Aftershocks

An edgy Rt:Alt spinoff/companion/utter ripoff

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September 14, 2016 12:44pm
yeeeeeeeeeeet
In a world of war and conflict, an extermination throws the last great bastion of peace into aggression. In the midst of this, a child sorcerer seeks justice for his fallen home. A repentant assassin and a messenger of the future rush to save their last refuge from destruction. The dead return, backed by a forgotten god. Ideals clash. Morals crumble. And it will not end until one half of the world stands in the ashes of the other.
September 14, 2016 1:12pm
yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet
In a world of war and conflict, an extermination throws the last great bastion of peace into aggression. In the midst of this, a child sorcerer seeks justice for his fallen home. A repentant assassin and a messenger of the future rush to save their last refuge from destruction. The dead return, backed by a forgotten god. Ideals clash. Morals crumble. And it will not end until one half of the world stands in the ashes of the other.
September 14, 2016 1:16pm
A flash of steel, a clash of blades. The smell of a coming storm. An anguished cry. The taste of iron. A betrayal, a death, despair.
Aftershocks
Chapter 1 – Breaking News
The radio shattered Noda’s dream, the shards disappearing into the void. “Good Morning Shioko! It is 7:30 am on the dot here at the Route, with your host Leopard here wishing you a fantastic day,” exclaimed the radio station with a far too cheerful tone for a Monday morning. Cold sweat mingled with his sheets, everything slightly damp to the touch and uncomfortably cold. Hammers and bells rang in his head and his ears screamed. He groaned and rubbed his eyes – small flakes of sleep floating from them like dead flies. His hair was a ravens’ nest of black, set awry by his slumber.
“Curtains,” he called out to the darkness, his inert form finally upright. The apartment’s blinds slowly rolled up, the summer morning sun burning holes into his head.
“Temperature: 31 degrees Celsius, 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity 20%. Chance of rain 5%. Wind speed 11 miles per hour north west,” the apartment AI droned. “Would you like to eat something hot?”
Noda’s head tilted to one side, threatening to collapse to the bed unconscious. “I’ll stick with cereal today.”
“I’m sorry. I did not recognize that command. Would you like to eat something hot?”
A set of blue eyes twitched. “No, I wouldn’t.”
There was a pause. “Certainly,” stated the AI, as though offended by his tone.
The boy rubbed his face again, the scent of alcohol tickling his nose. He needed water. He lumbered over to the small food counter behind his bed, snatching the bottle of Viridian Spring. As he gulped the water down he eyed the slice of cake left behind by last night. The icing left on the slice read “18”. Oh right. He was 18 now, that barrier of adulthood finally being breached. But he felt nothing, nothing besides the constant hammering of church bells in his head and the screeching in his ears. Beside the cake was an incoming rent notice, cast aside, slightly crumpled.
Growing up sucked.

*****

“It is rush hour here at the Route and traffic is kicking off. We advise you to avoid the junctions between Forum Street and 33rd Avenue, with an accident holding up the whole intersection down at Main Street…”
The radio faded into the background as Noda trudged to school. His bag was half open and half empty, despite the day being his busiest schedule. His uniform was appalling to say the least; his top two buttons were undone, the white shirt exposing his vest; his jacket hung from his limbs, a green sheet swaying lifeless in the wind. Two textbooks were braced in his arms – he had found them both under his bed for reasons unknown to boy, and he needed them for reasons he wished he didn’t know.
The open gates of Shioko High invited Noda to his own personal hell.
“What the heck am I even doing with my life,” he grumbled, feeling the sun crack its fiery whip across his body.
“Whoa, g’mornin’ sunshine!” called a bright voice. A fist slammed into his arm, knocking him forwards slightly.
“Ow! Good morning to you too, Elise,” he muttered. For such a short girl – she barely reached Noda’s chin – she had a good punch.
Elise laughed, hooking her arm around his. “Sup! I see the effects of last night have worn off - ” she stifled a laugh – “you don’t look a day over eighteen! Oh wait – “ her tirade dissolved into a giggling fit. Her maroon hair thrashed in the wind as she cackled, tears of mirth streaming down her face.
The boy glared at her, something dark flashing into his eyes. “I’m not having a great morning, thanks.”
She took one look at his murderous stare and began to asphyxiate with laughter. Across the courtyard, other students began staring at her with curious eyes, as though they happened upon a dog that walked on two legs.
“Anyway, seriously though? You know how to throw down a party. I mean, like, you're always chatting to the twins or like, listening to music but dang when you party you actually party.”
“... Thanks?”
“Hey, I'm always ready for some mad partying right? If you're gonna do another one soon then you know who to call.”
Noda grunted. “See you in class.” He began to pick up his pace, leaving the girl behind.
“Wait, wait for meee…”

His mood still hadn’t improved when he got to his registration class. He checked his watch, noting that he had five minutes to spare before registration begun.
The atmosphere crackled as he walked in - Maro was here already. In the corner, busy raking his hands through his charcoal hair like a farmer tending to crops, was the man himself.
“Hey man, happy birthday,” said his friend Maro. “Nice party last night, eh?”
They shared a fistbump. Noda’s temper evaporated. “Yeah, although I drank way too much. Woke up this morning feeling like blue murder.”
Maro snorted. “Yeah, that’s comes with the trade pal. Gotta love the cider they make down in Viridian. Did you know they weave mana into their apples? Because ‘what’s a genetic engineering’ right?” He leaned back, resting his chair against the wall as he kicked up his feet on the desk.
“Where’s your sister at? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you two arrive at different times.”
“She’s probably out policing the freshers’ uniform or something. She took up the hall monitor post on Friday. I don’t really envy her.” The snap of popping bubblegum accentuated Maro’s tone.
“Hall monitor…? Why am I not surprised,” Noda noted, a grin appearing on his face for the first time today. “That just seems like such a Mora thing to do, heh.”
Maro laughed with him. “I know right? Miss Aurore said that too. She was all like, ‘I knew that sister of yours would take up the job, she’s the perfect person for it.’” Mora gestured at the packet of chewing gum.
“Nah, I’m good thanks. But anyway man, that feeling when even the teachers pick up on your stuffiness, heheh. How can you even be twins? You’re totally different from each other.”
“What, is it because I’m a sexy beast and she’s an uptight -”
“Excuse me?” someone asked, clearing their throat.
Both Noda and Maro jumped; Mora had just appeared in her seat next to her brother. She held a lethally sharpened pencil at Maro’s mouth, a white globule of bubblegum speared onto the end.
“Jeez! How do you do that?” Noda asked, a hand to his chest.
“How do you not notice me walking into the classroom, pulling out a chair and then sitting down right next to the person you’ve been talking to?” she shot back. “Also, your uniform is in a state.”
He looked down at his shirt, which looked even worse than it had a few minutes ago. “I’m still pretty hungover, okay? Excuse the mess.”
She turned her nose up at him, a look of disgust crossing her eyes. “Hm. No excuses for indecency.”
Maro stayed completely silent, his eyes darting everywhere except towards Mora. His fingers were tapping rapidly against the desk; his legs no longer on the table. On the other hand, his twin pierced Noda with a critical glare, scrutinizing him was though he were a scientific project.
“Er…I’m loving what you’ve done with the hair!” the dishevelled boy stammered, trying to change the subject. The remark wasn’t false however; Mora’s usually jet black hair was now white, with streaks of black scattered around the place. It was cut short and somewhat spiked to be similar to her brother; they were like yin and yang - matching yet opposite.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, swine.” Mora swatted his arm, her expression albeit softening slightly.
“Speaking of hair, Noda; I'm offended by this emo looking sham you call a hairstyle. It's like you tried to copy me but gave up halfway through!” chortled the other twin.
Noda’s hair fell straight down his head, a messy black fountain covering part of his head. It was similar to Maro’s, except Maro had styled his by cutting it uneven, causing his hair to spike up unpredictably. “Yeah, well I don't spend seven years in front of a mirror,” he retorted.
“That’s what separates the cool from the crap, you dumbass.”
Noda snorted, producing his earphones, submitting his defeat. This was easily his favourite part of school; chilling with his friends, listening to his tunes and watching the clouds race by his window. Nothing mattered to him at these moments.

*****

The chatter of the class faded away as the machinegun fire of steps approached the room. The door flew open, giving way to a storm of high heels and black hair.
The classroom was totally silent, save for the collective sound of 11 male jaws dropping to the floor.
Noda nudged Maro’s arm. “Is that,” he whispered, eyes still focused on the figure in the front of the class, “the new form teacher?”
“Holy...”
The teacher stood tall, brushing a sweep of red streaked hair. “Hello, 4A. My name is Azalea Arnifex and I will be your new form teacher for now on. I will also be teaching many of you in Magical Aptitude and I’ll be the head of the new Cadets club every Tuesday after school. I will now call out the register.”
Noda took her in. She wore a modest pencil skirt and white business shirt under a loose black jacket. The shirt was daringly low cut and incredibly distracting. Noda, along with most of the other boys in the class, almost missed their names as they were called out.
“... Noda?” whispered Maro, eyes firmly stuck to the teacher. “You seeing this?”
“Uh-huh. Yeah I'm seeing this.”
Maro punched the two guys in the shoulder. “Damn perverts…” she admonished, retreating to a chess textbook.

*****

“So, Noda, what did you get in your Aptitude tests?” asked Maro, wolfing down a sandwich. The lunch time sun was unbearably hot, but the shade of the school’s giant tree made the heat much more tolerable. The tree itself was a gift from the nation state of Viridian Forest; Shioko’s only ally. The sapling was donated to the school at the end of its construction 40 years ago. Since then, the tree had grown into a massive hulk of wood and leaves, providing shade and climbing spots for the past ten years.
“I barely know what any of this even means. I got a D in ‘Manifestation’, whatever that's meant to mean.”
Maro continued feasting on the sandwich as he spoke. “Mmh… yeah… so basically… it means you suck at manifestation spells or something right? You'd need straight As and Bs to even apply for Staff though. Well, that’s what everyone else says.”
“Why would I even want to apply for Staff though? I mean, yeah it's pretty awesome and all but that sounds like so much work,” he sighed, resting his head against one of the tree’s giant roots.
Maro visibly bristled. “Are you kidding me? Do you know how cool it would be to become Staff? I mean, look at Sparklein Sydir! He gets to go around the world wrestling bears, fighting terrorists, keeping peace and all that! It's like a goddamn game come to life!” He stopped short as Noda laughed. “Hey, what?”
“Well - heh - I don't think the Champ goes around wrestling bears. I'm pretty sure that's not part of his job.” The image of an anthropomorphic fox suplexing a 9 foot bear popped into his mind. “Although, mad respect for him. What he does is pretty damn cool.”
“See? Also, you'd get to meet him in the flesh.”
“I'm alright thanks,” Noda commented drily. A piece of sandwich dropped onto his trousers. “Hey, watch where you’re eating, pig.”
“Hmmh…my bad.”
“How are you able to eat so much and not get fat?” He poked Maro’s stomach, hidden muscles making his midriff feel like stone.
“Hey. Don’t poke me. I’ll bite.”
“I bet you do, pig.”
“Stop calling me pig…mhhm…you…ingrate.”
“Noda!” hollered a cheery voice, somewhere across the courtyard. Noda sat up, a pair of hazel eyes meeting his own.
“Oh, it’s Elise. What’s she wanting?” asked Maro, starting to practically inhale his crisps.
Noda shrugged. “She’s Elise. We may never know.” He waved to Elise, who had started to strut towards the pair. “What’s up?”
“Hey Noda! Y’alright?”
“Yeah, I’m good. You?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” Her grin faded slightly as she saw Maro. “Maro.”
“Oh, so she finally acknowledges my existence. ‘Yes, I am fine. How are you? Oh, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well too.’” he huffed, his attention torn away from his crisp packet.
Elise had already started talking to Noda before he was finished. “Mind if I steal you for a bit?”
“I’ve got a free period after lunch, so why not.” He got up, dusting off his blazer. “Maro, you coming?”
He scowled. “What ever happened to bros before-“
Elise gave him a piercing look.
Maro flipped her the bird in response. “Enjoy your date, Romeo.”
Noda laughed at his friend’s immaturity, tossing a crumpled bus ticket at his face. “See ya in a bit.”

Elise waited until Maro was out of earshot before she spoke. “Having a good day so far?”
“Could be better. Could be worse,” Noda said, idly twisting and straightening his earphones. “Why do you need me?”
She laughed. “What, am I not allowed to walk you around the school for a bit?”
“Never said that.”
“Is there a problem?” she asked, a slight edge to her tone.
The boy eyed her warily. “No, not at all. Just thought it was a bit odd, I mean, you’re always around your other friends right?”
“Just because I surround myself with other girls doesn’t mean I’d be scary to talk to. Come talk to me any time, I’d be glad to chat.”
“I never said that.”
“Yeah, but why do you never – “ her eyes widened. “I mean, that’s fine Noda! Ehe…yeah.”
An awkward silence filled the space between them. They passed by the entrance to the gym, a basketball game ripping the air with the screeches of trainers on linoleum. Elise’s eyebrows twitched.
“Uh, Noda, can I ask you something?” Her hands twisted inside her trousers, biting her lip with nervous tension.
“Go ahead, shoot.”
“Could you…uh…can you please…” She looked away from him.
They stopped. Noda sensed something was amiss – he tensed in preparation. “Hmm?”
She gritted her teeth and let fly her request. “Could you please come back Kendo club tomorrow? Please?” she pleaded.
There was a long pause.
“…You got yourself all worked up just to ask me to rejoin your club?” His shoulders sagged as he relaxed.
“You’re amazing at it though! How did you learn? I remember when you just showed up last year! Oh, the look on senpai’s face as you like, utterly destroyed him!”
“But why though? If I can’t learn, then what do I do?”
“Teach, you dimwit!”
Noda paused, seemingly mulling things over. Elise grew a hopeful smile – finally, her club would win the regionals! She would be praised as the best tutor in the city, her faithful, skillful – not to mention dashing –student beating away the competiton! She would finally -
“Nah. Got stuff to do Tuesday,” he said flatly, the ringing of the bell shattering her visions.
“…But…”
Noda smiled. “Sorry. But hey, I have faith in you. You’re a good tutor, one of yours will turn out to be amazing, let me tell you.” His phone rang; Maro’s profile picture dominating the screen. “Dang, Maro’s getting impatient. I gotta run, talk to you soon, yeah?”
Elise blinked dumbly at him, buzzing from his compliment.
“…Elise?”
She shook her head, regaining composure. “Yeah…yeah. Sure.” She sighed, a disappointed look crossing her face. “Oh, what the hell,” she grumbled, the signature Elise grin making a dramatic return. “Catch ya later, gator!”
Noda laughed as she gave him a cheeky wink, running through the halls before the inevitable flood of students arrived.

*****

A flash of steel, a clash of blades. Fire. Light. The smell of a coming storm. An anguished cry. The taste of iron. A betrayal, a death, a birth, despair.
Noda yelled, his hand clutching his chest. He breathed short, sharp breaths - the memory of a burning pain in his heart fading away. Frantic eyes scanned their surroundings; he found himself in his room, the moonlight peeking through the gap in the blinds, everything awash with a deep blue light. His plant, a tall treelike bush in the corner of his room, stretched its claws towards him, casting an oppressive shadow across the room.
He tore open his pajama shirt. There was no wound or mark. He bolted upright and checked his radio clock. 03:03. Four hours until he was meant to wake. He collapsed into the bed again, heart still racing. The same dream from the past few days, he thought. Except I could see more. What could it mean?
He reached from under his bed, feeling around for the familiar shape of his ring diary. Opening the black book, he flicked over to the marked date – a number of entries before it almost exactly the same. He started writing. The same as last time. Flashing images of two blades – except now I know one is a partisan, poleblade or something similar. The smell of petrichor and ozone, and, this time, fire. A man weeping. The taste of blood. Or is it metal? Something sad, but also something new. This time, there was more, and why? To recap…
It wasn't long before he fell unconscious once again, this time into a dreamless slumber.

*****

“Damn. Did you guys hear about what happened to Viridian?” asked Maro as Noda walked in, his eyes affixed to his phone. His brow was creased, a horrified expression affixed to his face.
Noda shuffled his chair next to him, stealing a glance at his phone. It was a news article, published mere moments ago, a terrible image of a destroyed village dominating the page. The title read “Viridian Forest Attacked, Hundreds Killed.”
As his eyes scoured the webpage, a growing grimace twisting his face, a gathering murmur unsettled the class.
“Those poor, poor souls.”
“Damn, does this mean war?”
“Blessed be Arceus, give them strength.”
“Who did you think did it?” asked a trembling Maro. Around his neck hung a green leaf pendant - an elderwood leaf from Viridian. Noda hadn’t known about the pendant and was surprised; no, almost saddened to see Maro produce it.
“You okay?”
A fist clenched, tightening around the preserved leaf. “My friend lives in Viridian. I hope she's safe.” The chain attached to the charm shivered with his hand. Mora appeared beside him again, patting her twin on the back. Her expression was unusually soft. “She’ll be fine, Maro. Remember, she’s also got that little one she teaches? We’ll hit her phone up afterwards – I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation as to why she’s not answering.”
He flinched at the violent snap of the door handle. Miss Arnifex blistered through, her buxom charm doing nothing to alleviate the grim cloud that hung over the class. The class clumsily got itself organized, retreating from Maro’s phone screen.
She wrote two words on the whiteboard. Viridian Forest. Unlike the rest of the class, she was deathly calm. “In keeping with today’s theme,” she said, spitting the word theme as though it left a foul taste in her mouth, “for your Modern Studies and Politics class I will be teaching you about Viridian.”
“What happened to Mr. Lance?”
“He left for Viridian Forest this morning to help with the rescue efforts. I will be temporarily replacing him.”
A ripple of nervous murmuring spread through the class.
She patted her pockets, frowning as though she had lost something. “Excuse me, class.” The teacher flew out of the classroom, muttering something about slides.
“Why should we care?” shouted a boy near the back of the class, once Miss Azaela was out of earshot. His cronies laughed. “I mean, terrorism happens all the time right? Countries and that get invaded all the time, hmm?”
26 pairs of eyes swiveled at him and his gang.
Maro’s teeth began to creak as he gritted them. Something dark flashed before his eyes. “You have no idea what people have lost there! Their families! Their homes! You can’t just say stuff like that!”
“Yeah but it happens everywhere! I don't know anyone down in that swamp, and I'm sure they won't care if we got attacked.” He stood to a chorus of barely contained approvals from his group – isolated against the condemning whispering of the rest of the class.
Maro shoved his chair back and squared off against the larger boy. “Apologize,” he hissed, a grimace twisting his face.
“Huh. Or what?”
“I’ll force you.”
“You starting on me, tough guy?”
“If. I. Have to.”
With a single fluid movement, Gregor slammed Maro’s chest, his train-sized arms straining against the fabric of his uniform. An inert Maro flew back into the wall, crumpling on impact, scattering the tables and chairs in his path.
Silence.
“Hey!” Mora snarled, drawing a sharpened pencil from her jacket pocket, a furious Noda backing her. Gregor’s cronies backed away fearfully - but the brute paid no attention.
“What, you gonna write maths sums on me or something?” he snickered. “You trying to calculate my hypotenuse?”
Noda knew that expression all too well. “Mora,” he started, a sharp growl cutting him off. His fury was replaced with concern; no, fear. She wasn't judging whether or not attacking the fool would be worth it. She was judging range.
This class would benefit without a murder case, he thought, especially after this morning’s news.
Also, the bastard hurt Maro.
Each ticking second was like a gunshot in his ears. All eyes were on the ongoing catastrophe as it unfolded.
Gregor grinned at Mora, his behemoth body springing into action. Mora moved even faster, her hand an imperceptible blur.
A dead calm settled his nerves.
Without knowing what he was doing, Noda muttered something under his breath, aiming his palm at Gregor’s body. The smell of ozone assaulted his senses, a blinding white light burning his eyes.
Get out of here.
On the back of a roaring wave of force, a six foot mass of muscle broke through the classroom wall, smashing into the next with a dull thud. Mora’s makeshift weapon struck the empty air.
There was an eerie silence as the dust settled. Not even the steadied beat of Noda’s heart, which pushed ice through his veins, was able to break the solid quiet.
All at once, the world exploded.
“Whoa, did you see that?!”
“Damn, where did he learn to do that?”
A wave of pats on the back and whoops crashed into him - but he was a million miles away. He felt detached from the world, as though he were locked out his mind. Reality let him back in.
“Maro!” He rushed to his friend's side.
“...Well.” he said, slowly getting up. “He didn't apologize, did he? Ow ow ow, don't touch the ribs!”
Mora huffed, retreating into herself. “You fool. What were you thinking, scaling up to him? If he had hit you in the face, or…” She swatted his ribs, eliciting a pained groan from her twin.
Before he could react, a barely measured voice killed the crowd, heralded by a machine gun volley of footsteps.
“What… happened… here?”

*****

“You do realize that the use of aggressive spells without authorization is a criminal offense, yes?” lectured a certain Magical Aptitude teacher. “You could be facing a very serious sentence in an institution right now.” She paced the front of her new class, a worried look on her face.
“I didn’t want to do that. It just sorta, happened you know?”
“Murder doesn’t exactly just happen. You obviously intended to harm him. My report says ‘Student Noda Marui proceeded to use a malicious spell against Student Gregor Millory, causing him to make contact with the classroom wall.’ Sound familiar?”
He sighed, the classroom becoming silent. Noda watched as the hour hand of the clock ticked past 6. “How…is Gregor?”
Her head whipped around. “Oh? You’re concerned for him? After he ‘made contact’ with my classroom wall?”
Noda raised his hands defensively, exasperated by Miss Arnifex’s stubbornness. “I didn’t mean to throw him through a wall! I didn’t know what I was doing,” he insisted.
She cocked her head at him, a piercing leer affixed on her face. “You don’t need to lie to me. He used a malicious self-altering spell on himself to attack your friend – only a crazy person wouldn’t retaliate.”
“I swear, I’m telling the truth!”
Silence again.
“It was a good shot though…” he confided, his fingers nervously tapping the desk.
A switch was thrown. The corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smile. There was a pause. “In all fairness, that was an excellent ‘shot’. You seem to be a very talented user of Projection.”
“Projection…?”
“You would know if you had paid attention in class.” She gave him a withering look.
Noda winced. “My bad.”
She hopped onto her desk, legs swinging. “A Projection, namely, a spell that is based off the Aptitude of Projection, is a kind of spell that fires off the user’s mana as a spreading wave or beam – similar to a torch – that is ‘programmed’ to act a certain way. For example, your mana manifested itself as a wave of force because you made it to be that.”
“…Uh?” Her words flew straight through him. “I, uh, didn’t really understand that.”
The Magical Aptitudes teacher rolled her eyes, giving a sigh of exasperation. “Basically, what you did is a Projection. You shoot out mana. The mana does what you want it to do. A Projection is a specific type of spell. Got it?”
“Right. Yes, I ‘got it’.”
She gave him a bright eyed smile – the first time he had ever seen the stone cold teacher show any signs of emotion.
“…Are you okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re acting a bit…I don’t know, off.”
“Well now, Noda.” She produced a notebook, hastily scribbling something onto its pages. “Don’t you find the prospect of mana so…fascinating? It’s a system with near limitless possibilities, beyond anything that regular science can achieve.” Scribble scribble scribble. “I’ve been gifted with the Aptitude of Reinforcement; I excel in the modification of both people and objects.”
Noda’s head lolled, already tired of this teacher’s barrage.
“On the other hand, your Aptitude is Projection; you will be naturally more gifted at casting Projection-type spells. You should consider yourself lucky. Projection is one of the more…interesting aptitudes, unlike my - ” She stopped, staring into space as though she had forgotten something.
“...Your what, Miss Z?” Noda frowned,
Her face hardened once more. “Ahem. I mean, I don’t condone any action of this kind. To think that two of – my – students would be both capable and willing of such things!”
Noda looked at her quizzically. She might be slightly off her rocker, he thought. “…What?”
She hopped off the desk and straightened her shirt. “You are dismissed, Noda. You are lucky you were let off with a mere warning and detention. Do – not – allow me to catch you doing this again.”
He nodded meekly and hurried out, his footsteps charged with the teacher’s electric glare.

*****

“So what was up with that?” asked Elise, leaning against the wall. She was dressed in a kendo outfit, a training sword nestled in her arm.
“Oh, hey Elise. I just got a DT for… well, you know.”
She laughed, the sound echoing through the empty corridor. “Good going though! They should employ you at the construction project, knocking down walls and that.”
“... You're too much.”
They started down the corridor. “Straight from Kendo?”
“Yeah, it's been good. Well, except for the freshmen having no idea how to even hold a sword. They’re awful, I’ll tell you.”
“Ah right. Where is everyone?”
“It’s, what, six o’clock? Everyone’s left but Miss Z, you and me. Oh, and maybe some janitors. I had to go leave the keys to the gym at the office, so I stopped here afterwards.”
“That’s fair. Thanks for waiting for me.”
She poked him in the ribs with the butt of her training sword. “Offer’s still open, by the way. We haven't had anyone as good as you were. Also like half of the sophomores seem to ask about you all the time, weirdly.”
“Ah. Right.”
“So?”
“Nah, I'm a busy man.”
“Please?”
“Can't, sorry.”
Elise pouted. “What do you even do after school? You're always either hanging out with Maro or like, winging it home.”
“Please stop asking.”
“I will when you come.”
“No.”
She jumped in front of him and grabbed both of his hands, giving him her best puppy eyes. “Please…?”
“...”
“...?”
Noda gave up. “Fine! Fine, fine, fine. I'll give it a few weeks, and then I’ll decide whether to properly come back or not.”
Elise cheered, throwing another friendly punch. “That's the spirit!” She checked her watch. Her eyes widened. “Sorry, I gotta go now! I have gymnastics in fifteen minutes. See you tomorrow!” She gave him a peck on the cheek and ran ahead.
Noda stopped. Put a hand on his cheek. Did she just…? The setting sun smiled at him, as though an angel had orchestrated the encounter and was watching her handiwork play out. Huh.
He chuckled to himself as he walked through the reception area. “Man, I never knew…” He noticed a red key ring lying on the floor, a heart-shaped fire opal catching the sunlight. Oh, She must've dropped it, he thought. Picking it up, he started to break into a run. “Hey, Elise! You left your keys!”
He barged through the main doors into the courtyard. “Hey Eli-”
Blood.
The first thing he saw. There, bathed in the flaming rays of the sun, Elise stood to attention. She looked almost surprised, as though she had only just noticed the jet-black meter-long blade sprouting from her chest. It hit her dead center. Her practice sword laid discarded to the side, cut in half. She opened her mouth; a line of crimson dripping from the corner of her lip.
“He…he…help…”
Her hands clutched at the blade. She looked at Noda, fear beginning to twist her face. “N-no…”
The blade flew out of her back with a sickening ¬crunch.
She fell to the ground like a puppet cut from its strings.
“ELISE!” Noda screamed, helplessly. He stared at her lifeless body. A pool had begun to form around her, blood seeping into her uniform. A shadow stood over her, admiring the gruesome scene. Noda’s glare turned to face her murderer.
“Poor, poor, poor bird,” he chortled, face concealed in a white mask – a horrifying parody of a kabuki mask, deep red gouges marring its surface. “At least she didn’t sing. She was no canary. She was quiet. Could have let her go but…” its head tilted to one side. “She saw us. Shame.”
Noda’s vision blurred, a red haze veiling his eyes. He boiled. “You...”
“Oh…? Does our little boy want to play too?” The masked man aimed his sword at Noda. Blood still dripped from its surface.
Noda aimed both of his hands at the man. Fire burned behind his eyes, filling with tears. He wanted to kill; no, he wanted to destroy this man. He looked again to Elise, praying that she was still barely clinging to life somehow. His arms, hands, fingers buzzed with raw power. When he spoke, his voice wasn’t his own.
Burn in hell, you- “ He was cut short as his breath caught in his throat. A heavy sensation filled his chest, followed by a burning pain in his back. He moved to feel it – his fingers coming away sticky.
The man cackled. “Hee hee hee! Poor boy,” he purred as he pushed Noda’s shoulder back. The taste of blood began to fill his mouth.
Noda turned as he fell, seeing another figure stand over him, a silenced pistol in its hand, smoke trailing from its barrel. He crumpled onto the ground, his cheek grating against the asphalt. Despite the burning pain a cold hand clutched as his heart, dread sinking its claws into his mind.
The masked man pranced around him, laughing to himself, brandishing his blade, scraping it across the ground. “Tee hee hee! Oh, but you tried. Shame, shame, shame.” He kicked Noda’s ribs, evoking a pained grunt from the inert boy.
“Sorry bud,” a voice said, kneeling into view. A man, his eyes an icy grey, peered at his face. “You should have left sooner, Oracle.” He paused. “Actually, it seems that fate has guided you here.” He patted the boy’s back, smiling apologetically.
He felt himself being turned onto his back, a rough hand pulling him over as he tried to crawl away. A fiery sky came to face him, the warm sun now just a cold, harsh spotlight. He willed himself to be anywhere but here. The other man pointed his pistol – that black piece of destruction – at Noda’s chest, right above his heart, the barrel hot against his shirt; the fear cold and heavy against his chest. He looked over at Elise’s lifeless form; she would never smile again, never laugh, never even speak. A tear formed in the boy’s eye. She didn’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this! he thought. Arceus, have mercy on our-
Somewhere, a clock struck 6 o’clock.
“Rest now.”
In a world of war and conflict, an extermination throws the last great bastion of peace into aggression. In the midst of this, a child sorcerer seeks justice for his fallen home. A repentant assassin and a messenger of the future rush to save their last refuge from destruction. The dead return, backed by a forgotten god. Ideals clash. Morals crumble. And it will not end until one half of the world stands in the ashes of the other.
September 23, 2016 6:02pm
Chapter 2 – In Plain Sight
“We should be careful. She’s trouble.”
She heard one of the three say this as she pressed herself against the wall, her breath a fluttering bird trapped in her ribcage. A small chuckle escaped her lips, despite her fear. Yes. Killed four of you already, and you still couldn’t see me. Trouble indeed, she thought. Deluded. The four other bodies cooled off in the twilight, each with an arrow lodged in their windpipe - even through a wall, for one of them. They never saw her. They were dead before they knew what was coming. But these men? They knew she was here. They could somehow see her. They could somehow win. The men had a height advantage; they stood on the rooftop she had used just a few moments ago, whereas she had been forced into an alleyway between the buildings, on the other side of the street. Around the corner of the alley was a dead end. The other was lit by a streetlight – they would cut her down before she could take five steps out.
Her head ducked instinctively as a shot rang out in the dark. A total miss. “Come out, Hane! I promise we won’t hurt you if you give up nicely,” Harkis shouted. “Well, not too much anyway,” he added.
She snorted. Of course he wouldn’t. Just like all of his other ‘girls’ that attempted to escape, he would ‘only’ tie her up in a darkened room for several days, before he would personally… she shuddered to think about what would happen next.
One of the others murmured something, too faint for even her trained ears to hear – although the slight Russian inflection confirmed it was Letjas. Letjas, the one with the goggles, the one with the Manifestation. He was easily the most dangerous.
“Oh, Hane, dear, please will you show yourself? Don’t you know that Martin would be awfully worried if I were to turn up late to the meeting?” pleaded the sadist, his gun waving about with his gestures, a silken scrap of her red kimono tied to the butt.
Stuff Martin. Who cares about what that butler thinks? Harkis sure doesn’t, and neither do I. She tentatively poked her head from the wall.
“There,” said Letjas, seeing her thermal profile with his goggles. He readied a fireball – before being shoved by his boss.
“You fool!” he hissed. “I don’t want to kill her – yet. She’s my prettiest flower.” Then, raising his voice again, “See? I saved your life, Hane, darling. You’re trapped here. Just surrender yourself.”
The archer threw a kunai at him, barely missing Harkis’ face. “I’d rather die than go back with you!”
Another shot landed right next to her – the feathered dart confirmed her fears. He was firing tranq rounds. Capture was not an option; even worse than death. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be!”
“Sir. Shouldn’t we just go down there ourselves?” asked the third, a hulking beast of a man called Troy. Hane always found Troy to be humorous, to say the least. He stood at more than seven feet high, weighed four times heavier than her, and had the most macho name in all of existence.
And yet, he was by far the most gentle. If ‘gentle’ meant the least sadistic. The most predictable. The dumbest.
She briefly considered attempting to scale the building; she would be able to get away from Harkis and Troy due to the lack of lighting on the roof, while also being to duck into the next street. But then again, despite the boss’ ‘affection’ for her, his vanity would not let her escape. Letjas would flash fry her.
She could attempt to generate a mana shield, and try to run out into the street. The mana shield would hopefully block a few fireballs and disintegrate Harkis’ tranquilizers. However that left Troy, and he would punch through the shield with impunity. He might not be a mage, but he had shown some insane feats of strength before. Illusions don’t beat hard reality. Mana never beats brute strength.
Finally she could try to kill all three of them with an arrow and two kunai. A rather direct approach. Not the style of the Scarlet Rose. But desperate times, desperate measures. If she took this approach and missed, that was her life at a rather toasty end. Or she would be destined to spend the rest of her natural existence as that disgusting mafia leader’s personal w– she killed the thought. The past couple of weeks were bad enough, but at least at the end of this she would get paid. A lot.
The thought of her reward steeled her. [i]A better place awaits me. A new start, in Shioko, a nice new house…[i/]
She would have to be several steps ahead of them now.

*****

“Boss,” Letjas muttered, “it’s been a whole five minutes and she hasn’t moved.”
Harkis glared at him. “If your ‘tranquilizers’ have killed my Rose…” A number of the darts were peppered across the entrance to the alleyway – surely one must have hit.
Letjas turned away, panic showing slightly, even through his goggles. “Nonsense. She’s obviously just biding her time,” he turned to Troy. “Go. Fetch her for me.”
“Why didn't you ask me in the first place?” he grumbled.
“She's either out cold or weak. Get. Her.”
Donning his knuckledusters, he jumped the four storeys to the street below. The impact cracked the pavement, a wave of air knocking down a nearby dustbin.
“Troy, be gentle you bonehead. I want her in one piece. With a face that’s still pleasant to look at.”
The brute merely grunted in response, truck-like legs breaking into a sprint.
As he entered the alleyway and rounded the corner, Hane’s face twisted in fear. “Wha-how did you…?”
Troy gave no response. A fist snaked out towards her, the studs of the knuckleduster glinting in the faint moonlight. She was finished. One single hit, and finally the troublesome-
The strike connected – the sound of crunching bone echoing through the buildings like a death sentence.
But it wasn’t Hane’s.
Hane let the shadowy mirage evaporate, reappearing behind the brute. His fist smashed into the wall, drawing a pained grunt as his fingers’ bones were pulverised. She let herself grin, her gaze filled with malice. The mirage would have never worked with Letjas’ goggles hawking the street below him. Nor in the direct light of the streetlamps. But against an opponent in the dark, cut off from his support...
Something heavy slammed into her. Fast. Her breath rushed out of her lungs.
His left hand is still free!
For just a moment, she was stunned.
Troy whirled around, letting his broken hand smack the woman into the wall. She raised her hands against her head, letting them take the impact instead of her skull. Wasting no time, he brought his knee forward, attempting to knock her out from under her jaw.
Crap! This is actually dangerous! she thought, barely managing to deflect his knee off the blade of a kunai. The construct shattered instantly - but not without buying her a valuable second. If I could just get to my bow…
The weapon had been thrown down the alleyway, tossed aside by the brute’s thrashing. Hastily materialising a hail of arrows, she jumped backwards.
Troy ignored the arrow storm completely, each bolt shattering harmlessly against his body. Antimagic. So he does have an aptitude.
He pummelled the ground where she was a half second ago. He was fast. Despite his bulk, despite his shape, he was - very - fast. No time to materialise her kunai. His limp hand swept from underneath; she jumped over, her shoe scraping against his arm. Each near miss, each close shave pushed her further back; closer towards her bow and quiver. Just...a little...more…!
The brute realised her ploy. Feigning a swipe with his broken right hand, he quickly reached out with his left - and grabbed her leg. With a startled yelp, he threw the woman into the alleyway’s dead end, her body crumpling to the ground. Defeated. An evil look crossed his face as he lumbered towards her.
He towered over her form. “Sweet dreams, you wench-”
His head flew back. He looked to the sky, eyes wide. And dropped to his knees.
Picking herself up, Hane carefully extricated the arrow from Troy’s forehead, cleaning scraps of deep crimson from the arrowhead with her kimono. “Thanks for making this plan easier,” she purred at the corpse.
Two to go.

*****

The remaining two men saw her before they heard her. A silent force threw the limp body of Troy from the alleyway’s darkness, the streetlight harshly illuminating his mangled head.
“Is that…Troy?” Harkis gasped, mouth agape. One of his strongest men, brought low by this minx…
“What do we do?” murmured Letjas, eyes still affixed to the body.
The boss’ eyes grew dark. “Burn her. Burn that witch.”
“But sir-“
“I said BURN HER!” he shouted with deadly conviction. “Burn her! Incinerate her until there’s nothing left!”
A shadow of a smile played on Letjas’ mouth. “With pleasure, sir.”
The man gestured at the alleyway, pulling and shifting an invisible puzzle. The air began to reek of gas. Harkis started to make his way to the roof door of the building, thoroughly finished with this game. The goggled man gave a final snap.
There was light.
A deep whoosh vibrated the very air, the entire street smothered in a blanket of fire. Fire coursed through the alley, immolating its confines, feasting on the body of Troy until it was nothing more than a pile of ash. A blazing Rache glow illuminated the sky like it was day, and then vanished as quickly as it appeared. A red boundary appeared against the walls of the building, containing the firestorm inside. Satisfied with his handiwork, the caster began to walk to the waiting boss, laughing madly.
“Messy, but nothing the Coordinator would get her hounds on us for right?” Letjas said, cackling with merciless abandon.
“Hmph. I lost my favorite girl.”
“Ahhh, she’s just a Viridian. More turn up every day, don’t you worry ya?”
“She was so sweet though. Twenty-one, Virdian and with a grace like hers? You wonder why she wasn’t a shrine maiden.”
They did not notice the woman in the shadows on the other roof, aiming her bow.

*****

The sound of money filled the bar. “Is this all?!” Hane shouted, a torn envelope smothered by her hand.
The bartender, Vernius, shrugged. “Contractor gave us that envelope, it was unopened when you got it.”
The archer narrowed her eyes. “I was meant to be getting triple, no, quadruple this amount!” She pulled out her kunai – the real Rose kunai, not her materialized copies – and held it against the bartender’s neck. He returned the favor by shooting her a bored look, wiping a glass without any sign of panic.
“I don’t know, man. The dude said something about cuts, or whatever. Either way, that’s what you got.”
“Do you know what that freak did to me?”
“I’ve got a good idea, more or less. Harkis’ crew right? That’s gotta be rough. Did you know he contributes to almost 30% of the prostitution and trafficking market in Shioko?”
She turned her nose up at him in disgust. “Hm. You think I wouldn’t have guessed?” There was a silence between them, drowned by the clamor of the Galvantula Arms’ patrons. The bar was a den of sin, if ever there was one. Along the top was a blackboard with the title ‘Highest Kill Orders’ – the list starting with the name Kat; a ten digit figure riding its tail. A long list of celebrities, socialites, gang leaders and Staff members followed suit. The wall behind the bar was littered with beer glasses, bottles and pistols. A group of rowdy bikers fought some dark men in high tech armor suits at a game of table football, passing bills and balls. A billiards table played host to a purple winged man wielding a scythe as he lost a hefty bet against a guitarist. In the far corner of a bar, a couple of escorts were busy seducing another patron.
And at the middle of all of this stood Vernius Archibald. The bartender.
“Vern. Why do you always look like you work in a supermarket?” Hane mumbled, her face flattened against the bar in defeat.
“…Again, really? If I had ten yen for every time someone’s asked me that…”
Her head rose slightly, her red hair covering her face. “It’s just true.”
“…Is this some kind of ploy for me to pay you more?”
She gave him a suffering gaze.
“…”
“Well, Vern, I thought it’d be-“
The bartender put down the glass, refilling it with a pint of heavy. “We get the bank details of Letjas Armtagio tomorrow - we picked up on another contract involving him, and your killing of him completed the contract. If you want…I’ll split the lot, 60/40. We need to pay for contractors you know.”
Life returned to her in a rush. She leaned over and pulled the man into a hug. “You’re the man, Vern!”
“Mmmfff…” She let him go. “Phew. I’ve never seen you that happy before! You’re usually rather…professional.” Her eyes widened and she straightened herself, retaining some of her joy.
“You’ve made my entire year, Vern. Thanks.” She settled for a clink of her glass with his own and a rough handshake.
“Don’t say I never do anything for you.” He checked his watch – half past two – and tossed a couple of new decks to the group in the corner. They always needed new cards this time of the night. “So will you ever come back?”
She laughed. “To work? To bedding CEOs and mob leaders? To killing people ? No, I’m out of here.”
Vernius eyed her carefully. “No, just here. The Galvantula Arms. Will you come again?”
She gave him a sideways look. “Oh, are you trying to…”
He blushed furiously, dropping his glass to the floor. “N-no, I just wanted to – uh, erm – fix my pouring schedule! You know how I’m always on the ball with this!”
She gave him a sly wink. “Suuure. Realize I’m still single, right?”
His hand slipped off a pump lever. “N-n-not what I meant!” He hastily dropped to the floor and started hoovering the shards of glass with a dustbuster. “Besides, all of the men you’ve ‘been with’ so far have ended up the same way.”
“What, with a kunai in their neck?”
“Not what I was going for, but that too.”
“Hm. My plans have been foiled,” she said sarcastically. “Relax, I’m just messing with you. I can drop the professional act I guess, it’s my last day on the job.”
The bartender shook his head. “Give you the promise of a couple hundred million yen, some beer and suddenly you aren’t so icy.” He smirked. “You might not be a bimbo, but you’re almost there!”
They laughed in unison.
“Aw, Vern, I’ll miss you.”
“You better still be a regular. I don’t want to have to pour more pints than are needed.”
She thought this over. “Fine, but they better be on the house.”
“Thanks to your work, they will be.”
A whisper had been travelling around the groups as the two were talking, a whisper that promptly ceased when it had finally spread across the bar. One of the bikers at the football table raised his glass towards them. “To the Rose!”
There was a moment of silence. Forty glasses of beer, wine, cider, vodka, coke and all in between were raised towards the red haired archer. “To the Rose!”
Vern raised his own. “To the Rose.”
A drunken cheer filled the night as Hane nodded. “Thanks lads!” She raised her glass-
The front door flew open, a menacing figure standing in the light. “I’m looking for the Rose. She killed my brother last night.” He pulled back his jet black trenchcoat, drawing a hand cannon. “You…Harkis was my brother!“
Without hesitating, Vernius, the Bartender of the Arms drew an even larger hand cannon and pulled the trigger without even blinking. The man’s body slumped over into a head. “Did anyone know that guy?”
A laugh echoed around the bar. Hane tossed her glass at the man’s body, his chest eviscerated by the bartender’s weapon. “As I was saying, it is my last night!” She slammed down her envelope, drawing half of the meager sum inside of it. “Drinks are all on me!”
The resulting cheer echoed into the street.

*****

“Mama!” the girl cried, cradling something faint in her soft hands.
The bluebird’s breath was flickering, fading, a flame in the wind. Its once pristine azure feathers were torn and clawed apart, the telltale talon marks of an eagle or Staraptor. The child ran, on unsteady, yet sure, steps. The sunlight filtered through the verdant canopy, the trees shielding the bird and its savior from the harshness of the sky.
Finally completing the trek from the village entrance to her home, she stumbled into her cottage.
“Mama!” the girl cried once more, the life of the bluebird diminishing fast.
A woman glided into the room, elegant even in her hurry. “What is it, dear?”
“This birdie is hurt! Mama you have to help it!”
A faint glimmer in the mother’s eye came to approve of her daughter’s actions. “Aw, there there sweetheart. Let me tend to this bird of yours.” She took the bird to the sink, gently, softly, carefully running a thin stream of water against its broken frame. The blood and dirt came loose and free, the wound easier to inspect. “Now, watch this sweetie. Someday, you could be a healer like I, you could help people like I once did.” She muttered a word and placed her palms over the bluebird’s body. A green light flooded over it, washing over the deep ravines left by the attack. Slowly they closed up and bound together, altogether vanishing after many seconds. Its breathing, once fluttering, had become stable.
“What did you do, Mama?”
“Why, child, only something you will learn to do, I’m sure.”
“Will the birdie be okay?”
She only smiled in confirmation. “Here, sweet Hane. Let me tell you an old story about a bluebird and her fox friend…”

She groaned in frustration. “Mother. It’s not working! No matter how hard I try, it won’t bind!” In her hands was a torn leaf, freshly picked from a tree – in the corner of her room was a bin full of crumpled and dry balls of brown, discarded from previous attempts.
Her mother, in her rocking chair reading a book, merely smiled warmly. “In time, my rose, in time.”
Hane pushed off of her desk, floating her chair backwards. “Maybe reconstruction just isn’t my aptitude.”
The rocking stopped.
“We’ve been through this many times before darling. Like mother, like daughter.”
She seethed, gritting her teeth. “Then why, no matter how hard I try, won’t it work?”
“Skill can never breed from anger. Be calm. Be still.”
Hane huffed and hovered back to her desk. The leaf awaited its treatment silently. “Alright, let’s try again.” She placed the leaf down and pointed both of her hands at it. Concentrating, she imagined the bluebird, those long twelve years ago. The leaf was bathed in purple light. She breathed slowly, steadily, in, out. The leaf began to bend together at the tear, tiny tendrils feeling the air, moving towards the other side of the rift.
Her mother looked up from her book, markedly pleased.
A glimmer of hope flashed within Hane’s heart. “I can do this!” She willed for it to bind faster, her breath quickening in, out in, out
Each side of the leaf tangled with each other, slowly coming together…
Suddenly, as though the world had frozen over, the motion stopped.
“What?” She frowned, the purple light fading fast. “No! I was so close!”
Her mother let loose a long sigh. “Oh well, Hane. You will achieve it next time, I’m sure of it.”
Exhaustion quickly turned into exasperation – which bred fury. She slammed the desk, her pencils, papers and the leaf hovering in the air. “I can NOT do this, Mother! Maybe destiny has my name written for other things!”
“Hane, please, don’t raise your voice. Our family has been a long line of Viridian healers for-“
“Well I’m sorry mother, but I’m no healer! You can try this with Kazichi when she becomes my age, for all I care! I know what I can do!”
For the first time she saw her mother’s smile vanish. “You know your sister isn’t able to use mana like you. Also, none of us Haneya were second-born either. I was the eldest, so was my mother, so was her mother. Our lineage relies on you.”
Everything in the room began to rotate, spinning faster and faster as she spoke. “Look. I can move things. I can make things. But healing? Mother, I will never be able to do that. We’ve been practicing for two years and I’m still barely able to rebind a leaf, let alone heal someone!”
“Don’t say that! What would your father think?”
“Father…father would agree with me!”
“No, he would get you to practice more. I’m sure that-“
“You never knew father!” she screamed, tears welling in her eyes. “You…you never knew him…not like I did.”
Everything dropped to the floor.
Her mother stood up, head turned from her daughter. "Hane. You don’t under-“
“NO! You don’t understand!” Her tears began to flow freely. “He was like me. He was always like me. He knew I had no chance in being what you were. He accepted it. We trained together – I knew his gifts were my own.”
“Your father was crazy!”
“My father was clever! He was – he – he cared about me! Oh! I know behind your smiles and your kindness all you want me to do is be ‘like you’. You want me to fill your shoes. Well, I can’t Mother! And, oh! I’m sick and tired of all this practice! All this, ‘oh, dearie, you have to try this every day!’ I sacrifice so much time just to complete some stupid endless task!”
Her mother turned on her, furious. “What, pray tell, would you do with your time otherwise? Between your studies and your marksman training? Fool around with that girl from the other village? You know I don’t approve of –“
“Rache is my friend!” The door flew open, Hane’s volition spreading to everything in the cottage. A loud crash emanated from the kitchen, a pile of pots and pans dropping to the floor. Her windowsill became a mess of soil as a row of plant baskets exploded. “You used to care, mother. About me. About father. What happened to you?”
“…I want you to…clean up the cottage. I’m going out.”
“No. I am.”
“You dare treat me like-“
“Mother, I’m leaving. For good!”
Her mother cackled, once, mockingly. “Hah! And where will you go?”
Her fist tightened. “I’m going to Shioko. I’ll grab a bus! Or I’ll walk! As long as it takes me away from you!”
“You really think that you’ll”
“And I swear, mother, on Father’s grave, that I will never heal again! Ever!”
Her mother’s mocking grin vanished in an instant. She was serious. “Now, Hane, think about this before you-“
“Goodbye!” she shouted, bitterly biting her lip.
“Hane! Don’t! Please don’t-“
She ran out the door, fleeing from the mess she left behind.


*****


Hane woke up in a familiar bed – one that wasn’t her own, but was familiar anyways. She was still wearing last night’s clothes. She eased her way out of bed, wary of her hangover. She tensed herself for the headache to kick in. But it never came. On the night stand was a half-empty bottle of water and a pill, along with the note Eat me when you wake up! She downed the pill and the water, feeling refreshed. She searched around and found her Seventh Overture lying beneath the bed, the bow’s cream and gold curves untouched; no, cleaned. A priceless, ageless artifact, its owner asleep and unaware and he puts it under her bed for safekeeping? What a guy, she mused. She went to grab her quiver, standing by the door, before she tripped over a duffel bag. Another note was plastered onto it; Good luck with wherever you’re off to! –Vern and the Management
Despite herself, she couldn’t help but shed a tear.

*****

She was barely five steps out of the Arms’ spare bedroom when she was practically tackled by Vernius. “Hane! You mustn’t go!” He blocked the path between her and the stairs, an unusually silent air filling the area.
“Whoa, calm yourself soldier! I said I’d visit didn’t I?“ she exclaimed cheerily, unaware of how solemn he was.
“Haven’t you seen the news?” He was deadly serious.
They both rushed downstairs, the bar’s television tuned to Stream Morning News, headed by a news reporter with a grave, serious face. A helicopter gave a bird’s eye view of the once lush sheet of green being slowly, surely, eaten away; turned black by sporadic fires. “Thanks to the work of Director Sparklein Sydir, many of the insurgents have been quelled; however the damage caused by the attacking force had already been done. The death tolls are in the hundreds, it is unknown if there are any survivors.” The reporter continued to herald more bad news as Hane’s shaky hands rushed to her phone.
“Hane? Are you okay? Hane?” the bartender asked, ignored as her fingers tripped across the phone screen. A number was brought to the screen – the word ‘Sis’ displayed in white, foreboding letters.
The dial tone. She waited fifteen seconds. Thirty. A minute.
A dead line.
She tried again. Dead. Again. Dead. Again. Dead.
She tried her mother; despite her vows to never call her ever again. Dead.
She called every single contact on her phone. Nothing. Each line silent or dead. With each hang up, her hand trembled more and more. Growing tear drops made the screen harder to use.
The final contact. Her friend. Rache. Her thumb quivered over the call button. She pressed it.
“…”
Please pick up, Rache, please, please, please…!
The sun began to stream through the window. “Hello there!”
Her eyes widened. “Rache? Rache! Thank the Virtues you’re-“
“I’m sorry, but I’m not around right now, so could you please leave a message after the beep? Beep!” A hollow message tone began to buzz in her ear.
She hung up. A passing cloud darkened the room once more.
“…Hane? I’m so, so sorry,” consoled Vernius.
Wordless. Worldless. Hane walked out onto the street and closed the door to the bar, leaving behind her bag and bow. A muffled scream was heard, followed by a barrage of sobs. With each, the bartender and the few patrons flinched, hearing concrete crumble and glass shatter.
A long few minutes later, she walked back in, her face hardened – puffy, red and wet, but with a deadly serious gaze. “I’m going to find whoever ordered that attack.”
“Hane, the Staff are already-“
Her burning glare swiveled towards him. “I am going to find whoever ordered that attack. And they will die.”
“Be careful Hane. We’ve got your back, but don’t be reckless.”
She materialized a kunai and slammed it deep into a table. “They need to be careful.”
In the corner of the room, a phone began to blare its ringtone. “Galvantula Arms, this is Vernius Archibald speaking, how may I help you?”
A woman’s voice shot from the receiver in fast, urgent phrases.
The bartender’s voice dropped low. “Here? Really? Why don’t we get the Staff on it? One of ours? Is he from the same people that att – ah. Yes. But can’t we deny he- no, no, I understand.”
“What’s she on about?” Hane asked, sensing something afoot. The bartender held a finger up to her; not now.
“When? Six in the afternoon? Alright. What about civilian casualties? After all it is a school that they plan to land on. Okay. Yes, I understand. Isn’t there an op in that school already? Just yesterday I believe. Should she be told too? Oh, I see. I thought she was ours. Yes, I see. Alright. Just a kill order? I’ll send one of ours around – she won’t fail. That’s fine. Thank you.” He hung up.
“What’s happened? Tell me.” She leaned forward, eyes and ears sharp.
“We’ve heard that one of our regulars has fallen in league with whoever attacked Viridian.”
“What?! Who?!”
He reached behind his counter and pulled up a file, scrolling through each folder. He snatched one out. “Paper is untraceable, but such a pain in the ass,” he muttered to himself. “This guy. Assassin called Merchant, ex-government turned freelance. Not affiliated with Shioko, but we don’t know where he comes from. No ID, no credit cards, nothing.” Hane took the sheets of paper, examining them with macabre interest. “They reckon he’s from whoever hit the Forest. All we’ve got on him is this pistol cartridge.” He produced a small plastic bag, a shattered golden cylinder inside. “Self destructing 9mm.”
“So he’s funded. Which means he knows who-“
“Theoretically yes. He was seen last night doing something at the school – the client thinks he’s designating a landing zone.”
“He found a breach in the radar field?”
Vern took out his phone and tapped on the map.
“Right where the school is. And it has an open field.”
“Exactly. He’ll be there.”
“But won’t that put the kids at risk?”
Vern scowled. “That’s the issue. We’ve been told that no one can see us or them, otherwise the Coordinator will be on us – the Lord help us all if that happens.”
“So I should kill anyone that sees, is that what you’re telling me?” Her eyes narrowed. Killing children was something she never allowed herself to do – no matter the price.
“No, that’ll definitely get the Coordinator and all of her lot and maybe even the likes of Sparklein onto us.” He turned around, his brow furrowed. “Well, I actually can’t think of anything. I don’t think I’ve ever done a daytime job before, especially around a populated area. Just, do your thing and don’t be seen. Remember to hide the body.”
She picked up her bag again, aggressively swinging it over her shoulder. “Why would I kill him? I need to find out who this attacker is.”
“The client said specifically to kill him.”
“Do you know who this client is?”
Vernius grabbed the phone from its stand and checked the Recent calls. “No, that’s a new number. “
“Well, there’s no worry then. I’ll take him alive. And maybe whoever he’s calling in.”
Vern sighed. When Hane says she’ll do something, she always follows through. “Sure. Take care – remember they need to be sure of their strength in order to launch an attack like that. Don’t do anything stupid.”
They were the ones being stupid.”
She walked out the door, eyes aflame.

*****

She sat atop an apartment roof, eagle eyes trained on the school, just across the street. She checked her watch – 5:58 – and had her bow at the ready. Its golden floral carvings glinted in the sunset, its creamy white wooden texture reassuring against her skin. A hooked arrow tensed in wait for its duty, notched and ready to fly. The archer had donned a grey digital camouflage hooded cloak and military jeans; the plainer the clothes the easier it was to cast Illusions of herself, yet camouflage apparel was her most natural form. Easy and simple to clone. Easy and simple to vanish.

Right on time, a helicopter slid in from the west. She frowned. Hane had never seen anything like it before; it was entirely black and angular, as though it was more of a stealth plane instead of a helicopter. Its rotor spun without so much as a single sound. The usual thud thud thud of spinning rotor blades was muted, the machine steadily whirring instead. A figure leaned forward from it and jumped. The helicopter was still higher than the archer’s vantage point, yet the figure didn’t even flinch. A wicked black sword was lying dormant against his waist. Enchanted, she thought. It reeks of mana. The figure – a man – wore a full suit of samurai-esque armor and a scarred kabuki mask. Entirely white, save for the deep red claw marks on its surface, the mask unsettled her. It was so…contemptuous. Almost frightening.
Snarling, she drew her bow and took aim. The swordsman had to die – if only on account of how disturbing he looked. There was yet no sign of Merchant, but if she killed the swordsman in front of him then perhaps he would show himself. I hope.
The school door swung open .
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no,” she whispered. A girl, maybe 17 or 18, only a few years younger than Hane herself, rushed out of the door. She kept her arrow on the girl. If she runs to the gate, she’ll make it without seeing the enemy.
Too soon.
The swordsman spotted her, eyeing her like an opponent. No; like prey. Drawing his sword, he started walking towards the unsuspecting student.
Damn! She swung her bow to aim at him before he slaughtered the poor student. She pulled back. Took a deep breath.
Too late.
Faster than she could track, faster than any eye could see, the swordsman dashed to the student. Hane could barely see him. To the girl it must’ve been like he had teleported. Blindly, she fired at him. The arrow was straight, true! She-
Without even looking up, he slightly, subtly, swiftly sidestepped its path, letting the arrow bounce off the ground beside him. From this distance, Hane could barely make out what he said.
“Silly bird.”
His blade glided across the girl’s form, a clean red line marking her from waist to shoulder. A practice sword clattered to the ground, cut in half. Hane’s eyes widened – as well the student’s. Flourishing his blade, the swordsman saluted to the archer and thrust his weapon into her chest. “Poor, poor, poor bird. At least she didn’t sing. She was no canary. She was quiet. Could have let her go but… She saw us. Shame.”
Hane swore and readied another arrow – but he wasn’t talking to her.
“You…” growled a voice from the school door.
Another? No, not again! She fumbled her arrow, the threat of a second dead civilian a tax on her skill. A year and a half of a perfect track record, and the one time I fail I cost two innocent lives? She took aim again.
A sudden pop sound drew her attention. A silenced pistol.
The boy fell over, landing prone on his front. He had been shot. But who-?
The air shimmered, revealing a pale man wearing a black jumpsuit. He pulled back the slider, ejecting the spent bullet casing, the piece of metal shattering as it hit the ground. Merchant.
Hane let loose the arrow, precisely aimed for Merchant’s head, the fletching whistling in the air, the tip thirsty for blood.
The intel was false. The man held his hand to the arrow, the air vibrating with a silent pulse. The arrow slowed to a stop, rotating in the air but denied of its kill. She tried to fire again; the arrow wouldn’t even fly. The bastard stopped my arrows from flying! How?
She helplessly watched the second victim die.
Laughing, the swordsman and his compatriot vanished, leaving death behind, the archer missing their departure by a mere second.
“How can they- argh!” She threw her kunai at the ground, yet another chance at a kill being missed.
Two dead. Their blood on her hands.
She ran to them, both sad and furious at their sacrifice.
Their blood on her hands.
The girl didn’t even have a chance to survive. Cut from waist to shoulder, and then her heart speared on the end of a blade. Hane closed the girl’s eyes with her fingers, offering a silent prayer to the gods for her.
Their blood on her hands.
The boy’s heart was shot out in two places. Less violent than the girl’s sorry end, but he still-
Breathed.
She watched as his chest rose ever so slightly, and fell.
He was still alive.
The archer’s eyes widened. He had a chance! Hane tore open his shirt and quickly, hastily wiped away his blood, flowing over his body like a stream. He tilted his head back and placed his arms at his side. Clockwork. Hundreds of days of healer training. One promise that was about to be broken.
She clasped her hands and held her eyes shut. “Okay, I know I promised, but work, work, work,” she muttered, trying her best to keep her panic at bay. She was no healer. She was a killer.
Hane placed her hands on the boy’s chest. “Mother, please,” she whispered, concentrating, focusing, hoping.
A purple light began to shine.
In a world of war and conflict, an extermination throws the last great bastion of peace into aggression. In the midst of this, a child sorcerer seeks justice for his fallen home. A repentant assassin and a messenger of the future rush to save their last refuge from destruction. The dead return, backed by a forgotten god. Ideals clash. Morals crumble. And it will not end until one half of the world stands in the ashes of the other.
December 7, 2016 2:30pm
Chapter 3 – Limbo
“So, it’s meant to be a piece of cake.”
Max looked up, glaring at the man who said that. “Callum, you’ve jinxed us all,” he muttered, fingering one of his twin swords nervously. A wooden carved chess piece - a knight; one that he had crafted himself on the long flight from Azrea, using a small block of wood and one of his swords.
The dropship was quiet – save for the unsteady, uneven rumbling of its propellers and the low, cautious murmuring of the pilots on their comms. The world outside was pitch black, save for the sporadic flashes of colour from the wing tips of the other dropships. A thin, tense air filled the dimly lit cabin; they were in enemy airspace. Each passing moment carried the risk of being spotted, their fleet only moments away from becoming blazing hunks of burning metal - possibly rent apart by torrents of anti-air fire and heavy magic. He'd seen it happen; military training videos were very inclusive and very vivid. The only men who weren’t fixated on their boots or on a prayer sheet were lounging exultantly back, their seat straps as loose as their armour.
Private Callum was one such man. “It’s Viridian Forest! It’s filled with a bunch of tree huggers and monks, what can they do?” He grinned, not even bothering to don his helmet.
“You think? The next thing you’re going to say to me is that you’ve brought a gun.”
His shieldmate reached into his greaves, drawing a Glock 17 from a leg holster. “Why not?”
At least three different gloves made contact with their owner’s heads. “Magical shields, you dumbass,” Max chided, shaking his head.
“I’ll just ask a caster to enchant it when we drop.”
“Too many moving parts, enchantments take too long to cast on modern weapons. God, did you ever learn anything at base camp?”
The other soldier holstered the gun, chuckling. “So you’re Schoolboy, huh? Max Nightingale. The transfers were talking about you.”
Max said nothing.
“With theory grades like that, why didn’t you apply for Command?”
Silence.
“Oh!” Callum chortled. “No experience? Not even a single tour? You're what, 18?”
His carefully composed face dropped into a grimace.
The soldier laughed even harder, filling the cramped cabin of the dropship. “Hey guys! We’ve got a dead man walking!”
Max gritted his teeth as a few of his ‘fellow’ soldiers laughed. It wasn’t worth the fight. Next year, I’ll be the one laughing, he consoled himself.
The sharp hiss of static chased away the humour. “Drops in thirty seconds!”
The cabin was once again silent.
Major Marsh stepped out of the cockpit, mace held at the ready. His armour gleamed in the dim light of the cabin, showing off his accolade stripes. “Alright you lot, the mission’s simple. We find the HVT and kill him. We meet up with the advance team first to enchant our weapons and armour. After that we’re to exterminate any resistance en route, although don’t expect it to be anything challenging,” he barked, earning a few sniggers from some of the soldiers. He smiled savagely. “Aye, they might be Viridians, but this is their ‘Vessel’. They’ll give their own lives for his safety, so I expect you to do the same.” His glare crackled like an electrical storm - daring anyone to challenge him. Not a single pair of eyes rose to meet him. “As Anon 242 said, ‘A cornered rat-‘”
“-can fight off a thousand snakes,” finished Max under his breath, annoyed by the Major’s pep talk.
The cabin bay doors opened; his blood froze in his veins. The unit stood, preparing for egress, the Major shouting a salute. The dark canopy of trees rushed beneath the floor, threatening to swallow him whole, the wind roaring against his ears, drowning out the chants of the other soldiers. What if he were to get captured here? What if he was abandoned by his unit? What if-
“Hey champ.” He felt a hand on his shoulder. His eyes met Callum’s – steady and steeled, an inverse to his own. The soldier produced a bullet, placing it in Max’s free hand. “Pop this in your mouth. It always helps me to, you know, control the jitters.”
“Isn’t this your tenth tour? How can you still…”
“You’d be mad not to fear death. It keeps me alive.” He ate his own bullet, chewing on the metal as he held on to the hilt of his sword. “Don’t let it keep you down though. Well, I'm still a Private, even after all those tours. First class, but still a Private.”
Max shook his hand; before popping the bullet into his mouth. “Thanks, Callum.”
The trees grew closer and closer, before they submerged below the blanket of leaves. His heart raced in his ears, threatening to leap from his throat. “Hey, Schoolboy!”
The floor rumbled as the dropship touched down. “What?”
Another cocky grin. “If you get captured, find a gun. That's another good thing about carrying a single bullet.”
They stepped out into the darkness, the forest swallowing them whole.

*****


‘Attack’ was the wrong word for it.
It was an extermination.
The swarm of armoured ground troops, suited head to toe in magically enhanced carbon steel, wielding vicious axes, swords and maces had completely disintegrated the Viridian defence, for what it was worth. Gunships armed with cannons and specially designed ballistae had cut down, burned, destroyed every house, cottage, temple and village. There were no prisoners - each and every man, woman, child, even the resident Pokemon were executed if they were unlucky enough to be caught in their path. The few that weren't initially killed had sacrificed themselves defending whatever little had survived; bravely - savagely - cut down as they fought.
At the epicentre of this slaughter was Max Nightingale. His twin blades untouched, sheathed. A harrowed grimace was hidden behind his helmet. A bloody handprint stained the cold metal of his greaves - a woman that had clung to his leg before she was finished by his squadmate. The bullet he had in his mouth had been thrust into his pocket - there was no fear of death. Only disgust and pity.
Someone slapped him on the back. “What did I say, huh?” It was Callum. sword was out - battered and bloodied.
“...Yeah.” His voice was hollow and broken.
“I never knew they were this poorly defended! Did anyone even-”
His hand tightened into a fist. “No. No casualties. Only minor injuries.”
Just as he said that, a medevac helicopter flew overhead, it's radio blaring an emergency signal in Max’s earpiece.
The other soldier cackled. “Looks like someone got hurt a bit!” he chortled.
“Isn't that the champion’s medevac?” he asked. A mote of fear was adrift in his otherwise disgusted tone.
“He probably got hurt a bit, nothing serious,” Callum answered, his tone a mix of sarcasm and soldierly camaraderie. “I bet their poor sucker was worse off than just simple injuries though. Isn't this his first day as a proper Vessel?”
“More like his last,” came another voice. A laugh rose from the forest floor.
The unit began walking towards the agreed rally point, regaling each other with grim stories of their exploits - apart from Max. His teeth were gritted; how could they be so cruel? How could they be so callous, so numb to so much bloodshed? He started to make his own way back to the base camp; damn the leering glares of the others.
“Hey Max! Where are you going? You know there's still one more-”
A hawk landing on a branch.
That's what it sounded like. Aside from the wrenching scream of the metal - and Private Callum’s short, sharp, final grunt.
Max’s head was the first to turn.
Draped in a cloak of yellow and green fur, his fellow Private’s body laid twisted. Atop it knelt a figure in glistening emerald armour, the likeness of a dragon growling at the corpse it landed upon. Nine golden tails engulfed him. Two fox ears were pressed to the side of his head. A large lance impaled the fallen soldier through the centre of his chest; the hole in his armour a neat, perfect circle. Motionless. Guardless. Soundless.
Gods help us all.
“Contact!”
Seventeen soldiers started sprinting towards the warrior, brandishing their axes and maces and swords - Max knew how futile the rush was. This was no Viridian victim. They were all dead, from the moment he fell out of the sky.
The first four men didn't need to face his lance in order to fall within the first three seconds.
With a ferocious, yet relaxed, grace the warrior caught the first sword with his bare hands, a single fluid movement tearing it from one soldier and throwing it through the hauberk of the next. A mace swing was redirected, a soldier’s helmet eviscerated under its weight - a short kick sent that mace wielder flying. The next soldier made the mistake of turning to look at his fallen comrades just for a split second; a brutal punch twisted his head too far. He drew the lance from the body of the Private First Class and flourished it over his head - ready to take on the horde.
They ran.
It ran.
No matter how fast any of Max’s platoon-mates could move, that thing could simply dance, slip, slide, stab even faster. He was but a blur - a streak of glinting green and glittering gold creating ripples and circles of blood in the air. One single arcing sweep would slice through two, three, four people at once, eating away at their bodies like they were nothing but practice dummies. He didn't just decimate them; he turned the massacre into something morbidly beautiful. It was a perfectly choreographed dance of destruction.
He turned death into an art form.
Fear rooted Max to his spot. Fear rooted his sword to his sheath. He could do nothing but watch as every single man just became another number and move in this lethal dance. A gunship began firing its miniguns and ballistae at the lancer, illuminating the forest floor with tracer fire and enchanted arrows. He danced even faster. Untouchable. The streak of green and yellow effortlessly swirled around and between the paths of its bullets, still continuing to poke holes and gouge ravines through anyone that stood in its path, seeking out anyone that didn’t. The pilot managed to get off a brief transmission; “Enemy ground soldier engaged! Requesting immediate-”
It was cut short by the lance as it immersed itself in a slurry of glass and gore, the warrior leaping to and from the trees and from the canopy to get to the gunship - landing onto the cockpit with the lance. He rode the vehicle into the ground, jumping from the wreckage as it exploded, using the blast to propel himself into a line of hapless archers.
By now there were more than fifty dead.
A caster attempted to launch a ball of mana at him - he pierced through it and the caster with a trivial jab.
A more heavily armoured Juggernaut attempted to crush the lance warrior with a hefty hammer. He slid between the giant’s legs and thrust his lance through the arm gap in its otherwise impenetrable armour. Its shoulder-mounted minigun hectically attempted to track its target - the dragoon flicked its lance into the ammunition box, causing it to explode. Blood leaked from the seams as the Juggernaut collapsed - finished by an endless barrage of jackhammer blows to the chestplate, cracking its tough surface. He was a woodpecker - the Juggernaut his tree. With a wrenching groan, the lance finally broke through, spearing the man’s heart.
Jumping from the corpse of the Juggernaut he bounced around from tree to tree, paintbrush streaks of blood adorning each tree, creating a macabre mural - a testament to its hungry fury.
The lancer reached the Major - taking just enough time to tear apart his guards and war machine - a three legged, nine-foot tall Armoured Combat Unit. A fearsome machine by any standard, winner of many wars, the ACU still fell laughably quickly - the dragoon jabbed its armoured right laser weapon nacelle, the lance ripping through the armour with incredible ease. A row of explosions slithered from his lance and ended in the ACU’s core. Its triangular carapace was lit from the inside by baleful fire. Even the Major himself - shouting a challenge, he raised his mace in defiance, his eyes fearful and desperate - he too was dispatched, easily cut down with a casual swipe.
The clutches of fear decided to release Max. And he ran. Without looking back.
Whole groups of soldiers ran the other way, each believing they could be lucky enough to survive its voracious wrath, their military indoctrination shouting at them to kill what you fear.
They were all unsuccessful.
As the bodies began to pile up, he could feel the lancer coming for him. The sounds were now distant, the screaming and shouting a mile away, but Max could feel that lance chasing him. All he felt as he stumbled through the forest was a piercing pain in his back.


*****


“Oh, so you're finally awake?” someone huffed, her voice fuming with exasperation.
Max’s senses slowly came to, the world trickling into his ears and eyes…
Danger flashed in his mind.
He shot straight up and reached for his blade - his hands grasped at nothing.
“If you're looking for your stuff, I kept it behind the altar you trashed when you ran into it,” the voice spat from behind him. A girl, dressed in a black sleeveless jumpsuit and yellow shorts, lounged on a pew. A silver tattoo carved spirals and whirls on her arms and halfway up the side of her neck. He wasn’t sure if he was delirious or hallucinating, but he swore the tattoo was moving. Through the rips and tears in the bruised cream walls Max saw a dense wall of trees, shrouded in white fog. A grey light, seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere, painted over the scene in a decrepit, derelict wash. A stone altar covered in ivy overlooked a row of decayed wooden pews, some shattered, others rotten. Candlesticks and candles were scattered around the altar and pedestal. The girl took up the only clean row, it's surface having been meticulously polished. He had been lain in the aisle atop a spotless white towel - although the wooden board floor was also incredibly clean. Free of dust.
Surrounding the setup was a massive temple; the altar and pews merely taking up the central foyer. Dull red wooden beams dissected white walls in an ornate style full of curls and neat rectangles. That and the colossal height of the roof, framed with square, even tiers or floors gave the impression an ancient Viridian pagoda.
He shivered at the unwelcome comparison.
“Its a bit run down, hm?”
Max tried to speak before coughing on a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
The girl jumped off her pew and crossed the aisle to him. “Sitrus-Pecha juice. Tastes nasty, but you had no choice. Squishy mortal bodies, you have to heal before you become immortal.” She tossed him a waterskin, although she was close enough to simply hand it to him. He only barely caught it. “Then again, neither did I, right?” She looked to the sky, her furious complaint directed to the heavens. “Damn, they sent just the right amount, no more, no less? Bloody gods,” she murmured under her breath.
“Wh-where am I?” he asked, throat hoarse. He downed the waterskin in a flash - before realizing it contained the same acrid mixture he tasted just before. The juice burned his throat and scalded his tongue going down.
“I would say hell, but that’s only half right.” She didn’t bother looking down at him. “Basically, you’re in a place called Ashphodel. Or at least, part of it. My part.” The girl spat the last sentence with a terse venom.
“What, do you mean I’m dead?”
She cackled. “Yep. You’re a goner. Hope you said your goodbyes to everyone because you probably won’t be seeing them again!”
The words sat in his stomach like a sack of stones. Dead. Gone.
“Wh...Th...There has to be some mistake!” he pleaded, fear once again setting in.
The girl laughed harder. “The gods rarely make mistakes, and when they do it’s never to do with someone’s death!”
The all-too-familiar fingers of dread began to comb through his hair. There’s no way. He was still alive, right? He could feel himself, still walk, still talk?
The slightest twinge of sympathy arose twisted the girl’s cold visage. “Well, I’ll let you come to terms with your, ah, predicament.” She hopped off the pew and began to tidy up the scattered effects of the temple.
Max was dead.


It took him three days - judging by how the otherwise unchanging wash of light dimmed and brightened in long, tired intervals - to snap from his depressed stupor. Another eight passed before his grim mood lifted from him like a passing storm - although he still held a sharp slice of contempt for the gods; especially for the lance-wielding dragoon.
The girl, Shiel, continued to be as toxic as possible, going out of her way to insult him. He was a ‘dumbass’ or ‘stupid dog’. On the best days he was a ‘worthless piece of trash’. Despite this, even through her unending tirade of offense, he still learnt a great deal about this place he was in. She was incredibly willing to divulge details: often out of boredom, sometimes just as a sideways attempt to offend him.
“Those that die a violent death or are connected to violence in some way are fated to do their time here,” Shiel explained at one point, her lithe, nimble form perched high above him, looking down from the roof of one of the higher floors. She didn't bother to look down; evidently her right hand’s nails were more interesting than engaging in a legitimate conversation with a living human being.
Well, not living, Max reminded himself.
“Although, you're such a boring character that I have no idea how you even made it this far,” she added with a snort.
“How did you even get up there?”
She scowled at him. “Magic? Duh? You aren't very bright, are you?” the girl jeered at him with unrestrained condescension.
He sighed, with more tiredness than exasperation. He knew her type. Back when he was still at middle school, there had been a girl similar to her - aggressive, rowdy, maybe even unhinged; he simply declined to give her any attention. When she made a ruckus or threw a few insults his way, he shunned her, pretended she didn't exist. When she tried to get physical with him, he aptly and ably defended himself; but he didn’t press any charges, nor did he try to actively hurt her. Before long, many of his classmates followed suit. She became much quieter after that year.
He hoped Shiel was the same such case.
The temple, he discovered, was as vast as it seemed; and almost entirely empty. Hundreds of rooms shuttered with fusuma doors or screens or even regular doors contained nothing but stale air and a view of the endlessly boring impermeable mist that surrounded the area. Some rooms contained basic furniture; tables, chairs, bedframes (but no mattresses - it seemed as though sleep had to be as uncomfortable as it was unpleasant, with their dreamless sleeps). It was like they lived on a floating island in a permanent overcast - nothing else existed, besides him, Shiel and the pagoda.
His exploration of the pagoda had ended roughly near the top; he stared down the fourteen floors he had ascended, the pews and altar merely toothpick-sized furniture for matchbox men at this height. There were three more floors (excluding the roof’s crow’s nest), but due to the sloping gradient of the temple walls each floor got smaller and smaller. The top floors seemed only a few rooms wide - he fully expected there to be nothing in any of the rooms.
He decided to jump from the fourteenth floor that day.
He was nursing the pain of broken legs and four broken ribs for the next few weeks - although he could still walk just as well as he could normally.
“You can't die, idiot!” Shiel shouted as she found him crumpled on the floor that one day. “You can't injure yourself; you'll just feel the pain, but nothing different.”
Due to his rigorous military training (not to mention general disgust for his fellow man - he disagreed entirely with the average joe’s desire for strength and efficiency) the man had experienced more than his fair share of isolation and loneliness; his longest stint a lonely two week hike up a desolate mountainside to simulate ‘independent action’ with his country’s extensive and expansive training. The trek had worn him out, to the point that he wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and slowly die; it had made him resent the very idea of going without some form of company; it had caused him to question the intelligence of those that made such an inane, wasteful, dangerous challenge. Well, more than he did already.
And yet, at least he had an objective. At least he had purpose.
Here, he felt...nothing. There was no reason to live - yet he couldn’t die. There was nothing to do - yet he couldn't leave.
He understood why Shiel was slightly cracked in the attic.


On one day - or night, he wasn't sure - he silently decided to himself to befriend the girl. With boredom becoming his greatest enemy, an unbeatable beast that hounded him every passing second, causing him to sometimes even cry in the corner of one of the pagoda’s massive rooms, he needed interaction. His room; the largest on the fourth floor, with two sliding doors that joined to another two fairly sized spaces either side of the room itself, had become a graveyard of doors. He had ripped off the doors of many rooms in the pagoda, constructing things with the nails and wood. A makeshift catapult stood sentry at the window. A bench sat stock still in the far corner. A rickety model of a bridge was stretched across the adjacent room, complete with string suspensions taken from some of the pagoda’s blinds. In the months (he reckoned, if the altar’s clock was correct, and he hadn't made a mistake on the scratch tally he made on one of the fusama doors) that had passed, the girl was only willing to be an insufferable annoyance and his only solace was his woodworking - the mere act of carving wood seemed to lighten his spirits; the initial deep-set depression slowly and surely alleviated. Although while his success with his own mood was sound, his tactic of ignoring the girl had backfired; she only grew more and more impudent.
He trotted down to the foyer; Shiel was standing at the entrance, scything down an invisible enemy with Max’s sword.
She was fairly terrible. Her posture was lazy and slack. Her swings were exaggerated and clunky, like a robot imitating a human; no grace or fluidity in her movements.
“Practicing?” he called to her amiably.
She hastily threw the sword aside. “N-n-no! I was just...er...inspecting it! You know! Polishing it for you - you disgusting animal! You can’t clean up after yourself, so I have to do it for you!” Her voice was an octave higher than usual - her face red and flooded with embarrassment - her body frozen as a deer in headlights.
Max laughed. “Well. sure thing.” He casually slunk over to the thrown sword. “But if you really do want to learn swordplay, you should ask me.”
The red of her face deepened, if that was even possible. “Eh-ah-I-I-” she spluttered, her voice breaking like it was playing from a faulty CD.
Pulling the sword from the pew it had speared, he performed a simple, yet showy, flourish. “See? It’s easy.” The sword flew through the air from his head to his hip, spiralling in swirling, slithering curves, terminating in him mimicking a quick sheathe.
The girl’s blood red eyes were transfixed on the tip as it swung back around into a ready position.
“Easy,” the swordsman repeated softly.
Her lip curled inward as she chewed on it nervously. “...I-I guess you could teach me how to swordfight,” she finally ceded.
For the first time in months, he broke open a smile.
*****


“Up. The point needs to be up.” He pulled her slacking arm straight, as though she were a puppet designed for his whims. “It needs to be straight - you get the most reach, the fastest swing - and it looks good.”
It was more than a couple of weeks since he had first started teaching her. Or was it? He needed to check his tally to find out. Not that it would do any good as he forgot what days the venture begun…
“So, this?” Shiel demanded, before swinging the sword down from head to sternum.
“Uh, almost.” He took the sword from her and performed his own slash, for the umpteenth time. “See how it moves, like it's a part of my own arm?” He elaborated the swing in slow motion.
Shiel didn't snap at him - instead simply snatching the sword from his grip. “So-” The air whistled as it was sliced apart by the blade.
“Good, but you're still gripping the handle too hard. It needs to flow freely, remember?”
The same whispering hiss slid through the air again.
“Hey, that's much better!” He gave her an appreciative clap. “You're making great progress.”
She nervously chewed the inside of her lip.
“Alright, so get into a guarding posture please?” He inspected her arm as she held the weapon in front of her.
“...that’s an incredible tattoo you have there,” he remarked in an awed whisper. Thin silver lines cut apart the otherwise perfect skin of her arm in diamond-shaped portions, the tattoo disappearing into the shoulder of her jumpsuit. It fitted in and around the contours of her arm and wound itself like a glittering spider web or a pattern of quicksilver vines. He had never seen the marking up close before; the girl had always kept herself well away from him as a rule, but now that he was within touching distance of her...
“...op staring. Hey. Hey!”
A quick slap startled him out of his reverie.
“Ow! Oh! Uh...sorry.”
She glared at him as though she was the teacher. “Concentrate?”
“...Right, my bad,” he murmured sheepishly. “So, make sure your guard is always steady…”


*****


The air sang and screamed with the sound of whirling, clashing metal.
“That's much better!” Max shouted from his position, seven paces from the hungry blade wielded by Shiel. Its counterpart’s point wavered from side to side, watching, expecting, predicting Shiel’s next attack. “Tone down the aggressiveness, though!”
In between pants, she replied; “Is - it too - tough for you - ?”
He laughed. “No, your guard is too open.” With that, he advanced on her, imposing in his steadiness.
Roaring, she rushed across the divide in all of three leaping steps. A novice rush, inexperienced; yet it had the ferocity to make up for it. She made a wild downward slash for his chest - telegraphing her move with an enraged shout. He caught her at the foible with a swift beat - her swing deflecting away from him. He attempted to jab her side with his sword, as a riposte - she turned her chest to avoid and shoved him back with her free hand.
The back and forth lasted for well over five minutes. Clangs, grunts, shouts and curses crackled the air with frenetic energy. Neither of them were worried about hurting each other; death or harm wasn't an issue. Both had long gashes on their clothes where the swords had cut into them, but the wounds sealed as fast as they appeared - leaving only the burning pain of the injury, nothing more. Even their clothes has stitched back together, the thread wrapping itself shut, worming into the other side of the rift and burrowing through the rest of the fabric.
It wasn't long before they were both exhausted by the exchange.
“Want to, *huff*, finish *huff* ?” Max clutches his stomach, wincing from where Shiel had sliced open his midriff. She had vastly improved in the past month. Her aggressiveness was blind and dangerous, but incredibly effective; especially against Max’s more measured and controlled style. In essence, she was a wolf to Max’s panther: she lacked the grace or skill, opting instead for simply savaging him with pure, unrequited fury while Max prefered to stay well away from his opponent, jumping in for a quick and calculated strike.
“I…” she struggled to her feet. “I think I…” Her sword dropped to the ground
“...Are you hurt?” he asked. “Do you…?” He ambled over to her.
“I’m…”
He leaned down, as though she was going to whisper something.
In one single, swift movement she thrust the side of her hand towards his chest, her hand gripped around an imaginary sword moving to thrust it into his heart. Her mouth moved in a silent murmur.
Instinctively, he brought his hand to block the strange uppercut.
A piercing pain erupted in his hand, the flesh of his palm screaming. He looked down; a thin silver sabre had punched through his hand and bathed itself in his blood. He almost screamed out in pain.
Where did she-
She crouched to gain a better angle and pushed with both hands, aiming the sword (and the back of Max’s hand) at the centre of his chest. The tip prodded the fabric of his shirt.
“Shi...Shiel! How did y-y-”
A demonic grin was affixed to her face as she struggled. A harmony of grunts and growls punctuated their deadly embrace, the hairline thin margin between them slowly growing as the stronger, heavier man inevitably pushed her back. She twisted her grip on the sword and began to murmur something else.
“S-s-stop th-th…” Max groaned. His face was scrunched up into a look of intense struggle.
White light exploded from the blade. A miniature sun opened up at his sternum; his form was wreathed in burning light and heat. A metallic ringing filled the space between their bodies and steadily rose higher and higher and higher. The swordsman averted his eyes and blocked his face with his other hand, trying to be rid of the sabre pinning him to her, before the ringing snapped and crashed into a low boom. Something heavy smashed the air out of his lungs and-
Flying. A massive force flung his form across the space towards the roof of the pagoda.
He wasn't conscious to hear the world-rending crash that accompanied his impact.


*****


Max came to, ears ringing from the impact. His back felt crushed, trapped between an invisible vice. He spluttered and choked on the fine brown mist left behind by the wood his projectile body pulverized. He struggled to his feet and arched his back, working out the phantom pain of an imagined broken spine. A league below him, Shiel waved cheerily, as though she hadn't just flung the man through a solid wood wall.
He turned away from the rift his body had created, murmuring something dark under his breath.
A pair of steely-silver irises met his own.
They looked at each other wordlessly. His own dumb surprise was reflected back at him. The full implications of the unlikely meeting had yet to dawn on him; though his face slowly shifted from mild shock to severe comprehension - or revelation.
The silence was palpable.
Something hissed towards him; he suddenly found himself face to face with a giant curved blade. The weapon - a polearm, a Naginata even longer than the man was tall, its crescent blade longer than Max’s entire arm - stood adamantly forward and pinned his stare to its point, torn away from the dumbstruck boy in the middle of the room to the girl that wielded it. She was dressed in a white kimono - the same as the boy - the very same steely silver eyes staring him down, an open and defiant challenge in her glare.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who are you?”
He immediately held his hands up. “Alright! I'm unarmed! I'm sorry!”
Below him Shiel shouted; “What's going on up there? Max?”
The boy jumped up and poked his head from the hole to Shiel. He looked at the girl with a certain look - she shook her head. The silver moon blade hissed in his face ever closer. “Who is she?”
Max compressed himself against the wall, edging as far away from the Naginata as possible. While he was aware that he was effectively invincible, he didn’t fancy being skewered through the throat or being beheaded. “Calm down! Calm down!”
There was a slight metallic ringing as Shiel floated to the roof. “What's going on he-” Her eyes fell on the girl. “...Oh, we have more roommates.” She snorted with a mix of contempt and sarcasm. She kicked the wall and stormed off, muttering something about annoying twins.
The girl’s fearful grimace deepened. “Roommate? Another? What's going on? Where are we?”
The boy shared the same scared, confused expression. “We’d like some answers, fairly quickly.”
Max’s breath caught in his throat. He remembered when he learnt the nature of his predicament. The loneliness. The regret.
He swallowed something hard in his throat. “Well? There's no easy way of saying this…”


He explained to the pair about Ashphodel; their eternal prison. How they were the subjects of some kind of punishment.
In exchange, he learnt her name. Her name was Hikaru. As was her ‘twin’s’.
The room’s trapdoor had been close to obliterated due to their attempts to escape the room, which had been the only room to be shut off in the pagoda. Sealed away by some form of impenetrable reinforcement. Deep gouges and gashes marred the wood where the giant polearm had bit into the floor. No matter how hard she struck, the wood just wouldn't split apart; the gashes hadn't weakened the wood one bit.
He would later learn that destroying the wood from the outside was easy - almost trivial.
Hikaru - both of them - were incredibly apologetic and meek after realising Max and Shiel meant no harm. They stated that they were ‘Miko’ and ‘Geki’, or ‘Shrine Maiden and Shaman’. Max didn’t understand this reference; Shiel explained that this was similar to what he knew as clergymen or monks and nuns, to a certain effect. It was a very old Viridian tradition. Shiel immediately despised the newcomers as well; treating them with the same annoyed condescension she subjected Max to.
Her irritation with Max had seemed to lessen greatly.


The female Hikaru proved to be incredibly reclusive, almost. Her gaze was nearly always averted from Max and she never seemed to speak - often her counterpart would do her talking. She reminded him of one of the women who worked with the clergy back in Azrea - silent, deferential, almost maid-like. While she had designated her room as an incredibly cosy cupboard-like enclave next to Max’s three-room hall that he spent most of his time ‘remodelling’, knocking down walls and tearing apart doors to make the three rooms properly conjoined, she had barely, if ever, emerged from there.
On the other hand, the male Hikaru had chosen the largest room he could find on the same floor - not before he had a fifteen minute argument with Max for him to take his hall. He was amiable; if not insufferably annoying. On one day he had just simply decided to lie down in the middle of his hall - not moving or being disruptive, simply relaxing in his workplace.
“What, am I not allowed to lie here?”
“I-I’d rather you didn’t.”
“You’d rather?” He had given Max a winning smirk. “So I don’t have to, right?”
“Please leave.”
“Nah, too much effort.”
He had simply decided to ignore him until the boy grew tired of his floor.


*****


“...So is that block, riposte, backstep? Or should I backstep first and then riposte? I like the idea of hitting as quickly as possible.” Shiel mimed thrusting her sword quickly into an imaginary chest and then jumping back to avoid an invisible swing.
Her strikes and swings were much faster now; she had taken to using her conjured sword instead of one of Max’s much heavier twin-blades. The frosted steel blade of her sword was webbed in a thin skein of glowing white lines - as though the sword was made of spider webs.
She still seemed to lack slightly with the weapon though; her strikes were too fast and too sudden - she was holding something much lighter than she’d like, or she didn’t know her own strength.
“No, you really want to just take your time on landing a good hit. Remember, one good hit can take out an opponent, so you should focus on getting that one hit.”
He batted away Shiel’s blade, jumped back and aimed his sword at her throat - the point hovering a few inches from her skin. “See? You would be dead at this point, whereas your strike would have only grazed my rib.”
She chewed the inside of her lip. “Y-You know this doesn’t m-m-mean anything, right? The training? I still sorta hate you!”
He half-frowned, half smiled. “Uh, sure?”
“G-Good! Yeah! Anyway…”
A soft patter of steps crept to the front door. He heard the battered wood creak slightly.
“Oh, Hikaru.” He waved to her as she emerged from the pagoda. “Come to watch?”
She edged from the protection of the door, her massive polearm poised carefully in one gripped fist. “May I have a duel?”
He was stunned. It was the first time the ‘shrine maiden’ had come out of her room - at least, the first time he had seen her.
“Why are you asking?” Shiel hissed, instantly reverting to her aggressive state. “Just go back to-”
“I'll be happy to duel with you,” Max said in a hurry. “I hope you don't mind, Shiel. You don't mind, don't you?”
“W-wait! We’re not-”
He raised his hands to placate her. “Only for a bit! I promise we’ll continue after this.”
“But she-”
“Please. Shiel.”
She gave him a suffering look. “Well, fine! Fine!” Shiel gave a sharp huff and stormed away.
“What am I going to do with that girl?” he muttered to himself. She was too much, too often. Her outbursts were unpredictable, maybe even dangerous - just like her fighting style, he supposed.
At the pagoda’s entrance, Hikaru smiled at him. “Thank you, Max.”
“Where’s - uh… the other-”
She shook her head. “He declined to participate.”
Shrugging, he drew the other sword - the blade slicing through the air with eager anticipation. “Best of five hits?”
Hikaru nodded, standing feet apart, chest to the side, polearm balanced in one hand. A proper stance.
A silence settled around the pagoda as the two combatants faced each other off, two figures at each end of a line, sizing each other up.
Already, Max’s mind was racing ahead into the battle. So, she wields an incredibly large weapon - she’ll be slow. She has it held away from her, so her first move will be an overhead swing. It's very long too; I can get into her range, make sure she can't hit me…
The air was shoved out of the way as Max ran forward..
As expected, she brought the weapon scything down over his head. He sidestepped the blade with ease and got to within striking distance of her. The blade was too long, and he was behind it already. First point to me-
In one sweeping gesture she pushed Max back with her left hand and spun around, the blade rushing around to meet him.
He had just enough time to step back. A long line of red opened up at his stomach. A glancing hit.
Any closer and he would have been split in two.
“Damn!” He winced at the wound on his stomach. “You can swing that a lot faster than I thought!”
She pulled back the polearm, flicked it back into her other hand. She said nothing; her eyes cold and steady.
He charged forward again.
The polearm shot forward. He easily dodged that initial jab. The polearm shrunk back and she changed tack. The moon blade hissed around her. He attempted to deflect the swing. Their blades met.
The shrieking clash of metal on metal pierced his eardrums and the sheer force of the attack shoved him roughly to the side. His sword vibrated in angry protest at the brutal force behind that swing. His arms burned. His side ached.
Note to self. Never block that polearm ever again.
Not stopping, she brought the polearm around again in a slow, graceful sweep.
He barely avoided the second strike as it glided centimetres above his low roll.
Just as the blade went past he sprang forward and brought his right sword across her frame. It bit into her arm - she was just about able to avoid the most lethal part of the attack. She bit back a pained shout, her grip on her left hand slackened; her next swing had not lost any of its grace or power, however.
Her discipline was shatterproof.
Despite this, Max was steadily pushing her back. He would dodge every arcing slam, every circular sweep, every single move. Nipping in after her long and winding attacks to nick her side, stab at her chest, he hit and retreated, deciding the battle would have to be a war of attrition. It was evidently working. He was too fast.
He was three hits up, to her one. He thought he had the hang of it, he thought he knew her attack style. Her patterns, mannerisms, habits. Shiel looked on with vested interest, giving slight noises of encouragement to the swordsman.
Thus it was all the more painful when Hikaru finally landed another hit.
He was inside her guard again. The blade of the great Naginata was an arm’s length behind him. His left hand sword was aimed directly at her sternum. He could taste victory.
The first strike was to his eyes. A flash of intense light froze his vision in time; a hazy afterimage of the girl’s kimono was burned into his retinas. It was as though she had dropped a flashbang directly in his face. His eyes clamped shut immediately.
As he stumbled back blindly he felt something drag across his legs, leaving behind two tracks of burning, piercing pain. He dropped to his knees.
Two of those burning tracts of pain opened themselves up on his wrist, slicing through his tendons. His twin swords dropped lifelessly to the floor.
He felt a point poke his throat.
“So I won, right?.”
He opened his eyes slowly.
Max chuckled weakly. “Now that’s just cheating.”
He - Hikaru, the boy, wielded something not unlike her large moon blade. It was a polearm - what looked like the same polearm, except a much smaller diamond-shaped spearhead replaced the massive naginata blade that he had grown accustomed to dodging.
He was pulled up. “Sorry about that, but you didn’t exactly specify any rules.” He watched the wounds he gave the swordsman heal over with a slight tinge of concern.
“That’s a nasty spear you’ve got there.” He winced.
“Yeah, it does sting a bit, so I’m told.”
He looked around - seeing the female Hikaru stand a few paces back, watching with intense...worry? Embarrassment? He nodded to her and then looked up at the pagoda. “How did you do the whole... switch maneuver?”
“What, the flash thing?”
“Yeah.”
He grinned. “Jumped.”
“And the flash?”
The grin grew wider. “Seeeecret.”
The swordsman laughed and slapped the boy’s back.
As though something had given way within her, the other Hikaru ran to Max and bowed curtly, gritting her teeth slightly. “I do apologise for cheating against you in our duel. I do hope you forg-”
Max laughed. He put a hand to her shoulder. “Well, you’ve had your one chance.”
She continued bowing. “I-I’m sorry. I will not do-”
“No, no no no.” He smiled. “I mean, now I know what to expect.”


*****


The polearm, the female Hikaru had - reluctantly - explained, was something of a ‘part’ of them. Whichever Hikaru wielded it had its blade altered to suit their proficiencies. The female Hikaru practiced in grace and elegance; to make up for a lack of speed she hit with absurd strength and had her weapon specifically suited to her needs. The male Hikaru, on the other hand, preferred speed and ferocity. He had forgone aesthetic and power to simply hit and hit and hit.
They still closely guarded why this was, or where they came from.
They continued to practice their skills against each other, despite Shiel’s reservations on ‘sharing’ Max with the two. After a rough start though, she really began to apply herself. She had great success with using her own weapon now - a hefty spiked mace she summoned herself.
Max initially laughed at first, thinking the girl had gone mad.
She proved to be far more proficient at the brute-force style of the mace than the more tactical approach of the sword. She began to really test the man’s skills.
Time flew by.
His tally counted four entire years, and yet he was told he hadn’t aged at all.
Often he wondered what the world was like now. Did they win against Viridian? Did Shioko retaliate and send in their fierce kitsune Champion to obliterate his old home?
Did anyone miss him?
He thought about his home much more than he had before. Shiel and the Hikarus had no choice but to listen to him talk about his life - their own guarded, secret pasts were seldom ever spoken of; they were like out of place artefacts - they had no explanation, no context. They existed without any history - or any history they would allow Max could discern.


*****


Shiel rapped his door harshly - the once flaky wooden frame shaved and smoothed. She had regarded the door with a mystified expression. She ran her hand along the surface, caressing it, feeling how soft and smooth the wood felt under her fingers.
“Who's there?”
“It's me!”
“Ah, Shiel.” There was a muffled scrambling, the sound of something being shoved away into a corner, before the door was heaved open with a huff. His ever inquisitive face greeted her. “What do you need?”
Shiel whistled. “Nice work on your door, Max.” She ran her eyes along its surface. “You should do that for my room.” She paused, and then added with a grin; “I know you aren't busy.”
He chuckled. “Sure, I'll do that sometime. I’ll have to sharpen my swords up.” He went over to the far corner of his middle room, sitting at a grindstone he fashioned from a round stone table in one of the rooms.
“Well, that's not why I'm here, actually,”
“Wow Max,” Shiel whispered in slight awe. “You’ve never shown me this.” She staggered to the centre of the room and spun slowly, taking in the product of the man’s span years in this limbo. “How did you…”
It was honestly awe inspiring. The man had adorned his room with all manner of carvings, sculptures and what seemed to be wooden clockwork. It reminded her of...something. Something poignant; a memory of something long gone, dead perhaps. A man, imposing silent quarantine on himself, surrounded by works that will never grace human eyes...
He laughed meekly. “Well, you never come visit my room so you wouldn't have seen it, but thanks.”
She wandered over to one side of the room, where Max had carved an ornate sailing galleon out of a block of wood. “I-I never knew you were an artist!” she breathed softly.
He scratched his head, embarrassed.
She continued drifting around the room, an unseen current impelling her from one piece to the next. She didn't move; she was moved, pulled by the strange gravity each one of his works exuded. Even the trash - or what she assumed was trash, as it was crumpled away against a wall or in a corner - fascinated her. “Well, you know, I-”
She stopped at a particularly complex assembly of wooden cogs and string pulleys. The cogs were turning - albeit incredibly slowly - and a long arm with a charcoal tip was held suspended by the cogwork, the assembly turning the arm around as a clock hand. “What's-”
“Oh! Don't touch it!” He pulled Shiel back slightly; as though the clockwork was ablaze and she hadn't noticed it. “It's a counter; how many days I've spent here.” He gestured to the wall behind it; the wood was marked with hundreds of black streaks.
It took Shiel a while to realise those were tally marks.
She gritted her teeth bitterly. Idiot. Didn't he realise he couldn't return? That there was no use counting days; there's nothing to wait for, nothing to be excited about. Whatever home he had, he wouldn't see it again. Whatever he was missing, it would be best for him to forget it.
She thought herself lucky that she didn't have a home to miss.


*****


She had finished ogling the swordsman’s works, being more than suitably impressed by each of them. As she scoured their intricately carved surfaces with her eyes Max stood more than a few steps back, often looking at anywhere but the piece in general; he seemed like he couldn't stand the sight of it. Her mind was filled with wooden galleons; complex arrangements of wooden cogs; impressionistic assemblies of interlocking blocks; even the odd bust or two.
At one point they had stopped by a chess set, each piece crafted entirely by hand. “Do you play?” the man asked.
She shook her head firmly, scowling briefly. “Out of my depth.” She was silent for a moment, before adding; “At least it looks good.”
Now, they were away from the wooden sculptures, sitting face to face on a couple of chairs the man had taken (and reshaped, restyled entirely) from another room.
“Where's Hikaru?” Max asked, confused as to why she hadn't come along as well.
Shiel made a small irritated sound. “Why would you care?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Forget it.”
“She's probably wandering about the building. She's got her own friend, so I wouldn't be worried.” She snickered internally; as though she would be worried about her anyway.
Max cocked his head. “What do you do in your room then? Don't you have something to pass the time?”
She shrugged. “I draw. Practice my magic. Not much else - of course.” She summoned a pencil; showing it to Max, twirling it in her hands before letting it disintegrate into a light silvery powder.
He leaned forward. “Really? What do you draw on?”
“Fusama doors and walls, I guess. I've only used up half of my floor’s walls though.”
He chuckled. “We could start up some kind of company. Nightingale and Shiel; woodworking and design.”
“Business would be tough though; lack of customers!” She snorted at her own joke. “More like ‘Shiel and ‘Gale, swordsmanship training.”
“Well, at least there won't be any competition.” He nodded sagely, ironically.
In her room next to his own, Hikaru could hear them laughing, offering up a slight, saddened sigh to whomever was listening.

*****


“For me? Really?”
He presented to her the training dummy; an almost lifelike statue of a dragoon warrior, shield raised and lance poised to strike. While it wasn't as practical as an actually training dummy; it lacked the soft, spongy feel of a straw dummy, or the reactive nature of a spinning training dummy, but the statue would do well enough, especially with the little materials he had at hand. He had almost exhausted all of the wood on his floor and four floors up and down - he would have to begin raiding the upper floors, and carrying the tables to his room from so far up would be a pain. “Yeah, who else? I've got something for Hikaru as well, if you're worried about that.”
She was oblivious to him speaking; what he said was a hundred miles off. He couldn't believe that anyone would give her anything near a present. Her! Of all people! She was perfectly aware of how she treated people; both him and Hikaru, and the way she treated people while she was alive, all those years ago. And yet, despite all that…
“...so it should probably stand up to your mace. Hello? Hello? Are you even listening to me?”
With the suddenness of a bear trap snapping around an animal, she rushed him.
“Wait, what the-”
He reached for his sword - grasping empty air and the fabric of his shirt. They were still downstairs! He tensed himself for impact.
She tackled him - gathered him up into a ball. And hugged him. She was hugging him. “Thank you! Thank you - thank you - thank you!” She squeezed him hard. A tear leapt from her face onto his shoulder.
He was beaten back by the hug. He still wasn't sure if this was a genuine hug, or an attempt to catch him off guard. “Whoa! I-uh, it's only a training dummy!”
She buried her face his chest.
“Just-uh, tired of you attacking me, is all!”
She didn't respond, only dug deeper into his clothes.


He decided to shut up and settle for patting her back as she embraced him. Never mind the pain of him carrying the statue down four flights of stairs, or the myriad of splinters embedded in his fingers and hands he spent hours painstakingly picking each and every one of them.
For the first time in four years, he had felt something spark within him. He could feel it in his nose, feel in his arms and chest. A funny, unfamiliar feeling.
He felt happy.


She felt it before he noticed it; a hair-raising, heavy aura, as though a stranger had hovered his hand centimetres above her skin, her knowing it was there, not wanting the hand to touch but being unable to do anything about it.
It wasn't from the idiot she was hugging.
A dome of black enclosed them both.
Max pulled away. “What's this? Are you-”
She frowned. “No, that's not-”
It struck her.
“Max! You have to ru-”
The black orb shrunk, collapsed around the man’s form, shrinking until it was barely able to contain them both. The edge passed through her; converging onto him. An invisible force began to shove her back - her hair and clothes billowing in a baleful, howling gust of wind.
“Shiel! Where did you - what's going-”
“No!” she roared, reaching out to him. The hair-thin tendrils of silver lining her arm jumped from her hand, reaching out to where the man stood.
A hand thrust out from the orb. Reaching for her. Thrashing in the air.
She grabbed it, pulled harshly. Pulled with enough force to rip open a door, her tattoo curling around Max’s fingers, thin webs sticking him to her.
He shouted something muffled by the orb.
Hikaru ran out from his room. “What are you guys-” He saw the orb, saw Max’s hand reach out from it. He cursed.
Shiel’s eyes were drowning in tears. Pleading at him.
Without thinking; from the highest floor of the pagoda he jumped; spear pointed down at the orb. A blueish glow emanated from the spearhead.
Shiel yanked ever harder.
The spear struck the orb - the anti-magical enchantment crackling against its surface spitting blur sparks and arcs of lightning from the impact point - until gravity continued and even Hikaru was consumed by the orb.
For a tiny moment, everything was silent.
Atop the orb, form shimmering in the decayed, depressed wash of light, something stood. Billowing white smoke curled atop its hair. Billowing black smoke curled aside its shoulders. A piercing, disdainful, malevolent blue eye glared at her, partially covered by the white smoke that served as its hair, obscuring the rest of its face lest any one sees.
[b]You don't deserve them.[b]
She choked; sputtered on the air she couldn't seem to breathe. “B-but w-why m-me?” Her grip loosened.
The god said nothing. His form vanished.
The wind blew even harder. It shoved her back; that one final grip rent apart by the extreme forces pulling them away.
With a thunderous clap, a deep boom reverberating her form as it faded, the orb collapsed on itself, leaving no trace of anyone being there at all.
She stared at the spot where he once
stood. Horrified. The dragoon statue stood behind where he was, spear pointed where his chest would be.
The pagoda shook with the force of her scream.


The darkness snapped out of existence; Max’s irises had been pulled almost out of his eyes thanks to the orb consuming his vision with complete pitch black. It was complete darkness - a lack of any light whatsoever. A heavy - yet soft - object pushed him back slightly; it disappeared into the wind.Wind roared and whistled around him, before exploding outward as the dark prison exploded outwards. Something bumped hard into his head and he stumbled forward, out of the quickly dissipating smoke from the orb.
“Oof!” The male Hikaru lay sprawled on the leafy floor, his spear shoved aside. He groaned. “Damn... that hurts.”
Max pulled him to his feet. The female Hikaru had landed in a crouching stance, her hair and kimono soiled by the jungle floor. It looked as if she had rolled.
“Ah, ow ow ow! Thanks.” He dusted himself off and looked at their new surroundings. “...Isn’t this…?”
Max could hear the confusion and shock in his voice. He wasn’t standing in Ashphodel anymore.
Trees. He was surrounded by a crowd of trees, their leaves making the sunlight filter through the canopy like acid melting through a sheet of metal. In the distance a dim orange-red glow emanated. He realized those were fires, similarly to how he realized where he stood.
It was Viridian Forest.
He was back.
He dropped to his knees. A tumult of emotions raged inside him; relief bordering elation on his return to what was perhaps the real world; fear, foreboding upon seeing the place him and his fellow soldiers marched on to destroy in some sick, vainglorious extermination, and him seeing this may have meant he had descended into an even lower form of hell designed to torment him further; confusion, as he didn’t know what prompted this occurrence.
But one voice shouted the loudest among the rabble, something that made him slam his fist into the ground and grit his teeth.
“Where did - is Shiel - What just-”
“...Did we get transported...to Viridian? Is this - “
“We need to go back. Shiel - she can’t stay alone for too long.”
Hikaru looked at him strangely. “You… want to go back?”
The swordsman grabbed the boy’s silken kimono. “She - she can’t be alone again! She - what happened? Why wasn’t she -”
The boy slapped his arm away. “I don’t - know! All I saw was you being eaten by this black ball thing, and Shiel trying to pull you out, and -” He fell silent as Max withdrew. “...Wait, Max, what are you doing?” He frowned. “...Are you...crying?”
The female Hikaru glanced at him with an unreadable expression. She looked at her counterpart. He nodded solemnly.
The man stared at his bare arm. His lip trembled; his eyes began to drip. Hikaru couldn’t see it, but Max couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
Curled around his arm was a tiny silver thread.
In a world of war and conflict, an extermination throws the last great bastion of peace into aggression. In the midst of this, a child sorcerer seeks justice for his fallen home. A repentant assassin and a messenger of the future rush to save their last refuge from destruction. The dead return, backed by a forgotten god. Ideals clash. Morals crumble. And it will not end until one half of the world stands in the ashes of the other.
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