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Chronicles Of the Black Order: Winter Descends

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The tent rustled violently as a gust of strong wind whipped up suddenly, threatening to tear the canvas at its seams. Angeline twitched uneasily as the sudden breeze drowned out the conversation at the fireplace. Not daring to open her eyes for fear of being discovered, she scooted her lying body closer to the mouth of the tent, hoping to hear something that would answer her burning questions.

It seemed, unfortunately, that the more she knew about them, the more questions arose though. First and foremost, what was a demon hunting party, precisely? Could "demons" refer to those grey balloon things she had seen in the region, with the monstrous faces and the pink bullets? According to the newspapers, they were capable of firing mystical pink bullets, reducing ordinary human beings into dust. And there had been some talk of the occult too, after sightings of pentacles appearing on the victims' bodies prior to their decomposition. Could these peculiar people be occultists of some sort?

Demons... she hoped Rowan would not trifle with them, reckless as he always was.

Curiosity got the better of prudence, and Angeline opened her eyes, peeping stealthily out of the translucent canvas. The five strangers were gathered around the fire, talking about food this time. She took the chance to observe each and every one of them in turn.

The man who was talking most of all, obviously the leader, had held her hand courteously as he led her to their camp. He was certainly aware of manners and social etiquette, but this only served to make Angeline more fearful. She shuddered, and directed her gaze onto the girl sitting beside him. It was an Oriental-looking young lady, much younger than Angeline was, and she was chatting loudly, her voice shrill and powerful. Angeline could see no tracker on her person, even though she had mentioned something about tracking. Beside her was a boy who looked rather like her, but who was wearing distinctly Western clothing, almost on purpose. He was also trying to distance himself from the girl, reluctant to associate with her in any way. Angeline was shrewd when it came to body language, and this behaviour was so apparent it intrigued her.

The remaining two people were far less penetrable. There was another girl stoking the fire, her eyes gazing dreamily at something in it. Her hair was a silvery blonde, long and smooth. She did not say a single word throughout the dialogue, neither did anybody address her in their speech. As for the man beside her, he looked at first glance to be any normal uncouth thug masquerading as a knight. Angeline wondered amusedly how he could breathe in that headgear.

Oh yes, she knew their names. She tried hard to remember what the man had told her. Cynric, yes, his name was Cynric. And the girl was Lian Yi, and her brother Darren. So they were siblings. Following which were Hevlaska and Avens. Hevlaska was most probably a foreign name, which could explain why she had such an unfamiliar aura to her. Well, truth be told, the whole group was odd by any means. Angeline felt a chill run down her spine at the knowledge that they were familiar with her.

Lian Yi suddenly stood up with a cry. "The demon! It's near!" Everyone else jumped up, and Cynric ran towards the tent. Angeline feigned sleep just in time for him to shake her hand violently.

"I'm sorry for startling you awake, but I feel it's only right to warn you that there's danger," he said softly. "However, you need not panic. We are perfectly capable of taking care of it." Angeline blinked confusedly in response, and followed Cynric out. She could see nothing out of the ordinary at all.

It was a hasty conclusion, for just then there was a rustle of grass. She held her breath as Cynric headed to the lead, unleashing his rapier. And from the darkness, emerged a girl.

She gasped when she saw the rapier, and backtracked a few steps. From behind her appeared an old woman, looking angry rather than scared.

"What are you doing outside my house, may I ask?" she demanded.

"It's... it's your house?" murmured Darren sheepishly. He had been brandishing a log fiercely earlier, and laid it aside guiltily now.

"Indeed it is. You're standing on private property, youngsters, property of Dorothy Helder. You've frightened my little girl, too. I can very well sue you, do you know that?"

"But... but..." Avens spluttered, his voice sounding muffled beneath his helmet. Cynric hurriedly stepped forward with an outstretched hand, bowing.

"My humblest apologies, Mrs Helder," he smiled a dazzling smile, "we are but young adventurers out exploring, and especially wary of wild animals which make their homes in woodlands such as this. We are most happy to make up for intruding on the both of you, as long as you ask."

His smile was visibly potent, for Dorothy began grinning reluctantly and waving. "Oh, it's alright," she replied. "It's getting late now, and you can consider yourselves lucky to have met us. Do stay the night, won't you? We've just cleared out our guest room today, incidentally. Let's treat them to supper, shall we, Amanda?" she bent her head to face the girl, who paused before nodding. The two women turned around and led the way.

Once out of their sight, everyone began proceeding forward, but Lian Yi held out a hand to stop them.

"It is the maiden!" she whispered urgently, "she is the demon!"

"Are you sure, Lian?" Darren laughed, "I may be wrong, but she looks like a girl to me."

"Do not call me Lian!" Lian Yi pouted, "and I do not know! But I am right!"

"She is," Cynric interrupted, and Lian Yi and Darren immediately fell silent respectfully. "My rapier tells me so too." Angeline stared at his rapier. It was glowing red at the tip, and as she looked closer, she saw that a tiny flame was dancing at the edge of the metal, flickering magically.

"I don't understand this..." Darren scratched his head.

It was at that moment that Hevlaska spoke for the first time. Angeline noticed with some hilarity that she was not the only one taken aback by her speech. Everyone started when they heard a low, almost musical voice, in perfect English.

"I think," she said unblinkingly, "that we should save such discussions for another time. Miss Helder and Miss Amanda are surely waiting for us."

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Cynric led Angeline and Hevlaska after Dorothy, while Lian Yi, Darren, and Avens stayed behind to pack up the tents and break camp before following.

Dorothy offered them some soup once they got inside, which Cynric and Angeline graciously accepted. Hevlaska rarely seemed to eat or drink, declining. They all sat down at the kitchen table, aside from Amanda who kept herself timidly half-hidden around the corner.

"So you've just vacated your guest room, you say?" Cynric probed.

Dorothy layed down their bowls on the table. "Yes, it was another group of young adventurers such as yourselves, actually. Seems to be a common fascination with youngsters these days." she chuckled.

"Where did they head off to?" Cynric continued questioning, before taking a sip of the soup.

"Weder's Valley." Dorothy replied, moving over to the stove to make up some more soup for the rest of the group once they caught up. "Whether you believe it or not, they were going to meet a man who fights Akuma - those balloon-like demons you may have heard of lately."

Angeline looked noticeably to Cynric, eager to see his reaction to that news for hopes of discerning more about him and his demon-hunting party.

"A man who fights demons? Akuma?" Cynric asked urgently, standing up from his seat. "That is the purpose of my group also, you see. So this man is of great interest to us."

Hevlaska bowed her head slightly in thought. Although anyone who was capable of fighting the demons was sought after by their group, Cynric's excitement at the news of this man was very unusual.

"My grandfather researched these demons, their proper name is "Akuma" according to him. The travellers here before you were looking for information about Akuma, and so they went to find this man in Weder's Valley. He apparently fought off the Akuma that murdered poor Amanda's parents..." Dorothy explained, casting a glance at Amanda, still hiding behind the corner.

The rest of the group arrived shortly, and they all sat down while Dorothy recanted everything she'd told the trio that had been her guests until earlier that day. Everything about how Akuma took on forms other than the common balloon-shape by killing enough people, and how objects imbued with Innocence were the only things that could destroy Akuma.

Cynric then explained that his rapier and the shackles on his wrists had powers to destroy Akuma, and so they must have Innocence in them. He purposefully neglected to mention Lian Yi's ability to detect and track Akuma though, deciding not to reveal that while there was still the suspicious matter of Lian Yi claiming that Amanda registered as an Akuma.

By that point the night was late, and Dororthy suggested they all get some sleep as she herself was going to, before guiding them to the guest room.

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So Rowan has slept in this very room only yesterday. For some inexplicable reason, this thought lingered on Angeline's mind and cheered her up as she rested her head on the soft feather-stuffed pillow of the only bed in the guest room. It was a tight squeeze for six people to sleep in the guest room (which Angeline estimated was probably only the size of her washroom back at home), but they had offered the bed to her and Lian Yi to share. Hevlaska took the couch, and the men set up sleeping bags on the floor. Lian Yi sat on the edge of the bed, brushing her hair carefully to the side. Cynric and Darren quarrelled over which spot they wanted, while Avens lay on his sleeping bag at a far corner, still not bothering to remove his headgear. Hevlaska merely perched herself on the couch, calmly surveying the scene. She gave off an uncomfortable vibe to Angeline, who turned away.

Dorothy had not revealed that it was Rowan's company that had visited on the previous day, and there was no evidence in this very room that he had been here before, but there was a lingering scent in the air that often seemed to mark his presence for a long time afterward. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, feeling his aura rush in and invigorate her lungs.

She was about to fall into slumber when the door opened and Amanda stepped in, carrying a pile of warm towels.

"Gran says it's going to be cold tonight, so she asks me to fetch you these warm towels you can put at your feet," she reported, placing the towels on a table in the room. She bowed, and noting no further reaction (though Angeline could feel Lian Yi shaking on the bed), closed the door behind her. It was only when she left that Angeline realised just how tensed-up she had been. She heaved a sigh of relief and noticed that everyone else seemed to be doing the same. Lian Yi jumped out of bed indignantly and shook her hairbrush indignantly.

"I felt it again, I tell you!" Lian Yi was bristling with persistence as she hissed at Cynric. "I can kneel down and swear to Heaven that this is a demon we are facing! Oh, and what did the kind old lady call them? Aku-ma?"

"Yes, Akuma. It seems to be the official name for those things," replied Cynric matter-of-factly. "We've deduced so far that they're no ordinary demons, so it's likely that there's a name to describe them. And don't worry, Lian Yi. I wouldn't be surprised if these Akuma can disguise themselves efficiently as humans."

"If that's the case," Darren mused, resting his chin on his hand, "Dorothy Helder can well be an Akuma too-"

"I already told you," Lian Yi interrupted flatly, "it is only the maiden."

Silence fell on the group as they considered their next course of action. Angeline did not dare speak as well, for fear of breaking the silence. Whatever this group was, they sure obsessed themselves with this Akuma. She personally could not see what was wrong with Amanda.

"We should get to bed," smiled Cynric, standing up and breaking the silence. He turned to Angeline, eying her for a long while before adding jovially, "I bet we're confusing our new friend." Ruffling his slicked-back hair lazily into spiky clumps, he yawned and plopped down into a lying position. "Good night, everyone."

It might have been Angeline's imagination, but morning seemed to arrive earlier than usual. She pulled the quilt grumpily over her head as the sun's rays shot mercilessly through the window, resulting in a grunt from Lian Yi sleeping beside her. There was a brief tussle of quilts before Lian Yi eventually gave up and got out of bed with the rest of her companions.

A while later, Angeline heard a light patter on the door. Her eyes pricked open curiously and she sat up just as Dorothy entered, wearing a distressed expression on her face. Her hands were rubbing incessantly against each other and she kept intertwining her fingers. Angeline crossed the room to take her hands.

"Is everything alright?" she asked gently, for Dorothy had the startling look of a hapless child.

Dorothy looked up, as if suddenly aware of her presence, and tried to grin. It only made her look even more helpless.

"Well, it's just that, I'm rather worried about Amanda. She's just broken down in her bedroom and nothing I do or say will cheer her up. I've no idea what's wrong with the darling," she explained.

Angeline answered, "I'll see if I can do something about it."

Amanda was indeed sobbing hysterically in her bedroom-- a forlorn little girl in a small room with bright pink walls. She looked even tinier than usual, huddled over her bed and cupping her face in her hands as she rocked back and forth, making choking noises and kicking her feet on the floor. Dorothy murmured something that sounded like "oh Lord" and sat beside the girl worriedly. Angeline felt once again like an invisible spectator.

"Do tell me what's wrong, please," Dorothy begged, patting the wailing kid's back. Amanda paused, her face still covered, and her answer came in short, breathless chokes.

"These visitors... when will they stop coming? I don't want them..."

"Oh... Amanda's scared of the strangers, is she?" Dorothy seemed to lighten up now that she knew the cause. "Don't worry, sweetie. They'll be gone before long, and we'll be alone together just like before again."

Amanda froze suddenly, startling Angeline who was standing by the door. One moment she had been rocking and fidgeting, and the next she could well have passed for a statuette. Dorothy did not seem to notice, but it was giving Angeline the jitters.

"I felt it again, I tell you! I can kneel down and swear to Heaven that this is a demon we are facing!"

"My rapier tells me so too."

What happened next felt like a dream to Angeline, like she was elsewhere looking at herself. It resembled a dream broken down into a sequence of snapshots flashed one after another. It started with Amanda looking earnestly at Dorothy in a perfectly touching grandmother-granddaughter scene, but something seemed amiss to Angeline. Amanda was beaming, not innocently but in a sly way that chilled Angeline. And she knew just then that she ought not to be a spectator any longer. She might not be an Akuma hunter like Cynric's group, but she could not stand by and let an old woman get hurt. She watched herself run towards the pair, stretch her hands out, push Dorothy onto the bed, just as the strangest phenomenon occurred to Amanda.

Amanda was hunched over herself, and her skin contorted as if large spikes were poking out of her body. These spikes enlarged and tore out of her skin, forming grey pillars protruding from her body, joined to a wiry body. This skeletal figure flew towards the ceiling, hanging topsy-turvy from it, leaving the papery skin on the ground.

"What's this?" Dorothy shouted.

Angeline knew what it was. It was what she had read about in the various towns' newspapers. The demon that the group had been discussing. The danger that befell Rowan on his foolish journey.

It was an Akuma.

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Not a moment after the Akuma snarled with its thin, razor-like teeth did Cynric and Lian Yi burst into the room. Cynric had his rapier drawn and the tip was glowing white-hot. His hair was a ruffled mess still from the previous night, and he looked half-asleep even. Lian Yi was much the same, but she seemed quite riled up and her eyes were glowing a vivid green.

"I said so!" she affirmed, pointing at the Akuma and the disturbingly shed skin of Amanda.

The Akuma seemed to hiss, its spikes stiffening and reaching outwards, like some wild animal trying to intimidate an intruder. Suddenly it fired all of its thin spikes out across the entire room, aiming to impale everyone at once. But with a grunt and a sweep of her hands, Lian Yi caused all the spikes to shoot over harmlessly into the opposite wall instead, her eyes not moving even slightly from their lock on the demon.

Cynric took the chance to leap forward, pointing his rapier at the Akuma's wiry face (since its body was too thin to accurately aim for) with intent to end it with one stab. The glowing tip of his rapier erupted and the entire blade of the weapon became covered in flames.

"Wait, spikes!" Lian Yi called out urgently, noticing that the Akuma's spikes hadn't actually detached from it - they were still connected to its body by nearly invisible wires, and as Cynric had advanced it retracted the wires and drew its spikes back to defend itself.

Lian Yi used her powers to try to stop the spikes, but their being part of the Akuma's body made them too hard for her ability to control, with the Akuma pulling them in powerfully, and the best she could do was slow them slightly. Her verbal warning was enough though, and Cynric turned to the side to slash at the spikes coming hurtling back to him, severing the wires of some and destroying the rest of them entirely. The Akuma took advantage of his distraction though, grabbing his head firmly with one of its bony claws. As Cynric tried to slash at it, the Akuma managed to grab his sword-arm with its other claw, rendering Cynric helpless to break its deceptively powerful hold on him.

By now Angeline and Dorothy were huddled together in the furthest corner, watching in awe as this battle unfolded. Angeline gasped audibly as Cynric was grabbed, it seemed he was trapped and the Akuma would simply crush his head with its bare hand. The Akuma cackled in a high-pitched tone, also certain of its victory. Lian Yi was trying to wrench its hands open with all her willpower, but she just wasn't strong enough. The green glow in her eyes flickered as she exerted herself desperately.

Suddenly Cynric laughed too, before the flames on his rapier erupted once more. This time the flames exploded spectacularly outwards, engulfing both Cynric and the Akuma. The Akuma screeched in pain and let Cynric go, before jumping and rolling around in agony, trying to douse the flames to no avail. Cynric, unharmed by the flames, approached the Akuma and drove his rapier into its face with the one firm thrust he'd intended to make to start with. The Akuma screamed one last time, before disintegrating into nothing, the flames dispersing with it.

Lian Yi breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed exhaustedly against the wall, as Cynric sheathed his now dormant-looking rapier. He cast Lian Yi a look of concern, but she waved as indiction that she was alright. So he turned to Dorothy and Angeline, kneeling down and resting a hand on the each of their shoulders.

He opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it and said nothing. He was fairly well-practiced at explaining to people the first time they witnessed Akuma up-close, and particularly a battle with Akuma, but he'd never dealt with an Akuma having disguised itself as a human before. Dorothy must have been devastated, and he wasn't at all sure how to comfort her. So he just gave his most sincere consolotary look and waited patiently for Dorothy (and Angeline, for that matter) to regain their composure after that horrific shock.

Roused by the sound of the battle, Darren and Avens appeared in the doorway. The shed skin of Amanda had disappeared with the Akuma, but by the mood in the room and absence of Amanda, they knew something bad had happened and kept quiet themselves too.

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Throughout the whole battle, Angeline could feel Dorothy's hands getting colder and colder. She grasped them determinedly, glancing at the pale face of the old woman into eyes that mirrored her own fear and helplessness. Cynric and Lian Yi had eradicated the Akuma, and were looking coldly at the pile of clothes that marked the remains of Amanda, Dorothy Helder's little girl.

A moment of silence passed before everyone gauged it safe to move. Angeline held onto Dorothy's arm, with Cynric on the other side, and together they helped her to a comfortable sitting position on the bed. As Angeline observed Dorothy's trembling frame, she was struck by how very old and frail the latter was. Her back could not straighten entirely, and her hands had developed calluses testifying to the years of toil and labour she had contributed to the welfare of her home. And what had it all boiled down to? A lonely elderly life, with a girl she trusted that had turned out to be nothing short of a monster.

Angeline could feel Cynric looking at her, but did not find herself up to the task of returning his gaze. She was feeling a whirlwind of emotions, that of perplexity, guilt, empathy, relief and bitterness all washing up on her at the same time. As she turned towards Dorothy's impassive face, she knew that the lady was feeling all these too, and much much more.

They remained in the room, no one bothering to pick up Amanda's clothes, no one knowing what to say to fill the silence. It was Dorothy who finally collected herself and stood up, making an effort to smile at everyone in the room.

"I'm sure everyone's feeling hungry. I'll prepare lunch this instant." And with that, she lowered her eyes and walked slowly out of the room.

At her departure, an imaginary spell lifted in the room, and everybody began chattering at once, talking about the incident earlier with renewed eagerness.

"Just how can a person turn into an Akuma like that?" Darren exclaimed, gesticulating profusely at the space where Amanda the Akuma had previously occupied.

Cynric tapped his chin thoughtfully. "It's true that we haven't seen such incidents yet, but this certainly explains how these Akuma can conceal themselves effectively among large crowds of people. There's still more to learn about them, but let's take heart at the fact that we're doing our best to reduce their numbers," he grinned encouragingly.

Dorothy did not mention Amanda at all in the days that followed. Cynric kept wanting to leave, but she entreated them to stay for longer, not to stand on ceremony. Winter was approaching, and it was best to stay indoors in the first few days. "Once the snow has fully settled, it'll be safer," she told them. And so they stayed on for a week, chatting with her about topics that neither party was really interested in, straying cautiously away from any topic that would inadvertently return painful memories to the old lady. It was on the eighth day after Amanda's death that Cynric declared that they had really overstayed their welcome.

"We can't impose on you any further, Miss Helder," he said patiently. "I wish you the best of health, and we'll be very careful indeed in the coming winter."

Even as he said it, traces of snow were already falling on the window-sill. Angeline watched the snowflakes dissolve into small puddles as they touched the wooden frame, and the specks of hail descending from the sky.

"Amanda loved the snow," she was startled by a low murmur from behind her. Dorothy stared out the window dreamily from behind her. She wondered if she had registered her presence.

"She absolutely adored sitting by the window, her nose pressed against the glass, watching unblinkingly the drops of pure white snow. She said she'd make a snowman that looked impeccably like me if there was ever enough snow for it. But every year, there was never... enough..." Dorothy could not continue, for tears had flooded from her eyes. Angeline frantically held her steady.

"And who knows how long she's planned to... murder me," she added, "all along. Grandpa turned out to be right about the A- Akuma after all. And yet... if she wanted me dead... why didn't she strike me down the very first time? I was alone and vulnerable then... why..."

Angeline patted her back soothingly, not knowing how to answer. She, too, was clueless about the reason.

"Perhaps she did love you, in some way," was the only response she could muster from her lips.


The big ramshackle building in front of Sue-Michelle took her admittedly by surprise. She had expected to find, at the end of the path leading from the railway station, a more glamourous representation of the Glory Science Laboratory Centre than a run-down wreck. She turned to her companions.

"Think this is the right place?" she asked skeptically.

Rowan pursed his lips in deep thought. "The porter did say that any self-respecting scientist in Weder's Valley would be found in the Glory Science Laboratory Centre. This Phil Larrette person would be self-respecting, I presume?" he mused.

"Maybe he's elsewhere," Sue-Michelle decided. "After all, we took a whole week on what would've been a two-day trip, thanks to the pesky Akuma hindering our journey." She tapped her book proudly. She had mastered the technique of fending off those balloon monsters singlehandedly, and was basking in the glory of her victory.

"The door's opening," remarked Rowan, distracted by the sharp creaking sound emitted by the rotting wood. The door opened into a void of empty darkness. He bravely took the first step inwards, and as he vanished from view, a piercing shout was heard. Sue-Michelle and Winston scrambled into the building, fumbling panically in the dark.

"Rowan! Where're you?" she screamed fearfully.

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