Syche: The Steel Heart (BOOK 2)

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Chapter 1: Shadowboxing

And so we begin our story anew Joshua. For you, this is a story of disaster. For me, one of triumph.

And like two fighters about to approach each other in the ring, soon to meet in the middle, we start in our prospective corners. Your story begins in Seriah, awaiting that push to get you moving, and my story begins a few weeks earlier on the right side of your father’s throne, preparing to receive all four Commanders of the Dark Element– the first meeting of its kind in its history.

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Joshua’s fist sliced through the air in a reckless haymaker. He fought. He kicked. He pirouetted and lost himself in a violent spin.

The ocean wind howled in his ears as Joshua kicked at the sand under his feet. He dashed forward and struck at the gaunt-faced man before him. Blow after blow, he missed his target, but their feet danced, and despite Joshua’s aim, he fought more gracefully and with more lethality than he had in all of his life.

Which was saying something. Joshua was no stranger to a row. Hand-to-hand combat was drilled into him as a child and he kept the tradition through frequent bouts against his brother Kael, and on some occasions his sisters. Those sparring sessions were inevitably augmented by the fact that every one of Joshua’s siblings were Syches of no mean ability, able to control the four elements: Lightning, Combustion, Blood, and Metal. And while it was good training, he was used to ending up on his butt at the end of the day.

And just now, with a spinning kick in the air going awry, Joshua did just that.

“Rely on your core more. Use it to really snap your leg around,” a voice berated Joshua.

Joshua rubbed his sore spots and looked up to the unreadable face of a new person in Joshua’s life. Well, maybe not even a “person”, just like “standing” could have been a misnomer. The man was Somiel, or just Som, and technically didn’t exist. At least, Joshua hadn’t decided if he existed yet.

The thing was, Som existed purely in Joshua’s mind. Not as some mere figment, but more like a parasite that he had picked up months ago when a natural disaster struck. The how still wasn’t abundantly clear, but all it took was a touch between he and the man to entwine their minds. And after a courting period where Joshua believed he was haunted, sick, or plain mad, Som and he finally reached a parity where they could talk to one another and exchange information.

The specifics of that information had been oddly vague. Som revealed oh so little about how they had been joined or his past. Claimed he forgot. Joshua didn’t believe it but went along with it for now. He had to wonder though: Could Som could read his mind?

What was clear, however, was that Som remembered how to fight. And since Som had a vested interest in Joshua staying alive, he was teaching him everything he knew. And boy could he fight– better than anyone Joshua had ever seen.

Joshua spat out sand and raised his hands for another round. One would think the incorporeal would serve as a poor teaching tool, but it was practically the same– if not better. He could get hit and not feel the punch. He could really potato his training partner and not feel guilty. And perhaps best of all, his partner never grew tired, had anywhere better to be, or denied him the practice.

“It’s always your footing,” Som was saying. “You’ve been approaching with fox steps. Too many small, unnecessary movements.”

Joshua spat on the ground and placed his hands on his sides as he took a few deep breaths of the salty sea air. “First it was too large steps and now it’s too small. What is a fox anyway?”

“An animal that is long dead. We considered them crafty or sneaky. Things you cannot be in a fight. Especially not against a Syche.”

“See that just doesn’t make sense to me. That sounds like the kind of style I should be learning. I can’t be a Syche in a fair fight.”

Joshua stifled a snigger as Som placed a hand to his forehead and went right through. It was comforting to know that his new partner hadn’t gotten used to his incorporeal existence either.

“You must be perfect in your movements against a Syche. Find the balance that lets you move with speed and reaction. Too fast you can’t dodge. Too light on your feet, and you are too easy to hit. Balance.”

“And what extinct animal would that look like?” Joshua asked with a huff, raising his fists for another round. “I should have kept a list for all the crap you keep throwing out that I don’t know. I think you just like lording it over me.”

No reply came. Instead, Som’s eyes glanced along the beach and he held up a hand, beckoning Joshua to stop. “You hear something.”

It was a statement, not a question.

Som also had a way of constantly being aware of the smallest sensory details Joshua couldn’t pick up on. Either he was that skilled in every little perfect way a human being could be or his ghostly self provided some fringe benefits. Either or, Joshua had yet to decide.

Yes. There was the crunch of wet sand sucking its way towards him. Joshua’s younger sister Noel steered herself in a crooked line in his general direction.

“I saw you talking to yourself again,” Noel said, running beachward with a wave before planting her bare feet in the sand before him.

Maybe Joshua was just dull while everyone else picked up on every little thing. He had tried to keep his. . . relationship with Som a secret from as many people as possible, but both his younger sisters– Noel and Alma– kept looking at him like he was crazy and always seemed to know. Maybe that would be better in the end. His other siblings– Kael and Avonly– did know, and that hadn’t been so bad, outside the constant worry.

“Is it time?” Joshua asked, clearing his throat and the flurry of thoughts from his head.

Noel nodded and began running back on the lip of the wave. Ebbing towards the sea with the water, pushing back into land with the motion. She jumped over a sea gourd that washed ashore. Wouldn’t want to get too close to one of those.

“We don’t need to go with her,” Som said, blinking into existence besides Joshua. “Observation changes no outcomes. Your family will fair no different if you are there or not.”

And then there was that. After the catastrophe weeks ago with Gianna being a double agent, they had to evacuate their home and move everyone to this military base in Seriah. And since then, they hadn’t left, until today. Kael and Alma had joined a contingent of Ell’s soldiers to head back to the house.

It was almost a guarantee that the organization of Syches run by their father, the King-Emporer of Taerose, would at least have the building staked out. This provided a tempting opportunity, knowing exactly where the enemy would be.

Joshua jogged along the beach behind his little sister, letting her stay out in front. He looked down in disgust as the gourd’s entrails pulled a baby crab back into its body.

Of course, there was danger at both ends. First, there was Ell. That pale, albino-esque liar that Joshua disliked and Kael downright hated. He had lied to them. And he had used them to try and murder their father.

Killing their father was of course totally okay, but the lying and manipulating was problematic. Plus, he was just incredibly unlikable. So perfect. So self-assured. So better than everyone else. And yet he failed all the same. Now they were all stuck on the polar opposite end of the globe from Taerose trying to regroup and find a way to deal with the Empire and its shadow organization.

Despite it all, Ell was still in charge around here. Technically

And that technicality was Seriah. Their host nation was feeling less welcoming by the day. They were trying Ell for treason or something, which Joshua found hilarious, but they also weren’t letting him leave. Joshua’s entire family was stuck at this base under careful watch.

Joshua fleft the squish of the sand between his toes and drug it against the metal as he reached the docks, trying to clean off. From here, it was a straight shot up the stairs and into the command building. Noel already waited for him at the doors.

“Go on ahead!” Joshua shouted up the steps.

A cold breeze blew and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Before making that final climb, he turned out to the ocean and the taste of salt. A mist was rolling in, and with it, a shadow coming in with the tide. Boat-shaped, but no boat he’d see around here. The docks were empty now, but there was the occasional patrol boat that stopped to refuel. And that was just the thing. The Serians used boats that need fuel, not wooden frigates from a bygone era.

“Go on ahead!” Joshua shouted up the steps.

Noel’s big eyes stayed transfixed for a moment on the scene, but she rushed inside all the same, probably to find her sister.

What cut through the morning mist now was anachronistic: a giant schooner like the types Joshua had seen movies about back when pirates were a thing in open waters. Except that description alone did it no credit. It was massive. The wood of its hull bore a pale color from no tree Joshua had ever seen. Its masts were too short for a ship of that size, and the overall design and feel of the thing was an oddity in and of itself– too modern, too sleek.

Joshua crossed his arms and thought. Ell had practically invented the giant airplane they had flown on previously, perhaps he’d invented a sailing ship. But that begged the question: why? Who in their right mind would need such a thing?

Mindlessly, walking down the pier, Joshua nearly gasped in shock as he saw someone on the forward bow of the ship. This person had all the pale, colorless sheen of Ell, but it clearly wasn’t him; not if Ell had swapped sexes.

Ell didn’t look like any other human being, but here was another, just as pale and otherwordly as the original.

The ship moored quickly and efficiently and that woman jumped off the boat, shaky on her feet and out of balance. Behind her, two more just the same alighted and helped tie the boat to the moorings. The woman was old. Not the grey kind of old (Joshua wasn’t even sure that type of old existed for this person), but her translucent skin and wispy hair lacked the white sheen of the others. No cracks in the skin under her eyes, but she had a gravitas and weight to her bearing.

And then Ell appeared. He walked upright behind her. “Hey,” Joshua called feebly, as the group continued to walk towards him. Odd, Ell was supposed to be in the capital today, not out on a pleasure cruise.

The man Joshua called Ell approached and cocked his head, studying Joshua like a bug under glass. “I am not he.”

“You. . . aren’t?” Talking like that, it was probably true.

He brought his left hand up to the chest in a diagonal, palm up. “Myne broether, not I. Butwith has seyde a simularty. Myne name is Lierwellen.”
Now it was Joshua’s turn to cock his head sideways. What?

The woman cleared her throat, “You must excuse him. Your language changes over time, however slowly that might seem to you. Our Lierwellen has not been to the surface in a number of years. He’ll adapt fast enough.”

“On guard boy,” Som growled. “Don’t trust them.”

Som said that, but Lierwellen now gazed back to the sea with not a smile on his face, but a look of pleasant calm and tranquility. Him most of all, but all three of these people looked utterly tranquil, nothing like Ell at all.

Realizing the awkward silence, Joshua coughed. “Sorry for the casual racism then. You really looked like him. Ell isn’t here, but I’m Joshua.” He rose his hand and mirrored Lierwellen, realizing how stupid he must look copying him. His cheeks grew red and he lowered the hand. He watched hesitantly as they looked at him for too long.

“We are here to help with the. . . damnation. I don’t know the word either,” the man who had remained silent so far spoke up. His hair was short compared to the rest of them or Ell, and yet longer than most women that Joshua had seen. “Ell sent word he’d be imprisoned soon.” His words sent a ripple through his calm demeanor.

Whoever they were, they seemed protective of their own.

“Let’s go inside if the military won’t mind you,” Joshua said, stepping to the side and motioning them up the steps. Might as well keep them in eyesight. He turned to catch up, but they were barely past him. So slow. “Where did you say you were from?”

“We keep a small science outpost out that way.” The woman’s hand beckoned to the sea, gracefully following the breeze.

“I meant. Well, all of you. Your people.”

“I read Ell’s report on you, your assistance with Taerose. I would have assumed you knew all this already.”

Right? “We don’t have the best relationship,” Joshua said, pointedly ignoring Som who would be gloating over that admission.

“They are Lithurian,” Som’s gruff voice cut in. “You’ve heard of this, yes?”

Joshua had, although he couldn’t respond right now with so many people around. It was an entire continent said to be lost to the ocean, sunk beneath the waves. That’s what people said at least, but people said a lot of stupid things.

As they reached the top of the steps, a whip of blood sprouted from the man’s arm and curled around the door, wrenching it open with enough speed that they didn’t need to slow their pace. Blood Syches. Ell’s people were a lost continent of Blood Syches. That made Ell even stranger since he wasn’t a Syche. Then again, neither was Joshua despite everyone in his family being so gifted.

“Where are the labs and Ell’s room?” the woman asked, slowly looking down each hallway.

He could show them, he had so much more to learn still.

“Weren’t you doing something?” Som asked, his body gone but his voice resounding through Joshua’s brain.

Oh right. “Actually, it’s that way and that way!” Joshua quickly pointed before scampering off down the hallway. He had completely forgotten about what was happening today.

Through one set of doors and then the next, Joshua’s bare sandy feet slipped on the polished floors as he sprinted to the center of the base. Flinging the doors open, he skidded to a halt in the command room, coming face to opaque face with someone he did not expect.

At the middle of the crowd, that opaque bastard Ell sat with the fingers of one hand laced across his face, looking over stacks of paperwork.

Well that was unexpected. Every time he disappeared, Joshua half expected to never see the guy again, but here he was.

Crowded around Ell was a contingent of Serian military minds. Officers and their support staff. Soldiers and aids. Secretaries and computer analysts. Somehow, an outsider, a Lithurian if that was to be believed, had been given this much power by the Serian government, even if his time was soon up. And that fact was apparent in the demeanor of his subordinates, if they could be called that any more. He was practically in prison already.

Joshua squeezed through a group of stiff carreer military men who looked down at him with upturned noses, getting next to Ell’s side. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“They’ve begun their deliberations in the Steel Heart. I’ll be guilty, but it could take up to a week, so that’s nice.”

“That’s why you called the other Lithurians here?” Joshua whispered, at least capable of discretion.

“Where did you learn that word?” He paused. “They’re here?”

Joshua nodded.

Ell lowered his head and voice, joining in the discretion, “I needed help getting you and your family out of here. The Serians want you sent to the capital, so make sure everyone is ready to go tonight. We’ll want to be discrete.”

“At least he’s a man of his word.” Som had reappeared on the other side of Ell, pretending to look over the spread of papers.

He only said that because Ell lied, a lot. Joshua knew that and it irked him. He could use less sarcasm in his life these days.

“It’s time,” Ell’s voice rose back to full volume.

One of the screens flicked inputs, and Joshua saw a video feed halfway across the world. Front and center in the picture were his halfsiblings Kael and Alma.

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