“What do you mean, what are we gonna do about it?” Isaac demanded fifteen minutes later, once he and the others had caught up and we’d had a chance to explain the situation. Looking around at all of us, the boy added, “I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong. Sucks for them. But there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how much this isn’t our problem.”
Sands gave him a thoroughly disgusted look at that. “Oh, right, real empathetic there, Isaac.”
“It’s not about being empathetic,” the boy shot back. “It’s about being realistic. Look, the only reason those Seosten freaks haven’t dropped an entire army on top of us already is that they don’t know we’re here, right? We’re alive and free because they have no idea where we are. We try to get involved in this and how do you think it’ll go? Cuz I can tell you. The skies will open up and they will drop a veritable shit-ton of troops down on our heads. And they won’t stop coming after us until we’re either dead, or their obedient little puppet-slaves. I told you, I feel for the guy. But if we get involved, we won’t be helping anyone. We’ll just be a bunch of meatsuit puppets.”
Sighing under my breath, I looked over to where the chameleon-guy was. He’d pushed his back up against the nearby tree, and his eyes were darting around fearfully as he watched our every move. So far, he hadn’t reacted to anything we said, so I was pretty sure he didn’t understand English. Which was just going to end up making this even more complicated than it already was.
Roxa spoke up, having moved away to transform back into her human self. “So we just, what, ignore the guy? Walk away from him and pretend we never saw him? Is that what you suggest?”
“Well, we can’t exactly do that either, can we?” Isaac pointed out then. “He runs out of here, and you really think he won’t sell us out to the first Seosten guard he sees to save his own skin?”
Roxa’s retort was sharp as her eyes blazed at that. “So what, you wanna take him prisoner? Or did you want to do something else, Isaac, something a little more permanent than that, maybe?”
“Look, you can take him prisoner if you want,” the boy quickly replied while shaking his head. “I’m not some bloodthirsty monster, I’m being pragmatic. If we get involved, we are all going to die or be enslaved. If we let him go and he tells them where we’re hiding, we are all going to die or be enslaved. Do you want that to happen? Because I don’t. I like myself in charge of myself.”
Roxa gave him a dirty look. “But you’re fine with just leaving a bunch of innocent people out there to be enslaved and experimented on, as long as it’s not you? That’s just fucking swell?”
“I never said it was swell!” he retorted. “I said we couldn’t do anything about it. I told you, if we get involved, we’ll save maybe a few of them, and then the Seosten will drop down on us with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone we saved will be dead or enslaved again, and so will we. You really wanna risk your life just to get these people a few fucking minutes of freedom?”
Taking a step that way, Roxa spoke in a low, yet powerful voice as she met the boy’s gaze. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you. I would risk my life to give one person one minute of freedom. And then I’d do it again for another minute. And again for another minute. I would put my life on the line every second, every minute, every hour of every single goddamn day if it gave one of these innocent people the freedom that they deserve for as long as I managed to survive. So, you wanna know if I’d really risk my life to save them right now? Fuck yes.”
Isaac started to say something then, but was interrupted as Jazz moved past him. She was stepping over by the terrified Alter. Seeing her moving that way, I almost moved to intercept her.
Wait, don’t. Tabbris’s voice in my head cut in. She sounded hesitant. I don’t think she’s um… y-you know, I don’t think she’s gonna do anything bad. We should give her a chance.
I wasn’t sure about that, but I listened to my partner. Still, I kept a close, wary eye on the girl. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roxa doing the same. She looked tense, squinting that way.
By that point, Jazz had taken a knee in front of the man. He was busy trying to push himself back even further into the tree. I was pretty sure he would’ve phased through it if he could have. As it was, he stared at the girl in front of him as if she was a snake that had coiled up and started hissing. The poor guy wasn’t just afraid of us, he was pretty much completely petrified.
“He could be lying.” Jazz’s voice was soft, hesitant. She sounded like she knew this wasn’t going to go over well at all, but still had to say it. “It could be a trap, you know? What if they sent a bunch of these… people out to all these different areas with some sob story to trick us into going where they can grab us, just because they know that you guys think they’re innocent?”
I could see Roxa gearing up again, but before she could launch into another tirade, I stepped that way to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I muttered before looking to Jazz. “Just go with me on this. For right now, pretend he’s telling the truth. Just pretend you believe him, hypothetically. If he was telling the truth, and this isn’t some kind of trap, then what do you think we should do?”
Jazz’s mouth opened and shut. I saw the conflict in her eyes before her head shook. “If it wasn’t a trap? I mean, if it’s not a trap? That’s not–I mean… I mean there isn’t any way to know if it’s–”
“Hypothetically, Jazz,” I cut in. “You can do that much, can’t you? If there was a way to be absolutely certain that this isn’t a trap, then what would you choose? Isaac says it’s too dangerous. Roxa says she wants to go in and try anyway. But I wanna know what you say.”
Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, and she made a noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes darted to the man, back to me, then to the man again while she swallowed. “I… I don’t… I don’t know,” she finally managed while shaking her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just–I just don’t know, okay? I…He’s not, he’s not what I…” Turning back to him, she stared openly while he cringed and whimpered, clearly having absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Hell, he probably thought we were discussing which one of us would get to kill him. Or worse.
After staring at that whimpering, terrified figure for a few long seconds, Jazz finally spoke again. Her soft, weak voice was barely audible, even as close as I was. “He’s not what I expected.”
Sands spoke before Roxa or I could. “You expected a monster.” Stepping over, she gave the Alter a brief look before focusing on the girl herself. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to slay monsters and demons. That’s what we grew up learning about. That’s what they told us, that we were the last line of defense against some unrelenting horde of evil creatures, that we were going to save the innocents. We were supposed to be heroes.”
She took a step back, giving a slightly bitter smile as her head shook slowly. “Well, you know what? I’m pretty sure that being a hero is about doing the right thing.” Her eyes flicked toward Isaac. “No matter how dangerous it is.” Then she looked to Jazz. “No matter how hard it is.”
I nodded, biting my lip before the words came, almost of their own volition. “Maybe fuck Crossroads,” I announced, drawing everyone’s attention. “Maybe fuck our teachers. Maybe fuck everyone who ever said how this was supposed to go. Maybe right now, right here is where we decide what we’re going to do. Maybe right now is when we decide who we are. Maybe right now is when we decide what the right thing is for us. No teachers. No rules. No training wheels or safety lines. Nobody’s looking over our shoulders and nobody’s going to tell you what to do. I’m certainly not. It’s your choice. You decide. There’s a bunch of people out there who are being tortured, enslaved, worked to death or experimented on until they just wish they were dead.
“But Isaac’s right,” I continued slowly, purposefully. “If we let them know that we’re still around, things are gonna get bad. They will come after us and it will not be fun. We might lose. We might die. We might end up in just as bad a situation as the people that we’re trying to help are in. Maybe even worse. So you guys tell me, what is the right thing to do in that situation? We can keep hiding, and let these people suffer. Or we can step out and do something about it.”
Roxa was the first one to speak after I had finished, her voice firm. “Do something about it.”
Sands was already nodding, fists clenched tightly as she agreed, “Do something about it.”
Jazz let out a long, low sigh then. She was still looking at the ground, fists pressed against the dirt as she hung her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I feel about… about any of this. I want to–I…” Her head shook, and she repeated, “I don’t know. But I…” Finally, she lifted her head to look at at Roxa. “I do know that I’m not going to let you go into something dangerous like that without me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but if you’re going, I’m going.”
“Well shit.” Isaac mumbled under his breath. He lifted his gaze to the sky while muttering something inaudible, then heaved a long, heavy sigh. “What the hell. You all wanna be suicidal, I guess I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? I’m screwed if I just stay out here on my own, and there’s no way dear old roomie’s gonna leave you all flapping in the breeze.” He was obviously trying to sound light, but I could see that the boy wasn’t happy about this whole thing.
Smiling faintly then, Roxa looked over at me. “I guess, aside from Gordon, that just leaves you, technically.” Her chin lifted a little as she gave me a significant look before slowly asking, “What do you say?”
Except she wasn’t just talking to me, I realized. Roxa knew that there were technically two votes right here. That’s why she was making a point of the question. How about it, partner? I asked inwardly. This puts you in danger too. Maybe more than us. If they figure out that you’re here…
In Tabbris’s case, there was no hesitation at all. They’re all in trouble. We can help them.
“I guess that settles it then,” I announced out loud, trying to smile encouragingly even as my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest at the very idea of what we were about to attempt.
“Unless Gordon has some really convincing argument, we’re doing this.”
“Yeah, you know what?” Isaac announced then. “Call me crazy, but something tells me that Captain Logical isn’t gonna be so logical when it comes to this. It’s just a feeling.”
I didn’t know if he was right or not. Gordon did tend to be logical about everything. But then again, he’d been acting a little differently now and then, whenever the subject of the Seosten conspiracy about Alters came up. Maybe he was like Sands, pissed off that he’d been lied to for so long. Or maybe it was something more than that. I just didn’t know.
But something told me, whatever his deal was, it would come up before this field trip was over.
It took some convincing to get our new chameleon-like friend to come with us. We had to convince him that we weren’t just marching him back to Radueriel. Or rather, Tabbris did. She used my voice, carefully telling the man that we weren’t possessed, and we weren’t part of Seosten military. She/I told him we were going to help, but he had to get back to our camp.
So we stopped by to grab the two pantlers that we’d managed to kill, and Roxa and I each dragged one while the others kept their eyes open for anything bad.
Gordon was already standing at the base of the tree when we arrived. Clearly he’d seen us coming and climbed down to meet us. As we approached, the dark-skinned boy stepped out, keeping his voice low and even as he looked straight at our companion. “Who’s this?”
“It’s–” I paused, squinting before looking toward the man. His eyes were darting around constantly, watching for any kind of attack. Any time one of us spoke, he flinched noticeably like he expected to be hit. Or worse. The poor guy was still completely pants-wettingly terrified of us.
Could you ask him what his name is? I sent inwardly. Anything we’re supposed to call him.
My mouth moved then, as Tabbris spoke through me. Just like when we had been speaking in front of the others aside from Roxa, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, taking a few seconds now and then as if thinking about the right word. She didn’t have to, obviously. But it would be more convincing that it was actually me talking if I wasn’t rattling it off like it was my first language.
Still, after only about a sentence or so into it, Isaac interrupted. “Hey, how do you even know how to speak this gibberish anyway? That something you learned from that Prosser guy too?”
Before I could reply, Gordon actually spoke up. “It’s just Latin,” he announced flatly. “She’s better at it than me, but I can follow some of it, enough words here and there to get the basic gist.”
“Why do they speak La–” Jazz started, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”
Biting my lip, I turned my attention back to the Alter, urging Tabbris to go on. She did, apparently asking the man what his name was as gently as possible, trying not to scare him even more.
His eyes darted back and forth between us. I could tell that he was trying to decide whether giving us that much information was a good idea or not. Finally, he either realized that we weren’t going to do anything bad with it, or figured that we’d hurt him more if he didn’t talk. He started to hesitantly speak, his voice so quiet that I had to lean in closer to hear him better. Which, of course, made him stutter more, head ducking as if I was about to literally eat him.
Jokai, Tabbris announced. He says his name is Jokai. But I think he’s afraid that we’re gonna… um, take his name and use it to find everyone he cares about and… you know, make an example out of them. I tried to tell him that it’s safe, but he’s–um. They’ve been tricked before. That’s kind of the whole Seosten thing. I could hear the disgust in her voice. That’s how they um, how they stop rebellions before they get off the ground. They possess people and infiltrate the slave camps, find out who’s talking about rebelling and… and make examples out of them.
Okay, I was wrong. Apparently I could feel worse about this whole situation. Biting my lip and trying not to sigh too much, I looked back to the others. “His name is Jokai.” For Gordon, I went on to tell him the rest of it, that Jokai came from a slave labor camp, that he had run away and we’d… found him. Then I told him about the conversation we’d had before coming back here.
“So uh, that’s what we’re up to,” I finally finished with a little shrug. “That leaves it up to you. I mean, I’m sure Isaac would stay with you if you guys wanna sit this out. He didn’t want to be by himself, but if you…” Biting my lip, I trailed off and just looked to him. “It’s up to you. In or out?”
Gordon wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were on the trembling Alter, something utterly unreadable on his face. He stayed like that for a few seconds before lifting his chin and exhaling. When he finally spoke, it was obviously through a thick lump in his throat. “In.”
“That’s all of us.” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the Alter, Jokai. Tell him we’re gonna help get his people out of the prison camp. Or try to, at least.
Once more, my lips moved as the Seosten girl took over briefly. There was a short back and forth between ‘me’ and Jokai, and the more ‘I’ said, the more confused he looked. He kept repeating a phrase that I took to essentially mean, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’
Finally, however, he reached out to clutch my arm, all four of his eyes widening as he blurted a single word: sacramentum. His voice was a shaky, desperate plea, as if he was both afraid and ashamed that he was actually starting to believe any of this, but couldn’t help himself.
He’s asking if you promise, Tabbris informed me quietly. Actually, it’s more like he’s asking if you swear that you’re telling the truth, that you’re going to try. It’s an oath.
I relayed that to the others. While Isaac rolled his eyes and Jazz looked uncertain, Gordon was already nodding. “Vero,” he announced after considering his words briefly. “Sacramentum.”
After watching the others briefly, I nodded to our new friend. “Sacramentum. We’ll help your people, Jokai.