Kyo

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Posts posted by Kyo


  1. Darkness loomed over Urteau, the city streets lit with torchlight. Brightest were the torches outside on the steets opposite the local Canton of Inquisition building. Raze stood on a rooftop of a nearby building, the thick mists dancing around him, whispy tendrils grasping and teasing at the air, they seemed to swirl and buzz to the tension of the scene. The plantation skaa had feared the mists, and even the city ones avoided going out in them. Yet they had come this night, bringing plenty of torchlight to guide them. Raze understood why, after all the mists were so mysterious. They hid things. Mistborn, however, did not fear the mists.

    Mraine stood on a balcony window just below him, and the old man was burning copper to keep their allomancy hidden. Raze reached down and found the familiar source of power within him, and then he burned bronze. Immediately he felt a warmth in his stomach and there was a pulsing in the air. The pulses, each with their own distinct frequency, could tell him not only if allomancy was being used, but also what metal and where. Mraine was burning copper, and so his coppercloud would dampen any allomancy within it, but that didn’t stop Raze from detecting anything outside of it.

    Immediately he noticed one of the obligators by the gallows. The pulses coming from him were that of bronze, like Raze himself was burning. That meant the obligator was a seeker, which was fairly common. He felt another pulse coming from a nobleman standing on one of the upper windows of the canton. He was burning Zinc, a soother for sure. It was possible that some of the guards were Thugs, or “Pewterarms” as the military called it. Most decent Thugs didn’t burn their pewter when they weren’t using it, which was a fairly smart tactic.

    He stopped burning bronze and smirked, nothing he couldn’t handle. “I’m going.” He said to Mraine, “Make sure the safehouse is all set up.”
    “Good luck.” Mraine replied.
    “We Mistborn make our own luck, Mraine.” Raze replied, and then he sprang in to action. He burned copper, pewter and tin. The copper concealed his allomancy from the seeker, and his sense became sharp and extra sensitive. Light became brighter and he could see more details in the darkness and through the mist. His body felt well balanced and primed thanks to the pewter, and with inhuman strength he pushed off the building at a diagonal leap.

    He burned steel, and immediately his vision was filled with a web of blue lines pointing in every direction. Each was a source of metal he could push on. He found the lines connected to his loose coin pouch and then he pushed on them. The coins spilled out of his pouch and flew backwards the way he had came, until they smacked against the roof of the building, and suddenly Raze was propelled forward, with the combined weight of the building, now the coins were pushing him.

    The additional burst sent him high above the street, bounding across the crowd in one leap. Raze burned iron and found the lines for his coins and then pulled on them, bringing them back to his waiting hands. He let himself fall down to the earth, and at about 10feet off the ground he gave a guard’s sword three short bursts of pushing, knocking the blade off of his belt and straight to the ground, whilst slowing Raze’s fall until he landed on the ground with a deft roll, going straight back to his feet and then setting off at a sprint.

    Gasps filled the crowds as Raze breached a line of guards with steel powered leap over them, before pulling his coins back, cutting at the guard’s hands and faces on their way back, and he grinned, feeling a wave of excitement. With another pull he wrenched the guard’s swords out of their hands and they flew off into the night. Raze advanced on them, flaring his pewter to go at an incredible speed, he swung a hook at one that knocked him to the ground, and then spun and brought his heel into another’s chest, sending him so far back he crashed against the far wall. He turned his attention back to the gallows and the mists swirled around him, the tassels of his mistcloak waving and dancing within them. The obligators flinched as he advanced towards them, after all they were bureaucrats not warriors. He burned brass and began to soothe away their other emotions, as well as the emotions of the crowd of skaa. Then he burned zinc and flared it, rioting the obligator’s fear, until one of them gave a short squeak of terror.

    Their fear made them slow, and Raze flew at them. With expert aim he sent his coins hammering at the ropes of the skaa’s nooses and they ropes split apart, freeing the skaa. The obligators went to run, but with another iron pull Raze brought a sword into each of his hands, and then he pushed them point first towards the obligators, spearing them through the chest. The crowd shrieked but Raze ignored them, advancing up the steps of the gallows, he pulled one of the swords out of the fallen obligators chest and used it to cut free each of the skaa, and pulled the bags from their heads.

    His eyes fixed on the young lady who’s bag he’d just taken off from her head. She was young, with tan skin and a slim build, with a bloody rag covering her eyes. She had black hair that was thick and went down to her shoulders. “Get up, you’re safe now.” He said, and he began soothing away at her fear and her worries. He turned to the other skaa prisoners and gestured into the city. “Run, there are people watching for you. They’ll take you somewhere safe. Go, now!” The skaa looked hesitant at first, but then they ran off. He turned back to the girl. “Can you see?” He asked.

    "Unlike me, stranger, you have eyes - use them! I can see no better than a mole rat." Galatea felt a strange sensation. She kept her emotions contained, after years of torture, abuse and conditioning, she had locked those feelings away and allowed them to wither. But now she felt something she hadn't ever known before - peace. She was no longer fighting her fear and pain, they were just... gone? That wasn't normal. This stranger wasn't normal. He had to be some kind of Misting, affecting her emotions like that. But it didn't matter, whatever he said, she wasn't safe. She would never be safe.

    “Fine, hold on.” He said and he grabbed hold of her firmly. Then he threw down his coins and steel pushed, pulling the coins with him in to the air as he bounded off, not so much flying as a series of arcing jumps through the city, disappearing in to the mist. When he reached a rooftop he put her down briefly and flared his tin, listening carefully to the barrage of loud noises around him. It was difficult to hone in on specific conversations without practice, when every noise got louder. Tin sure would be more useful if he could hone in on specific noises.

    “Come.” He said again as he grabbed her arm and pulled her off the edge of the roof, and they fell together to the ground below, Raze slowing their fall once more with bursting iron pushes. They landed with a tap and he released her once more. “I’m taking you to a safehouse. It’ll be a short stop, we’ll need to get out of Urteau after that stunt.”

    "There's no 'we', stranger." Galatea replied, feeling the air rush around her before they landed. She felt the mist cool around her, and she knew they were on the ground once more. She took a risk, and started walking. "There's only 'you' and 'I'. You saved me. I am leaving." Raze cocked his head to the side slightly and narrowed his eyes at the girl. Did she really plan on going it alone through the night without being able to see?

    “It’s Raze…my name, that is.” He said after her. “You don’t have to trust me, but come with me and I can get you food, let you get those injuries seen to. It’s too late for your vision but if those wounds get infected…well that’s a fresh new hell I can assure you. After that we can part ways if you still want to. Sound fair?”

    A part of her wanted to spit in his face and walk into the mists. But she didn't allow her emotions to control her any more. She knew, whether she liked it or not, that she was likely dead without this man's aid. It was foolish to refuse his offer, even if it was a trap - what was the alternative?
    "Very well, Raze, I can't fault your logic. I will accompany you for now. For dinner, if nothing else..." She smirked to herself, then she lost the brief smile, "I'm... Galatea."
    “You speak like a noble.” Raze said in response. “Well, sort of.” He came to her and took hold of her a final time. Then he pushed once more and they soared upwards, mists coiling around them as he flared his steel and they flew up further and faster, until Raze could see the whole of Urteau beneath him. His coins came up after him and then he let them fall, until finally they lurched as he slowed their fall with steel pushes, landing softly on the backstreet of the skaa tavern they had been using as a front. He tapped in a rhythmic pattern on the door, and then someone unbolted it from the other side and they were let in.

    Mraine greeted them both, and Raze stopped burning tin as he stepped into the well-lit room. The place was relatively bustling as members of their team were tending to the other injured skaa who had been escorted back there. “Is this the last one?” He asked, indicating to Galatea.
    “Looks like it. Get Telzin to have a look at her.” Raze suggested, before turning to Galatea. “Go with my friend Mraine, I’ll fetch you some food.” He said, and then he stalked away from them.

    --- --- ---

    Mraine took a long draw on his pipe as he examined the young waif that Raze had brought in. She looked scrawny in places, Raze was right to get her food. “Come on.” He said in his gruff voice, “Our medic is a nice guy, you’ll like him. Terris, real polite, like.”
    Galatea put a hand on Mraine's shoulder and allowed him to guide her. She didn't acknowledge his comment as she began asking question after question, "Where am I? Who are you? Who was he? Why did he save me? How did he save me?"

    "Don't worry about that just now." Mraine said gently. He led her into another room where another man was waiting by a table, chopping vegetables. He was a very tall man with tanned skin and a completely bald head. He wore a number of earrings and his arms were covered in bracers. He wore brightly coloured robes cut in downward pointing V patterns, the dress of the people of Terris. He smiled at her at first but it grew into a frown as he examined her. "Oh dear child..." the terrisman said as he began to clear the table. "what have they done to you?"

    "Enough." Galatea replied coarsely. "What are you doing?" She asked, hearing clutter quickly being moved. "Are you Terris? I've heard that accent before." She inclined her head, trying to understand her surroundings without the use of her vision. Sounds were mysterious clues she was desperately fumbling to grasp.

    “I would be surprised if you had not.” The terrisman replied, but he did not explain what he was doing. He called for assistance and some skaa women bustled in and began boiling water and getting out clean cloths and towels. “I understand that loss of sight will be distressing, as is your current circumstance, but I must ask that you please be still and let us work.” He gently touched Galatea on the sides of her face, turning her head from left to right as he examined her wounds. His frown deepened slightly though his expression was one of worry rather than frustration. “Very messy…all we can do is clean it up and apply fresh bandages I am afraid…”

    "Very well. If nothing can be done." Galatea touched at her cheeks, and gingerly felt up until she felt a sharp pain as her fingers probed over hewn flesh and she retreated. She had to remind herself - it was no good wallowing in self pity. What's done is done. The terrisman got to work cleaning the wound, apologizing softly as she winced when he dabbed at her eyes. He smiled softly at her even though she could not see him.
    “My name is Telzin.” He said, “I am sorry your owners have treated you so poorly. You are safe for now though, I know that must be hard to believe but it is still true.”

    Mraine sat on a stool in the corner with his arms folded. Watching the girl get treated, he couldn’t help but feel she was going to be a problem. He felt a twinge of guilt for feeling that, he had been kinder once. Years working for the rebellion had led him to responsibilities for a lot of lives, and having a blind girl with them during the escape was only going to slow them down.
    "Owner?" Galatea repeated the word back at Telzin, a touch of venom in her tone, "I don't have one." She winced as she felt liquid trickle into her eyes and recoiled. "Sorry..." She muttered, shuffling back into place.

    “No I am sorry.” Telzin said quickly as he continued dabbing her wound, “I did not mean to offend you, after all I too have once been seen as property. What I said was once true of us both, but I did not consider your feelings.”
    "You don't need to concern yourself with how I feel. I took my freedom today. I'll deal with my sight tomorrow." Galatea gently pulled Telzin's hands away once he had fastened fresh bandages about her eyes. "Thank you, Telzin. My name is Galatea." Then she hopped off the table and fumbled awkwardly as she was lifted into the air. Speechless, Galatea tried to voice her confusion but she was almost at the ceiling and she could no longer focus.

    "You don't need to concern yourself with how I feel. I took my freedom today. I'll deal with my sight tomorrow." Galatea gently pulled Telzin's hands away once he had fastened fresh bandages about her eyes. "Thank you, Telzin. My name is Galatea." Then she hopped off the table and stumbled forwards. "Ugh, get them off!" She snarled, falling to one knee under the weight of her iron collar and shackles, which suddenly felt five times heavier. She'd had days where it had been easier to carry her bonds, and a great many more where it had been difficult to move in them but never like this. Telzin frowned as he helped the girl up and one of the women helping came and took her arm.
    “Take the young lady upstairs and draw her a bath, get these shackles off of her and get her some clean clothes, please.” Telzin instructed to her. “Are you alright, Lady Galatea? Fatigue can take the strength from you quite suddenly at times.” He said to Galatea.
    "I am not a lady and you know this." She growled under the strain of the weight. After a few seconds, Galatea managed to stand completely upright though she could feel her legs wanting to give way. "I am fine." She gently removed the woman's hands from her and started the laborious trek up the stairs.

    Telzin sighed and turned to Mraine, “Another bitter one, suspicious too.”
    “She’ll see sense eventually, and even if she doesn’t…” He sighed and scratched at his head, “I’m sure she can be of some use despite her condition.”
    “Are you disappointed that she will not be another angry skaa to join your army?” Telzin asked plainly, and Mraine responded only with a scowl. Then he got off his stool and stalked off out of the room.

    --- --- --- ---

    Raze had gotten changed out of his mistcloak and had put on a pair of black trousers and boots, a simple white shirt and a brown waistcoat. He did his rounds, checking the smokers were rotating on schedule, and going over reports from tineye scouts. Finally he made his way to the tavern’s kitchen and procured some bay wraps, pockets of flatbread stuffed with rice and vegetables, and took them upstairs to the room that Galatea had been taken to. He reached the door and knocked twice on the frame. “Galatea? I have that food for you.” He said through the door.

    "Bring it in, thank you." Galatea returned to watching the woman from earlier, as she continued treating her, working a salve into Galatea's bruised and scarred wrists. Raze entered and walked over to where they were sitting. “Thank you, Ranette.” Raze said with a nod at the woman, then turned to Galatea. “How does it feel to be waited on for a change?” He asked, and placed the plate on her lap.
    "Unnecessary but not unappreciated." She replied simply. Then picked up a wrap and ravenously devoured it.

    “Oh this is necessary, we need to keep our people healthy.” Raze replied, “The nobility have the right idea, when you’re dealing with big operations you need a lot of help workers.”
    “You pay me though.” Ranette added, eyeing him for a moment, “I’m also a soother, dear. A better one than him, too. No wonder you were so hostile when you first came in.”
    “I didn’t want her panicking!” Raze protested, holding his hands up in surrender.
    “Soothing takes a light touch, something you wouldn’t know the meaning of.” Ranette rolled her eyes at him.

    "If you pull at my emotions, I'll know." Galatea cut through their conversation. "There was a lot of things I couldn't control, but my emotions was not one of them. The Master was like you," She nodded at Ranette, "And you." She added, taking another bite of food. Mouth full, she mumbled, "He couldn't stop me, no matter how hard he tried, and I felt him, stabbing around, in here," She tapped the side of her head with her thumb, "One last indiscretion..."
    “Relax no one’s soothing you.” Ranette replied, “Some soothers are like that but not in our crew. It’s different in the field, of course. We’ve got to use our allomancy to survive, you know?”
    “Not just survive, Ranette.” Raze added, “To live.”

    “So you don’t like emotional allomancy? I think you’ll find you’re not alone there.” Ranette said, “Although I’m pretty good at soothing if I do say so myself. Wouldn’t be any use to this lot if I wasn’t.”
    “Well someone needs to do the laundry…” Raze said with a smirk and Ranette wrapped him soundly on the arm. “Sorry.” He added after.
    “So do you have any questions?” Ranette asked, “About us? Or what comes next?”

    "You want something from me, that much is clear... Soothers... Allomancy... Is that what the Master was? An Allomancer? What makes you different from him...?"
    “We’re what shouldn’t exist.” Raze explained, “half-skaa who have inherited allomancy from our noble blood. If the Lord Ruler’s laws were followed then we wouldn’t exist. Allomancers in the skaa population, why do you think the Lord Ruler wouldn’t want that?”
    "I'm sorry, I know very little about Allomancy. Only that it has power..." Galatea set aside her empty plate and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

    “I can explain it to you in depth some time if you’re interested.” Raze replied, folding his arms. “There are 10 allomantic metals, and some people can ingest and burn one of these metals to tap in to a power, most can only burn one metal, and a very small number can burn all of them, like myself. Allomancy is the Lord Ruler’s gift to the nobility, and so we use that gift to resist his rule, and to overthrow the nobility. Of course, we’re a small crew designed for specialist missions. The Skaa Rebellion could use any help it can get, and it can provide you with a free life. It won’t always be easy, but it will definitely be free.”

    He watched the young girl chew on his words. Skaa didn’t always react the same to the prospect of freedom. Some were excited, others nervous. He had met skaa who denied or even feared their freedom, too indoctrinated by their enslavement. That was why Galatea was interesting. If her actions were any indication, she would fight for that simple right. “You killed the nobleman who kept you in chains.” Raze said matter of factly, “I’ve killed many orders more, for far less. Tell me, how did you do it?”

    "I hit him..." Her reply fell flat as even as the words left her lips she found herself reliving the experience. It was traumatic. But, upon looking back, she realized what she had done. She had more than hit him. Her fist had passed through his head as though it was made of little more than bread and twigs, not muscle and bone.
    “You hit him?” Raze asked, raising an eyebrow. The girl didn’t look like she was strong enough to hit anybody hard enough to kill them. Then again, looks could be deceiving. Some people could make themselves stronger. “…were both of your parents skaa?”

    "I never knew my parents..." Galatea mumbled a response but she was focused, out of curiosity or her inability to pull herself away from that horrifying experience. "I hit him... so hard..."
    “…You could be a thug.” He said then quickly added, “an allomancer who burns pewter. It enhances your physical attributes, makes you fast and strong.”
    "Pewter is a metal... And I ingest it, somehow burn it and I become fast and strong..." Galatea thought this over. "But when did I swallow this metal?"
    “Sometimes Allomancers can burn trace metals from the water. Pewter is commonly used for bowls and cutlery.” Raze explained, “There’s a simple test for it.” Raze reached in to his pocket and produced a vial of liquid with metal flakes. “This solution has the primary 8 metals allomancers use in it. Drink it, and see if you can burn it.” He handed it out for her but Ranette swiped it from his hands.

    “And if she can’t burn it you’ll give her metal poisoning. Those metals can kill you if you don’t burn them off.”
    “If she burns pewter then she’ll be more likely to live through it until we sort it out.” Raze replied testily.
    “IF she burns pewter, Raze.” Ranette bit back with a slight anger to her tone. “We’re waiting here for our rotation to escape Urteau without being noticed. When we get the call we’re going to need to move quickly, we can’t have her being sick as well as…” she hesitated.

    "I'm starting to realise the only things the Master taught me were those useful to him." Galatea interjected after noting the half dozen words she didn't understand. Questions for later. "Give me the vial. If I need to drink it to be of use then I will. I can't expect to navigate this world on my own. It's... Alien to me..." Ranette, however, tossed the vial back to Raze.
    “You don’t need allomancy to help.” Ranette assured her, “But I’ll fetch you one of the vials our thugs use, a small dose. No sense injuring yourself over it. Isn’t that right, Raze?” She gaze him a pointed look.
    “Uh…right.” Raze said, scratching his head. Then he turned as Mraine entered the room without knocking.
    “Shifts are changing, Rudy thinks we’ll be moving this lot in 5 hours. I suggest you get some sleep before then.” He said, and turned back around to leave.

    “Well that settles it.” Ranette said as she began to shoo Raze out of the room. “Get some rest, Galatea.”
    “When we say it’s time to go…just do as instructed until we get safe again. Sleep well.” Raze said, and they both left Galatea alone.


  2. Prologue

    Ash was falling from the sky on the morning when the Obligators came to Lord Aradel’s plantation in the Northern Dominance. As was typical during these visits, Lord Aradel had sent his children away on a day trip so as not to bother the Obligators. Lord Fenris Aradel stood surveying the fields around his stately home, where frail-looking workers, skin stained grey from the ash, toiled at the crops. He was a short man who had grown quite stout over the last couple of years. His dark brown hair was thinning on the top and combed to the side. The sky above was a wash of grey ash as it always was, and through that ash a burning, red sun shone overhead. The skaa workers harvested grey plants in fields that stretched on for about half a mile, with patrolling taskmasters monitoring them closely, whips in hand.

    Beyond was the distant city of Urteau, and the single Ashmount of the Northern Dominance, Kalling, a black mountain that spewed forth soot and ash into the atmosphere. Below the ashmount were miles and miles of untamed forests and valleys, and due to the mountainous areas of the region, it was one of the few places in the world where wild sheep could be found. Aradel did not trade in sheep, however. He cast his eyes over the skaa Workers, in his eyes they were a shuffling, lazy lot. The only real advantage to them was the shear amount of them, and they tended to work faster for a brief period after receiving a few lashes of the whip.

    They were slaves, but they were not his slaves. They were, of course, the property of the Lord Ruler. The nobility were simply loaned the skaa by their almighty leader, but they were given a great deal of liberties. They could beat them, and even kill them if they so desired. They could even take them to their beds, as long as they took certain precautions afterwards. Lord Aradel watched the skaa for what seemed like hours, until finally a voice snapped him out of his trance.

    “Lord Aradel…” The voice had a pompous, nasal quality to it. Lord Aradel turned to find the an Obligator standing behind him to his right, with a companion stood next to him.
    “Obligator Marwin.” Lord Aradel replied with a polite smile, “You have concluded your audit?”
    “Indeed.” Marwin replied. The man was average height and slim, and entirely bald. Like all Obligators he had a series of tattoos around his eyes, mostly black but some parts red, the significance and meaning both unknown to Lord Aradel. He was dressed in dark robes with pointed shoulders and wide sleeves, with gold filagery on the collar and sleeves. “My inspection on behalf of the Canton of Resource finds nothing of concern within your holdings, Lord Aradel…” For a moment Lord Aradel felt a wash of relief fall over him, but the Obligator continued talking. “However…my colleague from the Canton of Inquisition has voiced…concerns.”

    Lord Aradel turned his attention to the Obligator’s companion. The man behind him was tall and dressed in black robes, much more loose fitting and plain than the Obligator, with a dark hood over his head. The man raised his head slightly to reveal a similarly bald face with tattoos and markings around the eyes, however, this man did not have eyes. In place was two flat discs of metal. Lord Aradel knew that they were actually the flat ends of two spikes that had been speared through the head of the man, and the points stuck out the back of his head. He was a Steel Inquisitor, a terror of the Steel Ministry that made Obligators look like cute puppies.

    “Concerns…yes.” The Inquisitor said, his voice was raspy and cold, “Tell me Lord Aradel…how old are your children?”
    “My children?” Aradel replied, trying to hold back the nervousness in his voice, “Seta is 18 and her brother Venrin is only 12.”
    “Yes…and you have had how many wives?” The Inquisitor asked, his expressionless face causing Lord Aradel to shiver.
    “…Just one, she died last year.” Aradel explained.
    “Lady Marewen Aradel, previously of House Tekiel. Died of a sickness if I recall, a weakness in the blood. It is a hereditary disease that only affects women. It has other known symptoms…including infertility. Did you know this?”
    “I…I did not.” Aradel lied. “But it can’t always be the case, we have two children after all.”

    “Lord Aradel…let us not play games.” The Inquisitor said, “Bedding skaa is not a crime. Your business is otherwise in order here, you will not receive any personal punishment for this incident.” The Inquisitor cast his eyes behind Aradel, who immediately turned to see a horse-drawn carriage returning to the manor. “Your children, however….they should never have been allowed to be born in the first place. We will have to rectify that.”
    “No…wait, my wife, she desperately wanted children! But she knew! She knew she couldn’t conceive, what else were we to do?” Aradel looked pained.
    “Lord Aradel…” The Inquisitor took a step forward and Aradel recoiled in fear. “Step aside, or I will execute you for interfering with the responsibilities of The Canton of Inquisition.”

    Aradel hesitated. He loved his children, and he had loved his wife. He turned back to the approaching carriage, and he knew that he could not hope to stop a Steel Inquisitor. His children, he began to realize, were already dead. In that sense, was there really any need to sacrifice himself too? He winced at the thought, but then without another word, he stepped aside. The Steel Inquisitor smirked, and then stepped past him, slowly making his way through the fields towards the carriage.

    --- --- --- ---

    Venrin barely noticed the rocking of the carriage, he was so immersed in his book. The young boy was dressed in a white shirt with brown waistcoat and black trousers and shoes. His dark brown hair was combed neatly in a side parting and his keen blue eyes were transfixed to the page. His sister, Seta, sat next to him staring out of the window. She was a thin, beautiful young woman with dark hair like his own, tied back in a complex braid that was hanged over her shoulder. She was dressed in a simple, dark gown that wasn’t very fashionable, but she had insisted on wearing these sorts of things, something that was more fitting and easier to move around in. Where other young ladies wore heels and slips, Seta wore boots.

    “The ashfalls are quite beautiful at times.” She said, “Perhaps you would notice this too if you ever paid attention to your surroundings, Ven.”
    “Hm?” Venrin gave her a half glance and then went back to his book. “We’re almost home, I can look around here any time. This book is at a good part though, the hero just killed the leader of the skaa rebels and saved the damsel.”
    “Skaa rebels? How silly, Ven. Skaa aren’t organized enough to properly rebel, and they wouldn’t dare kidnap a noble lady.”
    “It’s really exciting though…the hero is a Coinshot, he’s so daring-“
    “What is…” Seta interrupted him as she looked out of the window of the carriage. The horses stopped as they had reached the manor. Seta got out and Venrin closed his book and followed her. As they stepped outside Venrin gasped, spotting the Steel Inquisitor walking towards them. Venrin felt a chill as he stared into those cold discs of metal. “Seta…” He said worriedly.

    “Ven…get back in the carriage,” Seta said, her tone becoming serious. She was holding a small vial in her hands. Where had she been hiding that? As he wondered that, she uncorked the vial and swallowed the liquid contents of it. “I mean it, get back in the carriage, now.” Then Seta suddenly shot forward with immense speed. She closed the gap between them and the Inquisitor and let out a primal scream as she attacked him with a flurry of punches and kicks.

    Venrin gasped, watching his petite framed sister flying like a legendary warrior, showing power and speed that didn’t match her frame. The Inquisitor didn’t seem phased by this, however, and he matched her speed with relative ease, dodging her blows and expertly countering with powerful blows. Despite taking blows to her ribs and face, Seta kept going. Apparently, her resilience was otherworldly too.
    “Seta…you’re an allomancer.” He whispered in revelation to himself. The Steel Inquisitor apparently grew tired of the dance, and he suddenly stretched out his robed arms and coins flew through the air, cutting at Seta like little knives. She gasped in pain but kept at him, stopping only to call back to Venrin; “Run!”

    Venrin was shocked into movement, and he suddenly turned and ran away from the fields, back towards the open road. The Inquisitor knocked Seta to the side and then he sprinted for Venrin, moving at an incredible speed. With a thrust of his arms he had drawn his coins back to his hands, and then he pushed them towards Venrin. He felt objects whizz past him like arrows, and then he felt a cutting, sharp pain in his arm, and then in his leg as the coins cut into him. He cried out in pain, terror dominating his mind. He kept running and running but he could not outrun the Inquisitor. The monster reached him and grabbed hold of him by the back of his shirt, and picked him up as if he weighed no more than a loaf of bread.

    He screamed in horror as he got a closer look at the Inquisitor’s face. His pale, sunken expression, his metal discs for eyes, and he wore a slight grimace, one that made it seem like the creature was in near constant pain or discomfort. “I admire your resolve, child.” The Inquisitor said, “But you cannot run from me.”
    “NO!” Seta screamed as she reached them. She moved with more speed than she had before, and the Inquisitor seemed surprised by the sheer amount of power she had brought to this next altercation. Her desire to protect Venrin had sent Seta into a rage, and she lashed out at the Inquisitor, wrenching Venrin from his grasp, tearing the boy’s shirt in the process. The fighting became a blur as the fear gripped Venrin and he became dazed and confused.

    Distant shouting from the plantation shook him from his confusion, as a drumming noise came closer and closer. Horse hooves hammered across the plains, and as Seta struggled with the Inquisitor, a skaa worker on a stolen horse came bounding towards Venrin, his arm outstretched to grab hold of the boy. Venrin reached up in desperation, and the skaa gripped his arm and hoisted him on to the back of the horse, riding away from the battle. “My sister!” Venrin screamed, “No we have to save her too!”
    “Sorry boy.” The Skaa replied, his expression pained. “No one survives a Steel Inquisitor. Our only hope is to run…”
    “No! We have to go back for her!” Venrin demanded. This man, what had spurred him to act? He was a slave, and Venrin’s father was their master. They were forced to work hard all day, they were beaten if they didn’t work fast enough, and yet this man had shown bravery, and had saved him. “I’m sorry…” The skaa said, his expression still pained but also resigned. “We can never go back…”

    Venrin turned around to look back, and he saw his sister broken and beaten on the ground. The Steel Inquisitor had her by the hair, her face a bloody mess. Then with a final smash of his fist, he knocked Seta to the ground. She did not move again. Pain surged through Venrin, a great despair that seemed to rip his insides apart. He felt like something inside of him had been broken, like a snap of a branch from the rest of the tree.

     

    Mistborn Alterna: Breaking An Empire

    That was the day he had snapped. It had been over 20 years since that day, and Venrin Aradel was a ghost. In his place stood a man in his mid-30s. His dark brown hair was longer and swept back. His chubby child-like features had been replaced by sharp hawkish ones. His blue eyes were just as brilliant, but they seemed colder and less innocent. He was clean-shaven, and wore a single bronze stud in his right ear. He had become a lean, muscular man with a strong jaw and a confident posture. He was wearing a black shirt, black trousers and black boots under his cloak.

    The cloak itself looked like it was made of ribbons of dark-grey cloth, with a dark hood which he pulled over his head. A Mistcloak; a signature attire of the rare and legendary allomancers known as Mistborn. The tassels of the cloak were about an inch to an inch and a half wide, all a dark grey, and perfectly fitted to reach the bottom of his feet, but not to drag along behind him. The cloak was designed to conceal him in the murky mists that covered the land every evening. It was also a sign to common folk and guards to stay out of their way, as Mistborn were above mere mortal men, above even other mistings.

    The boy who had been rescued by the bravery and kindness of a single skaa had died the moment he had snapped. The two escapees had fled to the mountains where they had found other skaa who took them in. The skaa man, Mraine, had lied to the other skaa there. He couldn’t tell them that Venrin was a Nobleman, for they would have surely killed him on the spot. Instead Mraine had told the rebellion that Venrin was his son, and that his name was Raze. And since that day, he had become Raze. To all who knew him he was a half-skaa, his mother a noblewoman who had taken a skaa lover in Mraine, who had fled when the Steel Ministry had come for them.

    Mraine, it had transpired, was himself a half-skaa. He was also an allomancer, one who burned copper, also known as a Smoker. His allomantic power had no use in a fight and so he couldn’t have helped Raze’s sister. Burning copper created an invisible cloud, called a coppercloud, within an area around a Smoker, and within that area allomantic abilities could not be detected. Of course only a Seeker, an allomancer who burned bronze could detect allomancy. However, as Raze had come to learn, all Steel Inquisitors could use every metal, and many Obligators were also Seekers.

    Raze’s sister, Seta, had been a Thug, an allomancer who burned pewter to become physically stronger, faster, and more resilient. They were just 3 abilities of a total of 10 allomantic metals; Iron, Steel, Bronze, Copper, Zinc, Brass, Tin, Pewter, Gold and Atium. The rules of allomancy were simple enough; only those with noble blood could become allomancers, which meant no skaa should be able to use alomancy, as the Lord Ruler had decreed that any noble who beds a skaa should kill them afterwards. Yet laws, of course, were often broken. Mistings were the most common allomancers, people who could only burn one metal. Skaa Mistings were more rare, but they did exist, although they kept their abilities secret. Rarer still were Mistborn, even among the nobility the likelihood of someone being able to use all the allomantic arts was exceptionally rare. As for skaa Mistborn, Raze was fairly certain that they did not exist. Of course, he was now living the life of a skaa, and so perhaps he was the first. Sort of.

    Raze had learned quickly that the skaa were not as slow witted and dull as the Steel Ministry has led them to be believe. The Canton of Orthodoxy had taught religion to the nobility, but as far as Raze remembered, their teaching consisted of ‘we will handle the religion, you just do as we say and all will be well’. They had been taught some things though. They were taught that the Lord Ruler, the Immortal God Emperor, the Sliver of Infinity, had saved the world from The Deepness over a millennia ago. The Lord Ruler had gifted the nobility, the sons and daughters of his trusted allies, with the power of allomancy.

    The skaa, on the other hand, were forbidden from having religion. They were forbidden from having much of a life at all really. Many skaa worked as slaves for noble houses, and perhaps a luckier few with specialist skills could have jobs as tradesman or merchants, but only as far as the Lord Ruler allowed. They were his property, no matter what, that fact was made abundantly clear. While the vast majority of skaa lived this life, a small few had managed to subvert the Lord Ruler’s law. First there was the thieving crews. Some skaa had managed to make themselves very rich through a series of cons, heists and burglaries. The others were the rebellion, men and women who had fled civilization to a secret location in the mountains, where they hid and plotted the unthinkable; to overthrow the Final Empire. It was considered a fantasy to most, but it was a fantasy that Raze had latched on to.

    Spending time with the skaa had taught him that they were just like him. The nobility turned a blind eye to these people who thought and felt in precisely the same way as they did. And he had been saved by the kindness of a man who was a slave to his family. A man who Raze would not have blamed if he had simply watched him die with a smile on his face. He owed this man and his people. He didn’t know how, but he was going to find a way to do it. He would kill the Lord Ruler and bring the skaa their freedom.

    “Daydreaming again?” Mraine asked. They were stood in a backroom of a skaa tavern in Urteau, the capital city of the Northern Dominance. Mraine no longer wore the rags he had when he had worked on the plantation. He had gained weight over the years, he wasn’t fat but he looked healthier and more well fed now. His hair had greyed and thinned, and was combed back over his liver-spotted head. Despite turning 60 this year the man was keen-eyed and confident. He was dressed in a brown longcoat, with a simple olive-coloured shirt underneath and some tan trousers with grey suspenders. He was smoking a pipe, the tobacco smelled spicy and a little sweet.

    “Just visiting the past…I guess it's being here in the Northern Dominance again.” Raze replied, his voice was deeper and had a cool confidence in it. “When was the last time we were here?”
    “8 years ago. We were recruiting for the rebellion, and you disappeared.” Mraine replied with a shrug, “Two days later you return, burnt out from pewter drag and ready to collapse.”
    “Yes…” Raze replied, staring out of the window, “I went to see my father.”
    “For the last time, apparently.” Mraine said with a nod, “The ministry discovered his corpse a few days later.”
    “No great loss.” Raze replied coldly, and finally, he turned and locked eyes with Mraine. “Now his heir runs the plantation. New wife, new son. It was like what had happened to us was just a bad dream for him. Well, at least my half-brother treats the skaa better. Even pays them wages.”
    “You know…those who knew the Aradel heir would say he experienced quite the change of heart after his father died. Apparently, he relished skaa suffering, would even lash them himself at times.”
    “Well, sometimes a little brotherly love can go a long way…” Raze replied, and he went back to staring out of the window. “So why are we here, Mraine? You’ve got me all dressed up for the occasion, so what’s happening?”

    “Public executions are happening tonight.” Mraine replied, “All skaa who have defied their masters. One even killed a noble, apparently.”
    “I like this man already.” Raze said with a smirk.
    “Woman.” Mraine corrected. “Anyway…skaa with that rebellious spirit are rare. I’ve got our tineyes and seekers scouting the city. Reports indicate that there’s something going down at the Conventical of Seran, all the Inquisitors have been making their way there. The Obligators are dealing with the executions. Security is low, just the usual guards to keep the masses under control. No one really expects any noble mistings to act out against skaa executions.”
    “So they definitely won’t be expecting a Mistborn, then.”
    “Exactly,” Mraine said. “Just sit tight here and I’ll keep us hidden. Relax a little until the mists roll in, then you go do what you do best.”

    “I hate waiting…” Raze grumbled. The streets of Urteau bustled with activity outside. It would be another few hours before nightfall came, and then the mists would roll in. Then he could be free again. Free to run, and soar, and to kill.


  3. Inside a shady nightclub in Shibuya, Tokyo, heavy bass rumbled through the thick stone walls. A dancefloor packed with youthful revelers was illuminated through piercing, colourful lights and lasers which cut through the darkness like a knife through butter. Attractive young bodies in vibrant clothing, skin-tight dresses swayed and grinded to the rhythmic bass and delighted at the synthesized parade of trance sounds and electro beats. A female vocalist sang a song about memories as jets of dry ice were sent hissing across the room, weaving through the lights and the people like a fog.

    Around the dance floor were low tables and luxurious leather chairs where groups of men and women shouting at each other over the music, laughing and enjoying drinks. One man stood out sitting with his entourage, for he wasn’t Japanese. He was a pale man, with a gaunt, skinny frame. His hands, arms, neck and chest were covered in various tattoos and he was dressed in a pair of red Dr. Martens, grey, skinny jeans with a black belt and custom metal buckle that read: “F*CK OFF”, in English. He had no shirt on and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of mirror-lensed aviators. His hair was short, cut high and tight round the sides, the top was longer but tied back in a top knot, with a little tail.

    The man, who couldn’t have looked a day over 30, was smoking a cigarette that had an aroma that was certainly not tobacco. He was transfixed on the end as he inhaled, watching the crimson light claw closer to his lips, devouring all in it’s path, hungry, relentless, and leaving only ash in its wake.
    “Adrian!” A man yelled over the music as he sat next to him. He turned to the young man and leaned back in his chair. He pondered about the way people here said his name, which always sounded more like ‘Ey Dorian’ to him.

    He exhaled the smoke he was holding in his lungs and pulled down his shades momentarily to see him with his own eyes. Recognition followed. “Ah, right, didn’t recognize ya there, mate!” He said in English, “I’m too fucked mate, apologies. It’s my fault, eh.”
    “Do you…have any…” The other man seemed to be struggling with his English. Adrian held up two fingers to acknowledge that he understand, however. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, clear bag with 5 yellow pills in it. Amphetamines were the popular choice here, which Adrian figured was fiar enough but he’d always been more partial to cocaine. He offered them to the man, held between his two outstretched fingers. The man nodded and took them gratefully, then went to reach for his wallet. He produced a handful of Yen and slipped them to Adrian who pocketed them without a word.

    “Pass?” He said to the young man and offered him his joint. The man smiled and went to take it, but then hesitated as something caught his eye. He stared off behind Adrian, and then quickly began to look nervous. He stood up suddenly and disappeared into the crowd. Arian frowned at that, he felt it a bit of an unusual reaction to him,  but once again realization dawned as another man tapped Adrian on the shoulder. This man stood out, much like Adrian did, but for a different reason. He was a broad shouldered Japanese man, dressed in a black suit and tie with a white shirt, with tattoos barely poking out from under his collar. The man looked mean, and definitely dangerous.

    “Ah…” Adrian said with a nod, “Y’alright there Kazuo san?” He asked, but Kazuo did not reply. Instead he pointed up to the second floor of the building, away from all the patrons, to a windowed room overhead. “Boss man wants to see me, eh?” Adrian asked, and he stood up, placing his joint in the ashtray. He picked up his T-shirt and put it on; it was a black t-shirt that had a white logo of two acoustic guitars crossed at the neck, with lettering reading: ‘Johnny Cash – Genuine American Rebel’ on it. Kazuo walked, and Adrian followed him. Before long they had exited from the main nightclub area and all that could be heard of the music was the distant thumping of bass. Bright lights greeted them along with a decidedly less visually appealing corridor. They moved in silence, passing other men in black suits as they went up some stairs and then knocked politely on a door. A voice on the other side indicated for them to come in, and they did.

    The room’s walls were the colour of slate, and the room was decorated with expensive, minimalist furniture. Inside there were two more goons and a third man who was older, perhaps in his mid-50s. This man was sitting down, and as Adrian came in her locked eyes with him and then offered the seat next to him. “Sit.” The man said in English.
    “Yeah, alright.” Adrian said with a smile and he walked over and sat down opposite the man, a glass coffee table between them. A decanter of whisky sat on the table, and a glass had been poured for each of them. The older man held his hand out to permit Adrian to drink. He took the glass happily and downed it’s contents in one gulp, feeling the amber liquid burn his throat on the way down.

    “Do you know why I have called you up here?” The man asked.
    “Not really.” Adrian replied, “Pretty sure it’s not my birthday though, so I can rule that out.”
    “I took you on because you are a foreigner, and people here feel more comfortable buying drugs from a foreigner.”
    “Well I wouldn’t really say they are comfortable but it’s a lot less scary than asking you lot for drugs, right?” Adrian said with a grin, “I mean you’re a pretty scary lot, aren’t you?”
    “Do I scare you, Adrian?”
    “A bit, yeah.” Adrian admitted, “But I’ve never really been described as the brave sort so I’m probably not the best person to ask, Mister Tatsuyuki. “Plus I’m not exactly sober.”

    “Sober enough…” Tatsuyuki replied, “We allow you to indulge yourself on our product, provided you keep making us money, and you take your cut like everyone else. If you were to take more than your cut…if you were to steal from me, that would be a problem. Do you have anything to say?” Adrian leaned back in the chair, and there was a pause as he thought about it. They definitely knew. He’d gotten greedy, had kept money aside, hidden it away from them when he was dropping off his takings. In retrospect, stealing from the Yakuza was never a particularly genius plan, but then again he’d never been all that smart.

    “Don’t know what you’re talking about mate.” He said finally with a shrug, “But I’m sure that whatever’s bothering you, well, we can sort it out with a good chat, eh?”
    “Who do you think you are talking to?” Tatsuyuki said, and he got up from his chair and began walking to the back of this room, “I have indulged your relative lack of respect since you are a young, unenlightened foreigner. You have thus far shown little appreciation of our culture.”
    “Hey now that’s not fair!” Adrian said, getting up as well, “I appreciate the hell out of this culture, y’know, I love all the Pokémon games, and don’t get me started on Hatsune Miku, she’s just fab is she not? Cute too, well, for a cartoon anyway.”

    “Urusei!” Tatsuyuki snapped, suddenly allowing anger in to his voice. He continued berating Adrian in Japanese and as he reached the far wall he picked up  katana that was sitting on a stand on a mantelpiece. “Do you understand honour, even a little, gaijin?” He asked as he began to approach Adrian once more.
    “I hope you’re not gonna ask me to do the hari kari shite, are ya?” Adrian asked.
    “Aitsu o tsukamaero!” Tatsuyuki barked as an order to his men, and the two goons advanced on Adrian, who spun around to face them, holding his hands out placatingly.
    “Now lads don’t be so hasty, eh?” He said with a nervous grin, “Let’s not go doing something we regret, hm?”

    The two men went to grab him, but Adrian avoided the first’s lunge and backed off, his tone more frantic now. “Hey listen, listen! I’m telling ya, I don’t want to hurt ya now. Let’s just settle down eh?”
    The second man came at him and grabbed him by the wrist, wrenching it behind his back and twisting it hard, causing him to cry out. The other goon grabbed Adrian’s other side and collectively they forced him to his knees, and held him there. He tried to summon some strength, but it had been so long since he had used it. Plus he wasn’t sure the last time he was entirely sober, and he was pretty far gone on various chemicals now.

    “This…this is for those who are honorable.” Tatsuyaki said, indicating to the katana. One of the men held Adrian’s head up so he could look at Tatsuyaki. “You are a pitiful little thief, and you do not deserve to taste this steel. You get the easy way out.” And then Tatsuyaki pulled out a gun and pointed it at Adrian’s head.
    “Oh…fffuck.” Adrian managed, staring at the outstretched arm holding the gun at him. “Look…if you’re gonna kill me I would really suggest the sword, mate. If ya cut me head off ya might have a chance.”
    “Be silent, your time is up you little punk” Tatsuyaki said in Japanese, which Adrian had understood quite clearly. Then there was a loud bang and his ears began ringing like bells. He felt something hit his face, the floor perhaps. His vision faded to white, and he could hear the muffled sound of the men talking, and that distant rumble of bass that had likely masked the sound of the gunshots to anyone in the club down below.

    “Clean this up.” Tatsuyaki said, as he picked up his glass of whisky and sipped from it. One of his subordinates nodded and left the room to get some help. The other man knelt down at Adrian’s side and began to haul his corpse up off the floor. He got the pale man up off the floor, and was holding him tight against his chest, when suddenly the corpse moved, and Adrian suddenly was the one gripping hold of him. His shades had come off and in the bright light of the room his amber eyes blazed, his pupils slitted like a cat’s. His mouth opened to a maw of gleaming, serrated, razor sharp teeth like that of a monster shark. He clamped his jaws down on the man’s throat and gnashed furiously. The man screamed but it soon became a gurgle as Adrian tore his throat out, snarling like a feral animal as he guzzled down his blood hungrily.

    “What….are…are you a ghoul!?” Tatsuyuki cried as he pointed the gun at Adrian once more. Adrian dropped the lifeless corpe of the man he had feasted on, and turned his narrow eyes towards Tatsuyuki, and when he spoke he did so in perfect Japanese, even with a regional kansai dialect.
    “I warned ya…” He said, and he paused to shiver. Fresh blood coursing through him was a particularly intense high, made you feel stronger than any cocaine would, and the intense pleasure was better than any amphetamine, better than heroin, and he would know. He’d had quite a lot of heroin over the years.

    “G-get back, Ghoul!” Tatsuyuki yelled, and he opened fire on Adrian, firing again and again until the magazine was empty and the gun just clicked. Adrian looked down at the holes in his shirt where he had been riddled with bullets, and then looked back up at Tatsuyuki with a hurt expression. “Just ‘cause I don’t die doesn’t mean it’s ain’t sore, ya know?” He advanced towards Tatsuyaki. “And I ain’t no Ghoul. I told ya didn’t I? I’m a vegetarian!”
    “But…then what…?”
    “I like drugs, Tatsuyuki san. Love ‘em, I admit it. Somethin’ of an addict. Just so happens though….that human blood is the best drug goin’ for guys like me. Now, see…” He held up his blood covered hand and pointed his finger at Tatsuyuki chastisingly. “What ya failed to grasp is that the reason I take so many drugs is because it helps me not consume the one I really love. But when you got and blow me to bits like this, you went and triggered my healin’ didn’t ya? Now I’m stone cold sober, in a lot of pain, and everythin’ has a price, includin’ my immortality. Bet yer wishin’ you’d cut my head off now, hm?”

    With a bit of resolve mustering in him, Tatsuyuki threw his gun to the ground and drew the katana from it’s saba and with a warrior cry he ran at Adrian. The vampire smiled a grin full of bloody fangs, and as Tatsuyuki swung the blade he side stepped it with inhuman speed and grace, then he plucked the sword out of Tatsuyuki’s hands with effortless strength, and tossed it away. Then his other hand clamped around Tatsuyuki’s throat, his finger nails had hardened and became pointed claws, that pierced into the skin of Tatsuyuki’s neck. “16 years….not a drop of blood. Then ya had to go an’ fuck all that up, didn’t ya?” Adrian snarled and then he savaged at Tatsuyuki. Like a starved feral beast he ripped the Yakuza boss to shreds, his claws and fangs tearing him limb from limb, relieving him of his organs, scattering his flesh and bone across the floor, all the while blood sprayed everywhere, coating the window that looked out on to the nightclub from on high.

    Adrian’s memories of the event grew hazy as the blood frenzy consumed him. Specifics of the even were lost. There was only blood, and violence. For a while he swam in the sea of his dark, primal nature. When he finally emerged to the surface once more, he was no longer in the Yakuza den. He was in his shitty little apartment. At some point he had showered and ditched his blood-soaked clothing. Somewhere along the line his human side had seen sense and had ditched the blood for safer options.

    Adrian stared down at three empty bottles of whisky, and a fourth that was almost finished. Three lines of cocaine were chopped up and set out on the counter. He took the rolled up 10,000 yen note in his hand and then he snorted each line, one after the other. With each line he was given a sudden jolt of reality that brought his consciousness front and centre. He looked around the room, rubbing at his burning nostrils. He had money, but not a lot. His clothes were hastily packed in a duffle bag, and his phone was charging on a stand by his bed, a futon on the floor. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. Then he picked up his duffel bag and went to zip it shut, and noted that the katana Tatsuyuki had threatened him with was nestled in among his clothes. “Well…at least I got a souvenir.” He said to himself.

    He left the apartment in a hurry, and ran down the stairs in such a rush that he wasn’t paying attention to the windows. When he opened the doors to go outside he instinctively froze and stepped back. The bright sunshine of early morning greeted him on the street outside. He lingered in the door there for a moment, his normal looking eyes returned to narrow slits as the light him them. He covered them with his shades and then took a deep breath. Then Adrian the Vampire stepped out into the sun. It’s heat prickled on his skin, but did nothing more outwardly. While there was once a time where the sun would have burned him to ash, this had not been the case for more than half a century now.

    However, moving in daylight was no picnic for him. His keen senses and supernatural healing seemed to stop working when he walked in the daytime. And so all of a sudden the liquor and drugs hit him almost as powerfully as they would a normal, mortal human. He felt dizzy, and he was sweating, yet he kept getting cold shivers. He became disoriented as he moved through the streets of Shinjuku. A modicum of sense came back to him as he ducked into the subway and rode a train to Tokyo Central, and managed to shamble through enough conversation with the ticket lady and the man at the station’s shop to score himself a bottle of sake and a ticket on the Shinkansen to Osaka.

    As he settled down on the train, he got to drinking the bottle of sake and pulled a denim jacket over his head, in an attempt to get some sleep through the daytime journey. It took a long time, but sleep did take him eventually. Sleep, for a vampre, was not filled with dreams. Instead sleep was a cold, dark embrace. While it brought him rest, it was not the same comforting experience that he had once remembered it to be. And so not long after he felt his consciousness fading, he was suddenly awake again.

    It had been hours, and he had awoken to a headache that was surely a sign that he was far too sober. The train had pulled into a station, and the tannoy indicated that it was Shin Osaka Station. With a grown Adrian grabbed his things and hauled himself up and off of the train. He made his way quickly through the station, which he noted had changed quite a bit since his last visit to Osaka. When had that been? 20 years ago? More? It didn’t matter especially. He knew where he needed to go.

    He took a moment to be incredulous at the inconsistency of his ancient brain’s memory. He had forgotten more languages than most people could speak, including his native Romanian, but for some reason had managed to hold on to English, Spanish, French and Japanese, and specifically with a kansai dialect. Bonkers. And he even remembered he needed to get to Namba Station to get to where he was going. Yet he could not remember his own mother and father. He could remember that he loved his mother, and that he had absolutely no love for his father, but for the life of him he hadn’t a clue why.

    The journey through the subway to Namba was a brief one, only a quarter of an hour at most. When he reached Namba station he went to the bathroom and straigtened himself out a bit. He was wearing a sleeveless, black T-shirt with a picture of Godzilla; the old kaiju rubber suit one, not the weird Mathew Broderick one. He had kept his Dr. Martens on and had changed to a pair of blue, denim jeans that had been cut at the knees to make them shorts.

    After that he begrudgingly made his way out of the station, and back in to direct sunlight. The disorientation wasn’t quite so intense this time, mostly because he’d somewhat sobered on the journey. A quick five minute walk in which he had hoovered through about 3 cigarettes had lead him to Dotonbori, and it’s signature neon adverts emblazoned across the tall buildings next to the canal. A wave of familiarity and nostalgia washed over him. The place had not changed quite so significantly as Tokyo had over the years.

    So now he was here. On the run from the Yakuza, who would no doubt seek retribution for the massacre that had transpired in Shinjuku. He had no money, and no employment now that his previous employers likely wanted him dead. He also had no contacts to buy drugs, and nowhere to live. Now that he had taken time to stop and think, perhaps coming to Osaka with literally no way of getting by wasn’t such a bright idea. However, as he had acknowledged many times before in his life, he had to admit that he was not a smart man.

    His pondering was disrupted by the smell of delicious foods being cooked. Dotonbori had a whole host of decent places to eat, lots of cosy little bars and restaurants where you could eat a good meal for an affordable price. He moved away from the busier streets and walked down by the canal, looking for somewhere quiet where he could avoid drawing any attention to himself. Finally he found himself a little establishment called Soma Ramen. He put an unlit cigarette in his mouth and pushed the door open, and stepped inside. He looked up to find a young woman staring at him with an unreadable expression. He waited for the customary ‘welcome’ that most shops in Japan greeted patrons with, but it didn’t come. Oh dear.

    “Yo.” He said with a tired smile, “Do you have a vegetarian dish?”


  4. The Bronx. 42 square miles of land. An urban community often associated with crime and decay, never really managing to rid itself of the reputation it gained in the 60’s and 70’s. 20 years after the decline of livable housing and the increase in arson cases, The Bronx had went through significant redevelopment and the quality of life there had improved. Yet The Bronx was no without it’s problems. Gangs were still prevalent in low income areas, and of the various Hispanic gangs, the Latin Kings and Latin Queens were the most prevalent. Violence and corruptions still stained the borough like an sickness. There was only so much the police were capable of, and The Avengers were too busy fighting aliens and killer robots to actually look out for the little guy.

    New York had it’s own share of superheroes to deal with the every day crimes. Spiderman, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Power Man and Power Girl. Still, none of them were handling The Bronx. It seemed that despite wealth returning there, with new housing and businesses being built, the danger was still present. Someone had to do something about it. That someone was Flare.

    Flare liked to be up high, to see over the city from the rooftops. As far as hero outfits went, her ensemble wasn’t quite as striking as Daredevil’s or Spiderman’s. She wore a simple slate grey hoodie with the hood up, with dark lycra sport leggings, and black athletic sneakers. Her elbows, knees and shins were covered by black, hard-plastic protective pads. Under her hood she had a tanned, smooth complexion, and wore a pair of visor-like sunglasses to hide her eyes. A fringe of dark brown hair fell across her forehead, with the ends dyed in flashes of purple.

    Tonight was something of a special night for Flare. On any given night she would do her ‘rounds’, making her way through the streets, quite literally looking for trouble. Generally she was used to interceding in gang fights, muggings and assaults. On more rare occasions she might discover a burglary taking place. Tonight, however, she was on to something much bigger. Over the last few evenings she had listened in on conversations between members of the Latin Kings. She had discovered that the Latin Kings were to receive a large shipment of goods; most likely drugs or guns, as part of an ongoing relationship they had with another gang operating elsewhere.

    Bringing drugs or guns into her town could cause no end of trouble. With a large shipment of weapons the Latin Kings could settle old scores with rival gangs and increase their hold on The Bronx. With Drugs they could bleed the town of the little wealth and prosperity it was gathering, and ruin people’s lives in the process. Flare wasn’t about to let that happen. Unlike most of the people in this town, she could actually do something about it.

    She stood at the edge of a flat rooftop of a collection of large warehouse buildings down by the East River. It was dark and even from her heightened vantage point she could see little to no signs of life. So she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and then she flared her hearing. Well, that was a vague term for what she was doing anyway. Flare could heighten her senses individually with an effort of will. However, even the sense people considered to be hearing, was a collection of different senses. She could flare her sense of volume, although she avoided it often as it just made everything louder.

    Any sound engineer will tell you that the human ear is the most sophisticated microphone. If that was the case, then Flare’s power worked kind of like the sliding controls on an audio mixing board. To make everything louder, that was like a master volume control, and it was never very helpful in her opinion. So she had learned to adjust pitch and tone, in order to shut off some sounds and hone in on others. It took her a few moments of mental adjustment, but eventually she began to hear something going on.

    The sounds were coming from the shipping containers outside the warehouse by the river itself. There was the sound of someone taking a draw on a cigarette, followed by a very slight cough. Two sets of footsteps were moving between the containers. Then in the warehouse itself she could heard muffled noises of people talking.

    She allowed her hearing to return to normal, and then she was on the move. She dropped down from the roof, gripping on to a metal pipe on the corner of the building and using it to slide down to the ground. She moved quietly, sticking to the shadows created by the large shipping containers. She moved carefully between them, towards the sound of the first two people she had heard. As she moved she flared her sight, specifically her ability to take in light. Suddenly the dark night’s colours began to fade a little, but the shadows became dimmer and the lights brighter. Now all that had been murky and hard to see where clearer and more distinct. She saw shadows moving between two containers and knew she was close to her first targets.

    With a short hop Flare nimbly climbed atop the container and crept slowly across it. She cautiously looked over it’s edge to see two men dressed in typical gang banger garb, all tattoos, denim and bandanas. Definitely Latin Kings. Both men were carrying pistols and were pacing calmly, peering out of either side of the container, looking for anyone nearby. Clearly they hadn’t spotted her. To take them both out she needed to get her timing right. One mistake and they’d yell, or even fire off a shot. She waited until the smoker had moved to one end of the container to look around. When he took another drag of his cigarette she dropped down behind him and swept a kick at the back of his leg, sending him falling back towards her, she bobbed back out of the way of his fall, but when his back his the ground she followed up by striking him in the chest, causing him to choke and cough.

    By the time the other gang banger turned around Flare was already sprinting between the containers towards him. He lifted his pistol to shoot and was opening his mouth to yell, but she was already on him. She confidently grabbed his gun hang with her right and pushed it aside, pointing the gun away from her, while her left fist came in with a hook to his jaw, then she moved back along his arms and pulled the gun from it, and turned the pistol on it’s owner. The man held his jaw in pain but immediately froze when he saw the gun pointed at him. However she didn’t hold him hostage for long, before he could even begin attempting to bargain, she had clubbed him with the grip of the gun and he fell to the ground, out cold.

    Flare calmly dismantled the pistol and dropped it on the floor. She began to slow her breathing, taking long and considerate breaths, actively trying to calm the rush of adrenaline flowing through her, filling her with excitement. In and out she breathed, and slowly she began to calm down. She moved back through the containers and towards the warehouse. She ducked down behind a car to get across the open gap, and then pressed herself against the wall of the building. She flared her hearing once more.

    “-you do not need to worry how we are shipping this in. All you need to know is we can manage regular supplies of what you need.” Said a man’s voice. He sounded well-spoken and confident.”
    “I ain’t questionin’ your ability to bring the goods, Saito. I just want to know how you’re shipping all this in without alerting the feds. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill brand heroin…and we’re not talking a small amount here either.” Said another man, with a hispanic accent.
    “Perhaps you should just focus on the money you’re going to make with this investment.” The well-spoken man, Saito replied.

    Flare cursed silently. It was drugs after all. She allowed her hearing to fade back to normal and began to make her move. She climbed up the fire escape ladders at the side of the building that lead to the second floor balcony of the warehouse. She opened the door quietly and stepped inside, looking around to see if there were any guards posted along the upper balcony. She could see no one, but she flared her hearing to double check. Her expression became a frown. Aside from the two men talking, there was no other sound in the warehouse. There was nobody there. That was just too unlikely. Normally a meeting like this would have gangs posting thugs all around the place to make sure there were no cops nearby.

    She moved quietly along the balcony, ducking behind boxes in case either of the two men spotted her. When she found a spot with a good vantage she looked out on the two men. Saito was likely the middle aged Japanese man with short black hair, and wearing a business suit. The other man was dressed in black jeans and a white vest, his arms covered in tattoos, with tan skin and dark hair, and a stubbled beard. Next to them a container had been opened up, and a bag of some sort of powder was sitting between them on a table.

    She examined the container that had stored the cocaine. It was full of the stuff. Then she noted the brand outside of the containers, some sort of corporate logo. Then she noticed the logo on another container in the warehouse, then another, and another. There were at least 10 containers in the warehouse with that logo. Did they all carry hundreds of pounds of heroin? She had to take out both of these men, and keep them apprehended until the police arrived. She flared her hearing again, and as she attuned her hearing, she heard the smallest of movements from behind her. She turned just in time to see and then dodge away as a long blade stabbed into the wood of the crate she had been behind.

    She turned and faced what she quickly realized was an honest to goodness, real life ninja. Dressed entirely in red and black cloth gear that concealed all but his eyes, the ninja was quick to react and was already advancing for a second strike. He swung his sword at her and she used her hand to block it sideways and advanced inward, so the blade was behind her. Then she brought her fingers in tight, with her knuckles flat, like a tiger’s paw. Her deflecting arm wrapped around the ninja’s oustretched arm and held it in place while she jabbed him twice at the point where his arm met his torso. The man made an odd strained noise, but Flare moved her arm around the back of his head, and as she gripped him tightly she raised her knee into his stomach hard, then hooked her leg around his and swept it out from under him, laying him out flat of the ground.

    The noise of the ninja crashing had alerted Saito and the Latin King leader. They both had stopped talking and had turned her way. Flare went to advance on them, but as she ran someone hit her hard from the side. Then another swept her legs out from under her and she hit the ground of the metal balcony hard. She winced in pain but tried to get up, only to have someone kick her hard in the side and she barked out a short cry of pain. As she looked up she saw more ninja’s dressed in red and black surrounding her. There must have been at least 11 of them, 12 including the one she had taken out. They had been here all along, watching her, and waiting to strike. Ninja, the real deal, martial artists that could stand so still, and be so quiet, that she had not detected them even with her superior hearing.

    She struggled as they grabbed hold of her, and dragged her down to the lower floor. Then they pulled her hood down to reveal short, pixie-cut her, longest at her fringe which was dyed purple. They took off her sunglasses as well, revealing her defiant, amber eyes.
    “One of yours?” Saito asked to the Latin King Leader.
    “Why because she’s Hispanic?” Came the reply, “Nah this is just some punk trying to play hero.”
    “Well, she didn’t have any trouble with your men apparently.” Saito said, and he looked at Flare and smiled at her. “You seem like you have a lot of potential, it’s a shame you had to go and waste it like this.” Saito motioned to the ninja, and suddenly she was being forced on to her knees, and someone held her head down, then she felt a blade resting on the back of her neck. Tears welled up in her eyes. She was terrified. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. How could she have been so stupid. So weak.

    And now she was going to die. Her mind fled to her family, her two parents, and her younger brother. She was never going to see them again, and for what? She couldn’t even manage this, how could she have ever thought she could be a hero? All she had accomplished now, was to get herself killed. The tears finally fell from her eyes and tapped softly on the ground beneath her. Then, quite suddenly, all of the lights in the warehouse went out.
    “What the f-“ She heard the Latin Kings Leader say, but then there was a noise like a blunt object hitting him, and then something heavy hitting the ground. Suddenly there was a lot of scuffling in the dark, the sounds of metal scraping and blows being struck.

    Then the grip on her was released and somebody hauled her to her feet. She flared her vision and almost all colour disappeared, but she could make out grainy images in the total darkness. Someone was fighting with the ninja, someone had saved her. She saw Saito fighting diligently with his men, and apparently he was an incredibly skilled fighter himself. Then there was a flash of flight that momentarily dazzled her vision, and she allowed her enhanced vision to fade once more.

    The light, she realized, was a glowing yellow orb that seemed to flicker and pulse like a flame. As her eyes adjusted she realized that it was coming closer, and that it wasn’t an orb at all. It was a fist. Illuminated by the light of the Iron Fist, was the dragon-like tattoo on the hero’s chest, as he advanced on Saito and hit him with a single, powerful strike that sent the man crashing back across the room and slamming against the wall.
    “If you can walk you better run.” A voice came from behind her, as a masked man approached having dealt with the rest of the ninja, who were in a heap on the floor behind him. “Police will no doubt be here soon.” The man, she noted, didn’t look right at her but instead seemed to be only looking vaguely in her direction.

    Flare nodded and moved with both of the men towards an exit door and back outside. In the light of the moon and the streetlights she realized that she was running next to a man dressed in green trousers, with a bare chest and a yellow bandana across his face, was definitely the man she knew as The Legendary Iron Fist. The other, dressed in a bulky, red armour, with an armoured, red mask, complete with red eyes, and a pair of devil horns; he was Daredevil.
    “How did you…” She began to ask.

    “I have good ears, a bit like yourself.” Daredevil said to her, “Although The Hand have become particularly capable at moving silently. Yet they still cannot hear as well as you, so you should have used that fully to your advantage.”
    “That’s why you turned off the lights.” Flare said, getting it. “If no one can see then the one who can hear better will succeed.”
    “Something like that.” Daredevil replied.

    “That’s a nice chat you two are having.” Iron Fist said from ahead of them, “But we need to get out of here before the police arrive.”
    “Right.” Daredevil nodded. “Go home kid. And think twice before you go trying to play hero again, all right?”
    “I…” She went to say more but before she could the two heroes ran off and left her alone again. She cursed silently and then stormed off alone. She ran down the road hurriedly, but as she ran across the road the police cars came rolling around the corner. They screeched to a halt and before she could hide they had stepped out of the car, their guns pointed at her, screaming at her to get her hand on her head. She thought about how best to take them out before escaping, but then she thought better of it. It was one thing to hurt bad people, but these were just officers doing their job. With a heavy sigh, she raised her hands in the air and calmly waited as the officers surrounded her.

    --- --- --- ---

    A few hours later she had been booked and locked up in a questioning room. Police had began questioning her but she remained silent. They asked for her name but she didn’t respond, then they began asking what she had been doing at the scene, and started warning her of the trouble she was in. Eventually she was beginning to feel the strain of it all. She was scared. She was going to get in trouble with the police, and be branded a criminal. Her parents were going to found out what she did.

    “I…” She went to speak, to spill the beans and admit everything to them. “I’m Isa-“ The door to the room opened and a man in a suit walked in, he had blonde hair and hid his eyes behind a pair of crimson tinted sunglasses. He moved with a delicate care, and she noticed he was holding a blind man’s cane. “Fellas, you know the drill.” The man said, “Her lawyer is here, so it’s time for you to go.”
    “Lawyer? She hasn’t even had her phone call yet, we don’t even know her na-“
    “Isabella Vasquez.” She said, cutting them off, “And if that guy says he’s my lawyer then he’s my lawyer.”

    “Matt Murdock.” The lawyer said, “Now, gentleman, can we have some privacy please?”
    “Damn it!” The other officer cursed and the pair grumbled at each other as they collected themselves and left the room, closing the door behind them. Matt gave Isabella a warm smile and then made his way to the table and sat himself down opposite her. “Nice to meet you, miss Vasquez.”
    “Izzy.” She said to him, “That’s what most people call me.”
    “Izzy…well it looks like you’ve been busy.” He put some paperwork down in front of him, “Fleeing the scene of a crime, 18 men found beaten to unconsciousness, 12 shipping crates filled with heroin, illegal guns scattered everywhere, that’s quite a busy night.”

    “Look I’m not explaining myself to you, you aren’t even my real lawyer.” Izzy said, frowning, “They don’t have anything on me, or they’d have booked me with something, right?”
    “Oh I think they thought you were a Latin Queen, part of the gang.” Matt said, “But I’ve managed to talk them down from that, you’d be amazed how quickly the government backs down when you throw the term ‘racial profiling’ around a bit. You still have a few minor charges but your bail has been posted via a donation from the Rand Corporation.”

    “Uh…what?” Izzy said, frowning further still. “Why the hell is Rand Corporation bailing me out?”
    “I think, officially, it’s a PR stunt to do with community outreach, youth rehabilitation, something like that.” Matt smirked a little, “As part of that same program you have been offered a paid scholarship by the Stark Institute. I understand you are currently enrolled at Columbia, Biology major?”
    “How do you know that?” Izzy asked suspiciously.
    “I did a little research, and I have some resources that the police don’t. You’re Isabella Vasquez, 18 years old, star of your high school track team, currently enrolled at Columbia under a fees only athletics scholarship, with a major in biology. You also practice regularly at Ahmad’s Krav Maga Training, and even teach other students sometimes.”

    “If you did your research properly, then you’d know I’m not looking for hand outs.” Izzy replied coldly.
    “Izzy, the Stark Institute scholarship will allow you to continue to focus on your studies without the need to do track, and it’s a full ride scholarship complete with boarding at a specialized campus with food allowances, transport allowances, clothing, and finances to support yourself and your family.”
    “I like track.” Izzy said, folding her arms. “Look I don’t want none of Starks hand outs. I earned this scholarship, I earned my place in Columbia. I worked…really, really hard to get in there. I didn’t go looking for hand outs.”

    “I understand.” Matt said with a nod, and he was smiling at her. “There’s another angle to this, though. You see…you’ve been under Stark’s radar for a while. Didn’t you wonder why Daredevil was all the way over in The Bronx just when you needed help last night?” Izzy tensed at that. Mat knew what had happened last night.
    “…Stark’s been watching…me?” She asked, her voice trembling.
    “He makes a point of keeping an eye on future potential. People who have…abilities.” Matt opened a folder in the pile in front of the and showed her a sheet of paper. Izzy picked it up and read it.
    “Avengers Initiative?” Izzy asked.

    “Tony Stark’s plan for the future. To train young, talented individuals to become to heroes of the future. The scholarship will allow you to do what you have always been doing; training your body and your mind, to become as strong as you can be. You’ve worked hard to be a hero-“
    “Damn hard.” Izzy interrupted.
    “Right.” Matt nodded, “And people have noticed. This isn’t a hand out, Izzy. But it’s your choice if you take it.”

    Izzy thought about it. What Matt had said was true. Since Izzy had began to notice her powers, her first thought had been how to use them to protect people. She had been training her whole life to protect people. She had been fighting, and running, and climbing every chance she had got, and as she grew older she had structured her life around this goal. Her daily routine, the subjects she learned, her fitness, her diet, all of it had been to be a hero, and now someone was offering to help her.
    “Where do I sign?” She asked, with a slight smirk.

    “HAHA! YES!” a muffled voice cried from the opposite side of the door leading out of the interrogation room. Then the door opened and Tony Stark, dressed in an impeccable business suit, with his characteristic goatee, and a pair of shades on, poked his head into the room. “Eat it, Murdoc! I told you she’d go for it, you owe me five bucks!” Then he winked at Izzy, “Welcome to the team, Vasquez. Later.” He closed the door and left her alone again with Matt, who looked a little embarrassed.


  5. The hours passed by and Vincent and Rachel busied themselves with preparations. The kitchen had lost the Christmassy smell of cinnamon and in it’s place was an amalgum of exotic, overpowering smells. Jinx had, at one point, wordlessly came in to take whatever the hell it was she had been baking out of the oven and then retreated once more. Vincent, for his part, didn’t pay her any notice. He already liked her better than James, but that wasn’t to say he liked her much at all. His general disdain for demons wasn’t something he could shrug off, but at least Jinx wasn’t quite so annoying as James.

    While he continued to guide Rachel through making the correct potions, he had went out to the car and came back with a few supplies. He was in the middle of, apparently, making some sort of friendship bracelet with several dull threads. “How’s the consistency?” He asked Rachel as he tied off the bracelet and placed it in a circle of salt he had marked out on the counter. He flexed his fingers towards it and there was a gentle thrum of energy as he closed the circle around the accessory.
    "The...consistency...?" Rachel stared into the pot and stirred it's contents. "I dunno... Lumpy."

    Vincent leaned over and examined the contents. “Keep stirring.” He said, “Let me know when it sort of gets like cookie dough.” He didn’t require a lot of concentration for the enchantment he was working. Honestly it was the kind of thing he could do in his sleep at this point, but it’s importance meant he wasn’t prepared to let Rachel try her hand at it. She was doing a fairly good job with the potions though, despite not seeming very enthused. She’d had a rough night, something he knew a little about. She might not appreciate it now, but he knew that busywork was great during these times.

     Vincent was just starting to think about how hungry he was, and was contemplating ordering take out when Meredith popped her head into the kitchen, she looked tired and more than a little nervous.
    “Can I have duck pancakes?” She asked
    "Uh…how-“ He cut himself off, “Nevermind.” He caught Rachel’s eye, “What about you, grasshoppa? Want some grub?” He asked in a mildly offensive oriental accent.
    "Yeah. Fine." Rachel muttered, her eyes locked on the pot.

    "Are we ordering out because I could really destroy some egg rolls right now--" James walked into the kitchen, quickly flanked by Violet.
    "--not over! I was speaking to you!!" Violet growled as she chased after James.
    "What do you want me to say? I sensed your heightened emotional state, I turned up, I saved the day."
    "I don't need you to rescue me!" Violet walked over to the concoction Vincent was brewing and glanced inside, "Faster." She added. Rachel begrudgingly started stirring faster.
    "It's my job. Remember? You summoned me. Now I'm stuck here. Even if I want to live my own life, I can't stop myself from interfering with yours. That's what you asked for when you summoned me, so..."
    "There are too many people in here." Jinx chimed in, her tone a mixture of neutral apathy and yet disdain. "All of you. Get out of my kitchen." She started with shoving James out, "And I'm making food and you're going to order in?" Her eyes flashed from yellow to red, "That's so thoughtless."

    “Well you’ve been walking around with a stick up your ass and shit under your nose since we got here so I didn’t dare assume you might feed us.” Vincent said, rolling his eyes. He made a final flourish with his hand and there was a pop and hiss, as the small bracelet in the circle seemed to smoke, the fibers burning as ancient runes were etched into the material. He inspected his work for a moment, before finally breaking the circle of salt with his finger and removing the bracelet. He handed it to Rachel. “Here, this is for you.” He said.

    "Dude-- friendship bracelet...?" Rachel took the bracelet between her thumb and forefinger and held it at arms length as though it might be diseased. Violet left the kitchen willingly as she was still mid-conversation with James.
    "Now go sit down like normal, grateful, well-adjusted people, and I'll put food out for you." Jinx crossed her arms with impatient expectation. Somebody said something to her in the next room. "Nobody's having egg rolls!" She yelled back. Then looked back to Vincent and Rachel.

    “It’s a dead man’s talisman.” Vincent said, “I know it looks like shit but that’s made from fibers of burial clothing. Do you know how hard it is to get corpse threads? I mean it’s not like grave robbing is legal.” He shoved Rachel out of the way gently and began finishing up the potion, noting Jinx’s penetrating stare. He also noticed Rachel’s look of disgust. “Look, that thing will 100 percent protect you from possession, and any ghost that tries to phase through you like earlier will burn up and fade back to the Void.”

    He turned off the gas to the hob and picked up the pot, stirring the contents out into an awaiting beaker. It looked like a glass full of thick, wet mud, and smelled like something far worse. “And this is well let you see them.” He said, pointing to the mud, “And that will let you hurt them.” He said, pointing to several jars of what looked like grainy dust.
    "Okay! Fine. Enough already." Rachel slipped the bracelet on and walked through into the main living room. James had cleared some space at the table and everyone was settling in. Vincent rolled his eyes and began clearing up.
    “Ungrateful little snot…” He muttered as he put the pots and empty beakers into the sink. A foggy memory of his old mentor making similar mutterings caused him to smirk.

    After he had cleared up he made his way in to the living room again and sat down with a heavy sigh. “Hey Jimbo!” He said to James, “You got anything to drink?” he asked, “Also can I smoke in here or…?” He thumbed to the door leading outside.
    "Sure. Drinks in the cabinet over there. And you can smoke in here." James nodded as he picked up his knife and fork.
    "No he can't!" Jinx called through from the kitchen as Rachel took a seat at the table.

    "It's fine." James reassured Vincent, though he couldn't help but notice that James did so under his breath. A few minutes later Jinx walked in holding a large Pyrex dish full of homemade lasagne. She put the dish down and as she passed Vincent she pulled the barely-lit cigarette from his mouth.
    "Hah!" Violet laughed as she reached for the serving spoon but dropped it immediately when Jinx hissed at her. A few minutes later, Jinx had served everyone a portion and sat down herself. There was silence, stillness. Then Jinx ate her first bite and everyone cautiously followed suite. Then everyone was back to talking amongst themselves once more.

    “Now here was me thinking you were a sorry excuse for a wizard, Vi” Vincent said as he sat back down from his trip to the cabinet with a small, tulip-shaped glass only barely filled with amber liquid. “And until this day I thought I was right, but it appears I was mistaken. All those years ago when you summoned a familiar, you could have got yourself a dog familiar, and then I’d be sitting here with a miller light like a college frat dudebro. But…” He tipped the glass at James, “Cats apparently have a taste for the finer things.” He took a sip of the whisky and let it swirl in his mouth, before swallowing and relishing the delicious warmth that spread through him. Then he poked at the lasagne with a fork.

    “That’s a lot of cheese…” He said foolishly, “Is your game to slowly kill us via myocardial infarction?”
    "It's hard milk." James mumbled between mouthfuls, as he hungrily devoured his plate.
    "Maybe." Jinx replied directly to Vincent, raising a brow with a conspiratorial inflection.
    "Thank you, Jinx!" Rachel added, eating the food unreservedly.
    "Protection from otherworldly forces... Nothing." Violet smirked, "Cooked pasta though..." Rachel shot her an angry glare but it seemed regret was a fleeting emotion for Violet.

    The chatter was cut short by cutlery hitting a plate. Everyone turned to Meredith, who was staring back at them with an incredulous look. “Look…I’ve tried to go with this but…are you all insane!?”
    “Ugh, I wish.” Vincent replied.
    “We just got attacked by ghosts! Then she-“ Meredith pointed at Violet for emphasis, “nearly killed me and Rachel, and now we’re in a house eating lasagne cooked by demons!? This is…it’s nuts! How are you all okay with this!?”
    "It's fun, isn't it?!" James smiled as he finished licking his plate clean.
    "Get used to it." Rachel grumbled, pushing food around her plate.
    Violet had long-since finished her lasagne and perked up at Meredith's frustration, "Everyone has to live, Meredith. Humans, demons, cosmic entities. We're all just trying to get through life. Don't get hung up on it."

    “Yeah, except we’re going to die. Soon. Or did you forget?” Meredith said, “Also its 3am and you’re all sitting eating dinner like this is a normal thing to do! It’s not normal…” Her voice broke a little and she shut her eyes to stop the tears but they formed anyway, “I thought…I thought at least if I died, if I could save everyone else in the process but…” She took a deep breath, “This is too much. I can’t act normal and pretend nothing is wrong. I…I don’t want to die.”
    "Shut... Up!" Violet snapped. "We're all thinking the same thing, but most of us need to recharge. Joking and pressing buttons helps to make you feel normal. We can't just sit here thinking about what's coming."
    "She has a point." James added quietly, "Bit harsh though... She's scary."
    "Can I just eat in peace?" Rachel piped up.

    Meredith didn’t respond, instead she bit her lip, and then she pushed back her chair and stormed off from the table. A moment later the front door to the house opened and then slammed shut again.
    “When did I become the well-adjusted one?” Vincent asked with a sigh. He stood up from the table and as he passed by Jinx he snatched the cigarette she had taken from him and headed for the door. “You know you could be nicer to her, if only because her visions are about the only thing that will stop us from meeting the reaper anytime soon. Hell I already met the bitch, and damn if she wasn’t smokin’ hot.”

    "Uh-huh." Violet grumbled. "I was being nice." She turned around to face Vincent and smirked, "Oh can I have a drag?!" Violet asked excitedly, then she inhaled rapidly. Vincent's cigarette alighted in his hand and burned through to the filter, leaving an ashen corpse. Then she exhaled a large smoke cloud that quickly formed into a skull before dispersing. As the smoke cleared, Violet's expression wasn't gleeful defiance, as Vincent had come to expect, but profound confusion. The confusion spread and warped into a nervous panic.
    "Vincent...?" She asked, raising her tone. Vincent scowled at her and then retrieved a fresh cigarette from his carton.
    “You’re so childish…” He grumbled as he stepped out of the house.

    --- --- --- ---

    When he got outside Vincent spotted Meredith stalking off down the path. He sighed and lit his cigarette and began a slow stroll after her. “Yo!” He called, and she stopped and turned to him. Her face reddened and she toyed with continuing to storm off, but in the end she waited for Vincent to reach her. “Sorry about them, well not the demons, I don’t give a shit about them. Violet and I, and Rachel to a much lesser extent, have been facing imminent danger on and off our whole lives. You really have to forgive a little dysfunction.”

    “Dysfunction?” Meredith replied with a raised brow. “You people are crazy, and I should know, I’ve been called crazy my whole life.”
    “Yeah no surprises there.” Vincent said as he took a drag, a moment later his nostrils flared and smoke plumed out of them, “All mortals are just a little bit magic, just a tiny bit-“ he indicated by holding up his finger and thumb, “Most of them have just enough ability to sense real magic. Generally they don’t react very well. It’s easier to believe you’re crazy than that you can actually see the future.”
    “…It would be easier if I was crazy.” Meredith grumbled.

    “That’s what I said earlier!” Vincent said with a shrug, “Look I know you’ve had it rough, but you’re not the only one. My mentor…well he was a real hard ass. Imagine spending all morning and afternoon at high school, and when the other kids go home to watch tv, do drugs and have sex with each other like teenagers should be doing, you’re going to the magical school of hard knocks for night classes.”
    “Wow…you’ve really been doing this for that long?” Meredith asked. “I mean…I knew there were others like me but…you guys are on another level.”

    “Yeah, well…I had the benefit of training.” Vincent explained. Thinking about his childhood was bringing back some old, buried feelings of anxiety. “…it was tough. Necessary though.”
    “You think? You should let a kid be a kid if you ask me.” Meredith replied.
    “Evidence to the contrary.” Vincent said, thumbing at his chest. “I ran away from home at 16. Used the very spells he taught me to cover my tracks. Minor transmogrification to make me look older, turning plain paper into cash, fake I.D. It was stupidly easy.”
    “Don’t you think you did that because you never got to live though?” Meredith asked

    “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter.” Vincent said, “I thought my teacher was just being a crusty old fart. I was wrong. He taught me how to do magic the hard way, because taking the easy way doesn’t end well.”
    “What? So you commited a few crimes, played bad boy for a bit. You don’t seem to be suffering too much for it.” Her smirk changed to a mixture of shock and guilt as she noticed Vincent’s reaction. He held his hand over his heart almost like a strange impulse, and his grip tensed. Thinking about the coldness there only brought it surging to the forefront of his mind. It was a small thing, but it was something that would never fade. A cold, greasy pool of energy within him, one just like the magic that had been used to enthrall the ghosts earlier.

    “What I do is difficult, and it has a lot of rules.” Vincent said slowly, carefully, his gaze fixed on something far off in the distance. “I don’t have to follow those rules though. For a time I didn’t.”
    “I don’t think a little counterfeiting and fraud makes you Lord Voldemort.” Meredith said with a raised brow.
    “I killed someone.” Vincent said, and there was a hard coldness to his voice, “And I don’t mean a bad guy, not that it matters.”
    “You…you’re a hunter. You’ve killed lot’s of things, right?”
    “Lot’s of things, yes.” Vincent took another draw of his cigarette and his hand was shaking, “The thing about supernatural creatures is…they don’t have souls. It doesn’t always mean they are bad, or that they can’t think and feel. It’s just a rule. Humans have souls…they have mortality, and true free will. Our magic is different…it’s not as strong as that of a god or immortal fay queen or whatever else, but what we can do, we do with absolute freedom…and absolute consequence.”

    He turned and looked at Meredith, staring deep in to her eyes. “When you kill a mortal with magic, it leaves a kind of…stain.” He rubbed at the spot on his chest where his heart was again, “Magic comes from the energies of life, and using it to take a life is just…it feels wrong.” He took his hand from his chest and held it up between them, and with his will he lit the ends of each of his fingers on fire, but he didn’t feel any pain. “It turns out that us Hallows…we have an unusual talent for magic. I can do so much with relative ease, I have a well of power within me that’s a lot higher than most. Enough to impress the wrong kind of people. I met people I thought were just like me, who understood me better than my teacher or my sister ever could. And then one day even my own vast well wasn’t enough…and I took a life, sacrificed an innocent person, and from them I took power. That cold, disgusting power…I can feel it there all the time, a constant reminder.”

    “I…” Meredith looked stunned, her mouth moved but no words came out.
    “I don’t advertise that information, but I don’t hide it either.” Vincent said with a resoluteness about him. “The people we are up against. They’ve tasted that same dark power, and clearly they like it enough to want more. So even if I do die, I will stop them.” The words surprised Vincent. He had spent years avoiding this life, the life he had been practically groomed for. Yet now, suddenly, he felt this righteous need to join the cause.

    “What happened?” Meredith asked, “I mean…you said you went dark but…you’re not now, right?”
    “I was saved.” Vincent said with a smirk.
    “By your teacher?” Meredith asked.
    “By God.” Vincent said, “Sort of ironic really since I’m a filthy pagan warlock.”
    “God? You mean…?”
    “He sent a man to save me.” Vincent said, “And then that man brought me home. And then Al tore me a new one. I thought he’d been hard on me before…”

    “Sounds like a real piece of work.” Meredith said.
    “That man is more of a father to me than my own ever was.” Vincent said with a slight anger to his tone. “No one has ever had me so figured out, no one has ever helped me quite like him.”
    “Not even Violet?” Meredith asked.
    “She’s my younger sister, I’m supposed to help her out. That’s just the way of things. Although I suppose this time she’s the one helping me. I brought them along on this detour.”
    “…and I brought you.” Meredith said. “…so I’ll stick with you…until the end.”

    Vincent smirked and took a last draw of his cigarette before flicking it away. He took a scrap of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Meredith. “What’s that?” She asked as she opened it.
    “My phone number.” Vincent said with a smirk. “Y’know I wonder what would happen if I never gave you it? Like your vision of the future doesn’t come to pass so how did you get the number because I never give you it and suddenly it’s a paradox, so does the world unravel and we all cease to exist?”
    “Um…” Meredith looked a little panicked.
    “Damn I already gave you my number though…guess we’ll never know.”


  6. Vincent was laying down on a tired looking old bench at the side of the road. All around him was nothing but dry, rocky desert and the sky above was clear as a bell, and the heat was blazing down on him. Apart from the road, the only signs of civilization nearby was the gas station off the side of the road just down from the old bench. The Impala sat at one of the pumps, Violet inside paying for gas. Vincent was wearing a sleeveless, black shirt with  a white batman logo on the front, and a pair of navy blue jeans, his usual black boots, and his pentacle necklace around his neck, and had his mirror-lensed aviators on.

    It had been a little shy of 2 days since they had left Lafayette, and the majority of that time had been spent hauling ass across the country, stopping only to eat, refuel and rest overnight. Vincent had spent the time filling in Rachel about some of the basics about magic, and about hunters. He suspected little of it had really settled in to the girl’s mind, but he wasn’t too surprised. He had been taught about magic since he was a child, and there really was quite a lot to it.

    “God damn jelly beans!” He cursed at his new phone, which was currently held in his hand playing a brightly coloured games involving matching up different coloured jelly beans. The game made a little descending jingle and went to a game over screen and Vincent sighed, sitting up on the bench and pocketing the phone. He took out his cigarettes instead, and lit one, taking a deep drag. Sitting cross legged on the floor by the bench was Rachel, who was staring at an unlit candle with a great deal of intensity. Vincent exhaled and allowed himself a little smirk as he watched her.

    “Be careful.” He said with a jovial tone, “You keep tensing up like that sooner or later you’re gonna squeeze something out…let’s hope it’s a little magic and not poop.”
    "Do you always talk about poo?" Rachel asked, trying to concentrate.
    "No, he doesn't," Violet interjected, "Just some of the time." She smirked and jabbed Vincent in the shoulder, "Ready to go?"

    Vincent took another draw of his cigarette. They were in Schurz, Nevada, only a short drive away from the border to California, where they would cross the sea on a boat to Hawaii. “Well…” He said as he turned his attention back to Rachael, “I was kinda hoping she’d hurry up and light the candle.” He said to Violet, then to Rachel he added, “Come on, kid. It’s a freaking billion degrees out here, you’ve got plenty of thermal winds and ambient heat to call upon, we’re in a desert.”
    "How am I supposed to pull heat out of the air?" Rachel asked, scrunching up her eyes in concentration.

    “With your will.” Vincent said simply, “That is what magic is…to impose your will on your environment. Fire is usually the easiest for people to learn. You need to let your will extend, so you can feel the forces working around you. Then you focus on your emotions, and your own interpretations, and you need to channel them into what you desire. It takes focus.”
    focus.”

    "Fine! Geez." Rachel let out a short little sigh. She could hear Violet walking over to stand beside her brother, could feel their eyes on her, she knew what she needed to do. Rachel focused on the candle, channeling her will into the air, focusing her mind on the creation of fire. A few moments passed, and it seemed as though she would be unable to light the candle but then a wisp of smoke appeared at the tip of the wick and in seconds it was lit.
    "Hey nice job." Violet smiled with satisfaction. Then a few seconds later the flame wobbled and started to go out.
    "Uh--" Violet barely opened her mouth when the flame on the candle exploded in size. Roaring up and spreading across the courtyard. Vincent scrambled over the back of the bench and tripped, rolling across the floor, before quickly getting back to his feet. “F-fucking hell!” He spat, his sunglasses askew on his face. His heart still racing he closed his eyes and held his hands up, feeling outwards with his will. He began a quiet chanting, but it was not magical incantations, but rather a string of whispered profanities.

    The spell worked quickly, as the fire began to move quite unnaturally, coiling through the air towards Vincent and coalescing in between his hands, until it sat in between his palms, a glowing sphere of fire. “Alright.” He said with a quiet, trembling tone, clearly trying to contain himself. “You lost focus…but maybe I should have expected that. Evocation is probably the easiest magic to produce, but the elements are quite difficult to control.” He pressed his hands together slowly as he spoke, and slowly the orb began to dim and decrease in size. “When you call fire you bring in the heat from around you, and as a result the air cools. If you do it enough you can freeze things, and that’s how you get ice magic. However, if you draw in the heat you have to put it somewhere…you have to set the boundaries of that. Instead you let the environment take advantage of the ignition you created. Now you’ve let that heat back in to the air, and you’ve created more heat by letting the fire spread.”

    Vincent eventually brought his hands in enough that he clapped them together, and the tiny flame was snuffed out. “Focus is crucial. Think of what could have happened if you did that inside a building full of people. You could kill people that you’ve went in to save. You can make a situation so much worse with magic if you lose your focus.”
    "Focus. Got it." Rachel's cheeks blushed red.
    "Yeah. Focus. And don't set everyone on fire. That's like... Number 2." Violet smirked, blowing out an ember on Vincent's shoulder.

    “No harm done on this occasion, but I think we need to look at enchanting you a focus.” Vincent indicated back to the car and they started walking. “My cane is enchanted for elemental evocation. The runes and enchantments are designed to streamline elemental magic so I can focus on being a little more precise. Enchantment is a little more complicated, and it’ll take some time though.”
    "What's your focus?" Rachel asked, looking to Violet.
    "Ehm..." Violet chuckled and then looked to her brother for assistance with that one.

    “She cheats.” Vincent said with a smirk, “Seriously, Violet’s got her own set of rules. FTor now let’s leave fire calling alone until you get some more control. When we get to a motel I’ll show you some thaumaturgy, that’s my kind of ma-“ He paused as a loud ringing came from his pocket. He frowned and took out his phone, looking at the number on the screen. He had only just got the thing, and Violet was the only one who had his number. He answered it.

    “Hello?” The voice on the other end asked. It was a woman, she sounded out of breath.
    “Hi.” Vincent replied, “Uh…who is this?”
    “Oh…god.” The woman’s voice was trembling, she sounded like she might have been crying, “Uh…my name is, well, you don’t know who I am. I-I I don’t know you either, actually, well, I mean I will but-“
    “Lady, what are you talking about? How did you get this number?” Vincent asked.
    “Uh...you gave it to me, or you will soon…” The voice said. Vincent’s eyes widened behind his sunglasses.

    “…A prescient.” He said finally, his voice quiet. “What did you see?”
    “Uh…a lot.” The woman replied, “It’s…it’s confusing, okay. All I know is you’re going to give me this phone number. I’ve seen it happen, and then…” She paused and her breath shuddered, “There’s too many paths, and most of them lead to the same thing. We…” She sniffed and let out a little cry, “We die.”

    “Uh…well what if we just stay away from each other?” Vincent asked.
    “Then other people will die…a lot of other people.” Vincent was silent for a long moment, then he cursed silently.
    “Shit!...god damn it, where then? Where do we meet?” Vincent asked
    “I’m in Las Vegas.” The girl said. “I-I’m Meredith, by the way. Meredith Palmer.”
    “Vincent-“
    “Hallow, I know.” Meredith interrupted. “Look…there’s a bar called Henley’s that’s just off the strip. It’s quiet, can you meet me there?”
    “That’s like 5 hours drive.” Vincent sighed loudly.

    “…You’ll make it before last call.” Meredith replied.
    “Fine…fine!” Vincent said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers, as he closed his eyes in frustration. “Fine…you better not be fucking with me.”
    “I’m not, I promise.” Meredith said, she sounded desperate.
    “Alright…later I guess.” Vincent said, and then he hung up the phone. He took a deep breath and then quickly sighed it out, scratching the back of his head as he turned his gaze to Violet.

    “Uh…we need to make a detour.” He said.
    "Mm-hm. Mm-hm. A detour huh? But that's sooo unreasonable." Violet flashed a wicked grin then got into her car. "Well let's get on with it then you two I don't have forever. Well, I do. But by that point I'll just be watching dying stars explode and it all happen all over again and I'd really rather just, y'know, get some chicken and see that psychic."
    “If I’m walking toward my likely death, my last meal is not going to be chicken.” Vincent said as he got in the car.

    As they drove Vincent repeated his conversation with Meredith, and there was a period of silence in the drive when he mentioned that going to meet Meredith was likely to result in both of their deaths. “I mean…she said most of the paths lead to death, so that means we could live, right?”
    "I have a terrible sense of direction." Violet muttered under her breath.
    "I have GPS so..." Rachel held her phone up and then looked at the screen, "Oh, no. No nevermind. No signal. We gonna die y'all!" Rachel threw herself back into her seat and huffed.

    “You know what I meant.” Vincent said with a frown, “This could be really serious…but she said a lot of people would die if we don’t go.” He sighed in frustration, “It could be a trap…sounds ideal for a trap, but then how did she get my number?”
    "I don't know what you expect me to say, Vince. But I'll tell you this... I'm not in the mood for Death. Not today. Maybe someday. We'll see." Violet growled to herself. Rachel looked up from her phone just long enough to show confusion at Violet's statement then returned to texting.

    They drove the rest of the way in relative silence. By the time they had finally reached Las Vegas it had gone dark. They had swapped endless dirt and roads for neon lights, busy streets and the huge and varied hotels and casinos of the famous city. As they drove down the main strip Vincent couldn’t help but hang his head out the window, taking it in. “This place really is something.”

    Violet leaned back in her chair, took a deep breath and as she let it out, her eyes turned white with a brilliant luminescence.
    "Hundreds of thousands of people. A man sobs in his room. His daughter doesn't love him any more. He drinks. A woman ties a rubber hose around her arm. Checking for veins, she says this is the last time. For real this time. A banker parks and forgets to pay his meter. A homeless man feeds the meter from his meager change. When the banker returns, he takes no notice of the kindness given him from one with so little. But the man without a house, keeps a tidy home. He asks for no thanks or applause." Her eyes quickly returned to normal and Violet coughed, very aware of herself for a moment, "Y-yeah, sure. Sounds like an interesting city."
    "Sounded sad..." Rachel muttered.

    “Creepy more like.” Vincent said with an uncomfortable shrug. Eventually they pulled off the strip and down a couple of blocks until they found a place to park. Across the street there was a quiet little bar with a sign that read: Henley’s. “That’s the place.” Vincent said as they got out of the car. He got out his cane and jacket, and put his jacket on. He opened up the trunk and took out his pistol and strap. “I’m not taking any chances.”

    "I thought we didn't need guns!?" Rachel barked, pointing at the pistol.
    “Sometimes a gun is the better option,” Vincent replied, “Especially if your enemy is mortal.”
    Violet leaned on Rachel's shoulder and whispered, "Never... question... uncle!"
    Rachel shrugged her off and grumbled, following the two Wizards inside.
    “Oh, right…give me your I.D.” Vincent said, and clicked his fingers at Rachel when she didn’t comply immediately.
    "Alright, geez!" Rachel reached for her I.D. but the moment she had it in her hands, it was in Vincent's.

    “Good.” He said as he examined the card. Then he ran his hand over it and some of the writing had changed. He handed it back to Rachel. “There, now you’re 21.” He said.
    "I don't feel any older..." Rachel muttered.
    "Hah!" Violet snorted and then walked inside.
    “That’s just in case someone cards you, don’t go actually buying beer now, you’re still a minor.” Vincent said as they arrived outside the bar. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.

    Henley’s bar was one of those hipster bars that were built in shabby run-down buildings where the rent was cheap, but the interior was clean and didn’t smell weird, unless you included the stench of gentrification. The Hardest Button To Button by The White Stripes was playing on a retro styled jukebox that had an tablet screen for selecting songs off of a music streaming service. The floors were a smooth brickwork tile job, the bar was clean and well stocked, and the seating area had that odd mismatch of furniture that some bars utilized if they wanted to appear alternative and bohemian.

    “Ugh, they better not have cocktails…” Vincent grumbled as he walked forward, looking around at the patrons.
    "It's okay, Vince." Violet replied, looking around. "I'll drink the 40% alcohol that tastes great. You can drink your piss-flavoured, weak wheat juice."
    “No single malt, Vi?” Vincent said with mock astonishment, “Al taught you better than that. Crusty old hillbilly would take you over his knee if he heard that nonsense coming out of your mouth.”
    "Vince, I've seen stars implode, I've met life on other worlds, travelled through multiple dimensions and tasted cosmic essence..." Violet took a breath, "... and I know, for a fact, that long island ice tea is the best drink in the universe."

    “Tequila, vodka, rum, triple sec, gin and coke…” Vincent counted on his fingers, “Pretty sure that’s six drinks, Vi.”
    "If you don't understand symbiosis then I can't talk to you about cocktails, Vincent." Violet took one long look around the room and sighed, "I hate this place. It makes me want to drink strange over-priced coffee and munch on my own farts. I'm-- help--" Violet fainted into Vincent's arms and then gripped onto him, "Vince, I'm... One of them!" Violet mock-choked, took a deep breath, and in a strangely snotty way, she added, "Hey, I'm Daffodil, your bartender, "Would you like to try our continental wine sniffing course?"

    “You’re too far gone for help.” Vincent said dryly and shoved his sister off of him. He scanned the room for Meredith, having no idea what she looked like, however he spotted her easily enough. In the corner, sat alone at a booth table, was a girl in her early twenties, slim and dressed in denim jeans, converse sneakers and a red checkered shirt. She had a long mane of tightly curled, red hair and a black beanie hat that took up relatively small real estate on her head compared to her hair. Her blue eyes were staring at Vincent behind thick-rimmed, black glasses, like a dear caught in the headlights.

    “Guess we should go say hi.” Vincent said as he nodded his head toward Meredith. He struggled to swallow, his throat dry. He felt completely on edge, his senses were tense and skittish, something he often felt when forces were at work, like when a storm begins to gather. “I think I need a drink first…” He said, licking his dry lips.
    "Get a drink, if you want..." Violet walked towards Meredith and after a moment's hesitation, Rachel followed. Violet could see the essence of all living things. As she walked towards Meredith she saw the gently crackling flames of the other patrons. But the one essence that shone through the darkness more than any other, was Meredith's. It was like she had less control over her own power, at the benefit of intermittent power spikes. She was a sap-filled, spitting flame of chaos. She was beautiful.

    "Hey, I'm--" Violet started to introduce herself but Meredith joined her mid-sentence.
    "--I'm V-Violet." Meredith finished her thought, albeit with a slight stutter. And she did it every time Violet opened her mouth and spoke.
    "Fascinating." They both said, then Violet smirked and turned back to Rachel and Vincent.
    "That's cool, right?" She added, though Meredith had said it behind her at the same time.
    "..." Vincent hesitated to say anything at all, cautious that Meredith would only mimicking him. "Don't spe-"
    "-speak... Oh" Meredith stopped herself and blushed. "I'm sorry it's a bad habit. I just tend to know what people say before they say it, so I either say what they say, or sometimes I answer their question before they ask it, and then I get embarrassed and I talk a lot, just rambling on and on and on and-"

    "Yeah." Vincent interrupted. He sat down in a chair and leaned on the table with his arms, "So you mostly see just brief moments in the future?"
    "Mostly." Meredith said with a nervous nod, "Sometimes it's much further in the future, but it gets confusing... Hard to make sense of what's happening, what's real and what's not, like living through multiple versions of an event."

    "The further into the future you see the more variables there are, so the future is less certain." Vincent explained, "Plus your knowledge of your future can make you act, which changes it, and then you see that future, and you do something else and it changes again, and again."
    "Y-yeah..." Meredith said, a sadness crept across her face and she bit her lower lip.

    "Don't you have any friends?" Rachel asked, taking a step forwards.

    Violet pointed at Meredith, "Well go on then, this is your thing." She virtually threatened Vincent with an angry look. Vincent responded with a thin smile that veiled his clenched teeth.
    “Well…” Meredith began cautiously, “It happened just before I called you. It…” She took in a sharp breath and seemed to puzzle for a moment, “…there were a lot of places that we met, different things happened from then on…it branched out in thousands of directions…and the images I kept saying over and over was…” She swallowed nervously.

    “So you chose the safest path for us?” Vincent asked. Meredith visibly tensed.
    “I...I’m sorry.” She whimpered, tears welling in her eyes.
    “Why are you sorry?” Vincent asked. He was getting a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
    “Please understand…these people will die if we aren’t here.” Meredith began to cry.
    “Oh for…” Vincent stood up from his chair and turned around the face the rest of the room and felt around with his senses.

    He came in to contact with a dark, cold magic that felt all kinds of wrong. Just touching at it with his will felt maddening and he swiftly retreated his tendrils of power and shivered. The room had become deathly cold. “Rachel…” Vincent said hesitantly, “…I need you to not panic, things are going to happen…you’re not going to see.”
    “What’s going on?” Rachel asked worriedly.
    “…Ghosts.” Vincent said as he began to focus his will. He concentrated on a well of power that was stored in the centre point of his forehead just above his brow. He took a deep breath, hesitating, before finally muttering a curse and opening the point of power up.

    The word changed in an instant around Vincent as he opened up his third eye. He could see true image of everything within the room. A woman who he had noticed before to be quite beautiful, became horribly angular, twisted and quite terrifying to look at. He turned to Rachel, and in her place stood a brilliant, glowing aura, with a cold, dark centre that festered like a wound. He dared not look at Violet, certain that the image would destroy his ability to fight, either through terror or awe.

    The cold energy surged and ghostly hands began to phase through the walls, a fact that only Vincent and Violet could see.
    "I'm content to go now." Violet muttered, taking a step back as she prepared for what was coming.
    "Why should I want to panic?! It's just ghosts!" Rachel seemed a little unhinged.
    “They aren’t after us…they can’t be.” Vincent said and he held out his cane in challenge. The ghosts, for their part, seemed not even to notice they were there. Instead the shades began to move among the other patrons, and they began to stand behind their chairs and wait.

    A ghost moved to Vincent, her face gaunt and emotionless. Vincent instinctively gathered his will and pushed it out to blast the ghost back, but it did not react to the kinetic force. It just kept coming, until it was almost on him.
    “I’m so sorry…” Meredith said tearfully once more, and then she gasped as another Ghost rose up through the floor and table and sunk it’s arm in to her throat. She began to choke, unable to breath, and she clutched at her neck. Suddenly each of the ghosts plunged their hands into the necks of each of the patrons, and they all began choking as well. Vincent was no exception, unable to work a spell in time that could effect the spirit mere inches from him, and he flinched as she jabbed her hand into his throat.

    Suddenly Vincent’s body went numb with biting cold. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t breath. He felt a tremendous pressure building in his head, and his vision swam. He could hear himself choking, but it sounded far away. At some point he ended up on the floor, but he couldn’t remember falling. There was a slow, rhythmic thumping that were becoming further and further apart. His vision blurred, and he found himself drawn to a figure standing across the bar. The woman had dark hair and the palest white skin. She wasn’t suffering like everyone else in the room. The girl just looked at him, and smiled warmly.


  7. “Careful with that gun…” Vincent said as he held his hand up between him and the newcomer, Rachael. His protection charms dangled around his wrist as he projected his will outwards, forming a solid shield of kinetic energy. “Who the hell are you?” He asked.
    Rachel frowned at the man and yelled back, "Who the hell're you?!" With an incredulous tone.
    "Look!" Violet snapped, "I'm not in the mood to play 'Who the fuck am I'! Why did you shoot him, Rachel?"
    "You couldn't understand..." Rachel smirked bitterly and shook her head.

    “Funny, that’s usually my line.” Vincent said as he paced slowly forward, towards Lucas’ body in between them. “How about you try me, hm?”
    "They're monsters!" Rachel shouted, leveling the gun at them. "They turn blue and change people into them, I've seen it!"
    “Oh…geez.” Vincent said with a sigh, “Looks like we got ourselves a rookie, Vi.” He said with a smirk, although he still kept his barrier raised and ready. “First of all; monster is a very generic term, sort of discriminatory when you think about it. Secondly, I’m not buying this story that a Nymph in fuckin’ Lafayette of all places, has the kind of mystical mojo it takes to do that.”

    Amber spoke, but when she did, all personality, weakness, or naivety vanished. When she spoke, it was as though there were power in the very words themselves, they echoed like a ripple in a pond, "The lakes were sick. The rivers were dying. We had to stop that. I had to stop that. Not just for us, but for the humans, too."
    "Mmm... Yep." Vincent said with a wince, "Should have seen that one...all right." With a thrust of his palm Vincent sent his barrier forward and up, the force knocking the gun from Rachel's hand. He walked quickly toward her, and she seemed to visibly recoil. With a pulling motion he brought a gust of wind out from under Rachel and knocked her to her backside. She froze as Vincent stopped above her and placed the end of his cane down with a loud tap. There was a resonating hum of power as he sent out his will down the cane’s length, and it’s carved runes glowed softly. Rachel tried to get up, but found that she had been rooted to the spot, almost as if she had been welded to the floor.

    “Stay still.” He said with a smirk and rolled his eyes, before turning away from her. “Okay then.” He said finally, “That’s the trigger happy teenager dealt with, now…” He turned his gaze toward Amber, “…Let’s have a chat, you and I.”
    Amber's lip curled into a snarl.
    "I will not subject myself to your questioning!" Amber roared and raised her arms, the skin across her body turning blue as she pulled water from the ground, from the machines, from every inch of the factory. The first jet of water she fired at Vincent coalesced into an icy spear as it hurtled towards him. It narrowly missed but as Amber prepared to fire again, Violet had to step in.

    "Stop!" She yelled, running between Vincent and Amber. But it was too late. The spear of ice struck her in the stomach and she doubled over. First, there was pain. But the pain dissipated quickly as a dizzying sensation of rage began to spread through her. Amber readied another ice missile, but Violet stood back up distracting her for just a moment.
    "No..." Violet hissed. Throwing her arms up, a bright purple energy fired from her hands, and hit Amber like a truck. The nymph flew across the floor and landed with a thud. Before she could right herself Violet was stood over her. Violet's face was partially her own, while a section of it around one eye was peeling away like burning tinder. Beneath her skin, purple energy dancing around a brilliantly dazzling all-white eye. The hair above her forehead in that area had turned to a light pink and seemed to dance and sway as though she were underwater. Amber raised her hands, in defence. But Violet ignored the girl, raising her arms once more. This time she seemed to draw the very energy from Amber, who immediately collapsed as though she were fatigued. The blue of her skin began to turn pale and her skin became cracked.

    "Stop..." Amber groaned. The spike of ice forcibly ejected from Violet's stomach, leaving behind the same solid dark purple energy that was burning through her face and still she continued to feed on the life force of the nymph.
    “Oh for crying out loud…” Vincent said with a sigh, looking down at his shoes and the bottom part of his jeans which were now soaked from the torrent of water that had rushed around them. He felt a strange weight pulling at him, a sensation he was familiar with, it was normally something he felt in the shower. The water rolled away around him, running across the floor. As it reached Rachel she gasped as she was suddenly able to move again. Running water grounds out mortal magic.

    “Well, my magic’s out…” Vincent said as he turned back to Violet and Amber, and then his eyes widened and he cursed, “Violet!” He snapped loudly.
    Violet jumped as though she'd just been grabbed and she relented. Amber gasped as colour slowly began to return to her face.
    "I... I-I'm sorry... I..." Violet bent over to comfort Amber but the nymph recoiled in horror. Violet's face and the hole in her shirt quickly returned to normal. Her eye darkened and shifted until it was a natural-looking human eye. Her 'skin' re-covered her face and her hair turned blue and fell flat once more. Violet glanced at Vincent but couldn't hold his gaze.

    Vincent wanted to say something to Violet, but now wasn’t the time. He pulled his pistol from his holster and turned, pointing it at Rachel who was attempting to flee. “Ah! Ah!” He called and Rachel froze when she saw the gun. “Now just you sit tight while the adults talk.” Vincent said and he turned back to Amber, “Ready to talk now?”
    "W-what would you ask of me?" Amber asked. She seemed weakened, tired, but no lasting damage had been done. Violet slunk off to Rachel and sat on top of the girl so she couldn't escape. Rachel wanted to shout and scream and bite but having just witnessed one of what she thought had been human, turn into a life-sucking creature, she was content to remain quiet for the moment.

    “Well first I wanted to know how you managed to amass so much power…but I get it now.” He smirked, “You’ve created a cause for people to have faith in, to pay tribute to, and to provide offerings. Your environmental activism is how you draw your power. Fundraising faith to fuel your mystical powers. Just a guess, but am I in the right ballpark?”
    "You are not unintelligent." Amber smirked before trying to get her breath back. "I thought they were a myth..." Amber muttered, her eyes darting at Violet before refocusing on him.

    “Hah!” Vincent laughed, “Hey Vi, the myth just called you a myth!” Violet looked like she wasn't in the mood. Her top lip curled back and she crossed her arms with an air of 'and that's all I have to say about that'. “So,” Vincent continued, “You’ve been turning mortals into Naiads, which takes a serious amount of mojo, maybe the charity worship wasn’t enough? So you turn to older methods. Human sacrifice is a good way to wield serious power, wouldn’t you say?”

    "If power is required to save this world, then I will take it, human." Amber curled the last word out of her mouth as though she was spitting a fly out. "This world will persist, long after you are gone."
    “Oh yeah, absolutely.” Vincent agreed with a nod, then he shrugged and cocked his head. “Although, you should see some of the stuff these humans are doing. It might take them 200 years but that’s a drop in the bucket for you. What are you going to do when they have machines that clean rivers, and maintain forests, machines that produce clean air. Nobody is going to put their faith in you lot any more.”
    "Then I will 'retire'." Amber retorted.

    “You might retire sooner rather than later if you don’t explain what’s going on.” Vincent said, and as he was talking he went over to check on Lucas, and was surprised when he felt his wrist and found a pulse. “Vi…he’s alive.” He said to his sister, “He needs a hospital.”
    "That's going to be an awkward conversation." Violet replied, looking at Lucas.
    "I've done nothing wrong." Amber stood up shakily, "When I need more nymphs, there are already many waiting in line to serve. This girl..." She looked at Rachel with disdain, "... Is not who we thought. She is bitter and selfish, like all humans."

    “The accords state that if you murder humans then they have sacred right to hunt and kill you.” Vincent said testily. “And those kids are minors, the human law states that they are not mature enough to make their own decisions about their life. Not that the accords have anything to say about that.” His nostrils flared visibly at the admission, “Rachel is going to be a murderer if Lucas dies, and then she’ll be a problem for the police. Unless Lucas killed those girls, in which case she has the right. I don’t think he did though, did he?”

    "Nobody killed those girls." Amber replied, rather matter-of-fact. And as though waiting for a sign, women began to appear. From around corners, behind pillars and stepping out from behind machinery. There were more than a dozen and several of them looked familiar. They were the girls who had been murdered. Though it seemed this was not the case, despite the bodies.
    “…They weren’t murdered, they were the girls you turned.” Vincent shook his head in annoyance, “You…created corpses to hide the disappearances. Are you stupid? How could you not know this would send hunters on your trail?”

    "I don't see why they should." Amber replied with a non-plussed expression.
    "Amber, you know that the bodies were gored to death. That's not exactly common fare." Violet spoke up at last and Amber stared at her in disbelief.
    "Don't speak to me--" Amber finished her statement with a high-pitched screech that sounded like a mixture between a kettle boiling and a metal nail tearing down a blackboard. Everyone recoiled from the noise. It seemed to summon up images of long-forgotten worlds, dying suns, and a dark void.

    “Bleugh.” Vincent said with a shudder, and looked at Violet, “I mean…your people have a lovely language.” He gave her a false grin.
    "I can assure you, of all of us here, I would like not to hear that again." Violet looked at Amber, "So use it again, and I'll finish what I started." Amber found it impossible to hide the anger on her face, however, she remained calm.

    “So…no one is dead. You haven’t broke the laws that apply to you, so we hold no claim.” Vincent continued, “Which stinks of shit. You…are taking advantage of these kids.” His voice became tense, almost a growl. Well, actually my sister is under no such obligation. Vincent turned to Violet, “Fancy abusing your power?”
    "Come on, Vince. Let's go." Violet stood up and helped Rachel to her feet, "You've got a lot to learn, kid." She pushed Rachel into walking, "Best hope he doesn't croak." As Violet made to leave, Lucas lifted off the floor, floating into the air and following her. "Come on." She repeated to her brother, "There's nothing to do here."

    “You’re lucky she’s the less morally bankrupt of the two of us.” Vincent said with a scowl, “…Just be careful. Give me just one reason to smite you, and you’ll be finding out what it’s like to be a greasy stain on the floor.” He turned and walked away from Amber and her Nymphs, walking quickly to catch up with Violet.

    --- --- --- ---

    It was reaching 11pm by the time Vincent, Violet and Rachel sat in the waiting room of the local A&E section of the hospital. The waiting room was old and dingy, and was rocking a multitude of odd smells. The three were almost entirely alone, except for a sleeping homeless man with a dirty beard and long, greying hair who was sat at the other end of the room, and an old Hispanic nurse working the reception desk. “Nasty wound.” Vincent said as he leaned back in his chair, “Fun fact of the day: Satyr don’t have heightened regenerative abilities.”

    "I don't care..." Rachel muttered. She kept her eyes focused on the glossy white and grey marbled floor.
    "Things aren't black and white, kid." Violet sighed and looked around before picking up one of the magazines on the table beside her and opening to a random page.
    “So why’d you shoot him?” Vincent asked. Rachel puzzled him. She had a bad attitude, and was pretty confrontational and self-assured, not unlike how he was when he was a teenager. Still, she seemed to have her hostility pretty focused in one direction, and there had to be a reason for that.

    "It's none of your damn business." Rachel growled.
    "Seems pretty straightforward to me. Boy problems. You were into him, he wasn't into you, angst, drama, Twilight, etc." Violet muttered with a half-grin.
    "That's not it at all!" Rachel snapped. She sat there in silence for a little while longer. Violet went back to her magazine until a few minutes later, Rachel spoke once again.
    "A few years ago we were attacked. My mum and dad were killed, and I barely escaped with my life. Vampires, as I later learned. First I tried hunting vampires, then I found out there was a whole world of--" She paused as a nurse walked past, then went on, "A world of monsters. People were being gored, and when I found out Lucas was a satyr, and had a connection with the girls, I figured it had to be him and even if it wasn't it was one less monster."

    “A whole world of monsters, fairies, demons, gods, both big G and little G varieties, ghosts, dragons and eldritch horrors.” Vincent said, “Oh and I’m a wizard.” He added, “And my sister is a cosmic energy thing.” Rachel frowned at him about the last one. “It’s like...y’know in the X-men when Jean Grey becomes the Phoenix…well she’s like the Ph-“ Vincent caught the way Violet was looking at him and cut off, “-nothing…uh she’s nothing like the Phoenix force, that’d be dumb, huh?” Vincent suddenly became very fascinated with the ceiling and fell silent.


  8. [Konohamaru’s Theme]

    “I just don’t see why we have to walk…” Omi complained. She was trailing a little behind Sora and Kiyoko, a pack slung over her shoulder full of travel gear.
    “What’s wrong with a walk, Kiryuin san?” Hakirama asked, turning his head back to look at the troupe behind him. He gestured outwards with his hand, “It’s a lovely view.” Omi cast her eyes around. They were in a roaming grassland through wide valleys, with thick forest lands in most directions that went off the path.

    “Yeah, whatever.” Omi said with a shrug, “But we’re just walking the safe path like all the other travelers. I thought the whole point of being a ninja was to move quickly and out of detection?”
    “We haven’t even reached the first part of our objective yet. Who, exactly, are we supposed to be hiding from?”
    “Well…” Omi scratched her head and looked around sheepishly, “bad guys, I guess.”
    Sora chuckled, covering his mouth with a hand, "Oh, Omi-chan, always ready for a fight!"
    "There could be bad guys, right?" Kiyoko asked their sensei in an inquisitive and somewhat hopeful tone.

    “Well…” Hakirama was thoughtful for a moment, “…The client probably just wants a bit of protection from bandits. However we should have little to no trouble with your average thugs, if that even happens.” He smiled, “This will probably just be a pleasant trip…which is why we should enjoy it.”
    “Enjoy how?” Omi shrugging her shoulders, “There’s only so many times I can be awed by a tree.”
    “Long journeys can be a time for conversation. You all are comrades, but you don’t really know each other. How about we talk about ourselves?”

    “Hi I’m Omi and our sensei is the worst.” Omi said, smirking. Hakirama’s eyes narrowed toward Omi.
    “Let’s start with favourite food.” Hakirama said, “Mine is Nattō.”
    “Eugh, too sticky!” Omi scoffed, putting her arms up in a cross in front of her. “Sashimi is where it’s at.”
    "Soy beans and raw fish?" Sora considered both of those. A shiver ran through him. "I would think a nice hamburger, and a tall milkshake would be pleasant."

    "Where would you get a hamburger around here?" Kiyoko asked, frowning in disbelief. Sora's eyes widened in shock and he grabbed Kiyoko's shoulder.
    "I will show you when we get back!" Sora clapped his hands together in excitement, "Yes! A hamburger banquet for when we return."
    “I’ll take mine rare.” Omi said with a toothy grin.
    “And what’s your favourite food, Hyūga san?” Hakirama asked
    "Whatever's fine." Kiyoko shrugged off the question, focusing on the path ahead of them. "I guess anything."

    “Are you for real?” Omi asked with a soft chuckle, “C’mon, Yoko! You must have a favourite?”
    "Well, I don't." Kiyoko replied irritably. She kicked a stone off the path and into a bush, "My mom sometimes makes Purin after my training sessions. I eat that a lot, I guess. So... maybe that's my favourite?" Melancholy seemed to grip Kiyoko as she fought with something. A memory, or a feeling. Then she pressed on, walking ahead of the small group.
    "I think," Sora began, speaking quietly to Omi, "That Kiyoko-chan does not have favourites..."

    “Uh…huh.” Omi said, raising her brow. She smirked and eyed Hakirama, “Good idea, sensei, just look how connected we all are now.”
    “….Shut up.” Hakirama said with a frown.

    "Mutually-assured survival. That is a kind of connection." Sora added with a reassuring smile.
    "I can still hear you all talking back there, y'know, i'm hardly a few feet ahead of you!" Kiyoko called back over her shoulder.
    “So? Nobody asked you to stomp off because you’re triggered about dinner or whatever.” Omi rolled her eyes.

    "I didn't stomp off!" Kiyoko called back angrily, "I just... I don't have a favourite!" She growled, adding, "And anyway, I'm out in front so that--" Before she could finish her sentence, Kiyoko stopped and froze, bringing the group to a halt a couple of feet behind her. Sora looked on ahead but couldn't see anything.
    "What is it, Kiyoko-chan, do you--?" Sora asked, stepping forwards and going to put his hand on her shoulder.
    "Don't touch me!!" Kiyoko barked, a bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. "I stepped on something, and it clicked..." What little colour existed in Sora's face, quickly vanished. He looked down, and sure enough, there was a small, flat, metal device, lodged in the ground, mostly obscured by the dirt.
    “S-sensei?!" Sora looked to Hakirama.

    [Glued State]

    “Don’t…move.” Hakirama said slowly and calmly. He walked around Kiyoko carefully, before squatting down and examining the pressure plate she was standing on.
    “…A trap?” Omi asked nervously.
    “Hmm…” Hakirama stared intently at the device. He took a deep breath in, and let out a long sigh. “An old booby trap from the war, most likely. It’s definitely the craftsmanship of a ninja village…” He looked around the area cautiously. “It’s a wonder it’s been untouched for so long…”
    “You can fix this, right, sensei?” Omi asked.
    “Hmm…probably…” There was a momentary glint of optimism in his eyes, but then they became dull again, “Yes…probably not.”

    "Ah." Sora muttered bluntly.
    "Oooh, good..." Kiyoko added sarcastically, sweat pouring from her. She felt like her whole body was vibrating. The more she tried to remain still, the more her body rebelled. "Well, could you maybe find a way, before i'm a smudge on those trees over there." Hakirama felt across the ground, searching for a rope net, but instead he found a hidden wire across the ground from the device.
    “We’ll have to disarm the trap.” Hakirama said, “It’s the only way.”

    “No sweat.” Omi said and she knelt down, pulling a set of pick tools from her pouch, “Let’s see what’s inside this baby!” She scrambled over to the device with a mad, wolfish grin. However as she got near she caught sight of Hakirama’s face and she recoiled in fear. Hakirama was staring at her with gruesome, haunting expression, his eyes wide and maniacal, his forehead wrinkled, and his lips puckered like a fish.
    “Wh-what the hell!?” She stammered.
    “Do not test me, Kiryuin san…”Hakirama replied darkly, with dark shadows looming around him. “Touch that plate and you’ll have my frowny face burned into your retinas for the remainder of your short life.”

    In the background, as Hakirama and Omi stalked around the device and talked out ways of disarming it, Sora was building a small fire. Then he placed a pot on top of it, and began assembling ingredients from his pouch.

    "What are you doing?!" Kiyoko asked nervously, her eyes trying to dart down to where her foot was lodged atop the trap. "I need to see what you're doing okay, don't blow me up! Look, I really need you to not explode me, okay? I've got a bunch of plans and I really don't feel like exploding today..."

    "Yer okay, Kiyoko-chan!" Sora called, waving his spoon at her, before going back to his preparation. A few minutes passed and he walked over with a bowl. "Here, this'll make ya feel better." He held up a spoon with something she couldn't quite see. It was a creamy off-white colour with a brown topping.

    "No, no I really don't feel like food right now..." Kiyoko growled through closed lips as a spoon was pushed towards her. "Sensei!!" She yelled.
    “What are you up to?” Hakirama asked, his eyes narrowing at Sora.
    "I-I made Purin, sensei. Yeh can reassure a friend with somethin' they love." Sora replied, then lifted the spoon to his lips and swallowed it's contents with a smile. "It's good..."
    “Why do you have baking materials?” Omi asked, but her question was ignored.

    “How about you save the dessert as a reward for solving this problem, hm?” Hakirama suggested as he stood up. He looked to his three students one after the other. Then he nodded as if something had just occurred to him. “I just solved it.” He said nonchalantly, “Hm…sort of anti climactic…”

    [It’s the Training]
    “What do you mean you solved it!?” Omi demanded, screwing her face up.
    “He mean’s he solved it, idiot.” A second Hakirama said as he emerged from the nearby wood. “Well…we did.” The wood clone turned to the real Hakirama and nodded. “Yo.”
    “Yo.” Hakirama said with brief wave.

    The sound of multiple sensei's behind her forced a confused scowl onto Kiyoko's face. "Hey, whats happening back there?!"
    “Wood clones.” Omi said with a sigh, “He tricked us again.”
    “I didn’t trick you, I just took action, which is what you all should have been doing.” Hakirama said
    “Instead of making pudding…” The clone said, eyeing Sora disapprovingly.
    “So I’ve decided to turn this into a teaching moment.” Hakirama said, and then he sat himself down on the ground and plucked out a pack of playing cards from his jacket.
    “Oh cool.” His clone said and sat down next to him. Hakirama began dealing hands to his clone and himself.

    "Excuse me?!" Kiyoko yelled angrily, balling up her fists and dropping her mask of nobility for a moment, "Get me off this damn thing!!"
    "What kind of game, sensei?" Sora asked, kneeling down and studying the cards.
    “A game for winners, which you are not.” Hakirama said. “Your team mate is in mortal peril. You should probably go do something about that.”
    “But you said you figured it out!” Omi protested.
    “I did…so I’ll sit here and play cards with myself until you figure it out.” Hakirama said frankly.
    “Could be here for a while.” His clone added.

    "I'm going to kill you, sensei!" Kiyoko yelled up ahead.
    "Omi-chan, I think it'd be best if I sent some o' my ants t'check it out." Sora nodded confidently to Omi."They'll never find the body!!" Kiyoko added, letting loose a pent-up snarl. She stood there frozen and blinking out at the path up ahead. Then noticed an old man walking up towards her carrying a large box. "A-Ah, hey!" She called out.

    "Oh, hello!" The man called back.
    "Stop! Stop!!" Kiyoko yelled, "Don't come any closer."
    "Look i'll not bother you, but i've got things to do!" The man replied haughtily, and then strolled past Kiyoko, then past the others, and on his way. Kiyoko watched in silence, then turned her head to one side, showing all the colour had drained from her face.
    "Please get me off this now..." She said meekly.

    “Can’t hurt to try.” Omi said with a nod. She thought about how she could contribute, but came up short. “Uh…I think I missed the trap disarming class.”
    “Shocking.” Hakirama’s clone said sarcastically.
    “Y’know I think his clone is ruder somehow…” Omi said to Sora.

    Sora smirked before turning to face Kiyoko. He held his arms up, letting his sleeves drop back and then he slammed his palms into the ground, and suddenly ants were rising from tiny holes all over the ground, most of them concentrated at the trigger of the trap mechanism. Then they dispersed, flying into the air and as Sora stood back up, they vanished into his sleeves. "Alright, I believe there's a series o' pipes surroundin' the trap, an' they're full o' somethin' like a gas or a flammable liquid, I believe. She's stood on a pressure pad, so maybe replacing her, weight for weight, with something else in the exact same moment then maybe we could get away to a safe distance.

    “Maybe sensei could-“
    “Nope.” Hakirama said flatly.
    “Fine!” Omi scoffed, “If I can find a lake or a pond I can make a water clone. I uh…” She scratched the back of her head, “I need to know your weight, Yoko.”
    Kiyoko shook her head in disbelief, "I-I've no idea!" She frowned.
    "Ah--" Sora nodded with a smile but then his grin turned to panic as he looked to Omi.
    “Don’t look at me!” Omi snapped, folding her arms. “If I make a clone to match her weight I need to use just the right amount of water.”

    "Hm..." Sora remained sitting in quiet thought, ignoring the calls and threats from Kiyoko. "I have an idea..." Sora looked up to Omi, "What if we increased the pressure?"
    “So I just need to make a water clone heavier than Yoko, huh?” Omi asked with a smirk. “Give me a minute, I’m gonna go find a river…” She stalked off, but returned after a short time with a water clone of herself in tow. As they drew closer it became clear that the water clone of Omi looked a little unusual. The clone bounced a little as it walked, and while it had Omi’s features, it looked like a version of her where she had eaten a thousand hamburgers in the last hour.

    “This should be heavy enough.” Omi said, then she smirked, “Just needs the finishing touch…”
    “TRANSFORM!” The fat water clone cried, and then with a puff of smoke, it was now a fat clone of Kiyoko.
    "Why are you laughing, Sora?!" Kiyoko yelled out and Sora stopped abruptly.
    "Kiyoko-chan, Omi is goin' t'place a water clone on the pad, once its stepped onto the pad, ye should get off it, okay?"
    "I'm not happy!!" Kiyoko barked back, but silently accepted her fate.

    “e’scuse me!” The fat Kiyoko said as she popped her chubby foot on the plate next to Kiyoko’s.
    “Alright take it slow, Yoko.” Omi said.
    Slowly, carefully, Kiyoko raised one foot and let it touch onto the ground beside the plate, then slowly, very slowly, she lifted her other foot. The moment it lifted, she virtually teleported beside Omi and grabbed her, "We have to go, come on!" Sora stood up quickly, awaiting instruction from Hakirama.

    “Go fish!” Hakirama’s clone cried.
    “Again?” Hakirama frowned.
    “Yo, sensei, we need to run!” Omi yelled urgently
    “Oh?” Hakirama turned his head slightly, “Why’s that?”
    “Because once my water clone disappears the trap’s going to explode.”
    “Oh right…” Hakirama said before turning to his clone again, “Didn’t I say? I’m pretty certain it’s defective.”

    "Morning!" A woman greeted the small group, smirking at them gathered around the piece of metal on the ground, "Oh, guys, don't worry about that thing, it's a relic from the war, just don't trip over it, okay?!" She waved to them with a smile and walked on. Kiyoko took a deep breath and clenched her fists. Her face started to turn red, but eventually it evened out and she stood there waiting.
    "Alright, can we go now?" Kiyoko spoke through gritted teeth.

    There was a thump as Omi flopped to the ground, roaring with laughter, occasionally pausing for breath and to point feebly at Kiyoko before buckling over in uncontrolled laughter again. Even Hakirama managed a soft chuckle as he dispersed his clone and got ready to resume their walk. As they walked Omi was still tittering a half hour later.


  9. tsumetaki-tsuchi]

    “Whoa…” Omi said as she walked with Hakirama and Sora through the garden outside of the Uchiha clan’s dojo inside their compound.  They walked a path of flat stones placed in a line toward the main building. The fenced off garden was brimming with green plant life with beautiful red colored flowering. A tree stood tall to their right, it’s branches shading a rectangular patch of sand, with a sparse amount of stones placed very carefully around the sand. Someone had drawn swirls and lines in the sand, in a flowing form through the rocks.

    Up ahead the dojo building was lit with warm lanterns. They stepped up the steps and into the wooden building. Inside the dojo consisted of a simple, large open space for training in. However the matts on the floor were well made, and the sparse equipment looked to be of good craftsmanship. The walls were decorated by various depictions of the fan-like symbol of the Uchiha clan, and in each corner of the room stood dark metallic sculptures of tengu warriors with long beak-like noses. “…Whoa.” Omi said again.

    A door on the other side slid open and Kiyoko walked in, closing the sliding door behind her. She didn't notice them until Omi spoke.
    "Oh, what are you...?" Kiyoko frowned, looking at her team, "You shouldn't be here--"
    "I invited them." Makoto interrupted, startling the young Genin from behind as he walked past them and into the dojo. "I thought your teammates could join you in our training session this evening."
    "Oh..." Kiyoko nodded, but looked less than enthused.

    “Oh, I don’t think you three have had nearly enough stress to form a close bond.” Hakirama said, “It is very kind of Makoto san to provide an opportunity for hardship for all of you.”
    “How the hell is training going to help us get along?” Omi asked, raising her brow.
    “The times that test us are the most defining”, Hakirama replied. “Besides, you were all too happy to fight each other earlier, maybe burning some energy is exactly what you need.”
    “I don’t see how kicking Yoko’s butt is going to get her to like me.” Omi said, looking unconvinced. A few moments later she yelped and clutched her nose, which throbbed from another nose flicking from Hakirama.

    “How about you listen to Makoto san and follow his instructions.” Hakirama suggested firmly, smiling.
    “Fine…” Omi grumbled, still rubbing her nose.
    "Your sensei speaks from a place of knowledge. You'd do best to listen to him, Omi-chan." Makoto walked into the centre of the dojo and turned to face the Genin. "However," He added, his tone now quite serious, "I never said you were to fight my niece." Makoto stretched, cracking his shoulders and cricking his neck before he rolled the sleeves up of his kimono, "Can I ask, Hakirama-sama, for non-interference? Training such as this needs to be seen to it's conclusion."

    “My team’s safety comes first.” Hakirama replied, but sat himself down on the floor by the wall. “If I decide to intervene then I will.”
    “Wait…we’ve got to fight him?” Omi asked, thumbing at Makoto. “How’s that fair?”
    Makoto stared at Hakirama in silence for a few moments, then smirked, "That... will not happen." It seemed unclear whether he meant that their safety would not be in question, or that he would not allow Hakirama to intervene. "And Omi-chan... it isn't. That is the nature of this world."

    "Uncle, this isn't--" Kiyoko started, but cut herself short as Makoto charged her. "H-Hey!" Kiyoko leapt back to bridge a gap between them, but he was too fast. He closed it in an instant and threw a punch directly at her face. Kiyoko leaned back, turning into a backflip as her hands touched the mat, and she kicked with all her force, knocking her Uncle's arm up and then as her feet touched the mat, she darted forwards, kicking twice. The first kick struck Makoto in the shoulder, and the second he blocked with his forearm, grabbed her leg and threw her across the room, past Sora and Omi. Makoto then whirled around, formed seals in a flash, took a deep breath, and then a jet of flame spewed from between his lips.
    "Omi-chan!" Sora shoved Omi as hard as he could, knocking her out of the way, as the flames engulfed him. Kiyoko pulled herself up just as she saw the flames surround Sora.
    "No!!" Kiyoko yelled, "Sensei?!" She whirled around to look at Hakirama.

    [The Raising Fighting Spirit]

    The flames petered out, dispersing until only smoke and a charred body remained. It's ragged black cloth covering the static form on the ground. Kiyoko watched in stunned silence until she heard a strange noise. A grinding, hissing, clicking noise, and then the ragged black cloth dispersed, and Sora stood up, untouched.
    "What?!" Kiyoko mouthed. "What was that?"
    "That'd be my clan's technique." Sora replied. Then held his finger up and a tiny black mass began to form as if from nowhere. "The Bakuhatsu Ari." His eyes lingered on his finger for a moment, before looking to Kiyoko and Omi, "Exploding Ants."

    “Whoa… tough bunch of ants.” Omi said with a smirk.

    "Thank ye, Omi-Chan." Sora beamed, "Each member o' the Sakai clan are born with 'em. They're a part of us. We give them chakra, they give us a miniature army, full o' all kinda tricks. Plus, they're really useful in medicine and tracking."
    “Lucky.” Hakirama said, his eyes darkening as he spoke. “Be careful with my students, Makoto san.”
    “Tsh! Give me a break!” Omi said with a toothed grin. She raised her fists up in front of her and faced Makoto. “C’mon old man, I wanna check you out!”

    Omi went at a sprint towards Makoto and the pair clashed. She circled him, testing him with quick punches and kicks that he dodged and blocked with a steady grace. Makoto grew tired of her teasing and began to strike back. Omi weaved and dodged his precise swings with the speed and acrobatics of a dancer. Finally she jumped up for a kick, and Makoto drew his arm in to block her. Omi brought her feet forward and pushed off of his arm, sailing up towards the ceiling of the dojo, and she hurled a barrage of shuriken back down towards him.

    With a quick inhalation, Makoto released his chakra with his breath and blew the shuriken directly back towards Omi, peppering her with her own projectiles. Sora and Kiyoko were quick to react. Kiyoko charged her uncle, leaping into the air to strike him in the back, but he was all too fast. He turned instantly and knocked her aside and then leapt out of the way as a small black cloud flew beneath him. Makoto quickly engulfed the tiny ants in flame, then landed as Kiyoko raised herself back up using the wall as support.

    "This is too much, uncle." Kiyoko took a deep breath and started walking towards him. "We're obviously no match, you've proved your point.""I've barely begun." Makoto replied, then his eyes focused on Omi as she landed. In an instant, he was behind her. He grabbed her by the back of her neck, and lifted her into the air, "This isn't a game. You are in combat with a powerful enemy. Yet, you stand there explaining your abilities to one another. Asking for clemency when it becomes too difficult. Where do you think you are right now...?" He frowned, and then squeezed harder, choking Omi. She tried to gasp for air, but Makoto’s grip was too tight, and panic gripped her.

    [GAMA]

    Unable to draw breath, Omi felt herself getting weaker. Her hands desperately clawed at Makoto’s grip, but with every second she only grew weaker. She felt her vision beginning to swim. Something was beating inside her, it felt so loud to her, like someone hammering right next to her ear. Something boiled inside of her, something primal that was desperate to get out and wreak havoc. Then, suddenly, she gasped as Makoto’s grip was broken and she had fell to the floor.

    Hakirama stood in front of her, a Kunai in his hand that was slicked with blood, and Makoto’s arm had a small gash on it. “…That’s enough.” Hakirama said with a quiet anger to his voice.
    "I wholly disagree." Makoto replied with a sad smile. Kiyoko audibly gasped as she watched her uncle's one working eye flash a bright crimson red, circle by three tomoe. This was the Uchiha clan's eye technique. The Sharingan. This was not something that ever needed to be used against an ally. It had the ability to allow it's user to mimic the movement and abilities of anything it witnessed. It could see chakra, see through the illusions of a genjutsu, and was considered one of the most powerful techniques in the shinobi world. Her uncle now stood before her sensei, with a figurative sword unsheathed.

    "Uncle!" Kiyoko yelled.

    "You will be quiet." Makoto barked back at her, and then he leaned towards Hakirama. His lean deepened until it almost looked as though he was going to fall over, but then he burst forwards, tearing up the mats behind him as he crossed the dojo in a split-second. Hakirama was just as fast, raising his fists in response, but his movements were clear to Makoto's sharingan eye. He darted between Hakirama's thrusting fist and blocked his kick with one hand and with his other, he thrust his palm forwards as if he was going to smack Hakirama in the chest. But at the last moment, a blade shoved it's way out of the skin of his palm and impaled Hakirama. Makoto pulled his hand back, forcing the blade in deeper until he was able to grab hold of the emerging handle and yank it from his own arm. "Lesson over." He muttered, then shoved the blade through Hakirama's chest until the handle struck his chest. Makoto took a step back, and as Hakirama fell, he kicked him so hard in the gut, that their sensei flew across the dojo and smashed into the far wall, leaving a cracked stone indentation before collapsing to the ground.

    [Orochimaru ~Fight~]

    "Now then..." Makoto turned back to face the three genin. "Where were we?" His red eye beating down on them.
    Kiyoko was speechless. She kept staring at Hakirama's corpse, expecting him to get up. But he wasn't going to get up. Not from that. Eventually, the reality of her situation penetrated her fear, surprise and confusion and she immediately lowered her gaze, "Don't look him in the eye!" She called out to her teammates, "He'll trap you in a genjutsu you can't escape from!"
    "Kiyoko-chan?" Sora questioned.
    "DO IT!!" Kiyoko shouted, her eyes wet with tears she refused to allow. Sora nodded, reaching into his kimono and pulling out a pair of goggles.

    "Should be wearin' these things anyway, daylight's so strong..." Sora pulled the goggles on, and glanced at Makoto. He raised his arms, and black clouds formed around them, a mass of flying ants. "Ah well, looks like we've gotta get real serious now, i'll do what I can fer sensei, if we're still alive..."
    "Enough talking..." Kiyoko snarled, her face screwing up. Kiyoko and Sora charged Makoto from different angles.

    At the last instant, Sora's ants flew around the side of Makoto, forcing him away from Omi. He leapt away, blowing fire from his lips as any stray ants came within reach. Then Sora chased after him, spreading his ants thin and wide, so that Makoto was unable to penetrate the insect wall. Kiyoko dashed over to Omi and helped her up.
    "Are you alright?!" She asked frantically, checking the girl's neck.

    “He…!” Omi choked as she stared at Hakirama’s lifeless body on the other side of the room. She shivered in fear, then her eyes turned to Kiyoko, seeming only now to notice her. Then, finally, her gaze fell to Makoto, gritting her teeth in a vicious snarl. “…I’ll…I’ll kill him!” She yelled with a sudden burst of energy as she got to her feet. “I’ll…tear his….” She breathed in and out slowly, unable to speak.
    "Centre yourself." Kiyoko cautioned, "I feel the same way, but we can't allow ourselves... we can't let fear and anger control us." She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. Makoto tested the wall of insects for signs of weakness using his fire techniques. Every few seconds the room was cast in a brilliant orange glow and a flash of heat as Makoto destroyed more ants. "We're only going to have one chance, when Sora's wall fails, he'll... we have to work together... Omi-san?" Kiyoko raised her arm aloft and held out her fist to Omi.

    Omi stared at Kiyoko for a moment, and then at her offered fist. Then she nodded and bopped Kiyoko’s fist with her own, giving a single nod as she did. “Alright then, Yoko, you know his weak points, I’ll keep him distracted.” She retrieved a kunai from her belt and placed it in her mouth, before resting shuriken in the gaps between her fingers. “Shhora,  don’ schwoo thish up, eh!?”

    "Enough!" Makoto yelled over the sound of their chatter. For a moment, there was silence punctuated only by the background hum of Sora's insects. Then a flame spread out from the back of the room, engulfing the entire wall. Before Sora could replenish the breaches, a gust of wind blew so fiercely that he was knocked to the ground. He reached out, a black mass of ants swarming from his hand and attaching themselves to the ground so that he wasn't thrown away. While at the back of the room Kiyoko and Omi stood fast, being buffeted by Makoto's gust.

    "Stop it, uncle!" Kiyoko yelled, and to her great surprise, Makoto stopped his assault. As she walked past Omi, she whispered, "Follow my lead." And walked towards Sora, as she did, she touched him on the shoulder and leaned in, "You've done enough." She said aloud, whispering something immediately afterwards before continuing on to her uncle. Makoto had never seemed taller to her than he did now. He towered over her, his presence and that sharingan, staring her down.

    "If you can't defeat an old man, then how are you going to become a ninja worth her salt, hm?!" Makoto closed his fist like a vice and held it before her, "You're not strong enough. You're not fast enough. You're not smart enough. At this rate, you never will be. It's better I save you the agony of torture at the hands of our enemies."
    "It's not my fault!" Kiyoko yelled at him in indignation, "You've trained me my whole life, my parents trained me, the Hyūga trained me! It's not my fault, it's yours! And yours!" Kiyoko's angry gaze turned to Sora, "And yours!" She focused on Omi, marching back to her as Sora began to object.
    "Kiyoko-chan, i've worked very hard to--" Sora began.
    "You're a disgrace!" Kiyoko snapped, getting right into Omi's face. "I'm not surprised your parents left you here!"
    “Watch your mouth, Yoko hime!” Yoko snarled at her, “Don’t think I won’t kick your ass!”
    "You couldn't if you tried!" Kiyoko bit back, shoving the girl forcefully. Makoto watched in disbelief, confused at the sudden in-fighting of the team that had stood against him just moments before. Sora walked over to join the girls, raising his hands and urging them to calm down. "You're no better!"

    "Oro?" Sora pursed his lips in surprise.
    "Bugs?!" Kiyoko growled, "Really?! That's the best thing you can do!?"

    Sora hesitated, holding his finger up for a moment as though he was going to argue the point, "W-well," He chuckled nervously, "K-Kiyoko-chan..." Kiyoko pushed him. Hard. Sora stumbled back and held his hands out to her, "There's no need for all y'all t'get mad, we have more pressing ma--" Sora was cut short. Kiyoko lashed out. Her punch hit him square in the jaw, and he collapsed to the floor. Sora's lips curled back in anger and he vaulted backwards onto his feet, and without missing a beat, sent a volley of insects flying towards Kiyoko. At the last second, Kiyoko dove to the ground, and the black mass struck Omi instead. Knocking her to the ground. There was a horrible wet squelch as the insects collided with her.

    "I've had about enough out of you!" Makoto growled irritably, raising his hands together to perform a jutsu.
    “The feeling’s mutual!” Omi replied as she crawled to her feet, soaking wet and covered in Sora’s ants. She made a bee-line for Makoto, hurling her shuriken at him. Makoto leapt back and dodged expertly, his hands still moving to make the seals. Omi took a shuriken from her belt and threw it forward. Makoto dodged to the side and let it fly past him, and just as he was about to finish he saw Omi’s grin, and sensed the incoming danger.

    [Breakdown]

    He abandoned his seals and turned just as Omi came at him with a swinging kick. He dodged and cut through her with a kunai, but her body simply reformed from the injury. Then another Omi swept a kick under him and he jumped to avoid, flipping backwards only to find another Omi waiting for him when he landed. Suddenly the three Omi’s rushed him together, each one attacking him with rapid strikes, all of which he dodged and deflected with unimaginable speed.

    Makoto finally grabbed and threw one of the Omi’s into another, and the two smashed together and disappeared along the floor in a puddle, before quickly resuming their form.
    “You can see right?” One of the Omi’s said to him. “Those eyes can see water clones, but I’m close enough now.” Omi grinned, her hands already forming the final seal she needed. She was close enough to Makoto now, and her chakra infused water was all around him in the form of her clones. With a final thrust out with her palm, her clones melted into water and swirled around Makoto, mixing and writhing into one swirling ball of water. It was dense, highly pressured water, stopping the target from moving on the inside.
    “Suiton: Water Prison Jutsu.” Omi said with a satisfied grin. “Doesn’t matter if you know how to copy it, good luck forming seals in there.”

     

    [Isami Aru Monotachi]

     

    "Yes!!" Kiyoko cheered, whistling as Sora chuckled, a smile spreading across his face once more, as he rubbed his sore jaw. "I can't believe we stopped him..."
    "Mm," Sora nodded, approaching Omi and patting her on the shoulder, "Well done, Omi-chan." Kiyoko turned to look at the body of their Jounin leader still lying in a crumpled heap in the corner. She had to take a deep breath to steady herself before speaking.

    "Alright... i'm going to inform--" Kiyoko stopped speaking as she heard a muted clapping noise. Makoto - still trapped in the ball of pressurised water which should have prevented him from doing little more than blink or breathe - was clapping. Then he stood, and the watery prison was forced to shift into an oblong shape to accommodate his standing position.
    "Very good." Makoto said, his voice distorted from within the prison, "There's just one thing..." He reached into his kimono and pulled out a kunai. The three genin watched in disbelief as he moved with little restriction from within the prison. "Think fast!" He said suddenly, throwing the kunai. The bladed projectile weapon breached the water prison as though there was nothing there at all. The projectile flew directly at Omi, and she was forced to dive aside to save herself.

    The prison of water fell apart with Omi no longer maintaining the seal, but as she opened her eyes, ready to deal with the threat Makoto posed once more, she was unable to move. Something nudged her and she looked over to see Kiyoko and Sora bound on either side of her.
    "O-oro?" Sora looked around, confused.
    "So fast..." Kiyoko muttered in disbelief, staring down at her bonds. Then she looked over and saw her uncle was wringing out his kimono.

    "I really wish you hadn't used a water technique of all things, my daughter-in-law made this for me..." Makoto grumbled, patting himself down. "Oh, your friends look rather confused, Kiyoko-chan, perhaps you would explain what happened to them for me, while I warm up?" Makoto smiled politely and then walked over to a small fire that remained from his use of fire jutsu. Holding his hands out to warm himself, he listened with a smile on his lips as Kiyoko explained that the sharingan's genjutsu could be so convincing that he had actually tricked Omi into breaking the seal on the water prison by dodging a kunai that didn't exist. Both Sora and herself had been unable to stop Omi, as moments before, he had trapped them both in their own private genjutsu. So, this was it. They'd lost. They'd lost the battle, their teacher, and now their lives.

    "We had 'im..." Sora sighed with a dejected look on his face.
    "We never had him... it was just a matter of time." Kiyoko looked to the ground.
    “Are you kidding!?” Omi scoffed, “Did you forget he killed Hakirama!?”
    “I’d prefer if you referred to me as ‘Senju Sensei’, or at least just ‘Sensei’, we’re not that close you know?” The voice came from the doorway of the Dojo. All three students turned round and gaped. Hakirama stood in the doorway, very much alive and entirely unharmed. “Yo.” He said with a short wave.

    [Konohamaru’s Theme]

    “B-but…you…” Omi turned back to the corpse on the floor in disbelief. Then she let out a high pitched scream as the corpse slowly sat up and turned it’s head toward her. “Zombie!!” She screamed.
    "N-No thank you." Sora added, shoving them onto their side. Then, between Omi and Sora, the two started worming the trio along the ground, trying to get away from zombie-Hakirama, while Kiyoko struggled on top of them, staring at the ceiling in confusion.
    "Hey!" Kiyoko growled, "What's happening?!"

    Their slinking along the floor was brought to a stop as Hakirama put his foot on them lightly.
    “You know…I’d hoped to get some smart students…” He said with a smirk. The zombie stepped closer until it was standing next to Hakirama. Then the Jounin placed his hand on his doppelganger’s shoulder, and it’s skin slowly began to turn brown, and then became hard like wood. Slowly the clone of wood began to turn more organic looking, like a tree branch, as it was slowly sucked back into Hakirama’s palm.

    “Eww….gross!” Omi said, and she made a retching face.
    “Mokuton is the Kekkai Genkai of the Senju clean. It is not gross.” Hakirama said with a scowl of annoyance.
    “It kinda is.” Omi said, huffing.
    "It's unpleasant, sensei-sama." Sora added, as the ropes binding them snapped suddenly and fell loose. Then a black mass formed around the ropes and disappeared into Sora's top. "An' I know unpleasant." The boy smirked as he stood back up, rubbing his wrists from the tight bindings.

    "You're all speaking like this is fine! This isn't fine!" Kiyoko growled angrily, marching up to Hakirama and jabbing him in the chest with her finger, "What kind of training is this, huh?! Do you think this is alright? Did you think you were being clever?!" Hakirama nervously tried to laugh it off but delicately pointed at Makoto.
    "You!" Kiyoko snarled, turning on her uncle, flames erupted in her eyes. Makoto looked up from warming his hands with a genuine look of surprise on his face.
    "Hm? --gah!!" Makoto yelped, as Kiyoko grabbed him by the collar of his kimono and threw him with all her force.

    Outside, the dojo, was peaceful. Quiet, tranquil, the sound of cicadas calling. An elderly Uchiha clan member raked sand into a pleasing pattern, and just as he was making his final stroke the roof of the dojo exploded and he leapt out of his skin in fright, sending sand flying everywhere. The old man scanned for the source of the sound, and saw a man flying through the sky, screaming, as he became a blip on the horizon.

    Patting down her hands, Kiyoko turned back to look at the rest of the team, "Well?!" She snarled, looking at Hakirama.
    “…Scary.” Hakirama said with a haunted expression on his face.
    “Guy got what he deserved if you ask me.” Omi muttered.
    “Kiyoko san, perhaps you should calm down. Don’t you think you’ve learned something from this?” Hakirama asked.

    [Friend]

    Doubt wormed its way into Kiyoko's thoughts and a frown replaced her anger, "I've learnt I can... somewhat..." She crossed her arms across her chest and licked the inside of her cheek as she nonchalantly tried to validate Sora and Omi's abilities, "... rely on... you guys..."
    "Yes!" Sora cheered, grinning from ear to ear. He walked up to Kiyoko and hugged her, but was quickly pushed away.
    "Don't push it, bug-boy." Kiyoko muttered, but a smile lingered in the corner of her lips all the same. Sucking in air like she was trying to draw in a noodle, Kiyoko finally sighed and walked over to Omi. The two girls looked at one another for a moment, then Kiyoko playfully thumped Omi on the shoulder.

    “I guess you’re not so bad yourself, Yoko hime.” Omi said with a sly grin. She turned to Sora.
    “Seriously though, I’ll put up with your creepy crawlies any time if they’re always that helpful. Using them to gather water like that…I’d never have even thought of it.”
    "They've many useful abilities, Omi-chan!" Sora got quite animated at Omi's fledgling interest, "It's not just obvious things like trackin' an' combat, but they have extremely powerful anti-toxin - didja know a single ant can lift over a hundred times it's own weight? Ants live longer than any other insect, an' if every animal was the same size they would be the fastest animal on the planet!" He just kept going, even as Kiyoko's eyes glazed over, "Didja know one ant species has the most powerful venom in the world? An' my ants are asexual, they don't need any males an' can jus' clone themselves, which I can increase by feedin' large amounts of chakra--" Sora grabbed Omi and Kiyoko around the shoulders and started to walk them out of the dojo, "Didja know ants can do more'n swim, they can survive up to 24 hours underwater! There's lots o' things that--"
    "--help us..." Kiyoko mumbled to Hakirama as they were dragged away.

    “Ah, to be a Genin again, there’s no feeling quite like when you start to form bonds with your team…” Hakirama went to follow them out of the dojo, “…and the inevitable discovery that they are just the worst.” He chuckled as he walked out in to the evening with his team.


  10. [Sasuke’s Theme]

    The pair were interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the grass behind them. The man approaching was dressed in the standard dark blue trousers and jacket associated with Konoha ninja, with a tool pouch strapped to his right leg, blue sandals on his feet, and a green flak jacket over his chest. The man walked at a leisurely pace with his hands in his pockets. His hair was a dark brown, shaggy hair that was trimmed shorter at the sides, but stood almost on end at the top, the ends flopping only a little to the left. His face was framed by a metal happuri style forehead protector with Konoha’s leaf symbol branded at the top.

    The man stopped as he drew close to the two Genin, and his red eyes lazily moved from one to the other. He sniffed once and scratched at his nose, before holding his hand up beside his head with an empty palm out. “Good morning, my name is Hakirama Senju. I will be your Jounin leader. I am very excited to be working with you both.” He had introduced himself with perfect politeness, but had done so without even a hint of enthusiasm, and his eyes were still half closed and bored-looking. Eventually he turned his head and looked around a bit further.

    “Hmm…Kiryuin san is late. That is, unfortunately, not unexpected. So that means you two are Sakai san and Hyuga san.” He shrugged and gave them both a half-hearted salute. “Nice to meet you both. I’m sure you’ll both do your best.”
    "Yo!" Sora gave a casual salute, "Nice ta see ya, Teach. The Senju are an interestin' Clan. Honored t'have ya."
    "Where's the other one?" Kiyoko added, ignoring Hakirama's introduction. She crossed her arms and asked, "Who's this Omitsune anyway? I don't remember anyone called that at the Academy."

    “Kiryuin san?” Hakirama asked. “Well, truth be told she was expelled from the academy, and is only being conditionally allowed the rank of Genin and to be part of this team due to her mother taking advantage of her position.” Hakirama sniffed again and wrinkled his nose. “Kiryuin san is the daughter of the Sandaime Hokage.”
    “Adoptive!” another voice yelled.

    [Lee Dash Lee

    A branch of the old tree shook as a slender form dropped from it, grabbing the branch on the way down and swinging once, before letting go and dropping to the ground. Omi was dressed in black sandals with fish net stockings covering the length of her legs, with a very short pair of black shorts on, with a single blue stripe at either side, and a tool pouch attached to a belt, positioned at the base of her back. Fish net covered her otherwise exposed midriff, and she had on a sleeveless, short jacket that barely covered her flat chest. Her arms were bare apart from white bandages wrapped around her hands and wrists. She had also chosen to wear her Konoha forehead protector around her neck, tied loosely.

    “Hm, you were actually pretty well hidden…” Hakirama said, for the first time showing a hint of surprise.
    “Well yeah, I’m a delinquent, not a scrub.” Omi replied. She turned her attention toward her new comrades, and folded her arms across her chest, raisied her head and pointed her chin out. “Sup.”
    "Ahoy hoy, Omitsune-chan!" Sora raised his arm in a half-wave, then went back to stroking Katsu. "Nice ta meet'cha."
    "You're late." Kiyoko added, "And a drop out. Do you think you should really be on this team?"

    “It’s just Omi, and if you ‘chan’ me again I’ll bite your nose off.” Omi said with a smirk. Then she turned her attention to Kiyoko, and her eyes flashed with a mix of anger and challenge. “You wanna go, Yoko? If I kick your ass that means I get to embarrass two clans for the price of one, right?” She grinned widely, revealing her pointed teeth.

    "Now, now," Sora chuckled, raising his hands defensively,
    "You can try, drop-out." Kiyoko retorted.
    "Aaah haha," Sora stepped in-between them, "Please, don't be fightin', girls. We're all a team now, yeah?"
    “I didn’t drop out, I got kicked out!” Omi snarled, “Because I kept beating punks like you in to paste. Don’t cry when it’s over, Yoko!” Omi suddenly made a beeline for Yoko, and the girl seemed to respond in kind. As they closed the gap towards each other, both raising their fists to strike, a figure streaked in between them.

    [Fake]

    There was a long moment of silence. The grass blew beneath their feet. Hakirama stood in between the two genin, his hands gripped firmly around each of their wrists. His unimpressed, bored expression remained as he let out a sigh. “Hyūga san, Kiryuin san, this is no w-“
    Omi’s other fist came flying towards his face. In an instant Hakirama had let go of Kiyoko and pushed her away with a palm press to her chest, then his free arm came up and casually slapped the blow away. He released his grip on Omi’s wrist and she immediately snarled and leapt at Hakirama with a sweeping kick.

    The Jounin ducked with leisurely grace, and his hands came up and grabbed her leg, swinging her around and tossing her back to the ground quite gently. The ease at which he had done so made Omi’s blood boil. She’d make him flinch, she had to now. In an instant, she had reached in to her tool pouch and retrieved three shuriken. As her hands moved to throw them at Hakirama, she froze as he was suddenly inches from her. He snatched the shuriken from her hands with a single motion, and then threw a punch that stopped just inches from her face. Omi’s eyes were wide with terror. She couldn’t do anything against this guy, he could kill her with barely a breath.

    “Ow!” she cried as Hakirama flicked her hard across the nose with his finger, before releasing her. She clutched her nose in her hands, and her pale skin began to burn a hot pink. “What the hell!?”
    “We will not be fighting each other outside of organized sparring matches.” Hakirama replied simply. “Until you are capable of preventing me from doing so, I will decide when and who you fight, and I will not tolerate violence towards your team mates.” He turned his attention back to Kiyoko. “I’m sure you understand, Hyūga san?”

    "I understand perfectly. But when she loses her temper again, will we be in the field? Maybe in a delicate situation? In a battle?" Kiyoko then turned from Hakirama, to Omitsune, "A team is a chain. You're a weak link. I can't trust you." She paused, and as if as an after thought, she then looked to Sora, "Or you."
    “Bite me, Yoko-hime!” Omi snapped bitterly, “Like I need your approval!”

     

    [Confrontment]

    “Well…” Hakirama said with a pause to sigh audibly. “Now that introductions are over, it’s time to have an appraisal. I believe in being honest with my team, and so here it is…” He pointed at Sora first. “You, so far, are the only one I’m convinced might make a half decent ninja given time.” His finger moved to Kiyoko. “You seem to be carrying all the worst traits of the two most obnoxious clans in this village. You’re correct, a team is a chain, but you fail to see where your link is. The first thing you did when meeting your comrade was cast doubt as to her being allowed on this team. Not only did you show lack of faith in your comrade, but also in your leader. If you do not trust my decisions, then you are also a weak link.”

    Omi let out a snort of laughter, but then she caught her breath in fear as Hakirama’s ever-judging index finger fell upon her, and his eyes narrowed when he looked at her, his brow furrowing with annoyance. “Omitsune Kiryuin – the girl who has had each of her tutors give up on her, even the Academy cannot handle you. So much so that the Hokage herself applied pressure to me in order to ensure your place on this team. However, I am not one of her dogs. You are here because I decided to give you a chance, one that you are quickly using up. Out of all the members on this team, you impress me the least.”

    “Like I ca-“ Omi started but she was cut off.
    “You should care!” Hakirama snapped, his eyes suddenly fierce, “Every person in this village, be they ninja or not, works hard to preserve what we have. You, so far, are nothing but a drain on this village. If I cannot change that, then you will have no more opportunities ahead of you.”
    “Yeah, whatever.” Omi rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard this one a thousand times.”
    “Then hear this; you have until the end of this day to gain the support of your comrades, If either one of them will not support you by tomorrow, then you will be banished from the village.”

    Omi went to speak, but she paused, her lip quivering, and then she bit down on it and her head sank to the floor. Kiyoko remained silent, listening to Hakirama. When he was finished, she walked over to the table and sat on one of the chairs. Leaning back, she crossed her arms and sighed, "I can accept my mistakes. But not trusting you does not mean i've made a mistake. I don't know you. You might be a Jounin, so you've been given a title that says you're skilled, so what? There are lots of Jounin, and they die every day. Trust is earned, not expected. But..." She glanced at Omi, an expression flashed across her face, if only for a moment. Doubt? But in what? "Pff..."

    "Give me a reason to support you, Omi-chan." Sora gave her a polite bow just with his head.
    “I’m sure she will have plenty of opportunity to do so on your first mission.” Hakirama said nonchalantly. “Originally I was going to put you through a traditional bell test, but this mission came up quite suddenly and requires immediate attention.” Omi stood in silence, her stomach churning at the news. A mission? How was she going to be able to prove herself in that sort of situation? What if she screwed up? What would the cost be?

    "Are you up to it?" Kiyoko asked. Sora made a startled noise, interrupting the conversation as heads turned. Katsu, the little squishy-faced dog, leapt out of Sora's arms and landed on the ground, then waddled over to Omi and sat at her feet. He opened his mouth and started panting - a sound akin to an out-of-breath senior - quietly, with a content look upon his stunted face.

    "Omi-chan, Katsu supports you! Now you've just myself, and Kiyoko-chan to convince! Yatta!" Sora clapped his hands and beamed at her. "Ah--!" Then Katsu quietly lifted his leg, and emptied his bladder onto her boot. Sora's face drooped, yet somehow he maintained a modicum of cheer despite his mortified eyes, "Ah, sorry...."

    Omi’s knuckles cracked audibly as her fists clenched in an otherwise quiet rage. Her teeth grinded as she fought to keep herself from snarling. “Don’t…worry about it.” She said finally, her right eye twitching madly as she stared at the incontinent pug with a murderous gaze. “Yo, sensei…what’s our mission?” She asked to keep her mind off her anger.
    “Well I’m glad you asked…” Hakirama said with a smirk.

    --- --- --- ---

    [Fooling Mode]

    “This sucks!” Omi declared as she jabbed a metal litter picker into the river she was currently standing knee deep in. She pulled the litter picker back up to reveal a sludgy old sandal, and she wretched in disgust, before tossing it into the pile of junk on the bank.
    “What did you expect?” Hakirama asked from the deck chair he was sitting on near the bank, “Genin ninja are only qualified to participate in D-rank or C-rank missions. Get used to manual labour, you’re going to be doing it routinely for quite a while.”

    “This isn’t what being a ninja is about!” Omi scoffed, frowning. However, she continued with the work begrudgingly. She had to admit that Hakirama’s threat was serious enough that she had been forced to comply with it. Even though, deep down, all she really wanted was to set his hair on fire and see what he looked like bald.

    "Hard work is an essential trait of a good ninja, Omi-chan!" Sora waded past her and stopped at a spot that he seemed happy with, "If ya work hard at working hard, y'all will fight fer longer, hit harder an' learn more." Sora held the litter picker an inch above the water and then began jabbing. The flurry of strikes was so fast that he was forced to stop after a couple of seconds because his entire picker had been skewered with trash. Sora grinned at Omi, then dumped all the trash into his bag, pausing to stare at Kiyoko. She was staring at the water, picker in hand, doing nothing. Just... staring.

    Omi considered Sora’s words. It hadn’t occurred to her to use ninja skills to get the work done. Sora had used his speed and reflexes from Taijutsu to maximize his performance. Perhaps if she could impress them then they’d consider keeping her on the team. With a wolfish grin she tossed her litter picker and trash bag aside, and clapped her hands together. She performed five hand seals; tiger, snake, rat, snake, tiger. She released her chakra and thrust her hands forward. The water of the river suddenly rushed back up the way it came, chaotically flying up into the shape of a wall, the excess water arcing down and around them.

    “There…now we can see better.” She said with a satisfied smirk. She turned round to see what Sora thought, and then her heart sank like a stone. Kiyoko had been caught in the backlash of her ninjutsu, and was now standing and staring in the same position, only now she was drenched from head to toe in river water. “S-sorry…” Omi managed to squeak.


  11. Once, not so long ago, the world was a place of discord and danger. During this long and violent period the countries of the world were uniformly small, and constantly battled each other for control of land and power. So as not to risk their own lives, and that of their citizenry, the countries enlisted the aid of mercantile shinobi clans to fight their battles for them. Shinobi at this time were loyal only to their own clan, and of course to whoever offered them the highest bid. This period was known as the Warring States Period.

    Of all the clans that participated in this bloody period, in what would one day be called the Land of Fire, three shinobi clans stood out from the rest. The Senju clan were renowned for their balanced skill in all the shinobi arts. The Uchiha Clan were famed for their battle prowess and their unique and mysterious Dojutsu, the Sharingan. The Hyūga clan were known for their uncontested Taijutsu skills, as well as their own secret Dojutsu, the Byakugan.

    The three clans, being the most powerful, also naturally became bitter rivals. They lost many lives in fierce battles with each other, as well as fights with other clans and other countries. In the end the bloodshed began to take its toll on the world, the strain was tearing every clan apart and collapse of the world became almost inevitable. The Hyūga clan and the Uchiha clan’s feud was becoming so fierce that they ran the risk of destroying each other completely.

    At this time, the leader of the Senju, Samanosuke, came to both clans with an offer. Samanosuke revealed that his clan had been working to pledge itself with the Daimyo of the country, to swear loyalty to one country in exchange for ensured survival of their clan, and rights for their people. Samanosuke plead for the two rivals to set aside their difficulties and join as one. However, both sides agreed that this was impossible.

    Samanosuke did not give up, however. The Uchiha were narrowly ahead of the Hyūga in their ongoing feud, and so the Senju made an offer privately to the leader of the Hyūga clan, Hyouin . Reluctantly, with the real risk of losing his clan before him, Hyouin agreed to ally with the Senju. With the two clans fighting together, even the mighty Uchiha stood no chance against them. In the ultimate battle, Hyouin and the Uchiha leader, Retsu faced off against one another, but ultimately Hyouin was the victor. The Hyūga leader went to end the life of his rival, but Samanosuke stepped in and saved Retsu’s life.

    The result was a three-way fight between the great shinobi leaders. However, in the end, Samanosuke stood victorious over the others. Hyūga Hyouin and Uchiha Retsu both understood Samanosuke actions, and his desire for their clans to be strong and prosperous together. Reluctantly they agreed to ally with the Senju, and swear their allegiance to the Land of Fire. That is the story of how the Warring States Period ended, and how the first Shinobi Hidden Village was born. To this day it still stands, deep within the heart of the Land of Fire, the village hidden in the leaves, Konohagakure.

    While the clans remained autonomous within the village, it became clear that one true leader would need to speak for all of them. Naturally Hyouin, Retsu and Samanosuke all thought that thy should lead. This dispute went on for a long time, as no decision could be made. However, the Uchiha and the Hyūga were secretive, and distrustful of outsiders. The Senju, on the other hand, went to work at forming new relationships with other smaller clans. In the end, when the discussion of leadership again came to a head, Senju Samanosuke had amassed a large following, and with all the other clans loyal to him, his leadership could no longer be contested.  

    Samanosuke made arrangements with the Daimyo of the Land of Fire, and it was agreed that the Daimyo would have final say upon the leadership of Konohagakure, but that he would heed the advice of village elders and faction leaders. With that settled Samanosuke became the first Hokage, and brought Konohagakure into an age of prosperity. Yet like all men, Samanosuke eventually passed away. In his place came his son, Mifune. Mifune carried on his father’s vision, but he was young and did not carry the same respect that his father had earned by bringing peace to the clans. His relationships with the other hidden villages that were forming became unstable, and the threat of war loomed.

    Eventually there came a time known as the Great Shinobi War, when the five largest and most powerful villages went to war with each other. During this time Mifune lost his life in a battle with ninja from the Iwagakure and the Tsuchikage. Without leadership Konoha was thrown in to turmoil. The two oldest and most renowned clans, the Uchiha and the Hyūga, once again began to bicker over who should become the next Hokage. When a member of the Hyūga clan was eventually chosen as a candidate, it was though that much needed stability would come to Konoha during it’s time of need.

    However, the candidate was murdered in the night by an unknown assassin. The Hyūga clan were immediately grief stricken and outraged, and they allowed old wounds to open. They blamed the Uchiha Clan for the assassination, sparking outrage which resulted in a war between the two clans, and Konoha fell into chaos. As the two strongest clans of Konoha warred with each other, Kirigakure saw opportunity. It sent its greatest warriors to lay waste to Konoha; The Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist.

     

     

    [Different Sky]

    Rain pattered pitifully in the miserable darkness. Smoke billowed from dwindling fires, illuminating the wreckage and devastation. Homes were reduced to rubble and charred wood. Roads and paths were upturned and blocked off. Bridges over the canals had collapsed, and makeshift barricades had been crafted through main streets. The backdrop of the village in ruin was a large mountain, with two proud faces carved in to the stone. Konoha was crumbling under the weight of its own arrogant pride.

    Blood dripped from the tip of a long, silvery blade that resembled a large needle. The petite, tall woman hid her face behind a white, featureless mask with only the symbol Kirigakure etched in to it. Her hair was dark blonde and fanned out behind her mask in a giant, frizzy main. She was dressed in dark, tight fitting clothing, and stared at her bloody weapon with a quiet sense of thrilled excitement. “Well this has been fun.” She said with a deep, lustful tone.

    “Hell yeah!” Said the figure behind her, a man with a large broadsword held over his shoulder. He was dressed in similar garb, but his frame was leaner and more muscular. He had three small horizontal, perfectly uniform scars on his left cheek, and his eyes were bright blue, his hair short and jet black. “Been a while since all seven of us hung out!” He added, chuckling heartily.

    “We’ve never ‘hung out’ ever, Kazue.” The masked woman replied.
    “Yeah, I know.” Kazue replied, “But that’s what everyone thinks, right? That we’re all a bunch of comrades, right?”
    “Is that so?” The masked woman replied, sounding amused. “I assumed they would realize the truth; that no two-bit blade wielding shinobi can match even one of us, let alone all seven. Although, this mission almost fulfilled itself. I could have handled this myself, no need to call in the rest of you butchers.”

    “Says the lady who stitches corpses together like a kebab, eh Yashiko?” Kazue replied, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, you say that but I doubt even you could have handled this on your own. If the Uchiha and Hyūga weren’t busy fighting each other, we’d have our hands full.”
    “If the Uchiha and Hyūga weren’t fighting each other we wouldn’t be here, idiot.” Yashiko replied. She suddenly whirled on the spot, and moved with unnatural speed as she heard noises coming towards them. She was already brandishing her needle-like sword to strike when another figure emerged from around the corner.

     

    “Don’t shit your pants, Yashiko.” The man said with a smirk. He was carrying a peculiar sword on his back with a long handle and a large, curved edge blade that looked like an over-sized cleaver. He was older than Yashiko and Kazue, perhaps in his 40’s. He had greying hair that was likely once black, that was long and slicked back. His face was covered in scar tissue from a variety of small nicks and cuts, and his dark eyes were relaxed, almost appearing bored.

    “Oh, it’s you Tanabe sama” Yashiko replied, her voice suddenly taking on a respectful air. “I thought you were a clumsy leaf ninja running to their grave.”
    “Better I announce myself early than accidentally sneak up on you.” Tanabe replied. “Wouldn’t want to get myself cut, hm?”
    “Y-yes, Tanabe sama.” Yashiko said, her voice wavering.
    “Where are the others?” Tanabe asked

    “Geko and Shinji are thinning Konoha’s reserves. Kagutsuchi is leading a strike on the Uchiha stronghold while they are distracted fighting the Hyūga. Saya is leading a force to strike the Hyūga as well.”
    “Good.” Tanabe replied, “And you two?” He inquired, his eyebrow raising.
    “Cleaning up the dregs.” Kazue replied for her. “Kagutsuchi said the new recruits don’t get the fun jobs.”
    “Hmph, he’s right. You two are nothing compared to your predecessors.” Tanabe said.

    “You should have more faith.” Yashiko replied, her tone defiant. “They say the young are in their prime, so we hold the advantage.”
    “True.” Tanabe said with a nod. “But youth is always overconfident. It lacks the wisdom and foresight that comes with age and experience.”
    Yashiko frowned at that statement behind her mask. It didn’t sound like Tanabe. What’s more, hadn’t he received a cut on his cheek the last time she had saw him. Where was the blood? She tensed suddenly as the realization came to her.

    [Cave]

    Tanabe barely had the chance to react as Yashiko suddenly lunged forward, plunging her needle through his chest, spinning around him and yanking the thin blade from his other side, a thin wire trailing behind it. She brought it back through his neck, causing him to cry out and gurgle in pain, then she yanked the needle out fiercely, and pulled away from him, the wire cutting through his flesh and causing him to let out a final, blood curdling scream of agony, before his eyes rolled back in his head, and Tanabe fell to the floor. Yashiko smirked behind her mask. “Not so wise now, old man.” She said with a satisfied chuckle. “Damn leaf thought he could get the drop on me with a transformation jutsu, hm Kazue?” She turned to her partner. She paused.

    Kazue was just standing there, looking back at her. He hadn’t reacted to the fight at all. He was just standing there with his sword over his shoulder, grinning like a damn idiot. Yashiko felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as a creeping realization began to dawn on her. She looked around at the ruined buildings, and the empty streets. Nothing was moving, nothing at all. She looked up at the clouds which no longer moved slowly in the sky, and at the frozen droplets of rain. Then she saw it, the giant eyeball hovering in the sky above her. That piercing eye stared at her, seeing right in to her soul. A crimson eye, with three tomoe swirling in synchronized harmony around the pupil. “Sharingan!” She gasped.

    [Reverse Situation]

    “Yashiko!” Kazue’s scream finally penetrated her hearing as the genjutsu wore off. Yashiko suddenly realized they were surrounded by ninja, all dressed in black, each wearing white masks fashioned after animals. Kazue was busy trying to fend off five ninja, who were expertly maneuvering around him, each taking turns demanding the skilled swordsman’s attention, tiring him out.

    “Took you long enough.” The ninja in front of her said. The man was wearing a mask that looked like a hawk. He was an anonymous member over the elite shinobi force known as ANBU. Yet his eyes betrayed his identity as a member of the Uchiha clan. “I’ve got all I need from you now, though.”
    “Damn Uchiha!” Yashiko spat, preparing herself for a fight. “Shouldn’t you be off fighting against your own allies?”

    “Hmph, unlike you I’m not very chatty.” The hawk-masked man replied. Then they were moving around each other in a blur. Yashiko’s needle and wire thread twinkled in the moonlight as the pair countered each other over and over, dodging and blocking until finally they separated and slid back across the dirt. The hawk-faced ANBU’s hands moved in a blur, and suddenly a huge ball of fire came surging towards Yashiko. She dived to the left and narrowly avoided the flames, but felt the heat burn her up her right side. Hissing in frustration she made a bee-line for the Uchiha, counting on her incredible speed to catch him off guard.

    “I can see!” The Uchiha said as he spun to face her, ducking to avoid the deadly strike of her needle. Then Yashiko brought her knee up to his chest, taking the wind from him. The ninja doubled back and she lunged forward, driving her needle through his chest. He whined in pain, but then he looked at her with those unnerving, confident eyes. Then the ninja exploded into a flock of black ravens and disappeared in to the sky. Yashiko shivered in dismay, and then gasped as she felt a kunai blade slice across her exposed neck. “Falling for the same trick twice…I guess I was right about the young.” The Uchiha said from behind her, as Yashiko felt her life quickly slipping from her. She tried to open her mouth to curse him, but all she could do was let out a final gasp, and then her world went black.

    --- --- ---

    Hyouhaku]

    Two corpses lay on the ground, with two legendary swords stuck in the ground next to them. As the ANBU began to sweep the area and prepare for the next fight, another ninja descended from the rooftops and landed with a soft tap. The woman was dressed in a black poncho that covered her entire body, except for her platform-heeled sandals. Unlike the ninja around her she did not wear a mask. She had jet black hair styled in a short pixie cut. She wore a black eyepatch over her right eye, and heavy burn scars could be seen on the skin around it. Despite her grizzled appearance, the woman wore bright red lipstick, and had a distinct, black beauty mark on her cheek.

    “Taka.” She said with a calm but projected voice. The hawk-faced ANBU came to her without a word. “Report.” She said more quietly as he drew closer. The man relayed the information he had taken from Yashiko, and the woman nodded in understanding.
    “Trying to collapse the Uchiha and Hyūga in one fell swoop. Konoha’s two strongest clans…how does that make you feel, Taka?”
    “I…” The man hesitated. “...ROOT do not have feelings on such matters, Asuna sama.”

    “Correct.” Asuna replied, her eyes narrowing on her subordinate. “We do what is necessary to ensure Konoha’s survival.” She cast her eyes on her surroundings. “Needless to say, we haven’t been doing a very good job. That changed with this success, well done Taka.”
    “My team deserve all the credit.” Taka said with a slight bow.
    “Nonsense. Do not deprive yourself credit where it is due.” Asuna replied. She could see the tension in the young man’s posture, the nervous twitch in his eyes. He was such a terrible liar, at least to her.

    “Do not worry, Taka.” Asuna said finally, a wry smirk forming on her lips. “Kuma’s team is already en route to support the reserves. Your team is tasked with subverting the strike on the Hyūga stronghold, and ensure that no harm comes of our friends.”
    “The…Hyūga…do you think that’s wise?” Taka asked hesitantly, “Surely I sh-“
    “Surely, considering your lineage, a favour from you to the Hyūga clan will go a long way, hm?”
    “Asuna sama…” Taka replied

    “Don’t worry, I’ll be ensuring the Uchiha clan are also taken care of.” Asuna said with another smirk. “I will deal with that personally.” This seemed to considerably relieve Taka’s tension. He nodded in agreement.
    “Thank you, Asuna sama!” He said gratefully.
    “Thank me by doing your job.” Asuna said, and she motioned for him to leave. He did so without question, and quickly began barking orders and rallying the other ANBU. In moments, they were gone without a trace, leaving behind Asuna, who looked off in the other direction. “Hmm…Kagutsuchi…not a slouch like the three we’ve already taken out, this should be interesting.” And then with a flicker, Asuna disappeared into the night.

    --- --- ---

    13 years later

    [Kakashi’s Theme]

    “-and so Asuna defeated Kagutsuchi and he fled back to Kirigakure, along with 3 other members of the Seven Swordsmen. However three died that night at the hands of Konoha’s finest special ops ninja. The Uchiha clan and Hyūga clan were both rescued from their sneak attacks, but the struggle didn’t end there. Only through the debt they owed Asuna and her ROOT, and the surprise birth of a child born of both and Uchiha and a Hyūga, ultimately led to peace among the clans once more. Asuna led Konoha to victory and ended the Great Shinobi War, and that is how she became Hokage.”

    “Uhuh…” Came a rather bored reply. The teacher, a young man with spectacles and short blonde hair, looked defeated as he stared forlorn at his bored student. The young girl was as pale as a ghost, and had wild, ash white hair that was spiky and unruly, except where she had shaved it bear on the left side of her head. She had three black piercings in her exposed ear, and her bored-looking eyes were a striking blue, almost white.

    “Omitsune chan- “Her teacher went to say but she cut him off with an annoyed frown.
    “Omi!” She snapped, “It’s just Omi, got it? Omi. Not Omitsune. Not san, not chan, not kun. Just Omi.”
    “Er…right.” Her teacher said. “Look, were you listening to what I said. It didn’t look like you were?”
    “Yeah, kinda, I mean I’ve heard it before.” Omi shrugged, not looking at the teacher. “Everyone knows this story. How mom saved the village and became Hokage. Who gives a crap?”
    “I do, very much.” The teacher said. “Your mother has tried three tutors before me, and you’ve been expelled from the academy. If you don’t apply yourself how do you expect to get along in this world?”

    “I already told her to let me join ROOT.” Omi said defiantly. “Don’t need friends to be a top-secret assassin. No name, no identity, no nothing. The village would be happier without me anyway.”
    The teacher was silent for a moment, but he certainly made no attempt to argue with her. That was nothing new though, she’d already chased off two tutors, not to mention her entire class. She’d noticed that no adult every corrected her when she said that she wasn’t wanted.

    “Your mother is the Hokage, and she has tasked me with your continued education.” The teacher said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior from a child.”
    “Call her my mother again and I’ll jam this pencil up your nose.” Omi replied threateningly, picking up the pencil in front of her on the desk, and gesturing it at him as she cracked a grin and revealed a row pointed teeth. She watched as the teacher tensed up upon seeing her smile.

    “I-I..I will not be threatened, young lady.” The teacher snapped back, forcing some confidence back to himself, “If you give me any more back talk your mother-“
    The chair scraped loudly against the floor as Omi came out of it like a bullet from a gun. The teacher’s screaming could be heard all the way down the hall.

    --- --- ---

    [Survival Examination]

    Omi sat in a chair in the Hokage’s office, her arms folded in resolute defiance, her chin pushed out and her face pulled to an incredibly exaggerated frown of annoyance. Gentle rings of wavy smoke drifted around the room. The placard on the desk read: Kiryuin Asuna – Hokage. The woman herself was sat behind the desk, quietly reading over some paperwork and smoking from a small pipe. Her was shoulder length and wild, with streaks of grey running through it.

    “Are you even going to talk to me?” Omi asked impatiently. Asuna looked up with her one good eye and gaze Omi a murderous glare. Omi returned it with childish petulance. Asuna’s eye twitched in annoyance. Clearly, she was a woman used to striking fear and respect from those around her. Not from her daughter, however.
    “There are no more tutors in Konoha who will have you.” Asuna said finally, and went back to going over her paperwork. “You’ve left me no choice…”
    “Finally…you’re going to send me to ROOT, like I’ve been asking?” Omi asked.

    “Hah!” Asuna seemed genuinely amused. “ROOT is a special branch of ANBU specifically for the most focused, loyal and dedicated ninja in Konoha. You are not fit to clean their boots, you insolent little brat.”
    “Tch! Who even gives a crap about all that stuff?” Omi scoffed, “Just ask my ex-tutor how good I am at inflicting pain.”
    “Jamming a pencil up some poindexter’s nose does not a shinobi make.” Asuna replied, although she was struggling to conceal her amusement. “You know…when Samanosuke became the first Hokage, his son was so dedicated to his father that he worked night and day to uphold the honor of his family name.”

    “What a loser…” Omi replied, rolling her eyes.
    “Yes…yes you are.” Asuna said, shaking her head. “Like I said you’ve left me no choice. I’m sending you in to the field.”
    “ANBU!?” Omi gasped excitedly, jumping out of her chair.
    “A supervised genin squad…” Asuna said, her eyes narrowing in disbelief. “Conditionally, I might add.”
    “Genin!?” Omi yelled, slumping back in to her chair. “I have to hang with the scrubs!?”
    “Newsflash, kid, you’re not even at the level of a scrub. You got expelled. I am seriously abusing my powers as Hokage on this one.”

    “Gee, what a swell parent you are.” Omi said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “I wonder if my real mom would do that for me.”
    “Your real mom is dead, kid.” Asuna replied coldly. “And your dad. So, you’re stuck with me, and I’m stuck with you. Unless you screw this up, that is.”
    “What do you mean?” Omi asked, frowning.
    “You’ve got 1 more chance to make something of yourself.” Asuna said, puffing on her pipe. “Report to your Jounin leader tomorrow for a test. If you pass, you’re a genin. If you fail…then I’m disowning you. No more house, no more food, no more clothes.”

    “What!?” Omi snarled. “You can’t do that!”
    “Of course I can.” Asuna said with a smirk, “I’m not your mom, remember?”


  12. Heavy black boots thudded against the floor as the man approached. His boots were knee height, crafted from strong leather. He wore dark trousers and a sandy coloured cloak over his body that looked like an odd fusion of a kimono and a poncho, with a wide sleeve over his right arm. His left arm was bare, revealing lean muscle, and the man wore a strange black gauntlet, with long strands of metallic wire, and metal coverings over each of his fingers, slightly pointed to appear like claws. His skin was a light tan, and his hair was a greyish white, tied back in a high ponytail. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of thick, black goggles that seemed to extend out quite far from his face, and they quietly whirred and clicked as he approached. His right arm moved from under the wide sleeve and he held up a long-barrelled rifle with a scope. "Hm..." He said with a calm, contemplative voice, "Can you say 'hello world' for me?"
    "I have a gun, stay back!" Ai growled, pushing herself back along the floor. She dared not take her eyes off the stranger. She raised the gun back at the man a second time, threatening to shoot him though she knew the gun was empty. 

    "Mine is bigger..." The man replied with a hint of a smirk, although his obscured eyes hid any true expression. He flexed the fingers of his left hand in odd, careful gestures as he watched her. More whirring and humming sounded from his goggles. "Mine is also charged..." He added although he didn't move to point the rifle at her, resting it on his shoulder instead, but his finger rested along the edge of where the trigger was. 
    "C-Charged...?" Ai glanced at the gun in her hand and back at the stranger. Pursing her lips, she lowered the gun. Then, out of nowhere, she threw it at the man and ran into the back of the lab. There had to be something in here she could use against him.

    As she ran there was a click, followed by a humming noise, and then there was a sudden burst of green light that shot past her and crashed into a nearby shelf, the contents shattering violently and spraying across the room. “That was a warning shot.” The man called to her. “Next one goes through the back of your head unless you play nice…”
    Ai froze. Without turning back to face him, she called out, "What do you want?!" She asked as she scanned the room for something to use as a weapon. Anything.

    “Oh, lot’s of things.” The man replied. “What I came to get, however,…is not what I expected.” He paused in consideration, his hollow gaze watching her eerily. “Disappointing, I think…I don’t think I want you…or do I?” He shook his head slightly, “No, no, you’re much too old for her, don’t be a creep. Besides…she’s one of them” He spoke as if he was talking to someone else, but there was no one. “Would he go that far? That Nakamura…”

    "Touch me I'll kick you so hard you'll swallow your plums!" Ai whirled around, raising her fists as though she was going to fight him. Fist fight a guy with a rifle. Smart. The man’s eyebrows raised distinctly at her threat, and then he cocked his head slightly. He raised his left hand with the peculiar gauntlet, and swiped his fingers through the air a few times, followed by a series of rhythmic tapping motions, like someone playing frets on a guitar. “You…don’t know, do you?” He asked finally.

    "Know what? That message? Blue something?!" Ai held her fists up yet she wavered, she found herself trying to glance around the room, looking for something she'd missed while trying to keep her attention on the strange creep. The man seemed mildly taken aback by this, but he did not respond immediately. After a while he lowered his rifle to his side, and pulled the goggles up from his eyes, resting them on his forehead. His eyes were a dark brown, and still peered at her studiously, but his overall expression looked far less disturbing after the reveal.

    “You might want to take a look at yourself, I think.” He suggested. He looked around for a moment, and then gestured to his right, where there was a mess of broken glass shards on a table.
    "Eh?!" Careful of the man's deceit, Ai shuffled across the room and positioned herself so she could keep the man's body in view while she looked down at her reflection. She saw a face staring back at her. This woman's skin was flawless, free of any acne Ai had always struggled with, she didn't even have the little scar she'd gotten when Takashi accidentally hit her in the lip with a baseball he'd struck just moments before. Her lip had swollen right up, and she'd needed several stitches to sew it closed, but you could still see the scar. But now? Now it was gone.

    "I had a..." Ai traced her hand over her lip, then her gaze was drawn to her eyes. They were no longer the deep shade of brown she was accustomed to seeing. They were a bright blue, an immediately obvious and unnatural colour for her ancestry. "What...?" She leaned in, forgetting the presence of the stranger. As her confusion deepened with the studying of her face, she drew her lips back and gasped. Her teeth had never been perfect, but at least they were straight, flat and, well... human. The teeth she had now didn't resemble the teeth of a person at all. They looked like they would belong on a shark, or some horrible sci-fi monster. Each tooth was broad, pointed like a fang, and serrated, yet they locked together when she closed her mouth. Pursing her lips together to hide them, she glanced back up at the stranger.

    "What did you do to me?!" Ai barked, looking around the lab. "Where's my dad?!"
    “Dad…?” The man cocked his head slightly in confusion. Understanding washed over him in a moment, and he let out a heavy sigh. His gaze fell and he scratched the back of his head before rubbing at the back of his neck. “There is no easy way to say this…how bothersome.” He said finally, and he locked eyes with the scared girl. He stared at her without blinking, a seriousness about him. “The man you think is your father, Doctor Nakamura Satoshi; An unparalleled genius in the fields of biosynthetic chemistry, robotics, and cybernetics…” He paused, and gestured to the aged skeleton on the floor. “…It has been approximately 200 years since the Blue invaded Earth, I cannot imagine he lasted more than a decade after. I…am sorry for your loss.”

    "W-What?!" Ai stuttered, her eyes darting to the skeleton. She saw a name badge. It read, 'Dr. S Nakamura'. "T-that can't be... I was... I was just..." Ai looked back at the pod she had fallen out of, "W-why was I..." She trailed off, staring at the skeleton. The man turned his back to her, his expression torn between awkwardness and resigned frustration. He pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed as he thought about his words carefully.
    “That pod is a testing chamber for running diagnostics and simulations. When I arrived the machine was set to run continuously until someone manually overrode it. That someone was me, just a few moments before you awoke.” He turned back to face her. “The world you think you know…it was a simulation. Time within simulations isn’t particularly relevant, you could have conceivably lived over a million lifetime cycles, each one different, each one shaping you. However…it appears as if Nakamura went the other way…he lengthened the cycle. It seems he wanted you to have a single, ordinary life…in the world that no longer exists.”

    "I-I can't..." Ai felt the need to cry, she knew she would, but being sat there, on the cold, dusty floor of the lab, she couldn't do as much as shed a single tear. So many questions ran rampant in her mind. So many emotions. She was terrified, and confused. In shock, disbelief and she wanted to lash out. Was her father really dead? Could she have been in a simulation? And why? This was her father's lab, would he have really put her in a simulation? What possible reason could he have to do something like that to her? If he was truly dead, would she ever have those answers?

    "I can't believe it..." Ai said finally. She shuffled across the floor on her hands and knees and slumped down beside the skeleton. She looked at his name badge again. A wave of disbelief washed over her, and she found herself checking over every inch of the skeleton. Anyone can put a name badge on a load of old bones. That's what she told herself. But then she saw it, hiding in his lab coat pocket. Ai reached out and pulled a long, half-smoked cigar. She didn't know the brand, but she recognized the smell immediately. He had a habit of starting them, then stamping them out, only to put them in his pocket for later. It used to drive her mother up the wall. So, this really was her dad. Did that mean... 200 years had passed? And one other thing stood out to her.

    "200 years... since..." Ai's face screwed up once more, she almost laughed, "Since what invaded?"
    “The Blue.” The man replied ominously. The name itself didn’t seem the type to strike terror into the hearts of men, but when he said it his tone carried a fearful respect. “Records of when they first struck are slim. It is believed they had surveilled our planet quite extensively on their long journey through dark space. They use organic matter as a sort of bio-fuel to sustain them, but all research suggests they are a technologically based life form, or some sort of bio-synthetic beyond our understanding. They are ruthless, powerful beings who do not hold a scrap of compassion towards humanity…” The man paused as a chirping noise sounded in the small device he had in his ear. He waited, counting the seconds. 5 seconds…10 seconds…15 seconds…18 seconds…

    Chirp-chirp.

    “…and they are coming here.” He said finally, through gritted teeth.
    "Well then we've got to get out of here!" Ai snapped, standing up. Even now, she found it difficult to believe. But as time passed, and she found herself better able to concentrate, it was difficult to argue with this man. The signs of wear and age on the room, the amount of dust on the consoles and floor, the fact that her father's remains were only a skeleton and not a corpse. Her father was dead... she still couldn't process that. But she could hear commotion from outside. "What do we do?!" She asked him, terrified at the idea that creatures from another world were going to tear through the door at any moment and eat them.

    “We have time, but only a little.” The man explained, as he pulled down his strange goggles again. He made his way over to the pod where Ai had came from and began examining it, feeling around for something. “It must be around here somewhere…” He said as he fumbled around the back of the machine. “Online servers would have been destroyed by this point, surely. Nakamura would have a local drive…where is it!?” He thumped the machine with his fist in frustration. “All that data…we can’t leave it behind for the Blue. 200 years of simulations…on Nakamura’s secret weapon. But where…where would he store the-“ He cut himself off. He whirled around to face Ai and stared at her, before finally sighing.

    “It can’t be helped.” He said with a resigned sigh. He reached for the clips on the shoulder of his cloak and unclipped them. Then he flung the cloak from himself with a flourish, and it whirled through the air like a phantom and wrapped itself around Ai’ body, covering her almost naked form. From underneath the cloak, 5 small, black orbs surfaced and moved through the air, back towards their master, spinning around his head before attaching themselves to the strap fastened across his chest. There was a space for one more orb, but it was nowhere to be seen.

    “Nakamura kun, my name is Kyounosuke Masahiro, but everyone calls me Kyouma!” He declared with a sudden pep and authority to his tone. “I am the mad scientist who walks the lonely path of genius! You are the unwitting secret weapon of the Doctor Nakamura, the last hope of standing up against The Blue! Begrudgingly…I accept responsibility. I will be your foster parent!”

    "You're a mental case..." Ai muttered. A terrible crash came from somewhere outside. It shook the entire room, as though something enormous was tearing through the walls themselves. "What's happening?!" Ai yelled over the terrible screeching as metal beams and blocks of stone were thrown aside as though they weighed nothing.

    “Stay close to me!” Kyouma ordered as he gripped his rifle and made for the door of the laboratory. He swung the door open and ascended up the stairs which opened out on to a mess of rubble and metal scrap. He gestured for Ai to follow as he navigated through the tight crawl space he had clearly found his way in from. All the while distant sounds of crunching steel screeched through the air. The ground shook as rubble fell, old ventilation pipes hissed as they expelled gas. It appeared as if they were in a vast, dark warehouse full of wreckage.

    However, as they moved out into the clearer sections there was a slight breeze. Shifts in the darkness revealed tiny rays of moonlight in the polluted smog that blanketed the sky. Kyouma ducked down behind a large shattered wall and pressed his back against it. He put his finger to his mouth, ordering silence, and he waited.

    Something writhed in the darkness. Heavy crunching sounded so close by, and so suddenly that Kyouma’s breath caught in surprise. An eerie, alien noise echoed through the night. The repetitive clicking noise sounded like it came from something synthetic, but it’s musical tones gave it an almost organic quality, almost like birdsong. Carefully, Kyouma’s fingers moved with their characteristic gestures. One of the black orbs on his belt detached silently and flew off into the night. The motion caught the attention of the creature nearby, and it rounded on them. Something scraped along the wall above their heads, and the stone began to crumble.

    A bassy thumping beat reverberated in the distance. Whatever it was caught the attention of the creature, and it stalked off in the direction of the noise, crashing through rubble and debris without a care. Judging by the noise, the creature was large and powerful. Kyouma let his breath finally sigh out. He stepped out from behind the wall and looked around carefully. “We should move while the coast is clear.” He whispered, and he turned and gave Ai a reassuring nod. Meanwhile a dark, metallic, tendril coiled around his leg and suddenly dragged him off into the air, disappearing into the dark fog, and the sound of tearing and rending followed.


  13. It was nearing 6pm when a taxi pulled up outside Giannopoulos Wineyard. Vincent stepped out of the back, carrying his sports bag and his cane. He held out an extra note for the driver, who rolled down his window and took it with a “thank you” before departing. Vincent observed his surroundings. He was outside of the main city, in a patch of countryside farmland. He was stood outside a large converted barn house that was painted white, and had been fitted out like a storefront and tourist section for the winery. The place appeared to be closed now, but he walked up to the front door and gently chapped on it with the end of his cane.

    He waited a moment but nobody came to answer, as he had expected. He peered through the glass parts of the door, but all he could see was rows of wines, a few cashier desks and some wooden boards with information about the wine, and times for tours of the facility. He walked away from the door and made his way around the side of the barn. He could see that a section of the land was dedicated to the vineyard where they were growing various grapes. Extensions built out from the barn looked like staff quarters, and a larger building behind it looked to be where they made the wine.

    A light was on in a smaller, cozier building with a balcony that faced out on to the vineyard. Clearly the Giannopoulos family lived on-site. Vincent walked carefully towards the building, checking around for anyone watching him. The place was completely quiet, and as far as he could tell, the Satyr ran a tight ship. Everything looked clean, tidy and above board. As he walked across the gravel, the door to the front of the house opened up, and a short and stout man with a broad chest and a dark-haired but balding head. “Marcus is that you…oh.” He paused as he noticed Vincent. “Sorry, my friend. We’re closed for the day.”

    “That’s a real shame.” Vincent said with a shrug, “I was really hoping for a sample.”
    “Well, you can always come back tomorrow.” The man said with a soft smile.
    “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.” Vincent said as he kept walking towards the door. “I’m something of a genealogist, you see, and I have a few questions about your ancestry.”
    “Er…” The man looked a little uneasy. “I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”
    “Well you’re Greek, right? An immigrant?” Vincent asked as he approached the door.

    “I’m an American,” The man replied, his tone sounding a little more hostile. “My papers are all in order I assure-“
    “I’m not from immigration.” Vincent cut him off. “My name is Vincent Hallow.”
    “Ha-“ The balding man’s lips quivered before he finished the word. Panic set in his eyes, and he went to slam the door shut. Vincent held out his cane and channeled his will through it. He felt a pull from something other worldly, like a tug on his soul, and then a gust of focused air gathered around his cane, and shot forward to the door, blasting it open and sending the balding man backwards on to his backside.

    “Oh don’t worry, I’m not as bad as Violet.” Vincent said as he stepped through the threshold on the house. When entering the home of a human without being invited, supernatural creatures often could not enter, and others could but left their power at the door. Vincent’s wizardry happened to be one of those things that was generally left outside, and yet he did not feel that draining, sinking feeling that came with the vanishing of his power. That confirmed it for him. The denizens of this home were not human, so no protection for them.
    “Wh-who…who is…Violet?” The man asked fearfully. Vincent paused for a moment, and then it dawned on him.

    “I’m not as bad as Elias, either.” He said, rolling his eyes. Vincent dropped his bag by the door and closed it behind him. He grabbed the man by one of his outstretched arms and pulled him back on to his feet. “Sorry if I’m coming off a little strong. I’m no good at pleasantries, and to be honest forcing my way in here was the quickest way to confirm you aren’t human.”
    “So you’re not here to kill me?” The man asked.
    “Well, that depends. Probably not though.” Vincent said, as he surveyed the hall. “You can remove that glamour now.”

    The man looked a little uneasy, but then he sighed and gave a little shiver. In an instant a pair of short, sharp horns appeared on his head. “My name is Thanas Giannopoulos. Look, I don’t know how you found me but I’ve been living here without incident for over 30 years and-“
    “Without incident?” Vincent raised his eyebrow. “You’re a Satyr. Bunch of horny, drunken maniacs if the tales about you are true. You telling me you came here to live a quiet life?”
    “Hey!” Thanas seemed angered by the comment. “How dare you! That’s racist! I bet you think all vampires sleep in the rafters too!”
    “Actually in my experience they sleep in a kind of luxury only you and I can dream of, buddy.” Vincent said with a smirk.

    “You humans, always tarring everything with the same brush.” Thanas muttered as he made his way down the hall. Vincent followed and they came in to an open plan living room and kitchen. Thanas grabbed a glass of wine he had previously been drinking from the table and took a sip of it. “I mean, seriously, you’re talking about Ancient Greece like it was yesterday. You have no idea what it was like. All those Gods making everybody crazy, it was a different time.”
    “So you’re saying Satyr have gone legit now? All nice, civilized types who go to church and pay their taxes?”

    “Ugh, not church.” Thanas replied, “The last lot of Gods were enough for me, I can’t be bothered with this one.”
    “But there’s got to be some truth to it.” Vincent said, and he gestured around him. “I mean, Satyr are supposed to be mad for wine, and here you are with a vineyard.”
    “Oh the Greek guy loves wine, no shit.” Thanas replied, shaking his head.
    “Okay, let’s say I accept that,” Vincent replied, shrugging, “What about all these Nymphs being murdered? The old stories say the Satyr loved to have their way with Nymphs, and then a few of them end up dead. Maybe times haven’t changed that much, hm?”

    “I did nothing to those poor girls!” Thanas replied heatedly. “What happened to them is a tragedy!” The older man had a complex display of emotions. He looked scared, perhaps guilty, but also genuinely sad and distraught at the thought of the murders. “Look, wizard!” He said with a pointed finger at Vincent, “Look, I’m not proud of my people’s past, but we were…” He sighed in frustration, “Let’s just say not a lot of people have faith in Dionysus any more. The madness he brought on during his time of power…it affected us. Like I said before, it was a long time ago. We moved on.”

    “And yet there’s still a bunch of young girls being gored to death.” Vincent replied, frowning.
    “Gored?” Thanas asked with a surprised expression. “I…oh…oh no…” His glass holding hand shook, and he placed the glass on the table before he dropped it. He held his hand up to his forehead and looked distressed. “Oh no…please…not Lucas!”
    “Who’s Lucas?” Vincent asked.
    “He’s my…my son.” Thanas looked grief stricken. “He’s always been a little wild…but he’s young, you know? I never thought…oh Lucas…”

    “Are you saying your son is responsible?” Vincent asked.
    “No!” Thanas snapped, then he hesitated. “I…hope not, but…”
    “The signs are there.” Vincent said, nodding sympathetically. “I’m sorry Thanas, but if Lucas really is doing this…you know what happens next.”
    “Oh please, no!” Thanas protested, and he was crossing the room to Vincent. His eyes were tearful and he rung his hands together like a beggar. “You can’t kill him. There must be another way, please!”
    “You know a human prison can’t hold creatures like yourself.” Vincent said. “This is how it’s done.”

    “Please, you can’t!” Thanas begged. Then his eyes flashed with something other than grief, and he seemed to have an idea. Vincent knew that look. Suddenly Thanas was charging at him with incredible speed someone so old shouldn’t have had, with his sharp horns pointed straight at Vincent, who lifted his free arm up in defense. Vincent channeled his will into the charm bracelet around his wrist, each of the charms representing different symbols of protection from various cultures and faiths. The charm bracelet seemed to buzz with power on his arm, and an invisible wall of force projected out in front of Vincent.

    Thanas slammed into the kinetic barrier and was sent flying backwards, crashing in to the back wall of the room, causing bottles of wine to crash to the floor and spill around him. Vincent held the shield up for a few more moments, but as Thanas sat up, the old man only wept in defeat. Vincent let the shield drop and let out a silent curse. “Nice try.” He said as he crossed the room. “Even if it had worked though, my sister is out there. She’d have figured this out, and she’d have still taken out your boy. Then she’d have come for you, for killing me.”

    “I’m sorry…” Thanas replied. “I just…”
    “You wanted to protect your boy.” Vincent finished for him. “I understand.”
    “The first girl…she was his girlfriend.” Thanas explained. “I never liked it. With our past, I wanted him to stay away from those Nymphs.”
    “Is that why you have a known rivalry with the Petros family?”
    “Petros? No…that was something else. The daughter…Amber, I think. She told her family some strange stories about my boy. All lies, silly things about his girlfriends. We had a bit of a row, but nothing serious. She was probably just jealous he never paid her any attention.”

    “Amber Petros is a name that keeps popping up in all of this.” Vincent said, rubbing his chin. “I think I need to speak with her. First I need to find your kid, do you know where he is?”
    “Probably with his new girlfriend. I can’t remember her name, honestly.” Thanas replied. He got up and started picking up bits of glass off the floor. “What a mess…” He said with a sigh.
    “You got anything of his?” Vincent asked. “Hair or blood?”
    “Are you from this century?” Thanas asked with a frown.

    “Alright, fine. Something personal of his?” He asked.
    “Why?” Thanas asked
    “To make a Thaumaturgical link to him.”
    “Thumbawhatnow?”
    “Thaumaturgical. You should know that, it’s Greek.” Vincent shook his head. “It’s for a locator spell. I’m going to find your son before he gets himself in any more trouble. Then we’ll figure the rest out.”
    “Will you kill him?” Thanas asked, looking fearful again.
    “Not if I don’t have to.” Vincent replied. “Oh, and can I use your phone?”

    --- --- ---

    Ten minutes later Vincent stood at Thanas’ breakfast bar. He had drawn out a circle of salt on the table, with a five-pointed pentagram in the middle of it. At each point of the star he had placed candles and lit them. In the centre of the star was a locket, with a picture of an older woman inside, Lucas’ mother and Thanas’ deceased wife. Vincent held Thanas’ phone to his ear and listened to the dial tone as he finished making preparations. “Come on, Vi. Pick up…”

    "Who are you and how did you get this number, dickhead?!" Vincent rolled his eyes.
    “Hey sis, how’s it going? Also you gave me this number, buttmunch.” He replied, as he casually projected a small portion of his will into the circle, and an invisible barrier of magic hummed to life, containing anything within the circle.
    "I'm regretting it. What's that noise?" Violet asked.

    “Interference, probably.” Vincent replied. “I’m doing some science, some magical science!”
    "I'm hanging up." She muttered, irritably.
    “Yeah, okay.” Vincent replied. “I guess I’ll just go catch the killer myself then.” Vincent made a quick gesture with his hand, and the gentle hum of the circle seemed to become an agitated buzz. He turned around and looked to the floor of the kitchen, where another circle had been made. Inside this one was a small hot wheels toy race car. He made another gesture and sent his will into that circle as well, and it began to hum gently.

    "Thought you'd had enough of all this?" Violet retorted. "What exactly are you looking to do?"
    “Well, I thought I’d had enough too, then Al started talking in my head like Obi-Wan which, side note, I might need to see a therapist if I’m honest, anyway, I made a few connections and now I’m at Giannopoulos Vineyard. The owner here is a Satyr and his son is…well he might be the killer. It’s a little complicated, but I keep hearing that Amber girl’s name popping up. I don’t think she’s quite as innocent as she may seem.”

    With a pulling gesture, Vincent seemed to slowly reel out the energy stored within the first circle. Then he placed that energy in the second one, which began to buzz excitedly.
    "I spent most of the day with Amber. She knows something, and half the girls in that little clique of theirs are nymphs but a killer?" There was a long pause as Violet sighed, "Seems a stretch to me. She's more concerned with her appearance, her friends and her after school activities."
    “I never said she was a killer.” Vincent replied. He broke the circle of salt on the floor with his foot, and suddenly the little hot wheels race car took off through the living room and disappeared in to the hall. Vincent began following it.

    “All I know is her name keeps popping up.” He said, “The way Thanas seemed to react, I’m pretty sure killing isn’t something he thinks his son is capable of either. What I do know, is that Amber apparently stirred up a lot of shit around Lucas, the Satyr kid, and his girlfriends. And yes, that was plural. Kid gets around, apparently.” Vincent reached the door to the house, where the little toy race car was banging against the wood, desperately trying to get out of the house. Vincent scooped it up, and it’s little wheels just kept on spinning as he held it.

    “It also turns out the first victim was Lucas’ girlfriend. And he’s off to see his latest girlfriend right now, apparently.” Vincent held the toy car up to the receiver so Violet could hear it’s wheels whirring. “My locator spell is cooking with gas, however, so get the car and come pick me up. Let’s see what this kid has to say for himself.”


  14.  “Well, it shouldn’t take too long to clean this up.” The dry cleaner said, inspecting the crusted pudding inside Vincent’s jacket pocket. “Come back in an hour or so and I’ll have it for you.” The elderly man smiled politely, but he couldn’t completely hide his concern. Vincent stood on the other side of the counter, his white shirt wrinkled, with one side untucked from his jeans. He’d taken his tie off and unbuttoned the collar of the shirt. He had his sports bag hanging over his shoulder, an unlit cigarette in his mouth, and his right eye was now sporting a nasty, swollen shiner.

    “Thanks,” Vincent replied, as he opened his wallet and passed the man a handful of crumpled notes. “Guess I’ll wait elsewhere. Any quiet bars nearby?”
    “Now?” The man asked, shrugging uncomfortably. “It’s 3 pm. I should imagine they’re all quiet round about now. There’s one just a block away, though. Take a right to the next block, then right again. Can’t miss it.”

    “Thanks again,” Vincent replied and turned around to leave the dry cleaners. When he stepped outside he took his sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on, more to hide his black eye than to shade from the sun. He flicked the top off his zippo and lit the cigarette in his mouth, pocketed the lighter again and walked down the street. He was getting some odd looks from people as he walked by, but he found himself not caring very much. Being a wizard has always made him feel like a bit of a freak anyway, and it was difficult to care about such things after getting punched in the face anyway.

    Violet’s words proceeding her violent outburst were still ringing in his head. Arrogant? Well, he couldn’t argue with that one. As far as poor traits go, this was something he was fairly aware of. It was all too common for academics, and those who knew things others didn’t. However, he’d always assumed that arrogance was at least only inflicted on the mundane, ordinary people. Did he really feel he was superior to Violet? He certainly felt he had a better grasp of magical theory than her.

    Whose magical theory, though?, he thought to himself. After all, as he was so happy to point out to her, the rules didn’t apply to her. Not his rules, anyway. He had always had to exercise control in the form of restraint. Mortal magic was tied very closely to intention and faith. The path to black magic was a slippery slope that always began with making exceptions, and allowances for doing things that were wrong. Yet, if he was honest, hadn’t he already made those exceptions himself at times? He had the stain of black magic upon him.

    He flinched slightly as he almost remembered something from his younger years, but he pushed it aside. Yes, he had used dark magic, and it had left a mark on him that would never fade. It was like a hole in his heart, an emptiness. Worse than that really, for it was a hungering thing. The temptation to use black magic was always there. So, of course, he had to steel himself. Perhaps he was a hypocrite. Even if he was, did that mean he wasn’t right? He knew the dangers of losing control first hand, so shouldn’t Violet listen to him?

    There he went again assuming that which applied to him also applied to her. Jealous, that one had really stung. His knee-jerk response had been an urge to point out to her that jealousy was a fear of someone taking that which was yours. He was, in fact, envious. However, acknowledging that he was indeed envious had somewhat twisted the knife. He had always urged Violet to exercise the same practices he had, citing that she would be all the more powerful and effective for it. It disgusted him to realise the connotations of that; that he felt he could use her abilities better than she could.

    He cursed softly to himself, flicking away his cigarette butt as he came to the outside of a local bar. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. The bar was basically empty and there was only one person behind the bar minding the place.
    “Afternoon.” The man said, eyeing Vincent carefully. “Rough day?”
    “Something like that,” Vincent replied. “Let’s just say I deserved it.”
    “Heh!” The barman laughed. He was one of those tough, old salt-of-the-earth types. “Beer?”
    “God, yes,” Vincent replied. The barman cracked a bottle and put it on the bar. Vincent took it from the bar and took a long drink. The cool beer felt rejuvenating as it ran down his dry, hoarse throat. He gasped in satisfaction and nodded in thanks to the barman. “I’ll have 2 more.” He said, and he put some cash on the bar.

    He sat himself at the bar, and removed one of the more sizeable books from his bag. This was his bestiary, and contained knowledge and information about a whole host of supernatural creatures. Like all of his most important books, it was enchanted. The pages were all blank, with the exception of the contents pages at the beginning. He fingered through the numbered sections. Ancient Greece was near the top. He waited until the barman wasn’t looking, and then he focused his will and pushed it out. The spark of power flowed through the book, and he focused on the Ancient Greece section. He flicked through the blank pages, and as he did, ink began to spill across the pages, with flowing writing, illustrations and scribbled notes.

    He flicked through to the section on Nymphs. He read through the information, confirming things he already knew. The book explained that Nymphs were considered lesser deities, the children of nature deities. He cursed lightly under his breath. So they weren’t related to the river, but the river’s God. It was a minor error on his part, but these sorts of details could be important. He took another pull of his beer and carried on. He poured through pages dedicated to the different types of Nymphs. He read over the Naiad section carefully, and confirmed his suspicion that what they were dealing with was Potamides.

    Apparently they weren’t immortal creatures, but they were gifted with long lives. A note scribbled on one of the pages indicated that Plutarch, a Greek historian, had indicated their lifespan to be about 9,720 years. That seemed like an oddly specific number to Vincent, but it was a possibility. The book also mentioned that they were given offerings of honey and milk, but never wine. Occasionally offerings of lamb or goat were provided but this wasn’t seen as common.

    How does any of this help?, he asked himself internally. Everything he had was just information gathered by historians and experts of myth. He sighed and had another drink. His head was starting to ache, and his eye was beginning to feel prickly and tender. He sighed and closed the book, the strain of further reading seemed pointless. He wasn’t meant for this sort of thing. His father had been a hunter, and that was a craft of it’s own, one that Violet had taken to much more than him. He had learned from a fellow hunter though, one of his father’s oldest friends.

    “Ye can’t always jus’ stick y’head in a book an’ find the answers, hoss.” The old redneck’s voice sounded in his mind, “huntin’s abou’ takin’ what y’know abou’ the real world, an’ applying it to the myth, see? Y’gotta apply that knowledge to yer surroundings. Ye gotta talk to people, know how they think.”

    He sighed in resigned acknowledgement of his old mentor’s words. The barman came over to take his empty beer bottle away, and gave Vincent another. “Thanks.” Vincent said as he took a swig from the fresh bottle. He hesitated for a moment, then he motioned to the barman. “Hey, you mind talking to me for a bit?”
    “Depends on what you have to say.” The barman replied with a smirk. “What’s on your mind, son?”
    “Well, I’m not from around here.” Vincent replied. “New in town, you could say. But I’ve been hearing about these murders, all those girls from the High School? You know about it?”

    “A damn shame.” The barman replied, nodding solemnly. “If anyone don’t deserve something like that, it’s those girls. They’ve been doing great work cleaning up the river banks. The whole city really. Now I’m not some environmentalist hippy or anything, but the city looks cleaner, and so does the river. It’s nice to see this place looking it’s best, you know?”

    “I hear you.” Vincent replied. “Hard to think anyone would be against that though, don’t you think?”
    “Oh I don’t know.” The barman said with a shrug. “They’ve caused a lot of trouble for a few local companies. They brought about new legislation regarding recycling, and a few local businesses experienced a heavy cost trying to get up to standard.”
    “Really?” Vincent asked. “Like who?”
    “Oh a few factories, big industrial places with a lot of waste.” The barman replied. “Couple of fast food chains, oh and there was  a bit of a weird one. This wine brewery made a big fuss about blocking their petitions and interfering with their protests.”

    “Why’s that weird?” Vincent asked. “If they’re bad for business, surely that’s to be expected?”
    “That’s the thing.” The barman said. “They weren’t really being affected at all. They’re a environmentally friendly company. It didn’t make any sense. Saying that, there’s always been bad blood between Giannopoulos and Petros.”
    “Who?” Vincent asked.
    “Thanas Giannopoulos, his family own the wine brewery. He’s never gotten along with the Petros family, they’ve had fights in the street a few years back. They mostly keep away from each other but their kids go to the same school. Amber Petros is part of the eco group. She was good friends with the other victims, of course.”

    “That…” Vincent started flicking through his book again. “Aha!” He pointed at a page in the book.
    “What’s that? A Faun or something? One of those Narnia things?” The barman asked.
    “Satyr.” Vincent corrected. “Fauns have goat legs, Satyrs just have the horns. Common misconception though.”
    “So what, you some kind of mythology buff?” The barman asked.
    “Something like that.” Vincent replied, standing up. “I think I need to go.”
    “Uh…okay. Well it was nice talking to you, son.” The barman replied.
    “Yeah, you too.” Vincent replied, closing the book shut.

    He grabbed his things and walked out of the bar. Amber, he knew that name. She was girl with the red hair, Amber Petros. She was one of the Nymphs, if their suspicions were correct. That meant Giannopoulos and his boys, who had a feud with the Nymphs, were probably the ones commiting the murders. Gored victims meant horns. He only knew of one creature that loved wine, and targeted Nymphs. The Satyr. He had ingored it in the books before, because Satyr of lore were known for bedding Nymphs, due to a severe sexual fascination with them.

    That was Dionysian lore all over. Nothing but sex. He had to remember that it wasn’t Ancient Greece any more. They were in a modern world, a world where men, or Satyr in this case, could not just take what they wanted. Perhaps, he thought, it was rather like Violet and her pudding. Maybe if the Satyr couldn’t have them, well, then no one could. Was it really that simple? It was time to find out. He made a quick stop at the dry cleaners to fetch his coat, and then it was off for some wine tasting.


  15. “You know, I should be pleased about this…” Vincent said as he sat down with a lunch tray at one of the long tables in the cafeteria. The tray had a baked potato with a crunchy side salad and a fresh orange juice box. “…it just seems wrong. No sloppy joes in high school? Damn school lunch programs…” He stuck a fork in the salad and scooped some lettuce into his mouth. “I mean…what’s the point? There’s a taco bell across the street!”
    "Do you think anyone would notice if I transported a half dozen tacos in here..." Violet knew the answer, but the important question was; did she care? "So, is it everything you dreamed and more?" She asked, devouring her food.

    “I think the laws of entropy might notice.” Vincent replied casually, but there was a sternness he was trying to downplay. If there was anything he was quite firm on, it was the laws of magic. Granted, the laws seemed to apply to mortal creatures, and Violet was not strictly one of those, and so Vincent wasn’t entirely sure what did and did not apply to her when it came to the rules. He knew for certain that, for any mortal wizard, transmogrification or changing one’s shape was something that required rituals, sacrifices, or submitting one’s self to a magical boon or curse, both of which had strict conditions.

    Yet Violet, the cosmic glowstick, could change her form like she was simply putting on another hat. “I suppose it’s better to say that if I conjured a bunch of tacos, there would likely be a pretty steep cost, and it would hardly be worth it.” He said after his musing.
    "I'd be more upset that if I summoned tacos, I wouldn't know what they were made of." Violet put her knife and fork down, finished already. "If they hadn't been taken from a cow, lettuce, tomato and so on, then what made up the proteins and structures that formed them? I don't want to think about it."

    “Well that depends on the spell.” Vincent replied, his mouth full of baked potato. “If you do it properly, gather the materials yourself, then you can more or less ensure the food is of good quality, but by that point you’d be as well just cooking your own tacos. Conjuring tacos from the cosmos, well…it’d just goop some basic compounds together based on your perceived imressions of what a taco is, mostly from flawed memories. So you’d probably just get a basically passable taco.” He let out a sigh. “Of course, all of that requires a great deal of power expended from myself, and requires a great deal of power being lent by the cosmos, and that comes with a steep debt. All of which could be avoided by going to the taco bell that’s literally across the street.”

    "Can we stop talking about tacos, I'm literally--" Violet's train of thought detailed as she heard a scuffle behind her. A group of girls wearing cheerleader's outfits in colours of green and blue suddenly separated and two in the centre squared off. One was tall, slim, with fiery red curly hair and the other was average in height, black hair cut in a bob with thick black-rim glasses. They said something to one another, then the black-haired bob stormed off taking half the group with her. The other half sat back down and crowded around the flame-headed youth.

    "No," Violet said, "No look now, I've got my pudding now. It's right there. And this can wait, they've clearly got it well in hand." Violet reached for her spoon. Vincent, instead, swiped the pudding cup away from her and stood up from the table, holding it aloft.
    “No, you look!” He said, “You were the one who decided to start playing ‘The Hardy Boys’ and now I’m stuck in this mess until we sort it out.” He pocketed the pudding cup. “Now let’s go harass a minor and get ourselves in more trouble.”

    Before Violet could reply, Vincent was already making his way to the red-head’s table. As he approached, the young girls stared at him with confusion and apprehension. “Hey, you.” He said, pointing at the red-head. “Are you Kate’s friend?”

    Violet was tired, she was frustrated, but most of all she was hungry. It was a small indiscretion. One that Vincent couldn't understand the degree to which he had just affected her. But he had. Violet felt the heat in her eyes, could see the light casting a reflection off her tray. She quickly closed her eyes, scrunched them closed and tried to calm down. After a few seconds she stood, turned and walked over to join Vincent, suitably calmed. Though, she still wanted an outlet for her anger.

    "What's it to you?" The redhead asked.
    "Don't tell him anything, Amber." One of the other girls spoke up.
    "Shut up!" Amber snapped, sighing. Violet's gaze set to Vincent's pocket and focused on it for a moment. There was a quiet 'pop' sound, crumpling plastic. Violet turned back to face Amber without smiling to, or acknowledging Vincent.

    Vincent let out a long, drawn out sigh of frustration. He shot a silent sideways glance at Violet and proceeded to bottle his anger, pushing it way down. “Oh, it’s nothing to me.” Vincent said, with a clearly false smile across his face. “It’s just that we know that she’s a Nymph, and that you probably are too.” The red-head gasped as he said it, and so did her friends.
    “Is that a sex thing?” one of them asked.
    “Gross, he’s like…30 or something, ew.” Another said in disgust.

    Vincent turned around and stared darkly at his sister. He spoke to her quietly under his breath.
    “Impatient and impulsive, acting without thinking, usually to your own disadvantage, or to those around you. Typical Violet.” He tapped her on the shoulder as he strode past her. “I’m out. Come find me when you’re ready to find dad.” He said as he walked off, leaving her with the gossiping and embarrassed teenagers.


  16. “Okay guys so that’s…” The server examined the food she had placed on the table, “One Belgian waffle combo, one strawberry and banana pancakes, one breakfast sampler, one peaches and cream crepe, one stuffed French toast...” The mountain of food she had listed were all sitting at Violet’s side of the table. “…and one Tuscan scramble for you.” She placed a plate of scrambled eggs and hash browns, with a side of toast next to Vincent. “Oh and a bottomless coffee for the table.” She added, placing the large decanter of murky, black goodness in between them.

    “Thanks.” Vincent said, slipping the waitress 10 bucks. “That’s for not judging.”
    “Aw, thanks.” The server said as she pocketed the cash, although the distinct roll of her eyes as she left them indicated that there had been more than a little judging going on. Vincent shrugged and took a piece of toast from his plate, and bit a chunk off the corner, before swiping the coffee jar and pouring himself a cup.
    “So…” He said, his mouth still full of toast. He drank his coffee to wash it down. “…how’s the diet going?”

    "--Whuf?!" Violet mumbled through a muffled mouth full of her masticating meal, "Oh." She swallowed her mouthful. Ending the alliteration. "What's the point in dieting? I don't have fat proteins or process sugars." Violet pulled her wallet out and flicked it open, on the inside through a clear inlay there was a card that read 'unlimited 'Krispy Kreme Donuts VIP Member'. "I know!" She said smugly, stuffing another entire pancake into her face.
    “Well, I suppose that depends on how you absorb energy.” Vincent said.  “Are some things better than others? Or can you work just as well regardless of whether you eat broccoli or syrup-laced plastic?”

    "I'll admit, Vince--" Violet began, through mouthfuls, "--that I haven't bothered exploring that particular question, because funnily enough I don't want to eat plastic." She cut a large piece of waffle aside and jabbed it with her fork, jamming it into her face. After a few quick chews she added, "And anyway, I think eating food is a piss poor way of absorbing energy compared to say, electrical or chemical or biological fuel, but again, I don't really want to do that either, when I can help it..."

    “Well, you’ve never been a particularly efficient person, so that doesn’t surprise me.” Vincent said as he scooped some of his scrambled eggs on to a slice of toast. “Then again, we weren’t exactly brought up like normal people so I suppose you can forgive yourself a plate of twinkies when you know you’re more likely to die because a spooky spook got the drop on you.” He took a large bite of his food and fell silent as he chewed. He observed the people around them, quietly chatting with one another, or some just sitting alone reading the newspaper, or playing on their phones.
    “I do envy them.” He said after swallowing. “Walking away from the fight doesn’t stop you knowing what lurks out there. Other kids worried if they’d get a date for prom, and I was more worried that my date might be a vampire, or a skinwalker.”

    "Yeah, well..." Violet shook her head and shrugged her shoulders as for the first time she paused in her meal, her fork pushing her pancakes around her plate. "Do you want the red pill or the blue pill, Neo?" Violet asked, "I'd want to know... What if we were normal. Just a normal, nuclear, American family. What if we had come home one day, and mom and dad were just dead, and we didn't know why, or who, and the police couldn't explain it, and nobody could explain it, and we spent the rest of our lives wondering. Or worse yet, what if we were home when it happened, and we saw some monster kill them, and nobody believed us - can you imagine that? That's happening, right now, all over the world."

    “Mm, true.” Vincent nodded in agreement as he finished another mouthful. “However, once you start to notice the supernatural, it notices you in return.” He took another sip of coffee. “Take the Midnight Court for example. On paper they seem a nasty bunch. They feed on humans, and if that kind of knowledge became truly public you’d be looking at mass panic. The court would have no choice but to militarize in response, and who knows how much they’ve infiltrated world government currently. That terrible knowledge isn’t so appealing when it’s result is human farming. A cow does not benefit from the knowledge that it’s going to be a hamburger.”

    Vincent let out a little belch, partly disarming the heavy nature of the topic. “Or at least that’s what Lucia is always babbling on about, and she’s crazy. Crazy like a fox, but still crazy.”
    "Vince, when you go to a doctor, he'll tell you you're sick, when you go to a dentist, he'll tell you you have a cavity, when you go to a queen bitch of a vampire she'll tell you the vampires could enslave the human race." Violet rolled her eyes, and continued eating her waffles. This wasn't news to her.

    “Hey I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” Vincent replied, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I think the important thing is that, for now, the court play by the rules, mostly. Which is good, because it means trigger-happy vigilantes like yourself can focus on helping the silly backwater folks with their poltergeists and being possessed by lesser demons.” Vincent made a show of trying to turn his head all the way round his neck. “You’re mother sucks cocks in heeeeeelll.”

    "Funny." Violet smirked as she finished her third - or was it fourth? - plate of food. "Right." She added, letting out an unrestrained belch, "I'm good, you ready to go?"
    “Go where, exactly?” Vincent asked, leaning back and folding his arms. “You’re gonna need to spill what you’ve got before I decide. All this time, I’ve persistently used every safe and reasonable locator spell I know, and a few dangerous ones. Not once have I ever even caught a whiff of dad’s trail. So what have you got?”

    Violet couldn't help but raise a lop-sided smile. Magic. Well, magic is great. Hell, she was magic. But it didn't solve everything.
    "Here." She reached into her jean pocket and pulled out a scruffy looking bit of paper and flung it onto the table, Vincent picked it up and turned it over and there he was. Their father. It was a picture of their father. Granted, he didn't know the picture was being taken. He was knelt at the end of a dock, tying a knot to secure the ship, while two men were taking a drunk selfie. But there he was. Elias Hallow.

    Vincent’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the picture. His lips thinned, and his jaw tightened but he didn’t speak. Eli was looking a little older, a little greyer. Yet he looked healthy, and unharmed. Some people might feel relief at seeing their father unharmed and safe after so many years. Vincent was not one of those people. “Shame…hoped he’d at least lost a limb or something.” He said venomously. He tossed the photo back across the table. “I hope you have more than that. He could be anywhere by now.”

    "Mm, except I know where that is. And I know who those men are. So if we go there now, its maybe a day's ride, with one stop on the way, and we could have a serious chance at finding him, Vince. I mean it, this is the closest i've come to finding dad in ten years. Monsters aren't the only things i've been hunting..." Violet took the picture back, cradling it far more preciously than her brother had, and pocketed it once more. Then she stood, and readied to leave.

    Vincent stood up after her, taking a few bills from his wallet and placing them on the table. He made a little growling noise under his breath and then said “Fine.” And he began to walk out of the IHOP. As they both went through the doors to the parking lot he turned back to Violet.
    “I want to make one thing clear.” He said, waggling his finger at her, “I am not getting the band back together, alright? You’re not Starsky, and I’m not Hutch. You’re not Bonny, I’m not Clyde. You’re not Dean, and I’m not Sam. This is a one-time thing, got it?”

    "Hey, I don't have any problem with that," Violet shrugged. As they walked out into the parking lot, Violet's car was waiting for them. Magic might not solve everything. But it was very, very useful sometimes. She opened the door and got in, and once Vincent had joined her she started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot.
    "Just don't start any of that, 'I'm too old for this shit' shit, Murtagh." She added with a smirk and they were off, driving down the main road, leaving Chicago on the trail of their missing father.

    They hadn’t got far when Vincent suddenly clambered into the back seat area and started rifling through his bags, which had somehow magically made their way into the car. “You’re entirely too prepared for this.” He called back as he continued rummaging. When he came back to the passenger seat he held a number of things. The first was a rather large tome, his grimoire, perhaps the most valuable of his possessions. He also held a fresh carton of cigarettes and a zippo lighter. The final item was a battered old cassette tape.

    “This midlife-crisis machine smells like a roadie’s nutsack.” Vincent said, “but at least it has a tape deck.” He pushed the cassette into the holder and hit play. A stringy, country sounding guitar began strumming.
    “I was walking down the street when out the corner of my eye…” The vocalist sang over the guitar, and Vincent began tapping his hands against his knees. He put a cigarette in his mouth and cracked the passenger window, lighting it and taking a smoke. He turned to Violet, and eyed her for a minute.

    “Normally I wouldn’t but…it’s not like you have lungs.” He said, grinning. Then he pulled a pair of aviator’s from his pocket and put them on, grinning, with the filter of the cigarette between his teeth. He leaned back, resting his hands behind his head and stared out at the road. “Oh this is going to be fun…ten years of sibling rivalry in back pay, with interest. And maybe I’ll get to sock my dad in the face by the end of it.”


  17. In the southwest side of Chicago, in the Chicago Lawn, landlords couldn’t be too picky about their tenants. The lawn was one one of the worst neighbourhoods in Chicago, and the apartment buildings were usually run down. This wasn’t the best area to go looking for that cosy first apartment for your brand new family. Most of your neighbours would be unemployed down and outs, ganged up youths, junkies, dealers and other unsavoury individuals.

    However, if you were a wizard in your late 20’s with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, and very little job prospects, this place was just perfect. Well, not perfect, but the rent was cheap. And so it was that the home of Vincent Gideon Hallow was a small basement apartment near Marquette Park. The apartment was a studio, probably quite spacious at one point. However it was now an eclectic mess of books, and a random arrangement of bohemian furniture. The floor was decorated with a collage of various rugs that clashed horribly, and every available wall was covered by book cases, or book shelves where space was limited.

    The range of books were quite extensive, ranging from a whole shelf of religious texts, another on the sciences. Yet another section was full of occult books, and another full of trashy romance novels. However the truly holy texts were reserved for the large bookcase opposite the sofa, where normal people usually would have a TV. These holy tomes were, of course, arranged in order of issue release, and was probably the most valuable collection Vincent owned. Yes, his Batman comic book collection was the stuff of legend. 

    The room itself had the unique scent of stale pizza and incense. Perhaps most notable for a home existing in the year 2017, was that there was very little in terms of modern technology. The only phone to be seen was of the corded variety, and there was no computers, no cell phones. The only entertainment was the small library if books, many which were just stacked in towering piles on the floor. However, the exception to this ban on technology was the digital alarm clock by the bed. As it moved to 07:00, a screeching howl echoed through the apartment.

    Vincent Hallow shot up from underneath his blankets, a frightened but dazed expression on his face. Robert Plant’s screeching continued as he started nattering on about the lands of ice and snow. Vincent’s hand grabbed the alarm clock and wrenched it from it’s socket on the wall, and hurling it over to the far side of the room. “Sorry, Bob.” He said, stifling a yawn. He slowly managed to move himself so that he was sitting at the edge of his bed. He fumbled on the floor, picking up one of the many empty cigarette cartons littering it. He shook each one a few times before discarding them back from whence they came. Finally he shook one and heard a muffled rattle.

    He opened the pack and fished out the remaining cigarette, putting the filtered end to his lips. He scanned the room for a lighter, but there wasn’t one in sight. He contemplated conjuring fire to do the job. However, he knew that magic was something that should be used responsibly. Everything had a price, and the forces of nature weren’t to be harnessed to do frivolous things like lighting a cigarette. On the other hand, he’d only need a little bit of fire. “Ignis” He said aloud, though slightly muffled with the cigarette in his mouth.

    The end began to burn a hot orange and he inhaled the sweet, toxic goodness. He shivered as well, as the room had grown noticeably colder, even for only a tiny flame. There was no such thing as a free lunch, magically speaking. If you needed fire, you needed heat, and that heat had to come from somewhere. Vincent got up out of his bed and made his way to the bathroom. The small bathroom was the only other room to the apartment, and consisted of a small cubicle shower, a commode, and a washroom sink and mirror.

    After taking a moment to drain the lizard he went to the sink and examined himself. He was a scrawny specimen, and quite pale. He had angular features and long, straight black hair that was cut neatly just above his shoulders. He had a thin patch of stubble growing, and his eyes were dark and sunken from lack of a good night’s sleep. His eyes, however, were a striking emerald hue.  He flicked the end of his cigarette in the toilet pan behind him, and stripped, getting in the shower.

    The cold water from the shower provided him with a measure of wakefulness. He winced at the sudden shock of cold, and contemplated warming it up with another bout of magic. He decided to weather the cold, however. Heating the water in his boiler would likely steal enough heat to freeze all the pipes in building. Of course, he could always turn his hot water on. He laughed at the thought. Who did he think he was? Some wealthy king who could throw money away frivolously on luxurious things such as hot water? If only.

    He kept the shower brief and before long he had returned to his main room and dressed himself. He wore a pair of simple, black boots and dark blue jeans, a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, and a thin, black tie. He had boiled some water and made himself a cup of coffee, black with no sugar. It was only 7:30 am now, and he was beginning to think he had gotten up a little too early. He had worked out it would take about 15 hours to drive from Colorado to Chicago. Perhaps less if his sister was still in the habit of driving like she was on a NASCAR track.

    “What the hell am I even doing?” He asked himself. Violet was going to be there soon. She was coming with news of their father’s whereabouts. Elias Hallow, renowned wizard and hunter. He was a legend in a community of perpetual loners, which was some feat. He was also, as Vincent had discovered at a fairly young age, an adulterer and an irresponsible one at that. However even that was forgivable, after all his younger half-sister wasn’t all that bad, although he’d always tried hard to make sure she never knew that. That was the job of the big brother, after all. Even in their late 20’s, it was still vitally important that he occasionally remind her that she had a butt for a face and that she smelled of poop.

    In truth, ragging on Violet was about the only thing he could feel confident doing. Snarky comments and childish ridicule were his default setting when he was nervous. That was a bit of an odd realization. He was nervous about seeing his sister, someone he had spent most of his younger years with. Yet until the day before they had barely spoken over the last decade. Once their dear father had mysteriously disappeared, they had discovered they had quite different opinions on what to do about it.

    Violet had decided to carry on the family business, whilst Vincent had decided to get as far away from it as possible. He had always been taught that various supernatural nasties were lurking around every corner. Yet over the years he had discovered that it was surprisingly easy to turn a blind eye to it all. He got in some dangerous situations at times, sure. Yet, for the most part, he had managed to avoid that life. And now Violet was on her way, and she would no doubt bring that world crashing in behind her.

    Then there was the question of his father’s whereabouts. If Violet really did know where he was, well, then what? Vincent hadn’t really thought about what he was going to do. After hearing the news he had packed a bag with clothes in preparation. He had located the books he’d need most, like the bestiary, and his spellbooks. He had even stuffed a gym bag full of various artefacts, relics, and religious symbols.

    He walked over to the desk below the hatch window that brought in a little light from street level. There he had housed four items he had claimed ownership of after old Eli had disappeared. On the desk was a Smith and Wesson Model 500 revolver, A Winchester M12 pump action sawn-off shotgun with rock salt shell ammunition, and a silver pentacle amulet. Leaning against the desk was a worn but sturdy cane of dark wood, with runic symbols carved up the shaft, and a silver skull handle.

    All in all he had a small arsenal perfect for a modern wizard ready for action. He’d never really had much training with the guns, but the cane he had some familiarity with. The wood was from an ancient tree grown on the confluence of several magical leylines, and it’s runic symbols enchanted the cane to amplify and focus his evocation magic. The amulet was of pure silver, a metal that was considered magically pure, or ‘holy’ in some circles of faith.

    The pentacle’s five points represented air, earth, water, fire, and spirit. The five element of magic, all bound together around a silver circle, representing human control. Power balanced with restraint. The talisman itself didn’t really hold any real value beyond it’s symbolism, but symbols were akin to power to a wizard. Vincent picked up the talisman and put it around his neck, tucking it under his collar. No sooner had he done so, three sharp knocks wrapped across his apartment’s door. Vincent took a deep breath, and let it out again slowly. “Here goes nothing…” He muttered to himself as he made his way to the door.

    He placed his hand on the door handle, and forced a smile across his face, before yanking the door open. “Hey butt-face! Knew it was you, I could smell the poop from a mile away!”


  18. “I…” Loke paused, shifting uncomfortably. Perhaps it was the casual nature of Aquas displayed in her suggestion of murder. He was not particularly against violence, or killing for that matter. Indeed he had killed many himself, and had even enjoyed it. ‘The Thrill’ was something often spoke about by the Warbreakers, the feeling of sheer, primal revelry and excitement when fighting and killing. It was a feeling any warrior knew well, he felt. Yet with Aquas it seemed to make him uncomfortable. “…honestly I would rather you did not. We have our freedom, and you have eaten already. To kill and devour them would be unnecessary.”

    Picking at a loose bit of debris amongst her fangs, Aquas shrugged her shoulders and sat down on the grassy hill. Staring at the village, she leaned back and stared up at the sky, "What does a caged bird do when freed?" She asked aloud.
    “I wouldn’t know.” Loke replied. “We don’t cage things in Falice. All things lead, follow or die. That is natural. Slavery is…” He struggled to find the word for how he felt. “…disgusting. No one can truly claim ownership of another.”
    "Sure they can." Aquas muttered thoughtfully

    “How so?” Loke asked, folding his arms.
    "If I eat you, then you are mine. You're a part of me, whether you like it or not. I took choice from you. You're a slave." Aquas licked her lips and then sprang back onto her feet with the ease of an acrobat. "So, what are you going to do with your freedom?"
    Loke paused for a moment, considering her words. He had never thought of it quite like that.

    “Well, what I was doing before most likely.” He replied. “Seeking truth.”
    "What does that mean?" She asked quizzically. Loke smirked.
    “It is…not a simple thing to explain.” Loke replied. “Falice is a land of different castes. Each person lives by a code of honour, one determined by their caste. Warbreakers fight our battles, Lightweavers tell our stories, Nurturers rear our children, Formbuilders create tools, and food. There are many more castes, and some are larger than others. They are built around the oaths sworn by various spellbinders. I am a Truthseeker, we are a smaller caste. We seek truths that are universal, through study and through experiencing life, and through reflection.”

    "You are unlike any human i've met." Aquas replied, "Humans say that trust is something you feel when you are not threatened by another, I think then I trust you."
    “Trust is more than that.” Loke replied, though he smiled at her. “I am not threatened by a mouse, for example, but I do not trust it. I cannot depend on a mouse to be reliable, or to always work to our mutual benefit.”

    Loke let out a sigh and looked back towards the town. “I will need to stop there. I need food, rest, and medicine. I will also need supplies for my journey. I suppose I’ll need to get some of those metal rocks they trade for goods. I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand that…”
    "I'll come." Aquas added quickly, "Better to come with you then walk into town on my own. People are suspicious of lone strangers. I've no idea why..." A wicked smirk spread across her face.

    “I doubt it will help.” Loke replied, but he started walking at a pace Aquas could follow. He gestured at his eyes. “Difficult to hide these. No doubt the people there have spectated us in the pit, and I cannot change my face like you. It does seem strange to me, how they fear me for the colour of my eyes. I do not fear their strange coloured eyes. Blues, browns and greens…I never knew eyes could have such colours.”

    "Humans fear the different." Aquas walked quickly, increasing the length of her legs slightly so she could walk at a more comfortable pace. "That's just how it is. They swat at flies, they chase rats, they kill cows and given the chance, they'd do the same to us."
    “The humans of this land seem burdened by a great deal of fear, and ignorance.” Loke said with an agreeing nod. “Are they not taught? A child came to me in the prison. He spoke of his father like he knew him well. What sort of world leaves teaching to the parents? It’s no wonder the people here are like this.”

    "'Parents? Tch! A fine notion." Aquas grumbled her reply.
    “Is it of importance here?” Loke asked. “My mother and father brought me life, and I suppose I am grateful to them for that in a way. However, I know them only passingly. They seem nice enough, I suppose.”
    "Humans are attached to one another. More so with their spawn." Aquas replied, her tone becoming more irritable, "In fact, some are like to throw themselves in the way of danger for the sake of their offspring."

    “Oh, like family then.” Loke nodded. The word has meaning to him that had little to do with blood relation. “So, when we get there…I’m not sure what will happen. The sailors who brought me here from Falice claimed to be traders, but they lied. They knew enough of my kind to wait until I was vulnerable, and then they put me in a cage. Since then everyone who has seen me has been fearful. How do we win them over?”

    "Humans appreciate other humans that can do things for them. Give things to them. What you say is not important. Gather currency and valuables, and trade them for goods, buy them drinks, oh--!" Aquas derailed from her train of thought, "When they drink alcohol, they are far more loose-lipped and easier to subdue. Also, one last thing," She stopped as they entered the edge of town, "I need to eat. Frequently. I will continue to do so, and i'd really like you to not get in the way of that, 'kay?"

    Loke folded his arms again and eyed her for a moment, considering her. “That depends.” He said. “A man who is caged can kill his captors. There is honor in that as there is honor in defending ones self. However, I have sworn oaths as a spellbinder. Each caste has their own oaths, but the first is the same for us all. Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination. These words are a promise I have made, a compact. They are bound to me just as I bind Arcanium to this realm.”

    “The woman must eat.” Nyx’s melodious voice said in his mind, sounding quite fascinated and amused. “I have never demanded you save a Krell from the plate. Here is the truth of this situation, Loke. Your kind are her food. You are just a Krell, in that regard.”
    Loke paused, letting out a sigh of annoyance. He scowled at the nothingness in the air, directing it at Nyx.

    “My friend, however, has offered some perspective.” He continued. “My oath demands that, acting as a free man, I cannot kill except through honorable means, such as through contest. Alternatively, I can kill to defend myself, or if the result will save more lives than are lost. I also cannot stand by as witness to such acts that dishonor my oaths. Might we find a way that is mutually beneficial? My oaths are as important to my survival as food and water, it is the nature of the bond.”

    "Sometimes you spout a lot of words and say nothing." Aquas observed, "What are you asking me to do?" She wanted clarification, as to her, he spoke in riddles.
    “You require a lot of instruction for one so apparently independent.” Loke said, rolling his eyes. “Those who act without honor are not worthy of my protection. I would ask that you be discreet about it, however, as I would rather avoid being chased from town. Children are innocent, and so I will protect them. Anyone who means us harm accepts the consequences of doing so, and so I will not mourn their death. However, those who welcome us will be given my protection, as will those who yield to us in combat. Does that sound agreeable?”

    "I will only agree to this on one condition." Aquas crossed her arms. She didn't like where this was going and ordinarily, she wouldn't agree. However, she had rarely had an ally, and it seemed a sensible step to take. At least, for as long as it would suit her.
    “Name it.” Loke replied.
    "Fear, as humans describe it, is an alien concept, but if I was to give it a name... I would call it starvation.  It is as though a fire has been lit within us, and we begin to burn, the flame spreads across our body until we are no longer ourselves, a pain so vivid I cannot accurately convey it. While I will attempt to resist my hunger in agreeing to this... contract.... I will not allow myself to starve." A shiver ran up her spine and she visibly shook before she held her hand up and offered it, "In this country, humans clasp hands to seal a verbal agreement. Consider it a formal bond of trust."

    Loke smirked and clasped her hand in his own. “I will do my best not to let you starve, I promise.” He said with a nod. He released her grip and turned towards the town and started walking. With Aquas following him he made his way down the dirt road that led to the town houses. In a cottage near where the cobbles began, a woman was outside hanging up clothes and sheets to dry. When she noticed Loke’s white eyes, glowing faintly in the light, she gasped and backed up, almost tripping over her basket of laundry.

    “Great…” Loke grumbled under his breath as he saw the gripping, clawing hands of fear elementa clawing up the woman’s form. “G-g…” She stammered fearfully as she moved to run.
    “Please, I mean you no harm.” Loke replied holding his hand up. “If you jus-“
    “GRIFFON!!” She cried in terror, as she began to flee towards the town. “Griffon! GRIFFON!!” She shrieked over, and over.

    “Uh…” Loke looked perplexed. “What is a Griffon?” He asked. As if in response, he heard a blood-curdling screech pierce through the air. He turned in shock as mighty wing beats thumped skywards. A shadow swooped gracefully overhead, its form growing larger and larger as it began to descend.
    “I think that’s a Griffon.” Nyx said, as the creature suddenly went into a dive towards them.


  19. By the time Shinji had wandered in to town he was cold and shivering. As he walked down the main street he retreated from the rain inside a small pastry shop where a couple of elderly people were sitting down at a table for a snack. As he entered a middle-aged woman in an apron popped her head up from behind the glass display where the pastries were.

    “Welcome!” The woman said cheerfully, quickly followed by a short gasp. “Oh dear, you’re soaked.”
    “Uh, well it’s raining.” Shinji replied, raising a brow. “What did you-“ He stopped himself. The woman was, after all, only being polite and showing concern. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Do you have a bathroom in here? I’d like to change out of these clothes.”
    “Certainly.” The woman said with a nod. She pointed towards a corridor at the back of the shop. Shinji nodded in appreciation and went through, finding a small single bathroom.

    He entered and threw his bag on the ground. He immediately locked the door and began to strip down to just his underwear. He had missed the opening ceremony, and his dorm orientation. He was probably going to be late for his homeroom class as well. He cursed silently to himself as he began to put on the school uniform in his bag. He removed his charm bracelet and tossed it in the bag with his wet clothes.

    He finally emerged dressed in black shoes, black trousers, a white shirt with the collar popped, and a black blazer with white trim. He had affixed his pin to the lapel and was busy trying to tie on the black tie with the red trim, with the school emblem sewn in red at the bottom. He sighed in frustration, eventually giving up on the tie, leaving it loose and slightly squint around his collar. He grabbed his bag and walked back into the main room of the small café.

    “Thank you.” He said as he came out, and checked his watch. “Damn, I’m late.”
    “Oh, you’re an Academy student?” The woman asked, eyeing the uniform. “You must have come from out of town. Have you eaten?”
    “Uh, no…” Shinji replied, conscious of his rumbling stomach. The woman smiled went to the counter. She placed two delicious looking Anpan rolls in a bag and handed them to him. Shinji smiled and took one of the rolls from the bag, taking a large bite and chewing enthusiastically.
    “Mm! This anko is really sweet.” He said with a satisfied smile. “Thank you!” He added with a short bow.

    When he lifted his head, he found the woman’s hand stretched out, open palm in front of him.
    “That’ll be 340 Yen, please.” She said with a wide grin.
    “Eh!?” Shinji gasped in surprise, before grumbling and reaching for his wallet, handing the woman a few notes.
    “Thank you. Welcome to Aranami!” She said with a short bow.
    “Yeah, yeah.” Shini replied dismissively, before dashing out of the shop in a hurry. He ran down the road, his uniform quickly getting as soaked as his other clothes were. As he ran he cursed and swore, ranting at himself in his frustration, whilst he held one of the anpan rolls in his mouth.

    He skidded to a stop as a small pug came bounding in front of him, and in trying not to kick the small animal he tripped and fell over the top of it, rolling across the ground and landing in a heap. The Anpan roll fell from his mouth and landed in a soggy puddle on the ground. The little pug looked him over for a moment before wandering over to the soggy anpan roll, sniffing it momentarily before devouring it like a hungry amazonian piranha. The snack consumed, the dog trotted up to him and sat down. His bug-eyed face was almost comical as he stared at him. A tongue stuck slightly out of the corner of his mouth. The little pug looked around the street, then looked back to the boy.

    "What's wrong with you, boy?!" The dog asked with genuine incredulity, "Don't you know cakes are bad for dogs?!" Then he shook his head, and started walking down the street, muttering to himself as he went, "Eeeya, wet butt..."

    “T…talked?” Shinji managed to stutter to himself as he stared at the little pug walking away from him. After a moment he reclaimed his senses and scrambled to his feet. “Hey!” He called after the dog, running to catch up with him. He grabbed the tiny animal by the scruff of it’s neck and lifted it up so that it’s face was inches from his own. “What’s the big idea, flea bag!?” He snarled. “You come running up out of nowhere and I get knocked on my ass trying not to kick you to the moon, then you eat my breakfast!? What kinda whacked out, thieving, talking mutt are you anyway?”

    "I am tiny, so thank you for bringing me to your face!" The pug jerked forwards suddenly and bit his nose. Reflexively Shinji dropped the dog, and he quickly landed back on his feet and looked up at the red-nosed teenager. "It is not Inu's fault you're clumsy! Also, anpan is especially delicious on the second lap. I'll work on getting that out to you presently." Then Inu grinned, his tongue lolling in the corner of his mouth.

    Shinji clutched at his nose, holding back the desire to yelp in pain. His other hand formed a fist at his side and the knuckles audibly cracked. “You think you’re funny!?” He growled at the dog. “We’ll see how smart-assed you are when I skin you and turn you into a plush toy!” Shinji lunged forward at a sprinting run, and swung his leg out to kick the dog.

    Sensing the incoming attack, the little dog whirled around and ran at the boy. At the last second, he leapt forwards, pouncing off the top of the boy's foot and running up his raising leg. He leapt once more, this time aiming for Shinji's face a second time, but as he flew through the air, his stomach made an awful, growling, fermenting noise and distracted by his discomfort, Inu collided with Shinji, knocking them both to the ground once more. Shaking himself off, Inu stood up and looked back at his attacker.

    "Attacking an unknown opponent." The dog shook his head, "Tch! You could have at least guessed from the fact I am not like other dogs, that foolishly running headlong into battle is a mistake." Then Inu loosed a long, rippling fart. "Please excuse me, humans need to stop leaving food around, my diet is terrible..." He paused, "What is your name, boy?

    Shinji slowly got up from the ground, dusting himself off. He scowled at the dog and was half tempted to have another run at him, before he remembered what he had been doing in the first place. “Shit! I’m late!” He cursed, before turning back to the dog. “Shinji Nakayama! Remember that name. I’ll be back to grind you up into little hot dogs once I’m done with this.” Shinji turned around and picked up his sports bag, slinging it over his shoulder and stomping away towards the port, the rain still pouring overhead.

    "Oi! I could eat a hot dog!" Inu called after Shinji, "Shinji?" He paused, waiting, as the boy continued running down the street. "Shinji Nakayama wait for Inu!" He darted after the boy and quickly caught up to him with his superior speed, but within seconds he was panting with exhaustion. "Slow down, Shinji! Do not make me chuck anpan!" He wheezed the words out between breaths as he ran a dozen steps to each long, loping stride belonging to the human.

    “I don’t want you to keep up, you little fart machine!” Shinji replied, continuing to walk at a quick pace. “I don’t have time for you, I’m trying to get to class. Get a clue, why don’t ya!?”
    Still wheezing, Inu sped up, running down the street until he turned in an instant and yelled, "Stop!!" Shinji screeched to a halt, then there was a clatter nearby. Both Shinji and Inu looked over to see an old man who had been riding his bike through the town, had driven it into a couple of trash cans upon hearing the dog yell. The old man hurriedly pulled himself to his feet, got back onto his wonky bicycle and rode on, never looking back.

    "Hm..." Inu shook his head and looked back to Shinji, "Listen, kid, i'm kind of a big deal at Aranami Academy. People look up to me. The teachers respect me. So here's the deal..." Inu glanced back at the rucksack Shinji was carrying. "You give me some food, right now, and not only will I get you past the Guardian at the bridge, i'll even get you into your classroom."

    “Guardian…at the bridge?” Shinji repeated, a worried look in his eyes. His father had mentioned that he would encounter Familiars at the school, demons who served humans through a contract or pact. Was this talking dog one of them? He couldn’t think of any other reason why a pug would be able to talk. However the prospect of a ‘Guardian’ at the gates gave him pause. Whatever was charged with keeping people out of the school was likely something that could squash him like a bug. He sighed, finally reaching in to his pocket and pulling out the remaining anpan roll from it’s bag.

    “So you’re a big deal huh?” He said, raising an eyebrow at the dog. “Alright, chow down then, Inugami sama.” He tossed the anpan roll in the air, towards the little pug.
    Leaping up, Inu caught the roll from the air and had swallowed the entire thing before his feet had touched the ground. "You held up your end of the bargain, Shinji Nakayama, so now I will uphold mine. First, I will get you past... the Guardian." Shinji smirked at the tiny dog as he waddled ahead, leading the way. He couldn’t help it, he was starting to like him. Only a little.

    When they arrived at the port Shinji let out an impressed whistle. The Academy was at the other end of a large bridge, and it was like no school he had ever been to. Built into the rocks, the school was enormous, and was almost like a small village in and of itself. Built along the steep, rocky crag were a number of buildings, all stacked on top of each other, some older than others, and some even hanging off the rock in an almost dangerous looking fashion, as if it had gone through numerous renovations but had slowly but surely ran out of room.

    "Come on. It's early still, so he's going to be cranky... let me do the talking, kid." Inu and Shinji walked along the long stone bridge that led out to the academy. It took several minutes before they reached the other end of the bridge, at which point they were stopped by a large metal gate that loomed overhead. On their left, there was a kind of security station. A small, old building, with a large glass window. Beside the building, there was an enormous statue of a griffin, but Inu seemed more focused on the man that was sat inside the booth. He was tall, extremely muscular, with tan skin and a heavy length of blonde hair. If the boy's hair reminded him of a young lion, then this man was the leader of the pride.
    "Mornin', Saburo... how are you...?" Inu asked delicately.
    Saburo looked up from his newspaper for a moment, then looked back down, "I’m fine." He muttered, taking a sip of coffee. Inu hesitated, then looked at Shinji, wondering what to say next.

    “Tch! Are you for real?” Shinji asked with a sigh of frustration. He turned to Saburo. “Oi, name’s Shinji Nakayama. I’m late for class, is it okay to go through?”
    Without looking up, Saburo replied, "No." Then he took another sip of coffee, and as Shinji opened his mouth to speak, he repeated, "No." Without needing so much as a glance.
    “Wh-why not!?” Shinji demanded, incredulously. “I just told you I’m running late! I need to get to class right now!”

    "Because I said so." Saburo growled, though he kept his voice down, getting irritable at Shinji's quickly rising volume.
    "S-Saburo..." Inu whispered, "Just... just you could maybe help us out... the kid really needs to get back inside."
    “Yeah, listen to the mutt.” Shinji replied. “He’s supposed to be the boss around here. What kind of security guard doesn’t follow orders, huh?”

    Saburo was silent for a few seconds, then he made a strange noise. It was like a rattling, which grew in volume. He was laughing. And he was getting louder and louder. "HuuuuuhuhuhuhuuaheheheHAHAHAHAHA!!!!" Finally, the man's laughter got so loud it seemed to shake the very ground. Then, his laughter stopped abruptly.
    "Oh no..." Saburo squeeked, then he dropped his coffee and disappeared into his booth as the rumbling grew louder and louder.
    "Oh, no...." Inu parroted. "We're dead."
    “Whaddya mean ‘we’re dead’!?” Shinji demanded, yelling over the increasing volume of the rumbling. “What the hell is that noise?”

    "It's the Guardian!!" Inu yelped, and then as if on queue, the enormous stone griffin loosed a terrifying, screeching roar and leapt from it's frozen watch beside the building. The gigantic stone monster towered over them, it was at least as large as an elephant, equipped with razor sharp talons, a slicing beak, and of course, it's body seemed to be made of stone.
    "Anpan is ready!" Inu shrieked, yelping as he quickly fled to between Shinji's legs, cowering.
    "WHO APPROACHES?!" The Guardian's booming voice seemed to echo into their minds, as it's beak did not move when it spoke.

    Shinji stumbled back in shock at the large, terrifying creature before him. His eyes were wide in shock. It was real, it was all real. Everything his father had told him wasn’t a lie, or an exaggeration. Monsters existed, and the realization hit Shinji like a brick. He looked to Inu for guidance, but the little pug didn’t seem particularly ready to square off against the griffin. He looked to the guard booth, but there was no sign that Saburo was ever going to come back out to help.
    “Shit…” Shinji hissed under his breath. “…it can’t be helped.”

    Shinji planted his feet and stood up straight, but his hands were still trembling, betraying his true feelings. He bit on his lip and pushed out his chin, a determined look in his eyes. “Shinji Nakayama!” He yelled, as confidently as he could. “Let me past, you big gargoyle! My old man sent me here, and I’m not getting kicked out before I even get in!”

    The griffin arched it's back and roared even louder. The window of the security booth building shook and rattled. The Guardian took a step forwards, it's talons just inches from the pair, then it leaned down, and it's large, polished-stone eyes gazed at Shinji, it's eyes locking with his own, though each eye belonging to the Guardian was closer to the size of the boy's head. Eventually, the creature straightened up.

    "SON OF MASA NAKAYAMA, YOU MAY PASS!" The Guardian stepped to one side and sat upon it's haunches."And Inu, who's a good boy!" Inu added quickly. Something flickered in front of the gate, as if a veil was lifting, and then the gates swung open of their own accord. The boy and the dog entered the Aranami Academy grounds. The gate shut behind them, and the Guardian returned to it's statuesque nature."There, we're in!" Inu stated, in a congratulatory tone, "You. Are. Welcome." Then he quickly trotted on.

    “Hmph! No thanks to you!” walking away from the dog. “Tch! Getting’ a free pass from my old man. Go figure!” He added, kicking at the ground and scuffing his shoes. He made his way up the long, curving path that spiraled around the rock. As they walked Shinji looked in to the many different buildings, some where students were sat listening to teachers like an ordinary school, and other rooms where students were stood at lab tables, performing weird experiments.

    They passed through a courtyard and Shinji observed two older students, in their final year, who were sparring with each other with blunt practice swords. Shinji couldn’t help but crack a smile. A school where he could fight? Maybe this place wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He turned to Inu who had been uncharacteristically quiet. “Yo, Inugami san. I’m in class B12. You know what homeroom that’s in?”

    "Yes, you'll be pleased to learn I know it well, and I can fulfil the second part of my promise - I can get you inside the classroom." Shinji opened one of the large double doors and stepped inside, Inu following him in quickly. Inside, the main hall was empty. Normally full of students, it was class time, and most were in their classes or on class trips. "Come on! Your classroom is just up ahead, Ms. Hitomi Kato will be your teacher, and therein is the problem, kid."

    “And why’s that?” Shinji asked, as they stopped outside a classroom door. “Is she a big stone bird as well?” Inu looked up at Shinji, and could he wear glasses, he would have taken them off, "She is the single most terrifying human I know... so do exactly as I say, and stand right there. No," Inu pushed him in the leg, "Right in front of the door. There, now i'll get you inside the classroom, and we're square." The little pug walked up to the door and scratched at the wood with his paw. Nothing happened. He kept scratching and scratching, then a moment later, there was a sharp screech as a chair hissed across the floor. Rapid footsteps. Inu fled. The door swung open, and there stood the teacher. Hitomi Kato. She glared at Shinji, raised her fist and opened her mouth, and then something out of her peripheral distracted her and she rapidly stepped to one side.

    "BANZAI!!!" Inu roared, sprinting towards Shinji, leaping through the air like a majestic bird, he crashed into the boy's back, sending him flying into the classroom. Only coming to a stop, when he tumbled into Ms. Kato's desk. Laughter exploded throughout the class.

    "Mission accomplished..." Inu whispered sombrely, then Ms. Kato slammed the door shut in his face and turned on Shinji.
    "What the hell is the meaning of this?!" She asked, marching across the classroom. Her anger had silenced the laughter. She grabbed the boy by the scruff of his neck and lifted him off the floor and into the air. "Who the hell're you?!"
    “Sh-Shinji Nakayama!” Shinji blurted out, still dazed from being knocked in to the desk.

    "Sit down!" Ms. Kato yelled in his face, then turned, aimed him at the rest of the class - who already knew better than to sit in the centre of the room - and threw him as if he was a football. Shinji crashed into the desks at the back of the room, but as he was pulling himself back together, a hand raised at the front of the class.
    "Yes, Ms. Kusakabe?" Ms. Kato asked, her tone far sweeter all-of-a-sudden.

    "Sensei, this boy is a delinquent, placing him at the back of a class might be in error." Yoko's tone was cool and confident. The teacher considered her words and then nodded.
    "Yes, of course. He'll sit next to you..." Ms. Kato looked at the girl sat beside Yoko, "MOVE!!" She barked, and the girl - though horribly dejected at being moved further from Yoko - leapt out of her chair, clearly terrified of the teacher.

    "Sensei, I didn't mean for him to be seated beside me." Yoko corrected. Again, Ms. Kato considered her words carefully and shook her head.
    "Mm, no. I think I want him seated there. Now, moving on..." And she launched back into her lesson. As the boy sat down beside her, Yoko glanced over at him. He looked like a shabby idiot and he smelled of damp. Shinji slumped down in the chair, horrified by the ordeal, but also somewhat relieved that he was finally where he was supposed to be. He sighed, cursing under his breath.
    “That dumb Inugami!” He hissed in a whisper. He glanced to his side and noticed Yoko looking at him. He raised his eyebrow at her. She was, to him, quite a terrifying sight for a high school girl.

    Yoko could hear whispering behind her, half the class was talking about this new boy and the fact he had been seated beside her. She studied him for a couple seconds longer, then offered him a comforting smile and a nod. The class quieted down then, and the students went back to their textbooks. Before she turned back to her own, however, she punctuated her smile, by taking her left hand, and balling it into a fist with the exception of her thumb. Then, she dragged her thumb across her neck as if it was a knife. The message was clear, and he had been the only one to witness it.

    Shinji swiftly turned his head back to the front of the class, blinking in confusion and fear. There he was, finally at Aranami Academy, a school he didn’t want to be in, learning to become a demon slayer, a job he didn’t want to do, nor was he even sure he wanted to do it. And now he was being issued death threats by the class’ top student. Since when did academic prodigy’s issue the death threats? Just what had he gotten himself in to. He looked over to the little window of the classroom door to see the moronic little pug holding on to the rim for dear life, grinning like an idiot with his tongue sticking out. “I’ll kill that little burrito and hide his body in a dumpster, yeah, that’s what I’ll do.” He whispered to himself, before settling back in to listen to the teacher.


  20. “The train is now departing Shinagawa. The next stop will be Tokyo.”

    The melodic series of notes punctuated the polite woman’s voice over the train speaker. The noise roused a young boy from a light doze and he stared out of the window. He watched as a lit-up city of lights and busy people passed by outside the window. The young boy had been travelling for a few hours now, from his home in Kyoto. Tired and uncomfortable, he stretched out his arms before standing up and pulling down a large sports bag from the overhead compartment and sitting back down, placing it over his lap.

    He was 15 years old, and dressed in black jeans, white sneakers, a black denim jacket, with the grey hood of his sweater coming out from it’s collar. He had a shock of black, wild hair that looked like he had attempted to tame it, but it had settled at a slightly backward angle, giving the boy a leonine appearance. His eyes were a light blue, but they looked tired and frustrated. He unzipped the bag in front of him and fished around inside. He retrieved a silver pin from the bag and examined it closely. The pin was shaped like a Latin cross with the lower end carved to a point to look like a sword. Around the cross coiled two serpents whose heads met at the top, their fangs bared at one another.

    He scowled at the trinket and tossed it back in his bag, letting it drop to his feet, before he leaned back and sagged into the seat, staring out the window once more. Here he was, 15 years old and just about to start Senior high school. However, he wasn’t joining any ordinary school. For the next three years of his life he would be stuck in some rural seaside town in Ibaraki prefecture. He cursed silently to himself as he thought back to how this had all happened.

    --- --- --- ---

    Kyoto, 3 days earlier

    Steam rolled through the small but tightly packed dining room of Sanada’s from the kitchen. The room was mostly filled with couples and businessmen who were talking among each other, eating and drinking. The man himself, Sanada, was surveying the restaurant with a perpetual frown on his face, despite nothing really being wrong. After a moment he stepped through to the kitchen, which was a flurry of activity as his small team of chefs busied themselves cooking meals for the customers.

    “Nakayama!” He called out as he walked through the kitchen. There was no response from any of his chefs. “Nakayama!” Sanada called out again, this time more irritated.
    “He’s over there, boss.” One of the chef’s replied, pointing away from the cooks area, to a corner at the far end of the kitchen. Sanada walked over and folded his arms, frowning at the young boy.
    “Nakayama, answer me when I call for you, boy!” He said, but the boy ignored him and continued with his work.

    Plates and bowls, freshly rinsed, flew into the large plastic racks at alarming speed, landing noisily in the notches on the racks that were shaped to house them. A tinny sound of heavy metal emanated from the ears buds in Nakayama’s ears as he shoved the rack down in to the industrial dishwasher and closed it shut. He began rinsing and tossing plates on to the next rack, before he noticed the shadow looming over him, and turned around to see Sanada standing inches from him, silently ranting. He boy frowned and pulled an earbud from his ear. “Boss?” He asked.

    “Nakayama Shinji!” Sanada roared, his face beat red from anger. “How many times have I told you not to listen to that trash when you’re working!? You listen to me boy, the kitchen-“
    “The kitchen is about teamwork, and you can’t have teamwork without communication.” Shinji interrupted, rolling his eyes. “What’s the big deal? I collect the dishes, I was the dishes, I put the clean dishes away for the chefs. How does that require me communicating with anyone?”

    “Don’t talk back to your elders, you little punk!” Sanada replied, grabbing Shinji by his apron and pulling him away from the corner, shoving him towards the pass. “Plates are gathering on the tables. Go collect them before I tan your hide, you little brat.”
    “Tch!” Shinji said with a shrug. “Why didn’t you just say so?” He asked as he sauntered off towards the pass, grabbing a wide container on his way and holding it with one hand against his waist.

    He walked in to the restaurant itself and began moving around the tables, picking up plates and putting them in the container, half-heartedly nodding at the customers as he did. When he was done he made his way back to the kitchen, but felt a hand grip his arm and hold him back. He turned to the customer, a young businessman in his mid 20’s who looked like he’d had a bit too much Sake.
    “Get me a beer would you?” The man asked

    Shinji paused, frowning. “Sorry, you need to ask some-“
    “I asked you to get me a beer, isn’t that your job?” The man asked.
    “Nah it ain’t my job, asshole. As I was just telling you, if you’d only listened.” Shinji pulled his arm from the man’s grasp and went to leave.
    “Who the hell do you think you are talking to a customer like that, huh?” The man barked. “Is taking a drinks order to complicated for a loser like you, dishwasher?”

    The room fell quiet at the sound of raised voices. There was a clattering in the kitchen and Sanada turned round just in time to see the tray of plates fall to the floor with a crash, and Shinji had lifted the man from his seat by his shirt, and was holding his face inches from his own. “Say that again, asshole!” Shinji snarled at the man.
    “Oi! Nakayama!” Sanada yelled as he bustled over. “Nakayama, let him go right now!”
    Shinji snarled through gritted teeth, but after a pause, he released his grip from the man and turned to walk away.

    “Heh…” The man said with a smirk, a sound of mild relief in his voice. “Your dad should have taught you some respect, you worthless punk!”
    “Nakayama!” Sanada cried, sensing what was coming, but he was too late. Shinji’s fist crashed in to the man’s face and knocked him flying back into another table. Food went flying everywhere, and the customers started yelling, their evening meal ruined. Pretty soon the place was in anarchy.

    --- --- --- ---

    “This train has arrived at Tokyo Station.” The female voice said as the train doors hissed open. Shinji alighted from the train, his bag slung over his shoulder, as he barged through the crowd of people commuting in the early morning. He lifted his wrist up to look at his watch, a silver timepiece that belonged to his father. On the same wrist was a simple rope charm bracelet, with a number of different silver charms adorning it, including a Star of David, an Egyptian Ankh, a Manji and a number of other unrelated religious symbols.

    “Damn…I missed my train.” He said with a sigh. He was already running late. The school induction was in the mid morning and it was still another couple of hours before he would make it to the town, let alone the school. He walked through the huge train station, checking the information boards overhead and listening to the announcements. It was another half hour before he found himself sat on a train bound for Ibaraki. He tossed his bag in the overhead compartment and sat down on a seat by himself and waited for the train to depart.

    --- --- --- ---

    Shinji walked home through the streets of Kyoto that night. The rage and chaos of the altercation had left him now, and he had come out of the other end fired from his part time job. He felt angry at the rude drunk who had caused the whole mess, and angry at Sanada for not seeing his side of things. However, for the most part he was just angry at himself. He was a screw up in all aspects of life. He had barely scraped through junior high, with grades so poor his future career prospects looked grim. On top of that he had never been involved with extra curricular societies, after being banned from the Kendo club, the soccer team, and the track team he was no longer welcome with any of them.

    It didn’t help that all three occasions were the result of fights. He had a temper, he knew that. Equally he knew that in general it was the other person’s fault. They were all idiots, and they pissed him off. Yet he was the one to suffer in the end. So who was the real idiot? He shook his head in frustration as he reached the gate to a peculiar looking building that stood quite out of place around the traditional Kyoto architecture. The temple was modelled after a European fashion. A sign at the gate of the property read: The Church of St. Giles. Shinji pushed the gate open. Home sweet home.

    He bypassed the actual church building and instead made his way to the side building where his home was. He pushed open the front door and quietly said “I’m home.” In the hope he wouldn’t actually be heard. He removed his shoes and left them by the door, and walked through the main hall. As he put his foot on the first step to the next floor, someone spoke.
    “Shinji…come here please.” The voice was a man’s. It was deep, calm and confident. Shinji sighed and turned around, making his way in to the room further down the hall where the voice had came from.

    Shinji’s father’s study was lit by warm lamplight. His father sat behind a writing desk facing Shinji. He was dressed in the black clerical uniform of a catholic priest. He had similar features to his son, except his hair was brown, he had a trimmed goatee, and his leonine hair was trimmed slightly shorter and looked decidedly neater. Masa Nakayama was focused on a book on his desk, that he was slowly thumbing through. A cigarette sat in the ashtray by his hand, the smoke cascading in thin wisps through the air. To the right of it was a glass of single malt whisky.

    “Sanada called earlier. He explained what happened.” Masa said, not looking up.
    “It wasn’t my fault, dad.” Shinji replied. “The guy was a jerk! He kept pushing my buttons.”
    “And you could not simply turn the other cheek?” Masa asked. “This behavior…it never stops getting you in to trouble. You never stop to think about the consequences of your actions. How it affects those around you.”
    “Tch!” Shinji scoffed. “Just like you to worry about how my problems affect you.”

    “Sometimes I wonder what I’ve done to deserve such an insolent child.” Masa replied, sighing. He looked up to the ceiling. “I’m fairly certain he’s sitting up there laughing his ass off right now.”
    “God?” Shinji asked.
    “No, you’re grandfather.” Masa said with a raised brow. “He had a sick sense of humour. Although I suppose The Lord is not above a chuckle now and then.” He took a moment to sip from his glass and take a drag of his cigarette. “He was a lot like you, actually. You’re grandpa, not The Lord, obviously.” He shook his head. “That man was always getting himself in trouble, and it was my mother and I who suffered for it.”

    “You’ve laid on the guilt pretty thick all my life, dad.” Shinji said, folding his arms. “I’ve heard this lecture a thousand times. Can’t you just be like everyone else and just accept that I’m a screw up?” He let his head sag. “It’s probably easier that way…”
    “If I wanted easy I’d have disowned you years ago.” Masa said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I think my life with the Order was easier. Still, when your mother left it’s not like I had much choice.”
    “Oh, gee, thanks dad.” Shinji said, turning to leave.

    “I haven’t excused you!” Masa said with an authoritative tone. Shinji turned round and for the first time his father had looked up from his book, and his dark eyes were looking right at his son. Shinji shifted uncomfortably. He never liked how his father seemed to have a stare that could see deep inside a person.
    “Wow, finally decided to pay enough attention to stop reading that book?” Shinji asked.

    “Oh, sorry.” Masa replied, lifting the book up. “You know me, I always get caught up in my doujins. But seriously look at these things!” Masa turned the book over to reveal a number of illustrated panels of women with large breasts. Shinji’s eye twitched uncontrollably.
    “You’re a freakin’ pervert, old man!” He snapped. “How the hell can you preach about God and read that trash. Isn’t lust a sin?”
    “Oh yes, a very tempting one.” Masa replied. “But I never could resist a big pair of…”
    “Dad!” Shinji snapped, noticing his father becoming transfixed on the book once more. Masa coughed and put the book down.

    “Oh lighten up. I’m sure The Lord will forgive me my love of big cans. Hell, if I didn’t love ‘em so much then I probably wouldn’t have chased your mother. And then you’d still just be a twinkle in my eye.”
    “What the hell, dad!?” Shinji barked. “You are the worst priest on the planet. Hands down. You creepy, old perv!”
    “Yeah…I was never really cut out for the clergy.” Masa said with a smirk. “Bills need paid, though. Anyway we’re getting off topic.”

    “Oh, sorry for distracting you from scolding me.” Shinji replied.
    “You’re forgiven.” Masa said, apparently missing the sarcasm. “Listen, son. Your grades are…poor, to say the least. You’ve lost three jobs in the last 2 months. I’m afraid you’re going to flunk your first year of high school. I’m afraid…I’ve had to take desperate measures.”
    “I am not going to a convent!” Shinji snapped, holding his arms up in front of him in an X shape.

    “No, you’re not.” Masa said calmly. He opened the drawer of his desk and retrieved a small, silver pin and placed it on the table. “At great personal expense I’ve arranged for you to be enrolled in my old high school. I’d say it’s more like military school than a convent, really.” Shinji looked at the small pin and felt like his heart had stopped. The room spun for a moment, and he felt sick.
    “You…you’re joking, right?” He asked

    “I wouldn’t joke about this.” Masa replied. “This is your last chance to shape up. I think it’s for the best.”
    “You think sending me off to hunt demons is for the best!?” Shinji yelled, slamming his fist down on the desk. “Are you insane!?”

    “It didn’t do me any harm.”Masa replied. “Made me who I am, actually.”
    “Who you are!?” Shinji roared. “You’re a washed up old priest who drinks too much and stares at cartoon tits all day!”
    “Well, who I used to be then.” Masa corrected. Shinji laughed bitterly, turning around and walking back to the door.

    “Like that guy is so much better.” He said through gritted teeth. “Some workaholic asshole who couldn’t spend any time with his family, until his wife couldn’t handle taking care of his deadbeat son any more, and she left you! Left both of us!” Shinji slammed his fist into the wall by the door, seething with anger. “And there it is! You had to leave your job and come and take care of me. And now you’re sick of me too.”

    “Shinji…it’s not like-“
    “Save it!” Shinji screamed. “To hell with this! Going to this damn school’s gotta be better than staying here with you!” He yelled as he walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

    --- --- --- ---

    “Now arriving at Aranami.” The female voice said. It had been hours and Shinji had dozed off again. He stood up as the train stopped and pulled his bag from the overhead compartment. He slung it over his shoulder and stepped off the train and on to an unmanned platform, that looked more like a bus shelter than anything else. Immediately he noticed that it was pouring with rain, and in moments he was soaked right through. As the train departed he heard thunder rumble in the distance, and a flash of light lit up the dark, grey sky. In the distance he saw the ocean, the source of the salty smell in the air.

    There on a large rock out in the sea, past the port town of Aranami, was a large collection of buildings. The rock was connected to the mainland only by a single, large bridge. “So…that’s Aranami Academy.” He said to himself. “Do your worst…a little rain never hurt anybody.” He walked towards the town.