The barrier of energy that Koruka erected around Horek successfully isolated the city from the rest of the world. The media was quick to brand it as the work of carriers. People latched onto the idea almost immediately and it spread like wildfire. The ensuing chaos and paranoia turned the public against carriers faster than anyone could have predicted. Hate crimes in the area surrounding Horek tripled in number in just a few weeks.
Although the violence and aggression occurred predominantly within that region, the rest of the country was not unaffected. There were those who used the appearance of the barrier as a manner of organizing the public under their ideals. Anti-carrier groups popped up in a number of places, some going so far as declaring open season on any and all people identified as carriers.
Most of these organizations could be called gangs at best. They were rarely more than ten members strong. The notable exception was a group called the Orchid Army, which had sects popping up all over the country. Law enforcement had to intervene with their activities on more than one occasion. Their influence declined when several members were convicted for murder and they fell below the radar.
The government declared a national state of emergency and evacuated anyone living within ten miles of the barrier. They deployed troops to the site and did everything short blowing Horek clean off the map in their attempts to break through the barrier. After so many failed attempts and no noticeable changes in the state of the barrier, people began to lose interest. The crisis was over far as they were concerned.
Despite the relative peace that had returned to the country, the military remained in the area around Horek. All major roads were blocked off from public access and troops commonly patrolled the region. No one was allowed near Horek for "safety purposes."
Months passed, and still no news arrived from within the barrier. No one on the outside knew what was happening beyond the brilliant glow of the wall. No one knew that a group of individuals were about to become the first to enter Horek since it was cut off from the rest of the world.
FINAL PART: The Promise
Chapter One: Point of No Return
The backyard felt like a camp ground, sitting around the fire pit in a circle. Maurine had spent the better part of an hour trying to get it going before Jill politely offered to take over. How the older woman had managed not to adjust to life with carriers by now was a mystery. She had a house full of them and still she insisted on doing things manually. It wasn't hard to figure out who Sakura took after in the family. A mule wasn't stubborn enough to compare to them.
Verdon leaned back in his folding chair and rested his boots on the stones surrounding the fire. He'd melted the soles of his last pair doing the exact same thing last year. It was a risk he was willing to take. He was too damn comfortable stretched out like that.
Bleu was flipping through a stack of papers she'd brought outside. Every now and then she'd scrunch up her nose, take the cap off her pen, and scribble something in the margins. She'd had the children write essays the other day. If Verdon knew his sister, she was going through them now because she was determined to have them graded before they left.
"I can't believe it's tomorrow," Verdon said. Seeing Bleu work had brought him right back to the very topic he'd been trying not to think about.
"How can you find it surprising?" Bleu asked while writing another comment. "We've been preparing for months now. The date has been marked on every calendar in the house."
"Which there are a disturbingly high amount of, by the way," Verdon said. "Why is there one hanging across from the toilet? Who needs to know the date when they're taking a dump?"
"You'd better start figuring out your manners before I kick your ass out on the streets," Maurine growled from across the fire. She'd left to grab snacks not that long ago. Verdon hadn't seen her come back. "If the calendar is that big of a deal, you can take your 'dumps' in the woods."
"Sorry Maurine," Verdon said through his nose. The homeowner didn't find it as amusing as he did. She skipped right by him when she started handing out the chocolate bars she'd returned with. He crossed his arms and pouted. When that didn't work, he started scheming how to take his sister's without her noticing.
"I don't understand how the two of you are related," Maurine said, taking an empty seat next to Jill. "Twins, no less! How can someone that responsible and polite have a brother like you?"
"It boggles the mind, really," Verdon said, reaching out for the chocolate his sister had left on the arm of her chair. He almost had it when she slapped his hand.
"You would have your own if you learned how to keep something to yourself for once," Bleu said over the top of her papers. "There is no need for you to say every thought you have out loud." Verdon scowled.
"Matthew," he said, holding out a hand in front of the youth to his right. "Chocolate."
"Get your own!" Matthew yelled. "This one's mine!"
"This one was yours," Verdon corrected, snatching the bar away from him. "Consider it payment for all the training you've had."
"Hiro's the one who's been helping me out!" Matthew argued.
"But I set that up, didn't I?" Verdon said, ripping off the wrapper. He considered breaking a piece off before shrugging and biting directly into the bar. "Besides, you shouldn't be eating junk like this. If you think I'm gonna carry your panting, chunky ass around Horek you've got another thing coming."
"I wish you children didn't have to go," Maurine said, drowning out Matthew's bitter response. "I have a good mind just to lock you all away until the whole thing blows over."
"You know that isn't going to stop us," Verdon blurted through a mouthful of chocolate.
"It's going to be so dangerous!" Maurine said. "I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to any of you! Especially my grandbaby. She's barely seventeen and she's about to go marching off into war. Have you seen the TV reports on Horek? That place looks like a warzone and that's just on the outside! God knows what it will be like behind that glowing wall…"
"Who gives a shit about how dangerous- ugh…" Verdon nearly choked when Bleu elbowed him in the ribs. He lurched forward and grabbed his sides, dropping his plundered chocolate into the fire in the process. "Dammit…" he muttered.
"What my brother means," Bleu spat, glaring at him. She was far more civilized when she spoke to Maurine. "Is that we know how dangerous it is. None of us have any delusions about this being an easy task, but it is one we must perform. Sakura knows that better than any of us. I assure you that if there was any other option I would never support a plan that put us all in such danger."
"Koruka holds all the cards right now," Jill chimed in. "If we don't try and stop him, everyone trapped inside his barrier is going to die. We have to do everything we can to prevent that from happening."
"I know," Maurine said with a sigh. "I just wish we could…call the police or something. Let someone else take care of it."
"The police?" Verdon would've laughed if his side wasn't so sore. "Maurine, they have tanks around that barrier and they can't do a thing about it. Tanks. No one's getting in that city unless Koruka lets them."
"That invitation is the only chance we have of getting in and it's addressed to Sakura," Jill added. "I know I'm risking my life going with her. We all do. That isn't going to stop us from doing the right thing."
"There's nothing I can do to change your minds, is there?" Maurine asked, looking around the circle. Verdon saw the same determination he felt mirrored in his three companions. Even Matthew wasn't wavering, although that wasn't a surprise. He worked his ass off training with Hiro and spent his down time pleading and fighting for the right to go. They couldn't exactly say "you're too young" when he was the same age as the girl leading them into battle.
"Fine," Maurine said, relenting at last. She'd brought up the exact same subject nearly every day since Koruka had made his move. Verdon hoped this was going to be the end of it, but he doubted she'd pass up the chance to say something before they left in the morning.
"Hey!" Someone called out as they joined the circle. Verdon bent to look around the fire and saw Hiro jogging over to the crew. Maurine lit up like a Christmas tree when she heard him. She absolutely loved the boy and made no attempt to hide the fact.
"Hiro, baby!" Maurine said brightly. "I thought you were sleeping with the girls!" Hiro turned a neon shade of red at the poor choice of words. Maurine just kept smiling from ear to ear. One of her favorite pastimes was embarrassing Hiro relentlessly. The nervous ramble that Hiro almost always answered with was just entertaining enough for Verdon to understand why.
"No I- Um…" Hiro cleared his throat and forced himself to speak clearly. Maurine almost looked disappointed. His quick recovery marked this as one of her rare failures. "Is Sakura out here with you guys?" His voice cracked when he said her name. So it wasn't a complete failure after all.
"Haven't seen her since dinner," Maurine said. "Did you check her room?"
"That's the thing…" Hiro sounded like he was worried. Uh-oh. "She's not there. I didn't check the whole house, but…"
"What?" Maurine had picked up on the tense mood.
"The bed was made and her backpack was gone," Hiro said. Everyone in the circle reached the same conclusion even as he said it aloud. "I think she's going after Koruka on her own."
Teri threw back her blanket with a huff. There was no way she was going to fall asleep. Tomorrow was the day they went back to Horek. The news had kept constant coverage on the situation outside the barrier surrounding the city and it was a madhouse. It was probably a lot worse on the inside. She'd wanted to get plenty of rest while she still had the chance but her body had other ideas.
With a loud groan of frustration, Teri sat up and flicked on the lamp next to her bed. Kiboto, who'd curled up on her clean clothes for the night, glared up at her through half-closed eyes. He made a show of standing up, turning his back to her, and going back to sleep.
"So sorry for bothering you," Teri muttered sarcastically. "I know how tired you have to be after staying up for three whole hours today." He didn't even pretend to have heard her.
Teri paused at her door and considered putting on a sweater. It wasn't that she was cold. The cami-and-leggings combo didn't leave much to the imagination. Were the odds of her running into someone high enough to worry about that? Hiroko said he was going to bed the same time she did, so he was probably asleep by now. Verdon, her only other cause for concern, had made such a grand case about starting a fire out back that he'd definitely still be there. That was good enough for her to leave the room as she was.
On her way to the kitchen, she realized she hadn't taken Matthew into account. Would she actually care, though? She decided almost immediately that she wouldn't. Matt barely spoke and usually blended into the wall. He was practically a house plant to her. She wasn't about to run back and change because of a plant.
Teri poured a glass of water from the kitchen sink and gulped most of it down in one go. The digital clock on the microwave told her it was after midnight. They were supposed to be out of the house by ten. Count in some time for everyone to double check their things, have breakfast, and listen to Granny Maur tell them not to go, and her goal to be well-rested was out the window. If she somehow passed out on the spot she was only going to get five or six hours of sleep.
Teri heard the front door closing from down the hall. Her initial reaction was to hold a hand over her chest. She relaxed when it became obvious that someone was leaving, not coming in. Who would leave at this hour, though? It wouldn't make sense to go out front to get to the fire, so…
She left her glass in the sink and tiptoed to the door. The deadbolt was locked. Whoever had gone out didn't plan on coming back anytime soon. Teri scanned the row of footwear in the foyer for her sandals. She slipped them on and let her curiosity lead her outside. The wide, open street made it easy for her to pick out the figure walking down the sidewalk.
"Sakura?" she said after jogging across the lawn. The dark carrier whipped out her fan and assumed an attack stance. "Okay, calm down. This isn't the spring dance and I'm not here to kill you."
"Teri?" Sakura said in surprise. She snapped her fan shut and tucked it away. "I thought you went to bed?"
"I could say the same thing, Jumpy. What's got you all paranoid?" Teri asked. "What are you doing out here, anyway?"
"Oh, I was just…" Sakura looked away guiltily. Teri understood why when she figured out what was happening. Why would someone leave this late at night with a backpack and their weapon?
"You've gotta be kidding," Teri moaned. She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes. "Tell me this isn't what I think it is."
"Save it," Teri said. "You really thought you could just sneak away in the middle of the night and leave us behind? What the hell, Sakura?"
"I didn't think anyone would see me," Sakura whispered.
"Well someone saw you." Teri crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow. "You want to explain this?"
"Koruka said if anyone came with me there was going to be a fight," Sakura said. "This is why I didn't tell anyone I was leaving. I knew you'd be upset about it."
"You're damn right I'm upset about it!" Teri shouted. "What did you think you were going to do, run in there waving your fan around and hope for the best? I hate to break it to you, Sakura, but Koruka isn't going to play fair no matter what you do. Going in on your own is a suicide mission."
"I don't care!" Sakura screamed. "If it means all of you are safe then I don't care what happens! He turned every mannequin in the mall against us just to send a message! What do you think he's going to do when he's actually trying to stop us?"
"You're serious about this, aren't you?" Teri said softly. She'd only seen Sakura like this once before and that was when she had a complete breakdown.
"If I go alone he won't attack," Sakura said. "Even if he does, you won't be there to worry about it! He killed our parents, Teri! You think he wouldn't do the same to you? I'm not going to lead the only people I have left in my life into battle against someone like that! I don't want you to get hurt because of me! This is my problem. He's my brother and it's my responsi-!"
Teri smacked Sakura as hard as she could. Her fingers felt like they were being pricked by a thousand tiny needles. The pain in her hand didn't measure up to Sakura's cheek. It was already red. Teri didn't care how drastic that had been. She was literally trembling with rage. A slap was merciful compared to what she wanted to do.
"How selfish can you be?" Teri spat. "You don't want us to get hurt because of you? This is your problem? Are you really that self-involved or are you just stupid? When we sat down and came clean about everything, were you even listening? He stole twelve years of Jill's life and made her do unspeakable things. He twisted Hiroko's words to justify homicide. Do you think Hiroko hasn't been tormenting himself every single day since he found out?
"Kitana tried to kill you against everything she believed in because of Koruka. He used children as hostages to push Verdon and Bleu into a corner. He used me as an assassin and he's the reason Derek is dead! You're not the only one he's hurt! You're life isn't the only one he's ruined!
"Of course this is going to be dangerous! Every single person in this house knows they're risking their life standing up to him. We all thought long and hard about this before we decided to go. Even though there's a good chance we might die in the process we're still going, and do you know why? Because this isn't your problem. This is our problem. This is our battle as much as it is yours and if any of us get hurt, it's not because of you. It's because we made the choice to fight."
Teri was panting as if she'd been running. It was amazing how giving into your temper can feel like such a workout. She held onto her anger, waiting for Sakura's rebuttal. Her frustration started to fade when she saw Sakura shaking. The other girl wasn't going to shout or argue. If anything she was going to collapse on the spot.
"I know it was stupid," Sakura said while she stared at the ground. Her voice had the trembling sound that comes from holding back tears. "I just don't want to lose anyone else."
"Sakura…" Teri didn't know what to say. All of her fury had vanished and the only thing left inside was guilt. It didn't matter if she had been in the right. Seeing her friend this vulnerable made her wish she could take it back.
"Jill told me no one's seen Dan since that night at the festival," Sakura said. "Everyone that I have left in the world is in that house. I don't care whose fault it would be, I don't want to lose any of them. I'm tired of watching people die. It's so horrible. I was right by Kitana's side and I couldn't do a thing to stop it. I don't want to see anyone else suffering like that."
"Then make sure you don't have to," Teri said. "Not by running away, but by helping us and letting us help you. How did we get through everything that's happened so far? We've been together. It was just you, Hiroko, Kiboto and me and we made it through. Now there are nine of us. Strength in numbers, right?"
"How am I supposed to help anyone?" Sakura sniffed and wiped at her eye. "I already told Hiroko. I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. I don't know how to do anything with my power or how to lead anyone. I don't even know why Koruka wants me. I've only gotten by because I've been lucky."
"So let's be lucky together," Teri said. "You don't know what you're doing? That's fine. We can figure it out together. You don't know how to lead us? That's just not true. What have you been doing all this time?"
"I told you-"
"You don't have to know how to use your element," Teri interrupted. "That's not what makes you great. The only reason we have the courage to stand up together now is because of you. All of us were trapped in our own little worlds before you. You're the one who brought us together, Sakura. You're the reason I can trust people again."
"…really?" Sakura looked doubtful. Teri answered her with a tight embrace.
"We can do this together, Sakura," Teri whispered. "We're going to leave in the morning and one way or another we're going to stop Koruka. After that, we're all going to come back here."
"All of us?" Sakura almost sounded hopeful. Teri took a deep breath, knowing the gravity of what she was about to say.
"All of us," Teri said, feeling more confident as the words left her mouth. "I promise." Sakura slid out of Teri's arms and nodded.
Sakura hadn't been the same ever since she learned the truth about Koruka. She'd believed in her dream of finding her brother for so long that it was the only thing holding her together. Losing that had ripped a hole in her heart that made her half the girl she used to be. Standing in the street in front of her, Teri felt as if she were staring at the Sakura she'd met again. Maybe all she'd needed was something to believe in again, even if it was only a promise.
"If you ever tell anyone I was this nice to you I'll break your fan," Teri said.
"This isn't really our thing," Sakura admitted with a smile. "You're supposed to tease me or say something rude."
"If it makes you feel any better," Teri began, "this whole time I've been thinking about how ugly you look when you cry."
"Bitch," Sakura said. Teri cracked a grin and they started laughing. She'd missed the way things used to be. She missed eating lunch on the roof and getting caught in a storm. She missed staying up in a motel room and laughing with Sakura to ease the pain. Most of all, Teri missed her friend.
"Come on," Sakura said, covering her mouth as she yawned. "I'm exhausted after all that. Let's get some sleep."
"That sounds amazing right now," Teri said. They walked side by side to the house in a comfortable silence. Sakura dropped her backpack by the door and started up the stairs down the hall. Teri had been only a step behind her when she remembered the glass she'd left behind earlier. "I'm gonna grab some water. Want anything?"
"I'm good," Sakura said. "I'll see you in the morning."
Teri waved goodnight and traced her path back to the kitchen. The glass she'd taken out was still in the sink. She filled it with water and drank it down. Jill came into the room while she was putting it in the dishwasher.
"Sakura seemed happier than she has in a while," Jill observed. "I knew you could reach her."
"You saw us outside?" Teri asked, surprised.
"Hiro raised the alarm when she wasn't in her room," Jill said. "We thought she was trying to leave on her own. I went straight for the front door to stop her but you were already there. Hiro took some convincing not to bother you, though."
"Why did you keep him inside?" Teri wished he'd been there now regardless of her revealing camisole. "She'd probably have been happier with him there."
"Doubt it," Jill said. "You were the only person she'd listen to."
"You think so?" Teri closed the dishwasher and leaned against the counter. She tried to picture Sakura ignoring Hiroko and failed. He was the one who got her out of her room after she'd locked herself in there for two weeks. As far as candidates for the job, Hiroko looked a lot better on paper than she did.
"Of course." Jill pushed her bangs away from her eyes. "After our chat, when you told me what Sakura was really up to a couple of months ago, I realized that no one knows her as well as you do. If you couldn't get through to her, no one could."
"Why?" Teri had no idea what Jill was trying to say. "Why couldn't you have done it?"
"Because you're her best friend," Jill said, smiling.
Teri was glad she had the counter for support. There was a sentence she never thought she'd hear. Sakura was the closest friend she'd had since Mickey and Laura, old friends that had left her when she needed their support the most. Someone else had dragged her down to the lowest point in her life before she met Granny Maurine and Derek. Her life had led her to believe she was a horrible person. Sakura made her believe that a friend would care about you even when you're at your worst. It hadn't dawned on her that Sakura might think about her the same way.
"Not to change the subject," Teri lied, "but there's something that's been bothering me recently. I wanted to see what you thought."
"Why do you think Sakura calls you Jill?" Teri asked. "She never says 'Kiyo'. It's always 'Koruka' when she's talking about the light carrier. Why do you think she does that?"
"She called him 'Kiyo' when she was talking to me," Jill said, confused.
"In what context?" Teri had a running theory about what the answer was and she wanted to see if she was correct. Jill's answer could make or break her theory. She was supposed to know Sakura better than anyone, right? This was how she was going to test it.
"She wanted to know what he's like now," Jill said. "I spent two years with him so she was curious."
"I thought so," Teri whispered. Jill was puzzled to say the least. "Sakura said she doesn't know what she's doing outside. I don't think she was only talking about being the dark carrier."
"You think she doesn't know what to do about Koruka," Jill said, catching on.
"I think she calls him 'Koruka' all the time because it separates him from her memories of Kiyo," Teri explained. "As far as she's concerned, Koruka is the bad guy and Kiyo is innocent."
"So when she asked what he was like and used his name…" Jill took off her glasses and started cleaning them on her shirt. "She wanted to know if I knew something that proves the brother she knew is still alive in Koruka…"
"That's what I was thinking," Teri confirmed. "She has no idea what to do when they confront each other."
"When she finds the answer, if there's a part of him that isn't completely 'Koruka'…" Jill folded her glasses instead of donning them. Her eyes were a few shades lighter than Teri had thought. "Is that going to make things easier for her, or more difficult?"
"I'm not sure," Teri admitted. "Sakura's the kind of girl who hugs the people trying to kill her. She's always trying to find the best in people, the part of them she can reach out to. If she can see that in Koruka, she'd probably do whatever she could to save him."
"What if there's nothing in him for her to save?"
"She'd have to be completely certain," Teri said. "Sakura would pick his brain apart trying to find something. She'd do everything she possibly could and then do it all over again before giving up."
"If she can't do it…" Jill paused as she thought about the alternative to saving him. "He's still her brother, though. You don't think she'd…" Jill didn't need to finish her sentence. They both knew the only remaining option for Sakura at that point.
"Well…Kiyo would already be dead to her by then," Teri said grimly. The words hung around them like a storm cloud.
"That's one hell of a decision for someone to make…" Jill said with a shiver. "I don't want Sakura to have to make it."
"I don't either," Teri said. "In order to stop that from happening…" She stared into Jill's eyes. Neither of them spoke and yet Teri knew they'd come to an agreement. Jill gave her the smallest of nods and the pact was made. No one wanted to put Sakura in a position where her brother's life was in her hands. For her own sake, they had to prevent that at all costs.
They had to get to Koruka before Sakura did.
With how heavily guarded Horek had become, Sakura was left with no choice but to follow Koruka's instructions to enter the city. Against all reason, Sakura marched directly up to the two armed guards stationed at the edge of an evacuated town. She'd accepted Koruka wasn't leading them into a trap when the soldiers bowed to her. Their helmets hid any sign of his mark, but Sakura knew they were under his control.
The soldiers brought Sakura and her companions to a nearby subway station and returned to their post. If memory served, one of the trains that used to operate beneath the town had a few stops in Horek. They followed the signs to the correct platform to wait for their ride. Sakura wasn't sure what she had expected to happen, but it definitely didn't include the twenty-minute lull where they were left with nothing to do but wonder when they were leaving.
"This sucks," Verdon said loudly. The empty walls carried his complaint away in an echo. "How long is he gonna keep us waiting?"
"I'm starting to get anxious," Jill said. "What if this is a trap?"
"Little late to worry about that, isn't it?" Teri remarked. She adjusted her arms to accommodate Kiboto. Sakura did not envy her, having to carry him everywhere. He had to be gaining weight by now. All he did at her grandmother's was eat and sleep. "Besides, Kiboto's at ease. He'd know if something was wrong. He's got great instincts."
"Yeah. He was a huge help at the mall," Hiroko muttered. "Wherever would we be if those amazing instincts hadn't warned us about the mannequins?"
"He pawed at you before the wall blew up!" Teri protested.
"Because he wanted me to follow you." Hiroko rolled his shoulders. His bag had to be getting heavy by now. What did he bring, anyway? Who packed that much for a fight? Sakura's backpack was so light she'd almost forgotten she was carrying it. "The only things he cares about are you and food."
"Don't forget sleep," Verdon said. "Can't count how many times that fur ball made a bed out of my clothes."
"None of this is helping," Jill said. "I can't stop thinking of all the ways this could go wrong."
"If Koruka were to attempt something, why would he wait this long to do it?" Bleu said. "There were plenty of armed men prowling around the city he could have used against us. I'm far more concerned about the children."
"You think he'd attack Maurine's?" Jill asked.
"Absolutely not," Bleu said dismissively. "My only fear is that Kelly and Jacob get into a fight and she can't break it up. She may be kind, but she is hardly a match for two out-of-control electric carriers."
"You really think they'd be the problem?" Verdon locked his hands together and stretched his arms. "My money is on Melly. She goes fireball and poof! That house is toast."
"So not helping!" Jill said, rubbing the back of a horrified Bleu soothingly.
"I think I hear something," Sakura said, causing the group to stop talking and listen. There was a slight clacking sound coming from the dark tunnel the tracks ran through.
"The train's coming," Jill said. She looked relieved, as if the arrival of the train had proved it wasn't a trap. As secure as it made her childhood friend, the coming of their ride into Horek made Sakura tense.
"This is it," Sakura said. "Once we board that train, there's no turning back. Last chance to change your mind, everyone."
"And let you have all the glory when that barrier comes down for good?" Verdon snorted at her. "Not a chance. If Koruka's going down, I'm gonna be there."
"Sakura," Teri said as she moved closer. Sakura tried to relax as her friend grinned. Hiroko stepped back to stand on Sakura's opposite side and took her hand. He gave it a light squeeze, almost exactly the way she'd done for him outside his mother's house. "I told you last night," the wind carrier said. "We're not going anywhere."
The train rattled into the station and stopped at the platform. Sakura fought back a surge of anxiety when the doors slid open to grant them passage. Everyone was staring at her, waiting to board the train. Not one of them showed even the slightest regret about their decision.
"Verdon…Bleu…Matthew…Jill…" Sakura nodded at each of them in turn. "Teri and Kiboto…Hiroko…Are you ready?" They cheered as one, giving Sakura all the strength she needed to take the plunge. "Let's do this. Together."
They got on the empty train, everyone staking their place for the ride. Sakura thought about sitting and quickly changed her mind. She stood by the doors, holding a pole for support as they creaked shut. They were beyond the point of no return. The final battle started as soon as they arrived in Horek.
I'm coming for you, Koruka.