Chapter Twenty-Nine: Threats and Memories

They ran through the earth as fast as possible. 256 kept the fire burning between his fingers as he went, trying not to trip on any rocks and dodging around tree roots. He almost stumbled a few times but overall managed to remain upright, much to his relief.

There were so many of them…

He swallowed, coughing as he ran. He wondered if the rebels had found the burnt hole in the floorboards and realized what it meant. Surely they've figured out how we escaped… They won't know what direction we went in though. I don't even think we know.

He looked up, watching 805 before him in the flickering firelight. He'd slowed from a sprint to a jog, and his arms trembled under the weight of the cavern.

He must be in so much pain… Doing this for so long, with so little air…

805 stopped abruptly, leaning over and violently coughing. The walls of the cavern shook as he did so, coating them with a thin layer of earth. 256 bit his lip, realising that lighting a fire hadn't been his best idea.

"805…" 3349 said, her voice high and panicked.

"I'm sorry," the older man said hoarsely, stumbling slightly as he took another step forward. He turned back to face them, sweat dripping down his forehead and soaking the collar of his uniform. "I… We'll have to stop here, I can't... It's not far enough, but…"

"Never mind, just get us out of here," 3349 said shakily, her shoulders trembling.

805 gave a short nod, the walls shuddering once more as he slowly drew the earth closer to them. Soon they were standing in a column that grew taller and taller as they watched.

"Stay close to me," he said through gritted teeth. 3349 and 256 pressed up against his sides as the cavern burst through to the outside world. 805 gave one last shuddering breath, his eyes rolling backwards as he crumpled against them. 3349 hauled him up so he was leaning against her, motioning for 256 to take his other arm. She pursed her lips and the cavern began to slowly fill with water, trickling in from all sides so they were standing in a pool of mud. The water level rose slowly and so did they, gripping the walls of earth for support. 256 shivered, very aware that he was surrounded by water on all sides, but he did not complain.

When they at last reached the surface he grabbed 805 under his left armpit while 3349 did the same with his right. Together they dragged him out of the hole and onto the grass. The evening sun shone down from above, lighting 805's face. 256 gasped loudly when he saw how pale and sickly he looked.

"805," he gasped, shaking the older man's shoulders violently. "You – 3349, he's –"

"Shut up," 3349 hissed, grabbing 256's arm and wrenching him back. "He'll be fine, he's just exhausted his Gift making that tunnel. Worry about us instead - We've got to get somewhere more sheltered."

256 looked up, his heart racing when he saw a herd of cows grazing on the other side of the large paddock they sat in. We're still in the farmlands… I can even see the village in the distance. If we don't hide, they'll –

"Come on," 3349 muttered, nodding at a shaded area of trees in the corner of the field closest to them. 256 gulped, and together they dragged 805 to shelter.

"At least we're not in the open now," 3349 said when they were under the trees, wiping her forehead. "If we stay quiet we might be alright…"

She glared at 256 as though he'd been making a lot of noise. He smiled meekly, bending over 805 and examining him again. I know she's probably right, but… He looks so ill, surely he's –

3349 gave an angry sigh, reaching over and wrenching him back for the second time.

"Seriously just leave him alone," she said, pushing him to the side. 256 winced as he fell and scraped his right hand on a small rock. "The best thing for him is to get some rest and if you keep badgering him like that, he won't."

"I wasn't –"

"You were," she said firmly, shaking her head at him. 256 sighed, examining his grazed palm while 3349 laid out their supplies, swearing when she saw that everything was soaked and muddy. She touched them and sucked the water away, but a thin layer of mud still covered everything.

"That'll have to do," she muttered, folding her arms tightly across her chest. "And I suppose we'll have to stay here until this idiot –" she jerked her head at 805, " – gets better. If it were anyone else I'd leave them behind so the two of us could survive, but… The Council will blame me if he dies. They love him too much. For the life of me, I can't think why. Earth powers are… They're just weak. Why the Leader wants a Gift of Earth on the Council itself is beyond me."

"Well…" 256 began, shifting slightly. He decided it was best not to bring up how frightened 3349 had been in the cabin as a defense. "He - He killed those rebels with his powers, and he saved us using them too. So they can't be that weak. Or at least, he isn't."

3349 snickered. "He could have killed them with regular daggers, and a Gift of Air could've flown us out without wasting so much energy and nearly killing us in the process."

256 shrugged. "Maybe, but… he still saved us."

The older woman rolled her eyes, standing up and stretching. "Please, you're just as useless as he is. You're only standing up for him because you're a Gift of Fire. Fire is so easily defeated."

She paused, raising her nose into the warm evening air. "Anyway, there's a stream nearby. I can sense it. I'm going to wash all this mud off. You should come too unless you want your clothes to go all stiff later."

When he didn't answer 3349 turned to look at him, smirking at his expression. "All girls together. No? Just wash in a different area of the stream than me, idiot. Logic obviously isn't one of your strong points. Not that you have any of those to begin with."

"I – shouldn't someone stay with him?" 256 stammered gesturing at 805.

She considered this. "He'll be fine. We won't be gone for long. But stay if you want, I don't care."

256 stayed, sitting down cross-legged in the dirt next to 805 while 3349 trudged off. He pressed his hand against the older man's forehead, closing his eyes and sensing the temperature beneath his fingertips.

He's got a fever… Not a huge one, though. I think he'll be okay, but… He looks so ill.

256 gulped, shivering in his wet clothes. He folded his arms across his chest and tried radiating heat from his body to dry himself, but it just made the mud stickier. He shivered, pulling his knees to his chest and trying not to think too much about the water clinging to his body and clothes. 256 had hated water ever since his Gift manifested, just like every other Gift of Fire he knew. During his childhood he'd always kept himself very clean – his bed in the dormitory was always made, his clothes folded, even before the Servants came in to do those jobs for them. However, the idea of taking a bath had become terrifying to him as soon as he reached his seventh year.

256 gritted his teeth and drew his knees closer as he remembered the first time he'd been required to take a bath after his Gift manifested. He'd hidden under the covers of his bed, but the Servants found him and dragged him off to the washroom as he cried. They'd forced him underwater, scrubbing him and holding him down as he struggled. After that he'd been a lot more compliant, but he still hated washing himself and tried to be as quick and efficient as possible.

256 sighed, shifting his feet and stealing a glance at 805. He stirred suddenly, rolling onto his side and mumbling under his breath.

"Michelle," he whispered, his voice croaky and his fists clenching slightly at his sides. "Michelle… Don't be… I have to…"

He rolled over, his voice dropping so low 256 could no longer hear. 256 leaned back, shifting slightly so he was sitting cross-legged.

Michelle… I've never heard that word before. What could it mean?

The snap of a twig behind him drew his attention quickly. He glanced over his shoulder, relaxing when he saw 3349 striding through the trees towards him. Her clothes were wet, but mud-free.

"3349, what's a michelle?" he asked, as she sat down on the grass beside him.

She shrugged, her lips coiling into a frown. "Don't know. What makes you ask?"

"N – Nothing," he muttered, glancing at 805.

She raised her eyebrows. "Interesting. Now, do you want to keep watch or should I?"

"I can do it," he said quickly. "I… I'm not that tired."

3349 nodded and sat down, lying against the grass and closing her eyes. 256 shivered, drawing his knees close to his chest as he sat in his wet clothes. The small patch of trees was silent except for the occasional hoot of an owl and rustle of leaves.

It's so quiet and open… We really are exposed out here. How long will it be before the rebels find us? They…

He gulped, thinking of the mutilated bodies back at the village. He wondered if they were doing the same to the two Gifted women they'd killed just an hour earlier. A chill ran through his body as he realized the three of them could very well be next.

"They can't have gotten far."

256 stifled a gasp, reaching over and shaking 3349 awake. She saw the look in his eyes and understood, creating a spear of ice between her fingers. She crept towards a tree on the edge of their patch of forest, motioning at 256 to do the same.

Three rebels were trudging through the field before them, eying the herd of cows on the other side of the paddock warily.

"They could be anywhere," one rebel, a woman, argued. Another woman rolled her eyes, pointing in the direction of the hole they'd climbed out of.

"I already told you," she said irritably. "They can't have gotten far – you know how much energy the Earth one must've used? We've got to get them before he recovers."

"But…" the male rebel interrupted, continuing their argument. 256 peered around the tree, swallowing as he noted the weapons strapped to their backs. He glanced at 3349. She was sitting with her spear poised, waiting for her target to get closer so she could aim.

"Don't," 256 whispered urgently, putting a hand on her arm. She jerked away from him, scowling.

"What?" she hissed, gesturing at the three rebels. "They're the enemy, 256. We have to –"

"We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves," 256 said in a low voice. "805 can't fight –"

"So what? We can. And we can't let them get away, they're rebels."

"But he's our –"

"Friend?" 3349 said coldly, adjusting her ice spear. "We don't have any friends here, 256. You of all people should know that by now."

256 gave a sharp intake of breath. How does she know about that? I… No, she must mean something else. "I – I was going to say he's our leader. If we attack the rebels and they kill him, the Council won't be happy. They'll - they'll punish us."

They'll kill me, though.

3349 scowled, pursing her lips. "You know what? I don't care. If he dies I'll say he was killed when we were outnumbered ten to one. The Council can't punish us for that, can they?"

Of course they can. And they will, but… I guess she's just focusing on right now.

When he didn't answer 3349 rolled her eyes and pushed him away, aiming her spear and throwing it expertly through the air towards the male rebel. It tore straight through his abdomen. He coughed and toppled over as 3349 ran out towards them, fashioning another spear between her palms. She threw it at the next rebel, who raised their bow and blocked it just in time, showering herself with ice chips. She quickly drew an arrow and fired, but 3349 ducked to the ground as it whizzed over her head. The Gifted woman then jumped to her feet and created another spear, thrusting it towards her opponent again.

While 3349 and the second rebel fought, 256 watched as the third rebel edged away from the two of them, holding an arrow in 3349's direction. She swore loudly, unable to focus her aim as the Gifted woman ducked and dived around the second rebel's strikes. She looked around, narrowing her eyes when she saw something in the distance. 256 followed her gaze and gasped when he saw 805 sitting up and rubbing his eyes, his back to the rebel. She's going to –

256 scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could towards the rebel woman as she trained her arrow on 805's back. He tackled her to the ground, sending her arrow whizzing through the air in another direction. The woman swore and pushed him off, standing up as quickly as she could and staring at him in disbelief.

"You're just a kid," she said as he stood up slowly, wincing as he assembled the southpaw fighting stance. That's one advantage of my height, at least… They always underestimate me.

The rebel woman watched him for a few moments, before tightening her grip on her bow and pointing it towards him. "No, you're still Gifted. You deserve to die."

256 stayed still as she readied her arrow, ducking when he saw her pulling her arm back. She let go and the arrow missed his head by a wide margin, embedding in a large tree. As she stopped to reload her weapon 256 sprang to his feet and ran forward, grabbing her by the shoulder and sweeping her leg with his own so she fell to the ground. She coughed, struggling to her feet and staggering backwards, her arrows spilling onto the ground.

"You're – you're strong," she gasped as he ran towards her again, jumping in the air and delivering a side kick into her belly, before twisting around and hitting her with a spinning back kick. She grabbed one of her arrows from the ground and quickly shot an arrow in his direction, which he ducked to the ground to avoid.

She can shoot, but… She doesn't know how to fight without her arrows.

Heat coursed through his veins as he ran towards her, ducking under her feeble punches and rising as he thrust his left fist into her chin. She spat as her tooth dislodged, blood dribbling down her lip from where she'd bitten her tongue. While she was distracted 256 grabbed her arm, starting a small fire beneath his fingertips. She yelped, pulling her arm away from him and allowing him to wrench the bow from her hands. He set it on fire and threw it away, sweeping her leg again so she fell to the dirt floor, narrowly missing another tree. 256 clambered on top of her and trapped her with his body, lying as close to her as he could and locking her legs with his feet so she couldn't escape. He managed to wrap his hands over her throat as she struggled.

What do I do now?

A rush of cold coursed through his body, his hands holding her neck loosely. His legs felt like lead and he began to shake, stumped at what to do next.

Kill her. That's what I'm supposed to do. She's here, she's – she's at my mercy, but I can't – I can't just sit here, I've got to set her on fire or something –

"Make it quick."

His breath caught as he heard that voice. It can't be… She's so far away, I'm just imagining it. I know that, but…

"Carey…" he whispered. She lay beneath him, her long brown hair spread all around her and her clothes crumpled, covered with dust and debris.

"Just do it," she said, scowling. Her blue eyes were ice and she looked up at him with a hatred that tore him apart. "Why can't you do it, 256? It'll only take a couple of seconds. I'm waiting."

256's grip slackened even further. Come on… I – I'm Gifted, she's a rebel, I have to do it. It's my duty to be ruthless… Why can't I… Carey…

At last she managed to free her arms, ramming her hands into his elbows so he fell on top of her. She grabbed him around the throat and rolled the two of them over, pressing her forearm into his neck. He struggled for breath as she pushed her whole weight into his neck.

Carey gasped suddenly, and for a moment his heart stopped, but it was the rebel woman who fell against him with a diamond knife stuck in her back. He scrambled out from under her and watched, shivering as blood pooled across her brown shirt.

"I – thank you," he croaked, massaging his neck. He glanced over at 805, who stood a few feet away, panting and leaning against a tree. He gave 256 a weak smile, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

"I should be the one thanking you," he said gruffly, limping over and offering him a hand. 256 took it, letting the older man pull him to his feet. "Are you alright?"

"I'll be okay," 256 muttered. 805 opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could 3349 stormed over and grabbed 256 by the collar, pulling him away and slamming him against a tree with her sword pressed against his throat. 256 coughed, glancing over at the rebel she'd been fighting. She was lying on the ground, her abdomen ripped open so her internal organs spilled onto the forest floor.

"What were you thinking?" she shouted.

"I – I don't know…"

"You're weak," she spat, holding him up so high his legs didn't quite touch the ground.

She's right, I am… I should've been able to kill that woman, but I –

"Do that again and I'll kill you myself," she said, her hands shaking with fury. "The Council will thank me for it. They're just looking for a reason to kill you!"

"I – What do you mean?" he asked, eying her sword nervously. She can't know… The Council wouldn't have told her. She didn't even know 805 was a Gift of Earth when they met, surely –

She laughed, shaking her head. "Do you think I'm stupid?" she hissed. "The Council wouldn't send a scrawny, useless little boy like you on a mission as important as this one without a good reason. You've been punished and 805 is your supervisor, isn't he? You're so idiotic you've probably used up both of your chances… He's meant to kill you if you step out of line again. He won't, though. He acts tough but his heart's as soft as yours."

3349 paused, cocking her head to the side. "I think this counts as stepping out of line, don't you think? Let's see what 805'll do now."

She glanced over her shoulder, slapping 256 in the face with her ponytail when she turned. 805 limped towards them, his fingers clasped around the handle of another knife.

"Come on then," she said as he approached, smirking. "Are you too soft, or will you –"

She gasped as he grabbed her by the collar and pulled her back. Her sword fell to the ground with a clatter and 256 rubbed his neck, shaking. 805 pressed her against his body and held the knife to her throat. Two beads of blood appeared on the blade, running down to the edge and dripping onto the grass beneath them.

"So I'm too soft, am I?" 805's voice was dangerously quiet. His skin was still a sickly, pale colour, but his grey eyes were dark and narrow. "I'm his supervisor, not you. I'm the one who decides if he's stepped out of line. And in my opinion, he hasn't. Threaten him, or me, again and I'll be the one killing you."

He let her go, his posture sinking a little as he dropped the knife to the ground. 3349 stepped away from him, her blue eyes flashing angrily. She rubbed her neck, smearing the drops of blood across her skin.

"You won't get away with this," she said angrily. "The Council won't –"

805 raised his eyebrows. "The Council will believe what I say. I think you'll find I have more… influence, I suppose, than you do. If someone tells them lies about us, I'll have to correct them… And you'll be the one who's punished."

3349's left fist clenched at her side as she picked up her sword, sheathing it and glaring at him.

"Bastard," she spat, turning around and stomping off through the forest.

"Tell me something I don't know," 805 said quietly, crouching to the ground and turning his dagger back into graphite. 256 swallowed, watching as 3349 packed up their supplies with a sour look in her eyes.

"She is right," he said slowly, glancing at 805. "I… You should kill me. You're supposed to."

805 shrugged, rubbing his forehead. "Maybe I should, but… You saved my life. Twice."

"Twice?"

He nodded. "It was your idea to tunnel out of the house. And that rebel would've killed me if you hadn't tackled her."

"But –"

"I've saved you twice now too," he continued. "Once from the rebel, once from 3349. So we're even."

805 turned away, sitting down on the forest floor. He leant against the tree, closing his eyes wearily. 256 kneeled next to him, his legs wobbling slightly.

"805…"

"Yes?"

"I – Does this mean if I make a mistake again, you'll kill me?"

805 opened his eyes, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yes," he said after a pause. "I'll have no choice."

256 looked away, his fingers clenching against the dirt floor. "I – I understand. I won't stuff up again, I… I promise."

The older man gave him a curt nod, shifting his legs and closing his eyes again. 256 watched him, suddenly remembering the words he'd whispered to himself when passed out.

"What's a michelle?" he asked curiously.

805's eyes snapped open.

"What do you mean?" he said hoarsely, sitting up straight.

"You said it," said 256 quickly. "Before, when you were asleep…"

"I…" 805 sighed, running a hand through his hair. He shook his head, standing up jerking his head towards 3349. "I was delirious, 256. I would've said anything. Now come on. We need to move before more rebels search this area."