Chapter 19: Down
Chapter 19: Down
The King-Emporer of Taerose was still missing, and Kaeza took the news hard. I stared at him as he rocked in place, his fingers digging into his neck.
“Oh no you don’t,” he said to me. “Not only would this crazy scheme not work. Even if it did, I would learn something you wouldn’t want me to know. You two were old friends, and I don’t want to know your demons.
“It is your life in the balance, so it remains your call,” I said simply. It was a coin flip. And never once has it mattered who makes the call in a coin flip.
Peska, the former priest, dropped down from the ceiling over the pews. Halfway down, a bronzed statue sprung forth and caught him. He grabbed his bleeding thigh as the statue lowered him to the ground. He’d live.
Two Element members who still hadn’t changed out of their white church robes were barring the door and preventing the angry mob outside from coming in. As Peska reached the ground, he propped himself up on a pew and watched his two subordinates holding the doors shut. As he gazed on silently, the doors to the inner temple behind opened and Veletta emerged from the shadows into the sanctuary. Her flashy, gaudy robes had been changed out for black robes like Peska. More notably, she was frazzled, beat up, and generally looked like death. Last Peska saw of her, she was chasing after the blond guy who had that boy from the infirmary draped over his shoulder.
She marched silently up to Peska who now looked terrified. Immediately, he fell to his knees with his head down. “I didn’t have a choice. The pain was too much.”
“Shut up.” Veletta spat at him on the ground. “We did what we came here to do. This operation was going to be closed down soon anyways, so I wouldn’t worry.”
“Thank you, oh thank you,” Peska groveled in return. But then he fell deathly silent and sunk to the ground, shiv of metal piercing through his head. The metal collapsed back into Veletta’s hand before forming back around her wrist into an azure bracelet.
“Not being able to walk though? That’s an issue. While we’re on the topic, how did I ever have to take the Deputy position from you? You are a sad man.” She wiped a splotch of blood from her lip and straightened her frazzled hair that dangled in front of her face. “You two, Piers and Brigs, fall back!” she barked at the two assassins at the doors. “I’ll lock the doors with a field. We don’t need much time. The two white robe assassins nodded and followed their leader back, further into the temple and into its depths.
The angry mob banged at the door of the temple for an entire hour until it they finally crashed through it. The furious citizens of the Eula desert stormed through with greed and malice. Still not finding a single soul in the building, the mob descended into the lower levels-- no one in sight. Running about the lower portion of the basement, the group looked for someone to exact their revenge on, but not a trace of life could be found. They gawked at the platelasher’s dead body, but never found the secret passage further in, for the altar had been sealed shut.
In a few hour’s time, when things began to simmer down around the temple, Joshua hot stepped from his shady alcove and descended through the staircase to the darker interior and snuck around the temple past some looters who were snooping around for any untouched treasures. The streets of the town were alive with people screaming and throwing rocks, spiraling out of control. He weaved through them– unnoticed and inconsequential– until he made it back to his lodging. As soon as he arrived, he was met with a pleasant sight. Kael was leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed talking to Niles. He was bandaged and haggard but fine. Gianna was sleeping in his bed.
“Kael!” Joshua cried happily upon seeing him. “You’re alright!” Joshua surged forward and hugged his brother tight, as Kael grimaced and had to push him back.
“Good job on starting a revolution. And punching Ell.”
Joshua raised his fist into the air. “Fight the power.”
“So what now?” Gianna interrupted, rolling over in the stiff bed. “Time to visit the library?”
“If you mean the Book,” Kael said, “then yes.”
“Whoah!” Joshua sat bolt right, realizing how empty the room was. “Ell is gone! He could be trying to find it before us.
“Not to be a downer,” Niles cleared his voice, “but why would there be anything left to find if the Element has been here for so long.”
“Well you are being a downer,” Kael responded, his fingers curling into a fist, the muscles on his neck tightening. “If the Element weren’t here to find it, then who knows? It could be well hidden. It could seem totally ordinary and get ignored.” He wobbled to his feet, shrugging off a grimace. Slowly, he made his way to the door and into the streets. Joshua looked bewildered momentarily before shaking Gianna awake and following.
The town already seemed more empty, and Joshua could have sworn to seeing groups leaving towards the metal-sea on the horizon. Kael ignored the sharp disdainful gazes of the desert dwellers still around. As Joshua, Gianna, and Niles joined him at the steps of the temple, the massive Serian airplane screeched over the city and before stopped and landing slowly on the metallic roof of the temple. There were no sour looks for the outsiders now, whoever still abided in the city fled in terror disappearing indoors or falling back to the metal-sea.
From the ship’s cargo bay, the colorless waves of Ell’s head appeared briefly before marching towards the staircase with two files of commandos trailing close behind. Sheepishly following them out, Avonly followed briefly before turning and running to the side and peering down.
“You left without me!” She hollered at the group below. You brought me along, and then you left me!” She tugged at her ponytail in frustration.
“We can explain! Stay right there!” Joshua screamed back.
The group wound through the broken and littered pews and through the battered door into the temple’s interior. They paused as Ell marched out of Valetta’s office flanked by a commando on either side. In his hands, he lazily held the blueprints to the depths below. An eyebrow raised as he looked the group over.
“Give it here,” Kael demanded hand outstretched.
The corners of Ell’s mouth upturned slightly but then smoothed as he looked at Kael’s dirty outstretched hand. “That would be. . . irresponsible. We won’t steal your treasure if that’s what you are worried about. If we find it, it’s yours; if you find it, it’s yours. You can’t begrudge us ransacking a Dark Element stronghold in the meantime.” He turned clumsily and sauntered off before Kael had time to react, Niles following to join him with his dark red cloak bleeding into the shadows.
Avonly stared at them crossly as they filed out onto the scorching hot metallic dome of the temple. In a rush, Joshua, Kael, and Gianna all tried to explain how she was left out.
“We were pushed out of an airplane!” Joshua said exasperatedly.
“I was bleeding, unconscious, and a hostage,” Kael said as if it the most mundane thing in the world.
“They were keeping watch on the plane and it’s harder to sneak out with two people,” Gianna said. Despite being the only one to make a conscious choice and leave Avonly behind, she was the only one Avonly didn’t blame right this moment.
Seeing no appeasement in sight, Kael finally put his foot down and demanded they begin their search. No matter what Ell might say, he was still worried what would happen if they found the Book of Light first. When she saw the dead platelasher in the altar room, Avonly’s protests began anew, after the requisite time for astonishment and gawking. The altar pushed aside and depths revealed, they lowered themselves cautiously into the pitch black below.
“Well, where are we?” Joshua asked, rubbing his eyes and cautiously staying in the single ray of light shining from above.
Kael unseen but a mere body’s length away groped along a wall, trying to feel his way forward. As Avonly jumped into the pit, she walked forward into the darkness confidently and immediately smacked into Kael who groaned in pain and barely kept his purchase.
“Do you want to Kael, or should I?” Gianna’s voice bounced around the walls, lost as well somewhere in the darkness.
“Want to what?”
The group cried in agony as a luminous white light suddenly flooded the cavern. In Gianna’s hand floated the magnificent fire. Not even fire though. The tiniest, brightest explosion flickering one hundred times a second. It was so strong and so constant it just looked like a flame. “I meant creating a Sy Field of course,” she said.
Kael gritted his teeth trying to look at the explosions directly. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Can I even do that? Kael stretched a hand out and focused, little sparks flying everywhere. An explosion formed and then dissipated. How do you stabilize an explosion? In the air no less.
The light bounced through the deep and dark and showed that the cavern was no cavern but a hallway of dull, barely reflective metal. It broke and revealed stone in patchwork fashion. Together they marched down the hallway, slowly, painfully, always waiting for Kael. His injuries slowed him to a snail’s pace naturally, sure, but that combined with trying to manufacture his own light caused him to stop walking every few seconds.
So far down, awareness of time waned quickly and by the time the group came to a split in the path not a single person had an idea how long it had taken them to inch this far. And so it was they stopped and looked down three hallways: one sloping up, one down, and one level.
“We should split up then?” Kael huffed, the little burst of orange in his palm holding slightly before disappearing. “Easier to find the Book that way.”
“We only have one light K,” Joshua said. “We’ll just stick together.”
Kael glared up frustrated and scowling. “I’ll have it in a second. Just. . . . We’ll compromise. We’ll split into two groups. I’ll light one path and Gianna another. Sound fair?”
As Avonly opened her mouth, Joshua cut in: “I’m with Gianna. We’ll go down.”
“Guess you’re with me,” Kael shrugged, sweat dripping from his head as the explosion struggled to exist. “We’ll go level,” Avonly grunted but made no disagreement. She had no time either, Joshua and Gianna were already off down the low path.
Avonly squinted and shielded her eyes as the orange explosion between Kael’s hands flashed back and forth. She’d prefer the pitch-black before too long if this kept up. “I saw the metal-sea a bit when we flew over it. How was it exactly?”
The explosion faltered for a second as Kael considered the question. “Joshua said it was like running on gelatin and I don’t disagree.” He looked down to his bandaged legs. “Very sharp pieces of gelatin.”
“It’s a Field, right? A Sy Field. You couldn’t use your powers on it?”
Kael grunted in frustration. He couldn’t do two things at once. “It felt that way actually.”
“If it’s a Sy field, wouldn’t that mean someone created the metal-sea then?”
“Um, I. No way. That’d be impossible.” Kael hunched over his hands focusing intently. The small orange explosion burst to life and hung there. It was a sad little explosion, but the light was steady enough and a proper Field had been created.
“Good job,” Avonly said quickly before walking on.
“Do you have to go running off on your own through the spooky death labyrinth?” Joshua huffed coming to a stop. Gianna almost seemed intent on getting ahead of him. She smiled. “You all can be cute sometimes, but every now and then I just need some quiet.” Joshua scrunched up his face and looked at her as they walked side by side. “I’m sorry,” she quickly recanted. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“Quite all right. You spend most of your time standing around doe-eyed and wondering what would be the correct thing to say. I much prefer it when you quit paying attention and say the first thing on your mind. You should be yourself more often.”
Gianna slammed her foot into the metal flooring and heard it ring down the corridor. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this. “You should be careful what you ask for,” she said more to herself than Joshua, growing sullen.
The metal was slowly being replaced by stone, intricately carved and skillfully shorn. Avonly stopped to run her fingers over the pattern as Kael strutted ahead. He was filled with the pride of accomplishing something great and it would take something truly awful to ruin it.
Yelling at Avonly to catch up, Kael slowed suddenly as his ankle pushed into a thin wire laid just above the floor. Stumbling for just a second he let out a yelp as a clink faintly echoed and he fell to the floor, the explosion going out. Rekindling the Field, he discovered a serrated metal sprig sprouting from his ankle. He yanked it out with nothing more than undue annoyance before inspecting it closely. It was coated in something.
“What do you think this is?”
Avonly made her way over and carefully picked up the sharp metal. “It’s coated in poison.”
“You can’t know that,” he said, standing up woozily. He saw the ‘I told you so’ look in her eyes. “I’ve been shaky on my feet. It’s not from this.” Kael began walking forward, adamant in proving his point.
“We should really head back topside. They have medical stuff in the plane. This is bad Kael.”
Kael waved her off, fighting the darkening vision on his peripherals. In the middle of telling her in slurred words that he was perfectly well, he collapsed to the side and slammed into the stone wall which immediately gave way and left Kael tumbling down a shaft to even greater depths below.
Avonly stood unearthly still attempting to process what had happened. Once she had, she remained still trying to formulate the faintest imaginings of a plan. Realizing she couldn’t move forward without tempting the same fate, she sprinted back in dark, in the direction they had come from. She would find a medical kit in the plane and a light. It would be easy.
As she came into the intersection in pure darkness, she felt around for a hallway and sprinted forward and upwards. It was a natural association-- up and the surface. But of course, that was not the way she came in.
Slipping down into the darkness grasping frantically at the smooth walls, Kael slid faster and faster. Without even time to realize his situation, he tumbled into a room filled with a warm, comforting yellow glow. As he hit feet first and rolled to a stop, head over heels, he felt the strength leave his body; he was past the point of being able to stand.
Kael blinked furiously trying to comprehend what was around him. He was surrounded by many, many people he did not know. The way their faces swirled in his vision, he didn’t have a clue who they were, but a lump caught in his throat as a realization materialized. Who else could they be but the Dark Element?
A couple of these people stepped aside, and a white blur moved between them and to Kael. This person was saying something, everything was drowned out. So far off. Kael fought against the darkness the pressed on him. It didn’t feel like sleep so he fought it. He didn’t have time for anything but finding the Book. The person in front of him was pouring something down his throat now. That was the last thing he remembered before slumping over and losing consciousness.
“You really won’t say anything?” Joshua whined as they stumped down a staircase, making good time.
“Why do you want to know?” Gianna shot back exasperatedly.
“I’m not saying it matters. Just have you, or have you not killed anyone? And if so, how many?” Joshua sprinted to catch up with her and trampled over a pressure plate hidden in the floor. In his wake, a series of darts sliced through the air and crashed harmlessly against the wall.
Gianna trotted ahead in silence. “You just need to take my word for it. You don’t want to know about my life before I met you and Kael.”
“It could be important,” Joshua objected, grabbing her by the forearm and leading her around the corner as she began to turn in a different direction.
“I could guarantee my story is both relevant and important. Regardless, you would be better off not knowing it.” Gianna took a deep breath. “Just quit asking.”
A book, bright, radiant as the sun. It called to Kael. It was so close. He just had to reach out his arms and take it, but his arms wouldn’t move. He tried to stand but his legs didn’t respond. Kael had dreams like this all the time, but the Book was never so close as this. Bringing his mother back from death had never been this real. With a jerk, his body rocked him into awakeness.
He lay on the cold stone ground, a strange man stooped over him. Kael recognized the uniform though, one of Ell’s men.
“He’s awake,” the man called and backed off.
Kael groggily looked to the middle of the room, where Ell sat perched on what looked like a stove. Some metal box at least. “One of our younger and more inexperienced soldiers was scratched by a trap and failed to report it thinking he dodged the proverbial bullet,” Ell continued. “He died in three minutes. You are very lucky we knew what those symptoms looked like.”
Kael groaned in agony, his ribs feeling like they were a boa constrictor tightening around his heart.
“Can you not agitate the patient?,” the medic spat, moving back to finish wrapping Kael’s head. Did I hit my head? I’m 90% bandages already. “Irrational behavior, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, conversion disorder. No end to the damage you can cause.
“So I’m fine?” Kael said weakly, slightly overwhelmed.
“Well, now you are,” Ell said matter of factly. “If you aren’t seizing by now, you aren’t likely to start now are you?” He wiped his nose on his sleeve and leapt to the floor. “I’m sure you’ll find a way to pay me back for saving your life, it wasn’t exactly cheap.”
The cavalier attitude wasn’t endearing, but Ell had just saved his life. “What was the cure?” Kael asked. “I assume one of those vials up in the office?” Ell brushed aside his shirt and revealed a dark brown sack attached to his belt. He took it off and sloshed it around. Some sort of liquid was inside. Kael pushed himself up to a sitting position, his body feeling immensely better than before being poisoned. “I feel, really really good.” He didn’t just feel good; he felt great. Even the pains from the metal-sea and platelasher no longer plagued him. What is that exactly?” Ell unscrewed the cap and let Kael smell. Except there was no smell. “Water?”
“Water. The best thing a body can have.”
“There was no poison, you are just a sadist.”
“This Book of yours: what element does it correspond to?”
Eyebrows twitching, Kael’s face scrunched up in muddled thought. “I’ve… I’ve never thought about it. I don’t see how any of the four elements could raise the dead.”
“Exactly. So most likely there are additional elements that have been lost to human control over time, and this Book is a remnant of that.”
Kael sat back and felt the tension in his body melt away, the poison disintegrating. “You’re saying that pouch of yours is a powerful artifact like the Book of Light.”
“No. The pouch was made from a cow’s stomach I butchered as a boy. You’re focused on the wrong thing.”
“Ew, stomach water,” Kael said, missing the obvious hint that had been placed right under his nose.
A new sound echoed through the caverns and Avonly quit running quite so hard. Water? There shouldn’t be the sound of running water. And there was no mistake about it, the darkness was slowly fading. She had assumed she was getting close to the altar, but this was something else entirely.
Eventually, the dark black turned into a hazy blue and Avonly walked into a giant cave of a room. Light, faint light but light all the same, broke through and illuminated the room in small shaved streaks. From under a rocky wall far to the right, water gurgled up and ran through the middle of this room through tilled fields of some crop that looked like neither rice nor ferrow. Somewhere out of earshot, the water disappeared into an echoing symphony. Across the underground marsh, the tunnel continued fading off into darkness. All of these could be seen clearly, but Avonly saw none of them. Instead, she was looking at a lone man, sitting quietly on a tiny island in the middle of the cavern. She knew that man. She had heard about him she was sure, even if he was. . . different.
“Zagan,” she said. There was no use hiding. He was looking right at her.
The mountain of a man slowly rose to his feet, grunting and shuddering as if the very act was a feat. As he stood, his face moved into the strings of light showing hideous, burnt scarring across the entire left side. He moved forward through the river, closer. Avonly took a step back. He moved closer, she could also see that he didn’t have a left arm. Recalling back to Joshua and Kael’s story, neither mentioned these details.
“You know me?” he asked. “Not who I was waiting for. Still, you must be with the brothers? They will be coming this way? I was waiting for them here.”
Avonly hesitated. From the stories she had been told this wasn’t a man she wanted to cross. “I’m their sister.” It didn’t seem the right thing to say, but she said it anyway. Avonly nearly bit her tongue as she said that. Stupid! Saying so much. The panic must have registered on her face as he gave a faint laugh.
“It’s funny you should say that. Do you know why I am here?” the sides of his mouth twitched as if to smile, but remained sunken in the end. “Apparently your brothers made one of our bosses very angry when he refused to join. He told me to come here and. . . well. He told me to do something bad enough that Joshua and Kael would try to kill me. Low and behold, his sister appears.
Metal? Where was metal? There was no metal here! Avonly stepped back and crossed her wrists behind her back. She felt the metal bands of metal she kept on her wrists for emergencies. If this was all she had, she’d have one shot. Zagan stepped forward, but she didn’t run; the thought didn’t even occur to her, not yet. Zagan took another step and she took a step back. Run! Her brain shouted, but her feet wouldn’t do it. Zagan took a third step and stopped. He looked blankly at the cave behind her and fell back, disappearing into the darkness.
Chest heaving and preparing for something worse, whatever horror that could be, Avonly twisted her gaze around and saw a figure stepping out into the dimly lit room. A hand appeared from the silhouette and reached for her, but there it held. Recognizing his face, Avonly breathed a sigh of relief so deep she almost cried and grabbed the hand.
With one motion, Niles pulled Avonly to her feet with a blank smile. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I was tasked with securing the place but a Syche just popped up out of nowhere. The caves go on in this direction. Care to check it out?
“Kael is poisoned I need--”
“Ell already took care of it,” Niles interrupted. “I’m going the direction he ran. You don’t have to follow but you’re safer with me if you do.”
“Where is she?” Joshua just about screamed. One second Gianna was there, and the next she was gone.
Fingers raking against the wall, Joshua clumsily made his way down the pitch dark. His chest heaved more and more with every step. Claustrophobia. It was panic-inducing being surrounded by all this darkness. His feet slid stair to stair as he worked downwards. Where is she? The feel of the walls alternated between rough stone and smooth metal, seemingly at random. Down and down he went. How deep underground was he now? He couldn’t even begin to fathom.
“Gianna!” Joshua screamed and drew in a deep breath, missing the next step momentarily. “Gia. . . Uf!” His foot slipped off the next step and sent flailing downwards. This way and the next, he spun around, sense of space losing all meaning, till at least he rolled to a stop. Picking himself up, he massaged the bumps and bruises forming all over his body. That wasn’t so bad. Blindly, he felt around for a wall to place himself, now realizing that the black wasn’t so black. The darkness had become a dark gray and he could just see a nose length in front.
Into that gradient, he felt his way forward, some light ahead now becoming apparent. Joshua pushed himself off the wall, he no longer needed the support. He glanced hesitantly at darkened doorways he passed. Perhaps he’d come back when he was feeling a bit braver to look around. Soon the hallway was strung by lights hanging along the walls, their bulbs dark but growing lighter as he walked. And then he was in the space between light and dark. Fuzzy but manageable. Ahead he saw the actual light. And Gianna. And noise. So many new senses all at once.
Voices bounced oblongly along the halls, weird sounds distorted by the length. Ahead in the yellowed light, Gianna hugged the corner peering around the turn. Joshua slunk around the wall and joined her. The tap on her shoulder not generating the slightest surprise.
“What are you doing?” Joshua asked.
“Just wondering what they’re up to,” she said, her stare unbroken.
Joshua fell to his knees and crawled to the corner, looking for himself. Along the lighted corridor. Ell’s commando’s buzzed like bees. Moving through rooms one by one. Shouting out each result. She wasn’t wrong, this was an interesting sight. Yet Joshua’s patience could only last so long. As soon as he saw Kael limping around the far corner following Ell, he jumped out and ran to meet them. Gianna rolled her eyes and followed. This wasn’t the only reason she had ditched Joshua, but it had been a tally mark in her calculation.
“Find anything?” Joshua yelled down the hall, sliding to a stop before the pair. Kael was looking better already? That seemed too good to be true.
“Plenty to talk about I guess,” Kael answered looking around the halls, but nothing we’re interested in. Go around the corner and look in the double doors. Can’t miss em.”
“Don’t,” Ell cut in immediately. At this, Joshua was all but decided and began walking, feverishly excited, to see what could be behind these doors. He turned the corner and saw two plain wooden doors. As he reached for the handle, Ell’s voice echoed through the cavern again. “We found the missing nomads. Parts of them at least. It’s a laboratory, of sorts.” Joshua’s hand, mid-reach for the door handle, drooped down. Ell shot an icy stare at Kael. “Why would you tell him to do that?”
Kael began forming an explanation of the joke but stopped mid through realizing there wasn’t anything moderately funny here. The further they went the more horrific it had become. He couldn’t see what the Dark Element was aiming to accomplish, but the stench alone coming from behind that door spoke for itself.
“So nothing on this Book of yours?” Gianna asked joining them.
“Well no but. . . .”
“Oy!” an echoed cry came down the hallway. Avonly vaulted upon them, dragging Joshua with her and sweat dripping from her brow. “I’ve got something you really need to see, right now.”