It's finally here. First of all, let me apologise for the lateness. But to prove to you that I am committed, I'm uploading this at 1AM. Also, since it's been so long since my last post on this story, everyone has probably forgotten what happened last. I urge you all to go and read the prologue here. All right, story time:
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Light, then darkness, then light. Lexus stood in a trance.
His mind floated through space. Struggling to separate fantasy from reality, he could not see the starless night before him. For a time he dreamed, remembering another dream – one from a thousand years ago. In his mind's eye he saw himself tossing and turning upon a cold stone floor. There had been a cell … and a guard … and whiteness, pure whiteness. The maze of corridors had stunk of fear and death. A prison.
But then he woke. In an instant he seemed to come alive, and he sucked air into his lungs. The cold wind rushed against his naked body and he felt it from the first time in minutes, causing him to rub his arms and chest. A little warmth seeped into his veins. As if a film had been had lifted from his eyes, he suddenly became aware of the night and his eyes darted around without restraint.
Where was he now? Not a prison, no. Lexus stood at the mouth of a cave, which opened halfway up a cliff-face. He looked down, but in the darkness he could not make out any detail of what was below him, or how far away it was. He shuffled his feet on the dusty ground, feeling the dirt slip between his toes. He exhaled, long and hard, and upturned his head to the heavens. His eyes were wide, but the darkness did not fade.
Where am I? he thought, a whisper in the cacophony of his mind, filled with racing thoughts and fears. He struggled to remember from his dream. Glowing walls … screams … judgement. Then it all flooded back.
“Jaroka,” he whispered, his voice lost in the howling of the wind. “Exile.”
The morning came with fire. As the red sun rose, a deep orange light was cast over Jaroka.
Lexus sat with his legs hanging over the side over the ledge onto which the cave opened. As light flooded the world, he observed the forest below him. It was at least three-hundred feet down, and it seemed to be teeming with life. Strange bird calls echoed through the trees, and several times he caught a glimpse of sharp movement – then it was gone. The jungle extended as far as he could see north, and it stopped at the sea to the south. In the distant east was a range of large hills which the forest also pressed against, and at their feet Lexus could only just make out the faint cluster of brown buildings. A city: civilisation.
If there had not been so clear a sign, he would already have left for the city. But as he sat, he turned a white gem over in his hands. The jewel was as large as his fist, and he had found it at the back of the cave during his sleepless night. When he had picked it up, it had impressed five words on his mind: Avoid the city – go south.
Now Lexus sat deep in thought and looked out towards the distant sea, wondering whether he was simply being superstitious. Somehow he didn't think so – the words reverberated in his head even now as he held the gem. He wasn't sure how it was able to communicate with him or who had enabled it to do so, but it seemed not a thing to ignore. Perhaps if I go south, he thought, I'll find whoever left this here for me … assuming that it was meant for me. A flicker of peace ran through him for the first time since entering Jaroka, and he realised that he was decided.
Without venturing too far in for fear of what might lurk there, Lexus quickly scouted the cave again for provisions, but found nothing. Then he left, making his way down a rocky path to the forest floor.
It was not long before Lexus reached the bottom.
He stood in a clearing of the forest, surrounded by a band of men dressed in black robes. Their faces were hidden by hoods, and at the sides were weapons so old that they had not been used on Earth for centuries: swords, bows and maces. The man in front of him, who Lexus guessed was the leader of the band due to his commanding voice and his golden medallion, held a knife just inches from his throat.
“Who are you?” the man asked.
Lexus shuddered and looked over his shoulder at the path he had just come from. Dead bodies lay haphazardly there, most of them unclothed as he was.
“Who are you!” the man demanded again.
Lexus's head snapped towards the leader of the band, and he whispered his name, looking deep into the man's eyes.
Suddenly, the man gasped and staggered backwards. Another man stepped forward in concern. “What is it, master?”
The strange man came clutched his chest for a moment, then returned to his usual self. “Nothing, nothing.” He thought for a moment. “Lexus Connor. … That name seems somewhat familiar. …” He then turned to the man behind him and whispered something in his ear.
“But nothing. See that it's done.” The leader of the group turned to Lexus again. “My true name I will not say, but you may call me Kilea – it is what the others sometimes call me. Now come, you will stay with us. You need food and shelter. And clothes.” To the others he called, “Bring the bodies! Let us return to camp!”
With that Kilea turned and briskly headed back into the forest, the tail of his robe flapping behind him, while the rest of the company gathered the dead. He pressed through the forest with ease, while Lexus stumbled over every root and mound – he obviously knew the paths well.
As Lexus struggled to keep up, he asked, “You killed them, didn't you?”
Kilea remained impassive. “Yes.”
A laugh. “You will see.”
“Why did you spare me?”
The man stopped, and there was silence. He glanced back over his shoulder at Lexus, mystery in his eyes, then looked away. “Because you hold the answers to all I seek.” Then he set off again. “Hurry!”
Lexus pushed through the trees and shrubbery after him, questions filling his mind. Each time he tried to speak, he was cut off and bidden to be silent. I could decide not to follow him, Lexus thought. These men are dangerous for sure, and, after all, he isn't even trying to keep me within sight. He considered it, but then brushed aside the notion. There was to many questions to be answered.
Suddenly, he came to a stop behind Kilea, who was standing at the edge of a large, deep pool. At one end of it was a waterfall, and at the other, the water was released gushing into a stream. Lexus studied the clear water for a moment, dipped his toes in, then jerked them out. It was icy cold.
Kilea man turned to him and drew a shining gold ball from one of the pockets of his robe. It looked to be about half the size of a golf ball. Despite the size difference, it reminded Lexus of the white gem he had found the night before; and all of a sudden he realised he had left the gem in the cave. “Put out your hand,” said Kilea. Lexus hesitated, then held his hand out and allowed the man to place the ball on his palm. “This device will keep you to your word. Now say after me: 'I swear to never reveal this location to others, and I shall be loyal to only the Sakura Clan.'”
After a flicker of indecision, he repeated the words.
“Good,” said Kilea with a smile. “Now, follow me.” With a grunt the man dived into the pool at its deepest end. Lexus groaned, dreading the cold, but seemed driven to do as the man said. With his head down and arms outstretched, he threw himself against the water, plunging deep. The freezing water broke against his mind, and for a moment he hung suspended. Then the skin around his bones seem to tighten, and he caught sight of a flapping black robe which was disappearing through a tunnel. He rubbed his arms and chest to no avail, then made for the hole through which Kilea had passed. After Lexus had entered the tunnel, he swam for several more seconds before suddenly there was an opening above him. Just as his lungs began to scream, he came up above the surface and gasped for air.
Lexus blinked the water from his eyes and looked up. Kilea was standing before him, completely dry and still dressed in his black robe. The man held out his hand from Lexus to grasp, then pulled him up.
“Welcome to the home of the Sakura Clan,” he said. Lexus stood and took in the room. They were in a large cavern lit by torches, although it was still rather dark, so it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The place stunk of rot and mold, and it was bare save for a set of chair at the north end. At the east end was an unlit corridor that delved deep into the unknown.
“I once lived in a prison.” said Lexus. “It looked a lot like this.”
Kilea ignored the comment. Fetching Lexus a towel and a set of clothes including a brown robe, he said, “There will be food in a few hours. As for water, the pool outside is clean.”
Lexus donned the garments and examined himself. “This is the first time I've ever worn a robe,” he said.
Kilea drew up two chairs and invited Lexus to sit with him. “Have you walked naked all your life?”
“No,” snapped Lexus. “I wore jeans.”
The man cocked his head, as if he didn't understand, then opted to change the subject by asking, “What foul deed put you in jail?” When he received only a piercing glare in response, Kilea leaned forward in his chair and said, “Lexus, I apologise. It is none of my concern. For now I suppose I must tell you why you are here. You're are here to help me, and to provide answers.”
“And what could I possibly help you with? I thought I was the one who wanted answers.”
“That may be, but there are strange things going on – things that you are involved in.”
“Me?” said Lexus in surprise.
“Every Full Moons,” replied Kilea, “scores of people appear scattered across the island. Last night, you were one of those people. My men saw you upon the cliff.”
“This is an island?”
“Yes. It is called the Ash. For what reason, I don't know. Perhaps the first men to come here came when Mount Toralen was erupting and the land was covered in ash, but it is just my guess. It's rumoured that the first immigrants hated the place, and that they named it accordingly, with an ancient word hidden within the name, or some variation on it.”
Lexus thought for a moment. “The Ash. … Back home we call it Jaroka, but we know little of it.”
“Jaroka? That is a strange name.” Kilea paused, collecting his thoughts. “This is what I want to know. I simply want to discover all I can about these appearances and the people who have been Ashed, such as yourself. Can you help me with that?”
“In return for my questions being answered, I would do I can.”
Suddenly a voice cried, “Master! The fighting has begun!” Lexus and Kilea looked across the cave to see a man entering the cave through the water-tunnel, and he was completely dry.
Kilea jumped from his chair and said to Lexus, “I am sorry, but I must go. Marek will show you to your room.” With that he disappeared from the cave.
Without another word, the man called Merak quickly ushered Lexus out of the main cave, through the dark corridor and into a small room. Once Lexus was inside, Merak promptly locked the door and slipped away.
Suddenly Lexus realised that this was not a room, but a cell.
Disgust flooded through him, and for a moment he almost threw himself against the door and started yelling. But instead, he simply collapsed onto the stone floor and sought refuge within himself. I can't stay here, he thought. I have to make it home.
A part of him argued. What is there for you back on Earth? Death? Anguish? Pain?
He ignored the thought. I can't stay here.