… but we still became the prey! We didn’t belong here, not in this place, and certainly not in this time. The whole experience was surreal, and not least because we were outsiders. It wasn’t like we didn’t resist, we did. But we were fools to think we stood a chance against this class of capasians. Even today, that face haunts me. Those piercing hazel eyes, that uncanny and hypnotic glare, but above all, his unworldly ability to reduce me to a weeping, cowering and pathetic infant!
5th March, 1174
7th February, 1174
Moria leaned against the mossy boulder as she scribbled purposefully on her journal, an admirable if somewhat useless task, while Luton hung from a scarlet maple tree, his strong and firm hands gripping one of the lower branches as he went about his daily exercise routine. Chilly autumn gusts constantly swept the maple leaves across the green patch of land, forcing me and Moria to draw our limbs ever closer as our tattered robes failed to keep the cold at bay. The overcast skies had made it a particularly chilly afternoon and I struggled to keep my bare toes warm. Thoughts of my dad invaded my mind again, as they often did in times of self reflection. When was the last time I saw him? I couldn’t honestly remember, a decade at the least, just after the hunters came. There were so many others. Dravon, Ilka, Klashon, Abastar, Bard, so many good and strong folk, either dead or kidnapped. From over 500 to just us 3 left… To give up now would be nothing less than to dishonour their sacrifices.
Swallowing the last portion of my share of hardened bread, I took a few sips from the plastic bowl. It hardly had the rejuvenating effect I was hoping for, but it was better than nothing. I contemplated running down to Klale’s Mill for resupplies, or perhaps sending Luton, but the risks were too great. We had to make do until we took care of the next wave. Any time today or tomorrow. We knew the pattern now, and they always stuck to it. But they could afford to, no one was powerful enough to stand in their way, not even the esteemed Entim. I almost laughed out aloud. To think that just the three of us could stand against an enemy so powerful that even the territorial defences were no match against was foolish. No, we couldn’t hope to defeat them. But we could hope to survive, to live another day, and I had a plan.
A plan that was in motion as we waited for the inevitable conflict. Moria and Luton refused point blank at first of course, but I didn’t blame them for their pessimism. Losing so many loved ones to the hunters over the years could do that to you. Even the Submitters amongst us lost hope as our numbers dwindled in the face of the barbaric assaults. So when I confessed about my ability to capa despite having the Seal, it came as nothing less than a shock to Moria and Luton, and not least because it defied the Seal itself.
The real euphoria came from realising the nature of my capa’s release, and demonstrating it in front of my stunned comrades. The dying embers of hope were rekindled.
But there was a catch as well: I could only manage one release every few hours. Moria and Luton would have to take care of the rest, a feat made all the more complex since both of them were still Eytes. Their Seal wouldn’t break until they turned 30 and became Miradi, so their capas were next to useless for at least another three years.
“But hey, at least we have a bunch of poison darts and steambows right?” Luton had said in one of our earlier converses. “Moria can strike my backside from a mile off, that’s gotta count for something now pal,” he had smirked back then, drawing laughter from both me and Moria. He was a handful sometimes, his jokes were almost always wryly, and it was impossible to have a serious conversation with him, but I couldn’t imagine a day without him. He was family, just like Moria.
But could we really pull it off? It was a slim chance at best, but we had nothing left to lose, and certainly no promise of any future in sight, so the risk was justified. Warranted, even. It was disturbing to tread this path, but what other choice did we have? The saviours of Bloodgard had long forsaken us. It was a bitter pill to swallow and many of the survivors didn’t accept it at first, clinging to false hopes, but it was obvious. We hadn’t crossed paths with a single Entim for years. The few of us that remained were fragmented in splintered groups, running, hiding. The city was lost, and we had been abandoned to our fate.
Shivering from the onslaught of another chilly spell, I opened my eyes reluctantly. Sleep was a luxury long forsaken by our kind. Luton walked hastily towards me as his dirty beige robes fluttered in the autumn breeze, barely covering him beneath his seasoned knees and revealing portions of his muscular thighs from time to time. His frantic and animated gesturing was lost to my subdued and passive mind as I was overcome with a very peculiar and choking feeling, as if the fold of gravity had increased threefold. Then there was the most absolute silence. The creaking wind, the falling leaves, the frantic Luton and Moria. Why couldn’t I hear them? Luton pushed Moria behind a boulder and pulled out a silver axe from the leather strap on his back. He was staring at something behind me, and gesturing frantically.
Turning ever so slowly to my right, ever so gently, I saw the maple trees and the network of ropes Luton would use for his training. The leaves were no longer falling and the gusty winds had abated. It was as if everything had slowed down to a crawl and no matter how hard I tried, I could not break myself out of this ridiculous reverie. Then something appeared in my peripheral vision. Hanging, no, floating beneath an arch of maple trees and looking directly at me!
A tingling sensation crawled its way into my mind:
Before I could obey, Luton’s oversized hand slapped my face and the sharp pang of pain brought me out of my trance.
“Kral you idiot, do it to him now before he comes any closer!” I swayed like a fallen leaf before regaining enough sense to pry his iron grip from my shoulders.
“What in Bloodgard just happened to me!” But there was no time for self-reflection and I began to move purposefully towards the small rocky formation ahead which provided a safer vantage point. “Take your position Luton!” He was already on the move as he disappeared behind the boulders.
There it was again, and with it, the biting urge to obey! But what was it? I clenched my teeth and forced myself to hold my ground as a rustling of leaves behind me indicated that Luton and Moria had taken their positions. We expected a group of them to come for us so we had taken all the necessary precautions. After I disposed of this one the rest should be drawn out like moths to a fire. Luton and Moria would then take them out covertly with their steambows before anyone had a chance to capa. They would never know what hit them. As long as they didn’t bring any mechas, and were close enough for Luton and Moria to strike, we would be fine.
As I peeked out of a small opening in the rocky formation, the rustling of leaves behind me grew louder and more persistent, forcing me to grit my teeth. They would blow the operation if they continued like this!
This time, I couldn’t resist the overwhelming temptation to obey and the next moment, I catapulted over the boulders and was floating in the air high above, in clear sight of my enemy!
To say that I was disoriented by my sudden change of altitude would be doing injustice to the dishevelled state of my mind. I should have been terrified by all accounts, but I was still trying to process the chain of events. I briefly wondered if the excruciating circumstances had willed my body to learn elevation, after all, many of our elders gained their capas under moments of intense stress, but at the back of my mind I knew that this was not the case here. None of us could elevate, we were still Eytes. Even the Miradi took several years to learn and master elevation, let alone flight, which I was currently doing. No, this was the hunter’s power. He was drawing me in, and I had to act now!
Which was easier said than done. I struggled vainly while trying to steady myself and get a foothold, stumbling through thin air and falling while doing so, only to be picked up again by the hunter and drawn in further. I needed to get a grip on myself, and trying to steady myself wouldn’t work. No, I was forgetting my capa. I just needed to get a good look on him.
Twisting my head upwards, I held the hunter in my sight and felt the familiar tingling sensation in my capa as the charge built up. The hunter appeared to be a lot closer now, and a set of fierce eyes underneath the draping hood were clearly visible. Just another second or two…
And there it was, the urge to release, getting stronger by every passing moment. He would be able to see it as well, the energised and pulsing cloak-like extrusion on my back which extended to down my knees and formed my capa, so I had to act swiftly if I was to catch him by surprise. With my focus on the hunter’s chest, a single thought pushed its way through my otherwise entangled mind: Explode!
The maple archway exploded and the hunter fell, but only to rise up once again, unscathed, in a canvas of scarlet hue, and I couldn’t help but scream: “Noooo!!!”
Then I screamed again, but not because of physical pain. The mental intrusion I felt was worse than that. Somewhere along my stumbling propulsion, I had made eye contact with my adversary, hard as it was from this distance, and it proved fatal in more ways than one.
It was as if an invisible arrow had been shot through his eyes, stripping my defences and making me feel absolutely naked and powerless under his intense glare which seemed to radiate and grow in ferocity. Fiery ants were crawling all over my skin, and even under it, burrowing deeper with every cycle! I wanted to scrape my flesh with a metal comb, and even then I think it wouldn’t be enough.
Even in the midst of this mental incapacitation, I was aware of the distance between us shortening and my crumbling mind turning more frantic with each passing second. I stumbled again and lurched downwards, involuntarily, and my right leg shot towards the sky as my hands tried to grasp thin air. The eye contact broke, and I received the momentary reprieve I so much needed.
It didn’t make any sense. I had pinned everything on my capa. I could obliterate anything from trees to boulders with ease, yet it didn’t even leave a scratch on this capasa. Instead, he had somehow deflected my release, if that was even possible, because there was no way I aimed for the archway!
I gritted my teeth, but less out of frustration. The despair was settling in quicker. My enemy hadn’t so much as flinched and I was already out of fire-power. Just like that, it was over before it even began. Fate was cruel, to crush our aspirations in such a humiliating way.
Should I just welcome death? It would be so, so much easier.
“Look at it this way, lad.” Dravon had said as he had placed his hardened but gentle hands on my shoulder. “We are here today, we may not be here tomorrow. So you see, it is not about us, no, it is about them,” he had said as he pointed at the 50 odd remaining survivors, “and you, my lad. We fight not to win, but to give you hope, because as long as there remain a people who submit to the will of God, there is hope.” And at this, he had looked up at the sky and muttered one of his prayers. “There is hope as long as you believe there is, no matter what monsters stray in your path. Never lose hope, my lad, even if you have to fight to keep it alive.” He was like a father to me, and those were his last words.
Words I had vowed to live and die by, and today wasn’t going to be the day I broke that vow!
We were way out of our league here, but it was too late to back away now. If it was just me, then maybe, but I was responsible for the lives of two others as well now.
There was still hope.
It took me a moment to serialise my thoughts and to conjure a plan. My capa ability wasn’t going to work here, not directly anyway, and I didn’t want to expose Luton and Moria yet, in case there were others. It was hard to believe, but the only possible explanation was that he could somehow deflect releases, so I made peace with that. I had to catch him off guard, and pray that his deflection capability wasn’t something more ingrained, or worse, reflexive. There was another possibility, something even more dreadful that was burrowing its way into my mind after I realised that I had never tested my capa on a living thing. No, I had to focus, so I discarded the thought.
The charge had built up and I didn’t waste any time releasing it: Explode!
This time it was the giant boulder underneath him that shattered into a cloud of fine sand and rock particles, once again, surrounding my enemy in a messy brown blanket of dust as he continued to draw me in, quite oblivious to the destruction unfolding around him.
That ruled one thing out: I had no control over the density or direction of the explosion. Perhaps it was too much to hope for an indirect hit from a flesh-piercing shard of rock.
What I wouldn’t give to have had a few more days to experiment. Varying the force of the release to increase my limit, or changing the angle of impact to see if I could produce something coarser, sharper, deadlier. To see, maybe, if I could kill. I discarded the thought again. The overwhelming exhaustion taxing my body was indication enough, however, that I had exceeded my capa limit.
If I could just hold on for just a little longer….
I jolted forward with greater momentum this time, and I knew my time was almost up. The distance between us reduced to 20 odd feet while the hunter, for all the good it was apparently doing, was still blanketed in a cloud of dust. I willed my broken body to focus, to look for the opening I needed, and then I saw it. The pain was excruciating, but still I forced my capa to charge one last time. Hot needles poked furiously all along my spine, and stinging tears rolled down my wet cheeks, but I had to keep going, I was nearly there. 10 feet? Then I was ready.
The head. Full power this time.
There was no doubt that the blood-curdling scream that followed was mine. Shaking uncontrollably, I tried to stray my gaze away from the hunter’s captivating eyes. Every nerve in my body was burning. What were Luton and Moria waiting for? Why hadn’t they… They had to stay back, but surely they could see that I was about to be roasted?
I snatched my eyes away from his prying gaze, looked down towards the ground beneath me, and froze.
Two corpses, covered in leaves and dust.
My lips quivered and a stinging hot sensation started building up in my throat. It was a fool’s errand after all.
Pain and anger surged through me, crashing and churning against each other like hungry tidal waves. I soon forgot which was which.
There would be serious consequences for what I was about to do, and I felt this in my spent body which pleaded for mercy, but there was nothing left to hold me back any longer…
But the violent spasms rocking my overspent body were indication enough that I was done, I couldn’t release again. The hunter’s perfectly whole and clenched hand inched towards me, and I struggled to keep my eyes open. The excessive capaing had broken my body and thrust complete paralysis upon my lifeless limbs. Ever so slowly, one of his fingers unfolded under my chin and pushed my face up so that my eyes were level with his. By now I was sweating profusely and exerting the last bit of energy I had left to free myself from his clutches proved futile. Once again those predatory eyes probed my innards as a smirk formed on my enemy’s gold-streaked and partially hooded face.
“Why the struggle, young Fenley? Don’t you want to see your dad?”
And then my body lost its battle with consciousness and all the pain ended.