AL STONE

CHAPTER ELEVEN

August Rush

 

TO SAY THE PEOPLE around Charlie were shocked to see him standing in the middle of the cafe would have been an understatement. First came the wide-eyed, transfixed stare, followed by manic shuffling to all corners of the room, and finally, after realising Charlie wasn’t going to disappear as quickly as he had appeared, came an outburst of what he would describe as tortured screams. Customers knocked over tables, chairs and people as they rushed for the exit.

Cries of panic travelled a long way into the streets, their voices carrying the threat of more disturbances. Charlie didn’t move. He knew he should, but he wasn’t sure he remembered how to. He gave the room a once-over, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t where he thought he was. Albeit there were clear signs of modification, it was the same cafe he had witnessed his parents walking into a short while ago. And now, over sixteen years later, he was standing in the same place.

‘Okay, now I’m freaking out,’ he muttered.

The sound of banging alerted him to the tall, middle-aged man standing behind the serving counter. It appeared Charlie wasn’t the only one immobilised by shock.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a phone I could use, would you?’ Charlie asked.

The man’s breath hitched, and he ducked down, disappearing from view. Charlie heard scuffling noises coming from behind the counter. He guessed the man was making a break for the back exit. Hearing a colossal amount of voices, he glanced towards the front entrance and saw people gaping into the cafe, curious and vigilant expressions on their faces. He caught Arabic and French dialects among the voices.

Tunisia? Charlie’s heart stopped beating. I’m in Tunisia! His breathing started to accelerate. As if things weren’t confusing and distressing enough, he still could not detect Sol’s presence. With the crowd outside becoming more agitated by the second, he decided to make a dash for the back exit. He had only taken a step when a sharp pain ripped into the back of his neck, and his legs buckled, sending him crumbling to the ground on his hands and knees. The pain intensified, and he cried out, gripping the edge of the chair nearest to him. His vision shifted in and out of focus. This was definitely more like what he had experienced during the time he was uniting with the earth element.

Finally, the pain subsided, releasing the tension in his muscles. His legs trembled slightly as he got to his feet. He hadn’t even straightened up when he heard a familiar clicking noise behind him, followed by an authoritative voice demanding him to raise his hands. Charlie couldn’t help but panic. Being held at gunpoint with no abilities was a sure-fire way to get killed. Any minute now, he told himself, his eyes the only things moving as he searched for that familiar glow of light. Candra was going to show up at any minute. She had been with his mother during her pregnancy. She was the only one who would know about his parents’ trip to Tunisia. She had to know what the picture meant.

‘Get down on your knees,’ the same stern voice ordered in Arabic.

It was only now as he stood frozen in one spot that Charlie felt the cold chill of the air against his skin. Glancing to his left, his eyes rested on a black and white photo of a fishing boat on a rocky desert ground. It wasn’t the image that had captured his attention; it was the figure reflected in the glass frame of the photo, moving towards him with a revolver held at eye level, pointed at the back of his head.

Holding his breath, Charlie turned around slowly. There were four armed officers standing inside the cafe, dressed in black. ‘Whoa,’ Charlie exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘Easy, easy, don’t shoot.’

The officers shot brief glances at one another. Their hesitation induced panic in Charlie. Indecisive officials were a cause for disaster, which was the last thing he needed. Over the past few days, he had given much thought to how he would die: organ failure, internal combustion … Assassination for being in the wrong place at the wrong time had never crossed his mind. Being inside the protection of the watchtower had reduced his chances of numerous death scenarios, but now, everything and everyone was a potential threat.

‘I haven’t done anything wrong,’ Charlie said. He could have spoken in Arabic but decided to play the fool. The less he knew, the more innocent he would appear, he figured.

‘Police, police,’ said the officer in front, his English accented. He removed one hand off his weapon and brandished his badge, holding it up with shaking hands for Charlie to see. With all the strange happenings taking place across the globe, it was no surprise people were overly cautious. The officer put his badge back inside his pocket. ‘You come,’ he instructed. ‘Police.’

Hearing a commotion, Charlie observed the onlookers gathered outside the cafe and saw people with their phones out, filming the event, no doubt. One word popped up in his head: viral. Sol, he cried. Time to wake up, buddy. With there still being no sign of Candra, he failed to hold on to the fleeting anticipation of being rescued. At this point, he would have called on Azrael if he could.

Charlie’s attention averted from his audience, thoughts of Azrael thrusting him into a momentary stupor. Azrael was the only person who knew of his exact location. He had already proven that he would do anything to keep Charlie from the risk of being captured by Gaddis, so where was he? Charlie wanted to believe this was Azrael’s attempt to scare him as punishment for not annihilating Gaddis but his gut feeling told him that wasn’t the reason for the archangel’s absence. Something wasn’t right.

It might have been wishful thinking on Charlie’s part, but he knew Azrael wouldn’t miss an opportunity to impose his authority. Charlie was fully exposed. The only reason he could gather for why the Archangel of Death hadn’t shown his face was that he had no idea Charlie had left the watchtower.

He can’t locate me, Charlie speculated. ‘I need a pen,’ he said to the officers, who looked at one another in confusion. ‘Pen.’ With his hand, he imitated writing, which only seemed to stump them further. He rolled his eyes. ‘I need a pen,’ he repeated, this time in Arabic.

The officers’ faces twisted from confusion to shock and eventually to suspicion.

Charlie scanned the cafe and spotted a pen on a table in the corner of the room, which he headed towards.

‘Freeze,’ someone commanded behind him.

He didn’t stop. ‘I’m just getting a pen.’ He continued to converse with the officers in Arabic. He glanced behind him and saw the officers moving towards him in a staccato fashion. He turned and started walking backwards, holding his hands up. ‘Don’t shoot. I need to get a message to someone.’ He bumped into something and looked over his shoulder. Seeing the pen on the table he was backed up against, he turned around and grabbed it.

‘Drop the weapon,’ an officer yelled.

Charlie ignored the order. In black ink, he wrote the word HELP across his left palm. He had barely finished writing the last letter when he felt a strong force collide into his back, propelling him forward. His face and torso pressed against the wooden table, he positioned his left hand in front of his eyes so he had perfect view of his palm.

The officer restraining Charlie grabbed his right hand, forcing it behind his back. Charlie listened to the sound of footsteps gathering around him. The moment all four officers were within close reach, he made his move. He took out the first officer with just one blow to the head. The other three put up more of a fight, their hard blows catching him a few times. Tables collapsed, walls caved in as Charlie and the officers went head to head. When the first gunshot went off, a chorus of screams ripped through the air. Charlie’s combat skills proving to be quite as effective as his supernatural abilities, it took one minute for the fight to cease. All in all, only three fires were shot by the time he disabled all four officers and left them lying unconscious on the cafe floor.

The crowd outside the cafe had scattered, the lingering bystanders making a move only upon Charlie’s approach. He exited the cafe onto a wide cobblestone street with buildings left, right and centre. Whispers travelled among the frantic crowd as people shot wary glances at him. The gunshots had to have been heard some distance away. He had to move. He held his palm up to his face for the second time and then glanced left and right along the street. The place somewhat resembled a market, stalls lining both sides of the street. Charlie caught sight of a large yellow phone icon with the word Publitel beneath it.

Heading in the direction of a castle-like building with a corner tower topped with a domed kiosk, he made haste towards the phone sign. He got only a few feet when he heard a noise that made him look to the sky. He stopped, his blood running cold as he gazed at the flock of birds moving across the clear blue sky, all heading in the same direction. The last time he had seen this many birds, he’d been standing in a graveyard. After the birds had come an army of the dead. The only difference between then and now was that this wasn’t a vision.

This can’t be good, he thought as he glanced around him. People had stopped what they were doing to look at the sky. Taking this moment to slip away unnoticed, Charlie took off again but stopped almost immediately when he spotted the black uniforms moving through the crowd ahead of him. Whirling around, he took off in the opposite direction, his pace measured at first but after a few glimpses behind him and realising that he’d been made, he started to sprint.

He ran down a narrow, winding market alley covered by huge supportive eaves, two police officers hot on his tail. Charlie made his way through a warren of alleyways lined with closely packed white-washed houses with blue details. Everything looked the same. For all he knew, he could have been running in circles. Whichever way he turned, a circuit of walls surrounded him, but as lost as he felt, he had to keep going or risk being caught. By now, he knew Azrael wasn’t coming. Whatever was causing his disconnection from the archangel, it had to be linked to him having no abilities. He was on his own.

As he ran from alley to alley, he kept wondering if his parents had set him up. Then he chastised himself for even thinking such thoughts. He turned a corner and came to an abrupt halt. Two more officers had joined the chase. The situation suddenly intensified when the officers opened fire. Charlie picked up pace. He had no abilities but his senses were still sharp, allowing him to put a good distance between him and the officers. After finally losing sight of them, he spotted a shaded tunnel with a lantern right above the entrance that he headed towards. As he approached the tunnel, he bounded off the adjoining wall and caught hold of the lantern pole and swung himself up onto it. With the aid of a semi-circular balcony, he made his way up onto the roof of a two-storey building and ducked out of sight.

Situations like this, no one had prepared him for. Mortal combat involved a lot more compromises than battling with Archons, he realised. Sure, he could easily execute the officers and give himself a good head start, but there was no guarantee they were immortal. With a demon, he wouldn’t have thought twice about his actions.

The sound of raised voices and hurried footsteps clotted Charlie’s eardrums. Keeping low, he scurried over to the other end of the roof and peered over the edge. He spotted a few awnings and about a dozen folks in the market alley below. Crouching down, he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. He singled out each sound, mapping the area in his head. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and stood up, shooting his gaze around the surroundings as he contemplated the best way to escape the maze he was trapped in.

The ancient walled city was situated on rising ground, the tallest structure being a circular watchtower that had to be nearing ninety feet, which was a good distance from where he was standing. The buildings within close proximity were no greater than three or four storeys high, ideal for Charlie, who saw a good means of staying off the radar. He didn’t waste any time deliberating. He leapt across the seven-foot gap, landing on the opposite roof with a thud. For the next three minutes, Charlie travelled via rooftops. When he rejoined the masses on the ground level, the atmosphere appeared a lot different. People were no longer gawking or chasing after him.

As he headed along a busy street, he felt a tremor under his feet that made him look down, but he kept going. It wasn’t until the third tremor that he finally stopped. The vibration was light at first but then the shaking became more intense. It seemed almost as if the earth was coming apart but everything was still intact. Charlie glanced up and down the street. Everyone had stopped what they were doing. Panic didn’t set in until a horrific noise blasted across the city. He didn’t recognise the sound. At one point the noise resembled that of a jet engine building up. Were they under attack? Immediately, Charlie thought Gaddis’s minions had found him. He looked up at the sky, not sure what he would find. Nothing flew by overhead.

Then the screaming started. Charlie glanced away from the sky and saw people scattering in the distance. The folks nearby looked just as confused as he felt. Although he didn’t know what was happening, he didn’t stand around and wait to be trampled by the frantic group rushing towards him. He took to the street along with the crowd.

Chaos reigned everywhere.

‘Water come, water come,’ Charlie heard someone behind him yell in Arabic.

Before he knew it, he found himself being knocked off his feet by a strong force from behind. He landed in shallow water. When he got to his feet, another burst of water hit him; so strong and fast moving it was that it almost sent him hurling to the ground again, but he managed to stay on his feet, braced against a car. The water was up to his knees now and was moving with such speed that he could barely move his feet against the current.

It was suddenly very windy. Slowly, the screaming started to fade as the engine noise became louder. When the car Charlie was leaning against started to shift, he made a move, just in time as another vehicle made a strong impact, denting the side of the car he had been leaning against. Standing in the middle of what used to be a street but now looked like a river, people scattering all around him, he saw what had the folks of Tunisia in hysteria. Rushing towards him at a great speed was a black wall of water maybe three to four storeys high. The huge wave smashed everything and anything in its path.

Charlie whirled around and powered through the water. Each time he glanced behind him, he saw the monstrous wave swallowing people as it gunned for him. The water was just a few feet away when he spotted a young woman kneeling on the bonnet of a car ahead of him, her eyes wide with terror as she stared at the oncoming wave.

‘Run,’ Charlie yelled, but she didn’t budge. He wasn’t even sure she had heard him. Taking two big leaps, he lunged forward. The moment he made contact with the woman, the wave hit him hard.

Charlie lost his grip on the woman as the current swept him away, twisting and turning him repeatedly. He didn’t know which way was up or down. Metal, glass, bricks and all the random objects carried along with the wave collided into him, cutting into his skin. The pain wasn’t as bad as the feeling of water filling his lungs, suffocating him. It was almost as if he was in a giant washing machine full of nettles on a spin cycle. Swimming was futile.

When he surfaced, the first thing he heard were screams. He didn’t see quite as many people as he was expecting to see, or buildings. The whole place was flooded. The water carried Charlie along, slamming him against brick walls that trembled under the impact. Now the pain started to kick in.

‘Mama, mama,’ he heard a child cry, but he couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. He tried to grab hold of something but the current was too powerful. He soon found himself backed up against a brick wall, everything carried in the water piling up against him, pinning him to the wall. The debris started stacking up quickly, rising up to his head. Something sharp pierced his stomach, right below his left ribcage.

Charlie cried out. He pushed against the debris but the force was too much, the weight increasing by the second. He tried hard not to concentrate on the deep gashes in his chest or the intense pain radiating through his right leg. Instead, he thought about Sol, who was still AWOL. He still couldn’t comprehend how he had teleported to Tunisia without Sol’s assistance. Water splattering in his face clouded his vision, that and the tears that filled his eyes as he thought about Derkein and the others he had left back at the watchtower. They all never believed he would make it through the day. Now he was starting to believe it too.

‘You’re not alone,’ his dad’s voice said inside his head.

A tear strolled down Charlie’s cheek. He couldn’t move his hand to wipe it away. It was the same thing his mum had said to him in her letter: you are not alone. But he was. No one was coming for him.

‘Don’t you dare give up,’ Joseph said.

It was almost as if his dad was with him. Charlie clenched his jaw, reorienting himself. There was no way his parents would lead him to his death. He refused to believe such an absurd thought, even if it had been his own impression. Focusing on his breathing, he tried to tap into his abilities but failed on all attempts. He let out a thunderous wail, the water beating against him. The more he struggled, the more trapped he became. He stopped moving, his eyes trained on the sky as the water continued to rise.

Death by natural disaster was also a scenario he hadn’t contemplated. And to think, the very element he was becoming one with was to be his downfall. He shook his head, chuckling at the irony. Surely, someone was mocking him. Mum, Charlie cried. Dad. The image of his parents embracing each other inside the watchtower bathroom flashed across his mind as the water rose above his head, the rubble pushing him under. Being one with water rendered him capable of breathing underwater. But, of course, he had no dominion over the water element, which meant he could only hold his breath for so long.

Charlie didn’t struggle. Panic would only make him drown faster. He knew from training how to control his breathing underwater. He had done it on numerous occasions, lasting as long as eight minutes. But on no occasion had he been injured at the time. He was losing consciousness fast. He tried again to break free of the rubble but to no avail. Then he felt it: the gritty sensation in his throat, followed by a sharp sting in the back of his neck. A cold chill washed over him, numbing the pain in his body. His vision blurred. Had he not experienced the feeling before, he would have thought he was dying.

As the light around him slowly faded, numerous figures started to appear. Charlie was no longer submerged in water. He was floating in space, many blue light beings orbiting him. He smiled as he watched the blurry figures flash past him, a thousand whispering voices ringing in his ears. He couldn’t have united with the water element at a better time.

Candra, he thought, and just like it had happened when he’d become one with earth, one of the figures stopped moving. The bright white light being drifted towards him, materialising into Candra as she drew closer to him –

Complete darkness. That was all Charlie could see. He must have blacked out after that because the next thing he remembered was waking up underwater, dead bodies and random objects floating around him. The water was now motionless. He couldn’t tell how long he had been underwater, but from the pressure he felt in his head, he knew he had passed his eight minute limit. He was no longer backed up against a brick wall, had nothing stacked up against him, but even then he found it a struggle to move. It was almost as if the connection between his brain and his body had been severed.

Looking up, he saw a circle of light streaming down towards him. He couldn’t calculate the exact distance to the surface, but he was down deep –

Charlie felt a heavy pressure around his eyes as he opened them. For a moment, he was disoriented, having no recollection of his whereabouts. He swivelled his head left and right. The ghastly site around him brought with it a devastating reminder of the tsunami. He was still underwater, which could only mean he had blacked out again. He knew it wouldn’t take long before he completely succumbed to the darkness. Using the minuscule amount of energy he had left in him, he slipped back into the land of no gravity, the world occupied by light beings of the water kingdom –

The world vanished, and Charlie found himself back underwater. He would have panicked except he could still hear the whispering voices. The noise was so loud it sounded as if it was right beside him. He could even feel the pull of its energy. He could have been imagining it, but he could swear he was sinking. The motion was sluggish, almost stagnant, but he was definitely moving. Alarmed now, he glanced around him and caught sight of a bright blue light in the dark water some distance away from him. From the trajectory of the light, it was clear the source of its projection was coming from below. The farther Charlie’s gaze descended, the brighter the light appeared to be, illuminating the surroundings. His eyes followed the light all the way to the bottom where he spotted what appeared to be a red vehicle. His heart swelled when he saw what was on top of the roof: the blue diamond.

Charlie couldn’t believe his eyes. He knew now where the force he felt tugging him was coming from. The same thing had happened when he’d found the yellow diamond in Sedona, Arcadia. ‘There’s something special about this place,’ his mother’s voice said inside his head. She had known all along. That was what she had been trying to tell him this whole time. The vision of his death had to have been inaccurate. He hadn’t teleported here to meet his doom. He was here to retrieve the diamond.

Charlie felt a sharp shock inside his chest that made his body jerk. The world faded in and out. All the while his focus remained on the diamond. It was within such close reach, but no matter how hard he concentrated, he hadn’t the strength to move. His eyelids fluttered as they slowly closed, the sound of the diamond ever domineering.

Stay awake, stay awake, Charlie pleaded. Sol!

Darkness overcame him. His entire body tingled as an overwhelming energy rushed through him. The whispering voices soon started to fade as his thoughts wavered. In the pits of darkness, he felt something enfold around his torso and tug him backwards. The next thing he felt was the sensation of falling.