Dance macabre, flesh and bones, lay silent as I have. Despite being dead to the world, she was alive, sleeping in peace. Here, in this gap, I hide from this misery, for there is no shelter from such indignity. It is only in my mute dream that I can lay sheltered from the shadows that haunt these grounds from the darkness of the world. In this place, there was no one who could harm me. Wistfully, I knew I needed to wake up once again to the crumbling dawn. Inhaling a deeply fetid aroma, I rise up to the surface of the real world. My eyes slowly opened as I looked around the dumpsters where I had settled. The surroundings are filled with filth and trash. It was this dull reddish purple sky I fell asleep under that I gazed up to meet this morning.
After rubbing off the deep slumber that had covered me, I let out a yawn and spread myself like a cat. As I curl into it, I feel my back’s strain release and become considerably more comfortable. In exhalation, I released the tension in my muscles that had been held in for so long.
“You have something that belongs to me.” I froze as I heard the statement. There was a noticeable youthful quality to her voice, in a way that was unsettling. While my instincts didn’t want me to look, I couldn’t trust the voice at the same time. As far as I’m concerned, it sounded human enough, but if experience has taught me anything, it wasn’t. My head twists as I consider an amalgamation of components. As my eyes swelled with repulsion, I felt my stomach turn. Despite having a human head, an adolescent’s head to be precise, all conventions ended there. In addition to that enamel face, ram horns, and long ears are also present. In spite of its primitive nature, her collar had a fur shawl that I suspected had been torn from something else. Her long hair was braided in the front and rolled like embers in the back, like the blaze from a midnight fire.
Her presence causes me to cower down. In the wake of her neck, the thing evolved into something even more grotesque. “I… I… I don’t swear.” She has four arms that come off her like braches. In each case, they were distinct from one another. They resembled human arms, except for one which had a blade sticking out of it. The trim on her body was bone-like with open sores, and her arms were covered with armor.
As for her other two arms, they resembled bones mixed with mechanical parts. The fingers on each of them were adorned with razor claws. An array of bandages and harnesses encircled her breasts.
Pins were fastened to her torso, and mechanical parts were attached to her abdomen. Her exhale seemed to move them in sections. Walking up along the pavement with her four cloven hooves, the monster was a sight to see. Her torso seemed to be riding another beast. It was impossible to miss the massive skull at her crotch, which was attached to her body with muscles clearly visible. In addition to the ram’s jaw being absent and its fleshy tethers forming the legs, the skull sits between another skull divided down the middle.
Several polished rings of alloy surround her waist. The metallic piece was encrusted with onate patterns. There were fleshy tethers moving down to each of her goat’s four limbs, as well as shields. In addition, she had two enormous bone-like wings without feathers, like an owl. Several trinkets were attached to her tail. As far as height goes, she stood about ten feet tall. Strange pumps and devices covered her body, and bones protruded from them.
The vibrations she produces dwarf me in stature and make me wince every time she treads. “Please. I don’t want any problems.” The gaze of her rosewood eyes turned towards me. Watching as her elegant lips spread into a grin, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fear. “Just let me go. Please.” She grips my shirt with her human hand. As the boney fingers push me against the wall, they lift me off the ground. Frightened, I kick my legs to get away from the monster.
It seems that something is amiss about you,” she proclaims with her eyes fixed on mine. Until I can no longer fight, the clutch strangles any fight I have left in me. My hopelessness drove me to give up. It wouldn’t have mattered how hard I fought since my efforts would not have measured up to her. She pressed my cheek into the wall. Having been entertained by her analysis, she helps me get back on my feet. The farther I slip away from it, the more I stumble as I give up and force myself into the nearest wall. “Tell me, what are you?”
It was as if she stole my tongue in her presence. Although I had every intention of responding, my speech was shaken by my struggle. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should answer. As far as I could tell, she seemed rational. On the other hand, she was uncomfortable to look at. I squeaked, “Human.”
“Interesting. I will have to assimilate you.” she released veined cables that stretched out from her frame. The creatures looked like long worms with cavities at the ends. Like vermin, the tethers move slowly toward me. I kick at the six leeches and corner myself against the wall to avoid getting bitten. In response, I simply receive a slight smile from the thing in front of me. As a result, I was stranded with nowhere to run.
My fear overwhelmed me and I collapsed to the ground in fear. “Please don’t do that. My blood,” She squinted her eyes at me as she reared up one thing with its snarling mouth to my face, “It will kill you.” From the crumpled hold, I could see the girl retract the cords back into her torso. As I spoke to her, she listened to me. There is a possibility that I can persuade her. “You, your, not going to kill me, are you?”
“Should I? I was not planning on it but hey you know how those things go.” Looking around me, I see a mangled piece of glass on the ground. As I leapt over my shoulders, I snatched the glass, throwing myself to the ground on my knees. With the glass at my fingertips, I press it against my skin. The pride that filled me bubbled up as I held down, providing a sprinkle of blood.
“Get away from me!” I screamed, using the wall to create distance between us. In the machine’s hellfire eyes, there is nothing but a blank stare. As a result, it stepped away from me, making me feel much more comfortable. “I am warning you. If I bleed on you, you’ll melt.”
An amicable snicker escapes the girl’s lips. “Aren’t you an imaginative one? Where in the world would you get an idea like that?”
There was no way I could bring myself to mention the name Hellibore. There was truth in his statement. “I have seen it.” I whimpered.“He injected himself with it. I… it killed him. He died in front of me.”
Her response seemed to elicit a moment’s pause. “What a fascinating discovery, isn’t it? You are empty.”
“Empty? What’s that mean?”
“It means you have no machines,” she explained to me. “Only the ones you stole from me.” As she stares down at me, she carries an expression of indignation in her eyes.
“I didn’t steal anything. I don’t know what you mean.”
“We have decided not to assimilate you.” Hearing this made me shiver a bit. Even so, it brought me some relief as well. “You should drop the glass, it would not save you, anyway.” It is clear that she is looking directly into my eyes. “You do not pose an actual threat to us and I am curious how did you survive this long outside of stasis.”
My fingers just went limp as I tried to grasp the glass. “How did you know?” My face was filled with shock.
“Stasis. You are young, you could not have gotten here without being in stasis.” the creature told me.
“I… I… there was a colony. It’s dead now.” I replied. In releasing myself from my guard, I find my fear slowly slipping away. “Do… do… you have a name?”
“We have many names, my name is Velora, my name is Erianthe, my name is Livius, my name is Ravener, my name is Bree, my name is Marionette, my name is Novella, my name is Vanity, my name,”
“Stop!” I shout. “You are not Vanity.”
“I am not, Vanity is us though. I assimilated her. So her arm which you possess is mine by right.” She said without hesitation or emotion. Holding Vanity’s arm tightly, I rear up with tears streaming down my face. Taking a step closer, that hideous creature extends its goat-like limb toward me. “Don’t cry.” she towers over me but gentles herself down to the ground. As she presses her hand against my cheek, I feel the warmth of her boney fingers. My face is pressed against the razor as I stare up into her eyes. In spite of this, I did not perceive any malice. It was gentle, and with a squeeze, my scalp could be stabbed effortlessly.
“I understand. Please… don’t take it.”
The demon says, “Parina, I know you.” I shake my head at her. The horror I am witnessing is not Vanity! That’s impossible. Clearly, she is trying to fool me. She is deceiving, she is a swindler. It is not okay for her to do that, she is evil, she is wicked!
“You killed her!” When I push against her arm, it flies away, allowing me to escape.
Her gaze is disheartened as she peered at me. “Vanity is not dead, she lives in me. To you, I am Velora, a human name.” That is the last thing I want to see in her sick and twisted mind. Ricocheting down the alleyway to get away from that thing, that thing took her away. Stole her… it’s a monster. It’s a devil that is far wickeder than any other.
As I scurry through the streets like a mouse in a maze, I find myself inside the remains of this old city that had once been vibrant; now it’s all about terror. No matter where I ended up, as long as my feet weren’t here, it didn’t matter. Staying didn’t come with any prizes. There is nothing more to this gruesome place except its propositions. The more I wandered, the more I saw my humanity peeling off of me, metaphorically discarded on the ground.
She killed Vanity; what a horrible thing to do. Here, leniency wasn’t an option. As things stand, that’s the way they are. I was never even considered in terms of whether or not I would be okay with what she was saying. To whatever was out there, I was just another sack of flesh waiting to be eaten. In the end, I finished my tour outside of a grocery store. It was obvious from the hologram of a woman driving a shopping cart. At least, I think that’s what it’s supposed to be. On the building’s side, there are pieces of flesh sticking out. This landscape of sinew gave me a feeling of insecurity, as you might imagine. In spite of this, I continue through the parking lot, despite its derelict state.
As this decay progressed, automobiles were left to decompose and rust. Nodules of tissue even swallowed some of them. A number of those human-like creatures were wandering around. It was unclear whether they had spotted me yet, but if they did, they would certainly tear me apart. Looking around, I seek out a place where I can go without drawing attention to myself.
My feet shuffle back behind the building as I walk around. Compared to everything else in this old grim town, it isn’t very different. The echo of my footprints was the only thing keeping me company. There was a hound-like creature plunging from the roof of the food mart. As it landed on all fours, it turned to look at me. With metal on its body and a shifting face, it looked like an alien. I was beyond my comfort zone when I saw the dog’s long, stretched-out neck. The animal swings its head to reveal man’s face. My heart sank as I screamed.
My little scream must have shocked the creature. In response to the dog-like creature’s gaze, I withdrew slowly. There was a thick coat of saliva dripping from his jaw and he showed signs of being battered. No noise is made, no sound is heard; it just peers at me; it doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything. At first, I thought I could walk away, foolish me. “Aaaaahhhheeee.” The dog man said softly.
As I look behind me, I see the doorway to the grocery store. Hopefully, I will be able to barricade myself in there if I can just get there. With its guttural growl, the thing prowled closer to me, revealing its vicious nature. Every tooth was exposed as drool pooled and gushed out at its mouth’s sides. Metal formed the gums of his mouth. It was also possible to make out cables enclosed in metal around his mouth. There was a sense that his muscles were strung together and he was a machine. The movements of his body were broken, as if he had once been a well-oiled engine, but is now decaying.
My back was against the wall so I just had to open the door. However, the dog thing was extremely close. My hands were gripping the knob of the door. Bracing myself, I took a long deep breath. After jolting the door open, I hurled it as hard as possible behind me as I plunged into the chamber. My stomach was churning, “That was a close one.” Drooping against the floor, I look up. It must have been the office door that I took.
The relief was short-lived, however, as I heard the dog man gnaw at the door, scrape the door with its claws, and ravage the door. Before I even got to my feet and began jumping back, light from the outside had already come pouring in. There wasn’t much time left before the dog came inside.
There was a rumble coming from the room down the hall that made my skin crawl. In response to the crash, I spun my head. There was nothing I could say other than “No.”. I heard something getting closer as it thudded and thumped. It wasn’t long before I realized they’d pinned me. “Aoooaaahhhh.” a high pitch wail rang from the room. A limb pokes its head out of the doorway. In the front there is this thing with a body like a busted up torso that keeps limping out. My first thought was that it reminded me of a chicken, without the feathers, but human. Several low moans were delivered by the head that popped out of a cavity in its body. I watched the living thing begin its journey down the hallway while hunched over and menacing. Between the two, I am almost in full panic, pushing my back into the door, hoping to keep the dog from breaching it.
An exit gap had formed as the hound ripped at the exit. My leg was grazed when its tongue came out. There was something disgusting about it. It was difficult to get away from his slimy lick as I toiled to the side. “Stay away!” I screamed. My gaze is drawn down as I watch the dog rip through the doorway with its claws. An instant later, its head appears and nips at my leg. As I struggle to keep the dog’s head from biting me, I whack its head away. In the hall, there was a roar coming from the other creature.
My focus shifts to the organ thing that resembles a chicken as I recede around the corner. As the creature sluggishly moved, pus and slime filled its veins. This is not the way I want to die. As the dog man carries a piece of me, I imagine the strange creature chewing on my arm. “Ban!!! ” Outside, an enormous figure moves. As quickly as it happened, the dog was ripped from the doorway. Outside the door, something far grander and fiercer awaits.
In terror, it howls “Ahlahw.”. It then vanishes. I’m suddenly considerably less scared of the strange monster in the suite. As it took off, the monster was obviously in agreement with me. A feeling of anxiety overtook me as I contemplated what was about to happen.
A number of arms could be seen grasping it through the holes in the doorway. Their ripping of it to pieces sent my jaw crashing to the ground. A red glare obscured my vision at such speed; it captured me as if I had been nothing at all. My throat convulsed with a yelp of fear as I was tossed into the air. My attempts to escape its grasp are desperate, but I only succeed in making it worse. It is only when I pull my eyes away from the creature that I can make out the familiar red eyes of Velora’s bitter face. In the midst of feeling the blood drain from my face, I become white like a ghost. Nonetheless, she sets me on the ground next to her and walks off without saying anything. It took me a while to get over my shock when I first saw her.
“T-hanks for sa-ving me.” Besides the fact that she didn’t want me hurt, I wasn’t sure what to make of that. There’s no doubt about it. When I looked over to the wall, I found the dog person spattered against it. As soon as the juice from the puddle hit the ground, the tentacles were already thriving. As the tentacles grabbed at meat and the rest of the body, they pulled it back together.
The words “Follow me” snapped me out of my trance. I nodded. “Understand.” I shook my head. “Good, now, follow me.”
As a result, I pursued Velora and followed her in whatever paradise or purgatory she might have waited for me.
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While crawling through the vent, I heard the creatures screaming behind me. Like a worm, I made my way through the open system with bated breath. There was something frightening about that place. Against the wall of the duct, I grimaced and held my palms over my face as I retched.
Suddenly, everything fell silent. There was a tear that slipped from my cheek and hit the ground. I looked back at tens of thousands of faces; the ghost of pain was etched in their expressions. When the screaming started again, I couldn’t even hang on to my tears for a second. My only option was to flee from those horrors.
Despite the air conditioning vent being open, it was very dark inside. As time passed, however, the surface became fibrous. Taking a slide over the flesh of this alien floor, I feel my smooth muscle quiver.
Every step I take is accompanied by soggy half-dried blood adhering to my arms and legs. It tries greedily to stop me from venturing as if warning me, “Don’t venture this way,” but I refuse to heed its warnings. I can feel the harsh smell of iron and bile filling my lungs. In fact, the odor could be tasted on my tongue. The flesh vent eventually opens up to a place that seems to be inside some kind of body; maybe the best description is that it is similar to being inside a meat bag. Although the cave’s composition was rectangular, I had never seen an animal with a square body, so I felt this was incorrect.
Throughout the ceiling, blood pools gathered in spots before bursting through the tension and spilling to the ground. The moist floor became further saturated as streams of fluid splashed down. While in shock, I try to walk where no man should step, instead moving where devils are allowed to move. The abomination mesmerizes me as I wander through the halls of breathing tissue, mired in mystery.
Towards the distance, I could see something, a machine. As it turned out, it was working on something. The machine’s purpose was not entirely clear to me. Although it stood no higher than me, it didn’t look particularly welcoming either. One arm of the machine sliced at the floor, wounding the flesh. As the gash began to heal between slashes, the other three arms sparked, soldering whatever it was working on. Since I did not wish to run away from another thing, I decided it was best to leave through the passageway ahead.
My attention is instead drawn to another hall. There was a sign on this one, and I could read it.
“This way for the exit. Look out for Mr. King-Lazy-Bones…”
“Huh, that’s weird,” I said to no one in particular. As I glanced down the organ’s path, I noticed it was moving. I could see the shadows extending into a large room. Despite my reluctance, I felt compelled to go in that direction, although it wasn’t comfortable for me. With a heave, I braced myself for the events that followed down this passage. As soon as I entered the chamber, several doors led to dark passageways. It was in the midst of this room that a man with long arms, encircled by a grimy tethered coat, stood. Staring at the colossus, I cannot help but be amazed. Having turned toward me, its head revealed a malicious expression similar to that of a skull. The walls of this place were as blood-red as its head. An instance of a fleshy subway tunnel prompted me to imagine a heart chamber on the other side of the room. It was only the hulking thing between me and the channel that was the problem.
Taking a large stride, the creature let out a loud snort. Suddenly, the hellion shakes its jaws at me and turns its head in my direction. Keeping my mouth shut and feeling my bladder give way, I stayed silent. It was like a flood of warm urine flowing down my leg. The thing bends down like a ferocious demon seeking flesh, rendering me powerless. In that most terrifying of moments, there is no way to convey the dread I felt. I was bound and gagged, cemented in place. The closer it leaned, the louder it became.
Those glassy white eyes look straight at me while salivating jaws and chattering teeth rain slobber down onto the floor. While “Mr. King Lazy Bones” breathed rancid humid breath over me, I was surrounded by rotted beef and putrid sulfur; three inches were separating me from its face.
It wouldn’t take long for me to be bitten in half. Roaring with torment. Although I am not certain which half would be me. The silence stretched around me as I stood there gripping my palms in preparation for my death.
“Raaaaa!!!” The roar echoed through the large room. I watched the man turn his gaze in another direction, still held firmly by fear. “Raaaa!!!” The creature let out another shriek as it spun. Observing everything in sight, the creature stared in all directions. “Raaaaaaaaaaaa!” I proceeded to make another step. My tread caused the dried blood on my boot to rise. I heard the tethered flesh snap. The living thing returned to my side and gnashed his teeth with all the humor of a mad bull.
Although it did not daunt me this time, I suspected it was blind and couldn’t see me. A bottle had been molded into the ground, so I kneeled down and grabbed it. With ribbons of flesh snapping out of the bottle, the bottle ripped free. Upon rising to my feet, I could see the monster in front of me inches from my face. As soon as I smelled that horrible scent, I recoiled. A hole was visible where his nose should have been in the center of the face. Despite the fact that his eyes seemed strained, his facial tendons seemed to be grieved.
The form of its lumbering body overtook me as it rose. The fetid breath it exhaled was the worst part. There is no way that a sewer could ever do it justice. With the bottle in hand, I hurled it across the room. In a flash, the creature flew to where the bottle landed, enveloping the bottle in a black veil.
In its frenzied pursuit of the splintered bottle, it picked up the shattered glass. My view was blocked by the thing, which was standing upright and screaming red bloody murder. Taking small steps towards the exit, I slowly made my way out. At that point, the thing flung itself at the broken bottle in an effort to smash it to pieces. There were pieces all over the room after his blind rage was exposed. It caught my attention immediately. My mind filled with images of myself being torn limb from limb by bloody limb. I am horrified at this thing’s brutality. It smashes and crushes my lungs when they meet the open air. My departure would not be so gentle, and I certainly wouldn’t stay for the thing to pound me around. Trying to reach the gate as fast as my feet could carry me, I sprint.
My steps were quiet and small as the wicked thing continued its outburst. When I ran over the bloody floor, it popped and sputtered as if I was slipping on dough. When I noticed it had ended, I was standing at the gate. Instinctively, I twisted my head away from the view, unwilling to look. A deep, intense gaze pierced my abdomen. The head of the creature swiveled to match mine, and its eyes were filled with violence.
A stagnant gaze is directed towards me by its head as it lifts in an agitated fashion. My ears ring with a loud hiss as it keeps me in its horrible sight as if it could see me now. No moment passes without the gaze remaining unwavering.
As if it would never end, the deadlock stretched on and on. It was like looking into the trawling maw of a hound moments before it lunged. That’s exactly what it did. For a moment, I felt as if I had blacked out. I noticed that the metal and flesh appeared to be graduating in color as I ran down the hallway. A few moments later, I glanced back to see the creature getting closer and closer, getting ready to bite my head off.
Eventually, I reach the doorway, but the devil was close behind and stopped suddenly. It snarls at me as it looks up at me from the verge, before turning and entering the seclusion once again. “Oh my gosh. Holy shit,” I exclaimed, catching my breath. “That’s King-Lazy-Bone, right?”
It was evident that there was light in the ceiling when I glanced up. Tumors were still in the ground, and they were creeping up the hall, but the ceilings had concrete, which brought some normality to this bizarre place. A staircase awaited me as I strolled a little further. There was access to another part of the city from there. Upon seeing the old collapsed bridge, my sight is met with a wasteland, a road, and many ruined structures.
Once I got out of the tunnel, I decided it would be best to find a place to sleep. My walkout was interrupted by some mutant beings who didn’t seem interested in me or had not noticed me at all. My relief came from not having to contend with their chase in any case.
A narrow alleyway eventually caught my attention, and I decided to lie down there. In the shape of an L, it coiled up. This is the kind of place I could lie down for a while. As I hid in the covert little spot, I ensured no one was following me.
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Throngs of pulpy red blood rise from my boots. There is something unique about the ground here. It lay awake, flayed open, a body in pain. A vast expanse that stretched as far as the eye could see. Like blades of grass, tentacles wiggle, and flagella run out. The feeling of wandering in this land of misery was particularly uncomfortable. Nothing else was left to do but go through. Having deserted the colony, I allowed a latent horror to be revealed to some future explorer. There was just me. It is just me and the world around me. Certainly, no one will listen to my laments anymore. A few pieces of asphalt hinted that this was a road before whatever this fleshy thing was occupied it. On the site of a metropolis, glass towers rose in the distance. A web of fleshy features, fragmented, and all collectively dead.
From the drudgery drove out broken slabs; bones from the remnants of houses past. It became clear that if this is a road, it must have been part of a township at one point. Initially, I would pass the dust-covered pieces by, but as I walked by I noticed something scrawled on the collapsed walls. I wandered over to the hunks so that I could see the inscriptions. Along the walls, something had scratched deep slashes, but there were no scrapes. It’s full of odd scribbles. These were made by someone, and if they were nearby, maybe they could help me. As I explored the maze of fallen walls, I noticed that there were many more remains than I had anticipated.
As I stared at the hall of concrete ruins, I felt troubled. I felt something twisting in the pit of my stomach. Previously, there were multiple floors in these buildings. Now, they existed only as hollowed-out corpses. What could have caused this? A question arose. Some of the roofless buildings had a second story, but most had crumbled over time. As I worked my way through this labyrinth, I concluded that I would never encounter anyone. As a consequence, I had to give up on finding anyone in these ruins. My first impression was that I would be much closer to the city than I actually was. Despite walking for what felt like an eternity, I felt no closer to my goal than when I first began.
“You!!! There was a voice behind me saying. As I turned my head, I saw a man whose body looked awful. There was nothing to cover his crumbling bones except rags. The open wounds in his chest were readily visible, exposing his ribs. A swollen face of a young man was encircled by cables spreading from one end to the other like a rigid canvas tethered to a metallic machine. The right arm of this man looked like a long needle, and the left arm looked like a claw. As if a predator had nibbled at his legs, they looked like they were gnawed. Yet, parts of the limb were sewn onto rods of metal peg legs like pirates. “Why do you mock me!” He wailed. My eyes were fixed on him as I stood there gawking in fear. A howl of indignation emanated from him as he pointed the huge needle blade at me. “Why do you mock me?”
“I am human.” The statement came as a spontaneous response.
A wagging line of veins could be seen in his eyes as they labored. “Liar!” Normally I’d be resentful, but I was filled with dread, breathing slowly as I endured his strange words. “You bastards have stolen everything from us.” Yes, even our appearance was taken from us. As if to say you were one of us.”
“I don’t understand what you want, sir. I swear I’m human.” He stared at me for a while, trying to think of something to say. “I need your help, sir. Can you help me, please?” As his blood pushed through the cables, gaps appeared. Obviously, this was all wrong, because a stop in the flow is not possible without spasms or, worse, death.
A distorted smile spread across his face as he added, “Yeah, yeah.” with a smile that was far too broad. “I will help you.” His footsteps began to drive toward me as I took my own steps away from him. It’s like a waltz of trepidation. “What’s the matter?” He sank his skull as he approached me. “Your afraid, machine?” he said.
He picked up the pace as my steps twisted into a trot. “I am not a machine.”
“Why don’t I rip open that little stomach of yours so I can see the cables?” he screams, breaking into a sprint. After turning my heel from the crazy man, I yelped. In my haste to escape, I did not look behind me. A ledge had formed where the ground had ruptured, much to my surprise. The cliff was too steep to contemplate, so I plunged off without any reflection. As I soar through the air, I fly past several rods sticking out of the ground. My head landed on the ground as I rolled over and was forced to get up in a matter of seconds. It was too late to recover since he was right behind me. However, I couldn’t ignore the thorns that emerged from the ground like jagged bayonets.
“There is no escape for you. It’s just you and me, and a whole lot of murder!” The man screamed behind me. An outburst of groaning was heard as he landed on the ground. Immediately after, the earth split again, which meant another drop. There was a burning sensation in my heart, but to stop now would mean death. In the event I was to meet my end, I would make sure I did it on my terms, not being chopped up by some lunatic. “Don’t worry cute robot, I am just getting ready to rip all those bits and pieces out!”
With tears streaming from my eyes, I made the next leap of faith. Like the last one, this one too turned out to be similar, and like a cat, I was able to stand up this time as well. As I listened to the thrash, I heard someone screaming. The moment I turned around to look, my jaw dropped. On the mast, the man was impaled and hung. There was a look of pain in his expression that I’ve only ever seen in movies when his lips swung open. He slumped down the spike as I faced him. Taking one step at a time, I approached him. Because I was too fearful to reach for him, I stayed at a safe distance. “Sir,” I responded. “Sir.” His feet stopped slipping once they touched the ground. I moaned, “I’m so sorry.”.
The man jabbed his needle at me in a flash. My eye was just inches away from it when it stopped. As I jumped back, I let out a shriek. For lack of a better word, it startled me. “Impostor!!! ” he hissed as he reached for another stab. From the strain on his muscles, his eyes looked like they might fall out of his head. “Impostor!” A nail-like set of teeth appeared as he separated his lips.
There was something deranged about this man. It is likely that anyone I meet would be just as mad. Breaking down, I felt the snot building deep in my nostrils. I was all alone out here. My wounds ached from watching him attempt to skewer me for a few moments, so I wound and began trudging away from him. “Impostor! Impostor!!! His condition had deteriorated to the point that there was nothing I could do. An unsettling chopping noise struck me out of nowhere. “Impostor!!! “I glanced over my shoulder and saw slobber coming out of the man’s mouth, similar to bloody dog froth. That wasn’t the sound, though. With a focused stab into his ribs, he raises his needle in the air and then lowers it again. The exposed entrails of his body tore and tore as his torso ripped and tore. “Impostor!!! The man was clenching his teeth. Spit filled my mouth as bile filled my throat. The surge of vomit was too strong to hold back. I covered my mouth with my hand, but it was futile. Taking a deep breath, I fled from the grotesque sight. Without wasting any time, I began my journey to the city.
I walked to the city over a long distance. All of the surfaces were covered with tumorous growths. There were thick, slimy pustules of fungus covering the modern metal of buildings; it was as if some slowly spreading creature was devouring the world. My search led me to the same cryptic towers. Hundreds of tall spires with hives atop and threads like webs stretching between the human structures. Low moans emanated from my stomach. It goes without saying that I was hungry. I questioned, where can I find food in a place like this?
For a time, I wandered the streets, passing by wads of things best left undiscovered, but my curiosity overtook me. When I approached the wad, I was able to make out the leg. My eyes were frozen in place as I stared at the thing. The meaty flesh was crumpled together, with pinkish ooze coming out of it. As soon as I realized what was going on, the whole thing made sense to me. In the midst of the grime, there was a curled-up body. Upon turning my head in the opposite direction, I spotted another. As I looked around myself, I discovered bodies scattered everywhere. As I walked along the empty roads, I began to gag, swallowed and continued on.
I noticed one old building that was covered in grime down the road. The smooth muscle that lined everything had yet to arrive at the store. Nevertheless, it snaked along the ground, twitching as I stepped over the last of it. All that remained of it were the hallowed-out gas pumps, torn to pieces and rusted beyond recognition. Essentially, it was a convenience store.
Upon entering the archaic ruins, I see shelves thrown about, products left on the ground, and magazines being used as burial papers. Observing the floor, I looked down. A thick rotten smell filled the air, along with a dried-up puddle of gray brown sludge. My hands filled with soiled magazines, I pawed through the broken and disheveled items. Since most of them were not preservable goods, the smell was coming from them. As the air became dusty with dried mold, thick layers of it broke apart. The vapors I was producing choked me. However, I did manage to get my hands on some cans. Although I couldn’t make out what they were, cans last forever, so it didn’t matter what I ate. At this point, some cat food would be enough.
When I finally reached a clear spot in the back of the store, I slumped to the ground. Taking the little pull tab from the first can, I open it. A foul odor immediately assaulted me. The smell is pungent and sloppy, like rotten eggs and something else. As I threw the can across the room, the disgusting contents spilled all over the wall. After hearing that distinctive can sound a few times, I wept, moving my hand to my face. What chance did I have of surviving? I will starve to death if I do not eat. Helibore was right. What the hell is this place?
As I rubbed my tears away with the sleeve of my shirt, I glanced up across the sea of garbage to the large shattered shop window and saw someone. Suddenly, my heart began to flutter. There is someone like me. As I burst from the tile floor, I ran to the glass window, or at least what remained of it. My heart swelled with joy. Calling out loudly, I ran outside without much thought
“Hey!” The person stopped as I was running up to them. “I am so happy. I thought there was no one around here anymore.” It turned and looked at me. It was like looking at an insect when I looked back at it. The eyes were small, and the number of tongues it had was mind-boggling. Suddenly, a terrible scream erupted from its mouth.
I turned around to run, screaming to myself. When its legs opened, another pair emerged, and it chased after me. As I ran through the dusty street, I came to a dead end. Trying to sprint back, I saw more humanoid things around the corner. As soon as they see me, they charge at me as well. My path is blocked by them as if they were sentient. In spite of this, I wasn’t about to be cornered like that. In response to one creature’s attempt to grab me, I punched it in the face. While it staggered, I did not wait to find out what it would do to me. Dodging their wild flying arms, I darted past the insectoid creatures.
My race through the city took so many miles that I ended up deep in the city after running for who knows how long. As far as I was concerned, at least I was alone at that point. There is a haze of rusted clouds in the sky. It takes me a moment to catch my breath. The distance I ran was unknown to me, I just ran. “This city. It’s alive, isn’t it?” I wondered. As I listened, I heard the blood pumping in the veins. Besides being bizarre enough, if this place was alive somehow, that would bring it even closer to being unreal. There was no doubt that I was not in the time that I had come from.
Rather than human beings ruling over this world, monstrosities ruled it. In the alleyway I had stopped in front of, there was a hole in the concrete. My eyes were captivated by the hole as I walked towards it. It was dark, but there was a light on. To what does the hole lead? The question was whether a random hole was safe. When I heard the creatures coming down the road, I knew they were coming. As a matter of fact, I had no choice. No matter what hell it led to, I was going down that hole.
Sitting inside the fleshy hole, I placed both my legs inside. “Here we go.” I said as I plunged into the hole. Landing on my feet is no problem for me. It was about a ten-foot drop. The worst part is over. Upon entering, I see what seems to be a regular building. After taking a good look around, I find myself in a hall next to a wall. It seems to be the end of a hallway. There were a lot of doors as I looked down.
Curiosity got the best of me so I walked down the hallway and opened a random door. As a result, dust appeared. The room was used as a storage space. Like many other strange rooms, this one is also unsettling. The corner of the room has a twisted body that is mangled. It must have been there a long time. The muscles were mostly dried up to the bone. Not to mention the skin. There was a sense that it had weathered so thinly that it was brittle. It’s sad. There must have been something terrible and sudden that happened to the world.
The sound of “Pundunk” came from behind me. This unsettling experience causes me to glance out the doorway. “WAAAAAA!!! ” screamed a human-like creature. As I rush out of the room, I go the other way down the hall. My progress is quickly halted, however. There are several other things that resemble humans at the other end of the wall. In their faces were a mixture of animals, fish, and creatures. Unlike an insect’s carapace, their bodies are strange, scaley, hairy, and hard. A trap has been set for me. As soon as I reach the nearest door, I grab it and hide myself inside. It was a struggle for me to hold the door closed as the creatures smashed against it.
“Go away!” I cried.
My skin crawled as I heard a low groan. This wasn’t something outside of the room, but rather something inside. Upon turning my head, I saw a four-legged creature with a stubby arm and skin covering its body. A low guttural grunt emitted from its canine-like head as it limped towards me. Screams erupted in my ears as I faced the door, back against it. The old dusty shelf near me caught my eye as I looked around the room. My hand grabbed it and I threw it in front of the door.
As I searched for an exit, the strange creature got closer. The door was then pushed open. My escape attempt was impeded by many arms grabbing from the door. At the same time, the four-legged creature snarled at me. My eyes spotted it. There is a vent. That would be my escape route. As I ran around the dog monster, I crawled inside. I’m glad I did too. Those things were screaming, I could hear them. It was unreal.
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Suddenly, I felt a palm touching my wrists as I awoke from my sleep. A wail of terror erupted from my timbrels. A quick hand covered my cry as I gazed up at Vanity’s tense face that suggested trouble. Her iron grip on her face loosened, and she settled upon my lap. “We have to get out now,” she whispered with a stern look.
I groggily sat up, letting the silver blankets slide off me. “What, why?”
“I’ll explain as we go.” I looked down to see that she had thrown a clean change of clothes onto my lap. They were not my usual style, but they were much tougher. Military dregs, or at least I assumed they were. “Put these on fast.”
Fright filled my mind as I placed my legs through the holes of my knickers. “Did something happen?”
Vanity moved to the door. She looked through it as if she was awaiting someone to come through at any moment. She then shifted back to me. “I don’t know Prina, baby. I know one thing, though. We need to get you out of here.” She returned to her watch. In the gloom, I put my head through the shirt, the light from the wide door setting upon me. “I owe you this, Prina. I owe you this.”
“I don’t understand. What is going on?” I said.
Seeing that I was dressed, Vanity walked over and grabbed my arm, lifting me from my bed. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Her response was stranger than I had expected. She practically forced me down the hall into the darkness. Only a few lights remained on. The place looked decayed, like a hollowed-out corpse. Vanity kept pace as she marched up the stairs in the vestibule with me being towed behind her. She hurried to the medical bays without saying much of anything at all. “You said you would explain.” I moaned as we ventured deeper.
In such a flat manner, she replied, “I don’t expect you to understand much of this. There is, however, an entity known as Azergile. It has enslaved the entire world. You need to find Azergile and kill it.”
“What!?” I couldn’t help but burst out.
It sounds crazy, but you’re the only person who can do it. There’s a disease in your blood. There is a possibility that it will deactivate it. It’s just a matter of getting to it and deactivating it.” I shook my head. “Do you understand?” There wasn’t much else I could do, but then an unnerving thought occurred to me. Might this be the imposter Hellibor warned me about? Is this the Vanity I knew, or is it something else altogether? “We need to get you out of here. There is no way out through the normal exit, so we need to use the subterranean gate. Before I can begin, however, I need to do something. Trust me, Prina. Prina, you trust me, right?” she asked, standing in front of the door to her station. I nodded as the door opened up. I had little choice in the matter.
“I trust you.” When I looked into Vanity’s eyes, they were watery. Her gaze drifted away as she made her way into the room. Although I was uncertain whether to follow, I did. Suddenly, I had no freedom to run.
“Get on the couch.” Vanity said. The cold steel examination table awaits me, and as I climb over it, I slide onto the metal. Vanity opened a white overhead cabinet and looked inside for something. “Doctor Winters knows the colony will soon shut down. It is more convenient for him to trap you down here. His selfish desire is to keep you a secret.” Vanity picked up a glass of clear-looking liquid and an object-like metal ring from the cabinet. “We can’t let that happen, Prina. There is a way to make this nightmare end!” She exclaimed with all the vigor of a deranged lunatic. “I am sorry.” She places the metal ring next to me. Next, she removes the plastic wrap around the bottle’s cap. “It’s the only way I can think of making it work,” she said, making a sniffling sound.
My eyes are fixed on the object she holds in her hand. That metal circle concerned me. “I don’t understand.” It looked ominous, as though it had sinister secrets hidden inside.
“I know, honey. I know.” She pops off the metal crown and drops the clear liquid on a white rag next to me. “Prina honey, you need to unbutton your… shirt and give me your left arm.”
The only reply I could muster was “Ok.” With every unsnapping silver button, I grew apprehensive. Still, I did as I was told. Eventually, it got to where I had to take my shirt off over my head. As I bent inside the shirt, I half expected Vanity to attack me. She pulled the garment off me. “Ok, Vanity. You scaring me.”
A frozen look crossed her face as she glanced at me. Her eyes welled up with tears. In the next instant, she lunged at me and covered my mouth with a white rag. My weakness returned as I tried to fight her as much as I could. Her fingers clutched hard against my cheeks. As I wailed, I kicked and punched both arms.
“I’m so sorry it has to be this way! It’ll be alright. I promise it’ll be fine. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Vanity begs. That grasp brought back memories. The beach. This had happened before…
Sedation crept its way into my veins, its weighty effect multiplying by the minute. I fell limp, and Vanity cradled me like a child against her. She softly laid me on the table. “Why?” I wearily asked.
“I am so sorry.” Taking no time at all, Vanity slides the chilly metal ring up my left arm. The device released a loud hiss at that moment, and I experienced the most intense pain of my life. I felt a burning sensation over my arm. While gazing down, I saw blood dripping from my left arm, which was lying on the table next to me. The corners of my mouth were agape. As I looked at Vanity, she was crying. My silent scream escapes my lips before the world falls back into that icy night.
The cold made me feel like I was freezing. Upon waking, my left arm was throbbing with burning pain. As I lift my limp body up, I place the injured limb in my arms. The room seemed as if it was enveloped in gray and nothing else could be seen. My mouth snapped open as a long dreadful cry lashed my lungs. My eyes are drawn to the circle around the arm as I let go of my limb. My eyes caught sight of it at that moment. The color of my skin on one side of the ring was different from the color on the other. Faced with a hand that wasn’t mine, I raised the limb to my face in shock. There were long, painted, crimson fingernails, and the hand was mature, but not the one I knew. This hand, this hand was different.
“A mighty peculiar exchange, to be honest.” I glance at Helibore, perched across from me on a chair, with both legs crossed over each other. He gripped his mouth with one hand while his other lay lazily nearby. A physician’s coat adorned his body, which was nothing special. On the other hand, the extensive slash of blood on his jacket was a concern.
It wasn’t easy to summon the courage to ask him, “What happened?”
Having uncrossed his legs, he sat up straight. “Well, I suppose you deserve an explanation about what’s been going on.” The doctor got up and casually approached me. As he inspected the arm I was offered, his hand rested on my shoulder. Blue glazed eyes swept over me; I sensed their soft intent. By slipping his hand into his pocket, he retrieved the needle gun. “For the last time, I will draw blood from you, Primina.” It was at that moment that I understood him. The blood. All of this is because of my blood. He needs it for something. “Do I have your permission?”
What more could I have said? “Yeah,” I replied. “Go ahead.” Again, the familiar sting fell over my arm as Helibore stuck me with the needle. There was almost a feeling of it sucking the blood out of my veins, sucking out my precious rubies. Like the arteries of the world, and like the gold that men mine from dangerous vaults. In other words, that was my blood. “So, are you finally willing to explain things to me? Vanity tried to tell me, but she wasn’t making sense.”
“She panicked. I told her the truth of the situation earlier.” Hellibor admitted, biting his lower lip after. This piece of information wasn’t something he was looking forward to. “She left. She ran away. It’s just you and me now.”
Suddenly I became disoriented, swinging my feet off the table and kicking imaginary ghosts away. “So,” I replied. A moment of silence passes between the two of us. “What did she do to me?” Doctor Winters took a step away from me. “I ah,” he replied after a long pause while contemplating what to say. “That arm. I could tell you recognized it. It turns my stomach.”
It isn’t. That could not possibly be. “What do you mean?”
“It’s her arm. As I raised my arm again, I heard him say, “She gave you her arm.” As I stared at it, I began to cry. It, it could not be. My admission would come from the paint on my nails, no matter what. So let me explain. You are suffering from a disease, as you know. In the wake of the emergence of nanomachines, we started using them to treat illnesses. The structure of your disease, however, is strange. By deactivating nanomachines, it prevents their operation. Due to the fact that drugs cannot treat the underlying cause of your disease, treatment is impossible. This will ultimately lead to your death. You carry the disease within your blood.” He explained, securing my attention. “Primina I am over five hundred years old. The entire colony is over four hundred years old. As for you, well, you have existed in stasis for longer than any of us know.”
My mouth opens slightly and I let out a slight gasp. This was beyond my comprehension. Clearly, this is a lie. There is no doubt about it. When I heard that I further inquired, “How is that possible?”
“We perfected machines in order to maintain our existence. Our blemishes would be repaired. In other words, we are trapped in our own bodies.” Immortality. In our minds, we thought we were so clever. Our battle against death was successful. Our foolishness was so obvious. It would take us years to discover that nano machines would restructure our bodies and minds if we suffered anything even slightly dangerous. In the case of a scratch, our bodies would be twisted and distorted. Consequently, it would lead to insanity by disrupting our neural networks. We did not overcome our mental struggles with insanity, though. That would have been too kind. Pain is the first sensation we experience. All the twists and turns of our organs and everything that made us. But blemishes and changes lead to that. In general, as long as we maintained our human form, we were okay.”
“So what do I have to do with this?” I asked, dreading the answer.
Hellibor removes the needle from my arm and smiles at me, “You are the transmigration of our original sin. Originally, we could die. We played god… and we lost. Our godchild, however, deemed us unworthy. The paradise we once had in perfect bodies turned out to be our eternal cage in hell.”
When Hellibor inserted the needle into his arm, he grinned as the blood drained into him. “What are you doing!” I yell at him. I tried to wrestle the gun, but alas I was not strong enough. A snap of his arm sent me plunging into another bed.
“Sacred blood, untainted by the soul of man’s iniquities. It is through you that we cross over to the afterlife. That veritable paradise of eternal slumber that was stolen from us. Through you, the world shall die and be given everlasting peace, whatever that may be. At least I will have peace.” My only choice was to watch Hellibor fail. I stared up at him with tears streaming down my cheeks. “It has finally arrived. My angel of death, Primina. You are not suited for suffering. My heart longs for a different outcome. It would have been better if you had stayed in bed. Nevertheless, I was convinced. My emotions overrode my logic.”
Jumping to my feet, I embraced him with a hug, and he folded his arms around me. “Hellibor, please do not abandon me.” I pleaded with him.
It’s okay. As he reached for a surgical knife, he said, “You need not fear.” I felt my stomach sink as I observed his hands clasping around the blade. I wanted that moment to last. Embraced in the warmth of his caring arms. I truly did.
In a split second, I shoved him onto a bed. Out of my mouth like fire, “Get away from me!” I shouted.
Hellibor twisted back towards me with his knife in hand and declared, “Allow me to clip your wings to give you this precious gift of death you have given me.” I kept watching him as he walked toward me like a mad man. “You don’t comprehend how bad it has become. You would be better off dying now and never knowing what happened to the world. Please don’t mistake me Primina. As an act of love, this is what I am doing. Vanity begged me to release you to the world. Apparently, she believes you can deactivate the central computer. The hell you’d have to endure is unimaginable. You would die an awful death, if not worse. Please don’t resist.”
With a shake of my head, I said, “You’re insane.”
“I can feel the blood pumping through my body. It burns, and it feels so good to know. Just knowing your blood is killing these horrible machines; it will pump through my body soon, and I will be able to leave this wretched world. Don’t be afraid, Primina. I will make sure it does not hurt for long.” He stepped toward me.
In an impressive display of strength, I thrust the metal table covered in medical tools at him. Hellibor lifts his arm to shield himself from the sharp objects and diverse metal parts that fly into the air. In an effort to take advantage of this opportunity, I swiftly leave the room through the hall. “You can’t run Primina. Everything is shutting down.” He screeched out the door.
There were flickers and flashes of light in the building as they coughed up their last packets of power. When I glanced at Vanity’s arm, I wondered why she would do such a thing. My eyes widened as I realized what she wanted. The black door was her request for me to leave. She wanted me to go through it.
My eyes were fixed on the stairwell leading up to my liberation. I would slip out of this ghastly hospital and leave this hell and these crazy people behind. Approaching the large black door, I climbed the steps. Peering into my reflection once I had reached the top, I caught a glimpse of myself. As I stared at it, I could not find anything right. My clothing was torn and I was bloodied. There was a terrible look about the whole thing. The scene was bizarre. I felt as if someone else was looking back at me, not me. My left-hand touches the slate with a crisp touch. It split into two slabs, allowing me to enter, and leaving behind a bloodied hand print.
“Why?” All I could do was sob when the weight of my situation became clear. My vision was sparked by the sight of enormous vats filled with floating people in the shadowy room. Every one of them was at a distinctive developmental stage. Many of them are young, and some of them are older. Each of them had black hair and was a female. In the rear of the room, the situation was even uglier. As I witnessed lasers zapping body parts as they swung from meat hooks my stomach turned. As if they were vegetation, they regrew themselves rapidly on the hangers. I entered this room of horrors, this market of slaughter, where I saw an array of organs curtailed to the walls. With life, it squirmed.
“Adrenochrome.” I heard that voice and spun around. Hellibor was standing behind me, but it wasn’t him. In violent turmoil, his face teetered on the edge of collapse. “To think that we made everything here from you. You’ve been cloned many times. As I said earlier, it didn’t work. Your blood never came back the same, so we had no choice but to wake you up and use you. You’re older than me, Primina, did you know that? Let me put you to rest.”
A scream escaped his lips as he slashed with a tremendous amount of force. In the midst of his attack, I managed to escape while he grabbed the organs with a bone saw. An abundance of brown fluid surges around the area. My back was cooled by the balmy glass vat as I sprung against it. He rushed at me again, shedding bits of skin as he charged me. By sidestepping the raking invasion, I was able to get around the vat. As splintered glass clashes with chemical fluids, Hellibor is engulfed. When Hellibor was captured in the flood, he was face to face with my reproduction, whooping as it breathed its last and last gasp. “Primina don’t run! I was only joking! It’s a game!” Doctor Winters shrieks as he was forcing the body off of him. His mind had also begun to deteriorate. The old Hellibor I knew would never fall into such behavior.
It’s madness. I have no choice but to run. All I can think about is running. Bypassing the many experiments, I go deeper into the corridor. I slipped through another set of double gates and vanished. Although I regret walking through there, I wish I hadn’t. Throughout the hallway, tumors were growing everywhere and meaty muscles developed on the walls. Staring at the hideous sight, I paused. As I was leaving, I heard Hellibor behind me saying, “Primina, don’t step in there. There is no chance of you surviving.”
I didn’t even glance back. I flew through the foyer so quickly, I must not have even touched the ground. Fate has a funny way of ridiculing people, though. The exit gate had rusted shut; stained with juice and alien fluids. “Open!” I screamed.
Using both my fists to rattle it, I yelped as I caught an off-side switch. My hands pressed the hydraulic switch, and the doors grumbled ajar. By turning my head, I only confirmed the dire nature of my situation. In his limping manner, Hellibor approached me like a cripple. It was taking too long for the door to open as it slowly lifted. Then I pressed against it, hitting it in vain. His legs were covered with boils and his arms looked like a bloodied corpse, and his face was all but missing. “Primina. Don’t be afraid. Just give up and die, die, die!” Hellibor said as he lurched toward me.
“Get away from me!” With my back against the opening doorway, I screamed. A bone poking out of his leg snapped. The wound oozed red, and he sank to the ground on his face. When his body struck the ground, it shattered into pieces. My hands trembled and I turned away from the gory scene.
By this time, the passage had opened, but the mass of flesh moved to my utter horror. From the pulpy wad grew two arms or legs… or something else. As I hustled through the doors, I was met with thick webs of muscle. As I peered backward, I discovered the thing was crawling after me. The tissue got thicker as I ran through that nightmare, forcing me to crawl on my belly. Despite this, Hellibor marched on nubs still on my track.
As I wriggled through the flesh, it pulsated and turned about, shifting and spasming and squeezing my frame. Trying to move my head was impossible; it was like passing through some carcass like a maggot. My ankle was clasped by the Doctor’s skeletal hand, and I shrieked in pain. “Riaoh riah gowah!” Hellibor yelled as his mind slowly decayed into nothing. Thunder erupted as I pushed through the rigid muscle. Although I cannot see anything, I kicked anyway. As hard as I could, I kicked. As I battled against the flesh, I squealed as the flesh went into another seizure. Instead of being crushed, I force myself to move forward.
The blood that had gotten on my clothes was brushed off and I relaxed by the flesh wall. As I gazed at the home they provided me, the sky was lavender and gleaming. My vision was dominated by ruins for as far as the eye could see. The few rocks I sat upon and the all-encompassing flesh I sat upon that enclosed my home, that was dead as well.
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A sense of timelessness had settled over the hospital’s halls. Corridors that used to be crowded now appeared like hollow arteries; formerly walked places. The facility was strange to say the least. Medical laboratory and small town are part of the same picture. Rooms in the hospital were designed more like homes. Halls served as streets that connected places, and foliage distracted from the fact that one was inside a building.
It has been becoming increasingly difficult to find people in the past few days. Hellibor never took me searching for that man by the river or the commissary lady. In a ghostly, empty park, I sat on the rim of a fountain, losing hours. The worst thing about it, no one seemed at all concerned, except me. Staring up at the lonesome sky was a favorite pastime of mine. In this lengthy period of mindless watching the sky, I noticed one of the window panels washed out, a dull wave rolling over the glass. My attention was drawn to subtle flickers and bursts of static washing over all the windows. As my mouth fell open in a gasp, I realized the ceilings appeared to project a blue sky that fooled even the most discerning eye.
“If the sky isn’t real here, what else is?” I wondered to myself. My surroundings creaked with a weathered whimper as the fountain moaned. Like a cancerous tumor eating away at this building’s body, the walls of this place felt decaying. The “sun’s” rays shimmered as dust particles descended like sand grains as they were blown in the wind.
As weeks passed, things inside the hospital collapsed into rusted ruins; it was a once-perfect world falling apart. Azamoth never came back, and Cody also turned up missing shortly after. A thousand ghosts walked through the halls of my mind’s palace. My memories were occasionally visited by these familiar spirits.
Following my morning treatments, I walked through the empty halls of the building. As the park grew desolate, my interest faded. As a result of having no one with whom to talk, the whole hospital had become a bit boring. Vanity herself had become scarce as well, but I believe Hellibor had something to do with it. As I re-enter my room, I am greeted by walls plastered with several hundred crudely drawn pictures. This room became a gallery of fantastic things and people living inside the hospital; a gallery of memories and even some of the worst nightmares from my childhood. As I sat at my desk, I stared at a white sheet of paper. Taking out my pen, I began to draw Azamoth. As one of the faces among the many, his memory deserved a place.
In my lonesome state, several hours passed. I couldn’t help but smile at the picture, looking at the work I’d done. I tried to convince myself that it looked like him. Using a roll of tape, I removed a small band. After folding the sticky strip into a tidy loop, I applied the tape to the back of the picture. Between the fountain picture and Hellibore’s office, there is an empty space on the wall. Between the two, I planted it snugly.
My eyes widened as I saw all the faces of the people I used to know. The smile on my face drooped further as the faces brought back so many memories. Angry like a fire swelled in my chest as I closed my fists. “Why won’t anyone tell me anything!” I roared to the walls that enclosed me. My hands touched my face, and I released a pained yelp, dropping to my knees. In place of being suspended in nothingness, entrapped in eternal slumber, I was granted eternal solitude. Watching everyone slowly be sucked away from me… and then watching it all decay.
While wiping away the salty rivers in my eyes, I turned my gaze upward. No, no. Clearly, something else was going on. There was no doubt in my mind. I just, I had to talk to Vanity. If I begged, maybe she would tell me. For hours, I sat on my bed staring at the door. Sitting on my bed and gazing at my door. Too afraid to ask for answers. There were too many nagging suggestions to choose from, but I knew I could not delay any longer. There was no way I could ignore it. After rising to my feet, I marched to hear my fate.
Leaving my room, I walked into the large empty foyer, crossing the polished black onyx floors to a standing staircase that led to the medical floor where Vanity’s office was located. A steady stream of decorative water flows around the staircase as it feeds the fauna and supports their growth. A spiral of ivy had coiled itself along the channel that ran around the black iron hand rails.
Several colored lines led in different directions at the junction in front of the stairs. Residential homes were located on the blue ones. Food courts and restaurants were on the green ones. The yellow color represents finance. The red line led to the medical wards, which I followed. Not that I needed it any longer. With my eyes closed, I could walk from my room to Vanity’s office. The uneven ground along the dirty pathway was familiar to me. White walls with inlay patterns. In some spots, the tiles reflected the glassy sky above. I thought they looked like little puddles. It no longer inspired belief after the illusion was broken. Instead, I could see the flaw, the scan lines washing over the screens above like a tide.
My way through the long halls leads me past areas where there are small gardens. There was a sense that they were a model of nature. The tree was planted with a rock and maybe a small patch of flowers or a small pond, painted with patches of colorful moss, and Vanity’s office was at the end of the line.
When the white doors part, a room defined by tabula rasa is revealed. With the exception of a few invasive objects, everything inside the room looked like white plastic. Vanity herself sat in front of a screen looking at a file. Her desk is cluttered with paperwork. In any case, she continued reading over the file with intent, either because she didn’t notice I was in her room or because she was too engrossed in her work to acknowledge me. My intention was not to break her consecrations, so I sat on the medical bed in her office. I made myself known after waiting for several minutes. “Vanity.”
As she turned her hips to face me, she grinned. “I didn’t even hear you come in.” Vanity said. “Are you just stopping by?”
As I shook my head, I sighed. Vanity’s expression turned from expressive to frozen as I replied, “No, actually. What is this place?”
She laughed in a high-pitched voice. “What do you mean? You are in my office. Are you feeling alright honey?”
Without thinking about it, I replied, “I think so.” That proposition surprised me a little. “Well, I think I am.” I sighed. “I know the sky isn’t real.” Vanity didn’t respond immediately to my confession. Her only response was to rub her fingernails together and look at me with a static smile. “The central park screen broke. I sort of put two and two together,” I explained my comment further.
It was as if Vanity’s head was floating sideways against a series of waves. Despite her best efforts, she was met with another wave by her inner reflection. Despite my best efforts, I could not quite decipher what it meant. “They are for the patients. The purpose is simply to make people feel more comfortable. When people feel they have been indoors for months on end, it affects their mental health. We are trying to create the illusion of being outdoors. It is a service, honest. It was a lie, but a noble one.” Her face did not change. Her expression didn’t change. There was an air of machine-like precision about her. In her hollowed form, she looked like a porcelain doll made of gears. “You understand, right Prina?” My head nodded, a lie, but in truth, I had no idea what to think anymore. “Is that all that is bothering you?”
I couldn’t help myself, I needed answers, so I shook my head sheepishly. “The people are missing. Where is everyone? Where is Cody?”
“Cody is in his office, hard at work. Why do you ask?”
“Are you even listening to me?” I whimper, fearing that she too is nothing more than an artificial sky.
A sigh escapes Vanity’s lips. “I have work to do honey. Later, I can take you to see Cody.”
“I want to see him now,” I demanded.
What happened to the girl I knew? “He is busy right now, Prina. Now, stop all this nonsense talk.”
The one that tickled me in the park. Prior to Hellibore scaring her away. This Vanity was not my Vanity. “Nonsense?” I could not believe what I was hearing. In an instant, I leapt from the medical bed and marched up to Vanity. “Why are you being like this?” I cried.
“I am not being like anything.” the mechanical doll coldly replied. Her charcoal eyes captured my attention for a moment, leaving me speechless. As soon as I turned around, I left the room without saying another word. Like scraping metal, the door closed behind me.
Afterward, after blowing off some steam, I heard loud crackling coming down the hall from the food court. As my eyes shifted toward the wall, I noticed the source of the sound. The surface was engulfed in a heavy glare. The material of the wall itself bowed and burst, forming some sort of bulbous shape. It evolves into a human shape poorly crafted like a clay figure from a child’s hands as a pair of arms reach out from the shape. Lines of plastic extend out from the blob in the shape of arms. From its body, tethers of plastic string reach the floor as the creature breaches through the wall. A snap is heard as it rises to its feet.
My mind is left stunned and frozen in place by a mixture of trepidation and horror. After repairing itself, the white plastic body replaced the soft plastic sheen with flesh-like material. Looking over itself, the thing stands straight up. As it lifts, its knobby arms in front of where its face should be the knobs spread open forming fingers that rip through the solid material. As the plastic cacoon falls away, something that looked kind of human emerges from the remains of plastic pieces.
“Eh eh eh eh eh!” the alarms yelled as the warning lights on the wall danced in a deep red haze. As a matter of fact, I barely noticed them. As a result of what I had witnessed, I was too shocked to even respond. From its nude body, its flesh rapidly expanded into clothing. Nevertheless, the person is dressed entirely inappropriately. The outfit consists of a t-shirt and jeans. It was once common clothing I remembered from before I slipped into stasis; now it is foreign and forgotten.
The odd wall person says, “Hello,” in a deep male voice. My eyes grew wide as I backed away from the impossible situation. “Are you afraid of me?” It asked, walking wet, stringy forward.
“What are you?” I screamed.
“Human.” It lied. “You want to get out of here, don’t you?”
I felt my heart skip a beat. It knew that but how? My body wanted to run. I had to know whether it knew. Despite my fear, I swallowed my words. “Do you know how!?”
“I know a way out. I certainly do. I do, I do, I wouldn’t lie to you. For sure, I certainly would. Down down below, you must go further down than you ever been. Below in the arteries of the world and once you have found yourself deep in the squirming world, you must crawl out the throat of that place. Only then you will reach the surface.” He finished with an ominous cackle. As the door opens, loud servos ring out from down the hall. “We have company.” That line was sung in such an unpleasant tone.
As I turned my attention away from the wall man, the sound of boots approached from behind me. “Get away from that thing.” Hellibor shouted. As he dives in front of me, he shields me from harm. “Stay behind me girl.” This is the closest thing to affection Hellibor has ever shown me. I was never harmed by him. That’s true, of course. Nevertheless, he scared me. At the moment, however, he held my trust.
My skin crawled as another loud crow escaped the wall man. “You people are like little mice hiding inside your shelter. Thought you could hide forever? Your ICE has failed you.”
Raising his hand aloft, Hellibor revealed a blue laser-light ring much like an interface on a computer. Each digit of his fingers split open, releasing three tiny metal stamps like typewriters. The holographic kiosk received data as they typed rapidly. “Aren’t you funny?” It groaned. “I guess I will have to mess you up!” The thing screamed, charging towards Hellibor. In the form of an axe, its right arm was transformed into a long, sharp blade ready to chop.
A quick hand pushed into my chest, forcing me against a hard wall, knocking me completely out of breath. All the while, Hellibor slipped past the attacker and entered new data into the system. “You’re fast or maybe I’m playing with you.” the wall man growled. Holding me behind him, Hellibor furrowed his brow. Despite the danger posed to his life, he is still shielding me from harm. It was as if half the man’s face was melting like a candle on fire as he turned to me. My goodbyes will have to be short. I look forward to playing with you again, girl. I’ll be waiting… outside.”
“Doubt it.” Hellibore answered, as the blue hologram beams disappeared. Upon falling to the ground, the wall man’s body burst into dust like a demolished building. “Are you ok.” Hellibore asks, his gaze still fixed on the disappearing phantom.
“Yeah,” I reply quietly. In a way, it seemed routine, so casual. The truth is, I think something broke inside of me. In an instant, my entire worldview was shattered into a million sharp fragments. “What was that thing?”
“That was a rogue AI, an artificial intelligence. In a way, they are like ghosts. In most cases, ICE, intrusion countermeasures electronics, keeps them out. This is a disturbing development,” Hellibor commented. His fact blast was followed by a dull mumble to himself. The message was clear enough for me to understand “We don’t have enough staff to maintain the systems. The wards are already breaking.”
“There are missing people,” my voice trailed off under my breath.
Despite his hesitation, Hellibor nodded. “Indeed, I am aware. Primina.” Openly admitting it was bitter sweet. My instincts told me that I was not crazy, but the affirmation scared me. In any event, if people were missing, then they obviously had to be somewhere else. Down; a place which I must find for truth’s sake alone. As Hellibor kneeled down to my level, he turned toward me and looked into my eyes. “Don’t trust anyone anymore. Not even me.” The words sounded deep and weighty. His fingers snuggly grasped onto my shoulder, rubbing it gently, very gently. “If they are asking you to do something funny, they might be an imposter.” My eyes grew wide as the sensation of his touch became clear. He touched me. In an instant, Hellibor withdrew his hand. Looking at his hand, he was too surprised at what he had done.
As we shared silence, it became awkward, “An imposter?” I asked.
Hellibore shrugged off the moment at once. “An AI may want to hurt you. Before they can be materialized, they must be hacked into the nanomachine network. However, they can choose to look like anyone once they manifest. Even me. Be careful.”
”What’s a nanomachine?”
“It’s what this building is made out of.”
It was so refreshing to hear him be so candid with me. Nanomachines? This is not the first time I have heard of them. When I was a kid, they were all over the news. They said they’d change everything. “Doctor Winters, what happened to the world?”
Hellibor smirked. “If I have it my way, you will never find out, but it looks like you will observe it for yourself.” With that, he closed again.
Through the maze of the garden, I descended further down, following the spiraling halls obscured by artificial hills. Although the hills continually wound lower, their peaks and folly had not ceased. In plain sight, but so hidden. There would be no problem with mistaking the depths they were traveling to, as if the geometry had been designed incorrectly. The walls were surrounded by rivers of water, flowing in strange paths around them. The waterways were traversed by wooden bridges. There was something curious about this place. This was the deepest I had ever gone in all the years I had been living in this hospital. The corkscrew tower within which I lived was beyond my comprehension. My guess is that this building was at least ten floors deep; I wondered how deep it actually was. As I turned another corner, I encountered a white staircase leading to a large black mirror door.
Looking at the monolith caused me to envision the gates of hell. “Is this where everything is revealed?” I asked myself. The pure white marble stairs led me up to the door. As I climbed the sacred steps, the stairs seemed to grow longer. When I looked back, I saw that I had climbed much higher than the stairs appeared to be on the ground. From the top of the staircase, I could see my own reflection looking back at me. In my youth, I was merely a young girl. In spite of pushing against the icy stone, the door did not budge. “Huh.” I shoved against the door with my other hand, but when that did not work I used the rest of my body, but even then the door would not move. My muscles tensed up and I pushed with all my power as I screamed.
“That door won’t open for you.” My eyes caught sight of Vanity at the bottom of the steps.
“How does it open?”
As she held up her hand, Vanity smirked and twinkled her fingers. “You just have to have the right touch.”
Freedom is mine. A smile spread across my face. “Come up here and open it then.”
“I can’t do that for you, Prina.” As I realize how stupid it was of me to think Vanity could help me, my face falls. After all, she is the one holding me here. Hospitals aren’t like this. There is something else at play here. We are nearing the end of a prison play, a stage production, and a play at the theatre. “You should not be down here.”
“How did you know I was here? No one comes down here.”
Like a cat getting up from a long nap, Vanity stretched. “Well, I was going for a walk and saw you sneaking. Figured you were up to something. Come down here and we can talk about this.” Sighing, I descend the stairs.
It was impossible to persuade Vanity to help me. “What is this door for anyway?” I inquired.
She told me without hesitation. “It leads to the Amala, it’s a tunnel system that runs throughout the entire world. However, there is a laboratory inside there too. It is a terrible place.” Vanity said to me. On my way down the staircase, I take my last step.
In front of Vanity, I was consumed with wicked thoughts. I might have stolen her hand if I had a knife. “What kind of terrible place?”
After turning around, Vanity began walking away from me. “We call it the body room. You don’t want to see it.”
“I want to go through the door, Vanity,” I told her. “Show me.” Without saying a word, Vanity continued walking, and I followed.
Laying back in the chair for the millionth time, I examined the tubes sucking blood from my arm like a mechanical vampire. Helibore was pacing the floor today, totally consumed by his own thoughts and not even speaking to me. My minor complaint was, “How many more times do I have to do this?”
I was surprised when he answered. “Three.” I straightened up in my chair. “After this one makes two.” He didn’t even glance at me. The subject of his contemplation was still a focus for him. “Happy?”
Happy, yeah. “Yes sir,” I replied.
I was happy, but I was terrified about what the end of my treatments meant. When they stop sucking my blood, what happens?
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Darkness; deep, deep slumber. Sound, and sound again. “I am seeing stimulation in the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus. It appears that she is waking up again. It is time to administer more sedatives.” There was a sharp pain, a heavy feeling, and darkness again.
An icy shiver was followed by the light. “What a shame. It does not seem to be working.” A man roared in the distant distance. “Administer another dose.”
“I can’t do that sir, she will die of an overdose.” A young woman replied, her voice near the edge of slumber.
“Looks like this one is a failure, too.” Remarked a woman whose voice sounded like a timeworn, withered flower. As the shadows grasped hold of my nerves, I was dragged below the eternal nocturne again.
“We don’t have time to wait. The cells are already dying.” He grunted, and once again his voice tugged me towards the surface. But as if I were separated by a thick piece of glass, I was unable to breach it. I was nothing in that abyss.
“We could try cloning again.” the younger woman said.
“No, we already know cloning does not work,” he murmured. “This time it has to work. We have no other options. Get me a dose of epinephrine and adrenochrome. We have to stabilize her.”
I felt it, warmth, traveling down the channels of my veins, pumped along the organ’s path. It expanded upon every corner and a flutter came over me, like wings lifting me out of the maw of this hell; drifting me over past the gates of the arctic black. Suddenly, the entire world trembled as I plunged into the bright light.
The cool, sleek wall of the enclosure had my fingers clawing against it. I felt the chill run into my arm as my body spasmed. Yet, even so, my eyes are blind in the umbra. I tried to let out any noise I could muster, but I seemed to have lost my voice, and she had run far away, hiding deep in my throat. My skin crawled as the world spiraled. Darkness returned and my sense of locality melted into an open space, as I was left suspended in the endless void.
“It’s a failure, just like the last ones. Why waste our efforts? Didn’t the past weeks prove my point? Hellibor, it is time to give up on this dream. This is no way to treat a person.” That woman. Who was she? And now the older man had a name, Hellibor.
“Stop! Remove your hands from her!” Hellibor roared, full of command. “We will not abandon this one. My method will work! We need to extract the needed parts. That is all. I will not waste this donor because of the board’s refusal to use extreme measures.” I had no idea who they were discussing, but I assumed it was me. They wanted my parts. My parts alone. What would that mean? I wondered.
“Sir, I disagree.” the young woman from earlier shouted in opposition.
I heard some rustling before he said, “Why so?”
“If she dies during the process, she will be ruined.” Dies? Ruined? “Let’s allow her to wake up. Treat her well. She doesn’t have to know.” I didn’t have to know what?
“We cannot sustain her here. She would die of starvation. It is better to put her to rest.” a somberly aged woman retorted.
“No, we continue the process regardless of the board’s decision. I purchased it with my own seed reserves. I will decide what to do with it.” Hellibor said.
The passage of time… … … was unknown.
“Damn it!” exclaimed the older man, waking me up from my deep sleep. “The board is terminating her life support! We can’t keep her in stasis much longer. We only have supplies for…”
“Please, I will take care of her myself.” the younger girl begged. “I have started a garden. I even synthesized food for her. Please, Hellibor, please don’t do this.”
There was a long pause. “If you are so insistent on this, then we will make this attempt. She will be entrusted to you and I will be responsible for handling the situation with the board. It is not going to be popular with them at all,” Hellibor explained. “It’s not necessary to wake her from her coma yet, but we need to prepare a place for her first. We will ask the board for permission after everything has been put into motion. We will do this in secret. No one can know until she is awoken.”
I tried so hard to scream, “Wake me up now!” but sadly, either, I never did, or they ignored me.
“Thank you, Doctor Winters. You won’t regret it.”
“I should hope not, dear Vanity. Though the twisting in my stomach suggests this is not the right path. We just need her to pump blood. It should not be too difficult to manage. Sustaining her is going to be the real problem, Vanity.” Hellibor; Doctor Winters grunted. I heard Doctor Winters clearing his throat. “Vanity,” he said. “You’ll lose her trust when she discovers what we’ve done.”
Sometimes Vanity’s voice would reach out to me. In her words, “… your parents loved you very much.” And many other things about my past. “Your name is Primina.” She told me I had a younger brother and two sisters. Interestingly, I don’t recall being Primina. But perhaps I was, but all I could remember was the blackness and the tide. Thus, I deemed it mine. Whatever truth existed in it did not matter to me. There was nothing else to know about me other than I was Primina. From time to time, Vanity even read me stories. I learned of my sickness and disease from her. “A sickness? Is this all a dream?” I thought to myself.
“It is impossible for her to hear you. I don’t know why you bother.” Hellibor had returned; it seemed as if I hadn’t heard him in a while.
“You don’t know that. I remember stories about people in comas being able to hear things.” Vanity retorted. So, I am comatose. They did mention it before.
It was not clear if I managed to move my lips while mouthing the words, “I can hear you.” Nonetheless, I hoped that they did. Even so, I have no idea who Vanity was on the other side. I was just glad that she was close to me. Whoever this Vanity was.
“Leave her be. She needs to rest,” He said before a door slammed shut, sending me back to that eternal night.
“I won’t feel a thing?” I chirped to a woman dressed in white scrubs. A man stood next to her dressed in a matching pair, although his were burgundy. They might as well have been shadows, as I could not see the features of their faces. Maybe it was that I could not remember then. The room was foggy. At least I remember it that way. I felt like the capsule’s wall contoured to my spine. On the platform, my dainty, uncovered toes rested. Despite the fact that days had passed, a few traces of nail polish remained on my nails. My eyes met the pair’s smile as they nodded. My cheeks were flushed from the white form-fitting bodysuit, which clung tightly to my skin. It felt as if I was wearing nothing at all, and I didn’t like it. The man spoke, but no words left his mouth. “All right, like this?” I said to him, folding my arms to rest on my chest.
In the blink of an eye, the glass shielding of the chamber closed, locking me inside. “No! Let me out!” I yelped with every ounce of energy I had left. Immediately, the temperature dropped. Then wetness covered my feet. I looked down to see clear, fluid-like water rising past my ankles. “No!” I screamed again as the two people just stood there with waving palms, flashing those sinister, uncaring smiles.
It was all routine to them by this point. “What are you doing?” As the water reached my hips, I shrieked. Thrashing for all I could, I finally reached the point where my body could no longer move. As the chamber leveled itself, it forced me into a lying position. My face came into contact with the fluids. Pressing my lips against the glass in vain, I watched the surface rise beyond my cheeks and spill into my mouth. I sucked in a last breath before the liquid completely submerged me. Icy fluid surrounded my body as I struggled. As my lungs burned and every muscle in my body roared for breath, I realized I’d have to take in the fluid. As soon as I did, the worst feeling in the world overtook me. I could feel fluids flooding down my throat, filling my lungs like molten metal. In my agony, I saw the ceiling retreating as the capsule returned to the wall, locking me into darkness. My body tried to cry, “Please help me!”. As a result, I am confronted with a foul smell in my mouth, which caused me to cough bubbles. It wasn’t long before the coughing gave way to a numbing sensation as everything slowed. I gasped to push the fluids out of my lungs before falling into a deep slumber.
“Your family loved you very much. You will be awake soon. Everything will be alright. You can trust me.” Although Vanity’s familiar voice soothed me, I couldn’t shake my unquenchable desire to awaken and soon I would. But not soon enough.
“The brain is becoming active again. Hopefully, she’ll wake up any minute now.” The voice of the young man heralded the fading of the darkness. I saw the dull orange-red glow of light shielded by my eyelids. From my parting lips, a deep breath entered me, my chest rising as the sweet air filled my lungs. Squinting, I slowly lifted the curtains from my eyes. There was a sterile, padded roof hanging above me and a soft pillow rested beneath my head.
Grabbing my attention with a grunt, Hellibor commented, “Good. She’s moving.” Everything else in the room appeared to be made of white plastic. On the wall were some monitors and switchboards that are managed by a young blond man. Looking around the room, I saw two people standing in the middle of the office, just across from where I was sleeping. I focused my gaze on the gray-blue eyes of an elderly man. His pocket held a pen as he reached towards me, calling out, “Hello.” Upon clicking the pen, bright light illuminated my vision. He glanced briefly at me before turning off the light from behind the encompassing fog. “Fantastic. Her eyes are responsive.”
“Where am I?” I murmured.
“At hospital,” Hellibor said. “In a medical bay.” Standing upright, he stared at a flat chart of neon blue light, a hologram that seemingly emanates from thin air. “This will be your new home, well, until your treatment is finished, that is. There will be a time for questions, but not right now.”
“Hellibor!” My sight snapped to the source of that voice, the voice in my dreams. “You are welcome to ask any questions, honey. We will be happy to answer them.” So that is Vanity.
From my understanding of Hellibor, despite the multitude of questions I had, he wouldn’t appreciate all of them. “Hello, Primina.” She knelt beside me with a warm, bright smile on her face. Her night sky-colored hair was pulled into a long ponytail. “My name is Vanity, and this,” added Vanity, pointing at Hellibor. “Is Doctor Winters.” Her gaze glanced over her shoulder, directing my attention to the man managing the switchboards. “And that man over there is Cody.”
In the next few minutes, Doctor Winters returned to my side and placed a hand-held device against my stomach. As the doctor stared off into space, cold metal sent shivers down my spine. “What is this for?” I asked.
Doctor Winters snapped, “Shhhh, quiet.” With a heavy breath, he manually moved the device against my stomach. As soon as he removes the device, he exhales a long, deep sigh. He stood up without saying a word, moved to the wall, and placed the device in a white plastic compartment.
“He was just checking your vitals, dear. You’ve been asleep for a long time. It is important to make sure that your body is adjusting well. You had woken up several times during the process, and that is very dangerous.” Vanity explained.
Turning away from the computer station, Cody swung his legs around the white bench. “Honestly, I did not have much hope.”
“That’s why the old woman called me a failure?” I asked. My little inquiry ended up turning everyone’s attention in my direction. Their measured glances and slack jaws caused me to pause. “Did I say something wrong?”
Doctor Winters shook his head. “No.” He replied flatly, holding a gun in his hand. Towards the end, a large needle protruded. “This might sting a little.”
“You are going to do it now?” Cody’s down-turned expression gave me concern. As Doctor Winters approached the bedside, Vanity shook her head with the same animosity. Again, he crouched by my bedside, holding the needle’s tip in the air.
His soft fingers gripped my wrist and stretched my arm. “Could you sit up for me?”
A subtle nod signaled my progression past the chamber’s lip. As he turned my wrist toward his face, Doctor Winter’s grip tightened. “Hold still.” Having now placed the gun onto my skin, a stinging pain erupted in the anterior of my left arm. Despite my instinctive jerking, I could not escape from Doctor Winters’ grip. “I said hold still.” Under my skin, you could see the thick needle draining me. My ruby red fluid was filling the glass tube at the end of the gun. “Well done, girl.” With a single click, he released the trigger and the metal rod retreated into the device.
“That hurt!” I groaned, looking down at my arm. A small plastic seal covers the entry point. While Hellibor examined my blood, a slow, deliberate smile crept across his lips. His gaze returns to me with a nod of approval.
“Pain,” Vanity whispered under her breath. “That is the look I am seeing, isn’t it?” She locked her gaze on me with an expression of fascination. “It’s been a while since I heard that. Do you mind describing it?”
“What a weird question.” I thought to myself. My face was covered in a frown as I looked at the small dot left by the gun. “It stings like Doctor Winters said it would.” Something so simple, but telling me everything has changed since I was in slumber.
Vanity retained, or at least recovered, her smile. “It would. That is such a silly question.”
“So, she is the real deal.” Cody straightened his posture. In response to Doctor Winters’ stare, he began to smile. “You were right. Infectio Nervosa is the gift we have all been looking for.”
“We shall see,” Hellibor grumbled as he lifted the vial of blood from the gun. “I have a meeting with the board. I am expected to present a demonstration to decide how things should go forward.” He moved towards the threshold of the room. But before leaving, he turned to Vanity for a final word. “You agreed, make her comfortable and show Primina to her quarters. I will be back later.”
It was easier to feel at ease after the scary man left. Still, I found myself left with so many questions to ask Hellibor. “Vanity, why am I here?”
She has dark brown milk chocolate eyes that are illuminated by the light. In some ways, her manner became quite unwelcoming. “Well, as I said. For a long time, you’ve been sleeping. There have been many changes since you went to sleep. It was necessary for us to move you from one facility to this one.”
“Why did I have to be moved?”
She bit her lip in frustration. I saw it just for that moment, but she did. An uncomfortably odd look came out of her eyes as she glanced over at Cody, who responded with a gentle nod. Putting her hand on top of mine, she reached out toward me. Despite being new, the sensation felt comfortable.
“No physical contact.” Cody barked. “You know the rules.”
Vanity let out a long sigh before letting in. “I know Cody.” She chastised. “It’s just,” she pauses as she removes her hand. “You are right. I don’t want to encourage inappropriate behavior.” As she stared directly at me, she continued. “Your treatment was failing you in the other facility. We have more advanced tools at our disposal here.”
“Oh, alright, I understand.” My stomach drooped as a lump grew inside my stomach. A response so vague only led me to think that something was amiss. “What about my Mom and Dad, and my brother and sisters? Where are they?”
“They are alright, however, this hospital is a bit of a distance away.” With a sigh, Vanity stood up and walked away from me. “We plan on getting you better and back home as soon as possible.”
“Won’t they visit me?” I asked.
“I suppose they might. Though we highly frown upon visitors at this facility. Your treatment is specialized. We don’t want anyone to interfere with it.” Vanity explained. She failed utterly to comfort me if she was trying to do so.
“Ok, but I remember things from when I woke up… strange things.”
Cody slashed his arms to the sides, then said, “Enough!”.
I didn’t listen. “I remember monsters,” I replied, looking down at my feet. “I remember a lot of things. I never thought I would get out of the darkness.”
Neither of them spoke. My suspicion was confirmed when Cody shook his head, assured the fact that they were hiding something from me. “I think it is time we ended this conversation. Vanity, take Primina to her room.” As Vanity stood frozen, nothing seemed to register with her. Her attention was focused on the wall beyond my sight. As she walked to the side of the wall nearest the door, she stopped at a metal box. In the center of the box, she pressed a button that unlocked a box of folded clothes.
An array of military-style clothing was unfolded, including blue pants with a white stripe down the right leg, a white undershirt, and a blue jacket with a high collar that buttons to the far left side of her body. Likewise, the jacket had a white stripe running up the left side, which extended to the collar. Black boots and white clip-on socks with a pair of brief underwear. “Are these mine?” I asked.
It was Vanity’s turn to smile as she placed the clothes beside me. “I know they aren’t very fashionable, but they will do for now.” My body moved back into the capsule. I pulled out the pinned zipper from the white form-fitting suit I wore before I went to sleep. My skin had begun to attach to the inner lining of the suit. Upon pulling the flaps apart, I could feel the fabric pulling away from my skin like removing an adhesive bandage. As it clung to my skin in patches, I noticed pink rips on the edges. It hurt to finish peeling the thing from my body. Once I was released from the cacoon, I changed into my new clothes.
“I think you will like it here, Primina. There are so many things to see. There is even a beautiful garden park here. The whole facility was designed to resemble nature. We feel it makes the patients feel more comfortable.” Vanity chirped, as if I was concerned about that. I appreciated wearing my new clothes despite their ill-fittingness. “All changed? Well then, come with me Primina.” Extending my legs from the capsule, I placed my feet on the floor for the first time in ages. The moment I lifted myself forward, I felt heavy in my chest, already winded. As I struggled to maintain balance, my body burned. My lips twitched with a groan as I took my first step. “Are you all right?”
A furrow formed between my brows as my face fell. As I looked at Vanity hunched over on the floor, I reached out to touch her. “It hurts.”
Her grimace was pleading as she gazed at Cody. A sigh escaped his throat as he shook his head. “Help her, just don’t let the others see you.” Getting up, he stood a bit higher than Vanity. A minimum of six and a half feet tall. Instead of helping, he stood at arm’s distance from me and studied me intently. “It is to be expected. Your muscles were pretty much dormant for,” he said before continuing. “A long time. It would make sense, you would experience a little fatigue. That will pass with time. I would imagine moving around will be a little difficult for the next few weeks.”
“This will be awful if it lasts for weeks,” I thought, struggling to stand. It is doubtful that I could have made it to the other end of the room without Vanity tucking herself next to my waist. She also wrapped her arms behind my back. “Why can’t you touch me?”
“It’s not just you, honey. The hospital does not allow us to touch each other to prevent the spread of germs. If we get a scratch, we have to leave the grounds for the safety of others. To minimize the risk, we have a no contact policy at all times.” Vanity’s help was a godsend. A large wall of ivy hung along the walls, and my legs felt like they were encased in concrete. Outside the room, dirt-covered the floor. I could see grass lining the walls, as well as ivy and some other flowers. It was truly beautiful.
Through the hall, there was a large parkway. The path is made of polished stones, trees line the route, and a blue sky floats above. Luminous clouds passed over the open room, casting shadows on its surface. An expansive fountain is positioned in the middle of the nexus ring. It seemed that several people wore clothes that looked like the ones given to me. Is everyone one of them a patient? To cover up the thoughts running through my mind, I comment aloud, “This is pretty.”
“I imagine the people who designed it worked very hard trying to make it feel like being outside. I don’t remember it myself.” Vanity said.
“Why can’t you remember?”
Vanity chuckled nervously between her teeth. “Working too many hours. I mean, I mostly treat patients and when I am off duty I sleep in my room here.”
The artificial expression I used to hide my concern was as good as I could do. As Vanity used the same trick I employed to see through her rouse, she could do the same with mine. There was something strange about the whole place.
Our path led to a white wall with an electronic door, where Vanity stopped us. With a touch of her hand on the screen, the door unfastens and opens automatically. “This will be your room.”
Despite its size, the room looked cramped. Approximately a quarter of the space was taken up by a wall-mounted screen. Black tripod stools with a desk inset into the wall. On the opposite end of the desk, there was a bed with white blankets and sheets. An upright refrigerator and microwave were placed at the foot of the bed. Over that was a shelf with a coffeemaker and something tall I don’t recognize. The floor was made up of metal tiles, but it was smooth as glass. A glass-enclosed shower was located next to the fridge. An adjacent hand sink and toilet are located beside the shower. The space was just right for moving around. “Everything you need should be here. Be careful not to eat too often. The fridge has a few snacks but they will be rare, so ration them.”
After entering the apartment, I nodded. Rations are for times of scarcity, I thought to myself. Is there a war going on? “So, this is all mine? Like I can do what I want in here?” Vanity replied with a gentle bow. “Then, can I have paper and some pencils? I want to draw, and make posters. Liven up the place.”
“Yeah, sure, I will see if I can find something for you like that.” When she had surveyed my room and determined that I had been comfortable, Vanity headed for the door. “If you need anything, come see me. I work in the medical bay, so you will always know where to find me.”
As I took in the surroundings, I commented, “Will do.” I honestly didn’t notice that Vanity shut the door. Having jumped onto my bed, I lay down for quite some time. There was an ache in my bones and a burning sensation in my muscles. However, I was free of all the darkness that covered me. As I thought to myself, I realized that I had been given a new chance at life. I wouldn’t let an opportunity like this pass me by. As the troubled thoughts weighed on my mind, my lids still became heavy, and I went back to sleep.
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Inspecting the designer treats displayed in the display case, my mouth watered. There were richly decorated pastries with chocolate and cream accents. The many treats were spread across a reflective metal surface. “My, she seems happier today.” Said the woman behind the commissary.
“Yes, she is.” Vanity said, standing behind me.
In delight, I replied, “I get to go to the beach today.”
“Oh my, wow, well, you’re a lucky girl!” she said as she wrapped the fudge Vanity had bought for me.
So far, my hospital experience has been most pleasant. As I explored the tunnels and gardens, I felt as though I were in a dream. I found the enclosure to be quite expansive as a whole. The days when I could leave the facilities and travel outside were my favorites. My home country, Krasimer, is an ocean away from Luxmeer, on the other side of the world.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was being hidden from me. My “disease” never had an exact definition. The only thing I knew was that whatever “it” was deadly and destroying me. Besides those vague terms, nobody answered my questions. Nevertheless, I learned people discussed it among themselves. Despite my efforts to incorporate the subject into conversations, I failed.
In my prints, puddles were left by cold rivers rolling down my bare legs. There are various critters scurrying about inside them that swirl around in the pools. Walking along the soggy shoreline, I enjoyed feeling the sand between my toes. There was a gentle wind blowing that day, catching the streams of my locks. While the incoming tide rolled in, I danced to avoid its stretching wake. I screamed gleefully, “This is great!”. On the beach, Vanity sat atop a clean towel. As Cody sat beside her, he sat next to one of his recent friends, Azamoth. Despite our small group’s unfamiliarity, the other beachgoers paid hardly any attention to us. Almost as if they weren’t there; shadows that wandered and faded.
In contrast to the dreary days indoors, swimming was a welcome respite. Once I had enough shore time, I made my way back to the group and joined their conversation. “So, Primina, how was it?” Vanity asked chipperly.
In the midst of my excitement, I said, “Wonderful!”
Every time Cody smiled, I was struck by his beautiful teeth. His proud glint in his eyes made me even more envious. As if he was pleased with my performance. “You are moving much better than last week. It is very encouraging to see the therapy has been working for you.” My own eyes sparkled as I nodded, delighted with the results. For the first few days, I thought I would never be able to walk without pain. Gladly, though, the pain faded. Now I can mostly ignore it, for the most part.
There are isolated fragments of beaches buried in the mind, like whispers of history lost to childhood. Despite what was missing, there were still faces there, hollow architecture from the past.
It is only a matter of time until Azamoth’s characteristic wolfish grin shows through his thin lips. “The beach is nice, but nothing seems to be enough to keep this dreaded boredom from consuming everything.”
With the help of Azamoth’s little quip, Vanity lets out a chuckle that lasted for several seconds. She curtsied, “Azamoth. How can you be so negative? We just had the most interesting thing happen in years.” I was very fond of Vanity, and she had proven to be a loyal friend. I found myself developing a deep trust in Vanity, despite my ignorance about their origins.
For Cody, too often he tagged along, and I suspected he was observing me for no apparent reason. Even so, I considered him kind.
Among the trio, Azamoth wore suits and acted more nonchalantly than the others. I thought he was one of the few genuine people around because, by some unspoken law, he had to keep his thoughts to himself. It was at least the impression I got. People at the hospital were generally friendly and playful. The realization that I was the only person my age soon dawned on me. Fortunately, the others helped make it easy to forget.
“What was that interesting thing?” I dared to ask.
While Vanity and Cody were looking at each other, Azamoth was staring right at me. “You.”
The first thing Cody did was raise an eyebrow, covering the glare he threw at Azamoth. “Funny Azamoth. Way to make someone feel uncomfortable.” At this, Azamoth gave a quick wink, followed by a loud cackle. “Saying things like that with a straight face and she may think you are being serious.”
It didn’t bother me at all. On the other hand, I didn’t think he was joking either. I felt as though he was being honest in his statement.
“You two stop it. We are here to relax, not have some petty squabble.” Vanity chimed. I do my best to pretend that I have not noticed that all eyes are shifting onto me. During these moments, I feel like a sheep among wolves. The uncomfortable suggestions they made from their expressions always frightened me. I could not bear to look away from the unwelcome face that repeatedly appeared.
In addition, no one gave me an explanation as to how long I had been in “stasis.” So far, I have applied the tactic of asking small, innocent, and sometimes even nave questions to gather information. Taking advantage of this brief moment of levity would be a fitting time to ask one of my silly questions. “Azamoth, how old are you?” The question is subtle enough for me to deduce when he was born. He, however, laughed. That surprised me. A smile spread across Cody’s face as he sat upright. A smile behind me crossed Vanity’s face, artificial as can be but nonetheless painted on as her impenetrable garment. A mask that has become familiar. “Well, I don’t think it is a funny question?” I pout.
“Well then, my dear? How old are you?” Azamoth asked.
As I mouthed back the question, my face fell. “How old am I?” And yet my mind gave no reply. It is hard to believe I forgot something so personal, something so simple as my age. Stasis had scrambled most of my memories, but this is the first time I didn’t remember my age. Only fragments of a forgotten history remained; narratives in someone else’s words. It troubled me, especially when tangible details, so important to me, simply disappeared into thin air. “I don‘t know? How old am I?” I begrudgingly replied.
“Well, when the youngest among us is the eldest, who’s to say?” I will never forget Azamoth’s stare toward Cody. It was as if they were stabbing knives at each other. “Well, why not tell her how old she is?”
“I don’t know.” Cody grimaced. “It, it is not important.”
“Well, how old does she look?”
In response to Azamoth’s glare, Cody furrowed his brow. Whatever Azamoth was poking at, Cody didn’t want me to hear. “What does it matter?”
“Come on, look at her. What is she, a teenager? Pre-teen? Huh? How old?” Cody’s face straightened out, his composure returning. “Judging by her body, I will guess maybe twelve, but you could be as old as fifteen.”
“But how old am I really?” Silence returned among the group. “You guys know, but you won’t tell me. I get it. You don’t want me to know how long I have been in stasis.” The sadness in my voice made me pout, hoping to elicit some pity. “I don’t know why you don’t want me to know.”
“We don’t know how long you have been in stasis.” Vanity assures. “To be honest, no one in the hospital knows exactly how long you were in stasis.”
There it was, the big secret was revealed. “So what else won’t you tell me?” But how was that possible? Surely my records show it.
A sigh escaped Cody’s lips. “A lot. It is for your own good not to question it. Just know that we are protecting you, Primina. A kid doesn’t need to know the weight of the world’s problems. You should just be happy you are out of stasis and safe. Just accept things for what they are.” Those words penetrated my heart; my eyes were glassy as I stared at Cody’s firm face. Eventually, his lips softened into a pout. “It is not my choice. Just as they do not allow you to know, I may not tell you. Trust me, it is hard.”
It was a bright, blinding light when I opened my eyes. Looking to my side, I saw cables and cords hanging across my skin as I sat in a chair. Screams of horror escape my mouth as people in the room look at me with wide eyes. Glossy plastic face masks masked their expressions. A rubber glove, which silences me, quickly covered my mouth. They gripped my legs as a foul taste crept into my mouth, and I went limp into that familiar darkness.
It was sometime later that I woke up in my bed. Vanity was sitting at the foot of my bed with a concerned look on her face. “You’re awake.” Still, my lids were heavy, and it felt as though my body was weak. After sitting up, Vanity’s hand reached for my chest. “Don’t get up, you had a seizure.”
I didn’t have a seizure. “I was at the beach and I woke up in a room. I didn’t have a seizure, Vanity.”
“You did. You woke up when they were treating you.” But Vanity lied. “It is ok, it happens.” I was unsure of why she would lie to me, but there must be a reason, which I pondered. My memories of what happened are fuzzy. The only thing I recall was being at the beach one moment and surrounded by doctors the next. Then again, perhaps she wasn’t lying after all…
Inside the sterile doctor’s office, mechanical servos creaked as metal arms adjusted themselves and occasionally sparked as they assembled a glass tube. Hellibor’s steps moved behind me, out of sight. With my feet dangling off the footrest, I watched the chair adjust itself to make it as comfortable as possible. A needle was inserted into my forearm and a steady stream of red fluid was pumped. As a steady beat was played through the background, a heart monitor’s beeps could be heard.
“I already have had blood taken twice this month,” I complained, laying my head on the rest. Hellibor’s footsteps slowed down. “The rules are twice a month. It is for my own good. Right, well, why again so soon?” After the beach incident, I began giving blood monthly. I found it difficult to accept at first. It was no longer painful to have needles inserted into my arm. By now, I was too accustomed to it. Although Hellibor was kind to me. He never missed a vein. There was no doubt that he was well-practiced.
After a brief titter, Hellibor composed himself. “My, you do know the rules rather well, don’t you?” As he stepped forward, he was wearing a warm smile on his face. Seeing him with that look made me uncomfortable. His smile is never contagious, especially when he is questioned. Essentially, it’s like a piece of clothing in the wrong style and color. There was just something utterly out of place about it on him. I held the armrests tightly. “Well, you are always such a smart girl. There has been a complication in your treatment. We have lost some of our window of opportunity. We are not getting the results we need out of you. What I mean to say is we have less time. I want to make sure you are healthy, but we need to take a little extra blood from you. Just to make sure everything works out.”
I pondered my response. Those rules, those iron-clad laws that constantly change to suit some unknown agenda. Rather than being a means of controlled behavior, the rules themselves seemed to be nothing more than rules that applied to me only. The constant shifting didn’t sit well with me. “I didn’t agree to this.”
Standing to his full height, Hellibor patted the back of my leg and laughed heartily. “I don‘t believe you did in the first place. In fact, if I remember correctly, you used to fight tooth and nail against it. I remember you hiding in those vents.” The man chided, turning away. “Always hiding and trying to miss your appointment, but I always knew you had to eat so I would wait until you got hungry. Primina, I cherish you. You are a treasure among treasures, a real fountain of miracles.”
As I sank back into Hellibor’s chair, I was suddenly reminded of that fact. “I noticed a guy I used to see by the river has not been there in a while. Also, that lady who runs the commissary, she’s also missing. Where is everyone?”
Hellibor placed his hand on the thick glass bottle containing the crimson liquid as he examined it. Until now, I was unaware he had removed the sample. A clear voice rose from his throat, his graying blue eyes locked on mine. “Well, I don’t know where they got to. I tell you what? How about after you rest we try to look for them?” We never looked for them. We never look for them.
It felt nice to have grass against my legs. Just enough springy sensation is created to not irritate the skin. The enticing smells of roasted onions and steak marinated in creamy red pepper cheese sauce from the plate on my lap wafted. Dark leafy greens were on the side, with cherries for dessert. A hidden spring of juice was released when I dipped my fork into the steak. Suddenly, I feel an unusual sensation on my back. “Vanity? How come you never have dinner with me?” Tender hands encompassed themselves onto me. There is nothing entirely unwelcome about the contact. Sincerely, I craved her touch. At arm’s length, every day can become quite exhausting and lonely. Even so, I knew it was a bad idea.
“Silly, you already know that.” the woman chuckled. “I don’t eat until later, after my shift.”
“Yeah, but I am eating now. So why don‘t you just grab a bite with me sometime? Or maybe I could eat later.” I picked up a fork full of greens and gazed at Vanity. Her uniform is always proper, as it should be. Similar to mine, but mostly white except for the blue hemlines.
There was a soft smile on her face today. The one she usually uses is different. “You have a special eating schedule to ensure you have the energy you need. After all, you are having a lot of blood draws, and it seems like Hellibor wants to increase that schedule. It is important you get the right nutrition or else you may get sick.”
“If it can make me sick, why are you doing it?” A tingling yet comforting sensation crawled through my hair. The tips of Vanity’s fingers untangled my hair as they made their way across my scalp. It’s too much. Totally dangerous. The outcome could be disastrous if she pulled out my hair. “You’re touching me.“ My mouth erupted. “Vanity, that is not allowed.” She hummed while running her fingers through. “Vanity?” I called again.
“O’ Prina, stop. Don’t worry about things so much.” I allowed myself to accept the unusual behavior, gazing out over the open park. There is moss on the ground as well as stone floors and a wooden path. The sky was a glassy reflection of the ground, almost as though looking out of water.
Unfortunately, my fears got the best of me and I could no longer stand it. “But we could hurt each other.” I groaned with discomfort.
“Prina, does it hurt?” Admittedly it did not. I shook my head in muted response. “So, it can’t be bad, can it?” I couldn’t help but have visions of Vanity latching onto my locks from behind and ripping my hair all out in one fell swoop. Removed the uppermost layer of skin from my skull as well. Exposing my brain to the open air, leaving me screaming in agony. Such vile thoughts…
With another forkful of greens, I chewed slowly and deliberately for a longer period than usual, allowing myself more time to think. The truth is, it didn’t hurt. It never made sense to me why touching was so bad. In a sense, these new fears of morbid crippling developed like cautionary tales. Swallowing, I gulped. “But we could get into trouble.”
My nose was tickled by a curtain of black hairs falling onto my face. The nighty screen slid off my head as I brushed it away. “Stop it, Vanity.” I chirped as I began to laugh at the sensation. As Vanity’s fingers twitched and wriggled, my ribs jumped. As I toppled onto the ground, I tore through the tickling sensation running down my spine. “Stop Vanity! I am going to pee!” Vanity lay next to me on her back, letting out a little huff of her own.
“That was fun.” she said.
In an instant, Hellibor’s face creased into a demonic mask of rage as a pair of legs approached fast. “Vanity!” he boomed. “What in the world are you doing?” With wide eyes, Vanity raised to her feet. I’d never seen anyone move that quickly before. He pointed his finger at the gates that led to the small garden enclosure. “Out!” Vanity lowered her head and left without saying a word. While still on my knees, his venomous gaze locked onto me.
“What did I tell you Primina? You could have damaged her! You are never to touch others, ever.” Hellibor waved his shaking finger. “In the old days!” he roared as I cowered beneath his wrathful thunder. “I would have strangled you dead for this! Watched the life crawl from your bloody tears.” My eyes streamed with tears; all joy had fled the room, replaced by a tense sense of foreboding. “From now on, the both of you will be separated!”
“No.” My heart cried. That I wouldn’t have been able to survive that. I considered her to be my only true friend. I needed Vanity! “Hellibor, it was my fault.” I cried. “I should not have touched her. I am so sorry!” The words flew with little thought. “Please, I won’t do it again.” I cracked.
With his emotionless, frozen expression, his head only shook. “Fine, but for right now, you eat your food. I will decide what to do later. After you are to report back to your quarters until I tell you to leave. Do I make myself clear?” It terrified me. The rest of me could only nod in response to his curse. As Hellibore marched from the room, I was left alone in the garden with my mandatory meal on my plate.
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The shrine’s appearance changed as the road to it changed. Against the murky red horizon, the trees which once looked full of life have been stripped of their leaves. Sharp fingers flit against the trees’ naked branches. Rather than a collection of portraits, the statues lined the road with faces that seemed perpetually agonized, their mouths open toward the sky like round holes in the sky. The road itself was foggy and dark. A blaze of wax adorned the sidewalk that led to the stairway that rose up to the shrine’s gates. There were pools of black inky liquid as the liquid dripped from the stairs. Observing Apricot as she climbed the stairs, two-winged animals sat atop the red arch, bars of incisors spangled in an open snarl.
As she reached the top, she saw the reaper squatting in the courtyard with his back to her, moving his hands. Her attention was drawn to the creatures atop the gateway. With closer inspection, she saw their razor teeth more clearly. The two-winged beasts dropped in front of her roaring when she stepped in front of the archway. With a long boney arm, one creature slashed at Apricot. When the wind of its fingertips brushed against her nose, she jumped back. On her feet she sprung forward with her blazing hand, unleashing a bolt of fire directly into the creature’s head. Upon impact, the skull of the creature bowed, crushed. After slamming into the ground like a rag doll, the creature fell limp.
Apricot withdrew her arm from the fallen body, holding the flame like a blade. As the other creature stepped forward he struck at her, but she avoided the sharp claw by tapping away its arm. Her arm retracted, and another assault was launched for her side. The flaming blade of Apricot glided along its other arm. The blade sliced the arm in half, splintering down the middle. Holding the mangled arm, it screamed. She slashed with a clean strike from the creature’s head to its pelvis without wasting a moment. Sprouting blood, the split monster turned into blue orbs before falling aside.
She paused, her gaze fixed on the reaper. Passing through the red gate, she entered the courtyard of the shrine. She felt her mind race with fear. She knew that this was the end and that he had the power to kill her with a snap of his fingers. In her first meeting with him, she had no idea how he performed that trick and had hoped it was just a trick. After repositioning his arms in front of his chest, the reaper turned to face Apricot. “My thou has’t the fury of a devil burning in thy eyes. What is it that thee plan on doing with that blazing fire of yours?”
He was in the sights of her blade. The flaming blade parts are dripping onto the ground as they impact. “I have come to kill you once and for all!” Apricot proclaimed. A small chuckle escaped his lips.
“A motley-minded endeavor. Thee cannot killeth me. I can understandeth the sentiment though. I too findeth this world a horrible lodging as well. Thee art still blind.” he said, extending his hand towards Apricot. “Cometh walketh with me.”
Apricot shook her head in protest, crying and afraid of death. “The time for talk is over!“ She shouted, tears rolling down her cheeks. Even the mere heat of his presence caused the tears to dry before falling from her face.
Apricot saw the astonished as he lowered his head towards her in what seemed like a solum stance. “Peradventure mine method wast too harsh. I apologize but I hadst to has’t thee understandeth the true nature of this world. It’s retched festering evil. So I hath sent thee on this journey, to gain wisdom. Now I giveth thee a new journey.”
“What are you on about?about?about? Apricot croaked, still pointing the blade at him. Bringing the blade closer as he glided toward Apricot, she prepared to stab him.
“Understandeth me Apricot. From the beginning I hath brought thee through the nightmare.” His voice was soothing, slow, and serene. Apricot hated the thought of it more than anything else. There was a wicked magic that filled his tone. “Thee knoweth the rate of thy friends. Thee seen the deepest torment of those above. The cries of those sacrificed in vain. Now thee art eft to taketh a rightful lodging. To end this chaos, tis in thy hands now. Thee alone has’t the choice to save this world or alloweth it to rot eternally.”
Apricot replied, “I don’t understand?”
The reaper slowed as it neared her landing. As he bowed, he lowered his head. “At which hour we first hath met. Thee wast a fool. Thee hadst no knowledge of the real world. The truth of this city. The ruling powers who abused its people. Thee didst not knoweth about the vile criminals who harm the people.
Now thou has’t seen the reality of the gangs and their overlords. Thou has’t seen the poor folk trodden upon and given nothing but misery. The royals who treat those below those folk as livestock for slaughter. The unruly demons who haunt this world.
The wars and those who maketh wars. The uncaring hearts of the hath lost. The savage minds of the abusers. The dreams, stolen from valorous people. See this truth Apricot. Together we can changeth this all. Join me, beest the god this world needeth.
By thy hands those gents don’t needeth to die. We can save all those who died. Those who were undone to this world beest hath brought to death. All those sacrificed given new life. In a paradise which thee shalt rule. All thou has’t to doth is allow me to bringeth thee across the threshold. We can cease all this evil.” The reaper said as he stuck out his clawed hand at Apricot. “So doth thee chooseth life or doth thee chooseth death?”
As Apricot’s eyes fill with tears, he lets out a sigh. “Why me!” she cries in despair.
“The Okabe abused mine plan. Instead, those gents tormented people for their own selfish gain. Those gents hath used me as a nexus for power. Urias, that gent is a madman. Kyo, the lady too wast hath lost. The ones ere thee, those gents hath lost their minds. Thou has’t endured. Tis thee I searched for and forged from hellfire. Cometh Apricot, tis time.” Apricot hesitated a bit as she entered the seal. Her steps were like those of a child. Looking up at the reaper, she saw the eyes that were behind the mask. The eyes were like a machine, fixed like dead eyes. “Very valorous, I am glad thou has’t madeth the right choice.”
As Apricot lifted her hand, she placed it among the reapers. Just above his claws, her fingertips hovered. A roar erupted from her as she brought forth a flame and quickly stabbed her blade into his chest. “You are a liar!” The reaper backed away from Apricot and howled. He stared at the blazing blade in her hand. “You’re no better than the Okabe. You murder and scheme and manipulate people. You’re no righteous god! You are a devil.”
Under his breath, the reaper growled. An enormous gash covers his chest, and his claws extend below the sliced fabric into the metal casing. “I am not flesh. This is a manifestation of me. If ‘t be true this how it must beest, then I shalt taketh what is mine by force. Apricot thee shalt beest mine, willing or as mine unwilling host. I shalt ride thee as a horse if ‘t be true I must!”
While his claws aimed at her heart, he lunged toward her. By sidestepping the reaper, Apricot blocked his assault with an arm. “You want to strip people of their will. Even me, the one you desire to change the world. You want to strip my will from me.” Apricot avoided his next punch over her head. As she hit him upward, she severed his mechanical prosthetic. Upon being knocked to the ground, the twitching leg reveals cables and hanging cords.
“Every world is not complete without a god and a devil. Thither cannot beest valorous without evil. Balance is the key.” The reaper slashed Apricot’s shoulder, blood spurting out and the pain radiating from her muscles. She let out a cry of pain and tried to back away from him.
Despite rolling off the blow, Apricot was shaking from the exhausting pain. “Balance is a lie! Evil always wants balance because it is nothing against good. Evil is evil and good is good! The only ones who try to blur the lines are the evil ones!” Apricot roared sharply as she sliced the reaper’s face with her flaming blade. The mask crumbled. They reveal a mechanical manikin
Mechanically, the reaper shook. For Apricot, it seemed like the machine was falling apart. She seized this opportunity and cut effortlessly through the torso and left arm of the reaper. The upper body of the machine floated out in front of her and grinned artificially. “Flesh is undone by mine spirit. So I has’t addressed thee with the spirit of phantoms. Wherefore doth thee bethink I hadst thee hunt those folk and gaveth thee the power to absorb their energy. That is wherefore thy soul blade hath grown stronger. Now thee art eft to beest wed with mine spirit. Alloweth me in!”
Appricot sprang away. “You want to possess me?”
He nodded his head. “Forsooth. You art mine vessel. That is what you art destined to beest. Now surrender yourself. I has’t damaged thee enough already.” The flying body charged Apricot, ejecting black fluid. Apricot attempted to sidestep, but he was moving too fast. A silver rod whipped between the reaper’s claw and Apricot. Her heart pounded as she saw Shiori forcefully pressing the rod against the reaper, glaring into its eyes. “Shiori wherefore doth thee cease me? We hadst a deal!”
“Don’t you know when you have been doublecrossed?” Shiori muttered, throwing the reaper to the ground. Using his teeth, Shiori removed the white glove covering his hand. “Run Apricot. Get outside the seal.” He commanded as he rammed his hand into the reaper’s back. In a flash, Shiori was covered in a red glow as though struck by lightning.
“What has’t thee done!” he barked. “It’s over for you.”
Initially, Apricot hesitated. The mechanical body went lifeless and she suddenly became terrified. “Shiori, what is happening?”
“Apricot, help me. The reaper is in me. Come help me out of the lock!” Shiori gasped, his mouth foaming.
Appricot stepped carefully towards him as he shook his head. “Apricot no!” a familiar voice called out. “Don’t touch him.” Hunter was standing at the threshold of the seal when she turned her head. “Get out of the seal!”
“But Shiori.” Apricot whimpered. Her eyes went wide as his skin sliced, his body decaying in front of her. “Shiori, I am sorry.” she said. Tears rolled down Shiori’s cheek as he smiled. As Apricot escaped, Shiori bowed to the side. Hunter held up his hand as Shiori’s body jerked attempting to move but instead held in place.
as the pieces fall; its artificial blue eyes and blond white hair dangle from the jester’s cap. “Nothing about you is real.”
“Thee wench! Cometh back thee wench! Don’t leaveth me! Thee art going to rid the world! No, this cannot beest! Shiori, thee fool. Doth thee very much expect to survive. We art going to beest trapped in the dead world! Is this what thee wanteth?” The reaper screamed from Shiori’s mouth.
As Hunter placed his hand on the rim of the seal, Shiori cynically commented, “Let’s see what your world is like.” The symbols and signs formed as the ground turned pitch black. While the symbols exploded with a thunderous roar, Shiori got sucked into the darkness. Apricot looked up to see Hunter holding her arm as the two escaped the powerful vacuum winds. After one last boom, the grounds vanished, reappearing as a deep chasm at the temple’s center.
Apricot rose from the ground and walked toward the destroyed temple’s courtyard, where the polished bricks once lay. It caused her heart to beat faster. There was no sign of him. He had been taken to that horrible place. “Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!”, she screamed with tears streaming down her face. She shook her head, clutching her face. “Why did it have to end like this?” She sniffled. “What the hell Shiori?” She looked toward Hunter. With his back turned toward the pit, he watched as the city’s glow faded into a vague haze.
“You!” Apricot screamed. “You did this! You knew! You knew he would die! Didn’t you?” She waited for his reply, but it never arrived. Without another word, he walked to the stairs. “Don’t ignore me.” He sat down at the top of the step. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
As he pats the ground adjacent to him, Hunter frowns. “Because, you would not have allowed us to do it,” he replied sourly. Apricot walked up to the staircase and sat down next to him. “Don’t be mad at me. He made me swear not to tell you. I knew, and he did too.”
The first rays of morning light showed up over the horizon, and the two could see the sounds of battle had disappeared. Instead, sirens descended from every street. “It’s over now,” Apricot said, making his way towards Hunter who was also sobbing. She grabbed at his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. In the early morning light, the two waited for hours. After the sirens subsided, Apricot and Hunter left together.
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~ Far Western Iest Kingdom, The Port City Of Taber Nightfall ~
A constant clattering of cups and the banging of iron fill the dimly lit hall while the small talk was plentiful. It filled the air with wonderful music and cheer, along with the chatter of a small fire living at its center. From the kitchenette, the aroma of sizzling meat and fresh herbs and vegetables wafted out. A swaying young lady in a cobalt commoner’s dress stirred a charcoal skillet while wearing a patterned dress. Thick laughter covered the local mumblings when a joke was told.
Everybody was dressed as they would in their own country. Women in simple dresses with aprons and brooches of another color, while men in kyrtill tunics and belted trousers. Except for a group of rather dirty-looking men. Not that people with soiled clothing did not come in, but the style these men wore was of a more than reputable brand. They wore imperial coats, shirts made of delicate fabrics, and armor decorated with studded metals. On their sides hung blades forged by the finest artisans without the proper honorifics. However, their condition betrayed no respect. It looked as if they had been uncared for some time, with bloodstains that set everyone who saw them with anxiety.
An older man was garbled with a mouth full of chicken and rice, “No place better than the east.” He said. The man had a strong Azurian mainland accent, not a Marionian’s as one would expect. That alone is not the odd part, but it is the thickness of it. He grabbed a large mead mug and took a full swig, swishing his half-chewed food down. “This is living,” he said, slapping the back of the man next to him. His crow’s eyes are his most distinctive feature of him; a dark mask so piercing it is unsettling.
“I agree. Finally, we made it to paradise.” The other man smiled with his patchy grin. There are more than half a dozen missing teeth and the ones that are there were mostly damaged. Around the table, three other men sat. Their plates were filled with various foods and their glasses were overflowing with ale. “I dare say this is the best time since leaving the mainland.”
A patch covered one man’s eye, and it was not pleasant. Rather like a piece of old ripped leather, to call it a patch would be far too generous. He had just slouched the scrap over to keep the dust out. It was obvious there was nothing behind that patch but a sunken hole. The part underneath got sucked in by the pressure as he breathed, so if you looked closely, you would see it bellow. “I am just glad King Grandor kept his word. I thought once we landed in port, we’d be done for.”
“We are now the Blue Hammers, lad. All you see is ours in this region of Marion. We could as well be kings.” The elder of the men laughed. His gruffness could almost be excused. The crest that was patched into his vest was one of the royal Azurian Guard, a captain, in fact. With a good wash, he might have been a handsome old man, but the grime became layers built upon layers of dirt painting over his features, making him appear much older than his age.
Bar patrons try to ignore the obnoxious hollering while they continue drinking. No one dared to disturb these men. Everybody knew about the Blue Hammers. Since the day they showed up, they have become well feared throughout the region. It wasn’t so long ago that the Blue Hammers were an unnamed group of thugs. Nowadays, they are known primarily for being cruel mercenaries.
The group of marauders chuckled at the sight of the curvy young barmaid. “She is a cutie,” said the crow-eyed man with a smile spreading across his wretched face. All the guys gawked and turned their heads in agreement. She wore her milk chocolate-colored hair in two bunny ears formed by red ribbons. The rest was long curls extending to her mid-back, and short bangs just above her forest brown eyes. As she picked up plates from table to table, her smile became sweeter and sweeter.
Having grown up in the tavern with her father, she had become an accomplished tavern maid. Her practice at serving had made her graceful. As she bobbed and weaved around the tables in the lively hall, it was almost like an art form. Every knot and imperfection was known to her as she sailed through the channels of the wooden floorboards. The waitress escaped the various stubs sticking out of the wood. Her feet dashing just next to uneven places and all around them. Despite that, she never tripped. She always knew exactly where she was going. Her crimson, white-trimmed dress swayed as she weaved around the room. The flow of her frilly apron matched the rhythm of her steps.
Licking the corner of his mouth, the eye-patched man stuck out his tongue, saying, “Wouldn’t mind tasting that.”
“She must be a clean one too,” replied the crow-eyed man. “Not like those dirty clams whoring at the ports.”
The man with the gap-filled smile smirked at the rude jab. “Hey, waiter girl! Over here!” he yelled. After seeing the men in blue cloaks, she felt a sense of terror creep over her. A twisted smile spread across his face. What could they want from her? The girl wondered to herself. Her body became paralyzed as she walks over the lengthening room. “Com’mon we won’t bite,” he joked.
A fake smile appeared on her face as she approached the table. “How may I help you tonight? Are you done with your meals yet?” She asked with a cute tone of voice.
Due to his advanced age, the captain grumbled a tad. You have fun, you guys. I need to step out for a few minutes.” Seeing the older man leave the table fills the girl with a strange uneasiness she has never experienced before. Her heart beats faster. Looking over at her father, she observes him tending to the drunkenness at the bar. Then over toward the band but they shook their heads at her.
The crow-eyed man scooted his chair out. “Come on baby, take a seat,” he laughed, patting his lap. As though they were dogs peering at a piece of meat, the other men stared at her. In her mind, she could tell if she got into their grasp, she would be with them at least for the night.
As soon as she sat down, she knew this man would grope her in front of everyone. The sword by the man’s waist catches her eye as she looks at his tattered muddy blue jacket. This violent man wasn’t someone she wanted to be in the arms of. Rather than risk escalating the situation, she decided to avoid this gesture. “I cannot, I have other tables to attend to.” She smiles as brightly as she can given the circumstances. It was the smile she inherited from her mother.
Taking a drink from his cup, he wiped his mustache with a reflexive movement. “You’ve been working hard all night. Kick back a little, we want to talk,” said the man with the eyepatch. He drank from his cup.
“If I slacked off, my father would be upset.”
“Who’s your dad? We will shut em up,” the crow-eyed man said from his chair. He licked his lips. She was disgusted by his behavior. By spreading his legs, he beckoned her to sit. At that point, she noticed his palm on his sword handle tilting it as if to warn, “If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” At least, that’s how she interpreted it.
When she realizes they won’t budge, she sits on the dangerous man’s lap. As her bottom pressed against his leg, he made a sound, a shudder, that almost made her wretch. He sniffed her hair. It was fresh. Her body shook as he grabbed her waist with both hands. The back of her neck twitches as his breath rolls across it. The smell reminded her of the sludge they dumped out of ships. He whispered, “See not so shabby.” as he put his fingers on her hips.
He put his leg against her crotch, pressing against her. He was more forceful. Her face turned red with embarrassment. Something hard is pressed into her rear. Her eyes grew wide as she looked over towards her father who was just watching as he rubbed a glass.
There are two men seated at the bar who glance over at the men groping the young lady. Before turning his head, the man drinks the rest of his ale from his jug. His long elf ears poked out from beneath the faded and kinky white hair atop his head. The handsome features of his face rounded out his appearance. Silver eyes glared at the men as he stood to his feet. The other man placed his hand on the elf’s shoulder.
In the charcoal brown that hung against his stubble-covered jawline, he looked down on his drunkard of a friend. Considering that his skin was tan, he was clearly from another country. The tan gave his brown eyes a dirty, muddy appearance. Despite his thin build, he’s muscular. Turning his head, he saw the girl getting touched on the shoulder by the crow-eyed man. His face was covered in scars. As the elf turned away from him, he pressed his fingers into his back.
“Must you, Elward?” His tired voice asked. With piercing eyes of flamed silver, Elward stared at his companion.
“These are the ones we are looking for. Come, Rhomond,” he called, turning and walking toward the men sitting at the table.
Rhomund muttered under his breath, “Sure.” Thumping on the leather holster of his dagger, he unbuttoned the strap. While standing up, he looked at the ail he had barely touched before rolling his eyes and saying, “I wasn’t planning on finishing my drink anyway.” as he let out a long sigh.
Before he got away from the bar, the owner grabbed his shoulder. His face is rosy, and his eyes are filled with concern. “Wait, that is my daughter.” Rhomund nodded his head as he took several steps just behind Elward.
A moment of silence was followed by the man as the wrong teeth said, “Got a place to be, pointer.” Elward glared at the slur as Rhomund stepped forward and placed his arm on Elward’s shoulder.
Rhomund asked with the most charming look, “Care if we join you?”
Rhomund watched the man with the eye patch point his eating knife at him and rolled his wrist in a circle a few times. His index finger resting on the tang of the blade. “Who are you?” His face was unamused, and he was staring blankly at the pair. The waitress glanced at the men with feverish eyes. In a twitching gesture, the girl pressed her nails into her tender skin as nails dug deeply into her knees.
Even though she mouthed the word “No.” to the two, Elward just kept looking at them. From his chair, the man who had messed up his teeth lifted his dirty hand to the sword he held. It was evident that the people surrounding the area bent their necks and hunched over.
“We are just two errants. Now now,” Rhomund stuttered. “My friend here… he is rather concerned about that girl on your lap.”
This only caused the man to lick the girl’s ear, while he put his hand on her breast, cupping it as he squeezed. He said, “We are friends, isn’t that right?”.
“Yes!” she said without wanting to upset him.
“See she likes me. So go get yourselves lost,” the crow-eyed man snarled at Rhomund. As the man wearing the eye patch looked over at his buddies, he now grins, snickering.
Elward clenched his fists while holding his arms to his side. “Look at the pointer,” said the guy with missing teeth. “Well, are ya gonna do something?”
“I see, you are unfamiliar with the customs here. She is a waitress. She must be more than generous to you.” The girl’s face creases with fear. “You see this girl has signed her father several times. That bartender over there.” The man pointed to the brambly older gentleman. “And who I presume is her brother?” He points to a man with a guitar on his lap.
When her lips trembled, the maid rasped her breath. “What’s it to you? You might be wise to know who you’re dealing with.” As he scrunched up his face in anger, his crow-like visage got even worse.
As Rhomond gestures, he stretches out his fingers with both of his hands. As he continued, “I suggest you do not upset him. You see my friend here has a special set of talents you may not be aware of.” His fingers closed up, holding up only his two index fingers. “Granted, I understand you perfectly. She is cute.” He waves his hand after uttering each word. “Though my friend here. He thinks you’re not respecting her.”
“Yeah, your friend. The bloody pointer should know his place,” he said, extending his knife toward Elward.
Rhomund nodded his head. “I was saying the same thing. Men must be men. Though my friend… he does not see things our way. While I am fine with you, he is not.”
The crow-eyed man pulled a sword from his side, pushing the girl off his lap as he said, “You are threatening me.” The man pointed his blade at Rhomund’s neck. Gritting his teeth, he grunted. “I will put my sword straight through you.”
“I see,” Rhomund said, touching the sword’s tip with his fingertip. “That was a mistake, my friend.” As soon as Rhomund had finished speaking he pulled the blade from the man’s hand. The man could not utter a word before Rohomund drew himself in close. In his folded arm, he placed his elbow and the blade’s edge against the crow-eyed man’s collar. With squinted eyes he whispered, “Leave, you and your friends,” he said. “Live to fight another day. Am I understood, gentleman?”
Backing up a step, the crow-eyed man returned to his original position. Rhomond spun the blade with graceful handling and presented him with its handle. He reaches for it in a jerky, unfluent motion. “You wait,” he yelped. “When my Lords hear about this, we will burn down this place.”
“Is that so?”, Elward asked as he drew a dagger from his side and slit the crow-eyed man’s throat with inhuman speed. In response, the man with the messed up teeth backs up, but Rhomund has already moved behind him. He bumps into Rhomund, turns, and reaches for his sword but can’t feel it. He is surprised as Rhomund reveals his sword was in his hands and he inserts the blade into his throat. As the one-eyed man tries to run, Elward’s dagger plants itself in the back of his head. He stopped for a moment before falling to the floor with a bang on the back of his head.
The girl gasps for breath as she looks at the bloody mess. While Rhomund wipes the blood off his coat with a stray tablecloth, she backs up screaming. “I apologize, mam,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Who are you two?” she asks, looking at them both. “Do you realize what you have done?” Everyone is running out of the pub in a frenzied state.
“This is my friend Elward… and my name is Rhomund. We are the Queen’s personal errantry.”
~ 868 RE ~
~ Iest Kingdom, Afternoon On A Merchant Road To Port Branderfel ~
“Damn it. The axle broke and we ain’t getting anywhere for a while,” said an older man wearing a straw hat. It was a warm day in the breezy canyon, as the sun beat down on the caravan of travelers. “I don’t like being in these parts.” he said. “Unsavory things lurk around in this canyon. One time, I saw wolves out here. “They had already found their pickings, though.” He said standing beside a horse-drawn carriage. A snapped wooden rod protruded from the bottom of the front wheel, which lay on the ground. The two horses pulling the carriage stand calmly.
Raven-haired youth glanced over at the wagon master. “So we’re stuck out here then?”
“That’s how it’s looking girly. I said I’d bring you to Port Branderfel and that’s what I intend to do. You have my word. It will just take a little to fix this. As a precaution, you wait behind the carriage.” He bent down and looked beneath the carriage. A man dressed in tattered and dirty clothing emerged from the back.
“If we will be here for a while, then I guess I will go pee.” he quiped as he walked over to some shrubbery.
Suddenly the man under the cart shouted, “I warned ya already ‘bout the things out here. If you get bitten, I won’t be able to get ya to help. I may haf’ta heft off your leg and I don’t want to deal with that bloody mess.”
Having looked out across the canyon, she sighed, then walked to the back of the carriage. Above them, on the step of the canyon, a few men hold sabers and pole arms in readiness to encircle the caravan. As they descend to the ground, they make themselves known to the stranded group. “Bandits. Diyano, you have cursed us.” The wagon master grumbled as he saw several pairs of boots from the ground under the cart.
The raven-haired girl turned around to see the group of men approaching. “Looks like you need a touch of help. We might be able to help. It will cost you. “Of course, this highway has a fee to travel it.” protested a man with a torn strip of cloth surrounding his mouth and nose. Having long brown hair and a sword, he appeared frightening. He was covered in frayed and torn rags, uncharacteristic of his armor. Similarly, the other men were armed.
A man gripped the girl’s arm with his brown leather gloved hand whilst wearing a shrill bag with eye holes on top of his head. “Aren’t you a cutie? Heh, old man, you want to live right. The girl is your tax.”
The girl tugged her arm free from the man’s firm grasp. “Get your hands off of me!” she added, taking two steps back.
An axe-wielding short man laughed. “She told you.”
“Yeah, but that’s all right. I like them feisty,” he laughed. “So what do you say, old man?”
A large pair of eyes swept over the girl as the wagon master glanced over at her. “I am sorry.” He whispered, closing his eyes firmly.
“What!” She cried out in terror. Trying to escape, she twisted and screamed as the bandits grabbed hold of her. They then pinned her in their grasp and started dragging her down the dusty road.
With arms spread out, the other man dived in to separate the group from the girl. “You must not let them take her.” As soon as he had finished, the man in the sackcloth stabbed his saber into his stomach. When he fell to his knees, holding his belly, its contents spilled out onto the ground, his eyes glistening. Looking up, he saw the group of bandits dragging off the screaming girl.
“My queen, I swear on my honor. Throughout the merchant roads, there are corpses everywhere. This was the first time I saw something like it, I thought it was wildlings. Originally I planned to go to Taber, but saw so many bodies I became fearful.” said a man bowed down to the young Queen Gazalia. In response, Aschiles’ advisor raised an eyebrow. His gaze wandered over to Queen Gazalia, who nodded approvingly.
Gazalia stood up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You have done a good thing by returning my dear servant. Wisdom dictates that a person avoid what he cannot overcome. There will be no harm done to you or to your family inside these walls.” She looked at the man on his knees with her hand still on his head. “What do you have to say about this Lord Achiles?”
“Wildlings do not act in this fashion. Their brutality in battle and terror during wartime makes them a nation’s nightmare. You said you came upon a family that was hung from a tree?”
“Yes my Lord,” said the man whose head bowed.
“Wildlings skin their victims and tie their skins to the trees to intimidate. However, they do not hang their victims. They would consider it nothing but waste of good meat.” Lord Achiles muttered in a hoarse voice.
Gazalia removed her hand from the man’s head. “If not wildlings, who else would stand against me in such a manner?” she asked.
“Humans. Not petty bandits, but bandits nonetheless. My queen, they were sending you a message. They are claiming the merchant roads as their territory. Thus, they may have been backed by a powerful group, even an empire larger than themselves. Still, old tribal conflicts still haunt Iest. Surely some factions of the old empire still have not declared themselves to us. We should pay attention and put an end to this before the people see that as weakness.”
The queen slowly returns to her throne and sits down. “Please have my knights guard the roads from the Kingdom to Port Branerfel. Also, have another group of knights travel towards Matrick. Instruct them to hunt down and kill any bandit they find without mercy. Ask them to disguise themselves as commoners and hide their weapons and armor. We will show these crooks whose kingdom they are trying to rob.”
“At once my queen.” said Lord Achiles bowing before her throne.
“No one will threaten my people. Every traveler in my land must be protected by the shield of my kingdom. Achiles bring me my Lord Knights. I have an errand for those two.”
~ 868 RE ~
~ Far West Iest Kingdom, In The City Of Taber At Nightfall ~
An eerie violet glow permeated the night. As Elward looked out from atop the tavern, it revealed a city of ruins and decaying streets. As he watched the outside and waited for any sign of the gangsters approaching. With a twitch of his ears, the sound of the balcony door opening diverted his attention to the side of him. His silver eyes stare at the barmaid in front of him carrying a large horn mug and a pitcher of clear liquid. The water smelled pristine. “You ought to sleep,” he said to the girl.
When she poured water for him, she shyly added, “I thought you might be thirsty.”. With her horn, she offered him a drink. He took her container graciously. The girl blushed slightly. “It was very you to protect me. Thank you. Sorry, I screamed.”
He smirked a smidgen, “That is quite alright.”
With a sheepish look on her face, she asked, “Is it true… that you’re an elf?”
Elward shook his head. “My father was human.”
“What about your mother?”
As Elward turned to face her, he said, “My mother, people say she was an elf, but I do not know.”
“Really?” she questioned.
He nodded his head. “I do not remember her.”
“That’s a pity. I don’t think all elves are that cruel, because I think you’re really kind,” the barmaid said with a sweetness in her voice that rubbed Elward the wrong way.
Elward looked at her his eyes shining white. “Is that so?so?so? ” he smugly replied, revealing his true eyes to her. His paling face was obscured by her hands. Afterward, his eyes grew dim and his gaze returned to normal. “I would be afraid of them, and that is my advice to you.”
As soon as the girl regained her composure, she asked, “So who is that man you travel with?”
“That is the man who killed my mother.” He said coldly. “And I intend to return the favor as does he.” She was stunned by his reply. “We are under oath to work together, but if truth be known we are enemies. Alas, child enough stories it is late, and you should be sleeping.”
“Aren’t you going to sleep?” the girl asked Elward.
He shook his head before saying, “I don’t sleep.”
~The Next Morning~
“Thank you for saving my daughter,” said the bartender. At this point, the tavern hall was quiet and everyone had departed. There was no longer any fire, but the lingering smell of the night’s dinner remains. The young girl’s father sat at a large table with Rhomund and Elward. There was a sharp light streaming through the pub’s windows. “Do you believe we are safe now? Do you think they will return?”
“We hope they do,” Elward said, polishing his blade.
The bartender scratches his head. “These Blue Hammers you called them, they have become troublesome,” Romund gestured by making circles with his fingers. “To everyone.” On the table, the weapons the bandits carried were spread out. Among the armor pieces were a few garments. The ornate designs and skilled workmanship indicate military equipment. “As you may have noticed these weapons are valuable. I doubt a group of bandits would have supplies like this.”
Elward nodded firmly. “I believe these are Azurian made weapons; from Flaggard.”
Looking at the two men, the middle-aged man sighed. “Flaggard. Isn’t that on the other side of the world?”
“Never been there,” said Rhomund. “I can tell you though it is not close. Got a whole sky to travel to get to it. So why are they in the hands of these Blue Hammers? This is a port town, isn’t it? Travels to and imports from the Southern Kingdom as I understand it.”
His chin was stroked as he nodded his head in agreement. “Yes. Although recently we have seen fewer merchants and more bandits. They are everywhere I am afraid.”
“Interesting. I am not familiar with the leadership of Taber. Tell me, where is the city guards?” Rhomund asked.
“That’s the shameful part. King Kerchov has himself hid up in his manor. The city guards for some time have only guarded the royals in the northern province. The coward was the heir. His uncle died ‘bout two years ago. That’s when things fell apart here. When he claimed his place as the “lawful” Baron, he proved to be little more than a greedy man. Taxes and taxes and the loyal guards refused to follow his orders. He disbanded the old guard and hired marauders from the surrounding lands. Calls em’ common guards. So while he has real guards, he allows the common guards to do what they will. As long as it is not causing him any trouble that is. I am not even sure if he is the one who raises taxes anymore.”
“Interesting, Taber does not have a King, it has a baron.” Elward commented.
“Well, no offense to the two of ya but the Iest Kingdom has been long forgotten. Until now I believed the Iest Kingdom had forgotten us as well. If I speak with honor I do not trust the two of you.”
Elward grinned. “We are not to be trusted. Until some time ago Rhomund and I were traveling sellswords. More or less men who kill for the highest bidder. Yet we now are under the service of a different ruler. She has another vision of Iest Kingdom. One that lives up to the old glory it used to be or perhaps something more. Yet, she is but a child.”
“Elward enough, it appears we have business with this “King” of Taber,” Rhomund rose from his seat.
With stone pillars and baroque statues, the main streets of Taber are ornate. However, the façade of elegance conceals a maze of buildings. These buildings appeared to have been sprouted from wood scraps. It was as if the street networks grew out of the ground. It reminded Elward of a garbage dump. Anything like this would burn to the ground in the Fae world because it was so hideous. The thick mud of waste lined the sides of the streets and the smell was far from pleasant.
Although the two wended their way through crowded streets, Rhomund nevertheless felt at home. There was almost a feeling of him poised to collide with someone but never did. Despite using more elegant steps, Elward had to put more focus on how he maneuvered. The simple act of not colliding with another person took a great deal of effort. Several minutes later, they arrive at their destination after negotiating the tangle of streets. A large gateway with several gruff looking men in armor guarding it appeared before them.
The guard on the right immediately called out stopping the others from pointing spears at Elward. Rhomund tried to explain, but the guard did not lower his spear. Elward stared at him with a boredom look that he could muster. With his back to the wall of the gate, the older guard stepped over and spoke to the younger guard. Laying down his spear, he moved aside so that the two could walk past. Suddenly, they had arrived in what seemed to be another city. A few chariots could pass through the streets once one passes through the threshold. Many buildings are in good shape, as well as the main streets.
An expanse of white stone road leads to a palace topped by many domes. There are several spires surrounding the castle that look like spikes reaching into the sky. They appear to be sharp against the heavens. From the south, the open blue skies and the lower levels of ports can be seen. On a large bridge, Rhomund and Elward were mere silhouettes. Through the crossing, they enter the palace’s courtyard.
An enormous dome crowned this massive building. Around the side of the building, towers, walls and spires can be seen. Rhomund thought that it could house an army. Elward, meanwhile, was intrigued by the structure. His impression was that it didn’t seem to be a Marionian building. With its paintings and love of art, its design had an Azurian influence. However, Marion wasn’t keen on that. There was also a differing cultural viewpoint as well.
“He likes to keep his guests waiting.” Elward stared at the baroque pillar as they stood in a corridor with many delicately carved ivory pillars. The carvings depicted colorful pieces of local history. The three tribes, the first men arriving in Marion on gliders, the old queen who conquered the lands and the history of a man’s conquest over the dragons. The towering glass structures behind which the city loomed revealed a vista of the city. Through the city, both its past and future blend into a harmonious whole. Elward looked at the columns with amusement as he studied them. Besides him, Rhomond was walking slowly behind him pointing at a carved dragon. “Dragons,” He said in a sharp tone getting a small chuckle from Elward who then rolled his eyes as he looked away.
Upon opening the large doors to the court, a meaty guard announced, “His highness is ready to see you.”
Astonished by the throne room’s extravagance, Rhomund and Elward could not believe their eyes. The floor was made of smooth polished stone that reflected light. On either side of the throne stood two decorative columns supporting the balcony above. Throne itself was atop a platform above the rest of the room, connected to it by a staircase. Paintings on both sides of the platform depict the gods combating the primal forces. In fact, the walls were covered with gold and painted depictions as well. “This is a shrine to history.” Elward said abruptly.
“I see you noticed,” said a man standing by the throne. He walked down the stairs with his hands open, considering the gesture. He wore purple robes with golden dragons print. The white and purple striped rope tied off the black toga that covered his chest. “If I could do one thing for this world I would preserve its history.” He had the smile of a Howl celebrity. “What brings the two of you here?”
Rhomand did not seem as impressed as Elward, who stood up straight before speaking. “I have orders from the Queen to ensure the safety of her territories. Baron Kerchov, I presume.”
“Ah, yes.” Kerchov’s face became puzzled. “You are?”
“Queen Gazalia’s errants,” Elward replied in a proud tone.
“So, you are the two wandering knights. I have heard stories about you. Mighty fine warriors, duel to the death ended by a Queen’s orders. I must pay a visit to our Queen. She sounds most magnificent. And here are two legends in the flesh. So, what can I do for the two of you?”
“You can start by looking after your people. The two of us had the pleasure of meeting bandits within the city borders. They seemed to have no fear of city guards either. In fact, we killed them, and still, no guards showed up to even question us. This is a severe problem wouldn’t you agree?”
“I see… that does sound like a trifling affair. I must get my guards to be more prominent in the lives of common folk,” he said. “Allow them some freedom and they become savage as wildlings.”
A look of interest crossed Elward’s face as he looked at Rhomund. “Well, we can assist you in this. There is already a patrol of guards from the Iest Kingdom conducting road checks. We can have them establish a city watch.”
While he turned away to face his throne, Kerchov licked his lips. Rhomund looked up as he turned back to him after a few steps. “I could not bear to burden you with the problems of my city,” he paced the floor. In the midst of deep thought, Kerchov raised his hand for silence as Rhomund attempted to speak. In addition to pacing a few more times across the polished floors, he looked up and down. “I have a better plan of approach I believe. I must assist in setting up these road checks. This will give my guardsmen the proper training they need.”
“They will learn more from being within these walls with Iest Kingdom’s finest soldiers,” Rhomund said immediately after asserting his authority.
A sigh escaped Kerchov’s lips. “There is a cultural aesthetic you are failing to appreciate, my dear Rhomund. I am sure such a nobleman as Elward would agree with me, seeing as how he appreciates… what I have done here. Taber is not merely a city. It is a sanctuary of culture! We may be a mere port but isn’t a port a grand cauldron to cultivate the ideals and ideas of the people. We are kindred spirits can’t you see?”
Rhomund’s eyes grew wide from the strange remark. “You’re joking? This city is falling apart.”
Kerchov grunted, “Falling apart. It is steeping. You will see what will grow out of my kingdom.”
“Your kingdom. About that, I see you have a crown?” Elward said pointing at Kerchov’s head.
Kerchov nodded his head a few times while blinking. Observing his strained effort to avoid eye contact, Elward took note. “That is punishable and considered treason you know,” Rhomund added.
There was a short silence before Kerchov spoke, “I am King of Taber, a crown is suitable for a king.” he rubbed the back of his neck.
“Really?” Elward said. “Last I knew Taber was under the rule of a baron and not a king. Queen Gazalia will be displeased when we return with news of a descent. Perhaps we should return you to her to explain yourself in person.”
“Really there is no need for this. It’s semantics anyway. So I won’t use the name King any longer.” Kerchov raised his hand rolling his head slightly. “I am Baron Kerchov, fine by me.”
Rhomund walked up backhanding him in the face and knocking the crown off his head. “Put it on again, and you will wear it to the grave. Understood?”
Grabbing the side of his face, Kerchov stood shocked. “Of course. You clearly appreciate mercy.”
“Watch it. I could do worse still.”
Kerchov took a step back and cowered. “You would not dare. Remember it is my halls that stand in.”
“Rhomund, let him go. He’s from Javel.” Rhomund looks disgusted for a moment. After that, he stepped back. An oozing stream of blood poured from Kerchov’s nostril.
“Javel, that explains things but how did you know that?”
“His appreciation of art and history. Yet he has no leadership skills, and he is a coward.” Kerchov stared with an angry glare that folded into absolute terror. “Isn’t this true Kerchov?”
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There was concrete and rubble along the sidewalk. A city once engulfed by skylines that stretched to the heavens appeared more like a junkyard to Apricot. While walking the blood-stained streets, she took in the sights of a freshly infected nightmare. Armed soldiers were removing bodies from the destroyed buildings along the long stretch of road. In the street, she saw a pair of men hoisting a body into the back of a large convoy truck. Inside, she saw an unbelievable number of dead eyes looking back at her. Stacked on top of one another like lumber.
A wise decision or a poor one? Did the reaper lie? That had to be the case. Suddenly, the world was without hope. Here they stood, the price of a new day. Without these wicked haunts, there will be peace. Despite any doubts in her mind, she knew that she had made the right decision. A teenaged Uchellen boy wearing a green shirt stared out the window. She saw her face meet his, and she knew they were both thinking the same thing. How do we proceed from here?
As she watched, a group of soldiers armed with guns marched past her. They paid her hardly any attention. It seemed everyone was focused on cleaning up. “I guess that is all we can do. Pick up the pieces and carry on regardless of what happened.” Apricot mused. She sees a group of young kids pick up small pieces of metal and carry them over to a dumpster, where their parents help them toss the scraps in.
She heard a woman weeping in the distance, probably in a state of regret over losing a loved one. The ending was not what Apricot hoped for. Sure, the threat was eliminated, but its mark will live on forever. But, lo and behold, there it was. It was a line, with people walking the streets as they should. There were no more ruins or rubble. Untouched by the terror that befell the city that dreadful night. Apricot was relieved to find that. Family, her family! Her eyes gleamed as she raced to her neighborhood as fast as she could.
When she opened the gate to her house, everything appeared in order. It was as if a warmth was filling her as she reached for the doorknob. As she wrangled her hand around the knob, she opened the front door. “Thank goodness.” she thought to herself. “Mom, Dad,” Apricot called out. “Jasper!” as she took a few steps inside, she shut the door behind her to see that the house was exactly in its place. As she walked down the hall, she looked into the kitchen. Upon peeking inside, there were no dishes in the sink. “Everyone must be still asleep.” she concluded.
Apricot opened the cupboard to grab a clean glass from the cupboard. Her first stop was the sink, where she poured a glass of cool water. While drinking, she leaned against the sideboard. There was something refreshing about the slight chill on her lips. When she glanced toward the hallway, she saw a shadow pass over the wall. “Jasper?” she called out.
There was no response. Having put the glass down on the sideboard, Apricot turned to enter the hallway. She could see a faint ripple in the morning sunlight in the living room. As the shadow slowly disappeared across the wall, she watched. Turning from the kitchen, she looked into the living room from the hallway. Her view was restricted by the entryway, and she had to approach more closely. She called out, “Mom,” as she stepped forward. Still no reply. “Dad?” she questioned. The moment she stepped into the living room, she turned her head to see a disfigured humanoid holding Jasper in its claw. Both her parents were tied together in the corner of the room. As she stared up at the thing, part of its face was missing. Its lower lip hangs several feet from its head, exposing its sharp teeth. Its neck stretched out as if it had dislocated, like a gooseneck faucet. Its eyes were hollow and white with blood. The other side of its mouth was on its throat and one arm was missing. Although it looked as though his body flesh was melting like wax, it was still clearly flesh.
“Hello, apostle.” Urias said in an eerie voice. The girl’s eyes grew wide. She had no idea what to make of it. “I was waiting for you.” He said raspily.
Apricot clenched her fist. It was as though she had locked eyes with the horror in front of her. “Let my family go.” she insisted.
Absent pupils, she could not tell how his eyes were looking. “I can’t sense the black god anymore.” he groaned. “Where is he?”
She furrowed her brow in irritation. “Put my little brother down now.”
“I don’t think he is here anymore. I think, you made him go away.” He grinned, exposing his gums above his teeth in the process. “I think, you are responsible for all this. You ruined everything,” he mused.
“How are you alive?” Apricot asked.
A childish laugh emanated from Urias. “Oh, I didn’t. I have been dead for a long time. Join me,” He exclaimed throwing Jasper from his grasp. He screamed as he crashed into the wall and knocked pictures down with him. Using one clawed hand, Urias charged at Apricot. After a short hesitation, she jumped into the hallway. As he moved, he snapped his many mouths. Drool dripped from their mouths and reminded her of weeping sores.
Another lunge from Urias was directed at Apricot. The girl dodged his arm, backing into the kitchen. He sauntered into the room quickly. “I expected more from you Apricot. It seems you have lost your powers. Mmmmm, no more favors from the black god aye?” he cackled. On the counter, Apricot pulled a pair of knives from a wood block. “Oooo,” Urias groaned. “You sure about wanting to fight me? But then again I am sure your blood will be enough to call him back.”
Taking both knives, Apricot charged at Urais with a shrill scream. Kicking her in the thigh, she tumbled backwards. Urias regarded her with a cocked head as she covered herself. He took a swipe at her, catching her by surprise, and she slashed at his throat. Using both hands, she blocked his claw-like fingers. After snapping back his claw, he nicked her in the ribs. A loud noise of meat ripping filled Apricot’s ears. It was intense, but not enough to cause any significant damage. After ducking low for another strike, she was grabbed by his hand, Urias’s arm pinning her to the ground.
After that, he picked up her body and threw it against the wall. His follow-through on her arm left her with no time to recover after he was standing over her. Her body ached while holding the gaping wound with exposed muscles oozing. As she snapped her head up and saw Urias standing over her, she struck him once more. Her swing through the open air was completely missed because he stepped back. As she went round for another strike, Urias sidestepped her attack and raked his claws across her back. Her jacket was sliced open, exposing her shirt and torn skin underneath.
Urias came at her again, causing her to bend over as she suffered from the pain. She grabbed his wrist and held it up. By raking the other knife against his pale stomach, she penetrated the flesh. It became sliced open, releasing an awful odor. Stepping back, he examined her with an open jaw. With his lower lip dangling, he gazed at her. The little spear-like points of his teeth reminded her of a fish’s mouth. As she gazes into his damaged body, she can see that his insides are writhing with life. Black bubbling blood seeped out from the center like sap dropping from a tree.
Apricot was hit by Urias as she was standing on the counter top and several objects fell on the ground. Urias eventually latched on to Apricot’s throat. Taking both knives, she stabbed them into his wrist, ripping through his forearm. Urias released the grip, but he did not back away. Using the counter, Apricot kicked him in the face, causing him to fly through the air and into her refrigerator. She let out a groan as the burning pain in her stomach sent her off the counter onto her feet.
Urias leapt toward her again, reaching out a split hand for her neck. As Apricot dropped to her knees, she stabbed both knives into his lower calves, raising them up the length of his legs. The man fell backward onto the ground screaming in pain. When Apricot collapsed onto his horrid body, he slashed both knives against his throat, cutting off his head. As Urias turned up, he let out a shrill gasp.
After rising to her feet, Apricot looked down at the head that was gripped by gasps. Seeing the desperate movements, she raised her foot and stomped on his skull as if it were a grapefruit. Taking several puffs of air, Apricot caught her breath, feeling her body seethe with rage. As Apricot walked into her living room covered in blood, she saw her parents taped up in the corner. “I think it’s over now.”
Apricot’s mind flashed images of a dull burgundy glow as she rubbed her eyes in slumber. In the background, an annoying buzzing continued to ring in her ears. After a period of deep sleep, she opened her eyes and saw a red glow and a shade of purple obscuring her room. While ignoring the time, her head turned to her alarm clock and she touched the alarm button with her hand. When she removed her covers, she felt the slab patches on her. Looking out of the window, she saw blue skies. “It’s nice to see the morning without fear again,” she said.
Rolling out of bed Apricot strolled to her closet looking through her clothes. She grabbed a red and white striped shirt throwing it onto her bed along with a pair of black jeans with several fashionable tears down the legs. She looked over at her clothes giving a soft smile.
First time eating breakfast at home since she was released from the hospital. Upon walking down the stairs, she noticed the familiar aroma of her mother’s home-cooked salmon and green onion miso. Shyly, she stepped into the kitchen. “Good morning,” Apricot said incapable of looking at her family.
Her mother entered the living room with a plate of cooked rice. “Apricot can you get the soup kettle?” Her father was already seated at the table next to Jasper. Apricot lowered her eyes to the floor with a smile as she placed a kettle on the table. Sitting next to her mother, Apricot bowed her head.
As Apricot glanced back at Jasper, a smile was beaming on his face. Jasper was wearing a white collar around his neck. “Are you like a superhero or something?”
“No,” Apricot softly replied.
“Well, you saved our lives. I consider you my hero.” Jasper said with a smile. His eyes welled up with tears. Apricot furrowed her brow in surprise.
In an attempt to control the feelings welling up inside of her, she snapped, “That is not very manly little boy.”
Her response caused Jasper’s jaw to drop. “What! I am a man.” Apricot smiled. It was, indeed, home. “Dad tell her!”
Apricot was filled with joy as she heard the morning banter. Her eyes were ablaze as she marveled at this moment. She felt comforted as she listened to the mundane conversation of her parents. Jasper’s little nerd remarks were amusing. Exactly how it was supposed to be. After all, the nightmare was over.
The vibrations from her leg prompted her to draw out her phone from her side and see the words “Okabe Government” displayed. Closing her eyes, she realized how fast good things ended. The moment of serenity had gone.
White marble floors glistened like silver throughout the Okabe capitol building. Each of them was immaculately polished. As she walked the hall alone, she admired the pictures and artwork that lined the walls. However, they left her feeling uncomfortable. She tried to forget the faces of those whose lives she had ended. Additionally, the odor of the building was uncomfortable. It was hard for her to identify it, but it reminded her of something like pepper. Her throat closed as she approached the high council’s conference room, just as it had done before.
Weirdly, they allowed her to turn up voluntarily. Even if she wanted to escape, she couldn’t. Upon entering the courtroom, she was plunged into black and white. There was a silver gray and black palette everywhere. The large light fixtures above rendered the room pure white, their light nearly blinding Apricot. A circle of long, metallic desks surrounded the room’s floor. They sat a few young children at each of them. The middle child is probably around the age of thirteen.
“Apricot Signa, thank you for your cooperation,” he said firmly.
Apricot inspected each member of the council and found no one older than the boy in the middle. Would children be making decisions about her life? Could this be possible? “Your welcome, pardon, but I do not know how to address you,” she said, unsure of what she was in for.
“Forgive me, I am not familiar with these formalities myself. My name is Yushio Okabe. I am the inaugurate emperor.” He sighed. “These circumstances are, unusual. I ask that you bear with me.”
Apricot bowed knowingly. “Of course.” she said. Inaugurate, that’s right. Kyo was gone. It was impossible to establish a formal emperor at this point in time. Therefore, this young boy was forced into the position. This made sense, but no sense was made by the other children.
“The events that have unfolded in the last few months have been a long series of unfortunate events. The results of which have ravaged the lives of everyone living in Okabe. You are one of the few people living to have first-hand knowledge of these events.” Apricot felt her hands tingle a bit. “There are holes in our investigation. You see, the last administration did not leave us clear records. We do have a thorough understanding of your role in this. Empress Kyo had a clear interest in you, and Shiori of the Kinjo clan as well. Do you have any knowledge of this?”
“I do.” Apricot said, acknowledging the need to be honest.
His head nodded in agreement. “Good, well, I understand they arrested you for an act of terrorism against the Okabe government. Shiori Kinjo, along with a small group of people attempted to usurp the rightful rule of the Okabe family. Were you in fact a willing participant in that act?”
She bowed sheepishly without saying a word.
“Interesting. What you may not be aware of, perhaps you are, Empress Kyo murdered my grand uncle. Mitsura Okabe. She was in fact a rebel herself. Her actions were vile. Look around Apricot. All of us were touched intimately by these events. This is what remains of the Okabe empire. We are children, not rulers. Everyone else however is dead. It is left for us to uphold the family name and carry on a lasting tradition.” His face remained stone cold. “We understand our history. You have spent years investigating those subjects. A skill I am quiet aware that you hold a degree in. You must have known at that time of the corruption that found a home in our household.” Apricot hesitates. “Our council has spent several hours deliberating on what exactly to do with you. You are a liability.” he said to Apricot.
As her chest tightened, she felt a sharp pain. She felt as if someone was squeezing every vein in her body at once. “I will make a deal with you. I will offer you a complete and total pardon for all the crimes you have committed. In return, you will never talk about the reality of the incident to anyone ever again. Do I have your agreement?”
“That sounds fair, I agree.” Apricot said feeling like she dodged a bullet.
He nodded. “I foresee no further action from the Okabe government regarding you. For your comfort, I will inform you that we are dismantling everything Kyo and Mitsura had assembled. While there was disagreement among the council regarding my planned actions, we agree that what they tried to achieve was pure madness. There will be no more insane projects going forward while under my rule. However, on another note. We have yet to locate Shiori Kinjo, who is of particular interest to us. You would not know of his whereabouts?”
“I do not.” Apricot solemnly said. While seated next to the young boy, he glanced over at the girl next to him.
“She is telling the truth.” Looking into a screen, the girl remarked.
“All right,” he groaned wearyly. “Our conclusions must be true. Shiori has escaped in secret back to the Kinjo clan. Apricot, I have restored your citizenship to Okabe. Your social credit has been restored to its former value as well. Your jade marks have also been returned to you in full. Your license as a journalist has been permanently revoked. You are prohibited from participating in any form of journalism. I hope you understand seeing as how things are. I would consider you a hero if not for the circumstances that led up to these events.” Apricot swallowed hard and felt a lump in her throat. While holding back tears, she knew that her future had just been ripped away. However, she realized journalism was something she couldn’t return to after what she had experienced. “However, as a consolation, I have arranged for you to receive your full pension as though you had fulfilled your duty as a state journalist. I suggest you pursue a life abroad or whatever life you would have wanted instead of journalism. You may leave.”
Apricot sat surrounded by her friends with a half-savored burger in her hands. A burrito was wrapped around Machi’s mouth as she struggled to bite into the steak inside. “So, as I said, I got this new issue of Eerie Truths! No more Claw Fingers sightings, but check this one!” Bonni tossed the mag onto the picnic table. “The valkyrie of Okabe!”, the headline read. Although there are a number of images of a girl, their static made it virtually impossible to see any details. “It’s like we got a superhero!” Bonni exclaimed.
As Apricot smiled to herself, she remained silent. “Thank goodness for Akagi.”
Snapping her head back, Machi swallows the wad down as she chews her food. “Bonni, you can’t even see anything in the pictures! It could be just some random person.” She barked.
“Pshh! Like whatever Machi!” Bonni retorted. “A monster could slap you in the face and you would deny it even existed. What about the monsters who attacked the city a few weeks ago?”
“Everyone knows it was a chemical hallucination. People just erupted into a frenzy.“ Machi responded to Bonni. Solenne gave Apricot a knowing smile. The blush that Apricot wore on her face diminished as she realized Solenne could not be lied to anymore. That, for some reason, made her feel comforted.
“Girls, girls, does it really matter?” Sato said, attempting to diffuse the situation.
“Shut up, Sato!” the two yelled at him together.
“Well, that is something they agree on.” Apricot laughed.
Sato rubbed his head, smirking. “So what do you say we go to a late-night movie?”
From the other side of the street, Hunter gave a slight nod to her and then climbed into the shadows of an ally. A smile appeared on Apricot’s face. “Sorry Sato, but I got a night shift again; clean up duty. You know how it is.”
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