members of the church escorted him to an empty house just outside the middle ring of the city. It was his as long as he was there, but one peek outside showed someone on a distant roof watching him. This fact alone made it hard to sleep despite the day’s events. His brain poured over plan after plan on how to get to Kael, miserable failures of ideas. Even if he got to Kael, where could they go? They were in the middle of the desert and the entire city was surrounded by a sea of-- well not sand, metal. It was a metal-sea, infested with those monstrous platelashers. After many hours of helpless planning, he resigned himself to the sleep that scratched at the back of his eyes.

Morning came unsettling. His new residence’s distance to the temple put him in earshot of the morning sermon. One of the preachers stood on the metallic roof of the temple and bellowed wisdom to the congregation on the virtues of their god, on the virtues of what they’ve been given, on the sun’s holy energy being rained down upon them, and so forth. It was the only time to have the sermon, up there at least. In the day that metal had to be sweltering.

Agony! In a sudden onslaught of pain, his hands sprung up and grabbed his head as he burrowed his face into the thinly filled pillow. It felt as if a spike had been forced from one temple to the next and he could see a spectrum of colors behind his shut eyelids.

As the spasm of pain passed, he realized something nudging him from beyond his bed. Some sort of stick. He unburied his head from the pillow and met eye to eye with Ell, standing away from the window with a long rifle in his hands. Not just Ell though, Niles too grinned devilishly.

“Enough,” Joshua hissed, careful not to speak so loudly that someone outside might hear; there was no doubt he was still being watched. “Get that away from me!” His hand swatted the rifle away that had been poking him in the back. “What if it went off? And how about you drop that gun and we discuss pushing us out of a plane!”

With not even the faintest acknowledgment on the man’s face, Joshua slid out of bed. He went to grab his shirt lying on the post but turned mid-action and walloped Ell in the face, knuckles cracking against the ridge of his nose. With that translucent skin and overall paleness, Joshua had imagined he would rip like wet paper. Theory put into practice, Joshua was sorely disappointed as Ell barely stumbled back a step. The man’s serene poise didn’t break. He lazily wiped the blood dripping from his nose with his sleeve, the same iron-red of any other blood, and gave Joshua a look as if to ask ‘Is that all?’

Niles broke countenance for a fraction of a second and smiled for real amusement. That didn’t matter to Joshua. He was just as culpable. “Kael taken hostage is on you!” Joshua pointed at the accused. Tempted to throw another haymaker, he eyed Niles cautiously. Would he intervene?

Ell addressed him: “We are in the presence of some dangerous company. You must admit, it is far less likely to draw the interest of those here if two boys walked across the metal-sea lost and afraid instead of flying in as uninvited guests. I have given you and Kael the opportunity to traverse the town freely, or as free as anyone can be in a place like this. Niles and I had to work very cautiously to sneak in. Everyone else is with the ship miles away.” He paused to watch Joshua breathe heavily. “I hardly see any harm my decision caused.”

“Psychopath. Kael is being held hostage, even if they won’t use those words.”

Ell shrugged. “Our deal was for me to bring you here. Which I have regardless of other circumstances. And if your half-brother is in dire straits, well, we should probably start fixing that.”

Joshua slumped down against the wall and massaged his still fiercely throbbing head. “You mentioned Avonly and Gianna?” Joshua hissed. “I swear if you hurt either of them. . . .”

Ell held up a hand asking for a moment’s silence. “Please. They are fine. With the ship and soldiers as I said before. They didn’t even know how you ended up out of the plane so there was no fuss.”

“All the same, can you sneak them here as well?

Ell glanced to Niles who shook his head. “Sorry,” Niles said, “but that’s dangerous. There are too many Syches in this town. Either one of the girls would be sensed before we got into town.”

“The priests or the townspeople? Are the Dark Element here independently?”

“Perhaps I did make a mistake not telling you all this before,” Ell sighed, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. “I expected Taerose soldiers or the Dark Element, maybe some combination.” He saw facts compounding in Joshua’s head and plunged forward. “I don’t think it even has anything to do with the Book of Light. If you could tell by the metal-sea, this place is deeply rooted to Metal. Long ago it was something of a holy place for Metal Syches.”

“And what does he want with this place?”

“He is a normal human like you or me and has always been manically obsessed with everything related to Syches. I naturally assumed research into Dania was like-minded, but with the invasion of Tyré. . . .” Ell trailed off into silence.

“And?” Joshua pried. It seemed there was some important piece of information, some suspicion about the King of Taerose Ell had.

“And it doesn’t matter. He’ll be dead within the month. That’s why I employed your services as a guide at the royal palace.”

Now that was something to think on.

Thud! The door slammed shut as Joshua meandered out into town. Joshua dragged his feet against sandy, dirty streets as he walked. Neither Kael nor he had considered why Ell wanted into the palace. Why he needed a guide. Joshua shook his head realizing the excitement Kael would feel at this news. Their father dead within the month.

Joshua quickly stole a glance to a nearby rooftop and noticed a man watching him. Joshua would begrudge Ell of admitting he was right, because he was in some ways. Even if it had been handled poorly, someone had to walk right up to the city. That act alone had drawn all the suspicion in the world. Outside of the spies stalking him from the shadows, every townsman, woman, and child gawked at him strangely and stared unabashedly. He wouldn’t want Avonly here for this mess, but what he wouldn’t give to have Gianna by his side right now. Instead, he dreamed up an imaginary version of Kael in his head, scolding him, telling him to go find the Book of Light. It was what they came here to do.

Walking up to a pair of women gawking at him from the shade of some building, Joshua quickly confirmed that this city was in fact Dania.

Step one, check.

Looking up to the sky, he dug his fingers deep into his pockets, feeling his fingertips scrape against a crumpled paper. Only yesterday morning he had placed their list of names into his pocket before heading downstairs as a reminder for their journey. Dr. Bartholomew would certainly know about this village. He had found this place to be special for whatever shadowy reason he had, but right now, Joshua could only see this as a wasteland filled with sand and monsters. His hand clutched the paper and he pulled the sheet from his pocket. He looked it over while thinking-- not trying to put the facts together but rather attempting to work backward and imagine what could be so special.

“This is just what I need,” he said to himself. The paper was how he could discover this city’s secrets. Or rather, the name of Bartholomew scratched into the bottom. If he really had visited the town, he could retrace the man’s steps. In such a small place cut off from the world, who wouldn’t remember a stranger? Joshua knocked on the nearest door to him and a man answered. Joshua asked if the man knew of Bartholomew.

Scratching his chin, the ruddy desert dweller began his narrative: “I’d say it was many years ago. Now I’m not the best with numbers mind you, but I’d say maybe six or seven years before the Great Enlightening, our caravan was passing over the Telgrad and saw lights out at this old city.”

“The what now?” Joshua interrupted.

“Telgrad Drifts. The metal-sea. Anyway, we march right up to the strangers, partly out of curiosity, partly to sell them our wares. Came from a far-off country they said. Here for research, I believe they said. They turned this place into an oasis. Crops growing. Water a’ plenty. Invited everyone to stay. They brought their gods and the caravans around the desert brought the worshipers.”

“Bartholomew?” Joshua sighed.

“Now I’m getting to that!” the man replied briskly. “Right, so.” He squinted trying to recall. “He stood out among them because he seemed to be the leader of the group. He and his people would spend days at a time in the ruins of what is now our great temple.”

Do these people have nothing but time on their hands? Joshua wondered. “Where did he or the others live?”

The man continued on in a slow, dawdling voice, oblivious to his audience’s boredom. “They had the best places of course. Up against the Wind Sheer. The dome. Less sun so less heat.”

As the words came out of the man’s mouth, Joshua was already halfway turning to leave before he thought better of it. “Anything you can tell me about the platelashers?” he asked as an afterthought.

“I can tell you that attack last night was a miracle of itself. Platelasher takes it prey whole, doesn’t nibble. Very lucky your friend was.”

Joshua’s face skewed in confusion, unable to see how those eel-like animals could even eat without a mouth, let alone eat something whole. The man saw his expression and came to a wrong conclusion.

“I see what you are about to ask: how do our caravans cross the Drifts safely? That is a secret for our people I’m afraid.”

Joshua thanked him for his time and headed towards the half-dome on the north side of the city. As he walked, he was stuck considering the man’s comments about the platelasher eating its prey whole until, finally, Joshua snapped his fingers in a fit of inspiration. “Babies,” he said aloud. “What else could they be.” Then too, that large thing in the sand Kael nor he ever saw was probably the mother.

Out of the thirteen o’clock desert sun and into the dwindling shade of the dome Joshua marched, his feet kicking up a faint trail of dust as he dragged himself along in thought. He glanced back over his shoulder to the temple dominating his view, wondering how Kael was faring.

Soon he was lost in thought on a tangent about roofs. Those in Tyré were tall and sharp, while these were square and flat. He understood why Tyrien roofs were the way they were, but what was the benefit of flat? Was it less surface area for the sun? Less mass that could be buffeted by the wind? As Joshua approached the patchwork metal wall, he craned his head to look at the sparse crop fields planted in between the final line of buildings and the dome. The dry, brown stocks were some type of grain they didn’t have back home. But there had to be more food growing than this. Dania wasn’t large, but it had to be self-sufficient this far into nowhere.

This all seemed rather uninteresting on its own, but the more he thought on the city the less it made sense as a whole. There was a piece missing in his observations somewhere. The roofs didn’t matter, but how did nomads traverse the metal-sea?

Joshua knocked on the door of the first house he came to. It wasn’t the right house, but they told Joshua that the place he was looking for was three buildings down to his left. Knocking on that door, a woman answered and confirmed Bartholomew’s previous residence. Not only that, she was more than happy to let Joshua come in and have a look.

The desert native answered his questions with no useful information as Joshua perused the house, room by room. There had to be a secret room, a hiding place, something. But everything checked out. Joshua nodded and answered absentmindedly as he rapped his knuckles against walls, kicked at the stone floor. Apparently the house belonged to one of the foreign priests. She was not married, that wasn’t a concept the native Danians seemed to have, and their new religion spoke nothing of it. But there was some relationship there between the priest and this woman.

Joshua looked her up and down with a question in his eye. The priests were foreigners. That much was clear. The nomadic people of the desert had a distinct dark look of a people born and bred under a harsh sun. Most of the men and women he saw in robes the night before were mostly too light, and some too dark to be from this region. And while not as obvious, the way they spoke was just as much a give away as everything. Joshua was impressed they spoke Continental at all, let alone so well. This of course brought up the obvious question just how isolated these nomadic peoples were from the rest of the world, but that was a question for another time.

Exasperated, Joshua lead them back to what passed for a den and sat down on a stone seat covered with some sort of hide and looked around. Everything was so plain; you couldn’t hide anything in these buildings. Except that rug, the intricately woven rug that covered this room’s floor was emasculate.

“Aha!” Joshua exclaimed jumping to his feet and grabbing a corner of the rug.

Startled, the woman just about screamed, “what are you doing?”

“Observe!” Joshua said triumphantly as he yanked the rug away to reveal yet more plain stone flooring. “Oh. I’ll be going now.”

Feeling his cheeks grow a little hot, Joshua quickly thanked the woman for her time and left. Normally when he jumped to conclusions, he was justified. Moving faster, Joshua trotted away from that embarrassment back to the town square.

###

Despite it being infernally hot, Joshua lowered himself onto the steps of the temple and stared blankly ahead towards the fountain. That water, it was coming from somewhere below. Enough to spare clearly. Joshua looked to the temple and then at the ground between his feet.

“Hello visitor,” a girl Joshua’s age greeted, sitting right next to him. “My apologies,” the girl continued. “Did I startle you? I saw you over here and thought you were looking at me.”

Joshua’s cheeks flushed for a second time that day as he stumbled for words. He had been staring at the fountain, but he now realized she had been standing right in front of it. Being accused of leering at an attractive girl his age seemed, in that moment, to be the worst thing he could be accused of doing. So he froze.

“We do not have many visitors in this town,” she continued when Joshua didn’t speak. “And of those that we have had, you are the most interesting.”

Joshua’s mood brightened considerably. “Oh really?”

“Is it true you and your friend survived the platelasher to get to town? It sleeps during the day and eats at night, so you two are the first visitors to ever come after dark.”

“Sure. Yeah. Yes. We ran into those monsters,” an appeased Joshua brightened up.

“Monsters?” the woman said curiously looking at Joshua. “Do you mean there was more than one?”

“Well yeah,” Joshua nodded. “There were eight or nine.”

“That’s terrible news!” the girl said surprised. “Ever since the followers of Raithous arrived and brought the good news of our lord, the number of platelashers have gone down drastically. Until recently, we have only had that one platelasher that stalks the Telgrad nearby.”

“I think they were babies,” Joshua said. “At least they can’t come out of the metal-sea. I mean, they can’t come onto land, right?”

The girl laughed. “Of course not. We couldn’t live here if they did. Or at least, if they can, they don’t.”

“So….” Joshua droned not completely sure what to say now. “Do you know anything specifically about this Valletta. She’s like in charge of the priesthood, right?”

“Well, Father Peska was our Light for the past few years. High Priestess Veletta only came to our humble town two weeks ago. She told us that of all of the congregations around the world, we were one of the most faithful.”

“Congregations around the world?” Joshua repeated. He had never heard of this religion in his life. If there were other groups of these people, they also had to be in other backwoods villages he had never visited. “So,” Joshua began awkwardly, “have you noticed anything strange going on in Dania since these people arrived?”

“Like the miracles they perform?” the woman asked hopefully.

“Well no,” Joshua answered. I was thinking along the lines of people going missing or something along those lines.”

“There are some people that have left to spread the word. They are missionaries now. Of course, they aren’t missing. They’ll be back sooner or later the Sun willing.”

“I thought you worshiped a god.”

“We do.”

“But--, never mind. Let me just get this straight,” thought Joshua aloud, “over the past five years, several people have left the town, and nobody has seen them since? And the only newcomers are the occasional missionaries flown in?”

“Well they’ve written letters that have been read during service,” the girl said getting defensive.

“Alright, alright,” Joshua soothed. “Didn’t mean to upset you.” The two sat there quietly for a bit until Joshua spoke up with one last question, “Are there any areas in the temple or town that most people aren’t allowed? I mean, places that townspeople don’t really see?” She considered Joshua’s question. “Like in the temple?” Joshua tacked on.

“Of course,” she said, “the average person cannot go to the holy places.”

“Okay,” Joshua said to himself. It was what he expected.

The girl nodded. “I’m Zara. My name.”

“Okay,” Joshua said again blankly.

The girl waited until she realized that this was all Joshua was going to say. “Would you like to join my family for dinner?”

“Uh,” Joshua said, stretching the sound into several syllables and across several seconds. “Oh. I. I uh. I have plans tonight.”

“Plans? You just got here,” she said haughtily.

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