Flame and Shadow

By Joshua Carr All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Other

Chapter 16

Five more miles to go. I huffed a little as I pushed myself harder. I wasn’t about to turn around, but I knew all of the others were still behind me. I knew they would be trying their very best to catch up. All five of us students in Sagar’s squad had survived the attack six years ago, and we had been working hard ever since. Rachael, Kazushita, and Geoffrey had formed some sort of evil alliance against me. Their every move was intended to make my life more difficult.

Over the years, I had grown cold and hardened. In part, because their attitude toward me, but also partially because of the brutality I had seen six years before. Seeing my friends ripped apart physically and mentally admittedly scarred me. I thought about everything I had seen almost every day. I knew my duty was to fulfill The Prophecy, and make the world right. Nothing else mattered. Just then, Danica hurried up and jogged right behind me.

“It’s a really beautiful day isn’t it!” She called through heavy puffing. “I saw a cardinal earlier! It was so bright red! Did you see it?”

In addition to becoming much colder and more calloused, I had also become much better at ignoring this excessively cheerful parasite. By hastening my pace, the distance between the two of us started to become increased until she was out of hearing range, and I could be left alone with my thoughts again. Although she was very skilled, she had never shown any ambition at pursuing the agent position. Because of this, I’d never really seen her as a threat. Friend? Probably not.

It didn’t help that she had a huge obvious crush on me. But I had NO time for a relationship. If I didn’t keep working, the others may catch up. Plus, she’s definitely not my type. Too optimistic, too cheerful, too…ditsy? Well, it’s just not something I was going to worry about.

Fourteen miles down, one to go. We had run through forests and over hills, but now we were coming back to headquarters. I had been holding back so far, so I would have energy for this final mile. With that, I broke away from the others, leaving them far behind. This was just another testament of my position as head of the class.

I couldn’t explain my abilities. For some reason, even though I wasn’t necessarily working harder than the rest of them, my strength, speed, stamina, and fighting skills progressed much faster.

I was by far the most qualified to be promoted among us, but the superiors still hadn’t officially held the graduation. I don’t know what they were waiting for, but I didn’t want to waste a day to prove that I was the best man for the job.

At the end of the run, the students following me weren’t even in sight. I sprinted up to the compound, then slowed to a jog and stopped; my hands on my knees. Whew, that was a pretty fast last mile. By the time the others made it in, I had nearly recovered my breath.

My three antagonists all arrived in a cluster some time after I did. No words were exchanged. They glared daggers at me, and I glared right back at them. If looks could kill, this would be some kind of massacre. Danica pulled up the rear. She must have dropped back after using the last of her energy to catch up and talk to me. When she made it in, she lifted her hand up.

“High five!” She gasped.

Reluctantly, I raised my hand. She slapped it as she went by.

“Yeah! (puff puff) Nice job! (puff puff) That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

I shook my head. She just didn’t take anything seriously, including her dress code. In addition to the dark grey and black tactical uniforms we wore, she clad her feet in brightly colored knee-high socks that didn’t even match each other. Her long golden hair was tied in a high ponytail, but half of her bangs were in front of her forehead, and the other half were pulled back. She’s just a little crazy.

“Well done.” Sagar praised as he advanced toward us. “That was faster than I expected, since you’ve never gone this far before.”

Ever since the attack by Teklos almost six years ago, Sagar had been a different man. He was far more reserved and serious. Apparently he had blamed himself for everything that had happened, including Trinity’s death, and the horrible change that had occurred in Takeji. Despite his constant depression, I had come to see him as the father I never had. The man was certainly a great mentor, and the only one I could really trust. He was supportive of all of my efforts to improve myself, and made the constant antagonism by my classmates a little more bearable.

“Alright. That’s it for now. We have a meeting in the auxiliary room in one hour. You can take a break until then.”

With that, he disappeared into the building like he always did. I was still not sure where he went.

I headed to the barracks to change out of my sweaty clothes. There was a dual purpose in going there, namely, Dani couldn’t follow me into the men’s sleeping quarters, so I could have a break from her. It’s not that I hated her or anything, I just needed a little space.

She walked with me through the building with a bit of a spring in her step, but thankfully not talking nonsense. I was thinking about everything that had happened over the past six years, when a scream erupted down the hallway, followed by a loud crash. Dani and I froze, then ran toward the source of the sound. We weren’t under attack again, were we?

In a wide room used to store supplies, a large crowd was gathered, but they didn’t make a single sound. In the center stood Takeji, or at least what I used to know as Takeji. Shortly after the attack by Teklos, he had been given a procedure to repair his extensive injuries. A massive, metallic, scorpion-like tail had been fused to his spinal cord, running from his neck down his back, and curving around above his head like a scorpion’s. He was still covered with scars from the explosion, but the physical effects of the affliction were not the worst aspect of it.

“I TOLD YOU TO GET OUT OF MY DAMN WAY, YOU FRICKIN’ FLEA!” He shouted, seething with anger over a fellow agent.

The scream from before must have been Takeji throwing him to the floor.

As a part of the cybernetic implantation, electronic systems were implanted in the young man’s brain to allow him to control his mechanical parts. This seemed to completely erase the person he was before. He was no longer rational, sane, curious about the mysteries of the world, or a friend to anyone. Now, he was just a berserk soldier, under the command of the supreme commander Razo.

He glared wildly around the circle of men and women around him.

“DOES ANYONE ELSE WANT SOME?! HUH?”

No one spoke. Takeji was a lethal force, and no one wanted to mess with him. In his nearly feral state, he probably wouldn’t hesitate killing someone on his own side. After a few tense seconds, two men made their way through the crowd.

“Hey, there, calm down buddy, that’s it. They’re all just jealous of you.” One of them said, holding his arms out in front of him.

“Don’t worry, don’t pay any attention to them.” The other man soothed Takeji. “They won’t touch you. You know they’re just afraid of you. You’re far more powerful than they can ever be. Just come with us, yeah, you’re alright…”

Takeji’s rage subsided, and he allowed them to lead him away from the crowd. These two men were twin brothers: Eli and Raphael Bowden. Shortly before the destruction that occurred years ago, these two had suddenly appeared as the supreme commander’s bodyguards. I wasn’t sure how much I trusted them, but there was no denying they were very skilled.

My heart was filled with remorse, thinking about how things have changed. There was a time when Takeji was a good friend, and he, Trinity and I (and Dani) hung out together. But, following Trinity’s brutal murder, nothing was the same. Takeji had descended into a psychotic madness. There was no way to go back. Takeji and Trinity were equally gone, but I had other important things to do anyway.

I turned around, and nearly crashed into Dani. She had been standing right behind me, and must have misinterpreted my direction.

“Whoops! Sorry!” She happily chirped, but I didn’t respond. I just silently kept moving.

“Where are you going? We’ve got the meeting in a few minutes!” The girl called, but I ignored her.

I wasn’t a sadist. I didn’t intend to hurt her, but I had no desire to start anything. Not only did I have to focus on my training, but the best way to keep from hurting her, was to keep from leading her on. This girl just wouldn’t take a hint. Why couldn’t she just move on? We’d both be better off if she’d just give up chasing me, and find something else to do.

A quarter of an hour later, almost the entire population of Tsalderek was in the large, theatre-like auxiliary room. Dani was sitting next to me of course. I attempted to avoid eye contact, and kept my eyes looking around the area. Tsalderek wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. There were guards posted all around the inside and outside of the room. If Teklos showed up today, they’d regret it.

On the stage, which was elevated above the seats where we were sitting, the highest ranking members of Tsalderek’s inner circle stood, looking out at the organization. Hanson was there, looking as though someone had just eaten the last of his nachos, and he was preparing to dismember them. He always looked ticked off, so this was no surprise. The Bowden twins also were on the stage, as were a couple of others I didn’t recognize. Near the back, Razo loomed ominously, draped in his hooded cloak. I almost imperceptibly shook my head, still not understanding why so many people would follow him to the death. He never spoke, or even showed his face, yet everyone viewed him as almost a king, or a God. Maybe it was his mystery that made people trust him so much. If they didn’t know who he was or what he could do, they could fill in the blanks in their own mind to make him whoever and whatever they needed.

I had hoped our leader would speak today, but was not surprised when Raphael Bowden approached the microphone to address us. His brother stood just beside him as he spoke.

“Men and women of Tsalderek, I speak to you now at the dawn after a long night! It has been a long six years! We’ve banded together in a time of darkness and destruction, when only the strong will survive! Survived we have! Only by our strength and will, we pushed back the destruction, and rebuilt our organization!”

After that, Eli took over the speech.

“Look at you now! Where there was death, now there is life! Where there were wounds, now there are scars! Where walls were fallen, now they are stronger than ever before! You have worked hard to rebuild this organization, piece by piece, and now, the God above has blessed your deeds, and used them to give you power!”

The crowd applauded and cheered cacophonously, as though the Lions had just won the Super Bowl. Apparently, they liked being pet. I couldn’t really blame them, though. We had all worked hard to rebuild Tsalderek, both literally and metaphorically. Just then, I felt something poke me. Looking to my right, I saw Dani, holding a precisely folded origami elephant.

She quietly imitated the trumpeting sound of her miniature mammal. I quickly ignored her, and turned back to the stage, struggling not to laugh. Crazy kid. Didn’t she know this was important?

Raphael continued his preaching.

“I’m sure most of you remember our meeting six years ago…”

Hm. I wasn’t a part of that meeting. I guess it was just for the adults, and I was still only 12.

“…when I cautioned that we would have to be extraordinarily careful to hide our presence. If Nahalore discovered that we were weak, they could have destroyed us easily.”

“Now, our time of fearful hiding is over!” Eli broke in.

Due to their indistinguishable voices, if I weren’t watching the exchange take place, I would never know there was a switch in speaker.

“Soon, our time to strike will come! We are ready to attack and destroy the Nephilim. We will let them know that we aren’t gone! The true path to righteousness is straight and narrow, and full of shadows. But we will lead humanity through this shadowy path! It is our destiny!”

Our destiny…or mine? How did I fit into God’s plan? All I knew is for God to use me, I had to be the best and strongest possible vessel. Among the rekindled cheering all around, I heard another strange sound to my right. I cautiously turned, to find Dani had folded a giraffe, a lion, and a hippopotamus. She smiled and demonstrated the veritable Serengeti resting in her two outstretched hands. I just nodded, and made my way out of the still wild crowd. I had too much to do to waste time with a girl who had no ambition whatsoever.

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