Chapter 37: Father
A sharp pain jolted through my body, turning my stomach inside out. I felt a rush of heat spreading like wildfire. Eli lay there, motionless on the ground. I could see blood rushing out of her chest. With my left arm flopping to my side, I rushed to her. She was alive, but her heartbeat was fading quickly. I placed my right hand on her wrist. I knew I could do it. I had done it just the day before. But how? There was no time to figure it out. It was now or never.
There was nothing I could think of doing.
Thinking wasn’t working.
Yet, I had it in me somewhere.
I have it in me.
Still holding on to her wrist, I allowed my heart to bleed. There was no explaining it. I let go of my own life for a second and let my heart beat for her….
My heart became hers.
It was an unsettling feeling. Yet, there was something beautifully tragic about it.
I was dying.
With every passing second… I was dying.
So, this is what it feels like.
The more energy I transferred to Eli, the more I began to weaken. I was feeling queasy, my head violently hurting. I turned to see if Evian was still there, with the enemy. But I couldn’t find him.
Had he really been there? Or had it been a figment of my imagination? Another vivid dream maybe.
Then there was Eva. I felt another jolt go through my body. This wasn’t a dream. She was here, in the flesh. The girl I had left behind four months earlier, was here right now in the middle of the forest pointing a gun at me.
She had shot me.
Her face was hardened, and her eyes were cold. There was nothing about her as I had remembered it.
Eva… It really is Eva… How can that be? Why here? Why now?
Yuki joined me and pressed on Eli’s chest to stop the bleeding.
Our eyes met; they were worried. So was I.
“It’s ok, I’ve got this,” I lied in a lowered voice. “As long as I am alive, I will not let her die.” That, I meant.
Fiori stood still but he was slowly losing his calm demeanor.
Why isn’t he doing something? Why is he so cautious! Now is not the time!
From the corner of my eye, I saw Eva raise her gun once more. It was aimed straight at me. I was certain, this time she wouldn’t miss.
But before she could steady her arm, before she could pull the trigger, Evian appeared behind her. He had a club in his hand, a good-sized tree branch. Without hesitation, he smashed her over the head with it. A vicious attack that the poor girl never saw coming. She dropped heavily to the ground like a stone, the gun in her hand along with her.
I let out a sigh of relief.
The General took a step forward….
Then all went black.
“Hurry,” he said. “I don’t have much time.”
Evian had appeared before me. Around us, there was nothing but infinite darkness.
“Kill the General, kill the girl, kill the soldiers, then disappear for ever.”
“How? Why? What’s happening out there?” I interrupted him.
“I am controlling their minds. I can’t do it much longer.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
He tried to explain: “For the soldiers, you are a dead body on the ground right now.”
He sounded exhausted, out of breath.
“And the blank cartridges?” I asked.
“That was Ashe’s last mission for Fiori, before she died. You, all of you, owe her your lives.”
“And Eva?” I questioned.
“I can’t manipulate her. I can’t get into her head. She’s like us. She is dangerous. She wasn’t supposed to be here. I don’t know why she came.”
“You are coming with us! Right?”
“I can’t Fenn. I am one of them.”
“But you said it! Together we can take them down! Together we are stronger!”
“It’s true! But right now, it is not possible.”
“I am not leaving you.”
“You have no choice! There are things that need to be done.”
We were face to face in this empty space. Yet, it felt like a precipice separated us. My brother stood right in front of me, forever out of reach.
“This is where we part ways. You have things to accomplish. I have things to settle.”
“No! NO!” I pleaded. “Why aren’t you coming with us?”
“I can’t. I need to stay here. I need to cover your escape; I also have some unfinished business.”
His image started to fade away.
“Wait, don’t go,” I screamed. “What should we do? Where should we go?”
“Fiori knows; I’ve laid out the path for you.”
“Wait! The reports! Are they true?”
“Leave Antarticum Fenn. Leave while you still can.”
His voice echoed as his body dissipated into the darkness.
I opened my eyes. How long had it been? Not very long it seemed. Eva was still on the ground, but she was stirring.
General Marshall took another step forward.
Eli lay unconscious at my feet in a puddle of blood.
And Fiori, Fiori’s stillness was disconcerting.
Yuki kneeled beside Eli.
“Why isn’t Fiori doing anything?” I muttered. “Why isn’t he fighting? What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s waiting for Marshall to make his first move.”
“His first move! We’ve been shot at! Isn’t that enough?”
And Meyer; I searched. Our eyes connected. Fear tortured his countenance. He had always been facing his computer. It was the first time, Meyer faced death. Nothing could have prepared him for it.
I felt sorry for him.
I remembered how shaken I had been my first time.
My first time… when was it?
The memory had come and gone in a flash.
Eva was still staring at me.
There is nothing I can do for him. This is a fear he’ll have to overcome himself.
I turned to Fiori, looking for orders.
I knew exactly what needed to be done; what I had to do to stay alive; what I had to do to keep Eli and Meyer alive; all of us, alive. But the orders, the commands, had to come first.
Except, they weren’t coming!
Instead Fiori seemed paralyzed, engaged in a battle of fortitude.
“Fiori! Say something,” I yelled at him.
The General laughed.
“Check mate. I am only sorry the game had to be so short,” Marshall snickered.
“FIORI! Snap out of it!” I yelled again.
“Shush little boy, this is where the tale of the Great Fiori ends.”
Marshall continued to move forward; everyone else remained still.
“Ready?” Fiori finally spoke, looking straight at me.
The feelings he was harbouring sent a shiver down my spine. His voice was calm and easy, but his eyes held the coldness and ferocity of Antarticum’s winter. It was my first glimpse of what I had always suspected weighed heavily on his soul. The darkness he tried so hard to supress by aspiring to be a good man.
“Ready!” I replied solemnly.
“Yuki! Ready?” Fiori spoke again, though this time, the intensity in his voice revealed a sickening urge to kill.
“Ready Sir!” Yuki responded back with unsettling enthusiasm.
Yuki lifted Eli off the ground and ordered Meyer to follow them.
Fiori looked at me one last time, giving me a chance to back out. If I wanted to run with Yuki, Eli and Meyer, this was my chance. My last chance. But I didn’t go. I stayed right where I was needed the most, my feet solidly planted on the ground, standing side by side with Fiori.
“Alright then,” Fiori smirked as the wind rose.
A war cry resonated through the forest.
A sudden burst of rage filled the clearing; humanity reduced to animalistic instinct. I ran left toward the closest soldier. A boy, not much older than me. He was busy firing at will, imaginary bullets. Caught in Evian’s mind, he was completely oblivious to the reality about to unfold. I raised my right hand and struck the nape of his neck at the base of his helmet, where the skin was exposed. I didn’t close my eyes, instead, I looked straight at my unwitting prey.
“This one’s for Ashe,” I whispered in his ear.
It felt good.
I watched as his body hit the ground, his helmet rolling off to the side of my field of vision.
I swiftly moved on to the next soldier.
Are you watching Fiori?
I slipped my hand around his throat. Down he went. I kicked his helmet from my path and continued with my mission.
The ensuing soldier looked so focused. He was older, bigger, more confident in his stance. But still, he was caught up in an imaginary struggle. I poked him on the nose. Like a house of cards, he collapsed.
Evian had been right, the two of us together were a force to reckon with.
And with every soldier I dropped, it became easier.
I didn’t take enjoyment in what I did that day. But the energy I amassed within my body made me feel invincible! The strength flowing through my veins like a warm liquid, opened up new sensations and a freedom I had never experienced. I moved faster. I felt stronger. I became more agile. All my doubts disappeared.
But as I moved about the circle, I could see Fiori facing off with the General.
I need to concentrate. Fiori knows what he’s doing. Everything will be alright.
I marched on, each time placing my fingers on the nape of a defenseless soldier’s neck.
I knew these soldiers were Aethereusians. I knew they hadn’t joined the military by choice. I knew they were slaves to their DNA. The truth is, I was no different then they were. But in that moment, I believed my life was worth more than theirs. It was selfish, I know. I didn’t want to die. But also, I was starting to believe… maybe I could really make a difference.
My father had failed at reuniting the two species.
My father had failed on so many levels.
I would not be my father.
I didn’t know how, but I knew I would put an end to what my father started. To what the tilt started.
I can do this!
But before I could, we had to put an end to the General and his squad. We had to escape. We had to regroup. We had to stay alive….
Bodies littered the ground around me. The sounds of the soldiers falling still echoing in my head, were being amplified by the rising wave of guilt in my heart. I started panicking.
What have I done?
I am on a mission, I tried telling myself.
In truth, we all were. That’s what I kept repeating to myself.
Only a few soldiers were left.
But as my thoughts strayed away, Eva lifted herself clumsily to her feet. With her hands still shaking from the assault, she pointed the gun straight at Fiori. It was then too, that Evian collapsed from exhaustion.
The illusion trapping the soldiers dissolved.
“Don’t move!” Eva screamed. “I won’t hesitate to shoot!”
The threat was geared at both Fiori and me.
Fiori slowly raised his hands in a steadfast manner, no quiver in his stance.
I followed suit.
Without taking her eyes from us, Eva moved toward Evian who lay face first on the cold hard ground. With one hand, she swiftly took his pulse while she held the gun on us steady with the other.
She’s good at this, I thought. She’s done this before.
That realization was enough to justify my actions.
I am a good person; they were bad!
“He’s still alive General! But he won’t be a threat for us today,” she announced with a smirk as she kicked him hard in the ribs.
Evian groaned meekly but didn’t move.
The kick had been for Evian, but the smirk had been for me. I felt a pinch in my heart.
The remaining soldiers rushed toward me, but just as they were about to grab hold, Eva screamed again: “STOP! Don’t touch him!”
All four men stopped in their tracks. It was my turn to smirk.
She knows about my Heighten Characteristic after all.
Has she known all along?
Did she know when we were back at the orphanage?
Probably. I conceded.
The General moved toward Fiori; his weapon holstered.
“Check the pulse of the soldiers on the ground,” he commanded his remaining troops.
“As for you FENN2409, you stay where you are. One move and Eva will shoot you.”
His scowl turned to Fiori: “I had my doubts over the years. I always thought that sooner or later Evian would stray. But it was a worthy gamble for us. We knew he had a Heighten Characteristic like no other. We never forbid him to use it. As a matter of fact, we encouraged him to use it. It was our opportunity to study him. To understand him. To learn all about his capabilities. It is, in part, thanks to him, that we were able to train the greatest military weapon ever known. And let’s not forget the parts Fenn and Eva played. But you know all of this. Don’t you, Fiori Falx.”
He leaned closer to his prey and squinted. “Now the question is… what were you planning to do? What did you hope to achieve?”
He turned to me. I had no idea what he meant but he had my full attention.
“In Nova Urbi, you were kept under very close surveillance. We needed to find out more about your triggers. When my daughter Eva became infected, one might think that I would have been devastated like most parents would have been. But in the end, it was the perfect opportunity to have eyes and ears within the orphanage system.”
A gasp escaped my mouth before I could stop it.
I looked at Eva. She was staring off blankly into the distance.
“She kept detailed notes of your abilities. Of your reactions to different stimuli. She was inadvertently blessed her with a Heighten Characteristic of her own. Although nowhere near as powerful as the one your younger brother was doted with, it proved to be very useful in our efforts to control you. And of course, to start a particularly successful assassination program. You must have heard about it. Did Fiori tell you how ruthless you were the first time you…?”
NO. NO. NO! I screamed in my head.
I was nauseous, dizzy, confused. The noise in my brain would not let go. I didn’t want to hear what was about to come next.
“ENOUGH! FATHER!” Eva shouted. Her cold empty eyes on me again.
The General raised his hand to quiet his daughter. He might as well have hit her, for the way she slumped back reminded me of a beaten child.
The General’s speech continued with a much graver tone: “We quickly realized how powerful you could be when paired up with mind control. So, you see, as long as you were with Lianna, we didn’t care. She was a harmless fool, a stupid little girl. But you understand, it was problematic for us when you and Evian teamed up together. Evian knows too much. Cooperatively, you are a threat that must be disposed of.”
He took a long pause… looked around and cheerfully said: “But it’s ok now. Today is a great day. Tomorrow, I will be known as the man who single-handedly took down the bomber of Nova Terra, and the dangerous Aethereusian outlaws, the Li siblings.
“They are all unconscious General. None of them are dead!” announced a soldier in a feeble voice, after having checked the pulse of each of the fallen enemy.
Fiori’s head dropped in a rage.
The General shook his head in disapproval and addressed me directly: “You will never cease to disappoint me Fenn.”
Disdain weighing heavily in his voice, he then turned to his daughter and said: “Clean up the mess. These fallen soldiers are useless to me now.”
He didn’t need to ask twice.
Eva steadied her hand. 8 gunshots resonated throughout the empty forest.
I closed my eyes and hoped they didn’t suffer.
Taking this senseless massacre as a cue, Fiori dove on his quarry, landing his first punch with a clenched fist. The General, stunned by the sheer force of the impact, stumbled backward.
A heavy cloud of anger and hate descended on all off us. Fiori, by now, had beaten the General to the ground with a violent aggression.
Horror-struck, Eva stared.
Fiori was covered in blood.
I was drowning in guilt.
When Eva finally pulled the trigger, it was too late. Evian had grabbed her by the ankle and caused her to lose balance. The shot went off wide, greatly missing the intended target.
That gave me just enough time to jump on the nearest soldier rendering him unconscious. The other three, ignoring Eva’s sound advice, grabbed onto me. Before they knew it, they were face down on the ground.
Fiori was now sitting on top of the General. His fury finally fading one punch at a time.
I watched him in dismay, forgetting the direness of the situation.
It wasn’t about escaping. This was personal.
The calm and composed Fiori I had come to know, had unleashed years of hatred and anger.
I turned away, unwilling to witness the General’s gruesome end.
“STOP! STOP!” Eva screamed, as she witnessed her father’s demise. She leveled her gun directly at Evian and screamed again: “STOP or I shoot Evian!”
Fiori didn’t stop.
“I WILL SHOOT EVIAN!”
Fiori kept on pounding the limp body of the General.
“FIORI! STOP,” I screamed, my voice piercing through the forest.
Fiori froze, his fist midair. Zoned out, he was breathing heavily.
He looked up at the sky and let out the deep howl of a wounded animal.
I rushed to his side.
Eva was stunned, yet she still held the gun carefully on Evian.
“Let them go,” Evian pleaded meekly. “You have me. Let them go.”
She didn’t move. Her eyes were fixed on the lifeless body of her father.
“Let them live. Let them die on their own,” Evian begged her.
She lowered the gun and callously shot him, once, in both of his legs.
Evian’s whole body jerked with each bullet, but he didn’t scream. His mouth clenched shut.
In great pain, he begged again: “Let them go, Eva.”
She aimed her gun straight at Evian’s head.
Evian didn’t flinch.
“RUN!” she finally ordered us.
“RUN! Before I change my mind,” she yelled once more.
“RUN! And make sure our paths never cross again. Go far. Far. FAR!”
I struggled to get back on my feet. I grabbed Fiori by one arm and tried to pull him with me. He was heavy and uncooperative; cumbersome.
“C’mon, let’s go!” I beseeched him. Afraid Eva might change her mind.
He slowly got up like a lubber and followed me.
I had a firm grip on his arm as we ran through the dark forest. It brought me back to that day at the orphanage when I had tried to escape with Eva. I had lost my grip on her hand. I had escaped without her. I had left her behind.
I tightened my grip on Fiori’s arm. I would not let him go. No matter what, I would not leave him behind. Together we ran through the woods until we reached the rocky foothills of the nearby mountain range. I had no sense of direction, no idea where Yuki had gone. I needed Fiori to snap out of it. I needed to know the rest of the plan. I was still holding on to the belief that there had been a plan. That all this was part of his plan.
I stopped running for a second. I had to catch my breath. I looked at Fiori, he was heaving.
“Where do we go?” I asked him between two gasps of air.
He didn’t answer.
“C’mon, snap out of it! WHERE DO WE GO?” I screamed right in his face.
He started yelling and punching at random trees. He looked like a man who had gone mad. And in that moment, I understood, it wasn’t part of his plan. It wasn’t part of any plan. Fiori had surrendered to his own fury.
I grabbed Fiori’s head between my two hands. The pain in my left arm was horrendous, but there was no time to waste.
“Look at me. Look at me! It’s ok. It’s ok. He’s gone,” I reassured him.
Fiori let out another scream of agony.
“It’s ok, look at me. We’re safe. We’ve succeeded. We are going to live,” I tried again.
His face suddenly lit up. He was back. There was confusion in his eyes, but he was back. I pressed him: “What do we do? Where did the others go?”
“Doran…” was all he said. “We need to get to Doran!”
“It was ugly, wasn’t it?” Fiori said, completely ignoring my question. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you had to see it. That’s the difference between a good and a bad person. You’re a good person Fenn, the way you put those soldiers to sleep without harming them. But me… I am irredeemable. What you saw today, is who I really am. That is Fiori.”
“Yet, all the soldiers I refused to kill ended up dying anyway. I might as well have killed them… and besides, what’s the use of being a good person, if in the end, the people you care about die because of you?”
“That is a question you will have to answer for yourself. You and I might come up with very different answers Fenn… but the only answer that matters, is the one that lives in your heart.”
“So, you think I should have killed the soldiers?”
“Yes, I think you should have killed the soldiers.”
“But killing the soldiers would not have changed the outcome!”
“Not for them. Not for me. But perhaps for you, the outcome would have been different… sooner or later, this little bird will have to learn to fly on his own… We messed up Fenn. You and I both messed up.” He grabbed his head with both hands.
“But it’s too late now.” I coldly answered. “We need to get to Doran.”
Together we walked for another hour, following the base of the mountain range until we came to a pass. I followed him in silence, surprised he could navigate in this uncharted land. I trusted that he knew where we were heading.
And he did.
I have no idea how, but he knew exactly where to go.
As the night took on a new shade of dark, we arrived on the bank of a much larger river. On the other side, we could see the outline of a mountain range breaking away from the sky. Two boats were anchored on the bank. Arno, Doran, Yuki and Meyer were anxiously waiting, but with our arrival, relief spread through the group.
I rushed to Eli’s side.
“She will be ok,” Yuki said with a tender smile. “We were able to stop the bleeding. You did well. You did more than enough. She’s resting right now. She will be happy to see you when she wakes up.”
I brushed some stray hair from her forehead. Her skin was as white as the moon.
“Where do we go from here?” I finally asked.
“In the last few weeks, I worked with Evian at preparing our escape route. I have a canoe, here, ready with supplies. If we head north, it will bring us to the shore of Antarticum. There, a boat is waiting to take us to Control Island B and possibly beyond to the scorched continents. There wasn’t enough time to get everything prepared, but I am confident we can make it with what we have… especially since we’ll be leaving behind Ashe and Evian,” explained Doran.
“Let’s go then!” Yuki said.
“It doesn’t feel right though… does it…” voiced Doran, “leaving Antarticum behind.”
“Some of us have family here…” Meyer added.
“Some of us have unfinished business too…” I furthered under my breath.
“But then again, if we don’t go now, then what? There is nowhere else for us to go,” Doran conceded.
We all turned to Fiori, who had kept quiet so far.
Up until now, he had completely ignored the conversation. He was busy looking at the sky.
The night sky truly was magnificent: green and purple lights dancing over our heads. It didn’t feel right to bother him. So, we stood there quietly taking in nature’s spectacle.
In that grave moment, it seemed nature had succeeded in bringing us back our humanity. We paused amidst the chaos and took a breath of fresh air. A new beginning was right up ahead.
But after a while, a weary looking Fiori turned and addressed all of us.
Standing there, a broken man on the bank of the river with the northern lights shining behind him, his confidence gone, he said: “I am not a good man.” He was struggling to talk: “I have done horrible things. And it seems… it seems like I will have to do many more of those horrible things. But maybe… maybe there is hope. Maybe if I keep doing bad things, maybe one day… it will lead to something good. Maybe it will all have been worth it. But until then, I am sorry. I am sorry for everything I’ve done. And everything I am about to do. I won’t be going to the shore of Antarticum. I am not going back to the scorched continents. I am not going to run away. Not this time. Not until we put an end to this. Not until everyone is free!”
“How?” Meyer asked, skeptical as always.
“I am going to destroy Antarticum. I am going to tear down the Land of the Gods. Outside these walls, people are suffering. People are dying. Humanity is dying. I am going to open up the continent to the rest of the world. And in order to do so, there is someone I must visit. Arno, I believe you know her well...”
“…Dr. Nadja Bari,” Arno and Fiori spoke in unison.