Authors: Scott Toney
“I always have a choice.” She watched his shadowed eyes. “My fate is not decided without my decision.”
“We need to move,” the borg’s voice broke their words.
“Yes,” Julieth said, disturbed by Ivanus’s certainty. If he saw his own death or theirs, would he only accept that and not try to change it?
Ivanus directed them into another passage and walked a good distance before turning and holding his hand up, then pointing to a mosaic painting on the roof a short distance above. Its faded paint was chipping and warped from time. He stepped back as Riad approached, clicking his arm compartment open and removing a mine with his fingers.
For the first time, Julieth noticed and remembered the finger missing from his cybernetic arm.
I hope it does not hinder him in battle,
A rush of static burst over them as Riad rocketed the mine toward the mosaic.
Julieth stumbled backwards as the blast decimated the roof. Debris thundered in the tunnel around them and smoke filled her lungs. She was disoriented for a moment, and then looked up, catching her footing as she saw a body clasping to the edge of the destroyed street above, dangling in the light over the opening. She squinted as a blast of electricity struck the man’s body from Ivanus’s gun nearby, severing his arm and sending him crashing to the debris a short distance away.
A hard force hit the back of her head, forcing it inches from the ancient street below.
“Keep low,” Julieth heard Riad’s instruction overhead.
He held her, pinning her down, but she moved her head and watched as a man charged toward them with drawn sword. Blood smeared his face.
Riad leapt from overtop her, beating back the attacker’s sword with his metal arm and then clutching the enemy’s throat, releasing the life from his body as the foe’s eyes rolled in his head.
A moment later a blast came from across the cavern and Julieth witnessed the form of an attacking archer disintegrate with electricity, ash from its body wafting away like the ash of a fire in the breeze surrounding them.
“We need to move!” Riad shouted as he struck a look back at her. “Can you get us up there?”
“I’ll need defense, but I think I can carry you both, at least that short distance.” Julieth looked over the debris, scouring it for living attackers. She expanded her vast wings and flew over to Ivanus. “You know what to do.”
He went behind her, bracing an arm over her upper body and holding the massive weapon in his other hand.
Julieth lifted up and flew to Riad, holding down her hands for him to take.
She beat her wings in full span behind her as the trio rose. The weight of the two men pulled her down, but somehow she made slow progress. As she approached eyelevel with the street she saw armed warriors watching them in fear and awe. Some fought her people in the streets, while others clenched their swords, ready to fight.
Archers volleyed arrows toward them and she quickened her wings’ pulse, barely avoiding the arrows’ range. She was about to call out to Ivanus, but felt the charge of the gun, watching as its blast lit up the archers, causing them to duck or flee.
“Go for the far side!” Riad called out as Ivanus ceased fire, adjusted, and then fired on the mercenary swordsmen.
Julieth looked and saw that the unmanned far side of the open crevice. It had been cool in the tunnels, but hot, dry wind cut across her as she beat her wings toward the area.
Men rushed their way as she reached the space.
Riad let go of her wrists, hitting the ground hard as he landed, and then drew a mine and thrust it into the coming onslaught.
BOOM! The enemy’s bodies were shredded in the blast.
As Ivanus dropped from her back, she pumped her wings and soared into the sky. The city dropped away, revealing two major pockets of fighting, both nearby. Chaos raged around where they opened the hole.
Julieth took a breath, taking a moment high above the fighting to calm her nerves, and then realized she didn’t have that moment she had just taken to spare. Arrows shot toward her from below and then fled down toward the earth once more, completely out of range. She reached into her quiver and pulled out a fire-powder tipped arrow, quickly pulling it back in her bowstring and firing it into the enemy below. She watched as bodies of the enemy were decimated in the blast.
Something caught her eye below. Her people drove back a group of mercenaries that had pressed deeper into the city. The mercenaries, the size of minute creatures below, fell quickly.
Riad, Ivanus and I are not there,
We have a real chance to defeat them.
Electric light struck through the fighting below as Ivanus utilized the weapon they had taken from Riad.
Julieth needed to return to their side. Her people might recognize her, but would not know Ivanus and would see Riad as the enemy. She drew an arrow as she dove, firing it into the skull of an attacker charging for Riad, as she landed near him on the street, blood webbing and pooling in the cobble’s crevices.
“That way!” she shouted, holding an arm out toward where she had seen her people making progress. Julieth fired more arrows into the enemy before them as Riad took them on with his bare hands.
Swords glanced off Riad’s cybernetic limbs as if they had never touched him, and he thrust his metallic half forward first, using it as both weapon and shield.
Sweat flung off Julieth’s body as she moved, readjusting quickly to fire her arrows. There were few fire-powder tipped arrows left and she tried saving them for absolute need. Two mercenaries found their way past Riad and she missed the one she fired at. With barely a thought she pivoted and thrust her wings against them, knocking both attackers to the street. While revolving around again she struck one man’s chest with a shot. He cried out in agony as she struck another arrow into the second felled mercenary’s neck, blood spurting from the wound.
Julieth breathed heavily, watching as Riad made progress. She kneeled down over the body of the man whose neck she had pierced. She pulled the arrow from it, realized it was unusable and thrust it aside.
My quiver will be empty soon,
I need another weapon.
Julieth reached down and hefted the mercenary’s dented sword.
It will have to do for a while.
An electric charge blasted past her as she stood, colliding with the enemy force Riad confronted. Ivanus looked worn as he joined her side and the two pressed on. Julieth’s bow was now braced over her shoulder as she held the sword firmly before her.
“What do you see in our future now?” she asked Ivanus as they moved.
“There is too much going on, I can’t focus,” he replied.
She could see her people fighting from the other side of the enemy. This segment of the attacking force was pinned.
With a beat of her wings she burst up above the fighting, close enough for the people of Kaskal to make out her face. “Do not attack the borg!” she shouted below as the sound of steel meeting steel rang through the air. “The man with the electricity weapon is with us as well!” At first she was unsure they heard her, but soon some of her people in the back of the fighting looked up to her in recognition, calling out to their fellow defenders with orders. A friend of her father’s, when her father had lived, caught her eyes before charging into battle below.
She angled her wings, soaring down near the man and holding her sword high while landing and charging into the enemy.
Her sword met a mercenary’s, energy reverberating through the muscles of her arms and shoulders as she parried and struck again. Dark determination glared in her opponent’s eyes.
Their swords clashed again.
“Fall back!” the words came from somewhere close to her, on her side of the fighting.
Riad and Ivanus are doing too good a job,
she suddenly realized.
They are driving the enemy against us, forcing us deeper into the city.
She moved back, and then shuddered in horror as she watched the man she had recognized be struck in the waist by a sword and fall to the ground, crying out in pain.
An electric glow illuminated the mercenary force as Ivanus’s gun devoured the enemy and sent a static charge across the fighting.
Julieth thought, seeing her chance and hammering her sword against her attacker’s.
Their swords battled before her blade ripped into the man’s torso, ripping flesh and splaying blood. She let loose the sword’s hilt as it drove into the man’s body, and then with one swift movement pulled her bow over her arm with one hand and a fire-powder tipped arrow from her quill with another. She pulled the arrow back and struck it into the fighting.
The remaining mercenaries before her were decimated by the blast.
Riad came through their crumpled bodies, reaching down with his strong arms and choking a man before removing a mine from his arm and lobbing it into another group of the enemy.
A second major blast sent limbs flying. Men who knew they were outnumbered and doomed screamed above the sound of clashing swords.
Julieth watched as Riad brought his cybernetic hand down to his metallic leg, gripping it and removing a dagger from what had appeared before to be part of the leg’s form.
What remained was a slaughter, with their enemy easily overrun by Kaskal’s force and the abilities of Riad, Ivanus and Julieth.
As the fighting neared its end, Julieth stood on the street staring at the bodies of her people and the enemy. Heavy heat filled her lungs as a haze curled over her. It was not horror that consumed her. She had seen far too much death in her life for that. She was in awe of the power coursing through her veins, and of the fact that she was still alive.
Julieth sat in a tall stone chair, at a stone table of a vast chamber whose roof had been destroyed in the fighting days before. Ivanus and Riad sat at the table with her; moonlight illuminating them as they spoke. Sconces lit with fire flickered around the chamber.
“Bayne is special,” Riad held out his hand as he spoke, lifting a clay mug to his lips. “If it was him, and from what you say it was, then Bayne removed the consciousness of all people in Kaskal for a short time. He brought me out of the trance Samuel seems to have put me under. It is an unmatched power, one that if honed, could help to defeat Samuel.”
“Hold your words,” Julieth spoke to him. “What makes you think Ivanus or I would follow you, or care at all for Samuel’s death? You come to my city, attack us, and now because you claim to have changed, you ask us to follow you away from here. This battle with Samuel is your own. He cannot be defeated, from what I have heard, and I will not die fighting him. I am not a warrior by trade, Riad, but a warrior by hardship and chance.”
Julieth took her own mug and brought it to her lips. The drink was pungent and bitter, made with liquid from the food-replicating machine and fermented, dried vegetation stored in a secret place in Kaskal. It was a true honor to be provided nourishment not completely forged from the replicater, but it churned her stomach all the same. They were provided this drink and the vast room out of thanks for what they had done for Kaskal. She noted that Ivanus had been silent, and also had not lifted his mug. “I would drink that. It will be an insult if you do not,” she told him.
Ivanus lifted the drink, sniffed it, and then quickly put it down. “I am not from here. I remember meat, fruit… vegetation. Julieth, you made it clear when I arrived that I am not a part of Kaskal. From what Riad says, these essences are partially to blame for Solaris’s state, and yet this barren world could not have come about without men like Samuel.”
“Men and women,” Riad spoke. “Make no mistake of that. There are women who have played almost as large of a role in the fall of this planet.”
Ivanus turned to him. “Of course. It was a way of speaking.” He fixed his look to Julieth once more. “I will go with Riad, where he heads from here. I have no family alive, and no home. If I can help to remove Samuel’s poison from this world, then I will have purpose.”
“Thank you, Ivanus,” Riad spoke, his metallic voice resonating over them, “but we need Bayne with us. I will teach you both to harness your abilities fully. Without Bayne, we cannot approach Samuel. He would control us as he did me. With Bayne, we might be able to take away his consciousness long enough to near him and expel his life.”
“Would Samuel’s infecting essence allow that?” Julieth asked. “If he has lived since the meteor’s crash, then surely he will not be so easily killed. You could stay here and be a part of my people, Ivanus. And Bayne will not go with you. He is only a boy.”
“I will decide,” Bayne’s youthful voice came from the back of the chamber, startling her as she turned to watch him walking toward them in the sconce light. A faint echo resonated in the room. “And I am not so much a boy.”
“Come,” Riad lifted his cybernetic arm, electric light shimmering from the seams of its form as he motioned to the boy from the table.
Bayne walked slowly, much unlike a child, and sat at the far side of Riad, near Julieth. “I sense something foreign within me.” He looked to Julieth as he spoke. “An essence? I don’t remember what happened.” He turned his focus toward Riad. “You say I caused it, when the people fell. How could that be? What is happening to me?”
“You did not control it then?” Riad asked. “Did you feel anything?”
The boy held his shoulders with his hands, as if he were cold. “I was so afraid, and then… then I felt this surge of something leaving my body. That was when you all fell.”
Riad looked to Ivanus. “It could be that his fear is a trigger.” His metallic hand rested on the table, gears moving in his arm and minute noises coming from its workings, in the otherwise silence. “It will not go away,” he told Bayne, “but I could teach you to control it.”
“He wants to use you.” Julieth put a hand on Bayne’s. “We do not know him. He might sacrifice you if it suited his means.”
“I would not let him do that,” Ivanus interjected.
“No, no it is alright.” Riad took another swig of his drink and set it down. “She does not speak false. To destroy Samuel I will sacrifice myself, or any of you, if it will save this world from his possession. What I offer you is control of your ability, and a purpose to serve and direct your ability toward. I will use you in the end. My hope is that you will not die, but I cannot promise that. You are not a boy to me. Any person with the abilities given by an essence is no longer a child in my eyes.”
Julieth’s heart raced. Bayne had always been a strong-willed child, doing what he chose to do, and not necessarily what he was directed to. Would he choose to go with them? She was not his mother, and could not stop him.
“What will we do?” the boy asked.
“At first we will need to fully understand your ability, as well as Ivanus’s. Then we must harness them and plan, before attacking Samuel. We will need help, and I know of some who would be willing to join our side. I do not know how to attack, but before we reach that point we must decide.”
“I will join you,” Bayne said with certainty.
“You can’t mean that, after he’s admitted he will use you with no care for your life?” Julieth spoke.
“And what would you have him do here?” Riad held out his arms, motioning around the broken, charred structure.
Julieth stood to gain leverage on him. “We should remain and defend our people in case Kaskal is attacked again. We did not have people with symbiotic essences in Kaskal before, but now that Bayne and I have them and these abilities we can protect the city.”
“Samuel is amassing his armies and taking control of all he comes near. Would you wait here for him on his own terms? Already he sent me. What more is to come? By my side, you can learn your abilities well and we can try to stop him before it is too late.”
He is right,
Julieth conceded in her thoughts.
But how can we fully trust him when we barely even know him? What will happen to our people if we leave?
Ivanus smiled across the table, and when she met his eyes he looked away. What was he seeing?
Bayne ran a hand through his hair, touching the back of his neck and then setting the hand on the table once more. “I will go with you, with or without Julieth, I will go.”
She realized what she needed to do. “I cannot leave you. Riad is right. It seems something needs to be done about Samuel before he arrives at Kaskal’s gates. I will join you.” She looked at Riad, gauging a look in his hardened eyes. A scar ran over the flesh near his glowing cybernetic eye that she had not seen well as they fought. “But I control where I go and what I do. I control my fate.”
“There is something in the catacombs beneath the city we must get before leaving, something I sense will be important to us,” Ivanus said before Riad had the chance to respond. “I
it and yet do not fully understand it. It calls to me. There are creatures down there as well, but we must go.”