Chapter 4: Safe House
Mellach must have been in a giving mood that day, because both missing parties made it to the meeting before him. And while I was at first happy to have new faces to break the awkward standoffishness of Lyon and the brothers, the appearance of the final two Commanders only expounded the issue, however.
It started in the hall. We could all feel them, no doubt. Everyone prying, no one fighting so obvious as to fight for Sychakenetic space. Two entities approached from each end of the palace and met at the crossing before the doors. One stopped and gave space as the other barreled on by.
It immediately became curious to us the person who stopped let a full ten seconds pass before following.
And so it was that first Beatricé came through the door, painted with a dour face and red bloodshot eyes. Behind her, Malcolm, or Mal as he preferred, lagged and managed to keep his eyes facing the floor while watching her all the while. If she looked physically well but mentally scarred, Malcolm was perhaps the opposite. He sauntered in all right, but he did so with a limp in his left leg and his right arm bound to a sling.
I know now of course all that transpired, but at the time, I was only vaguely familiar with some conflict between the two. I assumed there had been a fight directly between the two Commanders, to show you what I knew.
The animosity of course arose from Malcolm and Beatricé’s husband, Zagan, who was essentially kidnapped, tortured, mutilated. How fun.
And of course that all ended with Zagan and Mal trying to murder each other.
In any case, here they all were– the four, or five if you counted the brothers separately, Commanders of the Dark Element.
The passing hum of helicopter blades phased out of Joshua’s eardrums in that peculiar way sounds do when they pass on by, like a piece of plastic stretched too thin. Deep in a forest in northern Seriah, no more than ten miles from the base, Joshua pulled himself out from an overhang where he hid. Offering a hand, he helped Lierwellen out as well.
Unlike Joshua or Niles, Lierwellen was so cut out for a footrace. He kept up well enough the first few miles, but not much later dragged them down. With an entire country combing the woods looking for them it was nerve-racking having to drag dead weight along. Every whisper through the trees, every ruffle in the air, Joshua instinctively lunged towards the man and started shoving him somewhere out of view.
Off to the side, Niles circled a tree and came into view, casually looking into the sky. “Safe again,” he said clapping his hands. “A few more minutes and we’ll be safe for the night.”
Joshua still hadn’t decided if Ell and his kind were all bumbling fools. Sometimes it seemed they stacked convolution on top of convolution only for the weight of their plans to come tumbling down. Other times like now, the man seemed fairly prescient. If Niles was to be believed, and Joshua did for now, Ell had a safe house built in the forest in case they ever needed to hide from the Serians.
“Any chance of them following our scent?” Joshua asked while stretching, being cooped up just a little to long under that rock. Lierwellen bent sideways copying him.
“We should be fine,” Niles responded, already walking through the underbrush. “I know a few countries in Yatala train wolves, but I don’t think Serians ever caught on. They are big on their courts you know, and wolves have a tendency to, uh– well they wear a lot of teeth.”
Joshua stomped through the foliage making far more noise than either Lierwellen or Niles. He jogged ahead, feel the thwicks of tiny branches on his arms and face, trying both to catch Niles and lose Lierwellen a smidge.
“Is the Lithurian going to be a problem?” Joshua asked, coming upon the red-cloaked Niles who would have been far more stealthy in fall. Good luck seeing him from the air then.
“A problem? Why?”
Why? Was he going to make Joshua say it? “He’s, uh,” Joshua said, looking for the polite word. “Simple?”
“He doesn’t speak the common tongue and you jump right to that, huh?” Niles was beaming. He found this so funny.
“No!” Joshua said flustered. It was about the worst insinuation anyone had ever made of him. “It’s just, Ell said some things, and I practically have to pull him along from danger. Something’s going on.”
Niles made some squeak of disagreement that defied any normal description. “We were chatting a bit before that last passover in my own native tongue and he seemed normal to me. He was a little out of date with the current lexicon but otherwise. . . eh.”
“Is he a Syche?”
“Yes and no, as these things go,” Niles shrugged.
“That’s not an answer!” yelped Joshua much too loud. His neck snapped back and he stared at the sky worried he’d attracting another pass from the copter.
“I can feel him,” Niles whispered, looking back to Lierwellen gliding through the underbrush, graceful but slow. “He’s a Syche genetically, but functionally I don’t think he can use his powers; at least according to Ell.”
“That’s a thing?”
“Why not? Just because you’re born with a pair of arms doesn’t mean they’ll work properly. Having something is not the same as having something that works.”
Without even a crack of a branch or the shush of leaves on the ground, Lierwellen joined them face covered in sweat, his hair matted and gross. “What’s up?”
Joshua crossed his arms skeptically. “Now you’ve got the hip lingo?” Squinting, he took a step towards Lierwellen until the firm grasp of Nile’s hand had him around the shoulder, pulling him back into place.
“Relax, you say it all the time. If anything, you should be talking more smarter so he doesn’t pick up your awful speech patterns.” Ignoring Joshua’s dry look, he turned to Lierwellen with a smile. “And to answer your question, we were just talking about you. Joshua had questions.”
Already, resuming the forced march Joshua spat back, “As is my right.”
“As is your right,” Niles repeated. “And yet may I offer you a saying of my people? Roughly translated?” Niles cleared his throat and in the time it took to do so he was already besides Joshua again. “We say: ‘A child with questions benefits more from quiet participation, than asking at all.’ Or something like that.”
“That’s really stupid,” said Joshua.
“Admittedly, there’s a speck of an idea that’s lost in your words. We have different words, for different kinds of questions.”
“Right.” Shaking his leg, Joshua tried to free himself from some thorny vines that had dug into the fibers of his pants. “I did some research online, trying to figure out where you were from. I read a lot more anthropology than I intended but still came up with nothing.”
Niles stopped among a tight cluster of trees and frowned. “I’m sure we’ve talked about this before, my home up in the clouds?” Niles was referring to the floating continent of course.
It was vague, but it was also specific enough to point to a singular place: Clouthus, the floating continent.
“You’re screwing with me right?”
Niles looked Joshua straight in the eye and with the most serious of tones said flatly, “never.”
Joshua grumbled some makeshift sounds to show his displeasure but otherwise didn’t respond. He recalled having a conversation one time with Niles where the guy explained that his people, whatever that really meant, did everything backwards. If they wanted to lie, they’d tell the truth. If they wanted to hide, they’d make themselves visible. It didn’t make much sense then, but Joshua couldn’t just ignore it if that was what Niles actually believed, because if it was true, that created a nearly impossible level of subtext to sort out when the man spoke.
For example: If Niles said that he and his people lived on the floating continent Clouthus, did that mean they didn’t?
Perhaps that was the real secret: it was easy to manipulate someone when they were confused.
“Here we are!” Niles said flatly for the tone, sticking his hand into a pile of detritus that sat flush with the forest floor, a mess of old needles and leaves and dirt and grass. With his arm twitching a hair, a click sounded from somewhere underneath them.
“So we’re not here?” Joshua asked, testing the theory on the simplest statement in the world.
Niles frowned and shook his head, pushing himself off his knees as the ground parted before them. The playful look that smiled in his eyes didn’t get past Joshua though. “First?” Niles asked with a beckon, his arm waving to a small hole in the ground big enough for one particularly large person but not much more.
Once again, Joshua found a place to test the man. “So you want me to go last, then?”
Nile’s frown deepened. “I would love nothing more since it will be a lot of work resetting the covering on the way down. If you’re up for it, I’ll go first and make myself at home.”
Leaping forward, Joshua was already two steps down the ladder. He wouldn’t be saddled with more work if he could help it. Shoes ringing off the metal bars and hand catching after hand, Joshua lowered himself into a dark abyss, breathing deeply the cool sterile air. In a mere five seconds, his feet caught the bottom and he fell sideways not ready for it. Waddling on his butt and trying to orient himself in the dark with only a few ribboned streaks of light from above, Joshua found a wall and hoisted himself up.
As Lierwellen began crawling down the stairs, obscuring the bunker in utter darkness, Joshua’s blind stumbling crawl along the wall found a light switch that he quickly flicked sideways to fill the bunk with a murky blue light.
Under the circumstances (running from an entire country’s police and military) any safe space would be nice, but Joshua still couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at their digs. There were five beds built into the wall, neatly made with sheets pulled tightly, not a wrinkle, but also that stiff plastic quality that made them look like a literal pain. There was a living space with a table and chairs. A fridge and doorless cabinets built beside with a rainbow of cans, including Joshua’s favorite brand of canned fish. The tiniest of showers essentially built into the half of that tiny square that could be called the bedroom. At any point, the furthest one person could be from another was three feet, three feet sucking in their stomach.
Missing Lierwellen’s light descent entirely, the next thing Joshua heard was a mixture of thuds and grinds from above. Shortly after, Niles followed dropping past the ladder and landing lightly on the floor, the hard bottoms of his shoes not even bouncing back a sound. Unhitching his cloak, a double set of clasps at the shoulders, he undressed down to his undershirt and began laying his clown car of a uniform across the only table. Running some water under his pits, he began folding the bandolier of pockets and belts into the cloak making a neat square, an origami laundry. On top of that, he folded his pants and shirt in neat triangles. It wasn’t until he was done that his gaze wandered up to Joshua’s questioning gaze.
“We’re going to be here a while, best get comfortable. Maybe wash your dirty clothes in the sink. Did you find any board games?”
Joshua shrugged before pulling off his own shirt. If they were stuck here, they were stuck here. By the time they got out, he expected they’d be a lot closer than when they came in
A rasping knock in the wall stirred Avonly from her slumber. She rolled on her side, moving off the quarter-inch of blankets that matted the floor and onto the dirty concrete. Her eyes flickered in the hazy dark and she could just barely make out her little sister still asleep, a commodity they were running low on these days. Looking over her shoulder, she could make out the older Lithurian much more easily due to the sheer whiteness of him. He too stirred as the knocking continued a second time, spelling out a different beat.
“Come in already,” the Lithurian managed to grumble while not sounding upset at all.
To say a door opened would be a misnomer. Rather, a portion of the wall slid away like a heavy piece sheet of plywood being dragged across the ground, and in its place the dark face of their host appeared silhouetted in the light like a halo.
The man was A’mir Beshtat and this place was his house, or more specifically, the portion of his house that he used as a safe room. Whether or not it would fool the Serians, Avonly would never know because they were already leaving.
One night here, the other night there. They were moving further south, further west at a snail’s pace, and for a yet undisclosed reason, the Kurtifan people were bending over backwards to help conceal them, as if they were indebted to the Lithurian, maybe indebted to Ell himself for all Avonly knew. Conceptually this was an odd thought however, since the only connection Ell had with them, and herself, was that incident on the train a few weeks ago. He had sent her, Joshua, Kael, and Gianna on a little trip to protect the Paramount of Seriah from Kurtani rebels.
Maybe it was unfair to lump them all together; Avonly knew that. But in her gut, she couldn’t help but make that connection because the only time she had seen a Kurtani was on that train, trying to kill and/or blow up a lot of people.
And even that wasn’t fair because techcnically speaking, there were three distinct indigenous groups of southern Seriah in something resembling rebellion. It just so happened that the Kurtanis were the largest group. It also so happened that Avonly didn’t even know the names of the other two, so simplification was easier.
And if she was willing to simplify, maybe this whole business did make sense. She was a Serian outlaw now. Maybe not an ally for their people, but who was to say?
The one thing Avonly knew above all else was that much like going on adventures, the prospect of being an outlaw was nowhere near as exciting, fun, or comfortable as it sounded.
“The truck will be here in an hour, sir,” the man spoke in the standard tongue, which wasn’t their native language. “I have what you asked for here.” He nodded down to a small wicker basket in his hand and tossed it into the room. “I’ll keep the bathroom free.” He stepped aside and disapperared into the parts of the house less hidden.
Fully awake now, Noel grabbed the basket and looking inside, before handing it to Avonly who did so in kind. She was unable to make out what exactly was in there. Tubes of something; the light bouncing off a sliver of metal; a box– or something.
Rolling over, she handed these to Tremloyn, their Lithurian chaperone. He was surprising by Avonly’s estimation. All she knew was Ell but he was a stark opposite to that man. He was curt, honest, blunt, a little clumsy, and above all reassuring. He wasn’t good at reassuring, only ever saying that he was the fighter in a group of scientists, but that was nice. Avonly didn’t want to fight and this man did. But no that wasn’t it either. Kael always wanted to fight; it was Tremloyn’s job.
“What ’dose,” Avonly asked groggily as the Lithurian brought the brim of the basket to his nose.
“Hair dye, skin paint, and scissors,” the Tenmio said, scratching his nose.
“What for?” Avonly demanded.
“Are we doing makeovers?” Noel said suddenly bright and cheery.
“I’d prefer not to use that word, but yes,” he responded. “We’re going through a security checkpoint tonight and we’re past the point of looking like outsiders. Hair will be cut. Hair will be black. And just for tonight, our skin is going to look a little less pale, to varying degrees of course.”
“Now hold on,” Avonly said, anger welling up inside of her. “I don’t want to cut my hair. It took a long time to grow it out this long.” As was, her straight blond hair fell messily past her shoulders, resting somewhere between them and her middle-back, and still that was shorter than Noel’s.
“You’re going to if you’re coming with me.” In his voice, not a single iota of space for questioning could be found. The man was surprisingly laid back, but when he made decisions they were absolute. “If you’re coming with me, like you’ve been insisting, you’re doing it.”
“Like we even have an option at this point,” Avonly said flustered, stuttering over her own words. She wanted to have a conversation. She wanted this to be a debate. “We’re so deep in Seriah now there’s no way out.”
“And you knew that,” Tremloyn answered gruffly. “Come little one, you aren’t so difficult. He held his hand out for Noel who glomped onto two of his fingers with complete trust.
“Now hold on!” Avonly said as loud as she dared for a person in hiding.
An hour later, she sat in the back of an open truck with her flowing mane chopped down to her shoulders, bathed in an inky black dye. It was stupid but she wanted to cry. It would grow back, but it would be years. It just wasn’t fair. She had never asked for any of this, but it just kept happening to her. She wanted to go home. She wanted to live a normal life. She was done with everything that a normal person didn’t have to put up with, but here she was.
Noel looked happy though. She was turning out to be an even mixture of innocence and rock hard survivor.
The Lithurian didn’t mind either, but Avonly didn’t care about him. His long spindly hair was now cut crew and pure black. The veins in his skin no longer shown through and exposed themselves to the world like some frayed electronic wire.
Together, they looked nothing like the people they were. They didn’t blend in with the other five, Southerners– Avonly would just think of them as Southerners– around them, but they would be hard to pick out if someone was looking for a couple of blond girls and an otherworldly pale man.
Crossing her arms and leaning bag, Avonly stifled a whimper and just wished this was all over.
“Back to home with you!” Joshua cried triumphantly, picking up Lierwellen’s cheap plastic marker and slamming it back down onto his home circle. The Lithurian had been a single turn away from winning, and Joshua was surprised to find that he could stop him. He also felt a little bad because Lierwellen hadn’t won a single game yet between the seven board games they found in the bunker and the dozens of times they had played, but he couldn’t just let him win.
It was somewhere between the first day they had arrived and the last day they were to leave, and Joshua had fully embraced the stir-crazy-insanity of the situation. No natural light. No space to move. Joshua was either talking to Niles and Lierwellen, pacing in circles, or being talked to by Somiel. And the longer it went on the less he wanted to listen to him. Joshua had no concrete fact to point to, but Somiel was the one getting into his head the most. He wanted to choke Niles for ninety percent of his waking moments and in seventy percent of his dreams, but he wanted most of all to brush off Som right now. The stir-crazy was creating a reliance on him as an out, and Joshua wanted to avoid it.
“You’re pretty unlucky you know that?” Joshua added, unthinking.
Lierwellen frowned and poked at his pieces in the home circle. “It is the same thing my broethers say. This you know? I am unlucky. Unable to accomplish. Things that I should be able to do, I simply do not. I am able, but do not succeed. I never succeed.”
“Coooooollllllll.” Joshua flipped the dice in the air before catching them. “Niles your turn.”
“Can we stop now?” Som interjected, appearing sitting down on the furthest bed. “This is the eighth time we’ve played this today. Please, for my own sanity. Let’s just stop.” Joshua shoved the dice into Nile’s hands who accepted it with a happy veneer that cracked slightly. “I can show you something new, if you’ll let me.”
Joshua paused and stared into the open space, forgetting he was with people right now. “I would like something new.”
Niles and Lierwellen somberly nodded at the words.