Passport to Paradise
"Because of you?" Alain said, raising his head
up from his knees. "You're the reason?"
"No, he's not," Vegeta snapped. "It's all them. They were the ones to kill these people and set fire to their homes and businesses." Another explosion shook the tower. "Kakarotto had nothing to do with it."
The teen's tears soaked into his shirt. "But I have the Key," he mumbled.
"Forget about the damn Key. Forget about their reasons. We have to concentrate on getting out of this alive. Nothing else matters but survival, remember?"
"I remember," he whispered. The day lit up with sound once more.
The wall behind them partially collapsed and daylight began to leak inside their hiding place. Through the hole they could see dark shapes drawing nearer, their hands raised towards the sky. Kakarotto stumbled to his feet and stumbled toward the wooden door that led into the upper city. It seemed that their hiding place was no longer safe.
"Where can we go?" he asked Alain before freezing on the small street as he realized that fire had claimed the buildings nearest to the wall. He seriously doubted that there was a safe place in the entire city.
"Outside. Beyond the walls. Maybe we can make it back to your inn to get your things, but I'm not sure if there's enough time."
"Forget about it, we can always buy more." Vegeta took Kakarotto's hand again and ran after Alain who was, once again, taking them on a roundabout route.
The governor's army finally made an appearance. They could hear them march down the main street and even caught glimpses of them from between buildings. One of the soldiers let out a yell that spurred his comrades into action and the sounds of intense fighting could be heard throughout the area. From down an alley as the three of them moved past it, Kakarotto could see one of the barbarian warriors shove an old man's body off his sword with his foot and keep on fighting. He had little hope that the Fisher's Cove army would win.
Soon the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying became a distant memory. Alain had led them right to the street where their inn was located, the people in this part of the city still untouched by the violence that was yet to come.
"I'll go up and get everything," Kakarotto said. "You two need to warn everyone." Without waiting for a response, he ran across the street and entered the building.
Vegeta didn't relish the thought of trying to get everyone to believe that they were in mortal danger. The only unusual thing most of the people in this neighborhood had probably seen that day was the army riding out to the lower city. You could not see the fires from where he stood nor could you hear the sounds of battle. But he would try anyway even though he felt it was a lost cause because Kakarotto had trusted him to do so.
"Listen up!" he shouted as loudly as he could. "You need to pack up your most important things, gather up your families, and head towards the eastern gate. There is a barbarian army heading up here that has no conscience whatsoever!"
A few people on the street began to panic and do as told, but most ignored him. The prince rolled his eyes, asked the heavens for patience, and tried again. "Look, I'm not doing this because I'm worried about you people. I'm doing this because I really have no desire to see anyone else murdered in front of me today. If you don't believe me, you can head towards the lower city and see for yourselves. You need to only go six or seven blocks west. Probably can see the smoke from the fires after only four blocks."
A woman began to scream. "He's right!" she cried. "The city's on fire!" She pointed towards where the smoke was darkening the sky, much closer than it should have been.
"Can't even trust the army to slow them down," Vegeta said, irritated. "Kakarotto, we're out of time!" He was worried that his lover hadn't heard him. "Go!" He instead turned to the crowd gathering at the end of the small square. "Run away and tell the people farther up to do the same! You don't want to die like they did in the lower city, trust me."
While he paced in front of the inn, Alain helped everyone escape. There were several very old people who he knew would not make it, but he aided them anyway to the opposite edge of the square from the spreading horror. Then he returned to Vegeta's side and joined his restless pacing.
"I'm ready," Kakarotto said, pushing several people ahead of him. "Had to warn the people still inside."
"Of course," Vegeta murmured. "There's no time to waste." He grabbed his pack and shouldered it, then they followed the citizens of Fisher's Cove out of the doomed city.
It was depressing to see just how few people had survived the battle, if you could even call it that. Kakarotto was more of the belief that the aim of the barbarians had been wholesale slaughter. Fisher's Cove had done nothing to antagonize them, and whatever fortune they could have taken from it would be long gone by the time the fires finally ran out of fuel. He, Vegeta, and roughly seven hundred citizens watched the city burn until there was nothing left. The only thing that remained relatively unscathed was the high stone wall running around three sides the city that also served to separate the two sections of it, but even that was destroyed in places due to several strong magical explosions. The largest city on the continent was now only a memory.
No one knew why they had been targeted, no one save for Kakarotto. He knew as well as he knew himself that he was the reason so many innocent people had to suffer. He stood somewhat apart from everyone else, his face covered in soot that had spread on the wind, his clothes ripped from stone shrapnel and slightly singed where the flames had come too close, and watched the barbarians make camp in the valley below. They brought supplies from the ships moored in the harbor and erected tents in mockery of the survivors who had no shelter out in the hills other than the trees. He was sure they knew they were there, but none of them moved to finish the job that they had started.
"Kakarotto, please speak to me." Vegeta didn't like the pallor of his skin or the trembling in his body. The teen hadn't spoken since they'd escaped the confinement of the city and the look on his face was vacant as if his mind had gone on a long journey and left his body behind.
"He's going into shock," an unfamiliar voice said. Vegeta looked up at the newcomer, a middle-aged woman with a kind face. Her black hair was pulled back into a tight bun that no strands dared to escape, an amazing feat for someone of Saiya-jin origin. Upon closer inspection he could see that she was not entirely of his race, that there was at least an equal amount of human blood flowing through her veins as well. "We have to get him warm or he could die."
"What?" Vegeta said numbly as the woman grabbed a nearby blanket from a family and wrapped Kakarotto in it.
"Sad to say, this isn't uncommon after a traumatic experience like the one we've all just had. I suspect that, as what happened starts to sink in for people, I'll see more of it."
"Who are you?" he asked, helping her to ease Kakarotto down onto the ground.
"A healer. I've been trained to handle these things so don't worry." She placed two fingers against the pulse in the teen's neck and focused. "His heartbeat's steady, he'll be fine. But keep a close eye on him, all right? He could get worse at any moment."
Vegeta could only press his face into Kakarotto's shoulder and hold him close.
The survivors kept watch all night, waiting for the barbarians to launch their final attack, but it never came. Children slumbered fitfully, their heads in their parents laps, while old women cried softly in the darkness. Kakarotto's skin had finally regained its normal color and temperature close to dawn so the prince returned the blanket to the family it had come from, thanking them for their generosity.
"They're waiting for something or someone," Kakarotto said suddenly, his voice loud in the pre-dawn twilight. "Or else they would have attacked by now."
The thought of someone powerful enough to give the warriors pause made the blood run cold in his veins.
In the valley, the barbarians slowly came to life. Cook fires were started and morning rituals were seen to in plain sight, much to the disgust of the awake survivors with strong eyesight. As the men settled down to breakfast, a single man detached himself from the group and began to walk up the hill towards them. Kakarotto rose and immediately moved to meet him.
"Stay put, all of you!" Vegeta commanded as he rushed to follow. "See to your families."
"Kakarotto," he said once he was close enough, "this is madness." The teen continued forward as if he never heard him. Vegeta grabbed his arm and forcefully halted his movement and spun him around so that they were face-to-face. "He's their leader, the man who gave them free reign to do whatever they felt like to Fisher's Cove and its people. If what you say is true, and he wants the Key, then it's suicide to meet with him."
"This is my battle, Vegeta," Kakarotto said earnestly. "Trying to deny that will only bring more heartache." He caressed his cheek then kissed him long and hard. "I have to walk alone."
"No!" Vegeta shouted as he headed off to what the prince could only call Certain Doom. "As your Master, I forbid you!"
"I'm sorry, Vegeta," he said. Kakarotto did not stop walking.
Alain moved to stand beside the prince. He had wandered amongst the people the night before, searching for familiar faces and for any sign of a city official. He hadn't yet found a member of the government, but he had met with a few childhood friends and had spent the night with them. "He's really brave."
"More like really stupid." But he couldn't help feeling proud of Kakarotto's determination to protect those who could not protect themselves. He supposed that his nature wouldn't allow him to stand idly by while there was a chance, albeit a very small one, that he could spare them further grief.
"What do you want?" Kakarotto said once he was near enough, the bland expression on his face and the steadiness of his voice hardly betraying the terror he felt inside.
The man was taller than even his six-foot-two height and infinitely more muscled. He didn't really look like any villain he could imagine. His black hair was cut short and neat, as was his mustache, and his black clothing and armor was free of rips and bloodstains. He smiled at Kakarotto and it was actually a pleasant one.
"You already know what we want. It's the same thing we've always wanted but have never been fortunate enough to find. Until now."
"I am not giving you the Key," he said flatly. It was what his now-extinct clan had died to protect. He would not dishonor their memory by giving the enemy what they sought.
"Of course you're not." The "pleasant gentleman" persona faded and "ruthless killer" pushed its way to the surface. "I had hoped that you would refuse. This will make things much more interesting."
Kakarotto was instantly on alert for all physical attacks, but was not able to guard against metaphysical ones.
It felt as if someone was gripping his brain with steel fingers and was trying to pull it out through an exit far too small for it to fit through. Kakarotto let out a strangled groan and collapsed to his knees, though he did not realize that he had moved. His entire world had narrowed down to the pressure and pain he felt within his skull and nothing else mattered beyond escaping from it.
"My priest will have a lovely time with you, but I think I'll take my own revenge out on you first. We've had to endure much because of you."
Tendrils of corrupted magic began to invade him, pulling a reluctant answer from his own magic. They were of the same source, he distantly realized, but the barbarian leader's own power had been perverted somehow. All of their magic was like this.
It wound around his own magic and bound it so tightly that it could not move. He felt the small amount of power he had called to his hand fade and vanish as if he'd never summoned it in the first place.
Then the nightmares started.
They were also memories. Memories of a time he had done his best to forget, a time when he was innocent and without worry. His mother and father and clansmen were still alive, their voices adding to the cheerful noise that was daily life in the village. He thought he was young in them, knew he was young -- it was back before he'd begun his training so that he would be able to protect the Key even if all of the other protectors were gone. Everything that was done in the village, from eating to sleeping to loving, was done with full knowledge that the end of it all could come at any moment. But no one had guessed that it would be so soon. The Elders had known that the barbarians were on their way, but kept it from everyone until it was far too late. They had come riding out of the mist gathered over the swamps too numerous to count and no one had been able to choose their fate. No one except for the Keeper of the Key, a twelve-year-old boy known simply as Kakarotto.
And even he was still bound by the events of four years ago that had killed his people. It hadn't ended there, only began.
He remembered the day they attacked as if it had happened only yesterday, exactly how he would remember it, he feared, every day until the day he died. It dawned overcast, but still warm, and he went to meet his master after breakfast just as he had done every day since he was five except for the weekly holy day of rest. He was walking across the wide square that all of the small village houses faced when his senses told him that something was not right. Freezing where he stood, he looked around carefully, examining everything his eyes could see, but finding nothing out of the ordinary. He dismissed it as paranoia, then, and continued on his way. But what if he had seen the threat for what it was? What if he had sounded the alarm and gave his people the warning they had sorely lacked? Would more people have survived, or would their deaths have still come that day regardless of what he'd done? Kakarotto liked to believe he could have done nothing to prevent it, that he didn't have their deaths on his conscience, but he also wanted to believe that they'd had a chance, no matter how small, to survive.
The Elders shouted a warning later that morning as he sat in the usual ritual meditation that his master forced him to go through before they began to train for the day. It took a little while for the panic to sink into his mind, but Master Totepo grabbed his small hand, hauling him to his feet with little effort, and told him to run into the forest where there was a designated safe place in case of attack. It was maintained religiously by the clan and there was enough food and clean water there to last him a week if he was careful. When he did not move to run away, the master shoved him so hard that he stumbled then ran out of the training room to join the fight. Kakarotto stared after him until he was no longer in sight, curious about what was going on. So he did not escape as he was told, instead following the sounds of battle to the edge of the village and watched with horror as his clansmen were butchered one-by-one, starting first with the warriors and then moving on the ones who had not been trained to defend themselves. He saw the small, inert bodies of his friends lying on the ground and knew grief for the very first time.
"No..." he said weakly, his mind reluctant to believe what his eyes told him was true. More men emerged from the moors, the thick white fog that perpetually blanketed them swirling around their leather-clad legs. He felt a hand grab him and stifled the scream that was rising up into his throat before he found himself pressed closely to someone's chest. He breathed in deeply and recognized his mother's familiar scent.
"My son, you must go." Her arms held him tightly, refusing to release him even as she spoke the words. "We will meet up with you later."
"Mother." She was crying, her warm tears trickling into his hair.
"Go!" He kissed him on the forehead and pushed him towards the hiding place. "We will always love you."
And that was the last time he saw her alive. When he returned to the village several hours later, the barbarians were long gone and every single man, woman, and child of his village lay dead on the plain. He moved amongst the bodies, closing eyes and straightening bent limbs, knowing that there was no way he could build a funeral pyre large enough to cremate them all. So he had sung the death chant of his people, gathered up a few personal belongings, and left them to the scavengers.
Kakarotto couldn't breathe. It was like something the size of a house was sitting on his chest. He tried to force his eyes open to at least see his attacker, but no muscle in his body would respond to his urging. Distantly he thought he could hear a hoarse yell that sounded as if someone's heart was breaking, but he could not be sure because there were other voices in his mind, all of them whispering obscene and hateful things.
When darkness rushed up to claim him, he was grateful. He hadn't known how much longer he could have taken being immobilized and completely without the magic he'd felt every day for as far back as his memory could take him without going insane.
His last thought was of Vegeta and how he was likely taking the sight of him on the ground completely helpless. He promised the prince silently that if they both made it out of this alive that he would do anything he desired of him without protest. It was all he could think of to offer as compensation.