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Chronicles Of the Black Order: Winter Descends

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A figure in a hooded, cream-coloured coat stalked the empty streets in complete darkness. He kept up against the walls of buildings, venturing into alleyways whenever he passed them. His movements were clumsy, showing off his lack of talent for sneaking, but he was moving stealthily enough through the unlit streets.

The streets were always quiet at night in the small town of Livenstone. Nestled in a shallow valley between two major industrial cities, the town was bombarded by smog and pollution daily, and needless to say that made it an undesirable place to live. People were slowly moving away to better towns, and Livenstone was on a steady decline into desolation. Nobody bothered lighting or maintaining the street lanterns, so the only light about was what came from the starry sky.

Recently the situation had gotten worse. Murders were happening around the town during the nights. No bodies were left behind, but rumours told of people seeing strange, floating, spherical demons killing people mercilessly. Where once the streets were dotted scarcely by lights from windows of those still awake later in the night, now none dared draw attention lest the demons come for them next.

But the figure in the cream-coloured coat still dared to venture out in the middle of the night despite the dangers, for he was actually seeking to find the rumoured demons. The librarian, now an amatuer non-fiction novelist, was hoping to be the first to document the creatures. Though he had no way to defend himself, the vast dangers of what he was doing only served to fuel his sense of adventure and spur him onwards.

Exiting a network of alleyways onto a main street, the coated figure suddenly heard a strange humming sound, and immediately took cover behind a small mailbox. Bright amber eyes darted around in search of the source of the sound in vain. The sound got closer and closer, eventually causing the coated figure to cringe in anticipation of a sudden appearance of the source. Realising it was actually above him, the figure threw his head back and cast his amber eyes towards the stars. His coat's hood fell back to reveal a messy head of black hair going down to ear-length, hanging just over the top of the upper rims of large, rectangular eyeglasses on the otherwise plain face of the young man.

Coming into vision from abover the building behind the man was a dark, hovering ball. As his eyes trained on it, the man noticed that it had dozens of gun-barrel-like protrusions scattered across its bumpy surface, with a mass of limp tentacle-looking things hanging down from under it. Most disturbingly of all, it bore a small face in the centre of (what the man assumed to be) its front. The face was a grayish-white colour, the eyes were vacant-looking and framed by dark black circles, the forehead bore a black pentacle, and the mouth lolled open partway.

The coated man stared in awe at the thing, the demon. It was hovering past him, over the rooves of buildings, likely in search of victims. The man was mesmerised by it, and stood up from behind the mailbox to pursue. His gaze locked upwards onto the demon, he ran straight into bicycle left by the roadside and collapsed over it with a loud clatter and shout of pain.

The demon heard it.

As the man was picking himself up, the floating demon had turned around and was heading back towards him. He looked up to see the thing's face with a twisted grin, its gun-barrel protrusions bending and training their sights on him. Faced with such a strong intent to kill from the demon, the man lost all notion of this being some mysterious adventure. He froze on the spot, simply unable to do anything but watch his own doom approach.

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It was getting to be a challenge to discern the dates of newspapers recently. Even to the trained eyes of Sue-Michelle Trayton- a reader who never forgot anything she read- the Tuesday issue of the Livenstone Daily seemed identical to the Monday one. All of them blared the same headlines, only worded differently. How was "Ten Dead From Mysterious Demon Slaughter" different from "Balloon Demon Spotted In Outskirts"? And all the photographs depicted the same round, large floating monster with a frozen face and striped horns extending from its head, its cannons aimed at the terrified civilians on the ground. Sometimes there were more (three was the maximum that Sue-Michelle counted), but all of them were precisely identical. And all of them seemed to vanish away minutes after their massacre. One would think that they would be spotted, given their size, but no, they roamed free, striking again a distance away a day later.

She had not seen them yet, but she reluctantly admitted that it would be hard to falsify such evidence as photographs and the testimony of various eyewitnesses. And the casualties, they could not have died of other causes. Each of them was littered by black stars (or pentagons, whichever orientation one chose to view them from), which spread throughout the body before reducing it to a heap of mere dust. There was no scientific explanation for such an occurrence at all, and it annoyed Sue-Michelle. Anything unknown to her annoyed her, and she was sure that she had been devoid of all such annoyances many years ago, when she set out to know everything there was to know about the world.

To make things worse, the demon sightings were inciting a town-wide curfew. Nobody was allowed to leave their homes at night. There was no official law on this, it was just an unwritten agreement by the populace, to simultaneously lock their doors and switch off their lights when the clock struck seven. This meant that Sue-Michelle was trapped at home when she could have stayed longer in the library to read. And home was probably the last place she wanted to be in anyway. She despised her uneducated parents, with her uncouth barbaric father and her indecisive mother with the dreamy dark blue eyes that were unfortunately passed down to Sue-Michelle. People who looked at Sue-Michelle would think that she was the non-scholarly type, thanks to those eyes. Which was why she insisted on wearing glasses all the time. Besides, she was embarrassed that at the age of twenty-seven, she was still unemployed and penniless. Sue-Michelle was brainy, she was aware of that, but employers were somehow repelled from her. They did not enjoy being proven wrong and disputed against all the time.

And so she remained like a child, visiting the library for long hours everyday and tying her purple hair back into the girlish ponytail she wore in school. Her clothes were reminiscent of her long-past schooldays as well- a casual blouse and trousers, as well as white boots reaching her knees. People remarked that she looked young, but it only served to increase her distaste of herself.

The curfew was obviously not working. It had been implemented for a few days now, but the attacks did not seem to have ceased. Reporters were still roaming the streets past their curfew to gather scoop on the latest attacks. Sue-Michelle would have joined them willingly (just to get out of the stifling house) if the library was not closed at the assigned curfew time as well.

And so she obediently went to bed. She drew the quilt towards her lanky frame and rested her head on the pillow. And felt that something was not right. Ah yes, the blinds were not drawn. She got out of bed again and walked towards the window.

A grey ball floated past.

Sue-Michelle froze, and craned her head out the window to catch a better view.

A man in a cream coat was standing stock still on the pavement, in front of a bicycle. He looked unblinkingly at the demon, lips slightly parted as he took in the sight of the enormous cannons aimed at him. Why would he not move? Was he paralysed somehow? Sue-Michelle could not understand, till she noticed that his legs were shaking violently. The balloon demon, obviously, was facing no such anxiety. The glum expression frozen on its face betrayed the littlest excitement. She suddenly felt a hatred for this vile thing. Just where did it come from?

"Take that!" her deep voice rang out in the stillness of the night. She picked up a paperweight on her table and flung it at the demon.

"Run!" she commanded the man, and proceeded to do so herself, dodging the bullets that flew past her into the room. The demon hovered outside the window, blowing the bed, closet and table to bits. She could glimpse it circling the windows, looking for her, noting her movement down the stairs and across the hallway. She did not bother rousing her parents as she made for the door, for the demon was circling the house in pursuit of her. She would lure it further away while she could.

She ran out of the house and bumped straight into the man from before, running in the opposite direction.

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The man in the cream coat's body jerked as the demon was distracted by something above, suddenly aiming its cannons at something else and firing forth bullets of bright pink-coloured energy of some sort. Needing no further encouragement, the man took the chance to run around the closest corner, colliding with something else - a woman, by the feel of a certain part of her chest his hands had inadvertantly brushed against during the collision.

Dark blue eyes framed by glasses on a head with tied-back, yet vivid, purple hair stared at him briefly. The man recognised the woman, she was one of few who still frequented his library, spending hours each day working her way through the entire collection methodically. He'd heard her talked about once by others, remembering they said her name was Sue-Michelle.

Did Sue-Michelle recognise him too? Winston Forthford, caretaker of the town's humble library after the passing on of its original owner, Geoff Mare, he was known somewhat about town. People said he clinged to the library foolishly, and that he'd possibly be the last to leave the slowly dying town because of it. If he sold the books within, particularly the rarer ones that weren't on public display there, he could make enough money to leave the town and forge a better life elsewhere. Yet he remained.

Before Winston could ask Sue-Michelle if she'd noticed him in the library and knew him, he was reminded abruptly again of the danger they were both meant to be fleeing from. The demon peeked around the corner and let loose another volley of narrow pink blasts from its opposable cannons, blowing a chunk of brick off the home that made up that corner.

"RUN!" Winston said, darting ahead of Sue-Michelle and grabbing her wrist to pull her along into an alleyway a few steps ahead.

Winston kept a firm grasp on Sue-Michelle's wrist, not noticing he was probably holding on a little too tight, and just kept running through the alleyways randomly. He dared not look back, just forging on ahead in a panic. Though it seemed he was taking charge and getting them both to safety, his pulling Sue-Michelle with him was solely because he was too scared to go alone - having her wrist in his hand was some small comfort as he just instinctively continued to flee.

But where? Where could he go? Home was his first thought, but he cast that away when he remembered his mother was there. He couldn't put her in danger. His father left before he was born, his mother was all he had left. He had no friends anymore either, so even at the age of 24, he needed his mother to be someone who was always there in his life. Taking a demon home to mother wasn't something at all appealing to Winston.

There was only one other place to go then - the library. Winston had the keys, they could hide there for the night and hope the demon had lost their trail.

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It was the first time someone had held so tightly onto Sue-Michelle's hand without being shaken off roughly. She quietly followed the man down a narrow alley, running at top speed while the demon gave chase, never showing any sign of giving up. He seemed to know where to go, and she decided to place her trust in him without question. It was an emergency. Much as she hated being led blindly to places, she could not care less now.

He turned a bend, and she immediately recognised the route he was taking. They were heading to the library, a grey building erected of stone, with small windows dotting the sides and a big wooden door as an entrance. It was through this door that both of them rushed into, not bothering to close it again as they scrambled past bookshelves and tables in the hope of leaving as much distance between them and the demon as possible. Sue-Michelle wondered why he had chosen the library over all other places. Did he frequent it as often as she did? But how did he get the key to unlock the building in the first place? She took a careful look at him, and realised that he was the librarian.

The demon was not content with firing its pink bullets outside. Much of the walls had collapsed from its onslaught, and it promptly crashed through them, hovering a few feet before the trembling duo. There was no way to escape now, they were trapped in the reference section of the library, about to crumble into dust like the other victims had been. She felt a surge of indignation towards the librarian, whose name she had forgotten momentarily. Why had he taken her to a dead end?

The face on the demon was contorted into a manic grin now. Its grotesque appearance was unbearable. She turned her head, unwilling to die looking at what would have killed her. The books were old, dusty and thick, but at the very least they provided a comfortable and relaxing view. Sue-Michelle, dying among the books she had always loved.

One of the books on the upper shelf caught her eye. It seemed new compared to the rest of the books perched on the shelves, almost spotless. She could even detect a green light shimmering from it, but that was most probably her imagination. She had no time to examine the book further, though, for the next thing she knew, streaks of pink light were coming from the demon's direction and she had instinctively grabbed that book to shield herself, even though she knew it was useless.

Everything happened too quickly for her to recall. The book glowed green in her hands, and all of a sudden, the cover was flung open by an invisible force and the pages flipping themselves rapidly. Fine granules of sand fluttered out of the pages in a spiral pattern with increasing intensity, and soon, there was a sandstorm erupting from the paper and effectively blocking the demon from view.

The sandstorm did not stop at that. The top end of it seemed to shape itself into a gigantic mouth and charged at the demon, enveloping it with sand. The book jerked violently, and Sue-Michelle had to steady herself to prevent from dropping it and possibly stopping its effects. There were strange goings-on here, but if it benefitted her, she did not see why she should be resisting it.

The sandstorm disappeared as suddenly as it had come. The pages died down in mid-air and fell limply back to their positions. The sand particles froze and retreated back to the confines of the book, and the cover slammed itself shut. When she looked up again, the demon was gone.

She turned towards the librarian, hoping for an explanation for his book's irrational behaviour.

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The speed of the demon was something Winston had underestimated, it easily kept up with them and cornered them in the library. His favourite haunt was to become the place he'd die and that his spirit would haunt forever more. Even when facing certain death, Winston's fantasy-novel-overfed imagination still conjured scenarios worthy of said fantasy novels.

Winston only noticed his and Sue-Michelle's salvation when a blast of sand rushed out from next to him where the latter was standing the last time he'd looked. He watched the sandstorm envelop the demon like some beast devouring its prey, and his eyes followed the stream of sand as it finished up and returned itself to the book Sue-Michelle was holding. He slowly looked up to find her deep blue eyes looking to him expectantly.

"What did you do?" he asked, assuming it was she who'd conjured the sandstorm, somehow.

As good at reading as he was, that only applied to books. He couldn't read people well at all, and didn't realise Sue-Michelle was just as confused as he was.

"Me!?" Sue-Michelle retorted, "What makes you think I did anything? This is your library and your book!"

Winston just looked down, clearly embarrassed. "Oh..."

Cautiously taking the book from Sue-Michelle's hands, Winston held it up to the starlight to get a good look at it. Obviously he'd not had time to light the lanterns in the library when they'd rushed in, but the gaping holes the demon had blasted into the walls and roof of the building allowed the faint light of the night sky to penetrate. It still wasn't much help though, given the smog from the neighbouring cities cast a shading veil across the sky.

Grumbling about the smog, Winston took the book over to a reading desk, produced a pack of matches from his pocket, and lit the candle lantern sitting on the desk. He then set the book down and inspected it.

The book seemed brand new, it wasn't even dusty like most books in Winston's library were. There was no writing on either side of the cover, just a firm, black cover. Winston already knew he'd not seen this book before, having documented most of the library's collection so far and knowing he'd remember seeing one as odd as this. Flipping open to the first page, Winston noted that even the pages were fresh and crisp as if they'd never been turned.

"This is..." Winston began, a wave of understanding washing over him as he scanned through the first dozen or more pages wth his well-practiced reading speed. Winston turned to face Sue-Michelle only to find her already next to him, inspecting the book just as eagerly and curiously as he was himself. He continued. "...a Holy Bible...but its different, there's stuff in this one I've never read in other ones before..."

While not a religious type at all, Winston had read most of the Bible just for the sake of it, and he was certain that the book he was inspecting now was quite similar, but the details and story were different in some parts. It was either a newer or older version than the ones Winston had viewed before, though the condition of the book led him to believe it was the former.

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It seemed that Sue-Michelle's disrespect for the librarian was only increasing every minute she spent with him. It was already sufficiently ridiculous that he did not know why a book from his own library was behaving the way it did, and now he was studying it as if he had never seen it in his life! She could not help but pity the library's future in his hands.

One undeniable quality, though, was his reading speed. Sue-Michelle prided herself on her ability to absorb the text on a page in the blink of an eye, but she was facing trouble catching up to his pace as he flipped page after page, running his slender finger down the paper to mark his progress. All she managed to comprehend was that this was a version of the Bible that she did not quite remember reading.

"This is... a Holy Bible...but its different, there's stuff in this one I've never read in other ones before..." The librarian confirmed her suspicions. She snatched the book from him and turned to the front cover. It was deceptively simple, with only the phrase "Holy Bible" written in tidy script. In fact, the whole book had been written painstakingly by the same hand. Who could have written this, and why was it not publicised like the other editions were? Why was it different altogether? Could the rest be phony variations of the past?

And most importantly, what mystical power did this book have?

The book seemed to be beckoning to her to turn the pages. Sue-Michelle found herself turning the book open again and looking through the index. Her eyes paused at the first heading. Genesis. She obediently scanned the first few chapters, not paying much focus on the content. Something seemed to be telling her that they were all insignificant, to press on. She felt a sense of panic. Why was this book controlling her? Yet she was helpless to resist, till her eyes stopped involuntarily on Chapter Six. Detailing the Great Flood which had led to the construction of Noah's Ark.

She knew the story only too well. The atheist side of her had scoffed at the depiction of God's wrath on Man's sins, and had instructed Noah to bring aboard on his ship a male and female of every animal on the planet, which sounded utterly impossible in every sense of science. This rendition of the tale, though, seemed to veer off into a completely unfamiliar track after it. She frowned as she passed the book to the librarian.

And thus Noah shalt live forever, as God deems, in the eternal family of thirteen, to reclaim the jewel of God, broken up into one hundred and nine pieces. Only when the jewel is reunited, and the Heart made whole, can the earth be saved from sin in God's eyes again.

"I've certainly never heard mention of any jewel in the Bibles," she remarked.

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Winston inspected the books exterior again with a curious frown, wondering whether it was legitimate or some cheap fake edition.

"The old man never mentioned this to me...but he must have known it was here..." Winston thought aloud to himself, before realising Sue-Michelle wouldn't likely know who he was talking about. "The previous caretaker of the library, that is. When he passed on, he left me this library, because I was like a son to him I suppose..."

Flipping open the last page of the book, Winston spotted fine-print on the inside of the back cover. Adjusting his glasses and squinting in the dim candlelight, he could barely make out a familiar name - no doubt the author.

"Percival Helder, that explains it." Winston announced, firmly shutting the book with both hands. "He's written several books like these, what he calls 'true' accounts of history - basically just history as we know it, but with a heap of minor and major changes or additions."

"Actually, his accounts read more like fantasy novels than non-fiction works." Winston laughed.

There was an awkward silence then for a moment, as both Winston and Sue-Michelle remembered what the book had done minutes ago to the demon chasing them. Percival's works may have been easily dismissed as nonsense or delusions, but the power his version of the Bible had was very real. The only one who could know what the power was about was this Percival.

"Hang on, I think there's a record here on him..." Winston said suddenly, shoving the book into Sue-Michelle's hands and racing off to a desk deeper in the library.

There were piles of papers on the desk, unfinished notes and research of Winston's. He shuffled through the stacks, spilling some onto the floor but not caring. Eventually he grasped one scrunched piece of paper and held it in the air in a brief moment of triumph.

"Mr. Helder's address! We can go find him and ask him about the book!" thoroughly excited, Winston rushed over to Sue-Michelle and showed her the paper.

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Percival Helder. Sue-Michelle tried to remember where she had heard the name last while the librarian (she really ought to ask his name) began searching among the messy array of papers littering his table. The sight of this disorganisation irked her methodical self, so she closed her eyes to focus better on the task at hand. Her encyclopaedic memory had never failed her before on such kinds of knowledge, and sure enough, she had her answer, just as she sensed him returning and probably brandishing triumphantly a sheet of crushed paper.

"I've read some of his works, all of them centring on religion and the world as he sees it," she mumbled, opening her eyes to confirm her suspicions, "The peak of his writing career- not that he made much money out of it- was more than fifty years ago." She scowled, hitting upon a realisation that the librarian had most likely not conceived yet, given his ignorantly jovial expression.

"How do you know he's still alive?" she asked pointedly, "If he's dead, this address will be of no use to us."

Unless he left a descendant in the very same home. Sue-Michelle answered her own question. It was a farfetched possibility, but as long as there was the littlest chance of obtaining answers to her burning and exponentially multiplying queries, she was not giving it up. She looked at the librarian, finding the same passionate determination in his eyes. For this moment, they were bonded by the same persistence of the truth at all costs.

The house was startlingly different to her as she walked back down the road in the morning. One wing of her home had broken off and was completely charred rubble, whereas the other wing was still as good as new, desperately teetering on its remaining foundation. A large crack divided both halves of the same residence. The Trayton couple were standing by the front door, or rather its remains, talking to a policeman. As Sue-Michelle edged closer, she could hear what was being said.

"It's the work of the demons again," the policeman muttered to his notebook in a droning, monotone voice, "don't worry about accommodation, we'll provide lodging elsewhere in the town and this house will be rebuilt as soon as possible." The way he said it, he could have been talking about a missing cat. Sue-Michelle reasoned that the police were used to these cases by then, rendering them so detached. She tightened her resolve. Percival Helder might be able to account for the demons if they could find him.

"What about our missing daughter?" her mother wailed hysterically to the policeman, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief while her father nodded calmly, "She was lost in the assault, what if she's been murdered by those horrid demons? Oh, my Sue!" She blew her nose dramatically into the handkerchief.

"I'm here," Sue-Michelle felt it was a suitable time to break the silence, in case she needed to witness any further embarrassment.

The following reaction was an even tearier affair. The policeman looked on indifferently as her mother emitted a piercing squeal and ran forward to wrap Sue-Michelle in a tight embrace.

"But I'm going away again, this time for a longer period of time."

Saying this should have made Sue-Michelle feel brave. It was her dream after all, to leave the town someday on her own adventure. At the age of twenty-seven, she was finally stepping out of her home for the first time. She should be feeling proud of herself.

So why was there this hollow reluctance in her heart?

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Winston had to admit that there was a chance Percival wouldn't be living at the address he had found - all he knew was that Percival Helder supposedly only ever lived in Englad, and this address was in the ownership of a man by the surname Helder - the only Helder on record. At any rate, the chance was enough for both him and Sue-Michelle, and so they were going to check it out.

They'd agreed to meet at 10 AM in the morning to head out. It was about a week's travel by Winston's estimates, especially since they'd have to cut costs and walk as much of the trip as possible - neither of them were well off at all financially.

Dawn had come by the time Winston got home - though it was already quite early in the morning by the time he and Sue-Michelle left the library separately. His mother knew where he'd been, looking for the demons, and asked how it went.

Winston's mother was always supportive of him, no matter how far-fetched his ideas were. She knew perhaps even better than he did, that his adventurous nature couldn't be denied or restricted, so she always encouraged it. She knew it was a dangerous idea to go looking for demons at night, but she also knew it was what he wanted and that she couldn't stop him. He was an adult, capable of making his own choices.

"I'd thought this day would come sooner actually." she said to him, as he was packing a few changes of clothes into a large travel suitcase. "I knew you'd go off on some adventure for real, outside our dull little town. But all this about demons and magic books, you must be so very careful Winston."

"I know, I know." he said, not in an annoyed tone at all. "That book will protect us, and when we know how it works, we can come back and clear the demons away from here for good."

Winston's mother, Stephanie, actually believed he could do what he was saying wholeheartedly. She knew he always got things done when he set his mind on them, and she could see the determination and excitement in his eyes.

"That Sue-Michelle's a nice girl at least. Do you like her?" Stephanie probed.

She'd made it sound innocent, but Winston knew she was trying to find out if Winston had a crush on Sue-Michelle at all. They were both bookworms, it wasn't all that unlikely. Though in his mind, Winston fancied more of a "damsel-in-distress" kind of woman, someone he could heroically rescue and all. Sue-Michelle seemed quite strong herself, likely she'd end up rescuing Winston at some point, so he thought of her more as a big sister than a potential love interest.

"Don't start, you're always trying to match me up with people..." he replied, closing up his briefcase and looking around to make sure he'd packed everything he needed.

"You don't need my help I guess, I'm sure the ladies are lining up to get a chance with you." she teased.

Winston frowned. "That's not funny..."

Winston was basically the loser of the town. He seemed immature and geeky, he was the last picked for anything - including relationships. He didn't let it get to him though, he lost himself in his fantasy novels instead.

After a brief silence, Winston hugged his mother. "I will miss you."

"Then hurry up and go, the sooner you get on your way, the sooner you'll be coming home again." she responded, returning the hug before nudging Winston towards the door.

Winston stepped outside the only home he'd known for 24 years, gave it one last look, then with a deep sigh he headed off to meet Sue-Michelle at her home. Every step he took from now on would be one further from home, towards undoubtedly exciting times to come.

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Everytime Sue-Michelle looked at the parents of other kids in school, she had always been convinced that none of them were as embarrassing as her own were. No matter her age, her parents had always seemed to regard her as a five-year-old, vulnerable to the least bit of harm, and wholly unable to take care of herself. Even now, her mother was creating a din outside their home, almost deliberately making sure to attract every single one of their neighbours to the window.

"Oh, my precious Sue!" she wailed, flinging her lumpy body onto Sue-Michelle's lankier one and toppling the latter over. Her father stood behind her, nodding tearily. It was a scene she should have gotten accustomed to by now, but strangely, the strong desire of turning invisible somehow continued to burn passionately in her mind.

"You must think this through carefully," Mr Trayton said firmly, "I still don't comprehend why is it you want to embark on such a long journey, so far away. Why, you don't even know how to do basic chores!"

Sue-Michelle had not bothered to explain in intricate detail the trip. Her parents would not understand anyway, and besides, there were too many uncertainties in her mind that she could not formulate a coherent explanation in any case. All she knew was that she had narrowly avoided a squabble with her mother over her book, which had been too heavy and bulky in the latter's opinion.

It was frustrating sometimes, how little of a twenty-seven-year-old she felt.

Winston (yes, she had finally recalled his name the night before in bed) was trudging up the path now to meet her. She could spot, from the corner of her eye, the figure of the librarian, with his luggage and a confident stride. She pushed her parents aside in an effort to appear dignified.

"I should be going now," she muttered hurriedly, and rushed towards him, consciously dissociating herself with the couple at the door with each step she took.

"I'm ready now," she told Winston, straightening the collar of her purple shirt and balancing the thick book gingerly in her arm while carrying a trunk of her necessities in her other arm. She could have put the book into the trunk, but carrying it felt more secure somehow.

They were taking the train out of the city. Sue-Michelle could not remember when was the last time she had taken a train, but she vaguely remembered the jolts and bumps that had caused her to throw up throughout the day. Shuddering at the memory, she sat on a bench in the station, watching the tracks glint in the sun. The searing heat was drawing many commuters to the shade. A plump woman squeezed herself on the seat beside Sue-Michelle, and she lost sight of Winston.

At least the demons won't appear in the daytime.

A bloodcurdling yell interrupted her thoughts, followed by utter turmoil as people on the left side of the station began running to the right, pushing and shoving past the crowd in panic. Sue-Michelle was pushed off the bench, right in the way of the stampede. She flew helplessly onto a boy, pushing him onto the track and landing beside him. The metal was rough and hot under her back. She picked herself up gingerly and checked to see if the boy was alright. He was visibly unhurt, but had a traumatised expression on his face, and was gazing in a far-off direction.

"Are you all right?" she asked curtly, never knowing how to deal with children.

"D-d-demon," the boy answered, if that could serve as an answer in the first place.

She understood him immediately though, and looked up sharply in time to see the dark balloon hovering over the station. Just then, a familiar chugging sound was heard. The train was coming.

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Winston had been interested seeing Sue-Michelle's parents. Unlike herself, her parents seemed quite normal. They were getting quite emotional about her leaving it seemed, whereas she was trying to stride away amidst some clear embarassment.

"There's no need to be ashamed or anything. Parents are all alike, really." he'd said during the walk to the station. Though it struck him that he didn't really know that for sure. He'd only ever known his mother, so his family wasn't exactly the typical one.

Once they'd arrived at the station, Sue-Michelle took a seat while Winston went to get their tickets.

They were headed for a town called Fairview, where they'd depart the train and set off on a path through the mountains by foot or horse. The railway track did go all the way around the mountain, but their budget couldn't afford to take the train the whole way.

Winston had just got the tickets and was heading for Sue-Michelle, when the formerly calm sea of people at the station erupted into a chaotic flood all rushing away from the tracks. Winston ended up pushed against a wall until the bulk of the crowd passed by, only able to wonder what they were suddenly fleeing from. He thought perhaps it was a fire, but once he'd gotten free of the crowd and looked around the tracks, he saw an all too familiar sight.

There was a demon virtually identical to the one they'd encountered the night before, hovering down from above the station. Winston was scared by a thought that entered his mind upon seeing it - what if these demons were chasing him and Sue-Michelle? He had to convince himself it was just coincidence that they happened to be here when a demon struck, the monster was probably just drawn to the large crowd of potential victims.

Winston hadn't seen Sue-Michelle in the crowd that rushed past him, but she wasn't anywhere in sight on the platform either. She was the only one who could defeat the demon, after all.

Just then there was a shout from the tracks, followed closely by the unmistakeable sound of the train coming close. Winston forward along the platform, and saw that Sue-Michelle and a young boy had fallen into the slight ditch where the tracks were. He shot his amber gaze up the length of the tracks and could already see the train coming fast.

His mind was occupied by thoughts of if he'd be able to save them in time, and it was telling him that it wouldn't be wise to attempt a rescue if it might fail and cost him his own life. He wasn't terribly fit, he wasn't at all sure if he could sprint over in time at all. Besides, Sue-Michelle and the child seemed paralysed with fear, and he wasn't strong enough to forcibly pull them out of the way himself.

While his mind was racing, his body had completely grinded to a halt - unlike the train, which although slowing down to stop at the station, was still going amply fast to make short work of any people on the tracks.

Just then, a large man zoomed past Winston, clipping his shoulder and sending him staggering to the side. The man leapt onto the tracks, grabbed the boy by the shirt with one hand as if he were but a bag of luggage, before slinging Sue-Michelle firmly over his other shoulder, then leaping out of the path of train approaching. No sooner had all apendages cleared the tracks did the train coast in.

Winston was captivated by that act of fiction-like courage and heroism, before glancing up idly at the demon and seeing that it had trained its cannons on him. His eyes widened before he darted towards the nearest wall facing away from the demon and took cover against it. Pink energy blasts tore into the wall and started slowly demolishing it, as the demon itself began to rotate around the wall to get Winston clear in its sights again.

"THE BOOK!" Winston screamed in Sue-Michelle's general direction. "Do something! QUICK!"

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The train was drawing near. The whiff of steam, oil and metal was evident to Sue-Michelle, who was currently frozen on the tracks. She willed herself to move, to run onto the platform as quickly as she could. Her mind was rationalising, making calculations and estimations, telling her that she would have enough time to run to safety- if she hurried.

And the demon. The people were reminiscent of a colony of ants, rushing to safety in all directions. She was the only one who could rescue them, she was holding the mysterious book which had reacted to the demon like no other object had. It was stirring under the palm of her hand now, vibrating. She could hear the swish of pages, or was it the sand forming between the very covers? Either way, she did not have time to think. The train was here, and the boy was still beside her, equally paralysed. She looked around for Winston, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then again, what could he have done? He only knew how to read.

Just then, her peripheral vision detected a figure charging onto the tracks towards her. It was too stocky to be Winston. She had barely turned her head to look before he had swept her up onto his shoulder and marched up the platform again, seconds before the train halted and passengers and conductor alike ran out to join the evacuating crowd.

There was no time for embarrassment, though. Just as the man had placed Sue-Michelle down on the ground again, Winston began screaming from a distance, "THE BOOK! Do something! QUICK!" The demon had descended towards him, firing its pink bullets in his general direction. She hurriedly opened the book, liberating the swirls of sand particles, which gradually formed a hurricane that led towards the demon and exterminated it.

"Whew... what was that?" the man who had saved her remarked. She saw Winston approaching them, deemed he was fine, and turned around to answer his question, observing him for the first time. He was probably older than her, but had a youthful, almost naive, air about him. His burly arms were crossed as he surveyed the demon, now reduced to a pile of dusty ash.

"We're not too sure what it is either," she said as Winston joined her side, "in fact, we're on our way to seek the truth behind these demon attacks in Livenstone."

"That sounds like a dangerous expedition, are you sure you're okay? Not shaken by the train? Hurt in any way?" the man frowned, scrutinising her concernedly. She shuffled uneasily and shook her head, noticing that the boy earlier had already left.

"So, what's your name? I'm Rowan Ghosh," the man sure did not relent. Sue-Michelle was starting to think that if he was caring, he was being a little overboard with it.

"I don't suppose we'll ever meet again, so it's unnecessary for any introductions. I thank you for your valiant deed, though. Now, I think we'll have to wait for the next train..." she turned to address Winston now, hoping that Rowan Ghosh would take the hint and leave.

He did not. "So where're you going?" he grinned.

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While Sue-Michelle seemed to want to get rid of Rowam, Winston was the opposite. The man had valiantly risked himself to rescue the damsel in distress, he was a hero. Ashamed at having frozen and hesitated when he could have saved Sue-Michelle himself, he wanted to try to learn just how Rowan was so courageous.

"We're going to Fairview, for now." Winston replied, taking over from the annoyed Sue-Michelle. "My name's Winston Forthford, and this is Sue-Michelle Trayton." he extended a hand to shake Rowan's.

What was already apparent was that Rowan was taller and more buffed than Winston, and the latter's hand was slightly crushed during the handshake. Possibly with the intent to show off his muscular physique, he wore a sleeveless white shirt, then plain grey trousers and shoes. His thick, but short copper-brown hair was combed neatly to one side, matching the shade of his sharp, brown eyes.

"What's in Fairview, that has something to do with these demons?" Rowan probed further, still addressing Sue-Michelle despite Winston being the one eagerly responding.

"Well, we're just disembarking the train in Fairview. After that we have to take a trail through the mountains on foot, cutting across to Weder's Valley." A little quieter and less excitedly, Winston added "See, we don't have enough money to take the train all the way..." For some reason, he wanted to impress this man - and being poor wasn't impressive at all.

By now, people were slowly returning to the station. They didn't know how, but the demon appeared to be gone, so it was safe again for the moment. The train driver returned to the train, and called for "All aboard!", before tooting the steam engine impatiently.

Rowan started eyeing the crowds that were returning quickly, and suddenly became quite urgent. "Hey, well, this is your train isn't it? I'm headed that way myself too. We'd better hurry!"

The trio hastily boarded the train, and took a seat right up near the front engine carriage. Rowan had insisted it was the best place to sit, when Winston had tried to sit near the door instead. He also insisted that Sue-Michelle should have a window seat. Rowan sat next to her, with Winston across from her.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Winston rested his head against the window. He was glad for some security and rest again. Ever since the prior night, he'd been excited and going non-stop. Plus, he was starting to get used to demon attacks, and it was a small comfort that the train seemed quite safe. Pulling his hood forwards and dipping it down over his eyes, Winston tried to take a nap to catch up on sleep lost last night.

Meanwhile, Rowan was occupying himself trying to start up conversation with Sue-Michelle - and he wasn't the type to take even a blatant 'shut up and leave me in peace' for an answer.

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The incessant chattering beside her was not drowned out by the movement of the train at all, as Sue-Michelle had hoped. Rowan Ghosh had incredible lung power as befit his hulking size, and as he squeezed himself towards her to leave space in the corridor for the food trolley, she muttered a string of unintelligible curses and eyed the empty seat beside Winston's enviously. Her slender frame would be squashed flat if she was to endure Ghosh any longer.

"I love going on adventures, I tell you," Rowan seemed to be steering away from the topic of food, which she was certain he had gone on about for at least half an hour, "Meeting new people enthrall me. Especially people like you, you're valiant in the face of danger. And such a young girl too!" He turned to look significantly at her, making her blush with embarrassment and indignation. She stared persistently out the window, not bothering to correct him about her age.

One thing she did notice, though, that yielded a mysterious comforting effect, was that he seemed to be uneasy about something. Everytime she heard the sound of high heels making their usual clack-clacking on the floor, he would dart his eyes swiftly towards the corridor, heave a sigh of relief, and return merrily to the conversation at hand. Was he searching for someone? No, he appeared more akin to avoiding a certain person. So he was not always so friendly and open to everyone, was he? Sue-Michelle was intent on discovering his secret, and somehow use it against him to get him to clear off. She glanced at Winston, his impassive face propped up against the window, betraying no emotion. Perhaps he was daydreaming. At any rate, she wondered if he was observing Rowan's reaction as well.

The train stopped for five minutes at a large and imposing station. "Grytlan", read the ornately carved signboard on the wall. Many passengers alighted at this stop, a few to leave the stifling train temporarily. Sue-Michelle clutched her book in front of her and eased past Rowan out of her seat. She turned to the other two.

"Do you want to alight as well, for a short while?" she asked. Rowan was about to nod in agreement, but she saw him freeze at the sight of something behind her, and he hurriedly ducked his head downwards.

"No," he murmured softly, "I think I'd like a rest."

Why didn't you think to rest your mouth for the past few hours? Sue-Michelle smirked, and headed for the door. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a woman standing motionlessly outside the train, observing the interior, or maybe something in the interior.

She decided to buy a magazine from the shop at the station. She picked out the latest issue of "Discoveries"- a scientific journal- and made for the counter. In front of her was the woman again, she could tell at an instant. Now that she was given a good look at the stranger, Sue-Michelle noticed that she was probably an influential figure, or came from such a background at the very least. Although she was dressed in a simple black dress with a red fur shawl draped carelessly over her shoulders, there was no mistaking the finely chiselled face, the weary, careless look in her dreamy blue eyes. Her hand, though only adorned with a diamond ring, was fair and smooth. It was her entire aura that gave her away. She was a beauty, and one that was well cared for.

And not only was she rich, she was probably sad as well. The woman smiled as she handed over the cash, but her eyes remained cold and hard. What had she to do with the boorish Rowan Ghosh? Sue-Michelle remained perplexed as she returned to the train.

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Winston lifted his head off of the glasa window with a loud yawn, sitting upright again. He'd gotten some sleep during the ride thus far, but he was getting bored of that for the moment. Besides, Rowan seemed so fixated on Sue-Michelle, it was unlikely Winston would be able to get between them for any conversation. Now that she'd gone for a moment, he did have a chance.

"So, do-"

"How well do you know Sue-Michelle?" Rowan cut in, leaning forwards.

Despite being somewhat miffed at being so rudely interrupted, Winston answered. "Um, we've only really known each other for a day now."

Rowan scratched his head and lifted an eyebrow slightly. "A day? And you're goin' on this adventure together already?"

"Well, we've see each other around before at least. Livenstone is such a small, close-knit town really, and she frequented the library I owned." Winston stopped for a moment, wondering why he'd not seen Rowan around before in the small town - after all, they'd met at Livenstone's station. "What about you? We've told you about us, but where did you come from? Where are you going?"

Rowan let out a heavy sigh, leaning back in his seat. "I was living in Reen before, but..." he paused for just a brief second, long enough to make Winston suspicious, but not long enough to think too much of it. "I just had to get away. Live free, see the world, you know? Good choice so far, I reckon. Not everyday you get caught up in a quest to defeat demons!" The man let out a hearty laugh.

"Does that're coming with us?" Winston ventured.

Rowan extended a hand and slapped Winston firmly on the shoulder. "Of course! If you'll have me. I'm just out lookin' for some fun, and I doubt I'll find anything better than sticking with you two."

Winston grinned widely. He was happy to have this courageous man accompany them, he was hoping some of that courage might rub off on himself. Winston was okay with dangerous situations, it was just that he had trouble putting himself in extra danger to help someone else - his self-preservation instinct was quite strong.

"So." Rowan began once more, snapping Winston from his thoughts. "Does Sue-Michelle have a boyfriend at all? She doesn't seem the type to manage to hold onto one though - but that doesn't matter. I've got my sights set on those dark blue eyes and those very nice thighs-"

Rowan froze suddenly. Winston knew why, and it was because Rowan had noticed the look on Winston's face that he had frozen. Winston had been looking to something behind him, then giving him a look that clearly said "shut up". Now that he'd stopped talking, Rowan could feel a strong presence behind himself.

Slowly rotating his head in a robot-like manner, his clear brown eyes met with those very dark blue eyes he was just talking about.

"Ah!" he started with a tremble in his voice. "Sue-Michelle! Um...we were just talking about you." he ended with a very nervous chuckle, realising that if she didn't know that it was herself that he was talking about, she certainly did now.

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It irked Sue-Michelle that because she had been caught up trying to observe the mysterious woman- whom she saw had walked slowly to the conductor's place on the train and conversed briefly with him- that she was late in returning to her seat, forcing her to join the stuffy crowd as they clamoured up the stairs as if worrying that the train would depart before they managed to get on. She hugged the magazine closer to her chest as people pushed past her, and when she turned around to snap at somebody who had pulled her hair by accident, caught a glimpse of the woman boarding the train.

The lady was in no hurry at all. She waited calmly for the crowd to settle before slowly ascending the stairs, her pink high-heeled shoes forming a striking contrast with the dusty grey flooring. It seemed that wherever she was, she visibly did not belong. Time seemed to slow for her, everything was zooming at a busy pace all around her. Sue-Michelle had never seen anyone who commanded such rapt attention.

And yet she could not have been very old. When she turned her flawless face towards Sue-Michelle, the latter was struck by how helpless she looked. Her dreamy blue eyes, initially conveying coldness and hardness, seemed only to accentuate her innocence and wariness of the outside world. Here was a girl concealed under layers of wealth, glamour and makeshift maturity.

The girl went to another carriage, and Sue-Michelle walked back to her seat, as though recovering from a trance.

She very nearly went past her seat- everything looked so much alike on a train- had Rowan's usual booming voice drawn her attention. "I've got my sights set on those dark blue eyes and those very nice thighs-" She paused, shaken from her reverie, and met the startled eyes of Winston. It did not take long for Rowan to notice her presence too, as he turned around and stuttered. She ignored him, brushing past the massive to resume her place by the window seat. And this silence persisted throughout the rest of the train journey.

"Discoveries" did not turn out to be quite the informative read that she had expected. The articles were packed with inaccurate information, and the reporters had dubious credentials anyway. She shut the book irritatedly and leaned her head back to take a nap, refusing to look in the direction of Winston or Rowan. Men were such disgusting nuisances. Her thoughts drifted back to the young woman, whose appearance formed a clear image in her mind in an instant. How had she managed to memorise every single detail about her in so short a time? The lady was veiled with mysteries, somehow making the man beside Sue-Michelle a mystery by association too. Just what did they have to do with each other?

The train halted abruptly. Sue-Michelle was jerked from her seat, and opened her eyes in alarm, looking out the window to find out that they had entered Fairview. There was the usual stir as commuters gathered their belongings, then the hustle and bustle of movement. Fairview was probably a busy station. She stood up with her companions as they waited for the crowd to thin. Among them was the woman again, lifting her eyes at Rowan as she passed in her unhurried manner.

The effect was instantaneous. Rowan shifted his gaze to the floor, cleared his throat multiple times and stuck his hands awkwardly in his pockets. The lady remained unperturbed.

"Why, hi there, Rowan," she murmured, her eyes fixed on his lowered head. "Such an unexpected meeting."

Sue-Michelle knew it was anything but unexpected. Who knew how long the girl had been tailing him? It was obvious he knew it too, for he muttered something under his breath which sounded like "We'll be going now then."

"No, there's no rush." Yes, this was most likely her catchphrase. She grabbed Rowan's wrist and bore those blue eyes into his forcefully. "Tell me who your friends are."

"Oh, these are Winston Forthford and Sue-Michelle Trayton. They're from Livenstone. And... er... this is Angeline Peacock-"

"Angie will do, really," she interrupted, holding out her hand gracefully. Sue-Michelle felt a surge of awe shaking it. Rowan looked as if he hoped none of them would ever be on such cordial terms with Angeline as to address her so casually as Angie.

There were protests from the people behind Angeline, egging her to hurry up. Everybody did, and within moments Angeline was out of sight. On the station, Rowan heaved a sigh of relief and hurriedly entered the store to buy some beer, which he promptly downed. Sue-Michelle pored over a map of the town that she had found, running her finger in the hope of fixing a destination.

"So who is she?" she asked nonchalantly, not lifting her eyes from the paper. "Who's Angeline Peacock?"

"Nobody at all," was the reply.

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Winston was quite curious about this Angeline Peacock. Not only was she probably the wealthiest person Winston had ever seen in his life (Livenstone was always a poor town), but the Rowan he'd seen as the courageous man who'd saved Sue-Michelle from the train tracks became like a timid little boy in Angeline's presence. As much as Winston didn't want to take that "nobody at all" for an answer, it was still rude to pry into his affairs, and he gave little chance to as he seized the map from Sue-Michelle and started leading the way.

The trio headed onwards towards the trail through the mountains of Fairview that led to Weder's Valley, where the author of Sue-Michelle's mysterious bible apparently lived.

They stopped for a bite to eat before beginning the trek into the mountains, and Rowan tried to work his charms on Sue-Michelle again. Winston felt somewhat of a third wheel given that Rowan seemed focused solely on Sue-Michelle, but at least the latter didn't share that focus. Whenever Rowan tried to make any advances with her, she'd change the subject to something about Angeline, which made Rowan quickly change the subject to something completely different again.

With Rowan easily charging ahead, dragging the straggling Winston and Sue-Michelle along quite far behind (the pair were both academic types, not athletic types as Rowan seemed to be), they reached a camping spot at the summit of the mountains just as it was starting to get darker.

While Rowan wandered off to find firewood, Winston and Sue-Michelle dumped their luggage, which had seemed to get heavier and heavier with every step up the mountain trail, and took a much-needed rest.

"Isn't this fun?" Winston commented suddenly. "Traveling, adventuring, meeting new people. All of this kind of stuff was impossible back in Livenstone. The world really is an interesting place."

Meanwhile, Rowan had paused his firewood duty for a moment to relieve his bladder amidst some sparse bushes, when an all too familiar voice startled him.

"Hm-hm, I see I've caught you with your pants down yet again, Rowan-dear." Angeline chortled.

Rowan remained silent but for some nervous sounds and grunts, finishing his business and reluctantly turning to face her.

"Why so shy? You're popular with we ladies, after all."

Rowan kept his gaze lowered. "Why are you following me?"

Angeline was slowly closing in on Rowan now, her high heels clicking on the hard ground ominously with each step - she must have been skilled with them, to have walked the rough trail in them.

"Because I feel like it. You're following those two, why can't I follow as well, hm? It's ever so dull back at home since you...left." Angeline's last word had a slightly harsh tone to it.

Rowan's face contorted in a look of fear now, causing Angeline to raise an eyebrow in some confusion. "Am I really all THAT scary?"

She frowned, Rowan was looking at something behind her. She turned around slowly, remembering the demon that had attacked the station at Fairview earlier. There was nought but a jagged rocky wall. She spun back around to find Rowan suddenly gone.

"ARGH!" She cried out in frustration, to have fallen for such a childish trick. "ROWAN!!" her shout echoed through the mountain, chasing after Rowan as he quickly sprinted back to the camp.

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"Isn't this fun? Traveling, adventuring, meeting new people. All of this kind of stuff was impossible back in Livenstone. The world really is an interesting place."

Sue-Michelle raised her eyebrows, but made no answer. She agreed with him, though the way he said it did sound childish. Yes, she did appreciate leaving Livenstone and viewing the outside world with her own eyes. Only half a day had passed since she had departed from the stifling town, and she was already feeling as if she had been away forever. She leaned backward, admiring the red tint the setting sun made on the sky. She was about to spend her first night in foreign land. An unfamiliar sensation swept over her. Was it excitement?

Rowan was supposed to be bringing firewood back. She wondered cynically if he was at the moment choosing the preferred kind of wood. Just then, she glimpsed in the distance a figure sprinting towards the two. It revealed itself to be Rowan when he got up close, a panting and sweating man looking distinctly empty-handed. He turned around in fear, and only relaxed when he saw nobody following him.

"Let me guess," Sue-Michelle muttered sarcastically, "nobody at all?"

"I swear," he ignored her, "that she's a ghost. Gosh, how did I end up suffering in this fate?" He slumped down onto the grass, face down, his hands balled into fists. Sue-Michelle stood up resignedly.

"Guess it's up to me to collect firewood now. Winston, you'd best stay with Rowan," she said, and picked up her book, walking into the heart of the forest the way Rowan had come.

The sky was darkening at a rapid rate. Sue-Michelle quickened her pace, hugging her book more tightly as though it would help her see the route ahead somehow. She had realised suddenly that she did not have experience in gathering firewood at all, and perhaps she ought to have brought some tools along. Just how would Rowan have done it?

She hated this feeling of ignorance. And she had a niggling feeling that she was on the verge of losing her way. She heard a swooshing sound beside her, and felt a small breeze in its wake. Whatever it was, was flying.

Or floating.

On the alert now, she scanned the surroundings, trying to adjust to the intensifying darkness. There was probably a demon hovering nearby, her instinct was firm on that. Besides, the pages of her book were starting to ripple expectantly again. She opened it gingerly, unleashing the sandstorm. It seemed to know where to head, directing itself towards a target at a distant corner. All she heard was a yelp, before a massive force swept the book clear off her hand and the sandstorm vanished.

The attack had not worked? She was amazed by the power of this mysterious demon. Was it a stronger form? Could that even exist? She felt vulnerable and helpless without her book, and was about to kneel on all fours to retrieve it when the demon glided up close, a serpentine creature with two heads. Not at all like the balloon monsters back in Livenstone. She shifted back slowly, trembling and scrabbling for her book. It must have fallen to a long way off. Without it, she was as good as dead.

It was then that the demon did an astounding thing. It retreated gradually back into the shadows, leaving an incredulous Sue-Michelle frozen in position. She blinked uncertainly. What was it up to?

She never did get to find out, though, for she heard a voice from the distance, belonging to a very old woman.

"Is anyone there?"

She sprang up and hastened towards the lady, exclaiming, "Yes! My friends and I need shelter for the night."

"Then you've come to the right place, child. Dorothy Helder never refuses weary guests."

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Rowan and Winston sat a while quietly, Winston picking at blades of grass idly.

"Shouldn't we help her?" Winston realised suddenly.

Rowan shrugged "She seemed like she was fine to do it."

"But we shouldn't let a lady venture off by herself in the wilderness when darkness is falling, it's not a gentlemanly thing to do..."

"You're right!" Rowan decided, evidently swayed more by the thought of gallantly escorting Sue-Michelle and scoring points with her than Winston's concerns about chivalry.

Just as the pair where standing themselves up, they both heard a noise. Crunching of leaves and twigs, foliage being brushed aside, something was coming.

"She only just can't be her coming back so soon..." Winston whispered, fright seeping into his voice. "Go see what it is."

Rowan turned to face Winston with surprise. "Me!?" he breathed hoarsely, trying to keep quiet too despite his outrage. "Why don't you go?"

"You jumped in front of a train earlier today, surely you're not scared?" Winston pondered aloud obviously daring Rowan to investigate.

Both realised that if it were a demon that had followed them from the station, they were defenceless without Sue-Michelle and her book. But the time Rowan gave in and was about to go check, the bushes broke apart and a figure emerged.

It was human-shaped, but its face was twisted and creased, its skin sagging, and its figure hunched over. Winston and Rowan screamed in unison and backed away.

"Ugh, you two!" came a familiar voice amidst the screaming.

Sue-Michelle emerged from the bushes, behind Dorothy. Stop embarrassing yourselves. This is Dorothy Helder, grandaughter of the late Percival Helder. And these are Rowan Ghosh and Winston Forthford, my travelling companions." Sue-Michelle cast her dark blue (almost black in the night) eyes over the pair before adding "Unfortunately..."

Dorothy escorted the group to her humble abode - a small cottage-house in a clearing near the base of the mountain trail. It wasn't quite in Weder's Valley itself, but close enough. Walking along the dirt path to the front door, the group was greeted with the smells of various herbs from Dorothy's front garden, surrounding the path. Upon entering the home itself, they were greeted with a different smell - lamb chops and baked potatoes.

Offering them seats in the small dining room, Dorothy explained that they should eat and get some sleep, then she'd tell them all they wanted to know in the morning. Winston at least was curious to hear something right away, but his stomach had other ideas - he was starving. The group had had a lunch-on-the-go on their way through Fairview, but that was countless hours ago now, and they'd been hiking the mountain trail all day. As such, as soon as they'd all had their fill, they were ready to get some rest.

Dorothy put the washing up on hold to guide them to the guest room personally. There wasn't much need though, given the home was quite small and cosy. There were only a few rooms: the kitchen and dining area as one, the bathroom, the bedroom, and the guest room (which was originally the living room).

"There's only one bed, I'm afraid. There's a lounge too, but one of you boys will have to take the floor. I've left some blankets and pillows there, I hope it's alright." Dorothy explained, closing the door to the room gently with a "Sleep tight." and heading off to finish washing up.

"I call the-" Winston was cut off in his attempt to call dibs on the lounge by Rowan just running to it immediately and claiming it.

"That was unfair..." Winston commented, vexed.

"Hey, if you want, I could always share the bed with Sue-Michelle." Rowan grinned.

Before Sue-Michelle herself could object, Winston beat her to it "No no! Take the lounge, the floor's fine with me, really."

Winston learned two things that night. One was that the floor was not at all fine with him - he found himself missing his nice, soft bed quite soon. The other was that Rowan snores like a steam engine.

Though it was enough to keep him awake for a while, Winston managed to incorporate the snoring into his dreamings of fantasy tales. He imagined it was the sound of a dragon snoring, while bold adventurers tried to relieve it of its stash of gold and treasures in its cave. Soon enough, he was asleep himself too.

But not for long.

Winston had the habit of sleepwalking quite often. What was more unusual was that when he did it, he seemed to take on the persona of a random character from whatever dream he was having at the time, and the things he did whilst sleepwalking were often quite elaborate.

The young librarian stood up and surveyed the room, albeit with his eyes closed still. He felt a malicious presence in the room...something evil. He couldn't see just how right he was - there was a demon in the room. Its body was shaped like a human, but made of thin wire strands, with scores of razor-thin daggers dangling from it at regular intervals. The room door was firmly closed still, and it was obvious enough by deduction that the demon's thin and flexible form had simply slid under the door to get in.

Winston, taking on the role of a brave knight now in his dream, grabbed a broom from the corner and wedged the sweeping head under his arm, pointing the handle outwards like a lance.

"Vile spawn of Hell! You must be a servant of the demon dragon king, Urenastos!" Winston shouted, waving his makeshift lance menacingly at it.

The demon swung a wiry arm at Winston, the blades hanging from it narrowly missing his head as he ducked to avoid it.

"For good! You must be slain!" he cried out, charging forwards with his and broom-lance, letting loose a mighty battle-cry.

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It was an unfortunate fact that Sue-Michelle was not a heavy sleeper. It was probably her aloof wariness seeping into her sub-conscious, her mother had often joked. She had scoffed at the ridiculously unscientific basis for that claim, but deep down she felt it was probably right. For even though she was asleep, she could almost feel herself hovering above, eyes darting quickly to check for any sign of danger- though what danger could there be? Back at home, she had lived in an environment of peace and safety.

Now, though, she was relieved to have this ability. Even though she was resting her exhausted mind and body, a slight stir in the room failed to escape her. She frowned, and opened her eyes reluctantly, registering only total darkness before a familiar cry made her sigh.

"For good! You must be slain!" Winston was calling at the top of his voice. Probably had a tendency to talk in his sleep, the crazy chap. Really, now that she thought of it, both her travelling companions seemed to be quite mentally unsound. She squeezed her eyes tight shut at the sound of Winston slamming into something, and threw the quilt over her head. He would surely cease his babbling after a while and return to quiet slumber?

Peculiar enough, it was not Winston's behaviour that kept her awake after that. Sure, under cover of the thick quilt she could still hear muffled shouts coming from him, and an occasional snore coming from the lounge. But what intrigued her the most was that the pages of her book were flipping themselves again. She could hear the rustling of paper clearly, frantically. The book had detected the presence of a demon again, she was positive of it.

Throwing aside her quilt, she adjusted her eyes to the darkness just in time to catch sight of a demon clutching at the end of a broom, with the other end held by Winston. This demon was unlike the common ones she had seen, though. For starters, its silhouette was not round, and it was not floating in the air either. Sue-Michelle had an impression it was strung out of thin strands of wire, but she could not be too sure in the night. No matter what, the book was reacting to it, so it could not be good.

"Stand back!" she screamed at Winston, hoping to rouse him awake. Not waiting to see its effect, the girl jumped off the bed and balanced the book in her left palm. Its covers magically opened, immediately unleashing a sandstorm from its pages, which took the shape of a hawk before soaring towards the enemy. The demon nimbly dodged the onslaught though, maneuvring itself skilfully onto the handle of the broom and letting the sand hawk crash into the wall and dissociate.

"You think that foolish amateur trick can stop me?" it cackled hoarsely.

Before Sue-Michelle could respond with a well-timed gulp or something equivalent, the wiry being had lunged at her, pushing the sleepwalking Winston aside and crashing her to the floor. The book fell out of her hands and rolled towards the door, out of reach. The demon let out a menacing peal of laughter and extended a scrawny hand pushing her neck forcefully to the ground. She struggled, feeling her breath expelled from her. She tried to push the demon back, or kick it, but its grip was inhumanly strong. She felt herself growing dizzy, the demon's face darkening as its laughter reverberated in her head...

"You're... stronger than the others I've... encountered," she mumbled weakly.

"That just means you've never met sufficient Level 2 Akuma," was all she heard of its reply before blanking out.

"Take that!" she was jolted awake by a loud cry, before she heard a crack and the demon howled in pain. Feeling its grip loosen ever so slightly, Sue-Michelle seized her chance. Summoning up a latent strength that had suddenly arisen within her, she pushed the demon roughly backward and sat up, taking big gulps of precious air. Standing in front of her was Rowan, holding the broom handle nervously.

"You... okay?" he asked breathlessly. She volunteered a rare smile, and turned towards the demon again. It was gathering itself again, unhurt but very angry. She stepped instinctively back, and so did Rowan. She had a hunch the demon had only been playing with them up till now.

As the demon strode towards them, an unexpected thing happened. Footsteps sounded outside, with a voice calling "Amanda, where are you?" The door creaked open, filtering in a small fraction of light. Sue-Michelle's eyes widened. She shrieked, "Get away!" but it was too late, Dorothy Helder was standing by the door, looking puzzled. She bent down, and picked up the book Sue-Michelle had dropped, studying it incredulously.

"There's a demon!" Sue-Michelle continued spluttering frantically, jabbing her finger towards the demon... or where it was supposed to be.

"What demon?" Dorothy blinked, gazing at the now vacant space. Sue-Michelle turned around, and blinked as well. Where had the demon gone? All that remained was an open window, wind sending the floral curtains fluttering upwards.

"I believe we should talk," she added, returning her gaze to the book. "I'm sorry to be bothering you at this time of night, but there is something urgent I feel I ought to ask you."

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Winston sat up, stretched his arms, and let out a tired yawn. "Is it morning already?" he said, rubbing his eyes.

Rowan knocked him on the head with the broom firmly, evoking an "OW!" and a confused look from the half-awake Winston.

"I can't believe it. You were sleepwalking the whole time? I tell ya though, you're certainly more vocal when you're asleep!" Rowan laughed and grabbed Winston's arm, helping him to his feet.

The two of them followed Sue-Michelle as she followed Dorothy out to the kitchen. Three three travellers seated themselves at the table, while Dorothy seemed to coax someone in the hallway to come on out.

A young girl of about 10 years age emerged, tugging nervously on her long, strawberry-pink hair. Her pale blue eyes glanced at each person in the room briefly, before turning to the floor. She was wearing fluffy white slippers and matching white pyjamas with cartoon animal patterns on them.

Dorothy went over to her and put an arm around her. "This is Amanda, she lives with me. She's an orphan as best I can tell - she doesn't say much about her parents. I found her wandering the wilderness much as you three were earlier, and took her in."

She then leaned down and talked to Amanda herself, "'Manda-dear, would you like to make us all some tea?"

Amanda nodded silently, but eagerly, and skipped over to the cupboard to get some cups. Meanwhile, Dorothy seated herself at the table and took another look at Sue-Michelle's book.

"It's been a long time since I've seen one of these." she began. "My grandfather wrote this, and had it printed. Most of the copies have been destroyed for their controversial content, or lost over time. I never thought I'd lay my eyes on one again."

"You see, he had some rather odd ideas sometimes. When I was but a young lass no older than Amanda, he'd tell me these stories that he always claimed were true. I figured he was just saying that the way that adults do, to let children believe in fantastical things. But he stubbornly maintained it was all true, even when talking to my parents and not knowing I was listening."

"What were the stories about?" Winston piped up, alert now and curious - he loved a good story after all.

Amanda layed two cups of tea on the table, for Winston and Sue-Michelle, then looked to Roawn. Rowan shook his head and clarified "None for me, I don't touch the stuff." Nodding, Amanda went to make one more cup for Dorothy.

"It's rather silly really. He'd tell me about these demons he'd supposedly been researching - Akuma, he called them."

Sue-Michelle's eyes widened. "Akuma" was what that demon that had attacked them earlier in the guest room had called itself.

Dorothy continued, not noticing Sue-Michelle's expression. "He'd go on about how there were different types of them, that they evolved by murdering people. I only remember how he described the most common ones, apparently. He said they were like balloons, with-"

"Creepy faces on 'em and covered in gun barrels that shoot crazy pink beams?" Rowan butt in.

Dorothy's jaw dropped. "How do you know that!? He never told anyone about them, he said his research had to be kept secret so it didn't draw attention. He only told me because he wanted to pass his knowledge on before he passed away."

"We've seen them." Winston said. "There were sightings in my and Sue-Michelle's hometown, I was researching them myself too, actually."

"And this book..." Sue-Michelle added, picking her book up off the table and holding it in her hands. "Somehow it can destroy them, but only when I'm the one holding it."

Rowan concluded with a nod. "That's the whole reason we're here. They figured the author of the book would know about all this."

Dorothy ran a hand through her greyed hair, shocked. The tales she'd always thought were mere fantasy were now being verified by not one, but three witnesses.

"If everything my dear grandfather said was true..." she realised, "Then this book of yours, it's got what he said was called "Innocence", the one thing that can destroy Akuma. He said there's countless pieces of it, it can be found in valuable or even mundane objects, but only compatible people can make use of different pieces."

"That's Sue-Michelle alright." Rowan grinned. "Very compatible." he added a wink to Sue-Michelle, evoking an eye-roll from her.

Winston ignored Rowan's lame attempt at flirting and leaned over the table to Dorothy eagerly. "Tell us everything! Everything your grandfather discovered!" his amber eyes looked particularly bright, his excitement apparent.

Amanda suddenly interrupted, dropping the porcelain cup meant for Dorothy on the tiled floor and smashing it completely. Her face looked serious for a moment, but her face quickly changed to reflect surprise.

"Sorry!" she squeeled, speaking for the first time in front of the trio of adventurers. Her voice was every bit as cute as herself, to the point that it was almost unreal.

She grabbed a dustpan from the bench and squatted down to hurriedly clean up the shards of the cup.

Winston wondered, if that Akuma that had attacked them earlier had been around for a fair while, it may have been what killed Amanda's parents - and maybe it had come into the house looking to finish her off too.

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"Oh, I'll help you with it, darling. Don't worry too much about it." Dorothy had obviously been shaken by the sudden crash of porcelain, visible from the momentary disorientation in her eyes as she shifted her pince-nez up the bridge of her nose. However, she got up slowly from her seat and brushed Amanda's hands aside, taking the dustpan and brush for herself and stooping down to clean up the mess. Amanda stepped aside obediently, but murmured in her squeaky voice, "Let me do it, Gran. You've a bad back, you shouldn't be stooping too much."

"Yeah, let me help," Sue-Michelle approached Dorothy hastily, for she did look rather frail in her bent position. But the fragments of the cup had already been swept into the dustpan, and the old woman straightened herself gingerly again to pour them away into the bin. Amanda hastened to help her back to the seat, clutching her arm caringly. She met Sue-Michelle's eyes for an instant, and the latter saw a flicker of fear in her pale blue eyes before they darted away again. This girl sure was a nervy child. She wondered what tragedy Amanda had witnessed to cause her to become like this.

"Well, it's been a long night," Dorothy sighed, still noticeably perturbed by the revelation that her grandfather's stories had not been entirely fictitious. "Amanda shouldn't stay up so late either, she has school tomorrow. Speaking of which, don't you go to school?" Sue-Michelle felt a stab of annoyance as the lady blinked and smiled indulgently at her.

"I'm far too old for that," she snapped in reply, and stormed out of the kitchen. She could hear Rowan apologising loudly, and felt even more irritated. What right did he have to speak for her? Slamming the door of the guest room shut, she set the book on the bed beside the pillow and covered herself with the quilt. When the door clicked open again to admit the two men, she was already snoring soundly, swept up in dreams of books and Akuma and silly old women.


The next morning, Sue-Michelle woke up to the chirping of sparrows, feeling fresher and more energised than the previous night. Winston and Rowan were still asleep, the former mumbling something unintelligible and the latter with his body sprawled over the lounge, drool streaming down one corner of his mouth. She snickered and left the room, walking relaxedly down the quiet corridor. The house was pleasantly peaceful in the morning, the eastern sun's rays streaming in through the windows and forming silhouettes of trees on the stone flooring. She could not resist humming a slow tune as she stretched herself, looking around for Dorothy or Amanda. She soon found both of them at the gate, with Amanda dressed in a pink frock and her hair tied up in two pigtails.

"Have fun in school, my sweet," Dorothy crooned, waving as Amanda pulled on her socks and nodded in acknowledgement. Sue-Michelle walked hesitantly, wondering if they would be offended by her outburst. To her relief, both of them grinned sweetly when they saw her, and Amanda even waved amiably before leaving for school.

"What a lovely girl she is," Dorothy said dreamily as she bolted the gate shut again. "She'd grow up to be such a beauty, and so intelligent too. I'm sure her parents would be glad to see her in safe hands now. It's just unfortunate that she lost them at such a young age. I try to give her as much love as I can, but it'll never be the same. I'm not her family after all." She lowered her eyes sadly.

"I found her nine months ago, on a stormy day. She was standing right there, under that tree." Dorothy pointed at an oak tree ahead of them, and Sue-Michelle realised she was relating their whole story. She decided not to interrupt as Dorothy continued, "She was awfully wet, but for some reason she wasn't shivering at all. She just stood still, with her eyes on the ground, letting the rain drip down her hair and soak her clothes. There was lightning and thunder, and she was endangering herself standing in the open like that. I quickly brought her into the house, of course, and gave her some of Natalie's clothes-- that's the girl who stays opposite, she's dreadfully rich and often throws out clothing because they're ugly. Ugly! I tell her sometimes, I do, that if she thinks they're ugly she shouldn't buy them in the first place, and she says... oh, but where was I? Ah yes-- Natalie's clothes fit her perfectly, and they look pretty on her if I may say so. Well, I was making some hot soup for her and asking her where her home was, and she suddenly clung to me. Grabbed my arm, she did. And told me she was homeless now and could she stay to help me out in the house as a housemaid in return for lodging?"

She finally paused to take a deep breath. Sue-Michelle noticed tears glistening in her eyes.

"It's been a while since I had a kid to take care of. My own are all adults now, and they rarely come back to visit me anymore. Looking at her, I knew I needed to take her in, if not to keep me company in my old and lonely years, or just for me to shower affection on. It's at this age, when you've an abundance of love and no one to give it to, that you take in stray cats from the streets and all that. But now I've a girl of my own, and we're as close as kin. Oh, but I must've bored you. Do come in and have breakfast, I suppose the boys are still asleep?" She laughed merrily as she draped her shawl tightly around her and strolled into the house. Sue-Michelle followed a ways behind, staring intently at the receding figure in the distance with a new burst of admiration.

"Not at all," she whispered, surprised at her own answer as well.

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Winston awoke to the sounds of Rowan's snoring. Normally that'd have been but a small nuisance, but given what Rowan was meant to be doing it was outrageous.

"You're supposed to be keeping watch!!" Winston shouted at him, grabbing his arm and pulling him off the couch and onto the floor with a loud thud.

"OW! Hey!" Rowan shouted back angrily, rubbing his back after the impact with the floor.

In light of the Akuma attacking them just before Dorothy had her talk with them the previous night, Winston and Rowan had agreed to take turns staying awake to keep watch. Sue-Michelle was in a deep sleep by the time they got to the room, and they agreed to just let her sleep. Winston had taken the first watch, Rowan took over in the early hours after midnight and was meant to stay awake then indefinitely since daylight wouldn't be far off anyway.

Winston and Rowan both looked to Sue-Michelle's bed, seeing it was empty. Both of them had only just awoken and weren't thinking clearly - they immediately assumed she'd been taken by the Akuma during the night.

As Dororthy and Sue-Michelle were sitting down in the kitchen to have breakfast (having intended to leave Rowan and Winston to sleep in a while longer), the two half-asleep young men literally tripped over each other and landed in a heap on the kitchen floor. Sue-Michelle let slip a quiet giggle before quickly returning her face to its usual serious look, but Dorothy chuckled aloud.

During breakfast, Dorothy explained something Amanda had told her the previous night.

"She told me everything, she did." Dorothy began. "About the night her parents were murdered. She said it was "those balloon-things you and the others were talking about". Apparently she hadn't told me earlier because she didn't think I'd believe her. But that's not the most interesting part..."

Dorothy sipped from her cup of tea before continuing.

"She says there was a man who saved her. He destroyed the Akuma while she escaped, apparently. Her parents were there to interview him, journalists they were, because he supposedly had something with Innocence in it and fought Akuma with it."

Sue-Michelle, Winston, and Rowan all exchanged looks. They all knew that they had to track this man down. It was quite likely he knew more about how to use Innocence than them or even Dorothy or her grandfather did, and Sue-Michelle had to learn how to use her book more effectively. The Akuma that attacked them the previous night would have likely slain them all if it hadn't retreated when Dorothy entered, it evaded the attack of Sue-Michelle's book with ease.

Dorothy told them where the man supposedly lived - deep in Weder's Valley, a trail through the grass led to his home. Dorothy's home was on the edge of Weder's Valley, but there were no towns on the way and it was still a day or two travel.

The trio of adventurers packed and prepared to leave, the day was young and they could make good progress before nightfall. Dorothy gave them some extra canned foods for the trip, and told them she'd say goodbye to Amanda for them. They bid Dorothy farewell, and promised they'd return sometime to let her know how things went.

"Well, this quest just gets longer and longer doesn't it?" Rowan said, trying to put his arms around the shoulders of both Winston and Sue-Michelle, but failing as Sue-Michelle stepped out of his reach.

"If it's a bother to you, please feel perfectly free to leave." Sue-Michelle said, half-jokingly and half-annoyed.

"A good adventure is fun." Winston cut in. "Having it last a little longer is a blessing. I for one am not missing boring day-to-day life back home. We should cherish this."

There was an understanding silence amongst the trio then, as they followed the dirt trail into Weder's Valley, continuing their exciting adventure together.

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The brilliant sunset was in clear view of Angeline as she leaned her slim figure against a tree, putting her fur coat on for the night. She did not so much as glance towards the waning sun, for it was always the same everyday regardless of where she was. In fact, how long had it been since she had left the stifling city of Crossville? She smirked as she made a conservative estimate. She had probably spent ten nights away from home. She could almost imagine the commotion she must have caused when she had upped and left so abruptly. It had been very much unlike the behaviour of the beloved daughter of a noble family.

Even as she was drifting out in the open now, she found she could not quite shrug off the aura she seemed to give off. Even her shabbiest clothes were more exquisite than that of the common man, and perhaps she really did have the genes of the well-off. Her pointy chin looked prettiest when she had her head held high, and her dreamy blue eyes were of the shade artists termed "royal". Besides, she had never managed to shake off the gait that she had been bred with ever since the age of six.

But of course she would return, possibly in a decade's time, or two. After she had fully experienced the fun of traversing rough terrain, taking second-class compartments in trains and making a complete nuisance of herself. She would willingly return to her meaningless existence again. But as of now, she ought to admire yet another evening of freedom.

The orange-red rays of the sunset seemed to wrap him in a warm embrace as they seated themselves on the rock bench, her legs swinging in time with his. The pavilion had been constructed a day ago as a gift for her eleventh birthday, which her bedroom directly overlooked. As she quietly admired his cyan eyes (which seemed to dance in the light whenever he looked at her), he turned towards her and smiled brightly.

"I did say I was going to give you your birthday gift slightly belatedly, wasn't I?" he asked. "Well, I have it now! Just wait a sec and I'll take it out... you'll love it..." He stuck his hand into his pocket as he spoke, rummaging for a while before retrieving a crudely wrapped package with his grubby hand.

She waited breathlessly, unblinkingly, as he handed it to her. Her nimble fingers quickly unwrapped the brown wrapping to reveal a simple, small bronze ring. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life.

"I've got one too!" he declared proudly as she slipped it onto her ring finger. He proffered his own hand at her, an identical ring on his stubby finger. "It's made of brass, really. But that's the cheapest I could find, and I went and persuaded Darren to get his father to sell it to me at an even lower price too. Darren's Dad is a goldsmith. Then I went and took money from Robin. He's rich anyway, and he wouldn't tell on me, he's such a defenceless kid. In the end the money I got was way more than what the ring cost, so I got one more for myself."

He laughed aloud as he scrutinised her ring. "It looks better with a diamond on it, I think. Dad says ladies all like diamonds anyway. Once I start working, we shall go to a goldsmith together and get a diamond added there. You'll come with me then, of course, won't you?"

She lowered her eyes shyly.

"I'll follow you wherever you go, Rowan."

Angeline balled her fist, the diamond on her ring protruding from her slender fingers. Why had she continued to keep this ring, even when Rowan had long since removed his and discarded it to goodness knew where? Was it to serve as a reminder of why she was here at all, to begin with? Was it to trap her forever in her promise on that fateful day?

She could actually very well spare him, could she not? Quit tormenting him and go home. He was obviously not enjoying it, and although she was deriving some pleasure from watching the expression on his face, this was not benefitting her either. And yet, even as she was thinking this, she knew resolutely that it was impossible. There was an invisible bond tying her to him. She could not break it, no matter how she tried.

As the night fell, the young woman turned to leave. She ought to find herself some lodging before it became too dark. In the distance before her were five figures, staring at her.

"Are you," she heard a young man call out, "Miss Angeline Peacock?"

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Taking a few steps forward to get a better look, Cynric confirmed his suspicion.

"It is you isn't it?" he said, "So this is where you've gotten to. You know, your family has made quite the large fuss about your sudden disappearance."

Cynric looked to be around the same age as Angeline, perhaps slightly older. He wore a neat, navy dress suit, with white gloves and a slicked-back head of black hair with the faintest tinge of blue that fit well with his overall formal style. The only things that broke his upper-class facade were his thick, black leather boots - which though they looked well-kept were still quite out of place - and silver shackles on both wrists. The right one had a chain that connected to the ornate silver hilt of a rapier sheathed at his hip (with enough excess length that he could fully outstretch his arm with the connected rapier still sheathed), while the left had a chain with nothing attached, that dangled loosely down to his knee-level.

"Forgive me, I seem to have left my manners a few paces back." he laughed as he approached Angeline. "My name is Cynric Larrette, and I'm pleased to make your aquaintance."

"I'm..." Angeline began, before remembering Cynric already knew her name somehow. "Well, you have me at a disadvantage, Cynric. How is it you know me?"

"I've simply seen you around Crossville, before I left it myself. A lady of such status as yourself rarely goes unnoticed, though unfortunately often goes unappreciated. I'd hoped to have a conversation with you someday, but I hadn't imagined it would take place like this." he replied, producing a brilliant smile which showed off his perfect teeth whose brightness was only outdone by that of his clear, blue eyes.

"Ah, yes," he continued, turning to glance at his four companions also approaching, "my travelling companions. From left to right: Lian Yi Zhang, Darren Zhang, Hevlaska, Avens Wright."

Cynric's own somewhat mismatched appearance was reflected with even greater magnitute within the rest of his group.

Lian Yi and Darren - which was not his birth name, but rather a name he'd adopted to help fit in upon moving to England - were sister and brother of Chinese origin. Lian Yi wore an elegant yet modest cotton black and red mandarin gown along with white cloth shoes, and sported a long black ponytail extending to her waist. While Darren was wearing a white dress shirt and simple black dress pants and shoes, and had his hair neatly combed to one side. They had average family resemblance, but their dark brown eyes in particular were virtually identical in shade, shape, and size.

Hevlaska was more of a mystery. She wore a plain light grey robe, with the hood up and hiding most of her head. A few loose, thick strands of silver blonde hair hung down from under the hood, their length hinting her hair was quite long. Her skin was ghostly pale, her eyes olive green - their colour didn't do much to stand out, they were as faint and dull as her robe.

Then there was Avens, who was particularly odd even just by himself, let alone as part of the group. He wore a poor brown tunic and brown cloth pants, but his entire head was hidden by a gleaming silver knight's helmet, with its top adorned with a vivid red plume, and the visor down. He looked completely ridiculous.

Darren and Avens were also each lugging very large backpacks - clearly they were the pack mules of the group.

"We're about to make camp for the night." Cynric explained, now that introductions were out of the way. "I must ask you to join us, for I simply cannot live with myself if I allow a fine lady such as yourself to traverse the wilderness alone in the dark of night."

Cynric extended his right arm in a hooked shape for Angeline to take so that he might escort her as a gentleman to the clearing his group had decided to setup camp at.

"Don't mind the shackles." he said, seeing her eyes staring at it as he extended his arm. "It's...a long story. Suffice to say they're merely accessories."

After a moment's thought, and another glance at the shackle, she took his arm. "I suppose I shall trust you then. I am feeling quite tired, and admittedly I don't really know my way around here either."

The pair began walking leisurely, as the rest of Cynric's group forged ahead to begin making camp.

"I know how being out and about away from home for the first time can be taxing. I'm in a similar situation as yourself, actually. I suddenly up and left my family's estate one day, and have fended for myself ever since. We must have a proper discussion in the morning about our experiences and reasons for leaving home, I am quite interested in your thoughts on the subject."

By the time Cynric and Angeline caught up to the group at the camp site, they'd already set up two tents and were working on the rest.

"You can take my tent, I shall share with Darren." Cynric said, pointing Angeline to his tent.

Angeline courteously thanked him, then wasted no time heading in and lying down, falling sound asleep quickly despite not having had dinner.

Cynric expected as much. Even among daughters of wealthy families, Angeline was among the most pampered. She was still likely adjusting to losing so many luxuries of home, though he had nothing but respect for her for willingly giving them all up to strike out on her own - just as he himself had done.

Hours had passed and his group were now seated around the fire in the middle of the camp, Cynric joining them after checking in on Angeline.

"She's lucky the demons didn't get her." Lian Yi commented to the group in general.

"Are you sure there are demons still in the area?" Darren asked her doubtingly.

"Of course!" Lian Yi snapped in response. "We saw them, I locked on to them. My tracking has always been accurate."

"And they were up to something." Cynric cut in. "Whatever it is, we have to stop it. After all, that's our purpose as a demon-hunting party."

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