Chapter 11: The Hermit
A boy, alone in the forest. Based on how he looked, the forest was probably his home. The image was so clear, but the location was not. There was some kind of interference in the void, one that Ryu struggled to overcome.
It was Adaghast. Or one of his minions. They were trying to shield the location of the carrier from him. It was troubling, but also, in a way, a good sign. Arthur had done well enough in interrupting the forces of darkness that they considered him a threat and wanted to prevent further interference. Not that it would work. Ryu focused, and he untangled the interference surrounding the carrier. It shattered like glass, the shards forming droplets similar to raindrops. And Ryu had a location.
“It is time,” Ryu said to his students. “I hope you are both ready, our enemies have a head-start on us this time.”
Arthur and Ai had begun gotten ready the moment Ryu had started to sense the carrier. Because of the interference, it had taken Ryu a few minutes to pinpoint the location so the two of them had been standing by.
“Good to go,” Arthur said. “With the two us, we’re going to kick the ass of any of The Dark God’s minions we come across. Right, Ai?” When Ai didn’t respond, he glanced over and saw her staring intently at the woods surrounding the farm. “Ai?”
“There’s something out there,” Ai replied at last.
“It’s the woods, Ai,” Arthur said, slightly confused. “It’s full of animals. You remember chasing the bastards off when they were raiding our crops?”
Ai’s stare didn’t break from her fixation. “Not that. I sense … something. The flow of my element is on edge.” She paused, as if focusing hard enough would reveal to her what lay just outside her vision. “I think one of us needs to stay here, protect this place.”
“You got to be kidding me!” Arthur exclaimed. “You finally get back and you want me to go it alone again!? What, did you lose your courage?”
The glare Ai gave him could have melted ice. It only lasted a moment before breaking into a look of frustration. “I’d go and leave you here, but I can’t travel the void by myself.” She sounded angry at herself. “I don’t like it, either. Perhaps we should deal with the threat here together, and if there is still time we can go for the other carrier.”
“No way!” Arthur protested. “We can’t just leave the carrier to be taken and killed!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Arthur realized what he had just volunteered for. He sighed. “Man, I was really looking forward to having some backup this time.”
A thick, meaty hand was placed on his shoulder. “You’re gettin’ it,” Marco said. “I’m gonna go with you.”
In the few weeks since Marco had gotten here, he had proven to be incredibly proficient at grasping the power of his element. He had transformed physically as well: his tough workout regiment caused his muscles to be more defined, he had shaved the small stubble off his head, and his posture was more upright and confident. It was easy to imagine him as the professional boxer he had once been.
But he still struggled with projecting his element as anything other than raw physical strength. He could hit with the force of a truck and shrug off a blow that would kill a normal man, but would that be enough?
“It’s too early for that,” Ryu said, mirroring Arthur’s thoughts. “You’re not ready to face the minions -”
“Save it, old man,” Marco interrupted. “We’re not prisoners here, we’ve been told so several times. I’m not the kind of guy who is going to sit back while someone else fights for him, so I’m going.”
They would be gambling, sending another carrier out into the fray like this, but it seemed as though Marco had his mind made up. Besides, as much as Arthur hated to admit it, he was glad to have someone watching his back.
“Alright,” Arthur agreed. “But keep back. You are on backup duty only. If I can handle it myself, you don’t get involved.” Marco nodded his agreement, so Arthur turned to Ai. “I hope you’re wrong about what you sensed, but if you aren’t …” He looked over to Sam and Peter, off at the edge of the field running their exercises. “Keep this place safe.”
Ai gave a very serious nod which seemed to be all the response Arthur could expect.
Arthur took a deep breath, gathered his focus, and, with Marco in tow, stepped into the void.
There was no mistaking the presence which made its way through the Elemental flows of the void. It was the one he had been set to hunt for, the one he had been instructed to bring in. The swordsman who had been at the center of two recent incidents.
Ullen subconsciously gripped the edges of the straw hat as he let his consciousness track a course through the void. The hat had served as a guidepost, the attachment its owner had to it bonded them no matter the distance. It had just been a matter of tracing that connection back to its source. The last time the hat’s owner had traversed the void, it had caught Ullen off-guard; it was such a rare talent that he had not been ready to pursue. This time, he had made preparations.
His consciousness returned to the physical world and he quickly got to his feet. Well, as quickly as a man his age could, anyway. After brushing away the cobwebs from the transition he turned to his to his apprentices to make sure they were ready.
The brothers, who had the codenames Litint and Watint, for reasons Ullen didn’t really understand (perhaps it was a Russian thing) were talking while seated in front of motel room’s ancient TV, which, in their case, meant Watint was rapid-firing nonstop Slavic nonsense while Litint mostly just nodded or shook his head.
“Our target is on the move,” Ullen declared. “We have to go.”
At once the two burly young men were on their feet, ready for action. “Ready, boss!” Watint replied, while his brother merely nodded his assent.
The three of them gathered together in a formation they had practiced many times before. Ullen took a moment to ensure his uniform jacket was on snugly and straight, the ‘ECT’ logo upfront and visible. It seemed unlikely it would serve as a proper deterrent from what he had heard, but it was worth a shot.
Then, with practiced focus that came from decades of experience, he stepped into the void.
It was moments like these that Arthur was glad he had insisted on being allowed to take swim lessons at the town’s swimming pool when he was a kid. Ryu had accused him of looking for excuses to goof off around around town, and while that had been true at the time, when Arthur had come out of the void to be greeted with the cold splash of water enveloping him those old instincts kept him from drowning. He broke the surface and found that the void had deposited in a small lake in the middle of a thick, leafy forest.
He swam the short distance to shore and found himself being hauled out of the lake by powerful arms. Marco was frustratingly try, somehow having avoid being deposited in an icy bath.
“Why did you get to land on dry ground?” Arthur complained after spitting up some lake-water.
Marco shrugged. “I saw the lake coming, so I jumped.”
Arthur gave him a curious look. “The hell do you mean, ‘you jumped?’ You can’t just … ‘jump’ in the void.”
The reply was yet another shrug. “Don’t know what to tell ya. I jumped.” It was the best way Marco could think to describe it, as unhelpful as it was to Arthur.
With a sigh, Arthur tried to ring out some of the water from his shirt. This was a great start to the mission; he was soaked and chilled, the path back was buried beneath the water, and the carrier was somewhere in this forest. They were probably going to be looking for hours.
“Hey Arthur,” Marco said as Arthur emptied the water from his shoes, “The kid we’re looking for, he was described as brown haired, dirty, and wearing camo-colored clothes?”
“Yeah. Don’t know where we should start looking, though.”
“Well ain’t that him?”
Arthur followed Marco’s outstretched finger to near the top of the tree line. To his surprise, sitting on a branch some twenty-feet above him was a boy that closely matched the description they had been given.
“Hey!” the boy called down. “I wouldn’t go swimming in there I was you. There are some mean fish that like to nibble on my feet. I can show you a better swimming hole, if you want.”
For a few seconds, Arthur was so stunned he couldn’t speak. Finding the carrier was never this easy. He was almost willing to forgive his unceremonious dunking. Now he just needed him to get him back before the bad guys showed up.
“Excuse me,” Arthur called up. “Can you come down here? I need to speak with you.”
“Okay!” the strange boy cheerily called before leaping right off the branch.
Arthur panicked and tried to get under the boy to catch him. Before the boy had fallen even five feet, the wind picked up underneath him, slowing his fall and allowing him to drift slowly to the ground. It reminded Arthur of the way Aer floated during their fight, except when Aer did it the wind around her had been stronger and more encompassing. The boy landed gently beside Arthur, smiling brightly from ear-to-ear.
“Hi I’m Kanos!” the boy declared cheerily. “Nice to meet you!”
“Uh, you too,” Arthur managed, unsure how to treat this bright-eyed, cheerful, and apparently talented Wind Element. “I’m Arthur, this is Marco. We were looking for you because -”
“Because you need dry clothes!” Kanos helpfully finished. “And quickly, or you’ll catch a cold. This way!”
“Wait – wait – wait!” Arthur desperately pleaded, but it was too late as Kanos flew, literally, deeper into the forest.
Marco and Arthur exchanged glances. “Now what?” Marco asked,
“I guess we follow him.” He should have known it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Fortunately, the boy didn’t travel that far. They found him in a clearing up ahead, standing in front of an old, rusted RV. The RV rested in what looked to have once been a campground, based on the ruins of a fire pit and the rotten log benches, though it looked like it hadn’t seen use in a long time. Kanos waved them over to the door of the RV.
“In here!” he cheerfully called out. “I know I saw some clothes that will fit you!” He pulled the door open, which protested with a loud squeal, and disappeared inside.
“What is with this kid?” Arthur groaned. “We don’t have time for this.” He sneezed. The cold air and soaked clothes made a miserable combination.
Marco shrugged. “Go in and get him. I’ll keep an eye out.”
The inside of the RV smelled of mildew and old leather. The walls of the main room were lined with electronics, none of which looked even remotely familiar to Arthur. Dead black monitors stared back at him, some cracked and others hanging loosely from their mounts. Kanos had run to a room in the back, what seemed to have at one point been a bedroom, though the bed in question was more mold than mattress at this point.
Kanos rummaged through a closet, tossing aside dark black suits that seemed to have survived the passage of time better than anything else in the RV.
“Interesting place you got here,” Arthur said, struggling for the diplomatic thing to say. “Is it yours?”
“Kind of,” Kanos said as he dug through a chest buried at the bottom of the closet. “I found it, and no one else uses it, so I stay here sometimes. Little smelly, but the roof is kind of comfy. Hey, what do you think of this?” He pulled out a wrinkly Hawaiian flower shirt.
“Then where do you live?” Arthur asked, unable to accept that anyone would want to live in such conditions.
“Here and there.” He tossed the shirt aside and pulled out a thick bathrobe. “There’s a tree I really like, and when it rains there’s this cool building I can sleep in.”
“What about your parents?”
He stopped digging through the chest and his face took on a thoughtful expression. “I don’t have any, at least I don’t think I do.”
“So you just live out here, on your own?”
“Yep!” came the cheerful reply. “I mean, sometimes I try to hang out with other people, but everyone always seems to get angry at me, so I usually just avoid people.”
Arthur’s heart broke at the thought of this young boy living all alone in this forest. He had known loneliness in his youth, being so isolated from other boys his age, but at least he had Ai and Ryu. He could only imagine what it was like to be completely alone.
“Well, there are some people I’d like to introduce you to,” Arthur said, “who might be a little nicer than the others you met.”
“Okay!” Kanos immediately agreed. “Do any of them need clothes, too?”
“I … don’t think so.”
“Well, we can always come back. Hey, you should put on this!”
In order to get Kanos to come with him, Arthur conceded to changing into an old blue-and-gray suit that looked like it had come straight from a 50’s gangster movie. At least it didn’t really smell and, Arthur had to admit, it was nice to be in something dry.
Marco raised an eyebrow at when he left the RV. “Looking sharp, Arthur.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur flippantly replied. “Let’s just get back.”
“About that, I was just about to come in and get you.” He gestured back towards the way they had come. “I think we’re about to have some company.”
An older man, broad and powerfully built, yet with silvered, thinning hair which gave away his advanced age, stepped into the clearing, flanked by two tall, muscular young men. It was the uniform of the older man which told Arthur they were in trouble: the same ECT uniform he had seen once before.
The older man gave him a look like a disappointed school teacher. “I believe we need to talk.”
Vizel watched the confrontation unfold with growing impatience. He had tracked the carrier-boy for a short while, waiting for a chance to take him. It had been an unpleasant task for him to begin with; his skill set was not exactly suited for bringing his targets back alive. Then he had gotten here and learned the carrier was a skilled enough Wind Element to fly, and capturing someone who could simply float away was far, far more difficult. Not that Adaghast would accept such excuses.
Then the rest of these fools showed up. First the swordsman whom he had been warned about, accompanied by some unknown companion, then three members of the ECT. Well, only one wore the uniform, but what could the other two be? Manservants?
Now it seemed they were headed for a showdown. He could try to use the distraction of the battle to try and grab the carrier, but if they turned on him … well, as confident as Vizel was in his abilities, he was not ready for a six-on-one fight.
For now he would watch and wait, wait for the two sides to weaken each other, exhaust each other. And then would be his time to strike. He would kill the survivors and take the carrier.
The thought of killing again filled Vizel with an ecstatic glee, so overwhelming that he nearly burst from his cover to attack right then. He had to restrain himself. Subconsciously, he raked his fingers across his face, his long fingernails cutting into the skin. He barely even noticed the faint trickle of blood that formed.
Soon would be his time. He could hardly wait.
Ai guided the two boys as they went through their meditations, only half her attention really on them, the other half keeping watching for the danger she had sensed. Sam was as impatient as always, every time he grasped the Fire Element he could barely keep himself from channeling it. More than once he had to break his meditation to put out sparks on his clothes. Peter, on the other hand, had only the most tenuous grasp on the element of Wood. He could just barely grasp it in his meditations but it would likely be a while before he could really channel it. It was still amazing progress for one who lacked a Fragment, though she could see his frustration in being so far behind his friend.
Ryu was also in his meditations not far from them, keeping the path through the void open for Arthur’s return trip. It tore at Ai that Arthur was once again fighting without her protection, though what else could have been done? If her senses were correct, then something was …
As she extended her senses once more to the surrounding area, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the pressing sense of danger. Whatever she had been expecting was here, now! She jumped to her feet and began to channel –
But she was too late. Before her shield could form an intense blast of wind hit her square-on and sent her careening back. She hit the wall of the farmhouse, hard, with a resounding crack as both bone and wall splintered from the impact.
Sam and Peter were on their feet a second later, just in time to see the terrifyingly familiar form float towards them.
“Hello again. Sam,” Aer’s cold voice spoke softly. “It has been too long.”