Syche: The Steel Heart (BOOK 2)

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Chapter 6: Sleeper

Scratching his neck like some addled junkie, Malcolm studied Agassa and the others before finally opening his mouth, “I know I got here late, but what’s the old doing here?” He raised one cocksure eyebrow and looked around the room for solidarity. “Come on, it’s weird right? Am I the only one who remembers who she is?”

“That you may be.”

The audience in unison turned to face the throne where the shadowy tendrils of Mellachs power lisped off like a heavy mist. His broken and cracked face as much as the stringy hair that remained on his head was undignified for someone of his age, not yet sixty let alone whatever eons it would take to reach such a skeletal visage.

“My young squire Malcolm does have a point though, old friend,” Mellach’s voice rubbed like sandpaper on every word. “Wait outside and I will see to your purpose after our meeting.”

The old woman struck her walking cane on the gold tassled carpet to much less of a crack than she must have intended, but she stood resolute nonetheless. “We will speak now– which I am sure you do not wish– or I will wait right here, thank you very much.”

Slooping back in his chair with a single open eye resting on Agassa, Mellach gave a grainy cackle. “You tried.” Waving his hand lazily he said, “Kill her.”

###

The wind crooked its fingers and tickled Joshua’s nose. Fast asleep in his bed, Joshua turned on his shoulder and slapped himself across the face, his sweaty palm sliding to his nose before falling over the side. Though the wind continued its twiddling, it was no more able to budge Joshua than the steady beat of feet on the stoney walkway. In the distance, a car horn blared and a second angry machine’s voice yelled back looking for a fight.

Grunting, Joshua sat up his bed, finally finding the newest annoyance enough of a frustration to ruin what remained of his sleep.

He had been trapped in the bunker with Lierwellen and Niles approaching for two weeks now, and the point of anxious energy had passed. After the first five days, Joshua managed to slip into a dreary existence of half-hearted wakefulness and stuporous sleep for half the day at a time. Month by month, Joshua would typically slip into energyless squalor on an almost rhythmic basis, but this was something far different compared to his standard bouts. He didn’t feel trapped; he could see the end of his stay in the bunker; he was just tired.

Scratching his nose and sitting up in a giant king-sized bed, a place he most certainly didn’t fall asleep in considering the meager cots of the safe house, Joshua yawned and looked around at his surroundings without a hint of alarm or surprise.

A couple, arm in arm, walked by silently and Joshua ratcheded his head sideways to stare at the little four legged thing skipping in front of them on a leash. It could have been a baby wolf if not for the glossy smooth sheen of its coat and almost content prance to its gait.

The space as a whole was open like a park. Green trees nicely trimmed. Large swaths of grass and flowers. At the end of his view before a ring of trees that cordoned him off from the city that surrounded his resting spot, stood a tall latticed metal tower, the likes of which Joshua had never seen, and Joshua had seen pretty much everything that wasn’t tucked into some obscure corner of the globe.

Craning his neck, he looked the tower up and down considering its purpose for which he could see very little. The four spires of Mainal Cathedral were originally guard posts with which to watch the white city’s domain. More important in more ancient times, but still built with practicality. People could certainly venture to the top of this tower and were up there now, but there was no practicality, no form to where it was built. Joshua shrugged off the consideration by assuming that the city had been restructured at some point, maybe a fire burned this area out and the old metal tower was all that was left.

Picking himself up and paying acute attention to the way his body moved, how he felt, he slowly ambled over to a park bench overlooking the scene with the one element here he recognized: Somiel. He hesitated just for a second as somebody passed by with an odd-looking telephone. But while their mouth moved, no sounds came out.

That settled it.

“Why did you take so long to get up?” Somiel asked, shuffling aside and patting a spot for Joshua to plant his butt. “I should think something like this would arouse immediate excitement for you.”

“Hesitant curiosity more like,” Joshua shrugged, sitting beside. “It’s not really a dream, is it? I’ve had dreams in my life where I knew I was dreaming but they still didn’t feel real. This though?” he trailed off. “I can feel the cool wind, smell a city I’ve never been to.” Lifting his nose Joshua took another whiff. “Smells like piss, and bread. Hopefully not coming from the same place.”

“I find it a strange place as well,” Somiel chuckled. “And yet you’re taking it in a stride. We’re in a mental space of my own creation, this place of my own imaginings. Might as well be a dream since it’s all in your head.”

Running a hand through his hair and fussing about the curls, Joshua did his best to get a sense of Som out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t want the man to see his suspicious, the slight panic he had to forcibly smooth away as it crept over his face. As perfectly respectable a guest as Som had been in Joshua’s mind, Joshua was looking for every angle.

He had been looking for every angle since. . . well Joshua had always been suspicious, but in a naturalistic sort of way. He would have never trusted someone like Som without good reason. But after Gianna, after his naive acceptance of a grift, he wouldn’t be fooled ever again. Saving a girl in distress was the most natural thing in the world and he paid the price for it, so how bad could something as sinister as Som be?

Joshua said, “You some kind of Dream Syche?”

He had to discount that Som could read his mind, because if that was the case every possible defense was lost. So he would play dumb and bide his time. If he was blissfully ignorant about the proverbial axe of his head, maybe Somiel would be too.
“What? Oh this. No, not at all.” Somiel smiled and looked at the tower. “That was once a thing you know– Dream Syches. One of them introduced me to the mindscape, but honestly, it’s something anyone can do.”
Joshua looked at his toes, trying to fight the warm sensation creeping over his face. There was no way Dream Syche was a real thing

“Theoretically I mean. In my long history with people, everyone has those flashes to another place in their mind. When they don’t try and really get lost in the images in the ole’ noggin.” Somiel paused and tapped his forehead three times. “Some more than others but it’s always there even if you can’t hold on to it. Now imagine someone like me who’s nothing but mind. I’m free from all those extra bodily tethers keeping me down. In other, words I’m practiced at it.”

“Are you really implying any human could just crawl inside themselves and live in make-believe worlds?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying Joshua. You don’t hear much about it nowadays with the religious uniformity brought on by the Serian religion, but there used to be all sorts of shamans and monks who believed in the power of the self. Not in a Sychkanetic supernatural way, but in perhaps a more humanistic way. They’d go to the top of a mountain, get high as Clouthous, and find places like these within themselves.”

Half listening, the kind that hears half but remembers all, Joshua traced a finger along the wood grains in the bench. It felt right, but the bench was somehow foggy. In fact, the entire landscape had a blurry quality that he didn’t think came from any sort of fog.

“You’re not paying attention are you?” Som asked, not putting the effort to take his eyes from the view either.

“No, no, I’m paying attention. I just understand by doing things.”

Som’s lower lip jutted out but he only shook his head and continued. “It doesn’t matter, the ones who swam in the currents of the mind are long gone. Even if you get away from the Serian dominated schools of belief.”

“Then what does matter?”

“Huh?”
“Why bring me here in the first place? We’ve never had trouble communicating before on the outside.” Joshua sat up stiffly, looking forward and mimicking Somiel. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested or even excited by all this. It’s just the terror balanced it out, overpowered any other feelings.

It’s one of the worst case-scenarios, Joshua considered, but one I can try and prepare for. I just need time to explore, figure out how it all works. That’s the trick to anything.

“Because there was a risk letting those two we’re living with here. And one of them I don’t trust one bit. I want to get back to a body of my own. We need to head back to Ilporta where I died.”

“You think you can just hop back into your old body?”

Leaning forward and then straightening back up, Somiel made a fist and unclenched it. “Of course not, but there’s something on my body that I need. It’s how this happened in the first place and it’s what I need to untangle.”

But that hadn’t been Joshua playing stupid, or even being stupid for all he could see. And yet Somiel seemed more than frustrated by the question. In fact, Joshua would have called that nervous bit of fluttering anger. He didn’t want to stoke a conflict this early, but the fact was simple: he couldn’t just pick up and leave for Ilporta any time soon. Not with his family in Serian hands.

“I can’t make you any promises. . . .” Joshua hesitated picking through the words that ran through his mind carefully. “But after I know my family is safe, we can go.”

Throwing himself back in his seat with a laugh, Somiel put up his hands. “I didn’t mean to rush you. Just wanted to let you know what I need. As long as you stay alive I’m good.”

“Which is why you taught me to fight.”

“Yup!” Somiel laughed again.

Too strange, Joshua thought. It’s like Som is a different person all of a sudden.

“You know,” Joshua began, “We had two weeks just sitting at the military base with Ell, why didn’t you ask me then.”
“Because there was no chance of you slinking out of there unseen to help me. On the list of people I don’t trust, Lithurians make the list. But hey, I’ve said my part and I’ll let you go. You’ve probably slept enough anyway.

Go. Go? No, not yet, I haven’t learned anything about this place yet.

“So what is this place anyway? All you told mewas it was something some guy showed you in a dream. It’s too big a city for me not to know it, and the technology is too modern to be some long-forgotten place like Dania. Also, what’s with the cars? They have pipes on their tail end– kinda big on the whole.”

Somiel paused at the car comment, looking back to take a good look. “How strange. I never noticed that before consciously, but I guess my brain did.” He looked down to Joshua for a response but getting nothing continued: “There were Dream Syches sure, but there also used to be Syches that could scry. We had ’em for everything. Crazy times. I had one that I attended on occasion, paying him to show me people and places that existed elsewhere, or maybe didn’t exist at all.

“You couldn’t imagine this?” Joshua’s voice cracked halfway through realizing how patronizing he sounded. “There might be a hundred little details that might make it different from what we have on our world, but it’s practically the same. A child could imagine this place. Actually,” Joshua scratched his chin, “that would explain the pee smell.”

Raising himself from the bench, bracing himself on his knees like a man who looked three times his age, he finally straighten up and patted Joshua on the back. “You’re just like me, you know that? I didn’t fall in love with this city from this angle; it was the art.”

“Art? Really?” Joshua raised an eyebrow skeptically. Whatever Som was, he wasn’t an artistic soul. But then again, what did Joshua know about either?

Rather than answer, Somiel merely smiled as the world around them melted into colors and lines. Joshua’s breath left him for a second, but he quickly reminded himself of where he was as his hands dripped to the floor like wax. And then like being pushed through a mirror, everything collapsed in on itself and then sprung back to life through a single point as they emerged out into a large white room with beads of sunlight filtering in through a cloudy sky.

Shaking a foot and rubbing his fingers together, Joshua tested his own body before being satisfied enough to look around at the paintings on the wall. Except they weren’t really paintings. They were canvases that had. . . some paint on them. Art depicted something. It had purpose. It was a snapshot of history. A scene the artists wished was true. This before him was just madness.

“I don’t get it,” Joshua said. It was the only thing he could say.

“For these people, this is art.”

“It isn’t anything. Random colors and lines.” The weird splotches and colors needled stretch into the sinews of his muscles. It was such a weird thing to be freaked out by, but he couldn’t help it. It was like seeing a new color for the first time– a thing that theoretically shouldn’t exist. Something abstract.

“You looked confused.”
Biting his lip and crossing his arms, Joshua was sure he was more than confused. “I’m a bit angry honestly.”

“But you’ve seen random paint before I’m sure. Accidents happen.”

“This isn’t an accident! It’s intentional, and that’s madness. Where are we? Who could accept this as anything? It has no purpose.” Slowly, Joshua drug his attention to Som who wore the widest grin Joshua had ever seen.

“And that’s why I fell in love with this city. It was something I had never seen– something beyond what my own imagination could create.”

“New isn’t inherently valuable. I had never seen a city like Dania before, but I was still super happy to get out of there before the Sandlashers killed me.”

Somiel’s stare unfocused and the world began to expand leaving a glob of nothingness in the middle. It was like threads were being torn away from some central point. And just as easily as the darkness came, the world stitched itself back together and they stood together on a scratchy hill filled with tall brown grass.

This change in location had been completely different than the last one. He couldn’t even begin testing the idea, but Joshua suspected that Somiel was in complete control on how they moved through these dream worlds. Why not just instantly flicker to the next place? To Joshua, it seemed the man was showing off.

“How about now? Would you stay without the sandlashers?”

In the distance, across a muddy-amber waving plane of grass stood a large city shining offensively bright in the sunlight. The rays bounced off each building and even this many klicks away, the rays stung Joshua’s eyes.
“It’s the metal city,” Joshua stammered, “but it’s on the surface.”

“And there is no sand,” Somiel added.

“It’s more impressive alright, but seeing it like this makes less sense. I kind of assumed because it was made of metal that it had always existed within the caves.”
“Not at all, you just have to think like a Syche,” Som said, his voice evaporated into the air, his body unfindable. “A group of Metal Syches can build a metal city much easier than any other material, and it’s more defensible as well. Not only would they have their ammunition on hand, but the buildings could be infused with a Sy Field stopping others from manipulating them. Hell, the Sy Field could even be used to control something like heat absorption from the sun. This city was practically climate-controlled.”

Sitting in the grass and plucking grass blades with the insides of his fingers, Joshua stuck his hands in the dirt and closed his eyes. “I didn’t even consider all that. Of course, I don’t think I actively thought about it all that much.” Feeling through the dirt, Joshua tried to manipulate the mind-scape in some way. With Som as busy gloating, now was as good as time as always. The man liked his own voice.

“I’m surprised to hear that,” Som’s voice ribboned with the breeze. “You seem like the type of kid to think of everything.” As his world fell around Joshua, Somiels body seemed to fade with the wind until he coalesced sitting right next to Joshua.

“I have enough to think about, thank you very much.”

“Like?”

“Like?” Joshua repeated the question. “Like where do you fit in all this. You’re seemingly as old as Ell yet I can’t verify one ounce of your history. You talk about the Syches that have come and gone, and yet I can’t tell who’s side you’re with.”
“Verification is a problem for you to solve, not me. But as far as which side I’m on? I am on the side of keeping myself alive.”

In front of them, a large shadowy outline of a man formed with smoke and ash. There wasn’t a line or distinct feature on its face, but Joshua squirmed feeling as though it were looking down on him.

“There are two sides if you are taking one. His,” Somiel pointed to the ashen figure, “and not his.”

“Is that the man who tried to kill you in Ilporta?” Joshua asked. “The creepy janitor?”

Somiel reeled his head back and laughed to the sky. “I thought you were being observant for a second. No, the one who shot me had a Tomegetherian but he is newer, which makes him more prone to holding grudges.”

“Tomea-what?”

Som’s hand rose and his middle finger and thumb met. Snap!

The next thing Joshua knew, he was spinning in the water. Arms out and flailing his feet, he hit a wall and jerked his body around violently trying to move along it, trying to find the way up. The panic subsiding as he caught himself again, Joshua inhaled the water– intentionally. It was just a dream after all.

The next thing he knew, a firm grip had him by the arm and pulled him over the retaining wall and onto a crisp cobblestone road. Coughing and spluttering, Joshua coughed up water before flopping on his back and forcing his chest to breathe deeply.

“That. That hurt,” Joshua complained through a shaking breath. “I didn’t know I could get hurt here.”
“What happens in your mind is real to what lives in your mind– which is you in this moment, if I might add.”

Som quitted and offered Joshua a hand that he gladly took. Hoisted to his feet, Joshua spun around, once again gauging his surroundings. He was really getting the world tour today, but this place seemed far more familiar than the others. The make of the buildings, the canals running through the city.

“This is Taerose!” Joshua shouted triumphantly. “Just with canals. Is that how they used to be? I always assumed those inlays were for like lava or something, with all the active volcanoes around the city.

“Lava?” Som’s voice hung with far more than puzzlement, there was real incredulity there. “You can’t build a city around lava. Forget the heat, the fumes alone would be contrary to life.”

Joshua wasn’t listening though, instead he was looking further down the canals to the direction of the palace. “You screwed it up in your mind.”

Somiel nodded.

Further down the city, the canals suddenly sliced in two and the water stopped, flowing from some unseen point. The city beyond was old and worn as Joshua had known it; the canals dried and dusty. And before the mountains, ash plummeted into the air as the volcano erupted. Their half of the city was from a time long ago, but the palace end was currently experiencing the erupting that Joshua had brought on a month ago. He couldn’t have killed Gianna without it.

Into the sky, a giant black blanket spread out, enveloping the smoke and the ash, the rocks and the magma.

“I must have been thinking about Taerose as I remember it and Taerose as I last saw it all at once. This isn’t as easy as you might think, even if I’m nothing but the electricity bouncing around in your noggin.” Somiel took a sigh and shook his head. “That’s the thing about Tomeagetherion, you don’t–” Pausing, the man quickly appraised Joshua and turned away.

“No, don’t stop. What about Tomes.”

“We don’t call them that.”
“I’ll call them what I please.”

“Get me back in my body, or should I say, any body, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

His curiosity wetted and the bait yanked from his grasp, Joshua could only nod. He watched carefully as the plume of darkness that was his father, the King-Emperor, rose on the horizon and began to envelop the smoke and ash. He looked for any clues about his father’s powers, weaknesses, mechanical functions, but this was a memory. For all Joshua knew, anything he saw her could be falsified.

As if to prove that point, an even larger shadow grew behind him of smoke and darkness– one that had most certainly not been there that day. It was the same form of the man, or perhaps being, on the hill Joshua had seen before being tossed in the canal.
“There is their side,” Som said with a nod, seemingly adding on to the point he made before they jumped, “and there are those who don’t care about the fate of the Syches. If they end the bloodlines of the Syches, it’s not my concern.”

“No concern!” Joshua shouted as their bleak outlines bleached the sky in black. “If that’s what’s at stake, we’re talking about genocide! He wants to kill all the Syches! That’s crazy!.”

And then Somiel laughed. Not a cruel, mean laugh, but a matter of fact, laugh at another’s genuine mistake.“Not kill the Syches directly, kill the source of their power. Syches are conduits. They channel powers that aren’t their own.”

“And that’s these Tome thingies? Kill the Tome, kill all its Syches.”

Putting his hands up, Somiel lightly shushed Joshua. “Slow down, you’re jumping through twenty conclusions a second here and they are mostly wrong. I mean think about it, if Syches powers came from Tomes, there’d be Dark Syches still running all around.” He paused to take a breath and Joshua didn’t dare interrupt. “Syches powers come from Elementals. The element incarnate. Tome’s are what’s left over from the dead ones, remnants of their powers.”

“So my dad wants to find these Elementals and kill them? Still sounds a little evil.”

“Kid, kid, kid. Listen. As someone who has been around a while, there are far greater evils in the world than your father. Take that ancient one, the one who came even before me.” As if on cue a spout of magma belched from the earth and ignited the visage of the shadowy man from behind. “He is the evil of a man, or more accurately a person, who has no limits to the atrocities that he will commit simply because he’s doing it for good reasons. He truly believes he will save the world from an eternity of pain by ending the Syches.”

“But?” Joshua knew there had to be a but.

“But he will destroy the world to see it happen. Such is the providence of unfaltering belief.”

“And you just want to live.”

“Exactly.”

“But you can’t do that with him out there, can you? If the wave that nearly killed us really was no accident, then you’re in more trouble than the Syches.”

Somiel hesitated, staring at his creation looming over them. He wiped it away with his hand and replaced the sky and palace ground with the ocean and a spring’s sunset. “It’s complicated. I know something that no one else does. I had thought that would make me safe.

“But it sure looks like he tried to kill you.”

“I– He– Yes.”

Joshua smiled and traced the path of the canal now emptying towards the mountains. “You screwed that up too. It’s moving upstream.
“No mistake, I was thinking back to a time before that business with Lake Bikhal.” And then Som went quiet ago.

Not that he would have trusted him anyway, but this was certainly a tiny fraction of the problem. The man spoke enough to betray his intentions. He wouldn’t be honest with Joshua, and he would never tell him everything.

Plopping to his stomach and reaching a hand in the water to see if he could manipulate it in some way, Joshua screamed and backed away from the water. The two shadows were back in the rippled reflection of the canal. “Stop making them appear,” Joshua cried, falling on his but and scurrying away from the water on all fours.

“I didn’t make anything of the sort this time.”

But the shadows were coming out of the lake now, the two of them in unison reaching out for Joshua. Joshua held his breath and screamed at the same time; it was a dream and he could do that.

The next thing he knew, he was awake in his cot in the bunker, face to face with Niles and Lierwellen.

“Please, stop that,” Lierwellen asked, “Too loud for my ears.”

Dripping in sweat and breathing heavily, Joshua looked back and forth between them, completely lost as to what was happening.

“We couldn’t wake you up little man,” Niles offered, “had to shake you pretty hard. You okay?”

“Fine. Fine.” Joshua steadied himself, running through the gambit of his memories in the mental plane lest he forget them like a dream. “I was just having a. . . dream.”

Before the words had cleared the air, a heavy weight slammed into Joshua’s chest and he looked down at a knapsack. “Yeah, I don’t care about dreams,” Niles said. “It’s finally time to get out of here. Let’s go find a way to kill the Darkness.”

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