Chapter 5: Taerose
Chapter 5: Taerose
Surrounded by death with only yourself to blame. And yet there are plenty of evils out of your control. You never hated the Empire as much as Kael. Why is that?
Kael slammed his palm into the stonework and sent an orange pulse of energy tunneling through the rock. A second later, an explosion snaked down the stairwell chasing after the line of the energy. Screams sounded below as the mountain shook from its frosted peaks to its ancient roots. He turned and bolted for the exit with a smile.
That smile melted though as he broke into the light of day. Right before him, Gianna, that girl in the cell with Joshua, stood over Joseph the prison guard. Parts of him remained, other parts were strewn about chaotically, some others disintegrated. Kael stumbled sideways, trying to avoid touching anything as he made his way forward. He stepped over the two sentries spread eagle in the snow, assuming the worst for them as well, as he squinted to get a better look at who Bartholomew was doubled over.
“What happened?” Kael screamed. He slid to a stop as Bartholomew rolled Joshua over, a steady stream of blood staining the snow from a gash in the side of his head.
“The prisoner guard came with us,” Bartholomew said checking Joshua’s eye dilation, using the snow to clear off the blood. “He had a chunk of metal on him and sent it out like a bullet, but it looks like it only grazed the side of this boy’s head.” Kael breathed a sigh of relief. “You can thank the girl. You wouldn’t believe how fast she reacted. Probably knocked the projectile off course she was on him so fast.”
Kael wanted to be mad. He had told Joshua one-hundred times over they were only going to take Doctor Bartholomew with them. Still, Kael would have left the girl back in the cells, and she did save Joshua’s life. He looked over to her, standing with half a dead body at her feet as if it was a simple curiosity. There’d be no leaving her now.
“Take some of their clothes Doctor,” Kael commanded, gathering his thoughts. “We’re going to need to move quickly and I can’t have you freezing. I’ll try and get Joshua on his feet.”
Bartholomew bit his lip. “We shouldn’t move--”
“I know!” Kael snapped. “But we need to run now. There are at least a few dozen Syches still alive in there and they will all be coming for us.”
“Listen to him,” Joshua grunted, eyes still closed. His hand weakly rose to his forehead and touched the wound. Bartholomew halfheartedly nodded and went to strip the guard Joshua had knocked out of his clothes. “What happened?”
“That prisoner guard tried to kill you,” Kael said.
Joshua lifted himself up unsteadily, his head a bit dim and woozy. “What a strange thing to do. All I did was try and help him.”
Sixty seconds later, Joshua wobbled to his feet woozily with a black strip of cloth bound tightly to his head. Kael and Barthlomew both tried to usher him along, but he protested and fought back. He didn’t feel exactly. . . good, but he could walk on his own. Finally, they let him have his way and he stumbled after the other three with all the grace of a teetering drunk.
They spent the next three and a half hours moving south through the mountains. The winds whipped at times, but that was the only noise bouncing off the peaks, thankfully. They marched in absolute silence, drudging through the knee-high snow. Brief introductions were made at the start of course, but from the five-minute mark onward, mum was the word.
Joshua wiggled his jaw as his breath crystallized on the interior of his scarf. If it wasn’t the cold it would be his head, so he didn’t mind. Best to resign yourself to misery when there is no alternative. He couldn’t say that always worked however, both from personal experience and from the way Bartholomew’s body shook with each gust of wind. That in turn made Joshua colder.
Kael and Gianna were fine of course. An affinity with Combustion had its perks. Explosions were nothing but the release of energy and energy meant heat. Those kinds of Syches never seemed to get cold, just like Blood Syches never seemed to die. Of course, they could die and the last one did, so in theory it could probably get cold enough for those two to freeze as well.
The pace was slow. But that became preferable as once they stopped entirely staring down a straight cliff face. The drop was fifty feet minimum. Below, a rough version of a road was etched into the mountain face hidden under feet of snow. In the summer months, in fair weather, it was usable. Today was no summer.
After a short whistle, Joshua looked over to Kael. “You know, I don’t believe this is the way we intended to come.”
“Lucky we did though,” Kael said. He cocked his head to the side and squinted looking down the road. “Looks like we have a ride coming.”
Joshua looked over Kael’s shoulder. “Well as much as I would love to catch a ride with a tank, probably not the time nor the place,” Joshua said, shoving his mittened fingers deep into his pockets and shrugging.
“Huh? That can’t be a….” Kael’s voice trailed off. “Everyone, stay low.” Following Joshua who had already plopped to the ground, halfway disappearing in the drift, they obeyed. “Strange isn’t it? A military convoy in the middle of nowhere.”
Rubbing his eyes and trying to see through the snowy haze, Bartholomew gave up. “I don’t know what you are looking at. But there can’t be any vehicles in this pass. It’s impossible.”
“Shall I describe it to you?” Joshua said back dryly.
This wasn’t necessary as the behemoth drew close. Tearing its way along the cliff face and throwing powered snow before its treads, a monstrous snow plow drove forward, behind it a convoy of tanks and supply trucks inched along. The plow was borderline too large for the narrow road, but that didn’t stop it from sending a veritable waterfall of snow careening off the side of the cliff.
“This isn’t usual. Could it be some exercise for the Tyré military?” the Doctor said.
“The size of that snowplow isn’t usual.” Kael shrugged. “Let’s not worry about it too much. If we can get on one of those, our trip will be sped up by at least a day.” He paused realizing Gianna had wiggled back a few inches from the group. “You know what this is all about don’t you?” He turned on her, accusation in his voice.
“Let’s say, right now, that Tyré, is no longer a sovereign nation,” Gianna said flatly.
Kael grimaced and bit his lip, not sure what to do with that.
“Shh, everyone, be quiet!” Joshua yelled, ignoring the danger of the situation. “If we don’t get down there now, we’ll miss our chance.”
Bartholomew poked his head over the cliff and looked straight down in abject horror. They weren’t deathly high up. And there was an awful lot of snow. But still, he didn’t want to risk the plunge. Still mulling over the prospect, a shape in his peripherals scooched closer and tumbled over the edge. He craned his neck downwards, looking at the spot where it landed, where Joshua now flailed about trying to move in the deep embankment.
His hand placed comfortingly on Bartholomew’s shoulder, Kael came up behind and said, “It’s best not to think of these things, Doctor.” Grunting, Kael grabbed the Doctor’s black robes by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him up and over just enough to send him sprawling over the ledge. Without bothering to look at where Bartholomew landed, Kael glanced back at Gianna, an eyebrow raised. She stood up, brushed past him, and walked over the edge without much ado. Finally, Kael looked down for a clear spot among the bodies and leaped.
As Kael flailed his way out of the drift, cold bits getting stuck in his hair and slithering down his collar, Joshua grabbed his arm and pushed him into a small crevice in the cliffside. Jammed against Bartholomew with his cheek grazing razor cold stone, he watched Joshua and Gianna follow and crow the hiding place to capacity.
Just in time too. The plow already shook the cavern’s walls and cliffside, raining down snow and chunks of ice onto their head; it was near. Outside, the giant treads sliced through the snow and barreled on down the path passing by the small chink in the cliff face like a predator with too much focus to ignore the small prey.
Turning from the Doctor who still broadcasted a slight shiver, Joshua remarked, “magic to technology in the same day. Gotta love it.”
“Par for the course,” Kael said, dismissing him, trying to look over Joshua’s curly head of hair that blocked his view and smelled of sweet. As close as they squeezed, he didn’t dare open his mouth for fear of tasting it.
“I wouldn’t call the Elements magic,” Gianna said. “What Element do you use anyways? You’ve done nothing so far.”
Joshua was confused at first. She couldn’t be talking to him. Nothing so far? As far as he could see, he had done everything so far. He got punched. He got thrown in prison. He was the first to jump off the cliff. And, oh, he was the one who knocked out the Blood Syche who guarded the exit. On any other occasion, he would have listed his accomplishments in excruciating detail, but this hardly seemed the time. He sucked up his pride and answered the question instead. “I am a normal human being, actually. No freaky Sychakenetic powers here.”
“I’m having, a hard time, breathing,” Bartholomew grunted with his chest wedged against the frozen crevice. “What’s the plan to get out of here?”
Clicking his tongue, Joshua was lost in thought. “Well, all we need is a distraction and then we just jump into the back of a truck. Can you run old man? Never mind, you’ll have to run. Kael?” Joshua tried to turn his head and only managed to grind his the open wound perched on his forehead against the rough ice.
“I’m not. I’m not sure,” Kael answered gruffly, he too having trouble breathing.
“I guess I can do this without killing anyone. Not that it matters,” Gianna said clasping her hands together. She stepped towards the edge of the fissure and looked out at the convoy. “Close your eyes and go when I say go.” She took a deep breath and moved her hands apart, not waiting for a reply. A pure white light, blindingly, unbearably bright followed a short pop and enveloped the air instantly.
The convoy of vehicles ground to a halt.
In a quick panic, Joshua, Kael, and Bartholomew sprinted forward—none of them having time to close their eyes. Blinded, clumsy, stumbling, and unsure, they clambered forward with Gianna guiding them along the best she could. Angling them towards the nearest vehicle, she jumped up to the back and pushed through the tarp, helping her blind followers along. One by one they each fell into the back of the truck.
Shifting himself around, continuously bumping into boxes, Joshua asked, “Do you think they saw us?”
“I can’t see us, Josh,” Kael said. “I think we’re fine. How did you make the light Gianna?”
“Oh?” She looked angry. “It’s my power. I release energy. You can shift the explosive power to light easy enough. I thought you were like me?”
“Ugh, we’re not moving are we?” the Doctor moaned, rubbing the small of his back. He was panicked more than any of them while running and had thrown himself into the truck bed in a frenzy, landing back first into the corner of a crate.
Gianna pulled the tarp tightly, stealing a peek at two befuddled men in the truck behind rubbing their eyes and looking dazed at some distant point that wasn’t there. She glanced back to Joshua, Kael, and Bartholomew who mirrored their reaction.
All four of them waited hesitantly. The wind whipped along the road but the caravan wouldn’t follow suit. Joshua nearly jumped when the vehicle began moving again. A few minutes underway, everyone slowly relaxed, relaxed enough to finally poke around. Strewn about the place were crates and boxes of various shapes and sizes: wood and plastic, all labeled without words. Joshua and Bartholomew sidled closer together without thinking, looking for warmth as their frosty breath misted the room.
“Well isn’t this cozy?” Joshua noted as he adjusted a few boxes creating a seat. He opened one of the long boxes and peeked inside. “Guns. Of course, they’re guns.” Poking around a little more, he opened a square crate. “Now I could have fun with these.” The others looked at him as he said this but just missed him stuffing something into the recesses of his coat pockets. It seemed by the overall bulk of his tatty coat that he was carrying all sorts of things in there.
“Gianna,” Kael said, “you know what is going on with this army. I heard you before.”
Gianna’s lips curled into an unpleasant smile. “Well,” she stammered, not looking at anyone, which wasn’t a new thing as she had yet to look at anyone in the eye as she spoke. “This might be the Taerose Army.”
Again the way she speaks. The tone is too forced. Joshua meditated on this fact as did Kael first noticing their new companion’s oddity. Wait. Taerose Army? Joshua jolted to life at once with those two words. In unison, a groan reverberated in the jostling car from Joshua, Kael, and Bartholomew.
“They invaded yet another country?” Joshua asked, leaning back and running his hand through the side of his hair. “That man.”
Gianna’s eyes wandered, refusing to so much as look at the Doctor’s feet while his stare bore into the top of her skull. After a moment of quiet, and with an undoubted assurance that all eyes on her, Gianna’s voice cracked to life. Small. High pitched. “We… I mean the people I used to work with, the Dark Element, made sure of that. After assassinating the new President here days ago, we gave a few major politicians in Tyré the incentive to declare war on Taerose blaming them for the assassination.”
“Incentive or Incentive?” Kael asked.
“You said the same word twice. What’s the difference?” Gianna said.
With a deep sigh, Kael gave a quick whip of his head snapping the crick in his neck and looked to his brother. “This stopped being fun about thirty minutes ago. Worst trip ever.”
Joshua seemed to consider this for a second. “I don’t know K, running into those cannibals on Malg that one time still ranks a bit lower than this. Not that there isn’t time for this to go further downhill.” After scratching the back of his neck, Joshua added, “like if we literally went downhill right now, the trip would go downhill with it. It’s very steep.”
As the boys chatted, Bartholomew scooted across a wooden crate and within earshot of Gianna. “Since you aren’t a part of that group any longer, you should probably cut the pronoun ‘we’ from your vocabulary when referring to the Dark Element. I’m sure you’re a good kid but it should be obvious why you don’t want that association. You’ll want to find some different clothes as soon as you can too.”
Gianna glanced down to inspect what the issue with her mangy black robes was, exactly.
In that moment, the truck subtly rocked forward, settling into place. Outside the roar of the motor and perpetual crunch of snow ceased. “
“We stopped? When did we stop?” Joshua said.
“Just now, obviously,” Kael answered, uncrossing his arms and standing up.
Outside of their cozy lodgings, a faraway voice barked orders. The entire group, barely in earshot, strained to hear. The crunch of the snow under hurried feet was surrounding them on each side as soldiers ran by the narrow lanes on the road. The sounds were becoming so ever-present that it was difficult to make out what was happening.
Taking a quick, calm breath, Joshua looked around what little space that they had and grabbed a box. “Help me,” he huffed, trying to move it.
Kael pitched in and together they began rearranging the crates at the far end. As they pulled them off the wall, a small strip of space revealed itself. Enough for one person to lay down and be hidden from someone looking in. It would do no good if they climbed into the truck bed, but better than nothing.
The sounds of crunching snow and complaining men continued outside, a never ending circuis of sound. The soldiers were searching the convoy, every part. There could be no doubt of that.
His chest tightening and breath shortening, Bartholomew looked to Joshua and Kael. “We can’t possibly hide all of us. Even if we had the time it wouldn’t work.”
“We’re hiding two of us. Me and Kael,” Joshua grunted, climbing over the crates and shimmying to lay down in the gap.
Bartholomew shook his head in disbelief. “If we’re caught, you’re caught. Think of a better idea.”
“My idea is great, because I have a hunch-- which basically means it’s a fact,” Joshua said, motioning for Kael to join him.
“Except those times where your hunches lead to horrible disasters,” Kael sighed, moving as directed.
“Anyway,” Joshua waved his criticism off, “here’s what you two do. . . .”
A few vehicles ahead of their position, soldiers canvassed every nook and cranny checking under, over, and inside. After finishing one such inspection, the soldiers moved down the line from an armored vehicle to a supply truck, the very supply truck the group hid in. Two soldiers trudged to the back of the vehicle and yanked the tarp away. Inside Gianna and Bartholomew appeared busy, looking through some of the larger boxes. Slowly, menacingly, they turned to face the soldiers.
“Get on with the search!” Bartholomew barked, “we’ve got this one.” The hoarseness of his voice was exasperated by the sheer volume. Springing back in terror, the canvas dropped back down and the soldiers scampered off to the next vehicle.
Once out of sight Joshua let out a victory “Huzzah!” and popped up from the back of the crates. “So the assassins are working with the Taerose army. I figured as much.”
“Let’s not do that again,” Kael mumbled, pushing himself away from Joshua. He rubbed his side. “That was far too close.”
“What’s a little spooning between brothers?” Joshua said, his arms far above his head in a stretch.
Bartholomew stared blankly at the two, completely dumbfounded. “How did you know that would work?”
“Well,” Joshua said, rubbing his hands and blowing into them, “these Dark Element assassins helped Taerose start a war. It makes sense they’d be working together. Honestly, my only concern was whether the soldiers would notice how ratty Gianna’s uniform looked. Were they scared? They sounded scared.”
As the next fifteen minutes slid by, the group waited without an audible breath. Joshua sat wringing his hands, Kael rocked back and forth listening for a noise, and Bartholomew tried not to stare at Gianna who sat eyes closed, mouthing some inaudible words to herself. Anytime the crunch of footsteps neared their position, Joshua and Kael would leap back to their hiding spot as Gianna and Bartholomew prepared to play their parts. But that moment never came.
Eventually, the convoy started moving again without a second intrusion.
Joshua ran his hand through his hair and sat down, his breath shaking slightly before he nodded and looked up smiling. “Looks like we have learned three things today,” Joshua began. “First, never trust the good Doctor; he is a brilliant liar. B: never eat the yellow snow.”
“And the third?” inquired Gianna.
“Yeah, no. I didn’t plan that ahead,” Joshua said. “Figured I would come up with a third one but, uh. Actually, I had to cheat just to get a number two tacked onto the list. I suspect there are rarely moral lessons to be learned from prison breaks and stowaways.”
“You almost got killed helping the prison guard,” Kael said. “Maybe the moral lesson from today was don’t help people blindly.”
“That’s more of an immoral lesson, and I prefer to ignore those.”
They rode in silence for quite some time. The short winter day was spent as darkness rested on the mountains, filling in the cracks from peak to valley. The train of vehicles trudged slowly on through the slim path overlooking a steep drop and a sudden stop. The wind howled and moons stayed aloof above the clouds; it was a dark and bitter-cold night; there was no winter night that wasn’t this far north. Inside the supply truck, Gianna and Kael took turns stripping small strips of wood and releasing enough of its stored energy to set it ablaze without exploding. The heat was minimal but the goal was to avoid frostbite for Joshua and Bartholomew, if all digits worked in the morning, then it was a success. It was the nicest night some of them had seen in a while, sadly enough. The party fell into a much-needed sleep at their leisure, always opening an eye before too long, however, with a general sense of paranoia always creeping over them.
“You called them Syches right?” Bartholomew asked, finding Kael awake at the same time.
“What of it?” Kael returned.
“Nothing in particular. Just strange to find someone else who knows about them. They, or I guess you, are a bit of an oddity.”
Well into morning, the darkness showed no sign of the coming dawn and the wind howled louder as if to drive home that point. It was this lonely hour that Joshua and Kael happened to be awake at the same time as Bartholomew. With a quick nod from Joshua to Kael, Kael dug into the pockets of his windbreaker a tattered piece of paper.
“One good turn deserves another Doc,” Kael said, handing it to Bartholomew.
Bartholomew reached out and grabbed the paper. “Time to repay my debt I suppose?”
Bartholomew unfolded the paper as Joshua and Kael began arguing about something completely unrelated in the background. Ignoring them, a skill he was quickly beginning to learn, Bartholomew read the words with shaking hands. His eyes narrowed and the corners of his mouth turned downwards. His fist clenched down and then opened to throw the crumpled paper in their faces. He sat back, cross-armed and hostile.
“It’s a list of crossed-off names and I’m the last one on it,” Bartholomew said. A lump forming in his throat. His shoulder twitched. His foot tapped.
“We know what’s on it,” Joshua said. “it’s our list. Who’s benefit was that for?”
“He thinks we are going to kill him,” Kael said, trying to hide the amusement he got in the Doctor’s panicked, finicky look. “We aren’t going to kill you.”
“Try reading the names on the list, may be enlightening,” Joshua added. Picking up the paper, he threw it right back at the Doctor.
The man uncrumpled it. As he looked down the list, his face quickly fell from apprehension to a mixture of emotions passing through confusion and ending with fear. Maybe he would prefer it if they killed him.
“Where did you get this?” he whispered. “This is….” His voice trailed.
“…the complete list of a special unit that worked under the King of Taerose,” Kael said. “You’re the last one to be investigated. Lots of dead ends on that list, and I use the term ‘dead-end’ literally in many cases. Here’s to hoping you know the information we need. The last guy we talked to said you did. In all fairness, that was the last person we talked to, so we haven’t had a chance to fact check that citation.”
“I don’t care what you may have done for me. I will never divulge anything I did for that man. I know better. Kill me now.” Bartholomew’s eye’s bulged, his pulse quickened.
“As vaguely disturbing as that sounds,” Kael said, more than a hint of accusation in his voice, “it’s probably not what we mean. We are on a treasure hunt.”
“Treasure!” Joshua echoed, his hands up and his fingers waggling as he smiled.
The Doctor stood mouth agape and listening until now, but as soon as he heard “treasure hunt”, his demeanor brightened considerably, and his craggy face broke into a smile. “You two are going after the King’s obsession!” he laughed, slapping his thigh. “That was the one project I didn’t lose sleep over.”
“Everyone else laughed too, and told us we were being ridiculous,” Joshua sighed. “Are you about to tell us the same thing?”
Bartholomew paused, took a deep breath, and then relaxed slightly. “Everything about you two is ridiculous; but no, I won’t laugh. I headed up a small contingent that actually found something interesting on the subject. The King of Taerose pulled the plug and handled it personally once we found the first thread of course. I can’t give you anything solid, but I can tell you where to start.” Joshua and Kael were leaning on the edge of their seats in anticipation. “If your mark is the legendary Book of Light, start in Dania. That’s where the King started.”
“Great!” Joshua clapped his hands together with gusto. “So Dania. Person or a place? Please tell me that is not a planet. And if you give me some hippy crap like a frame of mind, I will slap you right now.”
“It’s a city. Gave me the same feeling of wrongness I get from you Syches. There is something very old there. Very wrong. I thought so. To my surprise, the King agreed.” The Doctor paused and regained his composure. “But Dania will kill you.”