Chapter Ten: An Unshakeable Truth
Why Jill even bothered wearing her glasses was a mystery to her. Peter had dedicated a portion of his energy to creating and maintaining a simulated blizzard within the ice dome. Visibility was shit in there, as if the continuous barrage of icicles the size of children wasn't already enough to deal with. All she had to do was get close enough to make a clean shot and the battle would be over. She sprang into action as the first icicle propelled itself through the air at her.
Jill ran towards the place she'd last seen her enemy. She didn't think he'd have whipped up the storm if he planned on being mobile so it was as good a plan as any to her. Instead of wasting her stamina running from side to side and avoiding the icicles, Jill tried her luck at melting them before they could hit her. She swept her arms back and forth as she ran, a trail of fire crackling in their wake.
She was pleased to note the icicles were reduced to puddles before they could strike her. So far her plan was working fine. She'd covered some distance when she saw several dark figures through the heavy snow ahead of her. Jill came to a stop while she tried to distinguish one from the others. If she fired blindly there was a chance she'd accidentally hit –and consequently kill- one of the people trapped under Peter's control.
"Where are you…" she whispered, scanning the area she could see. It would have been much easier if she didn't have to keep burning away the spears of ice hurtling down at her. Then she remembered the glowing handkerchief. Peter was using his conduit to pull off this display. The light from that should be shining out like a beacon in a storm. Literally.
None of the figures she could make out around her were any brighter than the others. Jill moved in for a closer look and almost took the length of an icicle through her torso when one suddenly came from a different direction than the others. He was firing on her from two sides at once. If he could do that, she had entered his circle of operations.
Deflecting attacks from opposite sides was disorienting. Jill had to continuously shift her attention from left to right and back again. It left almost no time for her to search for Peter, but if she was going to spot him from somewhere it would be where she was standing. She caught a glimpse of something glimmering above her, higher up in the air than she'd been looking. It was darting around the area rapidly, never staying in one spot for longer than it took to blink. If that was him and he was flying around like that…
Jill anxiously spun around, knowing she'd been growing careless in her defense. Sure enough she saw an icicle rushing to meet her face that was close enough to touch. She used more energy than she'd been planning to melt it down, the fire she'd generated burning long enough to illuminate her space in the dome. When it was bright enough to see clearly, Jill saw that the next thing speeding towards he wasn't made of ice at all.
"Shit," Jill shouted, redirecting her fire into the air so it didn't incinerate the dancer Peter had sent running up to her between icicle shots. Her surprise left her open to an attack, which Peter took full advantage of. A sloppy attempt at dodging prevented the icicle from impaling her, though it still sliced a clean line across her hip.
Jill hissed in pain and made a retreat to regroup. His control was too precise that close to the center. She built up a fire to cover her back as she ran back to Bleu. The female water carrier had formed a short barricade from ice to crouch behind with Matthew. Jill leapt over the top and crashed into the snow-covered ground next to her.
"What happened?" Bleu asked. She looked down to the wound Peter had dealt Jill and said, "You're bleeding!"
"It's a scratch, really," Jill said, waving away the woman's concern. She rested her back against Bleu's barricade, enjoying the relative safety it provided. "It's not right. If he didn't have hostages I'd burn this whole place down with him in it and call it a night."
"What did you see when you got closer to the center of the storm?" Bleu was polite but firm, eager for whatever information Jill could share about the failed first expedition. "Did you find him, at least?"
Jill shook her head. "Not exactly," she said. "I saw something bright zipping around and I thought it was him but…It was up in the air. Water carriers can't 'fly,' right?"
"Not in the way some of the other elements are capable, no." Bleu didn't waste her time going through the list. Jill was already familiar with the wind carrier technique of staying airborne. "You said he was 'zipping?' As in rapid, random movements?"
"Yeah," Jill confirmed, meeting Matthew's eyes for the first time since breaking into the dome. The boy had some real damage to his arm and was holding himself together rather well considering. "Does that mean something to you?"
"Water carriers have a method of elevating ourselves from the ground that could produce patterns of movement similar to what you described," Bleu said. "To put it simply, we can craft something of a water funnel that we can use to carry us."
"Okay," Jill began, accepting Bleu's description at face value. "If Peter is using this funnel technique, what does that mean for us? He's too lazy to walk?"
"It means even if you get close enough to be sure you are not aiming for one of his prisoners," Bleu said, fidgeting with the decorative ornament tied into her hair, "that the odds of landing a blow on Peter are uncomfortably low."
"Can you do anything to stop it?"
"Not if he knows I'm trying," Bleu said. She sighed and added, "It is a bit embarrassing to admit I am so severely outclassed by him, but…" Jill suppressed a chill, wishing she'd been dressed for the icy battle she'd landed in.
"What if he doesn't see it coming?" Jill suggested. "I could charge in again and keep him occupied while you sneak around and get in position or whatever." Even as she proposed it she knew the plan wasn't flawless. If Peter sent a hostage to ambush her under the cover of the storm again she'd run the risk of hurting them or even getting killed. If someone could detain them, they'd have a good chance at pulling this off. "Matthew, how's your arm?" she asked out of the blue.
"It hurts," mumbled the teen. "I can work through it if I can help, though."
"Would you be able to hold Peter's hostages in place?" Jill asked. "Without hurting them, could you do something so they couldn't move when he tried to force them?"
"If I knew where they were, then I guess," he said, not in the least convincing her. "If I could get a mental picture of the ground in my head I could tell which areas had someone standing on them. I can't make a connection with the earth when it's buried under a foot of ice, though."
"Here…" Jill crawled to the other end of Bleu's barricade and thawed out a circle in the courtyard by Matthew. "Can you make a connection here? That way you don't have to move with that injury."
"Yeah, but I won't know where someone is unless they're standing in a melted area too."
"Leave that to me," Jill said proudly. "Bleu, if you're ready to give it a try, I think we're as ready to take Peter down as we're going to get." Bleu gave Matthew a nervous glance, her concern for his health making her want to stay with him. After a moment of deliberation, the water carrier looked up at Jill and nodded. "Then we go on my mark. Ready?"
Jill called out and leapt out from the protection of the barricade. Almost as soon as she showed herself the barrage of icicles started again. She made a wide arch and curved her path towards the center of the ice storm. Jill collected her energy and commanded it to the souls of her feet. Every time her foot hit the ground she released a ring of fire to spread out along the ground at the height of an inch.
Aside from melting away the ice all around her as she ran, her method of defrosting the courtyard made her sparkle like a Christmas tree. If for some reason the blizzard was obscuring Peter's visibility as much as it was her own, the rings of fire rippling out of her would've kept her from going undetected. If detectability made the decoy than she was the best there was.
Jill burned away another successive burst of icicles just as she ran past one of the people Peter was holding captive. In the brief light provided by her defensive flame she saw they were struggling against a concrete boot that had fastened itself around their foot and fused back into the ground. Matthew was coming through for her, his skill exactly as advertised.
One fear put to bed, Jill ran in a staggering pattern to keep melting more and more of the ice covering the courtyard. She didn't want to chance entering the area Peter could direct icicles at her from two opposing sides until she was sure all six hostages were secured by Matthew. If even one of them happened to meet the business end of her flames before she could see them through the ice and snow she'd never live to accept it. They were victims in this, victims that needed to be saved.
When her silent tally told her four of the people were immobilized she skidded to a halt and spun around until she saw the glowing handkerchief that would lead her to Peter. Matthew managed to ensnare the fifth –a gentleman well into middle age- and she could see the sixth standing just a short distance into the center of the storm. Jill steeled herself for a second wave of attacks to join in the first and made a break for the last man standing under Peter's control.
Jill cautiously let the fire lick out of her fingers and into the air and she began weaving the threads of fire around her body. The tax of using so much energy to both defrost for Matthew and defend herself from Peter was giving her a terrible ache in her joints but she refused to stop. She was almost there, almost within thawing distance of the sixh survivor.
The noise of the blizzard and icicles drowned out the crunch of hard rock shifting, though she was able to watch as Matthew completed his task and trapped the last hostage. Now that they were nothing for her to worry about, Jill had no need to hold back. The fire streaming out of her hands grew into a fierce blaze that did wonders for her visibility.
The multidirectional assault of the icicles came to an unexpected stop. Jill didn't know what to make of it until Peter appeared before her, arms crossed and a frown dragging the corners of his mouth down. He was bobbing atop a column of water that frothed and spun like an aquatic cyclone. Jill could see what Bleu had meant about it lending to his evasive skills. The water flipped this way and that at a high speed. How Peter was able to keep it going and not get sick was the first thing she wanted to ask him.
"Why can't I move my dancers?" Peter demanded.
"We pinned them down!" Jill shouted, bracing herself to launch a fireball unlike any other before. She gathered her energy and made a quiet plea that Jill would pull off her role in their plan before it was time to launch the attack. "It's just you and me now, Peter!"
"Really?" Peter looked at her as if she were a dog with two heads. "You had your ally stop my dancers and came charging in by yourself anyway? Are you simple? Did you forget I can just take command of you?"
"Go ahead and try!" Jill challenged, her energy building to the point that small cracks of flame shot off from her open hands every so often. She was going to have to let the attack out soon. "I'll just burn you again. I already proved I don't need to move to use my powers."
"Not if you're bowing at my feet, locked in an eternal position of servitude!" Peter cheered. "I'll just make you drop to your knees and keep your head towards the ground! If you try anything then you'll only be burning yourself!" Peter bunched the handkerchief up in his hand and grinned. His joy was short-lived. The man was at last realizing that the torrent of water he'd been carrying himself in was slowing down.
Peter's eyes went wide as he noticed Bleu. "You won't be commanding anyone, Peter," Bleu said. The water he had once been using to increase his evasion was now a column of ice holding him still in the air. He anxiously reached towards the ice trapping him.
"Too late," Jill announced, raising her hands. "You don't have time to thaw yourself out." The energy she'd been collecting gave birth to a massive sphere of fire. She positioned herself at the base of the frozen column, palms trained towards her enemy. "Your frosty dance party is over, Peter."
The ball of fire broke away from her control and shot towards Peter with the deadly speed of a bullet.
"I will smite you in His holy name!" Tanya shrieked. The courtyard was a tangled mess of writhing plant life. Thick bunches of ivy and thorns wriggled in and out of the earth as tall flowers with pink leaves bloomed and wilted with the pulsing regularity of a heart beating. Countless sacs of poison bubbled up along the stalk of the looming plant that held Tanya by the waist. They looked like blisters, each growing until it popped and sprayed a toxic sludge into the air around it.
"This is ridiculous…" Verdon muttered, not knowing how the girl had managed to turn the courtyard into a jungle. "She's mutated it to the point where it's growing on its own. If this keeps up she's going to lose control completely."
"You're the stronger nature carrier, right?" Harrison asked. "Can't you just reach out and stop it or something?"
"Not if I can't reach the roots," Verdon explained. "The root of that flower she's sitting in controls this whole mess. I could take it down if I could get to that, but it's burrowed too far underground. I can't get my energy through that much earth."
"So we'll just have to do this the old fashioned way," Harrison said, cracking his knuckles. Verdon admired the man's spirit, even though he had no chance of pulling this off. Harrison would never be able to navigate Tanya's living field of poison without being infected. A scratch was all it would take.
"You've got balls, buddy," Verdon began, inching closer to the unconscious Hiro in case he needed to deflect an attack. "No offense, but I doubt a teacher has the reflexes it would take to cross that mess safely."
"If I get a cut or two it doesn't matter," Harrison said. "You can always just make another antidote."
"Doubt it," Verdon said. Harrison gave him a look. "The girl's poured too much energy into mutating the plant. That means the poison is changing right along with it. Remember when I told her she could've made a toxin that killed instantly?" He couldn't be certain that was what they were up against, but the possibility was too high to risk.
"Oh." Harrison crossed his arms and frowned. "Someone's got to maneuver their way to her and knock her out. At the least, we need to clear a path to the root for you."
"One of us has to stay with Hiro, too…" Verdon closed his eyes and sucked in a breath through his teeth. He could tell where all of the plants were by reaching out with his energy. He definitely had the best chance of making it to Tanya unharmed but he was the only line of defense for Hiro. Harrison would never be able to keep track of everything that was growing around them. "Do you trust me?" Verdon asked suddenly.
Harrison looked over to him wearily. "I want to say I do," he started, tapping the toe of his sneaker, "but no one ever asks that question unless they've got something crazy planned." Verdon smirked.
"You go in and I move you through the poison from here," Verdon said. "I'll wrap some ivy of my own around you and move your body for you." He could tell Harrison wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea. "I'll know where every threat is before you. Once I get you to Tanya, just blast the bitch with a shock or something."
"Just blast the bitch," Harrison repeated, rolling his eyes. He surveyed the expanding mass of greenery checkering the ground between them and Tanya. Verdon knew from the teacher's sigh that he was giving in. "What the hell. If we don't act soon we're dead anyway, right?"
"Perfect!" cheered Verdon. He called forth a springy twist of green from the earth by Harrison and wove it securely around the man's arms and legs. Harrison looked less than comfortable with the process though he didn't complain. "It's not the strongest plant," Verdon said of the ivy he'd fastened around his companion. "In order for this to work you can't resist me in the slightest."
"You want me just to go limp and let you steer me through a minefield," Harrison muttered. "You weren't kidding when you said this was a trust exercise."
"You're the newest in the group," Verdon pointed out. "Think of it as hazing."
"That's illegal," countered Harrison.
"Illegal or not it's happening," Verdon said. "Ready?" Harrison shook his head back and forth as he said he was. Verdon gave the man a moment to relax his body before testing out the effectiveness of the ivy. Harrison didn't struggle against the force of the ivy, which Verdon was proud to see worked rather well. "Here we go."
Another piercing cry from Tanya served as the starting gun. Verdon kept his link with the ivy around Harrison and used his command over the greens to make the teacher run. The process was smooth up until the first obstacle. A row of flowers sprang up from the courtyard and launched a barrage of thorns at Harrison. Verdon knew the attack was coming, had tried to adjust Harrison's movements accordingly, but the teacher had his own ideas about dodging.
Harrison reflexively tried to duck down as Verdon tried to have him jump to the side. The conflicting forces threw the teacher off balance and dropped him flat on the ground. "What are you doing?!" Verdon shouted. "I told you just to relax and let me take care of it!"
"Easy for you to say!" Harrison called back as he got back up. "You're asking me to do absolutely nothing when I see death flying at my face!"
"It's hard enough trying to move someone when they aren't fighting you every step of the way!" Verdon argued. "I've never done this before and I don't need you making it any harder than it already is."
"You've never done this before?!" Harrison roared, completely unaware of the new threat growing a few feet away from him. Verdon willed the ivy around Harrison to make him sprint out of the way of another round of thorns. The man hadn't relaxed himself again and the process was a challenge. Harrison only just managed to evade the toxic assault and he was more than aware how close he'd come to dying.
"Shut up and focus!" Verdon said. "You need to go limp if I'm going to do this right! Close your eyes if you have to." Harrison shut his eyes at the suggestion and relaxed his muscles. If there was something good to be said about the man, it was that he could understand the middle of a dangerous plan like this was not the time to complain about it.
Now that he couldn't see the threats, Harrison was much easier to control. He didn't cave into an urge to duck or jump and put his faith entirely in Verdon. With that issue resolved, Verdon was able to navigate the teacher through a barrage of incoming attacks.
After a quick roll to the left, Harrison was in position to strike at Tanya. "Your turn!" Verdon shouted. "Fry that crazy bitch!" Harrison responded almost immediately, pulling back and hurling a flicker of electricity at Tanya.
Verdon knew before his ally that Tanya was going to block the attack. The petals hugging her hips folded upward according to her will and closed around her. Harrison's attack connected with the fleshy walls surrounding Tanya and fizzled out. Tanya didn't waste a minute in her counterattack. Vines snaked their way through the earth at Harrison's feet and collected around his wrists and ankles in knots.
"Harrison!" Verdon shouted out of concern. He tried to fight against the trap with the ivy around Harrison. Tanya had left no opening for him to exploit, however. Harrison was held tightly in place by the girl's mutated greenery. Even the shockwaves he sent out in his struggles were powerless to free him.
"I'm going to give you a divine punishment," Tanya was saying as the petals unfurled and exposed her upper half. A piece of the stalk holding her up broke away from the base and slithered up before Harrison like a snake poised to strike. "I'm going to punch you full of holes and spill your tainted blood onto the ground. I'll drain the sin out of your very core."
Verdon let a thousand panicked thoughts hound at him and failed to see any way of saving Harrison. He'd been about to charge in blindly when he heard a groan to his right. Verdon whipped around to watch Hiro rub his temple and slowly rise to a sitting position.
"What happened?" Hiro asked sleepily, shaking his head. He blinked up at the battlefield and squinted his glassy eyes to try and make sense of what he was seeing. "How long have I been out…?"
"Split the earth around Tanya!" Verdon shouted. Hiro turned to Verdon, understanding that he wasn't alone.
"How'd you get out of the ice?" Hiro wondered. "Where's Bleu and…?" Considering he had very nearly succumbed to Tanya's poison his condition was understandable. Unfortunately they couldn't spare the precious seconds it would take to fill the earth carrier in on their current situation. Not when Harrison was in the clutches of the God fearing psycho bent on slaughtering them all.
"There's one," said Tanya as the tip of a vine plunged through Harrison's shoulder. He cried out in pain as his blood pumped out of the hole Tanya had left in him. The vine, now stained red, lunged back and struck again. "That's two. Can you feel the sin pouring out of your body?"
"Is that Harrison…?" Hiro asked, the sight of Tanya's wrath giving him a sharper sense of clarity. Verdon ground his teeth and dragged Hiro up by the collar of his jacket.
"Yes," Verdon hissed, "and he's going to die if we don't do something. Now dig deep, get your shit together, and split the ground by Tanya."
"What is…?" Hiro shook himself free and held back his questions. Verdon glared at the boy as if he could drill the severity of their situation home with a look alone. Hiro picked up on something –whether it was Verdon's tone or Harrison's screams was irrelevant- and nodded. "Where am I aiming?"
"Four!" Tanya exclaimed as she drove the vine into Harrison again. He was starting to look pale. He was losing too much blood. "I wonder how many I can do before you die? Seven would be ideal…That's probably the minimum amount we need to save your soul."
"The base of the giant flower she's in!" Verdon instructed, pointing so Hiro would understand. "Just break the earth apart there!" Hiro crouched down and placed his palms on the rubble of the courtyard. The boy was seriously hurting, but he was fighting through it as best he could. Verdon watched him biting his lip and struggling to concentrate. "How long?"
"I can do it in ten seconds," Hiro guessed, sounding as if he doubted his own estimate. "It's hard to focus…"
"You have five!" Verdon shouted. He jumped over a coiled mess of green and booked it across the field of poison. At best he was sloppy in avoiding the toxins squirting out into the air. He was hardly paying attention, desperate to get in position as soon as possible. Tanya, fortunately, was too intent on mutilating Harrison to notice someone running up to her.
Verdon slid to a stop as the ground started to shake around him. Hiro had gotten himself together enough to perform his task. The rumble of the earth distracted Tanya from her sadistic ritual with Harrison. She turned away from him and noticed Verdon in her search for answers. Verdon could tell a vicious attack was coming his way by the movement of the plants and readied himself.
The attack never came. In the moment she was ready to strike Verdon down, the ground fractured around the base of Tanya's massive flower. She waved her arms as if trying to keep her balance while the entirety of the plant began to tip to the side. The stalk of green holding her up broke free from the uneven earth Hiro had torn apart and crashed onto the courtyard.
Verdon jumped over a gap in the ground and grabbed onto the root Hiro had exposed. He channeled as much energy into the core of Tanya's hazardous jungle. Without a word, he usurped control over the life of the plants from Tanya and snuffed it out.
The wild, sentient greens Tanya had created went still. All at once, the veritable forest that had overrun the courtyard browned and decayed. The flowers wilted and the poisonous bulbs turned black. The massive stalk Tanya had assumed as her place of command crumbled away, globs of toxic sludge bursting up and around the dead petals that had protected her.
"What did you do?!" Tanya screamed from her knees. She reached around her and recklessly clawed at the rot surrounding her. "What did you do?!" she repeated again and again.
"Stop!" Verdon barked. "You're touching poison, you stupid girl! You're going to kill yourself!"
"This was all mine, all mine by the grace of God!" Tanya cried, ignoring Verdon. Her hands were red and starting to blister. She was poisoning herself, the toxic batch she'd created potent enough to infect her with just a touch. "I am unstoppable in His light! I am invincible with God by my side!"
"I told you to stop!" Verdon yelled, reaching towards her.
"Don't touch me!" Tanya screamed. A vine snapped out of the earth and whipped at Verdon until he backed away. Tanya ran her fingers down her cheeks, trailing black sludge and the rotting remains of her flower over her face. "I'm going to become a saint! I am going to lead the crusade in His name!"
Verdon watched in pity as Tanya drowned her body in the decaying plant life and poison all around her. She wept and wailed, pounded the courtyard with her fists in her tantrum. "I am one of the chosen few!" Tanya roared, her voice cracking. "I am a holy warrior protected by His grace!"
The poison was destroying her from the inside out. She was covered from top to bottom in festering sores that only worsened as she rolled in the hazardous waste of her flowers. "You promised me eternity!" Tanya wailed. "I'm one of your holy saints! Your divine light graced my sinful body and made me immortal! I'm immortal like you! I'm a saint! You chose me, I can't lose!"
Verdon turned away, unable to bear witness to the final moments of Tanya's life any longer. Her screams stopped soon enough and the heaving sob that peppered her speech quieted into nothing. The silence alone was enough for him to know Tanya was dead.
"What do you say, Sister?" Koruka asked, rapping the tips of his fingers against the wooden table. She watched him without a word, something he likely took as a sign of her weakening. That was bringing him joy. Sakura knew how happy the idea that she was giving in, that she was submitting to his will, was making him. "Are you ready to stand by my side and save the world?"
"I'm not going to stand by your side, Koruka," Sakura said tiredly. He practically clapped in his excitement.
"That's it?" he said, beaming from ear to ear. "No more trying to reach 'Kiyo?' No more claiming you can 'save' me?"
"No, Koruka," Sakura whispered, bowing her head. She stared at her hands, unsure what to do with them. She tried clasping them together, tried balling them up into fists, but nothing felt right. She settled for resting them on her lap. "I'm not going to try anymore."
"And yet you won't agree to join me yet…" Koruka clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "You are a stubborn girl, Sister. Although you've made progress! I'm sure another vision or two will help you get the rest of the way." Koruka leaned forward as he had done dozens of times throughout their conversation. His energy, warm and familiar to her even now, flashed out in the same way it had at the start of every vision.
The hallucination never came, though. Koruka frowned and tried again. Sakura already knew he was going to fail. "Why isn't it working anymore?" Koruka mumbled. "Are you stopping this somehow?" When she didn't give him an answer, he snorted. "So you think you can stop this from happening? Is that what you've been doing? Figuring out my trick?"
"I'm not stopping it, Koruka," Sakura said. "I'm just not letting it happen anymore."
"What are you talking about?" growled the light carrier. "You're saying the only reason we saw the beauty of our future together is because you let it happen?"
"That's not our future, Koruka," Sakura said. "And that's exactly what I'm saying. You can't share anymore of your delusional fantasies with me because I'm done keeping my mind open to you. I don't see the point in it anymore."
"All of that happened because you were 'open'?" Koruka huffed and leaned back in his chair. He didn't understand what was happening. Sakura knew enough about the man by now to know how much that had to upset him. He always liked being in control, being the one who knew everything.
"Exactly," Sakura confirmed. "And I'm not anymore. There's no reason for me to be."
"And what the hell does that mean?" Koruka was losing his temper. Sakura didn't take pride in having the upper hand. She wasn't satisfied knowing she'd figured out a phenomenon before the "almighty Koruka." The cold grip of an unshakable truth numbed her to everything that wasn't itself. "What are you trying to say, Sister?"
"Don't you get it?" Sakura asked neutrally. She stared into Koruka's impatient eyes. "I'm saying I'm not trying to save my brother anymore. Kiyo is dead. I've given up on you."