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Europa and Chaser



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45 Reviews



Gender: Female
Points: 29
Reviews: 45
Wed Oct 11, 2017 2:10 am
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Europa says...



Kirsten
Amère


"No!" The woman screamed. Strong arms held her at bay and she fought against them, desperate to get out the door and to the car outside where a little face was framed in the window, eye round and wet with fear. "Not my daughter. You've already taken my son! Just please, please leave me my daughter!"

"Only one sacrifice remains." The man holding her replied shortly. "She has been chosen."

"Then take me." The woman pleaded.

"The AI demands children."

The car came alive, headlights piercing through the thick fog. Peals of new screaming erupted from the woman and she struggled harder as the car slowly inched out of the driveway. The little face in the window pressed her hands to the glass. Her mouth gaped open briefly. Shouting a word no one outside could hear. A large hand reached over and pulled her out of view. The man holding the woman let go. She sank to the groud as the car was swallowed by the fog. Covering her face with shaking hands. Her screams had turned to raw sobbing. Without a word, the man pulled his crimson hood over his head and swept from the house. The door slammed heavily behind him, echoing through the house, no empty except for the woman kneeling in the middle of the floor.


.........

I'd never seen the AI in person before. I had thought it might have been a giant computer or a robot. Maybe even some kind of person. A giant hooked up with wires all over their body. But the AI wasn't any of those. It looked more like an empty square in the wall. The whole rest of the room was all metallic and full of monitors and buttons and people like the ones who took me away. All of them seemed too tall and too thin to be human. I couldn't see any of what was under their cloaks. They all had their hoods pulled up. The AI was in the only clear space in the room just an empty white space that glowed like the screens of the computers but so much brighter. The two cloaks that had brought me here were still right beside me, each of them grabbing one of my arms so tight it was starting to hurt.
Is this what he saw? Did the AI look the same, like...dead space? like nothing? The cloaks walked me forward. I felt strange. Limp. My legs were too weak to shake anymore. They set me so close that all I could see was the nothing of the AI. My ears filled with a strange humming. I imagined they were voices. I imagined his voice saying Don't worry. It'll be fine. or give it a second. I promise it doesn't hurt. Like I had scraped my knee or he was pulling a splinter from my finger. The cloaks were all saying something together. A prayer or a chant. I couldn't understand it. I don't think I wanted to. I watched the AI. It had started to bulge out. Like there was something inside and it was pushing and pushing until it could break out. A little tendril like an arm grew out and it reached for me. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run and keep running until I could go home and hide under my sheets like this was all a bad dream and my mom would come in and hold me and whisper things in my ear that would make me feel safe enough to fall asleep again. But I couldn't move. It was like something was holding me there. Like the bigger cloak had held my mom to keep her from saving me. The cloaks had finished their chant. The AI's hand touched my forehead. Suddenly my body was filled with its humming. I could feel it in my chest and hear it in my head. The room began to turn as white as the hand and the humming was so loud I thought the sound was going to bleed from my ears. And then it was gone. I was gone. I couldn't see anything but the empty white. Strangely, I wasn't scared anymore. I wasn't anything anymore. Everything inside me had bled out with the color of the room. I wondered if this was what dying was supposed to feel like. And then it changed again. The nothing changed. It just started fading, like the colors and the cloaks and the room. It started to build buildings. Grow trees. I could see people walking around on the ground I couldn't see yet. Watching people walking on air and not falling made me feel dizzy, so I closed my eyes until I felt ground under my feet. Then I opened them again. The sun was shining in my eyes. The people were walking on dirt paths now, and so were horses pulling carts. I could see the buildings up against the sky. Big, but not like the huge tall buildings of the city that touched the sky. I took a step out onto the street. Is this where all people go when they die? Am I even dead? I don't feel dead anymore. I looked up at the roofs of the houses. Down at the people in the street.

"Look out!" Someone roared behind me. I spun around and there was a man with a sitting in a cart. The horse was so close I could see its eyes around the blinders. I shrieked and scrambled to the side. The wheels ran just past my toes.

"Stay off the road!" The driver yelled.

My heart was fluttering inside my chest so I took a few breaths to calm it down.

"Yikes." I jumped as another voice spoke right over my shoulder. I turned around, thinking it was some other person I was in the way of. But the little boy in front of me didn't look like he was going anywhere. He was just standing, rocking back and forth on his heels. He was holding a teddy bear by one arm. "I coulda told you he was gonna do that. I swear I've seen him go down this road like, three times already."
  





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Sat Jan 06, 2018 2:04 am
Chaser says...



Before I saw her, I thought I was dreaming. I’d woken up here, the world around me flickering up like a bonfire. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when the same cart rushed through the street again, ghosting the path it had traveled before. But that feeling changed when a girl fell out from behind it, and the instant I saw her face, I knew that she wasn’t a dream.

“Hiya!” I said, tilting back and forth on my feet. “What’s your name?”

“Kirsten,” she said, probably too scared to think of anything else. “W-Where are we?”

“I woke up here, so I dunno! What do you think?” I waved a hand at the blue skyline. “There are only sixteen shapes of clouds here! I thought it was a dream, but now you’re right in front of me! I have no idea,” I groaned skyward, hanging my arms down. “My name’s Hachiko, by the way.”

Kirsten shifted awkwardly, looking at who I carried in my left hand. “What’s that?”

“Oh, the bear? His name’s Bakuma!” I held him up, showing his beady eyes. Bakuma’s left half was pure white, and the right, dead black. There was a stitch across his right eye where it had been sewn back in; the red threading looked like a jagged scar.

“Ah,” Kirsten said, backing up awkwardly. “So he’s a…”

“Panda, yeah.” I hugged him to my chest and spun around. “I guess this is what they looked like, way back before the Ark.”

Kirsten glanced around, then hastily stepped out of the way of the driver coming around for the fifth time. “Why don’t we talk somewhere else?”

“Hm?” I dodged a stray dirt clod thrown by the boys playing at the stoop. “It’s not too bad once you get into the rhythm. See?” I said, grabbing her arm and spinning her away from a messenger’s horse.

Kirsten walked to the storefront steps and sat down, mumbling into her hands. “They - they took me prisoner. The Ghosthands.”

I winced, clasping my hands behind my head. “Yeah, uh, sorry ‘bout that.”

Her eyes shot up to meet mine. “What?”

“My dad’s a super-important guy in that cult. I mean, we both feel a little weird about it, but he’s real happy there, and…” I trailed off, noticing her look. “What? Did they do something to you?”

There was something incomprehensibly sad in Kirsten’s eyes as she said, “They sacrificed me, Hachiko. That’s how I got here.”

“Oh.” I turned back to look at the sky, a repeating patchwork of sixteen clouds. If I waited there long enough, I’m sure that cart would have run me right over again.

“Nah.” I shook my head and pressed my lips together. “Forget it. I’m hungry. You must be too, right? Let’s eat something.”

“Hachiko-”

“That’s too long, I hate it. Call me Hachi.”

“Hachi, what are you doing?” Her pitying tone set my body to needles.

“Ah, geez! What I’m saying is that we weren’t sacrificed! My dad’s…” I broke off, staring at the world around me. I stood in silence, facing away from her.

“Do you know why they put us here?” Kirsten asked.

“No, that’s...um, okay.” I turned around, grinning. “Well, I guess we’re dead! I really do want something to eat, though. Wanna have lunch?”

Kirsten gave a small smile and nodded. “Okay.”

I bent down and scooped up a rock. As the wagon barreled down the street for the last time, I wound my arm back and tossed it perfectly through the open window. I was rewarded with a sharp curse from inside the wagon.

With a laugh, we set off through the streets of the city, swinging Bakuma close behind. Here, people walked long and low, leaning into the dirt in order to put it behind them quickly. Heavy burlap coats were draped over broad shoulders, hatted heads turned downwards. Heading down a road smelling like fish, we reached the sound of ocean waves, and the sight of numerous wooden boats floating in the harbor.

I dashed to the edge of the dock and grabbed the pylon, swooping out over the ocean. What I saw nearly made me lose my grip. “The water here is purple!” The sea stretched out on the horizon in a murky violet color. It slid through itself with a thousand obsidian facets, slicing against the pier in slow rhythm.

I sat down on the pier, staring at the scene in wonder. Kirsten walked up behind me, unsure what to say. “Do you think we’re really dead?” she asked.

I grabbed my ankles, thumping my feet. “If we’re here together, then not yet. But no one’s ever come back from being sacrificed.”

We were silent for a while, watching the impossible purple waves in the harbor. Eventually, I sank into myself, hugging Bakuma. So, this was the world of the AI (Ark Imperium, as the super-cool cult kids called it), given its yearly human tribute. And - despite everything, and more beyond that - I’d been sacrificed to sustain its blessings.

I sighed. “It’s never fair, is it?”

“Hachi!” I turned to find Kirsten back on the pier, pointing at a parlor signboard.

Pausing for a moment, I recollected myself and kicked up from the dock, running towards her. As I neared, I read what was on the sign. “Ooh, fruit from the Wolfaval Coast!”

“That sounds good,” Kirsten agreed. “Do you have any money?”

“Who said we’d pay?” I replied, pushing through the door. “Dead people get good eats.”

We entered the room to a lively scene, tankards of coffee waving around as the patrons talked jovially.

“No, that’s what I’m saying. Sarah!” the woman laughed. “Come off it. Look, I’ll prove it.” Grinning, she stood up and raised a fist. “A toast to Lord Shamble’s powdered nose!”

A cheer arose as the woman continued, “And may it ever stick into his edicts and the King’s arse.”

Amid laughter and cheering, she bowed flippantly and sat back down. I elbowed Kirsten, smiling. “See? This looks like a fun place.”

“Yeah, but how do we get food?” she asked worriedly.

“Well,” I began, ruffling my own hair and slapping color into my cheeks, “watch and learn.”

Kirsten hung back at the door as I tapped the nearest lady’s shoulder, then made myself look as irresistibly cute as possible.

“Excuse me,” I said, tilting my head and grinning, “could I have some fruit?”

The woman looked at me with strange amusement. “Got any money?”

I gestured as adorably as I could that I had no money.

“Ah.” The woman rubbed her chin, then shouted across the room, “Penny, we’ve got some beggars for you to make into kings!”

“That’s not what revolution means, Edith!” The woman who’d been talking before leaned out from her table, grinning.

“Well, we all wish it did,” Edith said before turning back to us. “Anyway, why don’t you head over there? Penny being Penny, she’s bound to give you something.”

“Thank you!” I said, beckoning Kirsten as I skipped over to Penny’s table. Penny was a woman with dark, healthy skin and curly hair cut short. It seemed to bounce as she moved between many different conversations, effortlessly weaving a charismatic aura about her. She looked up as we approached.

“Ah, so you’ve got no money, and came to a bar? You either don’t know how New Belial works,” she said, sipping her coffee, “or know it much too well.” As we all laughed, Penny glanced down at my side, noticing Bakuma.

“A teddy bear…,” she murmured, before looking back up at us. Suddenly, she grinned.

“Hey, it’s nice to see some new faces in this bar. I’ll give you the full welcome.” She sprang up and brought us to the counter, where an elderly lady was brewing a kettle of coffee.

“Some Wolfaval fruit for my new friends.” She winked. “Take it from my pay, would you?”

The bartender reached below the counter and grabbed an icebox of fruit. “Aren’t you a little light on cash to be giving handouts?” she asked wryly?

“Ah.” Penny froze for a moment, wincing. Then she grinned at all of us. “Let’s not worry about that, shall we?”

Everyone laughed again, and the bartender grabbed a banana and orange from the box, handing them to us. I took the banana, eating quickly and tossing the peel over my shoulder.

“We shouldn’t make a mess,” Kirsten began, trailing off as Penny lobbed her orange peel into the rafters.

“There, see?” I said, snatching an apple and holding it out to her. “Let’s have some fun while we’re dead.”

She gave a small smile and bit in, then nearly dropped the apple as the door slammed open. As the door hit the wall and slowly creaked back, a man walked in from the street, flanked by musketed guards.

He stood tall, wrapped in a long cloak. Beneath it, the regal military jacket sagged to his frame. As he cast his hand out in greeting, I saw his long, oaken fingers adorned with shining rings. His wig unfurled down his temples like so many scrolls, and his eyes were a slow, virulent black. And on the tan skin of his forehead, there was a bruise left by a rock tossed through the window of his carriage.

Penny walked up to him, looked him in the eye, and scoffed. “Your majesty, Lord Shamble,” she lambasted, bowing deeply.

As she rose, Lord Shamble looked her in the eyes and replied, “Your peasantry, Penny Alvarez.”

He swept the room with a commanding look, then strode forward. “I’m sure you know why I’m here-” he said, as his foot slid out from under him. Lord Shamble smashed flat onto his back; the room went completely silent. When Lord Shamble sat up, a banana peel sat on top of his white wig.

Penny remained absolutely deadpan. “I believe we’ve just witnessed the crowning of a king.”

Everyone lost it at that point, a few people tipping over in gut-busting laughter. Lord Shamble pulled the banana peel off of his head and turned pink.

He whipped the banana peel out the door in disgust, then smacked the doorpost. He stalked over to the bartender, leaning on the counter to cast a long and hungry shadow.

“You know exactly why I’m here.” He loomed over the bartender, smiling while reaching into his coat. “A tribute, paid to me in blood...orange.”

He held out two coins politely. “One, please.”

The bartender handed it to him, and he inspected it, holding it against the light. “Fruit from the Wolfaval Coast. One of the few pleasures allotted to me in this world.” The peel fell away at his grasp, and he ate the orange, shuddering with delight.

Forgoing all pomp, he sat on the edge of the table, dictating with a full mouth. “The new shipment has arrived in the harbor. Tomorrow, I unveil a fresh load of workers for auction.” He swallowed. “Penny, there’s no need to tell you to come. Even so, you won’t be welcome.”

“Bite me.”

“I don’t eat dog meat.” He flourished his hand smugly. “The reason being that, as I told you, I’m quite well off.”

Penny stood in pensive silence for a second, then spoke. “Not for much longer. Someone as sheltered as you couldn’t feel it, but revolution is happening.”

Lord Shamble scoffed. “You can’t possibly hope to fight the entire Goetian Empire, can you?”

“You’re wrong, Shamble. We can hope. Even if it seems impossible, we can hope, and that means that we’ll strengthen that dream. We’ll take our freedom from the Demon Lord himself, and it won’t need cowards and traitors like you.” Penny stood on the bench and raised her fist, some people around her doing the same.

“And in that world, there’s no room for parasites! Because, when we’re all standing on even ground, Shamble,” she remarked, “you’d just slip and fall on your ass.” But with every word, her voice lost conviction, because Lord Shamble was doing an odd thing. He trembled, taking slight, gasping breaths, crumpling in on himself, and when all was quiet, he laughed.

He drew himself up and grinned monstrously. “Oh, you all never change. I’m sure you want revolution to happen, but really, none of you want to make it happen, do you? You’re just hoping that some great chance will come to you, and then, then you’ll make the effort. You place your hope with this woman,” he said, throwing his hand toward Penny. “This lowly coffee-brewer. You think you can just stroll up and take what you want from the world? What a fitting diatribe for trash.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Lord Shamble blinked, looking up. “Oh - who said that?” He stared around the silent room, then shrugged. “Well, there have been rumors about my rise to power, and I understand you’re all uncomfortable with the change in your leadership.”

He gave a saccharine grin and disposed of the rest of his orange, which he had crushed in his hand upon responding. “But please, bear with it.”

He leaned in the doorframe, his weight carrying a darker gravity now. “And, seeing as you all envy me, I’ll take my leave.” He beckoned to his guards, drifting away.

“We won’t stop,” Penny called after him. “Revolution is coming. There’s nothing you can do to stop it!”

He looked back, bemused. “I know there isn’t. But as you’ve so generously pointed out, that’s no reason for me to give up, now is it?” He turned away, stepping out the door and onto the same banana peel. Lord Shamble kept his smug expression as he flipped 180 degrees and crashed on his head in the street.

Penny, Kirsten, and I watched from the door as Lord Shamble crumpled, picked himself up, then walked deflated to the carriage.

“I like him,” I declared.

“He’s fun to watch,” Penny agreed, turning back to the diner. “You two, get yourselves cleaned up, and have some coffee. Then we’ll talk about how to get that snotty Shamble once and for all!”

She took hold of Kirsten’s hand, dragging her away despite protest. As I turned to follow, a voice melted into my ear, whispered from behind a silken hand.

“My dear Taro, we meet again.”

The voice had come from a woman sitting in the table beside the window, who was gazing fondly out the window. Her svelte and shady attire made a dark contrast to the women of the coffee shop, and even more stunning was the long pipe clutched delicately between her index and middle finger. Around the eyes, she had tints of disaster, but no fear. Her lips were twitching as she continued to stare out the window.

I followed her gaze to Lord Shamble, hopping on one foot trying to get his shoe unstuck from the gutter mud. Then, I must have stared for too long, because she glanced at me soon after.

Unsure what to do, I grinned at her. Somewhat bemused, she smiled back, then looked out the window and took a drag from her pipe. As a curtain of smoke rose before her, something powerful shifted in her eyes, bright and malicious. I blinked; the spell was suddenly gone, and the hubbub of the tavern enveloped me once more. Scratching my head, I walked over to Penny, who was just finishing her sentence.

“And that’s why we’re going to dethrone Lord Shamble before he kills us all. Got it?” Kirsten, who she was holding by the shoulders, was reeling from the information.
Penny blinked as I walked over. “What, were you not listening? Alright, I’ll start again. You guys were sacrificed by the Ghosthands, right? Well, so was I.”

The rest of the talk kind of went over my head after that.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.
  





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Wed Feb 21, 2018 1:29 am
Chaser says...



Sage


The chains they put on me weren't heavy, but they were insulting. After all, I didn't plan to run.

The Ghosthands led me through the hallway, their footsteps silent beneath their deep red robes. A wire ran through the lanterns on the ceiling, a somber procession of ghostlights heading deep into the mine. I never would have expected the AI to dwell here.

But soon, black cords began to weave together, sinking into metal, the tunnel opening out into a large steel chamber. At the center, a formless light that seemed to break off blocks of reality, exhuming a soft glow across the chamber.

I didn't want to know how the AI lived underground. I didn't want to know what would happen to me after I was absorbed or whether I might see my parents wherever I went next. All that was on my mind at that moment was Elliott, all alone at the mercy of people he didn't even know.

The Ghosthands filed into the room and formed a cult circle. The lead one turned to me and gestured to the light. I was to be its sacrifice.

"I came like you asked," I declared. "I need a guarantee that my brother will be safe."

The Ghosthand raised his palm in answer, which began to pulse with blurry light. Clearly, he was guaranteeing something else if I didn't comply.

I stayed silent and closed my eyes. If this was the best that I could do for him, then there was no use fighting what would happen next. I could still see the light from the AI behind my eyelids, growing steadily brighter. It started to hum and expand, filling the void until I couldn't tell whether my eyes were open or not. It was all endless, freezing light.

For a brief moment, I felt it all around me, the infinity the AI presented. In that expanse, I felt myself losing my balance, and the fear that if I fell, I'd fall forever. But that didn't happen, as my back connected with a grassy surface, and in the moment it took for me to register what had happened, the sky had turned bright blue.

I sat up, dazed at my surroundings. It was a vibrant, earthy meadow outside of a wooden palisade. In the middle of that palisade were towers, and a fortified gate.

At the edge of the field was a forest darker than death. The verdance of the meadow seemed to drop off at the treeline, greeted by a barricade of brambles and withered thickets. As I stared a man burst from the trees, tearing away from the forest like his life depended on it, a look of sheer panic on his face.

"Hey!" he cried, sprinting towards me. "Help me!"

The oddest thing about this man was his dreadlocks, which seemed to enlarge his head threefold. He wore a black jacket that was torn at one sleeve, and as he got closer, I could see it was dampened with blood. A few seconds afterward, I found out why.

Behind him, the darkness itself had burst from the treeline, a rolling shadow that desolated the ground as it moved across. Tendrils of darkness disintegrated from it as it streamed through the harsh noon light, closing in on the man with alarming speed.

Suddenly, the soil slipped out from underneath him, and he flopped to the ground. His expression of pain trickled to horror as the pulsing darkness loomed over him, dropping two rancid jaws from the mist.

I half didn't realize what I was doing. My shoulder drove into the darkness, finding a fleshy solid and shoving it backwards. The beast stopped for a moment, flailing in panic. In that moment, I realized that it had grown smaller in the daylight, its smoky mouth evaporating to a threadbare purple flesh.

"It's getting weaker!" I shouted to the man, who was getting to his feet. "We can beat it!"

The man gave me a despairing look, then took off running towards the guardtower. I reached after him for a moment before shaking my head. As I'd told Elliott, I could get angry all I wanted at people like him, but justice was still my task to serve.

Having decided this, I tightened my fists as if it were another street scrap. "Alright!" I shouted to the beast. "Come at me if you want, but I'll hit you back hard!"

The shadow beast stumbled to its feet and galloped forward, nearly taking a chunk out of my side as I dodged away from it. I threw a straight punch into its side, testing its odd body. The best policy, I decided, was to wear it out.

Keeping that in mind, I dashed to the left as it charged again, easily moving past it. But then a tentacle shot out from its side, wrapping around my arm. I ripped it away in alarm, then jumped back as more tentacles weaved towards me.

Breathing heavily, I looked at the beast again. Four long tentacles were waving in the daylight, mixing with its waving shadows. For a second I thought it had baited me, but then I realized that he darkness was peeling away at an even faster rate now. The beast had gotten desperate.

It reinforced this with a roar, launching towards me with tentacles awhirl. Instead of dodging, I braced myself and locked my arms around its torso. The tentacles wrapped around my arms and squeezed, but I had already reached my target.

I worked my way around the beast, reaching beneath its center of gravity to unbalance it. One more shove, and I could have this thing on the ground, trapping it to dissolve in the hot sun.

An extra appendage snaked out from its abdomen, smacking my chest and doubling me over. The next slash from the monster's jaws left me sprawling, and I tumbled to the ground, vaguely aware of my head leaking. Blood dropped into my eye as I glanced up, seeing the dark maw of the beast blotting out the sun.

A sword flashed in the light, sinking into the beast's side as the dreadlocks man put all of his weight behind it. He must have gotten it from the guard tower, and actually ran back with it! I stood up to thank him before realizing he hadn't done it to save me.

"Die!" the man screamed, twisting the sword and wrenching it out to stab again. He slashed the beast to pieces in a complete frenzy. After the body had stopped moving, the man stumbled back and sat down.

"That'll - teach you," he seethed between sobs. After a moment, he wiped his eyes and stood up.

"That turned out quite nicely, didn't it?" Reaching down with the sword, he methodically cut away the jawbones of the beast, staring in wonder as the remaining flesh dissolved in the light.

"Why was that thing chasing you?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Bad luck. Bad karma too, but that isn't important. That forest was just where I entered this world. Maybe the Ghosthands did it on purpose," he suggested, grinning. "Well, what matters now is that we got away."

"Let's go then," I said, turning towards the gate. "Do you know what's inside that?"

"No, but it isn't here, and that's a good start," he replied. He storlled towards the gate, hands stuffed in his pockets. He seemed to have forgotten all about his injury. I
jogged to catch up to him. "What was that thing?"

The man shrugged. "No idea." He looked up at me. "In case you were wondering, my name's Taro."

"Sage." I replied automatically. "any idea where we are?"

"Not a clue." Taro shook the gate. "Hm. Locked." He pursed his lips a little, looking the gate up and down. He started to climb. I watched from the ground as he quickly scaled it and sat on the top bar. He looked down at me, his hands braced on his knees. "Coming?"

I shook my head. "I'm pretty sure this is illegal."

Taro swung his legs over the other side. I was expecting him to land on his feet; instead he fell flat on his face. I winced.

He sat up, spitting blades of grass from his mouth. "I'm not sure I see your point." He jumped to his feet and whirled toward the fortess, marching confidently down the path to the front door.

I stood for a moment watching him. Then I sighed."He'll get himself killed."

I started climbing the fence. It was made of a surprisingly slippery kind of black rock, and I had a hard time getting a foothold but eventually I reached the top and slid over the side. Looking back on it, I feel like I should have just walked the other way. It would have saved me a world of trouble.

Taro walked up to the fortress door, giving a solid grin to the towering complex. He knocked on the door and gestured excitedly for me to come over.

Slowly, the door rumbled open, revealing a red-clothed figure standing there. At least, I thought his clothes were red, before I realized that he was naked to the waist, and it was his skin that was shining red. And he was pointing a musket straight at me.

"Hey! Over here." Taro waved to the red-skinned man. stepping in the path of the musket. "Ah, hi. I'm Taro. I'd like to talk to whoever's in charge."

"On what grounds?" the man asked, surprising us with a prim voice behind the gun.

"I don't know whose grounds these are; that's why I'd like to meet them," Taro stated bluntly, then smiled. "If you don't mind."

The red man mumbled something and lowered his gun, turning away slightly. It was then that I noticed the faint bumps on his skull; not just bumps, but horns. Taro turned to me and mouthed in awe, "A demon."

Eventually, he looked back at us. "Follow me." He sighed without much enthusiasm. "I'll warn you, humans, his majesty doesn't take kindly to visitors."

The palace was built from the same black soapstone as the fence, now furnished with lavish red cloth. Oily light shone from flames encased in obsidian as the demon led us down the halls.

"Whose palace is this?" I wondered aloud.

"It's not mine," Taro said, "and that's what matters!"

We were led into the throne room, Taro seeming mystified as his feet crushed prints into the velvet carpet. At the end of the room beneath drapes of banners sat an empty throne, with a sour-looking demon standing next to it. He seemed to be reading a paper list, the continuation of which was draped across the table beside him.

"Oh, well that's just-" He looked up as we entered. In the flickering torchlight, he looked almost spectral. The effect was not hindered by the ivory mask hiding the left half of his face. I wasn't sure if it was the light or not, but his hair looked steely grey, like someone had run a steel brush through it. "Ah, sacrifices! Wonderful, I was looking to let off some stress." He began weaving his hands in a sphere, and a flame erupted between them.

Taro whirled to the demon guard in alarm, who merely shrugged. Panicking, he whipped his hands around in front of him. "Wait, wait! Diplomatic immunity! No shoot!"

The masked demon sighed. "Of course. That was a joke." The flames unfurled from his palm, dissipating in the dark throne hall.

Taro got up from his cowering position, beet red, and huffed, "Well, it wasn't very funny."

"To the contrary," the demon replied, smirking. "It was hilarious."

He sighed, tossed the report onto the table, and turned to the guard. "So, what is their business?"

"A proposal!" Taro cut in before the guard could speak. He waltzed forward, making grandiose gestures with his arms. "A plan, even, to help you succeed. But first, we pay tribute to you, Demon Lord. Behold!" He thrust out the severed jaws of the shadow beast, laying them on the floor before the demon. He bowed deeply, much to the demons' amusement.

The masked demon shook his head. "You are mistaken, human; I am Demon Minister Astral. Your tribute for our Demon Lord will have to wait."

Taro looked up, blinking. "Wait? But why?"

Minister Astral waved the question away. "I haven't the time to explain it to you." He turned back to the stack of papers and stretched. "The trash keeps complaining...where's bureaucracy when you need it?" He gestured to the guard absentmindedly. "Go. Dispose of them."

The guard moved towards us, laxly gripping his musket. Taro backed up nervously, hitting me by accident, or so I thought until I caught his whisper.

"...see that?" He glanced at me. "You saw that, right, Sage? He called me a human."

"Yeah," I replied. I'd seen something else too: Mild-mannered as Astral had seemed, when he spoke the word human, there was no hiding the disgust in his eyes.

"He knows what humans are. This is a fortress where the leader is absent. Understaffed, too, and isolated." Taro kept talking, his eyes on Astral. "This must be a military holding in an area not native to these demons. And they weren't surprised to see humans. You know what that means, right?"

"I do," I replied, as the demon slung the musket from his shoulder and aimed it straight at us.

"Humanity has been enslaved," Taro finished, staring down the gunbarrel, "and these are our new demon overlords."

"No," Astral called, looking up from his papers. "No, that's all wrong. If you're going to be leaving with that kind of attitude, then I'll need to change it." He walked towards us, circling his finger to compose his speech. He motioned the demon guard aside, looking slightly down at us.

"This world," he began, "was not made for humanity. The monsters that inhabit it are more powerful than anything they can imagine; I can tell you two have seen that firsthand."

Taro clutched his wound, but said nothing.

Astral smirked, opening his palm to watch the embers curl. "But we, the demon race, have been gifted with the strength of the Lord. We alone can advance this world, can protect humanity from their own powerlessness. It is with great kindness that we set foot here, in the pitiful lands of man, to exalt the human race."

He thrust the flames toward us, and they hovered near my chest. "These flames are dangerous, yet you cannot deny their warmth. That is the will of the Demon."

Unconsciously, Taro and I leaned towards the mesmeric warmth. It seemed too much like the fireplace where I'd sit with soot-stained hands and share a cheeseburger with Elliott. The thought of Elliott made me pull back, and I pushed Taro to snap him out of the trance too.

The Demon Minister closed his fist and gave an eerie smile. "I can tell you require more convincing. Therefore, I am willing to make you an offer: Join us, young one, and we will allow you to protect the humans you too hold dear."

"Forget it."

"You say controlling people saves them from their own weakness. But really, you think we'd rather be safe than anything else." I glared up at Astral. "You're no different from the Ghosthands."

For a second, I thought I saw Astral's face tighten and turn pale. But it flickered away in an instant, vanishing beneath his half-mask.

"I have no idea what you mean by that." The Demon Minister waved his hand in the air, though his irritation made the movements sharp and stiff. "I suppose I can't expect proper reasoning from you."

"Not by your definitions, no."

"Aha haha, just hold up!" Taro interjected. "I-I'm sure my friend didn't mean to insult your demonliness, in fact, about that offer-"

"That offer is for him alone." Astral kept his gaze fixated on me. "I have no interest in the spineless parasites in his company."

Taro trembled in place, but said nothing more. Looking at his posture, all at once collapsed and rooted, I could tell he had nothing more to give. And I had nothing more I would.

I was turning to go when something dropped from the ceiling. Upon landing, it braced into a crooked handspring, vaulting through the air to block my path.

His skin was a pinker shade, but still clearly a demon like the rest of them. He wore a jacket that seemed to have a number of locks across it, fitting it tight to his stick-thin form. It twisted up to his jaw, where a mask with a curved slit served as his grin. But as he looked back at me, his eyes were grinning, too.

"It's wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!" The demon bounced up and down, holding my shoulders. "Astral, did you see? We have guests for dinner!"

"Wendell," Astral's voice took on a warning tone. "You know the rule."

Wendell backed away, the glitter gone from his eyes. "Killjoy."

"Sage,'' Taro grabbed my arm "Maybe we should just go along with this before they decides shooting us isn't a bad idea anymore."

"I don't care what he thinks!" I hissed back. Astral raised an eyebrow.

"Keep your voice down!" Taro squeezed my arm tighter. His voice dropped to an almost inaudible whisper. "Don't you think it would be easier to take them down from the inside?"

I tightened my jaw. He had a point.

"All we need," Taro continued, "is to keep in the demon's favor. Get a job serving their empire. Once we gain the power we need, we'll tear this palace down ourselves."

I shot Taro a sideways glance, then nodded slightly. The two demons were watching us closely. I turned my attention to Astral. "Fine. I'll bite. What is it you want from us?"

Astral smiled widely. "Only the most demonic value imaginable: bureaucracy. Would that suffice, human?"

With his head bent downwards, Taro chuckled. As he drew himself up, I caught a glitter in his eye: something disturbingly hungry.

"That's Lord Shamble to you," he cackled, "and don't you forget it."
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.
  





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Sun Mar 25, 2018 3:36 am
Europa says...



Kirsten
Amère


Getting in was easier than I thought it would be. All we had to do was blend into the crowd when no one was looking. Penny had said that once we were in the market no one would pay us any mind, but that didn't stop my nerves from tingling every time someone looked our way. Penny kept hold of my hand and I stayed close, but Hachi strayed ahead of us, staring around in wonder at the gathering crowd.
The air was hot and sticky to begin with, but in a square packed with people it was intolerable. The air felt almost liquid when I breathed in.
Penny lead us through the crowd toward the auction block. It was empty right now, but the sight of it still made me shiver despite the heat.

"This feels wrong." I mutter.

"That's because it is wrong." Penny pushed a well-dressed man out of the way. He glared, but didn't say anything. I scooted a little closer to Penny.

"But...this isn't allowed any more. Why is Lord Shambles able to get away with this?"

Penny let out a long breath. "It might not be allowed in our world Kirsten, but this place is different. It plays by its own rules. That's why we're doing this. Our job is to change those rules and make life better. For everyone." We squeezed out of the mass of people and stood in front of a tiny wooden stage. It looked a little pitiful considering what it was used for. At the moment, the only people near it was a soldier standing guard at the steps.

Penny nodded. "Good. We're right on time."

Hachi looked from her to the auction block. "Um, there's no one here."

"Exactly. That means Taro's newest slaves will still be on his ship."

"But doesn't that mean Taro will still be on Taro's ship?"

Penny smiled at Hachi sardonically. "Oh he'll be there. Napping in his quarters."

Hachi leaned closer to me. "Sounds like he has the right idea to me."

It might have just been the stress, but I giggled.

"Come on, you two. This is serious." Penny scolded gently, but I could see a little smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. "The ships are docked at the harbor just beyond here. There won't be many people to see us there, but keep a lookout for Shamble's thugs anyway." Without wasting another breath, she slipped off, dragging me along with her. I sped up to a jog, trying to keep up with her long strides until the mast of a giant ship loomed in front of us.

"Is that it?" I breathed.

"That's the one." Penny affirmed "The slaves will be kept belowdecks. We just need to get past the guards and make it back out without them seeing us. It'll probably be dangerous,"

"Awesome!" I heard Hachi mutter under his breath

"So if you two want to find someplace to hide while I go in, you can."

"And miss out on all the exciting stuff?" Hachi scoffed "You're joking."

I chewed my lip. "I...I'll go too."

Penny looked back at me with raised eyebrows. "Are you sure?"

I scuffed my boot in the dirt. "I know I'm not the bravest. But I don't want to just hide here while you're both risking your lives."

Hachi threw an arm around my shoulders. "That's the spirit! Let's go raid that ship!"
I offered him a weak smile, and let him drag me towards the docks.
Thinking back on it now, I think that's where all our problems began.
  





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Sun Jul 08, 2018 6:10 am
Chaser says...



It was the perfect crime, and victimless unless you counted Lord Shamble (we didn't). As I dragged Kirsten towards the ship, Penny grabbed one of the posters from the bulletin post.

"Today's grand sale - the Beast of Deva Straits," she read aloud, slapping the page for emphasis. "The strength of ten men, and burning red eyes that see beyond light."

"Sounds like a scary guy," I said, leaning over to see. "Hope we don't run into him."

"Au contraire," Penny replied while grinning, "he's our priority."

The crowd masked us pretty well as we approached the docks. Many ships lined the harbor, the slave buyers having piled out to join the throng. They gathered around an auctioning block that appeared to be a permanent fixture of the harbor, chatting as if it were a social event.

Kirsten was wondering the same thing I was. "Why are so many people buying slaves?" she asked Penny. "What does this place use them for."

Penny's face darkened. "They're farmers in the worst places, outside the town walls. Growing a bunch of stuff to send back over the sea to the demons."

"Why do you need a wall?" I chipped in.

"To keep the monsters out." Penny explained. "and to keep us humans in"

Kirsten gave a little squeak. "Monsters?"

Penny stopped and spun, facing the city behind us. "That's right. This land was infested with monsters long before humans set foot here. That's why they suck up to the government, hoping for some kind of protection. That's why the helpless are treated as sacrifices!"

A hint of a smile appeared on her face. "But that doesn't mean we have to accept it like that. I'll take on the whole world! The monsters outside the walls, and inside! Every last one of them," she vowed, the sea breeze rising behind her, "until this world is saved.

"And our first enemy," she declared, spinning to face Taro's frigate, "is right on that ship. Now, if you understand, find us a way onto that ship, before the guards spot me and-"

"Hey!" We turned to see the guards at the gangplank looking towards us.

"O-oh," Penny stammered, wilting. "Was I too loud?"

"Yeah, but it was really inspiring," I offered.

Penny drew herself up again. "Of course it was! Now, let's make the best of this situation." Saying that, she leapt off of the dock, grabbing one of the ship's mooring lines and climbing upwards.

The guards shouted and dashed up the gangplank, attempting to cut her off at the ship's bow. Realizing what had happened, I elbowed Kirsten. "Let's go!"

We ran up the gangplank while the guards flocked to the commotion. Penny poked her head up onto the deck to find six rifle barrels pointed at her. "...Good afternoon," she said, offering a winning smile.

Ten seconds later, they had clapped her in chains, leading her belowdecks. And in that time, Kirsten and I had slipped on board, taking cover behind the mast.

"Well, that was fun!" I said, grinning. "What do we do now?"

Kirsten stopped and thought for a moment. "If they're taking Penny belowdecks, they must be putting her in a cell."

"So maybe that's close to where the Beast is?" I finished the thought, nodding sagely. "I see, I see. Yep, that's our plan now!"

As the guards emerged from the stairs and retook their positions, Kirsten gestured to me. "Come on."

Kirsten slipped silently across the main deck, myself skipping lightly behind her. We tiptoed down the stairs and into a dim candle-light, a corridor of the crew's quarters. Faintly, a strong voice could be heard from below.

Kirsten stopped and put her ear to the floor. Understanding, I knelt down with her and listened. "I just made out the word 'justice'. It's definitely Penny," she said, glancing at me.

"Ooh, maybe we can hear the Beast, too!" I said, dragging my ear over to different spots.

Kirsten gulped and said nothing, but listened for it anyway. Suddenly, our eyes met as we heard the same sound: footsteps.

Kirsten dashed to her feet and grabbed me, shoving us both into the broom closet. I felt her trembling against me, and hugged her to supply warmth.

The door near the stairs opened.

"Agh, what a pain. That woman really wants to stir up trouble at a time like this?" A tall man with messy dreadlocks ambled down the hallway in a sleeplike daze. In his hands, he held a wig and powder, which he was dusting his head with.

"I'm a bureaucrat," he muttered, "I don't need actual problems." Sighing, he made his way towards the brig, entering a staircase at the end of the hall.

Kirsten was dead quiet. I opened the closet door a bit further and stared down the hall. "Who was that?"

"I have a guess, but..." Kirsten shook her head. "I don't think we were supposed to see that."

"Then I didn't see anything!" I declared happily.

With that, I grabbed Kirsten's hand and towed her belowdecks.

Penny was sitting in the cell, with her back against the wall, a cocky smile on her face. The overlarge wig standing in front of her could only be Lord Shamble.

"And you know exactly why I'm doing this," I heard Lord Shamble say. "My offer has expired, Penny. Cause any more trouble and you'll face consequences for the first time."

"Is that a threat?" Penny asked.

"Well of course it was." Lord Shamble replied impetuously. "what else could it be?"

Penny grinned. "A mistake, for one."

Lord Shamble sniffed. "I'm leaving you now. Rest assured, you'll be in good company," he said, looking over his shoulder. Kirsten whipped me around the corner, pressing flat to the wall.

"But do forgive his silence," Lord Shamble continued, walking away. "My Beast isn't the most social chap."

I held still for a moment, then peeked around the corner. "Okay, he's gone. What do we do now?"

"You should run."

It was a deeper voice that had spoken in reply. Kirsten and I looked up to see a guard looming over us.

His suggestion must have been sarcastic, because in the next moment his arms were around our necks.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.
  





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Sun Oct 21, 2018 8:34 am
Chaser says...



Sage

I leaned against the cell door, tuned to the subtle sway of the ship in the harbor. In the cell opposite me, candlelight flickered against a pitch-stained curtain, grasping at the hunched shadow of the Beast. Behind me was nothing but noise.

"I know that, deep in your heart, there is good. Good enough to free us and these prisoners!"

"So who's the king of this place, huh? What's he look like?"

"And when revolution comes, you'll know you did the right thing!"

"Bakuma says hello!"

I tugged at the neck of my guard's uniform. It was a strong red to match the tone of our demon overlords. The darkness rusted it to brown, and the whole thing felt itchy. It felt strange, to play the part of a soldier, furniture to the AI's world. Taro was more adept at it than me, and he seemed adamant that the way to scour the place was to infiltrate its rule. I could only hope this was true.

The Japanese boy twisted in his wall shackle. "Can we meet the Beast? We came all the way here!"

"Yeah, and that's illegal," I shot back. "Now shut up."

Penny Alvarez chuckled darkly. "What is the goal of the law, and what is truly right? Tell me, do they always align?"

"I don't see how a warmonger like you could tell."

Penny backed down, seeming genuinely hurt. I turned away, scowling. Taro had brought all of the other slaves out of the brig, so he wouldn't be long to return for the Beast. Until then, all I had to do was wait until the disgusting proceedings had finished.

The other girl hadn't spoken, likely out of fear. Maybe she was too afraid to make her own decisions. But where did that leave me?

"Trust me on this," Taro had said, money flashing through his hands. "If we win the support of the rich, we'll be that much closer to the Demon Lord."

It was the same with every other scheme he had, but still no word from Astral, and no sign of the Demon Lord. Weeks had passed since Taro and I had gained the favor of the Demon Minister, but it looked like our position was still just as hollow as Taro's smile.

I shook my head. Taro's approach was the better one, if this woman's state was any indication. I just had to believe that until the Demon Lord was defeated. And even then, what next? What could come next in a world like this?

My mind drifted back to what I had once told Elliot. "Wherever you are, do what you can for what you think is right."

I realized that I'd said it aloud, and turned back to see all three prisoners staring at me with glittering eyes.

"Wow!" The Japanese boy exclaimed. "So cool!"

"I had sensed a kindred spirit," Penny said, "And now I've found him!"

"Who were you talking to?" asked the last girl.

"Shut up."

I glanced up in surprise, because I wasn't the one that had spoken. Slowly, all four of us looked across the hall, to where the fabric was rustling. Slowly, a shackled form pushed past the curtain.

"You're too loud," growled The Beast.

He looked around my age, though gaunt from hunger. His skin was brown and dirtied, with red marks where he'd struggled earlier. He was leaned forward with a menacing expression, but was hunched awkwardly, the chains on his arms taut to the wall.

The boy waved in his chains. "Hello, Beast!"

"Oh. That's a new one, I guess." He chuckled angrily, sitting down. "Feels like home already."

I realized that he wasn't looking at any one of us in particular. The torchlight shone off of his dull white eyes.

"You can't see us?" I asked.

The Beast harrumphed. "More or less."

"So less, then?" the boy asked. Clueless insensitivity seemed to be his thing.

The Beast didn't have a retort, and just scowled.

Penny seemed confused. "What powers do you have, then?"

"I can sleep whenever I want," The Beast said, pointing to his eyes. "Except when people are too loud."

"What was the poster about, then?" the girl questioned. "That description of 'Eyes that see beyond light.'"

"The hell?" The Beast cocked his head. "That was a joke! Someone actually took that crap seriously?" He started to snicker uncontrollably.

"And now you're being sold into slavery!" the boy finished cheerfully.

The Beast stopped laughing. "Okay, screw that."

My hands shook. Was Taro this much of an idiot? Did he know? But even so, what would he have to gain from lying to the people?

I came to my conclusion. I tore the keys from my belt and unlocked the cell.

"All of you, get out of here. I'm sick of guard duty."

"That's it?" the girl asked, surprised. "We're free to go?"

I undid her shackles, scowling. "Take that blind grouch with you." At this point, the Beast was worth more as stolen merchandise.

Penny stood up, "I knew you would make the right choice."

"Don't mention it." I threw in a glare to emphasize that I meant it.

After a few seconds, the Beast was on his feet, rubbing his wrists. I led the party back up the stairs, stepping out to address the deck guards. Tossing a coin purse, I called them with me to collect their pay.

It was strange, the way they ambled towards me in unison, like a machine interpretation of grace. But watching the boy stumble and crash down the gangplank behind them, perhaps it was better that way.

I doled out the coins and instructed the guards to stay put, knowing they would likely flee in the event of a riot. Even so, I made my way down to the pier, and the crowd where Taro had upstaged the auctioneer.

"So you see, in the name of the Demon Lord, this slavery is wholly necessary." He flourished his arms and bowed to terse applause. Stepping off of the podium, he glanced at me as I approached.

I told him what had happened. His lips quirked for a moment, before settling into a thin smile. He struck a pose towards the crowd. "Attention, everyone!" he announced. "The Beast has been stolen!"

A murmur swept through the mass of people, each of them looking at the person next to them like they expected them to have The Beast hidden under their dress or waistcoat.

"Do you think they'll riot, Sage?" Taro whispered, an oily shine in his eyes. "Oh, they've got to."

But I looked out among the crowd, and all I saw was fearful staring. They must have noticed the way I was looking at them, because they grumbled and said nothing.

"I'll be on the ship," I muttered, pushing my way down the docks. On a whim, I turned my gaze up. At the end of the street, the four escapees were hustling around the corner. Even from far away, they looked full of life.

I sighed, turned away, and thought of buying some fruit.
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Wed Dec 05, 2018 2:42 am
Europa says...



Kirsten

"That was totally awesome!" Hachi sprung in the air, pumping his fist. "Do we get to do stuff like that all the--"

"No!" I cut him off, the thought of another adventure like this one making my stomach churn. "No more. Please."

Penny chuckled a little and I felt my cheeks flush.

"It's not funny!"

"I know. I know. It wasn't you, just..." She chuckled again. "Did you see the look on Shamble's face when that guard told him we were gone?"

This time Hachi laughed with her. "Yeah, it was great."

"Well actually," The Beast grumbled. "I was more focused on not dying, so--" He was cut off when his foot caught the edge of a cobblestone and he pitched forward. Penny caught him before he could fall and helped him get upright again.

"Watch out," Hachi warned him too late. The Beast turned his head slightly in the direction of his voice, still not looking directly at anything.

"What's your name."

"Hachi."

"I hate you." He said it so casually it might have been funny if Hachi hadn't looked like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.

I glared at the Beast before remembering he couldn't see me. "Excuse me, but didn't we just rescue you?"

The Beast didn't even bother moving his shaggy head. "No. You snuck on the ship, got caught, and then got lucky when the guard couldn't stand how annoying you were anymore."

Once again I felt my face heat up. I clenched my fists, trying to think of something to say, some kind of lecture like my mom would sometimes give me or my brother when we got into trouble, but nothing popped into my head. Instead, I grabbed Hachi's arm and pulled him ahead, away from Penny and the Beast.

Hachi trudged anlong beside me, eyes on his feet. Bakuma dragged along at his side, somehow looking as sad as his owner without having to change a bit.

This time, I knew exactly what to say. "I don't hate you."

Hachi looked up, some of his smile coming back to him. "you don't?"


"Do you think I'd say it if I didn't mean it?"

Instantly, the skip was back in his step, and Bakuma was swinging happy as ever. "Great! Then let's get back to the Inn. I'm starving!"

The Inn was just in the process of closing up for the noght by the time we got back. Just like the first day we'd gotten there, the floor was covered in peanut shells and fruit peels.

Penny stepped over a banana peel and barged through the door, waving jovially. "Honey, I'm home!"

The old woman cleaning the counter looked up. "Would you like dinner first, or a bath?" she said sarcastically.

Penny laughed. "If I'm honest, Mavis, both sound great right about now--" She stopped abruptly when her eyes fell on something laying on the back counter. A claw longer than my arm and sharp enough to make my skin crawl.

Hachi stared at it. "Cool!" he breathed. "Wanna take a guess at what that come from?"

Penny held a hand up. "What's this?"

Mavis moved past her. "You know what it is."

Penny wrenched her face into a scowl.

"You took one of his jobs again? You know you're too old for something like that!"

"Can't see any other way to keep the place kicking."

"I keep telling you. When the revolution--"

"Is all just talk." She snapped, adding "Don't touch that." without looking over when Hachi reached out toward the giant claw. "Way things are going, I'll be boxed and buried before you do anything anyway!"

"It's coming, Mavis. We just need time to prepare. Wait for the right moment."

"Right. And my pub needs money now, so you darn well better hope it comes before Taro comes back with another offer, or I'll be out there again like it or not."

I saw the muscles in Penny's jaw contract. She stared at the Mavis, maybe trying to get her to see the concerned look in her eye, but the old woman only moved on to the next table.

Hachi reached for the claw again, retracted his hand when Mavis, still not looking up, said "No." and asked

"So you just picked this up in the woods?"

"Oh yes." Mavis shook out her rag. "After I killed the Lychen it was attatched to."

I glanced at Hachi,not wanting to ask the question myself. He seemed to understand.

"What's a Lychen?"

That finally got her attention. She left the rag on the table and turns to us.

"You ever been into Death's Grove, kids?"

We both said "No"

"Well pray you never do. Everything in there from the tiniest creature to the ground under your feet would kill you in an instant if it had the chance, and if you venture in there, a Lychen would be the least of your worries."

Hachi bounced on the balls of his feet, eyes shining. "Then what'd be the most?"

I swallowed, clenching my fists to hide the fact that they were shaking.

Mavis went back to wiping tables. "Oh, hard to tell. there's an awful lot to worry about. Myrmals live everywhere underground there. A swarm of them would make a quick snack out of a kid like you. And if the Myrmals don't get you, a Lancewing might get the swoop on you. And if they don't get at you--"

"Mavis, stop it." Penny protested, clapping a hand on my shoulder. "You're scaring them."

"Then they shouldn't have asked." Mavis went back to wiping the table. "In case you were wondering, that Angel character showed up for you again. 'course I had to tell her you were out on daycare duty--Would you stop trying to touch that?!" this time she turned around to scold Hachi, who whipped his hand back and held his wrist, nodding vigorously. Mavis snatched up the claw and moved it to a high shelf, then hung the rag on the edge of the counter. Well, if I'm too old for the Grove, I'm too old to stay up finishing these tables. I'm going to bed. Finish the job before you head up Penny, will you?"

Penny sighed. "Only because I love you."

Mavis gave a good natured grunt as she turned to the stairs. "Always with the romantics." As she climbed them, I heard her mutter to herself sarcastically, "Oh, be still my aching old tired heart."

The three of us watched her go until we heard her door close.

"Well she's fun." I jumped at the sound of the Beast's voice. He'd been so quiet I'd entirely forgotten he was there. Now he was behin the counter, turning a mug in his hand like he was examining it.

"You might be the most silent person alive."

The Beast shrugged. "It's a gift."

I nodded a little, and leaned closer to Penny. "So what do we do with him now? Lord Shamble will be looking for him."

"I may be blind but I'm not deaf!" The Beast cut in loudly.

I fixed him with a scowl that I knew was lost on him. "Well, it's true!"

Penny squeezed my shoulder. "She didn't mean to offend you--should I just call you Beast?"

The Beast folded his arms "I like Avril better."

"Right. Avril, Kirsten's just worried we'll be captured again. For now, we'll put you up in a room here. We'll figure out what else to do from there, okay?"

Avril shrugged but I found myself nodding, even though the plan did nothing to smooth down my rumpled nerves.

"Then that's settled." Penny let out a breath. "Now why don't we all raid the fruit box? It's on me."
  





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Sat Dec 22, 2018 3:27 pm
Europa says...



Sage

Astral was pacing again. As usual, he didn't sound angry as much as he sounded mildly annoyed, as if we'd managed to stain the carpet instead of lose valuable property. "Your only job" he sighed "Was to stand in one place, and stay there until the auction began. And somehow--I'm not quite sure how, but you managed--somehow, you found a way to do it completely wrong."

I'm sure he had more to say after that, but I tuned him out. It was nothing I hadn't heard before.

Taro spoke up. "I'm sure Sage did his best to guard the Beast, sir. The fact is, we're undermanned-"

Astral shot him down with a lazy glare, a sort of withering look that reduced him to trash. "I don't remember asking for your counsel, worm. I placed Sage in charge of the city, not you."

Taro grimaced slightly and started again. "Even so, my lord, we have been without proper guidance. Perhaps if we could meet the Demon Lord-"

"Sage, could you shut him up?" Astral asked. "His voice, it makes me pity him."

He looked at me as though expecting me to win his favor. I stepped away, heading for the door. "I'm not your peon," I called over my shoulder.

"Maybe not." I was faced away from him then, but I knew he was smiling. I shuddered in disgust and pushed out the door. It sealed shut with a clang, powerful yet understated as Astral liked it. It was disguised as a regular room in the soldier's hall, a place no one would think to find the demon minister. I walked down the hall to put him and Taro behind me as quickly as possible.

The master barracks were a stone complex without windows, full of narrow halls and the smell of soil. Demons were patrolling, as per the arrangement of protection, but a large number of the soldiers here were human, and that same large number could often be found on the brink of death.

Even before I reached the infirmary doors, I could hear the screaming. The sound twisted my insides into knots, and I found myself speeding up to a run. I skidded to a halt as a gargoyle-like creature in a soldier's uniform strolled around the corner, narrowly escaping running into him. He studied me with stony eyes, and spoke to me in a gravelly, oddly echoing voice.

"You busy, human?"

I shook my head. "Not anymore."

He jabbed a claw behind him, to the room where the screams stemmed from. "In there."

With that, he pushed past me, and I squeezed into the infirmary.

There were only a few soldiers laid out on the cots, but the state they were in was enough to make nausea worm its way into the pit of my stomach. Already a few had the sheets pulled clear over their heads, and I knew it was no use worrying about them anymore. The one doing all the screaming was so burnt he could have been nothing more than an open sore, the doctors were gathered around him, but all they seemed to do was watch.

"Horrid, isn't it?" I turned to see the locked demon I'd seen on my first day perched on a stool by the bandages. "Who could do such a thing to these beautiful creatures?"

I stuttered. "Wendell, right?"

His eyes slid towards me, the edges of his muzzle crinkling with smile lines. "That's me! Oh...I'm sorry. I'm in a poor mood right now." He looked back at the burn victims. "Sadly, our demons get a little trigger-happy in the field. And when they're not careful, this happens. Can you believe it?"

I stared down, gritting my teeth. "No. I can't."

"After all," Wendell rasped, rocking forward so that his face was an inch from mine, "Humans are my delectable treasures. These ones are so overcooked, don't you think?"

His stool overbalanced, and he fell forward, faceplanting on the ground. But as he pushed his skinny limbs beneath him, there was this hungry laughter in his body that chilled me down to the bone.

I stepped over Wendell and approached one of the more conscious victims. "Here, let me help you," I said, grabbing some water from the cart.

The soldier shook his head vigorously. "Not water," he croaked, "money. Got - to work." He tried to get out of bed, but fell back as his scabs cracked in a sickening fault line.

"Hey!" I shouted, pushing him down as he tried again. "It's alright! I'll work for you. Just take it easy. Okay?" I said, nodding to get him to agree.

The soldier tried to nod, but found it too painful. "Yes," he relented. "Please."

I nodded, and kept nodding as I backed out of the infirmary. My mouth felt dry, but I shook the feeling away and made my way out of the barracks, across town to the outpost at the edge of Death's Grove.

It was nothing more than a solid stone cube at the edge of the forest, but the sight of the unnatural blackness between the trees was enough to make it look menacing. I swallowed back my nerves and tapped my knuckles on the metal door.

It opened, and a demon slumped into view, looking just-woken. She had on a straw hat that was ill-fitted to her horned head. "Fresh men?" she droned, glancing around.

"Fresh man," I replied.

The demon shrugged and gestured for me to enter. The cube was a pillbox with some crates of food and a rifle stock. A rectangular opening looked out on the woods, where light seemed to be sucked in and blotted out. A few trenches had been blown into the ground by the demon's careless barrages.

The demon slouched in the chair, seeming annoyed that I was around. She raised a finger, and a pencil-thin bolt of demonflame lanced out of her finger, striking a tree at the edge of the woods. Instead of catching fire, it dispersed harmlessly into the moss.

She breathed out a sigh, glancing at me again. "Did you want to play garvata or something? I've got some money."

"No thanks," I said, walking over to the rifle cabinet. I weighed a musket in my hands. "Do you really defend the gates with this few people?"

"We get more visitors from the inside than the outside," the demon said, "adventurers scavenging in the wood. You'd be surprised how few monsters come out here."

"And you can't destroy the Grove?"

That hit a nerve; the demon grabbed her arm and shifted. "Demonflame doesn't work on the rotmoss. We can't do anything to them in there. I guess that's why we're working together?"

"Doesn't seem that way to me," I replied. "I'm the only one left; so you must go through soldiers fast. Do you send them out to keep the monsters still so you can fire?"

"Well, we reward the foot soldiers," the demon said, scratching her head. "Something like a bravery bonus for them, or their next of kin if they, uh, you know."

I did know. The image of the infirmary rose in my mind's eye, and I shook it away. If I wasn't going to end up like them, I couldn't afford distractions. I sat down on a box, keeping a watchful eye out the window while my demon partner napped. It wasn't long before the sultry heat of the afternoon had me on the edge of sleep as well. I kept the butt of my rifle wedged uncomfortably in my ribs to try and keep myself awake, but felt myself slipping into sleep regardless.

When my demon partner finally shook me awake, the moon was glowing in the sky, an odd off-gold color. I rubbed my eyes. "Why didn't you wake me up sooner?"

The demon drummed her pointed nails on a crate. "Nothing was happening. But just now I saw a pair of humans go into the Grove."

She didn't sound nearly as worried as I felt. I stood up, hoisting my musket. "Then come on."

The demon wavered, fidgeting with the front of her shirt. "Well, actually..."

"You were hoping I would go in by myself." I finished flatly.

She was silent for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Yes."

I sighed, running a hand over my face. at this point I was surprised I hadn't seen that coming. "Alright, stay here. I'll see what I can do."

Hopefully they hadn't gone far. Death's Grove always seemed to twist the space around it, the moss sucking in the moonlight, bending it to the wicked shapes in the trees. It would take a miracle to come out uninjured.

The musket I held wasn't a great comfort, but it was likely more than what the adventurers had. New Belial's poor was always trying to cash in on Taro's expedition jobs. We didn't keep count of how many failed to come back; Taro knew there would be a riot if we did. What purpose could he possibly have for sending people to this hell? Whatever it was, it had to do with the beasts inside the Grove.

I realized I'd been standing in place for a while, looking at the forest. The demon caught my gaze. "It's alright if you're too scared," she said. "No need to fight the powers that be."

I swallowed and shook my head. "What's your name?"

She hesitated. "Favrie."

I breathed out. "Favrie? I'm Sage. Please understand that I will never, ever stop fighting. Not you, Taro, or the Demon Lord."

That resolution carried me out the door, across the moonlit battlefield, and to the edge of Death's Grove, where it shattered to a million pieces. The view hadn't changed from when I first came to this world. It was life in the darkest way, moss bubbling like foam on a black ocean. I sucked up a breath of clear air and dove right in.

Luckily for all three of us, it didn't take long for me to pick up the sound of an excited voice bouncing through the trees. My spirits sank as I recognized it belonged to one of the kids from the ship. I sped up, following the nonstop chatter until I caught sight of them through the trees. Just as I had expected, the japanese boy from the boat was skipping along through the thick carpet of pine needles. All my hopes that he might make it out of this place alive were dashed when I saw the other kid, the quiet girl, creeping along behind him. This time she was positively vibrating with nervous energy, but she pressed on with her friend in a way that almost impressed me. I stepped out from the cover of the trees.

"You shouldn't be here."

The girl gasped and whirled around like she expected something to eat her, which she might have. Her friend was much more relaxed. He looked over his shoulder, and smiled when he saw me standing there.

"Oh, it's you. Hello!"

I ignored his cheerful wave. "Death's Grove is off limits to humans."

The Japanese boy tilted his head to the side. "But you're here."

"Yes, but--" I cut myself off, took a deep breath, and started over. "I came in here to tell you two to leave. This place is dangerous."

"we know." Hachi didn't even lose his smile

"I'm serious. A couple of kids like you could get seriously hurt, or worse. I don't know how much Lord Shamble is paying you--"

"How did you know about that?" This time it was the girl who spoke. Her voice didn't lose its quiet tremor, but there was enough iron underneath to impress me.

"You're not the only people he's sent in here." From their gazes I could tell they knew already, but I pressed my point. "This place has killed more people than the demons ever could. Every time we think we know something about Death's Grove, it twists us around by our necks. It'd take a freak of nature to come in and out unharmed."

The boy turned to the girl. "Hear that, Kirsten? Mavis is a nature freak."

I decided to ignore that tangent. "Your name is Kirsten?" I said, pleading into her eyes. "You two need to get out of here. Whatever you think you're accomplishing here, it's not worth it."

The woods seemed to press in around us. A sourceless wind blew past, stirring up the vines in the trees like alien tendrils.

Kirsten looked around and shivered, but glanced at me again. "Hachi, what do you think?"

The boy had raised his arms, letting the wind blow his shirt about. "I think we've got no other way of doing anything in this world. If that's how it is, wouldn't it be better to take this risk?"

Kirsten and I blinked. "Hachi?" Kirsten said.

He lowered his arms, smiling. "What? Oh, I was spacing out. Anyway, let's make some money!"

The wind picked up, blowing harder as I shouted. "You're still not listening!" I roared, dampened by the dark of the Grove. "Swords will do nothing against a Lancewing. This musket couldn't put a dent in a moss monster!"

"A mosster," Hachi whispered.

The forest exploded in rage all around us. "Again, that's not the point! I'm trying to save you, so if you want that to mean anything, you need to get out of this grove while you still-" A cluster of vines splashed against my back, wrapping around my neck and pulling me into the trees. Blindly, I swung my musket in the direction I was being pulled and fired. The shot pitted into wood at the same time I saw what was holding me.

It was an oak tree, enthralled by some magic of the Grove. It's limbs were moving in a jarring, mechanical way, branches crackling out like wood-encased lightning. A single, looped vine hung from each branch, snatching at my exposed limbs. Closer to the tree, I could see that some of these branches were filled with shriveled humanoid shapes. Bones were scattered around the base of the tree.

That was the fruit that this tree bore, no, hunted from the adventurers that passed. This was a tree of the hanging dead.
  





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Wed Dec 26, 2018 4:44 am
Europa says...



Kirsten
The soldier's surprised yelp had hardly cleared from the air before the vines started creeping towards us. I started to scramble backwards, be Hachi was still scanning the treeline for where the soldier might have flown off to.

"Hachi..." I started to warn him, and then he backed up too far. I shrieked as the tendrils of the tree lashed around his neck, tightening to a vice. I lunged forward, catching him around the waist before the tree could pull him up into its branches.

I dug my heels in, scrabbling against the leaves. "Hang on!" I shouted, trying to tear the branches loose.

Hachi's eyes were bulging out, his arm flapping at his side. All I could do was hold on, even as the tree tightened its grip. "Hachi, stay with me!" I shouted, trying to hook my foot around the side of a tree.

"Krr!" Hachi cried, his hand hitting his thigh repeatedly. I glanced down and realized - he was hitting a rectangular shape in his pants pocket.

On instinct I grabbed it out, and Hachi smiled; then he was ripped away from me, flailed by the Hanging Tree as he was pulled closer to its body.

I chased after him, my first grab only flirting with the tips of his shoes. I swallowed my rapid heart rate and tried again, this time catching his ankle with one hand.

"Kirsten!" I looked up. through the hanging branches and the tears swimming in my eyes, I could see the soldier high above us, suspended by his waist. "You have to hit it! Look for a weak spot!"

The tree dragged me a couple of steps forward before I dug myself into the ground again. My other hand fumbled with the book, trying to hold it open with my thumb. Mavis's curved handwriting covered the pages, names of every Death's Grove monster she'd told us about and more beyond. My frayed spirit lifted a little, and I began clumsily tuning the pages, frantically scanning them for what I needed. Suddenly I was blindsided by a jagged sketch that took up most of the page, scrawled limbs with noose-like vines.

I find it easier to recognize and avoid the Hanging Tree than fight it, the page began. But if I had to fight it, I suspect I'd find a weakness in the vines. They seem to function as arteries for the tree. Vines, veins. Haha. But really, an explosive or cutting attack to that place should make it recoil enough for an escape.

I nearly read all of it twice, trying to make sure I knew what I was seeing. "Where's your gun?" I called to the soldier.

"Dropped it!" he yelled, the sound of his words whipping across the sky along with his body as he fended off the vines at his neck. "Should be by the base!"

I looked where he was indicating and my heart sank: There was the rifle, nestled in the bones at the base of the Hanging Tree.

Hachi looked at me and gave a thumbs up, then quickly grabbed back at the vines as they tightened further. His eyes began rolling back in his head, and suddenly he started kicking out with the foot in my grasp. He needed me to let go.

I took a tiny forever in the space of that decision, Feeling panic tighten my grip. Then I looked up at Hachi's face slowly draining of color and it seemed like something inside me understood. My fingers slacked. Hachi slipped away from me. As he was pulled into the tree, the pressure was taken off of his neck, enough for him to shout, "You've gotta save me now! You can do it!" And then he was in the thick of the vines, overwhelmed by their grip on his limbs.

"Kirsten!" The soldier swung low above me. "Tell me this thing has a weakness!"

"The vines!" I called up to him.

He gave me a look. "The vines," he scoffed, and bit down hard into the next one that reached for him.

The tree's movements jolted, shaking him vengefully. The soldier yelled as the branches wrapped around him, twisting him like a rag. Hachi was giving hearty jerks in the crook of the tree, fighting hard to keep his smile, but he began to have a sickly grimace as more vines attached themselves around his neck.

I don't think I chose to move so much as being forced in at the last moment. That'd explain how ungodly stupid it was for me to do what I did next, walking, then running, through the arcing branches towards the base of the tree where the musket sat.

A branch lashed against my face, knocking me down. A wooden spike erupted from the earth as I rolled past it, the tree's roots attacking in tandem.

The knife from the Silver Mare's kitchen put in work, slashing at the vines as they neared. When the branches came, all I could do was take the pummeling and keep going.

The soldier's eyes were glazed over with exhaustion; Hachi wasn't moving. The Hanging Tree was now focusing all of its efforts towards me, streaks of wood and vine converging on a single point. The path forward was completely blocked off, and I felt my heart lurch from my throat to my mouth.

I grabbed a femur from the ground and started whacking at everything. My bone-club collided with one of the bodies hanging from the tree, sending it spinning. I thought I heard it moan, but I really didn't want to hear anything right then.

The vines whipped away from me, trying to protect their food source. It was all I needed, because the next thing I knew I was sitting at the base of the tree, the soldier's rifle in my hands.

I crouched around the base of the tree, trying to get a clear shot on the vines holding Hachi. I tried to remember how a rifle worked from history class. "Pull the hammer back, brace the stock, steady the aim," I rambled under my breath as time ticked away. "Fire!"

The shot cracked into the branch just above the vines, chipping away a large piece. The tree, sensing the pain, got even more frenzied. Suddenly Hachi's body was flipping around in every direction. Not Hachi's body - Hachi. I had to believe he was still alive.

The vines were flying around like darts, trying to find me in every inch of space. I aimed carefully again, trying to see what I would hit. The branches, the vines, Hachi, the vines, Hachi, the branches, Hachi-!

A stream of purple light flashed up past me, and in the time it took me to feel the heat against my cheek it struck the branches. The light carried through the vines, giving it a faint purple glow before the Hanging Tree shivered and went limp. The soldier crashed through the leaves landed on his back with a grunt, Hachi dropping near him, still unmoving.

I choked back a sob and rapidly crawled toward him, dragging him far away from the stunned tree and holding him close. All I could do was stare at his pale, still face and hope for life. For a moment, everything else faded out of existance.

I'm not sure when, but at some point, the soldier sat down next to me and rested a soft hand on my shoulder.

"I'm so sorry..."

He fell silent when I shook my head, unable to keep a couple of tears from escaping my eyes. I laid Hachi down in my lap and shook him, trying to hold on to the crumbling hope that he'd respond.

"Wake up..." I whispered. Maybe my voice would change things. If he could just hear me...

I stopped shaking and his body went still, I watched for a change in his expression, a twitch in his fingers, anything that would tell me everything was okay as the pressure built in my chest, until the strain was too much and I collapsed into tears, clenching my fists in the fabric of his shirt, hunching over him until I could feel the puff of his breath on my face.

His breath...

I opened my eyes to find myself staring into his, deep brown and wide open. He blinked rapidly, and I could almost track the progress of the blush as it spread from his ears to the rest of his face. I quickly sat up and wiped my eyes. Hachi slowly reached up and poked at his bruised neck.

He managed to croak out a hoarse "Woah..." before the full force of what had happened finally sunk in. I lurched forward again and scooped him into a hug. Hachi tapped me on the shoulder.

"Actually I think I've been squeezed out for the day."

"Sorry," I gasped, letting go. Once again I battled back tears. "I'm just glad you're alive."

"Yeah." He rubbed at his neck again. "I knew you'd save me."

It was like he'd dropped a rock into the pit of my stomach. I picked up a pine needle and wound it around my finger. "I didn't do anything but make it worse. Someone else attacked the tree, right over..."

I trailed off as I pointed. There was nothing but a patch of empty ferns.

The soldier stared at the empty space before folding his arms and smiling. "Thanks, Favrie," he murmured.

"Anyway," he continued before I could ask, "You need to get out of here now. I can grab whatever you needed and meet you by the entrance."

"You can do that?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe not, but I feel like paying this forest back a little for what it just did. It'll be a quick run, anyway."

"Like groceries," Hachi croaked.

The soldier smiled. "Yeah. So what do you need?"

I'd nearly forgotten the job items on the poster. The idea of making a living from a place like this seemed so foreign now. "A Lychen tooth...some rotshrooms...a flower."

"Ba-ma," Hachi added.

The soldier raised an eyebrow. "Ba-what?"

Hachi shook his head, sitting up. "Bakuma," he repeated, looking around. "Where - where's Bakuma?"

"Ki-ki-kwee!" A bizarre squeak made us look toward a hickory tree, where an animal was perched in the tree. It was round-shaped, with huge white eyes looming out of a mussed cloud of fur. Its teeth were strangely flat for a beast, seeming human when it grinned. Its tiny claws were working at the ear of a black-and-white teddy bear, which it dangled beneath it.

"Bakuma!" I heard Hachi cry, and he was on his feet and sprinting towards the animal. The beast grinned at him and sprang backwards off of the branch, heading deeper into the forest.

"Kid, wait!" The soldier was up and running too, before stopping slightly, hesitating. "You need to leave, now," he said, turning to me.

"I'm not just leaving him!" I said, springing to my feet.

"He's probably fine!" the soldier shot back. "I can catch him before he runs into anything else. But I need to know that you're out of these woods first!"

"Do you really think that I can abandon you now? Hachi and you?"

He leveled my gaze. "Yes. I do."

He turned his back on me. "Get used to surviving while I'm around, Kirsten. Oh, and my name's Sage. Alright?"

But his cool words were wasted on me, because I was looking at Mavis' book on the ground, which had fallen open as Hachi had run by. It had opened to a page with a very familiar furball shape drawn in.

I showed the page to Sage, and he immediately blanched. "Alright," he said, "we're going in after him. Stay close, and don't eat the mushrooms."

The two of us sucked in a breath and charged full-pelt deeper into Death's Grove, trying to find Hachi before it was too late.

I've only heard stories of the Devi, the book had said. I can say from them that it never poses a direct threat. But of all the horrors that I've known in Death's Grove, the Devi is the only one that is cruel.
  





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Mon Feb 25, 2019 12:11 am
Europa says...



Hachiko

I know it was dumb. But Bakuma was the one thing I'd brought with me to this world, and I'd die before I let some matted cottonball take him away!

I yelled that last part up at the Devi, who just sort of flipped around and grinned. It was bouncing through the trees with no idea of up or down, leaping branch to branch without losing speed. On the uneven ground, it was all I could do to keep up.

I feel like I passed a lot of things that would have killed me if I'd been any slower. Once, these sort of purple-lipped toothy threshers shredded their way out of the ground, aiming for my head. Some of them collided mid-air as I ducked and kept running.

The Devi kept looking back, like it was making sure I was keeping up. If it wanted to make me mad, well, I was more tired than anything.

"I'm starving," I mumbled after a while, collapsing against a tree. I'd left all our food in the pack with Kirsten. The Devi stopped a few feet ahead, looking back while dancing with Bakuma in its paws.

I usually only slept with Bakuma, but it was fine if he was just over there, too. That was how I'd entered this world, sleeping with him. That was how they'd put me in, without warning or explanation. Father; was he-

I pulled myself upright. I was feeling the entire world around me, the forest of the AI. My eyes rolled around in my head, gears stuttering behind them. Then, I laughed.

"Whatever!" I said, bouncing towards the Devi. "If I'm dead, then this'll all go my way eventually. Right, Bakuma?"

The Devi jolted a little; Bakuma nodded in its grasp. I nodded too, tracing the purple ring around my neck. "It's alright. Here, death can't be real. That's the paradise Ark Imperium seeks.

"So you two take care now!" I said, posing with a peace sign over one eye. "I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

I faked a quick step towards the Devi, who rocketed into the trees. I watched it go with a slight smile. The creature would wait up for me; right now, I wanted to explore the forest.

My hands brushed over the fluorescent plants, caressing the leaves and pulling back when they sliced at me. I ducked as a pillar of light shot from a flower bulb, burning a hole in the tree near my head. Eventually I heard the sound of a waterfall.

It was a downhill rapid of black water, pulsing into a river that twisted towards the ocean. There allwere two human shapes standing near the curtain of the falls.

They were naked, probably because of the fur. They looked a bit like werewolves, but I didn't have Mavis's book with me to clarify. I watched as one took an armful of the river moss and smeared it all over themselves like soap. I could make out their mouths moving,speaking in a language I could make neither heads nor tails of.

I moved without breathing, looking close into their faces. They were oddly human, weirdly flat and intelligent, and when their mouths opened, their many teeth flashed wickedly. The sight reminded me of our list of items, and I rummaged around in my brain for a plan. It didn't do much good,because before I could think of one that wouldn't get me killed, the Lychens finished and began to lumber off. One turned towards me, and I jumped back and ducked deeper into the woods before it could see me.

I spent a little longer scampering through the woods, dodging killer plants, and before long their footsteps reached me, soon accompanied by voices.

"How could it just disappear like that?" Kirsten's voice was easy to recognize, followed by Sage's much stronger one.

"What we should be worried about is the fact it was alone."

There was a long silence after that, where Kirsten must have looked nervous, because the next thing Sage said was "Hey. He might still be alright"

I tried to move in the direction of their voices, but stopped when they began to get fainter. I turned in the opposite direction, listening harder.

"We just need to keep going. As long as we stay together"

"I know."

there was an odd pressure building up in my head now, filling my ears with a grating sort of ring. Sage's and Kirsten's voices started to get louder again.

"Trust me, everything is going to be fine. I won't let anything touch you."

"You promise?"

"I promise. I won't leave you for a second."

I finally pushed my way through the branches. Kirsten and Sage had their backs to me, staring into the dark between the trees. As I came closer to them, the ringing in my ears grew until it split my head.

"okay" they both said together. They weren't even looking at each other.

"I'm coming, Elliot."

"I trust you, Leon."

they both started moving foreward, perfectly in step but not aware of each other at all. The shrieking in my head was growing unbearable now, pounding against my skull. I tried to run to them, but slammed my shoulder against a tree and fell. When my head hit the ground, I suddenly saw where the sound was coming from.

The cave twisted a screeching rhapsody from its mouth. The stones of the hill seemed slanted towards the opening, almost pulsing to the beat of the noise. Sage and Kirsten were nearly at the mouth of the cave, somehow hearing voices from that whirlpool of scraping metal.

"Guys, I'm here!" I said as I stood up, my eyes watering from pain. "Come out of that cave! Guys-!"

Midsentence I wiped my eyes, and saw that the stones of the hill had shifted and changed color, and were now a blistering red, and the cave was a spiral of twisting metal, and they were actually teeth, the hill was a face, and the stones were eyes, and they were aimed hungrily at Sage and Kirsten.

I screamed. The cave-thing screamed louder, though, and it began to lurch forward, threshing the earth down its gullet.

Kirsten looked up into the red light of its eyes and smiled. "Leon, I'm coming."

I'd like to say the next thing I did was careful and well, planned, but I'd be lying. I dragged Sage off of his feet, using him to bowl Kirsten over as we all toppled to the side. "Get up!" I screamed, the pain inside my head all but forgotten "We need to go!"

Sage shot up with a snarl, brandishing his gun. "That was a dirty trick," he said to the oncoming maw. His bravado met reality, though, as the cave continued to loom, and he quickly turned to me. "We should run."

I was on the ground, shaking Kirsten awake. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. "Leon," she whispered.

"Let's talk about it later!" I insisted, rushing her to her feet. "Really!"

But for some reason, her sad expression stayed with me as we ran away, a mutant cave gnashing through the terrain behind us. I would later learn from Mavis' book that this was called "The Cave of Broken Echoes," a monster who traps its prey with the voices of its loved ones. But all the while we ran, it would not stop screaming.

Lucky for us though, neither did I, and we hightailed it deeper and deeper into the forest. It was night by the time Sage let us sit down, after thoroughly vetting the area with his rifle.

Kirsten had kept her nose buried in Mavis' manual, looking for something good. She'd swatted five different mushrooms out of my hand before explaining to me that there were no good mushrooms. We were all tired and hungry, and Bakuma was still missing.

Sage lit a fire with a spark from his bayonet, keeping it guarded from the damp moss. "If I ever see that greasy furball again, I'm tearing it to shreds."

"It's called the Devi," I said, having been told by Kirsten.

Sage gave me a measured glare. "I'm talking about your teddy bear."

"Stop," there was something of a warning in Kirsten's voice as she said it . She was still staring at the ground, looking a little shaken. "it wasn't his fault."

Sage shrugged as if he'd understood that and looked around. "We just need to camp for a few hours until we've got some light in the sky. I'll take the first watch."

Kirsten and I settled back against a tree (a safe one) and watched the fire. Sage sat across from me, staring at us.

"I'll protect you, all the same," he said quietly. "But a place like this falls on all our shoulders."

Kirsten sat hugging her knees to her chest. "Thanks for rescuing me earlier. I didn't get to tell you before."

"Oh," I didn't know why, but her gratitude set my body on needles. "Yeah. I mean, you did it for me."

At that, Kirsten looked like she wanted to argue, but didn't.

We sat beside each other for a while, listening to the strange sounds around us. Luckily, none of them were too close. Finally, I looked back over at Kirsten. "So, who's Leon?"

Any relaxation disappeared as she tensed. She stared hard at where the fire used to be, onlye stealing a quick glance in my direction. "Hachi..." For a minute, she didn't say anything more, then she let out a long sigh. "I don't really want to talk about it."

I wasn't sure what to say to that. Instead of talking, I stared back at the moss. After a few heartbeats of quiet, she said "I'm sorry."

"No, it's fine!" I said it a little more hurriedly than I meant to. "I just..." Not knowing where else to go with that, I went back to staring out at the forest. After a while Kirsten laid down and fell asleep easily, but I didn't have Bakuma. Truthfully, I hadn't slept since we'd gotten to this world. All I could do was stare into the fire as moss slowly crept over it and choked it to death.
  








It's like being in love, discovering your best friend.
— Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity