(For today’s Through the Balustrade character sketch, we take a look at one of the main Outcasts, and his first encounter with the truth.)
Alex couldn’t remember what happened next, but everything before that horrible moment played over and over in the darkness around him. The attack. Trying to reason with them. And the primeval drive that propelled his arms and hands to fight back.
Was he in some kind of limbo—a blackened holding place until the Guardians could collect him and return him to the training exercise? His eyes were open, but all they saw was nothingness.
He hadn’t tried to sit up. Every breath he took increased the throbbing in his head. Sitting up didn’t promise to be much better. His hand investigated beyond the edge of the bed to a cool, rock wall. The sound of flowing water drowned out anything else that might give him a clue as to his whereabouts.
His leather sentry uniform was gone, replaced by a soft cover up.
A faint glow moved off to his left, and he labored his head toward it. Getting brighter, the light revealed an archway of stone and dirt, and then the bright face of a beautiful young woman.
“You called me?” She smiled into the darkness, and a white light warmed up the other side of the cavern.
“He’s awake. Can you tend to him?” A boy stood and turned his attention toward Alex. “Hey there, we weren’t sure if we’d gotten to you in time.”
Alex moaned and touched his head. Had that kid been there all along?
“Yes, they hit you pretty hard. It’s really a miracle that you’re still alive.” The boy pointed, and the girl set the bright stave on a table by the bed and knelt down.
Alive? The estimation confused Alex. What else was there but to be alive? The girl rubbed her hands together then touched them to his head. She smelled like fresh air and looked like no plebe he’d ever seen. No body art, no decoration of any kind, just plain and lovely. Her long black hair fell across his arm as she traced her fingers to the back of his neck.
“You were supposed to let me know when he called you.” A man’s voice came from the archway. Alex didn’t try to see around the girl. Her touch sent a warmth into his head and arms that felt as if it were lifting him from the bed. He closed his eyes and absorbed her sweet presence.
“Oh Jahn.” She stopped moving her hands and pulled them away. The warmth diminished. “You were reading, and we are fine. He’s not going to hurt anyone. Are you?”
Alex unsealed his eyes to receive her smile and shook his head. The throbbing was gone. She returned to her work needling his left arm with her little hands.
“What are we going to do with him?” Jahn turned his attention to the boy.
“We’re going to tell him the truth and let him decide.” The boy had a glow about him that didn’t seem to involve a stave. “What is your name sentry?”
Jahn cleared his throat and interrupted, “They’ll come looking for him. They don’t just let their soldiers fall without retribution. They’ll be looking for someone to blame.” He sounded as if he were asking permission instead of issuing a warning.
“Yes, I know, but that is beyond our control.” The boy didn’t budge. Some question seemed to hang in the air between them. “What is it Jahn? What’s bothering you?”
Turning his back to the bed, Jahn leaned toward the kid and lowered his voice. “You saw him. You saw what he did, and what he was about to do. How can we trust someone like that? They are all trained killers. They live to hunt us down.”
The boy reached out and touched Jahn’s arm. “Men can change, Jahn. Their environment plays a part in their life, but it does not determine their future. I did see what this man is capable of, did you?”
The girl started humming as she moved her hands from Alex’s arm to his chest. Jahn nodded toward the boy and then turned back with a different look on his face. There was some kind of happy energy among them. The boy smiled, the girl sang, and Jahn even had a joyous anticipation in his eyes.
“Now, what’s your name?” The kid spoke as if he were their overseer.
Alex forced his tongue from the roof of his dry mouth and mumbled his name.
“Welcome Alex.” The child-leader lifted his arms up and somehow glowed even brighter. Was it the light reflecting on his white tog? “We are the Outcasts, and we are your friends. I am Altrist, and what I’m about to tell you is going to change your world forever.”
Alex swallowed, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Two cycles ago he wouldn’t have been so weak. He would’ve fought the pain, questioned them, and demanded they return him to his post, but now he wasn’t sure. There were questions that he’d never even thought of, and every answer he came to led him to a conclusion he didn’t want to acknowledge.
Maybe there was more.
Never before had he felt this sense that he was coming home to something. It was like he was waking up and standing on the verge of wonder. A devoted student to the Guardians, he had ended his training with the sentry post in the top percentile. He’d even been invited to the Plateau upon his return from the wild. But now none of that seemed to matter. He had seen life ebb from someone’s eyes. He had felt the desperation to survive, and he had confronted the emptiness in his heart and not found an answer. Until now.
He exhaled to find the cavern even brighter and with more faces at the end of his bed smiling down at him. Whoever these people were, they didn’t answer to Hyperion, and Alex knew he had found something different and brimming with life.