Previous Chapter: 1.3 – Tremble
The note read:
“Please gather the girl and be prepared to hurry back. The council is created, but not in our favor. They will be making a play and it’s likely violence will follow. Upon receipt of this message, I will probably already have left to meet you. Secure her and avoid unnecessary confrontation. I am riding day and night. Be careful.
PS: Watch for the police. The darker the skin, the longer they’ve been out and away from any sort of King’s rule. I’ve heard reports of some losing their link to humanity, forgetting that they are supposed to be doing the King’s justice.
With the note reinvigorating our sense of purpose, we strode into the village that morning, heading straight to the chief, Vaynen.
“I hate to inform you, but she’s not here – she never was,” Vaynen said.
That meant the hybrids that took her probably weren’t a part of the village. Hopefully, that also meant Vaynen and company were friendly.
“Have you been attacked recently? If she’s not here, we’d assume she’s somewhere nearby with her captors,” Hyde said.
“We’ve been hit several times lately. The last time was devastating – they’ve deviated from their prior pattern,” Vaynen said.
“We need to get her – I’ll sneak in at night and get her out,” I suggested.
“You don’t know where their camp is! I’m supposed to be keeping you safe, Jochro,” Hyde said.
“If we don’t get her and they attack again, then we will have failed at everything the King has asked of us. At the very least, I can save her and we can help the village bunker down for any future attacks until his arrival.”
“Sending you is incredibly risky and as much as I want to disagree, I really can’t see a better plan…”
The chief interjected, “One of our boys stumbled upon some tracks the other day, it could be worth checking those out. When were you planning on going… tonight?”
“Yes, I was,” I said. “Give me a note that I can give to Anroma, I can deliver it to her so we can rescue her from her captors” I looked to Hyde and saw his frown.
“I don’t see we have much of a choice.”
We spent the rest of the day prepping for my first attempt at espionage. I adjusted a pack into something that would fit me in my night form and we wrote a note that I would drop to Anroma. The second act would be more of a challenge than we could imagine – how do you get a seven or eight year-old girl to trust a note that was dropped off by a big-ass bird? I could only hope she was more scared of the hybrids than she was wary of a strange bird.
With sunset approaching and Hyde’s many warnings of caution behind me, I set off walking to the edge of the village where I planned to grow my wings for the night. Once changed, I wiggled into the backpack and picked up the note with my beak, taking off into the night sky. Using the villager’s directions as my guide, I flew north. The boy had described a camp position that was defined by a trail of trash he had stumbled upon one day while hunting.
At first, I saw nothing that resembled garbage – a few footprints of various animal types that didn’t lead in any particular direction. I continued to circle the area, methodically expanding my search zone until I finally spotted a discarded sandal. I really hoped this meant I was getting closer. I flew to the nearest tree top and scanned through the woods for any more trash. Spotting a wooden spoon, I flew towards it and saw another piece of discarded clothing. The clues began to form an increasingly dense trail of junk that I was able to follow for a couple of miles. Finally, coming across some light shining through the trees. There were about a dozen silhouettes beside the campfire, only some of them human. Hopping along the branches, I kept my eyes open for any sign of Anroma. Every so often I would stop and listen until I finally heard a muffled sigh. I located and positioned myself above the noise and was rewarded with the view of a girl wrapped in a red cloak, arms huddled around her knees.
The note hit the top of Anroma’s hooded head and fell to the ground. Mother’s milk, what if she can’t read? She glanced up, not noticing me due to the darkness. She grabbed the note and fortunately began to read it. Before I could even check on the position of any potential guards, she was sprinting away (in a direction that I hope she knew was safe). I didn’t anticipate the girl being so courageous, so I had to quickly hop off my branch to follow. Once she left the general vicinity of the camp, I could hopefully find my way back to the rendezvous point. There was only one guard that I could sense chasing her and luckily, it wasn’t one of the faster ones. I assumed he must’ve gotten unlucky in the animal genetics lottery because he didn’t bother changing. Nonetheless, I wanted to ensure that Anroma and myself got back to Hyde and company as quickly as possible. They would take care of our pursuer.
Anroma burst into the clearing and I was relieved to see that everyone had made it to the rendezvous. Hyde, a few of the villagers, Chief Vaynen, and even some non-changing natives were waiting for us. The villagers and Hyde scrambled past Anroma to capture the hybrid pursuer – I was correct in assuming his form was nearly useless; the next day I would find out he was a toad. The natives met and spoke to Anroma in their home language while I flew away towards camp, feeling the knives still in my pack. I smiled inwardly, happy that I didn’t have to drop them to Anroma.
The next morning, we gathered in the Chief’s hut to speak with the captured hybrid pursuer. At least half a dozen people took turns interrogating him, but he was silent the entire hour I was there. I eventually gave up and walked out – there was still a lot to be done. A few huts down from the newly repurposed interrogation hut was where Anroma was staying. My legs led me in that direction, subconsciously wanting to officially meet the key to the rebellion.
Everyone must’ve been too fascinated with the captured hybrid to come see the girl a few huts down as when I arrived, there was only an elderly woman present. Anroma was wearing the same red cloak, but beyond that, had changed into clean clothes. She looked up at me as I entered.
“Hello,” I smiled.
“You’re the vulture from last night,” Anroma said, face devoid of emotion.
“I am, I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright. You know I came all the way from Ikalga for you, right?”
That was my big ice breaker?
“Ikalga?” She tossed a grape from her plate into her mouth and smiled finally, “Thank you, Mister…”
“Jochro,” I finished for her.
She stood and curtsied, “Well thank you, Jachro.”
Well, that’s one way to say my name… But I didn’t blame her – it was a small miracle she was able to speak as well as she did having only been in the company of violent hybrids for the past few years.
“BenchGur gave me lessons!”
I whirled around, had she just spoken to me? No, I definitely heard that in my head… she had a mouth full of fruit. Did I just imagine that? And wait, what the heck is a vulture? I turned to walk out the door, giving her a confused side-eye as I left.
I took no more than two steps out of Anroma’s temporary residence when I spotted something streaking across the sky. I squinted. That’s definitely coming right at me. No sooner had I jumped two steps to the right than a big ball of dust hit the ground and crashed into the side of the hut I had just exited. When the dust settled, I saw the familiar face of none other than King Acetate.
“JoJo!” he beamed contagiously.
He wore an outfit similar to the one he was wearing back in Ikalga when I had left, though this one was devoid of a cape or jewelry. I guessed these were his combat-ready threads.
“King Acetate,” I bowed.
“Did I pick the right lodging?! Please tell me this is Anroma’s room!” The King clapped and held his hands together as if begging.
“It is.” Anroma’s face, still unreadable, had popped out of the doorway just long enough to respond and toss a grape toward Acetate.
Are these two related?
Putting aside the eccentricities of arguably the two most important people in all of Elodine, I noticed a new addition to the King’s arsenal. It was a long scepter, painted black all along the handle. The handle ended in a faintly glowing sphere on top which gleamed a mixture of black and white.
“You like?” Acetate flicked his wrist toward the hut’s curtain and it flowed aside.
I paused before walking in. “Uh, yeah… Did you just jump from Ikalga?”
“No silly, I rode day and night – didn’t you read the note?”
Oh silly me! He must have just jumped from the settlement entrance then… I thought as I internally rolled my eyes.
“I can’t hold this curtain forever, shall we?” he said.
I followed him into the room. Anroma had finished her breakfast and turned her head at our arrival. She broke into her first smile of the day, “Welcome!” she spoke with a completely new demeanor. “If I were you, I wouldn’t come before breakfast next time, Jachro…”
I nodded, confused at her sudden change in mood.
“So, we don’t have much time, little lady. My name is Ace and I see you’ve already met my friend Jochro,” he paused, placing his hand on his chin. “Where to start, where to start… oh! First, we need to see if you’ve got your daddy’s talents. Then, we can prepare to defend this village.” Ace looked to me, “Any raids here recently?”
“A few days ago, Vaynen said they’re getting bolder.”
“Interesting. It will be a nice challenge!” Ace said.
“Not how I would put it, but okay,” I replied in a lighthearted intonation.
“You’re learning! Regardless, I’ll go speak with Hyde and the Chief regarding setting up the defenses. You see if you can get An here to make something sparkle.” He strode out.
“You’ll get used to the nicknames,” I shrugged, turning back toward my new student.
“Can you get a boy around her age and bring him here?” I asked the elderly woman who accompanied Anroma. I had already attempted to scare or surprise Anroma into using her magic with no luck. The lady gave a small frown as she walked out.
“Have you ever done anything you couldn’t explain?” I inquired.
“Well, sometimes when I stand up I get real dizzy…”
I sighed, tempted to give up on teaching her after only about ten minutes.
I guess I can’t get upset – she’s seven.
“I thought I was six?” Anroma said.
“What? Uh, yeah maybe…,” I waved her comment away. “Let me think for a second.”
Hopefully this boy the caretaker is fetching can make her blush or something. Maybe embarrassment sets off her magic.
“What’s blushing?” she perked up.
“Damn, can’t you let me thi-” I trailed off as the realization hit me like a stone to the face.
“Hey! Don’t get angry at me – You’re the one talking inside…” she responded.
I felt a presence inside my head, one that talked in my own voice but was definitely not my own words.
“I like mouth-talking because it doesn’t make my brain hurt,” the invading voice said.
“What is going on?” I said. I was incredibly confused, alternating between talking and thinking.
The frowning lady returned with a small boy; I dismissed them – I had bigger things on my mind now. The lady dropped her hands in exasperation but I paid her no mind as she left. Anroma could read and respond to thoughts.
“So good news… bad news,” I panted after bursting into the interrogation hut, having sprinted from Anroma’s dorm. The room full of people turned to me. “Bad news, I couldn’t get any powers to manifest.” Ace frowned at this revelation. “But!” I held up my finger, my other hand still on my knee trying to catch my breath, “She’s psychic!”
“Is this a joke?” growled one of the elder men I didn’t recognize.
Acetate spoke up. “Unlikely. Jochro’s humor isn’t quite there yet. I’m working on developing it, yes, but not quite there yet.”
I continued, “I tried everything to entice a bolt of lightning or fireball from her, but nothing worked,” I gestured to the grumpy elder. “But then she started responding to my thoughts. That’s when I finally figured it out.” I left out the part where she had responded to my thoughts a few times before I noticed.
Acetate spoke up, “Okay Jochro, sit down before you pass out. As for the rest of you, this is twice good news. We can get the girl in here to read the toad’s mind and potentially get her to read the hybrids minds while they attack. I was hoping for some firepower from Anroma but if we can find somewhere safe to stash her, she can figure out their plan.” He looked around the room. With a variance in the level of reluctance, everyone nodded in agreement.
Acetate began walking out the room, “Come on Jochro, everyone else knows their part. Let’s get you and An in position.”
I followed Ace to the highest point in the settlement toward the tallest, almost- complete village building. We walked up the building’s four flights of steps, arriving to the balcony at the top which thankfully was complete. The view from the top included the marketplace in the north and the neighborhood of residences in the west and south. The marketplace was in disarray – half of the stalls were strewn around the main street. The few vendors that were selling today had long lines of villagers hoping to trade for food and drink. Two of three rows of huts were visible and unlike the current building I was standing on, these were made up of rows of single family homes. The Chief’s hut stood at the southern end of the furthest row.
“Where will we be putting the villagers who can’t fight?” I asked Ace.
“Probably in that last row,” he said while pointing near the Chief’s place. “So this is where you’ll be with An. Your first priority is to protect her, your second being the bow Hyde said you bought. Have you practiced with it yet?”
“A bit,” I embellished.
“Welp if we have time, feel free to practice,” he said, gulping in exaggeration. “Anyway, Anroma can and will read the incoming raiders’ minds – she will then relay it down to one of the messengers below.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
Ace tapped his scepter to the balcony and a faintly visible platform of air appeared. “Ready to go? We’ve got a toad to finish questioning.” He bumped me with his backside and I stumbled over the railing, landing on what felt like a large pillow. Although, that’s not to say I didn’t have time for a minor heart attack as I was going over the balcony.
He floated our cloud carriage down to Anroma’s home, dropping us off gently, much unlike his earlier entrance. We walked inside and noticed Anroma was laying on her cot, hands behind her head.
“I’m awake.” I felt flow through my head, jumping halfway out of my boots. I looked to Ace. He just grinned and shrugged. “You’re right… that is spooky.”
He then asked if she would be willing to come with us and listen in on the prisoner’s thoughts. She agreed, so the three of us walked to question the captured raider. I was disappointed we didn’t take the cloud again.
She and I followed Ace into the hut. He dismissed nearly everyone there; only Vaynen and two boys remained with us.
Anroma spoke, “That’s BenchGur.”
“Who?” Vaynen asked.
“Jochro was wondering how I spoke so well for a girl who had lived almost exclusively with hybrids. BenchGur is the one who taught me language.”
“Hybrids don’t talk, though,” said the taller of the two boys.
“I listened,” spoke the familiar voice in my head as Anroma pointed to her head. I guessed everyone got the same message. She continued aloud, “They don’t talk much, if at all… but they do think, just like me or you.”
“Do we even need to ask him anything? Is there anything worth knowing in his head?” I asked.
“They were planning on coming today when the sun is highest in the sky. But that was before I left,” she answered.
“Wait, why did you run from BenchGur last night if he was your teacher?” asked Vaynen.
“I said I listened and I learned – we never actually spoke,” she turned to Ace, “If that’s all, I’d like to go nap.”
Ace nodded and Anroma left.