Valentine

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  1. Galatea lay in her bed in silence. She just wanted to rest and cease the endless cascade of thoughts her mind assaulted her with, but she found herself unable to focus on the little noises and sensations around her. The bed felt strange to her. It was cushioned, not hard like the beds of Skaa. It wasn't the first time she'd laid in a 'soft' bed before, but she never could get used to them, they made her squirm. Galatea wished this had been the first time she'd experienced a soft bed. She heard the quiet chirping of insects outside. The chatter of her hosts in the next room. It wasn't the noises she could recognise that were the problem - it was all the noises and sensations she couldn't understand without her eyes to explain their sources. She heard something barking in the distance. A scraping noise beneath the floor. She felt as though the bed was swallowing her. She felt stiff and awkward and--
    "Enough of this..." She muttered to herself, and kicked off the layered covers and got out of bed. Galatea then collapsed onto the floor, laid down on her side and pulled one of the covers over herself, disappearing beneath the sheet. The floor was hard, the breeze wafting through the floorboards was cold, but these things were familiar to her. She fell asleep, wondering what would happen in the following hours, never mind the coming days - if she lived that long.

    She woke with a start. Something had her. Her nose and lips curled into a snarl as she shoved the attacker away from her. "Wake up!" 
    "What?!" Galatea tried to focus but she couldn't see. The sun had yet to rise and-- no. She was awake now, and remembered swiftly - she was blind. "What's happening?" She asked the room, as fingers released her arm and she drew herself into the corner and drew the cover over herself defensively. 
    "We're leaving." said Ranette, who was standing by Galatea's bed. "It should be fairly safe but we need to move quickly all the same."
    "Oh--" Galatea stood and let the cover fall away, she was dressed in the same rags she was always in, they covered her body - mostly - beyond that, she didn't care for clothes and finery the way she saw the nobles covet them. She just wanted her freedom. "Okay. Ranette, will you do something for me?"
    "You want a favour right now?" Ranette asked, raising her eyebrow at Galatea and smirking, "Honey, we're about to sneak you out of the city, I haven't got time for errands."
    "It'll only take a moment." Galatea clarified, her arms reached out as she probed the room for Ranette's shoulder. As she found it, she held it tightly and leaned in close, "Actually... maybe you're right. Leave me, and i'll prepare for the journey."

    "That's alright." Ranette replied, giving Galatea's left hand a gentle squeeze, "You've got a few minutes to gather yourself before Raze comes for you anyway. Most of us will be leaving through the gate but they're looking for you and the others from the execution. Raze is carrying them over the walls discreetly, he'll be back for you soon though."
    "Alright." Galatea gave Ranette a quick nod and waited as the girl left. The door closed shut behind her. Smirking, Galatea turned her right arm over, revealing the vial she had pick-pocketed, held in the cradle of her middle finger. She considered the vial for a moment, after all, Ranette had said if she drank it and couldn't utilise its contents, she could die.
    "I have to know..." Galatea whispered to herself, uncorking the vial with a squeaking 'pop'. She downed the liquid contents of the vial. It tasted bitter and metallic - of course it did - but she buried her distaste and felt the last of the liquid passing her lips.

    For a fleeting, frightening moment, there was nothing. 

    Then there was fire. Electricity. Power. Surging up through her body. She could barely contain herself. Her strength had returned and it felt as though it had been amplified ten-fold. It was familiar to her, like a guiding hand, on those days when she thought she could go no further, when she was ready to give up, somehow, something was burning. This was it. This was the strength she knew. The fire was hers now. She knew that in the instant the metals burned in her stomach. Galatea tried to compose herself. She took one long breath and let it out slowly, focusing on what she wanted to do next.
    "Raze." She spoke his name aloud, then left her room in search of him. As she walked out she heard multiple, panicked voices, clattering and all manner of objects hitting the floor in front of her. "Raze!!" She yelled his name as loudly as she could manage before her voice went hoarse. "Raze!!" She called again, stepping over something - then she froze. She just stepped over something? How had she known it was there? She turned around and somehow, she knew there was something just-- she picked it up. It was a small wooden cup, with metal studs along it's upper lip. "Interesting..."

    "What in the Lord Ruler is going on!?" Ranette called angrily as she stormed up to Galatea, "Are you trying to blow our cover!?" She looked geared up to chew up Galatea and spit her out when there was a rustling of curtains, followed by footsteps as a shadow climbed through an open window and strode into the room with graceful speed. Raze lifted his head and revealed his face under the hood of his mistcloak. "I didn't even need to burn tin to hear that, what's the big idea, hm?" He raised his brow expectantly, he didn't look angry but his lips had formed a tight line, and there was a slight twitch at the corner of his eye.
    "I had to try..." Galatea muttered, but she felt dizzy, it felt like a dozen different sensations were pulling at her at once. The metals in the vial had renewed her as though she'd just slept. She was stronger than she ever felt before. She felt as though she could see shadows moving around the room, the faintest outline of certain things. Something was coming towards her but she couldn't focus on it. But somehow, she knew it was Raze. "What?" She asked, unable to know his expression.
    "Try...you?" Raze turned his gaze on Ranette, who patted at her pockets and then scowled at Galatea.
    "She pick pocketed me!" Ranette said.
    "Impressive. Glad we found her before the thieving crews did." Raze said with a wolfish grin, as he gave Ranette a comforting tap on the shoulder. Then he paused on Galatea for a moment. "You're not burning anyth-" he cut himself off, his expression curious, "Unless you're burning copper which...but you said..." the wheels kept turning in his head, until finally realization arrived in the form of an excited grin. "She's Mistborn."

    The deafening ringing in her ears, drowning everything out, couldn't stop her from hearing that one word. Mistborn. She didn't understand what that meant. Not really. But she knew it meant one thing - a better life than what she'd had. That was all she could ask for. She held up the wooden cup with metal studs and held it aloft. "Show me...?" She asked. Then she focused deep within her, searching. She felt a tingling in her fingers, spreading out across her hands and through her body and she knew.
    Galatea crushed the cup, sending a hail of splintered shards onto the floor. She smirked, "Show me." She wasn't asking.
    Raze's eyes went from Galatea, the the remains of the cup, and finally to Ranette, who looked a mixture of awed and annoyed. Raze cocked his head to the side and gaze a little shrug. "I suppose I could-"
    "No!" Ranette snapped, "Raze we're trying to get out of the city this isn't the time to go flying around with a girl who doesn't even know how to control her allomancy!"
    "I was going to have to fly her over the city anyway, but now she could actually learn something in the process."
    "I don't have a spare mistcloak for her-"
    "A regular cloak will do." Raze replied with a smirk.

    "This is the perfect time to increase the strength of this group." Galatea added, lacking Raze's smirk but the sentiment was the same.
    "What's first?" She asked, eagerly awaiting instruction in what had once been the power of her Master, and would now be her own. She vowed she would return to the fields of her former Master and free her friends and fellow Skaa.
    "We need to leave the city, but I can give you a taste along the way." Raze replied. He moved around the room picking up a few things and then returned to Galatea. He handed her a hooded cloak and a belt with a thick, metal buckle. "Put these on. And stop burning your metals for now."
    "I don't like this, Raze." Ranette said disapprovingly, but she sighed in resignation. "But, you're the only one who can sneak Galatea out easily. So I suppose I should wish you luck."

    "Ranette, I know very little of allomancy. Until I met you all, I wasn't even sure it truly existed." She held her hands up before the girl, "But now I have those powers... And I should think I could have been given no better luck than that." Then she walked forwards and stood just before Raze. Galatea stopped burning her metals and she reflexively jerked as she realised she'd been seeing the world in a kind of Twilight darkness. Only the faintest lines were shown to her but now it was gone and she could no longer take a confident step.
    "Let's go." Galatea nodded to Raze. She was ready. She had no idea what was ahead. But she would be ready for it. Somehow.

    "Hold on tight." Raze said as he took hold of Galatea and led her to the window where he had entered from. "Don't keep Mraine waiting, you know he get's grumpy when we don't run on schedule." He said to Ranette. 
    "Yeah, like he isn't perpetually grumpy..." Ranette said, but she smiled softly and made her way down to the lower floor of the tavern. Then before Galatea could open her mouth to speak again, he had pulled both of them out of the window, carrying Galatea with the same minimal effort as before. Then they shot into the sky as he pushed off against coins. They soared up and disappeared into the mists, Raze didn't stop to sprint the rooftops but moved them through the air in arcing leaps enhanced by allomantic pushes, the coins returning to him with every ascent. 

    Finally they landed on solid ground again on a flat roof with a thick stone ledge. Raze released Galatea and stepped back, giving her some space. He looked around them, still grinning slightly. "It's a pity you can't see it all...you probably don't comprehend the importance of what you are...what you can do." His gaze fell on her and he gave her a soft smile. "Even among the nobility the mistborn are free. We wear the mistcloaks to hide in the mist, but also as a symbol to those who might see us. City guards see a mistcloak and know to stay out of our way. Well, perhaps not tonight actually, considering a mistborn just released skaa criminals." He shrugged, the mists curling around his feet in little, reaching tendrils and curls. "Many of the skaa fear the mist. Do you?"
    "I know that I... When I was a child, the oldest of us said the mists were dangerous. That the mist could reach out and take your very soul, and then return to the village as a shade... That tale gave me nightmares for weeks. But I was also an unruly child, which often earned me a lashing, and worse. One such punishment I earned after staying in town too long until the mists rolled in and I got lost on my way home. I was terrified. Then something came for me. But suddenly it was dead or gone, as this woman with lights in her eyes appeared. She told me how to get home and then vanished. I felt better then." Galatea paused and reflected on that experience, "Perhaps, as a Mistborn, I am not scared."
    Raze's expression seemed a little disbelieving about the comment of the woman with lights in her eyes. "Well you don't have to fear the mists, as a mistborn they are your ally. They keep you hidden." He explained. "Now...the vial you swallowed had eight different metals inside. I want you to burn one and tell me what happens."

    "I'm... I only know what one does." Galatea replied, recalling her familiar strength amplified tenfold, "I remember being strong..." And she burned that feeling of strength.
    "Pewter." Raze confirmed, "It increases your strength, speed, endurance, and you can heal quickly from wounds that could kill you." He paused a moment and then decided to clarify further, "Not so quickly that you should be fearless of taking damage."
    "I can't allow fear to control me." Galatea replied and then reached inside and burned another metal.
    "Ah--!!" She gasped, "I can use this to see, something... Light noise I can barely see. Like a whisp of mist." But she touched her temples with her knuckle, "Ugh..."
    "That sounds like tin." Raze said, "It heightens your senses. It can be useful for seeing in the dark, although perhaps not so much for you. It's also good for listening, spying on conversations, listening for people close by so you can stay hidden. Mistings who burn tin are called tineyes, and pewter mistings are called thugs."
    "There's a lot of noise, it makes my head ache..." Galatea clutched at her temple and reflexively withdrew from this feeling. The noise dampened, and her world was cast into blackness once again. The darkness scared her, but she would adapt.

    "Tin is a slow burning metal, so you should try to use it whenever necessary." Raze continued, "There are always consequences, of course, but I'll teach you the specifics another time. Tin helps you stay alert to your surroundings and can be vitally important. Our spy network relies heavily on tineye scouts and smokers running safe houses. Turn it off for now though, and burn one of the others."
    Tin. Pewter. 6 others. Galatea reached out, she felt two of the familiar strands, the sensations that Tin and Pewter gave her. Pewter was familiar to her like the back of her hand. She knew it better than she realised. The strength she felt from it was easy to understand and control. Tin was new to her, however. It made her head swim, but its uses were immediately obvious. Now, another...

    Galatea reached inside to grab another thread of power that seemed to float within her. She tugged at it, and felt it tug back. That was strange. She pulled harder at it and it seemed to unravel inside her and explore outwards. The threads fanned out as she pulled, she realised then she was pulling on something in front of her. She felt an invisible line stretching out from her to this object. Galatea touched the thread inside her and suddenly the object catapulted towards her. Knowing it was coming at her, made her natural reflexes kick in. Galatea deftly dodged to one side as an old, dust-covered coin whipped past her head. 

    "Ah, Iron." Raze said with a chuckle. He reached out with his hands and pulled the coin back towards him and into his waiting hand. "When it comes to allomantic metals, they come in pairs. There are four external arts, or pushing arts. Then there are four internal arts, or pulling arts. Pewter is an external pushing art, I know that might be hard to imagine but when you think of it's counterpart, tin, which is internal pulling, then you can understand where this idea comes from. When it comes to Iron and Steel, the pushing and pulling is quite literal." To further illustrate his point Raze pulled on Galatea's belt and dragged her forward slightly. "Iron allows you to pull on metal sources around you. The blue lines normally overlay your vision, but the lines are in your mind. So you should be able to see them to a fashion, even without sight."

    "Everything inside me feels like a great thread." Galatea's laugh held no warmth, "Making dresses, hemming socks... One of the few things I could do in peace. It wasn't working in the fields. Or time spent with the Master..." Funny the way the mind works. This power that felt like a tapestry. She could pull at the individual strings, yet the tapestry seemed endless as she used the strings of power to navigate the world around her. That gave her an idea. But it would take time and practice. She reached out and pulled at another thread, and she had guessed right - this, was Steel. She knocked the coin from Raze's hand but then pulled on her Iron thread, directing it at the coin that was tumbling to the ground and it whipped back towards her. She could see it! She snatched out for the coin and lurched as the metal struck her in the shoulder and she hit the ground. "Ouch!!" She grit her teeth and reached up to feel her shoulder. Galatea couldn't see the brilliant shades of pink, purple and yellow her shoulder was already turning, but she felt the pain. The tender flesh. "Okay, maybe not..." Back on her feet, "That was dangerous."

    "Burning pewter will dull the pain." Raze suggested with a smirk. "Of all the metals I think steel and iron are the ones that can most likely kill you if you aren't careful. There are two main factors; weight and balance." Raze started pushing on Galatea's belt, a measured push that only pushed her back slowly, edging her towards the end of the roof. "If I push a metal that weighs less than me, then it will be pushed forward, but the weight of what the metal is attached to also matters. Right now my weight is more than yours and your belt combined, and so you are being pushed back..." Raze dropped a coin and pushed himself into the air, then he arced until he was directly above Galatea, and once more he pushed on her belt, sending her to the ground with the force, but then he started to rise higher and higher. Finally he relented, letting himself fall back to the ground, reducing his fall with pushes until he landed softly. "If you push something that weighs more than you then you get pushed." He took Galatea's hand and helped her back to her feet. "The same is true for pulls, if you pull metal heavier than you then you will be pulled toward it. Furthermore, you can only push or pull in one direction out from yourself. Therefore, being a successful coinshot, or a lurcher, is all about balance and weight. It also requires keen awareness of the area, and using your environment to your advantage. Never get yourself in a raw pushing match with someone, Galatea. You won't find many opponents that weigh less than you."

    Her mind was racing with the possibilities. All hampered by her recent loss of sight. She would have to change... change everything. She would have to learn to explore and understand the world again, both with and without her powers, if she was not to be weakened. But she also knew, that with the loss of her sight, there would come certain advantages.
    "So you can push yourself into the air, because the coin on the ground, cannot be pushed into the ground easier than you can be pushed into the air. Is that correct?" Galatea asked, reflecting on everything he'd spoken of so far. Nothing seemed beyond her.
    "Precisely." Raze replied. "So we have 4 metals left now. Zinc and Brass mistings are called rioters and soothers. They are the two emotional allomantic powers, zinc allows you to riot a person's emotions, while brass allows you to soothe them away."
    "Yes, I know those two, already..." Galatea replied coarsely, then felt the ground with her bare feet, "What are we standing on?" The ground was bumpy, hard and slanted down. "Look, as much as I want your instruction. This seems like a poor time for it. I will have to use what I can, and learn the rest as we go." As she spoke, she heard the sound of footsteps. She searched back for the Tin thread and burned. Suddenly, the footsteps turned to loud marching. She could hear at least three sets of feet, but despite the speed of their step, they were quite quiet. "Someone's coming!!" She whispered to Raze and readied herself for anything.


  2. Blinded by the light as the bag was yanked from her head. Voices everywhere. Hands reaching for her, grabbing her. She wanted to scream and kick and bite and lash out but realised her arms were bound behind her and her mouth had been gagged. She choked as she felt the moist fabric on her tongue and teared up. She looked out for a friendly face, but none seemed concerned. In fact, they were assessing her thoughtfully.
    "I'll give you, say, 20 boxings for her?" One man asked. 
    "She's worth 30!" Another responded. She tried to focus on what was happening but she felt like she had been drugged. Things moved in front of her, hands explored her body, she wanted to scream and bite and flee but she could do none of these things.
    "...25... and not a boxing more." She felt the presence of a tall, muscular man, a shadow came over her. "You'll make up for that, won't you...?" Calloused hands gripped her chin and then thrust it aside, and darkness enveloped her once more.

    "What's your name?"
    She told him. He didn't like that. He had been asking ever since she'd arrived 2 weeks ago. There were lots of things the Master didn't like, though. If it wasn't this, it would be something else. So did it matter? He asked her again, and she told him. That made his anger all the more pure. The whip sliced across her flesh once again and she screamed out.
    "What's your name?!" The Master was foaming at the mouth, it was rare he took the whip into his own hands, but his workers knew better than to question it.
    She tried to open her mouth to speak, she felt spit pour out and splash onto her legs and the ground beneath her, only she looked down to see it was blood, not spit, that was now splattered across the barn. At last, through laboured breathing, she spoke her name.
    "I'm... m-my... n-name..." She dared not look up at him, "... is... Galatea."
    "T-That's right!" The Master beamed in disbelief, "I'm glad to see we're learning at last... Galatea." Then a sharp pain in her temple.

    "You can't keep this up..." The old Skaa, a woman by the name of Tress, shook her head in disbelief and frustration. But Galatea refused to listen, as always. "The Master will kill you next time!"
    "The Master likes my company, now are you going to help me or not?" Galatea gestured at her right leg, a thick, deep wound had sliced it open. It lay between dozens of other wounds, albeit they had healed and now shone white against her tan skin. Her arms and legs were covered in scars, as was her back, but never her face.
    "You be careful he doesn't tire of it..." Tress muttered, reaching for a poultice.
    "I learned to bite my tongue, didn't I?" Galatea retorted. 
    "Oh yes, you've broken on the outside, sweetheart, but it's going to take years for you to understand you are never going to leave here."
    "I'll get out one day..." Galatea growled, wincing as Tress applied a thick paste to her wound.

    "Wake up! Galatea, wake up!!" 
    The voice was immediately familiar. It was her best friend, Lariot. Galatea had been on this farm since she was 11. At 26, it was all she knew. 2 years after she arrived, Lariot came to the farm. She was smaller and scrawnier than Galatea. She was a little more boy-ish, and had to have been grateful for the lack of attention the Master paid her. The two girls soon became close friends, as Galatea had a habit of getting into trouble, and Lariot had a knack for getting her out of it, and now Lariot was saving her, again.
    "W-what?!" Galatea groaned, sitting upright. She pulled at the iron collar snugly around her neck, and pushed a finger inside her matching shackles to give her wrists a moment's relief from the pain. The instant she arrived on the farm and was given her iron collar, she had been weakened, and it had only gotten worse over the years. There was no fight left in her.
    "Galatea, move it!" Lariot was running from their hiding spot as two men in armour marched down towards the barn. The doors crashed open and the two men stepped inside, looking Galatea up and down, giving her the same look the men at the slave market had given her all those years ago. It didn't help that the Master kept her in rags. It hardly allowed her to keep her modesty. She marched past the two men, and up towards the Master's house, she knew why she was being called for. It was no different than any other day.

    But it was. Galatea just didn't know it yet.

    As she entered the room, she saw the Master. His bloated belly arcing over the bed like a mountain. She could smell the strange, exotic spices and perfumes that lingered in the room. She could also smell food being cooked in the next room. She was so hungry. She could feel her ribs as she clutched at her stomach. 
    "Come here, Galatea..." The Master beckoned. She couldn't refuse, no matter how badly she wanted to eat.
    "Yes, Master," She nodded politely to him, as he'd shown her how to bow like a noble woman. Though she wasn't very good at it. 
    "Mm, bring me that fruit there," He nodded at the bulbous, round, fleshy grey thing sat on the table beside his bed. There was also a small, sharp knife beside it. "Yes, that one. And the knife, as well. Hurry up, girl! Or i'll tan your hide before our night's dancing!!" Galatea grabbed the fruit in one hand, the knife in the other and walked back to the bed. Before she could hand the Master the two items, however, he grabbed her and pulled her on top of him. "There, that's better!" 
    Anger welled up inside her, she wanted to lash out, but she couldn't. She couldn't access the anger, she wanted to, she was desperate to. She focused and pictured herself lunging for the knife. But as her concentration increased, she started to feel different. At first, she didn't know what it was, but then she realised. This was strength!

    "Get off me, you unwieldy whore, why are you so heavy all of a--" The Master looked up at her eyes and panic set in. For a moment, he knew he was trapped, and there was nothing he could do. His face held a kind of serenity, before it was caved in with a single punch. Galatea struck again, chunks of blood, brains and viscera flew everywhere. She hit again, and again, until there was nothing left. Dripping in blood, she got off the now extremely dead Master, and leaned forwards. Picking up the fruit, she grabbed the knife beside it and began peeling the fruit ever so carefully. A few seconds later, as she was slipping the last sliver of fruit into her ravenous lips, the room filled with the Master's guard. She tried to fight them off, killed a couple of them, but then one of them got a lucky hit, cleaved right through her face. The attack took the use of her eyes, and would leave a terrible scar, but she didn't scream, despite the pain, she lay quietly on the ground, cradling her face, as she knew she would not be long for this world. And that was okay.

    "--Skaa found to be rebellious, have broken the law in multiple counts, including but not limited to theft, conspiracy, plotting, loitering and murder. Have been found guilty and in accordance with the laws of the Lord Ruler are to be put to death." Galatea heard their voices, smelled the rancid stench of the crowd, but that was all. Bloody bandages wrapped around her eyes. They did little but staunch the blood flow for long enough that she may be hung for her crimes. She felt a noose roughly fall around her neck and tighten. She heard the man addressing the crowd explain to them how happy they should be, and that we would soon pay for our crimes and be forgiven in the eyes of the Lord Ruler. Was that really how it worked? She wondered. Then she heard chaos once more. Panic seemed to slip through the crowd. But it didn't last...


  3. Bloodlines

     

    Dotonbori is a strangely unique place in Osaka, perhaps even in all of Japan. You might call it a bit of a tourist trap, what with it's colourful lights, luring you like a moth to a flame. Or perhaps it's incredible selection of restaurants and street food that make it a foodie's dream destination. Dotonbori's night life is equally popular, and it's slim backstreets are often fit to bursting with locals and tourists keen to experience the neon highlight of Osaka.

    None of them expect to die here.

     

    Soma Ramen was a small place. It was out of the way. Positioned directly beside the canal, but away from the majority of the hustle and bustle. A few tables and chairs sat outside, just so you could appreciate your meal, or a hot cup of coffee, beside the water. As you enter, the door's bell jingles. It's usually quiet inside. A small place like Soma Ramen exists mostly on the custom of regulars and the occasional lost tourist. It was warmly lit inside, though sparsely. Tables and chairs lined one side of the room, a bar on the other, and behind the bar a door led back into a kitchen, occupied by a single person. The manager, owner and chef - Soma Mitsuko. Mitsuko was in her late 20's, she was tall and slender though her clothes hung off her as though she wore a size or two too large. She wore a white tank top and a baggy black zip hoodie with the sleeves rolled up. Her arms were covered in black and grey tattoos and she was pierced in multiple places. Most obviously, a couple of black bands on her right ear, studs in her ears and another on the side of her nose. She had long, black hair, partially tied in a ponytail. Shaved on one side of her head, while her hair cascaded free down to her collar bone. She knew that she was... unusual, in appearance, but Dotonbori had many characters stranger than her.

    Her attention lazily refocused upon one of only two customers in her restaurant. Noodles slipped between lips and disappeared into a void.
    "Delicious, as always, Soma-sama!" A plump, middle-aged man exclaimed. His chopsticks clutched a thick bundle of noodles and brought them to their end while she watched with little reaction. As he finished his bowl with a sigh, he looked up and she blinked and smiled at him, closing her eyes a little and chuckling. The man smiled in return, happy that his hunger had been alleviated, then he left. The bell jingled and Mitsuko released a quiet sigh. Her smile vanished as she wiped her dishwater-covered hands clean and quietly placed the cloth down on the counter.

    She felt it. Hunger. She knew it better than most. Hunger never surprised her. It was inevitable. His hunger would be sated by her death, at least for a time. But she was disinclined to allow him that satisfaction. Even if it also meant an end for her own special brand of hunger. She yanked her head out of the way as something crashed into the counter beside her, sending wood and debris flying everywhere. She barely moved, but it was enough.

    Allowing herself the most fleeting of glances, she saw her assailant's weapon, through eyes that had turned entirely black, revealing her true nature. 
    The weapon was like an enormous sword, only it had no edge. It was like a blunt slab of metal with a long handle. It seemed, she thought to herself, they're getting smarter. But, as she also reminded herself, smarter than cattle wasn't enough. The metal slab lifted from the crushed counter top and withdrew as the man who had been quietly sitting in the corner, a customer like any other, had now assumed the role of her attacker. From a coffee to a claymore in an instant - the shift, that is, as she didn't buy into the instant coffee fad. Screaming, the man pulled back his weapon and raised it above his head, ready to attack a second time, but she couldn't allow that. He'd already ruined her counter. Faster than the man could entirely follow, Mitsuko crossed the restaurant floor at a sprint. She moved gracefully, avoiding the tables and chairs until the last second, at which point she kicked a chair at the man with such force that when it hit him, it knocked the length of metal from his hands. His eyes screamed before it could reach his mouth, at which point his head separated from his shoulders and landed with a heavy thud upon the black-tiled floor. Blood splattered her face and clothes and the standing corpse collapsed as a puppet suddenly sans it's strings.

    Mitsuko straightened up, licked the blood from her fingers and heard the familiar jingle of her door's bell. Turning, she saw the plump customer from just moments before. It seemed he hadn't gotten far enough away to have missed the sound of her fight. He was stood, frozen in the doorway. She knew it would be maybe another second or two, and then confusion would turn to horror. Panic and self-preservation would have him call for someone, not because he wanted necessarily to hurt her, but because he did not wish to be hurt. Thoughts of hatred and fear of what she was would come later, when his brain wasn't screaming at him to run away as fast as his pudgy feet would carry him.
    "Thank you for your custom, please excuse me, the mess..." She apologised, a smile renewed on her face, just for him. He blinked, and it was enough. He joined her would-be-assailant on the tiled floor. "What a mess..." She muttered to herself, the smile she had used like a mask, vanished and with it, any semblance of humanity.

    But do ghouls have 'humanity'? Do humans? She wondered sometimes. The humans hate us so much, but are we not just animals as they are? We must eat to survive, just as they. But they kill one another over nothing. They rape and steal and hate and betray. But i'm a monster? Mitsuko asked herself, looking at her hand, tinted pink with the blood she'd licked clean. The black tiles were turning red all around her, rousing Mitsuko from her thoughts.
    "Mop..." She said to herself, and got to work.

    An hour later Soma Ramen was open for business again. A couple of familiar faces smiled and greeted her as she turned the door sign around to 'We're open! :3", then she followed them inside. She turned the big-screen TV on in the far corner opposite the bar. It was an old thing, and the buttons didn't always work, but she didn't really care and it never seemed to bother the customers. Two bodies immediately flashed on screen, they were mid-conversation. The news. That's what humans called it. They repeat information that was handed to them, to others, and then the humans accept it as part of their reality.
    "--other news," The anchorman continued, glancing at his colleague with a grim expression. She couldn't know what this expression meant other than it was a kind of sadness. He was letting her know he was going to say something upsetting. "--2 found dead and partially consumed in Dotonbori--" Mitsuko was trying to listen, but she was having trouble focusing. His expression was distracting her, as it was sad, but his mouth was flat and thin, and his eyes were dull. He wasn't sad at all. He wanted her to think he was sad. Mitsuko found herself curiously pleased at the reminder of a curious thought she'd had more than once in the past. The concept that humans wear masks upon masks, while she only one.

    "Dreadful! Another ghoul attack I expect, in my--!!" An old lady snapped, as she shuffled into her booth. The man silently slid into the opposite side and started taking his scarf off even as the woman continued to yap in a most loud and unnecessary fashion. She studied him carefully and knew this was not unusual behaviour for his partner. Yet, there was something underneath it? He was content to listen. He didn't mind. Interesting, she thought. Something to mull over later. The couple just wanted coffee from her and continued watching the news, and unfortunately, she found herself just as transfixed by the story the anchor was weaving. He told them that with 2 dead in a likely ghoul attack, it would be the first reported incident in over a month in the Dotonbori area. Then he asked them a question they could not possibly answer. It was phrased to scare them. "Could this mean a return to similar levels of ghoul-related incidents in the rest of Osaka?"

    Fear-mongering. Mitsuko had used such a tactic herself, she had worked hard to keep incidents as low as possible. The more the government focused on other districts of Osaka, the less they would interfere with her home territory. It worked, because she knew how ghouls thought. Humans were still very much a mystery to her, despite her attempts at understanding them. But she needed only know that killing a ghoul whenever it's own kill was spread across the human's media, would show ghouls that hunting in this area was likely more dangerous than others, and so they would leave or kill and clean up after themselves. And so, presumably, without high numbers of deaths, the humans would leave them be.

    It seemed that time had come to an end. With an attack on her life from what could only have been one of the government's ghoul killers. Ghouls didn't use weapons like humans. That big chunk of metal had a purpose. Their bodies were tough, tough enough to stop a blade. Conventional weapons were mostly useless against them. So the government had started equipping officers with a variety of weapons intended to cause pain and break bones through impact, which could be enough to subdue a ghoul long enough for them to kill it. It wasn't the first one she'd seen, but they were getting better with them. It was lighter than the ones that came before it, but not much smaller. Was that then made of titanium? Mitsuko pulled herself from the television and quietly walked behind her bar and checked behind a loose backing. There it was, the bone-breaker blade. She pulled a nail - which was not unlike a thick claw - across the metal. Just a scratch. Yes, titanium. Or something stronger. Mitsuko stood back up and saw what she was expecting, the old woman, though the woman herself seemed surprised that Mitsuko wasn't thrown by her sudden appearance. Despite what had happened earlier, or perhaps all the more because of it, she could never take any chances. She might be old, she might not throw her weight around and so she just walks quietly, but she was still a potential threat.
    "Boo!" The old woman snapped, and then smirked to herself, though her face turned sour once more upon seeing a lack of reaction from her. "Hey, waitress, you seen that couple up there on the news? I can't believe you run this place all on your own, y'know, and we're your customers and we're old, so...!!"
    "We're real old..." The real old man grumbled to himself from back in his stall.
    "We can't be expected to protect ourselves from monsters!" The old woman looked indignant. What was she upset about? Was she upset because they might, maybe, die? Wasn't that a certainty? Mitsuko saw the sour look on the old woman's face deepening. She had to correct this. 
    "Oh I know!" Mitsuko said affirmatively, nodding. No? "I completely agree." The woman still looked upset. Mitsuko added a smile but the woman still looked pained. What was she missing? Ah, of course, the woman didn't want her to agree with her, she wanted her to be upset for her. Mitsuko lost the smile and let the corners of her mouth droop just a touch and closed her eyelids slightly. It felt like juggling. Luckily, she could catch knives like this with practice. "It's so hard for you..." She pulled out the master class. She turned back to a smile but dialled it to 11, scrunching her face up as hard as she could and let her voice quiver, "I'll do better! I'll hire someone on!!" 
    "O-Oh--" The old woman was instantly disarmed, unsure what she'd triggered. Then she reflexively started patting Mitsuko and encouraged her into an embrace. Then Mitsuko slowed her crying into silence and stared off into space. Now was a good time for idle thoughts. She had a few minutes to kill. Humans liked touching. Not just their partner, but anyone who will let them. So now she had to hire a pair of hands she didn't really need, when she struggled enough already with paying the bills. But, that was just another cost of her blending in as much as she did. She was just trying to survive. At any cost. So why then did that girl...? Mitsuko couldn't dwell on years-old memories though, as the door jingled once more and a scruffy-looking man stepped inside. She knew the moment he stepped inside. He wasn't human. But he wasn't a ghoul either. He was something... else. Also, he needed a bath.


  4. OOC: Private RP between Kyo and me.


     

    HEROES

     

    "Zoe King if you don't get your butt in gear you're gonna be late for highschool!"

    That was mom. The clock read 8:40am. The alarm had been ringing for a while longer than that. Zoe leaned over and turned it off. Silence, at last. Zoe let out a sigh and fell back onto her bed, knocking some comics to the ground in the process. Though it didn't matter much. Clothes, comics and general mess covered most of her floor and shelves. Her walls were covered in posters of heroes. Men and women she'd grown up watching save the world time and again. To say she was a fan, was more than a slight understatement. They amazed her.

    Ant-Man. Captain America. Ms. Marvel. Black Panther. Spider-Man. Wasp. Iron Man.

    Each poster reminded her of the incredible feats that the Avengers had accomplished. She even had their action figures. Well, most of them, anyway. Her kid sister, Ruby, had gnawed Hulk's head off, then fallen in love with the headless Hulk, so that was in her sister's room, but still.

    "Zoe if you're not downstairs in 5 minutes you'll wish you were dead!"

    She sat bolt upright and blew a few strands of her shoulder-length black hair out of her green eyes. It was time for school. As she crept down the stairs, she saw her mom was putting breakfast on the table. Ruby was sat, focused on the toast soldier she was dunking in her runny egg. Zoe was almost at the bottom of the stairs, and her mom was none-the-wiser. Her foot touched the second to last step, and it let loose a loud creak.
    "Good, you're up!" Her mom beamed, "Toast on the table. Go, go!"
    "Stupid step." Zoe muttered, then darted into the kitchen and grabbed a slice of toast. "Morning, mom."
    "Not for much longer it's not." Her mother retorted. Zoe looked at her watch, it was 8:47am. What was she on about?
    "I won't be late, mom. I promise." Zoe said, stuffing toast in her face. She finished up, gave her sister a kiss on the cheek and started to leave. Something wet struck her in the back. "Eugh!" She wriggled in discomfort at the wet patch that was soaking through her plain red shirt. She didn't need to look to know what was on her back. She figured it out based on her sister's delighted laughter. A drowned soldier. 

    "Oh, for goodness sake..." Her mother chided her sister, then turned on her, "Go change and be quick, you've got 10 minutes to get to school!"
    "I'll change on the way, mom! I've got a spare shirt in my bag, i'll see you later!" Zoe was quick to leave before her mother could reply. Closing the front door behind her, she took a moment to appreciate the lively vibe of the street she'd grown up on in Queens. Kids were leaving for school, dog-walkers were out in force and an ice cream van drove slowly by as it was a hot, hot day. New York was a big place, but anywhere you wanted to go, a yellow taxi could get you there. Though, she preferred walking.

    Darting into the first quiet alley she saw, she changed out of her soiled red t-shirt into a black Pink Floyd top then pulled a red leather jacket out of her bag and a pair of biker goggles. Putting them both on, she let the goggles rest on the top of her head for a moment as she stretched, flexing her muscles. Bag zipped shut, check. Got your homework, check. She glanced at her watch again, it now said 8:57am.
    "Uh-oh!" Zoe  quickly pulled the goggles over her eyes and grinned, "Maximum effort."

    As she ran forwards, Zoe's speed exploded. She was a red blur. Zoe was out of the alley and shooting through the streets of Queens at the speed of lightning. Dashing through the early morning traffic, she made a beeline through the blocks towards Queens Metropolitan High School. Mid-step she glanced at her watch. 8:58am. Good, she was making excellent time. It never took her more than a minute to get to school. She spotted a coffee shop and came to a stop, the world was still moving at a snail's pace for her. She saw two people who had bumped into each other and were slowly, very slowly, beginning to fall in front of the entrance. Shooting forwards, she grabbed the man and gently moved him back a step then put his flying coffee back in his hand. She darted to the other man and took the open newspaper from his hands - likely the reason they'd knocked into each other in the first place - folded it, and put it under his arm. Then she moved him out of the way and shot into the coffee shop. In a flash, she'd made herself a coffee and grabbed two doughnuts, leaving the correct change behind. The girl behind the counter was mid-blow on her bubblegum, the large pink bubble obscuring most of her face. Zoe grinned, leaned forwards and shoved a finger through it. The bubble perforated and began it's - at least to her - excruciatingly slow deflation. Zoe dashed back outside, put a doughnut in the newspaper man's hand, nodded to herself with satisfaction and shot on. The bubblegum bubble burst. The change rattled on the counter. The two men stared at each other in confusion. And everyone went about their day.

    She was almost at her school. 8:59am. Time was on her side. But that wasn't enough. As she ran, she shot around a corner and came across another scene unfolding. But this one was a little more serious. Two men, their faces obscured by balaclavas, were mid-robbery of a convenience store. One of them had his hand on the door handle of his car, while the other was turning back as the store owner ran out after them. He had his gun aimed at the store owner, and he'd pulled the trigger already. Zoe watched as a mushroom cloud blew out of the pistol and a bullet slowly cut through the air, directly on target. She was late, there was no time, but she'd have to make time.

    First, she ran to the man at the getaway car and looked him up and down. He wasn't holding a gun. She grabbed the hand he'd placed on the car door handle and swiftly pulled it up and away and gently pushed it into his cheek, "Boop!" She added, cheerily. Then she dashed over to the gunman and gently pulled the gun out of his hands, then gave him a little flick on the forehead. She started to run on, and then she realised she'd forgotten something. She turned and dashed over to the bullet, noting it was already halfway towards it's target and plucked it from the air. She threw the gun and fired bullet into the open window of a cop car that was driving towards the scene and shot on to school. The getaway driver knocked himself unconscious, the gunman flipped backwards over himself and hit the ground forcefully and the store owner blinked in surprise and felt over his chest. He'd heard the gun fire, but no bullet? Sirens. A few seconds later, the cops arrived.

    "I'm the boss, i'm the boss, i'm the boss..." Zoe chanted, trying to reassure herself. She was going to be on time this time. She flew through the last few streets, up the steps to her school, through the main double doors, and down the corridors, dashing past the last couple of students filing into their classrooms. One more corner and she was there. She came to an abrupt stop and put her hand on the handle, then tapped herself on the head.
    "Hello!" Zoe chided herself, pulling the goggles off and pocketing them, she stepped into a classroom full of seated students and a very angry looking teacher. "Uh..."
    "You're late, Ms. King!" The woman snapped.
    "Oooof course I am..." Dropping her shoulders in defeat, Zoe slumped into her chair to the background noise of the teacher explaining why, for the third time this week, she had detention. But that was alright, she told herself, at least she'd made a difference. She took a bite of her doughnut and delved into her textbook.

     


     

    School had been a drag. It consisted of a number of subjects that bored her, then she ate in the cafeteria by herself. She'd had a best friend, Amy. But then Amy moved to Colorado last summer, so here she was. Eating lunch by herself as usual. After lunch, a few more lessons and then the bell. What a relief! She was glad to be out of there. As usual, it didn't take her long to get home. But as she unlocked the front door and stepped into the entryway, her mother walked out to greet her. She had lipstick on. Her single mom. Lipstick?
    "Hi honey, come in, come in! You've got a guest!" Her mother had a wide smile plastered on her face.
    "Okay..." Zoe muttered, closing the door behind her. She walked through into the living room and then she saw him. Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. One of the founding members of the Avengers and one of her biggest heroes. She stared for a moment, her mouth moving but unable to speak. Tony Stark stood up and smirked.
    "Got a sec?" He asked, raising an eyebrow curiously. That was the last thing she remembered.

    "Honey...?" Zoe heard her mother speaking, asking if she was alright. She opened her eyes to see her mother standing over her.
    "It's fine, happens all the time." Tony added, "I'll wait in her room?" He started up the stairs.
    No! Zoe screamed in her head, panic spreading through her. She got to her feet and as her mother disappeared back into the living room, and used her superhuman speed to shoot up the stairs, carefully squeezing past Tony Stark - that was Iron Man - she reminded herself. Then rushed into her bedroom and like a whirlwind, she ran around picking up clothes, throwing them into the closet, shoving comics and mess under her bed and within a couple of seconds her room was sparkling clean. Then Tony walked in and whistled.

    "Well, look at this, huh?" He nodded at her walls and she frowned and turned to look at them. It was only then that it dawned on her that her room was covered in the memorabilia of superheroes and now one was in her room. He walked over to the far wall and glanced at each of the posters in turn.

    "No," He said, pointing at the poster of Thor, "No," He said, pointing at Captain America. He did this to a half-dozen superheroes in the Avengers. "No. Nope. No. No." Then he came upon a poster of Iron Man, "Yes. Obviously."
    "W-wh-do-you-I-If-you-wh--" Her words mushed as she tried to speak.
    "Right." Tony frowned at her, "Y'know honestly I had a couple of drinks with breakfast so I don't know if that was you or me..." He turned his attention to the figures she'd neatly placed on her shelves.
    "W-what are you doing.. h-here...?" Zoe managed after she collected herself.
    "Hey, look, he's got his little hammer and everything," Tony picked up her Thor figurine and started mimicking him, "I am vehemently opposed to manscaping!"
    "M-Mr. Stark?" Zoe asked again. A mixture of panic and wonder settling over her.
    "Hello? Right, yes, sure." Tony placed the Thor figurine back and then turned to face her, "I know you're a superhero --Don't faint!" He added quickly, as Zoe went pale.

    "B-but... how--I..." Zoe stuttered, then walked over to her bed and sat down.
    "Well it's sort of obvious, really, you're just..." Tony pulled out a phone-like device and held it up, it began projecting a series of videos that looked as though they'd been taken by satellite or something. She could see her house! Then she saw a red blur leave her house and then it came back. Then it left her house. Then it returned. And so on, over and over. Zoe was stunned into silence. "I can't explain any better, really. I don't have any art supplies and I left my puppets at home, so if you could just--"
    "Oh..."
    "--there it is." Tony smirked, pointing at her, "Hey, don't worry about it, kid. What's your secret identity? You've got one right? Like Speedy, or Lightning, or The Fla--"
    "--No, I don't. I haven't thought of a good name, I mean, i've been really busy and--"
    "--sure sure, school, teens, drama, angst, armed robbery-- that's great." Tony shrugged, "But don't you want to be better?"
    "W-what are you...?" Zoe couldn't think, she could barely talk.
    "The Avengers are always looking for new recruits." He said simply, shoving the device back into his pocket. "You're a little rough around the edges, but--"
    "Hey!" Zoe growled, coming to her senses, "What do you mean, 'rough around the edges'?!"
    "And you fainted. That was fun." Tony added, reaching into his jacket he pulled out a small folder.
    "Please don't tell anyone about that..." Zoe muttered, her cheeks turning pink, "Wait..." It finally dawned on her what he'd said, "The Avengers?" 
    "Sure just... give that a read." He placed the folder beside her on the bed. "And, when you've decided, pack your things, you'll be moving in with our other recruits." He started to leave and then flicked the collar of her red leather jacket, "Red. Nice." Then he walked out, leaving her sat on her bed in an empty room. The room that Tony Stark had been in just moments before but even now, as she still heard him walking down the stairs and apologising to her mother for going - and her repeated attempts to keep him from going - she still, even now, couldn't believe she'd just been talking to him. Zoe looked down at the folder he'd placed at her side. It was plain brown, with nothing on it but three words, 'The Avengers Initiative'.


  5. As the evening wore on, James offered the group to stay for the night. There was no good getting everything ready to fight ghosts in the dark, with half the group greatly fatigued from recent events. Plus, Violet thought to herself, it was nice staying in a home, with friends. Slowly but surely, each person excused themselves and went to bed. James and Jinx vanished first, then Meredith, Rachel and Vincent. Violet sat on the sofa in the living room, stretched and then finally walked up to her room and closed the bedroom door behind her. Violet shed her human outer shell, and as it disappeared she lifted into the air and floated over the top of her bed, crossing her legs as she sat hovering inches above the bed-sheets.
    "Can't sleep... but I can meditate..." She muttered to herself. Al had seen the darkness in her long before she ever had. While Vincent was given a full education, much of her magical training focused on controlling her inner-self. Clearly, she hadn't mastered that. But she was trying. Violet placed her hands together and took a deep breath, placing them on her lap. She closed her eyes, and let her mind wander.

    A starry void, crossing through space, picking up speed. Stars turn to streaks of light. Then suddenly Violet's surrounded by orbs of light. Reaching out to one, she managed to graze it with her fingertips, and it giggled and danced away. Violet was strangely drawn to them. She reached out again, but this time one of the orbs flew straight through her chest.

    Violet's eyes shot open. She was breathing rapidly and for a moment, she couldn't stop. It was only upon reminding herself that she didn't require air to live that she calmed down. Strange as it sounds. The room was as quiet as she'd left it, but she still felt uneasy in what she'd seen. For a moment, it was as though there was something else there as well. Or maybe multiple things. The entire experience, whatever it had been, had made her feel as though there were a lot of eyes upon her, and not all of them were friendly. A few minutes passed as she sat hovering above the bed, when she heard a distant noise coming from downstairs. She looked over at the clock. 3am. Who was up at this time? Everyone else needed sleep. She remained in her energy form, as she was with friends and was tired from maintaining a human shell. As she reached the door to the living room she saw a blueish light coming from within, opening the door, she saw Vincent sat on the sofa, watching TV, with a glass of whisky.

    "You're up late." Violet said quietly, floating over to the sofa. She lowered herself into it beside him and sat there in silence, watching what was on TV. It was an old spaghetti western or something like that. Cowboys were shooting guns at each other in a laughably bad cardboard-looking 'town'. "And you're watching garbage..."
    "I haven't watched TV in about 5 years." Vincent said, "Al used to like these though."
    "They're so silly..." Violet muttered, pulling her legs up onto the sofa and crossing them. "I miss Al..."
    "Of course you do, you're his favourite." Vincent said, rolling his eyes. He took a sip of his whisky. "The old fart may be the best damn wizard I've ever met but he was always softer on you. A bit of that old school sexism I suppose."
    "I think he knew what I was before I did. I'm pretty sure that's why you were always given combat training and 1 on 1 magic lessons, and I was given meditations, mantras, chakras, self-reflection and self-control. Much good that did for me." Violet sighed, leaning back on the sofa.

    "You made a mistake, Vi." Vincent replied, "That's human. You're not the only one in the world who fucked up and hurt someone. You're not even the first one in the family, for that matter."
    "She's just a kid though. What if I hadn't stopped? I was so close to killing her, Vince." Violet pulled her legs up and hugged her knees, "Half my power comes from my emotions, but when I access them, I can't control them. How's that for fucked up? Plus, all the little ghost orbs that have been floatin' around lately have really started to piss me off." 
    "Well you didn't kill her... Which already makes you better than me, besides my emotions affect my magic too so..." He trailed off, his expression going quizzical, "Ghost orbs?"
    "Yeah, y'know..." Violet laughed nervously at Vincent's confusion, "The little... orbs... y'know what I mean, Vincent." Violet growled with annoyance, her eyes locked on the spaghetti western.
    "Don't they just show up on camera?" Vincent asked, and gave a little shrug. "I've never seen orbs...actually that'd be so much more pleasant than the fucked up shit I see with the third eye." He stopped to smile a little, "Rachel she...she's tougher than she looks. Man she looked like a fucking amazon when I saw her back at the bar."

    "I like her white hair even if she doesn't..." Violet added quietly, then she looked over at her brother, "I'm goin' to hell when all this is over, Vince. I'll never do enough to square away my wrongdoings. Vael will see to that. I won't be strong enough, and..." Violet's eyes scrunched up as though she wanted to cry.
    "Hey..." Vincent put his hand on his sister's, "You're not her. And besides... Pretty sure the devil wouldn't know how to handle you."
    "Thanks Vince... that means a lot coming from you..." Violet tried to smile, and she saw a happiness in her brother's face, but she couldn't stop her peripheral vision from taking in the third person on the sofa. Sat on the other side of Vincent, a man in a brown trench coat with a square jaw and slicked-back blonde hair. He grinned at her, his eyes were so sharply in contrast. From the white of his eyes to the black of his pupil. Then he began to warp and stretch, taking up more and more of the room. His eyes seemed to fill the entire space, as his pupils shrank further and further until two tiny black dots were stranded in a sea of white, ever staring at her, unblinking. "I'll be alright..." She added, forcing a smile and turning to gaze at the television once more.
    "Hey, who's--" Rachel opened the door, rubbing her eyes. She saw Vincent and Violet sat on the sofa watching TV and groaned, "Ugh, can't you lower the volume a little, oh--" She saw the spaghetti western on TV and immediately walked over, considered the sofa for a moment but decided she didn't want to be sat by Violet. Instead, she sat on the floor and was content to watch TV quietly.

    "Aww..." Vincent said as he smiled warmly at Rachel sitting in the floor, then he turned to Violet, "You know I'm glad we got a pet."
    "Ssh! Quiet!" Rachel growled, "It's not like I get to watch TV every day, let me enjoy this!"
    Violet smirked at her and then shrugged at Vincent. Rachel had earned that much. It wasn't much, but any happiness, however fleeting, was worth pursuing. The three of them sat watching TV, Vincent and Rachel might have dozed off during the night, but when the early morning light shone in, they were all up and raring to go. Stretching to relieve the discomfort of being sat on a sofa all night, Violet stood up and went to walk away when something grabbed her by the wrist. She looked back, and once again, she saw the blonde-haired man with the scary eyes staring back at her with a grin, his hand wrapped around her arm like a vice.
    "Y'can say g'bye t'yer girlfriend on the way down..."
    "--Violet?" Rachel asked again, shaking her arm. Violet blinked and realised she was looking at Rachel.
    "What?" Violet asked, frowning. Rachel scowled at her.
    "You're not even listening! Vincent said it's time to go. Come on!" Rachel stormed off and Violet stood there in quiet disbelief for a moment. She had seen him all too often and it was becoming more and more frequent now. She could no longer ignore him and what's more she could hear him now. She knew who he was, but she couldn't bring herself to say his name. Maybe denying his existence was enough?

    "Alright so tell me class, what are the advantages of a little daytime ghost hunting?" Vincent asked as Violet entered the kitchen where everyone had gathered. When no one answered he answered for them, "No ghosts!" He said with a grin, "Ghosts can't come out in the light of day, something about the boundary between the mortal realm and the void being stronger at this time. Anyway...it means we can try and find these bastards while their spooky army is out of commission."
    "Hooray." Rachel said with a neutral tone of mock enthusiasm.
    "You know I swear when we decided to take you in you told me you wanted to smoke some bad guys, did I mishear you or something?" Vincent asked with a frown.
    "I want to kill monsters, not chase ghosts around like Scooby-Doo." Rachel retorted, picking up her tools and tying the bracelet around her wrist, "If you say we're hunting ghosts, fine. I don't care. That's part of my education? Then let's go."
    Violet sighed, "You don't have to like me, or listen to me, but you do have to listen to Vincent." Rachel scowled at her and Violet scowled right back, sticking her tongue out, "Like it or not, you have to listen to him, he'll save your life one day... I mean, a separate occasion, you know what I meant..."
    "We're after the assholes who stirred up the ghosts." Vincent explained, "People who want to ritually sacrifice large groups of innocent people in order to gain more power for themselves. Is that not monstrous enough for you?"

    "Can we go now?" Rachel asked, raising an eyebrow.
    "She's quite feisty." James piped up at last, prompting Jinx to add her piece.
    "If you don't all leave soon, I may just transport you to a pocket dimension and forget about you." Then Jinx waved with a smile, "Okay now, have fun out there!" 
    "Right..." Violet shook her head at the familiar.
    "First we have to figure out where we're going." Vincent said, and then he held his hand up, pointing his finger out like a gun, and pointed it at Meredith, before making a clicking sound with his teeth. "So where to Mystic Meg?"
    "Uh..." Meredith looked around nervously. "How should I know?"
    "Well you foresaw all this right?" Vincent asked.
    "Yeah but my scrambled prescient dreams don't exactly come with google maps coordinates." Meredith replied with a frown.
    "It would be really useful," Violet replied, still in her cosmic birthday suit. Her hair waved around as though it had a life of it's own, or was suspended in water. She concentrated on herself and reformed her human outer shell, and her hair became human and the both striking yet familiar shade of blue. "Ugh, sometimes that's like pulling on a wet coat..."
    "Gross..." Rachel muttered loudly under her breath.

    Meredith huffed a little and then folded her arms, closing her eyes in concentration. She waited a moment in silence before her shoulder relaxed a little and she spoke again. "...there was...a lot of people...it's more like a feeling. Aggression...thirst for blood...lights flashing...a...a cage?"
    "Uh...I'm not liking the sound of that." Vincent said with a raised brow. 
    "...a battle..." Meredith continued, "It's a battle...they're watching and cheering. All that aggression...it's so powerful..." She visibly shivered.
    "I can feel it..." Violet's voice echoed, Rachel looked over at her and the Hallow's eyes were glowing white. "The battle..."
    "Double gross. Vincent!" Rachel yelled, "I think your sister is getting a lady boner for all this fighting!"
    Violet snapped out of it and scowled, "What?!" She pointed at Rachel and considered issuing a threat, but thought better of it and instead crossed her arms and walked over to a nearby stool and sat upon it in silence, content now to no longer be part of the conversation. 

    "T-mobile stadium, it's on the strip." Vincent said with a frankness in his tone. He held up his phone with a webpage open. "UFC match tonight between Domino Reeves and Clyde Walsh. Big room full of people feeling the same emotion. Tapping emotion is a little different, nobody is going to get hurt...but if you sacrifice lives the power becomes yours permanently. So this is the warm up, so he can stir up ghosts again and kill another crowd of people later."
    "So he's going to get the crowd worked up until they start killing each other?" Rachel asked.
    "Another possibility." Vincent said with a nod. 
    "...In a place where fortunes are made and lost, the dead will rise to lay slaughter to the greedy, and the Sphinx will be the guardian of their tombs." Meredith said, her tone much more grave. 
    "Wait, what?" Vincent asked, "I thought you said it was the fight?"
    "A fight, yes." Meredith said, as if she was in a trance, "There will be a great battle. A storm is brewing. The dead shall rise and....and...." She stammered and tears fell from her closed eyes, then she gasped and her eyes opened in shock. "Wh-what happened!?" She asked.

    "Super." Violet muttered, "I love a good prophecy. Because they always work out so well."
    "You've experienced prophecies before?" Rachel asked. Violet was taken aback for a moment, it was the first time since their scuffle that Rachel had asked her a direct question. Violet considered her for a moment, smiled and then nodded in confirmation. "What were they like?" Rachel asked again, genuinely interested.
    "Al told me a few." Violet replied, "To begin with, I would die and be born anew. Tick. I would become an agent of chaos. Tick. And there's one that hasn't happened yet, but I super love that one, so give it time, eh?" Violet mumbled off the last couple of words and Rachel frowned in frustration.
    "Well what's the one that hasn't come true?" Rachel pushed.
    "Uh, well, that I would destroy the world." Violet replied. The room was quiet for a few seconds.
    "'A' world, remember?" James chimed in.
    "What?" Violet frowned at him.
    "Al said, 'A' world. Not 'the' world." James smiled.
    "Hooray. I'm so relieved. That made me feel sooo much better, James. Thank you."
    "You're welcome." James replied, missing Violet's obvious sarcasm.
    "Wait--" Violet thought about what Meredith had said. "Tombs and Sphinxes, it makes me think of Egypt. But then you talk about fortunes made and lost... it's got to be that casino here, right? Y'know the one with the big Sphinx? What's it called..."
    "The Luxor Casino." Rachel provided the information.
    "Right!" Violet cheered excitedly, clapping her hands together.

    "Are you okay?" Vincent asked, as he put his hand on Meredith's shoulder. 
    "Uh...y-yeah I think so." Meredith said, but she didn't look fine. "So it doesn't matter where we go...people are going to die."
    "...or we split up." Vincent suggested. 
    "We barely survived together last time." Meredith said in protest. 
    "Hey...Violet's an agent of chaos, remember?" Vincent said with a smirk. "We're prepared this time." He turned to Violet, "Right?"
    "I dunno. Maybe?" Violet shrugged and offered a consolation smile, "Agent of chaos, remember?" But she seemed to sober up at the same time. "Well... I suppose I have to remove doubt... Still, chaos, etc..." Violet muttered and walked outside. Rachel frowned but wanted to see what Violet was talking about and so followed her outside, then Vincent and everyone else followed suite. Violet walked out onto the main road of the cul de sac and lifted off from the ground.
    "Violet! What if someone sees you!" James called out.
    "It matters not!" She called back, commanding and authoritative. In an instant, she shed her human shell and just as quickly she flew up and hovered between the suspended power cables.
    "I don't think this is a good idea, Vi." James called out, shielding his eyes from the early morning sun.
    "No!" Violet called back, "Possibly not!" And with that she grabbed a power cable with each hand and sparks exploded and cracked. Several of the party dove for the ground as the power feeding into Violet spat out in little arcs of electricity. One hit a car and blew out the windows, setting the alarm off. Another stuck a nearby roof, charring the tiles. Violet glowed so brightly that it was difficult to look directly at her. Then all the power in the street went out. Seconds passed until the silence was broken by Rachel as she held her phone up.
    "So, yeah, power just went out across half of Las Vegas for several minutes... Car crashes, downed hospital equipment... Chaos..."
    "But I am no longer starving..." Violet replied, her voice echoing as she lowered to the ground and cloaked herself in her human shell. "And so, I will not lose control..."
    "Super." Jinx snarled, "Now will all of you leave!"

    "Yeah for once I think I agree with the demon." Vincent said with a smirk, "Alright, youngest sibling gets the first pick." He said and indicated to Meredith and then Rachel, "Pick a sidekick and a venue, I'll take the sloppy seconds."
    "Then I will--" Violet stepped forwards but as she did so Rachel scoffed and walked up to Vincent.
    "As if!" Rachel growled, crossing her arms in defiance.
    "Alright." Violet nodded, "That's fine, I am happy to accompany Meredith, if you'll have me?"
    "Uh..." Meredith looked a little hesitant, "I suppose."
    "Take the fight at the stadium." Vincent suggested, "At least the threats there will be physical, so you should be safe enough."
    "The ghosts weren't the ones who hurt me last time." Meredith said.
    "Yeah well you lured us there thinking I'd die to save the rest of the people in the room." Vincent said with a dark scowl, "Nobody is perfect. Now get in the fucking car before it's dark out again."


  6. She stirred a clear drink using an olive on a cocktail stick. Counter-clockwise. Nothing seemed to move in the room but her. Then she looked over at Vincent, and smiled. He stood up, and slowly moved through the room. He could have been moving through treacle for how long it seemed to take him to reach the bar. Yet everything else was frozen. As Vincent reached the bar, she took a pale hand, touched a glass and moved it closer to the edge of the bar, implying he should take it. The glass was full of an amber liquid.
    Vincent silently eyed the girl, and then the glass with suspicion. For now his suffering was gone, and he felt, well, he felt strange. It was as if there was a pressure around his body like he was being wrapped in saran wrap. However it wasn't unpleasant, especially compared to the feeling of choking on an ice cold ghost paw. He resisted his morbid urge to turn back to where he had been a moment ago, but something told him he wouldn't like what he'd see. Instead he picked up the glass and sniffed it's contents. "Single malt..." He whispered, and then he shot a glance at the woman and put the glass down without drinking. "Who are you?" He asked with a frown.

    "You know who I am." She picked up her glass, took a sip and then put it back in it's place. "That's not the question you want to ask."
    "A lot of gods of death to choose from there..." Vincent replied, "Not a lot of them look like you, Maybe I'd have a better idea if you had a cloak and carried a sickle or something."
    "Maybe, Vincent." She replied, a wry smile on her face as she reached for the olive in her glass, "Maybe..." She continued, pulling the olive from the toothpick, "... I just like to dress up." Her eyes were wild with excitement as she teased him. She dropped the bare toothpick back in her glass and sighed.
    "So, let's cut the shit." Vincent said, and he leant one arm against the bar, "Either your some trickster being here to offer me a shady bargain, or you are death, the actual, literal personification of the end of all things, in which case I'm fucked. So, which is it?"
    She smirked, picked up her glass and toasted him, then finished it's contents. Then the glass vanished in her hand and she looked back across the room. "Why don't you look over there?" She suggested, while Vincent's eyes seemed glued to anything mundane on the counter. 

    "Because I think I have enough nightmare fuel in my brain already, thanks." Vincent said, "I don't want to add seeing my own corpse to that list."
    "Why are mortals so afraid of their own mortality. You were given this exquisite gift and you're terrified of it!" She sat there musing to herself, "Would you trust Death?" 
    "As a concept or...?" He asked but quickly followed with his honest answer, "People who think Death is a deceiver are the people who do this," He gestured around the room at the suspended ghosts. "What possible need could Death have for lies?"
    "Honest to a fault." She smirked with a sadness to it, then she let out another sigh and nodded to the room, "You are dying, Vincent. Your sister will soon be dead. Rachel will soon be dead. Everyone comes to me, in the end." She stood up from the bar, as the patrons slowly began to reanimate as though time was taking back control.

    "Dying? So I'm not... dead." He turned, finally, to the scene. His body lay on the floor, still choking, his face going red. Violet was already springing in to action, Rachel looked panicked, and Meredith petrified. "...that's a bit risky, isn't it?" He asked, "I'm not dead yet, so stop talking like it's a done thing."
    "But it is..." She replied, "You are just alive at this moment." She could see the anger, frustration and urgency on Vincent's face and it seemed to amuse her. "If you come with me, I will take you on..." She took a step back, and offered him her hand with a welcoming smile. "Stay here, and there will be pain..."
    Vincent actually chuckled at her. "Maybe I take it back. After all, a faerie can tell no lies, but they're the most deceptive assholes going. You can jog on, lady. You know what pain means? That I'm alive." A smile spread across her face. She loved his defiance. And it took so little to stoke it. She raised her hand to the room with an implied, 'Well go on then?' and watched as the entire room snapped back into time. Chaos ruled. Violet and Rachel were fighting for their lives in a losing battle. A ghost flew through Violet's back and she gasped and collapsed to the floor.

    Vincent's pain washed back over him like a forest fire. Nerve endings fired like pistons all over his body, the cold, throbbing burn that coursed through his body from the ghost's touch. He reached for that pain, and he clung to it tightly. He welcomed it inside and then he harnessed it so that he could point it wherever he wanted. The ghost recoiled as Vincent, his third eye open, sent his will crashing into it, into each and every ghost in the room. He could not hurt them physically, but he wasn't trying to. 
    These ghosts were breaking all the rules right now, which meant that some slimy sorcerer was enthralling them and asserting his will with a ritual. The ghosts were essentially puppets, and so Vincent just followed the strings. Channelled through the ghosts he reached out with his mind and delivered the psychic equivalent of a backhand to the one who controlled them. He felt a sudden sensation of shock, then realisation, and then anger.  It had been enough to break the perpetrator's concentration and shatter the spell. 
    Suddenly the ghosts wailed in what was either pain or perhaps relief, and they surged upwards through walls, flying off into the night with howls and shrieks. Vincent sat up as he was released and began coughing and gasping for air, each cold breath felt like he was inhaling knives.

    Slowly, Violet lifted her head. She felt dizzy, almost drunk. Glowing orbs dashed in and out of her vision. Instinctively, she swatted at them and they disappeared. Pulling herself to her feet took a great deal of effort. Her limbs felt heavy. She rattled across the ground and collapsed beside Vincent.
    "I thought i'd lost you..." Violet muttered, leaning over and trying to regain herself.
    "Me?... Nah." Vincent rasped between gasps of breath. He slowly got to his feet and looked around the room. Other people were crying and gasping for breath, but no one appeared to have any serious injuries beyond that.
    "I can't... breathe..." Rachel pressed herself up against the underside of a table. Violet heard her rattling muted voice throughout the chaos and somehow, she found the strength to stand back up and walk over to the young girl. Sitting down beside her, Violet put one hand on her shoulder and reassured her.
    "It's alright. It's over now." Violet took a deep breath and let it out - a curious calming mechanism as she didn't technically need to breathe in order to exist. But, she wasn't about to get bogged down in the existential thoughts of a cosmic energy being. Instead, she did what came naturally to her. She got angry. Real angry.

    The realisation that they had been brought here, that it was a trap and that Meredith, who now stood before them, had to have had a hand in it, drove Violet over the edge. She stood, but this time, her fatigue was gone. Lights flickered out in the bar as she lifted from the ground, her human form was blasted away in an instant and she floated before Meredith with a rage burning in her heart like she couldn't control.
    "I-I--" Meredith tried to speak.
    "Just dont--" Violet held her hands up and from them exploded a beam of magical energy that struck Meredith in the chest and set her flying back, smashing through tables and knocking chairs asunder until she came to a rest at the edge of the bar. The white of Violet's eyes shone brightly through the twilight of the bar as more and more lights snuffed out.
    "I don't feel very good..." Rachel muttered, "I feel like..." Realisation dawned on Rachel's face and she glanced at Violet before scrambling across the floor to Vincent, "Does Violet even have control of her powers?! I feel like something is consuming me from the inside out!!" She grabbed hold of Vincent's arm, "Vincent!"
    "Most of the time..." Vincent admitted, and then he fumbled on the floor for his cane. The screaming started as the other patrons got a look at Violet. "Violet!" Vincent yelled over the screaming, "...you need to calm down."

    "Don't tell me to calm down!" Violet growled back at her brother, her eyes still fixed on Meredith. "You nearly killed my brother!!" She roared, then held out one hand and directed her essence into Meredith. The girl choked as she tried to get back up and collapsed back to the floor with a surprised look etched on her face. The surprise turned to horror, and she began to age. Her hair turned white, and her skin began to grey.
    "Stop it!" Vincent roared back at her. His grip tightened around his cane.
    "No..." Violet snarled. Meredith coiled in on her stomach, groaning as the life was drawn from her.
    "Stop it, Violet!!" Rachel yelled at the top of her lungs. No reaction. She had to stop her. Rachel grabbed the nearest object - an empty bottle of wine - and threw it with all her force, "Stop it!!" She yelled again, watching as the bottle arced through the air, then finally, it struck Violet in the back and shattered, disintegrating into nothing.
    "I said... NO!!" Violet screamed as she reflexively turned on her attacker and fired a deadly blast.

    Pain... not death...

    The voice seemed to linger in Vincent's mind while the blast of solid energy arced through the air. Rachel recoiled as the blast struck her, but the attack was cut short. Violet was knocked to the ground by something enormous. It was as black as night, as large as a tiger, but as svelte as a cheetah. The creature growled and it was like rumbling thunder. It's ears pricked at the tiniest motion of sound and while still stood over Violet, its ferocious eyes focused on Vincent and the cane in his hands.
    "What the fuck are you looking at, kitty cat?" Vincent taunted, and kept his staff pointed threateningly. "Get the fuck away from my sister." The creature considered Vincent for a short while then he arched up and sat down on his hind quarters, his tail swishing back and forth in irritation.
    "Now... Put. That. Away." It was not a request. The creature waited, watching Vincent with suspicion.
    "Nah, I'm good." Vincent replied, a daring glint in his eyes. His gaze turned back to Violet, "Get up!" He snapped at her, "Fix her. Now."

    "I-I..." Violet pulled herself up and looked around. The chaos and destruction she had left in her wake had been immense. Broken glass scattered everywhere, chairs and tables broken and overturned, the patrons scattered and the bar cast in green and red twilight by the one remaining light of a neon beer sign. "W-What did I...?"
    "Fix her." The creature repeated Vincent's words.
    "W-what...?" Violet muttered, but she took heed of their demands and while still in a fog, she sat beside Meredith and placed a hand on her shoulder. She had drawn the essence from her body and now she had to return it. It was a painful experience. Not unlike setting yourself on fire. She was a being that fed on energy. She did not return it. Violet squirmed in pain as the last of Meredith's energy was returned and the girl brightened up, her hair and skin returned to normal, though she looked fatigued.
    "Now her." The creature nodded at Rachel and Violet's face dropped. She saw Rachel doubled over in pain, clutching the centre of her torso. A hole had been blown in her clothes and Violet could clearly see Rachel's burnt, smoking midriff. The girl was in agony. Violet darted to the young girl and helped her sit upright, then she began to channel her essence into the wound but as soon as she started, she knew she couldn't take it back. Not entirely.

    The wound healed, but so too did it scar. When Violet had finished, she saw the scar was almost like a sunflower. White petals dashing out in every direction with a darker centre mass of damaged tissue. She looked up and saw that Rachel's hair had turned as white as snow. Then, as the pain subsided, Rachel roused herself and the moment she saw Violet she recoiled and scrambled to her feet.
    "What just happened?!" Rachel screeched, fleeing to Vincent's side and clinging onto him. Violet stood up and sighed, her eyes wandering over everything a second time.
    "We need to go." Vincent said after a long silence. There were conversations to be had, but right now there were witnesses, and he could hear sirens blaring in the distance. He turned to the creature. "You're a little big to fit in the car so..." The creature took Vincent's words to heart. Upon standing, it leapt at Vincent, and while arcing through the air it landed not as a creature but as a man. He was tall, thin as a rake, with tan skin, yellow eyes and short, thick black hair slicked back out of his face.
    "I agree." He replied, then as he turned back something grabbed hold of him and he smirked. "Violet..." He looked down and saw a tuft of blue hair while she clutched onto him, and by the time she let go, he saw she was human once more. At least, on the surface. "We do have to go though. Now." He patted her on the shoulder and then encouraged her to go. Then he grabbed Meredith and Rachel and helped them both outside.

    Vincent, Rachel, Meredith, Violet and the strange man all piled into Violet's car. However, it was the stranger in the driver's seat. "You can hide at my place." He said, and started the car. Before they knew it, they were driving down the road. They heard sirens in the distance. So much had happened that the passengers sat in silence, trying to come to terms with everything. It wasn't until the man pulled into a short driveway that they were roused from their thoughts. Violet saw a small house, on the corner of a cul-de-sac. It seemed inviting. The front door opened and a woman stood in the doorway. The stranger got out of the car and slammed shut the door behind him. He said something to her, and she got angry. Their conversation was muffled but Violet got the impression that something this stranger had done had upset this woman.
    "Come on," He said, opening the passenger door for Violet, "Everyone inside." 
    "Violet... Who the hell is this guy?" Vincent asked.
    "Just do it, Vincent. You should trust him more than you trust me, honestly." Violet got out of the car and walked up the driveway. The woman stood in the doorway nodded a few times then turned to the man that had brought them here. She pointed at him with a threatening finger.
    "So help me, if they blow up the house, especially the purple one, I dont--" She marched back inside.

    "S-Sorry..." He scratched his head in nervous embarrassment, but then disappeared inside. Violet followed. Meredith hesitated but did the same. Rachel gave Vincent a look along the lines of 'are we really doing this?' and then stepped inside. A few moments passed and the man walked back outside.
    "Are you coming?" He asked Vincent. Vincent only looked at the man with a soft scowl and then he pushed past him and went inside. "Excellent." The man purred and then closed the door behind them. Inside, it was chaos. A different kind of chaos. Organised chaos. Every table, every space, every wall had been covered and decorated with dozens of objects, hangings, trinkets, and other strange things. The house felt cosy. It was a home, decorated with possessions. A spicy smell wafted down from the kitchen.

    "Alright!" The man said loudly, calling attention to himself. Everyone in the room focused on him. "I don't like to mince words so here it is - I'm a demon, technically. A familiar, precisely. Sometimes people call me 'James' and that is what I prefer to go by. I am not that kind of demon. I will not offer you things in return for your soul, please don't ask. I met Violet when she was 12, she summoned me - thank you Violet - and now, technically, I am bound to serve her as she wishes..." He paused for a breath, then some other information occurred to him, "The woman that shares this space with me is Jinx. She is also a familiar. We consider you our guests and our friends, so--" 
    "Huh!" A scoff echoed from the kitchen.
    "So... please. Take a seat." James nodded at the sofas and chairs scattered around the large living room.
    "...great." Vincent said enthusiastically, "Do you have an alchemy cupboard?"
    "... ehm..." James hesitated, "... in the kitchen."
    "Oh, good." Vincent snapped his fingers a couple of times in quick succession. "Come on Padawan let's go make some dead man's talismans and some other fun little ghost weapons."
    "He means me." Rachel muttered, upon seeing James' confused face. Rachel followed Vincent into the kitchen. The smell was incredible. Something was baking in the oven and it smelled like cinnamon. She realised then that she was virtually starving. Nearly being turned into a cosmic energy being's lunch will do that to you.
    "Oh by all means--" Jinx muttered, walking back and forth between her stations, "Just barge in, help yourself, see if I care..." Jinx was as tall as James and she was just as attractive. She had a buxom, hourglass figure. She dressed in red, wearing a slim-fitting red dress with a protective white apron over the top of it. She had long, flowing red locks that framed her face and her eyes were yellow and cat-like, the same as James. 

    "Yeah that was pretty much the plan..." Vincent said absentmindedly as he started rummaging through the kitchen drawers, "So the thing about ghosts..." He began talking to Rachel, "Is that they can be really troublesome if you're not prepared for them, which resulted in that shit show back there. I genuinely wasn't expecting ghosts to descend and start murdering hipsters, it's not their usual mode of operation." Rachel nodded in silence, Vincent seemed content with busywork, but she wasn't.
    "C-Can we..." Rachel began, brushing a strand of white hair out of her face, "Can we talk about Violet?"
    "Sure." Vincent said as he tossed a jar of odd looking, brown, clumpy stuff, and then started looking for other things, "But you're going to help me while we do. There's no down time on the job, you'll have to learn that sooner or later."
    "I want no part of this--" Jinx muttered, then tore her apron off and left the kitchen. James watched her walk out and ascend the stairs to the second floor, so he walked into the kitchen to see what was up. Vincent and Rachel were organising items across the counter. James deliberately coughed and cleared his throat as he walked over to them.
    "Violet is more dangerous than anything i've come across. She almost killed Meredith, who I think was just in a bad situation she couldn't get out of, and she nearly killed me, and look what she did--" She pointed at her hair, and then the scar on her midriff still on show from her tattered clothes. "She has no control, Vincent. She can't--" She trailed off.

    "And what would you have me do?" Vincent asked while he lit the hob and placed a pot over it.
    "I don't know!" Rachel bit back with frustration, "But she's been hunting all this time, right? You haven't. So, what about all the times you weren't there to stop her. But she kept hunting, right? Don't you feel responsible for her? She has this incredible power but no control over it or her emotions." Rachel shoved a number of ingredients towards Vincent without care for what they were or if he even wanted them.
    "Violet... is like the sea." James interjected. Rachel paused and looked at him expectantly. "Well... she is often calm. Mostly calm. Sometimes turbulent. Sometimes a storm. But storms are important too, so you must become a pilot and sail through stormy seas, for it is only through hardship that you find the buried treasure."
    Rachel blinked, "I'm sorry, you had me for a moment there but then something about... tr--"
    "--Treasure, yes." James nodded quickly, "Sorry, right. I like pirates? Swashbuckling. The three musketeers. Blackbeard. Honour among comrades, one for all, all for one, on a journey across the seven seas. Human history is full of such examples. I love it. I really need a sword, don't you think?" He paused then realisation dawned on his face, "Right. Sorry. Right. I have a short memory... what were we talking about?"
    "Violet?" Rachel replied, holding her face in her hands. "I'm surrounded by maniacs..."

    "Honestly what is it with supernaturals and flowery similes?" Vincent asked. "Violet's a person, and she's quite fucked up. So she hurt you, she could have killed you. You did that to us earlier when you damn near cremated us."
    "Oh I see..." James looked at Rachel.
    "That was completely different!" Rachel growled, shoving a glass jar across the counter until it slid into Vincent's waiting hand.
    "It was, but it had a similar result, and results are what matter." Vincent poured water into the pot to boil and then started pouring out the ingredients and measuring what he needed. "You could have died... but you're not dead. Trust me that's the important thing here, I had a somewhat similar experience tonight." Rachel frowned at Vincent. He liked to talk about how supernaturals use flowery simile yet he was quick to speak in what seemed like riddles. But it was true enough. What had happened, happened. There was no turning back. Nobody was dead. But how long could Violet keep a clean sheet?


  7. "No i'm exactly like the Phoenix Force." Violet corrected her brother, grinning to herself at the comparison. "So, what do you think we should do with you...?" She asked, her tone neutral while she studied the girl. Rachel was tall and slim but generally unremarkable. She had long blonde hair that she'd tied into a ponytail and mouse-like features. The most striking thing about her was the eyes. She had bright green eyes. How'd she not noticed that before?
    "What do you mean?" Rachel asked nervously. Violet looked at her brother and shrugged.
    "You're just cutting your teeth, kid" Vincent said to Rachel, "You can't just go around with this cowboy justice crap. There are laws. There's a code." He gave her a somewhat serious frown. "Not to mention your lack of diligence, you acted based on circumstantial evidence. So the question is do we put a stop to your journey right now...or don't we?"

    "I know I started out of revenge, but i'm not a bad person. I kept hunting because knowing what I know, what else can I do? People are in danger from..." Rachel paused, glancing at Violet, "From some creatures. I'm just trying to even the odds." Violet could remember what it was like to be a new hunter. The idea she was making a difference, fighting back the darkness, saving lives.
    "I think she should come with us." Violet spoke directly to her brother. "Room for one more?" 
    Vincent raised an eyebrow. "With us? We're going to go find dad, not show the rookie around." Vincent shook his head, "Besides, mortal hunters either have an edge, like me and you, or they have been trained from birth, generation to generation. She'll get herself killed."

    "Exactly. She's going to do this whether we're here or not. She's just a child--"
    "--hey!!" Rachel growled, standing up in defiance. "I'm 17!"
    "Y'see?" Violet jerked her head at Rachel, "The girl is pretty much a smudge without us, and its not like you cant teach magic."
    "Oh I can teach, but can she learn?" Vincent asked, looking at Rachel expectantly. "Ever made something disappear? Moved something with your mind? Ever been really mad, and then strange things happen?"
    "Is that a Harry Potter quote?" Rachel asked, frowning in disbelief.
    Violet's eyes lit up with amusement, "Oh yes, we can work with this." Violet stood up, "I'm gonna go see how Lucas is doing. Why don't you two stay and talk it over. I'm no good at teaching, so if anyone's going to be your teacher, it's going to be my brother. Have fun with that." Violet turned and walked off before either of them could voice their objections.

    Lucas had been moved from the emergency room into a quiet ward by himself. When Violet entered, she noted a police officer stood in the corner, talking to a nurse and another sat at her desk, filling out a large stack of forms. None of them were paying her any attention. A white film spread over the top of her shoulders, coating her arms and top half, and then descending and levelling out at her knees where it coalesced into a doctor's coat. A moment later, a clipboard was in her hand and she marched towards the bed with purposeful confidence. 
    "Evening, officer." Violet quickly glanced at her clipboard, made a 'hmm' noise - seemed the right thing to do - and then put it to one side and picked up Lucas' chart at the end of his bed. The police officer looked her up and down then took a step back. "Yes, yes. Gunshot wound, so the hospital automatically called the cops."
    "Right..." The officer muttered.
    "But it's not necessary, officer. The boy accidentally misfired his gun on a hunting trip." 
    "Does he have--"
    "--here's his license." Violet reached over and picked up her clipboard, then pulled a blank sheet of paper from it and handed it to the officer with an expectant look. The man stared at the blank page for several minutes, his eyes darting back and forth over the blank page until he sighed and nodded.
    "Alright. Everything seems in order. Thanks, Doc. You just saved me a load of paperwork." The officer smiled and left and after excusing the nurse, Violet went and sat beside Lucas. He seemed asleep, but she knew better. Too many nights spent awake, listening to mom and dad argue.
    "Oi, kid, I know you're faking." Violet leaned over and punched Lucas in the arm, and the boy gasped in pain as he reflexively tensed. Lucas' eyes shot wide open and stared at Violet with a burning rage, "Good, you're up. We need to talk." 

    Vincent rolled his eyes and then sat forward in his chair, pressing his fingers together. He took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts, and then he looked at Rachel. "My sister has a tendency to jump the gun a bit. Before we even begin to discuss if you have any talent, we should probably find out if you want to. So, do you?"
    "Talent?" Rachel asked, the frown lines on her face deepened.
    "Magical talent!" Vincent said, waggling his fingers at her. "It's true that anyone can learn magic, like Violet implied, but some people have a lot more power than others that they can harness to work forces. Luckily, there's a few ways we can test yours. But, my question was do you want to?"
    "If it will help me to be a better hunter." Rachel replied, "Yes, please, I need to know." 
    Vincent's eyes narrowed. "Magic is not just a tool for you to use, it's a pursuit... It's a way of life. If you want a weapon, stick to a gun."
    The frustration on Rachel's face was clear, "It's just like you said, i'm not a creature with powers, or a wizard with magic, I don't even come from a generational hunting family with information and connections to fall back on. I'm just learning. Anyone can shoot a gun - teach me magic."
    "Better." Vincent said either a nod, "Now, what's your full name?"
    "Why?" Rachel asked, crossing her arms.

    "Because I want to find out if you have even a bit of talent, and to do that I need your full name, given freely from your own lips." Vincent explained, as if he'd given a perfectly reasonable explanation. Violet walked back into the waiting room, clocked both Rachel and Vincent and nodded to her brother as she sat back down.
    "Lucas is going to be fine," She said, "We talked, he's not going to mention what happened. He has enough to be getting on with - track team, grades, girls. He just wants to put it all behind him, so that's that." Violet looked over at Rachel who seemed perturbed. "What did you say?" Violet asked Vincent, her eyes narrowing.
    "Rachel Moon." Rachel replied, ignoring Violet but inwardly she was extremely thankful for Lucas' discretion.
    "Rachel... Moon." Vincent said back, he spoke slowly, pronouncing each syllable carefully, and he worked his will into the words.

    Suddenly the chair Rachel was sat on began to shake and vibrate. Rachel gripped onto the edges of her chair, as she knew, it wasn't her chair that was shaking... it was her. Her entire body was vibrating, and she could feel a pull on her body as though an invisible force was trying to draw her towards Vincent.
    "Hm, well that was a fairly strong reaction." Vincent said with a thoughtful expression, "But you've been exposed to the Supernatural world and you haven't hidden from that revelation, so I suppose hidden potential could be likely."
    "Cool..." Rachel muttered, looking at her hands with new perspective.
    "As long as you can help, you can stay." Violet interjected, "So can we go now? I'm famished."
    "Yes, let's bounce!" Vincent said as he got to his feet. He turned to Rachel, "Oh and, from now on don't tell people your full name like that. A good wizard could use it to invade your mind, make you kill your loved ones, or kill you or something."
    "Yeah, like, you're basically Vincent's plaything now. He could ask you to turn your body inside out and you could probably do it." Violet laughed and looked over to see all the colour in Rachel's face had drained away. She hurried to add, "Oh but he wouldn't! Obviously..."
    "Probably best not to tempt me though." Vincent said.

    "Alright. Enough wind-up. First lesson, Rachel Moon..." Violet stood up, glanced down either end of the corridor, and seeing nobody she turned back to face them both, "Do as he says, not as I do--" Then without warning, the three of them vanished with a loud bang - the sound of air rushing to fill a void. A moment later, the trio were sat in the Impala. Vincent looked flustered, but Rachel was gasping for air and gripping onto the dash.
    "What the hell was that?!" Rachel yelled, suppressing a scream.
    "Translocation. Teleportation. Inter-dimensional shift. Call it what you like." Violet muttered, reaching for the seatbelt.
    "Seatbelt?" Rachel asked, laughing at the idea that a powerful wizard and cosmic energy being, that had the power to teleport people and shoot energy beams, was lecturing her on the importance of road safety. However, at the no-nonsense expression on Violet's face, Rachel buckled up in the back and sighed.
    "So where are we going?" Rachel asked. 
    "Violet Lake." Violet answered, with a smirk.
    "Violet... Lake...?" Rachel wasn't sure she'd heard right.
    "Yes, Violet Lake, and no I don't think that's a coincidence. It's a lake in Hawaii, and this picture--" Violet pulled the photo from her doctor's coat which then vanished, "Our dad's there, i'm sure of it. If we're quick, we might be able to catch him before he has to leave." Violet showed the photo to Rachel who studied it for a few seconds.
    "But, why is your dad so important? Why do we need to find him...?" Rachel asked, handing the photo back.
    "Because he has some explaining to do." Vincent said simply.

    "So i'm leaving my friends, my education and everything else behind, so that you can... what...? Get an apology?" Rachel looked to Violet.
    "I dunno." Violet shrugged, "I just want to find my dad. Vince is the one with the chip on his shoulder."
    "I wish I had parents to be mad at..." Rachel muttered, "You shouldn't let the wrongs in your past cloud your relationship with your dad."
    "Smart kid." Violet said, speaking to Vincent. She flashed him a lop-sided grin and turned the key, bringing the Impala to life. Moments later, they were on the road once again. Only now they had a new charge. Violet took her eyes off the road for a moment to check her rear-view mirror. For a moment, Rachel's face was obscured by a bright light but before she could really focus on it, Violet blinked and the light was gone.
    "You okay?" Rachel asked, noticing Violet staring at her. 
    "Sure..." Violet replied, putting her eyes back on the road. It was going to be a long drive. 


  8. When Violet arrived, she didn't look happy. Winding down her window, she glanced at the toy from the seat of her car, "So, let's bust some heads!" She called out. Opening the passenger side door for her brother, he got in and she returned to the traffic. "Pfft, boring." She muttered, then she angled her rear-view mirror so she could see her hair. Cars beeped their horns all around them, as they slowly lurched forwards through the traffic. Violet took a hand and brushed it through the left-hand side of her hair. The hair that was there fell out and disappeared, leaving her with one side of her head shaved. "That's a bit more interesting." She muttered as an afterthought, "So who d'you think did it?"
    "The Satyr kid seems likely, at least the murders were designed to look like a Satyr did it." Vincent said as he held the eager little hot wheels car in his hand, the wheels still whirring furiously, "At worst he's our killer, and at best he's a douchebag who goes through girls like a fat guy hitting the buffet. Still, we don't execute supes for being douchebags."

    "No, but we always have room to reconsider-- Seriously?!" As a row of cars managed to breach with the flash of a green traffic light, it quickly switched back to red and they came to a halt once more. "Traffic jams really stress me out, man..." Violet snarled and kicked back into her seat, then sighed and pushed the frustration to the back of her mind. It was like opening an ancient music box. As the lid opened, a harmonious music played, a little ballerina in black dancing by herself and then the tense, angry, inquisitive emotions tumbled into the music box. It closed. It locked. Then a car beeped it's horn directly behind them and Violet opened her eyes.
    "Yeah, yeah..." She growled, and she moved the car forwards until they had to come to a stop once again.
    "That Amber girl keeps popping up in this. Did you ever get to speak with her again?" Vincent asked. He had picked his grimoire out from the back seat and was flicking through it studiously.
    "Oh, right..." Violet smirked and took her hands off the wheel. She pulled her legs up, placing them on the dash and reclined. Her lips moved silently and then the car seemed to growl to life, the wheel turned back and forth, and then the car accelerated a little to fill the gap ahead of them. "That's better." Violet sighed and then thought about her brother's question. "'Amber'," She said it with air quotations, "Leader of a group of eco-nerds focused on river preservation. Amber's a nymph. So is Jessica. This girl Rachel isn't but for some reason Amber seems taken with her, and while I think there's probably more nymphs in that group than those two, I think there are a number of human girls too."

    "Well according to his pop, she spread a lot of lies about Lucas and generally stirred things up. Apparently it resulted in an argument between Amber's dad and him." Vincent stopped and mouthed along a little as he read, then continued talking, "He implied Amber was jealous because Lucas wouldn't pay her any attention."
    "Highschool." Violet muttered, shaking her head. "Kids never learn. They think they're the smartest thing on the planet, but all teens are are a bunch of hormones donkin' into each other and fumbling through life." She crossed her arms and blew at one of her blue bangs. "Highschool was dumb. It was just you, an' me an' then one summer I met D, but it was all messed up and we hardly learned anything."
    "It wasn't that bad...it was an escape." Vincent said, "School feels like a break next to what we had to learn."
    "If you say so, Vince." Violet licked the inside of her teeth and let out another long sigh, "Look, d'you mind?" Violet pointed at the traffic lights, "Are you gonna give me a lecture about magic if I move us along? We've got somewhere to be, y'know?"
    "If you can do it subtly... then sure." Vincent said with a shrug.
    "Our turn!" Violet called, focusing on the lights. She whispered something beneath her breath and the opposing lights switched from green to red. Cars came to a screeching halt. A moment later their lights turned from red to green. "Ugh, at last!" Violet let her shoulders relax as she realised she'd been tensing them, and they drove on. After a few minutes, Violet glanced over at the whirring toy car.
    "So, how much longer y'think?" She asked with a raised eyebrow before refocusing her attention on the road.
    "I don't know." Vincent said, and he held the little car aloft, its wheels whirring furiously against the air. "Could be trying to get to Alaska for all I know. It should take us straight to Lucas, wherever that is."

    It took them a while, driving around Lafayette, but eventually they came to a halt as Vincent's little toy car seemed to tire, and by now, it was obvious where they'd been taken. Just on the outskirts of Lafayette, there was a bottled water factory. It had been tucked away, hidden by the trees, but it was right there in front of them now. Petros Water branded in huge letters along the side of the building. "Right. Water nymphs, bottled water factory, makes sense. Why not..." Violet mumbled as she got out of the car.
    "Why's the Satyr kid here though?" Vincent asked as he opened the door to the car. He went to the back seat and took out his cane and his gun and strap. "Let's play it safe. This is the Nymphs home turf, their magic will be strong here."
    "Oh you don't say," Violet teased sarcastically, then walked on through the car park and up to the main doors. Before she could reach them however, the door opened and a speaker system activated with a quiet squeal. "I guess they know we're here."
    "Honoured guests," The voice belonged to a young woman, it was sultry and confident and held not an ounce of worry, "I am Jennifer Petros, CEO of Petros Water. Welcome to our Indiana factory. Here, we source only the best spring water from across Indiana. In the following--"
    "Automated nonsense." Violet shook her head and walked into the factory. It was quite dark in the first room, but from what she could see it looked dishevelled, as though it had been long-since abandoned, but she could also hear machinery running in the distance. They pressed on. For a few minutes, they walked in silence, until they saw someone fiddling with a console. "Hey!" Violet called out. But when the person heard her, they ran. "Catch him Vincent!" Violet yelled, reflexively running after the person as they'd already turned the corner.

    Vincent sprinted after Violet and brandished his cane as they turned the corner. He focused his will into the cane and pointed it at the runner, and then he summoned a gust of wind that crashed down the hall, condensing and moving flat across the floor as he commanded it, before it finally swept under the runner and sent him tumbling on to his back.
    "What the hell, man!" Yelled a girlish voice. Violet blinked, glancing at Vincent before cornering their fallen runner against the wall.
    "Alright no--hey!" Violet growled, seeing Amber's face beneath the hoody she wore. "What are you doing, Amber?"
    "Don't ask me that, you're on my property, Violet! That's my question to ask of you." Amber retorted, standing there with a wrench in-hand. 
    "We were just out for a walk and uh..." Vincent cast his gaze around the room once, "Well geez...we really must have got lost."
    Amber noticed the man for the first time, "Who's the weird geezer with the stick?" She asked, raising an eyebrow. Violet rolled her head over to Vincent and smirked.
    "I hate teenagers..." Vincent grumbled.
    "Ditto. I'm 2,349 years old." Amber replied.
    Violet's mouth hung open for a moment, "Well... alright. Uh...?" Violet turned to look to Vincent. She was stumped by this revelation in truth, and furthermore she didn't know what to do with the fact that Amber offered it so willingly when she'd been so difficult with her before. 
    "So what?" Vincent shrugged, "Unlucky for you I don't respect my elders, so why don't you tell us what you're doing?"

    "I've been tending to the rivers, streams and water in Lafayette for hundreds of years. I'm a Queen. I can feel the connection between all the water nymphs in this place, but slowly, over the years, they've been dying, disappearing. So... I needed to fix that." Amber stood up, then brushed down her clothes.
    "But, how?" Violet asked, "And why is Lucas here?" 
    Amber's face blanched and she held her hand up, "I'm sorry, did you say Lucas is here?" 
    "Well if you trust the intuition of a toy car then..." Vincent inclined his head slightly in mock consideration, "...yes, pretty sure he is."
    "Amber, how were you going to fix the dwindling Nymphs?" Violet steered the conversation back onto her.
    "Oh, well..." Amber shrugged, "I was changing some of the girls into Nymphs, of course. Not all of them, mind. Just the ones with real talent, the smart ones, the pretty ones, the ones that know how to get things done."
    "You can't just take girls and turn them into something they're not." Violet growled, personally offended. This wasn't a far cry off what her aunt had wanted to do to her. To turn her into someone she wasn't. She was outraged, but had to learn more. This wasn't the whole story.
    "I can!" Amber replied simply, "They want to become something else. Rachel told me herself. I didn't even offer it to her, she just sort of knew."

    "There isn't a teenager alive that doesn't want to be something else, you moron." Vincent said, "So what about the dead girls, Amber? Didn't like it when they slept with the enemy?"
    "What? What are you talking about?!" Amber yelled, getting angry. Her face flashed with blue, becoming transparent for a moment. "Slept with the enemy? What enemy?!"
    "Careful, Vince--" Violet warned, her face tensing.
    "Uh-oh, is that your glamour failing?" Vincent said mockingly, "You should probably do something about that." He pointed his cane towards her. "Quite a lot of Lucas' girlfriends seemed to have died recently, friends of yours. You spread a lot of rumours about Lucas, care to explain?"
    "Lucas is my ex, but he's not a killer! So what, I spread some rumours about him, I was mad alright? That doesn't make me a killer either." Amber tried to calm down, the flash of blue transparency vanished and she was a normal-looking girl once more.
    "If he's your ex, why's he here?" Violet asked.
    "We still hang out sometimes! It's complicated, alright." Amber retorted, slightly embarrassed.
    "Right. Highschool." Violet repeated, turning to Vincent, "I don't know what to do with this. I'd normally kick down a door and smoke everything inside. But this doesn't seem that open and shut." And as if on queue, Lucas appeared at the other end of the corridor. "Hey..." Violet turned to face the boy who stood in the doorway, blocking the light behind him. He took a couple of steps towards them, Violet tensed, then a noise ricocheted through the corridor. A ringing that deafened her. Lucas collapsed. Behind him, stood Rachel. She was holding a gun in one hand, and concealed something else in the other.
    "I finally found it..." Rachel smirked with a look of relief and satisfaction. "I knew I would..."


  9. [Kikyou]

    "Aaah..." Sora sighed, relaxing his shoulders and leaning back. He studied the contents of his tea cup as Kiyoko leaned over the table and grabbed a sweet bun and started munching. Omi seemed uncharacteristically quiet, and Hakirama was content with the silence that tea and snacks had brought him. The group sat around a large table as the sun was setting. The tea shop owner lit the lanterns outside, nodding to Hakirama with a smile as he went.
    "Bun?" Kiyoko asked, holding the tray out to Omi. Kiyoko's expression was neutral, as though there was nothing to the gesture but being polite. But it was more than that, Sora smiled at the pair of them and took another sip of tea.
    "Hm?" Omi said distractedly, "Oh... No thanks."
    Kiyoko looked down at the tray and shrugged, putting it back on the table. Sora cleared his throat, "Mm, Omi-chan? Are ya alright?"
    "Nothing I haven't experienced before..." She grumbled, her expression becoming slightly hostile. "Just get it over with already..."

    "Get what over with?" Sora asked in an inquisitive tone, he punctuated his question with a sip of tea, "Don't ya like tea?" 
    "I don't." Omi replied flatly, "But I meant... Just make your decision already. I know what's gonna happen." She leaned back and folded her arms, her expression defiant. "It's not like I care."
    "Oh..." Sora was taken aback, his gaze wandered to Hakirama and then back to Omi. "Well, Omi-chan..." Sora put his tea cup down and cleared his throat, "Ya helped us fight Makoto, when we thought we were in real trouble, ne?" He held his palm to his mouth and chuckled, "... sorry." He shook his head, "I didn't need t'question yer loyalty, or ability. So, I can support ya, Omi-chan."
    Omi's expression faltered for a moment, her features softening. When she realised, she quickly fixed herself with a scowl and pushed her chin out. "Well... I wouldn't have been able to do anything if it wasn't for you and your bugs." Sora gave her a thankful nod and then silence permeated the room. It didn't matter that the chatter of the customers around them, the music playing or the bustle of the owner and his staff kept the tea shop loud enough. For them, there was silence.
    "Ah-hm!" Sora cleared his throat deliberately, nudging Kiyoko who glared at him in response.
    "Fine." Kiyoko put her half-eaten bun down and shook her head, "I can't support you."

    "Tch!" was all Omi could say, and her scowl worsened. Her eyes, however, looked wounded, and lonely. "... Fine by me, Yoko-hime." She said bitterly.
    "I can't support someone that has nothing they care about." Kiyoko replied hastily, picking up her tea cup again, "Do you care about anything? Anything at all?" She asked, frowning in disbelief. "What do you care about, Sora?" Kiyoko asked, turning to face the young boy.
    "Oh..." Sora hesitated but then smiled and answered, "My family. I love my mother an' father. An' I love my ants... an' I want t'catalogue all the insects in our world."
    "I want to be Hokage." Kiyoko replied to him, facing Omi, "I love my mother. I love my father. I love my two stupid brothers and I love Konoha. I even love Uncle Makoto, and the rest of my strange family. But most of all, I want to be Hokage. That's what I care about. That's what drives me. What about you, huh?!" Kiyoko picked up a sweet bun and threw it at Omi with the speed of a deadly kunai.

    "...Drives, huh?" Omi asked as she caught the bun in her hand, and crushed it, dropping the crumbs to the table. "...I dont have friends, and I don't have a family. All I have is being a Ninja. I want to be... a legendary ninja." Kiyoko looked at Sora and he shrugged. Her gaze wandered to Hakirama, but it was as expressionless as a face could be. The truth was, there were a million ways of defining a person's drive, or what they care about. Without something to drive them, they were worthless in Kiyoko's eyes. A drive to be someone, to do something, or to attain something they had previously found unattainable, is what makes a person. Until now, Omi had been little more than a void filled with sarcasm and bad social skills.
    "Good enough." Kiyoko said at last, nodding to herself, "Yeah, i'll support you, Omi-san." 
    "Eh?" Omi gasped, suddenly surprised as she stared at Kiyoko. 
    "Oh well that's good." Hakirama said, finally showing signs of mild interest, "It would have been awkward if you had decided not to support Kiryuin san. I'd already decided she was staying, besides... I dont have the authority to exile her from the village even if I wanted to."
    "EH!?" Omi almost coughed, her face a broiling picture of shock and legitimate rage.

    Sora chuckled at the revelation, but Kiyoko looked equally outraged. The tea cup she'd been holding shattered into dust under the pressure of her grip, but she sat in silence, staring at Hakirama as though doing so for long enough would bore a hole through his head.
    "Cheer up Hyūga-san, you've all managed to earn my mild approval. I now estimate you all stand a small chance of not being total failures." He said with a grin. "Today you've shown you can put your personal differences aside and work as a team. I guess I can trust you with your own lives... but can I trust you with the lives of others?"
    Sora put his hand up, "Sensei... ya already have." Then he looked to either side of himself, clocking both Kiyoko and Omi, then looked back at Hakirama and smiled, "That's not a question any one o' us three need t'answer." He put his hand back down and Kiyoko couldn't help but smirk at the boy's observation.
    "I guess we'll have to see tomorrow then... Report to the Hokage's office at dawn." Hakirama stood up as he spoke. "Our next mission is a C rank, bodyguard mission."
    "No!" Sora exclaimed, Kiyoko watched in shock as Sora's eyes widened in surprise for the first time since meeting him. She hadn't thought him capable of pulling that kind of face. She almost laughed if not for Sora's genuine shock. "Oh no!" Sora said again, panicking and holding onto the table.
    "Do you need to poop or something?" Omi asked, raising her brow. Sora leapt out of his chair and bolted for the door. 
    "I think he might--" Kiyoko started as she took a sip of tea.
    "KATSU!!" Sora yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran out. A jet of tea sprayed from Kiyoko's mouth, covering Omi and Hakirama.

    [Beautiful Green Wild Beast]

    Sora shot through Konoha as fast as his legs would carry him. People darted aside as his speed kicked dust up behind him, and the wind that followed blew through the streets of Konoha, knocking fruit from stalls, tearing things from citizen's hands and removing more than a single wig. An old lady up ahead finally finished putting the final touches on her new stall. She took a step back and sighed, sweat beading on her forehead. At last it was done.
    Then she heard it. A terrible rumbling approaching. She turned and saw the young fox-faced boy coming at her like an arrow from a bow. Her eyes darted to her stall and she screamed in pained agony knowing what was coming. She threw her hands out, commanding him to stop.
    "No! No not my--!!" 
    But it was fine. Sora missed the stall entirely, colliding with her instead. The old woman screamed as she held on for dear life. Everything was passing her in a blur. Her old fingers could barely hold on, but she had to, for what would happen if she let go? She screamed for the boy to stop, but it seemed he could barely hear her above the sound of the roaring wind.
    "Sorry, treasured senior-sama!" Sora yelled back over his shoulder, "Can't stop! Dog in peril!!" The old lady gasped, but then her shock turned to determination and that was that. She'd committed herself. The dog had to be saved! So she continued flapping behind the boy, holding on with white knuckles as his speed seemed to bring them into another dimension. Or, perhaps more likely, her cataracts didn't afford her much in the way of details at mach speed.

    At last! The river was up ahead. It was the place he'd last seen Katsu. "I'm comin, Katsu!" Sora roared with passion, but saw an enormous fence ahead of him, blocking his way to the river. Buildings on either side. There was no time, he had to scale them. As he threw his arms up, the old lady cheered.
    "That's it m'boy! CLIMB!!" She cackled but then shrieked in horror as bugs exploded from inside his sleeves and she reflexively let go. Of course, immediately regretting that decision. Sora directed his bugs ahead of him in a wave and they quickly formed in a pool, as he approached he leapt into the air and landed in the pool, braced himself and started to leap once more, but this time the ants carried him up and over the fence until he was able to leap the final stretch and land on the other side. Moments later he heard a muffled, 'Oof!' as the old lady hit the fence on the other side and finally came to a stop.

    [Konohamaru's Theme]

    "Katsu!!" Sora exclaimed as he ran up to the little dog with the squishy face. At last, he stopped just in front of the dog and bent down, "Katsu, i'm so super 'specially sorry, how can I ever make it up to ya?!" Large wobbly tears threatened to stream in the corners of Sora's eyes as he stared in expectation at Katsu. The little dog looked as though it hadn't moved more than a few inches since being left. It slowly looked up at Sora, then blinked each eye independently. Truthfully, it was really more like a couple of winks punctuated with little squeaks as it's eyelids moved. Then it stood up and walked over to Sora and after a moment's consideration, Katsu leapt up onto Sora's shoulder and collapsed, so that his legs were hanging over either side of his shoulder.
    "Katsu!!!" Sora's lip began to wobble, and then a strange noise permeated the air. It sounded like a snare drum was tumbling down a flight of stairs. "Euch..." Sora's lips curled as he held his nose at Katsu's horrendous butt trumpet. Sora's expression returned to normal, "Ya disgust me, little dog." But Katsu took it in his stride, and licked Sora on the nose, and that single, solitary act seemed to smooth things over. 

    [Chichi to Haha]

    "Mum, dad...?" Kiyoko walked up to the family dining table the following morning. She was dressed, ready to go and stood before her mother, Hidemi, her father, Shiro and her two young brothers, Aki and Taki. The two boys were fighting amongst themselves while trying to shovel in toast and jam. Shiro was reading a newspaper to himself while Hidemi was delicately and expertly breaking up the fight between her siblings.
    "Hmm?" Shiro looked up from his paper and upon seeing Kiyoko, laid it to rest on the table. "Oh, good morning, Yoko-chan."
    "Darling?" Hidemi caught Shiro's attention and nodded at the two boys, then as Shiro turned his attention to breaking up their fight, Hidemi focused on her daughter, "Morning, Kiyoko-chan, are you ready for your big day?" Kiyoko swallowed nervously. She could see the look of unquestioning happiness on her mother's face. She didn't want to disappoint her. And - though Shiro would have said it would have been nice - she didn't need a sharingan to notice her father's keen gaze on her as well, despite his involvement as pacifier for the twins.

    "I-I... think so." Kiyoko smiled and then shrugged, "No... m-maybe not."
    "That's very honest of you, Yoko-chan." Shiro replied, nodding solemnly, "I wasn't ready for my--"
    "Dad, please don't call me that." Kiyoko asked, her tone pleading. Her father had called her that for as long as she could remember, and it didn't matter how often she asked him not to, he still did it. Hidemi reminded him with a scowl, and Shiro held his hands up defensively with a chuckle. It didn't help now, that Omi was calling her that as well.
    "Sorry, sorry," Shiro nodded and then continued, "But, I wasn't ready for my first mission either. Let's just say I--"
    "Your father threw up." Hidemi interrupted. Shiro's face went pale as though he might go for round two right then and there.
    "H-Hidemi!" Shiro growled.
    "Aaaaall over the Hokage." Hidemi smirked as she noticed that Shiro was coping poorly with breaking up the two boys, so quick as a flash she kicked one of their chairs just enough so that it slid a few inches out of reach of one another and then wobbled, settled and the fight was over. "I was scarred." Kiyoko couldn't help but laugh, then found herself choking on it as she looked to her father, only to see Shiro's mortified face.
    "A-Anyway, i've got to go..." Kiyoko turned and made for the front door.
    "Good luck, Yoko-chan!" Shiro called, as Kiyoko left. Hidemi jabbed him in the ribs and he winced and apologised.

    [Hokage]

    Walking into the Hokage's office was a surreal experience. It hadn't been the first time she'd seen it. The academy had taken her on a trip here once, to learn about how the village functions in it's day to day. It wouldn't even be the first time she'd seen the Hokage, as she had seen her on multiple occasions. But this was different. She couldn't let it show, however. She had to remain professional. This was her first real mission. She looked over to her teammate's, Sora and Omi, and suppressed a reaction as she noticed that Sora was sweating profusely and she couldn't describe the expression on Omi's face, but it didn't look pleasant. Just then, the door opened and closed behind them and the Hokage walked in, swept around the side of her desk, and sat.
    "All present and accounted for I see", the Hokage said, shooting Omi a glance in particular, "Are you all prepared to be briefed?" 
    "Yes, Hokage-sama." Hakirama said with a respectful bow of his head. 
    "The sooner we're done, the better." Omi said, folding her arms.
    "Y-Yes, Hokage-sama." Sora nodded fervently.
    "We're ready." Kiyoko added confidently, "What's our mission?"
    "Escort mission." The Hokage began to explain, "You will travel to Ryukyu Port, a busy trade port. You will meet with a merchant who has special cargo. You will board the ship and protect the merchant, his crew, and his cargo at all costs, until he reaches his destination in the Land of Water."
    "Hokage-sama?" Kiyoko stepped forwards, "What is the merchant's special cargo?" 
    "Not our concern. The merchant paid for C rank ninja, which means it is nothing important enough to warrant any real risk. At most you'll just be protecting against bandits."
    "These kinds of missions are fairly common, Hyūga-san." Hakirama explained. "Anyone travelling with something valuable enough to involve dangerous ninja or assassins would pay for higher ranked ninja." So that was it. That was her first mission. Kiyoko nodded and thanked the Hokage, and the team left with what must have no doubt been a number of conflicting thoughts and emotions. But that didn't matter. For Kiyoko, this was her first big step towards becoming the Hokage. A dream she had held for as long as she could remember. 


  10. [Bad Situation]

    Despite his cheery exterior, beads of sweat glistened on Sora's face. He watched in silence as Kiyoko slowly turned to face them. She was drenched from head to toe. Long dark blue hair, sopping wet with river water, scattered over her face. Her pupils were pinpricks as she snapped the litter picker she'd been holding in two.
    "Oi... slacker..." Kiyoko's voice was deeper, her tone was authoritative. "Come here..."
    "Slacker!?" Omi snarled, but then she recoiled slightly, and then with a huff she stayed silent and stomped towards Kiyoko. "...I said sorry, alright?"
    "Yeah, I heard you!" Kiyoko growled. As Omi stood before her, Kiyoko held out her hand, "Give me that. Now." She added, nodding at the litter picker Omi had left behind.
    "Fine..." Omi rolled her eyes as she went back to the litter picker and bent down to retrieve it. "I wasn't the one who broke your one but whatever..." She stood up and offered the litter picker Kiyoko.
    "Yeah, yeah." Kiyoko muttered, snatching the litter picker out of Omi's hand. "About that--" She turned the litter picker around, grabbed it with both hands, then snapped Omi's picker in two, throwing it at the girl's feet.
    Omi's right eye raised up, her expression perplexed. She folded her arms across her chest and cocked her head slightly to the side. "Uh... as long as you're.... happy?"
    "Hm!" Kiyoko smirked and mimicked Omi by folding her arms across her chest.

    [Daylight of Konoha]

    Her smirk, turned into a little grin and Kiyoko nodded, "Yeah. Good job. Using Jutsu to clear all this trash makes a lot more sense than using these stupid things."
    "Kiyoko-chan?" Sora raised an eyebrow, "You're making more of a mess..." 
    Kiyoko looked from Sora to the ground in front of her, it was scattered with the splintered corpses of the litter pickers. "Ah... r-right." She muttered, leaning down and starting to pick up the pieces. Sora's smirk widened and he shuffled over, adding his litter picker to her bag of trash.
    "Uh....right..." Omi said hesitantly, nervously scratching at her arm.
    "Well... get back to work then." Kiyoko raised her eyebrow with a look of expectation, then turned and walked off.
    Sora cleared his throat and turned to Omi, "She's a funny one, hm? I know all about her, but she keeps surprisin' me."
    "Funny? She's down right whacked o-" Omi cut her sentence off and frowned at herself, "I-I mean... not like... not in a bad way but..." She trailed off.
    "That's a start, Omi-chan." Sora patted her on the shoulder and then bent down to start adding more trash to his bag, "So, where are ya from, Omi-chan?"
    "Uh, hello, orphan?" Omi said with a roll of her eyes. "I don't exactly know my family tree very well."
    "Mm..." Sora nodded to himself, "What's it feel like t'be an orphan? I bet it's lonely, ne?"
    Omi stared at him for a moment, her eyes squinting in annoyance. Then she turned away from Sora, her fingers clenched at her side. "Yeah." She said simply as she stalked away from him.
    "Omi-chan!" Sora called after her as she left, "Ya don't have t'be!"

    "Yo, all of you!" Hakirama called over to them. Omi turned to where the Jounin was standing waving them over, and she walked towards him without responding to Sora. He waited until they had all arrived before continuing. "Looks like you're almost done. That's 500 ryō for each of you."
    "500?" Omi almost coughed. "But... that's barely enough to get the Beef Ramen in the village!"
    "We've been working for hours and all we get is 500 ryō?" Kiyoko grumbled in disbelief.
    "Hm," Sora started patting down his pockets, as he and Kiyoko joined Omi and Hakirama.
    "What did you expect? You're picking up garbage... spoilers; it does not pay well." Hakirama put his hands on his hips, "Why do you think I wasn't participating? I don't need 500 ryō that badly..."
    "Sensei?" Sora raised his hand, "Shouldn't we do somethin' more fittin' to our abilities as shinobi? Logically, that this mission is only worth a maximum of 2000 ryō, it's a job any ol' guy could do. We may not do high-rank missions. But we should be doin' somethin' more appropriate, ne?" Sora cocked his head to one side expectantly.
    "You mean C-rank missions like bodyguarding and escort missions?" Hakirama suggested.
    "That's an excellent idea, sensei." Sora replied. Meanwhile, Kiyoko and Omi had started to watch the exchange between the two boys. "If we were t'get a mission like that, we could make a significant contribution to the village--" And without missing a beat, "--and our wallets." Kiyoko raised her eyebrows in surprise at Sora's sly conversation with their Jounin leader, then turned in expectation of Hakirama's almost guaranteed put-down.

    "Sadly, I was hesitant enough about trusting you three with people's garbage, let alone their lives." Hakirama replied flatly. "However, you didn't screw this up, so who knows? Maybe we can move you up to dog walking soon."
    Omi let out a long whistling noise that dropped down in pitch, before she ended it with a fart noise. "Are you really that earnest? I thought it was an act at first..."
    "Hm?" Sora glanced at Omi, before returning his focus to Hakirama, "Sensei, I feel urged to tell ya there's more than a 95% chance o' Kiyoko-chan an' Omi-chan findin' a way to do a much higher rank mission. They'd be doin' it without'cha. Plus, as their medical nin, i'd be honour-bound t'go with 'em. So, it might be best t'do somethin' that'll satisfy their ambition, under ya supervision."
    Leaning in to Omi, Kiyoko muttered under her breath, "He's dead."
    "Persistence, a good quality in a ninja..." Hakirama said with a smirk. He walked past Sora and with lightning reflexes he flicked him on the nose before walking off, urging them to follow him. "However, while I appreciate your tenacity, I would appreciate your respect of my judgement more." He added. "Well now, look at the time. I think we should have some dinner. You said the Beef Ramen was around 500 ryō, right Kiryuin-san?"
    "Damn it..." Omi whined, following Hakirama in a defeated huff.

    [Paradise]

    The sun was beginning to disappear along the horizon. Casting a slight orange glow upon Konohagakure. Kiyoko, Omi, Sora and Hakirama sat in a local open-air ramen shop, enjoying the simple pleasure of a hot meal.
    "Aaaah..." Kiyoko sighed as she finished the last mouthful of ramen broth. "That's so tasty, I could eat a second--" A long slurping noise interrupted her. Sora placed his bowl down with a contented look on his face. Then placed the bowl atop the other five he'd already consumed.
    "Eh?!" Kiyoko gasped, her eye twitching violently before she quickly regained her composure.
    "Hm?" Sora turned to look at Kiyoko and then chuckled, "Oh, my mother says I have a quick metabolism."
    "That doesn't last forever y'know." Omi said with a mouthful of noodles. She made a final slurp and gasped in appreciation. "If you keep eating like that you'll have a fat ass when you reach the other side of 25."
    Sora smirked with a knowing look on his face. "Yes, sensei." He replied. Kiyoko leaned back on her stool and stretched, then something caught her eye and she leaned forwards so quickly that she almost fell over the top of the ramen chef's counter. She covered the side of her face with a hand, and leaned down onto the counter.

    "Uh, what are you looking at?" Omi asked, craning her neck over to see. Quick as lightning, Kiyoko shot out her free arm, and shoved Omi forwards, back towards the counter.
    "Don't." Kiyoko urged Omi, her expression had genuine need to it. "Just--"
    "Evenin', Chief!" Sora called, raising his hand. All the colour drained from Kiyoko's face. A man dressed in a black kimono walked over. On the back of his kimono was the red and white paper fan symbol of the Uchiha clan. The man was tall, broad-shouldered, with a scruffy mop of raven-like hair. He had three long scars on his face. One that went diagonally across his forehead, through his nose and down his cheek. The other two scratched down the right side of his forehead in vertical lines, passing through his right eye, in which he was blind, and down through the diagonal scar. He had a touch of grey in his beard and smoked a pipe.
    "Good evening." Makoto Uchiha replied, nodding to the boy. Makoto was the Chief of Police in Konohagakure. And, as Kiyoko was currently whispering to Omi, he was her uncle. He glanced across Sora and Omi, his eye lingering on Kiyoko for a moment before turning to Hakirama.
    "Evening, Hakirama-san. I see you've students." Makoto took a long drag on his pipe and blew the smoke up into the air. 

    "Had to happen sometime I suppose." Hakirama replied with his usual, dull expression. He eyed them from where he was sat next to them at the bar. He waited a moment, and then his eyes narrowed. "It's impolite to not introduce yourself, you know..."
    "Oh..." Omi replied, and then she waved half-heartedly at Makoto, "Yo, big chief. I'm Omi." Hakirama made a weird choking noise, before suddenly coughing all over his food.
    "The orphan," Makoto seemed to allude to something with his tone, "Yes. I hope you're listening to your sensei, Hakirama is a wise shinobi, and you would do best to heed his advice."
    "My name is Sora Sakai, Chief." Sora offered a slight bow, "Son of--"
    "--Koji Sakai. Yes, I know him. And I know you, Sora-kun." Makoto turned his attention to Kiyoko and for a few moments he just studied her in silence. "Sit up straight, niece."
    "Yes, uncle." Kiyoko did as she was told, but her expression seemed resigned.
    "Project your voice, or nobody will take notice." Makoto added.
    "Yes, uncle." Kiyoko repeated, this time focused in both tone and volume. She put her chopsticks down on her bowl and stood to leave but before she did so, she hesitated and turned back to face her uncle and bowed, then hurriedly left Sora, Omi and Hakirama alone with the chief of police.
    "I expect you'll all be chuunin before long, under Hakirama-san's tutelage." Makoto nodded to them, and started to leave.

    "Yeah, if the exam has a section on how to get garbage water out of your sandals... I might just become the freakin' Hokage!" Omi said with a soft chuckle. 
    "Apologies, this one seems to have misplaced her manners at some point." Hakirama said to Makoto. "You give me too much credit, Uchiha-san. I'm already beginning to think teaching isn't my calling..."
    "Stress is bad for the skin." Makoto replied simply, "It will turn your hair grey, Hakirama-san, if you let it." He paused and turned back to face the group, "Should you wish it, however, you are more than welcome to assign your team to my care. Kiyoko already balances her missions with you, alongside training from the Hyūga clan, as well as my own instruction. I'm sure she would welcome the free time that combining my lessons with her missions would allow. Failing that," He turned his attention to Omi and Sora, "Should you wish to train alongside your teammate, you are welcome to join us in her next session tonight." And with that, Makoto left.
    "Sensei?" Sora raised his hand until Hakirama glanced at him, and then pointed at his teacher's head, "You have a grey hair now..."


  11. [Rainy Day]

    The morning sun was enshrouded by dark clouds. Rain fell in heavy sheets. In the distance, the sound of thunder followed the occasional flash of lightning. The weather was miserable, yes, but it didn't dampen people's spirits. Stores and market stalls opened as usual, though the stall owners set canopies out to encourage people to browse their wares while escaping the rain. A small crowd of people began to gather, eager to get their daily essentials and run back home through the rain. Two children were playing in the puddles rapidly forming in the dirt streets, while a shaggy black dog darted down the street.
    Kiyoko Hyūga let her bedroom curtain fall back in place, drenching her room in shadow once more. She'd had enough of watching the morning markets outside her house. After all, she couldn't be wasting time. Not today. Today was the day she became a Genin. She had worked hard in the Academy, and was considered a star pupil, in spite of her 'failings' as some would call them. She was the child of Hidemi Hyūga and Shiro Uchiha. Kiyoko was tall for her age, slender of frame, with long dark blue hair that fell down past her shoulders save for her fringe which was cut short, just above her eyebrows. Her eyes were dark, unlike those of her mother, Hidemi, who had the instantly recognisable white eyes of a Byakugan inheritor. While she shared her father's eyes, and her mother's hair, she had inherited neither of their clan's eye techniques. Both the Byakugan and Sharingan remained well out of reach for her. However, she had not allowed that to stop her climb to the top of her Academy class.

    "Kiyoko-chan!" Her mother called from downstairs. Kiyoko checked herself one last time in the mirror. She was wearing a white kimono with black trim, long sleeves that covered her hands while at rest and a pair of black form-fitting shorts. Her legs were bandaged, with a single tool pouch strapped to her left leg, and her Konoha forehead protector tied around her waist in place of a belt.
    "Kiyoko-chan you're going to be late for practice!" Hidemi called again.
    "I'm coming, mom!" Kiyoko called back, sighing. It was good enough. She took a deep breath, walked to her bedroom door, put her hand on the knob, and twisted it. As she opened the door, however, she felt a presence. Something was coming right at her. She had to move.

    [Bad Situation]

    A body came crashing through her bedroom door, blasting it open as she darted out of the way.
    "Wh--hey!!" Kiyoko growled, turning to see the assailant charging back at her, forcing her out of her room. The attacker was small, but fast. He raised a fist and threw a punch, Kiyoko dodged it expertly, leaping back onto the landing, but as she reached the railing, she felt a pair of hands grab her by the ankles.
    "Gotcha!!" A wily voice yelled. "Now, Aki, now!!" Kiyoko glanced behind her and saw a young boy, dangling over the side of the landing, holding onto her. He had short black hair and the featureless white eyes of the Byakugan. His name was Taki, one of her younger brothers. The other, who was rapidly approaching her now, was Aki, a boy with dark eyes and long dark blue hair.
    "I've got her this time!" Aki roared, "CHIDORI!!" As his right arm sparked with electricity and he leapt through the air, leading with his electrified arm outstretched. Kiyoko smirked, leaned back, and grabbed onto the railing. Then with all her strength, she yanked her legs up, pulling Taki up from the edge and throwing him forwards in her place. Taki squeeled as he was thrown into his brother. Kiyoko back-flipped onto the top of the landing's banister, as Aki's chidori struck Taki and they collapsed in a heap.

    [Kakashi's Theme]

    "Well..." Kiyoko hopped down from the banister and walked over to her two younger brothers who remained on the floor. Aki had a glazed-over expression on his face. Clearly the amount of chakra it required to form even the smallest amount of electricity had taken it's toll on him. As for Taki, his hair had frizzed out in every direction from taking a bolt of electricity, and his right leg was twitching. "... good morning." 
    "Don't say good morning like you're a good sister!" Aki grumbled.
    "You're a monster!!" Taki added. 
    "Am I?" Kiyoko raised an eyebrow, looking at her two brothers.
    "You never play with us!" Aki groaned with a sigh. She leaned down, grabbing each of them by the scruff of the neck and hoisting them up. "Well maybe i'd be nicer if you weren't trying to knock me out every day."
    "Well how else are we supposed to get stronger?!" Taki asked with a huff. Putting them back on their feet, Kiyoko took a step back and examined each of them, a smirk escaping the corner of her lips as she looked at Taki's frazzled hair.
    "What?" Taki frowned, looking to Aki. His brother noticed his hair at that point, and burst out laughing. 
    "Alright, well i'm late now, I hope you're happy... later." Kiyoko turned and started down the stairs. On her back, unknown to her, was a small white piece of paper. On the paper, was a message. It read, quite simply, 'Hit me, i'm stupid'. Kiyoko vanished downstairs while Aki and Taki turned to face one another, and shared a fist bump.
    "Success!" They cheered, in unison.

    [Morning]

    Meanwhile, in another part of Konoha, a young boy dressed in a blue hoodie was perched at a wooden feather-board fence. He was crouched in front of a hole just large enough for a small animal to get through. On the other side, he could hear a quiet whining. He took a step back and assessed the fence with a thin-lipped smile. His eyes were narrow, and his grin wide. If you were to describe him, you might call him 'fox-faced'. He had short, scruffy blonde hair and pale skin. His name, was Sora Sakai. The whining increased in volume and urgency.
    "Right, right, i'm comin'..." Sora replied calmly. Looking to the top of the fence, Sora leapt high into the air, grabbing onto the top of the fence, and using it to flip over to the other side. He landed in a small abandoned lot. For a moment, his eyes didn't detect the source of the whining, but then he saw it in the far right-hand corner, shrouded by a small bush. A little, cream-coloured squishy-faced dog. He couldn't remember the name of the breed. A bug? It was something like that. Bug made sense, it was tiny. As he approached the little animal, it recoiled in fear. 
    "Now, now, i'm jus' here ta help ya, look--" Sora reached into his blue hoodie and pulled out a small cereal bar. He unwrapped it, took a large bite and then knelt down, holding it out for the dog to smell. It took immediate interest in him. The sound of rustling wrappers was obviously familiar. This had to be someone's pet.

    "Come on now, I ain't gonna harm ya!" Sora tore off a small piece of the cereal bar and laid it on the ground, "There ya are." Then he sat in silence and waited. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually, the little dog stood and cautiously approached him. It was walking strangely. There was something wrong with it's front-right paw. It tried not to put any weight on it, there was clearly something wrong. As the dog approached and put its head down to eat, Sora gently laid his hand on the ground beside it. Once the dog was finished eating, it looked over and smelled his hand, then gave it a lick.
    "Good doggie," His grin widened and he gently picked the dog up and put it on his lap, where it seemed quite happy. He raised the dog's right leg, careful not to touch the dog's paw. Up close, he could see what the problem was. He just had to use his medical ninjutsu. He took the dog's paw between his hands, and activated his chakra, extending its reach through his palms and engulfing the dog's paw. The dog had a small fracture. After a few minutes work, he released the dog's paw and sighed with contentment.
    "There, all better." Sora patted the dog on the head, and then put it on the ground. The dog cautiously tried to walk back to his lap, but then realised it was able to put weight on it's paw without pain, and then quickly grew in excitement. It made little yappy barks and leapt up, trying to lick his face. 

    Sora laughed, "Now, now, I--" Suddenly, the dog stopped. It's lips pulled back in a snarl. "Ya gonna bite me, little dog?" Sora asked. But then a figure leapt over the fence and landed a few feet away. Sora was short, and very slender. There wasn't much muscle to him at all. So to say that this other boy was the complete opposite of him would not be an exaggeration. This boy was tall, broad-shouldered and was significantly well-built. Really, he didn't look anything like Sora's age, but he knew this kid was, because they were in the same class.
    "Hey!" The boy snarled, "What are you doin' with my dog, Sakai?!"
    "Oh this is yer dog, Taichi?" Sora asked, standing up to face him.
    "Give him back or i'm going to beat you." Taichi started towards Sora, intent on retrieving his animal.
    "No, I think he's happier with me, aint'cha?" Sora asked, and virtually on cue, the dog barked, wagging it's tail.
    Taichi grabbed Sora by the arm and used his other to ball up his hand into a fist, presenting it to Sora as a clearly-defined threat. Sora tried to gently pull his arm back, but Taichi held onto it firmly. The two boys stared one another down. Taichi's face almost red with rage, while Sora remained apparently unaffected by the boy's threats. The same smile remained on his face as it had done throughout the entire exchange.

    "Ya should be lettin' go a'my arm, now." Sora suggested, pulling a second time.
    "Gimme my dog!!" Taichi yelled, then brought back his balled-up fist, and threw a punch. Sora moved so quickly, that Taichi wasn't quite sure what had happened. The smaller boy managed to duck under his punch, twist around and sweep out his legs from under him. He collapsed to the floor as Sora reactivated his chakra, channelling it to his hand as he had done before, except this time, it formed a soft point in glowing energy.
    "Hey!!" Taichi yelled, in a mixture of anger and shock at seeing what Sora was about to do, "Don't--" 
    Sora jabbed Taichi in the knee with the tip of his hand and then quickly leapt back and deactivated his chakra. Taichi roared and tried to get up but found his right leg was completely numb from the knee down. He couldn't stand on it, he couldn't move it. It was as useful as dead wood.
    "Give it a few days, it'll heal, okay?" Sora said with a smile, and then held his arms out to the dog. It barked again and happily leapt up into Sora's waiting arms where the boy cradled him, studying the little, cream-coloured pup. "I'll call ya Katsu. Come on, Katsu, time to meet the others!" Katsu barked and Sora leapt back over the fence onto the street once more, leaving Taichi to lick his wounds.

    [Naruto's Daily Life]

    The rain was finally letting up. She had that to be thankful for at least. Kiyoko stepped out from under the canopy of a ramen shop, thanking the owner for the food before stepping back out onto the street. A few drops were still falling, but it had mostly cleared. Puddles were everywhere, and kids had started splashing around in them. Kiyoko was focused, however. She had to reach the meeting point just outside of the village. She had been told there would be a large, old, dead tree with a table and three chairs laid out beside it. Three chairs, for three Genin. Strange. She was a Genin now. Passing the academy and becoming a Genin was a big step for her. Something brushed her shoulder and it drew her from her thoughts.
    "Oh, sorry sorry, wasn't lookin' where I was goin'." Said a boy with short blonde hair. 
    "It's fine." Kiyoko replied, noting the dog in his arms.
    "Name's Katsu," The boy said, "The dog... My name's Sora Sakai."
    "Okay?" Kiyoko frowned, taking a step away from the strange boy as they continued to walk towards the Northern gate. A few seconds passed and then Kiyoko felt a sharp pain in her right shoulder. She recoiled, clutching it as she saw Sora withdrawing his fist. "Ouch! What's wrong with you, I should--!!" Then she realised.

    Kiyoko reached over her shoulder and plucked the note off her back, "Mhmm..." She growled, bunching up the paper into a little ball. Just then, she noticed Sora was still watching her with a smile on his face. Kiyoko grit her teeth and tensed up, but thought better of getting into a fight with this kid. She was just about to meet her Jounin teacher, and the rest of her Genin squad. She couldn't be picking fights with every idiot she came across. She was better than that. She threw the paper ball over her shoulder, which soared through the air and landed in a nearby bin.
    "OoooOOooo!!" Sora clapped.
    She frowned. Kiyoko couldn't tell if the boy was being obnoxious, or genuine. In fact, she couldn't read him at all. For someone who seemed to show his emotions so openly on his face, he was without a doubt, the definition of an enigma. She didn't like him. She couldn't say why. She just didn't. He was creepy.
    "Cereal bar?" Sora offered, holding one up to her as they passed through the North gate. 
    "No." She replied. Sora shrugged his shoulders and resumed eating.

    Around a minute after she'd set out, Kiyoko looked over at Sora and Katsu. They were still walking beside her. They couldn't possibly... was Sora one of her Genin teammates? So who was the third and why weren't they here? Then her eyes darted down to Katsu. The little dog looked her dead in the eye, and let loose a little squeaky fart.
    "No. There's no way!" Kiyoko burst out as she saw the old, dead tree and the table with three chairs ahead of her.
    "What's that, Kiyoko-chan?" Sora asked.
    "How do you know my name?!" Kiyoko challenged him, putting her hands on her waist, "What's your game, huh? And what's the dog about?!"
    "Yer Kiyoko Hyūga. Daughter of an Uchiha an' a Hyūga. But, ya don't really have any special abilities..."
    "Wha--" Kiyoko tried to interrupt.
    "--an' i'm Sora Sakai. I'm gonna be ya medical nin. Then there's Omitsune Kiryuin. She's the third."
    "She's late. Later than we were, and..." Kiyoko paused, glancing around, "Come to think of it, our teacher isn't here either..."


  12. OOC: Private RP, gave it an 'NC-17' for violence, gore and dark themes.


     

    Project Guardian

     

    Breakfast was always a rushed affair in the Nakamura household. Ai always woke up late, so her father, Satoshi, always had to pick up her slack. Today was no different. She woke with a start, after realising she'd reset her alarm more than a dozen times. It was 8:43am and she had less than 20 minutes to get to school on time. She heard the pop of the toaster ejecting delicious, crispy toast as she fumbled down the stairs, trying to slip-on her other shoe.
    "You're late!" Her father growled, but he smiled against his temper as she darted past him, kissing him on the cheek as she grabbed a slice of toast. His toast. He rolled his eyes and tried to grab the second slice, but she snatched it from the toaster as she was swallowing down the last piece of the first slice. "OI!!" He made a sour face.
    "I'm late!" She rationalised, and he found himself unable to argue. She grinned and grabbed her backpack. 
    "I'm working late tonight, so--"

    "--'kay, bye!!" Ai waved goodbye to her father as she rushed out the front door and immediately collided with a young boy who crumpled to the ground as though hit by a truck.
    "Ah, geez!" The short brown-haired boy stared up at the raven-haired girl and scowled, "Ai, you could be a little more careful!"
    "Sorry." She helped the boy to his feet, grinning at him. It took him a moment, but he returned the grin himself. "Come on, we're going to be late, Takashi!"
    "I wouldn't be late if you didn't run into me every morning, i'm gonna start walking down a different street." He grumbled, shoving his hands into his pockets.
    Ai grabbed his arm, pulling his hand out and started to run, "Come on!" She yelled, as they sped up and Takashi was virtually pulled along the street.

    Ai sat on a park bench. School had been a pain. Yes, she was late. It didn't help that the school had an outdated punishment system thanks to the old-school headmaster. Both Takashi and herself spent two hours stood in front of the main gate, holding a bucket of water in each hand, with the sign, 'I am a truant' around their necks. She stretched her shoulders and relaxed them as best she could.
    "I can't believe we were out there for so long, d'you think they forgot us?" Ai asked, brushing her scruffy hair out of her dark brown eyes. "Takashi?" She looked over, expecting to see her friend. But he wasn't there. She looked around for a moment, but realised he must have gone for snacks or something. Ai got up from the bench and walked over to sit in the shade of a nearby tree. She blinked, and for a moment, she saw a boy standing on the other side of the school fence, staring at her.

    Then he was gone, just as quickly. Ai frowned, but before the thought could permeate, she saw a can of drink appear in her periphery and she looked over to see Takashi standing there, waiting.
    "Did you hear me?" He asked, sighing, "Come on, i'm waiting!" 
    She took the can of iced green tea, thanking him as he sat down beside her. "There, that's better." Takashi sighed, enjoying the relief from the hot summer's afternoon sun. 
    "Did you see a boy over there?" Ai asked. "A boy with white hair?" 
    "White hair?" Takashi repeated her question in disbelief, "What a poser... where?" 
    "Right over there." She pointed at the fence.
    "Well... he's gone now!" Takashi took a sip of his drink. "Well, anyway, I--" 
    "Hmm?" Ai looked over, but her friend was gone. Ai stood bolt upright and looked around, "Takashi?!" She called out, there was no response. She walked around the diameter of the tree, assuming he was hiding from her, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was just... gone. "Like the boy with the white hair..." She muttered.

    There was a flash of red light. 

    Ai stumbled as she hit the last step on her staircase, "Hey!!" She yelped, and fell forwards, grabbing onto the railing to stop herself from falling flat on her face. She collapsed in a heap and looked around. What just happened? Had she been talking to someone? She remained seated on the step for a few minutes until her father came running past, a piece of toast hanging from his lips.
    "Come on, Ai! It's 8:45am, you're going to be late!" Her father marched past her, "I'll see you later, okay? I'm going to be working late tonight, so--"
    "--kay... bye..." Ai muttered, watching as her father ran out the door, closing it behind him. She heard a distant voice, "Morning Takashi!"
    "Oh!!" Ai exclaimed. She leapt to her feet and ran for the front door, forgetting her backpack entirely. She grabbed the door handle, twisted it open and stepped out into--

    Another flash of red light.

    Ai felt something strange between her toes. She looked down, and saw she was stood in sand. She was on a beach. She recognised it immediately. It was the beach near Okinawa that her father had taken her many times before. They went scuba-diving here. But wasn't she in her house a moment ago? And it was morning, but now the sun was... Ai looked up, shielding her eyes from the full force of the sun. But the sun wasn't a brilliant white-yellow. It was red. 

    Red light thrummed in front of her eyes. She blinked. Something wasn't right. Where was she? She felt something cold touching her skin. She felt cold. She felt like she was standing, but at an angle, as if she was going to be poured out of something. Where was she? She found herself asking again. Ai tried to open her eyes and focus, but it was difficult. A brilliant red light grew in intensity, and quickly dimmed every few seconds. She tried to focus past the light in front of her, and saw that the world ahead of her was distorted, as if by glass. She saw computer monitors, tech equipment, a number of desks with various lab tools scattered around. It almost looked like... Yes. She was in her father's lab. But she was never allowed in her father's lab. Not since she was a little girl and she wandered in from the main lobby, ignoring his instruction to remain in the lobby. She had to get out. If he found her here, she'd be in trouble. That was why she was having weird thoughts about the beach and getting ready, she must have come in, gotten curious about something bubbling away, taken a whiff and passed out. There was no telling what was in here, she thought to herself. She reached out and pressed her palm against the glass. A distant voice belonging to a woman Ai didn't recognise echoed in the coldness of the lab.

    "Structural integrity is at 11%. Simulation disengaged. Bay door opening. Play Dr. Nakamura message #06."

    "Hello Ai, I expect you have questions, and I will answer all of them shortly..." 

    Ai felt pressure on her back as she stepped forwards, but the pressure was relieved as she stepped onto the cold lab floor. She took a few deep breaths and coughed, her lungs felt raw. She looked down at herself and realised she was naked. For a moment, panic spread through her, then she realised, she wasn't naked, she was wearing some kind of flesh coloured body suit. Like the kind some Olympic athletes wear. It was stupid. She wanted rid of it, but until she could find her own clothes, she was stuck with it. 

    "...Ai, if I succeeded in imparting to you all my hopes and dreams..."

    Looking up, Ai searched for the sound of her father's voice, quickly realising it was coming from the speakers in the corners of the room. Everything was so confusing, she found herself stood in silence, listening to her father's message. At first, it seemed like he'd left her a voice message no different from those he often left on their home phone, telling her he wouldn't be home in time for dinner. It sounded dire, because he was going to disappoint her. Again. But no, this was different.

    "... don't know what they are. We call them the 'Blue'. Life from another galaxy, but not what we were expecting, to say the least. They are voracious. They feed on organic life. In essence... us. I think we are their ultimate goal. I don't know how far they travelled to get here, but it must have taken thousands of years. There was probably a lot more of them when they set off, but they cannibalised themselves until they arrived on Earth, and began repopulating as they consumed the human population--"
    "What?!" Ai gasped in disbelief. What the hell was he talking about?!
    "--haven't done enough. I tried to create the perfect defence against the Blue, but it's failed. I've failed... they're coming..." Ai heard a rumbling in the message, then it cut short and was replaced by the woman's voice over the speakers a second time.
    "Play Dr. Nakamura message #07."

    "They're coming!" A terrible screech as metal was being wrenched. Ai clutched at her ears, and relaxed as the noise waned. "I've no time, i'm setting the tests to run automatically, dammit why are they always so prompt!" She heard a muffled laugh that warped into a cough, "No time. No time! Come on, hurry up!" She heard the woman's voice again, but this time, it was a part of the message.
    "Download at 68%..."
    Terrible, wrenching, screeching noises.
    "NO, YOU CAN'T HAVE HER!!" Ai recoiled at the sound of her father screaming at the top of his lungs, and then suddenly he was cut short. She heard crunching, and the sound of water dripping, and then heavy footsteps. Finally, silence. Ai was so engrossed with the message, staring at the speaker in one corner, that she hadn't taken any notice of her surroundings.
    "Message ends." 
    The voice cut the clip off, and there was silence once more. Ai turned and looked back at where she'd stepped out of, it was some kind of escape pod. Long, thick black cables fell in loose bundles, tipped with metal spears that looked like they were made to go in something. Then she felt something. She didn't know how she knew. But she knew she wasn't alone. She found herself focusing on that sensation, and it was then she heard the faintest sound of breathing. Whirling around, Ai saw a figure cloaked in shadow at the far end of the room.

    Screaming, Ai leapt back. Then suddenly, she was falling. She'd tripped over something. She collapsed to the ground and saw she'd tripped over a small pile of bones. A skull stared back at her, and she screamed again. Then her eyes focused on something else. She saw a gun. Instinctively she reached for it, grabbed it, pointed the weapon at the man, and pulled the trigger multiple times. Nothing happened. She heard a faint whirr as the gun attempted to fire and failed, then a tinny voice called out from the gun.
    "Cells: Empty." Completely defenceless, Ai looked back at the intruder, and waited in shocked silence.


  13. The bell rang, signifying the end of school hours. Amber stood up, gathered her things and left her classroom. She wanted to meet up with her friends before heading home. She walked into the corridor, as hundreds of other students began to congest the hallways, and she tried to move through them on her way to the exit. As she went, she saw two of her friends. Jessica, a girl with short brown hair, glasses and a smattering of freckles beneath her eyes, and Rachel, a girl with bright blonde hair tied back into a ponytail. The two girls fell in line beside Amber, nodding to her with a smile.
    "How was class?" Amber asked, grinning because she knew the answer already.
    "Ugh, boring, Mr. Jacobson makes math more boring than I thought possible." Jessica groaned, holding her books to her chest.
    "Yeah, pretty much." Rachel added, with a lop-sided smile.

    "Is that all, Rach?" Amber asked, smirking. "I thought you hated Jacobson. God, you're always going on about him." 
    "Yeah, he's pretty much the worst, but at least its over and we can, y'know, relax a bit." Rachel held tightly onto her backpack, her expression slightly nervous. 
    "Are you alright?" Amber asked. Jessica noticed Rachel then, and looked her up and down critically.
    "Yeah, i'm fine!" Rachel reassured her friends.
    "You're not yourself." Jessica muttered. "Maybe we should go to the bathroom... freshen up?" 
    "Excellent idea!" Amber exclaimed. She made a quick detour. She was going to wait to get home to have a nice, long soak in the bath. But at least a quick spritz would be refreshing. Leading them into the girl's bathroom, Amber closed the door behind Jessica and Rachel and let out a long sigh. 

    "So that was a pretty nasty fight you had earlier..." Jessica mused, walking over to look at herself in the mirror.
    "What, between me and that four-eyed nightmare-- no offence, Rach..." Amber added swiftly. 
    "Oh... none taken." Rachel muttered, walking over to the first stall. She opened the door, leaving the door open, then put the lid down on the toilet seat and sat atop it. "I guess I was just hoping we could all get on. I don't even understand why you and Claire fell out in the first place."
    "It's personal, okay, you know better than to ask, geez..." Amber shook her head in disappointment. "Rach, remember? Bit of privacy, please?" 
    "Oh, sorry..." Rachel nervously leaned forwards and grabbed the stall door, closing it and locking it so she was inside.
    "Honestly, we let you join us because we thought we saw something special in you, but you just keep forgetting the rules--" Amber turned both sink taps on, as did Jessica, while Rachel remained locked within the stall. "You've gotta keep up, dear!" Amber chuckled and looked at Jessica, they shared a look.

    Then Amber started running her hands under the water, and they immediately turned a brilliant shade of blue. She turned to check Jessica, but she too was already covering her arms, as they turned the same bright shade. Just a little spritz, that's all that was needed. Then Jessica cupped her hands under the water, turned and splashed Amber in the face.
    "HEY!!" Amber snapped, as her face turned blue, her eyes narrowed and she suddenly looked as though she was a human-sized faerie. Striking veins of dark blue shot through her face, with a mysterious and enchanting set of eyes that were wholly of another world. "That's not funny, Jessica! What if someone came in here right now!" But Jessica wasn't done yet. She turned, kicked open the bathroom stall, with Rachel inside, and splashed her in the face as well. But Rachel didn't change as Amber had.
    "WHAT THE HELL?!" Amber roared, shoving Jessica. Jessica darted inside the stall, pulled something from her pocket, and pressed it against Rachel's mouth. The girl collapsed almost immediately, leaving Amber to watch in disbelief as her friend walked out of the stall, leaving the unconscious Rachel inside. 
    "She could have seen us!!" Amber snarled, her face twisting with rage, "I can't believe you Jessica, that's not funny! Just because I wanted your help before doesn't mean you get to go all gung-ho on me with the human! She's brand new, and we're trying to make a good impression, remember?!"

    "Right." Jessica muttered, "You're an idiot."
    "WHAT?!" Amber looked as though her eyes were about to pop out of her head. 
    Jessica took a deep breath and shook as though she was shedding something uncomfortable. Within a second, she was no longer Jessica. Violet stood before Amber, brushed some of her bright blue hair out of her face and grinned. "So, you're not the only one who can hide what they look like, kid." 
    Amber was speechless. She stood there, her mouth agape, struggling to process what had just happened. 
    "So, you're a nymph, but... she's not... Jessica obviously is, too." Violet crossed her arms and thought for a moment. Amber finally began to come around to her senses and tried to make a dash for the bathroom door, but Violet was faster and blocked it. "No, not so quick, i'm not going to rat you out, I just want to talk!" 
    "You're not human..." Amber muttered, her eyes still bulging in surprise. 
    "Mmm, like I said, Amber. You're an idiot." Violet looked over at the unconscious Rachel, "Why did you want a human in your group? Come on, fill me in a bit and i'll let you go."
    "Why should I? I could scream, call a teacher, call the cops..." Amber started listing through her possible fall-backs. 

    "I could just kill you?" Violet suggested.
    "You're a hunter..." Amber's voice trembled as realisation set in. 
    "Yes, technically. But it doesn't need to go down that way if you tell me what I want to know, alright?" Violet raised her eyebrow with an expectant, 'So how 'bout it?' expression. Amber hesitated, glancing back at the bathroom door, but there was no escape, and if this woman really was a hunter, not to mention she definitely wasn't human.
    "Only if you answer my questions..." Amber retorted childishly. Violet smirked. The girl had moxie, if nothing else. She could appreciate that.
    "Alright, fine." Violet nodded.
    "What are you?" Amber asked, pointing at her up and down.
    "Mm, there's no word for what I am, at least in the human languages. Just nicknames." Violet cleared her throat and then jerked her head at the unconscious Rachel, "Wanna tell me why you're involving a human in your little nymph group social?"
    "There's a few humans in our group..." Amber replied, shrugging off Violet's question, "I mean, we're not exactly a majority race, and we want to keep the river clean, and clear up our community, and we can't exactly do that on our own these days. Plus... Rachel's nice, if a bit..." She trailed off and shrugged. 

    "So, who killed Kate?" Violet asked, and studied Amber's face as she reacted. Amber was horrified at the question. 
    "I don't know!!" Amber snapped, "Oh my God, do you think if I did, i'd have kept it to myself? He's killed several of my friends!"
    "He?" Violet asked, frowning.
    "I'm just--" She laughed, "I'm generalising, I assume it's a guy, isn't it almost always?" Amber sighed, rubbing her forehead as her skin began to turn back to normal. "Anyway, why are you here, if you're not hunting nymphs, what are you here about? The murders?" 
    "Exactly. I'm here to stop them. You do want them to be stopped, don't you?" 
    "Of course!" Amber got angry again, then upset. She picked up her bag, "Can I go now?"

    Violet walked over to Rachel and pulled out a small bottle. Smelling salts. She cracked the lid open a touch and ran it under the girl's nose, and she roused almost immediately. Rachel jumped in surprise at seeing Violet, she was confused and agitated. Violet put her hand on her shoulder and helped her up. 
    "You're alright, you passed out." Violet said, patting her on the back.
    "Did I?" Rachel asked, frowning and looking around. "Amber?" She asked, and stepped out of the stall, to see her friend standing there. "Did I pass out?" Amber's gaze flicked to Violet for a moment, then back to her friend and she nodded.
    "You hit the dirt pretty quick, Jessica ran to get a nurse." Amber smiled at her friend, "You should go lie down, sweetie." Rachel nodded, still a little confused, and ambled out of the bathroom, leaving Amber and Violet alone once more. "That was low..." She muttered. 
    Violet shrugged her shoulders, "So, Jessica will wake up in a few minutes, she'll be okay but she won't know what happened, she's in the boy's bathroom, so you can go get her now. Best tell her the truth though, let her know what happened just now. After all, you and her are on the same team. But, i'm going to keep looking into this, you say you don't know the killer or killers, fine. But I happen to know they were gored to death, and that's not exactly a typical human murder now, is it?" 
    "Gored?" Amber asked, her face turned pale. 

    Violet looked her over, "You know something about this, Amber?" 
    "No..." Amber shook her head, "If I learn something, i'll tell you, okay? I promise." 
    "Just remember what happened here today, and remember i'll be back to have another chat if I find out you lied to me, and that chat will have an air of finality to it, right?" Violet pointed at the girl, then turned and walked out of the bathroom. So, at least if Amber is to be believed, she's not directly involved. But she definitely knows something. There are too many pieces missing from this puzzle right now. Violet began to wonder what Vincent was doing. Drinking and smoking, probably. Maybe bitching about her, and maybe he had a right to. After all, she'd overreacted, and then dealt with that by overreacting again. She hadn't taken the time to look at what she'd done, and only now after stalking and changing places with Jessica after several missed opportunities, and then getting in close with Amber and waiting for the right moment, was she able to gleam any information. Yes, several of the community clean-up eco-cheerleaders were nymphs. But several were not. Had all the victims been nymphs? 
    "Dammit, I knew i'd forgotten to ask something..." Violet was just about at the exit, she had her hand on the door, and was staring out of the window, when she started to turn around to go back and ask Amber that key question that of course she'd forgotten to ask. But that was when she saw her. 

    In the reflection of the window, was a woman stood behind Violet. The other teenagers seemed to take no notice of her, but they moved around her all the same. It was as though they were aware that a person was stood there, but they couldn't focus on her, or care for her being there. Violet could make out a few details in the reflection. Black, scruffy hair, thick and covering half her face. Black clothes and a necklace with a broken heart pendant hanging over her tank-top. Her skin was as white as snow, and her expression seemed sombre.
    "I'm not turning around, while you're there..." Violet muttered.
    "Maybe I won't be here when you do..." She replied.
    "I thought we agreed you'd leave me alone..." Violet's tone grew sharp. She saw the woman shrug in the reflection.
    "I guess I was just worried about you."
    "It's not your job to be worried about me." Violet retorted, getting angrier. 
    "If I ask you to calm down, will you?" 
    Violet gripped the handle of the door tighter and took a deep breath, "What do you want?" 
    "You should be nicer to your brother, he loves you, in his own way." 
    "Thanks for the advice, but--" Violet turned, ready to chew her out, but there was nobody there. One of the students noticed the strange girl with blue hair talking to herself for the first time and chuckled, moving with the rest of the throng of teens leaving the school for the day. "God-dammit... you didn't answer my question..." Violet muttered. After a few seconds she shook her head, opened the door and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine.


  14. "You better be here when I get back." Violet pointed at the teenage girls, her tone said it all, but they just laughed and walked off. "Unbelievable." She growled, turned and ran after her brother. She had to run down an entire hallway and turn a corner before she finally managed to catch up to him, he must have been going at double pace.
    "Hey!" She pushed him in the back of his shoulder, and stopped, throwing her hands up, "What's your attitude?!" 
    "My attitude?" Vincent asked, turning round with a dark expression. "What's with yours? For someone that's supposed to be a professional you're anything but!" He turned away from her, staring off at nothing. "I guess I'm just remembering why we stopped seeing each other in the first place..." He muttered.
    "It's a coat, Vince!" Violet bit back at him, "We used to wind each other up all the time, hell, you used to admit that winding me up was a highlight for you! I just wanted you to--" She trailed off, changed her mind about what she wanted to say, "I... wanted you to remember how we used to mess around, when you were my brother..."

    "Things... they're different now." Vincent replied, not looking at her. "If you think this is about pudding in my pocket, you need to think again. You brought me out here when you knew I didn't want to do this. You have not needed me here, not once. So why am I here, Vi? You can do everything I can with less cost and less restriction. So what possible reason could you have for me being here?"
    Hit him. She resisted the urge, but she wanted to all the same. Vincent knew how she felt about her powers. He had to. She couldn't help being what she was, she didn't like it, many days she hated it. Rare moments of fleeting unimportance might give her momentary satisfaction, but that was it. Rarely did she enjoy her 'gift' as her mother would call it. To have Vincent reciting the words she'd heard time and again, anew; from dad, from Vince, from her 'real' mother and from anyone in dad's inner-circle. She was gifted, he was not. She was better than he was. She wasn't bound to 'mortal inadequacies', and so on.


    "Shut up!" Violet snarled, her nose reflexively twitching in anger, pulling her top lip up along with it, "You think I can do all this by myself? Do you see dad, genius?! I...!!" She was going to continue shouting, but she realised the next words out of her mouth were somewhat sensitive, so instead she pushed herself into his space and hissed the words at him.
    "I hunt monsters, at night, in the middle of the woods, in the rain, mud and freezing cold, after tracking them for days, sometimes. I do not make social calls. I am not a huckster, I dont spend my days tricking people out of their secrets like you do, I usually have to find other ways around it, because if you haven't noticed, Vince, in all these years - I don't play nice with people."

    "Oh, please." Vincent shook his head dismissively. "You can literally make yourself look and sound like anyone. Don't give me that crap." He turned around and walked off, but after a few steps he turned on his heel and came back, pacing. "You piss through enough energy to take shortcuts that would give me so much psychic backlash It'd be like Final Destination here. I don't care about how you feel about who you are. You're a sentient battery, so what? Mom never treated you any differently, and neither did I."

    Vincent stopped pacing and faced Violet, pointing at her. "You know what? Every decision I make, magically or otherwise, is about how I can get the most out of the least. If you practised that, even a little, you could do anything I could, and more. Hell, even if you don't..." He let out a defeated sigh. "I never even found a trace of him, Violet and I...I did some things that were seriously risky. Things I might live to regret someday. But you...you found a lead. And you did that without me."

    "What are you talking about?!" Violet grew angrier, "You never treated me any differently?!" Violet bundled her hands into tight little fists, "I saw the look on your face when I woke up that night, and my skin was tearing off in ribbons! I'm glad I didn't see myself that night, because I was scared enough looking back at myself through your eyes, your face, hell, the whole room cast in that awful purple light..." Violet's breaths were heaving, she was trying to restrain herself, but as she grew more enraged at the thought of her past, she began to lose control. "Vince, I spent 14 years as a normal, well, a relatively normal, well-adjusted girl with a family who loved her, decent grades and I had friends and... sure, dad talked about magic and stuff when you got older, but back then, I didn't really care about all that stuff because next to you I could barely conjure a flame. Then suddenly, one night, I find myself screaming into the bathroom mirror while i'm trying to reattach my face in the glow of my own luminescence."

    Violet almost laughed. There was something so ridiculous about that idea, but she was too angry and she felt as though all her nerves had been laid bare right now.
    "Then this woman that looks like... well, the thing under this," Violet indicated her face, "Like a best-guess shape of a human, only made of purple dark matter or something and with hair like living energy, and those glowing white eyes..." She let out a short, sharp sigh, "Tells me she's my mother. Not the woman that raised me, and cared for me, and loved me. And that I should drop her, and you, and everything else, including my planet, and my dimension and go with her for a reason I can't fathom. So suddenly you're not my brother and my mom isn't my mom, and my dad cheated on my... surrogate mother, I guess...? And i'm an inter-dimensional cosmic glow-stick, that isn't even part of the human race any more... and I just..." Violet let her shoulders fall in defeat.

    "Martha is your mother, Violet." Vincent said sternly. "That woman cared for you, and still does. She loves you, and so do I." He sighed, shrugging uncomfortably. He stuck his hand in his pocket and removed the remains of the pudding cup, tossing it on the floor, before picking out globs of the pudding with his hand and flicking it away. 

    "Here's the thing." He said as he continued trying to get as much of the stuff out of his coat as he could. "Humans struggle. We toil, and we work and everything has a cost. Everything is messy and difficult, and so we have to grow up, improve, be better." He motioned to the mess he had created on the floor. "Impatience combined with childish spite. Sure, it's annoying, but that's not why I'm angry. The point is you do this back then, too. You act without thinking of the consequences. Nobody benefited from this action, in fact it only caused suffering to me, however minor. You know who does that?" He looked her in the eyes, finally. "Vael does."

    "You..." Violet felt a shudder trickle down her spine, vibrate through her arms and focus into her fists. She was as surprised as Vincent, as she watched her fist connect with Vincent's face. It was like watching the scene in Rocky where Stallone goes down, only this was uglier, and with a touch more saliva. "... arrogant, jealous--" Vincent hit the linoleum floor, "--holier-than-thou, precious little knight riding in on your white horse!" Violet couldn't help herself, the words came tumbling out, "Dismount for just a second, and realise that you wish you could do what I do! I might not have liked what I became, Vince, but at least I found a way to live with myself. I got out, I travelled, I met people. Yeah, I killed some of them. But they were monsters. What have you been doing lately? Scraping by in a run-down apartment, by yourself, selling dreams to the sad and the lost, and when you've no more to sell, you can join them." Violet took a deep breath and crossed her arms, "Alright. Now you can storm off."

    Vincent got up slowly, clutching his right eye. He stumbled slightly as he tried to right himself, but then he stood up straight. When he took his hand away from his eye it was still closed, and the redness suggested it was going to swell up. He looked livid, and on the brink of saying something back to her, but then he swallowed it as quickly as it had rose up. "Goodbye, Violet." He said simply, then he turned around and walked off, swaying slightly where he hadn't quite regained his balance.

    Watching him leave, Violet couldn't help herself, it was in her impulsive nature to want to chase after him and attempt to resolve things. She felt the draw to follow him, but ignored it as best she could. She wasn't following him this time. If things were going to be set right, it would have to be later. For right now, she needed to know if any of the other cheerleaders - the girls who also apparently doubled as eco-warriors, community leaders and who knows what else - were Nymphs or other supernatural creatures. Knowing that might help reveal several more threads in this tale. But if she was going to do that, she was going to need a little more tact and guile than the level of subtlety with which she had interacted with Vincent just moments prior. Just a smidge. 


  15. They'd barely been on the road for a few hours and her patience was running thin. Violet gripped the steering wheel with both hands, her eyes darting over at the delicately teetering ash threatening to fall onto the floor and sully her otherwise clean upholstery, or worse still, burn a permanent hole into it.
    "Y'know I might not have any lungs, Vince..." Violet growled through the corner of her mouth as she tried to focus on the road, "But if you keep smoking in my car, neither will you."
    "Ugh, you're so mean." Vincent replied, flicking the cigarette out of the window. "You should make more stops then. I gotta feed the monkey on my back regularly or else he gets real mad."
    "Well if you really need to stop, that's just as well then, 'cus i've got a job to do before we go on. So you might as well make yourself useful." Violet took the next turning, the sign read 'Lafayette'. They had crossed into Indiana. "Hey, does it feel cold to you?" Violet asked, but before she could get an answer, she saw one. Little flakes of snow trickled down from the sky, which had quickly become overcast. She took a second to glance skyward. "It's the middle of June for Christ's sake, it should be hot as hell out here!" 

    "Climate change, sis..." Vincent replied dryly. "We should have listened to Al Gore."
    "If we listened to Al Gore we'd all be walking around in hamster bubbles. But, snow in June...? I guess there are worse--" Violet trailed off. Something had caught her eye. This was what she'd come here for. She pulled the car over and parked it and immediately got out, not waiting to see if Vincent was following. Quickly she crossed the road, and joined the throng of onlookers. The police were trying to contain the scene but there were just too many people.
    "Come on now, move along!" One of the officers barked, "This is a crime scene!!"
    Violet looked over her shoulder for Vincent and saw him approaching, then turned back to see what had happened, she pushed her way through the crowd to the front until at last she finally breached. She saw yellow do-not-cross tape, and beyond, a body. A young woman, with long blonde hair. She was very beautiful, pale, and she was terrified. It looked as though there had been a struggle. There were claw marks in her skin, but Violet couldn't get any closer.

    "Hm..." Vincent said as he leaned in behind Violet and peered at the victim. "...Looks nasty. Cold should preserve the crime scene quite nicely though. Silver linings, eh?"
    "Yeah..." Violet muttered, biting her lower lip in thought, "Hey, can you magic yourself a suit?" She asked, quickly pushing her way back out of the crowd.
    "No, well....yes I could, with a bit of preparation but-" He cut off, following her. When they went back to the car he opened the back door and looked inside one of his duffel bags, before retrieving a small variety of ID tags. "I've got Homeland, Feds and CIA and... parking attendant?" He screwed his face up at the last one. "Anyway they don't all wear suits, you know."
    "You're right. The latter get to wear a little cap." Violet grinned, then looked around. There were too many people surrounding them. She got into her car, the tinted windows gave her enough privacy to change quickly. She was only in the car for a couple of seconds, but when she exited it, her hair had been tied back into a ponytail and turned black, and her clothes had turned into a slim-fitting black suit. "I mean, maybe they don't all wear suits, but it's more fun like this."

    "F.B.I.!" Violet barked at the top of her lungs, holding up her ID card in a little black flip wallet. The sharp, authoritative tone of her voice was enough to make the crowd of civilians part before her, and she confidently swept underneath the police line and stepped towards the body. One officer confronted them, a tall man with a blonde moustache.
    "Afternoon, Officer...?" She let the question hang in the air, it was good to open the dialogue with a question and let him know who was in charge.
    "Officer Daniels, Ma'am. And you are?" Daniels asked, nodding to her respectfully, and then to Vincent in turn.
    "Special Agent Hutch," Then she pointed over her shoulder to her brother, "And that's Special Agent Starsky."
    "Starsky." Daniels tipped his hat and pointed at the woman, "Nasty thing this, never seen something so savage." Violet took a moment to turn back and glance at Vincent with a neutral expression. It appeared neutral. But she was smiling on the inside. She turned back to face Officer Daniels.
    "Do you know what caused these cuts to her arms?" Violet asked.
    "They're defensive wounds," Daniels replied, "She held her arms up, to protect herself, and they got shredded, maybe from a blunt knife, or an animal, I don't rightly know but I expect when they get the investigative team it'll be more clear. But if I was a betting man, i'd say she was gored."

    "Good thing you're not a betting man." Vincent said as he knelt down next to the body. "What with an officer's salary and all. Terrible waste..." He trailed off, now more interested in the corpse. He sniffed at the air, trying to catch any familiar scents. "Agent Hutch... can I run something by you..." Vincent indicated for her to come down to him, next to the body.
    "What is it, Starsky?" Violet asked, taking a knee beside Vincent.
    "I have no freaking idea." Vincent said in a hushed whisper. "I just wanted you to know that 1. I said we weren't doing this, and I knew you were gonna make me do this, which is why I packed my fake IDs. 2. I'm pretty sure that cop is one of the many, many people who has seen Starsky and Hutch."
    "Yeah... I mean, obviously. To both of those." Violet gave Vincent a pat on the back and smiled, "Oookay, so..." She looked down at the body and sighed then reached into her suit trousers and pulled out a small keyring with a dozen small discs attached to it. Each disc was made of a different material, either a metal, silver, wood, glass, etc. Each disc had a different symbol etched into the disc. Violet discreetly held each disc to the bare skin of the woman, one by one. There was no reaction. "Well, she's not been inhabited by a demon, she isn't a werewolf, or a vampire, a wendigo, or a--" Violet noticed something then. The snow falling onto the woman's pale skin. She was pale, sure. But her skin was almost blue. "Maybe she's..." Violet reached out to touch the woman's arm. Her hand pressed down onto her cold, moist skin, pressing down the light dressing of snow that had accumulated upon it. Then she rubbed the snow, using the warmth of her hand, and watched as a section of the woman's arm turned a luminescent blue. It was beautiful, but unbelievable to the uninitiated.
    "So..." Violet grinned, looking to Vincent.
    "So someone killed Smurfette." Vincent replied with a slight smirk. "So blue skin, reaction to water...don't tell me, uh..." He made a series of 'um' and 'ah' noises, "...a Selkie? Naiad?"
    "Oh come on, ball park, Vince! You really haven't been keeping up on things, have you?" Violet looked at her brother. Something clicked then. Some part of her must have been holding out, she'd assumed for some reason, that despite not following in the footsteps of their father, that Vincent might have at least continued his studies as a means to protect himself, or further his learning on his own volition.
    "Selkies never stray far from the ocean, and revert to their seal form when they die. A Naiad seems far more reasonable. A Nymphs skin reacts to the element they were born from, so she was either born from water or from ice, it probably doesn't matter, assuming she is a Nymph..."
    "Well, the physical signs are there, at least for a corpse." Vincent replied. "The best way to confirm is to look at the surroundings a little. Check out the town, read in to the girl, her friends, her personality. Naiads are notoriously jealous creatures."
    "Now where would you find notoriously jealous creatures?" Violet asked with a mocking tone.

     


     

    "Yeah." She answered herself. Vincent and Violet were stood at the gates of the West Lafayette High. One of the major schools for Lafayette, with prestigious programmes in sports, biology and mathematics. But it was best known for it's football team, the Hawks, who it was claimed many had gone on to become pro players. 
    "So," Violet began, as they entered the building, "According to that idiot cop who either has never seen Starsky and Hutch or... I don't know, needs to change professions... this school connects every murder victim. They've either been a current student as young as 15, or an alumni as old as 21. No younger, no older."
    "I have to say, Violet, you're a cruel sister." Vincent said, folding his arms. He had put on a long, tan-coloured winter coat and was puffing away on a cigarette. "And I bought you waffles and everything..." He sighed and flicked his cigarette away, walking through the gates of the school. "God, I hate teenagers..."

    "Stop whining, ya big baby." Violet muttered, looking down the halls. Teenagers were moping past here at varying speeds and attitudes. She glanced at Vincent but decided not to engage him and instead, saw a kid with short brown curly hair and glasses, and as he tried to pass her, she snatched him by his shirt.
    "H-hey, lady!" The kid struggled to break free, "What the hell?!"
    "Don't lady me, puke, i'll smush your--" She saw Vincent's expression and rolled her eyes and retracted her follow-up, "Look, what's the name of the girl that died earlier today?"
    "What?" The boy looked upset and confused, "K-Kate... Kate Williams?"
    "Right. Kate Williams--" Violet turned to Vincent, "We really should have asked that while we were there." Although, admittedly, they were on borrowed time. Daniels might have been an idiot, but it was clear he wasn't going to tolerate their presence for much longer. "So, did Kate have many enemies?" 
    "I dunno..." The kid muttered, staring at them both, afraid.

    "This is high school, everyone has enemies." Vincent said, frowning. "Let me guess. Kate Williams; pretty, popular. All the guys drool over her, all the girls want to be her friend. Except..." He held his index finger up to punctuate his speech, "She, like all popular girls, is a bitch. Am I warm, kid?"
    "What?" The kid frowned, "No!" He finally found his voice, "And my name's Ben!" Said Ben. "What's up with you guys? Have you been watching Highschool Musical or something?!" Vincent looked at Violet.
    "Maybe once or twice." She growled defensively.
    "Look," Ben continued, "Kate was a nice girl! All the Eco girls are nice, they raise money for charity, and clean up the neighbourhood, they're all part of the cheer-leading squad for the Hawks, I mean, Kate studies really hard... just... get off me!" Ben - the kid, as she had decided to call him from there on - ran off down the corridor.

    "Well... clearly we're old and out of touch." Vincent said, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Cheerleading eco-warriors? That's just confusing. What ever happened to the good, old cliques? Nerds, Jocks, Popular Kids, it was a simpler time. I knew things were going downhill when Batman became mainstream."
    "Hmmm..." Violet sighed, she felt tired, run-down. She rubbed at her eyes. She didn't want to say anything to her brother, but she could really do with an infusion of energy. Sticking her hand in a plug socket might be a start. But maybe not a school. Her brain was working slower, but it came around eventually. "Right. All the victims were girls, all the Eco-warriors are girls, Kate was an Eco-maniac - think that's a coincidence when she's a Nymph?"
    "Well there's a river running through this city." Vincent suggested. "That'd make her Potamides, a river Naiad. Essentially lesser deities. They are the daughters of the river, so it's essentially family to them. At least I think so, I'd need to consult the bestiary for more." Vincent checked his watch. "Could look it up over coffee and a bagel?" He looked back at the school. "Or we could see what the cafeteria has here. Been a while since I had a good sloppy joe."
    "Where else am I gonna get dinner and a movie?" Violet shook her head and smirked, following her brother to the cafeteria. There were only a few outcomes that jumped to mind right now: 

    * Kate was targeted because she was a Nymph, then there was either another
    creature out there that had a grudge, or perhaps a hunter with a penchant for absolutes.
    * Kate became a victim because in spite of her innocence, she drew the jealousy of a classmate
    who saw her achievements and wanted to take that away from her.
    * Kate was killed in an altercation because she may not have been innocent, and as a Nymph,
    was caught up in something she shouldn't have been involved in.

    There were other possibilities, but those were the three most likely. However, she also had to consider that there had been other killings. Whatever had happened to Kate, had happened to other girls as well. So were they innocent as well, or were they guilty? Were they supernatural creatures, or was it just Kate? Who was killing them and why? Had they really been gored, and if so by what? How was she going to get sloppy joe out of her Ramones tee? There were too many questions for her to answer. 


  16. "Honestly! Is that any way to speak to your mother-in-law?!" The woman stood before Vincent looked surprisingly similar to Violet, though she appeared to be in her 30's. Naturally, this didn't make sense, on paper. But why look ancient when you can look 30-something forever? The look of horror on Vincent's face was frozen, his jaw was slightly agape. Vael leaned forwards and sharply knocked his jaw closed with her forefinger.
    "That's unpleasant, darling. You look like a stupid mammal." She smiled sweetly and sauntered into the room and dropped her purse onto the couch and went to sit down, thought better of it, then brushed it off with a newspaper, before sitting on the edge. "So, how's my favourite meatbag?"
    Vincent's right eye twitched involuntarily as he closed the door to his apartment and watched Vael cautiously. "How is it something as dangerous as you gets to ignore thresholds?' he asked, picking up the cane from beside the desk, not that it was going to offer him much defence if she did decide to hurt him.

    "I don't know." Vael pondered, ignoring Vincent reaching for the cane. "But the fact it annoys you makes me happy, and that's enough." She chortled and sighed then looked around the room expectantly. "Well... aren't you going to offer me a cup of tea, or...?" She shrugged in mild offence.
    "I don't have any tea." Vincent replied as he began rifling through his laundry for cigarette cartons. "But there's a socket next to you if you need to charge your batteries or something."
    "Ooo, sweety. That's so thoughtful." Vael reached up and pinched the air, and Vincent's right cheek was suddenly squeezed. She gave him a little shake from a distance and then released him, "But honey, if I did that, the entire Eastern seaboard would be without power, and that would be just rude, even for me. No, if you don't have tea, how about a lovely cup of Joseph."

    "Water's on the tap. Coffee's in the cupboard." Vincent said, as he finally retrieved a cigarette carton that wasn't empty. This one had 5 in it. Frabjous day! He put one in his mouth and gestured at its end to Vael. "Tell you what, light this up with out also taking my eyebrows off and I'll make you a coffee."
    "We have an agreement!" Vael's eyes lit up, and then so did the end of Vincent's cigarette. "So tell me Vincent, what's been keeping you busy?" 
    "Busy?" Vincent asked as he made his way to the kitchen and started filling the kettle with water. "Don't know the meaning of the word, I'm afraid. I work very hard to ensure I'm very much not busy." He gestured to his apartment with his cigarette holding hand. "An Ivy League college graduate living in Chicago's asscrack? Trust me it's no accident."
    A book was hovering in front of Vael's face, with the pages flitting by, "Bat-Man?" She asked aloud.
    "Please be careful with that." Vincent said without turning round as he rifled through his cupboards. "I'd rather you killed me here and now than damage my Batman comics. And no, that isn't an offer to kill me."
    "Oh calm down, darling. Honestly, I just popped by for a chat and a spot of tea..." Vael stood up and grabbed the comic from the air and crossed the room, replacing the book on the shelf, then as she sauntered back to her seat, as casually as she could, she added, "I hear Violet is on her way here..."

    "Yes, I'm sure you did." Vincent replied, shutting the cupboard door and spooning heaps of coffee into the french press. As the kettle's boiling reached it's peak, he muttered something about "Beetlejuice" and then poured boiling water in with the coffee, and left it to stand for a moment. 
    He turned around, leaning against the counter, smoking and trying his best to look nonchalant, which isn't very easy since he was fairly certain his testicles had crawled deep inside him the moment she had stepped through the door. "If you want to see your daughter, I'm pretty sure she has a cellphone. Or you know you could just 'pop' in, like you normally do."

    "Ah but then I couldn't get a cup of your lovely coffee, Vince." Vael leaned back on the sofa, pushing the purse aside and letting out a deep sigh.
    "Uhuh." Vincent said as he finished making the coffee. "Cream or sugar?"
    "I'll just take it black." Vael turned and stared at Vincent with a peculiar expression, and then chuckled, "Vince?"
    "Homewrecker?" Vincent replied, mimicking her tone, as he brought he cup of coffee over. He placed it down on the table near her. "Look, you can keep doing the whole 'whimsical free spirit' thing all you want, but we both know you don't do anything without a reason. So, what particular brand of mischief has brought you here?"

    Vael just sat there, stunned. "Vince!" She barked, irritably. And then suddenly, Vael, wasn't Vael. The long, dark-haired, 30-something woman was gone. In a matter of seconds, her hair shortened, became quite messy and turned a vibrant shade of blue. Her dress turned into a pair of black jeans that were worn and ripped, and the top half of her dress had become a black Ramones tank top. Tattoos covered her arms from shoulder to wrist, while she had snake bite piercings on her lower lip. She wasn't Vael at all, she was Violet. Granted, she had changed a lot in a couple of days, but she had felt like a change, and that wasn't difficult for her.
    "Really, Vince?" Violet reclined on the sofa with the coffee warming her hands, "My mom not setting off your wards, not even so much as an alarm? You didn't so much as check her out? She could have been anything, anyone. And only I call you Vince. Really, you're slipping." Violet took a sip of her coffee and let out a deep sigh, "Ah Jesus thank God, that's better, you wouldn't believe what they call coffee in Colorado... oh--" Violet perked up and looked over at Vincent's still-gawping face, "That's for all the shit-talking a couple days back. We're even." A wicked grin spread across her face as she buried it in her coffee once more.

    "First..." Vincent managed to say, before licking his lips and continuing, "First, you're an asshole. You know your mother scares the shit out of me. Secondly, you know fine well that when Vael shows up, the best course of action is to brace for impact, and hope she doesn't take the shape of your eyebrows as a personal insult or something. Frankly, if anyone can avoid my wards, it's her."
    Vincent slumped down at the foot of his bed and finally relaxed around the shoulders. "So, how's it going, sis? Digging the hair, by the way."
    "Thanks. Felt like something different. Nothing too radical, y'know? Changed hair colour, not the face, right?" She smirked, and took another appreciative sip of hot coffee. "So this is your dumpster dive, huh? You and your floozies knock many pizza boxes off this couch in your time, or...?" 
    "No floozies." Vincent replied. "And my apartment is just fine. I have everything I need. Sure, a nice apartment with a view, in a safe neighbourhood would be nice and all, but then I'd have to get a real job, and fuck that noise." Vincent finished his cigarette and extinguished it by tossing the end in an old coffee mug. "How's sleeping in your car going?"

    "I wouldn't call it sleeping. Sure i'm horizontal, but..." She retorted with a grin, "Hey-- more floozies for me... but seriously, thanks," She held up the coffee, "For this, y'know, and the rest. It's nice seeing you again. It's weird. But... nice."
    "Yeah, real nice, minus that whole bit where you had your mom's face on, sure." Vincent said, smirking. "So you've taken a break from saving America one monster at a time..." He paused, putting his finger to his lip for a moment. "...shame you haven't dealt with that one in the White House yet but..." He shrugged. "You hungry?"
    "I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot barge pole." Violet shook her head, "I'll stick to vampires, werewolves and my mother. He scares me. And yeah, i'm hungry. I might be a being made out of magical energy, technically without a stomach, but then what's this about?" She pointed at her mouth, "That leads somewhere, and i'm drinking coffee. I'd ask my mom, but she'll give me the, 'It will take decades to explain and train you' speech. And i'm not listening to that waffle again. Waffles..." 

    "There's an IHOP not far from here." Vincent suggested. "I missed your birthday for, like, a decade. So I suppose it's only fair I buy you some pancakes."
    "Or waffles." He added, "They do waffles."
    "Yes! I want them both! Oh my god, I could eat it all, i'm so glad I don't have a metabolic system!!" Violet started laughing excessively and leapt up from the couch, latching onto Vincent's arm, "Come on then, let's go for a walk. We'll chat on the way. Unless you need to get anything first? Wand? Talking skull?" Violet raised an eyebrow with a mischievous grin.
    "Wallet." Vincent replied, and picked his up off the table. "Last time I tried to trade a talking skull for pancakes they threw me out. Crazy, right?"

    A chilly wind cut through the streets of Chicago as Violet and Vincent stepped out onto the sidewalk. They turned and walked down the block, joining the meagre crowd making their way about their day. Passing a newspaper stand, selling papers, magazines, a number of those conspiracy and occult magazines that Violet sometimes used to find jobs. She picked one up and paid the vendor and shoved it under her arm as they walked along. 
    "So, why Chicago?" She asked, looking around. It wasn't exactly prime real-estate. She knew her brother wanted peace and quiet, but Chicago? That didn't seem like peace and quiet to her. In fact, she'd been through Chicago more than once on jobs, although the police had likely only reported them as regular homicides or animal attacks.
    "Large population means more potential clients, shitty areas mean cheap rent, but nearby commercial districts mean I can get a decent accountant and reliable banking services." Vincent explained. "Plus it's got a bunch of great libraries, and Lake Michigan is one of the largest confluences of leylines in the US."
    "Vincent Gideon Hallow - Adult." Violet retorted, punctuating her words with her hand as though showing a newspaper headline.

    "I just like to be prepared." Vincent said, shrugging. "I spend most of my days reading, occasionally I take on clients for a little cash, and even more occasionally I take on a big client for some big cash. Yet I stick it out in a shitty apartment living on the bare essentials because..." He gestured around them, indicating their current situation. "I knew there was a high enough chance that one day dad was going to surface, and I'd need enough cash to keep my rent paid while I went off to wherever the hell he is, so I can punch him square in the nose. I live in a dive, and barely work, so that I can squirrel my money away for a chance to beat my dad up someday." 
    Vincent mimicked Violet's earlier hand gesture. "Vincent Gideon Hallow - Uberchild."
    "Mm-hm - come on, wunderkind. I want bacon." Violet wrapped her arm around Vincent's shoulder and led him on.


  17. OOC: Private RP, rated NC-17 for violence, gore, dark themes, etc. spoopy stuff

    Hallows

     

    The engine of the black 1967 Chevrolet Impala roared as it sped down the long, lonely roads of El Paso County, Colorado. Dense pine trees whipped past as a bouncy rock tune thundered from the radio. A tan hand grabbed the clutch and switched gears, dark brown eyes flicked to check her rear-view mirror, but she was the only one driving out here tonight. The night sky was clear tonight, the stars as bright as cut diamond. She smiled, the way she always did. A lop-sided grin that emphasised her strong cheekbones. She had to brush long dark brown hair out of her face as she leaned forwards to touch her smartphone.
    "Okay, Violet..." She said to herself, keeping one eye on the road, "Its like a band-aid... just... pull it off really quick... and it'll hurt like fuck." She scrolled down the list of contacts until she found the one she was looking for. But not the one she wanted to call. Vincent Hallow - her brother.

    Violet pressed the call button. Then cursed and disconnected the call before it had a chance to connect. Violet had spent nearly a decade apart from her brother. She'd been a teenager when she last saw him. They had their own lives now, they were a part of different worlds. Vincent had always wanted the quiet life, and no amount of talking, begging, arguing, bribing or fighting ever convinced him otherwise. Sure, every now and then she'd hear through her contacts that he'd gotten himself into a spot of trouble, but he was smart enough to look after himself. Plus, half the reason trouble sought him out was likely because unlike him, she had chosen to follow in the footsteps of their father.

    Violet Hallow was a hunter. Now we're not talking a little deer hunting here. We're not even talking big game hunting. This was big, big game hunting. The sort you don't generally hear about except in weird magazines, angst-driven teen shows on television and of course, your average word of mouth story spread by your run-of-the-mill crazy. But you'd be surprised by just how much of this can be true. The crazies and the magazines, that is. Not the teen dramas. They're a load of shit.
    Werewolves. Vampires. Demons. Shapeshifters. Ghosts. And a million other 'things'. She'd taught herself the same way most hunters had to. It was an isolated job. You couldn't draw attention to yourself, or form ties with other hunters. If you did, you drew the ire of the more organised and ill-tempered monsters. You learnt on the job. You made mistakes. Sometimes that caused scars. If you were unlucky, that meant deaths, but it would happen sooner or later. If you were really unlucky, it would mean your own, and really, thats how most hunters died.

    But you did it because maybe you knew someone who was killed by a monster, a family member or a friend, or you knew a creature that was harmless, innocent that didn't know how to take care of themselves and were killed by someone who thought they were a monster. There were lots of reasons to become a hunter. Some more pure than others. Violet wasn't sure why she'd become a hunter. Maybe it was to protect Vincent. Maybe in becoming a hunter, she'd distanced herself from him. They were always at odds, that when she chose this life, maybe on some level she knew he would do the opposite. Maybe she just wanted to be like dad.

    "JESUS!"

    Violet swerved as someone crossed in the street. The Chevy screeched as she hit the brakes, and the car began to skid and turn, but it was too late. She clipped the man, knocking him from the road, into the brush, and sent the car into a spin and onto the other side of the road, where it fell into a ditch. Violet groaned and leaned back, instinctively reaching for her forehead because she had a pounding headache and she wondered if she'd cut herself. Then her brain engaged and she remembered. 14 years under the delusion that she was human. 14 years of sprained ankles and skinned knees. 14 years of high fevers, rumbling stomachs and any number of ailments she suffered through. But at least she was human.

    Then, suddenly, this woman appeared. At least she appeared human, but she wasn't. She turned Violet's world upside-down. Told her that not only had her father been unfaithful, and the woman who had raised her, was not her biological mother, but she was actually a being of pure magical energy. If her metamorphosis had taken a couple more years to start, she might have taken it a little better. Which 16-year-old girl wouldn't like to be instantly over acne and able to reform herself into any form? But at 14, she was devastated. Still, at least it meant that right now, her head wasn't bleeding. But she was calling Vincent. She reached forwards, pulled her phone from it's dock and hit 'Call'. Once she'd spoken to him, she'd have to pull herself out of the ditch and go searching for the man she'd hit.

    The phone rang, and rang. For a while, she thought it would just keep ringing and go to voicemail. Then suddenly, it clicked, and she heard breathing.
    "Hello, Vince?"
    There was a short pause on the line, followed by a long sigh. "Violet." Vincent's voice replied with a resigned tone. "Long time. What trouble are you in now?"
    She'd just hit a man driving down the road on her way to a job, and driven her car off the road. Was she in trouble? She supposed not yet.
    "I'm not in any trouble, Vincent." Her tone, and the proper use of his first name was enough to show she was suitably annoyed. How did he manage to do that? Nearly a decade apart and he was pushing her buttons already. He might only have technically been her half-brother, but they were siblings without a doubt.
    "Can't your sister call you out of the blue to catch up?" She asked exasperated as she unlatched her seatbelt and fell forwards onto her steering wheel and activated the horn. Eventually she managed to move her knee, and the horn stopped and she kicked her side door open, and fell out into the ditch and brought the phone up to her ear.

    "Oh you can, dear sister." Vincent said down the line. "However, you've never done so in the past, and judging by the racket, this is no exception."
    "Vince," Violet dusted herself off as she pulled herself out of the ditch and onto the main road. "I'm tired, i'm dirty, i've just driven my car into a ditch and I think I hit a guy, so do me a favour and quit the wise guy act." She sighed and started walking back to where she had first come off the road.
    "Sounds like a normal day for you." Vincent replied, sounding amused. Then his breath caught momentarily. "Wait, you mean a mortal? Oh, Vi don't say you've hit a mortal! You know how annoying police are..."
    "I'm glad your sense of morality went straight to how much trouble we could get into and not the fact that I could have killed a person." Violet scanned the black lines that marked where she'd driven off the road, and traced them back. Walking into the middle of the road, she noticed another stain there. It was almost as dark as the burnt rubber, but not quite. Blood.
    "Maybe..." She muttered, kneeling down. Violet touched two fingers to the liquid and pulled them across. The blood was thick, sticky and very dark. It was heavily coagulated. Far more so than any blood that would have come from a person hit by a car just minutes ago. She stood back up, wiping the blood off on her jeans. "No look, you don't have to worry about that, i'll figure it out, I was just giving you a call to check up on you, y'know, we haven't talked in so long, I just thought..." She sighed, leaving open silence on the phone.

    "...Look, Violet." He sighed, "If you're looking for a heart to heart, you know that's not me. That's not because I don't care, okay? What was it my therapist said...'severe introversion coupled with abandonment issues'... Something like that anyway." At that moment, Violet heard something just ahead. She had to cut the conversation short. Hanging up, she shoved the phone into her jean pocket and carefully pushed her way through the woodland brush. She wanted to dive ahead and reach the injured man as quickly as possible, but her instincts were always engaged, and they told her danger lurked around every corner. She stepped over a dead log, braced herself against a tree and saw the man up ahead. He was leant up against a tree near a steep incline, and was teetering near the edge.
    "Hey, be careful!" Violet called out to him, and for a few seconds, he didn't seem to have heard her. But as she approached, he turned, and immediately lost his footing. Violet ran for him, raised her hand to offer him something to grab onto, but got an incredible fright at seeing his mangled, peeling face that she recoiled reflexively. The man tumbled backwards and Violet quickly gave chase as quickly as she dared.

    He was tumbling like a runaway ball, picking up speed as he went, until at last, his head hit a rock, there was a sickening crunch, and he fell head over heels into a heap on the floor at the bottom of the steep incline. Violet finally caught up, glancing at the blood-splattered rock before taking a second look at the man. But he wasn't a man at all, not any more. He was a zombie. That much was clear. Upon closer inspection, his flesh was rotting and discoloured, his eyes were sullen and lifeless, his body was giving off a sour odour and it was obvious he was decomposing. She'd met undead before, and not all of them were the unpleasant, flesh-eating zombies you see in most films, but judging from the bits of jagged flesh caught in his broken teeth she was guessing he was one of the more Romero-esque undead. With a reluctant admission that she just wanted to go back to the road, tow her car and get a cheeseburger, she leaned down and reached into the not-a-man's jacket and pulled out his wallet.

    "Michael Smith." She said, looking at his driver's license, "Sorry, Michael..." She muttered, flicking through his things. He had several twenty dollar bills in his wallet, which she pocketed - she felt no guilt for this, being a hunter didn't exactly pay in most cases, so you got paid where you could. He had two kids. But he had folded his family picture over so that his partner couldn't be seen. Maybe they'd divorced and she'd taken the kids? Who knew. One other thing of note. A key to the Hotel Riverland. She knew that hotel. It was the place she'd come to investigate. Violet stood back up and sighed, it looked as though the glossy trash tabloid, 'Conspiracies! Believe them!!' Had an accurate story in this month. She started back up the incline. The story this month? It had been, 'My Boss Pays Me Minimum Wage And Tried To Eat My Brains!'

    Deep breath, Violet. She told herself. Pulling her phone out of her pocket once more, she called Vincent for a second time. Technically, third, she supposed.
    "Hey, sorry." She said quickly, coming onto the road and crossing over towards her car.
    "Just what exactly is going on?" He asked. "Wait, I don't think I want to know. You find out if you killed that guy yet?"
    "You sure you don't want to get on a bus and come up here?" Violet asked, chuckling. She thought for a moment, then answered carefully, "No, don't worry about it, Vince. I didn't kill him. So what have you been up to lately? You met any nice girls?"
    "Yeah, sure." Vincent replied, "Women can't resist the charms of the only man in the city without Internet or a TV." He let out a soft chuckle, and then there was a sound of flint scraping, followed by a long, slow exhale. "Although, who knows, maybe one of the old ladies who hire me to find their dead husbands antique watch might give me a shot. Widows are desperate, right?"
    "Are you smoking, Vincent?!" Violet snapped down the phone, "I will reach down this phone line and so help me I might just be able to!!"
    "Oh, please." Vincent replied. "You're worried about carcinogens, but if I said I'd come hunting spooky McNasties with you, you'd jump at the chance. I'll let you figure out which path is more likely to end in my sudden death."
    "The one that statistically has you at a greater distance from me than the other, Vince. I've got something else to talk to you about, but for right now, i've got a job to finish, to i'll speak to you later, alright?" Violet walked over to her car and popped the trunk and started to walk around the back.
    "Sure." Vincent said. "I'll just hang by the phone, it's not like I have anything better to do."
    "It's 2017, Vince. Buy a mobile phone." Violet replied, shaking her head, as she hung up on him. 

     


     

    It took nearly an hour to walk to the Riverland. She had a backpack full of things she'd taken from the trunk of her car, as she'd decided to leave the car in the ditch. There was only two options. Wait for the tow car, which could take hours, which she couldn't afford. Or pull it from the ditch herself, using her own 'abilities'. While that in itself wasn't a problem, she worked a bit like a battery. The more power she used, the less she had, and the weaker she became. There was no reason to lift the car out of the ditch with a great show of levitation if she had to absorb a load of energy afterwards, and out here in the boondocks there was no guarantee she'd be able to find a readily available source of energy - at least one she was willing to tap into. Besides, the walk would do her good. The Riverland looked alright as Colorado hotels go. There was nothing immediately unsavoury about it. The building looked as though it had been built entirely from the ground up using pine. It had a log cabin feel to it. 

    She stepped inside, and realised the cleaner had been slacking off. Cobwebs were stacked in the corners, and dust had settled heavily in parts, she noticed a layer of it on the front counter. A few seconds later a woman with sunken eyes and pale skin walked out and flashed a kind smile.
    "Hi there!" She beamed, brushing a strand of golden hair out of her face, "My name's Kate, welcome to the Riverland, can I book you for a room?" 
    "Well, to be honest, I came here because of a story I read in--"
    "--oh for goodness sake, that silly magazine, you're the 4th person this month!" 
    "Any truth in it?" Violet asked, raising an eyebrow.
    "Well golly," Kate looked shocked, "Nobody ever said that before, I mean they just wanted to see what inspired the stories, but..." She frowned. 

    "Call me an avid fan," Violet chuckled, and Kate couldn't help but chuckle with her, "Sure, can I have a room?"
    "Absolutely, we have a really nice suite, we don't have a lot of guests, so i'll just let you have it at the normal rate."
    "You're really nice, thanks." Violet grinned and secured her bag while Kate directed her upstairs. As they went upstairs, a large man started coming down the stairs towards them. As they crossed, they were forced to push themselves up against the wall as he was so large. He had to have been at least seven feet tall, and built like a truck. With short scruffy black hair and a thick black moustache. His eyes had a sunken look similar to Kate's. Violet took note of this, but they seemed nice enough, on the surface at least. But she knew better than to take things at face value, especially as she'd dealt with that undead. Then she remembered she still had the key that Michael Smith had had on him.

    "Here we are." Kate stepped to one side to let Violet into her room. And truthfully, besides the odd cobweb, it was very nice. Very rustic. Kate showed her the bathroom, and a few special features of the room, then as she went to leave, Violet choose her moment perfectly. She quickly pulled the key from her pocket and called for Kate.
    "Yes?" She turned around.
    "I found this." Violet said, holding the key up. Kate's face, pale as it was, drained of all remaining colour. 
    "W-where did you find that?" She asked, she raised her hand to take it, but was reluctant to touch it, as if she did, she might turn to dust. 
    "Out in the woods. On my walk here. Why would it have been out there?" Violet asked, leading Kate into a lie. 
    "Oh, I don't know. Guests forget to leave their keys at the desk sometimes." Kate replied, then took the key, and quickly left.
    Alright. Violet thought to herself. Technically, that was true. It was all circumstantial. Michael might have just had a stay at the Riverland at some point before he became a zombie, and he'd just forgotten to hand his key in. However, why did both Kate, and that strange man both look so ill? And why was Kate so upset at seeing the key in the first place? Something was definitely off here. The tale in the magazine was that one of the workers had been attacked by their boss. If Kate was the owner, then it had to have been one of her previous employees. It wouldn't be hard for someone like her to get that information.

     


     

    An hour later, Kate walked down the stairs. She crossed the foyer, nodded to the large man who was reading a newspaper in the corner, and walked behind the main counter. She started looking through the drawers, the desk, the counter, the mail slots, the folders, everything. Eventually, she found an old folder that had a list of names and numbers, and found several with their names crossed off. Two of which were noted as employees and only one of which had the first name 'Emily' which matched the first name given in the tabloid. Kate grinned, took note of the number and left the counter, giving a wink to the large man as she left, who had a moment of disbelief as she disappeared upstairs.
    Finally, Kate disappeared into Violet's room, closing the door behind her, then within a couple of seconds, Kate became Violet, her shape reforming into the native-american woman with the long black hair. Yes, that was one of the things she'd really come to appreciate about being a creature of pure magical energy. Shapeshifting sure had it's benefits. She called Emily, and after a short conversation, she convinced her to meet up at a local café. Violet left her bag and walked out of the Riverland. Her main lead here was Emily now, she had to make sure that this girl gave her something to go on or it was all for naught.

    On the walk down to the café, Violet pulled her phone out and called Vincent. She couldn't help but smile. In the space of a day, she'd called her brother more times than she had in a decade. A couple of rings, and then it answered. "Hey, been sitting around for long, or been doing magic tricks for old ladies?" 
    "Tricks are what prostitutes do, Violet." Vincent replied, "Or... Magicians." He spoke the last word like it had tasted bad coming out of him. "I perform thaumaturgical locator spells for old ladies, thank you very much. I tell you what though, if I ever meet the guy who invented GPS, there will be a smiting...smote...smoting? Is it smiting or smoting?"
    "You're smiting... smoting... you've smited, smoted, you have smote-- smotten, smot-- smite... how did you pull me into this? Look, I called you for a reason. I'm in Colorado right now. I'm on a job, obviously, but afterwards, i'm gonna drive down to you, it'll only take like a day, so I figure after i've done this i'll come see you and we'll talk, because, the thing is, Vince... I found dad."
    There was an inhalation of breath followed by a brief pause. Then there was a gasp. "Fffffuck!" Vincent swore, "I fucking dropped my fucking cigarette on my fucking trousers, Fuck!"

    "Twenty plus years and you haven't learned to manage your mouth and your hands at the same time... i'd ask if we're really related but at least according to my mother we're not related at all, in fact i'm not related to humans, so maybe I should just start rolling my eyes at all of you and start calling you 'fleshbags' like Vael does." Violet sighed and waited for Vincent to regain control of himself.
    "Don't say it's name, Violet!" Vincent hissed down the phone. "Your mother is like the Candyman and Beetlejuice. Except 10 times as deadly." He let out a genuine sigh of stress. When he spoke again he was quieter, and more serious. "Violet... If you're telling the truth. If... If you've really found him." He breathed in audibly, his breath shaking. "I have more than a few choice words for him, put it that way."
    "It's a start." Violet let out a short breath, but her gaze was pulled away from her walk when she noticed the sign of the café up ahead, "But alright, i'll call you when i'm leaving, i'm just gonna sort this out, and then i'll be on my way. I'll talk to you soon." She hung up and noticed Emily almost immediately. 

    She was nothing like them. This girl looked happy, healthy, her complexion was normal. She didn't look ill. As Violet walked up to the tables stationed outside the café, Emily nervously recoiled in her chair, until Violet introduced herself, and then she visibly relaxed a little. Violet sat down, and ordered a coffee, Emily did the same, her hand was shaking as she raised the cup to her lips.
    "You alright?" Violet asked, knowing that she wasn't.
    "Yeah, just, y'know, small town. Word gets around fast, right?" Emily laughed, but still, the nervousness was there.
    "Right..." Violet took a sip of her coffee. It was awful, so she set it down, "You know the reason I called you here is because I wanted to know more about your story," Straight away she could see the doubt on Emily's face, "No i'm not here to make fun, or gossip or anything like that, Emily. Truthfully, I need to know, because if there's something hurting people out there, I need to stop it." At that, Emily lowered her coffee cup from her lips and set it down, staring at the contents as though it would offer her an answer.

    "I worked at Riverlands for 2 years, Ms. Violet, never had no trouble at all. They were real nice to me, always treated me well enough, though they never paid me much, they always gave me enough hours so I never complained but for one thing, Kate never let me work on the third floor. The first floor was the main foyer, cleaning, back room, kitchen, maintenance. Second floor was the guest rooms, mostly, couple of cleaning rooms, and storage space. But the third floor--"
    "--you were not allowed to work on the third floor?" Violet asked, frowning.
    "Kate said most of the staff lived up there, took care of the place themselves, and didn't want me pokin' my head in their private residence. Well, one day I just thought with everyone out they might need clean washing, or need dishes doing, and i'd save them the job, and so I went upstairs to do it and..."
    "Go on..." Violet gently pushed her to continue, careful not to push Emily so hard that she closed herself off.
    "Well I opened the door and Michael just attacked me, and suddenly everyone was attacking me, grabbing at me, biting at me, and I just ran outta there fast as I could and never looked back, only thing was I had no money, and it was such a mad story, I thought nobody would believe me but it might make me some money." 
    "So, you sold the story." Violet let out a short breath, looked back at her coffee, and thought better of taking another sip, then stood up. "Alright, I really appreciate your help, Emily. I'll do what I can, but for now you should just carry on with your life, look for a new job, and maybe when your boss tells you not to go somewhere you dont go there. Usually just because you'll keep your job, never mind that you might get mobbed by a bunch of monsters." Violet chuckled but Emily looked shaken by her dark humour, but she couldn't help it. 
    So Emily had been attacked, and yet although she was traumatised she was very much alive. But why? If she'd really been attacked as she'd claimed, well, most things, especially the undead, wouldn't have left her alive. Could she have misread the undead called Michael Smith? Or perhaps he was unrelated as unlikely as it seemed. The only thing for it was to reach the third floor. Sometimes a little brute force was called for. She always liked that bit. That's what her bag of goodies was for.

    Back at the hotel, she opened her bag and emptied the contents out onto her bed. She'd brought a number of things with her. Sure, she'd have liked to bring a lot more, but it wouldn't have been practical. She had a stake for vampires. Always an essential. She had a number of relics and holy signs in case of various ghosts, demons or old Gods, as you never know what might show up, then there was the more straight-forward solutions that made more sense in this case. She'd brought her favourite pistol, a powerhouse Desert Eagle .50 Caliber. And then an old-school machete for lopping heads, because they could very well be zombies, after all. She kitted herself out, feeling a little like Schwarzenegger in one of his action films, then stepped out and started up the stairs. It was eerily quiet. She reached for her phone, touching the side of her pocket. Yep, it was there. She hadn't forgotten it like an idiot, as she had done in the past. She remembered once she'd left a trip-mine hooked up to a detonator on her phone so she could set it off as a werewolf ran through a tight corridor, only problem was she'd left her phone in the casino the night before. Suddenly she found herself reaching for her phone and having to run down the corridor at breakneck as this slathering beast chased her for what seemed like several blocks.

    Third floor. Violet checked behind her. Good to double check. Nobody there. She put one hand on her gun, and carefully, silently, she turned the door handle and opened the door to the third floor. As she opened the door, she was baffled at what she saw before her. There before her, were a half doze creatures, shuffling back and forth, dazed and confused. One of them noticed her, and immediately started towards her, then suddenly all of them charged. Violet raised her pistol to fire, but the first creature was almost upon her, it was safer to run than take the shot not knowing if it would kill it or not. She'd been unable to see what they were in the darkness of the room, but she could hear them coming down the stairs behind her. She quickly reached for her phone and looked around, she wanted to run for the exit, but there was nowhere to go, if she got to her room, she had more supplies, she might be able to fight them off then. As she sprinted down the hall, passing the rooms, someone left one of the guest rooms, and she noticed it was Kate. Only it wasn't. This woman was very much like Kate, but she was a zombie. Violet was so confused that had she not been engulfed in the enormous shadow seconds before she reached him, she would have crashed into the towering beast. He growled and grabbed for her. She heard Kate moan behind her. Ducking the enormous zombie, Violet ran into her room and locked her door behind her. She called Vincent.

    "Hi, Vince!" Violet chimed. BANG! Something crashed against the outside of her bedroom door. She glanced around the room. Her options were the far window, though she was on the second floor up, or the bathroom. Though there was no way out from there. She supposed a second floor drop was doable, and she didn't technically have bones, but even so... "How are you?!" She asked loudly over the noise. BANG!!
    "I'm fi-" He cut off after the second bang. "What the hell is going on!?"
    "Nothing? Nothing!" Violet lied, "I'm fine, I--" BANG!!! "Zombies. I suppose. Probably. No definitely, I think. Except i'm not really sure. Because they weren't zombies a second ago. But now they are, and they're literally all zombies now. I'm really honestly confused." BANG!!! There was a snap as wood shattered and splintered. She stepped away from the door.
    "Oh I see, just a little bit of the walking dead, not really worth mentioning up front, huh?" Vincent said, and there was a shuffling noise down his end of the phone, followed by a thump, and the flicking pages. "Zombies... Zombies... Ah! Here we go. Wait are we talking Haitian voodoo zombies or an undead curse? Oh or they could be thralls of a warlock, or..."

    "Oh, fuck... FUCK!!" Violet growled, "Hang on!" She threw the phone on the bed, "Fuckin' bitch lied to me, it's so obvious now..." Violet threw her gun and machete onto the bed and started rifling through her things. "Shit, shit, Vince, shit!" She ran back to the phone and put him on loudspeaker. "It's a fucking warlock!! I spoke to her earlier, I thought she was the victim in all this but she started it when they fired her for a petty grievance, it's gotta be... but I don't..." She grabbed her bag and up-ended it. Nothing. No lipstick (as if she had any), no pens, no chalk, no nothing. She looked around the room, there wasn't so much as a half-melted chocolate mint on her pillow. What kind of room service was this?! Suddenly, she heard a terrible crunch as a massive bear paw of a hand came through the door. They'd be through any minute. Well, fuck.

    "This probably isn't the best time to bring up that in all this time you still can't remember to carry a vial of salt or a stick of chalk." Vincent said. "Look if it's an enthralment then that means a ritual, and that means thaumaturgy. You've just got to find a way to sever the connection."
    "You're right, its not the best time, but i've got all of that, its just not on me, seeing as how I thought I was dealing with the undead, and I had just been in a car crash, thank you brother, you're being very helpful this evening!" At that very moment, the door smashed open. Violet whirled around, grabbing as many things as she could on the bed, and dashed for the bathroom. Slamming the door shut behind her. She took a deep breath and let it out. She heard movement from the next room, and then the banging resumed, only now it was on the bathroom door, the last bastion of her security. Then she heard something she didn't expect - a voice from the next room.
    "So, now what, genius?" Vincent asked. Right, she'd left her phone on the bed. Now what, genius?
    She looked around the bathroom, "I could use some ideas!" She called back through the door as she started to look through the bathroom. She was starting to curse the day she lost all her human biology. Blood would have been really, really useful right about now. She kind of missed it. 

    "You were trained by the same guy as me!" Vincent yelled down the phone, sighing in frustration. "Running water grounds out the magic of a thaumaturgic circle, but you'd need to run it right through wherever the circle is. Either that or..." he hesitated. "Violet, I know they are innocent, strictly speaking, but... I'd rather them than you."
    "Shit..." Violet looked along the edge of the bath, and grabbed a bottle of shower gel, "Right, never mind me or them, i'll choose option 'None of the above'." She quickly opened the bottle of shower gel and started pouring it all over the floor. But it wasn't in a big puddle, or randomly. This was precise. It was a series of runic symbols. It was a spell. Most spells come with a cost. Most of those costs are pretty straightforwards and they can range from anything insignificant as a feather, to something as heavy as a person's soul. But if you want to reverse a spell? Well, if you happen to have met the person who cast it. Check. And have something of theirs, such as their hair. Check. Violet pulled a blonde hair off the sleeve of her jacket as she was devising her plan, laying it in the centre of her circle. And you know the right words. Check. And you're willing to put the curse back on the caster? Well, she who dealt it, and all that. Check? Violet knelt down within the circle and began reciting the ritual for the reversal of an enthralment spell. It was a pretty broad reversal. Simple. But she had to keep it that way for two reasons. First, because it was then most likely to succeed. Second, because Emily was young, she likely only had the most basic grasp of magic, even as a warlock, and while appearances can be deceiving, her abilities were clear when she met her in person. Emily wasn't nervous of the staff at Riverland. Emily was nervous of Violet. A hunter.

    As she finished reciting the incantation, she slammed her hand into the centre of the circle, and an aura thrummed, rumbling from the centre of the circle, like the drum of a music beat. Within a few seconds it was over. The banging stopped. There was silence. Violet stood up, feeling a little drained, and apprehensively walked over to the bathroom door. She listened, but there was nothing. Then a few seconds later, she heard something.
    "OooooOOOOoooOOOOWWWWWWHAT the hhhHHEEEELL!!?"
    Violet grinned and opened the door. The enormous man was clutching his arm, his fist looked like it had been cut to ribbons and it was horribly bleeding, but he was otherwise unharmed. He looked healthy and normal once again, as did Kate. She was cleansed of the Warlock - Emily's - curse. 7 people had been cursed due to Emily's childish behavior. One person had been seriously injured, one person was dead, and many lives had been put on hold for weeks. All for a petty grudge. Kate had been so happy to be free of the curse, that she'd refunded her room cost, and given her a room for the night, while the tow truck pulled her car out of the ditch. Violet was on the drive home, listening to the radio, when she heard an interesting piece of news on a peculiar little station she frequented.
    "Here's a funny one for you listeners, if you believe it - and you should! A woman, if you please, was walking down the street in Colorado today, when she up and began to mummify before turning to ash before frightened onlookers! In this day and age you'd think people would be able to take a picture with their smartphones but by the time anyone had their phones out they say she was dust in the wind, speaking of which, here's one you'd know, it's Kansas." Violet couldn't help but grin. She turned up the volume.


  18. Aranami. It means 'stormy seas'. It's a seaside town with a history of bad weather, but that doesn't dampen the spirits of the locals. They have a saying here in Aranami, "Eating fish every day gives you gills". It's just as well, too, as it rains more often than not here on the coast. They're a proud, hardy people. Somehow or another, everyone is connected. It's not a small town by any means, in fact the town centre is usually bustling, but living here you soon learn that news travels fast. If you need to share a secret, you best choose your audience carefully.

    Can I trust you...?

    Rain beat against the dormitory window of one Yoko Kusakabe. A highschool junior, recently enrolled in Aranami Academy. She looked no older than 15 and even though she was wrapped in her bed sheets, it was clear she was short, even for her age. In contrast to this, however, there was a nobility in the way she held herself that negated her height. When she woke, she moved with a straight-backed, calm, confident and intelligent air about her. She brushed her mid-length hair, which was a greyish-white, almost as pale as her skin. But most striking of all, were her eyes. The right eye was covered by a black eye-patch she had worn even overnight, but the remaining left eye was as red as blood. She got dressed into her school clothes: a pair of slim-fitted black trousers, a black blouse, a pair of black boots and lastly, a white jacket with black trim. Onto her jacket, she affixed a small pin. A cross, with it's southern point formed into a sword, with two serpents coiled around the blade. The Academy pin was important, as losing it outside the main gate, meant you were permanently locked outside of the school, dormitories and grounds.

    The rain didn't bother her. It was the first day of term, in a school she never dreamed she'd be able to attend, and now here she was. She'd fought tooth and nail to get here. She was going to make the most of it. But first, breakfast. Yoko sat down at her table with a plate full of buttered toast, sighed and reached for her first slice. She brought the hot, buttery breakfast treat up to her mouth, and took a bite. She bit air, knocking her teeth together in surprise. Frowning, she looked down at her empty hand. Then looked under the table, for where she'd dropped her toast. It was nowhere to be found. She wasn't going to let a little irritation ruin her morning. She reached down, picked up another piece of toast, and took a bite. This time, she managed to bite her tongue. The toast had disappeared in her hand.

    "Oi!!" She yelled, standing, knocking her chair to the ground. "What's the big idea?!" She barked, slamming her fist down on the table. She looked around the room with wary eyes, when she sensed movement out of the corner of her eye, and whirled around, slamming her fist down on a tiny cream-coloured paw. 
    "AYAAARG!!" Roared a deep, gravelly voice. Yoko lifted her fist, and a little pug dog leapt up onto the table.
    "Miserable creature..." Yoko muttered, reaching for her last piece of toast. 
    "Wait!" The dog growled a human word. "Let me present my case..." He cleared his throat with a little coughing bark and took a deep breath, "If you let Inu eat that, I will have the energy to do many things for you, additionally, if you eat lots of buttery toast, you will get fatter-- fat-- I-said-fat. You would get fat..."

    A little vein twitched in the corner of Yoko's temple, "I should never have summoned you." She muttered, walking away. The little pug dog quickly wolfed down the remaining toast and hopped off the table, giving chase after her.
    "Wait for Inu! My legs are tiny!" He yelped, but as he ran after her, he levitated into the air and landed on her, his front legs hooking over her shoulder. Then almost immediately afterwards, there was a soft, squeaky, high-pitched fart. Yoko grimaced, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. "What?!" He grumbled incredulously.

    The morning bell rang as Yoko was walking down the corridor. Students were leaving their dorms in droves, and it wasn't long before a group of girls flanked and surrounded her. She heard a dozen different voices all at once, struggling to discern their comments from one another.
    "Yoko-senpai!" One girl called above the rest, "You already got a white jacket?! If anyone was going to get one--" 
    "--you do your hair? It's so cool, I wish I had hair li--" 
    "--I really like your summon--"
    "--i'd love to study with you sometime, you'd really improve my grades--"
    "--You wanna get lunch after, Yoko-senpai? My friends and I are--

    Yoko turned into her classroom, the gaggle of girls following her partially broke away, only those privileged to be in her class could follow her inside. She crossed the classroom and took a seat in the centre, at the front of the class. The teacher ignored the students filing into her classroom. She had bright red hair, tied into a ponytail, and wore glasses that seemed to reflect the light, obscuring her eyes most of the time. She seemed to be pouring over an old tome.
    Without looking up, the teacher muttered, "No summons..." 
    "Yes, sensei." Yoko nodded, picking Inu up by his collar and holding him aloft, "Find something to occupy yourself."
    "I'm hungry!" Inu barked.
    "Shoo!" Yoko threw the pug across the classroom as though he was lighter than a tennis ball, and mid-flight the dog vanished into nothingness. The bell rang a second time, signalling that class was now beginning. The last couple of students that managed to make it in in time darted to their seats and watched in horror as one unfortunate student hit his face on the door as it closed all by itself, as if by magic. His muffled voice cried out from the other side.
    "No, please! I'm only a little late, i'm here, I can see you all... Ms. Kato!?" Dejected, the boy finally left. Only then, did Ms. Kato begin their lesson.

     


     

    Little legs splashed through a puddle and carried on down the pavement. Inu sniffed the ground as he walked, searching hungrily. His stomach rumbled and groaned, reminding him of his imminent need for food. Disgruntled he watched as the occasional person passed him without so much as a second glance. He noticed a butchers' shop across the road, and crossed at once. Visions of cooking meat filled his head, when he heard someone complaining. Following the complaining, Inu turned a corner to see a boy stamping through the rain, soaked through to his skin, shivering and ranting to himself. Inu shook frantically, shaking himself dry in a moment, and then quickly took off after the boy. Inu had noticed something about this kid - his uniform, it was Aranami Academy's design. That meant the boy had to be a student. Was he skipping school? Maybe if he reported this kid to a teacher he'd get a treat, or an extension on his contract with Yoko. She was a cruel taskmaster, but she also had toast. He felt that evened it out somewhat.


  19. "Our bargain?" She parroted his words, enunciating each syllable carefully, "I haven't killed you, have I?" Her question came with a confused frown.
    "Indeed." He gasped. "But... that is exactly what you must do to fulfil our bargain. Bring me to within an inch of my life, and I will free you."
    Seeing her stood over the kneeling Loke, the crowd began chanting for blood. They were eager to see a gory conclusion. Her sneer widened as she listened to them rhythmically repeating, 'Kill! Kill! Kill!'. Fists beating into palms, feet striking the floor above. She looked up at the light, and the shadows of the crowd moving over the edge of the pit.
    "I would like to be up there..." She muttered, reaching up with a clawed hand, "... with you all..." Then her hungry gaze turned to her opponent.
    "This is acceptable." Then quick as a flash, she struck. Her claws impaled Loke through his shoulders and she lifted him cleanly from the floor, until his legs were hanging limply in the air.
    "Now i'm going to hurt you." She added, as though she had done nothing to him up to this point. She pulled Loke towards her, and then with a strength hidden within her slight frame, she threw him across the arena. The crowd screamed and cheered as Loke flew like a ragdoll until he struck the spikes at the far wall. Two had impaled him. One pierced only a few inches out of his right shoulder, but the other had skewered him by more than a foot directly through his abdomen. Watching him cough up blood, she could hardly imagine him being capable of anything more than a little more 'leaking'. She could only hope his plan was more impressive than his air time. Whatever was going to happen next, she was sure the fight would be over. She began what felt like the longest walk in the world. The noises of the crowd died away, as she crossed the muddy, bloody arena, and approached her latest, and with luck, her final opponent in the pits.

    Loke's vision grew hazy as he felt himself drifting from consciousness. Then, with a sudden burst of unnatural strength, he jerked his pinned shoulder upwards with an agonised scream, and the wooden spike snapped with a thunderous crack. Wide-eyed, the sheer pain of it snapping him back to wakefulness, Loke gripped the two spikes at either side of him and with another scream and a heaving pull, he pulled himself off from the spike that was through his abdomen. He fell to the floor with a thump, blood pouring out of the massive wounds on his shoulder and torso. Slowly he stood up straight, facing his opponent as she continued her slow pace towards him. His gaze flickered towards the torches around the arena. "Burn..." He wheezed, barely able to speak. "Burn this... pit. So no one..." He stumbled towards her, unable to walk properly. "No one..." He trailed off, unable to finish.

    "Spike...!" She hissed back at him, as quietly as she could muster without shouting.
    Loke cursed as he slowly lifted his hand to the spike protruding from his shoulder. With another cry of pain he pulled it from his shoulder, and the arm went limp. He spun the spike in his good hand so that he was holding it like a weapon. Then with a croaking, anguished cry he began to run at her, brandishing the wooden spike high, his eyes wild and crazed, like a man with nothing left to lose.
    She had to give it to him. If nothing else, he was quite an actor. Opening her maw, she loosed a blood-curdling roar and charged him. Keeping her long, loping arms behind her as she ran, she closed the gap between them in a second. She leapt into the air, readied to strike with both fang and claw, and landed on Loke with a dull thud, knocking him to the ground. She stood over him, panting, an unhealthily wide, wicked grin on her otherwise human face.
    "I can play pretend too." She whispered, looking down at the spike embedded in her chest. Then she howled and leapt from him, dashing to the side of the arena and pouncing off the spikes on the wall as she sprinted from one spot to the next in what appeared to be a blind panic. Wailing and screeching the most unsettling cries, as she abandoned the rest of her human form. Her body turned to blackness, and nothing was left of her gender. Just a plain, humanoid shape. She looked as though she was made of tar, or ink, as she had a glossy, ever-moving fluidity to her form. Then she changed shape again and it was like she was some kind of four-legged big cat. Howling, she charged at the arena's wall, darting up and sinking her claws into the wood. For a few brief moments, it looked as though she might be able to frantically drag herself up, but then at last she was unable to haul her weight any further, and she fell back down, knocking into a torch sconce as she did so.

    All hell broke loose. The torch fell onto her back, and in seconds, she was ablaze. Screeching like a harpy, she bound around the arena in an ever-increasing panic, while spats of oil, flame, mud and dust flew in every direction. Smoke began to billow, and soon the arena was a haze. The crowd watched for signs of action, but they could only see the light of the flames growing stronger and stronger in the depths of the pit. 
    "Ladies and gentlemen, if there's a winner, I can't yet see one--" The announcer peered into the dense smoke, but saw nothing. Then a thought occurred to him, "All bets are final, no refunds, in the event of a draw, house wins! Thank you for your patronage!!!" And then he quickly retreated, motioning to the guards to follow him out as the crowd became more and more animated, waiting for something to happen, for the smoke to clear.

    "Hey!!" Someone yelled. A middle-aged woman was pointing at something. The light from the fire had subsided. The dense smoke began to thin, turning wispy and rising up out of the pit. Everyone strained their eyes to see into the pit below, but half the light had been taken by the extinguished sconces. Then finally, the smoke cleared, and the crowd gasped in surprise. Lying in the mud, coiled in on itself, was a burnt humanoid corpse. A few feet away from it however, lay Loke. He was badly burnt, terribly wounded, but his rattled breathing echoed up to the crowd that watched him in shocked silence. Every breath he took was agony, but he was alive. He had won.
    "Glaive! Glaive the Darkling Slayer!!" Someone yelled, and that was it. The crowd began chanting, 'Glaive! Glaive! Glaive! Glaive! Glaive!' as the door at the far end swung open, and guards ran in in droves. Three of them picked Loke up, inspecting him as they hurriedly carried him back down to the cells. The announcer stepped into the pit, stepping to one side as Loke was being carried out. Then suddenly Loke reached out and grabbed the announcer's arm, making him yelp in surprise.
    "What do you want us to do with him, boss?" One of the guards asked.
    The announcer froze, his gaze locked with Loke's, "I..." He tried to pull himself away, and Loke's weak grip faltered, his arm falling limp. "... I want you to..." He considered his options, but then he could still hear the crowd above, chanting the man's title. "... get him seen by the doctor. If he dies, it'll be your head..." The guard swallowed in fear, then nodded to the other two, and they carried Loke out of the arena.
    "What about this one?!" One of the guards called over to the announcer.
    "Throw that thing on the corpse pile." The announcer grit his teeth in distaste, "I paid too much for you..." He muttered, then turned his back on the arena and walked out.

    The burned corpse was dragged, still smoking, out of the pit and down through the corridors by the men. As they dragged it they gagged from the horrendous smell of burned flesh, before hurrying their pace. After what seemed like an eternity too long for each of them, they finally reached a pile of mutilated corpses, stinking and rotten as they waited for their final destination, to go on top of a burning pyre. Without a second of hesitation the men tossed the corpse on the pile and hurriedly left, coughing and gasping. 
    A final gasp aired after the men had left. This one had escaped the corpse's mouth. Another short gasp, followed by a low and terrible moan. The pitiful noise continued, a weak cry of absolute agony and misery. Then it stopped, and a deathly silence filled the room. Distantly men and women could be heard vacating the arena, returning to their homes in the town. Cell doors clanged shut somewhere far off. 

    A single piece of the corpse's charred flesh began to sizzle and bubble. With a hiss, a white mist escaped from beneath the burnt body. Then more mist began to pour out from cracks all over the body. It was as if it was boiling away from within. The eerie mist swirled and danced with an organic, pulsing rhythm that seemed to be almost alive. Then the corpse gasped again, this one full of relief as it drew in breath much needed. 

    The blackened skin began to melt away, becoming pink and waxy. Then the skin paled, and began to smooth out. Muscles began to nit themselves back together, and wounds began to stitch. The corpse jerked as bones cracked themselves back in to place. Then the corpse's eyes opened, and they glowed a brilliant white. It slowly rose, climbing down from the pile of bodies, naked, hairless and lacking in any distinguishing features. 

    As the body began to walk, hair began to form on the arms, legs, chest and head. Loke's strange tattoos bubbled up from within like a black liquid, taking shape before settling. His hair reformed in it's usual style, but it hung loose without his braids, something he could not regrow, much like his clothing. In the space of a minute the blackened corpse had become Loke, healthy, strong and completely void of even the tiniest of scars. He flexed his fingers and examined himself. 

    "That...was an indescribable amount of pain. Remind me to never get set on fire again." He said. 
    "I'd have rather you hadn't done it the first time." Nyx's voice replied in his mind. "That was a foolish risk. If you had truly died, you would not have been able to return, even with Arcanium."
    "I would have died before long had I not." Loke said. "But now..." He balled his hand into a fist and clenched tightly. "I feel as strong as I ever have."
    "You're still quite sick." Nyx pointed out. "You just feel amazing by comparison. A healthy body can ease the burden of sickness."
    "Perhaps with my health I can fight it off." Loke mused. 
    "Perhaps..." Nyx agreed. "Not likely though. Growth does not reduce the sickness within you, which has festered quite significantly in your time of weakness. You will need rest and medicine before long."

    "Not before I hold up my end of he bargain." Loke said, and he went off at a brisk jog. He moved quietly, stepping carefully down the corridor and listening for nearby footfall. He crouched and leaned against the walls as a patrol passed him by, going off in another direction. He waited a moment and then continued onward, finding himself in a room with several long tables, adorned with a variety of items. 
    He examined the tables and saw that it was a myriad of weapons that lay across them. He reached out with his hand, considering each weapon, until finally he found his glaive. He picked it up and felt relief at the comfortable weight of it. He stopped as he heard a scuffling noise of approaching footsteps, and he ducked away and hid under one of the tables. He watched as shadows bobbed around in the torchlight. A man in tattered leathers coughed as he approached the table, tossing a pile of bloody weapons atop one of them. 
    The man turned around to leave, and Loke came out from under the table. His movement made noise, and the man turned but he was far too late. With a swipe of his glaive, Loke cut an incision clean across the man's throat as he turned. The man let out a gurgling sigh, and then collapsed on the floor. Loke felt little resembling guilt as he began to remove the man's clothes. The cold was starting to get to him, and he needed something to cover his body. When he had finally dressed himself, he held his glaive in his hand and hurried towards the cells.

    "If he's as badly injured as you say, I don't see what I could possibly do for him." A man with short brown hair and a scruffy beard followed the announcer down the corridor towards the cells, "You say he's been stabbed, impaled and burned alive? Couldn't you have declared him victor sooner...? At least before the burning..." The man shook his head in disapproval but followed the ring announcer all the same. He was a doctor, and didn't agree with all this violence. But money was money. And he was paid a fair bit of coin every time a runner came calling from the pit.
    "Just heal him." The announcer growled, irritable at the situation he was now finding himself in. They turned a corner and began walking past the cells. The doctor glanced inside each one as they passed, expecting to see all kinds of horrors, but the announcer was moving quickly and he had to almost jog to keep up. Finally, the top-hat wearing showman stopped and pointed into the cell behind him.

    "He's in there." He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. The doctor stepped forwards and glanced inside the cell. 
    "I don't see him." The doctor muttered, his eyes glancing over the sparse features of the cell. It wasn't as though there was anywhere to hide. Frustrated, the announcer whirled around, ready to point Loke out to the apparent half-blind doctor, when he found himself at an equally distressing realisation. There really wasn't anyone inside the cell. 
    "But..." He frowned, and reached out to touch the cell door, but recoiled in horror before he could touch the handle. A mass of black liquid spewed out from between the bars of the viewing window and formed up into the shape of a woman, though still entirely black save for it's eyes which were almost entirely white, and a jaw full of long razor sharp fangs. A squeak escaped the lips of the doctor, who found himself unable to move, but the announcer tried to run. He knew he only had to outrun the doctor, and he'd live to see another day. Did he dare to turn and see the doctor being devoured as he ran? One last look. 

    The announcer turned mid-stride, his neck craning as he gazed back down the corridor, but to his surprise, he did not see the doctor being devoured. No in fact, he didn't see the doctor at all. He saw a mouthful of knives, and then nothing. The doctor screeched in horror as he came out of shock. The announcer's body lay half-naked on the ground, a sizeable chunk of his face missing, and a pool of blood surrounding it.
    "Ladies and gentlemen!" The announcer's ringing voice echoed through the corridor, "I am pleased to announce the--" And as he spoke, his voice shifted, became lighter and more feminine until it was no longer his, "--triumphant return..." She twirled the announcer's top hat in her long-fingered hand, before placing it atop her head and tapping it so it was slightly off-kilter, "... of the Darkling." Footsteps quickly approaching.
    She sounded human, but she was still a humanoid shadow, a living mass of onyx, she had no use for a human form right now. She pulled the announcer's ratty coat jacket on, completing the look in a strange sort of way. Then the owner of the footsteps was revealed as he came sprinting out of the shadows of the corridor, almost tripping on the announcer's faceless corpse. Loke.
    "Good evening," She mock bowed, twirling the top hat down her arm and into her waiting hand as she did so, before expertly replacing it. Then the doctor screamed once more and backed himself up into a corner before fainting. A dull thud resonated through the corridor as his unconscious body hit the stone.

    "You." Loke said as he stared at the Darkling. "You...got out?"
    "Mm," She nodded, "I couldn't shift with all that funny-smellin' smoke burnin' outside my cell. But they thought I was you, so they didn't burn any of that funny-smellin' stuff, so once i'd healed... I got out." 
    "I...understand." Loke said with a nod. "Sort of." he added more quietly. He turned and looked around the cells, and noted what was left of the announcer's corpse. Then he turned back to the Darkling. "So you can change your form. How do you do that without..." He stopped himself. "Questions for another time, I think."
    "No, go ahead," She grinned, "Take your time, let's chat..." Her sarcasm trailed off as she started walking, passing the doctor with a longing glance, but she'd already eaten and really the doctor seemed less appetising somehow. "So you're something too, hm?" She asked, her large white eyes scanned him intensely as she tried to figure him out.
    "Something, yes...or two somethings..." He considered it for a moment. "My people call my kind 'Spellbinders'. Judging by the reactions of, well, every man I've met in this land, I'm quite certain there are few like me here."

    "Two somethings, eh?" She paused and leaned in, examining him closer, "Where's your other something, hm? Did you eat it?" She narrowed her large eyes in disbelief.
    "It's... here." Loke gestured vaguely around them, "But also not here at all. I mentioned before, in the cell. Elementa. Life that exists in a realm parallel to the physical." He seemed to enjoy explaining, but once again he caught himself. "We should leave. My injuries are healed but I am still sick. I want this town at my back before my strength leaves me once more."
    "Here but not here?" She looked him up one last time and shook her head, disregarding his statement, "If you say so, human-something." Then she resumed walking down the corridor. Slowly, she could see light growing stronger. It wasn't the brilliant blazing rays of sunshine that you might connect with daylight, but they were in a marsh, and it was likely raining, so it was still very likely they were approaching an exit. She would be glad to be out of this place.

    "What about you... Darkling, was it?" Loke asked. "Is that your name, or what you are?"
    "Eh," She played with the brim of the top hat, "That's the thing humans call us to make them less afraid. We're not supposed to have names." 
    "All things have a name." Loke replied, matter-of-factually. "My people call me Sunborn, Bright Eyes, or Truthseeker. My name, however, is Loke. That name is personal, it's mine. What is yours?"
    "We don't have names..." She repeated, scowling at him. But then a thought occurred to her, she lingered on it for a while, walking in silence. She saw the entrance up ahead, sure enough, it was raining outside. They'd found a way out. As they stepped out into the rain, she held her hands aloft and took a deep breath. At last, she was free again.
    "If you have to name me, you can call me... Aquas." Then after a brief pause she shrugged it off, "It's as good as anythin' without a purpose." She muttered, then as she walked onto the grass, her form shifted once more. Back into the form of the tall, gaunt-cheeked and long, greasy black-haired young woman. Plain black rags formed beneath the jacket she already wore, but she did not attempt to create shoes, choosing instead to walk barefoot.

    "Very well, Aquas." Loke said with a nod. He stepped out into the rain with her, and smiled as she changed her form. "Quite amazing. I thought that changing the form was something that could only be accomplished through spellbinding, and here you do just that, and in a way that no spellbinder I know of has ever managed. Truly amazing."
    "You mean you don't have a thing like me where you're from?" Aquas asked. Delicately, curiously.
    "Spellbinders can change the form of things, but there is cost, and there are conditions. With the right Arcanium I can turn these rags into something more appealing to the eye." He gestured at his stolen clothes, "I can make the material harder, or softer, or change it's colour. However I am limited to the mass of the material I bind, and I cannot change it's purpose." He lifted his glaive. "Naegl can become a sword, or an axe, but not a shovel or rake. Do you understand?"
    "No." Aquas replied, chuckling, "But I don't care to understand..." She considered him a while longer and then stepped up to him with an honest expression of curiosity, "Loke, you are not all human then, yes? What do you suppose you taste of?"

    "I... could not say." Loke said, shrugging. "The part of me that is not human, it does not exist within the physical, and so taste is not a relevant factor. That part of me does, in some ways, enhance my physical aspects.  For example my own senses became more acute when I formed the bonding. I am stronger, faster, I learn more quickly."
    "Loke... I don't like that look in her eyes." He heard Nyx say in his mind. He frowned, and eyed Aquas warily. 
    "Nyx thinks you would like to eat us. I must warn, I will put up more of a fight than before, by quite a substantial degree. Also I'm sick, that may disagree with you."
    "Oh?" Aquas raised an eyebrow quizzically, "A Nyx can hear, but is not here, does he have ears... I think it is inside you..." She took a step towards Loke, who matched her step backwards. Her head lowered ever so slightly, as her instincts reacted to his trepidation, and she darted towards him and grabbed him by the head, restraining him. "Are you in there, voice inside?" She asked in barely a whisper, peering into Loke's ear, who struggled and pulled himself free. Aquas raised her hands in a peaceful gesture, "Jus' checkin', Loke." She grinned, a human with a smile that stretched a little too far, and a little too thin.

    Aquas turned and started to walk through the grass, towards a steep incline. She wanted to get a feel for her surroundings. She had no idea where they were. Being drugged and brought here while unconscious made it difficult to know just where they were exactly, and she wanted to fix that. "I know, by the way." 
    Loke paused for a moment, unsure whether he wanted to follow. 
    "Need I remind you that you aren't that much stronger than a human." Nyx said to him. "She could probably still kill us, since you burned all of your Arcanium. Until you find more, however, I suppose there are a lot of things that can kill you. Also your health is going to worsen soon. Either you'll die from your illness, or you'll be murdered by the savages that roam this land, or she'll eat you. Any way you look at it, we're probably going to die."
    "Know what?" Loke asked, frowning as he ignored Nyx's comments and followed Aquas up the grass.
    "You're sick." She replied nonchalantly, coming to the top of the rise. She looked out across the marshlands and saw the town that almost certainly had to have been the source of the vast majority of the pit's crowd. "So, I should know when you're not, too." The corners of her lips curled up into the smallest of smiles. "So get better soon, kay?" She gave him a quick pat on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way and then trudged down the other side of the incline, "Can we go there? I'd like to eat some of them..."


  20. Cold, moist stone scratched at her back. She pulled herself up from her bunk. Noise outside had focused her senses. A waft of smoke trickled in alongside the shafts of light from the corridor outside her cell. She couldn't help but breathe it in. It's scent was noxious. Foxglove. The name given to a flower with a strong doping effect, and it was working. She swallowed, feeling nauseous. Then drew herself up against the cold stone of her cell. Voices pulled her from her discomfort. The voice of a young boy. Somebody in the cell beside hers. A foreign language, one she'd never heard before. Her interest peaked, and she listened to their conversation as well as she could, trying to resist the muddying effects of the burning Foxglove petals. Then suddenly the boy was running, footsteps echoing down the corridor as a second, heavier set rushed after him. Then silence.

    A few minutes passed, the boy didn't return. She drew her tongue across her dry, sore lips and then brought her right hand up in front of her, staring at it in the near-darkness. Balling her hand into a fist, she grit her teeth, and slammed it with all the force she could muster into the wall. Stifling a scream, she smashed her knuckles against the stone. And again. This time, it came away bloodied. She took a quick, shallow breath and shook her head. At least for a time, she could think.
    "Oi!" She whispered as loud as she dared. Silence. "Oi! Loke! That's your name, right? I heard you fight, you know." 
    There was a long pause of quiet silence. The flames of the torches outside of the cells crackled. Somewhere nearby water dripped. Then Loke's voice came from the other cell. 
    "Fight?" tasting the word on his lips for the first time. "... Loke no fight. Loke win."
    "I heard that, too." She replied, a grin spreading wide across her face. "But you don't sound like a winner..." She added, her tone playful.
    "What does winner sound like?" He asked.
    "Winners make it through the night..." She replied, her eyes darting to the corridor outside. She heard footsteps, more voices, but they were distant. "Maybe..." She pulled herself up, and crossed the room, pressing her ear to the wall to listen to the man in the cell beside her, "Maybe you should have asked the boy for medicine..." She chuckled, wiping long, greasy black hair out of her face.
    "Medicine? Wos un?" Loke replied. "Loke not knowing...boy help. Boy talk to Loke. Elementa... they... cuerva... move around. Loke see Elementa, and Loke knowing fast. Was... wasing? Wasing the doing of... knowing the..." He trailed off. The man's incoherent prattling was giving her a headache. She couldn't focus on it any longer.
    Groaning, she fell back onto her bunk, "You're exhausting to talk to." She muttered, but before she could say anything else, the sound of footsteps returned.

    One, no, two men were approaching. They were armoured, she could hear the chink of their chain mail. They were also quite large, and one of them had a limp. He carried most of his weight on his right foot, the sound echoing louder and clearer with every other step. They both stank of booze and roast pheasant. She felt like she hadn't eaten in days. She was starving. Her eyes darted to the door of her cell, as a key turned, clicked, and the door swung open and in stepped both men.
    "Alright, be quick, that flower's only gonna keep her under for a couple minutes."
    "By the Gods, Eric, I know!" The guard pushed his way in, he was carrying something.
    "Ye say that, but she's the reason yeh've got that bum leg, Ricard... hurry up."

    A dull clunk as the object in Eric's hands was unlocked and raised to her neck, then shut tight around it. She swallowed as the metal dug into her skin, stifling a cry as she struggled to breathe. Both Eric and Ricard attached long poles to her collar and led her out into the corridor. She saw the bowls of incense laid outside her cell door, then she was led on, up the stairs, to the fighting pit.
    As the stairwell opened out, light cascaded over her, blinding her for a moment. She was forced into the pit, as her senses began to pulse and throb. She felt overwhelmed by all the signals reaching her. The blinding light, the deafening cries of the crowd, the smell of blood, piss and sweat. Her tan skin vibrated and quivered.
    "Get outta there, gents!!" The ring announcer called with an amused tone in his voice. The guards pulled the cords on their restraining poles and the collar clicked open, releasing her as they both fled back down the stairwell, pulling a door closed behind them so there was nowhere for her to go.

    "We may be a few fights into our night's festivities, ladies and gentlemen, but let me tell you the best is yet to come!" The announcer waited as the crowd cheered, their cries stifling his words. As they settled, he continued, "You've seen it before, and you'll see it again, the Shadow of the South, the--" Yelling, cheering, hissing. The crowd whipped itself into a feverish state, drowning the announcer's introductions. From the other side of the pit, two men entered. One held a scimitar and little armour, while the other wore a vest of plate mail and carried a mace and a shield. They exchanged glances with one another, both seemed to agree, wordlessly, that their target before each other, had to be the woman. They charged, and she grinned.

    Shrill, piercing screams echoed down the corridors of the cells. The cheering from the crowd, which at once became all the louder, suddenly became still as the screams stopped instantly. Then a woman from the crowd screamed, a man cursed and there was suddenly chaos. Eric and Ricard grabbed the bowls of incense and ran back up the stairs, unlocking and throwing open the door to the fighting pit just long enough to throw the bowls into the ring. Great plumes of smoke broke through the mud, bursting across the arena and smothering everything. A shadow moved in the fog, then darted towards them. The door was almost closed, but not quite. A hand grasped and flung the door open. Eric and Ricard froze in fright, but then stepped back in surprise as the woman collapsed at their feet. She was drenched in blood, her hair matted to her face, her clothes permanently stained a dark red.
    "G-grab the binds!" Ricard yelled. Eric ran for the collar, yanking it out of the mud, then turned and swiftly returned to the door. He felt something crunch and snap under his weight as he ran back, but he dared not look to see what it was. They bound the girl as before, and dragged her back to her cell. Ricard put her on her bunk and removed the collar while Eric ran to replenish the bowls of Foxglove incense. When she awoke, the familiar smell of the burning petals, and the cold of her stone bunk, was all she could focus on once more.

    "That sounded violent." Loke's voice came from the next cell. "Well, more than usual." He added. There was something about his grasp of the words that seemed more settled and natural now, even though she had only been gone a short while.
    "You should refocus your talent from listening to healing." She muttered, holding her hands over her face.
    "Healing I know." Loke replied. "I simply lack the..." He paused. "...fuel? Hmm... I think that's right. Words come quickly to me. Syntax takes longer. Once it begins, however... it is like snow rolling down a hill. Do you have snow here? Well, I suppose you must, you have a word for it."
    "Do you always talk this much, or just when you're dying?" She muttered.
    "Forgive me. It has been a while since I have been able to talk to those around me." He replied. "As for the dying...I fear you may be right. The wounds...perhaps not so bad on their own. The infection will take me first, I suspect."
    "You're all so... brittle." She paused in thought, "You should tell the guards. If you're dead, you can't fight any more."

    "If I get sick enough, they might move me for treatment. I will have an opportunity to escape. If I can get out of here then the rest will take care of itself."
    "You couldn't escape if they opened the door and gave you an encouraging speech, never mind breaking free and running from here when your health becomes so poor that they decide they need to treat you. Smarter to play it up, and get moved when you're still in a position to fight... but don't mind me..." She yawned and rolled onto her side. It wasn't often she could hold a conversation with the things in the cells around her, it had been a fulfilling evening. 
    "Perhaps you are right." Loke admitted. "Yet I cannot decay my sickness. I cannot regrow my flesh. Not without the right Arcanium."
    "Dinner conversation is more pleasant when not spoken in riddles." She grumbled, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, inspecting the smear of blood before she licked her hand clean.
    "I speak plainly enough. It is not my fault if you don't have the knowledge to understand." Loke retorted. "Arcanium. It's... a fuel for my bindings. There are sources scattered around the land. If I can draw from decay Arcanium I can destroy my infection. If I draw from growth Arcanium I can heal my wounds. It is perhaps more complex than that, however, with the means it is a simple enough task."
    "Good luck with that. It sounds like a lot more effort than I can muster right now." She quietly pursed her lips and blew the wafting smoke from her face, though as her room was saturated with it, it only swirled and danced in the torchlight from the cracks in her cell door. 

    "Well then... if luck is on our side, perhaps we will be pitted against one another soon." Loke said, sounding a little amused. "Of course we could set about ending each other's misery quickly... or a bargain could be struck."
    "Usually bargains are struck from a position of power." She replied, yawning again, she turned onto her other side, staring at the wall on the far side, the one separator from her and the man called Loke. "But you are mortally wounded, and I am healthy, well-fed and if our little sleepover would end, I could be well-rested, too. What could you possibly have to offer me?
    "Freedom, of course." Loke replied.
    "And wouldn't that be something." She muttered. Then closed her eyes to sleep. Soon enough, she was sure, they would be set against one another in the fighting pit. Humans are duplicitous creatures. But there was something about this one she found... refreshing. Whatever was to happen in the pit, she was sure it would at least be an interesting experience, if nothing else.  


  21. I'm looking for a writing partner who has the time and interest to write at least once or twice a week, maybe more, and who is open to writing character dialogue together for a more fluid interaction. I'm currently working an idea through my head about a story set in feudal Japan, a fantasy story with elements of magic and wonder, in which a kitsune falls in love with a man, but he is killed by something and so she picks up his sword and goes town to town searching for his killer, hunting evil creatures, demons, spirits etc and helping the good (both human and creature). It will be a greatly character driven story, knowledge of feudal Japan is helpful but you don't need it. I'd like someone who has the confidence to write their own characters, stories, locations and situations into the rp so we're forming the world together. If you have me on messenger already then great but if not message here or pm me. If you have questions please ask! Thanks guys 


  22. The door swung open, Gethari and Atma led the way into their home, with Vaedwyn, Agron and Bradan following them inside. Auriel asked to remain in contact with her through their link so that she might remain a part of the conversation, as for obvious reasons, both her and Turiel were far too large for either of them to fit inside the rather modest home. That in itself surprised Vaedwyn. Gethari was a very tall, broad man, even by Nord standards. He ducked as he stepped inside the doorframe, and his head almost touched the ceiling. Gethari waved them into the living room, "Yeh wanna sit down now, right? Ye tired an' I don't want mah guests standin' on principle." As he spoke, Atma passed them, shooting her husband a glance only he understood, then vanished into their kitchen. "Eeh... i'll be back alright?" Then he too, left. 
    Vaedwyn turned to Agron as she sat down, "How do you know them?" She asked, her eyes looking over their home. It was simple, very little in the way of knickknacks or personal belongings, though there were two wildly different swords crossed over the fireplace. An old dog lay in the corner, it looked like it was made of grey carpet, and when they entered it raised its eyebrows high enough to look out from under it's mop of hair, then made a 'fuff' noise as it huffed out, and went back to snoozing.

    "Well." Agron said as he plopped his backside down on a chair. "Luftjall was where most Nord Riders started. Gethari was nae exception. He was just a lad when I first met him. Might no look much different age-wise, but I've got a couple hunner years on 'im. I was ridin' wae the Sororheim Makirog by that point, a brood o' Riders an' Dragons that were sires o' Ethanriel. Gethari wis'nae a part o' that but I'd see him at Luftjall now an' again, help out wi' his trainin' an' the like." Agron smiled warmly as he recalled the old memories. 
    "Course we seen a bit more o' each other when the wars started but there was a good while where he spent a lot of time in the south wi' the Elves. That's where he met Atma o' course. Cannae quite mind how old she is. Older than me, ken. Much, much older..."
    "Wow... but she's so beautiful..." Vaedwyn glanced back towards the kitchen.
    "Yeh no bad-lookin' yehself lass, jus' give it a few thousand years an' you'll fill out, hey?" Bradan grinned, but his humour was lost on her as she scowled at him. As she opened her mouth to respond, there was a clatter from the kitchen that forced them back into silence. A few seconds later Gethari walked out and apologised. 
    "Aye well... ahm sorry folks, but we've no got none o' yeh usual food, it'll be bread an' greens if thas' alright?" Their host looked strained, he smiled all the same.
    "That's fine, I didn't eat a lot of meat until I started travelling with Agron, anyway." Vaedwyn smiled, offering support. Bradan growled and grumbled as he was like to do, but he too accepted that they were guests in their home, and he'd eat whatever was put in front of him. Gethari's gaze turned to Agron and lingered.

    "No be the first time I've dined on rabbit food, Geth." Agron replied with a shrug. "Hats aff tae ye, lad. A rare thing tae see a vegetarian Nord."
    "Yeh make compromises," Gethari replied, as Atma entered the room with a long metal platter full of freshly prepared fruits and vegetables, fresh warm bread and soft butter and a variety of preserves. Atma sat down and took a stick of celery, eating it in silence save for the quiet 'crunch' of each bite. Vaedwyn looked around the room, and back to Gethari. She wasn't quite sure why the mood was how it was, but she was hungry, so she tried to ignore it. She leaned forwards and picked a slice of bread from the platter, buttered it and began to hungrily consume it. Gethari sat down beside Atma, his chair groaning. She looked to him and nodded at Agron. 
    "Right," Gethari picked up an apple and took a large bite, "So, Agron, watcha doin' here hmm? You an' this wee rider, an' the hairy fella? I an't seen yoose in..." He trailed off, trying to think back. 
    "A long time." Agron finished, not entirely sure on the time-frame himself. "Well, in truth we've spent the last wee while at Luftjall wi' Jona. No many other places safe fer Riders. There's the Elven city I suppose but..." He paused, looking at Atma, and choosing his words carefully. "I... wanted her tae see what she was fighting for. Y'know... before the Elves get a look at her."

    Atma paused eating, a stick of celery hanging from her teeth. Her eyes lingered on Agron, then she bit through the celery, a loud crunch filling the room, then her eyes settled on the platter in front of her. Vaedwyn frowned and looked to Bradan, who shrugged in response. Gethari cleared his throat.
    "Well, yeh must all be tired, yeh welcome tae stay wi'us while yeh here, there's nowhere safer." Gethari took another bite of his apple, "As fer yer dragons, I dunno..." He looked to Atma as if she might offer a suggestion. She looked as though she was going to ignore the question, but once she'd finished the food in her mouth, she stood and walked outside and Vaedwyn heard Auriel explain through their link that Atma seemed to be showing them to a nearby cave where they would have the space to lie down and move as they pleased.
    "Awright!" Bradan piped up, once Atma had left, "Now whats her problem?!" 
    "Yeh have tae understand, Bradan, neither of us a'seen a dragon in years, decades even. Nevermind a new dragon, or rider. There's a lot o' things tae process, an' truth be told, some o' it I don't understand, she won't tell me everything, something about yeh upsets her, Vaedwyn." 
    "About me?!" Vaedwyn asked in surprise, looking to Agron for an answer.

    "A never much understood her when she did speak, tae be fair." Agron said with a shrug, before looking at Gethari. "Er, no offense like, Y'ken am no daft on Elves."
    "Couldn't take offence from yeh, Agron. But..." Gethari sighed, "Atma does'nae cause trouble fer no reason... but ye seem lovely enough, girl." 
    "Good to know." Vaedwyn grumbled, but she perked up. She wanted to know more about the town of Burrow, "I want to go exploring."
    "Well ye can explore away, lass." Agron said dismissively. "I'm fair knackered like. The only exploration I'll be daein' is a quest to locate the guest bedroom for a kip, ken?"
    "Fine." Vaedwyn muttered, standing immediately and walking out. She'd had enough of talking and eating, she needed to stretch her legs. 
    "Dinnae worry, she'll be alright on'er own, i'd say she's one tae look after herself." Gethari mused and with a short chuckle he looked back to Agron, "So then, what exactly are you wantin' to do here? There's hardly an army, regardless o' what that Vigo'll tell yeh, an' there's nothin' left in me an' Atma but memories, sadness an' what little magic remains from them days." 

    "Burrow might no be much on it's own." Agron said with a nod. "But we might stand a better chance than ye think." Agron thumbed towards Bradan. "Bradan o' Clan Duin. His clan currently holds the crown. An they've only gone and named our wee lass as Vargr. They're ready to march wi her."
    "Dwarves are all fine an' good, but Suros needs more'n a few wee folk, nae offence fella," Gethari held his hands up. 
    Bradan snorted, pulling his pipe from his belt, "Ah'll have yew know," He growled, thumbing tobacco into his pipe, "If ah'd ah wanted it, yeh'd be about three feet shorter, big man."
    "Ah don't doubt it." Gethari bowed slightly to the dwarf, who lit his pipe and ignored the man, "But we need men too, an' Nords, such as we are. The elves must join us, the Circle of Magi, the wandering tribes, ah mean fer gawdssake, Agron, we're talkin' 'bout a bloody war!!" Gethari snarled, his voice raising.
    "All in good time, Geth." Agron said, holding his hands up placatingly. "Just let Vaedwyn dae her thing. The Dwarves have been hidin' in the rocks for a millenia, an' in less than a week she had them pitchin' for a square go wi' Aemon himself. She's... she's somethin' else."

    "Aye," Gethari nodded quickly, "An' that's somethin' else, where'd yeh find 'er?!" Gethari pointed outside, "Yeh brought that damn egg 'round here an' must have shown it to every damn person in the village an' not one was fit fer it, an' then ye up an' vanish for decades? Were you showin' it tae Elves an' Dwarves now? My wife hasn't a mean bone in her body, but she took one look at that young lass an' I saw the anger in her face. Where've yeh been, Agron?! Who is that lass?!" 
    "She's eh... what ye call them again?" Agron tutted and sighed. "Thingmabob. Y'know, the outcasts."
    "That girl is a Tau'shi?" Gethari considered this information for a long while, "I cannae believe it." He said at last, breaking the silence, "What did she do to become an outcast?" 
    "Dunno." Agron said with a shrug. "Dinnae much care, if am honest."
    "Well yeh should!" Gethari shook his head in disbelief, "You're looking to raise an army, an' that army is dependant on gatherin' the forces o' Suros under a single banner, but if the Elves wilnae follow a Tau'shi, then the Circle of Magi could reject her, and without their support and endorsement yeh'll be stretched too thin, Agron." Gethari sat on the edge of his seat, "Yeh have tae understand their reasons fer this, because a nasty surprise down the line might unravel the whole thing. Ah know you, yeh might want to rely on instinct fer this, but instinct won't hold wi' the Elves. Ah know, ah've been coupled wi'one for a thousand years, right? Yeh have to do this by the book, man." 

    "Ye think I dinnae ken that?" Agron said, a hint of anger in his tone. "Dae ye e'er mind o' folk callin' me 'Agron - The Great Diplomat'? Naw." He shook his head. "I'm a warrior, Gethari. I spent my first 300 years crackin' skulls, and the next thousand tryin' to pick up the pieces. I dinnae understand the Elves all that much, as ye well ken. But if a ken one thing it's this; Auriel chose her. That egg waited longer than any egg has ever waited! The Elves have tae respect that."
    "Yeh don't understand, Agron..." Gethari's face looked pale, "Yeh don't... yeh don't know 'em like I do." Gethari gripped his knees with his bear-like hands, "Ah've seen it before... if she goes tae the Elves, an' she's no strong enough, if she's no smart enough, if... Agron..." Gethari swallowed and locked eyes with his friend, "They'll use their magic an' tear their bond apart an' force Auriel tae one o' their own..."
    "They'll try..." Agron said darkly, and his eyes were filled with confident resolution. "An' ye asked me why I came here? Trust me Geth, she's no goin' anywhere near that forest until there's nae other option."
    "It might not be up to you." Gethari sighed, "'A rider holds the fate of all Suros in their hands.' That's what we were taught. We grew up thinkin' it meant any rider, that it was a reminder of what it meant to be a rider. But, Aemon took those words and made them his own. Now he's the rider that holds Suros' fate, an' I cannae think that girl, no matter her strength, will be able to stop him, any more than a dam can stop the river. Sooner or later, it always breaks."

     


     

    Footsteps trudged through the snow. They wavered and staggered from side-to-side as their owner tried to remain upright. Drops of blood splashed off the crisp white snow. Torn plate armour dropped and sunk into the powder. He wrapped the black cloak around his body and held the hood so that it remained covering his scraggly black hair. He looked out at the mountains ahead of him, his dark, sunken eyes searching desperately. Voices carried on the wind. The flicker of candlelight. Anything. Before him, it was a frozen wasteland. One that had taken him weeks to navigate even to this point. And he had so much further to go.

    "Kardran..." When his name had been spoken by the King, he had shivered.
    "Your Majesty?" Kardran dared not look up. He saw the thick, black boots of the King. He saw the edge of the throne, as he knelt before it. 
    "... where is... the girl?" 
    The question seemed innocent enough. It was contemplative. It was neither angry nor expectant. Simply... curious. Despite this, Kardran found he was unable to use his voice. The words would simply not form. He opened his mouth, but found little more than breath escaped his body.
    "You have, after all, had months..." 
    "I know, Your Majesty, but i've..." Kardran stopped, he saw a gloved hand rise, cutting him off.
    "Naerwen...?" Aemon asked.

    Kardran took another step through the snow. It was almost up to his knees. He buckled and fell forwards, stopping himself from collapsing into the snow with one hand. The other was bandaged and splinted beneath his cloak. The exertion had opened his wound again. He stopped a moment and reached down, grabbing the knot that held the tourniquet in place, and tightened it by holding it with one hand and grabbing the knot with his teeth and yanking on it. He stifled a scream and coughed wretchedly. The cold was freezing him to the bone. He pushed on.

    "My King, I did everything in my power to--"
    "Naerwen, do not lie to me." Aemon's voice carried through the grand hall, only silence followed it. "I commanded you not to harm the girl. She is... precious to me. But in your haste, you almost killed her and my wards enacted upon you a penance, did it not?"
    "Yes..." She whispered. 
    "Yes." He mused.
    "I would gladly seek out the child, My King." A new voice joined them. The voice belonged to a young woman with black hair, streaked with grey. Her eyes were wild, and constantly searching as though they could not rest. She stepped forwards, clad in nothing but tightly bound black rags. 
    "Priscilla, I seek to own this girl, not destroy her..." Aemon shook his head as Priscilla bowed, backing away as she chuckled to herself.

    The mountains lay ahead of him. The rumours claimed there was a town out there, somewhere. Kardran winced with each step, the pain exhausted him even more than the physical exertion. But he had to keep going. He had no choice. He held his still-functioning hand up and gazed into the palm, there he created a flame and pressed it to the snow in front of him. It threatened to go out within seconds of touching the snow, flickering and dancing at the edge of extinction, but he managed to maintain it and with it, he carved a path.

    "I know who to send..." Aemon said at last, smiling.
    "My King...?" Kardran stood, bowing to Aemon, ready to perform his duties.
    "No, Kardran... you have failed me once too often..." 
    Kardran swallowed, he didn't know what to do. What to say. He was shaking.
    "I think, yes... she is ready... and you, Kardran, may go... before you do, however...?"

    The flame in his hand began to die, he did everything he could to maintain it, but his strength abandoned him and he was forced to release the magic or let it consume him. Maybe that would have been better. The flame flickered and vanished and he trudged over to a nearby tree and lay down against it. He took a deep breath, or rather, he tried to. But as he inhaled, he choked as pain shot through his body and triggered a coughing fit once more. The pain was excruciating. And yet, he was numb to it. He did not hear the distant thundering roar. The squealing, gnashing, misery of his companion. He was two no longer. He was but one. He was a shadow of a painful memory, and little else. Kardran collapsed, and closed his eyes. Soon, death would take him. At least then, he would know peace. 


  23. The walk home was quiet and Raven found herself reflective. She'd set out to snub a potential problem for Jackdaw, only to find a small-time crook trying to run a speakeasy. It wasn't much, but that was enough for Jackdaw to send in the Red Feathers. So she'd have to lie to him. Lying to Jackdaw wasn't something she did often, so she found herself asking why she was taking the risk in this case. Despite her heavy thoughts, she walked with a skip in her step. Her belly was full of food and drink, she was going home to a warm bed and one of her favourite past-times - reading a book by candlelight. It was one of the few times she could be alone.
    A dog barked. Raven was pulled from her thoughts and watched as a mongrel dog ran across the cobbled street and into one of the back-alleys. The light from the overhead lamp flickered. She blinked in surprise as the alley was momentarily cast into shadow and she reflexively looked up at the silhouette of the streetlamp only for it to reignite with a spark and blinded her. The white light dazzled her into a stupor.

    As the white began to fade, and her eyes readjusted to the light, she saw someone standing at the end of the alley. It was a young girl. Raven squinted, but couldn't see anyone else with her. She was alone. Raven took a step towards the girl, and she didn't move. "Hey!" Raven called out, "Y'know where yeh are?!" She asked, starting to walk towards the girl. Before she could get close enough the girl ran into the nearest alley, Raven quickened her pace but as she turned the corner, there was nobody there. She shook her head. The light had dazzled her. She needed to get home and out of the cold. Putting the image of the girl from her mind, Raven promptly returned to the warehouse. What she was greeted with, however, was the opposite of what she had been hoping for. 

    "There you are, girlie!" Jackdaw cried, smiling as she stepped inside. Gone were the trading merchants, women of the night, and all manner of customer. The warehouse was dead but for a handful of people. All members of the Red Feathers. Jackdaw wiped something off his cheek. It was blood. "You're late, y'know?" 
    "Oh... sorry." Raven muttered. She looked at each of their faces. They were stressed. Jackdaw seemed nonchalant. "What's that?" She asked, but as soon as she did, Jackdaw moved aside and she needn't have been given a reply. It was a large brown sack, tied in strange places, almost like someone was trying to make a very large sausage link. 
    "It's our friend from earlier, innit?" Jackdaw grinned. Raven looked to Rook who was stood next to Jackdaw, his face was white as a sheet.
    "I'm going upstairs. Come on, Rook..." Raven held her hand out for him, and he quickly moved towards her. Jackdaw grabbed the boy.
    "Oi!" Jackdaw laughed, and patted Rook on the shoulder, "Where you think you're goin', fella? We got a big night ahead of us, here." Then he turned his attention to her, "An' you, what happened at that uh... the antiques place?" His question put her on the spot. She wasn't sure what to tell him. She had never had a problem speaking plainly to Jackdaw before. She'd never held the truth from him. But now her earlier idle musings were turning to reality. She opened her mouth, and found herself spinning a web of lies.

    "--and I couldn't get through. Don't know what it was supposed to be, I think it was just an old toy. I broke the head off just trying to get it to work."
    "But the man said--" Rook interrupted.
    "--the man was wrong." Raven stopped the boy and continued, "I didn't find anything, Jackdaw. I wasted my night trying." 
    "Ah..." Jackdaw grunted, biting his lip thoughtfully, "Well," He laughed, "Nevermind! But you're not for bed yet, here, come help me with this, would you?" Raven nodded dutifully, putting her plans for the night on hold. She walked over and leaned down to grab the sack, but as she lifted it up, an arm fell out and as it brushed her own, it grabbed hold of her.
    "Mmmhrrmm..." The bag groaned.
    "Jackdaw?" Raven asked, trying to sound neutral. 
    "We're goin' for a little jaunt is all, songbird, let's go." Jackdaw lifted the front end of the bag onto his shoulder and she took the back end of the bag. "You too, Rook, you're comin' an' all." Raven put her hand around Rook's shoulder and gave it a squeeze as they followed Jackdaw back out into the night.

     


     

    The gentle howling moan of the wind reverberated from deep within the ventilation shaft. Raven stared into the darkness and turned back to look at Jackdaw, "What're we doin' here exactly?" Raven asked, as Jackdaw pried open the ventilation tunnel. The tunnel itself was tall and wide enough that several people could simply walk into it unhindered. It was one of thousands of vents scattered around the outer edge of the city, designed to filter out the traces of mist that permeated into the city. Few people ever saw the inside of these tunnels. But this had not been the first time Raven had stepped inside one, and she was quite sure, it wouldn't be the last.
    "What do you think?" Jackdaw asked a question he knew she wouldn't answer. He walked into the tunnel, forcing Raven to follow with Rook trailing along close beside her. The howling wind of the tunnel mixed with the growing moans from the sack. A few seconds down the tunnel and Jackdaw pulled a breathing mask onto his face and handed one to Rook and herself. "Put 'em on." He nodded at the masks.

    The winding tunnels seemed to go on forever. The walls of the tunnels were cool and damp, the floors coated in a strange moss spotted amongst the little stream of water flowing through. Suddenly Jackdaw came to a stop. She could see light around the next bend. "This way!" He called, his voice bouncing around the tunnel. They turned the corner, and Raven gasped. The tunnel opened directly out into the air. Dark grey-purple mist swirled down below, and a haunting groan drifted up from deep within. Raven shuddered. Jackdaw took the sack and dropped it to the floor and undid one end, opening it to reveal a face. The face of the man they had been torturing earlier.
    "What are yeh goin' to do, Jackdaw?" Raven asked, "Yeh can't just toss 'im over the side an' be done with it. He's a Green-coat."
    "Is he?" Jackdaw asked, then bent down next to the groaning man and grabbed him by the jaw, and shook his jaw like a puppet as he spoke for him, "Well i'm darn sorry to tell ya missus but I told Mr. Jackdaw 'ere that I work for some fella named Jack, in an antiques store!" 
    Raven could feel all the warmth drain from her face. She swallowed, but tried to remain calm. Jack's eyes burned into her own, but after a few seconds of careful examination he laughed and shrugged it off, letting go of the man's jaw and pulling him to his feet, still bound inside the sack.
    "So, there was somethin' in the antiques store..." Raven muttered, carefully.
    "Aye so there was, nobody's perfect though, songbird, so hows about you just do me this favour, would ye?" Jackdaw pushed the man into her. Raven was forced to hold him up as there was not a single ounce of strength left in him. "Kill 'im, would ye kindly." Jackdaw smiled pleasantly, expectantly.

    At this request, Jackdaw stepped back, and held a hand out to the open air at the edge of the tunnel, "Well in your own time, darlin'..." He then grabbed Rook and pulled him in close, "Now here, little man, is a proper killer, showed her all my tricks, didn't I? She knows right where to strike..." Raven looked to Jackdaw, holding the man upright as he spoke, "She's got a real mean streak this one, you can't teach that, and she always does as she's told, right?" As Raven held the man to the edge of the tunnel, she felt Jackdaw's words burning into her. She felt like he knew. She couldn't tell if she was second-guessing herself out of fear, or if Jackdaw truly recognised the lies she had told, but either way she couldn't help but feel as though she were being tested at that very moment. 
    "Mm... pleash..." The man opened his mouth and blood dribbled down his chin, "Am jush... home... my ki--" 

    Raven plunged the knife into the man's stomach and he went rigid. His eyes seemed to turn to glass as he stared off at some point beyond her, then she let go of him, yanking the blade from him gut as he fell, and a gurgled moan escaped his lips as he plummeted into the mists below. There were a few seconds of silence, a sharp scream, like the air being let from a balloon too quickly, and then silence. 
    "Huh, maybe there's one out there now, huh?" Jackdaw laughed, patting Rook on the head, "That's cold, that." He added, ushering Rook back down the corridor as he turned back to look at Raven, still teetering on the edge of the tunnel, "Stab 'im in the gut? Could have just switched his light off..."
    "... it was more than he deserved." She lied. Jackdaw sucked his lips, then walked on ahead with Rook, leaving her in the tunnel. Raven swallowed, put her back to the wall of the tunnel and slid down into a sitting position. For the first time, she seemed to realise the knife in her hand, as though she was holding something so hot it was burning her skin. She tossed the blade into the mist and pulling her knees up to her chest, she cradled her head in her arms. Something in her had changed. Something had broken.


  24. In the bowels of Ark Valiant, far from the crisp, cream-coloured streets of the nobility. Hidden amongst the factories, which caked the buildings and workers in soot and disfigurements in equal measure. An abandoned warehouse, or so it was claimed. In actuality, it was the base of operations for the Red Feathers. The gang that ruled most of the southern quarter of the Ark. They were cut-throats, pickpockets and tricksters. Yet for all their crimes, for all the blood that ran through the streets of the south, they were respected. They defended the poor and the starving, for their leader, Jackdaw, was known to have risen from similar beginnings. Nor did they target the nobility... most of the time. They targeted the middle-class, and so most policeman would turn a blind eye to them. To target the nobility, would force the 'Boys in Green' to come down hard.

    The street in front of the old warehouse was quiet. Not a single person walked that cobbled street. Houses lined either side, some of them were abandoned or dilapidated, but that didn't mean they were unoccupied. It was like cockroaches, scattering at the sound of approaching footsteps. These footsteps, however, belonged to a young boy. He darted through the streets, quick as his legs would carry him. Then more footsteps. He knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't help it - he looked over his shoulder. Suddenly two policemen sprinted around the corner and caught sight of him.
    "There's the little chancer! Hurry up, Burnard!" The more svelte of the pair exclaimed, giving chase. The other policeman, Burnard, tried to keep pace, but he was a little more plump. His wheezing breaths fluttered his rather large moustache as his chubby little legs worked at double pace as his colleague.
    "Get 'im, Michaels!" Burnard huffed, between breaths. Officer Michaels ran after the boy as Burnard slowed and bent over, suffering cramp.

    Michaels was in hot pursuit of the boy, he was gaining. The boy looked over his shoulder, he was about to get caught, then he yelped in pain as he struck something hard.
    "Oi!" The boy growled, looking up, to see a familiar face that made him bite his tongue. The policeman caught up to the boy, took a deep breath, and approached.
    "Miss," Officer Michaels acknowledged the young woman in front of him, taking his hat off and holding it at his side. "If you'd give me the boy, 'e stole summit an' he's gotta come with me." The boy looked up at the woman, who's hands were clasped on each of his shoulders, rooting him firmly in place.
    The woman was of average height for a woman in her late teens. She had a slender, boyish frame and a short mop of unruly black hair. She wore a pair of old leather trousers, a cream-coloured, short-sleeved blouse, black fingerless gloves, a black eye-patch covered her right eye and lastly, she wore a black baker's cap with a pair of goggles fitted over the top.
    "What's this then, Billy?" The woman asked, looking down at the child who stared up at her, perplexed. 
    "M... hu--?" She clasped a gloved hand over his mouth. 
    "Has my little brother been up to thievin' again, Officer?" She asked, grinning and sighing like she already knew the answer.
    "Yes, Miss, now if you'd hand him over..." Officer Michaels took a step closer, and held up his arm expectantly.

    "Well, what did he steal?" She asked. This stalled the policeman.
    "W-well..." He gathered himself, "A Mark."
    "Did you see him steal it, Officer?"
    "W-well... no, but--"
    "Then how are you so sure he stole it?" 
    "He ran from us!" Officer Michaels barked, then the wheezing, panting mess of a partner caught up at last. "Where were you?!" 
    "... far..." Burnard panted, unable to say anything more. He coughed up some phlegm and spat it into the street.

    "So he ran from you?" She shrugged, "Runnin' ain't no crime." She paused, looking down at the boy, and held out her hand expectantly. The two officers watched quietly as the boy stared up at her in defiance. She gave him a sharp, firm kick in the shin and he yelped.
    "Awright!" He winced, as he pulled the single golden Mark from his pocket and handed it to her.
    "How's this then, Sirs..." She held the Mark up to them, "You take the Mark, an' i'll see to it that I gives him a proper hidin'... every day... for a month." At each addition, the boy's mouth dropped further still, until he looked as though he was going to burst into tears. Eventually, Burnard sighed and held out his hand for the Mark.
    "Hey, what about the kid?!" Michaels asked indignantly.
    "Ah leave 'im, 'e's in enough trouble." Burnard walked up to the woman and she placed the Mark in his hand. He examined it for a moment, out of habit, and then placed it in his coat pocket. "No more trouble from you, kid, or next time your sister won't be able to talk you out of a stay in the work house." Annoyed by his partner's leniency, Officer Michaels turned and started to walk away. "Miss," Officer Burnard tipped his hat to her and followed Michaels.

    They remained as still as statues until not only had the two policemen both disappeared, but their footsteps had become so distant as to be inaudible. The moment they were, she spun the boy around to face her and gave him a hard slap with the back of her hand. The boy recoiled in pain and shock.
    "Oi!!" He growled, cradling his pink cheek.
    "Yeh should be glad fer that!" She snarled, "Ya any idea what Jackdaw'd do to yeh if yeh got caught?!"
    "I won't next time!" The boy declared defiantly.
    "Stow it, gobshite, go on, away wit'yeh." She shoved him firmly, and he started to run towards the warehouse. "Oi, Rook!" She called after him. The boy turned around, upset and frustrated, but saw her holding something glittering in her right hand. It was a single gold Mark. 
    "Wha--?!" Rook's mouth hung, "How'd you...?!" 
    "Go on now, give it Jackdaw an' don't be talkin' 'bout bein' followed by no Green-coat bastards."
    "T-thank you, Raven!" Rook nodded to her respectfully, then ran on.

    Raven let out a long breath. She was hungry. She hadn't eaten all day, and doing something like that, on an empty stomach? It was rough. Food was scarce though, like most things. Food, water, money. It was all just forms of control. Jackdaw gave them a cut, her more than most, but even then, it wasn't easy living. Raven had joined the Red Feathers nearly ten years ago. Jackdaw had found her at the southern Ark dock, where the airships came in. An airship Captain had found her amongst the wreckage of an old airship floating in the mists, the only survivor. A few more hours and she would have died from thirst, or the ship would have fallen apart, and the mists would have taken her. She had no memories, but Jackdaw had given her new ones. He was like a father to her, and the Red Feathers her family.

    The warehouse was bustling tonight. People were moving about, doing their own thing, talking to possible customers, showing them their merchandise. For some, that meant watches, jewellery and fine fabrics. Some it was black market goods, ink, and weapons. While for others, well, if you had an appointment with one of Jackdaw's girls, you were well-looked after. The doorman shut and locked the door behind her, and she gave him a grin before walking onto the main floor. Above, a second-floor balcony looked over the squirming mass that was the bar, trading floor, butchery, market and everything else in-between. Only the Red Feathers were allowed on the second-floor. Raven looked around, but didn't catch sight of anyone she recognised. Nothing here interested her right now, she wanted to speak to Jackdaw. She looked up to the balcony, and saw a few faces staring out at the crowd below, then she spotted him. A tall, muscular man, with a shaved head and a handlebar moustache. Wearing an aviator coat, bare-chested beneath it. His gaze caught hers, then he disappeared onto the second floor. He was waiting for her. 

    As Raven walked up the stairs, she heard piano music. It had been quiet before, so much so that she hadn't heard it until she started walking up the stairs. But as she did so, the music grew louder, and louder. By the time she reached the second floor the pianist was slamming his fingers down on the ivories. 
    "Hit the thing any harder, fella, an' yer gonna break it." Raven chuckled, but then she saw the pianist's face. It was blanched. He was sweating. Then she heard it, and realised why. She heard a scream come from a room at the back. She exchanged a glance with the pianist and started towards the room. Another scream.
    "TURN IT UP, WOULD YA?!" A deep, bellowing voice. The pianist slammed his fingers down, trying to drown the screams. Raven opened the door, swiftly closing it behind her. Inside, there were four men. Three were standing, one was sat. Jackdaw, and two members of the Red Feathers - Finch and Gull. Finch was a little fella with curly ginger hair, and a torn-up scar around his neck from an attempted hanging. He was a quick talker, jittery and nervous in his movements. He hadn't been with them for more than a year. Gull was an older man, older maybe even than Jackdaw who was already in his forties. Gull had a quietness to him, he didn't talk much. He just watched most of the time, only speaking when asked something. Grey streaks through his hair. He had an unpleasantness about him. Like if you saw him coming on the street, you might walk the other way, than pass him. 

    Jackdaw moved aside, revealing the man sat in the chair. Like Jackdaw, he was a large, muscular man himself. He had a short scraggly mess of brown hair, and a short beard. His hair, and his beard, were caked in blood. Raven saw within seconds, that the man was missing several teeth. It was likely when he sat down, he was working with a full set, she was sure of that. Gull reached for the pliers resting on a blood-splattered side table, and Jackdaw held his hand up.
    "Hey now, there's a lady present." Jackdaw gave her a gentlemanly bow, "Awright there, m'dear, how'd ye find it today?" 
    "It's quiet." Raven replied, curtsying to such a ridiculous degree that it was clear between the two of them, she was no lady. They laughed and Raven crossed the room and stepped up to the man, whose eyes were rolling in his head. She grabbed him by his hair and looked at his face in detail. "Don't know 'im." She muttered.
    The man's eyes focused on her, "Hep meh..." He choked, through a blood-filled, gap-riddled mouth. "Ahm purrliss, pliss.... hep meh..." Raven looked at Jackdaw.
    "He was bein' uncooperative, what was I supposed to do? He called my mother a whore." Jackdaw growled.
    "Yer mother was a whore." Raven noted.
    "Yeah but he didn't know that, did he?!" Jackdaw barked, "Smarmy little shit, he was a right pain in the arse. All o' south side, an' he's the only copper what won't take a bribe. Y'know he actually tried to arrest Gull there, right?!" She looked over to Gull, who simply nodded.

    "Right, well... don't let me interrupt." Raven crossed her arms, waiting patiently.
    "That's unlike you, that," Jackdaw frowned, "You've always been an impatient sort... what you done...?" 
    "Not me. Rook." She replied, "Sticky-fingers swiped a Mark, almost got pinched." 
    "Send him in." Jackdaw's tone was cool. 
    "I've--"
    "Send him... in." He repeated, raising his eyebrows. Raven rolled her tongue around the inside of her cheek, then turned and opened the door.
    "ROOK!!" She yelled, then closed the door and waited. A few seconds passed, and then Rook came charging in. Now, when an animal has a fight/flight response, they sort of panic on the spot for a moment, as their brain tries to tell them which is the correct answer. Rook experienced that, as he entered the room, and saw the policeman with the missing teeth, bound in a chair, but beside him, the patiently waiting Jackdaw, who had summoned him. He wanted to run, but he found himself frozen to the spot.
    "Awright there, boy, come here, would you?" Jackdaw asked.

    "Y-yes, Sir." Rook stepped forwards, Jackdaw took him in an embrace. "You're a young one, right. I know you make mistakes, so I ain't mad, right. Now. Give us that Mark, would you lad?" The boy obliged without question. "Mmm..." Jackdaw turned it over in his bear-sized hand. 
    "I didn't steal it!" Rook blurted out.
    "Shut it, yeh stupid boy!" Raven growled, but Jackdaw held his hand up.
    "Naw naw, its fine, go on lad, tell us... what didn't you steal?" Jackdaw nodded his head, turning it to put his ear near the boy's face.
    "Some fancy git gave it me, din'he?" Rook replied.
    "Mmm..." Jackdaw turned the coin over in his hand, "Now why'd a fella give away a Mark, I ain't never heard that one before..."
    "H-he said I could put it in a machine, an' i'd get a job!" The boy added nervously. "Said East Edge, Penny Farthing Antiques, that's it!" 
    "Did he, did he?" Jackdaw mused over this, then looked up at Raven. "Here." He flicked the coin to her, and she snatched it from the air. "Go to this place, and see what it's about." 
    "Right." Raven turned and started to leave. 
    "Take ye knives!" Jackdaw called pleasantly to her, as he smiled at Rook. Raven left, hearing Jackdaw still talking to Rook.
    "Now, fella... this, is what we call a man, but he's not really a man, no, he's really more a pig, y'understand? I used to be a butcher, did ye know that, Rook?" 
    "Yes, Jackdaw, Sir..." 
    "Yes, well... I was a butcher, and you know what I learnt? The nearest thing to a man, is a pig. And this one's a real a pig as ye could make bacon, right, so look, you take your knife, not in the stomach, they'll just bleed and bleed, look, here's the liver, kidney, kidney, neck, and you..." 

    The doors closed behind her, and the music and the bustle downstairs drowned out the man as he screamed once more. Raven went to her room on the third floor. The third floor was hers, and hers alone. Nobody went there, not even Jackdaw. He'd given her the loft as a gift, when she first arrived. She figured it had been because she had only been eight years old, and wanted to keep an eye on her, but whatever the reason, she was glad of it. She picked up a small bundle on her bed and unrolled it. Inside, were a dozen or so knives of different sizes and styles. In the space of a few seconds, she had placed all of them about her person, and only one was visible. A knife tucked into a small sheath strapped around her right leg. The rest were hidden from view. It didn't take long to reach the antiques place, not for her. When she stepped inside, it smelled musty, almost damp. It seemed as though nobody had been there in months. As she walked through the shop, she looked at the antiques scattered around the room. Nothing seemed worth stealing. She ran a finger across an old table, and the dust blackened her finger. But she noticed the fortune-telling machine at the back. Raven pulled the Mark from her pocket and eyed it, then approached the machine.

    “Do you wish to know your fortune?” A ridiculous voice asked as the animatronic man’s mouth flapped up and down.
    "Hmm..." Raven flicked the coin into the air and caught it between two fingers, then deposited the Mark into the slot. 
    "Sweetheart, maybe you should ask somebody else for advice." The fortune teller replied.
    Raven smirked, amused by the machine, then without warning she reached forwards and wrenched the puppet's head off and threw it over her shoulder. The animatronic puppet sounded as though it tried to say 'hey' before it's motor died, and then there was an eerie silence. Raven took a step back and waited, impatiently tapping the nail of her forefinger against the sheath of her knife.


  25. "By the Hammer of Crona!" Bradan growled with disbelief, "Would'ja look at that?! There's no way we can fight that, even wi'a couple a dragons!"
    "I know what we need to do!" Vaedwyn shared her thoughts with Auriel, who after a moment's hesitation, acquiesced. This wasn't something they could just fight their way out of. They were trapped, surrounded on all sides. They knew they had to get to Burrow. What was the one thing that Aemon's lieutenants would never do? How could she show these soldiers that they were not Aemon's dogs? Auriel flew low to the ground, sweeping over grass and flowers until at last her paws struck the ground and she quickly began to slow. Before Auriel had come to a complete stop, Vaedwyn threw herself from the saddle and landed in front of her dragon.
    Try to look small. Vaedwyn asked of her partner.
    I'll try... Auriel replied dryly. She fanned out her wings, pressing them to the ground, lowered herself onto her belly and rested her head upon the ground. Vaedwyn thanked her for swallowing her pride, and turned to face the oncoming army. She pulled her sword from it's sheath and thrust it into the ground and then knelt beside it with her head bowed. 
    "You'd best do the same." Vaedwyn spoke to Agron, as Bradan fell to one knee and watched the oncoming army with trepidation.

    There was a sudden beat of wings, and a thump as Agron landed on the ground, Atma landing not far behind him. They stood next to Vaedwyn and Bradan as Turiel flew low to the ground, flying closer to the army ahead. 
    "Too proud." Agron said, shaking his head. He winced as Turiel finally fanned his wings and landed on the ground, craning his head up to face the sky and letting out a blood-curdling roar. The front line of soldiers steadied their spears, and the archers prepared to fire, but their arms shook with fear. 
    I dare you! Turiel projected, not that any of the men could hear his voice. Who among you is so bold as to loose the first arrow upon me? Who among you is brave enough to suffer my wrath!? No sooner had he thought it, than an arrow flew through the crowd and caught him in the upper part of his leg. The arrowhead was wedged between his scales but ultimately the wound was harmless. Turiel growled and looked forward as a figure carrying a bow emerged from the waiting army. 
    She was far from imposing. The woman stood an inch short of 5 and a half feet, and she was dressed in form-fitting, black leather armour with golden trims, and a white tabard with the emblem of a blazing sun covering her chest. She had short, thick black hair that made her look like a pixie, or perhaps a young boy. Her figure was feminine but muscular, and her face looked plain and hardened, but it seemed that she might have once been beautiful. 
    The woman carried a sword sheathed at her side and had not bothered to prepare another arrow in her bow as she walked closer to Turiel. When she came to be but an arms length from the dragon, he leaned down towards her, snarling viciously. The woman folded her arms and scowled back at him. 
    "Stop that!" She barked. Turiel snarled again and pushed his head towards her, baring his teeth. The woman, who might have seemed to some to be insane, leaned forward until she was holding her upper body inside Turiel's gaping maw. 

    "Go ahead, then!" She said. Turiel hesitated. "Hm? Oh don't tell me Turiel the Great Northern Squall was just posturing?" The woman leaned out of his jaws and looked up expectantly. Her cold, blue eyes brightened for a moment, clearly amused by the dragon. "Well?" She asked. In response Turiel huffed and turned around, stalking back towards Agron. The woman allowed herself a smirk, and then turned around, her face cold and plain once more. 
    "AT EASE, MEN!" She roared, her voice projecting so far back that it was fairly possible the whole force of soldiers could hear her. She ushered for one of the officers to come to her and he did so dutifully. She issued a few whispered orders and the officer nodded, and left to spread them to the troops. As the formations began to part and reorganise, the woman walked towards the company. She eyed each of them in turn, but eventually her eyes remained focused on Agron. 
    "12 years gone, and this is how you saunter back, is it?" She asked, her cold stare biting at him like winter itself. "You better have some explanation."
    "Aye, course." Agron said, folding his arms. "Thought I'd test yer defences. Live trainin's good for the troops, naw?"
    "I will decide what is and is not good for my troops, Rider." The woman snapped. Then her gaze flicked to Vaedwyn, and her eyes narrowed. "You are either very brave or very foolish, child. Our armies are trained to attack the black dragon, Moriel, on sight. The wiser path would have been to go through our proper route, where we could have verified that you were not our enemy."

    "I expect i'm a little of both." Vaedwyn replied, still kneeling. At last, she stood, dwarfing the other woman in height. "I am Vaedwyn, i've come to seek aid from Burrow."
    "Aid from us?" The woman frowned, and then shook her head slightly. "And what exactly do you require us to aid you with, young lady?"
    "I have one goal, to end the life of the tyrant, King Aemon." Vaedwyn reached forwards and grabbed her sword, pulling it from the ground and replacing it in it's sheath, "To that end, I intend to unite the many races and factions of our lands, because only through unification can we defeat him and his lieutenants."
    The woman did not respond immediately. She just stared at Vaedwyn. However this was not the stare Vaedwyn normally received. She was not awed or stunned. She was not proud of Vaedwyn, nor fearful of her. The woman's stare was cold and entirely unimpressed. "You can go unite the rest of Suros. My people shall pass on your offer of a quick death." 
    "Now hang on, Freya." Agron interrupted. 
    "You will address me as Lady Commander, Rider." Freya snapped back at him, her tone icy. "Remember where you stand. You have sworn no fealty, and this is my land, my people. You will remain here only as long as I allow it, and don't forget that."

    A bellowing trumpet sounded from behind Vaedwyn, she had no time to intervene, she believed even if she had there would have been no stopping it. Auriel raced towards the woman Agron called Freya. Knocking the soldier to the ground, Auriel pinned her there with her talons placed on either side of her body. She roared at Freya, and raked her talons across the ground, leaving two large scars of dirt either side of her.
    What will-- Auriel spoke and Vaedwyn quickly conveyed it to the Lady Commander.
    "--you allow?!" Vaedwyn was uncomfortable repeating words she didn't necessarily agree with, but it was her partner's right to speak as much as anyone, and further, there was no use in getting in a dragon's way. "You cower in the rabbit hole, thinking the fox will tire and sate his hunger elsewhere! You could not stop me from reaching you, and I am a yearling! Vaedwyn is a fledgling Rider! You would wither and turn to ash before the four Betrayers and their mules. You might well avoid a quick death, but in so doing you would die a slow and painful death." Auriel lifted her paw from Freya, and huffed a short breath of smoke form her nostrils at seeing more than a dozen soldiers at her sides, with spears at the ready.

    Freya got up hurriedly, and her nostrils were flaring from adrenaline and most likely anger, yet she kept it in check when she spoke. "Threaten me all you like, Dragon. I will not budge. Look upon Burrow." She gestured towards the city. "We are rebuilding, growing in number. We will take the fight to Aemon, when we are ready. Yet I will not let countless innocent people die on the command of your prideful lot. The Riders failed, and when they did the rest of us suffered, because we relied on you. No more shall we rely on you." Freya planted her feet and folded her arms, her eyes narrowing as she met Auriel's. "I am no appointed Queen or Empress. My people follow me because I have sweat and bled for them. And when necessary I have put my boot to their arse to make them follow me. I will not cower to you, Dragon. I will not cower to Aemon himself."
    Freya turned around, showing her back to Auriel and gesturing for her soldiers to stand down. "Posture if you must, as Turiel has."  She said, shaking her head. "But the old protector knows that I do not yield, not here in my domain. So you shall follow me, Dragon, or you shall begone. Am I clear?"

    I like--
    "--this one." Vaedwyn repeated Auriel's words, with a smile, "She'll do nicely." Then Auriel sauntered off in the direction of Burrow, but not before snarling at the nearest group of soldiers, who quickly fled at her aggression, having seen what she had done to their commander. That too, gave her pleasure. Vaedwyn let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding and nodded to Freya.
    "Thank you," She said, "For standing your ground." She started to walk, adding, "I know fighting Aemon now would be a mistake. I didn't come here to gather an army and march on his castle... not yet, anyway. I came here to ask for aid, I need a willingness to join forces when the time comes. You said yourself, that you're training your people to fight back against Aemon. I think that day is coming, and sooner than you think. We will all need to be ready."

    "And who exactly are you speaking for, girl?" Freya asked. "You and the old Nord may be Riders, but the two of you alone are not a force strong enough to convince me to march, I can assure you." 
    "There is three of us." Agron pointed out. Freya looked around and then her eyes fell down to Bradan, and she frowned. 
    "...Sorry is the hairy child supposed to impress me?" She asked
    "Are ye speakin' t'me, girlie?" Bradan looked around and pointed at himself and then shrugged his shoulders and laughed, "Lissen, feek, if ah wanted'n impress yah i'd drop mah pants." And gave her a quick wink as he joined the procession. "So thas' three, an' if ye like what ye see, maybe i'll show ye mah sword." Atma walked up to Freya, ignoring Bradan, and held up four fingers.
    Six. Auriel added.
    "Seven, if you count Jona, and you should." Vaedwyn couldn't help but smile.
    "Seven, fantastic." Freya said, rolling her eyes. "Look, I'm having enough trouble in my own city. All is..." She hesitated, "...all is not well here at the moment. I'm afraid I cannot speak more on the matter."
    "Vigo...still?" Agron asked. 
    "I said I cannot speak on it any more." Freya replied, frowning. "Vigo and his Nords do not follow me, and if we cannot unite then I have a hard time believing we can convince the other nations."
    "Vaedwyn convinced the Dwarves to poke their heeds oot the ground." Agron said, beaming at Vaedwyn. "She can be surprisingly convincin' if ye let her."
    "Of course she is, I'm sure everyone is very excited about a new Rider. Her existence heralds the return of your order and renews the people's hope." Freya still frowned, however. "But we shall see how hopeful they remain when Aemon begins to butcher them."

    "I don't intend to return the Riders to power, Freya." Vaedwyn stated.
    Freya stopped walking at that. She turned to Vaedwyn, and for the first time her gaze was not cold. It was searching, earnestly, trying to see if Vaedwyn spoke the truth. It was momentary, however, and her coldness returned. "Lady Commander." She corrected, and continued walking. "I haven't the time to welcome you properly. If you require food and drink you best have coin. If not you can eat in the mess with my men, and you'll earn it with a day's labour. You will find Burrow is spacious, but few of our buildings are built to accommodate Dragons. Perhaps speak with Vigo, he has always ensured that his quarter is fit to accommodate the saviour."
    "I'm no saviour, any more than you are my Lady Commander, Freya." Vaedwyn smiled at her, "Thank you for welcoming us to the city. I'd like to speak to you again." Vaedwyn gave a short bow to the woman, and jogged up to walk beside Auriel.
    I'm impressed, that was rather eloquent. Auriel turned to look at Vaedwyn.
    I'm sweating like a pig. Vaedwyn replied, trying to stop herself from visibly shaking.
    Well yes, obviously. Auriel noted, a tone of amusement to her reply.

    "Er, lass." Agron jogged up beside her, and he was chuckling slightly. "I'm not wantin' tae burst yer bubble or anythin' but..." As they approached the main gates of Burrow they began to hear a rhythmic chanting. "When the Lady Commander was talkin' about the saviour...er...she didn't mean you." 
    As they passed through the gates, Turiel soared over their heads, and there was a sudden gasp within the rhythmic chanting, and then it continued. As they drew closer the chanting became more distinct and they could hear the words. 
    "Turiel! Turiel! Turiel! Turiel!" Over and over the people chanted, and Turiel let out an impressive roar, which only led to cheering and clapping from the city dwellers who were out on the streets, revelling in the return of their saviour. 
    The streets of Burrow were wide and had plenty of space. The streets were cobbled, and the houses had been built up on top of each other to conserve space and accomodate their rise in population. The entire city was surrounded by a large wall, with guards along the parapet, and stationed at each of the gates. As the group reached the central square they could see that the city itself was sectioned in to various quarters. It seemed that to the south the design of the building took a drastic change, resembling the long houses in the ruined Nord villages they had seen on their travels up. 
    A large keep could be seen in that direction, and there was another large keep in the opposite direction, which is where Freya had gone with her forces. 
    "There's two Garrisons in the city, one for each army." Agron explained. "Ye've met Freya and it might be worth holdin' off on meetin' Vigo, maybe we could...Ah, here we go..." Agron sighed. They had reached the centre of the square, and Turiel had stopped to pose and posture next to the large, brass statue in the square that was a much smaller bust of his own head.

    It's a lovely statue. Auriel looked the bust up and down, You're much fatter in real life...
    "Don't poke the bear." Vaedwyn said aloud, scolding her partner who took Vaedwyn's words with a mental smirk. Atma walked up to the statue, glanced at Turiel and hesitated for a moment, but then she kissed her hand and put it to the statue's muzzle, and quickly excused herself. Vaedwyn watched as the soldiers returned to their homes or their posts, each of them repeating the same action Atma had done just a moment before.
    So, you're something of a celebrity here, hm? Vaedwyn looked to Turiel with a wry grin.
    Agron and I faced off against Kardran and Uruk. We prevented them from discovering Burrow. Turiel explained, and his tone did not seem especially prideful despite all his posturing. They understand little of the bond between Dragon and Rider. As a result, they do not recognise Agron's contribution to the fight.
    "I'd like tae keep it that way." Agron said, shaking his head irritably. "Last thing I need is a bunch o' bampots fussin' o'er me, ken?"
    It feels good to be appreciated. Turiel said warmly. We have spent so much of our lives alone. I enjoy the brief visits here.

    "Brief it may have to be. I'd like to conclude our business here as quickly as possible and look at completing my training." Vaedwyn looked to Turiel's statue for a few seconds, "Whatever the people here are dealing with, it can't be as important as dethroning Aemon."
    While that may be true, a Rider should never turn away from those in need. Auriel reminded her, to which Vaedwyn simply nodded.
    "Agron!! You old goat!!"
    Vaedwyn frowned, unable to process what she'd just heard. She'd never heard anyone refer to Agron like that before, including her in her most ample of tantrums. She turned to see a large, muscular man with a bald head and a thick black beard. He was at least eight feet tall, and must have weighed the same as a bear. Or perhaps he had eaten one. Both were plausible. The man thumped Agron on the shoulder and then grabbed him and pulled him into a bear hug that looked as if it had been anyone but Agron, they might have been suffocated.
    "Yer a sight for sore eyes, Gethari!" Agron said with a grin as he released the embrace. He slapped Gethari lightly on his bald head. "Look's like yer hair's finally finished migratin' tae yer chin!"
    "Looks like yer finally able tae reach it, ya wee thing!" Gethari laughed raucously.
    "It's great tae see ye ol' friend." Agron said with a grin and a slight shrug. "Especially since a thought ye were deid, eh."
    "Aye is no bad like, is it?" Gethari frowned, "So why'm ah dead an look be'er an' yoo?" Then burst into laughter again, "So tell us eh, pipsqueak, what yeh been doon wi'yehself?"
    "Aw y'know, ye go fer a wee stroll an' afore ye've noticed it's been o'er a decade, eh." Agron said with a shrug, then he thumbed in Vaedwyn's direction. "Truth be told I wis daein' ma rounds down south an' ma last egg jumped right out ma satchel. Wis keen tae meet her new partner." Agron gestured for Vaedwyn to come closer. "Vaedwyn, this is Gethari. Atma's husband, an' a Rider."

    "It's an honour to meet you." Vaedwyn approached, and offered a bow.
    "An yer the wee thing what got an egg tae hatch eh?" Gethari raised an eyebrow and smiled, "Well good on yeh lass, there's no a thing yoos want more'n a dragon in yeh life, am sorry t'say but mah beastie kicked the bucket savin' mah life like, but he gie'd it laldy, so I cannae fault 'im."
    "Yeh bloody massive..." Bradan muttered, staring up at Gethari. 
    "Aye alright down there, wee fella, gaw look'atcha, yoos lot're a right wet mess." Gethari's smile turned lop-sided as he looked across the party.
    "Aye well it's been a bit o' a long journey." Agron said. "We'd probs be deid anaw if it wisnae fer Atma findin' us." Agron gave a soft, slightly embarassed chuckle, and then his stomach made a noise like distressed sheep. "Er...sorry. Fair starvin' if am honest."
    "Righ', les get ye fed!" Gethari walked through the streets, and people naturally moved either side of him, making it easy for those walking behind him to get through the crowds. As they walked, Bradan tugged at Vaedwyn's sleeve, she turned to look to him and saw him grinning.
    "Look right," Bradan whispered, "Ah've ah great idea, what if ah grab mah axe, an' sit on 'is shoulders, an' we form like some kind of double giant?" Vaedwyn could only shake her head and laugh, "Ah know!" Bradan exclaimed, his grin widening, "Ah it'd be grand like..."