Chapter 6 Refugees
Chapter 6: Refugees
I shall share a secret with you, Joshua. Today was the first day I could have killed you; although, how could I know?
A man approached the Dark Element’s fortress in the mountains. The customary robes the Dark Element wore made the wearer shapeless and undefined, but not this man. Even under his thick robes, his large stature cut a defining shape. As if this wasn’t intimidating enough, he made the conscious choice to always scowl. It couldn’t be seen through his covered face, but even then, people knew it was there; he had that kind of demeanor. He shuffled his feet when he walked. Not normally, just today through the snow, leaving a passable trail.
Behind him, a much smaller, much less interesting partner walked in his shadow, her face uncovered. The crow’s feet creeping up around the dark skin under her eyes betrayed her middle age. She was grateful to the first man for clearing the snow. She would never say it, but she suspected it was on her behalf. Her short legs struggled in the high snow. Sure, she could use her powers to help push through, but she didn’t need to start the day mentally exhausted.
So together, these two agents of Dark Element walked to the scene of the breakout, twenty-eight hours ago.
The sun was just beginning to rise, not that anyone could see it. The day was set to be a dark and stormy mess. Snow had yet to drift downwards, but the dark mass of clouds overhead threatened to unleash a blizzard at any moment. At the mountain base, the white-capped peaks and ground were buzzing with little black bees. Patrol upon patrol was spreading out and scouring the area, moving further away from the base after each thorough sweep.
As the pair, giant and woman, moved down to the glade, they walked without a word up to the mouth of the cave where the leader of the fortress himself was talking with two guards. His face was exposed as was his noticeably bald head. Seeing the large man approaching, an almost visible shiver could be seen moving down his person.
“Lieutenant!” the guard saluted in a sloppy move that spoke to zero military training, his entire body jerking into position fast enough to give him whiplash. “We weren’t expecting you until mid-day tomorrow.”
The large man looked around the landscape at the patrols leaving the area. He approached the man who greeted him. Once within arm’s length, his fist shot out before the poor man knew what hit him and caved his chest in.
“Word was I should get here quickly and expect some level of mayhem,” the giant said, every syllable filled with disdain.
Stooping his colossal frame, he grabbed the injured man by the scruff of the neck. “That was for whatever you are going to tell me,” the giant said. He looked to his partner who stood aloof to the side, showing no visible reaction to what she had witnessed.
“Get me another Syche,” he addressed his companion. “This idiot will make four. Actually, Nadine, grab another Blood Syche. The ocean is never far on this island. We should assume the worst. And then. . . I’ll find what they lost.”
The woman at his side nodded, walking briskly to the cave before turning heel. “Zagan,” she said, “do we send word to the Commander?”
Without looking Zagan yelled back: “No need to bother my wife, she’s entertaining that lunatic from the mainland and has enough to deal with.”
As his number two walked away, Zagan regained his focus. “I’m still waiting. What did you lose?”
The man on the ground gasped, barely able to breathe, but he was given time. “Three prisoners broke out.” The words squeezed out through gritted teeth. “A young girl, one of ours. And an old man. They were both delivered by Special Operations. The third is unclear. We apparently picked up some kid roaming along outside our base.” The man stopped to catch his breath. “And they burned all the food.”
Thump! The point of the lieutenant’s foot collided with the rib cage of the bald man again, sending him sprawling.
“You lost that man’s prisoner!” the giant roared. “Get up, we have to move quickly or we are all dead.”
Joshua listened impatiently. A veritable army of assassins could pop out of those hills at any moment and murder them all, but still Joshua was in a good enough mood to be polite.
“Thanks for everything boys, and I wish you the best of luck,” the Doctor said. “I’ve spent enough time away from my daughter.” Bartholomew finished with his long winded goodbyes.
The group stood around in a circle, the low winter sun casting long shadows. Bartholomew was determined to head back to the capital and his daughter, occupied by the Empire or not. The boys thought this was the worst idea possible but didn’t understand enough to know that looping back around later wasn’t an option, not for Bartholomew. He wouldn’t leave his daughter alone a second longer than he had to, especially not with what was happening around them.
“Well, as stupid as you are being,” Kael said, “at least the convoy won’t be after you. After exploding one of the military caravan’s mobile generators, you can sure as bet that Taerose and the Element will be looking for us on this side of the island.”
In the earliest hours of the morning, when the guard was switching, the trucks were refueling, and everyone was generally out of sorts, the group had made a break for it away from the convoy. But not before Kael, ignoring Joshua’s protests, erupted the guts of a few vehicles setting them ablaze. Even now, an acrid black smoke wafted on the horizon.
“Heading back to the capital city out east will be the safest thing you can do right now,” Joshua joined in the protest. You know, aside from the temperature. Your likelihood of starving. Catching a serious illness. Wild animal attacks. I’m telling you this is a bad idea.”
“I can make it to the next town with no issues and work my way back from there. I know the circumstances you found me in say otherwise, but I am capable. It took both you and the Dark Element years to find me, after all.”
“We were looking for you,” Kael clenched his teeth and thought, “two months tops.” But if that was intended to stop Bartholomew, it didn’t work. He was already shuffling away, and he was past letting them try to convince him otherwise. Joshua and Kael waved a goodbye Bartholomew never saw as Gianna shuffled behind them tirelessly muttering to herself. Kael said: “Well he is dead. Never seeing him again.”
“So what now?” Gianna asked forcefully, creeping up behind. She threw an arm over each of Kael and Joshua’s shoulders. They both glanced at each other and then to her as she wore a big, forced grin. “Don’t give me that. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.” Utter silence. “Fine, get me to the mainland and we can part ways there? I’m dead otherwise.”
Joshua and Kael let out a deep sigh in unison.
“We certainly can’t let you die. That isn’t heroic,” Joshua muttered.
“Now hold it Josh, she could be evil,” Kael said solemnly, letting his words hang in the air.
A long pause followed as Gianna looked hesitantly back and forth between them. And then together, they both laughed.
“I’ve seen hamsters more evil than this girl,” Joshua added following along. “But a tad bit saner.” He muttered this last snippet under his breath.
No sooner than the group was on their way the heavens broke forth. The wind roared and snow dive-bombed from above. Fair to say, this complicated the trip by a fair amount. Visibility was reduced to no more than the length of an arm, and the wind threatened to blow anyone caught outside on their backs. Joshua huddled next to Kael as they pushed along. A radiating aura of heat poured from him reducing the snow near him to steam and warming Joshua. Gianna lagged behind, doing what she could to catch up, the wind her greatest opponent. Hours passed this way and it was unclear at any given moment if they were making progress at all. Gianna undoubtedly had the worst time of it, shuffling through feet of snow for hours on end was punishing, and she was slightly baffled how Joshua and Kael kept their pace so resiliently.
This far north during winter, day was hardly a reliable source of light or a measure of time. The storm still raging and the world growing unmistakably darker, the trio built a slapdash igloo for the night. Huddling together they slept cozily as the long night passed.
When the winds finally died down and the blurry white surroundings sharpened back into focus, Joshua fell in line as Kael led the way, clawing his way out of the piled-up snow and meeting the sight of a crisp morning with not a cloud in the sky. Undoubtedly sore, hungry, and tired, the three were forced to continue their trudge towards the ocean all the same. Kael, blessed with a sense of direction Joshua begrudgingly accepted, was sure that the nearest port had to be near-- a sentiment that Gianna also felt was true-- but a two hour march in the summer would take at least six in this weather. The snow had built up waist high at its deepest while they slumbered through the worst of the storm. Leaving at eight in the morning, they first saw the city over a small crest of the hill at exactly noon.
The buildings were one or two stories tall, made of good old brick and stone that came to a sharp peak, steeply laid shingles on the roof. From far-out, the city was partially buried in white, the main street the only exception. On the far side of their view, a port harbored only a single ship. Even from here, they could see quite the hubbub, a large number of people down at the concrete docks stretching out into the black bay.
Joshua, almost in a race with Kael, jogged down to the docks as fast as he could on the icy roads. The bay held room for even the biggest sizes of vessels, an oddity in relation to the town’s size. Pushing through a retreating crowd, and finally reaching the singular ship: a problem presented itself: the large fishing vessel had begun to pull away from the dock literally seconds before. Standing on the edge of the dock, a person could reach out and scratch it with the tips of their fingers if they were so inclined to risk falling in.
“No!” Gianna shouted. “We are so screwed.”
Joshua grinned at her as he lowered himself low to the ground, like a track runner at the starting block.
“Three!” Kael shouted.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Two! One!” Kael took a deep breath. “Go!”
Joshua took off running at the boat and the freezing water as if it were an entirely sane thing to do. He staggered ahead of Kael with a planned, lock-step intention to his run. He and Kael being inseperaable for their entire lives left him with an entire list of positives and negatives, but this was a positive. Indeed, despite their somewhat chaotic approach to things, they had practiced and drilled the important things.
Joshua jumped off the pier, over the black, deathly cold water. And then he held up his hand. Right on the tempo, an explosion sounded behind him, and the next thing Joshua felt was a hand grabbing his own at lightening speed, and just about pulling his arm out of the socket, as he flew up and towards the boat. Together, he and Kael hit the rail squarely and then climbed over, safely on the boat.
“Your turn,” Kael yelled to Gianna, as Joshua rotated his shoulder in gigantic windmill-circles.
Joshua stopped what he was doing and looked back skeptically at Gianna looking so small and pathetic alone on that dock. Perhaps this was more than they should have asked of her. But was there really a different way? Exploding concrete was one thing, but this wasn’t simple distance, material, ammount for her powers to work. She had to use just enough energy to send her flying in the right direction without breaking her legs. Joshua could still remember a few of Kael’s first attempts-- ragdolling up in the air with fractures splintering through his legs before falling back down and landing on his arm, which in turn broke.
But as Joshua turned to his brother, ready to find another solution, Gianna took a step back and exhaled.
Joshua looked on with a mixture of excitement and fear as she ran full-stop. She squinted and scrunched her face, the only genuine look they had seen from her so far, and she slammed her feet into the edge of the pier and jumped straight up.
And then she began to fall. Timing. That was the unique factor Combustion Syches had to deal with-- just when the explosion would pop. In her case, it happened right at that second.
The pier crackled under her and erupted, launching her towards the boat. She moved with a velocity that put Kael’s to shame, but her angle was lower. Her foot caught the railing and her momentum spun around until it threw her straight down into the deck of the ship-- headfirst. It was meteoric, except that meteorites leave craters and Gianna merely bounced crumbled with a dull thud.
Kael gave a sharp whistle as Joshua joked, “And that’s why flightless birds are extinct.”
Starting to laugh, Kael stopped once he realized that she wasn’t getting up. Joshua stooped down and turned her on her back as Kael looked around the deck. The topside of the ship was littered with dozens of ragtag groups staring at them, all refugees seeking passage away from Taerosean rule. He turned his back towards them and slid over to Gianna. A slight moan escaped her lips. Her hand slowly rose and fell to her face which she began to rub.
“It hurts.” She opened an eye. The haze she saw was the world into a blurry view. “Oh no,” she exclaimed. Spluttering around, her hand found the side rail and she put her head over the side of the ship to throw up. Repeatedly.
“Concussion,” Kael noted.
“Or food poisoning,” Joshua added. He looked to Kael for a smile but felt bad when he only shook his head.
Joshua shut his mouth and remained quiet for some time and let Gianna rest. The other refugees on the deck would throw them wary glares from time to time, but nothing the boys weren’t used to. Syches, strictly speaking, were not common knowledge, despite what their adventure so far may seem to indicate. How these three newcomers got on board, was dubious, and yet even those select few who had seen them jump up in a stream of fire would hesitate to call them superhuman, because such creatures didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. The word Syche was not even in their vocabulary. Elements were more solid concepts that could be found on a periodic table. Joshua’s normalness was normal, not the exception.
An exception Joshua took some pride in. Being one of the few normal people who knew what a Syche was, was something.
As the ship moved out the bay, Joshua hung his head over the rail, not to puke like Gianna, but gaze at the dark, frigid water. He could see little shapes moving in the water-- salt blood leeches trying to grab onto what they probably thought was an animal. It was a very good thing he hadn’t fallen in on that jump.
“Weird isn’t it Joshua?” Kael said. “A whole group of Syches, this Dark Element. I don’t think we’ve ever met more than one or two Syches at a time, and they were untrained, didn’t even know what they were.”
“Not since we were kids,” Joshua agreed.