Sir Vey Lance

Graduate
  • Content count

    123
  • Joined

  • Last visited

Community Reputation

4 Neutral

About Sir Vey Lance

  • Rank
    Edgy McEdge
  • Birthday 07/22/1993

Profile Information

  • Custom Title
    The Knight who says Ni
  • Gender
    Male
  • Location
    Not the Sun
  • Occupation
    Academic Slave
  • Interests
    Reading, gaming, watching anime, dota (my name is also Sir Vey Lance there, add me!), minmaxing everything I play.

Role Play Details

  • Favorite RP Genre
    Scifi, fantasy
  • Role Playing Style
    Impossibly cool actions mixing with pseudo food for thought. My goal is to give wstgfl an aneurysm when his RP has more wordcount than War and Peace by the 4th page.
  • Favorite Character
    Ingkells Fulgurax
  • Current Roleplays
    Mitsuba Academy: Demon Hunters
  1. Ignore this (double posted)
  2. Once I was sure that Haruka had safely reached our basement and locked the door, I got back to the Honda Civic and clicked my tongue at the sight. A swarm of netherworld insect had somehow attached themselves around the frame of my car, their tiny proboscis reaming nonstop at the steel body panels, mandibles clicking in disappointment at the apparent lack of organic components. One of the fleshsuckers perked up and sauntered lazily toward my direction, its eyes glowing orange even against the late afternoon overcast. I recognized the minor Thrall I have befriended all those years ago, Guk. “Ygnaaih thflthkh’ngha t’bhnk Dagon…” the syllables he uttered poured thickly like tar and thunderously like the discharge of a cannon into my ears. Reflexively, I clutched my head and winced. “Grah’n…n’grkdl’lh kadishtu.” “Aye, boss,” Guk nodded brightly and instead projected his thoughts into mind as per my plea, “haven’t seen you around Pandemonium for a while.” “Can’t imagine why,” I answered using the same method. “Last I heard there’s a call for Oblivion with my name in the chorus circulating all the way down to Second Circle.” “Well, that’s a little crazier than your usual antics,” Guk mused. “I approve. So what happened?” I kept a blank face. “I chose being a human once again.” “What?” Guk squeaked, his wings faltering for a good second. “That doesn’t make any sense! You have been part of the Cult far longer than any of us here, boss! Why did you leave now?” So I told him. “Wait, wait, wait,” Guk said. “Let me get this straight. You have a wife now?” “Yes, but that’s not-” “Cool, how hot is she? Can I see her? Which base have you both gotten to?” he asked enthusiastically. I frowned. “Let’s get back to our conversation. This isn’t about my wife.” He rolled his compound eyes along with his head. “Seems to me everything that has and will happen to you is because of your wife. Our own people notwithstanding, the Crusaders aren’t going to be cool with you hooking up with one of their own. Remember Innsmouth?” I found myself smiling. “The world is a different and brighter place now, my friend. The Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Salem Witch-hunters, they are all but forgotten by history. It’s the Paladins and the Hunters who are in charge, and frankly they aren’t such a bad bunch.” “And how did you figure that one out?” he asked quietly. “Because I am here. Because when everything came crashing down, it was not the pity of my liege, but the mercy of my once sworn enemy which allowed me to survive outside the reason of time,” I answered, spreading my arms in demonstration. “In any case, I’m afraid I must ask that we continue this conversation at some other time, there’s a manifestation inside the city, and I want to stop it. Since we happened to meet, perchance do you know about any other Thrall who has gone out of Pandemonium for a feast tonight? Someone that masquerades itself as a train and…hmm…smells of sulfur and offal.” “Thralls other than my swarm?” Guk pulsed questioningly, his neck elongating to look at the city. “Well, since you aren’t running errands for you-know-who anymore, it’s open season on humans for almost everyone.” His eyes flicked in every direction, “can’t tell you more than that, sorry.” “Hey,” I pulsed back a thought. “What’s with the shifty looks?” “What shifty looks?” “You know I can tell you are not telling me everything, right?” “Don’t know what you are talking about.” “Guk.” Guk’s mandibles drooped. “Do I have to?” “Hey,” I flicked him lightly with my fingers. “Centuries of standing up for each other, and this is how you treat your old friend?” “Ugh, no offense but…,” his mandibles drooped a little. “You do realize if either your Patron or Mother Hydra found out that I have had this conversation with you, I’m dead as a door nail right? We are not… batting for the same side any longer.” Ah, moment of dawning comprehension. I lifted my palm, gathering magical essence until the tip of my fingers grew lambent. “Suppose that I exchange this information for a few motes of magic that could keep your swarm in this world past midnight, would it be well worth the minuscule risk? I heard the garbage plant on the outskirt of the city is full of succulent rodents this time of the year, but it will take a while to get there. ” Guk gulped, and then he really gulped. For an eldritch abomination, it was far too easy to play this little glutton like a fiddle. I caught up to the train perhaps a minute or so later. The pocket watch in my hand hummed its steady rhythm, folding space and time to keep up with the Thrall’s pace. In this form, de Marigny’s Clock was incapable of performing more impressive feats of distortion such as allowing me to directly enter the creature’s interior. Living flesh was always a pain for magic to go through, though I suppose that turned out to be the best. Otherwise pyromancers wouldn’t have bothered with fireballs and instead conjured a pyre from within their opponent’s body. The Thrall felt my approach. It hissed a warning. That this was its territory, these were its preys, and I was to back down. I lifted up my other hand, which was holding the Heart. I summoned my sorcerous will, murmured a chant, and readied a door-unlocking spell. Only that I turned it all the way to eleven. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" Silvery mist filed the surrounding as a prodigious tentacle rushed out of my chest cavity and lunged for the door located at the back of the train. It was slate gray on top, shading to a fleshy pink beneath, with rows and rows of suckers on the underside. All moving and writhing like hundred of small puckering mouths. It slapped against the metal frame and slipped around its surface, working its way deeper in by melting through everything. Blood, as red as the crimson tide that heralds the Deep Ones’ hunt, began to seep out of the wounds that had been carved into the Thrall. I gave the clock in my hand a slight squeeze, and in exchange it vanished, freeing my hand for what was to come. I reached for Haruka’s holy blade at my side, unsheathing Excalibur from its scabbard. It radiance seared through my palm, burning my entire right hand with its righteous inferno. “For crying out loud, I’m doing your owner a favor here,” I muttered to no one in particular before stepping on the train, and pushing my way through the wall of exterior wall of partially digested meat. And bumped right into another paladin of the church, apparently fighting a Wraith that looked like a mass-grave on wheels. Both of them looked at me. “Hi, I know this is a lot to take in but I am actually on your side,” I said lamely to the paladin. “Here, got this holy blade to prove my words.” In retrospect, perhaps a smarter man than I would have withdrawn the Old God’s tentacle still extending itself from his chest before doing so. And perhaps, he would have remembered that Excalibur was, officially speaking, categorized as stolen and possibly corrupted by a Demon.
  3. I sat down at the dining table, looked steadily at my wife and said, “I think you are in danger.” Haruka Murasaki was a tall woman of imposing stature, though she was a lot meaner now than all the time we’d seen or fought each other in the past. Months in bed and more months in therapy had left her a shadow of her former self, and she never could find the stamina to eat and exercise back all the missing muscle. Still, she remained as one of the fittest and finest ladies I have had the pleasure to meet, in this life and the last. Haruka smiled at me, eyes leaving the menu to gaze directly at mine. Those hadn’t changed. If anything, I could have sworn her smile seemed more content, more flushed with mirth than when I had first met her. “Danger?” she asked me, a hint of catty playfulness. “Good grief.” I took off my overcoat and handed it to a waiter in exchange for the bottle of red wine he was handling. “I know I’m a master of poorly-timed jokes, but this time it’s serious.” I reached over and poured into our glasses. “Tatsuya, dear. You do realize a Knight of the Cross being troubled by danger is like a fish afraid of drowning, yes?” She cupped a palm around her rosy lips, pretending for it to be a respirator. “Warlock. You merely adopted danger. I was born in it. Molded by it. I didn’t even know about handrail and seatbelt until I was already a woman,” she spoke in a nasal, theatrical voice. “Make it Mr. Ex-Warlock please, Ms. Ex-Knight of the Cross.” Despite the gravitas of the situation, I couldn’t help but left out a quiet laugh at the reference. “Difference being I could still kick your ass even with us both going into early retirement though.” “Well, well, someone sure is full of himself today. I heard the couch is rather cold and hard this time of the year, would suck for someone to have to sleep on it.” She took a swig from the glass, her other hand steadying the wooden cane leaning against the seat next to her. Nerve damage had left her right leg rigid to the point where a prosthetic would offer more flexibility, and her internal organs were about half as capable as they used to be. It made her run short of breath doing mundane stuff as jogging. I knew she was looking at me with her clear, blue eyes, but not seeing very well with at least one of them. Coming face to face with a Demon never leaves one whole. And yet, she did it without a moment of hesitation. All for the salvation of one wayward soul that deserved to burn in hell for eternity. “So, what sort of trouble is it this time?” she asked me at last, smile still not faltering. I looked down at the envelope I had in my right pocket and wished I couldn’t picture its content with near eidetic memory. They were photos, grainy and taken from near impossible angles. They were Haruka playing the organ for the choir kids; Haruka walking next to me in our courtyard; Haruka at her prime, wearing a white robe marked with a bright red crusader’s cross, the Blade of Compassion gleaming with sacred light in her both hands. The pictures had come in the mail directly to my office at Tokyo University. I checked and checked: no note inside, no sender’s name, no nothing. But it was clear as day what the intention of the person behind them all was. My old nemesis, my savior, my wife, the former Knight of the Cross, was in danger. I showed the envelope to her, eyeballing the room to make sure no one else could see its content as Haruka flipped through them. “I think you should hold on to the Sword. Its divine power still lingers, if anything happens while I’m not there, it will protect you.” She stared at the pictures for a moment, then me, then the steak and salad plate freshly served before saying. “The Sword is where it should be at the moment. It was meant to save others, not its wielder. It’s not my calling to take it up again, Tatsuya – especially not for the wrong reason. I will not live in fear, and neither should you.” “Well, I will settle for the both of us living in healthy caution.” “Would you believe me if I told you that He wouldn’t give both of us a second chance only to call us back to Him right after? I don’t think we have reached the end of our allotted time.” I gave her a dry smile, cutting into my steak with half-hearted enthusiasm. “Well, I seem to recall a phrase that says: No one knows when that day or hour will come.” She looked impressed. “You have been reading. Color me delighted. But I’m afraid you misjudged the meaning of that sentence.” My shoulders drooped. “Love. I know you have the best of intention in your heart. And I do think that God loves his children equally, which is precisely why He won’t play favorite. A lot of people get dealt a devastating hand by fate even when they don’t deserve it, no matter if they are a saint or a sinner. I have seen that far too many times, and I don’t want to see it again, especially to you.” “Listen to me, Tatsuya,” she grabbed my hand tenderly. It felt warm. “I’m not afraid.” The knot in my gut tied itself ever tighter. If that was the case, then it was time to play dirty. “What about your parents, love? Your siblings? Your choir kids at the church? If people have a grudge against you, they will get to you via ways that hurt the most.” I’d seen her displaying less severe expression on that night when her soul was rend by my Patron. Her eyes opened wider, and she looked at her cane uncertainly. “What do you have in mind?” she asked me after what felt like an eternity later. I opened my mouth, on the verge of forming my reply, when a cold chill crept down my spine and jerked my head sideway. My eyes caught sight of a train heading into a tunnel on the far side of the city, and every muscle and nerve within my body suddenly went into overdrive at the familiar sensation. I turned to face her. “We need to leave, now.” “What’s wrong?” she asked on our way to the car. I shot a glance in the direction of the train tunnel and rested my foot on the pedal. “Pandemonium has leaked into this city. It was hovering around the train that passed by our restaurant just now. I can sense it, something between a Bedlam and a full Manifestation, and it’s growing fast.” My eyes narrowed as my hand ripped into an unseen dimension through a hovering portal, pulling out a wet, still beating purple heart that radiated raw power. Darkness reached up and consumed the car, depositing it a few dozen miles away from where we were just seconds ago. “Go into the underground shelter, open your door for no one but me and the padre. I will intercept the train.”
  4. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    “Where are you?” Misa inquired over the phone. “Had a spot of problem with parking,” Raiha answered through his earpiece. He could hear the crackling sound of fire and something like falling debris - background noises coming from the other side of the call. “ETA one minute.” He shoved his way through an old fence leading down a deserted looking alleyway filled with flies-infested garbage bags, then ran up a nearby surface and vaulted over the brick wall at the end of the way. Landing with a loud clang made by his steel greaves, Raiha looked up and frown. At the mass of unconscious people outside the cordon. “We got a situation at the front. Multiple bodies on the ground. I will try to determine if there are survivors,” Raiha said over the line. “Suspecting nerve gas or some kind of psychic assault, be care-“ “Disregard the scene. That’s my handiwork. Couldn’t afford any obstruction from the authority. Rest assured, they will regain consciousness within an hour or so,” Misa answered as-a-matter-of-factly. “Going by the wind’s speed and direction, they should be safe at that distance.” Raiha let that information sink in, then exhaled and summoned his weapons from fragments and motes of light. With the Blade of Mercy in one hand and the Shield of Faith surrounding him like a radiant cloak, he took in a breath and walked through the fire and flame.
  5. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Raiha caught a whiff of demonic taint and reached for the holy pendant hanging on his neck, about thirty second before he saw Misa heading to school on the other side of the road. She didn’t look good. Her strides looked heavy, difficult, and she made this occasional groan every time someone from the morning crowd bumped into her. Guess I am not the only maniac when it comes to combat training around here. His eyes narrowed, either from the insomnia-addled migraine or the thought that sprung forth from within. With two third of the Mitsuba’s defense force so indisposed, now would be a really bad time for a Warlock to come a-knocking. He supposed the situation would be a great deal better if those pesky evildoers also suffered from cramps and bruises as part of their training. Yet somehow their demonic powers must have come in neat packages labelled “Just Add Water!” considering the fresh number of Warlocks that kept on showing up, eager for a fight. In the past, most of them were pushovers, but now and again a real troublesome one would appear, just like the shadowy butcher that could stop the flow of time itself they were dealing with. A whole night of sleeplessness did provide Raiha with a certain idea of how this problem could be dealt with, but he wasn’t entirely convinced of even his own plan. For starter, it would involve him and his companions being completely exsanguinated…Well, potentially so. Bringing up a rueful smile, Raiha crossed the road to greet Misa, then instructed her to meet up at the church once school is over. He then took out his phone to message Honoka, asking that she would help him deliver a message to a certain haughty first-year Demon Hunter. ---- “Ah, Erin-chan and Misa-san, I have been expecting you,” Raiha loudly announced the moment he heard footsteps entering through the church’s oaken door. "Both of you must be wondering why I have gathered you here." “Dude, what’s with the lameass Bond villain pose and lines?” Erin answered, her mouth curling up into a grin. “Don’t look now but I think he’s mentally crossing out an entry in his bucket list,” Misa added with a straight face. Raiha turned around to face them. “Guilty as charged, always wanted to say that once in my life.” He made a gesture with his hand and beckoned the gale to close all the doors leading into the main hall. “Let’s get straight to business, I’m here to ask for your help in putting down a certain time-stopping friend we have had the pleasure to meet lately.” “Putting down? As in apprehending him?” Misa reconfirmed. “No, as in putting him down underground, six feet under.” Erin crossed her arms. “Funny, always thought you paladins are big on the whole saving lost lambs and turning the other cheek deal.” “He’s too dangerous. Some of the Warlocks wield their power out of desperation or are simply drunk on it, but this man is an extremist with his own conviction and code of conduct,” Raiha replied. “I have spent the past few days developing a countermeasure for his power. A certain variation of a bounded field that behaves in the same way as a demonic barrier, only instead of empowering the conduit within, it disrupts the Warlock’s ability to channel the power of their otherworldly patron.” Misa thought about it. “And how about other kind of supernatural power?” “They will be disabled as well. Unfortunately, I have not reached a state of mastery where I can choose who this technique affects. As long as you are inside, you are as much a victim of it as your foe. But even so, it will be three of us against one of him, mortals against mortal. I would greatly appreciate your assistance in subduing the target. Everything that comes after, I will take care of and take responsibility for it.” The little voice of doubt rang out in his mind again, this time not questioning his plan, but his goal. Are you sure about this Raiha. If you kill a killer, then the number of killers in the world remains the same. Raiha closed his eyes. If he had to put the weight of his own sins against the sake of his loved ones, then one way or another the balance could never hold. He suppressed that little voice of conscience, snuffing it out till it was nothing more than a bare echo within the deep recess of his mind. The truth is simple, yet brutal. Once you have prepared yourself to go after killers using their own method, you better have the resolve to do it again. For the number of killers in the world to drop, he will have to put down more than one of them.
  6. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    In this place the darkness reigns eternal. There is no dusk, no dawn, just the perpetual gloom of night. The only illumination comes from jagged forks of lightning above, carving a radiant path through tumultuous clouds. In their savage wake thunder shreds the sky, unleashing a torrent of pelting, freezing rain. A storm is coming, and this time there is no escape. Raiha’s eyes blinked open, the fire and fury conjured by the nightmarish vision snapping his thought away from its meditative state. He sat still and quiet, then slowly discharged the Resplendence he had been holding on to, feeling its suffocating effect easing up on both his body and mind as he mumbled a quiet verse. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. A moment of tranquility washed over Raiha, calming his frayed nerves and washing away the irrational terror that lingered behind still. He knew he did not sleep, yet again the same dream came, and he knew better than to merely dismiss it. The storm that haunted him each time he closed his eyes was more than just a nightmare. Conjured up from the deepest corners of his mind, the howling gale and roaring thunder had meaning. But try as he might, Raiha couldn’t figure out what his subconscious was trying to tell him. Was it a warning? A long-forgotten memory? A vision of the future? All three? Taking a look at his cellphone’s display, he exited the Shirakawa family’s doujo and went into the refresher to splash some cool water on his face. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he immediately looked away, then paused and turned back to study his reflection. It had only been three years since he discovered his higher calling, and yet Raiha was already having difficulty reconciling the face in the mirror with its equivalent from junior high. Once Raiha had uncombed red hair that was haphazardly styled to look like a punk artist, silver earrings that glittered in sunlight. He even went as far as getting a matching silver piercing underneath his lower lip during his rebellious state, just to spite his conservative and very much oriental father. Now, not a single piece of jewelry could be spotted on his face, and fatigue was taking its toll. His angular features had become thin and drawn. His sunken cheekbones accentuated the heavy circles under eyes that stared back at Raiha from deep hollows. They were dark and distant, and reflected from them was a weary calm that came from seeing far too much but forgetting far too little. Bracing his hands on both sides of the sink, he slumped his head and let the water from the faucet flow through his hair, letting out a long, low sigh, his hair falling forward to cover his face like a red curtain. It was felling night when Raiha returned to the doujo and reached for his Blade of Mercy, hoping to try again for Divine Sanctuary to work. But tried as he might, the holy incantation was worlds and dimensions above what an amateur like him could possibly hope to accomplish. It was told amongst the Acolyte, that the Saints of old turned ancient battlefields into holy grounds with their mere presence, suppressing the taint of Demons and conjuring fragments of Heaven with choirs of angels simply through words of prayer. Yet here Raiha stood, struggling to even bring his mind to state where he could utter the incantation, let alone empowering it. He tried again, and just like yesterday, his effort was in vain. Two hours later, Raiha lay on his bed with the resigned air of someone who had long abandoned any hope of sleep. With luck, he would have just enough mental resilience to last through the next eight hours of school in the morning. His eyes closed, and his breath slowed down. A terrible world of thunder and lightning, shrouded in perpetual night. He saw it again this time. He couldn’t tell what this vision was about, or where it took place, but it came to him every time he pushed himself to his mortal limit, each time with more clarity than the last. It was as ferocious and frightening as a stormy sea. As strange and stricken as a shape in the mist. As heavy as duty itself. A storm is coming, and this time there is no escape.
  7. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    A storm was coming. The gale howled. Spears of lightning jabbed at the earth erratically, like a really passionate yet wholly inexperienced lover. Thunder rumbled and rolled across the sky, thrumming through the dense, rain-lashed concrete jungle that was Mitsuba. The recent blackout had enshrouded both the town and the city of Tokyo deep within shadow’s embrace. The night was as dark as ink, and colder than the icy heart of a yuki-onna. It was the kind of night that little voice in our head had conditioned us into fearing, on which things go bump in the dark, where gods and devils moved men as if they were pieces on a divine chestboard. Amidst the elemental cacophony, a small flickering candlelight gleamed amongst the wooden furniture of the restaurant. It illuminated three figures gathering in a corner of the room, whispering amongst themselves. And, appropriately, as a flash of lightning split the sky, a deep, basso voice spoke: “When shall we three meet again?†A contemplative pause. Raiha lifted an eyebrow. Finally Erin answered, in far more ordinary tones: “Well I got a raid boss to kill with my WoW clan on Friday, so let’s hit the festival on Saturday?â€
  8. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Raiha immediately ducked and rolled to his right, and an instant later a stream of projectiles cannonaded through the empty space he had occupied. More bullets came in from somewhere above, though their advanced was halted by a vicious windstream that scattered them in every direction but his. By the time he regained his balance, a cloud of dust and debris stirred up by Misa’s previous assault had cloaked the courtyard from view. But Raiha could hear her rapid footsteps darting through the haze, the click-clack noise of Geminus as she carried the weapon toward a different vantage point. Raiha could tell she was somewhere on the same level, encircling him together with her clones before going in for the finishing blow. Just as planned. Raiha clapped his hands together, murmured an incantation, and summoned three lightning balls in rapid order. The magic coalesced into being with a disproportionately loud boom and was followed by the sizzling of gas being turned into plasma. They spun with storm-wrought fury around him before dispersing into the thick veil of obscuration, and at the sound of her startled gasp, Raiha could tell the balls had sought out all copies of Geminus and tazed their wielders. To his left flank, the real Misa suddenly appeared: a sudden blur of dark hair tied into a bun, narrowed brown eyes, and militaristic combat outfit with reinforced joints and a mesh of insulating weave. She blitzed toward him with the speed and fury of a hunting eagle, and Raiha lifted his gigantic Blade of Mercy as if to meet her head on. At the last second, he raised up a handgun pointing directly at her forehead – even as she did the exact same thing with a firearm strapped to her thigh. There was a sudden moment of clarity in both of their eyes, and the two demon hunting partners immediately sidestepped away from each other instead of risking a shot. For a moment, they stood and gazed at each other, unflinching. If this was a spaghetti western, one would have seen a tumbleweed rolling around in the background just as the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly soundtrack came to a crescendo. “I suppose it’s a draw, again,†Raiha said at last, raising his palms after sheathing both his blade and gun. Thwip, thwip. Two paintballs immediately splashed their pinkish content against Raiha’s chest. “Nope, I won this time,†Misa replied, blowing away the imaginary smoke trailing from her handgun. “The battle is never over until your opponent is dead or incapacitated. You would do well to remember that, young padawan.†“That’s some real spirit of sportsmanship coming from you,†he regarded his now stained shirt and replied dryly. She shrugged. “The way I see it, a meal that cost me my dignity is still a free meal.†High above, tumultuous thundercloud began to gather in more and more vast quantity. Drops of rain heralding an imminent downpour started to come down as the both of them raised up their hand to block away the blinding flash of the occasional lightning. A pleasant smile touched Raiha’s lip. He was starting to doubt if the weather forecast about the coming storm during Friday’s night was off. “I think out of thirteen million people in Tokyo, you are the only one who would look to a sky like this and grin,†Misa said, looking up and then at him. “Check your privilege, woman. At least you can practice all your tactical shooting and close quarter combat whenever and wherever you want. When your sole power is gale and lightning, you can’t afford to go ham without announcing your presence to every Warlock and bakufu agent in the entire city,†Raiha answered. “This storm will mask my power usage splendidly. Last thing I need right now is even more undue attention.†“Fair point. So what’s the deal? You said you are being hunted by a time-stopping Warlock, I reckon today’s meeting is about that particular issue?†“It’s just a theory of mine,†Raiha said. “Do you know that fundamentally speaking, stopping time is a utterly nonsensical notion?†Misa made an indifferent shrug with her shoulders. “Air molecules held in stasis would stop whoever initiates the time stop from moving, breathing, speaking, even seeing because light couldn’t travel into his eyes. If his power affects only a certain radius around him, the whole area would be ripped away from the ground and tossed into space as the Earth continued to travel through the universe. Isaac Asimov wrote something along those lines, if I recall correctly.†“Yes, and the fact that he had seemingly produced such power anyway leads me to conclude that it’s a form of imitation without the inherent limitation,†Raiha nodded. “When a Warlock fights, his powers manifest most readily within a Dimensional Barrier, yes? And things can get real metaphysical within one, as magic and eldritch laws replace reality as we know it.†“I see. You suspect his Barrier enables him and him alone to take action,†Misa said, gesturing for the both of them to take shelter inside the church as rain began to fall in sheet. “Always fast on the uptake. Yes, that is my conclusion after analyzing the two scenarios I have met him under,†Raiha answered, keeping pace with her. “Therefore, what if we stop him from ever forming his own barrier in the first place?†“Can that be done?†“It will require a particular invocation called Divine Sanctuary, one that can mend all wounds in reality and reinforce its wall, stopping any part of the Abyss from breaching over. However, there is one catch to this high tier invocation. As long as I’m maintaining it, it would drain so much of my Resplendence I won’t be able to cast any other spell during the fight.†“That’s not a problem, isn’t it? I can always tag you out. Without a Barrier to back him up, there’s no way that Warlock could stand up to a Reaper Wielder.†Raiha shook his head. “It’s not so simple. When I said the invocation mends all wounds in reality, that includes the ones cause by Geminus. To put it simply, neither of our magical weapon will be of much use during the fight. We will have to resort to more mundane means of fighting in that event.†Misa thought about it for a moment, then looked up. “So mortal weaponry only. That can be easily arranged. Still, have you thought about how we are supposed to find the Warlock? So far, all we have ever done is reacting to threats. There’s no real way for us to initiate this fight, and the moment his Barrier is erected, it will be far too late for us to fight back.†Raiha smiled, fished out a coin in his pocket and flipped it playfully. “You see, Lightning Step enables me to pour a fraction of my Resplendence into anything I touch, forming a beacon that will never go away as long as I live. Though there’s a range limit to its component, I can instantaneously teleport the both of us to whichever object that I have marked.†He snatched the coin from the air. “When that Warlock showed up to threaten me, let’s just say he might have put his weapon a tad too close to my neck. Enough for a smidgen of my blood, infused with my own Resplendence, to come into contact with the blade.â€
  9. The Heart of Darkness

    Chapter II: Garland When they gave him the cross-shaped medallion, they gave Garland a job. Seek monsters, rogue mages, abominations, paranormal entities, heretics, criminals, enemies of the Alchemist King across the land. Track them, find them, kill them. It was cut and dry efficiency: there was to be no question asked, no claim of innocence entertained, and above all else, failure was never an option. Inquisitors had preys, while soldiers had enemies, because in the latter's line of work, it was an acceptable outcome for soldiers to sometimes lose. This was supposed to be a simple job at first. Archivists were given reports of monster sightings all across the land of Varelish. Yanked away from sleep's sweet embrace by a courier, Garland was summoned to the royal court in the dead of the night as a result. They gave him a terse report on the situation and a deadline of three days to bring order back to the region. From the recount, Raiha had expected some kind of undead army led by a Lich-wannabe. He never thought he would find himself pitted against a horde of abominations sent forth from the deepest depth of the Abyss, much less for a fragment of Shoggoth to show itself in a fight against the Inquisitor. But most of all? He never did anticipate what kind of meeting fate had in store for him. All things considered, Inquisitor Garland had taken quite a liking to Clarissa. She possessed the look and air of a noblewoman, yet lacking the haughtiness so closely associated with the aristocrats he had had the pleasure to be acquainted with thus far. After the battle, when he was just barely conscious and was slipping in and out of death’s door, confusing the hell out of the Grim Reaper, Garland could recall seeing Clarissa moving around the camp restlessly in spite of her own wounds and fatigue. Her attention divided between giving the exhausted soldiers food and water, assigning the healers their tasks, consoling the survivors and periodically checking in on him. The farmers, merchants and soldiers of Callaghan all loved her to death. They raised mugs of ale to the Baroness’ good health and proclaimed their willingness to follow her to the end of the world. Admittedly, he was a little amused by the fact that either the people at the frontline had been too occupied with fighting, or in their haste to make a messiah out of her, had completely left out his part in their recount of the fight. Amused, but not confused, for one always had to be a bit of a liar to tell a good story. In the end, it was having done something right that was important to him, not who learned about and recounted his deeds. Not that credit wasn’t entirely where it was due. After all, she did get the majority of the refugees this far while making a proper fighting force out of a ragtag bunch of misfits that had seen peace for two decades straight. A born leader, a skilled runecrafter and, with her healing power that could bring an injured man back on his feet, a miracle maker. What was there of her for anyone, or for him, to dislike? He idly pondered how differently would these people react if they were to found out the Baroness herself was the only reason why calamity had befallen them. “I saw Callaghan Keep on my way here. What was left of it anyway,†Garland explained calmly, taking a seat next to Clarissa, rotating it so that his arms could rest on the back. “Its walls are nothing but debris and rubbles, the buildings are razed to the ground, ghouls from a nearby necropolis now roam the streets, fighting over the corpses of the abomination’s first victims. Most of your crops are rotting from being exposed to the dark miasma exuded by the horde, what people in the know normally call the Corruption, so I wouldn’t feed my worst enemy the few plants that survived.†Clarissa nodded in quiet acknowledgement of the information and regarded her father’s financial ledger. The young baroness took a deep breath and blew it out again, closing her eyes for a moment. “You will need money, a lot of it I suspect, to repair the keep and to purchase food, medical supplies, clothing for the upcoming winter. No Principality, Dukedom or Fiefdom in its right mind would give a small Keep that much support. They would expect your patron and protector-†Garland drew an air quote with his fingers. “-Duke Aedowin, to offer you support instead.†“And he would be far too pleased to see that my people and I wither away from the cold and the hunger,†she finished his observation. Her eyes opened again, staring ahead. “So my only way out is to seek help from elsewhere. An order with carte blanche on its operating fund, for example. This is what you meant by an offer I can’t refuse.†Garland licked his lips. “If I could, I would offer the people of Callaghan whatever support I can get. That amounts to the five copper in my pocket, by the way. I can’t simply arrange for a small treasury’s worth of gold to be dropped smack dab in the middle of the Keep without a valid reason. Even being an Inquisitor myself, I’m just a low level grub given the mushroom treatment by the old geezers in the grand scheme of things.†Clarissa gave him a questioning glance. “The mushroom treatment?†“Kept in the dark and fed bullshit,†he stated it nonchalantly. That seemed to surprise the Baroness so much, it drew a chuckle from her. Nailed it, Garland, the Inquisitor thought and silently congratulating himself on how much charisma he must be oozing by now in her eyes. There was a moment of contemplative silence. “Say I agree to join the Inquisition, how would that change my situation?†“Well, then I can afford to coordinate a more sizable donation from the royal vault and hopefully convince my bosses that this amount of initial investment is nothing compared to what we will get in return,†he answered. “But why me?†she asked. “What is it exactly that you are getting in return by recruiting a woman who knows next to nothing about the matters of the Inquisition?†“Tell me, Clarissa,†Garland said, leaning forward with interest. “Do you realize what you just showed me today? What exactly did you do to the heat runestone before passing it to the archer so that he could immolate the abomination’s spawn?†“I modified it, made it such that the thermal energy stored within is released at once instead of a steady stream. You can get a thermal explosion if you get it to work.†“Very good,†Garland nodded. “And that, milady, means you have aptitude in one of the eight fundamental schools of magic. Enchantment, to be precise. You see, not any fella with a chisel could have accomplished quite the same feat. Simply erasing and adding lines to a runestone would render it inert, what you need is to pour a measure of will into it, to jumpstart the magical array in a way.†“My mentor Mekal taught me as much. But she also said that there are journeyman rune carvers in the city who could create far more sophisticated setups than what I was struggling to make,†she said. Garland tried to raise an eyebrow. However, the Inquisitor had never quite mastered the art of lifting only one of his brows while locking the other in place, so the overall effect was that he just looked very surprised at her statement. “What is that look all about?†Clarissa voiced her concern. He stopped trying. “Nothing. Then what about when your archer’s arm was removed from the shoulder by one of the abominations. What did you do then?†“I used my Talent,†she said quietly. “It’s something that I developed since young. I can mend wounds and ease pain with it.†“Truly fascinating,†Garland exclaimed. “Do you mind demonstrating it to me again right here?†Clarissa frowned. “You don’t look that injured to me anymore.†Her eyes moved over to his chest, where the abomination from earlier had dug a massive tunnel through. It had healed completely. Garland reached out to grab a letter opener from nearby, then planted the tip into his forearm and dragged in the direction of his shoulder, drawing a long, thin line of red on his skin. He wiped away the blood with the sleeve of his shirt, then returned it to the table. “Now I am. Do you mind giving it another try?†The Baroness looked incredibly weird out by his action, but chose not to make any remark about it as she got to working on the cut. First she inspected its depth and length, murmuring something too hushed and fast for him to hear. Then her palm hovered on top of it, so close he could feel her skin brushing against the hair on his forearm. Shimmering golden particles leaped away from her outstretched hand and flowed steadily into the wound. They gathered up the few drops of blood pulled by gravity onto the floor and gently guided them back to where they came from, gradually knitting the torn flesh in the reverse direction Garland had cut himself, as if he was being patched by an invisible length of surgical suture. Clarissa sagged back into her chair when she was done, gesturing. “There, done. Did I pass the test?†The Inquisitor regarded his arm with a fierce grin. “I knew I wasn't imagining it!†“Mekal also told me stories of healers who could do the same thing. They can mend a broken spine or a severed limb even without the missing part if I recall correctly,†she answered and regarded him with narrowed, dubious eyes. “Still yet to see why you are so insistent, Inquisitor.†“The thing is, Clarissa, the healers your Mentor spoke of and the rune carvers you mentioned earlier? Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, they are two mutually exclusive groups of people,†Garland explained in his excitement. “What you just accomplished was magic from a completely different branch. Abjuration, to be precise. Most wizards and witches only have affinity to a single domain of magic. You can find one of them in…I can’t remember- oh, every ten thousand people, as rare as a five leaf clover. We have yet to reach a consensus on how exactly individuals gifted with magical abilities come into being, but the most prevalent theory so far is some kind of recessive genes passed down the bloodline. Do you know any member of your family who might fit the bill?†“I don’t think so,†Clarissa admitted. “My grandparents passed away before I was born, and I don’t think I have seen my parents doing anything special their whole lives…†She suddenly trailed off, her eyelids fluttering uncertainly. “In fact, my father was quite convinced that my Talent was a curse given by the devil.†Garland stuck out his tongue. “Yeah, sounds legit. If a devil wants you to deliver people from suffering, he would have given you a far more direct means, like a fireball or something. In any case, someone up there in your family tree must have been a practitioner, and he left an amazing gift for you, his descendant, without the both of you ever meeting each other. How cool is that?†“So I’m one of these witches you mentioned?†The Inquisitor shook his head. “Even better. See, witches and wizards are born with power in a single domain, and this remains the case until they die. You have shown me you are capable of two. And with magic where everything is either go big or go home, this can only mean you have access to all eight domains of magic. You, Clarissa, are what we call a sorceress, which is a phenomenally rare occurrence even amongst our kinds. Hell's bell, I’m one of the few guys they put in charge of regulating the supernatural stuff, and my whole life I have met only two sorcerers.†Somehow, the air in the room stilled. Silent. Clarissa regarded Garland with round, even somewhat flabbergasted eyes. Eventually, she answered him. “I have heard the legend, but only in bedtime stories and drunken tales." "You can't have smoke without a fire going on in the first place," he pointed out. "I suppose you have a fair point," she replied, nodding. "Still find it hard to wrap my head around this whole sorceress deal, though.†Garland grinned and gestured his hands in a theatrical manner. “Simply put, it means that you would become an immensely powerful individual given the proper training. That you are gifted by the world to be a paragon of humanity against the threats both within and without. With great power comes great responsibility, et cetera et cetera you know? If you think being a Baroness is a title of wealth and influence, wait until you have seen what other sorcerers and sorceresses have accomplished throughout history. Last I checked, one of them now rule over the entire Antiquan.†“His Royal Highness is a sorcerer?†she asked. “I…this is a lot to take in all at once.†It took Garland every bit of restraint within him to not blurt out a "that's what she said" joke.
  10. The Heart of Darkness

    Chapter I: Clarissa “What the bloody hell,†exclaimed Clarissa as she tried to wrestle the blade from his grip, “are you doing?!†“Saving them…†he muttered, but relinquished the weapon without a struggle. His daughter gritted her teeth in frustration. “Then you have a funny way of doing it, Lord Father. Jasper, Harry, you two come over here and restrain the Baron!†The two soldiers looked at each other in uncertainty and, despite their ranks and posts, complied. Clarissa knelt down to examine Lukel’s body. Trickles of sweat running down her flushed cheeks, she removed his chainmail and hovered a hand above the bleeding, gashing sword wound. A cloud of warm, lustrous golden particles came forth from the tip of her fingers, covering his entire body like a cocoon of light. This carried on for a minute or longer, until the glow died down around Lukel, his body remaining perfectly, completely still. Fuming, Clarissa cursed under her breath. Shaking her head, she stood up and faced the rest of the men who were still capable of holding a blade and a shield in their hands. Clarissa broke the remaining grim-faced soldiers into squads of archers positioned along the two elevated shelf, where their arrows could raise the most carnage when the monsters advanced into the cave. The rest she assigned either a long spear or a large oval curved shield that can mask its holder’s entire profile. The latter marched toward the front in unpracticed but otherwise good order, forming an impenetrable wall of shields separating the spearmen from their adversary during the time of fighting. Another squad stood ready in the back, primed to swap positions with the frontline soldiers at her command. With this set up, injured or exhausted individuals could be quickly recalled and replaced, allowing them to buy as much time as possible. Knowing that she had fulfilled what little her knowledge of warfare could offer, Clarissa approached the soldiers and tried to boost morale with words of encouragement, offering prayers to the devout, tightening a belt here and straightening a chainmail there. Thunder rolled again, sending a wave of tremor through the rest of the cave like a minor earthquake, as the rain outside fell in sheets rather than drops. A thick, greasy, shadowy miasma slowly saturated the atmosphere. Something putrid filled the air, something rotten. Outside, a horde of misshapen monsters moved swiftly toward their final hold. As if the creatures were made to materialize from humanity’s collective nightmares, their appearances alone were horror given flesh, and the noises they made registered more as a shivering in the spine than a sound in Clarissa’s ears. Malice and a ravenous hunger exuded from their features – Clarissa hesitated to use the word faces, for many of them seemed to lack even such a fundamental body part – as they stampeded toward the men and women of Callaghan’s final stand, the larger ones crushing their smaller kin under their steps. But fright was a luxury no one here could afford. “Soldiers, friends, brothers,†Clarissa beckoned, loudly enough to be heard even through the cacophonous background. “This is it, the moment of truth. Look in front of you for your enemies, then behind, at our women and children, for what is at stake. Each and every person of you here has devoted himself in aiding my father, in protecting our land, in honoring our way of life, and for that we have come to trust each other with our lives. These creatures, they are here to destroy our lives, to defile everything we have ever stood for. But if they thought we would let them do as they please without a fight, then they are dead wrong.†“I have heard murmurs of discontent, talks of withdrawal. But I understand your concerns, for even after all is said and done, we are still humans. But all hope is not lost, for even as we speak, my father’s courier is fast on his way here along with the might and fury of the Cross Crusaders right alongside him. With holy steel and blessed silver, they will scoured the earth of these accursed abominations. But before that, think of Ser Farrel the Dragonslayer, who singlehandedly fought the colossus with wings that span mountains. Or King Amzaram, who led a paltry army of one thousand men right into the heart of Hell for ten years and came back triumphant. Before the Crusaders, there were soldiers. And before these monsters, there were humans.†Clarissa put on her helmet, then looked up and gaze into the eyes of her father’s men one last time, for many of them this would be the last opportunity for her to do so. “A week from now, the courage and valor we demonstrate today will be made into chords that make the minstrels weep. A month from now, the king will commission marble statues with the likeness drawn from the best among us, to be placed in Antiquan’s Hall of Glory. A year from now, our names shall forever be engraved in the Canticle of Light. Hold the line! Fight alongside me! Show these vermin what hell truly is!†Steel rasped on steel as a storm of approval spread through nearly one hundred men, sword leaving their sheaths and holding high as fear, through words, transformed into determination. The soldiers’ furious roar shook the atmosphere, amplified tenfold by the echoes reflected from the cave walls and ceiling. “For Callaghan,†they declared in unison. “Men of Callaghan! Who wants to live forever?†Clarissa joined their battle cry and, for a single moment there, she could have fooled herself that there was indeed a courier on his way here with reinforcement. Thunder rumbled. The earth beneath trembled from the horde’s treading. Archers primed their bows, aiming for the largest creature towering over the entrance. The first few of the hellish horde broke into the cave, slamming themselves into the defensive wall and subsequently turned into pin-cushions by the spearmen. One of the shield holders got swallowed whole. Hell broke loose. *********************** Between the time the man saw the columns of stygian smoke billowing into the night sky from the blaze of Callaghan and the time the sun rose two days later, he had covered a distance of nearly three hundred miles. His horse had collapsed two hours ago, its mouth frothing from overexertion, and he was left to run on his own through the dark woods. Having confirmed that the razed foliage and slain wildlife he encountered along the way was fresh in their making, he slowed his pace to a steady, ground-eating jog, but kept running, heedless of the razor-sharp leaves and countless bracken that whipped into his legs, his eyes darting back and forth for signs of the monstrous horde. It was not a large forest by any measure, but the thickets of tall grass and uneven terrain made a mockery of his navigational effort. Twice now his travel had led him to a straight drop down the mountain, its deadly cliffs painstakingly camouflaged by shrubs and brushes. Above, grey cloud rolled across as rain started to come in droves. Far below, something let loose a primal, ground-shaking roar. The only way for him to scale down the treacherous cliff ahead was either through a roundabout path that would take a few more hours at the very best, or by gravity. Grinding his teeth in frustration, the man cladded in black steel took out a red glass vial, gauging the pain-suppressing potion sloshing inside with mixed feelings. “This,†he muttered, downing the content, “…is gonna hurt like hell later". ************************ “Everyone, get down!†Clarissa instinctively dropped down on the ground in a prone, her head a hair-breadth away from being smashed by a giant boulder hurled by the hulking behemoth further down the slope of the mountain. Though she was initially confident of her warfare knowledge thanks to the staggering number of books on the matter she had devoured, reality was a hundred times more brutal and a thousand times more chaotic. The projectile whizzed into a soldier behind her and, still carrying his pulverized corpse on one of its side, smashed into a nearby wall, sending of a webwork of cracks through solid rock. “Merciful Maker,†she gasped. Down below, the rest of her men weren’t doing any better. Within the first few minutes, roughly half a score of younger, less experienced soldiers were tore apart by a barbed creature that looked like a cross between a lamprey and a giraffe. It capture an armored man entirely with its prodigious, funnel-shaped mouth lined with three rows of serrated teeth, then proceeded to shred him alive, the sickly crunching and ripping noises all but drilled into the heads of everyone within the cave. Men with heavy weapons surrounded and struck the monster with blows of unbelievable force, tearing its skin and smashing the bones beneath, yet still the creature feasted, treating its mortal injuries like a minor hindrance. Perhaps given a full day, a school of fish could nibble the great leviathan down, but time was a luxury they couldn’t afford. On the other shelf, Robert’s other squad of archers had abandoned their bows in favor of the swords, doing what little they could to fend off an advancing mass of writhing tentacles, each as long and heavy as a trebuchet arm and continuously oozing a foul-smelling brown mucus. Anyone trying to impale its main body - a large central stump housing its inner organs wrapped over by a thin white film – soon found himself wrapped within its innumerous appendages, his flesh liquefied by the acid and subsequently consumed by the suckers lining the tentacles. The victims would die in seconds with most of their meat eaten right off their steaming bones. Thus far, the soldiers had no choice but to hack at it from a considerable distance, buying each severed tentacle with two or three in their own ranks. The rest of the raiding force painted a canvas of the apocalypse all on their own, though most were either the size of a grown man or a head taller, nowhere as gargantuan as the colossi. They were more brawn than brain, and against the more organized resistance from her father’s men, the fight turned out to be nothing more than a stalemate, at least until the bulk of the horde ascended into the cave. Even when she hadn’t lifted her blade or fired off an arrow, Clarissa found herself panting in sympathy with her father’s men. There was absolutely nothing more draining than the exertion, exhilaration, and the terror of having to participate in a fight that was a lot more akin to a slaughter. Shaking her head, she focused her attention on the giant lamprey-like creature from earlier and found that even though in a contest of brute force, the creature would easily devastate a small legion, its size and mass implied the skeletal structure beneath could afford slow and deliberate movements at best. It had teeth that could grind through metal and a flexible neck that greatly enhanced its reach, but for some of her best archers with eyes keen enough to shoot down birds still in fly, that thing might as well had been standing still. Then a realization hit her, causing Clarissa to run toward the eastern bluff, where Blackburn and his squad of archers still relentlessly unleashed volley after volley of arrows at the nearest group of monsters. The bald-headed man, in his scratchy baritone, continuously barked orders at his subordinates to aim for the center of mass rather than trying to discern the creatures’ vulnerable points, demanding that every creature is hit thrice to bring the enemy down reliably. As Clarissa watched, Blackburn aimed and struck a monster, this one looking like a gigantic slug with four contorted human bodies as its eye stalks, scattering bits and pieces of its innards for a good twenty feet. “Blackburn, I need you to do something for me,†she said. “What comes, lass?†inquired the dark haired veteran. “See that gigantic monster over there?†Clarissa asked. She brandished from her side pouch a circular carved stone nearly as large as her palm that glowed and radiated warm air. “I want that thing to ingest this,†she pointed to the lamprey-giraffe creature. “It’s…a heat rune,†Blackburn regarded the object quizzically, then looked up at her as if she had gone mad. “Trust me, it will work,†Clarissa deliberately left out the “or at least I hope it does since we are all going to die otherwise.†She flipped the small rock on its back, tracing the various lines that formed its sigil. Triple intersecting lines at the top for storing thermal energy specifically, then a complicate junction in the middle to limit wasteful discharge, coupled with a symbol that resembled an hourglass loosened at the waist meant the runestone was crafted to act like a personal heater one could carry along during winter. Clarissa took out her carving dagger and began modifying the pattern. Three zigzagged lines along the core line of a symbol would give it the opposite effect, while entrapping a specific junction with a circle would nullify it altogether. She scrapped away the section of the sigil that was meant to limit the heat flow, then gave it some additional details that would have given Mekal, her Runic teacher, a stroke if her heart wasn’t already ripped out from her chest a day ago. “Done!†she exclaimed after a minute of tinkering, handing the archer her modified runestone. “Can you deliver this into the monster’s mouth within two minutes?†His expression didn’t betray it, but Blackburn accepted the object with great reluctance. “Why? What happens if I don’t fire this after two minutes?†“You don’t want to find out,†she swallowed and took a couple of steps back. The old archer narrowed his eyes with suspicion, but proceeded to do just what he had been ordered to with a shrug of resignation. He took out another arrow from the war quiver laid on the ground, its heavy steel tip made balanced by four thin razor blades for fletching on the opposite end. Using a short length of rope, Blackburn tied the heat rune given to him to the neck of the arrow shaft. “Angle is a bit odd,†he noted, “though the added weight shouldn’t be a problem at this distance. Now if only the thrice damned beast would open its mouth.†“The monster tends to prioritize its more aggressive attackers,†she whispered grimly. “Hold it steady, wait for Kendell and his team to hit it again.†Two men in the ground team both aimed for the creature’s right leg with their axe and warhammer, extracting from it a loud hateful cry. Seeing the monster’s vast mouth expanded as it prepared to attack, Blackburn drew back the string of his great bow; its lower end firmly anchored into the ground, the weapon’s staves groaned like the mast of a ship trapped in a storm. Bundles of muscle knotted in his back, shoulders and arms while the old man’s face turned red with effort, his teeth clenching shut as he aligned the shot. The bow was clearly not meant to be used by human, even a giant his size, thus requiring a variation of a force runestone attached to its side so as to mitigate the immense strain on its user. The grain of the bow writhed and quivered, even as it was bent, and Clarissa was startled to realize that the bow’s runestone had long been depleted: lacking the time to swap it for a new one, the archer was holding the string taut with everything left in his body. He pulled on it until the end of the arrow was next to his eyes, imparting all the power he could into the missile, and, finally, released it with a cry of effort. A loud thundercrack overwhelmed her sense of hearing as the arrow ripped through the air, so swiftly she could barely followed it with naked eyes. Its large head dug through and into the funnel mouth of the lamprey, and for a moment nothing seemed to happen as the creature merely whipped its head back slightly before resuming its carnage. Clarissa’s heart sank into her stomach. It went on for a few seconds, then a flash of light and a whumping sound came as sudden as they went, accompanied by bursts of smoke and licks of fire that poured from the creature’s mouth and wounds. It stopped in its track, wobbled, then gave a high pitch shriek and collapsed onto the ground in a disgusting mess, dirt flying into the air while the dozens of rocks from the ceiling were jarred loose and rained down. “Huh…†said Blackburn, his chest heaving up and down erratically from exhaustion. “No one told me monsters’ blood is flammable.†“I re-crafted the runestone to release everything it held after two minutes. A thermal detonation is a lot more than a flash of heat and hot wind when it is surrounded by flesh,†explained Clarissa as she observed her handiwork, her expression half-mortifying, half-proud. “That’s…good to know,†the archer said faintly. Clarissa ordered one of the soldiers nearest to her to rummage through their winter supply for as many heat runes as possible, carefully instructed the surviving soldiers on how to re-craft the sigil as she did, then departed to check on the rest of the battlefield. Down below, her father’s men were slowly regaining their ground with the large monster from earlier out of the fray, heavy swords ripping into their opponents’ muscular hides and warhammers shattering anything unfortunate enough to stand in their way. Meanwhile, the other squad of archers had managed to take care of the mass of tentacles by bombarding the ground beneath it with a handful of explosive force runestone - the variant that people employed to make tunnels through mountains - forcing an impact strong enough to trigger a minor rockslide that even swept away the group of creatures at the cave’s entrance. Both teams of archers then began covering the ground team’s flanks, allowing the auxiliary force to come up and retrieve the wounded. Though with the monsters driven to the mouth of the cave, Clarissa took a second too long in commanding the soldiers not to give pursuit, resulting in a few eager men chasing their opponents all the way outside, their subsequent screams the only indication of their fates, and of those who would let down their guard for even a moment. Getting back was the textbook advice for this scenario, though something told Clarissa doing so would risk generating confusion among her people’s ranks and allowing the enemy to build up a deadly momentum that could wipe them out in an instance. Then again, staying was asking for death, as the moment one of the colossal monsters from earlier clambered in, they would be all be fish in the barrel, so everything had to be slow, controlled and uniform. Taking a cursory headcount of the survivors, Clarissa stole a glance down the mountain slope and found herself staring at pitch black darkness, courtesy of the abnormal black miasma that followed the horde wherever it went, but judging from the noise she was certain they outnumbered her father’s men at least five to one. A small, foolish, naïve part of her prayed to the Maker, wishing fervently that the monsters would be discouraged by the resistance so far and turned away. Clarissa simply couldn’t see how everyone around her could keep this up for a minute longer. The monsters fought with a bloodlust almost feral and a blatant disregard for their own preservation; they would risk everything just to cripple one of the soldiers, so that the ones behind could move in for the kill. But more important than anything else, they could absorb the losses, while the life of a single soldier could easily determine the outcome of her fight. The sun had been completely hidden by patches of dark cloud now, its faint and few rays of light obscured by a thick screen of sleet and rain. Outside, wind turned into howling gale as trees toppled down under their own weight, their roots tore straight from the ground as if by a giant invisible hand. Blackburn came over to hand her a skin of water, one which she downed in a single gulp, throwing every lesson she had ever sat through on table manners and social etiquette to the wind. “How are you holding up, lass?†asked him. “Better than that thing,†she gestured with her head at the lamprey monster from before. “That’s not saying a lot.†His lips pressed into a thin line, then he spoke after a short while. “No one is coming for us, isn’t it?†Clarissa tensed up, countless thoughts and excuses racing to the forefront of her mind in an attempt to salvage the situation. She stayed quiet at first, then upon realizing that there was absolutely no way for her to bluff herself out of this situation, Clarissa just nodded meekly. “You should work on your - what did Robert call it again? Façade? No, something fancier. Ah right, diplomatic front. Whenever you lie, you have this tendency to fidget with your hair and avoid everyone’s eyes. Not very obvious, mind, but they are all over the place if one knows what he’s supposed to look for." Blackburn gave the front of the cave the thousand yard stare. "Care to tell me the reason behind the lie?†“It just…seemed like a convenient idea at that time,†she hung her head morosely. Blackburn waited patiently for her to continue. “A few days after we left Callaghan keep, I saw a mother slitting her children’s throats then took her own life after witnessing her husband and parents eaten alive earlier that day. I saw Captain Weimar deserting his post and took half of our troops with him further into the forest instead of following us here, and do you know why we couldn’t resupply our water yesterday?†She took a deep breath. “Because their organs and body parts were found strewn all over the creek, and I could even tell the little floating black clumps near the bank to be Weimar’s lungs, because he was the only one I knew who smoked that much. Tell me Blackburn, what need is there for the monsters’ claws and teeth if we are already tearing ourselves into bite-sized chunks for them?†Her eyes took on a cold, distant quality. “I need a goal, a hope, something to keep our group moving in the event that somehow, miracles do happen. Judge me if you must, but it was the best I could come up with.†Blackburn settled his hand on her shoulder, his grip firm and reassuring, “It doesn’t matter what this old man has to say, lass. Right or wrong, your decision got us this far, did it not?†He glanced at Robert, whose back was against the wall and was mumbling incoherently. “If it’s any consolation, you did a far better job than your father.†Clarissa regarded Lukel’s corpse. “Unsurprising. It takes too much effort to turn up anything worse.†Blackburn’s eyes flicked in the same direction, then, returned to the bottom of the mountain. “They haven’t been resuming their assault,†he observed. “We probably have the weather to thank for that. Mount Thalmaris is treacherous enough to climb even in spring, let alone during a killer mid-winter storm.†Digging her nails into her palm until they drew blood, she added “Though once the wind dies down, we will be trading fresh bodies for mangled ones again.†The archer grunted in acknowledgement. Taking one last look at the sky, Clarissa was contented with her approximation that the next battle wouldn’t take place for at least another ten minutes going by how things looked. She ordered the men to make a steady, ordered withdrawal back to their original positions, their front still facing the mouth of the cave. Abruptly, another boulder was hurled into the cave, too sudden and too fast for anyone to even consider moving out of its trajectory. However, it failed to collide with a single target, instead coming to a stop near the western shelf with a wet and sickly crunch. Clarissa breathed a sigh of relief just as a strange, stinging sensation washed over her. A thought chose then to spring to her mind. Since when did giant rocks make a wet and sickly crunch when they shattered? She snapped her head around just as the dust and debris cleared, but before Clarissa could draw a breath to alarm the rest, a spherical creature flung itself high into the air, its features sliding into view in the diminishing, flickering torchlight. Vast, otherworldly and loathsome, the monster was a screaming, writhing patchwork: a hideous, warped agglomeration of many faces stitched into one gigantic head, twisting and melding into a grotesque parody of a smile. It was not in possession of any feature that could be labeled eyes within its sockets, but spotted two pools of spiraling darkness brimming with the thick, black miasma she had seen earlier. By the time she recognized her mother, step-mother and step-brother among the faces that formed its body, Clarissa thought she went mad then. The monster’s grin became unnervingly broader, showing to the rest of the world its grotesque collection of deformed, rotten teeth. Like tombstones erected over an ancient graveyard. She could hear a noise being constantly made within its cavity, as if some immense slippery body was lumbering against it. Then, the thing opened its mouth and started to retch. Her mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, could still recognize the hundreds of wretched creatures that she had spent the last few days running from pouring out of the endless abyss within. They came into being right behind the ranks of her soldiers, and though the ones capable of flying immediately went for the archers stationed on the high ground, the rest of the horde descended deeper into the cave. Right to where the refugees were. Her mind frozen with fear, Clarissa found it impossible to move even her legs, as if they were someone else’s possession and not hers. Up ahead, some sort of creature with bat-like wings pulled out her father’s entrails with its multiple beaks, having relieved him of his eyeballs as if it was showing the old man some mercy in taking away his sight. She vaguely recollected being pulled down to the ground by Blackburn who, in his haste to save the girl he had known for nearly two decades of her life, lost a chunk of his shoulder to a lunging serpent that was going for her head. Shaking free from momentum by twisting its ebony body that was well over fifty feet in length, the creature re-launched itself at the fallen figures on the floor like a length of spring decompressing. It was over. There was nowhere else to run. She did not shriek, but Clarissa could feel all the condemned souls that shared their final moments within the cave shrieked in her stead as in that same second, a gleaming zweihander crashed into the wall directly to her left, its tip burrowing deep into the rock formation. Stupefied, she watched as momentum sent the entire monster into the weapon’s edge, neatly separating its fanged head into two uneven halves with as much ease as sharp knife going through warm butter. It blood splattered on her face and all over her clothes, red, slimy and noxious. From the other side of the bloodbath, a lone figure stood, unhinged by the chaos surrounding him, arm still outstretched from the throw. He donned a nearly seven foot tall suit of pitch-black plate armor drenched with rainwater and snow, his expression fully concealed by a rustic helmet that featured little more than a thinly carved eye-slit. His other fist went up in a celebratory gesture at the sight of his blade hitting its target. Still wordlessly, the knight walked over to retrieve the weapon and – with the monster’s carcass lodged to its blade – tossed it at the floating head with a broad swing provocatively. “Who are you?†she asked in shock. “A big damn hero, milady,†he made a courteous bow before flourishing his blade at an approaching group of monsters. A mountain of meat and muscle swung its gigantic arm at him, and the knight met its forearm with his own, swaying back gently at the crushing impact. With a single simple, ruthlessly efficient motion, he sliced its head clean off the shoulders. Another monster used the opportunity to leap over its fallen comrade and brought its fiery talons down on his helmet, the impact sending off a shower of scarlet sparks. He staggered back from the blow, then with a grunt of annoyance rather than pain, grabbed the creature by its hind leg and threw it on the ground before stepping on its head, drawing a loud pop as its eye balls were squeezed out of their sockets. Unburdened, his blade moved in graceful, deceptively lazy-looking arcs, gutting through the hardened carapaces of a beetle-like creature possessing a woman’s body for its abdomen with almost contemptuous ease, then sheared off a quarter of the skull of an extremely obese man whose torso had merged with a pinwheel, his facial features twisted and profaned. Clarissa witnessed the fight, awestruck. The knight in black never slowed down for a fraction of the fight, even when the odds were obviously stacked against him. A quick twist to the side saw his body just mere inches away from being mauled by a bipedal three-headed hound, followed by a sideway slash that reduced its limbs to one-half their original count. His feet carried themselves in deft, agile and nimble motions which did not match the apparent weight of both armor and armament, his blade flashing, parrying, killing. No injury he made was non-fatal, and when struck by his sword, the monsters simply dropped down while sprouting a shower of gore. Perhaps strangest of all was the fact that when confronted by him, few of the smaller monsters committed themselves to one single action that she had never seen nor expected from them. Fleeing. In the span of one or two minutes, he had the blood of at least a score of dead monsters on his hand, left a dozen limbless ones on the side for them to slowly bleed to death, and kicked yet another creature toward the inverted floating head’s direction in the sky. It reacted violently this time, and from the monster came a piercing sound – a shriek that blended the sound of tearing metal and wounded beasts, a chthonic noise that forced into her ears and tore her frayed nerves, one that filled Clarissa with an overwhelming, almost instinctive, desire to run away, taking her chance against the raging storm outside rather than staying for another second. Hovering above the ground, thick, muscular hooves bashed their way out of the monster’s scalp, providing the creature with an outlandish mean of locomotion. The inverted face-mass lumbered toward the knight, razor-spined orifices distending and resealing themselves with every movement of the being’s twisted muscles. A disembodied eye popped from the creature’s mouth hole, lolling about upon a sinewy strand of gristle. It looked down upon him from above as the compound-faceted iris split open like an unfolding lotus, revealing a great spear-shaped proboscis within. The organic, bloodied lance ripped through the air, only to meet the steel blade in a cold, clear chime. A cloud of sparks rained down where the two clashed, and after a scant pair of heartbeats, the battle resumed with greater and speedier lethality. Repeatedly, the monster bore down with its sharpened tip, but its opponent was able to deflect every single blow, sometimes with his blade, other times with his vambraces. Clarissa had been invited to Aedowin’s summer festival twice in her life, where she was given front-row seat to the tournament, spectating upon gladiators who fought with blood and steel for the prestigious golden garland. Brought into perspective by the clashing titans in front of her very eyes, and those combatants might as well had been mongrels fighting over a scrap of discarded food. The knight jumped up to avoid a low sweep and tersely struck the shaft of the appendage with his pommel. The monster kept him from pushing forward with another wide, reaching arc of its weapon, its length forcing him to maintain a safe distance. He can’t do this alone, thought Clarissa. The knight would definitely triumph in a contest of speed and decision-making, but his opponent was inhumanly strong and had the advantage of endurance. Deciding to be reckless, he launched into the air, falling feet-first toward where the inverted gigantic head’s neck would be, perhaps hoping to cleave it into half. The monster didn’t hesitate to attempt a swift overhead swing, and he parried the blow with his blade, the impact sending the rest of him crashing into a nearby wall. Then an idea occurred to her. “Blackburn, can you hear me?†she called to the archer. The wound on his injured left shoulder was not deep enough to reach his heart, but his favored arm was now connected to his torso with just a few thin stretches of cartilage. “Y…yeah,†he answered weakly. “Someone is here to save us. We can finally go home after this, so don’t die on me old man.†She took in a deep breath, then pushed her body for another round of healing, feeling so very cold and muddled when the usual robust cloud of light came out as little more than a few diminutive puffs. Out of the corner of her eyes, the knight snapped his head back at Clarissa for a fraction of a second. “Huh…so a miracle did happen,†came a relieved smile from Blackburn. “Told you. But before that, I need something. Do you happen to have any spare stone right now?†ask me Clarissa. The old man grunted and nodded, slipping his fingers into one of the pouches on his belt. Meanwhile, Clarissa pillowed his head with her lap so as to ease his pose into something less painful, cursing herself for having lost sight of the bandage roll after she was done with it earlier. After the unsuccessful rummaging of his first two pockets, Blackburn managed to give her his spare ones, though as luck would have it the sigil showed those runestones to be the supporting type used in heavy archery, not explosive. Whispering a quick thank, she unsheathed her carving dagger and went to work on modifying them, occasionally shooting a quick glance toward the knight’s direction. He landed in a crouch, stopping himself by planting the sword into the ground, then swung at the throbbing gristle. With both hands on the hilt, he hit with a lightning-fast blow that lodged the blade deep into the veined tissue, yet lacking the strength to wholly sever it. Seeing no other way out, he let go of the blade and placed a foot on the monster’s tumorous skin, trying to rob the face-mass of its balance before it could renew the assault, only for his greave to sink into flesh as if stepping on quicksand. The mistake cost him dearly, as moments later, the lance-like protrusion skewered through his armored form. “Hrgk…†The knight muttered incoherently as the monster carried him to its mouth like a grape being pierced by a fruit fork, its jagged teeth clattering hungrily, a guillotine dancing in anticipation of its newest victim. Just as its jowl came crashing down upon the armor, jerking his body like a stringed marionette that was yanked too hard, a small rock arced through the air toward the monster. It fell near the thing’s left hoof, then without any further warning, exploded in a deafening burst of air and sound, sending countless fragments of itself flying in every direction. The blast wasn’t enough to topple the creature, owing to the former’s dispersed pattern and the latter’s size, though it was enough to startle the thing into lashing its tongue like a bullwhip, throwing its latest victim high into the air. Clarissa winced when he crashed headfirst next to her. He lied motionlessly for a few seconds. “Are you alright?†she asked in a whisper, not moving from her position for fear of injuring Blackburn any further. “S’okay…My bruises broke my fall,†he answered at last, springing back up to his feet with remarkable spryness for someone whose chest Clarissa could fit her whole arm through with room to spare. With the helmet and gorget partially broken by the fall, she could see part of the man beneath as a pair of narrowed eyes that, against the low visibility background, glowed with a baleful, demonic red. What piqued her curiosity, however, was the fact that there was virtually no blood seeping out from his rupturing, if not mortal, injury. It was getting incredibly hard to tell exactly which one of them was the bigger monster. “Miss, those explosive force runes you have there,†he asked, “can the blast be made more powerful?†“Yes and no. Well, technically…yes, but there’s no point in doing so. Too strong an explosion will just turn the whole thing into powder, too light and small to cause any damage.†Based on how loud the previous blast was, she estimated that at least half of the stored energy was forcefully converted to sound, lacking a means to release itself from the sigil’s binding. Such was the reason why she had proposed using the heat rune during the previous fight, as there was no real need for the runic fragments to act as a makeshift form of shrapnel for the combustion process. The knight looked thoughtful for a moment, then proffered a hand at her. “May I have the rest of them?†She looked at the floating head apprehensively before turning to him. “There is a group of these things heading for the civilian further into this cavern. Can you save them first?†He shook his head. “All the more reason to finish this thing off as soon as possible.†Taking the remaining runestone, he broke into a sprint toward the creature, side-stepping to avoid a vertical slice from its tentacle, the sharp tip carving a small chasm on the rocky ground. Shaking off the few debris that came flying, he waited until the last moment, then grabbed the organic spear with his free hand, zipping through the air when the creature retracted its impressively prehensile tongue. Taken off-guard, the monster had just enough time to spot the daredevil, force runestones pressed against his chest with one hand, landing feet first on the upper row of decaying teeth, driving it into the ground. Jamming his sword in between the thing’s mouth to stop it from closing, the knight shoved the entire ammunition dump inside. The runes were rigged to blow up previously, and thus when they touched flesh, triggered an explosive chain reaction that destroyed a great deal of their current container. The blast scattered the miasma stored within the creature’s eyes. Both monster and slayer disappeared within the dark haze that came to fill the entire cave. “Guy is bloody insane,†commented Blackburn, too shocked to mind his own wound. “Where is he?†Clarissa whispered as the silhouette of an alive, but badly mauled monster could be discerned climbing from the debris, its mouth deformed beyond recognition and its skin oozing red blood from numerous wounds. She was the first to see what happened next. Through an inhuman feat of strength coupled with the explosions, the knight was now right below the cavern’s ceiling, which soared for nearly half a thousand feet from the ground. He kicked against the surface, performing a tuck and roll to master his tumble before once again drawing his greatsword. Diving from the sky like a hunting eagle, he was directly above the confused and disoriented monster and plummeting through the buffeting air current at breakneck speed. He hit the monster like the hammer of the Maker, its first and last warning came a split second before the impact when his armored form ripped the sound from the wind. The blade cleaved right through the creature’s body, severing the thickened gristle and slamming into the earth below, where momentum tore it away from its owner. His hands freed, he spun and grabbed hold of some of the creature’s flesh, which shredded under the exchange of inertia. He crashed hard into the ground, forming a small crater with his armored body, though his gauntlets held onto the creature until the end and bled some of the damage into it by dragging it along, the off-center impact causing them to be flipped across the terrain like ragdolls that came to a terminal collision with the cave side a long stretch away. His previous wound was flowing with viscous, darkened blood now, and even to someone with limited experience in the practice of medicine, it was plain as day that no one could have survived losing so much blood, let alone the shock afterward. Yet against all odds and limitations nature placed upon the living, the knight stood up once more. The battlefield turned upside down from his actions. Almost instantaneously, every being nearby ceased their fighting at the conclusion of the epic struggle. From the wreckage where it had landed, the face-mass squealed - its thousand visages shrieking in an otherworldly dissonance - making a gurgling, aquatic sound in terror before dissolving into a large puddle of flesh, blood and bone. Throughout the cavern, airborne monstrosities dropped to the ground while the rest of them thrashed in agony, eventually and inexplicably joining their giant master’s demise in the same fashion. The pervasive coppery malodor of blood and rotten stench from their lingering carcasses turned the air almost unbreathable. In the distance, the vanquisher of monsters groaned something, though due to the vast ground to cover between them, Clarissa could only make out the last few words that he spoke in between wet laughter. “Hell yeah...dashing daredevil Inquisitor, one...ugly ass abomination, zero...†Then he collapsed. It was half an hour before she could detect a faint hint of heartbeat within his chest, and two more before it started to drum in a steady fashion. In a way, her head should have imploded from witnessing the entire process thereafter, but having survived all the events that transpired within the last few days, Clarissa simply didn’t have the capacity for surprise anymore. At the first sign of his eyes fluttering opened, the knight asked for food and water, explaining that he had gone on an empty stomach for nearly two moons straight. Though for some bizarre reason, he insisted on having the spoiled venison, stale loaves of bread and rotten apples that had gone bad from the humidity inside the cave. When asked about it, he simply shrugged and said that the refugees could use the fresher supply for the rest of their trip, assuring Clarissa that he had eaten far worse things. Clarissa chose not to comment on the fact that he ate a barrel of fruits, half a cow worth of meat and drank enough water to fill a small pond. She also told herself repeatedly that no, he didn’t still seem hungry even after his meal. No, the hole in his chest didn’t appear a lot smaller than when she first saw it. No, he wasn’t some sort of monster disguised as human who used his timely intervention as a ruse to eat them all in their sleep. No, no and no. Blackburn was administered the best treatment available, but given the severe nature of his injury, there was little doubt that the old archer had fired his last arrow. He accepted the news with little difficulty, agreeing that he had done enough fighting to last a lifetime, then gathered his wife and daughter into his uninjured arm. They nestled together closely, finding warmth in each other’s company, just like in the happily ever after epilogue so common in stories and so rare in the real world Or at least, that was what it would have looked like had it not been for the wailing and crying in the background. The few healthy soldiers she had left labored feverishly, dragging the injured and dead back from the entrance, where they were sorted into two categories by the few doctors among the refugees. First came the wounded, where bundles of healing herbs, restorative draught, bandages and tourniquets were the only thing between them and Death’s icy touch, preserving what little of life left in them until more medical supplies could be gathered at the apothecary. Immediate treatment was necessary, for they would be escorting the entire group back come dawn. The other group held the deceased, intact or not. Casualty for the last battle was in excess of two scores men, all of whom fought because they had wizened parents, longing wives and innocent children behind their back. Now fathers carried their sons on their way to the pyre, widows made cairns for their husbands whose bodies no one could collect enough to identify and children cried wondering why they couldn’t see their fathers one more time. The monsters never got to them thanks to the mysterious knight’s intervention, yet looking at the grieving survivors, Clarissa couldn’t help but wondered if some of them actually wished to join their loved ones in death. “Baroness,†a voice addressed her from behind. Clarissa looked back to lock eyes with the mysterious knight. He had discarded the plate armor, which was reduced to a lump of disfigured metal after the fall, and was wearing a given set of light leather jerkin and hosen that once belonged to the late Baron. In life, Robert Callaghan was an overweight man brought about by his love for fine dining and hatred for sports. Thusly even with the knight’s stature, the clothing looked two sizes too big, prompting him to wear his shirt unbuttoned like an overcoat, revealing his bandaged and bruised chest. She didn’t pay much attention to it back then, but pitted him against Clarissa, and one would have an interesting study in contrast. Whereas she was five foot eight in height and slightly plump in a pampered princess sort of manner, he was a head taller than her and possessed impressive, but not overdone, musculature. Where she had white, pale skin typical of any girl living in the temperate land of Varelish, his was the warm, tanned looks of someone who hailed from the southern part of the Antiquan Continent. And where she had blond hair and blue eyes, his hair was as red as fire, which stuck up and swayed in the wind, giving the impression that someone had set his head aflame. The knight looked to be in his early twenties: young, but unnaturally so. “You mistook me. It was my father who ruled Callaghan keep.†Clarissa answered. She didn’t expect how easy it was to already talk about her last family member in past tense. The knight stepped up and looked around, his eyes lingering on a group of people pulling the carts to the back of the cave and started piling them up with whatever that could pass for supplies and ration. The rain had stopped at last. The reek of blood and evil mixed with the scents of sweat and leather and steel. A haze of wood smoke, burnt flesh, and incense hung in the morning air, as the sodden pyres slowly consumed their dead. The monsters’ remnants were being hauled into a huge pile at some distance away. They too would be burned, and the ashes and charred bones afterward would be discarded down the mountain slope. The people of Callaghan had come out triumphant, though it would seem a pyrrhic victory lent little incentive toward a celebration. “With the Baron's passing and you being his sole heir, it’s just a matter of time,†he said, a grimace tugging down his lips. “I am sorry for your losses, for whatever that’s worth.†“We were never much of a family to begin with. There is no reason you should be, and certainly no reason to make an issue out of it,†she answered thickly. It seemed to drain her body physically and mentally just to choke out the words. He gave her a questioning look. “Everyone mourns for her loved ones, Baroness. There is no need…†Clarissa gestured as if cutting the air with the side of her hand. “What, then? Should I break down, weep and tear my hair apart? Curse the Maker and His Crusaders for not being here? Take my own life out of grievance? No. Save that cheap drama for the minstrels and the troubadours.†She looked away from him, rubbing the bridge her nose. “I do not need to garner your sympathy, Ser Knight, but I greatly appreciate your concern as well as your assistance. Right now, there is something we need to discuss. It is best that we leave behind the past and focus on the present.†With him following closely behind, Clarissa walked into the large and freshly painted war tent of the Callaghan House, which was at the moment the only thing akin to homecoming. Robert had prepared well for such an occasion where he was forced to abandon his home and had brought it with him, along with the surviving vassals and their baggage train. A candle on the trestle table flickered, casting wild shadows on the inside of the tent, illuminating its – by the standard of a woman on a run – lavish decor. There was an oaken bookshelf linked to a wardrobe filled with ostentatious garments in one corner of the place, and opposing it were a twin pair of travelling beds covered in white silken blankets. A small table situated itself in the space between, beneath which a large crimson rug with golden embroidery lay upon the ground. Robert’s travelling chest was still here, and so was Lukel’s, as if nothing had happened to their owners. Here was a place where all was right with the world. Clarissa noted this with a hint of melancholy. The tent guard was a man she knew by name – Lester, son of a farmer from a freehold not far from Callaghan Keep. He had shouted a welcome at the sight of Clarissa and the knight approaching, and soon after being instructed in short, terse sentences about what he should do, the guard saluted and left both of them alone. “This is most curious,†mused the knight as he pushed aside the tent flap. “What is?†asked Clarissa. She unfolded a wooden chair nearby, sank onto it, and gestured for him to sit anywhere. “Going by the signs, I was under the impression that the Baron made an impromptu decision to evacuate everyone from the Keep when it was attacked. But all these tents, field rations and supplies? Why, I have seen armies marching half as prepared.†Clarissa gave him a tired look. “You are not from around these parts, I take it?†“Not really,†he smiled sheepishly. “I’ve been in the area once or twice. But before that I was born and raised in Relegast myself.†That’s half the continent away. “Well, in case you haven’t noticed this is the land of Varelish, the very end the continent. Every living soul here is fortunate enough to be within eyeshot of the Northern Wall and close enough to the estuary that an invading army from Zakira could reach us in a single march.†Clarissa collected a quill and a map nearby to encircle the landmarks’ relative position, including Mount Thalmaris, where they were taking refuge. “With neighbors like these, wouldn’t you say it would be foolhardy of us not to consider and prepare for the worst case scenario?†The knight surveyed the parchment and nodded mostly to himself. “I suppose there is a good reason as to why you didn’t seek asylum from Aedowin? If memory serves, Callaghan is part of the duchy, is it not?†She maintained a neutral expression, arms crossing beneath her chest. “That’s how it looks on papers. In reality, the Duke couldn’t care less about whether we live or die. Rather, I would be expecting the old man to throw a banquet once the news of our keep being overran reaches him.†The knight rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm yes, I can see why,†he said, finger pointing at a labeled runestone mine a few miles to the south of her now ruined kingdom. “Callaghan is of little strategic importance, but this little treasure trove over here falls within its jurisdiction. The way things stand, only a fraction of the profit goes to the Duke as the monthly tribute.†He traced a line toward the keep, then the duchy to the west. “But as soon as the middle man is gone, he will be able to cite your allegiance pact as an excuse to legitimately hoard the whole business for himself.†“That’s about the gist of it,†she said. “Had we relied on him for aid, the Duke would have merely closed his gates and trapped us out, claiming to act in the best interest of his own people. Though this particular tidbit of information is not known among many. Hence why our family was willing to keep up the false display of protection offered by the Duke and his army.†“And as long as you abide by the pact, he will have no excuse to go on the offensive against your people. Fascinating,†he said. Something is wrong, Clarissa thought. This man claims to have little familiarity with the land, yet is aware of an allegiance a minor keep made decades ago, right down to the nuances at work. Even the soldiers from Callaghan had difficulty recalling which Duke’s summon were they obliged to answer. Adding that to his abnormal constitution…I will have to get him talking somehow, if just long enough to ascertain his identity and intention. Still wearing her emotionless mask, she gestured at his wound. “But where are my manners. I must be boring you to sleep with politics while there are more pressing concerns. How are your injuries feeling?†He scratched his head, smiling. “You are too kind. It’s nothing a meal and a good rest can’t fix.†“Remarkable, considering I examined and declared you dead myself a few hours ago. Did you know that the monster’s attack—†“Abomination.†“Pardon?†“Those things earlier were called abominations,†he corrected her. “There is a difference?†“Abominations eat monsters for food and occasionally hunt them for sport.†“Suit yourself,†she said dryly, rolling her eyes at his syntactic insistence. “As I was saying, the abomination’s attack removed a significant portion of your heart and your entire left lung. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a medical expert, but generally humans have been observed to drop down and die from injuries half as severe.†His expression remained unfazed by the revelation. She leaned forward, her head resting on one hand. “Yet here we are, conversing so casually with each other. What say you to that?†He thought, or at least appeared to be pondering, long and hard about it. “That you aren’t very good at giving medical diagnosis?†Clarissa frowned. The knight grinned. “You are not human, are you?†she asked at last. “Well if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck,†he answered jovially. “What else could it possibly be?†“Something doing a very good job at pretending to be a duck?†“You suck at philosophy.†He laughed at the apparent humor in that statement, but turned serious soon after when it was clear the Clarissa hadn’t meant for her reply to be a joke. “Very well, it’s as you said. I’m quite indeed something far less than human-†he admitted. Clarissa noticed those hellish pupils finally returned to his eyes, crimson and aglow with menace. “But at the same time, also something far more. But where are my manners, my name is Garland Ascalon of the Inquisition Order. We are a group of wetwork specialists created and charged by his Royal Highness Kaine Leorius Valoreign, the Alchemist King, with the task of purging heretics, abominations and rogue mages from the continent. And I am here today, on behalf of my lord and my brethren, to formally request High Lady Clarissa Callaghan ap Varelish to join us in our holy crusade.†"You are a Cross Crusader?" she asked, apprehensive. "Not quite," he explained. "The Crusaders mostly deal with internal strife and invasions from other kingdoms, but I do believe the majority of them are virgins when it comes to supernatural affairs. So if there is any spooky stuff going on, people like us get called in instead." Garland stopped to consider something. "We get the same paycheck though, and I think they have a few extra days of paid leave as compared to us, but our department gets carte blanche, so that's pretty sweet." "Carte blanche." Clarissa repeated, her brows narrowing. "That's not some vocabulary you expect to hear from a soldier." Garland nodded vigorously. "Inquisitor Rosemary told me to use exquisite and foreign words I don't normally use to impress noble folks when I converse with them, so as to make myself more prismatic." He paused. "Wait...or was it...charismatic?" Clarissa regarded his mollified expression with a slight hint of amusement for a moment, then shook her head. “In any case, thank you for your kind invitation, but I will have to humbly decline. For starter, I'm hardly what you would consider combat material, and I'm afraid I have enough on my plate tending to my people at the moment.†He looked up, as if already expecting her answer to be so. “Oh, which is exactly why I have made you an offer you can’t refuse,†Garland answered with a Cheshire grin.
  11. The Heart of Darkness

    This is a story I have been working on and off for a while during my early writing years, eventually culminating in a Dungeon and Dragon campaign that deviated heavily from my script. Figured it couldn't hurt to post stuff I originally intended to tell here. This thing is written from multiple POVs, so I normally include the name of the person as the chapter's name. Update will be from weekly to biweekly. Hang on, biweekly is twice per week or once per two weeks again? Prologue: Robert Baron Robert Callaghan grimly studied the purple-red stump that, up until yesterday, held his entire left arm. When he first gained this injury at the maw of the colossal creature, the piercing lance of pain had nearly brought the obese old man down to his knees, and had it not been for his three decades-long acquaintanceship with war, death and destruction, Robert would have done just that, presenting the entirety of himself as a meal. Lacking proper treatment while being confined to a dank and dirty cave up until now, the injury had started to fester, plaguing the man’s every waking moment with delirious fever. Compared to the majority of his men, Robert’s condition looked like a prick on the finger. Faint rays of morning light grew through the mouth of the cave, casting their luminance on a grotesque picture of mutilated corpses, eviscerated soldiers and misshapen lumps of bloodied flesh that were once people. They were moaning, either mumbling to themselves or whimpering from an agony so overpowering that it had erased the final vestige of sanity. Occasionally, someone would let out a blood-curling scream only to fell silent soon after, his strength or lungs finally giving out. Robert’s daughter, Clarissa, ran back and forth like a caged rat, knitting wounds and relieving pain with her little unnatural talent. A gift from the Maker it was, or so had the priest claimed when the Baron brought his daughter to him for fear of her soul, though the assurance never stopped Clarissa from being something else in Robert’s eyes. Trudging through the injured and the dead with a grave facade, she did not understand, or simply forbid her mind from processing the same thought that plagued Robert’s mind. What these wretched souls sought was neither treatment nor prayer. With quivering hand, the Baron slowly reached for a long sword readily discarded next to him. He stood up, tears welling up in his remaining eye, and looked at Clarissa’s half-brother, Lukel, who lay motionlessly in front of him. Once, Lukel Callaghan was the dream of every noble girl and the envy of his peers within the land of Callaghan with his glisten Varelish skin, brown hair and sea-blue eyes. Now a ghost of that man stared back at Robert with both his legs messily severed below the waist, just two lumps pf meaty fringe for the flies to feast on. Saved for his eyes which twitched left and right insistently, there was nothing left of his son in there. Robert held up his sword, its tip pointing downward, and brought it down on Lukel’s heart. His son’s eyes shot open for a moment, then slowly, blissfully, closed themselves, igniting an intense desire within Robert to do the same to himself, though whether it was out of guilt or a longing to escape from this hell, the Baron couldn’t tell. “NO!†a feminine voice screamed out from behind him. It didn’t stop the Baron from doing the same to the soldier lying next to Lukel. It didn’t matter that Robert’s effort was wasted on a man whose belly was already bloated with foul gases, his skin marred with purple striations of death.
  12. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Having explained about Lightning Step and its capability for instant reinforcement, Raiha gave Erin and Honoka two of his coins as the three of them parted way at an intersection. The young Demon Hunter regarded the object for a while, then reluctantly accepted the enchanted coin only after making him swear to never use it to “accidentally†teleport next to her at night or during bath times. The Knight stuck out his tongue. “A man dying of thirst won’t come to the desert for a drink, if you catch my drift,†he said and waved his goodbye, grinning at the sight of the pipsqueak grinding her teeth. The smile didn’t last long as he walked away. His hand went up to feel his throat, and then rubbed around to ascertain he wasn’t bleeding from any wound. The diminished sense of pain was beneficial but troublesome in its own way. He spread his divine sense out in a dome encompassing the entire neighborhood, making doubly sure that no Thrall or Warlock was going to swoop down and prey on Erin and Honoka the moment he walked away. Nothing suspicious came up. He wasn’t sure if the old adage ‘no news is good news’ applied in this case. He could feel the hair on his neck starting to rise even as he deliberately cut through tunnels and alleyways to lose any physical tail. The Warlock was still spying on him somehow. If that thing were to minimize his magical presence, conceal it behind a veil or a dimensional barrier, there was no way for Raiha to spot the creature in such a big town. The Knight had a sinking feeling that no matter where he went over the next few days, the Warlock could just show up out of the blue like just now. He was like that big, cartoony Tom cat standing patiently outside Jerry’s mouse hole, just waiting for its occupant to make one false move that would bring down the cat’s massive paw on the mouse. Never in Raiha’s life had he felt so much sympathy for Jerry. Then again, he remembered that Jerry always won in the end, through some cunning tricks and devious planning that always left Tom defeated and deflated, sometimes literally. Maybe there was some hope in the saying that real life imitates art. The problem, he thought, was that he was used to being the faster, more elusive one when it came to a fight. A blazing fireball or a gargantuan icicle might be extremely impressive, but they would amount to nothing if these attacks couldn’t land on their target. Between Lightning Step and his natural reflex, Raiha could end a fight before it even began by slaying his opposition in a single move. Failing that, he could wear the guy out by dancing and darting across the battlefield, forcing the opponent to exhaust his power while slowly succumbing to a death by a thousand cuts. But the Warlock, with his inhuman, faster-than-lightning speed, effectively rendered both approaches useless. Had the man committed himself toward the kill just now, Raiha doubted he would have realized he was dead by the time his head landed on the ground. Could something alive truly be that fast? He guessed that since demonspawn didn’t exactly play by the rules of physics, anything could happen within the Warlock’s dimensional barrier. Heck, maybe the moment someone entered it, he or she would be bisected without exception. That would make him effectively unbeatable in a fair fight. Raiha were there when the Warlock went to town both times. First at the Shinjuku summit, where he cut down a room full of people in less than half a second. The other time, he effortlessly closed the distance covered by divine sense with Raiha being none the wiser to the assailant. Let’s assume for a moment that the blatant entering equal death hack wasn’t possible. What sort of ability could cause these two scenarios? What were the common links between them? Impossibly short duration, his mind brought up the key phrase, followed by a few other echoes of victim’s lack of awareness, Warlock’s sudden appearance and disappearance, consistent sword wounds. He considered the branches and offshoots spreading away from these key points, dismissing those that led nowhere or toward dead ends, then trying to connect all the lines that remained. As a wise man once said: once you eliminate the impossible, no matter how improbably, must be the truth. “You might be able to move across the town in a tenth of a second, but I’m faster,†the Warlock had said. Something to do with speed, and not just in term of spatial displacement - the teleportation effect I saw was a byproduct of the main power. The killing was done in a blink of an eye, which means so massive speed generated within a very short span of time. In other words, a burst of sort that could precisely kill multiple people in an instant while leaving the surrounding objects intact. The Warlock used a blade judging from the wound and my encounter with him, implying either his attack was done through multiple swords striking at once, or one sword striking multiple times at once. Being at multiple places at the same time… His steps slowed, then stopped. The jigsaw pieces clicked into place. “Mother of God,†he gasped, his legs suddenly feeling loose and watery. He fervently prayed that he had made some mistakes in his assumptions. Because if he wasn’t wrong, and deep down Raiha knew that he hadn’t made any mistake, the Warlock’s ability wasn’t all that different from a dimensional barrier that automatically bisected anyone who got stuffed into it. This wasn’t a foe anyone with a shred of sanity could possibly hope to beat. He closed his eyes and resumed his walk, feeling beads of cold sweat forming steadily on his forehead. The supernatural world that he lived in was getting stranger, darker by the hours. Every day brought with it new foes and changes that all threatened to rip the status quo apart. Every defeated Warlock and Thrall simply lay the foundation for more powerful ones to come, yet countless innocents like his Mentor had to shed their blood simply to maintain this world state, simply because the alternative was hell. A hell that sometimes seized Man by their throat and demanded that they pick between itself and another, slightly less horrifying, hell. ***** Raiha wasn’t sure where he was heading. The important thing was to move, to draw the stalking Warlock as far away from his friends as possible. A while later, he found himself stopping in front of the old, dilapidated church, headquarter to all his demon hunting operations for the past three years. He stepped over the protective wards and entered through the wooden door. It was a small and modest place inside. There were two rows of four pews on each side of the main room, a pulpit, a table with Bible stand, subdued lighting and a single overhead fan that creaked incessantly as it operated. There were a few beds in the back of the church to accommodate the wounded, one of which was currently occupied by Reika, the veteran hunter whose face had been turned into a wreck earlier on. He stepped closer, placing his hand on her forehead and pouring a measure of Resplendence through it to examine her condition. She seemed to be in a state of deep sleep, her brain making steady but slow progress on repairing itself back to consciousness. Raiha briefly debated attempting to give it a nudge, but decided not to. For starter, one false move could potentially reduce Reika into a comatose state for the rest of her life. But more than that, the human body was an amazing machine built with the capability to repair itself as long as it drew breath, performing miracles on par with a magical practitioner’s greatest effort. The Knight had done what he could, the rest of the recovery process was up to her to overcome. He heard someone stepped into the room from the back door and turned to face the individual. His eyes were capable of taking in the surrounding in greater details now, though he had to squint past the dim light regardless. “Raiha?†Nakata asked, evidently surprised to see the Knight here. He tried to smile back, but it probably looked a little sickly. “I got bored of lying around and doing nothing, so I came here to see if there’s anything I can help you with.†The padre took note of Raiha’s condition and broke into a weary smile. “You seem to be in much better shape than yesterday.†he said. There was relief in his voice, but something about his expression betrayed a bone-deep weariness. “I was thinking of visiting you, but got into some troublesome business with Misa and the bakufu people at the last minute.†Raiha’s eyes turned to one of the unoccupied beds. Its sheet was covered in sweat and what seemed to be blood. “What went wrong while I was away?†“What didn’t go wrong,†Nakata replied. He gestured for Raiha to follow and began to walk down a clean hallway with dark, heavy beams of old wood overhanging it. The young Knight kept pace and found himself at the archive in the back, where Nakata seemed to be in the middle of writing a letter. “Misa told me she might have witnessed the beginning of a Demon Incursion.†Raiha’s manner became absolutely serious. “How bad is it? Do we need to contact the Grandmaster?†Then he gulped. “Is she alright? Is she…tainted?†Father Nakata shook his head. “It seems to be a botched attempt, and no, she wasn’t tainted as far as I can tell.†The padre proceeded to tell Raiha everything: Raidou’s secret mission for Misa, the government’s secret research facility, their experiment on making contact with the other dimension, how a Demon had nearly wormed its way through the portal instead, and of the ensuing chaos. Raiha listened with a deep frown on his face, but when the subject of the parasite implanted within everyone on site was brought up, his eyes immediately widened. “Damn, damn, damn,†he uttered, bolting upright. Nakata lifted both eyebrows. “I ran a diagnosis on everyone. The trace of demonic energy inside them was really faint to amount to anything much. Misa also told me that she couldn’t see them moving at all.†“Those parasites are not magical constructs, padre,†exclaimed Raiha as he made a frantic line for the phone attached to the wall. “They are a kind of ascended Thrall called Faust. Major league Demons use them to forcefully convert people into their Warlocks, and just like the hosts, those things can’t be killed. They can only be banished back to the Abyss, and the moment they are, there shouldn’t be any physical trace left behind. If Misa claimed to be able to see them still, it means they aren’t completely wiped away just yet. Those parasites are still alive!†His fingers deftly dialed the numbers. “Come on, come on, pick up the phone, Misa!†Something clicked on the other side of the receiver, and a ragged female voice quietly greeted him. “H-hello?†“Misa? Where are you right now?†Raiha asked. His demon hunting partner for one year drew in a long breath. “This voice…is that Raiha?†She was quiet for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to say by looking at a cheat sheet in front of her. “I’m at home.†Pause. “I fucked up. I need your help.†Raiha blinked at the phone. Then Nakata. Then without hesitation, he stormed past the front entrance of the church and vanished with a thunder clap, heading straight toward Misa’s home. ***** A bolt of lightning flashed down near Ryugan, depositing Raiha somewhere toward the west side of Mitsuba. The district was originally just a small economic zone reserved for poor foreign workers to the outskirt of Tokyo, hosting homes that once had been tiny affairs, stuffed with too-large families and children. But that was a thing of the past, and Ryugan had grown up alongside the size of the community residing within it. He looked around. Most of the houses built on the allotted space hadn’t had much room for expansion, so instead they had grown upward, giving the neighborhood a stretched, elongated look. There was no shortage of common houses that went as high as four to five stories, and even then they were dwarfed by the ancient oaks and sycamores growing on both sides of the pavement. The trees decorated the yards and fields in stately majesty, except for the parts where they had been roughly hacked up to make way for balconies and power lines. His eyes scanned the surrounding as he murmured Misa’s home address. From what little he had heard, Misa lived on her own in a rented apartment around here somewhere. Time and again, her parents had offered to move her to the city where the both of them were working, but she had always declined them out of concern for the Hellmouth in Mitsuba. He had to hand it to the girl. She got guts. He could feel a little cloud of disturbance in the air, a kind of demonic energy left behind by power users when they exercised their abilities. Raiha took in a deep breath, readying his Shield of Faith before following the trail toward a multistory apartment block, brushing his way through a gang of bikers congregating directly in front of the entrance. Some of the mohawked, leather-vested thugs gave him a threatening look, but backed off when they recognized the young master of house Shirakawa. The lift was disabled at night to save on electricity, so Raiha made his way to the nineteenth floor on foot. His Assassin Creed jacket was drenched in sweat by the time he stood in front of Misa’s room. To his surprise, she grew plants on the corridor section, the greenery giving the drab concrete a rich, organic glow. It stood out quite markedly from the rest of the surrounding apartments. “I’m here, Misa,†Raiha announced, ringing her door bell. “Are you in there?†A moment later he could feel someone moving closer and stopping on the other side of the door, presumably to look through the peep hole. A lock disengaged afterward, then another, then a door chain, then some rattling thing that he couldn’t quite place. He noted as he waited, that somehow Misa had a steel reinforced door unlike the majority of the tenants around here. Though he wondered if it had much use as deterrence against a determined demonspawn. Misa opened the door partway and peered out at him, wearing a floral print shirt and pair of shorts. Her eyes flicked left and right. In her right hand she was holding Geminus, a small key dangling on a chain wrapped around her wrist. “Did you come here alone?†she asked. He nodded. She opened the door just enough for Raiha to get in, then promptly closed it. Misa’s place was, for lack of a better word, girly. The room was done in soft green and orange. There were frills and ruffles. The curtains had them, the couch had them, the recliners had doilies wrapped over the surface of their arm rests, the table, and just about every other surface capable of supporting lacy bits of decoration was wreathed in them. They looked old, but cared for. He got a feeling Mrs. Imahara picked them out personally for her daughter. Misa’s contribution to the décor was an amalgamation of ballistic knives, kukris, daggers, machetes, balisongs all hanging by their straps from hooks on the wall, the same way most normal people would hang up their keys. Practical violence within arm’s length: those had her signatures all over them. Cardboard crates containing questionable hardware took up one corner of the living room, while family photographs lovingly framed and displayed occupied the shelf on the opposite end. It made for a perplexing juxtaposition. Raiha noticed a pair of male shoes neatly placed at the entrance despite the fact that she lived alone. Misa didn’t make a remark about them, so he decided to not raise any question. What he said after she was done with locking the door was, “You said you need my assistance over the phone. I’m here. How may I be of help?†She looked at him. “Am I right to assume Father Nakata told you everything that transpired?†“He did.†“He had one detail off. We were wrong,†she said, almost mournfullly. “The parasite was still alive.†Raiha nodded. “I know.†Misa’s eyes widened. “How did you…?†“I read about these things when I was an Acolyte.†he replied, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. “The Lexicon mentioned how they would go dormant to repair themselves for a short period when attacked during the larval stage. We are lucky you are a power user, so it needs to take quite a while longer to mature and assimilate itself into your soul. Now pull your shirt up and lie down on the bed, I will remove it.†She coughed and looked down. He was reminded of the fact that Misa was, after all is said and done, a female. “Sorry, I forgot. I guess you can wrap yourself in a towel or something. But you will have to tell me with your Sight where the thing is.†“It’s not about that, Raiha,†she replied. For a moment, her composure faltered and her lips began to tremble. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, smoothing over her features, then opened her smoky dark eyes again. “A classmate came over to deliver some notes for me just now, an hour before you showed up. I came out to greet him, and…and…the creature leaped out of my mouth and wormed its way into his. It was all so sudden, I had no time to react.†“A host transfer?†he muttered, his voice quiet. There was no precedence of a Faust doing such a thing. He asked her to show him the infected, and Misa led Raiha to her bedroom. A familiar face greeted him behind the closed door. Raiha remembered Kira Takamine as an easy-going second year of medium height, neatly combed dark hair, with a nervous smile and a quiet personality that made him blend in a little too well with the surrounding. He was part of the student council of which Raiha’s girlfriend was the president; the kid who always frowned at Raiha for breaking into the meeting room during school breaks to enjoy the air conditioning despite not being an active member. Most of their exchanges so far resulted in the Knight falling asleep on Honoka’s chair. He didn’t remember Kira with a fixed, tooth-baring grin and eyes so intense with madness like the psychopathic axe murderer from The Shining. He didn’t remember the bulges that moved beneath his skin like some sort of insect trying to break free, the fingernails so yellowed and encrusted they had started to rot, or his wrists and ankles restrained by steel chains, tied to both ends of the bed. Raiha could smell the stink of sweat and the stench of profane miasma. The windows had been shut and curtained, making the atmosphere inside the room almost unbreathable for him. Kira turned to face the Knight and his eyes suddenly widened in frightful recognition. The restrained boy threw his head back in a piercing, sepulchral scream, like that of a banshee’s. Then he started thrashing and jerking his restraints, causing the metal to dig into his flesh, producing a steady, squeaking rhythm from the springy bed, making it sound like a couple of hyperkinetic teenagers were going at each other like rabbits. “Intermediate stage of demonic possession,†Raiha diagnosed, expressionless. “The Faust is corrupting his personality and his memory. In the next half an hour, he will be effectively reverted to a blank slate, where it can start reprogramming him into a Warlock.†“A Faust?†Misa asked. “Like the one from Mephistopheles’ legend?†“That’s where the inspiration for the parasite's contemporary name comes from, yes.†“But then doesn’t that make our work simpler? We can just tell him to reject the Faust’s invasion.†He shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not how it works.†“But that doesn’t make any sense,†she said. “You told me being a Warlock is a matter of choice. That the individuals can choose to renounce the devil within if they have the will to do so. That’s why the Knights of the Cross exist in the first place, to redeem those who have fallen from grace.†He gave her a leveled look. “And doesn’t that strike you as horribly inefficient? That the demons would play a chess game with pieces that might or might not follow their master’s orders?†She paused. “Most demons have no choice but to tempt humans with promises of riches and influence because while they can bestow supernatural powers to these individuals, they cannot corrupt free will, which was God’s gift to mankind,†Raiha explained sadly. “But major league demons like Barbatorem, Mephistopheles, Nurgle, have found a way to bypass this. They use a specialized Thrall called a Faust to temporarily corrupt the victim’s soul, weaving its presence and preference into the person’s memory and mind, making it seem like he has chosen to become a Warlock all along. Then when the process is done, he will act on these fabricated details and notions as if they were his own. What comes out in the end is a mental slave so controlled the person doesn’t even know he is being played like a puppet, and this lasts till his last breath.†“Can he be saved?†Misa went straight to the point. “Give me a minute to find out,†Raiha replied. “Maybe…maybe isolate the parasite, trap it with your own magic, then slowly revert the damage it has caused? He looked at Kira. “I don’t know if that can be done, Misa.†“Or maybe we can try to burn only the demonic bits, like how they treat cancer with chemicals?†“Misa, I don’t know if that is possible.†“Damn it, Raiha,†she snapped. “Then what do you even know?!†Her fists were clenched, her shoulders quivering with suppressed anger. “Nothing, if you don’t give me a minute to find out,†he answered with patience. Raiha hadn’t been shooting down her proposals, he just simply didn’t want to give her any false hope without first confirming their viability. “Misa, I’m going to tell you three times. Calm down.†“It was all my fault that he is-†her voice was caught in her throat, and her eyes looked to him as if they were pleading. “I should be the one lying there. The guy hasn’t done anything to warrant this fate. Save him, please.†“Take it easy,†Raiha told Misa while gently ushering her to the other side of the bed. “I will do my best.†Kira stared at her with wide-rimmed eyes as she circled around him. His head then whipped around and broke into a string of expletives and curses at the Knight when he channeled what was left of his meager Resplendence pool. Raiha’s outstretched palm started to glow incandescently, and the possessed boy started to thrash, trying to get away from it. “Detect Evil and Good,†Raiha whispered the invocation before addressing Kira, his voice slow, clear, like a trainer talking to an untamed lion. “I’m going to diagnose your condition. It’s going to hurt, but that’s the spell burning away the demonic taint inside. Weakness leaving your body, you know, so don’t be alarmed.†Then without delay, he laid his hand on Kira’s chest. The boy started to scream, rocking the bed back and forth with fervor. His flesh started to metaphysically char underneath the Knight’s searing aura. He thrust his head at Raiha’s hand, trying to bite off the digits, his teeth making snapping motions, his enamel visibly breaking at the force his jaw produced. Raiha gestured with his hand for Misa to secure Kira’s head, then redoubled his effort. Kira’s soul had been raped, ravaged, ruined. He was riddled with holes, chunks of his body taken away as if bitten into and ripped out by a particularly vicious predator. It reminded Raiha of the dead bodies from Jaws, people with their body parts and organs just taken, consumed. That was what Kira would look like, if not for the fact that something was visibly worming its way into the vacant space. Something dark, encysted, malignant. Metaphysically speaking, Kira was bleeding and bleeding endlessly, the sheet below him pure white despite the copious amount of ectoplasm soaking into it. It was a matter of time before the injuries manifest themselves in the physical realm. The body was shaped by the soul much like how rebar reinforced concrete. With a damaged core, the shell would eventually crumble. Similarly, a body without a soul would fester, rot, decay. Victims of a Thrall attack never got an open casket funeral. Raiha heaved a sigh of effort and attempted the magical equivalent of disinfection. He identified the Faust and prodded it with a cleansing spell and isolated the mutilated sections of Kira’s soul. It didn’t seem to work. While most magic teemed and pulsed with life and purpose, even when it was used for malicious or destructive purpose, the kind employed by demon was something completely different. Antilife, antithesis, antimagic, a dissonant counterpart to Raiha’s practice. Worse, he could feel its tendrils forcing its way into him through the connection established between the two of them, trying to corrupt the Knight of the Cross’ soul with its unholy taint. The smart thing to do would have been to fall back. He could phone in Grandmaster Arkynaster for instruction on the matter before working on it, figuring out how to deal with the Faust. Banishment was no longer an option, since the creature had integrated itself so deeply into the boy’s soul. The moment Raiha did that, momentum would send whatever that was left of Kira back to the Abyss along with the parasite through inertia, and while most people utter the phrase without comprehending it, the second year would soon understand the meaning of a life worse than death. But judiciousness wasn’t even an option. Kira had already been suffering for nearly an hour. He might not make it through the next, given how rapid the Faust’s progress was. His sanity would be eclipsed by the parasite’s mind, and he might very well be sent to someplace from where he’d never come back at any moment now. Raiha closed his eyes and steeled his will. He resumed purging the corruption with a far stronger invocation this time, so potent its searing heat scorched away parts of Kira’s soul that remained untouched by the Faust. The poor boy screamed aloud, agonized, yet even through that there was the wicked, horrible laughter of something that didn’t belong within him. Raiha clenched his teeth, forcing his will, his power, his presence into the holes of the victim’s soul, to fill up the gap before the Faust could do it. It worked. The tendrils shriveled, masses of corruption withered away until they could no longer be detected by Raiha’s divine sense. He felt tears burn into his eyes, from the magical backlash, from Kira’s screaming, but he pressed on until he could no longer keep up the purging invocation. The Faust’s roots were forcefully removed and burned away, leaving only the main body lodged deeply next to where Kira’s heart would be. Layer by layer, invocation by invocation, Raiha wrapped the creature within a cage of every sealing spell he had ever learned and read about, isolating that monstrous, vile thing deep within a recess of the boy’s soul, a prisoner within an Alcatraz built to house a single inmate. The Faust struggled, slamming itself repeatedly against the cage until, finally, it stopped moving. Kira’s eyes shot open wide, his body convulsing under wracking waves of pain, and then he sagged down, letting out a low, exhausted whimper as drool dripped from the corner of his mouth. Raiha let out a heaving breath and slumped against his chair. Misa came over to stop him from just collapsing onto the ground. “Raiha?†She breathed. “Are you alright?!†His mind felt numb with coldness that had nothing to do with the temperature inside the room. “O-overexertion on my part. T-t-the Faust tried to a-attack me. F-fought it off, isolated it.†“Can I get you anything? Do you need to see a doctor?†He shook his head. “D-don’t worry about me, check on him instead.†Misa nodded and paced over to the bed. “Erm...fellow classmate, can you hear me?†She didn't look like she even remembered his name. "It's Kira Takamine," Raiha whispered from the side. Kira stirred, his eyes cracking open. “Imahara-san?†he asked in a hoarse voice. Then he noticed the fact that he was tied down to her bed. “Why am I chained up?†His mouth suddenly fell down, a flustered look dawning on his face. “Did you drug me? We are students...this is wrong...†Then his eyes fell closed again, exhausted. She gave him a flat stare. Raiha started to laugh so hard he ended up with a coughing fit. “I think you can remove the chains already.†Misa used the key on her wrist to do just that. She unlocked all four padlocks around the bed, then the chains wrapping around his limbs, but it looked as though Kira had already fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep. “What happened to him, exactly?†she asked while helping Raiha to the couch in the living room. “It tore him up inside,†he answered. “You know how people are struck with grief and sorrow when someone dear to them die? Or when someone’s spouse cheats on him with his best friend? A part of your soul dies in the process, creating emotional pain that sometimes drives people insane. That’s what the parasite did to Kira, only a hundred times worse. The thing broke him apart, made him insane so that it could inject fabricated bits and pieces into his consciousness before rebuilding it.†“So he is fine now?†she asked. Her voice was quiet, hopeful. She gave him a can of vanilla Nescafe still cold from the fridge. It was his favorite. Raiha drank coffee more than water. He downed it in one gulp. “For now, yes. It’s quite unprecedented, stopping a Faust from infecting its victims. Most of the times, I get called in to take care of the aftermath.†His tone left very little room for interpretation as to what “take care†means. Then he crushed the can of coffee with his hand. “However, I wouldn’t use the word fine to describe his condition. If his will is strong, Kira can starve the Thrall by refusing to listen to it, to accept whatever bit of temptation it will undoubtedly try to offer him in exchange for freedom. But if he feeds it, it will regain enough strength to break out of the cage I have made.†He looked at her. “And since he would be using his freewill to do so, there will not be a second chance at redemption for him. That boy’s a ticking time bomb for all we know.†Misa glanced up at Raiha. “I won’t let it come to that. It was my fault that this happened to him, I will take proper responsibility in helping him overcoming his inner demon.†“He will have to live the rest of his life without once succumbing to temptation, to greed, to his own desire. The Faust will always be there to offer him an easy way out. Do you think such a thing is possible?†Raiha pointed out. “The moment he becomes a Warlock, he will seek us out, the people who opposed his demonic overlord in the first place, to exact vengeance. We already have our plate full with the ones running around Mitsuba. Can we risk having one more added to the fray?†“I don’t know,†she replied and shook her head. “But sometimes, you just gotta have faith. Remember those exact words that you spoke to me during our first meeting?" Misa brushed away a few errant strands of hair. "I will help him however much I can, and even in the worst case scenario, I would like to be the one relieving him from his misery. So please Raiha, give him this chance. Give me this chance.†Raiha took a last look at her, then the unconscious boy, then sighed and raked his hand through his hair. “It’s like you said, Mentor,†he murmured. “It never rains but it pours.†He fished inside his pocket and produced an enchanted coin before giving it to her. "Here, just in case you ever need my help. Tell Kira to come talk to me sometimes if he wants some tips on fighting off the Faust's advance." She accepted the coin. “Thank you, Raiha,†Misa said eventually. "For better or worse, I'm damn glad you are on our side." “Any time. You’re my friend. And I’m always up to helping a helpless, dainty damsel in distress,†he made an exaggerated bow and waggled his eyebrows in a way that Raiha knew would get on Misa's nerves. She glanced up at him, a sparkle in her eyes that somehow combined gratitude and bloodlust. “There's a fine line between chauvinism and chivalry, Raiha. Right now you are just coming across as a huge chauvinist pig.†“A hungry chauvinist pig, oink oink,†he corrected her. “All that spellcasting is starving me.†“Eat more. Your body is all skin and bone.†She gestured for him toward the kitchen table and said, “Gimme a moment to rummage through my fridge. I’ll get you something.†"It better not be combat MRE again, Misa," he said. The last time they had a field op together on the mountain, Misa was in charge of packing the food. Raiha had set his expectation low from the start, meaning no home-made bento packed with love or something equivalent. He had thought it would be something practical like sandwiches and juice boxes, but in the end all she had with her was these semi-solid...substances that tasted like glue. Calling it crap would be an insult to crap, because Raiha was sure that one actually had some measure of warmth and flavor. "Don't worry it's not," she said. "Thank Heaven," he answered. "It's non-combat MRE, seeing as we aren't fighting at the moment," she deadpaned. "...I hate you so much right now."
  13. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Footsteps echoed into Raiha’s consciousness. They splashed against water, and he was suddenly aware of the wet, numbing cold spreading through his body. He must be outside, because all Raiha could hear was the pattering noise of rain droplets falling down on the street, the faint scent of petrichor soaking into his nose. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt like lead doors jamming themselves completely shut. Someone touched his face, and Raiha weakly stirred in response. He heard a startled gasp, but couldn’t see anything in the dark. And then there was light. And he couldn’t see anything in the light still because the person who held on to the flashlight kept pointing it directly at his face. “Master Raiha?!†a feminine voice shrieked. Raiha dimly recognized the voice of the bespectacled maid in the Shirakawa mansion who always sang Saturday night anime songs off-note when she cleaned the windows. “Someone call for Master Rasen to come back! His brother is here!†He groaned as the noise jammed knives in his brain, and after a while the ground erupted with a sudden explosion of more footsteps rushing his way. “W…where am I?†“You are home, little brother!†Rasen’s voice boomed from somewhere nearby, and Raiha could feel himself being assisted up a flight of stairs, his head eventually falling back on something soft and fluffy. Pillows. They smelled of freshly laundered linen and antiseptic. “Doctor Minami,†Rasen said a while later. “How is it? Is he in any danger?†“Hard to say,†an unfamiliar voice answered back. “He has lost a lot of blood. Could be septic shock or hypovolemic shock. His bones are mostly intact, but I think he hit his head hard when he fell down outside.†Raiha could feel the cold touch of a stethoscope’s chest piece on his skin. “I will give him something to sleep away the pain.†Someone else was pacing around the room. “We can’t let our guard down yet. The moment Setsuna learns about your brother’s victory over his most powerful servant, he would surely send men after him,†Tsubame spoke. He remembered her silvery voice. “Not if we get to him first. Most of my men are armed and ready to go. I want everything that wretched man owns and loves to burn like a pyre in front of his eyes before dawn. Tsubame-dono, that leaves me with you. Please keep in mind Setsuna-dono did not spare you when it came to realizing his own ambition. But I’m different from him, and so I am willing to give you a chance to get even. I ask of you: are you with Shirakawa, or are you against us?†Rasen’s tone left very little room for interpretation as to what would be the ramifications of saying ‘against.’ Silence reigned over the room. And finally, Tsubame answered, her voice resolute. “Thank you for your generous offer, Raiha-kun. I know a way into the Hanayoshi mansion. A secret entrance for times of war, and it’s not as heavily guarded.†“Good, then we leave in 5 minutes.†Footsteps approached the bed from Rasen’s direction. “You are safe now, no one can come for you here,†Rasen said as he gently squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Don’t you dare chase me away and fight on your own again! We siblings stick to each other comes hell or high water, you hear me? I gotcha back always.†His brother words were filled with contradicting emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Relief. Worry. Pride. Anger. “And I gotcha, brother,†Raiha muttered, raising his hand for a fist bump. Rasen gave him a rib-crushing hug instead. Raiha winced, then grinned and closed his eyes, putting an end to a day far l0nger than it had any right to be. ***** The tender touch of warm, gentle fingers brought Raiha back into consciousness. His nose felt clogged, as if someone had poured concrete into his sinus, and he could feel pain in his everywhere. It was almost impossible for him to move anything beyond his own eyelids, as if his mind was seeking asylum in a stranger’s body. He didn’t want to open his eyes just to confirm what the small, quivering voice in his head was telling him about his sight. The fingers touched him again, caring and meticulous. Someone was slowly unwrapping the bandages around his limbs and chest. This time he could smell the fragrant scent of medicated oil as it was uncapped, could savor its warmth spreading through layers of his skin. It felt amazing, and Raiha could tell it was working, because the crashing waves of pain, supposedly already abated by his paladin constitution, were slowly reduced to ripples in a lake. It was more than physical relief, too. Being blind and immobile was merely an inconvenience; the worst thing about this state for Raiha was the isolation and anxiety. A simple brush of a human hand took all that forlornness and fright away, a conditional trigger so bone-deep it might as well had been hard-wired into humanity’s DNA. It was a reassurance, a promise, that no matter how bad things might get, there was someone next to him, someone who cared for him, someone who would tell him that he wasn’t alone. That a beautiful woman was the one doing all the touching was the icing on the cake. “I could really get used to this,†he mumbled. “Wonder if my mysterious therapist will treat me to her delicious Napolitan spaghetti after this as part of the treatment.†The fingers paused, and Honoka flicked him on the forehead. “Don’t push your luck. It’s fish porridge, and I bought it from Sai’s on the way here.†Her silky hair brushed against him. He could tell it was hers from the scent and the texture. His face dropped. “I hate fish….and Sai’s porridge too, come to think of it. He always adds more carrot than I can possibly handle.†“One paper-thin slice is already more carrot than you can handle, stop being so picky. And what’s wrong with fish?†“Bone picking. I’m traumatized by that time I got a fishbone stuck in my throat for half an hour,†he half-protested and opened his eyes. The world appeared to him like a mosaic painting with way too few pieces, but at least there were recognizable details now. Raiha was laying in his own bed, his head propped against Honoka’s calves, his legs hanging off the end of the master canopy bed. He could see that she was holding a bottle of pain-relieving herbal oil in one hand, her other hand caressing the bruises all over his shoulders, chest and arms. The cuts and gashes from last night had closed up completely, reduced to faint marks by the Resplendence within his body, but somehow the contusion and the scars remained behind as always. He stayed quiet and let her concentrate on finishing. All his bandages were tossed aside into a small basket to the side of the bed. Honoka moved her hand slowly but surely, palm running lightly over the patches of bruised flesh in slow, repetitive encircling motions, barely touching his skin. She pressed down with more force over his joints, kneading away the fatigue with her infinitely patient and confident hands. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but soon the stiffness in his neck went away, and so were the kinks along his limbs, leaving behind only a lingering sense of utter satisfaction. Raiha drifted on the sensations, and he let out a contented sigh in the end. “Penny for your thought?†she asked. “It was amazing,†he chirped. “That’s the same thing you always say when I’m done touching you,†she answered. Raiha couldn’t crane his neck to look at her face just yet, but he could hear the mischievous smile in her tone. “I’m sworn to the oath of honesty on matters of great importance,†he replied with a flourish of hand. “Perhaps if the lady wants to hear something other than praises, she should stop being so good at it.†“Flattery won’t get you anywhere,†Honoka said and gingerly smacked one of his shoulders, the one without any visible wound. “Now get up please, I think my legs fell asleep.†“Dun wanna. Is comfortable here.†He wiggled like a worm. “How am I supposed to go home and prepare the dish you ordered if I’m stuck here?†“Hmm…you make a compelling case.†Raiha slowly got up, expecting the lightheadedness to hit as blood rushed around his head. Thankfully, it was nowhere as horrible as he had thought. He walked over to the mirror to check himself in the reflection, squinting past the blurriness, and frowned a little at his nose’s shape from being bashed in by Ashura’s boot. His eyes were blood red, as if all the capillaries inside had burst open, and his hair resembled a crow’s nest from all the tossing and turning. He looked out the window and tilted his head. “It’s still dark outside. Felt like I had a full night sleep though.†“You did. The maids said you’ve been sleeping for nearly 20 hours since yesterday. I only came to visit you after school was over.†She rose from the bed, straightened the creases on her uniform and stretched, the sight drawing Raiha’s attention with how intriguing and pleasant it was to watch. “Ugh, now it’s my turn to get all stiffed from sitting still for too long.†He started getting ideas. “I can think of an easy…remedy for that,†Raiha murmured and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Honoka stopped and turned to look at him, her blue eyes glinting as they peered at his with a kind of relaxed, yet taunting quality. A smile touched her lips. “Tempting. Where’s the pretty please?†she prompted. “Pretty please~†he drawled. “With a cherry on top.†“Wow, look who wants the moon.†“Worth a shot,†she muttered with a laugh and turned around, giving Raiha some personal space to put on his clothing. He went for a striped long-sleeved shirt, black slacks, and the Assassin’s Creed blue and white hoodie jacket he got during the last Tokyo Game Show. Together they looked stylish enough and didn’t hinder much in way of mobility, which was a huge plus. His car keys, cellphone, wallet, Saint Theresa’s silver cross and the black cloak were all neatly placed on a nearby table by the house servants. He grabbed all of them san the last item and made a mental note to have his phone repaired. Honoka came over to help him with the buttons, as his fingers were still too clumsy to be done with them in any reasonable amount of time. Her hand brushed his when she was done with the task, and without even thinking he twined his fingers around hers. She shivered a little, and returned the gesture. “When your brother and that woman suddenly appeared right next to me, I feared for the worst,†she whispered and leaned in closer, closing her eyes. Raiha’s chest ached at her words. “They told me the summit went awry. And you chose to stay behind to cover for them and to avenge your sister in law. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do besides praying to your God for your safe return.†“It's not like I'm complaining, quite the opposite really, but…I thought you were an atheist?†“Hard for me to remain one, especially when He did answer my prayer,†she answered, pressing her head closer to his chest, as if to listen to his heartbeats, to make sure he was really here with her. Perhaps from an outsider’s perspective, what he shared with her was a puppy love of sort, but doing so would be calling a carpenter a woodpecker. Raiha didn’t roll around his bed waiting for her messages on his phone and had butterflies fluttering in his stomach, nor did they do things like engraving their names on a love lock before hanging it on the school fence and throwing the key away. He simply kept her face in his heart, her presence his love and longing; a kind of sweet, yet sometimes painful presence. It felt like he could conquer the world with one hand behind his back as long as his other hand was holding onto hers. For Honoka, he would do anything. Ashura the dead Avatar learned that the hard way. He pressed his forehead against hers. “I defeated him, and I gave him a chance to walk away from his past. But he saw my mercy as humiliation, my kindness as vanity, and he swore an oath of vengeance on people around me. I couldn’t let that happen.†“And you put him down.†His eyes darkened, and he nodded. “Padre said what I did was wrong. But even now I have yet to find my own answer. Killing him felt right, it felt good, as if all three years of being a Knight of the Cross had led me to that moment. I can’t stomach the thought of him coming for you or anyone else because of me.†He looked up, shamefaced. “Do you think God will ever forgive me?†Honoka was quiet, as if considering her words. Then she wrapped her arms around him tighter and said, “I think God sees hearts, and now I see yours.†***** In the end, the food market was closed by the time they got there. Since Raiha was about as blind as a bat and thusly incapable of driving, Honoka had suggested that they walked there instead. He did think about asking for a lift from his brother, but the latter’s time was occupied completely by Raidou, who seemed to be immensely pleased by his son’s swift and efficient retaliation on the Hanayoshi. In the end, their boss’ plan had ended up backfiring, effectively turning house Shirakawa into the most powerful crime organization this side of the Kanto region. They settled for a grill and hotpot Korean restaurant nearby, this one a mix between a la carte and buffet. Customers would come in and pay a one-time entry fee, and afterward they were free to order as much fresh ingredient as possible. The table had a round hole in the middle to accommodate a metal plate rim surrounding a pot filled with sukiyaki soup, so that diners were free to grill or soak their food. To the side, a small door allowed the waiters and waitresses to constantly put in more smokeless charcoal when the fire became too subdued. Raiha couldn’t see well enough to tell if the meat was ready to eat from the texture, so he settled for anything that Honoka put in his bowl. Once or twice, it was fish and carrot cake, and he had no choice but to grimace, chew carefully for bones, and swallow. “It’s good for your health,†she added in laughter, looking at his glowering face. Aside from that, the meal was excellent in his opinion, and they both lingered behind even as the clock struck 10 PM, just half an hour before closing time. “Can I ask you something?†Honoka asked. “Of course.†“I just realized despite how close we are, I have never really seen you in a fight,†she said and tapped her temple thoughtfully. “Okay, aside from that first time we met, but it was over so fast for me to tell, and I think I was hyperventilating pretty hard back then. But exactly how strong are you, Raiha?†He grinned at her and answered without hesitation. “Quite powerful, I reckon.†She let out a mellifluous laugh. “Let it be known that humility is dead. Raiha Shirakawa killed it.†“I mean it’s all relatively speaking, of course,†he quickly added, finally realizing his own hubris. “Compared to Mentor, I’m like a grain of sand trying to hold back the ocean, but I haven’t really lost to any other opponent before. She did mention I’m a magnitude above an average Knight when it comes to the size of my Resplendence pool, and my predecessor left behind for me one of the more powerful relics the Church has ever possessed.†“Resplendence?†“Well…†he considered it for a moment. “Think of it as my soul. I can tear away a small piece of it, shape it with an invocation, and then release whatever I get, usually in the form of a lightning bolt or a gust of wind due to the nature of my sacred relic.†He held up the silver cross around his neck. “This once belonged to Saint Theresa, who was really good at conjuring thunderstorms, or so the legend goes.†“You are fueling your magic with your soul?†she asked, incredulous. “But…your soul regenerates afterward, right?†“Absolutely,†he said cheerfully. “Give me a few days and I will be right as rain again. Mentor told me if I stick to doing stuff I enjoy, laugh a lot and find activities that uplift the spirit, it might even be as fast as a few hours.†Honoka nodded, then her eyes flickered downward with thoughts. “So if Ashura could hurt you to that extent, he must have been pretty powerful as well.†Raiha let out a pff noise. “Not even close, the only thing that he managed to do to me was breaking my nose,†he pointed at his face. “The rest of it…well, I kinda did it to myself.†“What.†“It’s not voluntarily,†he lifted up his both hands. “I just never got a chance to practice the big invocations, so I ended up wasting far too much of my Resplendence trying to get any significant result out of them. That’s why my body just sorta gave up afterward. Think of it like rebar and concrete. You pull too much of the inner core out, the exterior shell becomes more fragile and prone to shatter.†Her eyes widened, finally realizing the implications of it. “You said Resplendence is akin to your soul, then what happens if you use too much of it?†“What happens to all of us in the end?†Raiha answered. “Without a soul to hold it together, the body becomes nothing than a normal bag of meat and bones.†A moment of silence. She broke it by swearing quietly. “Damn it Raiha, bad enough that there are all these demons wanting to kill you, now even you are in on it.†“It was either risking that or lost, and you know how much of a sore loser I am,†he responded jovially, eyes closed in a grin. “Let me put it this way: either use all your power and possibly die fighting, or not use all of it and possibly die screaming. If this Knightly dilemma of yours grows any more horns, I’m shooting and mounting its head on my wall,†she said in exasperation. He laughed heartily. “Don’t worry. It’s not every day that I have to fight someone using earth-shattering invocations. So far a blade through the core still works most of the time.†The laugher died away, and memory of holding the air sphere in his palm returned. Raiha looked up at Honoka, his eyes steady. “May I get your take on something?†“Ask away.†“Would you have done the same thing in my place? To that Ashura guy.†She tilted her head and mulled the thought over. “Hard to say…I think I would have. But we do crazy things for people we love, so two of us being wrong together might not make it a right thing.†He frowned. “I felt bad for what I said to Father Nakata, but I can’t understand why he would place that scumbag’s life to be equal to the lives of people around me. I thought your answer could have given me a different perspective.†Honoka studied her boyfriend’s face. “Have you ever killed another human being, Raiha? Even Warlock.†He shook his head. “When I was 5, my mom always baked these delicious cupcakes and put them in the fridge. She would only allow me to have one after dinner if I behaved myself, and she told me that if I were to eat them without her permission, they would give me a stomachache. I really believed it, you know? That was until one day, when I opened the fridge on my own and ate one out of temptation. Mom made so many, there was no way for her to tell if one or two went missing. Of course I never got a stomachache, and soon it got easier for me to justify stealing those cupcakes, whereas in the past, such thought wouldn’t even enter my mind.†She lay her hand on his in a tender grip. “I think Father Nakata wasn’t disappointed by you, Raiha, but he feared for you. Your magic is born of faith, if you killed someone with it, it’s because you truly believe in murder being a solution to your problem. Now that you have crossed that line, you no longer fear the consequences of such an action, and it will get easier and easier for you to justify taking lives just like it was for Ashura. At such rate, one day you will have a person standing before you just like how you stood in front of him. He who fights monsters…†She left the sentence hanging unfinished, as if to see if Raiha could see where she was going. He bit his lower lip and continued, “…should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.†Honoka looked at his acknowledgement and smiled gently. “We can pass by the church together after this, you can come in and tell him your apology. I know you’ve been dying to say it, it’s written all over your face. You are a good man Raiha Shirakawa, promise me you won’t change for anything.†Raiha considered that for a moment and nodded. “Thank you,†he told her seriously. “For the advice, and for your faith in me. I promise.†She nodded in approval and leaned over to kiss him, her fingers pulling his chin ever so gently, and her lips and scent tasted like sunflowers and sun-drenched summer afternoons. “Well then, now that you’ve made up your mind, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!†***** Raiha never saw the blade coming. One moment, he was being guided down the narrow alley next to the Shinramenya which would take both him and Honoka to the church’s courtyard, the next moment the air was thick with a cloud of vile energy. There was…no, there were 3 sources of it, all coming from the cold steel being pressed against his throat. Raiha thought he could recognize each individual scent: two of them belonging to the short-lived Reaper wielders he had met during the yakuza summit, the last coming from none other than the Warlock that had killed everyone inside. His hand instinctively reached out to Honoka for a Lightning Step invocation. “Don’t even think about using your magic, Knight,†his assailant, a figure cloaked in literal shadow, spoke. Raiha could barely make out Honoka’s profile next to him with his current eyesight. She too was standing motionless, a dagger tip pointing directly at her throat. “You might be able to move across the town in a tenth of a second, but I’m faster. The moment you try something, only your headless body will be transported away. Hers too.†Raiha gritted his teeth. That didn’t sound like a bluff. “What do you want from us?†Honoka asked, a quivering note in her voice. “If your intention was to kill, then we both would have been dead by now.†The shadowy face turned to regard her. “Perceptive girl. My quarrel today isn’t with you. I have come to deliver lover boy here a warning.†Raiha heard himself being mentioned. He glared at the Warlock and asked. “That there’s a sword-swinging psychopath after my life out there?†“Funny. Here's the deal: stay away from the criminal world, and in return I will let you keep your life,†the shadow answered. “Simple, isn’t it?†“I think you are barking up the wrong tree here. My most egregious violation of the laws so far was going beyond the speed limit, and I paid the fine afterward.†Raiha talked back. “I get angry when people insult my intelligence, Knight, so let’s drop the wiseass charade,†he snarled. “You got in my way today at the restaurant by shielding those two yakuza representatives, and that alone is reason enough for me to kill you right now. But fortunately for you, I also saw how you did it out of the goodness of your heart, when you sent them away and stayed behind to bring down Ashura. That saves me the trouble of going after him myself.†Raiha scowled. “So what? You want me to sit idly by while you go after my own family?†He sounded taken aback. “You would stoop to calling those lowlifes your family? Your real family is your Order, men and women who abide by the laws of society and live with honour. These people you sheltered, they just happen to share the same roof with you - that alone doesn’t make them your family. You feel obliged to side with them, but they stand for the opposite of your ideals. You think Ashura is evil for killing a few dozen people, but have you any idea how many have lost their lives to the thugs, the criminals, the Big Three? And if you agreed to kill him, why choose to get in my way now?†“Maybe I’m just a hypocrite who is not very good at his job.†Raiha laughed bitterly, trying not to question himself over how legitimate those words were. “Just someone who chooses to be a human who cares for his real family first and a Knight second. Besides, my power is to protect people from the threats without like Ashura, Demons, and people like you, not from those within.†The Warlock shook his head. “Stubborn, but at least you are aware of your own shortcomings. It’s about time you learn that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.†God Almighty, I’m being lectured by a Warlock over my choices in life! What’s next? A Thrall coming to exorcise me? Raiha swallowed and kept on talking, trying to resort to other options. As an invocator, he has to speak the words to bring up his power, and as a swordsman, he needs a blade. Neither of which would be possible without the Warlock beheading him first. He had to somehow get the shadowy man distracted for a short moment to give Raiha time to teleport himself and Honoka away. But given that his soul had been mostly used up to fuel Storm of Vengeance, his options were severely limited. “Tell me something. The Reapers, what did you do to them?†he asked. There was another invocation that Raiha could try. But to use that in his current state, not to mention his own unfamiliarity with it… “I destroyed them. They were mindless tools for slaughter, their image a perversion of a noble weapon meant to preserve justice.†His blade seemed to quiver a little as he said that, and Raiha suddenly realized the katana being pressed against his throat was a breathing, living Thrall. “Your weapon devoured them somehow, I can feel the Reapers’ lingering presence still, and they are getting weaker.†“That’s none of your business.†The invocation’s power built up painfully slowly but steadily, he just needed more time. Raiha squinted at the Warlock and asked. “What…about the blood?†“What of it?†“There was not a single drop of blood at the scene. That was your doing, am I right?†he spoke hoarsely. His voice sounded like it came out from someone else’s mouth. The burden the invocation placed on his crippled mind and body tremendous beyond anything he had ever felt in life. The shadowy man let out a shrill noise, kind of like a laugh, but devoid of joy. “The moment I take out my blade, I can’t return it to the sheath without first drawing blood of the wicked.†Raiha made a vague noise as affirmation, his mind not paying attention to the warlock as he burned deeper into his soul. He sought and scraped, filling in the empty void with energy drawn from his own life force. And at last, Purity of Lightning flared to life in his mind. “So what is your answer, Knight? Keep in mind that my patience isn’t limitless, unlike my capabili-,†the Warlock spoke again, then suddenly paused. Just as the energy from the invocation started to coalesce into being around Raiha and Honoka, he blinked, and the moment his eyes were open, the Warlock was no more. His departure was even more abrupt than his arrival: no fanfare, no lingering trail of shadowy tendrils, just poof. Gone. “What,†spoke Honoka and Raiha at the same time. The spell fizzled out. “THUNK,†swiftly answered the wall right behind the Warlock just moments ago, as a freaking naginata from out of nowhere buried itself into it.
  14. Sir Vey Lance's Characters Compilation

    Name: The Knights of the Cross There are many religions in the world today, and when one studies their scriptures, there is an almost universal concept of a place reserved for punishment of the wicked. Call it Hell, Gehenna, Tartarus, Naraka, the idea is the same: you die, your soul leaves your body and head straight to the afterlife, where if would be judged for all the sins committed in life. That is not the hell in the universe of Mitsuba academy. Down there be demons and nightmares, and their hunger care not if you are a saint or a sinner. The Knights of the Cross, as their name would imply, is a separate sect of the church that has to do with the safekeeping of humanity against the creatures from the world beyond. They have gone through many iterations, some of great repute, some of massive infamy, such as the Spanish Inquisition who took it too far with their purging of the supernatural foes. Each Knight is given a relic, which was once the possession of a Saint who has fought against the Demons, an object capable of empowering and granting them abilities and power beyond their mortal limit, but in return they are only allowed to use this power for protecting innocents, never harming them. There used to be more Knights in the past due to the number of relics at that point in time, but centuries of war and internal strife has reduced the total number of Knights over the world down to no more than 30. And that is an optimistic projecttion. For those who are curious, Reaper Wielders answer to an underworld government called the Bakufu, which is representative of the Shinto religion. The Order of the Cross and the Bakufu has never been on good terms with each other due to some members of the church believing that Reapers give power to individuals who have and could potentially use them for malicious purposes, but much like that pesky roommate who keeps stealing your food during college, both organizations have no choice but to tolerate each other due to being on the same boat.
  15. Sir Vey Lance's Characters Compilation

    Nickname: Ashura the Deathless Avatar Name: Anupam Dey Appearance: Anupam has sculpted-to-perfection musculature and an impressive height of 1.98 m, making him less man and more walking mountain. He has tanned skin and a bald head. He's well-mannered when it comes to putting up a diplomatic front, and savage-looking when it comes to a fight. He wears simple clothing and has an impressive amount of tattoo on his body. I was picturing this guy when I described him, minus the bling of course. Bio: Despite how he looks, Anupam is more than a century old. Born an Avatar capable of channeling the might of the God of destruction, he used his power not to hunt demonspawn but humans, learning arcane techniques and profane rituals from forbidden tomes of knowledge in the process. The world he lived in was savage and brutal, and people like him were those that would burn down civilizations for gold and glory. But despite all his bragging about being truly unkillable, many of his foes eventually figured out a cyanide capsule or a bag of nerve gas could easily bypass his impregnable defense, and thus he had no choice but to move to Japan, his mother's country, and lay low by opening a security firm. Like 6 feet under kinda low as things so turned out. Powers: Absolute Defense: Ashura can negate any form of destructive energy by absorbing and storing them...somewhere. This includes being burned, being zapped, being crushed by water pressure, being slashed, etc.. This makes him effectively invulnerable to physical harm, but the extent of that power is more limited than he would let on. Imagine if all kind of energy is negated, then his body won't be able to burn fat for calories, his heart wouldn't be able to pump blood through his body. This was why Raiha came to the conclusion that an explosion from inside Anupam's body would be able to take him out. Of course, this power is fearsome in its own right because it can be defensive and offensive at the same time. Absolute Offense: Imagine the moment he grabs you. That's it. No amount of struggling will get you away, because your feeble attempt to wiggle out of his grasp will produce 0 effective energy on pushing him away. The man can also channel all the energy he has collected into his blows, the impact powerful enough to even shatter a mountain in one strike if he wants to put everything in a single strike, and had Raiha been a second too late on forming the defensive shield over his head, the Knight's life would have been rather short indeed. Author's note: When I read about villains in story, at least for me there are always two kinds. There are those who don't think of themselves as villains, and those that do. For the former, think of Light Yagami from Death Note. He's evil, he's cruel, but people can understand why he acted the way he did, because they can picture getting behind his motives and methods if they were in his place. Those are sympathetic villains, and it takes talent to write them and write them well. Then there's the instant noodle kind of villain like this guy. He comes in, he does all sort of shit that makes your blood boil and your temper flare, the heroes put them down and tada, your writing quota for the day is reached. These guys are walking caricatures of sins, and in a way they are easier to make but harder to leave behind any lasting impression. Basically every Bond villain ever. Perfect for a battle-oriented RP, but it doesn't mean you can't stick some character development into it by having the hero put down/spare/absolve/torture the guy, forming a neat what-you-are-in-the-dark moment.