Element of the Abstract: Chapter Fourteen
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Osryn was rudely awakened by the sound of violent bashing on the door to his room.
“Dad! Wake up! The day’s wasting away!”
Groggily, Osryn reached over to his side table for his glasses, but they were not there. Instead, he found them, miraculously undamaged, on the ground next to the bed. He must have fallen asleep with them on and knocked them off sometime during the night. The voice behind the door was Adelaide, and her fists banged away, echoing in Osryn’s unacclimated ears.
“Hold the ruckus, child!” Osryn growled, and the banging ceased. “All hells, must you be so loud?”
“You missed breakfast, father! Hurry up. We’re hitting the road in fifteen minutes.”
Her footsteps began and just as quickly receded. Osryn groaned and pulled himself and his possessions together as quickly as he could manage. When he was ready, he walked downstairs and passed through the tavern hall, where Mariah was wiping down tables.
“Oh, Osryn!” She flagged him down and he stopped, furrowing his brow.
“You mean me?” Osryn asked.
“Well, you’s Osryn, right?” Mariah’s eyes widened. “Maybe I forgot…”
“N- No, I mean. Yes, I am Osryn. I’m just surprised you remembered my name.”
Mariah laughed and rolled her eyes, pulling a card out of her apron pocket and putting it in Osryn’s palm, locking eyes with him and folding his fingers over it. “Take this, hey? Mail me if you need.”
Osryn looked at the card–– it read, ‘Screeching Leech: Innkeep/Barkeep. Antozen. Postal Code 67249’ He blinked, nodded, and wordlessly exited the establishment. He still hadn’t even processed the interaction when Adelaide scoffed at the sight of him.
“About time!” She groaned, grimacing as she looked over her father. “You look horrid. How much did you drink last night?”
“Enough,” Osryn muttered, glancing at Urta, who was irritatingly well put-together and had color in his face. How did he do it? They’d drunk the same amount. Sebastian was giving him that judgy teenager look he so despised and Osryn sighed, adjusting his pack. “Well, shall we get on with it? You’ve complained enough about the wait.”
The road opposite the way they came was much more of the same for some time. They passed low wet areas, higher sparse ones, every once in a while a small pond or stream. Most of these low water bodies were full of moss and algal blooms, and as the temperatures warmed with their proximity to Solelio, the last few mosquitos of the season buzzed around but did not bother them. A few miles down the road, where a dirt path forked off into the woods, Urta stopped and glanced around the area, checking his map and compass. Eventually, he nodded to himself and addressed the travelers.
“West through these woods should get us to Solelio quickly and unbothered. I think it’s best we avoid human contact as much as possible. After all, it’s best if you both are at your peak fighting ability. You never know when we may be attacked by more Insectera.”
“Can’t you just sound the alarm?” Osyrn said drily. “Call up your master and tell her to hold off on all the violence?”
Urta shook his head. “As I have said, she does not wish to disclose the details of my mission to the others.”
”Wait,” Sebastian said, “I thought you said the other Urtas were stupid or something? Would they know? Would they care?”
“Well… for the most part, no. The drone-line fighters we see in the field tend to skew lower in intelligence, but there are others closer to my levels of speech ability and intellect. It varies. Some are also more obedient to my master than others… I believe she seeks to prevent an insurgence.”
“Trouble in the ranks?”
“Something like that.”
The twins shed their disguises and Sebastian blinked repeatedly, rubbing his eyes. It had been a while since he’d last seen daylight, even the dim, grey daylight of Mistlorn Valley, and Adelaide stretched her four arms freely, tossing her staff between the two lateral pairs. Both children seemed far more energetic than Osryn was.
Urta led the way again, and as they followed him through the woods past more boglands, the swamps slowly became smaller and smaller until there were none around at all. They were coming around the north side of Mount Astella now, and the climate was changing rapidly. The travelers quickly found themselves growing hot under the warming sun and were beginning to shed layers, shoving what they could into their packs and carrying the rest. Even Adelaide’s knit sweater was far too heavy, now. Urta smirked a little as Sebastian pulled at his collar and attempted to air out the sweat from beneath his shirt. He gestured to a stone bridge in front of them, crossing a small stream. It had a carved wooden sign that said, in an impressive script, “Entering Sole Valley.”
“We’re coming to the end of Mistlorn Valley, friends… can you believe it?”
“Hardly…” Adelaide gazed around her. Where the woods had been interspersed with swampland and rocky gulleys, by now it had been mostly replaced with grassy pastures, trees and bushes, and bright light filtered through the leaves. Neither of the twins had ever seen sunlight so bright and unhindered by clouds–– even on the brightest July days. Osryn too was rather taken aback by the light levels; he had lived in Lunora his entire life, and had rarely, if ever, traveled out of Mistlorn Valley. He thought he could recall a time where Daniela took him camping on the sunny side of the range, but that was all.
They continued along the same path for quite some time. As they traveled, with the increasing diversity of plant life, the insect activity increased until all they could hear was a buzz all around them. Warmer temperatures meant more insects, after all, and it was starting to feel like summer in the middle of November. Osryn could hardly believe it, but summers were even hotter around Solelio.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of rustling in the underbrush. A familiar clicking and hissing could be heard from in the lush woodlands. Everyone readied their weapons. The enemies were not being particularly stealthy.
“About time some more of you came around,” Sebastian was able to lock eyes with an enemy Urta beyond a nearby bush. It had more eyes than Sebastian did–– two compound ones where insect eyes normally are, and a spray of simple ones across the front of its face. Before anyone could get another pre-battle quip out, the Urtas leapt out of the brush. Immediately, one attempted to pierce through Adelaide, but she deflected it with her staff. There was no mist hanging on the air anymore to assist with her levitation staff, so she stuck to handling the staff with her arms to conserve energy.
The Urta Sebastian had taunted with his eyes had lurched at him, but Sebastian side-stepped. He held off on attacking, instead letting the Urta keep trying to land a blow and dodging every one. The creature became frustrated and its antennae twitched. Sebastian dodged one last attack before harnessing his electric energy and shooting a thin bolt directly into the Urta’s eye. It collapsed backwards but was not defeated, but Sebastian wasn’t done. He aimed similar small lightning attacks at each of the mutant’s many eyes. It stopped moving after Sebastian shot the third of its eyes, but he didn’t stop until every eye was blasted through.
Osryn had been watching this out of the corner of his eye while sparring with an Urta of his own, which was proving to be rather resistant to plasma due to its waxy exoskeleton. Eventually, though, Osryn was able to penetrate its flesh through a crack under one of its three wings. Osryn was particularly struck in that moment by just how strange the Urtas all looked. Not only did they exhibit features natural to insects in the wild, but odd deformities as well. Excess eyes and appendages, warped or malformed heads or exoskeletons. It was a good thing he still didn’t quite trust the Urta that had made himself their guide, because he didn’t hesitate at all to deal the final blow to the Urta that stood before him now. It fell to the ground dead and moments later, as Osryn caught his breath, Adelaide took down hers and Urta ended another.
In total, it appeared there had only been four enemy Urtas. Osryn was surprised that Urta had been willing to kill them, knowing what he now knew, based on talk of insurgence, Osryn gathered it was not all fun and games between them all. Perhaps this was indication of Urta’s trustworthiness–– perhaps it was an elaborate ruse. Sebastian kicked the corpse of the Urta he had blinded to death and smirked. When he turned his head and noticed his father staring at him, his smirk faded into a grimace. He drily asked, “What? The thing deserved it…”
“It’s a little overkill, don’t you think?” Osryn ventured.
Sebastian pretended to think it over. “Hmm… No.”
Adelaide and Urta walked over from where they had felled their enemies and glanced at the corpse Sebastian had left. Adelaide wrinkled her face up.
“Ew, Sebastian. Again, really? With the eyes?”
Shrugging, Sebastian, tapped his fingers on his wand. “It’s symbolic. Blinding the eyes that let me see.”
Osryn narrowed his eyes, not exactly following the teenage metaphor, but it was Urta’s nonchalant reaction that was truly baffling him. He adjusted his glasses and itched absently at his beard.
“Urta, tell me… doesn’t it tear you apart to murder your own bretheren?” Osryn asked. “I mean, how do you live with yourself?”
Urta kept staring at the dead Urta for some time, then sighed, turning his head towards Osryn. Osryn was startled by just how deadpan he seemed.
“I don’t lose sleep over killing them,” Urta said. “They’ve never really been my brothers.”
Osryn sighed, not wanting to push the issue further, though he was overflowing with curiosities. Who was this master of his? What, truly, was the difference between Urta and ‘the Urtas.’ He supposed it didn’t matter really. After all, when he said it out loud, they sounded the same.
It seemed as if Urta had read Osryn’s mind when he said, “Urta is more of a rank, than a name… Urta is the name we were all given. It is not an indication of anything other than loyalty.”
“To your master,” Osryn assumed.
“Yes.” Urta stayed silent for another moment. “To be Urta is to be loyal. It does not mean anything else… I gain nothing by being Urta, I lose nothing by killing Urta.”
“If you gain nothing out of being Urta,” Osryn muttered, somewhat confused, “then why don’t you have us call you something else?”
Urta’s eyes flashed, like he’d never even considered the notion. He was quiet for some time before responding.
“There is nothing else.”
They continued on for quite some time, Osryn mulling over it all. He didn’t want to distrust Urta as much as he did, he just cared deeply about his children. . The forest was filled with the sound of buzzing insect life, and Osryn did not notice the rustling of leaves as someone trailed along behind them. Sebastian picked up on it just in time to whirl around and yell, “Who goes there?”
It was too late. A gunshot rang out right as his words did, and before anyone could even process the fact they had been shot at, Adelaide was screaming out in pain and clutching at her shoulder. Sebastian’s attention was immediately on her and he rushed to her side, murmuring panicked reassurances as she gasped and cried. He let her lean against him and pulled her quickly behind a tree, where he hurried to channel his healing magic into her. Osryn and Urta were on the defensive, weapons raised and pointed in the direction the shot had come from. Though, Osryn supposed, to a stranger unfamiliar with his sorcery, he might appear unarmed.
It seemed as though they were in a standoff with a disheveled old man wearing a hunting cap. His face was scrunched up in disgust from behind the barrel of his rifle, which was pointed directly at Urta. “Drop your weapon, boy. I don’ wanna have to kill ya if I don’ have to.”
“Nice try, but that’s not going to happen,” Urta said simply, cocking the handgun. “You shot a companion of mine.”
“What is your damage?” Osryn growled, not quite as eager to keep calm in the face of an attack against his daughter. “We are merely travelers, passing through.”
“You blind, man?” The man with the gun asked incredulously. “Your lil’ companion ain’t human… the other one too. I saw them eyes...”
“They’re with us,” Urta said, maintaining a steady gaze on the man. “If that is a problem for you, I suggest you keep moving and leave us be.”
The man only laughed at that. “Like I said, I don’ wanna hurt you. You’re probably nice folk and all that… but we don’ tolerate the likes of that around here.”
Osryn bit his tongue. He wanted to tell this man that that which he referred to was in fact his daughter, and to shove his head somewhere unpleasant, but he knew that would only compromise them even more. He cast a panicked glance at Adelaide, who was resting her head on the tree as Sebastian worked at healing her. It did seem, based on her expression, that she was not in any grave danger.
It was Urta who seemed to know better what to say. “Listen, my guy–– I understand you’re afraid, but we are of no threat to you and your people unless you continue to be a threat to us. We are simply trying to pass through.”
“Were those demons just tryna pass through when they climbed my fence and attacked my son?” The man scoffed. “Everybody knows about the things that have been infesting this valley, and the one that took my boy had arms just like that girl of yours… if you can even call it that. Ain’t no provin’ you’re not on their side, I reckon. Now, let me take care of ‘em or I’ll take you out first.”
“I would highly advise against that,” Urta warned, holding his firearm steady.
Osryn was beginning to understand why Urta did not hesitate to kill others of his own kind. Never had Osryn wanted to kill another human being as badly as he did right now. It was dawning on him how narrow of a lens he had been viewing it all from. Urta was not the same as anyone of his species, just as Osryn was not the same as any old human.
“I’m givin’ ya one last warning, folks,” the man yelled, aiming his rifle at Urta’s head. “Leave now and I won’t have to kill ya. Stay and you’re just in my way.”
Urta shrugged. “Guess I’m in your way, then.”
Osryn didn’t think he’d actually shoot, but sure enough a bullet whizzed past Urta’s head, nicking him in the ear. It was a good thing, both for Urta and for Adelaide, that this stranger was not a particularly good shot. Urta doubled over and Osryn readied a quick plasma orb, sending it directly into the rifleman’s leg. The man stumbled to the ground and lost his grip on his gun, which Osryn hastily kicked out of his reach. Osryn readied two larger, stronger plasma orbs in each hand and stood over the man. The stranger, clutching at his leg where a hole had been seared through his trouser leg to reveal seared skin, looked at Osryn and the magical weapon he wielded.
“You!” The man growled through gritted teeth. “You're just as much a monster as the rest of ‘em! You’ll all burn when the solar flares come to scorch the sinners! Just you wait!”
“Oh? Who is burned right now?” Osryn asked calmly, but the man just kept ranting and raving about how they would all pay for wronging him. Osryn ignored him and turned to Urta, who had managed to right himself and was holding a spare shirt to the side of his head in an attempt to stop the bleeding of his nicked ear. Human blood, Osryn noticed–– oh, how he wanted to get a closer look at that transformation crystal of his.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, he barely grazed me. Hurts like a menace, though.” Urta grimaced and walked up to Osryn, still holding his gun in his other hand. “You go check on your daughter, I’ll watch this idiot.”
Osryn nodded his thanks and went to where his children were. Now leaned against the tree and Adelaide’s shoulder, Sebastian had all his eyes closed in recuperation from the intensive healing he’d just performed. Adelaide seemed weary, but her shoulder looked good as new apart from the bloody hole in her blouse. Their blood, Osryn had noticed, was of a thicker viscosity and with darker greenish undertones than pure human blood.
“I’m alright,” Adelaide assured Osryn when she saw him, but there was fear behind her eyes. “That was a close one… but I’m alright.”
Sebastian blinked his eyes open and looked at his father. “It shouldn’t have been a close one.”
“You’re right. We should have been more careful. It was lucky that we didn’t encounter anyone out here before now.”
“We shouldn’t have to need luck just to avoid getting killed.” Sebastian stretched his weary bones and, despite seeming a little off-balance, rose to his feet. He scanned his eyes around the vicinity until they landed on the human. Osryn saw where this was going before it even went there.
Sebastian ignored him and went straight for the human, kicking him in the injured leg and hissing down at him, “Who are you to call us monsters when you’re the one who tried to kill us? Tell me. Who are you to cast celestial judgment? The sun and moon shine upon us all!”
“You mutants are dangerous!” The man spat, eyes still glinting with rage and hatred, even though he was defeated. “I’d do it again.”
“Yeah?” Sebastian chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, my reputation’s already beyond repair. I may as well live up to it.”
“What are you doing?” Urta gasped as Sebastian let a current of electricity flow between his hands, charging a good shot.
“Taking out the trash.”
“Kid, you’re being crazy.” Urta’s voice wavered.
“We’re all just stardust, you know?” Sebastian said. “Me, you, a bug… why should it matter who lives and who dies?”
“Son, stop that nonsense.” Osryn spoke with authority, but he felt with harrowing truth that he had no control over the situation. “We’ll knock him out and disappear before he can follow us.”
“He shot Adelaide!” Sebastian yelled, wobbling with the strain of channeling his magic when he was still so weak from healing. “I have to kill him.”
“You don’t have to kill anyone!” It was Adelaide who spoke now, having risen from her resting spot to try and talk down her brother. “Sebastian, please. I’m alright. You don’t have to avenge me like that. He shot me, dad shot him. We’re even.”
“Even isn’t good enough.” Sebastian didn’t look at anyone but the man below him. “The world is better off without people like him.”
“Are you stupid?” Adelaide shook her head and put two hands on Sebastian’s shoulder. “Not stooping down to the level of the enemy is like, rule one of moral superiority.”
“Our morals aren’t the same as theirs,” Sebastian insisted, shaking her hand off. “He’s right about one thing; we aren’t human. But he’s the one who’s going to burn––”
“Sebastian! Please!” Adelaide’s voice rose to a pleading tone and it struck Sebastian at once that perhaps this wasn’t just about him and how he felt. With a hesitant glance from side to side at his companions, Sebastian allowed the current pulsing through his fingertips to dissipate. With a huff, Sebastian turned away and crossed his arms. It was obvious he didn’t want to confront the situation, but he couldn’t hide the fact that he was trembling.
The man on the ground started cackling, feeling like he’d won, and Adelaide unceremoniously cracked him in the head with her staff. She winced as he fell to the ground, unconscious.
“Was that too hard?”
Urta shook his head, finally able to engage the safety on his handgun and slide it into his holster. “He’ll be fine. How do you feel, Adelaide? Are you alright to move on?”
Adelaide shrugged, still staring down at the human’s motionless form. “Physically, I’m fine. Sebastian’s magic is powerful… but I’m shaken, if I’m being honest. I never realized just how thoughtlessly cruel people would be to us just for looking different.”
Urta nodded, looking her in the eyes. “It’s an unfortunate reality.
“We should get going if we want to make it to Solelio by sundown,” Osryn said. “Sebastian, I’m proud of you for using restraint.”
Sebastian’s eyes flickered towards Osryn, then away. Osryn scoffed silently. He had thought that compliment was so good, so unprompted. He totally could have scolded him right then, but he chose praise! Shame overtook him, however, when he remembered that parenting was not a game to be won. Urta led the group onwards and Adelaide clung like a small child to the sleeve of Osryn’s shirt. He turned to see her gazing sadly up at him.
“I’m sorry I was always so mean to you, father.” Adelaide said softly. “About keeping us hidden away, I mean… I think I understand why now.”
“That’s alright, darling,” Osryn told her, putting his arm around both her and Sebastian as they walked. “It was never your job to understand. It’s always just been my job to protect you.”
Adelaide leaned her head against her father’s shoulder for a few moments, but Sebastian shook Osryn’s arm away, charging forward and following Urta into the unknown.
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Insectera Book Two: Matters of the Heart, coming... eventually.
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