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Reaper's Kiss: Corruption of Reality Series

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Corruption of Reality Series:

Reaper’s Kiss

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reaper’s Kiss Copyright © 2015 by Dawn Boyd

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

For more information; contact address [email protected]

Book and Cover design by Dawn.

First Edition: October 2015

Acknowledgements

My thanks and dedications belong to everyone who has encouraged me.

Cheers to new passions, adventures, and an everlasting imagination.

Cheers to being odd, strange, and wonderful.

Cheers to being unique.

Cheers to all.

-Dawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

A naive child stood tall against the deep colors of an approaching sunset. He felt shudders of air brush against his shoulder and he shivered. Vibrations erupted through the rusty metal and ancient wood he stood on, forcing him to inhale the smoky wind stirring up as the beast arrived. It smelled like bonfire wood chips. A squeaking groan traveled its way up his skeletal figure when the booming became louder and headlights were in view from afar. He planted his feet sturdily between two boards because it was his usual routine.

With his arms outstretched to the changing hues belonging to the city’s ceiling, he screamed out a battle cry of frustration, sadness, stress, and happiness all in one feeling. Words could not begin to justify the trials he had gone through that week. An army of wheels screeched against the beams. The headlights were blinding him now and black shadows began to dance across his vision as a result.

When he was facing the metal monstrosity, he jumped, ducked, and rolled carelessly into the surrounding bushes by the tracks. Tall, hot grass bit at his skin, which was an irrelevant problem compared to his unhealthy method of venting. A few seconds later, the mechanical beast passed; roaring and wheezing as white smoke blew from its top. He coughed up the dust in his lungs and scrambled to his feet. His arm reared back, waiting for an open train segment to pass and catch his occasional misery which had accumulated over the week.

It reminded him of a recurring dream he had, the one containing him and a mysterious man who would play baseball with him. His arm took the same position as it did when he dreamt this, ready to pitch. A row of empty carts was approaching the moment he ran up and chucked the invisible force out of his hand and into the segment. It flew past, carrying away what he believed to be all the issues he felt this week. They traveled with the train to a faraway place, even though in reality his hand was completely empty. He knew it, of course, but it made him feel better regardless. The smile he wished to reside on his face made an appearance once more. The powerful force knocked him off his feet again, but it was worth it. He had rid of his problems of the week, as he did every Sunday sunset before he moved from Baltimore to the capitol.

Well, at least that is how I had imagined it. My mind has drifted to a pair of eerie, greenish gold irises. They were the kind of eyes that kept leading me to dwell on the childhood they witnessed. My name hanging in the air was the only thing pulling me from memories that were not my own.

“Sorry, Vesper.” I whispered. His glare turned into his signature smirk.

“What are you thinking about?” He inquired with a rise of his eyebrow. “What’s in that ever so complicated mind of yours, Scarlett Parker?”

“Have you liked living in Washington?” I stammered.

“Of course. I’ve met you and we’ve conquered the years together. My mom likes it too, she has a good set of associates here. Where’s this coming from?”

“I was just thinking.”

He looked at me with that look. A look of paranoid worry that mutilated his face when I stayed in my head too long. I hated it. I hated it so much. I was fine, yet he and my father insisted I’d see a therapist again. They have always denied the truth. It was quite irritating.

“Just, nothing.” I muttered, quickly changing the conversation to avoid feeling abnormal.

“It’s already March.”  I blurted, hoping to distract myself from thinking about his past. I know he had only told me the story a few times, but I couldn’t help but think about a child on the tracks.

“Yes, it is.” He smiled sarcastically.

“I mean, give it a few more months and spring break will show, then prom, graduation…”

“That’s how time works. Are you nervous?” He asked.

“A little.” I said before we went back to silence. It was always an accepted, weird type of silence. I took the time to analyze a place I’ve already been a thousand times and a person I’ve known for most of my life. We sat in one of the best pizza places in our home, Washington D.C.

My leg had gone numb from resting in a torn black booth for the past hour, tearing apart a pizza with Ves. I gave up after three and a half slices, but he picked up the slack. He wiped some lingering pizza sauce from his chin and licked his thumb, leaving the faded scars on his hand exposed. They were scarred from fighting, or messing around with the trains, I wasn’t exactly sure. He caught where my line of view had settled and pulled both of his hands back under the table with insecurity. I looked away with shame.

I couldn’t help but overanalyze such a simple situation. School had clouded my thought process and I couldn’t seem to enjoy this Friday evening. The murky red paint and dusty salt and pepper tiles gave the restaurant just enough spark so one would say it was vintage instead of dirty. Vinyl records hung on the wall over the place’s jukebox which wasn’t even on, the radio was.

Vesper insisted on being himself, every so often glancing up to me before changing the conversation. His protectiveness was redundant, but appreciated. He flicked a cheese string off his arm and I ended up staring at the many freckles that littered his caramel color. Some were scattered randomly and spaciously across his arm and my favorite was on his cheek close to his lip. A few others caught my attention. He ran a hand through his short, tousled brown hair and leaned back into the plush seat with both his hands on the back of his head. His gaze locked with mine, watching me with intent suspicion before he heavily sighed. The liquid copper orbs that were his eyes looked content.  

“You’re so distracted sometimes, Scar. I wish you’d let me in your head more. It seems interesting in there.”

I gave him a tilt of my lips.

In one swift motion, he slipped his beanie onto his head. A short, stray hair tickled the edge of his eyelash. He moved it, before casting his gaze downwards.

Self-consciousness slipped into my thoughts, causing me to reflexively transfer my long, black curls into a ponytail while checking my reflection in the open window against us. Washington’s streets were full of people too busy to notice they were barely enjoying the night. The cars dominated the roads, flashing under the undying streetlights.  

“Vesper…” I asked with a secretive tone.

“Yes?” He looked up.

“Do you think it will ever stop?”

He stiffened at my dark turn in conversation and I automatically regretted mentioning anything.

“Scarlett.” He said sternly.

“Don’t do that.” I frowned. “Don’t “Scarlett” me please. I want answers.” My whisper grew harsh.

“Not in the middle of dinner. Not here.”

“Then when? The situation is getting worse, Ves!”

His hands pushed against the silver table between us and his knuckles turned white against its edge. His eyes were drained of the comical personality that systematically seeped through his veins. I could see stress eating away at him as well.

“I want answers too, Scarlett.” He leaned in until our noses skimmed as he spoke directly to me. “But not every question has an answer. Please,” he begged. “Not here. Not tonight, not ever again.”

“They won’t go away. Oblivion isn’t bliss, Ves.” I said quietly. He straightened, slipping on his jacket and gathered our trash to take to the bin. I stood to do the same. When he returned, the tension between us had already dissolved as it always did when we discussed this topic, but he seemed slightly bothered.

He led us out, holding the door for me to leave the warmth from the pizza ovens and step into the breezy night. I hopped down the short steps and steadied myself on the sidewalk when I felt Vesper’s hand on my shoulder, gently turning me around.

“Listen, I’m sorry I snapped. I know it isn’t bliss, but oblivion is my method of coping. We don’t all have your ability of pretending it is okay through escapism. Or distracting yourself with a normal life of dreaming that makes you forget the truth. Memories are permanent.” His words trailed into my ear.

Dreaming? I wondered. He kept using that word recently.

He let go of me, walked ahead a few steps, and stopped with his back away from me to offer his arm. I walked up to accept it, also accepting the comfortable silence which accompanied the gesture.

“Are you excited about tomorrow?” He asked when the quiet began to feel pressured.

“Mm.” I hesitated, “I guess.” I mustered up.

“Tattoos are milestones, we’ll make it special.” He smiled briefly, causing me to loosen up a bit.

“You’re coming?”

He sighed. “Yeah.”

“In all honesty, I am excited. I’m worried about the pain that comes with getting tattoos, but I’m sure I’ve felt worse while fighting. Sebastian seems calm, but I know he’s eager.”

Vesper kept his eyes on the sidewalk.

I already knew what I planned to get; it had some meaning in my opinion whereas Sebastian was getting his strictly for appearance. But I wasn’t one to judge, I loved ink regardless of a backstory. Either way, I believed it was a great early birthday present for both of us given our summer birthdays. They needed time to heal before water exposure.

He frowned at the mention of my brother and I wondered what was wrong lately given that they are best friends.

I thought about Vesper’s birthday earlier in March, and how we drove to Baltimore to go to a paint room. From there we all had the privilege of painting a white room any color with our hands while wearing nothing but our thinnest clothes. We watched the sunset at the harbor and got pizza nearby. The two of us were guilty as charged of being pizza people.

“Have you changed your mind about getting a new one?” I asked, remembering his desire for another on his eighteenth. His fingers automatically brushed the existing ones on his body before he answered. He held up his wrist with pride, admiring the Roman numerals on his right wrist and his Pisces fish in the form of Ying and Yang on his left.

“Maybe, but my mom already doesn’t like the fact that I have any now. Despite being eighteen, her rules still apply to my appearance apparently. Your dad is pretty great for knowing the shop owner. It’s cool he’s supporting it. I swear if-”

But then he stopped, leaving a lost assembly of words dangling on the edge of his lips, no longer allowing me a chance to see into his head.

“If what?” He didn’t answer. Maybe a comment about a father he never knew? My mind rushed back to the boy on the tracks before I abandoned my inquiry.

“I think you look nice. You always look nice.” I said in closure as we rounded the corner of a chalked sidewalk. It was about five minutes until we reached Alice’s where we would stay for the night. A few steps later, I found out that my head was throbbing, but I dismissed the pain.

“You okay?” Vesper looked wary.

“Never better.” I said, before stumbling and holding in the unexpected urge to vomit. My vision grew hazy and I blinked a few times. A piercing noise sounded in my eardrums. I felt slightly lost, however my vision soon came back.

………

 

“Are you sure you’re alright?” He asked again and I smiled.

“Yeah, just dizzy. It passed, I’m good.”

A scuffling noise caught my attention as we passed the space between a hotel and restaurant. I nodded to Ves, encouraging him to pull out our defenses from his bag.

“Another one already? We came across seven just this week in this area alone.” His knuckles tightened on his bag while he pulled out two decent sized sheaths concealing the weaponry. “Can’t we just leave it?”

“Better we rid of it before it crosses paths with an innocent who doesn’t know how to defend themselves. What if it mauls a kid? Jumps a family?”

He groaned and passed me a knife, an odd item to reside in a bag of a young adult. I watched him pick up an empty can and toss it into the alley, hitting the dumpster with a dull echo.

The creature swarmed out immediately, slithering at the can and hissing when it discovered the decoy. Seeing it, I understood Vesper’s resistance to talking about them. These things were ghastly and left haunting images in my mind, even when they weren’t in front of me.

“They may be increasing in numbers, but they’re still not too smart.”

He grinned and charged. His knife met with the transparent black skin of the creature and cut through the flesh, scraping against its interior skeleton that was visible from the outside. The knife was brought down again, taking out both of the creature’s coal eyes and causing a grayish, oily liquid to stream from them. Each one looked like animals Death created himself.

They resembled deformed, oversized lizards. They were the size of a human with the ugliness of a beast. The combination created an unworldly hybrid of some kind of thing. The disfigured bones were trapped behind its dark skin. Its body resembled a cocoon trying to hatch when it moved. I watched the two figures wrestle in the poorly lit alley. Vesper discouraged me with a prideful grin when I attempted to run up and assist.

“Both of us shouldn’t have to roll in the dirt.” His voice echoed delightfully in the alley between grunts. He might have denied their existence, but when they were here, he fought like a warrior.

“But you look like you’re having all of the fun.” I mocked. I pulled my knife out and moved forward regardless. I hated the idea of being a helpless partner.

The crashing impact and shock caused me to scream at the crushing weight that pinned me to the ground. My knees were awkward against the concrete.  It pushed against me, towering over my figure by a few feet. My shoulder blades rubbed against the fleshy being. There was a light crunch of foreign bones smashing into mine while my mouth tasted gravel. I looked to the side to see Vesper climbing onto the dumpster, running across, and leaping down to the ground near his target. He left a large vertical slash down its back. The thing made an unfamiliar noise before surrendering involuntarily and crumpling down in a heap.

“Scarlett!” He noticed after his attack.

I cried out. The pain of what felt like being crushed between two walls spread through me like wildfire. Instincts ignited inside of me when I tightly gripped the hilt, jabbed it behind me, and into the side of the massive body. The weight decreased enough for me to turn around under it in order to face a set of haphazardly placed teeth inside a monster’s mouth.

My long dagger was sticky with black blood when it emerged from the wound, but I kept jabbing upwards into the bottom of its jaw. Eventually it groaned and unleashed its claws against my stomach. Fleshy skin hung loose from the tear on my abdomen, but I was more concerned about an infection. There was no telling what viruses could transfer from different worlds.

In a swift, aggressive movement, I pierced the blade into its chest and was satisfied with the puncture wound it left. I then dragged the knife down to its tail, mirrored Ves’s attack, and then rolled from under it to avoid the pools of unnaturally colored fluids and organs that scattered to the ground. Its body shook violently as it tried to heal itself. The wounded skin invisibly stitched itself back together in slow motion. The creature spun and skidded against a wall, rearing up on his stubby hind legs.

At this point, my heart was thudding with a thrill from fighting, aside from being caked in dirt which wasn’t on my Friday night agenda. I confirmed Ves was in good condition when he threw the first creature’s limp body in front of me as proof of his success. He smirked at me after assessing I hadn’t been killed.

My prey had fallen on the ground from its upright stance and scurried toward me. Vesper ran from his spot in the back of the alley and pinned down the creature.

“Payback.” He whispered next to its skin. I sprinted and then transformed into a leap over the length of the first creature’s body Ves had thrown in front of me. Now, I was further into the dark alley and crouched in front of him as he held the monster down. The point of my blade thrust into the center of its skull and cracked it in half. More black blood spilled against our clothes mixed with bone fragments.

It jerked around dangerously, snapping its teeth at me and then trying to reach Ves. He rolled to the side of the creature. When it turned to him, he stabbed it in the eye and creamy black liquid poured down in small rivers once more. Its body went limp.

Vesper pulled himself up and then offered me a hand. My stomach cringed as I moved. He had a concerning set of claw cuts on his cheek that sat on top of a dirt smudge. It was a minor battle scar, but considering the way I’ve witnessed him move intricately to avoid fatal blows, I was used to being impressed. His body rose with slight breaths, sweat was already beading on his forehead.   Slowly, both odd heaps disappeared. They always did when we fought them. It never mattered whether I was with my brother, Alice, or Vesper. Every one of them shimmered and turned into a grayish ash before disappearing completely. None of them left a trace of a battle aside from the wounds left for us in reality. I had always assumed they were dead, but I knew the way they vanished confirmed just how unworldly they were. A puddle formed underneath the heaps of ash and swallowed them down into the earth.

I looked over to Vesper who stood but a few feet away from me with his fingers covered in black goo. He gave me a playful wave and a wink.

“Why are you smiling?”  I accused.

“Sometimes you have to make the best of things.” He crooned. My finger immediately found its way to my throat as I imitated vomiting. His clichés were expected.

“Playing with potential hazards isn’t making the best of things.” I slid by him and dropped my knife in a cover and then in his bag after wiping the blood onto my jeans.

“They’re more of a nuisance than a threat. Come on, let’s get out of here.” He gestured towards the alley opening and my feet quickly raced back onto the civilized street. My clothes were in ruins, but I was able to pull down my hood to conceal my concerned expression. He dropped his knife in his bag as well and dusted himself off, carelessly dismissing the red cut on his face.

I grabbed his hand to pull him to the closest empty bus stop. The night bus route had begun, but there was no one waiting. My hands pulled out multiple first aid tools from his bag including band aids, alcohol wipes, gauze, and salve. I began moving my palms against his face. Once the salve and bandage were securely on his cheek, he offered to clean the small ripples on my stomach. The alcohol burned in my wound and I was glad I decided not to get my ink there tomorrow.

I thought about the first time I saw a creature. It was at age eleven in the street with my brother, both of us were too young to understand the danger even after if hurt us.

Vesper’s cold hands slapped the bandage to my stomach and pulled my shirt down. The touch brought me back to the present moment.

“Thanks.” I nodded.

“Thank you as well.”

Only a minute passed before we were back on track to Alice’s. It was interesting how we could seem so okay after that fight. How you could never know what a person has gone through with just a glance at their surface features. How we took something scary and new and grew accustomed to the joy of pushing it away by suppressing it. But I wanted to know if this was endless, if we would be a gathering of broken people staying together in each other’s happiness while enduring hardship. All I’ve ever wanted was to stay happy.  I didn’t think this was the way to achieve it. With every ounce of happiness in my life, I felt pain twice as much.  

The noise of the fight was camouflaged in the quiet commotion of Washington’s heavy population. The sidewalks we walked on were empty, but I spotted couples and children walking across the road near a small children’s park.

We walked down multiple sidewalks and crossed a variety of streets before reaching Alice’s neighborhood and heading towards her place. It was lovely. The houses were spread out by huge lawns in variations of tans, whites, and yellows. Alice and her grandmother lived in a half brick, half white, two-story home. I gave Alice a call as to avoid waking her grandmother with the doorbell since she was probably asleep.

“Hello loves,” A sweet, cheery voice spoke. Her voice was a polar opposite to her scorching red hair that was thrown into a messy ponytail. I analyzed her dark fawn-like eyes and they were clouded with tiredness.

As usual, her gentle smile accentuated the light freckles spotting the flawlessness of her skin. Her small hands were clutching onto a Chinese takeout box for dear life, the smell wafting out of the door.

“Hello gorgeous.” I greeted as I slid by her and into the vast, decorated home.

“Hi Alice.” Vesper greeted. “We encountered two more.”

“Creatures? Are you two okay?” She exclaimed quietly and he nodded in response.

“But, of course. We’re wonderful. There’s no need to talk about it now.” He spoke in a hushed whisper.

Alice shrugged, her small figure hopping up the stairs and into her room. Ves and I followed, trudging up the steps with a less energized motivation to get upstairs.

“How is your grandmother?” I asked when I reached her room. Alice’s eyes turned down, along with the corners of her mouth, when she answered me.

“Okay. Lori, her caregiver, has been taking care of her as usual. She’s sleeping a lot. I wish I could help her with her exhaustion.”

“I understand.” I answered. “It’s beyond sweet of you to be spending time with her. I know you make her happy.”

Alice smiled in response and pounced onto her bed, food specks flying from the box.

“Are you two sure you’re alright? I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. You both look torn to the seam. Shower, now.”

I hadn’t had much to say other than a head movement of gratitude. Vesper nodded for me to shower first and I couldn’t help myself from hopping into her bedroom’s personal bathroom and bolting the door shut. I could hear Alice and Vesper as they talked about who cared what.

“Were the creatures the same size? Do they look the same?” I heard her bombard Vesper with questions and he answered them curtly.

The shower was the loveliest distraction of the night; my hands scrubbed away the mud stuck on my complexion. They continued to massage their way through my hair and then picked at the grime under my nails. My fingers followed the curves of my body and I desperately wished to be touched again. Being alone was hard, and this hunting problem added to my list of issues. Black hair fell against my collarbones, thick and wet under the hot water. I felt elated. After toweling off, I slipped into a pair of the redhead’s shorts and a T-shirt, pushed my nose hoop back in, and sauntered towards Alice’s bed before slipping in next to a curled up girl who had fallen asleep.

“I got three minutes of conversation out of her before she passed out.” Vesper smiled weakly. “Worrying for her grandmother is draining her.”

“I agree.” I said softly. “She’s strong though, we have to remember that.” I tossed my dirty clothes into a plastic bag and then into my sack to take home to wash later. Vesper frowned as he grabbed a towel near the bathroom door. Given that Alice was an only child, he lacked the choice of borrowing an outfit.

“There’s a pretty floral dress in her closet that’s your color.” I joked.

“Oh shut it.” He chucked a pillow at me. “I’ll wash up and text Sebastian to bring me something in the morning.

A deep, wet cough sounded down the hall from her grandmother’s room and we exchanged a glance. My smile faded as I contemplated waking her up for a glass of water, but Alice had always said it made it harder for her to fall back to sleep if she was woken. Vesper slipped into the bathroom and I curled up with a pillow pressed against my side. My overthinking was persistent alongside an ache from bruising skin. I snuck a peek at the purpling blue spreading under my flesh. The dreams I could hope for in my sleep were awaiting me, past the troublesome thoughts I had to travel past first before I could reach them and escape reality.

………

 

I woke up feeling warm, and although I showered, I didn’t feel as great as I should have. Vesper was on the opposite side of the bed, parallel to me. His head lolled to the side and he looked like a child when he slept. I smiled and tried to get out of bed quietly, but failed at not waking him up.

“Hey, there.” He croaked and straightened out a kink in his neck.

“Hi. Why haven’t you gone home yet? You know your mom probably worries about you being here all night. When did we get back here anyway? Did we tell Alice goodbye? Did you drive?”

“I don’t mind it and neither should she. It’s a little before midnight and you slept for a while. Do you want to take a shower?”

“A shower? I already showered at Alice’s. You were there. When did we drive back?”

He seemed to focus too much on a good answer. I thought it was rather simple.

“About an hour ago and you fell asleep.” He grimaced. “Your dad’s up.”

I looked down at myself, confused as to why I would put on the same clothes I fought in.

“We’re getting tattoos tomorrow, me and Seb. I think I’ll get some more sleep. You should check in on your mom, you don’t want her to worry.”

“She’s not the one I should be worried about.” He said softly as I curled back into my pillow.

Chapter Two

 

Dear Scarlett,

You’re getting worse and you refuse to read my letters to you. Your dad, Chris, and I thought it would help you, but you won’t even open them. It hurts. I’m your best friend. Just let me help you.

I will continue writing and documenting your behavior. I do not think you are insane. I think you are beautiful and unique. You’re just a little odd. However, every genius has their madness. I believe in more than just this world. I am a spiritual soul and understand that we are not the only beings on earth. There are other forces unseen to our eyes and I want to deem your behavior a gift and not a curse. Maybe you’re remembering ideas from a past life. You’ve been touched with some ability that is not accepted in our society and I will stand by your side. So here it goes, observation and analysis.

We went to the pizzeria today after surfing D.C metros. It was an ordinary day until after dinner. I wish I could join you in your head, but physically I cannot. During dinner your nose began to bleed as usual. Your skin looked ghost-like, your eyes rolled back briefly, and you disappeared into your mind again. I sat with you in an alley until you came back. I’ve been pondering different theories of what exactly happens when you leave, but you won’t work with me. Your convinced belief that your alternate world is real dampens your ability to tell me what you see and hear when you go.

You asked me at the table if it would stop. You were referring to the Demon invasion that’s an occurring problem in your alternate world. I said I didn’t want to talk about it because I was referring to whether these visions you suffer from would stop, not Demons. I don’t want you to think I’m encouraging your world, but I’m not denying it. I believe you are creating symbolism. I want to believe that the Demons in your world are the monsters you face in this one. I cannot be sure, but it is my theory. Only you know the truth as to what they represent.

I hate that you’ve lived a hard life, though I am happy we are friends now. We’re identical, you and me. I think we share a soul. Except you got the gift of splitting a world and I got the gift of being awkward. I think we need a redo on that wishbone.

You blacked out on the walk home. The bleeding became steady and you passed out. I told a stranger it was a medical issue and raced you back home because you needed care. It was a temporary diversion. Based on your recollection when you woke up, we fought creatures together, or so you called them. I want to say the Demons are the problems you face in this world and you’re able to show a new kind of physical strength to fight your fears and challenges that you can’t face in reality. I think it’s amazing that you can think of these elaborate scenarios, but there has to be a reason. What I don’t understand is the constants and variables in your other land. For instance, you say I’m there, and your dad, and Sebastian. We are all real people. But then Alice, she is not and I can’t figure out her role. I thought originally it was an ideal happy family that you wanted, thus the reason you created her and her nana as a model. But her parents are dead and her nana is now sick. They are not an ideal happy family. I wondered if you created her as a sibling figure, but you two are drifting apart and Sebastian has been ‘alive’ in your world.

I wonder if you’re changing things out of jealously. It was recently that you said Alice’s parents were dead in your story. About a year ago. And you’ve made her nana sick around last Christmas when she was fine the prior Thanksgiving.

When I brought you home, I put you to bed and spoke to Chris. He’s still dating Macy, who you are adamantly ignoring. I’m on your side regardless, I understand you do not want your father to move on from your mom. I’ll remind you later of the truth about her, but not in this letter. This letter is already going to have a heavy burden for you.

When you woke up, you passed your brother’s room and told him hello. I don’t know if you saw anything and you didn’t seem to be in your alternate world, but you still spoke to him. You think you both are going to get matching quotes and a piece of artwork tomorrow.

You guys wanted to get them now so they would heal before your summer birthdays and then we could take some trips to the beach or the mountains. But it’s you and me getting tattoos tomorrow, Scar. You kept telling me about the creatures we fought, our knives slicing them up in an alley. But it never happened. I think this is all a coping mechanism.

You claim we went to a bus stop to bandage each other up before heading back home. Then you slept and woke up again and spoke to your brother. That’s what happened today for you. For me, we got dinner, you passed out, and I brought you back home.

I saw you and your dad in your cozy apartment.

I saw no Sebastian.

Scarlett, I know you live in your head and have a great ability, but you need to know that in this world, there is no Sebastian. He used to be real.

Your brother died in the Twin Towers catastrophe in New York, on September 11th, 2001 when he was twelve.

 

Yours truly, Vesper.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

“Morning dad.” I greeted my father in the kitchen who stood next to Macy. He was cheating on my mom, who was coming back from her work trip soon. It made me upset with him. I sat on the stool in boy shorts and one of Sebastian’s shirts.

“Hello, Scarlett.” Macy said for good measure and I let the silence hang in the air.

“Sorry I took your shirt. Good morning,” I greeted my brother.

“What?” She asked.

“No one is speaking to you.” I growled.

Chris’s eyes grew wide and he asked Macy if she wanted to go out for breakfast.

“No, who’s she talking to? Is she wearing your shirt Chris?”

“Sebastian did the whore not hear that no one was speaking to her?”

Macy reared back as if she was struck.

“Sebastian? Chris are you going to let your brat of a daughter talk to me like that?”

“Dad, are you not going to defend us?” I scowled at her. She looked like an old fashioned pin up doll and it pissed me off that my dad cheated on my mom for someone younger. For someone prettier. My mom was gorgeous.

Vesper strolled in, stretching an arm up in a yawn and exposing his midsection. It was clear that he was sleepy, but he quickly analyzed the situation and stiffened.

“Don’t call me a brat.”

My arms were pinned against my back before I could inhale and I was forced to step back against Vesper who had restrained me.

“Really Vesper? Let me go, please.”

The whole room stared at me and I felt so small. The way my dad looked at me revealed that he felt embarrassed. Sebastian was the only one who was content.

“Sebastian?” I looked to him.

“Chris, who is she talking to?” Macy whispered. Chris was ushering her out of the room and into the hallway outside our apartment door. Vesper still had me in a hold.

“Would you let me go?” I said quietly. I shifted in front of him. His body behind me made me nervous in a new kind of way. I felt even more awkward when my cheeks began to burn red in front of my brother.

Vesper slowly released me and I quickly turned away from him to return to my spot on the stool.

“Do you have any homework?” He asked.

“No. You?”

“No. I was thinking we’d take a trip down to the Botanical Gardens in Virginia. Maybe check out Maymont. Or we can head up to Baltimore.”

“The Garden is beautiful. Are we taking your Jeep or Sebastian’s truck?”

“My Jeep. Sebastian can come. We’ll leave at noon.”

“Okay.” I smiled and watched Sebastian go to his room to get ready. He and Vesper had been talking less lately. They were both pretty passive, but the lack of conversation was weird even for them. Regardless, I was gleeful to have my favorite boys around.

I fixed a bowl of cereal and spun around on the seat as Vesper rummaged through our fridge. I glanced at the text message on my phone’s lock screen and sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Vesper asked simply.

“Lindy cancelled on our plans this week with a bullshit excuse.”

“Then we’ll do something.”

I tensed. My friends had been blowing me off and this homeschool nonsense ruined my social life. Isolation had become my new best friend given that my actual friends had misguided priorities or never wanted to hang out.

“We always do something. I don’t want to keep bothering you.” I said and Ves frowned. He was about to speak, but couldn’t get a word out before his attention turned elsewhere. A knock sounded on the door and it was Ava, Vesper’s mom, entering alongside my dad and his girlfriend.

“Hello.” She said curtly.

“What’s up?” I looked at his mom and threw up a peace sign, knowing the remark would irritate her. Vesper stifled a laugh and tried to cover it up with a cough. He looked up from the fridge.

“Hey mom.”

“Vesper, I hope you’re aware that you have a house right next door. It comes with a fridge and oh yeah, a family. Your very own. You can stop playing house here.”

“It seems to be missing a dad.” Vesper shot a cold look to her.

“Always a pleasure, Ava.” Chris said to her.

“How would you feel if Scarlett was next door all the time?”

“I wouldn’t care. It’s next door.”

“It’s okay Mrs. Bates, he’s right here.”

I didn’t think she caught the reference, but Vesper almost choked again.

She scoffed and redirected her attention to Vesper. Macy was scowling at me and I cut my eyes at her until she and my father left to his room. He had requested to speak with her. I was left with Vesper and his mom who was, as usual, upset.

I ate my cereal and watched her apathetically. She never liked me and I doubted she had a good reason why. As they left down the hall, I saw the picture of my mom on my father’s wall above his bed and gagged at Macy being in his room.

Vesper stood tall biting an apple. “Would you like me to come home, mother?”

She didn’t seem to have a response. Meanwhile, I wavered in the chair, feeling dizzy. My hands were clasping the edge of the seat to steady myself. Vesper’s eyes darted towards me and then back to his mom.

“What’s so special over here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Is it the girl? Why are you over here so much?”

“I enjoy hanging out with Scar.” They both stared at each other impassively.

“Well?” He asked her impatiently.

“No.”

“Okay.” He said with little feeling. Vesper started tapping his fingers awkwardly against the counter. His mother said something to him, presumably about me, but I couldn’t hear past the ringing in my ears.

A pink liquid dropped in my bowl and spread out like ink in the milk. My hand covered my nose and I could see Vesper ushering his mom out of our apartment in the nicest way possible. Since when was everyone embarrassed of me? It was insulting.

After Ava was out, Vesper was pressing a napkin against my face.

“I got it.” I pushed him away and felt my vision go dark.

………

 

Amber hair pressed against a fuzzy backseat headrest. The small legs that whisked back and forth in the open space of the vehicle were full of energy. The young girl spent her day with the two people she admired the most. A bigger version of herself sat in the passenger seat with her husband driving next to her. They laughed over conversation. Every so often, the girl would stick her thin fingers against her mother’s shoulder to receive attention. She would say something trivial and obvious, but her mother would still entertain her. She absorbed every phrase her daughter said as if each filled her with a tremendous joy and was the greatest thing ever spoken. Her mother had selected a black dress for her today with a large white ribbon tied around her midsection. Her hair had been combed back in two braids so that the tips were touching her shoulder blades. They were coming home late from a Christmas party at church.

Headlights always are intensely bright at night. They’re intimidating. It’s hard to move or react after being stunned by them. These lights were enormous circles, the first sign before the crunch of metal that followed afterwards. An impact side swept the vehicle into the snow. The spinning made the girl dizzy and she was sick upon her dress. The screams of a man and woman joined together in a terrifying harmony before they cut off completely.

There was darkness after that moment. Mashed metal and darkness. Mashed metal, still lights, and darkness. The pretty couple in the front seat were hunched over and still, their screams stolen from them. Two vehicles had merged into one dangerous mass of destruction. Bodies were running around the scene, screaming with their arms splaying frantically. The world consisted of dull vibrations and only a ringing in the girl’s ears remained. Within the next couple of hours, she was alone in an office with too many people in suits talking among her.

I shook my head, ashamed for invading my friends’ tragedies with memories I conjured up by their descriptions of them. I was still staring at Alice’s relaxed posture. The frown on her face was evident even while she rested unconscious. She had wrinkles near her seventeen year old eyes and I could still see the scar from the stitches. Vesper shifted under the blankets on Alice’s couch. He was missing a father while Sebastian and I were missing a mother. But Alice was missing the two people that had given her life and left while she was living it. A trust fund was left in their place.

Those were my last thoughts before I had drifted to sleep. The people that I loved, the memories of their lives, and the earning of their scars were something precious I felt mortified for recreating in my mind and personally intruding. I ceased the painful thoughts as both of them slept.

In the morning, they both awoke and busied themselves downstairs. I joined shortly after to grab something to eat and help clean.

Vesper and I were in our signature silence again. I took a wet dish from his hands and dried it off before placing it in Alice’s cabinet. Our little adventure last night had left me tired and weary from worrying that another creature would be encountered sooner than we wanted.

“I am surprised you’re getting such a big piece for a first tattoo.” Ves broke the silence. “I’ve been thinking about getting something else. It would have to be small so my mom can’t really complain.”

He rubbed the back of his neck and scratched his wrist. I disregarded his comment and took in a breath. The hot smells of breakfast sifted through the kitchen despite us having already devoured the majority of it.

Alice rounded the living room corner and made her way into the kitchen with a yawn. She grumbled before wrapping her arms around her grandmother who sat at the table hunched over a cup of tea. She was petite and strong like Alice, holding onto her youth well despite her sickness.

“Hi Grammy.” She kissed the fragile lady on the cheek and sat down.

“Hi Alice, baby.” She threw a wink at her granddaughter and I smiled at the closeness of their relationship. Vesper had a stack of wet plates waiting for me and I hurried to dry them off and place them properly. By noon, the kitchen was spotless and our stomachs were full. Vesper downed a final glass of orange juice and cleaned the glass himself before stretching out against the wall.

“How’d you sleep Ms. Taylor?” Vesper questioned the vivid, old women.

“Very well!” Her voice crackled with excitement. “And yourself?”

“Wonderful.” He beamed at her.

“Sebastian and Scarlett are getting their birthday gifts now. I was thinking we could all go to the park afterwards if you’d like?” Alice’s tiny voice reached across the table. “We could have a picnic and visit your favorite thrift store.”

“I would love that, darling.” Her fragile hands smoothed out the stray hairs on her head and found their way into her lap. Age spots had taken over her face and gray dominated the majority of her hair, but she still had the heart of a kid. On the cue of discussing plans, Lori, the caretaker, hopped down the stairs in a pair of shrubs. She was holding a plate with a glass of water and a few medication pills on its rim.

“That does sound lovely,” Her radiant smile beamed, “in the meantime, we can get you ready and get some groceries while we wait until they come back?” She offered Ms. Taylor.

“Perfection.” Her shaky voice replied. Alice kissed her on the cheek before Lori led Alice’s grandmother up the stairs.

“See you this afternoon!” Vesper called up to her.

“Bye, you all.” Her soft voice called down. We were left with the static of her old fashioned radio.

“Thanks for making breakfast, Ves.” Alice twirled herself around in a pink floral dress she had chosen for the day. I dug a finger into one of the holes in my jeans. I envied her natural ability to be beautiful and tough.

“Anytime.”

The doorbell rang, and Ves shoved a leftover fork full of eggs, bacon, and pancake crumbs into his mouth before moving the tray into the fridge.

“She’s supposed to visit the doctor today. I ran out to meet with him yesterday and the synopsis is the same. It doesn’t look great. He said if she keeps taking her medication and doesn’t pressure herself too much, she should be fine. I can’t afford to lose her.”

Alice had already left to answer the visitor before I could comfort her. She didn’t need to hear more hopeless phrases about things being okay when they weren’t.

My brother, Sebastian, stood in the door. His teal eyes mirrored my own, both staring at me above the devious smirk on his face. His truck sat idle in the driveway behind him and the keys dangled from his fingers.

“Hello.” I smiled and shoved past him to go hop in the bed of his truck. He caught Alice in a hug before releasing her to lock the house up.

Ves came out last, rushing in one last time to change into the clothes my brother brought for him. He carried the bags we brought in last night and hopped into the truck bed with me.

Watching Washington on calm, appealing days like this always left me content. It was almost spring. We drove through the streets, taking in the crisp air. Vesper’s legs were parallel to mine and he bumped into them when we crossed over uneven road patches. I dwelled on the nights when we drove this beauty through the dark with the radio high as we sung, surely a bother to the people of D.C.

Words sounded from Alice and my brother, presumably about the encounter last night. I leaned forward, engulfing myself in their conversation through the open window divider, before sitting back again.

“Alice and I are going to check out a hunting shop and then see how you two are managing.” Vesper laughed.

“I bet you I don’t even cringe.” I smiled.

Nevertheless, I did more than cringe, before we even stepped foot in the shop. Excitement and fear had created a pathetic emotion in my lungs that I kept breathing in. The place was clean. It was a small shop, tucked away at the far end of a street known for its excess tourist stores.

Alice and Ves had already bailed, and Sebastian could only kiss me on my temple before he left me alone with a tall, graceful figure. He towered over me in the way Vesper did, except his company wasn’t as welcoming. His hair was jet black with crimson tips.

I relaxed my shoulders and stood behind him in a small, sterile room. I focused on the gray tiles and white walls. Then I looked to the black, leather chair that would be my throne for the event. Feeling nothing sounded great right about now. However, the man distracted my emotions. He was beautiful. I straightened myself out and gathered the courage to watch him pull out the tools that clanged onto the counter.

He had a black beard connected to a bushy mustache that was groomed and shiny. It looked like it was his prize possession. He wore a red plaid shirt and took the resemblance of a lumberjack. The shirt buttoned down far enough to reveal his tangled chest hair covering an assortment of tattoos. From this angle, I could see two birds flying towards each other on his chest and the outline of deer antlers rising up from his sternum with feathers resting on their tips.

His sleeves were rolled up, showing off another set of feathers and knives shooting down his forearms. A speck of black, either a mole or freckle, sat in the upper corner of his right eyebrow.

He turned, his dark eyes finding mine and gestured me into the chair with a smile.

“My name is Eli. And yourself?” The voice came out with a slight southern accent.

“Scarlett.” I answered shortly. He was unnaturally beautiful. I thought. He looked like some kind of woodland god.

“Alright, Scarlett. What are you getting today?” He asked.

“A pocket watch on my arm,” My voice came out short and weak. I cleared my throat. “A pocket watch and a quote.” I handed him both images and he began the process of transferring them into a drawing.

“‘Humans are meant to live, not to exist.’ Captivating. ”

“Thanks” I muttered.

“Your brother is getting the same quote?”

I nodded.

“Very sweet.” He commented before taking his eyes off me to work. Time and tension passed until he inquired the exact spots I desired the tattoos. I gestured inside my right wrist and then to my left forearm. He marked the placement. Soft rock played throughout the space as his cold hands explored my skin. I could feel the goose bumps rising on my arms. My phone vibrated with a picture of Sebastian smiling. He was getting prepped as well. My body eased a little at his message and I sank down in the chair. I wanted this.

“We’ll do the small one first.” He grinned. “Don’t be so afraid.” His freezing hand skimmed the chair’s arm and then brought my wrist onto it.  

The room seemed even colder, forcing me to stay still instead of shaking. The needle hit and the pain was very bearable. It hurt, but not any worse than the injuries I’ve gotten from fighting. I gritted my teeth and long minutes later, I had my first tattoo. I stared down at my smeared black wrist with a smile.

 

Humans Are Meant To Live,

Not to Exist

 

“I told you not to be afraid.” His voice crooned. He moved his chair to my right side and then stood at the counter to change out supplies. I sent Sebastian a quick picture of my newfound ink. I felt great. Eli returned without a pause and seconds later he was by my side without warning. The needle was tearing through my skin again; creating a black and gray image on my bleeding, light complexion. My teeth ground back and forth and I messaged Vesper and Alice with a picture of the progress. This one would take much longer.

I sat back in the chair, being careful not to flex my arm, and took the damage. Even with my eyes shut, I felt a bodily presence and was beyond grateful to see Vesper and Alice at the door with their thumbs up. They disappeared just as quickly, leaving me to busy myself with Sebastian sending me texts.

Thirty minutes had passed and the music in the parlor droned in my ears. I glanced down to see that my pocket watch was complete. Only the metal chain needed detailing.

“Are you sure you do not want a time?”

“No thank you.” I whispered. “I’m saving it for later. There’s no time I need to remember now. My birth time is too selfish for me. It will probably be for my child’s birth or something just as special.” I smiled politely.

“Mm.” He mumbled. I took the chance to glance at his face as I talked. His eyebrows came down in a frown. His handsomeness looked dark now, but I closed my eyes and ignored my paranoid thoughts. They were the same thoughts and doubts that ruined most happy moments for me.

More minutes passed during my lucid drifting with ease until my skin started burning with a stinging intensity. I felt like I was on fire. My eyes sprang open. The door was shut now which initiated my alarm. I glanced down at my tattoo. It was finished and new, just like the restraints that were now tied around my wrists. I was alone, trying to comprehend what I hoped to be a misunderstanding. I couldn’t reach for my phone so I ran through the potential options.

Maybe I was fidgeting in my sleep and this was to keep me from moving without waking me. Maybe, he was some kind of freak who was interested in me. No, not the latter. I didn’t think it was either. This may have been my first tattoo, but this couldn’t be normal. I let out a soft yell for my brother, then Vesper, and finally Alice. I yelled over the music and the voices. I was much louder the second time. Finally I screamed, not caring whether I sounded insane. I hoped Eli would come back to explain why I was tied up. I kicked out, discovering ties around my feet that hadn’t been there.

My throat had gone dry and my skin felt charred in the scorching room. I began to sweat and the fresh tattoo on my arm ached. I waited for blisters to appear on my skin, but everything was normal through my watery eyes. Regardless, I felt heat rushing through my veins. I screamed again. I heard screams from the other rooms before they cut off.

A hand slammed down against my mouth. Eli stood above the chair with his eyes barricading my escape plan. They were red and bulging like a frog being squeezed by a toddler who wanted to make it explode. The sweat from his palm caused me to choke and my teeth found his flesh as a reflex. He barely flinched. I could only convulsively shake, hoping to loosen my bondage. The room around me was a blurry flash. The feeling of being taken away somewhere rose within me and I shut my eyes. Eli’s mouth was near my heart and he had entranced me.   

I heard the door crash down, exposing my brother standing there with a flushed face. He was sweating and his pants were rushed. I returned to reality and ignored my brain fighting the pain of an anchor being twisted within it.

“Scarlett.” His voice was a sound sign of his lack of energy. His pupils were wide with terror. I felt Eli’s fingers clench on my mouth harder.

A dark figure appeared behind him. The tip of a sword was scraping the floor, creating an uncomfortable screech. Sebastian crashed into the door as the figure rushed passed him, immediately shoving the sword into the Eli’s chest. His hand released me. I felt his body hunch over me in the chair and his blood dripped down the side of my neck. I panicked even more against my restraints, attempting to identify the new body in the room. Eli straightened out. His body had a new slab of skin replacing a wound that should have existed. He stood like a man who should have been dead.

Sebastian was crouched at the door breathing heavily, when another curvier figure bum-rushed her way inside. Her hands gripped mine with an incredible amount of force. She cut me free and ushered me into the corner. I did as she instructed, standing helpless against the counter full of needles and bloody tissues.

The room’s noises consisted of silence and occasional clicking. The sword found Eli multiple times. It severed his ear, sliced his arm, and punctured his abdomen. Each time, he healed. He recovered slower when he was stabbed. Ink colored the floor mixed with body fluid from the two figures breaking glass vials.

Eli lashed out at the man. Unknown claws emerged from his hands and he slashed down the boy’s side. The boy let out a cry before jutting his sword out. The talons found his face and left shallow marks on his cheek.

I felt my heart contract and my veins bulged from watching the fight while knowing about Eli’s capabilities. Fuzz coated my eyes in a film, but I could still see the two bodies in combat with my artist.

“Caspian, the throat.” I heard someone say in the distance. It was the girl.

“The throat.” She repeated to him. More piercing of skin, screaming, and thudding occurred. I kept blinking in order to clear my eyes, but it was useless. The room had gone silent. I heard another high pitched scream from a familiar voice.

“Scarlett!”

Hands found my midsection and carried me out. I smelled thick blood covering the room. A door slammed against its hinges. I was heaving against what felt like a couch. I could only see white now.

“What’s wrong with her?” The high voice cried out and fists hit a door like drums.  

“Alice?” I muttered.

“What’s wrong with them? Their eyes are glazed over!” The redhead kept screaming in the distance, meaning the hands in my hair had to belong to Vesper.

“Where’s my brother?” I asked him.

“Right next to me.” Ves answered calmly.

“What’s he doing?” I questioned.

“He’s fine.” Vesper’s hand tightened in my hair, but I could feel Sebastian’s trembling nearby.

“Scarlett, are you alright?” He breathed out.

“Yes. Can you see, Sebastian?”

“Yes, slightly.” His deep voice said.

“What happened?” I asked, distracted by Vesper’s movement near me.

“He finished my tattoo and he told me to wait so I didn’t put too much stress on it right away. I ended up drifting off and-”

“Woke up in restraints.” I finished for him.

“Yes. I’m guessing the same happened to you. Another guy came in, I think it was your artist, and I could only feel him hovering over me. He killed the guy who was working on me and my vision blurred. He left and I heard your screams. I think some people here escaped right before those two strangers came in and started fighting. They were talking about wiping memories. Your artist must have blinded me. And I just, I just.” He shook faster.

“Sebastian, it’s okay.” I reached across Vesper’s lap for his hand and locked mine securely in his.  

Moments passed until I felt Alice’s small frame standing in front of me. She was shaking my shoulders.

“Please tell me you’re alright, Scarlett? I’m sorry we shouldn’t have left. I didn’t think…I don’t know what happened.”

I reached out in the air for her delicate hands.

“It’s not your fault.” I reassured her. Sweat was beading down my temple as I spoke. “We don’t know what happened.”

A door opened and Alice’s hand ripped from mine and she stampeded towards the strange pair.

“Tell me what just happened.” Her voice came out low and scary.

Silence. I imagined her small frame rampaging against the muscular girl or guy I had just seen. I blinked rapidly, eager to see what was in front of me, but instead sunk back into Vesper when it didn’t work. I let the voices of Alice and Vesper merge with the voices belonging to these unknown people. When they finally decided to talk, their answers were vague and short. They both continuously avoided direct explanations.

I sprang up when the blurriness dissipated. Vesper’s hand tightened on my leg to steady me. Slight twitches ran under my skin. I stared at his foggy amber irises and then at the situation in front of me. The parlor was empty and blood flooded each of the individual rooms. Had Eli killed all of the innocent artists and customers? A disgusted grimace washed over my face.

Alice was pacing around the room in her floral dress which was now torn. Her shoes were soaked in blood. Vesper sat next to me comforting Sebastian whose head was hung low and buried between his arms.

“We should be leaving.” The girl yelled at the young man. “We should be tracking him, following him! Not staying here and playing janitor.” She ran to lock the front door and dim the lights.

“Janitor to what?!” I yelled. “The place is covered in blood, it’s a slaughter house, and you both are fleeing without explaining anything!” I heaved and crashed back onto the sofa. My heart rate felt like a gong against my ribs.

They both stood in silence. The pair were spotted with blood and their weapons hung low from their bodies.

“She’s right.” He said to me. “We can’t leave this. Besides, we’ll be expecting someone very soon.”

“Screw this.” I stood up. My body felt dizzy, but my vision was clear now. A swamp of black and red blood stained every single floor tile. Vesper pulled me back down, but I fought him and ran through the sticky substance. I stared into each of the private rooms at the parlor. Eli had killed everyone.

Tears pooled at the back of my eyes. I was tempted to run away like this girl. This situation was new and nothing like the creatures we played with.

Sebastian was scratching the new design on his skin. His muscles bulged as he twitched.  I met his eyes and he frowned. Eli wasn’t human, but the only beasts we had encountered were exactly as they appeared, like beasts.

“What is he?” I turned to the boy. “We’re not naïve. We know we’re not the only species that lives on these lands. We won’t go to the police. Just please, give us some insight. Don’t leave us here abandoned.”

The boy surveyed us before taking a few graceful strides to meet me. He threw the woman a glance and she scoffed before nodding.

“My name is Caspian Bourne and this is my twin sister Crystal.” He said hoarsely.

My eyes were still foggy, but I could make out enough. Up close, I could see the creases in his face, from stress, not age. His long hair took the form of dreads down his neck, just as his sister’s did; except the sides by her temples had been shaved down. Multiple tattoos were scattered on their golden bronze skin tone and his voice sounded hollow when he spoke. Solid spiral objects were in her ears.

“It’s rare. This doesn’t ever happen. You all are aware he isn’t human, correct?”

I stilled, assuming my brother or friends would nod in response.

“We’ve fought,” I began hesitantly “things before. “We call them creatures.”

“Interceptors.” He replied.

“What? I muttered.”

“Interceptors take the form of a lizard-like creature. They intercept the boundaries of our world and ones lying outside of ours. The skeletal figure is apparent through fleshy skin. They are able to walk on both two and four legs. They’re quick when attacking and running. The amount of intelligence varies in each, but is apparent.” He spoke fluently as if reading an encyclopedia article.

“Interceptor.” I mouthed quietly. They had a name for them.

“They are Demons in animalistic form.” His eyes left mine when he spoke, finally glancing to the others in the room.

“In animalistic form?” Vesper questioned.

“A Demon,” he began again in a factual tone, “in their original form appears as an animal. Thus, causing them to appear in an animalistic form in our world. They don’t have the power, resources, or ability to take on our human forms. So they hide in the shadows, attacking and attempting to kill. To take souls.”

“S-” I began, but he cut me off.

“Souls are the feeding and power source of a Demon. A human death results in a soul, which is a force, that’s split into two parts. The first half is moved on to another universal world, which are actually hidden in our own, fascinating fact. Our world is a world containing worlds within worlds. The second half is collected for Demon consumption. It keeps Demons alive.”

“You’re telling them too much.” Crystal chastised him.

“Hey! What in the hell?” Alice called out. The focus had been on Caspian, but Crystal stood among a shimmering black force in the air.

“Celtic is about to appear, we have no choice.” He frowned.

“What’s happening?” I asked Caspian directly. I was eager for knowledge and understanding. He ignored the inquiry. His nose hoop glimmered under the lights. The silver was in sync with the shine of Crystal’s stud and septum.

“What is that thing?” Vesper stiffened.

Neither answered.

Another body appeared from thin air. A sleek figure in all black. His dark ponytail was tied neatly down his back.

He glanced at all of us and turned to Crystal to talk more in secrecy. His pale complexion contrasted oddly with the darkness of his hair and he immediately went into a private tattoo room once finishing the conversation with Crystal.

“The way the souls are carried are through-” He continued.

“Hey!” Vesper yelled out. Caspian paused before ignoring him again.

“They are carried away within Reapers. Reapers are Demons in an immortal, stronger form. They carry the souls onto their new lives and bring the other halves to feed Demons in their own world. They are travelers among dimensions. Reapers, unlike Demons, have been granted with the ability of appearing in their old human form. They also have immortality. This immortality can be taken away once they’ve served their sentence of reaping. They collect souls until they reach a certain choosing point of becoming mortal and dying or embracing their immortality eternally.”

Vesper’s mouth was slightly ajar. Alice’s head turned at the news, but kept one eye pinned on Crystal with a scowl. Sebastian groaned in agony as he heard the news. His hand was still toying with the burning ink.

Caspian disappeared into a room and brought out two jars of cream, handing both to me and my brother. I accepted, hesitantly.

Why do Reapers show in human form?” Sebastian groaned.

“Demons used to as well, but thousands of years ago, the seven capital sins sacrificed themselves to create the spawns: Reapers. The physical sins no longer exist except in the qualities of people. Reapers are enhanced Demons, guardians of their world, but shunned themselves into ours. A strictly Demon rebellion, similar to the one happening now, occurred. Years ago, the Reapers fulfilled their purpose. The sins created Reapers to close the gates of hell for good and battle the Demons. As punishment, the sins turned Demons into animals before they disappeared and rewarded the Reapers with immortality and shape shifting for closing the gates and ceasing the rebellion. They’re beneficial to Demons and humans. They’re considered neutral. The gates have been closed all this time, only allowing Reapers to pass through and Interceptors who have figured out how to emerge.”

“So Interceptors and Demons are the same beings in both of the worlds. That’s news to us.” Alice’s small, irritated voice commented.

“And there are Reapers in human forms that take us away when we die? That’s real. Do they live among us? Is that why that man just appeared? To collect the souls of those men who just died?”

Caspian nodded to the ponytail man who emerged from the room and went into another. “Yes.” He answered.

I couldn’t help my curiosity; desiring to be closer to what this unknown man claimed to be a Death God. The man was a Reaper? I took a look at the room that the man had left. The floor was now spotless. I shoved past Crystal and pushed myself further into the room. It was all spotless. The body of the artist was gone and the room looked brand new.

“W-What?” I muttered. I ran back to Caspian.

“What is his name?” I asked. I had a change of mind and ran to the room the Reaper was in now. He stood still, but the room changed. A black shimmer took over the place, setting things in order and allowing the blood to disappear. The shimmer was similar to the one Interceptors displayed when they disappeared. His hand was on top of the dead body of an artist and it shimmered away in an instant. The murder and body were gone from sight and were now a dust he placed in a black pouch.

He saw me staring, but didn’t seem bothered.

“What is your name?” I asked him hesitantly.

“Celtic.” He replied.

“Are you really a death god?”

He smirked and tossed the pouch out the door, Crystal had appeared to catch it without faltering.

“I’ve managed to collect a room into front of you and you doubt me.”  His gray eyes glinted and he made his way into another room.

“You clean up after killers?” I rushed behind him.

“You wouldn’t understand even after an explanation. There is a massive problem on our hands.”

His hands shifted around the room again. Another black shimmer concealed the room as it returned to its original state. His slender fingers found the next body and disintegrated it.

“What is that?” I questioned after he collected the dust again.

“Silk.”

“Dead people silk. Right, sounds wonderful. I’m done here.” I left on that note.

“That doesn’t answer what happened with Eli. There are Interceptors. We knew that.” Alice spat. “Apparently there are Reapers, which we didn’t know. Is Eli one?”

“No.”

“We’ve been investigating this place.” Crystal finally spoke to us after catching another pouch. There were disappearances here. As my brother said, another rebellion is occurring.”

Caspian gave her another nod of approval and she continued. He also handed us paper towels and cleaning supplies so we could try to clean ourselves up.

“The triplets, Tauro, Tayden, and Theodore, have risen again. They were the cause of the first rebellion and we suspect the same for this one. Theodore was the genius. He opened the portal to access our world and somehow found a way to gain access to human transformation. He gathered his brothers and thousands of loyal acquaintances to give them the power to transform. Afterwards, they could appear normal and transfer between worlds. They began purging a portion of humanity.”

“The amount of Demons traveling through the gates was overwhelming, forcing the sins to sacrifice themselves to create the Reaper race to guard the boundary entrance. Sadly, this all didn’t pass by without a massacre. Thousands were killed.” Caspian added.

“And now,” Crystal picked up. “They’ve returned to finish what they started. Thousands are being killed again, just not as obvious as suspected. Theodore and his brothers have been traveling for the last few years and molding into the lives of those who are naive enough to hand them over. Once being tricked into giving the Demons their lives, the triplets imitate the persona of that person and their trait or career. Specifically, it’s a trait that attracts large groups of people every so often so they can kill in private. Eli was a triplet in hiding. We believe this was Tauro by his behavior. He tends to take on the lives of those without families or attachments. The real Eli used to be a widow with no kids.”

“What will change this time?” Sebastian spat bitterly. “If the original sins are gone, what will stop the Demons?”

“The Reapers.” Caspian eyed him warily. “But because the Reaper race is neutral, they’ve avoided taking sides against humans or Demons. They no longer find it to be their problem.”

“How did you all know when the triplets began to kill again?” Alice interrupted.

“After so many disappearances and freak accidents in the obituary readings, it’s not too difficult.”

“Why didn’t the sins just kill all the rebels?” Vesper inquired.

The man with the black ponytail emerged. His face looked cracked, like a porcelain doll tainted by a tragic fall.

“There were too many. We cannot kill our own, take away the one exception.” His smooth voice commented. “The exception is a sacrifice. A Reaper can commit to their immortality in order to kill one Demon in their new everlasting lifetime. It takes away our option of ridding of eternal life, if it is something we do not desire. Immortality is a curse and a gift. Only those Reapers who believe it is a gift will sacrifice a criminal in our world to commit to a new life. It means taking away one life comes at the cost of never being able to take your own away.

Even the seven sins could not do this to the triplets and their many followers. If three sins performed the sacrifice to rid of the triplets, their loyal minions would have continued their work in this world. They closed the gates instead, created protectors, and chained the triplets to an underworld. Tauro, Tayden, and Theodore have broken free. The black grooves on their wrists serve as a raw reminder. They have become stronger in their human forms. They’re in a human shell so they’re still diminishable, but will always have their unnatural powers. We can’t track them by their scent. We must wait until the deaths and mysteries start to arise.”

One look at the building around us revealed that no murder had happened behind these doors. The Reaper, Celtic, had made everything spotless. The tattoo shop was just as it was when we walked in.

“I trust you will rid of the lost properly.” Celtic told Crystal. “I’m glad I could help clean up this mess. Their deaths have been noted.”

He turned to us. “I hope to see you all once again, but I do not wish you all find yourselves in such a situation after this.”

And with that, his body turned to ash and he vanished. The families would never know the truth about their dead. Eli was a monster that, as of minutes ago, would have killed us. Our dad would have never known what really happened.

“Thank you for opening up to us. But why?” I questioned. I was still in shock from the Reaper’s entrance and exit.

“Because you asked. Given your lack of running to the police immediately, we know you all already knew. Otherwise, you guys weren’t in your right minds to stay.”

“How long have you two been fighting?” Alice asked.

“Crystal and I have been for four years. We know others who have fought longer and know more about the situation at hand.”

My thoughts raced. There were more of them.

“Can you-”

Sebastian finally pulled himself off the couch and dragged me into a side room before I could ask anything crazy.

“How do we know they’re not pretending to be heroes? They could be partners with that Eli man? What if this was one giant act?” His voice was condescending.

Vesper and Alice slipped into the room. The twins were talking casually in the main room we had left.

“You believe this was an act? Our bodies were just almost taken away from us. You believe they saved us to then take us away and do what?” I questioned.

“Something worse.”

“What could be worse than this?” Alice suggested.

“I agree.” My hands found my brother’s arm with reassurance. “I saw the frustration on the boy’s face when Eli got away. The way he fought him was real. The blood that marked these walls minutes ago may be gone, but our memories are not, Seb. We need to give someone else a chance. There’s no way we’re the only ones who see these foul things walking around. His explanation was the only one that made sense about Eli’s strength.”

Sebastian’s fingers rubbed his temples before he let out a huge sigh.

“Okay” He replied and walked out.

I hurried to speak with Caspian, but Vesper took my place, sliding in front of me and locking eyes with the dread headed boy.

Caspian had simply slipped Vesper a piece of torn paper his sister had written on.

“You all may be doubtful, but if you have a change of mind, seek refuge with the ones who don’t try to kill you.”

………

 

“Tell me Vesper, am I embarrassing?”

“No.” He said modestly from his spot against the wooden beam. We were in the Botanical Gardens after the incident and it was absolutely stunning. Vesper looked serene on the structure that stretched over the water with a perfect view of the glass arboretum. I spotted something black on his neck, but then shook my head and assumed I was hallucinating. Ava wouldn’t allow him to get a new tattoo.

I ran a silky hand over my forearms where my new tattoos were placed, but they looked hazy and distorted. I looked to Sebastian, who was leaning against a tree across the water. It was the home of a large tree house with wide windows.

“They’re stunning.” Vesper said softly.

“Thank you.”
“You and Sebastian got the same quotes?”

“We did. Traumatic experience, but we all got through it. I’m glad you and Alice were there.”

It was about two o’clock now. The air was warm and the water in front of us glistened. I admired the different colored roses nearby and then the glass building once more. Vesper, Sebastian, and I had strolled through the arboretum under the massive elephant ears and towering flowers. We passed a little fairy house set up to the right and finally ended here.

“What about Alice?”

“Vesper, you were there. She left to run errands after the tattoos. We’re meeting her shortly after this.”

“Sorry.” He stuttered. “I think all the action, made me forget. Can you tell me what happened today?”
I looked at him questionably. We shared the same experience, how could he not remember? It was all I talked about in the car. Regardless, I sat down near the water with my legs crossed and encouraged him to join me. He did so, and we recollected the last few hours. When I finished, I pulled out a red carton from my bag and took out one of its contents.

“Put that back, you don’t smoke.” Vesper said boringly.

“Excuse me?” I looked at him quizzically.

“You don’t, trust me.”

“So you’re assuming I carry around things I don’t use for fun? Do I have some books in here I won’t read?”

“Just trust me.” He sighed heavily. “You don’t.”

He stood up. I realized I was too tired to question him. My hand holding the cigarette carton started shaking. I lit the one I put in my mouth with a lighter, but as I inhaled, I didn’t crave it at all. In fact, I felt disgusted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

Today was interesting. You’ve included so many new factors. To start off simple, your blackouts are becoming more frequent. I spent the night yesterday. When you woke up you got into a heated debate with Macy about Sebastian. She saw no one. This year has been the worse by far with your condition. Last year you just imagined Seb, now you’re speaking to him.

Stress may be a factor in the frequency of your disappearances. Shortly after your fight with Macy, my mom came over and created an uncomfortable situation. Right then, you blacked out, but you came back almost immediately.

We left to get our tattoos. You got your quote and time piece. I got a new one on the back of my neck. You blacked out again in the chair after he finished and I was forced to tell your artist that you were nervous. We stayed in my car. I had to leave you to run into the store for tattoo cream since I was out. I cleaned the new ink and then I drove to Virginia. You woke up on the ride there.

You told me your side of your day and how we were attacked at the tattoo parlor. You even told me stories about Alice and your brother being there, but it was me, Scar. We got tattoos together.

I wish you weren’t unconscious so much.

Today when we were at the Gardens, I think I had an epiphany on who Alice represents. She is a series of the false best friends you had throughout high school. Therefore, I wonder if that’s why you are creating hardship in her life as a sort of karma you want unleashed upon her. You told me about four friends you’ve had that were the best you knew. Two of which lived luxurious lifestyles, explaining Alice’s home. Both discarded you as a second choice to another friend which is why you and Alice are drifting apart. You felt like an option.

The other two lived simple lives, but had complex minds. They took no consideration of your feelings and you were miserable. Alice seems to lack an emotional connection with you. That’s my reasoning for her being a representation of your closest friends that were lost. I think you wanted them to understand the trouble you were going through, so you’re forcing the pain upon them. Do you see what I mean?

I am the fifth, and I hope to stay.

As for the Demon triplet who attacked you, I am unsure of who he may be and why you are coping with him in that way. The same goes for the Caspian and Crystal figures you spoke of.

Although, Death can mean anything and the fact that you personified it is significant. Either you fear living a life unlived, are experiencing depression, or having some realization of a temporary life. I think your choice of tattoo agrees. So you surround yourself by figures of Death in hopes to live braver.

Regardless, you continue to make different connections to events in your actual life. Your friends moved on without you, not prioritizing you in their lives. You were never able to make them feel what you did, but I don’t see it in your personality to want to anyway.

Moving on, your dad keeps denying the existence of your brother. Macy has no idea he had a son, or that you had a brother. I love your dad, but I do think that’s wrong. Forgetting a child is not the way to mourn. Sooner or later, if your dad is as serious about his relationship as she is, she’ll find out. She doesn’t understand you.

I’m thinking about asking you to New York this summer. It will be a great trip to take on. Me, you, and your dad could go? I mean I could invite my mom too, but she hasn’t been getting me lately. I keep asking her about my dad and she won’t tell me anything. Then she wonders why I’m distant.

I tire of her, but I love her so much. Sometimes I wonder if you are tired of me. And how long we can survive together with no friends. I really want you to get better. I don’t talk to many people at school anymore because I’m worried you’ll pass out. Not that I’m blaming you.

It sucks that you’re homebound, but I know it’s for the better. I feel like a traitor whose living a separate life at school that isn’t my own.

Speaking of parents, you freaked out this morning at Macy. It was kind of funny actually you called her a whore. It sounded like a medieval insult, but I promise you she’s really friendly.

Another thing, your tattoos are on your shoulders, not your arms. Sebastian is still dead. And you do not smoke cigarettes. Your mom did, a lot. Chris gave the cigarettes to you to serve as a memory recall cue. Except, you just smoke them every so often.

You accused your dad of cheating on your mom, but your mom died in New York the same day your brother died. She brought Sebastian to the towers that day and the sickening thing is she didn’t have to work. In fact, she was out of work because she had just quit. Based on what your father told me, she said she had a ‘really bad feeling’ that day and needed to explore her freedom in life. It was scarily shocking. She had a bad feeling the day the towers were bombed. If she were still here, I’d know you’d be okay and you two could work this out since you both seem to share a highly intuitive ability. The search for her and Sebastian was over when their charred bodies were found.

I’m sorry. Your dad is loyal, don’t hate him. He moved you both from New York to escape the fact that you two lost half of your family.

 

Yours truly, Vesper.

Chapter Five

 

I had just finished telling Vesper about the day and grew slightly irritated that he didn’t remember it. My dad was embarrassed of me and Vesper no longer listened like he used to. I was ready to confide in my brother across the water.

Vesper’s right hand slipped into mine and I felt odd. I stroked the little hairs on his index finger and looked at him with a tilt of my head. We stared at each other too much sometimes.

“I can’t forgive him.” I let him go and stroked a nearby rose petal that sat on the planks.

“Your dad?”

“Yes, my dad. Who else? He’s cheating and it’s disgusting. The fact that someone could love someone else and then consciously break their bond is senseless. I’ve been cheated on plenty of times. It’s a wretched thing. I’d rather have someone text me seconds before mentally or physically cheating and end things. At least that way they have the dignity to not involve their partner in their childish antics.”

“You say your mom is at work on a business trip, right?”

“Yeah.” I smiled at the thought of her, although the details were fuzzy.

“Scarlett?”

“Yes?”

“When’s the last time you saw your mother?”

“What do you mean?” I laughed nervously. “I saw her…”

It was like chloroform soaked cotton had been stuffed into my mouth. I was at a loss of words and felt my blood about to volcano out of my nose. I leaned back against the wooden platform and let my head drop to think.

………

 

My head was on fire with these new facts and my body was in shock from a fresh tattoo, being restrained, and almost being killed. My jaw hadn’t found the strength to lift itself, so I was left in the back of my brother’s truck with it still ajar. I could still feel the sticky blood residue on my neck and legs.

“Gods of Death.” Vesper whispered next to me.

“Reapers.” I said without realizing. “Grim Reapers are real? They’re human shells in their afterlives. And those monsters we’ve been fighting are called Interceptors.”
Ves nodded. “Yes ma’am. He said those are Demons, but in the forms of animals because they don’t have the power to look like their human personas from their old lives. Something like that.”

“We almost died.” My voice cracked. I had trouble trying to understand the foreign words when I spoke them. I looked up for the first time to see that Sebastian had drove near the Washington Zoo. My hands and feet were too frozen to move. Vesper’s skin warmed my palm with one hand and he steadied his other hand on the truck’s side.

Due to Alice’s request to not go home just yet, we somehow ended up on a single road only a few feet away from the zoo. Sebastian put pressure on the gas pedal so the truck would go over a sidewalk edge and then jerked it carelessly to a stop on the grass in the corner of a field.

To our left was a rail holding back an abyss of trees and on the other side was a monumental statue surrounded by park benches. Adrenaline coursed through me. It made my body feel like a mass of nervous ticking energy, the kind felt when an intruder breaks into your home or if someone pulls a gun on you.

I was so jittery that I jumped when Ves put a hand on my shoulder. It felt like time had stalled or reversed. The sweet tang of the wind and sharp pieces of grass heightened my senses. Night and day had passed holding memories of events that were fading so quickly, I wouldn’t have believed they were real if my heart rate didn’t constantly remind me that they certainly were.

Not much was said from my brother, but I knew he had seen Interceptors with me and fought them. He seemed to have always anticipated something worse coming our way. He stretched out his arms so that they were aligned with his shoulders, took in a deep breath, and pulled his toolbox out of the truck bed.

“Demons.” He laughed nervously and he quickly disappeared to the front of his vehicle to tighten his license plate. Alice was already walking away to a nearby tree, turning around briefly to speak to me and Ves.

“I think Sebastian knows what we’ve expected. The fact that we’re seeing these new life forms around the capitol means there was always a chance of there being something worse. We were exposed to an evolving species that threatens our lives. We can talk about this when we get back to the house if you guys want because I need a moment to process. I couldn’t even stay in the parlor to ensure your safety. It was selfish.”

“Alice, don’t blame yourself, this is no one’s fault. We don’t know what the hell is going on. All that matters is that we’re all here, breathing, and smelling the awful smell of his car.” I kicked out a foot to my brother who slyly flicked me off by pretending to scratch his nose.

Alice smiled coyly at me, confirming her silent agreement, before she wandered into the trees. She was a peculiar girl. She cared less about the pretty dress she wore and more about making her way up one of the branches. She pulled a napkin from her pocket, not to wipe off the grime on her body, but instead to reduce the slipperiness on her hands and get better hold of the bark. In six quick movements, she hoisted herself onto the branch, crossed her legs like a lady, and was looking out over the park.

Ves was the only one who stayed with me, pulling up his knees and plucking a blade of grass to whistle on.

“Maybe we just need some help.” He suggested.

“You actually want to talk about it?”

“You can only spend so much time in your own mind, I didn’t think this would happen.”

“True, but help from who?”

“The animal control of mutant lizards in Washington D.C, of course. I’m sure that number is somewhere in a phone book.” My brother amused himself with his own joke. I threw my bag at his leg, but it didn’t quiet his laughter.

“He’s right.” I admitted. “This isn’t a normal counselor situation.”

“Your dad,” Ves directed at me and Sebastian. “You said he went through that time period-”

I stiffened.

“Our dad was depressed then.” Sebastian said factually. “Mom had just left due to an incident they never told us about. I always assumed it was an affair, regardless she’s gone. He started seeing a therapist and we would hear him muttering about things and animals on the street. He came home terrified all the time and always carried his gun. He finally told us he saw creatures and we all had a nice reuniting talk about the family who could see aliens.”

“Stop being funny.” I growled at my brother.

“I’m serious, it’s what we did.”

“Sebastian is right. He was depressed and we talked about them a few times, but not much anymore. He took us to a gun range where we learned how to shoot and we went to self-defense classes. Otherwise, we were told to run every time we saw one which we clearly haven’t been doing. We haven’t told him we fight them.”

“Why not?” Ves asked.

“It’s not the easiest conversation to spark.” My brother noted.

“Vesper has a point. Should we tell him now that our lives are actually in danger?” I asked my brother.

“We’ll figure it out eventually, but I’m not hosting any alien anonymous meetings with him today.”

“I understand.” Ves nodded. “The day I tell my mom anything I’ve done in the past four years that she doesn’t know about is the day I die. She’d only send me to a mental institution or kick me out. Hell, she would kick me out if she knew I used to smoke, or if I got any more tattoos. If I told her I was seeing beasts around town and fighting them, the next calls your phones will receive are going to be from me in the mental ward.”

“Our house is your house. Same for Alice.” Sebastian commented.

“Thanks, I’ll always appreciate that, though I’m sure next door would be the first place for her to look. Our friendship is the only perk that came from us living so close. I could do without her barging into your home every time I didn’t tell her what I was up to.

I laughed softly. “Parents aren’t an option. Police?”

“That would just lead right back to the mental ward, for all of us this time.” Ves said flatly. I sighed and threw my body into the grass, resting my head in my hands. My panic levels had finally gone down, but the tattoos were constant reminders of what went down less than an hour ago.

I turned my arm over and admired mine. The thin and thick lines, curving smoothly on my arms to connect, created a perfect picture with ideal shading. On my wrist was the thin typewriter font resting on my veins and compressing when I moved my hand. We covered them up before leaving the parlor, given the Demon artist didn’t.

Casually glancing to my brother, I noted he had his shirt sleeve rolled up, revealing the Celtic design on his upper shoulder and the faint view of our matching quotes. I genuinely smiled before my face fell flat again.

“Why would he finish our tattoos first?” I muttered and Ves looked at me.

“Valid question. Maybe he was waiting for something. He needed the right time to murder half of the store. Or he was waiting for someone, who knows. Maybe he was just humoring himself.”

“That’s sick.”

“Maybe the injections or smoke he used needed time to activate? You’re okay now, Sebastian’s okay. We’ll be fine.”

Heavy impact hit the ground. It was an impact from a body hitting the grass and sending vibrations through the dirt. I was already running to the limp figure that rested on her side under the tree. Sebastian hit his forehead on his bumper in the process of getting up.

I pulled Alice up. Vesper was already next to me holding her head. She had been crying quietly. Her hair was frayed and her face was red from the irritation. Her eyes looked like wild cherries with chocolate dots floating in them, both were bloated and discolored.

Her cries were panicked. The phone was shattered on the ground, so I pulled out small shards in her hand and threw them to the side.

“Alice, what’s wrong?” Sebastian asked softly.

“My nana. My nana is dead.”

Instantly, I remembered that the world still functions when your life is put on hold. Everyone else goes on with their existence while you go through a physical and mental crisis. The fact that my brother and I were almost killed minutes ago meant absolutely nothing at the moment. My urge for adventure had surged with high hopes to befriend these new people. They left a sense of direction and could change the course of our entire world with the scribbled ink they left on the paper Vesper kept in his pocket. It all meant nothing now, because our lives reverted back into normal ones when we appeared at Alice’s home and her grandmother was dead.

It was expected, but not this soon. The reality of seeing another dead body still on the couch with glazed eyes locked on the television never leaves your mind. Watching Alice shake and scream in Lori’s grasp played in my head like a bad film.

Glass being smashed against the floor tiles echoed through my mind as well, only being drowned out by Alice currently sobbing next to me. We sat in my room in the small apartment my dad and brother shared. Snot and tears soaked through my shirt as I held her in my bed. Her misery only made me desperate for a way to end it.  She had absolutely no direct family now and I could never imagine being that alone.

I regret letting Alice come to the parlor. She should have spent this day with her unless being there as she suffered the heart attack would have been worse.

My eyes analyzed every aspect of everything in our surroundings. Everything was magnified and moved in slow motion. The record player in the corner sang softly and the typewriter was still. My room was a small jail cell containing the sadness of the situation.

I heard Sebastian talking to my dad about both events, shortly covering the issue at the parlor and then elaborating on the knowledge Caspian had informed us with. He went on to discuss the situation at Alice’s and I heard him talk about the group of people who removed the body. I could easily remember Vesper picking up Alice and setting her into my brother’s truck before she tried to demolish her house.

Our front door opened. I heard another voice join the conversation, Vesper’s mother. Feet stomped down the hall leading to my room, but my father stopped her. It was both a convenience and inconvenience that Vesper and his mother lived next door, I knew he hid here often in order to avoid her.

“Alice needs to be alone right now, Ava.” I heard my father say to her. His mom obliged and instead offered to make dinner for all of us. The sky beyond my window was darkening, casting moonlight against the letters our mother had sent to us before she left. The burned edges still smelled of smoke. It was a result of my choice to burn them until I changed my mind and put out the fire.

Sebastian came in and set down the stuff we had gathered for Alice while Ves held her in the car. She knew she would be staying with us now, but this only made her burst into screams again.

I gestured at Vesper, who sat on my window sill, to get Alice. He made his way through a floor of books, movies, clothes, and school work, before reaching my bed and lifting her small frame. She fought him, but eventually gave up as he set her down on my bathroom floor. Her head found the toilet and vomited twice.

He nodded and left, closing the door behind him as I made my way to her. My voice cooed to her as I stripped her down, placed her in the shower, and turned it on.

“Please.” I pleaded. “I won’t lie and say it’ll make you feel better, but you deserve to be clean. I’ll be back in fifteen.” I reassured her and left.

Vesper met my eyes before letting them go instantly.

“I’m assuming you’re not going to say hello to your mother.” I suspected quietly and he shook his head.

Alice’s violent weeping could be heard through the water and I rushed to the other room to meet my father who was still in his work suit. He pulled me into an embrace and I greeted Vesper’s mom.

The counter was littered with gifts and flowers from her shop next door for Alice, which were next to plates of spaghetti she had prepared.

“Thank you.” I directed at her.

Sebastian nodded to me, his hands were against the counter just as mine were. I pulled back quickly, reminded of the memory when I saw the matching ink on our wrist.

I gathered a few gifts and two plates before returning to my room and placing them on my bedside table. I found Alice sitting on the toilet cover, halfway decent and in need of comforting. I slipped her into one of Sebastian’s oversized shirts and carried her to the warmth of my bed covers. She had stopped crying to take in the world around her.

Her small, white knuckles clenched her dinner plate too roughly and her brown eyes fought to see beyond a layer of water. Her small body rocked back and forth. A disarray of red hair stuck to her damp cheeks and the swollen creases of her eyes drooped.

“I felt a force at the house when they came to take her like she was being taken by multiple beings.”

“I felt something in the air as well.”

“It’s because we’re aware now, isn’t it?”

“I believe so.” I replied.  

“I have no one.” Her last words strained out as if she was choking on rocks.

The next two weeks were difficult and heartbreaking. I spent the first week dismissing school with Alice, distracting her with talk about prom and Spring Break making their appearances in April. My room had become a claustrophobic cave. Half of Alice’s stuff was unpacked and the other half occupied my closest.

By the second week, Alice claimed she was ready to go back to school. Vesper stayed at my house with her while Sebastian and I brought back the work.

Daily, Vesper told us about how Alice snuck out when he took his naps. He said she walked back to her grandmother’s home and watched it. She admitted the fact to him, which gained his trust and he allowed her to keep visiting after she promised she was okay.

On the third week, we all attended school again. The days we had missed were excused, especially since graduation and exams were the main concern at this point. Most of the seniors decided to skip anyway.

This Friday after school, I agreed to go with Alice to visit the home. She wanted to go inside today and had already called two trucks to empty the place.

She slipped her car keys into my hand and we both slid in. Vesper and Sebastian’s cars were missing, indicating that they had already left to Alice’s old home to help with the heavy lifting.

“Lori buried her ashes with me after I gave her the last paycheck. I realized I’ve felt so down because I was thinking about my parents and the accident.” She informed me as I drove and then stared blankly out of the window.

“I’ve visited their graves, many times, but I think I’ll give it a rest. It doesn’t make me feel better.” She admitted.

“You’re a wise woman, Alice. You are mourning for three. You should do whatever it takes to help you recover.” I reached over for her hand and we drove in silence to the neighborhood.

I was grateful that we were late. Sebastian and Vesper had loaded up half of the house into the trucks and the other half into a donation vehicle according to Alice’s lists. I watched a woman in a suit talk to Alice about contacting distant relatives to deal with financial matters until she came of age this year.

Walking into the house felt uncomfortable. It was perfectly clean with no trace of the happy energy that existed between Alice and her grandmother in the home. Alice sauntered through the house and observed the rooms. Recognition must have caused her heart to plummet, even with the lack of furniture.

I saw chaos unfold in front of me. Alice bit back the sob that sat on the edge of her tongue and began to stutter. Her hands flurried around in her satchel bag, searching for lost keys and some hope that this was a dream. I pulled the bag from Alice, found her car keys, and insisted that I drove.

Her hands reached into her bag and pulled out a piece of parchment out of a thin, crisp envelope. She read the contents under her breath.

“Upon her request to be cremated, this letter is to notify Alice Hudson about the location of important documentation.” She croaked.

She let out a small gasp and her palms wiped away the wet tears under a set of dark, cold, and beautiful eyes. The decision to bring her inside the home so soon was irrational on all of our parts.

She eyed the keys in my hand, but instead took off running. After a few brushes of wind against my shoulders, I had passed the neighborhood entrance sign in an attempt to follow her. I ran around various corners trying to reach the petite girl. The sky was frequently changed from a dull sheen to a sudden glow of sunshine that washed over the area.

I found Alice at the grand park. Her body heaved against the trunk of the tree. I hopped the low black fence encasing the large field. Low giggles and screams surfaced from the playground a few yards away and echoed throughout the area.

I scanned the giant oak trees scattered amongst the lush area. A stone fountain was constructed near a small bridge that stretched over a river stream. I collapsed against the trunk next to Alice.

She leaned into me, red hair splaying all around my face, which led me to smile. Strangers were dissecting her home right now and I could never understand that. I accepted the fact that the world was built on top of forces we’d never fully understand and sighed nervously. Alice eyed me with a look full of sorrow and acceptance, before groaning against the tree. The tiny smile that appeared on her lips within the next moment assured me that she was stronger than this situation.

The quietness of the park shadowed over us and we sat for hours. My phone vibrated against my leg with updates from my brother and Vesper, while Alice slept. I enjoyed the idea of her being in a state of peace, even if it was temporary.

Rustling in the tree above us caused my eyes to wander up and I waited for a squirrel to sprint down and panic at our appearance. The rustling silenced and then grew even louder than before. This time black drool molded itself into the tree bark like sap, and I jumped to my feet. My movement startled Alice, causing her to roll over in response.

It wasted no time leaping down from the branch and crashing against Alice with an incredible amount of impact. I shoved into it, using my body to conceal it from the public. I hadn’t thought about bringing any weapons.

Alice was scaling the tree. She climbed up to the high branch the Interceptor had originally been on. I stalled to give myself a chance to find something sharp. My nails dug into its tainted skin, grabbed a hold of its spine, and pulled. I stifled a grunt to avoid drawing any attention. Its skin burned my flesh and I yanked my hand out.

The Interceptor clamped at my neck and I dodged, securing a hold on its eye and twisting. Ooze dripped down. I had to finish this fast; there was no room for error or explanations to bystanders.

Alice’s dainty feet slammed against the ground with a thump. She provided herself with a weapon. Her body slammed into the Interceptor, knocked it off of me, and prodding its skin with a broken branch.

I looked for a chance to interfere, but there was no opening. She straddled the beast and didn’t hesitate to attack. A thud sounded from the hard slam of the branch’s bottom into the Interceptor’s skull. It rapidly twitched and swung its tail into the side of Alice’s face.

The red mark was already beginning to bruise her cheek. I dashed into the space, jumped into the air, and let the heel of my boot find the back of its neck. It flailed again and crashed its whole body into mine. My back scratched against the bark behind me.

Alice had stumbled up with a red cut through her eyebrow. Although, that didn’t stop her from lifting up a flat stone and bashing it into its skull. It finally shimmered away.

I looked at Alice who was panting hard.

“Caspian and Crystal, I want to see them again.” She breathed out.

Reflexively my hand rubbed the paper I had convinced Vesper to let me keep. It was deep in my back pocket and I carried it daily. My eyes scanned the address before handing it over to Alice, the girl who had encased herself in a shell to avoid feeling any and all pain.

I used to think that I lived a dull, depressing life, but all that had changed the day we met the other hunters. The next morning, we had stopped by the biscuit shop for breakfast and I found myself traveling with the others in the back of Vesper’s gray and black Jeep Wrangler towards potential trouble.

The address led us to a small lodge by a lake on the edge of Washington. The noises of the trains were close by, signaling that whoever decided to live in such an elegant house didn’t mind the sounds or wasn’t home often.

After driving up a long, gravel driveway, we discovered a polished building made of wood, stone, and glass. It was secluded from Washington’s usual apartments. The modern exterior didn’t diminish the underlying wilderness vibe. The unease that resided in my stomach seemed to vanish, replaced by enthusiasm as I hopped up the steps and onto the porch. Ves pounded on the door using the knocker, pausing only for a moment’s hesitation to decide it wasn’t a set-up.

After a few moments, footsteps shuffled behind the door and it swung open to reveal a short, skinny lady with rich fair locks.

“I presume you all must be the ones involved in the parlor incident with two of our hunters? Thank you for finally coming, I’m glad we were home. Hello, my name is Emma. Come meet the others. Please, enter.” Her voice traveled quickly. A tiny, white smile showed behind her pale lips, revealing that she wasn’t hostile upon first glance.

I redirected my eyes at the two story magnificence, envying the wooden balcony that jutted out over the side and above a man-made pond. My shoes sunk into the plush, green grass that established the grounds.

“Indeed. I am Sebastian, this is my sister Scarlett.” He nodded to me and we both extended our hands into her small ones. He introduced Vesper and Alice, who did the same.

Her body pressed against the door, gesturing for us to pass by and we did. My breaths were full of anxiety until Alice slipped her hand into mine when we entered the space. I exhaled.

“You know those stupid people in those movies who make bad decisions? We are those people and this is that decision.” Vesper said from behind me.

“Would you all like something to drink?” She asked.

“Yes, thank you.” Sebastian replied.

Emma sauntered into the kitchen, poured round glasses of iced lemonades, and pulled a tray out of a cupboard. The place was wide. From the front door, the right wing branched out into a large kitchen with a long hallway entrance next to it. I assumed the hallway held the bedrooms. The entire place was a combination of bright orange and yellow wooden frames. The normal décor was thrown off by the axes, swords, and even machetes marking the surfaces at even intervals.

The left wing branched out into the living room that held a long, curving couch facing a flat screen on the wall. A simple coffee table was in front of the furniture. I ran my hand over smooth marble counters and looked at the stainless steel appliances.

When I glanced up at the textured ceiling, I was able to see the second floor from where I stood. It was a partial floor with a slanted set of stairs leading up to an area surrounded by a tall basic frame. Everyone was up there, and when they heard our new voices, they got silent. One girl, who was not Crystal, came to the border and rested her elbows on the surface, staring down at us with an amused glare. She rested her head on her shoulders and the thick caramel curls toppled over the edge.

Only one boy sat on the couch in the main space. His fern eyes lingered on the television before making their way towards us with a look of judgment and assessment. His hand loosened the short French braid his curly, blonde hairs were constrained in.

“I’m Alexander.” He politely waved at all of us. “I’ve been a hunter for three years. Caspian has told us about you all.”

I glanced above to see Caspian moving around on the upper floor. He made his way over to the railing and greeted us. His brooding smirk was more preferable than his grimace when we first met. His dreads were tied back in tangles under a black bandana. He was all bulk and strength. His arm muscles were being shown off in his sleeveless tank, revealing his tattoos once more. He left the edge.

Sebastian and Alice were already chatting with the blond boy. Introductions were exchanged again and I waved goodbye to him and followed Vesper up the steps.

The second floor was basic. Another small coffee table sat in the middle with Caspian and Crystal facing each other on either side. One was drawing on a map and manila folders were strewn on top of the two short couches encasing the table.

One wall consisted of paneled windows that ended at the edge of a large vanity wardrobe which faced the lake. The opposite wall was a wide archway, with intricate carvings on its border, for access to the balcony. I could see two figures talking and looking at the lake, but they didn’t seem to notice us from where they stood.

Four ottomans, each in a corner of the room, were available. I wanted to escape to one, but everyone’s eyes were on us. Multiple bodies stood around gesticulating and mumbling. Caspian cleared his throat and emerged from his sunken spot at the table.

“These are the victims of the parlor incident.” His low voice rumbled and he slipped off his bandana.

“We’re not victims.” Alice spat. She and Sebastian must have made their way upstairs at some point.

“These are the people involved.” Crystal corrected. “Alice, Vesper, Sebastian, and Scarlett.” Her finger pointed at each of us. I envied how Crystal’s body magically poured itself into tight, ripped skinny jeans. Her perfect legs balanced on delicate, velvet heels and her hair was thrown into a dreaded up do.

“Feisty much, are you Strawberry Shortcake?” This came from the girl with the honey complexion who hovered over the railing.

“My name is Zeldyn.” Her hand threw up a wave without fully turning around. She stood barefoot with a slender foot scratching her fabricated leg before slouching against her arms. Her slight curves seemed to fit well in the tank top and shorts that formed against her body.

Alice didn’t respond.

“It’s been over two weeks.” She spoke again. “What took you all so long to realize the enemy?” The sweet voice scoffed.

“Zeldyn, manners.” A man in the corner commented.

“There was a death.” Alice chided her.

At this, Zeldyn turned on her heel, her posture was erect with embarrassed. “My true apologies.” Her gaze locked with ours and then Alice’s before she ran downstairs. Her body brushed Emma, who made her way up with drinks and placed them on the table.

“Sorry about that. She gets awkward and sometimes rude with new initiates. Our sincere condolences. I am Vincent, mainly known as Vince. You’ve already met Emma. We are this groups’ leaders. We’d enjoy having you all in this assemblage particularly. This week when we head back to the Arrow to check the mission boards, we’ll speak with Willow about potential additions if you’re interested.” Vince spoke.

His hair was closely shaved against his dark skin and it led into a darker mustache along with a strikingly handsome goatee. He wore a green flannel and seemed relaxed. They all looked so average.

Condensation was cool against my palm when I picked up a glass and sat on an ottoman. The drink was sour, which helped defuse the tension I felt in this new situation. Emma bit into one of her own cookies before engaging in a short conversation with Vince. Caspian had once again found his sister at the table and the two of them continued drawing lines on a map of the east coast. All the major cities were circled, with arrows pointing towards the next location.

I looked at the Caspian again and the resemblance to his sister was apparent. They both had the same slit eyes, although Crystal’s were covered in a midnight smoky eye, and each had an elegant bone structure that led to fine lips.

My brother took a seat by Caspian, cautiously bombarding him with questions and concerns. Caspian reared back before the faintest of smiles found his face, and he started explaining their world to him.

The conversations died down when the balcony door slid open and the two bodies appeared. One was a female and the other was a tall, slender Asian boy in a vest and boots.

“Oh.” He mouthed. “Company?”

Vince stood and offered introductions. “These are the proclaimed hunters Caspian told us about.”

“I’m Nico Minh.” His voice broke through with a slight Asian accent, one that was disappearing from living in Washington. He took a seat on the ground by Caspian and the others, glancing up momentarily to look at us with dark eyes, before beginning his work. He pulled a long, skinny sheath from under the table and removed a thin sword from it.

“It’s nice to meet you all.” He said. “This is my girlfriend, Amber Lynn.”

“Hello.” It came from a sweet sing song voice. The girl. She stood looking out of the window and at the lake. Her long frizzy waves of black and brunette hair rested on one side of her caramel color. She was busy biting her lip that was glossed over in a light golden hue. A gray detailed rose tattoo was scrawled on half of her neck.

She was dressed in a short black dress and matching black combat boots with white laces. She came over to the center of the room and smiled genuinely. Nico’s voice came out in a muffle when she wrapped her arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek. It left him smiling.

“The pleasure is ours.”  Vesper commented as he made his way silently to the ottoman across from me. Alice ceased her awkward standing for a spot on the railing ledge instead.

“Nico, I swear, would you put that sword up?” Vince muttered. You sleep with the thing. They must think we’ve planned a kidnapping with you pulling that out.”

“We don’t mind.” I spoke gently. “It’s just bigger than the knives we use.”

The boy rolled his eyes and stood up to put the weapon into the vanity wardrobe after collecting the key from Vince. He quickly slid it on top of two protruding pegs that held it up sturdily.

I took a quick glance and noticed even more pegs holding a bountiful of heavy duty weapons.

Holy shit. These guys were serious hunters. I shut my somewhat gaping mouth as he locked the door back.

Vince interrupted my thoughts.

“So you all are fighters?” He questioned. “You’ve seen Demons in their animal form, the Interceptors? And we’re aware you know about the issue at hand.”

“How did you all find each other?” Vesper blurted.

“Through the Arrow,” Amber’s said. “It’s our home outside of home, that is, if we have our own home to go to in the first place. Emma’s house is only a local escape for hunting in the capitol. The stash at the Arrow is much more immense. There is the heavy stuff.”

“The Arrow?” I questioned.

“Home for many, refuge for all.” Alexander called up to the floor we stood on. His voice was hollow and low as it traveled through the air. I stood up to take up a spot by Alice, glancing down to see him sprawled out on the sofa, halfway leaned back in order to watch us.

“To summarize, there is a home to all hunters hidden in the depths of the forest’s natural safety. There we train, learn, and fight for upcoming missions. Anything Demon and Demon related is our specialty. Befriending two Reapers, one who you have already met known as Celtic, helps us gain internal knowledge of their kind. We’ve all joined at different intervals, usually during the rough times in our lives. The Arrow was created plenty of years ago and we’ve become one massive force instead of uncivilized weaklings with no set purpose. The compensation, home, and other hunters, it’s magnificent. Ours isn’t the only one in the world, just in our city. The leaders attend other Arrow chain meetings.” He continued.

They were so open and didn’t hide their secrets. It indicated they were secure and confident about their security.

Zeldyn came upstairs again and smiled warmly towards everyone as she shoved her hands into her pocket. She was much more welcoming than before. Her legs crossed and she sank down by the twins and my brother. Caspian’s shoulders appeared tense with him being so engrossed in the papers he worked on.

“Considering Caspian has informed you all on a lot, I must ask this. Do you all believe?” Vince asked.

My friends and Sebastian confirmed, before I nodded myself.

“Yes, of course.” I turned. “We’ve seen enough proof.”

“Not to mention,” Alex began, “We, humans forget that this is not our world. We were put here on earth by a force and we think just because we create war to claim and dominate other people, lands, and animals, that we know everything about all species. Everything is a mystery that we seek to simplify so our brains can better comprehend our surroundings. Not all mysteries can be deciphered and just because we’ve created a system for humans, doesn’t eliminate the powers and beings that existed before our time.

“Very wise, Alex. The triplets are the current forces in our world and I’m sure there are thousands of others unseen.” Emma took his place in speaking. “The progress report on Tauro is that he has been apparently shapeshifting into lives constantly, although he has been idle since the last incident. We believe this means his progress is coming to an end, a successful one due to the fact that he has been to many major cities in the world during these past few decades. We can be of assistance to each other. We’re always recruiting fighters who are willing to join and we train them with all the power and knowledge we can offer. We give options to confusion.  Except to our understanding, you’ve only fought Interceptors before, not a true Demon.”

“But you all are on an even level with the majority of the hunters at the Arrow. This is rare and new. Our hunters are just as surprised and are learning to adjust to the situation.” Vince said reassuringly. “We are only in charge of this particular group, but the leaders at the Arrow have their own specific groups that take on different missions. As of now, the groups have been traveling to all the cities that had major causalities and are recording the information to bring back for us to decipher at the Arrow.”

“Why do we see them? Is there something wrong with us?” Vesper asked, receiving a laugh from Alexander.

“Anyone can see an Interceptor.” Emma replied without looking up. “The Reapers do their best to shield their world from most eyes, but that doesn’t stop the exceptions. That’s why we must protect those who render defenseless. That’s why we put our lives on the line to keep the people oblivious to the fact that they exist. Many people know about them, even government officials. If a rebellion occurred and Demon existence became public knowledge, the possible warfare that could occur would disrupt our nation. Machines against forces. The officials pay us heroically and generously in order to the knowledge of Reapers and Interceptors a secret.

But now the triplets are finding a way to turn Interceptors into true Demons, those that appear as humans. They’ll end up blending in with our society and deriving the power of our world and our people, if we don’t succeed. And the people who yearn for power and are idiotic enough to know about the evil of Demons and still hand their souls over to them, are vulnerable. A Demon will offer love, fame, desire, money or any greed to someone by trickery, just kill the mortal anyway. They then take the body as a capsule. If a Demon inhabits a body long enough, any life from the original person will vanish, leaving them dead and a soul left instead.”

“The human the Reaper appears as is from their old life. The human a Demon hides in is an inhabited body of protection in order to stay in this world. It’s a stolen, manipulated form that tricks the universe into thinking they belong here. Since the triplets are in mundane bodies, they’re able to be broken down until they’re too weak and can no longer hold onto our realm. They are then forced back to where they belong.” Nico said.

“Does that hurt the human?” Alice asked.

“It’s painful, but it’s an instant death when the Demon succeeds. That’s why they’re less harmful in Interceptor form.

“The triplets are causing havoc once more. They’ve harnessed their power to an unknown forged item that allows them to stay in human form. It’s the reason only one of them acts at a time. It’s been Tauro’s turn for the past year. They then transfer the item to the next triplet and repeat the procedure. It’s what gives them the power to take on the lives of different people and also why they can change forms, hide their wrist burns, voice, and their original look completely. We need to act quickly to save as many as we can. We also need to discover the item and destroy it.” Nico continued.

I saw Alex fidget under the rail. His dirty blonde hair was splayed over the seat and his eyes occasionally flickered up to stare at the ceiling. They looked like void orbs from this angle.

As far as the first triplet, Tauro, he’s gone missing and his brothers haven’t acted either. They’ve used ploys such as possessing museum directors, fine artists, photographers, and all those with careers that need an audience. They’ve thought of crafty ideas and even used them twice. We don’t know what we are up for.” Alex commented.

“So we have to wait.” I muttered. “Until-”

“Until the killings begin.” His cold voice commented. “They’ll be bringing a bloody warm welcome to D.C.”

After our meet and greet, I found myself riding shotgun in Vesper’s Jeep as he cut around Washington’s corners with unnecessary force.

“You drive like a maniac.”

“I can’t help it.” He admitted.

After we left Emma’s, Sebastian took Alice to walk to her old home once more and view its exterior. I had gone with my usual partner in crime.

“I don’t know about you, actually no, I do.” He began. “You love this crazy sense of adventure. These are your books coming to life, aren’t they?” He interrogated me. “Personally, I can’t take in all of this information right now. There are three psycho Demon triplets running around the east coast? Wonderful.”

I frowned.

“But I do like it.”  He bit back a grin. “Despite the unfortunate consequences, I’m happy to have confirmation of forces beyond our control. I like knowing I’m not insane.”

We pulled into an open parking lot with only a few cars sitting stationary given the time.

“Where are we?” I questioned.

He remained silent and got out of the car. I followed him into an alley between two restaurants that reeked of old Chinese and gyros.

“Oh no.” I muttered once I saw him climbing the fire escape against one of the buildings.

“Come on.” He flashed his smile as he offered a hand and pulled me up. I was suddenly grateful for wearing jeans. After creaky steps and rusty metal chips falling in the air, we both stood on the roof of an apartment complex and restaurant combo.  Vesper crossed the tiles until he sat over the edge. He stared blankly at the dissipating blues and whites of the world’s ceiling. I had forgotten how quiet it could be away from the ground. I joined him by crossing my legs and sitting over the edge.

“I have a surprise for you, based on whether you will escape with me. Just for a day. They already said the hunting situation is idle, we can’t help now even if we wanted to. Your brother said he’d take care of Alice.”

“Escape?” I asked quietly.

He pulled out a red envelope and I couldn’t help but cheer up. Our tradition was to scour the internet for nearby concert venues hosting our favorite bands. I thought back to the first concert Ves had taken me to at a venue in Richmond, our preferred favorite. Then he took me again and we became addicted.  I remembered when I brought him to the park swings to reveal tickets for a show in Norfolk.

“Wait,” he stopped me before I tore it open. Another similar envelope emerged from his jacket’s inner pocket.

“You’re kidding.” I stared at him with awe.

“We all need a break. Sebastian got Alice festival tickets for the same day.” He grinned.

I tore open the envelopes and read the names on the tickets. They were for two of my favorite bands playing in April at a club in D.C.

I reached over and locked my arms around his neck before toppling against him.

“I can’t believe you got these.” I muffled into his face, laughing so hard that I almost began to choke. My smile stretched from ear to ear and I crushed him with all of my weight. He laughed, pulling my hair from his lips. I felt guilty, feeling so relieved in a time of despair.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you up here, I’m glad you didn’t pull us both over the ledge.”

“This is insane.” I steadied my breaths, realizing he had succeeded in distracting us from the world of the unknown.

“First one is this weekend, April first.”

“You are so, you, for this. This will be great. I don’t know how I’ll be able to get through the school week knowing this. They were sold out.”

I watched him in silence and then looked at the light casting shadows against the buildings. Life was okay. I think.

“Thank you.” I grabbed his hand.

………

I ran over the tickets in my hand and smiled gently. I was back in bed and my dad was missing with Macy. Sebastian had come back home without Alice, and Vesper had to go home after his mother left a series of angry calls on his cell. It was weird not having him in the apartment. I went to the kitchen for dinner and questioned where Alice’s gifts were. Alice was missing as well, so I assumed she had stepped out. The only choice I had left was to return to bed and relax.

I reverted to my room with a sandwich and opened the leather bound book Vesper wanted me to read. After scanning the first entry, I threw the book. Vesper was being a cynical liar. The book flung across the room and landed on the ground.

“Sebastian!” I called for him, but heard nothing.

He must have fallen asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Hey Scar,

 

I invited you to a show at a D.C Club to get your mind off things. Your world’s getting erratic. You introduced so many new characters and symbols. I don’t understand it all just yet and need to make some more connections.

You killed off Alice’s nana and afterwards you spent time comforting her. Time seems to be different in your world too, but I don’t think it can advance too far in the timeline. I think this goes back to your old friends and how you wanted to comfort them as best as you could, even if you were torn apart.

You placed Sebastian in a simple situation. He was fixing his car. A mundane task that he never grew up to be able to do. His truck doesn’t exist. My answer to that is simple. You miss him and wish he grew up.

Thanks for making my mom so nice in your world. She’s such a sweetheart there and I hope that’s because you want me and her to get along better. Today you blacked out at the Gardens near the arboretum.

I’ll start with Emma. I think she’s your new motherly figure. Your mind has allowed you to take qualities that you wish for in a mom or loved in yours, and created a person from that. Emma is the serene, warm presence that comforts you and reminds you that all is okay. So it makes me wonder if Vince is a different version of your dad. The one who stays with your mom.

I’m not sure about the others yet. I’ll figure it out. I’m sorry I can’t write more. My mom demands me to come home. I’ve been here for days and I need to get some work done. Stay strong, I want to bring you back to us.

Chapter Seven

 

The week dragged on at an incredibly slow pace and tested the amount of patience I had left. The minutes of the day seemed to be stuck in a deserted wasteland, making every day an agonizing process of homework and updates from Emma and Vince. I spent the time taking notes, preparing for tests, and conjuring up any last minute art and film projects for my elective classes. I was honestly ready to graduate.  

I sat in the comfort of my bed now, painting red to my nails and balancing a book between my toes. A cup of tea released steam on my bookshelf. Today marked April first, signifying my road trip with Vesper. It also finished another torturous week of school and weekly updates from the Arrow’s clan or cult. I was happy for a chance to escape.

My dad gladly accepted our trips, although Vesper’s mom always resisted him leaving, but could never stop him knowing that he’d return. I didn’t think she liked me much. It was five in the evening and I knew Ves would be here soon to get to the seven o’clock show early. I eyed my adventure bag with pride. It was stuffed to the brim with layers of food, holding all the gummy, crunchy, salty, sour, and sweet goodness that could satisfy taste buds for a three hour cruise down the coast. Luckily, the concert took place in the city, relieving us both from the typical drive down to Richmond. Meaning the drive to only be an hour to a more urban part of Washington, but I still packed for the wild. My wallet, chargers, cassettes, and phone were deep in the bellow of my bag’s belly. I topped it all off with a pair of sweatpants, the tickets, and a jacket to satisfy the weather conditions when one of us made the drive back during the early morning. The show ended around midnight.

In a way, I embraced the twelve A.M drives back home from an amazing night. The adrenaline kept us going long enough to stay awake. It was the feeling of being invincible that I wanted to experience. Vesper barged in on cue, grabbing one of my records and throwing it into place, letting an upbeat song play throughout my room.

“Jeep leaves in five.” He smiled.

He had settled into jeans, a dual colored sweatshirt, a man bun, and Vans. I rushed to my closet, hoping my nails were dry, and chose an outfit while he sat on my bed. I slipped on a thin blue sweater and ripped shorts with black leggings, before dipping my toes into a pair of blue Vans. I looked pretty.

My hands explored my hair, shaking out the curls to create a soft look. Vesper got up, organizing a stack of developed film pictures he left here and then he was next to me, grabbing my hand and spinning me around to the music.

“Stop.” I laughed as he spun me around over and over, moving his feet to the sound. I stood on his toes.

“Where are Sebastian and Alice?” I murmured when he pulled me into his chest.

“They left already to the festival. Caspian and Crystal even joined them, just like you said I told you, remember?”

“I didn’t know they were capable of having fun.” I whispered with a small smile.

“I don’t even know them very well.” Ves said coldly.

“Oh.” I hesitated.

“Let’s go.”

I grabbed my bag and followed him out the door, wishing a brief goodbye to my dad who sat on the couch with Macy in his arms.

“Bye you two. Drive safe, be safe. Oh Ves, is your mom okay with this?”

Vesper laughed. “No. But I do have her permission.”

“That’s enough for me. Have fun.”

Macy curled into his arm with a childish grin as if she were stealing my dad. My eyes rolled back as far as they could go until Vesper encouraged me towards the door.

The horrible part about road trips was the remaining half of an hour left when our stomachs were full and the sights blended together.

Vesper was behind the wheel singing along with a cassette. The sky darkened at the appearance of six o’clock and we still had another seventeen miles until we reached the club.

“How was your school week?”
“It was good.” Vesper said basically. “I got some baseball practice in with my old team afterschool which was refreshing. How was yours?”

“Decent, aside from Alice.”

Vesper raised an eyebrow. “Oh, the death.”

“Is it wrong that we’re going on this trip while she mourns?”

“I’m sure she’s fine.”

“You said she’s going to the festival.”

“Yeah, because you said so on the roof.” I replied.

“Right…” He paused.

I gave him a few details about the week that he didn’t already know. “One of my old co-workers asked me to hang out.”

“Really?”

“Indeed. I think I’ll hang out with him. I feel like I’ve been bothering you lately.”

“No. You’re never a bother, but if you think it’s a good idea, then feel free. It’ll be nice for you.”

“Okay.” I said quietly, looking out the window.

Vesper stopped at a drive-thru for donuts and I felt like rolling over to sleep for at least half of an eternity. I rested my eyes for a few moments and opened them again when the bright skyline danced across my vision. They blurred with black streaks, and I gave into the slumber that was seducing me again.

 

………

 

“Yes!” Vesper yelled out into the night. His eyes were full of happiness as we drove into the city. His GPS called out directions by interrupting our music. Moments later, we were parked.

I grabbed my deflated bag and pulled out the tickets from my jacket. We ran across streets before the lights turned green and jogged in the direction of the venue. We were about ten minutes late, but the opening bands always played first. The blue and black square sign was in view as I pulled Vesper into the entrance, panting. This was the kind of excitement that felt like justified living.

People congregated outside and smoked their cigarettes. The bouncer strapped two underage wristbands on us and marked our skins with X’s, before we shoved our tickets into the hand of a lady to scan and went in.  

It was just as I always remembered it. We walked straight into a room that gave a preview to the moving bodies and blinding lights. It wasn’t like the venue in Richmond, where a grand staircase was on either side of the entrance doors to allow access to the balcony.

Hormonal bodies were packed into the small standing space and bouncers stood guard in front of a gate blocking the stage. The balcony held those who insisted on watching the show from above. Vesper pulled me past the small sitting area in the back where the bitter smell of alcohol dominated the air.

He pulled me through the massive sea of yelling bodies. We pushed to get closer to the stage; the further we got to the front, the tighter the bodies became. We paused when the place turned pitch black to signal the bands’ arrival. Ves became reckless with his movements and used his shoulder to shove past strangers in the dark.

The lights came on again and Vesper stopped, his hand skimming my side to push me in front of him. The bands’ equipment crew set up their instruments and I let out a scream into a chorus of others. I heard Vesper’s chuckle behind my neck. We were near the stage.

High pitched screams erupted as the lights dimmed down again, and the members from one my favorite bands came on stage with shadows hiding their faces.

“Hello D.C and thank you!” The singer whispered hoarsely. His famous British accent sweetened his words. I screamed again and this time I heard Vesper let out a victorious yell.

Neon lights beamed around and lasers frantically moved across the crowd when the guitarist started with one of their favorites. The lad started singing and my body gave into the vibrations that the music created. Lyrics swam in my ears and I sang out while waving my hands.

This went on for three more songs. My hearing dulled out and Vesper’s voice became a low murmur against the clear sound of the bands’ excellence. I swayed against his body as other people pushed around us. We stood our ground firmly, his chest served as an armored wall behind me.

My eyes squinted at the lights as each song played and my body willingly gave into the scene of the club. People on the balcony stood and cheered after each song, and a couple hours passed by with ease. I only had time to catch my breaths in between breaks.

A crunch sounded under my foot and I assumed that I stepped on glass. It was probably just a leftover drink. A slimy feeling brushed down my leg and wetted my leggings. I shuffled out the way and Ves steadied me. Another song came on and I let out my screams again, pausing momentarily when a hair raising scream emerged from nearby. I looked back for Vesper’s confirmation on whether or not he had heard it. He nodded. The hair on my body stood rigid, but I kept on singing. Another high pitch scream escaped, and I believed it was just annoying, drunk fans.

A slump body hovered next to us in a drunken stupor and landed against Vesper and me. Its face was torn down the nose with one side missing skin. The half skeleton stained my arms with rivulets of red. My eyes widened in horror. The traumatized crowd couldn’t seem to pull their eyes away from the scene. After the people reached an epiphany, they bottlenecked to the entrance. A tiny uproar formed in my head when I touched my nose and discovered that it was covered with a pinkish layer of blood. The shock and impact forced me to spit blood from my mouth.

The body belonged to a man with multiple puncture wounds. He was now on the ground, unmoving.

“I know it’s happening again! The world is doomed once more. They’ve returned!” A woman with thick red hair screamed out. At this point, the band was now missing, presumed to have run backstage after leaving in an abrupt panic.

I felt Vesper’s grasp around my wrists. It was so tight that he created red pressure rings on my arms when he dragged me back.

“They’re here, they’re killing, and my friends are dead!” She cried out between sobs. “Leave while you can! Evil is uprising!”

Everyone was already gone. A handful of bodies remained trying to push through the masses at the exit. Punches flew that resulted in bloody eyes and split lips during the desperation to escape. Vesper backed us against a corner wall, waiting for the crowd to clear so we could escape as well since we had no weapons.

Maybe this was all an April fool’s joke, but band venues didn’t take well to humor or dead bodies.

The woman was sobbing. Her dress was torn and her hair was a tangled mess of dirt and debris. Her lip was swollen, cut, and bleeding. She pulled herself up, staggered to the man, and fell on top of him. She screamed louder. A gaseous substance formed around the two of them.

Minutes passed until the room had emptied. The band and crowd were gone, and I was crouched by Vesper behind a curtain. We were watching a lone man stand in the middle of the wet floor. It was one of the guards who protected the stage. His blond hair was slicked back and his biceps bulged in a black shirt that was too small for him. He let out a mangled growl, and the few stragglers that were stranded on the balcony fell over its edge; their heads now bashed into a floor layered with alcohol. At least three bodies were on the ground now, dead and bleeding out from one crevice or another.

He watched the dead man and crazed woman intently, before slowly stepping towards her and placing his hands on the back of her neck. Talons intruded her spine, paralyzing her before snapping her neck. I stifled a scream of my own. Vesper’s hands covered my mouth.

A black shimmer appeared behind the man, and another male with a slick black ponytail appeared who surveyed the scene cautiously. His eyes were completely white until his irises flickered to red, gray, and then black. His eyes grew large at the man facing him and his fist made contact with the guard’s face, creating impeccable damage. I controlled my breathing, the back of my head was wet with beads of sweat that dripped down. The guard gasped in agony and retaliated the blow, making impact with the other man’s hand when it blocked the punch.

At this angle, I realized the man in the ponytail was Celtic. I fought the urge to run out and watch the brawl unveil before me. I wanted to cry out for Celtic to kill him if he could.

A devilish smirk rested on the guard’s lips and he let out a fury of punches that targeted Celtic’s face. The Reaper returned the move. He then kicked the guard’s face and slammed him onto the ground.

The guard pulled Celtic down with him and flipped him over, slamming his head against the stage before disappearing behind it. Celtic leaped up after his attacker. I let out relieved sighs, my head falling back against Vesper.

“Celtic is here, because of the deaths. That guard must have been-”

“Yes.” Vesper answered.

We sat there quietly until Celtic returned to the bodies and kneeled against the corpses. His hand covered their hearts and turned them into silk. He placed them in his palm until it vanished. His other palm hit the ground and created a shimmer, which then erased the unnatural blood and grime off the floor.

I bolted towards Celtic.

“He escaped?” I asked.

Vesper emerged from the curtain.

“Oh.” Celtic spoke, low and dark. “You all have found yourselves in this situation again I see. Yes, he has escaped by transporting himself, which is a power only Reapers have. That proves his strength, but he can only transport a limited amount of times, I can feel his energy being drained. This is his first appearance since I last saw your group. Report to the Arrow, now. I will report to their ultimate leader, Willow, within the next moment. Get to safety.”

We both stood, waiting for nothing.

“Report to the Arrow, now.” His cold voice repeated.

It was difficult driving back in anticipation of a response from Emma or Vince. My hands clenched the wheel until my knuckles turned white. Nightfall had hit and my eyes were alert in the darkness. Vesper’s blank eyes glazed over the edge of his Jeep until he grew tired. His head occasionally bobbed when he resisted his brain’s request to sleep. I slipped on the jacket and sweats in my bag so I could drive in comfort.  

I only stopped twice, once for gas and then to text Vesper’s mom, telling her that we stopped at a hotel for the night due to fatigue. But in truth, I planned on driving straight to Emma’s until she took us to wherever Celtic had told us to go. It must have been convenient for the Reaper to travel the world in a matter of seconds, even if it was to steal away expired lives.

Tonight, a lead was discovered and I was accelerating all the way back home for answers. This conspiracy was truly affecting our lives now.

Drowsiness threatened my consciousness, but I was relieved to see familiar buildings and signs.

The hardest part was finding my way back to Emma’s by the sights. I only remembered her home being on Washington’s edge near a pond. It was too early in the morning for directions. Vesper’s frame hunched against his seat unconscious. Sebastian had the groups’ numbers, except he was probably at home asleep. I focused on the landmarks.

After an hour of lost driving, I found the hidden loft because of the inner lights that illuminated the whole home despite the hour. A train horn sounded, camouflaging the sound of the Jeep’s engine shutting off. I stepped out of the car and left Ves behind.

I pounded against the door, ashamed of the how rude an unexpected visit was at this time. Alexander answered with a peculiar look on his face.

“Hello Scarlett.” He greeted. “This is an odd hour for you to show. Although, I presume since your brother and friend are still here studying the maps, I shouldn’t be too surprised.”

“Sebastian and Alice are still here?”

He nodded. “Please come in.”  He slid past my body to allow me inside and peeked out into the Jeep.

“Are we bringing him in?”

“Not yet.” I rushed. “Where are the leaders?”

“They both went to the Arrow with Caspian and Crystal to speak about you all.”

Zeldyn appeared at her usual spot on the railing edge above.

“What’s wrong?” She questioned.

“It’s dire. Vesper and I just returned. Something happened at the club. There were two innocent deaths and Celtic appeared. There was this creepy guard and a fight broke out.” I tried to pace myself as I spoke.

“Two deaths?”

“More. The guard killed a woman and a man, I’m sure of this.”

Alexander stiffened and stared up at Zeldyn.

“Hey Scarlett, are you okay? Where’s Ves?” My brother came downstairs to greet me. Alice appeared by Zeldyn’s side.

“Where are Amber and Nico?”

“The Arrow as well, they went with the twins to exchange their weapons.” Alex muttered. “Zeldyn, call Emma. Tell her we’re bringing them to the Arrow and tell them that there was another incident.”

“But we haven’t received Willow’s approval yet.”

“They’ll understand given the circumstances, this is important.” Alex shoved items in a duffel bag and shut off the lights in Emma’s home. Alice and Zeldyn stampeded down the steps, Alice said hello and rushed out the door.

“I’m glad you’re okay.” Alex mumbled to me as I followed him and my brother outside.

“Thank you. Celtic said he would report to Willow immediately. I’m sure he’s already at the Arrow.”

Alex’s brow furrowed. “We aren’t supposed to be taking you all there, but it is an unusual and urgent situation. Emma and Vince were already discussing showing you our true home, but it’s just happening a little sooner now.”

Alex stopped in front of the Jeep.

“I’ll sit on Vesper.” I offered and he cringed.

“Okay.” He murmured. “Does he mind if I drive his Jeep? We can take my car, but we’ll have to move him into it and there’s no room with the low ceiling.”

“He’ll get over it.” I tossed his keys to him and hopped onto Vesper, who stirred, but did not wake. Sebastian and Zeldyn sat in the back with a small Alice resting on top of them. Zeldyn’s hands were on top of her legs.

For a moment, the darkness took me back to the parlor. Not being able to see as we moved in a direction I wouldn’t be able to recall was fearful. It felt like a ten to fifteen minute drive. My head fell back against Vesper who was half asleep, but I still tried to make out the shapes of our surroundings. How could my home in Washington feel so unfamiliar now?

The sound of tires against the road ceased when we hit a bump that threw us in the air with ease. The tires drove across something softer now, soundless. It went on like this for minutes as we drove into what felt like a new beginning. I looked up and saw a massive gathering of trees forming a circle around us. Alex had to be driving on a field. The grand oaks served as a shield for the Arrow. More minutes passed by until he cut the engine off. The sounds of the forest were concise. Vesper woke up confused when I jumped out of his lap and car.

“We have to walk.” Zeldyn told us. “It’s deep in the heart of this forest for our safety precautions.”

Alex and Zeldyn took the lead and maneuvered past trees, bushes and stones. Sebastian explained as much information as he could to Vesper. I felt myself walking on grass, which then turned into a makeshift trail of leaves that pricked my legs.

Even in the darkness, I was amazed at the structure. We were brought to a tall stone tower. A glass panel ahead of us exposed a boy who stared down with concern. A black metal fence encircled the Arrow, reaching the heights of the clouds.

“Hello Tristan.” Zeldyn said.

“Zeldyn. Alexander.” The boy spoke. “Who are these people?”

“Initiates belonging to Emma and Vince. They weren’t given approval yet, but they have just returned with insight on a couple of deaths caused by Tauro. We need to see our leaders immediately.”

The boy stalled before slamming a button. The gates opened a few feet away from the tower.

“Thank you, there will be no trouble. They are under our leaders’ protection.”

Zeldyn hung up on a phone call I had failed to realize she made. Two bodies immediately came rushing out of the first massive building I saw.

“Alexander, Zeldyn. You’ve brought them to our home, we’d ask why, but it’s too late for explanations. Celtic was here, he said he allowed visual access of the Arrow to our new recruits because they discovered new information. Scarlett, darling, if you don’t mind staying up with us for a few moments to recall the night’s events so we can begin researching. You may spend the night with us. We’ll find your friends a room after we speak, then we’ll let you rest. We can have a better questioning in the morning.” Emma spoke quickly.

I nodded.

“Willow, does she know?” Zeldyn questioned.

“Yes.” Vince answered. “She wants to meet us tomorrow, but for now, she wants to properly acquaint our guests.

Regardless of the dimly lit fluorescence that shadowed the Arrow in a veil, I knew we were in a place bigger than ourselves. I felt tiny in the massive structure. We were led through a door and up two flights of steps. I recalled the events to Emma, trying to include all of the details.

Vince unlocked a room, and gestured for Sebastian and Vesper to enter.

“Two beds per room and bathrooms are on each level. Since you haven’t toured yet, call us if there are any needs. Otherwise, we’ll reveal the place tomorrow. Please, don’t wander, if we can have your trust on that.”

I had finished my story for Emma and I saw her head bobbing fast. “Thank you.” She unlocked a room and offered it to Alice and me.

We found the light switch, amazed by the simple beauty of the room, before we both fell into the beds. I didn’t want to question my surroundings or get up and investigate this strange place I had to sleep at. I let the thick blankets accept my presence and sank into my dreams which seemed more realistic than my own reality.

 

………

 

“That was intense.” I shook my head, tiredly.

“I’m sure it was.” Vesper was in the driver’s seat. His knuckles clenched the wheel so hard that they were lacking blood flow.

“Wait, what? I thought we were at the Arrow. We were spending the night. Why are we going back home?”

“The Arrow?”

“Yes, Vesper. The Arrow.” I said angrily. “The Arrow, damn it. The concert. There was an attack and we hid, but Celtic came to attack the man. You were asleep and we all went to the Arrow.”

I kept telling Vesper more information and felt my temper searing.

“Why are you doing this?” I screamed. “Why are you and my dad making me unimportant? You’re not listening, you’re not paying attention!”

Vesper almost swerved on the road and I shrunk as a response. His arm slammed against my chest when he hit the brakes hard.

“Scarlett! Calm down!”

“Why are you doing this?” I shrieked. My heart was beating against my ribs and I felt a panic attack coming on. Why are you pretending, Vesper? Why are we going home?! We were at the Arrow. There were murders at the club, what’s going to happen? Where are the police?” I inhaled sharply and my lungs burned.

“Calm down!” Vesper yelled, and for once, I was hurt by his voice. I looked at him with awe, scanning his timid eyes above a harsh facial expression.

“I can’t do this.” He said defeated. “I just…”

“Pull over. Now.” I said seething.

My bag was already in my hand and I was out of his car, ready to walk home. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t understand Vesper’s apathy to our situation and the trauma that had been raining down on us. I debated on calling Sebastian or Alice to pick me up, but I didn’t since they were both at the Arrow.

Vesper’s neck had a throbbing vein ready to burst when he swerved the Jeep into a park next to the sidewalk. When I didn’t get back in, he was driving behind me, calling out sympathetically.

“Just get back in the car, so we can talk. Scarlett, please. I’m sorry, but you should be too.”

“I read a page in the journal you keep urging me to look at.” I stopped and looked at him, my eyes soaked in water bubbles. “You’re a dick. You know that? What you say about Sebastian. I thought you both were friends? Now he’s dead to you? Stop talking about my brother like that. Stop coming around for now, Vesper. I know when I’m a burden. I’m messing up your ideal life of being the high school jock god with the perfect girlfriend who goes to college and becomes a professional baseball player. You don’t need to hang out with the weird one, okay? I’m strange and awkward, and you know what? I love it. So, I release you from your contract or whatever favor you’re doing for my dad. Just leave me alone. I can’t take your lies.”

“We’ve been friends for years, Scar! The only one lying is you to yourself!”

By now, a tear had fallen and I was ready to crack. My ears numbed out his words as I took a shortcut down an alleyway to get back home without him following me.

My escape was unsuccessful. He had driven around the path and was waiting at the front of our street by the time I got back.

“Just stop and let’s talk!” He growled, having trouble keeping his anger subsided. His arm reached for mine, causing me to look at the strain in his expression. I had an honest desire to understand. He looked like a child being scolded.

“What’s there to talk about?” I yelled back. “There’s nothing to say. I’m tired of you all isolating me! Macy whores around my house all the time, Alice is mourning, and I’m constantly receiving these sympathized look of pity every time I move or speak. Sebastian is the only one who has empathy towards what we’re going through. We’ve survived a premeditated murder. How do you explain that? Luck? Now we’ve finally found a group that understands and you drive us away from them?”

“Does Sebastian go to school with me or stay home with you?” He asked quietly.

My heart wavered. “He goes to school with all of us.” My voice cracked. Something in my chest made me feel like it was a lie.

“Okay, you’re homebound. Go get one of Sebastian’s yearbook pictures now.”

“We don’t have any.”

“Did Sebastian go to the concert with us?”

“No. You know that, it was just me and you. Stop messing with me, Vesper.” I started hyperventilating.

He pulled me into a hug and pulled out two unmarked concert tickets to the club for tonight. “How do you explain this? The concert’s still going on now. It’s only ten o’clock.”

My right hand was shaking as I touched the tickets in his hand. My mind felt corrupted. Nothing made sense. “I don’t know why you’re doing this, Vesper, but whatever reason you have, it’s sickening.”

I broke from his grasp and ran inside. Chris was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner and looked at me with confusion, but decided not to question me.

After being in the safety of my room, I screamed into my pillow, letting my sobs overtake me. Vesper was addressing the situation with denial. Everything was wrong. He was wrong.

Chapter Eight

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Dear Scarlett,

 

We had a fight yesterday. Your dad let me in after you went to sleep. He said that I told you too much. I was so tempted to tell you Sebastian was dead. I wanted to tell you over and over until you understood, but I knew that wouldn’t be helpful. Except, yesterday you said you read something out of the journal I left you, which means you’re reading it. I’ll keep writing. It’s been almost a year since you opened the journal.

I tried to get more background information on your condition, but it’s all the same. Your dad said you started imagining things a year or two after the incident. You all left NYC and he eventually had to have you homebound to avoid public questioning. Your therapist sessions were identical until he stopped making you go. I stopped by his office with questions, but patient confidentiality kept the answers general. The therapist said something about suppression and schizophrenia.

I think a New York trip would be good for you, plus we can go to the memorial. Chris and I think it might trigger something since that’s where you lost half of your family. Maybe you’ll come to an epiphany. As far as yesterday, we never went to the concert.

I’m not mad at you, just a little tired that we’ve made no progress. If you could help me connect the characters, then maybe there would be an easier way to erase that blurring line of reality and fantasy for you.

I still think the Death figures are your way of reminding yourself to truly live. But tell me, are you truly living by settling in a false place in your mind? Is that a better way to live versus facing the truth? You seem to be selective on the characters you emphasize in your outer world, so I will continue trying to figure out who they represent and will assume that the background characters are unimportant. You have a desire to be loved and have friends since yours keep bailing on you in reality.

You also said the Death figure fought the unnatural human man at the concert. I believe he represents someone bad in your life. So does that mean your desire to live a fulfilling life includes defeating the people that say you won’t achieve what you know you will? Are the Reapers heroes in that world?

I think you’re using Death as an ironic symbol of life and happiness. I say this because Death surrounds the city and also stays at your happy place in nature. He is like a guardian, a dark knight fighting his opposite stereotypical meaning. You’ve given him a new purpose.

I’ll keep pondering it.

I’ll also try to give you some space to the best of my ability. Too much of a good thing right? You’re that good thing for me, but I don’t want an adverse reaction in our friendship.

Not that there’s a deadline, but I hope you’ll improve soon. We could go to college together, travel, and do other ordinary American things like getting fat and lazy. I don’t know. That’s about it for now.

It is two A.M and I really need to get some sleep. I should be working on an English paper so I think I’ll start that now. Don’t hate me for too long, okay? I hope you keep reading my letters.

Yours truly, Vesper.

Chapter Nine

 

The heaviness that infiltrated my body in the morning wasn’t going away. My head was pounding, my body sunk down, and my face looked like I had hibernated all year. I felt like a storm cloud. A song from last night’s concert played in my head and I silently sang while analyzing myself in the mirror.

I asked myself the same question I did every other morning. What was I going to do today that would lead to purpose in my life? I loved reading, but I wanted to create something of my own, like Vesper did with his photography. He could go to school and become someone. He was so talented and attractive. Why did he hang around me?

Vesper. My chest inflamed at the thought. We fought last night and he made us leave the Arrow. Alice and Sebastian are still there, probably training while I’m here at home. I would have to call Alex to pick me up.

Slipping out of my room in a Pokémon onesie, I walked into the hall and heard early morning voices. At first, I thought it was my dad and his girlfriend, but the voices were both male. I quietly groaned. I told Vesper I didn’t want him around.

Curiously, I ease dropped and immediately, I wished I hadn’t. Their words made me feel worse.

“So you guys never made it?” My dad asked.

“No.” Vesper sounded troubled. “That’s why we came back so early.”

“She blacked out on the way there?”

“Yes, I continue to write in her journal. Please read it and add anything that you think will help. Where’s Macy?” He asked.

“I asked her not to come this morning.”

“You guys seem to be serious.”

My dad laughed. “To think I’m talking about this with my daughter’s best friend. I think we are. It’s been a little over two years, and though Scarlett won’t accept my new love, I will.”

“Good for you. She’ll understand, she just needs more time. Have you talked to her about New York?”

“Not yet, I was actually going to ask this morning. You will come with us, right?”

“Me?” Vesper sounded surprised. “It’s a family trip. I don’t think that’s right. I was just going to roll up there solo and meet you guys when you had the time.”

“I’m asking Macy and she’s not officially family. You’re a close family friend. It’s all the same. Will you come?”

“In that case, yes. I’d love to, thanks.”

“We went to the concert last night.” I said from my spot against the wall. They both looked surprised that I was in the room.

“Scarlett.” Vesper straightened to greet me. He looked almost as bad as I felt. His face held a permanent appearance of stress and his hair was a mess. His peculiar eyes were wide with dark circles underneath like a terrified forest animal who hadn’t slept because it was avoiding being eaten. He was in gray sweats and a green thermal sweater. A dark green beanie was slipped over his head.

“We went and there was an attack.” I said factually.

“Scarlett, your dad and I were just talking about going to New York this summer.” He said, dismissing my comment.

“Not with Macy, I won’t.”

My dad pitched the trip like it was a sale. “Two separate hotel rooms, each with two queen beds. I’ll stay with Macy.”

“I’m sure you will.” I snorted.

“It’s been over two years since we started dating. I think it’s appropriate if we share a room.”

“You barely know her.”

“You won’t have to see her.” Vesper said. “We’ll explore New York on our own or you can hang out with your dad and I’ll do my own thing. It’ll be nice to travel there. There’s Coney Island, Brooklyn, and the Statue of Liberty. I can book tickets now.”

“I said I didn’t want to see you.” I turned away from him.

“What do you say Scarlett?” My dad asked.

I shifted my weight while they both watched me.

“Fine.”

“Thank you. You won’t regret it. It’ll be fun.” Chris smiled.

“What are your plans today?” Vesper asked and I slowly looked up at him. My dad decided to leave early for work and told us both goodbye. I sat on the stool across from Vesper and looked him in the eyes.

“Why do you keep saying that we didn’t go to the concert last night?”

“Because we didn’t.”

I bit my lip before repeating the question and getting his same response.

“So you’re still being a dick.”

Vesper didn’t respond.

“Fine.” I said with the most dignity I could in a Pokémon onesie. “You don’t need to know what I’m doing today. I told you that you’re not obligated to hang around the psycho weirdo.”

“I’m not doing it out of obligation. You’re my best friend. I’m going to the gym, are you in or not?”

“No thank you. Plot twist, it probably doesn’t actually happen, huh?” I pulled out my phone and went to my room. I made a quick call and happily emerged back into the kitchen.

“What are you up to?”

“I’m going on a date.” I said simply.

“With who?”

“Why is that of any concern?”

“Because I want to take care of you. I don’t remember you telling me about anyone you’ve liked recently, and you tell me everything. Who are you going with? I just want to make sure you’re okay and safe.”

“Vesper, I’m almost eighteen too, you know? I think I know enough to avoid being intentionally hurt. I’m going out with someone and I’m happy, that’s all that matters.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Are you jealous?” I asked lamely, but a strange feeling evolved in my stomach thinking about it possibly being true.

“No.”

“Then I don’t see an issue.”

He brightened with an idea. “Why don’t you hang out with Alice or Sebastian today?”

I groaned again. “They’re at the Arrow, you know that. You were the one who made us leave. The leaders offered us beds for the night.”

“Oh.” Vesper said, puzzled.

“Yeah.” I replied, disappointed. “Have fun at the gym.” I went to my room again to sit on the bed. I listened to a Peter Pan audiobook until I heard Ves leave. Childish jealously surged through me, and I wished for my own Wonderland or Neverland.

However, I did have a date and planned to enjoy it. I chose black high waist shorts, a red V-neck, and Vans. A black jacket was the final addition to dull down the outfit’s promiscuity. I texted Marlin, my old associate. Disappointment consumed me when he asked to meet at a later time, but I agreed anyway. I heard his Vesper’s Jeep return, but he didn’t stop by.

In the evening, Marlin texted and asked to go to a park. I loved being in nature and a late night walk would be rewarding.

He picked me up and my nerves were jittery.

“Hi.” I smiled at him. I discovered that he hadn’t changed much, wearing a devious grin which spoke sweet words. He was taller, which I liked.

“Hello gorgeous. How are you?”

“I’m well. I think the park was a nice idea. We probably should have gone earlier though.”

“It’s cozier at night.”

“That’s fine.” I said, sinking into the seat to text Sebastian.

“It hasn’t been the same since you quit.”

“How so?” I laughed. “I was too nice there, a little too naïve, childishly annoying, and overly friendly. I hate food service and refuse to go back.”

“It’s been quiet and dull. The usual.”

“Sorry to hear.”

When we got to the park, I quickly wished I wore something warmer. I reached for the handle and Marlin seemed alarmed.

“Where are you going?” He asked.

Panic surged through me. “I thought we were going to the park.”

“And we’re here. We’re not five, what’d you expect, swing sets?”

“No,” I said embarrassed. “But, everyone enjoys walks.”

“Walks?”

“Yeah, walks.”

“Most people would just go to the gym.”

“Then why’d we even come here?”

“Oh you can’t be that naïve? You’re smart, so I know we’re on the same page. You’re a few months far from eighteen, I can’t be seen with you on an actual date or anything.” He laughed and leaned over to skim my inner thigh. I was repulsed.

“Marlin, you have the wrong idea.”

His mouth met mine in a quick movement. Excuses ran through my head for how to get out of the situation, but all words failed me. I kissed him back, but his kisses were forceful. His mouth formed perfectly to mine and I felt warmth tainted with disgust.

I pulled back when he leaned further over the seat to grab the hem of my shirt.

“Wait.”

He kept kissing me.

“Wait, stop.” I pushed him away, but he kissed harder. When I bit his tongue, he pulled back with a sly smirk and grasped my breasts. His left hand pulled down my shirt and exposed me until his mouth was on my skin.

I needed an escape. Damn it, I should have taken Sebastian’s truck and trusted my intuition. I hated not having a sense of independence when I rode passenger with someone.

“Stop.” I squealed and he bit me. His left hand left my shirt and was now around my neck, pushing me against the seat. His hand clenched my throat.

“You’re leading me on.”

“No one’s leading you on, take me home.” I struggled to breathe and I felt liquid run down my mouth. The red drop landed on his neck and he was terrified. He looked at me and wiped the blood off his neck.

“What’s wrong with you?”

I wanted to punch him, but maybe if I stayed quiet, he would take me home. He did exactly that. He drove without speaking to me, instead letting rap blare through the speakers of his car. He stopped in front of my apartment. I wiped my nose on my hand and he grabbed my wrist before I got out.

“Next time, there will be more.” He said with flat amusement.

I wasn’t a reward system. He treated me like some kind of arcade game that disappointed him with how much he won. I slammed his door and went inside, happy to be alone. I went to my room and slept.

 

………

 

I woke up in a tumble of pillows and blankets. Terror ran through my head when I forgot where I was. The familiar stirring of Alice sleeping was my only reminder that we had finally been introduced to the legendary Arrow where a network of people existed.

I drifted off again and when I awoke, the clock by my bed revealed that it was ten-thirty in the morning. I wiped my tired eyes and dragged myself away from the bed. Alice’s bed was empty and she was dressed. I analyzed the room which was simple and habitable. A dresser was in the corner with a lamp and a clock. The queen sized beds faced a closet and a basic TV on one wall.

A knock interrupted my thoughts and Alexander entered after Alice invited him in.

“Good morning ladies.” He greeted. “I can show you the showers, and lend you some clothes. A tour of the Arrow will commence shortly. Afterwards, Emma and Vince will take us to speak with Willow, the leader. It’s a monumental day today. Your friends are already awake. ”

I recalled yesterday’s events, which were downplayed by this comfortable layout of what felt like an enormous hotel. After our showers, we followed Alex obediently down the two flights of stairs again. The rooms were brightly lit to reveal everything. The walls were red with golden borders, and black markings were carved into the wood.

“We’re on the third floor?” I asked, and he confirmed.

The carpet was red and ended at a large paneled window behind a fireplace. There were doors at every interval, indicating rooms. Two double doors were in between a set of doors on the right which must have been the bathrooms.

“The first door on each level is a library. Hunters stay up here in pairs or groups and the leaders stay on the second floor. There’s plenty of extra room for newcomers. The place is huge, we expanded construction to the third level last year. Not all of the fighters live here. Many stay at home with their families and dedicate their remaining time to the Arrow. It’s an ideal isolated location for our jobs. The Reapers keep an invisible dome over us so we’re hidden from other humans in the forest until they’re intentionally exposed. We stay with our specific groups when it comes to missions, but intermingle here.”

A few arm chairs were placed around an impressive glass table that held coffee and tea. A group of people sat there in their gear and talked about preparations for a night mission. The heat from the fireplace warmed the entire level.

Alex led us towards the grand staircase that curved down to the second level. The smooth wooden railing spiraled under my touch as we traveled down.

“Zeldyn has already shown the others this lodge.”

We were on a floor that was full of doors, identical to the one above us. The walls were the same gold and red colors that emphasized the huge fireplace. Four chairs faced a table in the center. I watched black smoke rise from the flames leaping on the logs.

The bathrooms were, once again, placed in between a set of doors.  I peeked into it. A long row of tall showers were on one wall and the toilet stalls were on the other. Sinks were across from the showers and the last wall was covered in full size mirrors. The space in the middle held lockers that were back to back, with benches in front of them. I returned to Alice, and Alex led us down to the last level, the main area.

The large room revealed a total of sixteen black loveseats. Four sets of four were arranged in a square with a coffee table in the middle to create little pods. The pods each occupied a corner in the room. Two flat screens were on each wall. The room itself looked like a modified ballroom, since it was about the size. The décor clashed, the stone walls collided with the painted wooden areas.

We stood at the bottom of the grand staircase, looking at the four way intersection in the room. We walked until we stopped in the center of the intersection. Straight ahead was the front door and behind us were the steps. To the right were locked double doors, and to the left was an archway that led into a wide kitchen.

Alex pointed at the closed doors first.

“The armory, laundry, and safe room are beyond that point. Along with a small medical room with trained officials to care for injuries.”

I laughed at the audacity of the room’s purposes and he smiled too.

“The armory is a room hidden within the laundry room. It’s a weird combination, but it serves as a decoy.”

“Kitchen.” He gestured to the other side. Alice and I walked straight through the archway and into a vast kitchen. Four rows of stools faced two long tables. Marble counters and white cabinets lined three sides of the walls, with large stainless steel fridges placed at their end. An island with surrounding stools divided the eating area from the cooking area. Three men and three ladies, wearing all black, stood in the kitchen. A clock was placed on the wall that read ten to eleven. People were everywhere. Hunters were eating at the table, sitting in the main room, freshening up in the bathrooms, and heading up and down the stairs.

“You guys have maids and butlers?” I inquired.

“More like assistance in the kitchen. We never eat meals as a whole. Too many people and too much to do. They simply take care of the horrible grocery trips for all of our people. They prepare basic meals, keep it clean, and stock things. They only work three times a week and lodging here is included in their payment.”

“That’s nice of you all.”

He nodded we followed Alex to the intersection and out of the colossal stone front doors. He stood on the porch that ran around the entire building with sets of café tables and chair on every corner of the perimeter. My eyes found those in Emma’s group and my friends who were huddled in a circle. I hopped down the steps and turned back to see the miniscule castle.

Wonderful carvings decorated the wood surrounding the stone entrance. A huge burn branding of an arrow rested in the heart of a compass. It was branded at the highest part of the lodge.

“This is exquisite.” I said. The place was beautiful, and the fact that there were duplicates of it across the states, was amazing.

“Imagine getting ready in here during the morning.” Alice grinned at me from her new spot by Crystal.

“I can only. Life in the woods. Forever camping.”

Every inch of the sky was covered by the thick clusters of oak trees. A mesh net hung over the treetops, letting the scattered sky shine through in squares. Trees thrived in the area and provided shade. Thousands of dirt trails branched out around the rocks. Young adults were happily walking around and talking. They were of all different heights, builds, races, and nationalities. Lean leaders walked around with badges, similar to the ones Emma and Vince had.

Lush, green grass surrounded the small hills. A handful of picnic tables were scattered amongst the place to provide more places to talk and sit. Some people dressed in regular wear while others wore gear and were armed.

“This is insane.” Sebastian commented.

“Beyond.” Vesper noted after he broke his gaze from the lodge.

“Glad you all enjoy it.” Alex spoke. “We’ll break up into groups and take a tour. Caspian, Crystal, and Sebastian will start at the arena. Amber, Nico, and Vesper will begin at the hammocks and the lake. Alice, Scarlett, Zeldyn and I will begin at the tower. Ultimately, we’ll all get a chance to practice at the arena. Then in three hours, we will meet with our leaders again, who have requested a meeting with Willow.”

We split up after the talk. Alex and Zeldyn took us back to the field, the one we had crossed last night, where every step had been an unseen movement in the dark.

The black iron fence that horizontally stretched from one unseen side to another across the forest, still stood strong. I had the chance to truly analyze the large tower next to it. It was all stone with a heavy duty glass that was slightly tinted. The boy was perched in a chair at the top with his feet up on the counter. A sword was on the button panel, and he pressed a control that activated an intercom box. His voice was clear and light when he spoke into it.

“Hello once again, Alexander.”

“Hello Tristan,” he greeted. “Officially introducing Scarlett and Alice to the Arrow.” He gestured to us. “I’m sure the others will have you meet their friends shortly.”

“Do you need to exit?” He asked politely.

“No.” Zeldyn answered. “Just starting from the beginning.”

“Gotcha. Nice to meet you guys, hope to see you around.”  The boy’s dark brown hair moved when he furrowed his bushy eyebrows. It seemed like a nervous tick. His eyes left us below.

“As you can see, the Arrow is located at the far end of a long series of fields. Running across them in record time is part of the training.” She winked.

I pressed the side of my face against a metal bar so I could look out at the flat landscape. I admired the clouds that emerged from above the forest and hovered gently over the suspended air.

Alex wasted no time, returning quickly down the path and heading back to the lodge. We made a sharp right onto a new trail and came upon an oversized fenced in arena. It was massive. I was staring at the circumference of a coliseum. At the end of the circle was a large shed, protected by two armed guards.

“Did you guys steal this from Rome?” I asked and Alex rewarded me with an honest laugh.

The arena had a hard dirt floor with barbwire surrounding it. We walked over to an open gate that was near the guards.

“Hello Nadia, Andrew.” Zeldyn said to them both. “We plan to use the arena in thirty minutes. Hopefully, these will be out new recruits. We thought we ought to teach them a few tricks today.”

Both guards wore thick keys on a chain around their necks that paired with the padlock on the shed.

“This is Scarlett and Alice. The others are showing two more of theirs around.

“That sounds pleasant. Not a problem, when you come back, we will have the weapons shed open.”

“Thank you both.”

“This is where we fight, practice, and train.” Alex gestured to the spacious grounds, targets, and the practice dummies that littered it randomly. It’s large enough so multiple people can practice without running into each other with weapons.  I work in here, training mostly.” He said with pride. “Crossbow practice takes place on a specific set of approved trees. The area is taped off so no one gets shot.”

We lingered on the field until Alex led us back around the lodge again and onto one of the two trails to the left.

This one ended in another plush part of the forest, which was even more peaceful. The humongous trees were close enough so that multiple swinging hammocks could be hung up.

My body needed this area. I was eager to sit in a canopy and read until my heart’s needs were fulfilled from stories of adventure. Caspian, Crystal, and Sebastian were laughing at one of the picnic tables.

I felt the black cloth of the hammocks, which was soft and thick, but strong enough to securely keep a body comfortable. Many were sleeping or relaxing. Alex, once again, seemed pleased that we were impressed.

“This is the hammock forest. It was created as a relaxing point. It’s very peaceful when there’s too much stress among the Arrow’s hunters. This was Celtic’s idea to honor his late wife. He and Willow planted these a while ago.” Zeldyn noted, but didn’t elaborate on the Reaper’s background.

At the end of the forest, the grass abruptly turned into sand that led to water. A very beautiful lake gleamed as if the water could be melted down, hardened, and used to imitate silver. The water looked out over the horizon into a blank vanishing line only the ocean could create. I imagined the sunsets and sunrises that could be seen from this view.

Alex stared out at the waters aimlessly. I realized the Arrow was at the end of a forest and the beginning of a lake.

“Sometimes we use canoes to go out onto the water as a pastime. We’re usually too busy for all of that, but we get plenty of chances in between missions.” Zeldyn commented.

To the side, an unnatural gray rock sat partially on the sand and forest area. It was large and flat enough to hold a huge group of people, maybe up to one hundred. Burnt logs were in the middle of it, seeming recently used.

“That’s our bonfire area. We use that for meetings and celebrations.”

“Once again, this place is grandiose.” I stated.

Alex smirked. “You get used to it, but you never stop appreciating it.” Now back to the arena. We will be late for training.” We headed back down the trail.

After seeing the beauty of the lake, lodge, and hammock forest, revisiting the dirt arena to practice seemed much less beautiful. My brother, Vesper, and the others were already there, pulling out weapons from the unlocked shed. They were helping each other strap on the gear and adjust the pieces precisely to match their body types.

Zeldyn, Crystal, and Amber tied their hair into ponytails and Crystal replaced her heels with sneakers at some point. Sebastian, Vesper, and Alice were already fighting.

Alexander had snuck up next to me and began to speak. “Looks like they love our glimpse into the lives of warriors. We’re continuing the legacy Willow started. We’ve taken the idea of defense and evolved it. We are the Arrow, the balance. We learn and think like the enemy. That’s what you have to remember when fighting.”

He shot a sideways glance at me, accompanied by a sweet smile that left me flushed.

“Ready to train? We’re working in pairs, so I hope you don’t mind if we’re together.” He offered and I nodded, following him into the shed.

Inside were high racks and low rows of heavy arsenal. Swords, short and long daggers, axes, compound bows, large crossbows, and butterfly knives were neatly placed on hooks as the shed stretched further back. The ground was lined with duffel bags waiting to be filled with weapons. I left outside again and let Alex pick out the weapons.

I looked around the arena. Zeldyn’s hands were gripping onto her crossbow as she explained crossbow 101 by Alice. They went to the outside of the arena where two thick trees had circular targets placed on the sturdy branches.

Alice stood and watched as Zeldyn aimed for a target with exceptional height. She landed the arrow in the bulls-eye. Zeldyn passed over the bow after a few demonstrations. Alice took it hesitantly and mimicked Zeldyn’s moves. Zeldyn moved behind Alice, lightly grabbing her waist and pivoting her so she took the correct stance.

Her arms skimmed Alice’s as she pulled her into the correct position. Her fingers seemed wishful on the girl’s bare skin. They aimed towards a target on the tree. Hand over hand, the two pulled the arrow back and shot at the lowest target.

“Not too bad.” She said. “Let’s keep practicing, then we’ll change weapons.”

I moved my stare to Caspian, who had immediately started Sebastian on butterfly knife information. Alexander finally appeared, approaching me with a sword that was identical to his.

It was admirable. The hilt was pitch black until sharp silver jutted out and pointed up to the sky. He handed it to me.

“Do you have it?” He asked and I nodded.

“Be careful with that, it’s real. Trip and you take off my arm.” He backed away about ten feet before instructing. “Hold it with both hands on the hilt. Okay, good. Balance it in front of your body and do not drop it. Now bring it down in a slow sweeping arch. Remember, Emma has only allowed this since you all have previous fighting knowledge. Don’t prove her wrong. Typical newbies wouldn’t step in here for at least two weeks.”

I nodded, adjusting to the weight of the weapon and doing as he said. I did this over and over, seeking his approval to stop, but never receiving it. My arms began to ache from the extra weight and repetitive moment.

“Good.” He finally stopped me after about twenty minutes. “Now, keep it low to the ground. I’m coming to retrieve it. You did well, but I’m afraid of your well-being with this thing in your hand. You look tired already. We need to work on endurance and stamina. Onto daggers.”

I felt my arms go limp after handing the sword to Alex who slipped it into its cover. I caught a trace of a smile work its way onto his lips.

Nico was working on proper holding techniques and critical body hits with Vesper by using wooden daggers. Amber and Crystal were heightening their senses while using axes on the trees. Everyone stayed in their own space, maneuvering around the grounds while their weapons rendered strength for them. My eyes wandered off constantly, but eventually returned to a watchful Alex who analyzed me.

“You all may not have needed us after all. You’re doing well with this exercise, but we’re more fun.” He winked, forcing me to suppress a smile. “Next time, we can sprint a few dozen laps up the field.” His empty threat echoed in my ears. I grinned.

“You’re on.”

After two hours passed, a yelp came from outside of the arena. Alice was holding her nose. Blood was trailing down from her nostril and passed into her mouth after she spoke. More blood dripped onto her shirt and left small red stains. She and Zeldyn stood next to a tree with a thousand chop marks. An ax stuck out of the bark.

“Alice!” I cried out.

“I’m fine.” She laughed. “I swung the ax, but then stumbled into the handle.”

“Good god Alice, come on I’ll take you in.” Vesper started to walk over, but Zeldyn held up a hand. “I’ve got it, I think that’s enough practice for today.” She said with concern. “You all did beyond well. We made a lot of progress in such short time. It helps that you all are experienced fighters. I’m going to fix Alice up. If you all want, you can wash up in the bathrooms and meet again in the front of the lodge. Willow wants us in ten.”

“We’ll put the weapons up and meet you all there. In the meantime, feel free to wander and check out the place. You’re welcome to relax, eat, talk to hunters, anything.” Caspian stated.

Zeldyn escorted Alice back to the lodge. Everyone else brought their weapons into the storage shed. Andrew and Nadia locked it up when they were all finished.

“Thank you guys.” Alex said to the guards.

“Of course, Alex.”

Quickly, everyone dispersed. Alice and Zeldyn were long gone and Vesper disappeared. Sebastian, Caspian, and Crystal were easing back towards the lodge while Amber and Nico had gone over to the lake. I decided to wash the smudge off my body and be early for the meeting.

I wandered into the lodge’s first floor bathroom. After feeling awkward with how busy it was, I turned around and headed up to the third floor bathrooms. I hoped that more hunters were in their rooms versus the showers.

My judgment was correct. The stalls and showers were deserted and the majority of voices came from behind the closed room doors.

Dirt washed down the porcelain sink’s belly when I scratched it off my skin. I lowered my face to soak it in water and let the water run down my pores.

I heard the bathroom doors open and ran into one of the stalls, pulling up my feet and staying silent. I felt stupid after realizing that there was no need to hide from those I didn’t know.

Through the crack in the stall, I discovered Zeldyn leaning against a locker. Her arms were above her head while she propped herself against the metal.

“I’m really sorry that you were hurt on my watch.”

“I said it’s alright. It’s my fault.” Alice reassured from her spot by the sink.

“I’ll get you another shirt. Hold on.”

The redhead toweled off her face and waited for Zeldyn’s return. I should have left the stall, greeted Alice, and gone downstairs. However, I couldn’t find the courage. Zeldyn returned and it was too late.

“First day of training and you’re already hurt. It’s a sign that you’re destined to be a warrior.” She laughed confidently. Her slim fingers tugged at the rubber band containing her hair and her locks swished down against her sides.

“I had to throw some clothes around, but I finally found a similar shirt.” She tossed it to Alice. “Is this okay? If not, you can pick out anything in my closet. I’ll wash your tank top pronto and get it back to you.”

“Don’t stress it. This works great, thanks.” Alice said softly.

Alice sat on a bench in front of the lockers. She was directly in front of my hiding spot. She slipped off her shirt, revealing a red lace bra. Zeldyn made an abrupt turn and changed her line of sight from Alice to the side of the locker.

“What are you doing?” She whispered.

“Giving you privacy.” Zeldyn muttered sarcastically.

“Oh.” She sighed. “Maybe I don’t want it.” Alice said boldly.

Zeldyn turned around to raise an eyebrow at the girl. Alice’s vibrant hair fell against her shoulders and Zeldyn walked towards her to gently move it aside.

“Are you teasing me, Alice?” Her usual aggressive tone was back. “I’d rather you didn’t. You may force me to do something I was planning on being a lady about.”

“Then do it. You. Don’t. Have. The. Guts.” Alice spat. Alice’s head fell back against the locker and her hands secured Zeldyn who had suddenly straddled her on the bench. Her lips found Alice’s with a hungry, desperate kiss. Alice was grasping at the fabric of her jeans as Zeldyn’s palms dug into her hips. Alice’s eyelids fluttered when Zeldyn’s teeth got a hold of her neck. They both pulled away.

“I’ve been lonely, Alice.”

“It’s okay,” Alice said, running a hand through her hair. “I have too.”

A few vivid moments passed until they both left the room. I let out a huge sigh, immediately regretting my decision to not make a run for it. I had never imagined being in a more awkward situation. Alice had never told me she favored both sexes. She hadn’t been telling me anything lately.

I slid off the toilet and out of the bathroom minutes later. I was now late for the meeting out front.

The heat of the fireplace brushed against my body upstairs. Out the corner of my eye, I saw Alex leaving a room. There were neat stacks of clothes and two perfect beds inside. He pulled out a key on a chain from under his shirt and locked it. He eyed me spatially across the room.

“Did you get lost?” He suggested.

“I’m able to find the front on my own. I lost track of time.” I rushed past him, down two flights of stairs, and out the front doors.

 

………

 

At some point, Vesper snuck back into the apartment and was in the kitchen when I woke up. It was around three A.M when I discovered him making chicken soup.

“Vesper, you have a house.”

“I wanted to check on you. How was your day? I don’t want to fight, just answer the question.”

Figuring I’d get him off my back faster, I answered his inquiry.

“I went on a date, then came back here. Sebastian came back home and brought me to the Arrow to join him and the other hunters. Then you came by to practice training with us. After that, you know what happened. We explored the place and we’re meeting with Willow today. Alice and Zeldyn are really hitting it off.” I stated.

“Oh yeah, the Arrow. How was your date?”

“Fine.”

“And the training? Did you like it?”

“I did.” I smiled. “I felt strong. Willow and Celtic are gonna tell us more about what’s happening in the city. Sebastian’s taking us, if you want to come.”

“Sure. I’ll go. I was just checking in on you. See you and Sebastian in the morning.”

Chapter Ten

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

You refused to talk about your date, so I didn’t pry, but I think I know why you forced yourself onto this date all of a sudden. If I recall correctly, you said Alice just met someone. Just like every single one of your four best friends found love before you did. You’re jealous. The fact that you go to movies and dances alone is bothering you. It makes you think something is wrong with you, that you aren’t a keeper.

You are a keeper, Scarlett. The world has just been kinder to you by not wasting your time until you find someone compatible. I pondered asking you to prom before the year ends, as friends, but neither of us are huge formal dance people.

In your other world, Alice is falling for a hunter. Alice once again represents your best friends and the hunter is a sign of the love they found before you. You also said you trained in the Arrow’s arena. I interpreted that as a search for protection. I think your idea of fighting in the fantasy sector of your mind is a desire to defend yourself mentally and physically in the real world. It seems like your fantasy world is all beautiful smiles and butterflies.

I don’t understand what it is you want to defend yourself from. Your heart? The people around you? The bad? I won’t figure this out until you work with me. I think I need to stop encouraging your other world as well. I did something wrong yesterday. I used the idea of Sebastian and Alice as means for you to stay home. I didn’t know who you were going out with, but regardless, I didn’t have a good feeling. What if you blacked out on the date?

Anyways, I think your envy of your best friends’ love lives is the reason why you rushed to go on this date. You’re not old Scar, you’re only eighteen. You have time. Don’t sign up for EHarmony just yet. Live for now, okay? Travel and don’t confine your worth to someone else’s opinion of you.

Also your other world has some critical continuity errors. The calendar in your mind is horribly out of whack and you seem to just pick up where you left off in your dreams despite the fact that actual events interrupt them.

You said something about an Arrow, this beautiful place in the woods you fell in love with. It’s your serene scene. A place with hammocks in the trees, books, and in the middle of nature? That has you written all over it, Scar. You’ve literally created your happy place and made it the sanctuary for problem solving (a.k.a the Demon invasion which I believe represent your life problems.)

I confirmed this after you described the Arrow again, followed by another irritated rant about how I’m not listening to you. I hate that you keep getting mad at me for not listening, but what you don’t understand is that all I do is listen to you. The complication is that I’m not experiencing any of your adventures. I know nothing about them.

Nothing.

 

Yours truly, Vesper.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

I was leading Ves to the Arrow gates to greet Tristan and join the others to meet Willow. The walk seemed longer than before, but we were pacing ourselves.

“It’s such a nice place.” He said simply.

“It is, you saw it yesterday. The Arrow is beautiful and everyone is so perfect.”

“Are you feeling alright? You seem somber lately.”

I stiffened. “Somber? No. I…” I thought about the definition of the word. Then I thought about the heaviness on my shoulders when I woke up. “I’m okay.”

“Absolutely nothing is pestering you?”

“It wasn’t a date last night.” I admitted.

“Oh?”

“I went out with Marlin and…”

He stopped in his tracks. “The guy you worked with that looks like a Grand Theft Auto character? The one who treated you less than human?”

“That’s the one.” I said and stopped to look at him.

“Did he try anything?”

“I’m so stupid.” I laughed while upset. “I thought we were taking a walk. Does no one do that anymore? My goodness. He didn’t want me to leave the car. He took me to the park to mess around. Then, my nose started to bleed for some reason and he took me home.”

“Scar…”

“I should have known. I have the mind of a child. Is being within nature, not okay anymore? Does everything in this society represent a secret interpretation or innuendo? When guys want to hang, does that automatically mean a sexual favor is due? Or vice versa? Is everyone expecting something? Is the whole world a secret society of drugs, and sex, and mental disorders that lacks altruism? What happened to deep talks about the future, theories, and ideas? What happened to being awkward or falling in love outside of the internet?”

By now, I was worked up. I felt nausea encompass me. I stumbled over to a tree and leaned against it.

“Scar, calm down. You’re bleeding, again.”

“Again?”

“Did he do anything that requires me to make a visit to his house?” Vesper asked, holding in his temper and coming over to hold my arm.

“No.” I coughed and sank to the ground. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

………

 

“Willow, what is she like?” Alice broke the silence that hung in the air since we started walking into the woods again.

“You’ll soon find out.” Zeldyn answered. “She’s a wonderful leader.”

“How is there electricity under an invisible community dome? I heard Vesper ask Nico.

He shrugged. “Willow took care of that. The fence keeps Interceptors out and the power stays on. We don’t draw too much unwanted attention. We go out to seek the danger.” He grinned. His right hand stretched behind him to mold into Amber’s as they sauntered forward at a slow pace. Everyone had abandoned their weapons.

The twins walked behind me, murmuring every minute. My brother joined their conversation with more curiosity about butterfly knives. Alice and Zeldyn were a few feet to my left, bumping into each other every so often. Emma and Vince took their positions leading us through the tangled forest litter. We were in an unknown location.

Alex took long strides through the leaves and followed at his own pace. His feet had determination for direction, some sense of purpose. He held his head up to find me staring at him. His path curved until he was next to me.

“Hello, Scarlett.” His hand brushed mine and I instinctively pulled back.

“Hi there, Alex.” I spoke softly.

Our talk was simple, until he found my trust. We fell behind everyone and our conversation took a more personal twist. The wafting smell of cinnamon and dirt intensified around us as we made our way closer to our destination.

“Are you close with Willow?” I asked.

“It varies for all of us.” He grimaced.

“I ran away from home, Willow saved me. My dad, I had to l-leave.” He stuttered. “I spent weeks on the street and eventually found Zeldyn sleeping in a park. She never told me why she ran off. It was Willow who found us and brought us here. Emma and Vince were both attacked and almost taken by Demons, Celtic saved them and then they were introduced to our world. Caspian and Crystal along with the couple,” He jutted his eyes at Amber and Nico, “have few interactions with her aside from missions. The twins came here by choice, they were travelers. Nico and Amber’s parents were involved with the Arrow, but left, leaving them to pursue hunting despite giving it up themselves.”

Alex was a vault of secrets hammering into my mind. My hand found his and squeezed it gently. His eyes momentarily trailed down and then returned to the path.

“We’re here.” He spoke, and my eyes rested on a small cottage we came upon. Alex covered his face with a hand to block out the sun.

We were no longer on a trail. We had strayed off of it and towards this small, delicate home. It was made entirely of stone with a chimney at the top. Vince notified our presence using the knocker and the legendary Willow appeared. Her curvaceous body fit into a black blazer, white truffle shirt, and black dress pants, which were accented with red high heels.

Her midnight curls were thick around her temples. Her irises were black with white sparks. They matched the single streak of snow white in her hair. She was timeless. Her white teeth hidden behind ruby lips complimented a pearl necklace she wore against her pale skin. Her pupils were fuzzy and looked like marbles, similar to Celtic’s eerie ones.

“Emma, Vince, my darlings. I’m very happy to see you.” Her raspy Jazz voice said. “Come in! All of you, I’ve heard plenty about you. We have much to discuss.” She gestured us into the house.

The space was only meant for her. It was a medium sized, one level building that had a bedroom as well as a kitchen. It was humble living in comparison to the lodge. Her bed was untouched, next to a sitting table, couch, and night stand.  Willow looked elegant, bracing her body against the kitchen wall and crossing her legs slightly.

Celtic was there as he promised, habiting a seat at her table. His fingers tensely clenched onto the wood.

They held a royal air to them. His dark ponytail was always swishing back and forth with his movements. Willow was holding the world in her eyes. Just being in the same space as her and Celtic was fascinating in itself. They were both beautifully immortal Death Gods.

Emma and her partner took their familiar seats at the table. Celtic had exchanged his occasional suit for a leather biker jacket instead. He seemed relaxed in his friend’s home. Willow jumped into conversation before everyone found a seat. I squeezed myself between my brother and Vesper at the table.

“First off, I am very happy with the work your groups have completed. Scarlett and Sebastian Parker, Alice Hudson, and Vesper Evans, it’s a wonder to meet you all.  As far as recruitment, if you all want to join, it would be a pleasure. You have already been accepted on my account whether you decline or accept the offer. I believe the Arrow could be good for all of you. Alice, my apologies for your loss and I’m glad you all have remained unharmed. Your grandmother did not suffer long.”

I saw Alice stiffen at the comment.

“As we all know, Tauro’s work is speeding up since his latest incident.

“What will we do? You two have insight into the other worlds. You both can help us stop this and keep the damage to a minimum.” Alexander said.

“Well,” Celtic began. “Now that we have a lead, I will be taking up guard at this venue. We’ll keep an eye out for any peculiar issues and I’ll engage him in battle before he has a chance to kill. For now, we must distract Tauro until our long term solution is enacted.”  

“He’s exactly right.” She confirmed Celtic’s statement. “Speaking of a long term solution, there’s urgent news from our world. We’ve talked with our other guardians, and the Reapers have decided to close the portal. The process began three weeks ago. I didn’t want to tell you all until it was certain. Therefore, there are fewer Reapers that can assist us with the current rebellion.”

Our Arrow leaders were in astonishment.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“This will be confusing, there is much for you all to learn in such little time. At this period in time, there are nine known worlds in existence, all connected by gateways. At this current moment, only three have open portals. Ours, yours, and one for the soul spirits. The other six have gateways that have been shut off for reasons the Reapers are not even aware of. Only the Guardians knew and they died with their secrets. It happened during a time before the earliest Reaper. We send souls to one world and the content and life forms in the others are unknown. Once we shut off our gateway, the second to last gateway, we don’t know if our world and Reapers that choose to stay behind will die or lie dormant.

Celtic continued. “We needed thousands of Reapers to make this decision, thus the reason it took so long to decide. It will take months to shut it because it will require three fourths of our population to go into a comatose state, give their energy into closing the portal, and then make their final transport here. It’s like if you humans were to suck up the entire ocean with a straw.”

“So after its shut, it will cut off access for all Demon forms, Interceptors and Reapers?”

“Exactly.” Celtic’s voice was steadily calm as he stared out the window and into the forest.

“What about the Reapers? What will become of them?”

“We’ve realized that we must live amongst you all and many will never know. Those who choose to come here are essentially transferring to this world to collect souls. We will send them into the last gateway as we’ve always done.”

“And those who choose to stay in their old world have no idea what will happen to them after the gates shut? I asked.

“Accurate. About one-tenth of our population is staying and hoping for death, they’re seeking mortality.”

A ghost of a smile appeared on our leaders’ faces until Emma’s dropped completely.

“What’s wrong?” Vince and Willow had taken notice. Celtic’s gaze still lingered beyond the window.

“She knows hunting will come to an end. After the gates close, and every Interceptor that remains is wiped out worldwide, there will be no need for hunters.” Celtic stated.

“Hunting, the Arrow, and everything we live for will no longer be necessary.” Emma said awestruck. Willow’s eyes changed to tinted steel.

“Your jobs will not terminate until far in the future, past your lifetimes. There are millions of Interceptors in hiding, but yes, after so many decades the Arrow will have to be repurposed.

The tension in Emma’s shoulders increased at their words. I let every other noise and word drone out, grabbing important pieces of repeated information and processing them.

“Vesper.” Willow addressed him.

He dropped a pen he was toying with. “Yes?”

“When is your next entertainment fest?”

“Saturday, eight o’clock.” He said.

“Thank you.” She moved about the room. “We will have a meeting that night on the stone at six o’clock, two hours prior to us sending a group out. If it’s accepted by Emma and Vince, Vesper and Scarlett will be accompanied by Zeldyn and Alexander inside of the building. Caspian and Crystal, I would like you both to take positions outside as guards, then head inside as backup for Alexander and Celtic. That will be all we need. Celtic will reside inside until the guard acts. Hopefully, he kept the same body as a decoy since it drains his strength to change personas too often.”

Emma and Vince agreed politely. I was surprised that they weren’t included in the mission, but the twins easily seemed like mentors anyway.

Willow handed a thick manila folder to Celtic who walked over to the leaders and slid it across the table. He headed back to his spot by the window.  Emma opened it and put it on the table. It held three suspect profiles, summaries on the triplets and their anarchy.

“You all are free to go.” She smiled at their group. “Once again, nice to meet you all, you’re welcome anytime. See you at six.” She said with closure and we all passed through her wooden door and into the forest once more.

A perfect breeze passed by as we were walking in the direction of the lake. Amber Lynn alerted me that they would be departing back to Emma’s soon. I thanked her and told the others. We had been here for hours.

I forgot where home was the next week. Every day after school, I found myself in my brother’s truck or Vesper’s Jeep, heading to the Arrow.

On Monday, I joined my brother with the twins who turned out to be less vicious than I had perceived. Alice and Vesper were on the other side of the arena with a crossbow and a set of daggers, learning from Alexander and Zeldyn. Beneath muscle and a grim face, Caspian had a warm, sarcastic heart. I understood how my brother favored him. He was strong, smart, and cunning with his occasional witty comments. Crystal still had the intensity of a tribal goddess, but her social loophole was anything pertaining to travel, which I used to my advantage. They both nailed us during training. All day, I swung knives against the trees, very sloppily at first, but I learned quickly. Sebastian stood at one, mastering the art of debarking a dead tree with his blade.

On Tuesday afternoon, Amber Lynn and Nico separated from each other to train at different sections in the arena. I discovered Nico was factual, but didn’t know the definition of fun. I was surprised that he and Amber didn’t clash more often. However, his patience with me when instructing the art of swords was appreciated. His mind was an everlasting encyclopedia of sword and knife knowledge, spilling out facts with every slash in the air I executed. My heart hammered when he grabbed a sword of his own and faced me.

There was a short break before Amber pulled me to the side. She was all joy and happiness. Apparently, her preferred weapon was an ax, in which I didn’t adjust to in any way whatsoever. The weight was unbearably heavy and hard to move, but I still spent the agonizing two hours trying to get the hang of it. Her presence was welcomed, but her choice of weapon was torturous. I gave her infinite credit for managing a defense that strenuous.

I stole Alice’s lady the next day, learning precision and accuracy when it came to crossbows. Stances, direction, and aim were only the basics. I glanced at the red burns on my forearms from where I incorrectly pulled back the arrow and let it loose, causing the vibrations to hit my skin. I shot fifteen arrows, then had to jog to receive and pull them in record time. The process was repeated. The smirk on Zeldyn’s face was satisfactory, finding obvious joy in seeing me either fail or improve. I could never tell, but she did make small talk and even praised our small band of misfits for being in such good shape.

Thursday was the hardest day. On top of the three hours spent on essays, I practiced with Alexander. We ended up in the massive field past the watch tower. We had to run its length twenty times, but not before a sparring session with wooden swords. After the fight, he immediately hit the field without warning. I kept up at first, but by the eleventh lap I was slow jogging. My hair was soggy against my neck and my face felt pasty. He finished four laps before me, yet he still ran with me. I crashed to the ground after the cool down lap given that I was officially disheveled in the worst way possible. The small flutters I felt around Alexander were now replaced by cramps and strain. He passed me a water bottle and I destroyed it, laying back in the grass and watching the sky darken.

“How does it feel knowing that you’ve just joined a dying cause?”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“You heard Willow yesterday. Hunting will be extinct, there will be no problems. No Demons. We won’t be needed. No other life forms have emerged from the other realms. We’ll have to go back to being normal.”

“That won’t be for decades after our life time. So I’m giving my life to the cause to help save innocents until that time comes. You don’t know what the future holds.”

“Half of these hunters probably have blank resumes.” He snickered.

“Do you have to be so dark?” I stood up, surprised. “Thanks for the run, I’m heading back.”

Alex had stunned me with his melancholic words, but I brushed them off.

The next morning, silent footsteps padded out of my room. I saw small hands clutching on to a satchel and a house key. The fact that it was five in the morning was irrelevant to Alice and I wasn’t surprised. I let my eyes adjust to her movement in the dark. I got out of bed, slipping on a thin T-shirt and shorts, and followed her out of the house. She started down the sidewalk and passed Ava’s shop. I walked faster in the dull morning light, crossing through streets and cutting through alleys. I should have asked Sebastian to borrow his car, but I didn’t want to wake anyone.

The walk seemed terribly longer, probably since I was alone and on a bad stalking mission. I already knew where she was headed.

Alice cut through another alley quickly and came out onto a main street. It was full of shops that were closed at the moment, aside from one little twenty four hour bistro. They must have been serving breakfast. I stood in front of the glass and let the cozy light shine on me. Young men sat in booths with their coffees.

A girl sat at the end of the counter, sipping a cup of something hot. Her beanie was pulled tightly over her hair and the knitted jacket she wore hung over the stool. An older man was next to her, holding a conversation. I was over analyzing, which caused my mind to ache. I desperately wanted to go in for a cup of tea, but avoided abandoning my current quest.

I forced myself to keep moving until I was near an area that decreased in the amount of urban culture and became more scenic. The treetops provided a perfect canopy for the small forest area nearby. Visible tree stumps scattered the mossy floor. This was a quick shortcut to Alice’s old home.

Alice dipped into the forest and I trudged on, feeling my legs catch at the thorns that littered the forest. Buttoning up her red trench coat and pulling the hood over her head, Alice continued to move. Buzzing and clicking came from the bugs and I found peace in listening to the repetitive sounds. I immediately felt unsettled when a hissing noise joined in the chorus. Alice heard it too, and she walked faster. She pulled out her pocket knife. I ventured closer to her, though my steps weren’t as quiet as I believed them to be. She turned around and a pair of brown eyes scanned the trees and then found me. I leaned against the tree and held my hands up in a small surrender.

“You found me.” I chimed.

“Scarlett! What the hell?”

“Keeping an eye on you.” I told her in a sleepy voice.

She eyed my outfit and began to pull off her jacket. I held a finger up, stopping her movement and listening to the forest. She froze as well.

The hissing grew louder and her hand flicked the knife up. I could tell by her angry expression that she wanted to encounter an Interceptor. She needed to vent.

“Come here, you scum. Reveal yourself!”

The hissing continued, paused, and grew louder.

“I know you’re here. Show yourself.”

I moved forward, but she thrust the knife in my direction, an indication for me not to interfere. I rolled my eyes and banged my head against the bark.

It was in a tree. The usual look of it didn’t surprise either of us. Its transparent skin dripped down the tree branch and became an ocean of black ink. Its contorted white bones and teeth were bright against its color. Its small coal eyes sat in an ugly, white distorted skull.

“Dumb piece of shit.” She muttered, before picking up two small, heavy stones and chucking them at it. It refused to come down, leaving her staring at it for a few minutes.

“Don’t terrorize me on my walk and then become a coward. I don’t know if you can understand me or not, you’re all monsters and I despise you!”

The beast just stood there staring blankly at her. In seconds, she tossed off her bag and her feet were against the tree trunk, quickly climbing until she was dangerously close to the same branch as the Interceptor. She was a good twenty feet off the ground and her hands were tightly wrapped around the tree’s waist.

With her arms grasping the bark, she lifted a leg and kicked the branch until it finally shook. The Interceptor’s claws scratched against the wood.

It tried to hold on, but she kept kicking until it fell to the ground.

She slid down, her face scraping against the tree in the last couple of feet. Her hand covered the torn tissue.

She hit the ground hard and I imagined the pressure of landing on her heels. She cursed, but charged at the creature. It ducked and dashed out of the way. This one may have been intelligent. She kept attacking until it rolled to the side. It had given up, but her hand kept stabbing. The sound of metal clashed against its bones.

Her hood flew back and she cried out. Her blade broke against one of the bones, even though it was already dead. The metal snapped off into its body and she scooted away from it, holding the other half of the pocket knife.

In that instant, a silver arrow went through its skull and left a hole in the bone. I searched the forest frantically for the unknown danger. A crossbow?

“Zeldyn?” Alice asked. The girl emerged from a makeshift path among the trees. Alexander was by her side as calm as can be.

“Just making sure it was dead.” She laughed and Alice realized she was mocking her. Alexander chuckled and his hand clutched two large brown bags.

“Why are you here?”

“Hey, Alice. We came by to visit, but it was too early to stop by, so Zeldyn and I stopped for something to eat. We brought you some breakfast. Emma requested that we check on you all, make sure we didn’t kill you. I also have an errand to run. Zeldyn just wanted to see Alice.”

I noticed Zeldyn’s apparel. The girl in the knitted jacket and beanie had been her.

“You’re just as stupid as me for following me here.” She directed at Zeldyn, who was retrieving her arrow from the ground. The Interceptor had disappeared, leaving Zeldyn’s arrow and the broken shard from Alice’s knife.

“I’m fine, I have Alex. Maybe, I wanted a fight just as much as you did. We do seek out Interceptors for practice. I know your voice, and I know that thing’s noise as well.” She pointed at the spot it used to be.

“That was you in the bistro? I didn’t see Alex.” I asked.

“Indeed, you saw us? He was probably in the bathroom.”

“Who was that older man you were talking with?”

“Just a leader who lives here.” She hesitated.

Alice’s face was full of sweat that she wiped away. Alex was lost to the sounds of the birds and Zeldyn was fastening her crossbow into its cover and onto her back. She watched Alice expectedly.

“How’d you hide your crossbow in the bistro? That didn’t cause any questions?” Alice asked.

I locked it on one of those bike racks in an alley. No one’s stealing this baby.” She jingled a lock that was hooked onto the loop of her jeans. The key was tied on a piece of rope around her neck.

“What are you doing, Alice?” Zeldyn asked.

“Do you all always linger around this early?” Alice asked.

“Stop topic hopping. What are you doing out here at six in the morning? Normal morning activities include going for a jog, not wandering into the forest.”

Leaves crunched under Zeldyn’s boots when she left to stand in front of Alice.

“Keep up this Alice in Wonderland exploration, and you’ll be dead riding hood instead of little red.” She twirled a spiral of Alice’s hair.

“I’m here to visit my dead grandmother’s house. How ironic right? Is the creature the wolf?” Alice picked up her bag.

“I didn’t mean it like that Alice, our condolences. You know that’s not what I meant.”  She said with sad eyes.

“I know.” The redhead replied, still bitter.

Zeldyn’s hand skimmed her waist and pulled her in close, her fingertips clasped against Alice’s hips. Another hand trailed down Alice’s right hand, snatching away the pocket knife.

“Hey.” Alice reached for her tool back.

“Ah, ah, ah, no. This is broken. It’s useless.” She slipped it into her back pocket. “And you need a replacement. Maybe you’ll stay out of trouble without it. It’s old and not as strong as a new one.”

“It’s classic.” She muttered.

“Classic is going to get you killed.” Alex advised.

She kissed Alice’s cheek, which was raw from the scrape.

“We should get you fixed up and go.” She suggested before planting a kiss on her lips, leaving Alice with a tiny smile.

“I can leave you two alone, if necessary.” Alex spoke.

“No, it’s fine.” Zeldyn laughed and checked out the entrance they came from and the exit Alice never made it to.

“I was going to visit her home.” Alice whispered.

“Of course, I’ll go.” Zeldyn said. “I understand. We’ll split up. Alexander has a job to do.”

Alex passed a brown bag to Zeldyn, before turning on his heel to grin at me.

“Join me?” He asked.

“Why not.” I replied, secretly enthusiastic.

Zeldyn grabbed Alice’s hand, dragging her through the woods and out the exit.

“We can eat breakfast on the roof. When I was younger, I was always running around the streets and staying on random rooftops for hours. We can watch the sunrise, if that’s not too cliché for you.” I heard Zeldyn say as her voice trailed off into the distance.

I pushed off of the tree and found Alex’s stare. I slipped my arms into my shirt like a child and began to walk out of the forest.

A jacket slipped over my shoulders, Alex’s, and I turned to see him still facing straight. I smiled slightly.

We walked to my apartment, trying to make polite conversation without hitting any personal nerves.

His hand passed me the brown breakfast bag and I was more than grateful.

“Thanks.” I tore away at the wrapped sandwich.

“Least I could do since yesterday’s training.”

“What’s your errand?”

“Confidential secrecy. You’ll see in a few.”

When we got to my home, I barged in. My dad had already left for work and Ves sat on the couch watching television.

“Hey Scarlett, where is everyone? Oh hi, Alex.”

Alex nodded and took a seat on a stool.

“Alice is with Zeldyn,” I answered. “I’m showering and going out for a bit, and I’m sure Sebastian is still sleeping.”

After eating, I went down the hall to my room, holding up a finger for Alex to wait. He just grinned.

“Out where?” Vesper’s voice trailed off, but I was already hopping into the shower to wash up.

I felt beautiful today. My damp curls fell down the arch of my face and the blue in my eyes seemed darker. I slipped into a patterned red dress and Vans, and then made my way back into the living room with my travel bag resting on my back.

“Is this okay? We won’t be fighting, right?”

“No.” Alexander spoke. “You look amazing.”

I ran to the couch and wrapped my hands around Vesper’s neck. “I have my phone on me, if you need anything. Tell Sebastian I went out.”

He muttered something, before Alex led me out.

The streets and building themselves that Alex led me to were pretty, well kept, clean and decorated. A few window lights were on, despite the dim morning light. The walk began, we traveled through common buildings and familiar sights. Our footsteps echoed each other’s as he walked by my side, fidgeting with his blonde braid. My heels hurt from training, but I liked it. It was a savory pain.

We stopped at Emma’s to pick up a bag of knives.

“Sorry it’s not the most romantic first date, but I have to go to our swords guy.”

“This is a date?” I asked and he grinned.

The city was in a content state when we left again. Thoughts about the Arrow’s harmonious forest fluttered in my head. I missed the mystical edge of the woods and how the light barely shone through the thick canopies of trees. I felt strangely comfortable with Alex, as if he was a part of the Arrow’s secret that I carried around with me. I enjoyed hearing him talk.

We were on the outskirts of the city after an hour of walking and chatting. Habitually, less people spent time here when they could be in the soul of the city. Even the apartments and stores were more quaint and quiet.

Alexander led me over a small creek that disappeared under the bridge we crossed. We were on a street edge that hosted a few apartments. He scanned them until he found his target. We were facing a deteriorated records shop, but it was closed. A well-lit alley separated the building from its neighbor.

Alexander went into the alley, moving swiftly until he stood under a black, rusty metal fire escape that looked like it had gone unused for ages. It was connected to a flat piece, and then latched onto higher stairs. It dawned on me what he was doing after he dropped the weapons on the ground. He backed up a considerable amount of space and ran towards the unpleasant looking stairs. His body leaped into the air and he pulled them down. I glanced up and saw a hint of a door on the side of the building.

“It’s safe, I swear. I’ve walked these a million times.” He assured me as he picked up the swords.

The bottom of the ladder was only a few feet off the ground, hanging still in the air. Alex exhibited more swift movements. His lean body seemed to enjoy the conquest of reaching the door with swords on his back.

I followed with an obedient shrug, and accepted his hand when I struggled to grasp the rails.

“See, that wasn’t so bad.” He gestured for me to embark up the stairs. We stood in front of a chipped green door with an eye slit.

Alexander knocked twice and waited, looking back at me to analyze whether I was managing.

“Don’t bother looking, it’s Alexander.”

“I am only being safe out here, Alex. You know this, stop being so impatient boy.” The slot opened and shut with a creak.

The voice was wispy.

Objects shuffled behind the door before it opened, revealing an extremely tall, bald man covered in a dark blue cloak. His complexion was like honey and he looked vaguely familiar.

The room was covered in smoke from the sweet, nauseating smell of burning incense. I viewed various stones possessing different colors and textures in bowls on a table. Two bookshelves were full of thick novels. Vases of incense sticks were placed on the floor.

Alexander swung an arm behind me to bolt the door shut. He proceeded towards the man who returned to a spot in the back. His muscled body was placed on a thick square pillow with his legs crossed. He was surrounded by burning white wax candles.

“Anything new?” His eyes were closed, but his voice held an unknown depth.

“This is Scarlett. Otherwise, no. I have five swords that need sharpening and polishing. I’ve also brought three dull edged daggers that require the same treatment.” Alexander placed the swords on an empty table and pulled out a few small knives in his bag.

“How is Zeldyn?” He asked, his voice rising at her name. “Did she get my package?”

“Yes, she’s wondrous.” He confirmed. “She’ll visit soon when it’s safer.”

I checked out the shop, adhering to every precaution to avoid breaking a valuable. A thousand jagged nails stuck out of the wall. They held necklaces with feathers and small animal bones, at least, I hoped they were animal bones. The incense had destroyed my sense of smell and the entire place took a toll on my mind.

“Thank you.”

Alexander zipped up his bag and pulled out a medium sized black pouch tied with a golden string. He tossed it to the man. It accurately landed on the pillow and the man slipped it into his cloak with a smile.

“Always a pleasure to you all.”

“Ah, one more thing.” Alex pulled a pack of incense from the display rack and left a bill on the counter.

“Zeldyn loves it.”  He beamed.

“It was always her favorite.” When the man spoke, the stress lines on his forehead moved.

“Shall we go?” Alexander offered and I nodded.

“There’s a café close by, they serve breakfast all day. Does that sound good?”

“Of course,” I smiled softly, taking a liking to the idea.

He grinned and grabbed my hand, interlacing his thin fingers with mine as he pulled me through the park and back over the bridge. We had ventured further until we stood in front of a quaint shop resting on street cobblestones. Through the window, I could see a few joyful bodies enjoying meals and laughing over drinks. Next to it sat a small hotel and a local bakery that served special orders.

Alexander’s hand slipped out of mine to open the entrance door. I slid by after whispering a thank you to him. The counters were full of colorful delicacies on glass stands. Bread loaves, muffins, and buns sat in baskets on high racks. The registers were manned by two friendly servers in matching uniforms. More tables held cake boxes and treats. In the visible kitchen, multiple hot tops and waffle irons were cooking up the sweet smell of the batter.

Another counter served as a mass coffee station and condiment area. Numbers were called and people grabbed their soups and sandwiches in the pickup area. In the lounge, booths occupied square tables.

Alexander was already at the counter ordering and he gave me a questioning look when I stood by the door.

“Anything else?” The worker asked, stealing a peek at Alex.

“Scarlett, do you know what you would like?”

“Hm?” I had finally walked over to his side. “Oh no, I can pay for myself. Going Dutch is my thing.”

His brow furrowed. “You’re defeating the purpose of a date.”

“And you’re defeating the modern time era.”

“I try to stay classy.”

This caused the cashier to laugh. She was a perky brunette, still staring down Alex with admiration. I cut things off after another pair of people showed up behind us.

“Alex, I’m paying for myself, end of discussion.”

“You’re a stubborn lady, Ms. Parker.” He paid and went to find seats.

I glanced at the huge chalkboard on the wall and played it safe with a stack of pancakes and tea with a toasted salami sandwich to take home. After navigating through furniture, I found Alex in a corner spot waiting patiently with his chin on his palms.

“That’s a very nice dress.”

“Thank you,” I turned my head. “Alice picked it out.”

“Mm.” He nodded. “Sorry about what I said during training yesterday. How have you been?”

“Strange, very strange.” I gave a weak laugh. “I’m overly relieved that I’m almost done with school. I’m glad to be with the Arrow, but I’m still questioning reality when it comes to everyday. This is the most normal thing I have done this week. I’m processing life one minute at a time.”

“That’s pleasant, as long as you’re happy.”

“Of course, I am.”

“We’re all pleased to have you with us.”

“I’m glad. I’m glad we found you all. Or by, technicality, you all found us.”

“Call it destiny.” He noted.

Our numbers were called and Alex offered to get our trays. I stared at the patterned wallpaper in front of me and waited for Alexander’s return. He approached me balancing two trays in one hand and a bowl in the other. He had chosen a pancake breakfast platter with a huge bowl of syrup.

The small time I spent with him had surprisingly made me happy. We spent the moment balling up pancakes and slamming them into the syrup. We exchanged questions and insane stories. A good twenty minutes were spent being bloated until we slid out the booth and headed out.

“You have syrup on your face.” Alexander said as we walked out laughing. My hands rushed to my face, trying to remove the stickiness from my cheek. Alexander laughed harder at my attempt, which made me laugh twice as much.

A palm pressed against my cheek and in an instant, Alex’s nose was touching mine. He was still laughing softly while his eyes burned into my irises. I silenced myself. Both of our eyes lit up when his lips hovered over mine with a warm feeling of ecstasy and tension. I didn’t like how fast this was going, but I did like him. He brought his thumb up to wipe the syrup on my face. He carried it to his lips and tasted the nectar.

The afternoon was warm, my body felt at ease, and I felt fine. Beyond fine. A feeling rooted in my stomach, telling me to watch my emotions. He pulled back, moving a loose strand away from my face. It felt so easy being around him.

“Amber and Nico are at Emma’s watching a series marathon, if you want to join them.” He offered.

“Okay,” I answered quietly.

 

………

“I thought I was with Alex.” I woke up and groaned at Vesper. “When did we meet?”

“I stopped by to ask if you wanted dinner.”

“I already ate.”

“What day is it, Scar?”

“Saturday.”

He relaxed his shoulders and asked another question.

“What did you do yesterday?”

“I ran the fields with Alex.”

He tensed again. “You didn’t go on a date with Marlin?”

“Vesper. I don’t want to talk about that. That was last week, let it go.”

“That was yesterday.” He said unsurely.

“What?” I asked.

“Can we take a walk? A walk on the tracks.”

“The sun’s gonna set, it’ll get dark.”

“Even better.”

“What do we need to talk about?”

“What I have to do to get you to read my journal.”

“Don’t go there again. I don’t want to read your journal of deceptions, okay?”

“Then we’ll just walk in silence. That’s it.”

“Fine, but we have to hurry back. Sebastian and Alice are going to Emma’s place and I want to join them. Alex will wonder where I went.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

I had to lie to you again, but for that, I am not sorry. I said I have trouble remembering our adventures in order for you to tell me more. It worked. When you were walking me to the secret entrance of the Arrow, (A grand park in Washington in my world) you passed out. I sat with you in the park for hours until you woke up. You were convinced that the day had passed and you joined me again. Your mind seems to take you away during your highest desire to cope. You’re losing track of time there, your dates are all jacked up. A week has passed in your head.

My theory is shaping up. It’s not necessarily the truth, but it’s my way of understanding you better. You’re learning to defend yourself and I want to pinpoint the enemy source. The Demons are your inner battles, and the people in your other world are representations of people in this one. You’re fighting against life problems and difficult people in your life. Overall, you’re fighting against depression.

I’ve seen it and I’ve gone through it. The feeling of a boulder tied to your shoelace that hangs onto your foot. You’re dying to hold on. I wish I knew that before. I claim to know you so well, but didn’t see the signs. I was so focused on the interesting, creative side of your mind that I forgot something human that I could understand, the plague of sadness that tends to latch onto many.

I can’t make it pass, but I’ll do everything in my power to diminish it. We’ll take trips, we’ll explore, and read all the books we can. Concerts, bonfires, walks, everything and anything to help you. Maybe it’ll help decrease your blackouts.

Your Demon rebellion is the collection of monsters in your head, coming down all at once. You cope with that by physically training to destroy them.

As far as today. After you opened up to me, I understood that you unleashed more havoc on Alice. Poor thing. You had a Demon, probably yours, attack her.

You introduced another Death figure. I fear you’re stressing the need to live more. You have an ironic mind, Scar. Emma continues to provide as a caregiver to you. I’m unsure about the others. A new man was introduced as well, some guy who sharpens swords. I don’t know his purpose. You also seem to be growing closer to Alex. He sounds like your kind of guy. He encourages you to become stronger and supports all that you do.

Today, you told me about your ‘date’ with Marlin. That I’m sorry for. I had a bad intuition and should have went with my gut. In your alternate world you went on this perfect date with Alexander.

Yesterday, you were in a pushy situation with Marlin. Why didn’t you tell me it was him earlier? He was no good when you worked with him. I hope his false chivalry didn’t trick you into going out with him again. You’re smarter than that.

That said, not all men are bad. You’ve just been exposed to the wrong ones. Humans are humans, gender or race doesn’t define personality. I hope you find the right one someday.

 

Yours truly, Vesper.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

“We have another concert today, are you still coming?”

“Yeah.” I said, dark clouds were sitting on my shoulders again. “Are we actually going to this one? Or am I getting drugged and forgetting everything?”

“No one drugged you.” Vesper said boringly. He was in our house again, making French toast for us. My dad was in the fridge, grabbing freshly squeezed orange juice. He poured a glass and left to sit on the couch, switching on the news. Vesper’s music played on my IPod dock while he shuffled against the vinyl. He wore his Pokeball onesie and I wore a Pikachu one, his gift to me for Christmas. I tried so hard not to smile.

Macy wasn’t in sight. I looked at Ves and then my father who looked at me and then at Vesper. I started laughing, I couldn’t help it. We were all so odd and ridiculous. The fact that this was normal to us made it all the better. Vesper coughed and my dad chuckled. We were all laughing.

“You’re not the only weird one, Scar.” Vesper said.

Ava walked in unannounced and our laughs all cut off at once. We stared at her and she stared back with wide eyes, analyzing the situation. She looked at her son, turned around, and left.

We were shrieking at this point.

“Okay.” I smiled, calming down from the crazy. “I’m getting dressed.”

“Hey you!” Vesper called out and I turned around. “Come to the reflecting pool with me today? We can get lunch. I wanted to take some new shots around town and use a layering technique on them. What do you say?”

It sounded peaceful enough for a Sunday and it would be nice to relax before school started again. I thought about our fight the other day, and how we both ignored it until things returned back to normal.

“Sounds okay.” I said. I mouthed ‘I’m still mad at you’ to Ves and crossed my arms.

‘That’s okay’ He mouthed back.

 

………

 

I woke up to Amber Lynn planting kisses on Nico’s neck and sharpening a knife. Odd combination. I didn’t understand why I slept soundlessly through the entire night, but then remembered the intense training that took place last week. I recalled last night that was full of yelling, arguments, and laughter that brewed over the action occurring on the shows.

I pulled my knees up to my stomach and attempted to stretch. My body fidgeted on the couch, I was terribly sore.

Alexander had left his spot on the couch and was now in the kitchen tampering with a map on the counter. I looked over the couch’s edge and saw the hunters in cargo shorts and pants, lightweight shirts, jackets, and boots. Everyone was dressed for war.

“Oh wow. You guys look great.” I gasped, eyeing Sebastian and Vesper. They looked natural in the outfits. Pretty little Alice in uniform made me burst into joy. The redhead was against the counter speaking to Zeldyn, taking a moment to wink at me when I caught her eye.

“Surprise.” Zeldyn called out to me while running a hand through her wavy brown strands.

“How do they look?” She questioned.

“Really great. This is the highlight of my day.” I beamed.

“Compliments of the Arrow. It was Willow’s order to directly deliver them to you guys today.”

Caspian dropped a stack of dark clothes in my lap. He hung over the couch, his face hovering high above mine.

“There is a bonfire tonight as you know.” He spoke and tied a bandana around his dreads. “Then we head straight to the scene.”

“What time is it now?” I asked.

“Three.” Crystal answered.

“Three?” I shot a look to Alexander.

“Didn’t want to wake you, you looked so peaceful.”

I ignored his comment.

“Come on, woman. Pick a door that’s open and change.” Zeldyn left the kitchen and her long fingers were on my back, steering me into the hallway.

“If you’re going to fight with us, you have to be prepared. We usually don’t fight in our attire, since most attacks are spontaneous, but it gives us an option for planned operations.” Crystal explained. “Well go on, try them on.”

I went into a bedroom and shut the door. My clothes flew off in a rush and I grew eager as I pulled on the cargo shorts and slipped on a tank top. Lastly, I threw on a vest. I surveyed the other dark clothes in the pile. I sat down on the bed and laced up my boots.

A knock hit the door and I pronounced myself ready, waiting for Zeldyn’s reaction.

“It fits you well.” The dull, familiar voice commented.

“Oh, hi Ves.” I smiled.

“Hi, Scarlett.” He muttered.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Life’s okay, so I am as well. I guess.”

“I thought you were Zeldyn.”

“Sorry for the disappointment. I can go get her if you like?” Vesper’s offer was genuine, but his face looked frustrated.

“No, that’s okay. How was your training at the Arrow?”

“Refreshing, I’m sore. We must have practiced for hours.” He stretched his arm out to rub his sides.

“Where are Emma and Vince?”

“At the Arrow preparing for the official bonfire announcement.” He answered.

“How do you feel about tonight?” I questioned.

“Thrilled, scared.” He replied. “I’m slightly upset that we’re going to see one of our bands like this. Did you have fun last night?”

“Oh,” My stomach dropped. I felt a need to choose the right words to say to him. Everything seemed to upset him lately and I thought that the recent events were stressing him out. I walked over to the mirror and tied my black locks into a bun.

“It was nice.” I said flatly and shut my eyes.

“That’s good. I’m happy for you.”

“Vesper.” My tone softened and I turned around to face him, but he had already walked out.

“Well hello, you look ready.” Crystal commented when I emerged. “How do you feel?” She picked up an apple out of the basket on the counter.

“Eager.” I smiled weakly.

“Excellent, let’s get going.”

It was joyous to be back on the Arrow grounds and even better when I discovered that the lake stone was filled with over a hundred hunters. They were all in personal groups, but still formed a large circle around the fire pit. The intercom system installed in the trees echoed with a leader alerting everyone about the pit meeting beginning.

Willow and Celtic stood in front of the lake, their shadows looming behind the flame. Our group found a clear spot on the stone and I followed behind them, taking a seat on the ground next to my brother and Vesper. I felt Sebastian’s hand lift up my chin, forcing me to look at him when he planted a kiss on my forehead.

“Sorry, the Arrow has consumed me. I haven’t seen you much.” He smiled.

“I think I’ve fallen victim to the same problem.”

“How are you? How do you like it here? Are you ready for tonight? You know I’ll always protect you, I’m by your side in every fight.”

“Of course.” I beamed at him. “Everything is great.”

Large metal containers holding steaming food were being passed around the hunters. A large drum was placed at the edge of the stone, a hunter banging against its top to create a steady sound. A container was passed to me from Alice, who was biting into a toasted marshmallow. I barely had a chance to grab one before more containers made their way across. They were full of steamed and roasted sausages, flaky biscuits, and other small smoky treats.

The drumming became louder and then ceased completely. It turned out to be Tristan, the gatekeeper. I assumed someone else was on guard duty.

“Hello, Arrow.” Willow’s voice sung out smoothly.

“Hello, Willow.” They answered.

It began with introductions of us, the four newcomers, and then the announcement about Emma’s group pursuing tonight’s mission.

She then asked for progress reports on the triplets. Every group at the Arrow stood against the fire’s light and spoke about what they discovered at the individual city they investigated.

This went on for a while. I knew time was dwindling down. Willow made her final announcement about the gateways and received mixed reactions in an uproar. She snapped and the commotion died down.

“One more task.” Crystal stood and pulled out silk pouches from her bag. Celtic nodded.

“Oh, indeed.” Willow eyed the items in her hand.

My eyes locked on the silver lake as Crystal took each pouch, said a proper goodbye, and tossed it into the water. The bag burned as a white flame and exploded over the lake. Nothing emerged from it, no silk or powder. She whispered more names and threw the pouches in the air.

“We apologize for otherworldly interference and an early death.” Crystal said towards the water before looking at us.

“We do rid of the tragedies properly. They were from the shop.”

I was slightly amazed and disturbed.

“It’s seven o’clock, are you all ready?” Celtic questioned.

After the fire, we took Vesper’s Jeep and Alexander’s car to the club. I couldn’t help but feel that Vesper and I were fouling our tradition, and that I wouldn’t be coming back to the venue for a while.

Vesper and Alex parked in an abandoned parking lot, which was a good walk from the actual venue. Alexander jumped out his car. He was dressed in minimum gear to avoid drawing too much attention to himself. Zeldyn and the twins had done the same. Zeldyn pulled out her crossbow from inside of the trunk.

“You’ll be on the roof, if you’re gonna use that. Willow said she doesn’t mind slight position changes based on the venue and area accessibility. Keep an eye out to see if he escapes through any exits.” Caspian spoke.

“Fine by me.” She grinned, bolted around the corner, and disappeared instantly.

“You said they don’t have detectors here, correct?” Alex asked me as he slid a dagger into his boot and covered it with his pants.

“No detectors.” I assured him.

Caspian and his sister followed his action, shoving daggers into every hidden spot under their clothes. I stood next to Vesper in silence, we both wore casual clothes.

“It doesn’t matter.” Caspian muttered. “We’re going through a back entrance and onto the stage. We won’t attack until enough people flee, including security.”

With that, the three of them disappeared, leaving Vesper and I to walk over to the ticket guard and into the club. A smile from Vesper was the only thing keeping me from fleeing from this mission.  

A selfish part of me still tried to enjoy the concert. I felt Vesper’s hand on my shoulder as he swayed. I trusted that the twins wouldn’t let the band get hurt, and hopefully no one else for the matter.

The knife Alex had given me was in my shoe, scratching small skin flakes off my foot with every move I made. I couldn’t help but wonder how Vesper wasn’t bothered by his. I scanned the balcony as I sang, happy to see a hint of a blonde braid swaying in the shadows. Alex was by the curtains on the upper level.

The place was void of any traces from the last incident. The venue was oblivious to the murders that transpired. Celtic released a short term amnesia powder in the range of the club to take care of the memories. The blonde guard stood in the same place he was last time. He was constrained in his shirt while eyeing the crowd with bloodlust. It had to be him.

I focused on Vesper’s Pisces tattoo on his wrist since both of his arms were balanced on my shoulders. Music pounded in my ears, numbing my senses and making me appreciate the sound.

I let the knife cut deeper into my skin in order to stand on my toes and wave my hands in the air. My fingertips reached out in synchronization with the other hands next to me.

The liquid that sprayed on the back of my neck brought me back to my new lifestyle. I turned to Vesper, who had touched my neck to discover a drop of red on his thumb. I slammed my palm against my skin, wiping away the remnants of a blood shower. My hand touched Vesper’s collarbone that was splattered in blood. The smearing on both of us worsened.

We both looked up at the balcony where a man stood above. His eyes were white as he occupied a motionless body. His throat was slit, his head bent backwards at the incision before he toppled over the edge and crashed down on an innocent.

The guard was missing from the front and the band was off stage. Alex appeared over the balcony edge, searching frantically for the culprit. Tauro wasted no breaths to execute an attack.

It got worse. The few dead people that toppled over the balcony last time, became too many to count tonight. More throats were spontaneously slit above, showering the crowd in hot liquid. Their heads fell back and they fell over the edge onto people below. Everyone was running out of the building.

All the bodies that were at the top were now on the ground. Blood was pouring down from the slanted balcony like a waterfall. The blonde guard stood in the midst of the balcony, staring down at Vesper and me with black eyes. Crystal emerged from her spot on the stage, sprinting to the door to protect the crowd that was still escaping.

Caspian ran across the stage and climbed the red curtains until he reached the balcony Alex and the guard stood on. Alex pulled out two knives and slashed away at the guard’s back. The man stood there, taking the damage, until he turned around and clawed at Alex’s face. The talons cut deep into his skin.

Caspian darted toward the man, pulling out a set of butterfly knives and hacking at the guard’s face. He left bloody slash marks and torn skin that immediately recovered.

Vesper pulled me back when I tried to go the stairs, stopping me from going up to the balcony. I was grateful to see Celtic appear behind us both.

“There are people tied up backstage and Interceptors are with them, go now.” He spoke, before he sprinted across the stage, disappeared, and reappeared on the balcony. He slammed into the guard with impeccable force. The man hit the wall of the venue.

I jumped onto the stage and cut past the layers of curtains. Vesper appeared next to me, surveying the four open rooms. He yelled after looking into the last one, signaling for me to follow.

The room was dim. Instruments were broken and the floor was covered in black grime. Vesper was pulling a twitching body through the door and I ran to do the same. I grabbed a hold onto two arms connected to a torso that was constrained in thick rope. The open skin had been gnawed. I dragged the body through the door and into the light, before following Vesper to retrieve another body. I screamed when an impact hit him and his body thudded against the ground in the dark room. I held my knife high and pulled out a flashlight from my boot. The light shattered when a heavy source hit my face, sending me to the ground. I saw its figure in the poor lighting. It was slithering towards me and I attacked instantly, aiming for its skull first.

It ran backwards, skidded to a halt, and charged at me again. An identical Interceptor stuck to the ceiling above Vesper, who had pulled himself up.

“Vesper!” I called out, pointing at his new attacker. He slid back and kicked the Interceptor as soon as it fell to the ground. I thrust my knife out, forcing my Interceptor to run directly into it. Bone screeched against blade, leaving an ache in my head.

Three more Interceptors were in the back of the room, chewing on the bodies. They were now charging forward at us. The huge puddle of blood on the ground slowed down the Interceptors, but also our hindered mobility. The Interceptor pulled itself out of my knife and charged towards me again. I pounced, landing on its skull with enough force to crush it. Its feet fell from underneath its body. My fists clenched my knife as I brought it down into its spinal cord. Each bone cracked with a sound of victory. Their spinal cord and skull were their weak areas.

I grabbed its head with one hand and cut through more bone and flesh with the other. I severed the bones holding up its neck, and then decapitated it until it shimmered away.

Vesper’s Interceptor was on the ground, collapsed, after he left a series of holes in its skin that couldn’t heal.

It rested on the ground, still and weak. It started to deteriorate, as if its skin was decaying and every inch of its body was ready to break down. Instantaneously, it turned into ash and dissipated into the puddle.

Vesper was holding back two in a corner, using his body to shield a victim from the beast. I ran inside, infuriated, and confronted the lone Interceptor that was about to attack Vesper’s back. I continuously cut off its tail, head, arms, and legs while they tried to grow back. By the seventh time, I sliced off its limbs, it screeched and flailed on the ground like a fish out of water.

Vesper motioned to me, signaling that he could handle the Interceptors, and instructed me to get the bodies. I dragged another one out of the room, the ropes around it were soaked with black muck. I went back for the other two bodies that were slumped over each other. They were awake and sobbing in their traps. I used the rope to pull them both out at the same time.

When I went back into the room, Vesper jumped off one of the Interceptor’s bodies to gain height, and slammed down onto the other. His feet crashed into its spine. He became vulgar with his movements, slashing away like a sociopath until one of them vanished. The remaining one darted at him and I yelled to make it redirect its path. It now hastened towards me, its jaws ajar and aiming for my leg. It scraped my skin and I brought my knives down into its body. Its teeth clamped down onto me, but I was too numb to feel the pain. Vesper was at the end of its tail, using his knife to remove its spinal cord. He reached into its flesh and pulled it out.

He did this until it finally shimmered away. His hand found my side, holding me up as I limped out of the room that reeked of trash and death.

“Thanks for having my back.”

“Always.” I noted.

I crashed down onto the ground and sawed at the ropes with my knife, removing their ties. It required the last of my strength. They were all alive, their bodies inducing to hyperventilation. I cut two more ropes free, a guy and a girl, while Vesper let another pair free. They stayed on their sides in shock, not speaking or moving. Three of them had mangled skin from Interceptor bites, bleeding out blood and pus.

“We have to get Celtic, we can’t help them.”

Vesper nodded and helped me up, assisting me to the stage and back into the main room. Alex was on the ground, under the balcony’s lip as if he had been tossed over. Crystal was hovering over him, sitting him up with persistence.

Caspian was running from the closed front doors and heading back up to the ceiling. Celtic and the guard were still fighting, taking turns slamming each other into the walls and leaving craters in the building.

I ran into Crystal and Alex, replacing her, so she could fight with her brother and Celtic. I caught a hold of their strategy as I tried to wake up Alexander. Celtic would slam into the guard and the twins would attack him when he was down; before the man could ambush the twins, Celtic would attack again.

The man bared his teeth at Crystal. She held her weapon of choice in one hand and wielded a dagger in the other. His veins, a combination of red and green, pulsed under his skin like a light under a shade. They were visible through his translucent skin and made it apparent that he was frustrated. A wispy black smoke emerged from his mouth when he breathed. He ran towards Crystal, his talons puncturing holes in her stomach.

With that, Caspian charged. He swung his butterfly knives at the guard, creating long slashes on his stomach, arms, and legs that stitched themselves back up. He ducked and swiped his hand down in an arch, forcing the guard to lose his footing. The guard slammed against the ground on his back. He jumped up, spinning around to attack Caspian. A slice opened down his back, a combination of crimson and black.

Crystal called out for her brother while Celtic ran into the guard again. Their bodies collided with such strong impact, that the balcony began to shudder. I could tell what was happening below. After so many collisions, dust and wood shards were falling on us from above.

The last thing I saw before the avalanche was Vesper. He was running toward us. I pulled Alex by his arms, dragging him out from under the creaking structure above. I felt Vesper’s body slam into us, pushing our bodies to safety as the massive balcony crashed down to the first level. Broken wooden planks and seats created a pile of debris that nearly blocked the entrance. The whole deck crashed on top of the dead bodies, wafting up a smell of disgust.

I screamed, letting out the noise that was stuck in my throat. I slid against the ground’s rough edges with an injured foot. Vesper’s body was heavy against us and Alexander groaned.

“Vesper, thank you.” I croaked.

“Stay here.”  He muttered and he grabbed Alex, who started to wake up. Vesper pulled him through the front doors, clearing debris as they passed through.

I troubled myself to stand. Caspian and Crystal helped each other up, despite their injuries. I picked out shards in my leg. Celtic was running after the guard, both of them traveling at a speed so fast, only flashing movements could be seen.

Hands wrapped around my midsection, with claws digging into my skin. The stranger’s arms held me in a boa constrictor grip. I clenched my teeth at the pain, knowing screaming wouldn’t help.

My kidnapper dashed through the doors, passing Vesper and Alexander, who had just come outside. Alexander was standing now, hunched against the side of the entrance. He held a sword and was thanking Vesper. The two looked at me with wide eyes when the man stopped in the middle of the deserted street and spun us around.

I kicked at him, stabbed behind me, and even bit him, but that only made him angrier. With every movement I made, his claws tightened under my neck and his hold created a ring around my skin.

Celtic appeared at the ticket booth, watching the scene intently. The twins appeared by his side, throwing a few knives at us. I winced, hoping I could trust their accuracy. When I looked up, the guard held up one of his palms and all the knives pierced through his hand.

The tips of the blades protruded from the back of his hand, his skin trying to form around them. He brought the back of his hand to my face. The tips scratched my nose until he pulled out each knife with his teeth and spit them onto the ground. Black ink poured down his wrist and onto the street.

“Scarlett.” Alex said and stumbled across the street.

“Don’t, Alexander.” Celtic spoke, receiving an angry look from Alex.

“We can’t leave her in his hands.” The boy yelled and Vesper stepped up to his side.

A hand came down against my side, claws shredding my shirt. I didn’t move.

“You look like my old girl. She was Tayden’s wife, but she fell in love with me too. Theodore took care of her, he said he didn’t want us to fight. He said she was a distraction to our cause. Meanwhile, he was out taking every woman in sight.” He snarled.

I looked at Celtic for guidance, his eyes trailed upwards while the guard was distracted with me. I looked at the roof to see Zeldyn’s arrow facing us.

His hand rested on my throat and his other was by my side. I endured the heavy, dark, gaseous smoke that he breathed and controlled my shaking, ignoring his distasteful touch. I looked up at Zeldyn with panic in my eyes. Enticing, hazelish irises met mine and I saw her mouth “Trust me.” The light echo of her words were my only hope.

“The only thing I would have changed,” Tauro began, “was that I would have killed her myself to rid Theo of the satisfaction he felt while slicing her throat.” His talon pierced my neck and drew blood, ready to drag it across my skin.

Zeldyn shot the crossbow and a long, thick arrow hit the man’s temple. Another landed between his eyes, and shot out on the other side. It came out messy, and then clattered onto the ground. He jerked us backwards. Three more arrows shot down, nailing him perfectly. Two landed in his eye sockets.

He staggered back, spitting phlegm and saliva while releasing me. He reached out into the air for me as his eyes tried to regenerate. A white liquid film filled up the eye sockets. I rotated on my heel and attacked, reaching for the dagger in my shoe and slicing at his throat. Momentarily, I crouched and did the same to his Achilles’s heel. I heard someone yell duck.

I squatted to the ground, despite the weight hurting my injured leg. Instantly, Caspian was behind me, slicing off the man’s head and letting it rattle to the ground. I was gasping for air, running into Vesper and falling into his hold.

The head rolled across the ground and the guard grew another one. The space where its head should be was shimmering until a duplicate appeared. It had the same murderous, sarcastic smile the guard was wearing before decapitation. His silence was remarkable. He swung a fist at Caspian, knocking him back onto the cold street.

The man retreated, racing down the street and vanishing.

“He knows he’s being pursued. He knows we’re onto him.” Celtic whispered in a cold manner.

 

………

 

I clawed at my throat, expecting to feel suffocated, but I felt nothing. My body was relieved of pain. I thought my stress levels would be higher given what happened at the concert.

My vision was blurry at the edges. I felt around, expecting to be on the ground with bruises. Everything around me was soft like a bed. That couldn’t be possible, because I was outside on the ground by the club. I flailed around in a panic until Vesper’s voice shushed me.

I asked. “Tauro, did he escape? Is Alex okay? Vesper, you saved us, thank you. Where’s Celtic? Is he alright? And Zeldyn? She saved my life.”

“Who are these people?” I heard my father ask in the distance.

“Dad? What are you doing here?”
“New factors.” Vesper said.

“Factors?”

A blurry face entered my line of vision and I saw a mole by the figure’s lip. It was Vesper, watching me with dark rings under his eyes.

“Vesper, you have school tomorrow. You have to get some sleep. Ava will murder me.” I heard my dad in the distance. “She’ll be okay.”

I’ll be okay? I questioned, but the darkness was beckoning me.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

We had another concert today. Your dad said a lot of your past blackouts occurred while you are asleep, so I guess I’m lucky that there are fewer when you’re awake.

We hung out all day and made it to the show this time, except you started to show signs of a blackout shortly after the band started to play. You kept rambling about hunters infiltrating the concert venue. I convinced the bouncer to let me buy V.I.P tickets and we moved to the balcony where you sat. I hoped that you would wake up before the show ended, so I didn’t have to drag you out of there.

You did. You woke up screaming and sweating. It blended in with the other screams, but you were terrified. Apparently the other hunters were there to attack a Demon triplet? I swear your mind is on the ultimate high. I brought you home when it ended and Chris had you go to bed.

In my world, we went to the reflecting pool and your dad joined us for gyros during lunch. I was worried I would lose you then, but you stayed with me the whole day.

In your world, after your blackout, you told me there was a bonfire at the Arrow. And that the hunters gave us clothes like theirs. This sounds like a desire for acceptance.

There was another attack at the concert venue. The unnatural man is apparently a Demon, one of the evil triplets. If these Demons represent people in your life, I need to figure out who. I don’t want to draw conclusions, but I have a strong feeling about who they may be.

I saved Alex, who I believe is a hero in your story. If I could make a connection, I’d assumed that if you found someone good for you, I’d want you to keep him.

Who are Zeldyn and the twins? No clue. The Death figure, Celtic, was there. In that moment, you were living, breathing, and enjoying yourself. You loved the thrill. So, I believe the Death figure is a personification of Carpe Diem.

The tricky part is who Tauro represents. There seems to be sexual tension and pressure when he captured you. Is Tauro your version or Marlin or someone stronger? I’ll run down your list of ex-boyfriends until I make a connection.

I need you to talk to me.

On another note, March is lost time and summer will be here sooner than you think. Your dad and I booked New York tickets and I’m already mapping out all the places you and I would love. I’m interested in seeing if your visions change after we change locations. I’m also eager to spend time with you and hopefully help you with your happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

I spent ten minutes on the ground, watching everyone move around me. Zeldyn was next to me, speaking about something I was not paying attention to.

“Thank you.” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t listening.

“We’re a team. It’s what we do, no need for thanks.” She said, and went into the club.

“I’d ask you if you’re okay, but no there’s need to ask stupid questions.” Vesper said. “Celtic says we need to hurry. Apparently, there is a police group who works with the Arrow. They know about Demons, Interceptors, and all the havoc they cause. Those are the groups that are sent to situations like this, so they can cover up the story with mortal logic. But they’re sending back up, who aren’t aware of all of that. So we need to leave.”

I nodded. We passed Zeldyn, who was collecting weapons and returning them to the trunk.

“We’ll take care of the injuries on the way back, the priority is leaving.” Vesper spoke.

He helped me limp into the club. I helped the twins move the victims from the back room and onto the stage. Celtic had already cleaned up. The room was now spotless and smelled like bleach and lavender. The instruments and lights were restored to their original condition. Crystal shut the door to the back rooms when he was finished.

The Reaper worked fast to restore the club to its original state. Caspian advised me to sit down and I did, feeling guilty for taking this much damage on a first mission. I didn’t want to be pitied.

Alexander approached me on the stage as I clutched my stomach. “For a first mission, you and Vesper were absolutely impeccable. Don’t you think so Crystal?”

For once, I saw the faintest of smiles on her face. “Many at the Arrow had very rough first missions. You all are doing well, especially during this massive threat.” She reassured. Her shirt was spotted with dry blood that resurfaced with her movements.

Caspian was questioning the miserable victims on the stage, who all desperately wanted to escape this place and never coming back.

“Just a few more questions.” Caspian spoke as Vesper held them up, helping water find their throats and bandaging them. “His name?”

“Gabriel.” Two answered in sync.

“Good. He was the man with long blonde hair, correct? Black shirt? The bodyguard?”

“Yes.” A boy groaned.

“What were his intentions? How did you all end up back there?”

“He promised our group would get backstage passes to see the band.” A girl wailed. “We were ushered into a room and the power was cut. Then there was shuffling and screaming. No one heard us, the band was still playing. He restrained all of us and then these slimy animals started making noises. I heard them on chains rattling around. They were set free and the man disappeared. They started biting away at us.” At this point, the girl was crying, pressing herself into Vesper as he worked on her wounds.

“That’ll be enough, thank you.” Caspian spoke, sensing the sensitivity of the situation.

I looked away. Celtic was under the balcony, piecing it back together. The wooden smithereens formed together to recreate the balcony. His hand was high in the air, causing the balcony to rise to its previous spot on the wall.

He collected the dead bodies and went over to the victims. He captured their gaze and stared through them. An airy essence straggled out of their eyes and into Celtic’s. His arms moved down their shoulders and their major injuries healed over. Skin formed over the catastrophic wounds that once existed.

He walked them to the door, established a tone of authority, and said “The concert is over, please make your way outside.”

They all walked out with bemused smiles, enjoying a concert they believed had happened.

I looked at Celtic, who held his head with sorrow.

“You stole their memories.” I said.

“With good purpose. I’ve already eliminated the memories of those that were here.”

The venue was as it was when we walked in. Only beer bottles, tobacco buds, and trash littered the ground.

“We need to leave.” Alex stated.

The sirens rounded the corner minutes after we escaped to the parking lot. Crystal sunk down against Alexander’s car, her fingers toying with the hole in her stomach. Her brother was by her side, aiding to the wound. Celtic made his way to her, grabbed her arms, and assisted with the injury. The worst part of the puncture closed, leaving only shallow cuts on her.

“That’s enough, Celtic. Thank you.”

“He helps us with major wounds and infections, otherwise, we try to take care of our minor injuries on our own. He is a Reaper, he won’t always be around. He still has a lifetime quest to tend to and the fact that he’s on the Arrow’s side means more than we’ll ever know. We can’t abuse the power.” Crystal answered me before I could ask the question.

Caspian bandaged the leftover cuts on his sister and she did the same for him. Zeldyn was cleaning off the weapons and putting them in Alex’s trunk.

“You all are okay?” Celtic asked.

Everyone nodded.

“We lost lives tonight.” Zeldyn frowned.

“And we saved many.” Celtic retaliated. “It’s a start. He’s getting more powerful, and the item he’s harnessing grows stronger with every soul tied to it.  We need to retrieve the item and foil his next steps.”

“You seem very sure that the item will solve all our problems.” I said, but Celtic didn’t reply.

Alexander joined Zeldyn, cleaning the weapons. Vesper was by my foot, tying a bandage around my leg. Celtic came over, grabbing a hold of my arms and looking through me. A force traveled from his hands and through my body. The skin on my leg was rejuvenated, leaving only a slight throb.

“The bite was deep.” He said.

He turned to face us. “I must go, as always Willow and I thank you for all of your services. Eli and Gabriel are two lives Tauro has stolen, but after tonight, I doubt he will go back to either identities. He’s going to start fresh. I suggest you return to the Arrow tonight to rest and take care of the pouches. I will inform Willow about tonight.”

Celtic passed the pouches to Caspian and vanished. Aside from the inconsistent chatter between Alex and Zeldyn, the conversation died after Celtic left. I propped myself up in Vesper’s passenger seat, my foot in his lap as we waved the others off.

“Should we go home, speak to our parents, or go straight to the Arrow?”

“The Arrow is fine, if that’s okay with you.” I said.

“Okay.” He drove off. “When did our traditions become death missions?”

I smiled, but when I turned towards him, he wore a grimace.

It was close to midnight when we got back to the Arrow. Plenty of people were still awake and wandering around in the dim lighting. I felt like finding a place to sleep. A few cheers came from strangers when they saw us and I blushed.

I made my way to the hammock forest in the dark, squinting my eyes to find an empty one. Vesper walked behind me, his steps were silent until he passed me, and slammed down into a hammock.

“What’s wrong?” I asked and I slid next to him in the fabric, causing it to swing uneasily. I pulled my knees up to make room and crossed my legs.

He didn’t speak. The Arrow’s beauty was still visible even in the night’s shrouded cloak of blue. The hammock swung back and forth and I stared at the ground, anticipating an answer.

“I’m losing you.” He finally said.

“What?”

“I love it here, it’s great. I know you have that itch that’s calling you to this new pleasurable life. I feel it too. I want this. You and Alice want it, and Sebastian told me himself that he was wrong about this place. However, I don’t want to lose you to this life. I want us to all stay alive and enjoy it together.” He said in a quick, exasperated breath.

We sat in silence again for a while. I searched for an answer while rocking the hammock like a cradle.

“I’m still here.” I said, curling up into a ball and resting by his side. My hair was a silk pillow intertwined through my hands.

My bones cramped from the way I slept. The night time darkness was now a bright white light. The entire Arrow was up and moving while Vesper and I were misplaced, sleeping in the hammocks. I pulled myself in a sitting position and saw Alice in a hammock next to ours. She gently swung and watched us. A blue knit beanie rested on her defiant hair, matching her Vans and jeans. A gray tank top left her arms exposed, and a dark gray scarf was around her neck. I immediately felt the need to go home and refresh.

“Good morning.” She smiled.

“Hi.” I greeted.

“I know it’s early and you two are probably heading home soon, but Amber has some information she thought you all might want to know. It’s more of a lesson. She told me to pass on the message and return with you guys. She’s in the third floor study.” Alice was on her feet, making her way inside.

I woke up Vesper, who croaked and followed me into the lodge, up the stairs, and into the study. The room imitated the qualities of the lodge.

Smooth tan walls met rough, vertical brick panels in each corner. Towers of book shelves were placed throughout the room. Wide tables lined the walls, holding multiple modern computers. Amber and Nico were inside, gesturing us over to a booth in the corner. Its surface was covered with teacups. We both slid in, aside from Alice, who braced herself against a bookshelf.

“Hello you guys, I’m glad you two are alright.” She smiled, pushing two cups of tea towards us. The tea warmed my mouth and burned my tongue in a bittersweet manner. I drank the hot, sweet liquid.

“Many of the Arrowers stayed up last night. The story about the club traveled. Big news.” Amber said over the steam of her tea. Her bubbly aura enhanced when discussing hunter information. “I wanted to pass on another piece of information about the triplets, pertaining to why they’re so strong.”

“As we know, they’ve harnessed their powers to an item which they pass around. What you don’t know about is branding. When the seven sins sacrificed their physical bodies, their presence still lived on in humans and Demons. On average, both species show signs of all traits, but one always weighs heavier than the other six. Demons have one sin that they’ve succumbed to. They are branded with the symbol of that sin.” Nico elaborated.

Amber opened a torn, raggedy book and slid it across the table. There were seven symbols for Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Pride, and Lust. There were summaries deciphering each odd, scorched drawing. I cringed at the burns on the page.

“All Demons have a symbol branded into the underside of their jawbone. It’s the symbol relating to the flaw they succumbed to in their human life.”

“The triplets, what are their personal sin symbols?” I asked.

“That’s the catch. The triplets rose to power with the belief that they were superior. The two youngest, Tauro and Tayden possess two sin symbols versus one. Tauro’s heart is full of Wrath and Pride. He’s merciless and arrogant.” Amber noted.

“Tayden,” Nico began, “has a heart dominated by Sloth and Envy. We’ve noticed he creates ploys that are simple and theatrical. His jealousy of his brothers forces him to think of easy, cunning ways to kill versus forceful ones.

“And Theodore?” Vesper asked.

“He’s the worst, interestingly possessing three of the seven sins. That’s the most discovered in one Demon heart.” It was Alice who spoke. “His heart is consumed by Gluttony, Greed, and Lust. Tauro is cruel, Tayden is crafty, and Theodore follows his own rules since he’s the one who created this trouble. He’s a beast with humans, sex with our kind is a custom for him. His last ploys were a brothel and home for addicts.” He seeks attention, chaos, and control.

“How do you know that?” I asked Alice.

Her eyes lingered on book spines in the case across from her. “Zeldyn spent some time teaching me.”

I returned my eyes to the table in front of us, avoiding Alice’s discontent.

We were pursuing a monster, and looking for two other belligerent clones of it.

“She’s correct. I find the concept very delicate. The most captivating fact is that the brothers are the same person.” Amber said.

“What do you mean by that?” Asked Vesper.

“Theodore is an established Demon, he exists and had a previous life as a human. Although, his brothers only appear as real Demons, but they are concepts. They’re real, yes, but originally Theodore possessed all seven sins when he started the rebellion. All that power belonged to one being. He gave it up and split from four sins to create his brothers from thin air. He split his being in order generate inheritors to carry on his goal if he was ever destroyed.

“That’s genius.” I stated. “We’re fighting the same man, just with different sin qualities. Aside from mentality and personality traits, why is he so strong? Is the item that powerful?”

“He built up strength while being held captive. Also the forged item he’s using collects souls and it’s giving him abilities such as transportation and shape shifting. Without the item, his energy and power vanishes. Right now, his brothers are somewhere in their Interceptor forms until they absorb the item.” Nico filled in.

“That’s all we had to tell you. It’s not beneficial to defeating any of them, but it was a fascinating fact we wanted to share. We get the item, we steal his force. Feel free to look at any of the novels here or use the study and Nico and I are always up for a match if you need one.”

“Thank you.” I smiled as the couple left and wandered into the hidden pockets of the library.

Vesper waited in the booth while I walked through the bookshelves, scanning the titles and synopses of the books that looked interesting. I settled with one on knife stance and techniques. I slipped it into my bag and returned to the booth. Alice had disappeared, and personally, I wanted to go home.

“I think I’m going to get some stuff done back at home, Ves. We have one more week until Spring Break, things are approaching a little fast.”

“Okay.” He offered a flat smile. “I understand. I think I’m going to ask Nico for a lesson, his sword work is impressive. I’d work with Caspian, but I think he’s resting after yesterday.”

He followed me out of the study and into the hall, which was empty aside from a few stragglers. A group marked their territory at the fireplace.

 “Hi Zeldyn.” Vesper greeted the girl who I failed to notice coming up the stairs. She shook her perfect, brunette hair, allowing it to shuffle around her waist. She gave an unsure wave to the two of us. Her mouth opened as if she were about to speak, but then closed when Alice appeared behind her. She had a suitcase in one hand and Zeldyn carried one of her travel bags.

“Alice?” I asked, jumping to a conclusion.

Her small frame approached me, and her hand folded into mine as she spoke.

“I’m moving, Scarlett.” Her voice was quiet.

“And this is how you tell us? Your closest friends?” I felt more than just betrayed.

“I was looking at apartments and I realized I didn’t want to be alone, I thought there was no better place than here. I can learn and train.”

“Alone? Alice, we’re right here. Stop saying you’re alone when you have us. You’ve known us longer than Zeldyn, no offense.”

“I’m burdening you, your father, and Sebastian. I need something new.” The words blurted out as a slap to my face.

“You’re burdening us by leaving! So quick too?”

She backed away.

“I was already looking for a place.”

“Have we grown so far apart that you tell me nothing?” I asked. My heart sunk.

“I’m sorry, Scarlett, but look at how much time we spend at the Arrow. You guys can go home and see your parents, whether you want to or not. Me? I have nothing to lose here. I’m tired of Vesper’s mom and your father pitying my misery.”

I was too tired to argue and too passive to fight.

Quiet moments passed. I stared across the room at Alice, as Zeldyn stood behind her.

I breathed in.

“Is this what you really want?” I questioned.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” I said. “Okay.”

Her body enveloped into mine, her arms squeezing around my neck and holding me close. I breathed in her smell of perfume. Her dress was flying around as she shook me back and forth. I opened my eyes, seeing Zeldyn’s apologetic stare. She unlocked her room and brought in a bag. Alice pulled away, kissing me on the cheek and backing away to her new room.

I was left in the hall with Vesper, staring at a door that had already closed. I felt Vesper’s hand against my back, but I was already running out of the loft doors and to Tristan’s guard station.

I planned on walking. I reached the outside field and the gates slammed behind me. I started running, frustration was dominating my emotions. I was against the side of the road when I realized walking was unreasonable.

It only took ten minutes before my brother pulled up in his truck, ushering me in. I accepted his offer, happy he saved me from my idiocy.

“Vesper sent me after you.” His head bobbed to the radio that was turned way too loud.

“I’m sure he did.” I hung my head out of the window, letting the wind catch wisps of my hair.

“I heard the news about Alice, I’m sorry. Although, it seems best. Positive attraction and relationships take away stress and pain. She and Zeldyn will be a good thing. New people, new home, and a room to call her own with a person she admires. Sounds perfect.”

Sebastian always had a tendency to be right.

“We risked our lives last night, and she was planning to leave us.”

“She and I both let you guys risk your lives, because we know you and Vesper are strong. Besides, Caspian and his sister are absolutely insane and wouldn’t let anything happen to either of you.” He smiled. “I’m glad you’re okay, but I do plan on being included in whatever Willow’s next orders may be.”

I stared out of the window.

“Oh yeah, these.” He grinned, holding up black and gold flyers to our school’s senior prom. “I can take the long way home and drive over the bridge.”

I smiled back at him, pulling the four flyers out of his grip and pulling a lighter from my pocket.

“Do it.” I murmured.

The beginning of the bridge approached and I pressed the invitations into my hand. I held one up, burned its edge, and let the flame contagiously spread across the fibers. I tossed it out of the window and into the river.

I passed two to Sebastian, who held them up like cards as I placed the lighter under them. He passed ignited paper to me and I threw them out the window screaming with laughter over the radio.

I set the last one between my fingers. The end of the bridge was approaching. I flicked the switch on and the flame engulfed the ink. Words melted down as the fire kissed the surface of my skin, before I blew the last invitation into the water.

Sebastian wore the sweetest, satisfactory smile. We were rebelling against school organized events and societal trends.

“Have you heard about the symbols from one of the twins yet?” I asked.

“Caspian explained them to me. When did our lives merge into this, Scarlett?” He laughed again, and we rode in peace with each other’s presence.

When I got home, I put on a pair of shorts and a sweater over my untamed waves. I stumbled into the kitchen, grabbed a large jar of applesauce and a spoon, and headed back into my cave.

The weekend had been insane and it wasn’t even over. My body was sore, my mind was consumed with thoughts about the Arrow, and my hands were furiously typing away on the keyboard, finishing up a government paper and two ecology assignments. Two hours and an empty jar of applesauce later, I had finished.

The raw feeling in my heart eased little when Sebastian walked in with curly fries and pizza. I had such an easy fix. I spent the next hour with him and my dad, who insisted on complaining about our lack of time spent at home. Hypocritical much, given his time spent at work. We were chastised to be careful and questioned about our new friends. He left after so long, leaving us to our food.

“Want to go for a walk?”

“Sure, are you’re okay?” He asked.

“Am I that lazy that my request is concerning? I’m always okay.” I lied.  

We traveled to the condominiums that were directly next to the park. The balconies on the left side of the building looked over the trees. I slipped a foot out of my flats and let my toes submerge into the overly green, trimmed grass. It felt like we were on college grounds. Is this what college would feel like?

A wide sidewalk had trees on both sides of the walkway. A glance up to the balconies revealed laughing bodies, kissing couples, or lonely souls watching the night. The park and condominiums were near the pizzeria, the one we had all neglected to visit given the new circumstances.

At the end of the walkway, we rounded the corner and came upon a bench to the right. It was beside the main road. Traffic lights blinked and cars drove around with their minimal commotion. Across the street was a movie theater next to a posh restaurant that stayed open late.

Sebastian took a seat, watching people enter and exit the old fashioned theater. He started people watching, finding a random bystander to give a ridiculous conversation. Their real conversation was inaudible from where we sat. I laughed, catching onto the drift and replying to his phrases with equally ridiculous responses.

We did this for at least twenty minutes. I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard, my hand clutching my stomach as he spoke.

My body slid next to his on the bench, wrapping my hands around his waist and hugging him. He stiffened, until he finally wrapped his arms around me, returning the embrace. We sat there for a moment. It was a small second that gave me a sense of normalcy in my life.

Chapter Sixteen

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

It’s all making sense. I think I’m right. And no, a psychology book and my assumptions aren’t enough to clarify your mind, but it helps.

What I said about Alice being your abandoning best friends has to be true. I spent the night with you and you kept rambling in your sleep. It honestly made it easier to gather what was happening without you getting upset that I didn’t remember. Chris and I intervened when you woke up in a panic. He suggested that I’d give up watching you and let him take over.

I stayed regardless and you fell asleep again.

From what you spoke about, I gathered that Alice did leave. She moved into your happy place and left you behind in the city. She’s becoming more like the hunters, the people you want to become. She left and now you wonder about what to do.

I should have seen it before, but I think it’s the same theory for Alex. He’s the opposite of all the bad guys in your life. The hero of all books and savior in all movies. He’s literally the good guy, and your way of washing out the trivial boys who kept you up at night.

Such as Sam, the guy who intimately involved himself with you and told you that you were talking too much when you spent time together. Julian, the other guy who cheated on you the entirety of the relationship. Darrell, the one who brought you on the roof for sunsets just to kiss you and nothing else. Shall I go on? Alex is the opposite of them, but represents them all.

Your world is full of irony. The Death figures represent the good in life, the good guy represents the bad, and the loyal friend represents the untrustworthy ones.

However, I do think that the Demons represent depression and the actual bad in both scenarios. They represent the people or periods in your life that are so somber, they can’t be changed in the dream world either. I need to learn who those three Demons are. I think I know one out of three, I just need more proof.

You miss Sebastian again. You both spent some quality time together and you said that you crossed the bridge and burned prom tickets.

Scarlett, Sebastian’s life ended when he was twelve, 1989-2001. Your numbers are all out of whack. You two don’t share a birthday. If he were alive now, he’d be twenty-five, not eighteen. He didn’t go to high school. He didn’t have a prom or homecoming and isn’t experiencing graduation. The fact that you’ve had him grow up and believe that he is older is mind blowing. I’ll include a picture of him in here that your dad asked me to add.

I think your dream world will slip away, maybe that’s when you’ll come back, when the dreams turn to nightmares. I don’t want you to experience that, but come back and we can fix this world together, the real one.

Yours truly, Vesper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

I was finishing a school essay when Vesper came in and slammed his bag on the table. He was holding his camera, which he put on the counter.

“Hey Scar,”

“Hi. Are you not going to speak to Sebastian? There’s no need to be rude.”

He looked at me quizzically, sighed, and glanced at where I pointed to indicate my brother’s spot.

“Hello Sebastian.” He looked at my brother in the chair. “I guess I won’t sit there.” He mumbled and I threw up my middle finger.

“How was your day?” I asked.

“Decent. Did you two not go?”

“We came home for lunch and skipped last period.” I smiled at my brother.

“Right.”

I was surfing the web after submitting my work and dwelling on a few social media sites. I jumped up excitedly, ashamed that I forgot something important, and was reminded after seeing a friend’s page full of Happy Birthday comments.

“Alice!” I squealed. “How did I forget?”

Sebastian let us know that he was heading to the Arrow to check whether Zeldyn would help with Alice’s birthday.

“Okay,” I told my brother. “See you later.” I said as he went to the door. When he reached for the handle, he blurred and I found it odd. I shook my head from the hallucination.

Vesper stood across the counter and looked at me.

“What?” I asked. “Why don’t you sit down?”

“Sebastian is sitting there.”

“No, he just left to the Arrow to see where Alice is. Honestly Vesper, are you okay?”

“Peachy.” He quietly took a seat where Sebastian had just been. “What’s up? Why’d you scream?” He asked.

“We’re horrible friends, you know that?” It’s her birthday today. It’s Friday already.”

“Oh. Oh, alright.” Vesper said. “Right. What are we doing then?”

“Sebastian suggested the sports park.”

“Okay. Should we go to Potomac Mills to shop for stuff then?”

“That’s perfect.” I spun around in the chair in my shorts and floral blue top. I kicked my feet out childishly, this would be a great distraction from the invasion.

 

………

 

Spring Break mostly consisted of Arrow trips. The first weekend, I sprinted the fields with Alexander until I surrendered to a shower and collapsed into one of the hammocks.

The following Monday was spent with Alice in the Arrow’s library, typing up scholarships to send in. I gave my Tuesday to Vesper and Sebastian at the gym, watching them lift weights while I paced myself on the treadmill. It was an insulting workout compared to Alex’s training.

The next three days were spent visiting Washington’s favorite spots. We gave up on our plans for the beach for Alice’s birthday, and instead made other ones. Her official birthday was the Wednesday of this week, but we just went out for a nice dinner, she chose to celebrate the Saturday before school started again. I found it too absurd to invite those we knew at the Arrow. There were so many people there that I assumed birthdays weren’t glamourized. They probably celebrated within their groups and returned to work. We were still getting to know ours.

This still called for a celebration, especially to balance out the sadness that hovered over her. Vesper invited Zeldyn, who happily agreed. I wanted to ask if Alex was coming, but Vesper started being weird when I did. I was just happy this event would bring her back home for a little bit, which made me happy.

Vesper and Sebastian came into my room, their voices loud as they woke me up. I rolled over in bed groaning. My blanket made a fort over my body. I questioned how Spring Break passed away so fast.

“Good morning.” They both smiled.

“Hi.” I said in a raspy voice. Sebastian rolled me out of my blanket cocoon and onto the floor. I sprawled out and frowned.

“You suck.” I sneered at my brother.

“Cake’s ordered.” Ves said.

“Gifts wrapped.” Sebastian shouted.

“Secret ally.” Ves grinned.

“Hello, Scarlett.” Zeldyn pounced in my doorway.

“Zeldyn.” I smiled, “Thanks for coming.” I tried to amplify my excitement through my uncontrollable yawns.

“Of course.”

She was holding a plate of chocolate chip cupcakes. I pulled myself up to see where the smells came from. I sluggishly walked into the kitchen, my pajamas dragging against the ground. My dad was up early, a wrinkled smile on his face as he handed me a plate.

“Breakfast is made.” He spoke.

“Hi daddy.” I smiled.

“Your dad is pretty great.” Zeldyn said. “I was telling him about the Arrow, and he told us some old hunting stories he had with a close friend.”

I began to wonder if that was the real reason our mom left, because she knew about hunting or didn’t believe him. I raised an eyebrow at my dad, a man who never liked discussing a lifestyle he was introduced to. He shrugged.

A big white box was placed on the counter and I peeked at it. A collection of the breakfast my dad made was inside, Muffins, pancakes, toast, and hot syrup steamed on a plate. Next to the box was a single bear holding a note signed from Vesper’s mom.

“You guys are so sweet.” I told my dad. “Thank you.”

“I love that girl as if she were your sister, Scarlett. Pity that she moved out, she’s welcome anytime and she knows that. She’s been through a lot.”

“It was very nice to meet you, sir,” Zeldyn grabbed the box and the bear. “I’ll deliver this to Alice and carry out with the plan. We’re meeting at the sports park at six, correct?”

Sebastian nodded. She waved a final goodbye and left the apartment.

“She borrowed Alex’s car, the cake, gifts, and decorations are in his trunk.” Sebastian explained. “When she and Alice leave the Arrow to meet us, Alex will set up in Alice’s new room.

“That’s wonderful. I’m happy they care.”

“She’s very nice.’ My dad commented. “I’m sure they all are, just please be careful.”

“Always.” I answered, before going back to my room. Three strips of bacon were between my fingers.

“We’ve got a day to ourselves.” Sebastian said. “Get dressed.”  

I showered and rummaged in my closet, trying to find something modest, but playful. The end result was a short, black dress with a white tiger on the front. I slipped into my black Vans and put a hoodie into my book bag.

I took the time to curl my hair. Tendrils hung down on each side of my face and partially stuck to my cheeks.

I fought the urge to go to the Arrow to pass the time, believing it would defeat the purpose of a normal day if I did. Instead, I appreciated not having to worry about the supernatural. I spent the day alone at the zoo, sifting through the exhibits, until my brother called for my location. We drove to the sports park with his music blaring through his aux cord as he sang.

We had one more week of April left, which consisted of prom overload and senior skip day. May would be the long, treacherous month full of exams, until June made its appearance to see us off to graduation. In my mind, after exams were over, school was as well.

“Happy birthday, beautiful!” My voice sung out after we arrived, parked, and Alice approached. I was already constricting her in a hug as soon as she got out of Zeldyn’s car.

“Thank you guys for all of this.” Alice whispered. Her voice was in its soft, calm state. Her petite body bounced around in another one of her many pretty crop tops and shorts. Everyone met at the entrance of the park, which branched out into different sidewalks leading to attractions.

Sebastian ran his slim fingers through his messy short hair. He settled into a plain white V-neck and jeans. His sneakers softly scuffled against the ground. Vesper decided to wear his boots, not his hunting ones, but an old pair he always favored. They went with a pair of rugged jeans and a black shirt. His hoodie sat on his arm, in case of cold weather. After a peck on Alice’s cheek, Sebastian was gesturing us all onto the path. He shoved the tickets for each attraction in our hands. Zeldyn pulled at the frayed ends of her sweater, the bottom of the fabric swayed by her shorts as she walked. She passed a letter to Alice, which was a happy birthday note from Alex and the others.

“Go karts?” Alice offered and we all agreed. I took the opportunity to run and jump onto Vesper’s back while we walked, straining to keep my thighs covered under my dress.

“Whoa.” He chuckled with his old playful voice and held onto my legs. He walked me over to the tracks, lightly dropping me when the instructor gave details on controlling the cart. Zeldyn and Alice grabbed one with two seats. Zeldyn sat in the back with her arms crossed as Alice took the driver’s seat with a grin.

Sebastian, Vesper, and I had fastened into our own. The stoplight change signaled our release. One by one, we drove out from under the roof and onto the track. The music was still audible from the roof speakers and it flowed throughout the track.

Adrenaline surged through me during the first lap. I was unable to control my grin as I revved my engine and sped past Alice with a scream. I was now on Vesper’s flank and nearing Sebastian. Zeldyn and Alice cut a corner and suddenly sped past all three of us. Vesper and Sebastian were in a personal rivalry with each other. I revved again, my heart soaring through my chest as I zoomed past Vesper and Sebastian.

“Hey woman!” He cried out, trying to keep up.

A quick glance behind me revealed that Sebastian and Vesper were still competing for the best spot. Zeldyn held Alice’s hand high in the air as they sped off. Alice was working on her one hand driving as I tailgated their vehicle.

I slowed down, abandoning my quest for first place. I had fallen behind Sebastian, who managed to sneak past me and block my every move to get past him. Vesper had caught up with me and Sebastian drove to the left, blocking him as well. However, it left his right open and I took the chance to pass them both again.

I was now holding top place after I raced forward and passed the couple. Alice quickly found a way to speed up again and was now by my side.

“Hey, gorgeous!” She yelled at me over the exhaust.

“How did you-?” I began.

Alice only winked. During our talk, Sebastian discovered a way to pass both Alice and me, leaving Vesper in the back.

“We can take your brother,” Alice smirked. “Follow my lead.”

I had no idea what she meant, but the grin on her face didn’t stop growing. Alice stalled behind Sebastian’s vehicle and he started to block her. Alice and Zeldyn jerked their vehicle to the left behind him, causing him to block, and then just as quickly sped to the right through the opening.

“What!?” Sebastian yelled and covered his right, leaving the left open. I absorbed the shock on his face as I passed him on the left. I waved at him, caught up with Alice again, and rewarded Little Red and her girlfriend with a thumbs up.

Sebastian and Vesper were head to head with each other again. Alice and Zeldyn had left my side, far ahead on the track with no competition. Zeldyn threw a peace sign in the air. Sebastian had finally managed to zoom past me and I gave up the pursuit. I lost track of the lap counts. Vesper was by my side, laughing.

Zeldyn and Alice were so far ahead, that they passed us twice.

“I surrender!” I yelled. After a few more laps, the siren blared and ended the round.

Sebastian grinned. “I must say Alice, you put up a fight.” He admitted as we walked up the main sidewalk.

“Remind me not to street race you.” Vesper noted.

“I give up. I’m doing something easy. I think I’m going to try out the arcade.” My brother said.

Behind him, a tall figure was heading down the entrance walkway, two hands were behind his head to braid his blonde hair. Vesper shifted near my side.

“I thought you couldn’t make it.” Alice asked when he gave her a quick hug.

“I wouldn’t have missed it, I had to run an errand. Happy birthday.” Alex pulled away with a smile and waved at the rest of us. “I’ll take my chances in the arcade. They have an air hockey table there. Sebastian, are you up for some competition?” Alex challenged.

“You’re on, let’s go!”  Sebastian roared. “I’m up for a game.”

I was unsure if I wanted to play mini golf or go to the arcade. Neither amused me, I just wanted to take a seat and catch my breath.

“I’m going to test my luck at the batting cages.” Vesper noted.

“I’ll join.” I blurted. It was the perfect opportunity to sit. The arcade floor filled with old food wrappers surely couldn’t be better than being outside.

“Sure.” Vesper said in the calmest voice possible, he seemed surprised by my choice.

“We’ll all meet back up at nine, in the food court. It’ll give us plenty of time to eat and have some fun.

Everyone agreed and dispersed. I followed Vesper to the cages, lingering behind and enjoying the stroll.

“When did you become interested in baseball?” He asked with honest curiosity.

“I’m not. I just wanted to relax. The weather is perfect for sitting.”

He scoffed. “You’re so different sometimes. I’ll never stop liking that.”

The cages were as expected. A huge green field faced the individual black cage areas. A taller fence, one of insane height, blocked the end of the field.

Each cage had its own automatic pitcher on the field. The machine whirred up and was ready to spit out baseballs. The back wall was solid wood and mesh nets separated the slots next door.

I took a seat with my legs crossed, as Vesper slipped on a glove and picked up the designated bat. He tapped it against the ground and practiced his swing. I ran my hands through the grass, letting the blades slide between my fingers.

My mind imagined my brother going head to head with Alex as they annihilated some innocent old fashioned arcade game. Alex didn’t seem like the competitive type, but there wasn’t much I knew about him. I turned and rested on my back, crossing my legs under my dress. My elbows propped up the back of my head so I could still watch Vesper.

Time felt stuck in the moment, but I didn’t mind that too much. All I knew was that evening was coming. Vesper looked like a robot accepting the same commands. He’d step back, and use both hands to swing the bat against the target being spit out the machine.

My eyes wandered to the other five slots. The two at the end were occupied by guys just as determined as Ves. They must have known each other considering they would cheer on every successful hit.

After growing numb from being on the ground, I considered a nap, but now wasn’t the place. However, my eyes kept drifting closed in a lucid state.

“You can join the others. I don’t want to make it seem like you have to stay.”

“It was my choice.” I reassured him through my sleepy lids. I grinned up at him, my hands under my hoodie that was draped over me.

Vesper eyed me before dropping the bat. It rolled right next to my foot with a thump. I looked at it and back at him before sitting up and resting my arms on my knees.

“Your turn.” He said flatly.

“Good one.” I muttered.

“Come on, just try it.”

“No.”

Vesper pulled me up and handed over the bat.

“Stand right there.” He instructed, pushing me forward using the small of my back, easing me into the spot.

“What do I do?” I gave in.

“Just try hitting it first.” He laughed and without a warning, slammed the button, causing a ball to fly out. I was unprepared. I pushed Vesper to the ground and ducked as the ball ricocheted off the wall and back into the field. My dress flew around wildly in the wind and I pressed it down while fighting the breeze.

He burst into laughter. “What the hell was that?”

“My reaction to you not giving me a warning!” I stood and Vesper sat up, dusting off his jeans and throwing off the glove. My hands firmly held onto my elbows.

“Just hit the button and swing. That’s it.” He said from his spot on the ground. I did so, missing the ball by an inch and watching it hit the back wall. Vesper covered his head and laughed harder. “Try again.”

“You suck.”

“Try again.”

I smacked the button again, missing the ball by the same inch as last time. It rolled into Vesper’s hand and he threw it against my back.

“Fix your posture and I’ll fix your stance.” He got up and straightened my back out. His chest was dangerously close to my shoulders until he moved. His fingertips slightly pivoted my hips. I fought the urge to shudder, or make it more of a deal than it actually was. He was one of my closest friends and I was overreacting. I inhaled a shallow breath.  

“More like this.”

I shook off a shiver that ran through me. His palm slammed the button and he backed out of the way. I missed again, but was one step closer.

“You’re a natural, Scarlett.”

“Funny.”

He returned to his spot behind me, turning my hips more and kicking my foot back with the inside of his heel.

“Try again.” He muttered. Ves slammed the button and I expected him to move out of the danger zone, but he stayed. I swung, feeling his hands on mine like a ghost, and hit the ball. It impacted the target with a loud crack and sent the ball soaring a few feet.

“Nicer.” He smiled proudly. He moved out of the way when I went to swing again. I kicked my foot up and hit the button, quickly returning to my stance and hitting the ball on my own. I did this three more times. I turned around to see Vesper grinning, his arms were across his chest.

“I did it.” I gloated the miniscule victory.

“Indeed.”

I moved a few steps to hand over the bat, but Ves kept his arms crossed. Hazel eyes met mine, the flecks of green dancing around within them.

“I’m tired of hitting. You can put it up if you’re done. It’s almost nine anyways.” He thrust his thumb to the rack that he was conveniently blocking. His expression was unreadable at the moment, I had no idea who was in front of me.

My eyes found the ground and stared at him again. He was still watching me. I let the bat flip in my hand until it dangled upside down.

“You okay, Vesper?” I muttered.

“Immaculate, I’ve come across some courage with this new fearless warrior life. You look beautiful tonight. I do tell you that enough, right? I hope so.” He said quietly.

His index fingers twirled out in front of him, moving in the air until they tugged at the front of my dress. He slowly pulled me towards him. Words froze in my throat, leaving me speechless. He was less than an inch away, inhaling long, smooth breaths compared to my erratic ones. His eyes were weary and hesitant.

“Vesper.” I whispered, attempting to sound unaffected by him. His fingers were still hooked in the fabric of my dress, pulling me forward to him. I braced my hands on his neck, unsure of my own decisions. He was my best friend, making the wrong choices. His eyes didn’t belong to someone I had grown up with for so long. Instead, it was like staring at a familiar stranger.

His back hit the wall when I pushed him backwards, Adrenaline ran through him, along with determination. He inched closer, his breath now on my lips as I stared into his trembling eyes. He was patient, slowly moving in until his lips touched the mouth of a girl he had known for far too long.

My hands were unsteady against his shoulders as he moved from my dress to my waist, outlining the curve of my body which felt like ice. The lips of a boy on train tracks were the only source of heat burning on my mouth.  My lips moved with his in the most tedious manner possible. It continued for moments, my hands still shaking against his skin. Passion peaked through him and his hands splayed on my hips, warming me through the dress as he kissed me harder. I let every emotion I’d ever held towards him transfer through our touch.

Two hands skimmed my body upwards, both now grabbing my face as he held me close to him, savoring the moment. I gained movement in my hands again, slipping them around his neck and through his hair. Fingers wandered down my backside and then straight to my thighs.  He crouched slightly, without leaving my lips and picked me up. It took me by surprise. Vesper spun us around, so that my back was against the cage wall. His body pressed against my skin to keep me up. My legs wrapped around him.

His hands still cupped my face when he pulled away to assess my reaction. Tranquil eyes stared into my traumatized blue ones. My lip quivered and he looked as if he had awoken from a terrible sleep walking episode and realized his actions after waking up.

I took in a deep breath, watching the worry lines spread through his face as his grip loosened. I pressed forward, meeting his lips once more in a quick, intense frenzy.

Our mouths moved as a connected puzzle piece, we only slowed down our breaths. He let out a soft sigh against my cheek. My spine arched while my slender hands explored his back, sinking into the dips in his skin.

The world slipped away from me with every pressured kiss and gasp. We never ended. He pulled back once more. His mouth was ajar and his nose trailed down my chin.

I slid out of his hold and back onto the ground. I stammered.

“We should get back.” He said.

I was left alone in a batting cage, staring after him as he headed up the sidewalk. The cheers from two slots down continued, confirming that we had been in our own dimension for a second.

Vesper’s silhouette slipped on its hoodie against the evening light. His hands shoved into the pockets as he strolled off without a look back.  I couldn’t even feel the cold night coming, my body was running feverishly.

I rode with Zeldyn, Alice, and Alex back to the Arrow, leaving my brother with a boy who was a stranger to me temporarily. I waited in Alex’s car, looking at everyone who had occupied the two red booths in the food area. Half empty milkshakes and the remnants of burgers, hot dogs, and platters of fries littered the table. A large arcade bear prize waited for its owner in the booth. Alice picked it up and everyone cleared the trash and came out. I sunk down into the seat, ignoring questions from Alice as we drove back to the Arrow.  Alex was putting up a trivial debate with Zeldyn over a mouthful of leftover fries.

Alice figured out the cause of my awkwardness when we all began walking up to the third floor of the Arrow’s lodge. My brother and Vesper stayed behind me, but I walked quickly to the rooms. Zeldyn slid the key from under her shirt and unlocked the door. An overly grateful and surprised Alice couldn’t stop smiling.

Nico and Amber were propped against the chair, while Caspian and Crystal had engaged in a debate by the television.

“Hello and happy birthday to Alice Hudson.” Caspian’s voice boomed throughout the room.

Balloons and confetti littered the room. A small set of gifts and a two tier cake were on a table.

“Thank you guys so much.” The redhead whispered again. Alex had successfully filled the room’s available space with snacks and decorations. My jewelry gift box was on the table as well. Sebastian managed to find an excellent cake that was white with red lining and strawberries on top.

Sebastian and Vesper sat on the couch. My brother was wearing his usual satisfactory smile. I sat down in one of the single chairs, away from Vesper and my brother.

One of the beds belonged to Alice whereas the space across from it had two futons, Zeldyn’s laptop, and a flat screen. Her room seemed bigger than the others, and I wondered if she found a way to get a few perks through networking connections. A fuzzy rug was rolled out beneath the furniture.

Music played throughout the room, a combination of calm trance and alternative. A dartboard was pinned on the wall with knives protruding out of its surface near the bull’s eye. The twins were piercing Zeldyn’s wall underneath the board.

Caspian followed my gaze. “It’s our gift to Alice and the rest of you.” Emma loved the idea. You have the fighting gear, but it’s time you all have some knives of your own. We thought we’d break them in.”

“Wow. Thank you.” I smiled, briefly leaving my seat to walk over and glide my fingers over one of the blade’s edge. Caspian handed me a knife and his sister backed away. I threw the blade with average force and it landed near the edge.

“Not too bad.” He commented.

The cake was cut and the snack table was ravaged. The vibe of the room was a gentle electric feel. I took refuge on a bed, watching a Marvel movie Alice slipped into the DVD. Nico and Amber decided to join the film, Amber Lynn’s hair scattered around Nico’s legs as she curled into him. Nico even made a joke.

Caspian was throwing knives as darts again. Sebastian taunted him from a few feet away, challenging both him and his sister.

Boxes of Alice’s unpacked items were pushed into a corner and my heart sank again. The music quietly drifted within the room, the movie overpowering the background sound.

Alice was on the couch, opening a gift from Zeldyn, revealing a new pocket knife in the packaging. Her initials were carved onto the blade.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop accidently looking at Vesper who, every so often, noticed. I tried to avoid thinking about him.

Alexander walked over. His hair was down from the usual braid, and his eyes were kind as he sat at the bottom of the bed.

“You look stressed.”

“Mm.” I raised my head, just so he could see me roll my eyes.

“You okay?” He asked.

“For once, I don’t know.” I admitted honestly.

He was looking at me, waiting for an explanation. I sighed and lowered my voice significantly, until it was only loud enough for him to hear me. “You grow so used to being alone, because you’re comforted by others being alone. And then, they’re no longer alone and they seem happier than they ever have been. You grow so comfortable being on your own, being untouched, being content with your own thoughts and actions, that you forget how to do anything when chances appear. You realize you’ve been missing something that you never had, but always wanted.”

He pulled his legs up, his elbows resting on his knees. He reflexively started looking at the pairs on the couch.

“Being alone gives most humans the time to learn about themselves.” He began. “To know what we desire and deserve. It’s a lonely, miserable path of self-discovery, but it’s necessary to understand yourself. It teaches us how to be successful in finding happiness within ourselves before depending on another. It rids of the vulnerability of having to depend on someone to give you unabridged happiness, it takes away the power of them breaking you, if they choose to do so. The pain of isolation is weaker than the pain of broken bonds. It hurts less.”

I had no answer for his response.

“You’re right.” I said. “Thanks for that.”

He nodded and I curled into myself, our concentration had redirected to the movie.

Knocking viciously hit Zeldyn’s door. She yelled for the person to come in. Emma and Vince stood in front of us, covered in smudge and tattered clothes. Emma had a long cut on the side of her neck, Vince’s hand pressing against it with a towel as they both walked into the room. Everyone on the couch shot up and kept their eyes on them.

“Emma.” Caspian spoke.

“Fine.” She answered.

They stood there until her bleeding stopped. Vince sat her down in a wooden chair to bandage her up. Emma and Vince’s faces were flushed. Light purple and blue stained their skin, especially on their throats.

“What happened?” I heard my brother question.

“Tauro has made his appearance. He is insane and expecting. He was waiting for us. We were defenseless. Vince and I had gone out for drinks, this week has been hectic. The bartender, Len, tried to poison us. He made a huge scene, claiming that we were drunk. We couldn’t breathe. He led us out to the back room where we saw three other bodies. They’re alive, we saw all of them shaking, but we couldn’t go back. Vince and I had to fight him with our bare hands and ran out the back exit when he left. We ran to our swordsman who had an antidote, it’s the only reason we’re alive.”

“He has never seen us.” Vince noted. “This is what he’s doing to strangers. Imagine what he’d do to you all, those who know about him. I don’t want anyone from the first mission going on this one. We’re leaving in ten. We need more information.” She heaved. “We’re rushing to tell Willow, Celtic won’t be able to help us with this. Nico, Amber, you’ll be joining us. Sebastian and Alice, feel free to, but this is no joke.”

“Do the triplets ever show up as women?” Vesper asked.

“It’s never been recorded; it’s harder for their bodies. I don’t believe it’s possible.” Vince answered.

“I’m going.” I shot up.

“No.” Emma and Vesper stated at the same time.

“He surely remembers you.” Vince said.

“Then I can be a distraction. If my brother is going, I am too.”

“N-” Emma began and gave up against my stubbornness.

“Amber and Nico, keep her with you. I don’t doubt your abilities Scarlett, but he is dangerous.”

I ran out of the room with the casual clothes Alice had on the top of a stray bag.

“Are you crazy?” Vesper spat from behind me, chasing me down the hall. The couple had separated outside of Zeldyn’s room, speaking with the leaders and running down to the armory to get weapons.

“This isn’t necessary.” He yelled. “Emma said herself that he might recognize you, you’ll get yourself killed.”

I stormed into the women’s bathroom and he followed, screaming through the stall after I shut it. I pulled on a pair of Alice’s gray sweats and a black shirt, easy to move in. I stood clutching the sides of my stomach, before I stormed out.

“If this is because of what happened,” He began and my eyes widened. “If this is because you’re avoiding me,”

“This is because I am a fighter, Ves!” I yelled. “This is my choice, he humiliated me last time and I need to get my power back. It’s the impulsive Leo in me. It has nothing to do with a trivial kiss!”

He reared back, insulted. “Why do you insist on torturing me about this so quickly?” His tone was hushed. He frowned and backed away. “Kissing me was that bad? I’m sorry I gave you such a horrible experience, Scarlett. I’ve waited for months.”

“No. I didn’t mean it in that manner. Kissing you was,” I tried to correct myself. “We don’t need to discuss this now.” I retaliated.

“We need to talk.” He stated.

“There’s nothing to talk about.” I walked away, pushing past him to get to the exit.

“Don’t be so naive.” He whispered, grabbing my wrist and pulling me back.

I yanked away, angry at the fact that he was clouding my mission with personal frivolities.

“Tonight shouldn’t have happened.” He stepped back.

“You regret it?” I stammered, feeling offended.

“You hated it apparently.”

“Nine years Vesper, nine years! Why now? Why all of the sudden, you’re finding me attractive? Worthy of your touch? I can’t even begin to fathom why you decided that was okay. You can’t test friendships like this just because you’re lonely.”

“I would never let that be my reason. You’ve always been beautiful to me. You’re not going.”

“You don’t have the right. You shouldn’t have the audacity to go rogue on me now.”

“You’re not going!” He yelled out, his voice thundering in the bathrooms. I suddenly felt small, his new behavior was worrying. These weren’t our typical arguments.

“I don’t believe I’m crossing any boundaries.” He mumbled.

“You’re crossing every boundary, Vesper.” I hissed.

“You are not going!”

“Watch me.” I passed him with ease, his body stiff as he watched me run to meet the others at the gate.  

“Nine years,” I heard him start to yell when I reached the top of the grand stairs. He emerged from the bathrooms. My back was away from his words as he spoke across the room. “Nine years, because in those years I’ve never had to feel the threat of losing you to someone else, someplace else, or even something as mortifying as death.”

I began to descend down the stairs, leaving his words in the distance.

“Nine years, because I’ve never had to worry about anything or anyone destroying me by stealing you away from my side. You’re one of the four most important people in my life that I’ve ever known. It was an unspoken feeling.”

His last sentence felt like a knife going through my body. My mind held onto his last painful thoughts. Each hurt like metal screws, drilling recognition into my skull.

………

 

I shivered as the temperature difference hit me. The warmth from the lodge was gone and I was confused.

“Thank goodness you can still walk when you dream, or else we would have never gotten out of there.” Vesper muttered. He was holding my arm as I leaned on his.

“What?” I looked at him.

“You’re back?”

“Back from where?” I questioned and then my heart sank. I didn’t care what he was talking about, but I did know he had just kissed me at the sports park and confessed the sweetest words. A kiss that made me feel conflicted. The burning sensation kept flowing through me and I ignored his plea for me to sit in the food court plaza. It was fairly empty and I was still reeling from the thought of his body against mine and his revealing speech. I questioned why we were here, and if he drugged me to convince me not to go on the mission. But I didn’t care, I wanted him.

I pushed him back, away from the umbrella table, until we crossed the white stones.

“Scar, what’s wrong with you?”

I ignored the comment until I had cornered him against the building wall. His eyes were wide with curiosity. I looked at him, until he stopped talking and our breaths ran at the same pace. My upper lip curled slightly and I bit my bottom one.

My hands shook, but why was I scared? We had just kissed. Was I scared to feel that feeling again? I shut my eyes, falling into a blissful state, and stretched against him. His lips met mine and my whole body elevated.

The movement was gentle, my fingers trailing down his cheek, our noses skimming. My left arm went around his neck and both of his encased my waist, bringing me against him. Our mouths moved in synchronization and my stomach lurched with butterflies. I pulled back, resting against his chest and avoiding his bewildered look.

“What was that for?” He asked softly.

“You kissed me first. I was just returning the favor.”

He tensed against me.

“This is our first kiss, Scarlett. Ever.”

It was my turn to tense against him. “Are you going to ruin this too, Ves? You kissed me at the sports park for Alice’s birthday. You’re killing me Ves…” I slipped out of his hold. “Oh my goodness. Emma, Vince, the bar. I have to go. They need me, they’re going in for a rescue. I have to go.”

And then I was off, running away from Vesper and towards saving the hunters.

Chapter Eighteen

 

I apologize in advance for peeking at your computer screen, but I know the cause of Alice’s spontaneous birthday. Your most recent friend was celebrating her birthday today, without you. It looked like fun and I’m sorry you had to see that. You mailed her an exquisite boutique and she didn’t even invite you or reply.

Anyhow, shortly after we agreed to go to the Mills, my mom stormed over and complained about me forgetting my home again. After a heated debate with her, we finally left. My Jeep is full of party supplies that I’m hoping your dad can save for your birthday, because there’s absolutely no use for them now. As for the cake, I guess we’ll have dessert tonight. Alice is still nonexistent.

I talked you into seeing a movie until we were supposedly meeting Sebastian and Alice to go to the park. I lost you during the movie. You were gone, blacked out for a while this time actually. We got lucky and I bought tickets for the movie that played afterwards, and we stayed there until you woke.

You kept mumbling and we were shushed a few times. You kept smiling, apparently her birthday was a blast. You said something about returning to your happy place and seeing your parental figures, Emma and Vince.

Then the strangest thing happened and I’ve never panicked so much. I’m covered in soot right now and I only came back home, because your dad called me back and said he’ll go out and search the places I said you might be. I write this in a hurry now and my heart’s racing. The only reason I’m not tearing apart the streets of D.C is because your father made me promise I’d stay here in case you came back.

Scarlett, this is getting worse, because now your safety is in danger. You’re blurring the worlds too much. I could tolerate you passing out every so often, but now you’re convinced there are no distinctions between the two.

Scar, after our double feature at the movies ended, you kissed me in the most passionate way possible. Our first kiss, ever. I was so excited and asked you why you did it. Then you yelled at me. You were furious. You said you did it because I kissed you at Alice’s party. Does this signify that you’ve felt the romantic tension between us that I’ve been shielding since I’ve met you?

I couldn’t dwell on it long.

You told me you had to go, something about saving the leaders. You just ran away. I followed, sprinting to the best of my ability, until you lost me after catching a bus. I followed the routes, ran everywhere until I had no choice, but to call your dad.

He and Macy are searching the city now.

 

Yours truly, Vesper

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

The bar was in an isolated location, similar to the parlor where he first attacked me and Sebastian. Emma and Vince were whole again and Nico and Amber were by my side, weapons in hand. My brother chose a thin sword as his weapon of choice, whereas, Alice and I wielded two small swords and a few smoke bombs.

Vince discussed the commands, and ran next to the bar entrance. Sebastian, Emma, and I followed, knowing a fight would be awaiting inside. Vince scouted the exterior, and Emma opened the front doors when he returned. Amber and Nico tossed in a handful of smoke bombs, fogging up the room. Many customers ran to the doors and evacuated the premises. The majority was laughing, each one a vulnerable soul waiting to be taken. A few drunken bodies lingered at the bar.

We all made it inside and searched for a back room. We were ready to rescue the unconscious bodies that were stowed away. I glanced at Vince, who was destroying every visible camera to avoid being recorded and discovered. Sebastian was beside me, stepping on broken glass. The smell of alcohol burned my nostrils.

The smoke dissipated and the cameras were destroyed. The walls were made of brick. An island bar was to the left surrounded by stools. A few people sat on them with their hands still clasping mugs. Men and women were smoking in the designated crescent moon couches to the right. The smoke filled up the room with a suffocating odor. Overhead backlights provided a dim, comfortable ambience. Endless bottles of alcohol were lined up on the racks behind the main bar. A skinny, no older than twenty-three, bartender stood his ground in the midst of commotion, raising an eyebrow at our leaders who gave out warnings.

Nico and Amber reinforced the warnings, ushering drunks out of the tavern. Pounding was audible over the music being played, and it came from the wall of drinks behind the bartender. Len knew he was being infiltrated and finally made an appearance.

The sound was ear splitting. The wall holding Vodka and Hennessey bottles split in half. Glass rained down on the innocent man who was in charge of the bar. Wood splintered and the entire wall curved outwards, debris fell on everyone in front of the wall.

He was, as Emma described, a bulky, bald man with a tattoo of a dragon around his ear. He didn’t speak.  There were no signs of Interceptors, just him.

A dark laugh rumbled in his throat. He scaled the brick wall adjacent to the one he emerged from. The massive hole he created led to a dark back room. Green, glowing slits appeared in his eyes as he scanned our fighters. He jumped, landing on Emma with claws out. Vince was already attacking him; his choice of weapon was a sword he used to decapitate the man.

While his head reformed, I carried out Vince’s orders, the ones he gave me prior to our arrival. I threw three smoke bombs, covering the couple and their destination, which was the hole in the wall. Amber and Nico ran to the back room to search for the missing bodies. The remaining customers finally found the sense to flee.

Alice joined the couple in the back to move the bodies into Sebastian’s truck. The mission was strictly a rescue quest. The faster the bodies were moved and healed, the quicker we could leave. Celtic wasn’t here now. They’d have to be taken back to the Arrow for medical attention and have their memories wiped later when Celtic or Willow were on the grounds. A group would drive Sebastian’s truck back with the injured, and then the rest of us would leave with them or in Emma’s car.

In my peripheral, Sebastian guarded the back room entrance, protecting the three hunters who just went in.

I heard a scream, and looked over to Emma and Vince. They were both on their feet fighting moments ago, but now Emma was on the ground with blood pooling at her foot. She was paralyzed. Vince held the ground in front of her, but Len kept attacking.

“He chained them down very well, but we managed. Half have been moved to safety.” Alice yelled out. “We’re almost done.”

The leaders and I knew that it would take too long, Emma would be murdered. All of us would. Vince made a call requesting backup from hunters who were keeping lookout nearby. A minute later, four more Arrow fighters came in. They were from the other groups.

I threw a knife at Len, he laughed and charged towards me. His speed was unbelievable. I pulled two knives from my waist belt and protruded them into his belly with a twist. I just needed to stall, so Vince could save Emma.

“I’m tired of seeing you. You serve no purpose to me other than something decent to look at every so often.” He hissed in my face. “I’m going to waste you.”

He caught my leg, pulling me to the ground. Both of my hands moved to slash at his wrist, tearing through bone and cartilage until his hand came off. It grew back instantly, but it gave me enough time to roll to the side and stab him in the ear. He yelled out.

Vince abandoned Emma to join in the attack, instructing another hunter to pull her to safety. A hunter pulled her behind the bar until they could carry her out to a vehicle.

Vince stabbed the sword through Len’s back where his heart should have been. Its blade went through his body and came out in the front. I pulled out my knives, creating long, deep gashes in his face while he mounted Vince’s kabob. He spat blood back at me, saliva and red splattered on my face.

I shoved the tip of the knife into the center of his skull, just as his claws ripped down the sides of my legs. I arched back, crashing onto the floor. I looked at the smoky entrance, hoping that the bodies were removed so we could leave. Vince continued to hack away with another sword.

He cut at his sides, swinging back and forth in large arches until slabs of flesh were flying onto the ground. From my spot on the ground, I leaned up and dragged my knife down his chest until organs spilled onto me. His skin pieced itself back together.   

Vince pulled out his other sword and the man collapsed. He stuck the sword through his neck and I scurried back. His hands gripped my ankle and swung an elbow back, hitting Vince square in the chest and sending him flying backwards.

I dragged my body behind the counter, avoiding Emma’s spot to prevent putting her in any danger. Len followed me, crawling on all fours. He dashed through the space between us with his talons raised high. He crashed into me and my knives skidded against the ground.

My knuckles turned white, I was grabbing a pipe from the nearby hand washing sink. It creaked as I loosened it, until it snapped off. I brought it to the side of his face. His teeth sunk into the flesh of my shoulder and I kicked at him with my free leg. I thrust the pipe into his eye. Vanilla liquid spilled down his cheek and into my eyes, burning. I scratched at his flesh in a panic.

He pinned down my wrists, the pipe toppling onto the ground. He began punching me right in between the eyes. I could feel my face becoming unrecognizable with every hit he made. I drew in an exasperated breath. He leaned over my lips and shoved me back against the ground.

I collapsed, my head thudded back on the floor with defeat. I saw an ax hacking away at his ankles, but he only flinched. His claws pierced my sides and then over my heart. It felt like blood splattered onto the internal walls in my lungs. I coughed, red drops spraying on my pale skin.

I was still on the ground, doing everything to save myself, when an ax lodged into his back. The blade was sucked into his back and spat out into the air, but not without him letting out a heavy breath. It was enough to prove that his human body was growing tired from using so much energy. He whimpered.

I grabbed him by his neck, pulled him down, and pushed his head into the nearest table I could find. My hand searched for a blade on the ground and clenched onto it, the edge cutting my palm.

“The people, they’ll be okay. Celtic just arrived!” Nico yelled out, running towards Len who hovered over me, and slicing his skull in half. The man swiped an arm under Nico’s feet, causing him to fall onto his back.

I was furious at how much power one being could hold. I thrust the blade in between his eyes again and sliced down his chest, closer to his heart.

He was ready to vanish, black pixels hovering in the air, before he reformed. He wore a genuine, shocked expression. I understood why. The skin above his sternum split, and a chain rested on the tip of my knife. His chest began to glow gold when the metal emerged from his body. He was hiding the item in his body, it was the only way to defeat him.

Len’s eyes widened when I tried to reach for the pocket watch that came out of him. Its gray color glowed with an impeccable shine, blinding my vision. I felt ashamed of my tattoo, wondering if he were mocking me. I reached up, my hands cupping the metal as it scorched my palms.

Len was already beginning to vanish away in retreat, his body becoming holographic. However, he didn’t do so without grabbing a handful of my hair and bashing my skull into the metal pole. I held back nausea as my arms went limp beside me. The pain kept heightening and I lost count after three smashes. My head bounced against the rough surface as I attempted to curl into fetal position. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t see. Blackness covered my scared thoughts and blurred the sights around me.

 

Three weeks later.

 

I could hear voices in the distance, my mind fluttering in and out of consciousness. My whole body stung with an unbearable ache. A numbing substance tried to create a shield over the whole sensation. The throbbing in my head felt like the side of my face was being attacked by a wrecking ball. It was a pain I wished to never feel again.

I strained to sit up, my upper body using all the possible energy I had. I was battered and bruised, resting on a large medical bed with an IV attached to my arm. Purple and blue marked my forearms. My tattoos were black ink over colored skin. I gagged at the thought of my pocket watch after remembering what happened a night ago. I let my head fall back against the pillow, looking at the needle sticking into my nerves. Bandages were concealing both of my hands. I tore back the material to see raw skin pieced together with small stitches. My palms were burned with an indentation from the metal.

The black spots dancing under my eyelids disappeared, returning my mind to clarity. I turned around to look at my reflection in the metal bed post. Red, glassy eyes stared back at me. My hands removed the thick bandage wrapped around my head. My cheeks were puffy as I struggled to breathe in. I was in ruins. Weakness took over me and I sobbed. No tears came from the dry ducts that had once been pretty blue eyes. I couldn’t see anything past the bed, a white curtain was pulled around the entire area.

“Scarlett!” A man’s voice sounded from behind the curtain, he came running in with relief in his expression. He yanked back the curtain and stared at me through watery eyes.

“Dad.” I choked.

His arms found mine and I sat in his embrace, avoiding the pain I felt when I moved my head. A lady stood at one of the counters, making her way over to us.

“Where am I?” I asked him.

“The Arrow, in its hospital wing. I argued that we’d take you to an actual hospital, but they already started working with you. They advised against it. I know you can protect yourself Scarlett, but now you’re going out to find the danger. I was so worried.” His eyes scattered in every direction as he held me, shaking me back and forth.

It pained me to speak and I lacked the proper words to say, so I stayed silent.

“She still needs much rest, Chris.” The woman from the counter spoke. “We’ve kept her hydrated. Please, give us some time, and I will allow you to see her again. Let me do some explaining.”

“Okay.” He shuddered. “Okay Macy, thank you.”

I looked at the pretty woman who was on a first name basis with him.

“I love you dad.” I said as he walked out.

“I love you too.” He went, hesitantly leaving.

“Hello Scarlett,” She said to me, “I am Macy, the doctor. You are in the Arrow’s hospital facilities and I have been caring for you. Is there anything you don’t understand?”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“You’ve been in a coma for three weeks since the incident. Today is May nineteenth. We believe that if any further damage occurred, you wouldn’t be awake right now.” She spoke calmly, studying my eyes.

“You’re lying.” I said, but her face stayed the same. “You’re lying!” I was yelling at this point, struggling to grab my phone off the dresser while my arm trembled. The date said May nineteenth. I stared at the doctor’s serious expression. I put the phone back and noticed three jars of yellow blooms with a card signed by Alex.

“Do you remember who you are? Your age? The last events in your memory?”

She forced me to think about the bar again and my skull being bashed in.

“Yes.” I strained.  

“Tell me.”

“I am Scarlett Parker,” My voice wobbled. “Age seventeen, attacked by a Demon.”

“Okay.” She confirmed. “Okay. I’ll leave you to your visitors.”

With that, she walked off and closed the curtain. Zeldyn and Alice were the first to walk in, sleep deprivation showed on Alice’s face.

“Baby.” Alice cried out, wrapping her arms around my shoulders, only pulling back to check my face. Zeldyn came over to sit on the bed.

“I need to talk to the leaders.” I immediately said.

“Scarlett.” Zeldyn began, “Emma and Vince are discussing the fact that you were injured on their behalf. It’s best that you rest for now. They’re regretting not bringing more hunters.”

“No. It’s not their fault.” I exclaimed. “They’re not the reason I’m hurt like this. I found out something dire. I got involved with the item. I found it and he was livid, that’s when he attacked me. The item being exposed is what made his attack so powerful, not him. I touched it and that’s when I felt damaged, it was before he even struck. I know the item he’s using to harness the power. I saw it. He keeps it bound in his chest. I only found it because my sword split open his sternum. I need to let our leaders and Reapers know.”

Zeldyn’s eyes grew large at my words, she took a deep breath to process all that I said.

“That’s incredible. It’s beneficial on a level we can’t even begin to understand. Are you sure you saw it?” She asked.

Alice cut her eyes at Zeldyn, and she changed the conversation.

“Right now, we need you to heal. I’ll let Emma and Vince know what you know. They can tell Willow and Celtic, so they start finding information on taking away its power.”

“I’ll heal.” I smiled weakly. “I’ll be ready to fight.”

“Scarlett, no. On orders of your dad, who understands the Arrow and our lifestyle, you are not to participate in any upcoming missions with Tauro. Especially not in your state. Vince explained the rebellion to him and showed him around the grounds. He showed up daily after work to be here for your awakening. He doesn’t want you fighting. He’s asked that you take on a sense of normalcy for a while. Your school absences have been medically excused, but the work and graduation still exist. He needs you to take care of priorities. You can’t miss any more days. The hunters can handle this.”

“I am a hunter. Am I supposed to stand around helpless?”

“What you did for our group at the bar, we could never thank you enough for that. Our apologies for your injuries, but in reality, injuries and fatalities do occur in our line of work and require recovery. It gets dangerous and we’re glad you’re okay. You can fight when you’re ready, but we’re not sending in fighters who aren’t prepared. That’s one thing we can prevent on our part.”

I sighed. “Will you two keep me updated?”

They nodded. Alice pulled off a bag that was around her shoulder. It was stacked to the brim with papers and books.

“I texted you all of the online links to essays you’ve missed.” She said, setting the books on the table and pulling out a chocolate bar to hand to me. I graciously accepted while looking at Zeldyn for the news I really wanted to hear.

She huffed and began. “The night of the bar caused him to flee again. And now that you say you have discovered his item, it must be the reason why he did. The Reapers will try to discover a way to destroy it, or just take it away from him, to see if he changes back into an Interceptor. He was gone for the time of your coma. I’m sure you’re happy about not missing anything. But as of a few days ago, he has returned to the bar using his old decoy once again. Our hunters and reinforcements from other groups have been going in and saving more bodies when he leaves. He’s awaiting us. Willow and Celtic have decided on a solution to rid of Tauro. We’ll be going in a large group to take care of any Interceptors or hostages that could interfere with Willow’s job.”

“Her job?” I asked, but Zeldyn ignored me.

“A few groups have been scouting the streets of the bar. We’re preparing for an attack. Willow is readying herself to join us in our fight. That’s enough for now, Scarlett.” Zeldyn said after noticing I was processing information, but struggling to sit up. Her hands pushed against my shoulders, urging me back into the bed to rest.

“Vesper wants to see you. He was losing it for a week, but I think he’s in a numb, denial state now. We haven’t told him that you’re awake yet.” The redhead noted, before kissing me on the cheek.

“No.” I blurted. “Not now.”

Alice shrugged and left the room.

I slept again. The twins and couple came to check on me and bring me dinner. My brother came in with reassuring words about perseverance and strength. He was the only one not treating me like a sick puppy. I spent an hour with him. His teasing and talking kept a pained smile on my face. My dad joined us for the next two hours to talk about his introduction to the Arrow. I slept once more.

At one point, I felt Alexander’s hair tickle my face. He hovered over me with interest and offered a shy smile.

“Thank you for the flowers, they’re beautiful.” I spoke.

“Of course, I’m glad everyone is alright. You, of course.”

I wanted to stay up and talk, especially to him. I wanted to know about his day, and more about Willow’s plan, but I couldn’t keep my eyes fully open to hold a conversation.

“You look morbid.” The voice commented, and I felt offended by Alex’s words, but it was Vesper. He sat in a chair by the bed and held my limp hand. I was ashamed at the disappointment when I didn’t wake up to the blonde boy, but my best friend instead. Conversely, the circumstances had changed.

“Mm, thank you.” I looked at him and grinned. I didn’t care what had happened; he was still Vesper.

I turned my head away and looked up at the ceiling.

“I wish you would just listen to me sometimes, Scarlett.”

I heaved.

“I wish that when I told you that I find you beautiful, you’d believe it. Or, when I ask you to stay with me for the sake of not getting killed and ending up in a hospital as a distorted victim, almost as distorted as your mind when you went on that mission, you’d consider listening. What you did was stupid and careless.”

“If you’ve come to make me feel worse, I’d like to ask you leave.”  

“I’ve come to make you embrace realization and the consequences of risks.”

“I hate you sometimes, Ves.” I whispered. My eyes were stuck on the floor with a layer of tears warping my sight.

“Then you must understand how I feel. It’s mutual. And I’m hoping the admiration and fondness is as well.”

I didn’t want to speak anymore. Every word was a portion of my energy that I didn’t have to give. We just sat there in silence until my body fell out of consciousness again.

Three mornings later, I was out of bed. I officially decided to abandon my immobile sentence in that room. I showered, covered my bruises with makeup, and slipped on a sweater and skinny jeans. I tried to cover up as much as possible, despite the very warm day. I didn’t manage to slip by without waking Vesper who followed me along the whole way. I felt my swollen face, walking with much less dignity, as I marched into our leaders’ room on the second floor. They sat us down into chairs and offered treats. I declined, rushing to tell them both about my experience with the pocket watch. Vesper intently watched, but his expression didn’t give away how he felt.

They both accepted the information with gratitude, Vince was running down to Willow. Emma thanked me for my protection and I let myself out, feeling torn as I went to the Arrow’s gates. I offered a piece of valuable information, and was being cast away because of my condition from it. I knew it wasn’t true, but it felt like it.

“Could you drive me?” I asked, as we bypassed Tristan and crossed the field. Vesper was already starting his Jeep. He reached over to open the passenger door and nodded for me to hop in.

Despite missing school, my coma did me no good. Apparently, I had awakened just in time for exams and the last two weeks of May. Vesper and I stayed in the library’s quarters every day after school. He helped me make up the massive load of work that had piled up. Sebastian alternated with Vesper during the week.

I was my usual invisible self at school. Few people questioned the pasty foundation on my bruised complexion. I was recovering in the slowest, hardest way possible. When exams did approach, the intense last week of studying paid off. It allowed me to breeze through my tests.

After that week, loneliness hit me the hard. Being detached from the Arrow had a worse effect on me than I expected. My coma had taken away a part of me, a time in my life that I could never retrieve. My entire perspective had altered. Graduation was in three weeks. There was an attack approaching that I knew nothing about. I only had my brother and Vesper, who visited me at home out of pity and love. I spent the majority of my time in bed reading. My skin was almost healed from the stitched wounds. The bruises were light brown.

My father was at the Arrow too, as an admirer of Macy the doctor. He stayed to try out a few knives. I found this out from Alex, who visited me at home every so often. We went on walks, which eased my body back into swift movements. On plenty occasions, he’d show up when no one was home, and bring food and knives from Emma’s to practice with me in secrecy. We began jogging through parks, too. Alex’s actions were appreciated.

His company made up for Vesper and Sebastian’s absence, who were often gone at the Arrow. Alice gave me delayed information about everything I already heard from Alex. Willow made an announcement about us officially joining the Arrow. I missed it. She told the Arrow about how she would be leaving soon for her quest in the bar, and that Celtic would take her place in watching over the place. I was left to rot.

 

………

 

The idea of time was nonexistent. I felt dirty and lost. I spent a lot of time in night clubs that allowed me in, because the bouncers didn’t card or some fancy guy with a huge ego held me on his arm. I usually slyly ditched them after I entered.

I didn’t feel violated, just tired. I hated that I had been cast away from the Arrow, because of the coma. I went to the bar to help them, I discovered the item that could change everything, and still no one wanted me around. I hadn’t seen Sebastian or Alice lately, and Vesper was being weird after our awkward intimate moment. I had a ton of missed calls from him and my dad, but they were just being annoying. They saw me in the Arrow infirmary, and told them I needed to take a break and explore the city. I assured them I would get hotels and be safe.

I did just that, until the last night before I decided to return home. After partying, I found myself traveling to the bar where we were attacked. I couldn’t get in given my age, but it was strange. Everything looked normal there, completely intact. I sat in the alley next door to gather my thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

I love you. I know that now. We’ve only shared one kiss, but the years I’ve spent with you and the feeling of despair after you went missing made me realize I did. We connect on such an emotional level that your physical beauty is just the cherry on top.

Three days, you were gone.

Three fucking days, missing.

I last saw you at the mall and then you were gone, ripped from my life in an instant. I worried that you were dead and my mom spent that time furious at me for skipping school and searching for you instead. It was nerve wracking. My mother forced me to go back to school on Wednesday and at the end, I thanked her for it.

I overheard one of the guys talking in Ecology about you being in a hotel with some kid on the baseball team. I slammed the kid against the locker until he gave me more details. I found where you were, and I was eternally grateful for who you were with.

You had been with Cameron and Abby, my baseball friend and his girlfriend. Rumors had been rolling around that he found you in the alley outside of a bar one night and had been trying to get in touch with me, but didn’t know how to since he’d never been over.

He told me you looked okay. That you seemed untouched minus some bruises. He said that you were just out of it.

Your dad discussed putting you in a mental institution, just for a little bit. He asked me for my opinion and we came to the answer of no. We already know you’ve done this since the tragedy. We just need more time to snap you out of it. Being in the hospital will only make it worse. You’ll be convinced you’re insane and you’re not.

So we lied. And the guilt bothers me, but there are so many other bad things in the world to be worried about instead of a lie to keep you with us. Cameron thinks you were drunk and got lost. So the rumor around school is that you’re a party legend driven by the desire to be free from the homebound lifestyle.

The lie to the hospital was that you were given a drugged drink and ran off from an attacker and were found by a friend. They’re not looking too much into it since nothing can really be traced other than a false attacker.

You’re came home shortly after. You told me as much as you could during the hospital visits. You apologized for running off after our kisses. Well for me, it was a single kiss. And you told me I had said the sweetest thing to you about not losing you before you left. I left you sunflowers and a novel wrapped in newspaper comics, just how you like.

You were sad at one point because Alice and Sebastian didn’t come to visit you, nor did any of the hunters. You claimed they had bigger issues and asked if the leaders were okay. Does this mean you couldn’t see them? That you were losing the ability to perceive them as real?

You said Tauro targeted you because he knew you saw his pocket watch, a recurring symbol. I think it’s simple. The watch ties in with the Death figures and time. Everyone either wants more or less of it. And you want to take the time to live.

I also know who Tauro is now. I needed more evidence, but he’s Nathaniel. The three triplets are bad characters that affected you most in life. Nathaniel. You remember him don’t you? The one who brought you to the movies and thought he’d receive sexual favors. The one who brought you to the park and you both took a nice walk together until he slammed you against a tree and tried to force himself onto you. And when you left the trail he walked away from you like you were disgusting to even be with. I remember the stories you told me, the ones that kept you up at night. He’s the strong one who dismisses feelings and likes to make you feel small and stupid. I found out who the first triplet symbolizes.

I hope you defeat him in your world and I count that you will, since you rid of him in reality. He put you in a coma in your false world, just like he hurt you in this one. So do me a favor and get rid of him in dreamland.

But Scar, we need you to come back. Okay? This is dangerous. You’re mad at me and Macy, but why? Learn the truth. Your dad visited your dream world and the real one, so I think you feel he’s been neglecting you for Macy.

I’m counting down the days until our New York trip. Graduation is around the corner. My days have been lost in essays and visiting you this past week. The hospital said you’ll be fine, they just wanted to monitor you and make sure you weren’t sleeping too much.

My theory is that you will come back. Maybe the gateway in dream world is relevant to our current situation. The gateway may be the connection from your mind to the dream world, which is why I’m encouraging you to destroy the bridge.

Or maybe you’ll return when everyone reveals their true colors and turns rogue. Then you’ll know that your reality is better than your dreams.

 

Yours truly, Vesper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

“Why is she here?” I looked at Macy, who was standing tall in a red skin tight dress and black heels.

“It’s my graduation, how can you just invite her without asking?” I shifted my weight. My dad wore a black suit with a red tie to match his date.

The last month consisted of my dad and Vesper treating me like a fragile doll that could break any second. They watched every word they said around me, they even moved slower as if any quick movement would set me off. It drove me crazy.

I hadn’t seen anyone in a while. Sebastian and Alice were constantly at the Arrow and none of the hunters contacted me. Home was my sanctuary and I depended on books and music to maintain my sanity.

Vesper and my father acknowledged that I was in the hospital, but they said it was only for three days. I was in a coma for three weeks. Ava was always coming over and storming about. Her white hairs distinctly stuck out from the brown ones. She always asked for her son back.

And then Chris would say something funny like ‘He’s chained in the cage in the guest room, go ahead and get him’ or ‘Sure, Vesper’s a free elf,’ and I wouldn’t even try to hold back my laughter. She never gave me any special treatment like the others did, and I liked her for that. I was still the same annoying girl that was stealing her son.

“Please Scarlett, I really like Macy’s company. Can she please come?”

I didn’t feel like arguing, I didn’t want to. I didn’t care anymore. Plus, I was sure that Chris already gave her a ticket. I was graduating today, and that was enough for me.

“Whatever.” I muttered.

“You should get dressed. We need to leave soon.”

And so I did, sauntering into my room to put on a white dress with my gown over it. I brushed my hair from roots to tips, slipped on the corresponding white heels, and returned to the living room. My cap dangled from my hand.

“You look, stunning.” Macy said to me with genuine awe.

“Thanks.” I said apathetically. “You’re not too bad yourself.”

She seemed to take the compliment and my father seemed happy to hear me speak to her. He walked over and placed a white rose in my hair. Vesper and Ava knocked before coming in. Ava was in a simple teal dress and Vesper was in a suit.

My eyes lingered on him, taking in his sharp features and how handsome he looked. I greeted them both. Ava placed a vase of sunflowers on the counter and Chris thanked her.

“Everyone looks so nice.” Ava commented.

“Indeed.” My father said and the adults busied themselves. Ava sized up Macy and pulled her dress down to reveal her skin spotted cleavage. I assumed she felt intimidated.

“Scar, can you help me with my tie. My cap and gown is in your room, I’ll slip them on afterwards.”

“Sure.” I said, following him to my room to find his gown in the disordered environment. The last month had been difficult. I pulled them out from under a chair, untouched and still packaged, and handed it to him. He checked his appearance in my bathroom mirror.

“You look nice. You always look nice.”

“Thanks.” He smiled. “Can you do my tie?”

“Of course.”

He finished washing and drying his face and turned to me. I came close to his height in my heels. My hands busied with the slim black tie he wore.

“How’ve you been?”

“Fine.” I said.

“I brought you a graduation gift.”

“Vesper, you didn’t have to get me anything. I didn’t think of it, I’m so sorry.”

“I didn’t expect you to return the gesture, this is just something I wanted to do. You’ve been through a lot and I thought it would be nice.”

He left and brought back two wrapped items in comic paper and I smiled. He handed me the small one first. It was a silver pinky ring shaped as a black bow. He slipped it on my finger.

“Thank you so much. It’s stunning.” I said softly.

“You’re welcome.”

He frowned when he handed me the other one. “Please.” He said patiently.

I tensed and opened it. It was the journal he’d been writing in for me. The inside held our tickets to New York.

“I’m still going to steal it back to write in, but I would really love if you just opened it. Read a page. I just want to help.”

I said nothing. Tears welled in my eyes and I bit my tongue.

“None of that, please.” He said quietly to me.

“It’s okay, I haven’t put on makeup. I can’t read it, Ves. The things you say in here are terrible.”

“I know, but they are things you must know.”

He took a step towards me and offered his hand. I slipped my fingers in between his and both our arms fell. His left hand came up to my face, his long fingers covering my temple. He leaned down and kissed me, soft and sweet. I caved into him as he held me and I fought back the tears. His other hand left mine and instead came up to hold my face.

A cough sounded at the door and Ava looked at us with embarrassment.

“Really mom?”

“We have to go if we’re gonna make it in time.”

And so we did. I rode with my father and Macy. Ves went with his mom and we got to the ceremony. It passed by quickly.

Blue gowns were merging together on the outside pavilion after they dispersed from their ceremony positions. Two hours had just passed by in a massive basketball center. The arena was converted into a graduation ceremony. The parents who watched us grab our diplomas were now hugging one or multiple people in gowns. Congratulations and cheers filled the pavilion.  

I had to admit, I was happy to be done and have no pressured commitments. Conversely, I was numb with the sick, raw feeling of being detached from my friends. My grasp on the diploma tightened as my knuckles curled in. My anxiety was defused by my dad and brother finding me in the crowd and pulling me into a hug. The streets outside were flooded with cops and cars, while humans poured out of the building like ants and flooded the roads.

I held my head high, attempting to enjoy the day. The event had ended my long years of high school. My face and body were normal, the bruises nonexistent and my muscles all bending with the same ease as they used to; minus the major headaches that were endured at times. Despite feeling decent, even now I felt myself dozing off.

 

………

 

“I’m so proud of you both.” My dad crooned. “You’ve made it so far.” The clichés rolled off his tongue. Vesper and Alice were waiting near our car. Brief hugs were exchanged until we all piled in the vehicle and drove to Bobby Flays restaurant in the Potomac for celebration.

“Could we stop at my old home?” Alice asked. “I want to say goodbye, for good. I want her to see that I finished.”

“Of course, Alice.” My dad answered.

When we arrived, I sat on the sidewalk across the street in my gown, watching as Alice told her grandmother that she graduated, and how much she missed her. She said she was sorry. I wasn’t sure why, but I know that in her head, there were probably plenty of reasons why she felt guilty, even though she shouldn’t have.

I walked over to hold her hand, pulling her back on the sidewalk to sit with me. Vesper and my dad got out of the car. They braced their backs against the side, and stared at the home.

A few kids ran by chasing their friends on bikes, who pedaled down the street. About half an hour later, a U Haul pulled up with two other cars. I failed to notice the For Sale sign flat in the grass. A family of six poured out.

“Oh.” Alice spoke. “No, no, I’m okay.” She assured me and brushed away my hand. “It’s closure.”

“It’s closure.” I confirmed. She walked back to the car, staring at the sky until we drove away from the home and its new inhabitants.

“How are things at the Arrow?” I asked to anyone who was willing to answer. Alex had been training with me in private, but I hadn’t been to the Arrow since my coma. Their reports to me became miniscule and lacked serious details. All I knew was that the infamous Tauro was still running the bar. The specifics were unclear. My own father was at the Arrow, and even if it were for the distraction of a woman, the fact he was still attending was hypocritical and hurtful.

“Good.” Vesper answered flatly.

“Tauro is still in town, Willow is working on it.” Alice added.

“Oh.” I said, learning what I already knew. “I think I’ll head back up there to train.” I spoke quietly.

My dad didn’t answer, breathed in, and then finally nodded. Alice held a worried look in her eyes as I spoke about returning. Sebastian didn’t seem to mind, although Vesper disagreed with every aspect of the idea.

“I don’t think that’s wise.” He said.

“I don’t think it’s your call.” I forced bitterly, tired of the over protection I was receiving.

He opened his mouth and then shut it, staying silent until we reached the colorful restaurant.

I dismissed myself to the bathroom to call Alex, hoping he would accept seeing me after dinner to practice or finally go to the Arrow. I returned to the table with a small hidden smile after he said yes. He was able to calm the storm of emotions that were about to unleash within me.

I ate quickly, not wanting to dwell on a dinner with people who were suppressing me, aside from Sebastian. They were enjoying the unworldly life experience I craved.

I bailed once we congregated on the sidewalk, kissing everyone on the cheek and claiming that I needed fresh air. After walking around a few corners to assure they wouldn’t follow me, I stripped off my gown. I had my white dress on. I sprinted through the city with my cap flying, eager to train. I caught the bus at one point and then kept running as soon as everyone unloaded.

The wind encouraged my run, allowing me to swiftly speed all the way to Emma’s, through the door, and into the living room.

“Hello.” Alex said from the kitchen, wearing an overly amused grin.

“Scarlett, good to see you’ve recovered.” Caspian and his sister both watched me over the upstairs edge. Nico and Amber Lynn had placed themselves on the couch, looking over multiple pieces of tattered papers.

“Hello.” I flinched at the unexpected company. They were all dressed in their gear.

Alex found my eyes and answered my unspoken inquiry.

“They’re working among the watch guards from the Arrow’s facilities. They’ve been scouting out the bar every night, preventing any mischief on Tauro’s part. There is another group that goes in to retrieve the bodies. We’ve found many dead already.” His voice sunk and he busied himself with pouring a glass of iced water.

“Congratulations.” He changed the subject after glancing at my attire. “You’re pretty interesting, running in that. Nonetheless, congrats.”

Cheers and claps rang out from the small group of hunters upstairs and I felt my cheeks turn red.

“Thank you.” I said as he passed me the glass.

Alexander stood in jeans, boots, and a fancy vest over his shirt. He picked up two stacks of black clothes and passed them to me, nodding to the hallway where I could change.

“They’re leaving soon. As for us, we’re going to do some intense training starting now. I want you back out here in five.”

He was gone before I could pick a door and change. Black waves fell against my neck in the bathroom mirror, sticking to my skin with dry sweat. A lump grew in my throat when thinking about the upcoming battle I failed to receive an invitation for. Alexander was probably risking his position as a hunter by working with me.

All I could think about as I pulled on the gear was that in such short time, I had graduated, emerged from a coma, been cast out of the Arrow’s circle, and was on odd terms with my best friend after Alice’s birthday. I was a fugitive to the Arrow, training with one of its hunters in private. Nothing was defined.

I spent the five minutes thinking instead of changing, and ran out even though the designated time had passed. Alex stood by the door with his arms crossed. The twins and couple were now gone from the home.

“S-” I began to apologize, but he brought his finger to his lips to silence me.

“Failed the first task.” He spoke. The lines on his face were still. I couldn’t read his expression.

I walked over to the door, ready to endure the physical training that would be my punishment. I didn’t mind it too much, I wouldn’t become stronger if everyone went easy on me. He and my brother shared the quality of never doubting those perceived as weak.

He walked behind me, his hands grabbing my weapons belt and twisting it around. I used the entire five minutes and still hadn’t correctly put on the uniform.

“I need you to meet me on the roof of the first place we went together. Take the route you think is the fastest and try to get there before me. Do you remember?” He spoke down the back of my neck and I stalled.

“Do you remember?” He repeated and I nodded.

He opened the door to let me out, locked it, and started running by my side at an incredible speed.  I kept up with a small struggle, whereas, he didn’t show one at all. We both ran in the same direction for about seven minutes, until he split onto a road I didn’t know. I kept to the way I knew.

My legs carried me another eight minutes until I reached what I believed to be the same place. My surroundings were empty. None of the people walking by looked like Alex, so I slowly scaled the stairs with pride and exhaustion.

When I reached the top, I groaned at the blonde boy who ran back and forth across the building’s roof. He stopped when he saw me, a smile on his face. I felt idiotic for not realizing the stairs had been pulled down by someone.

“You’re only four minutes late, that’s decent for going up against me.” He boasted.

“Thanks, I think.” I laughed, following him without question. We went back down one flight of stairs to the sword sharpener’s front door.

Once again, the man let us in, greeting me by name this time. His shop was as exotic and pristine as before, still covered in a cloak of incense. The books on his shelves drew me in, absorbing my attention, while Alex and the man made the transaction. Even after I had analyzed the books, I stayed away in order to be polite while they talked. Though, I couldn’t help but listen.

“Looks like you all will be needing these soon.” The man commented.

Alex grunted.

“It does,” He began. “As usual, we thank you for your services.” A pouch of money plopped onto the counter.

“The blood that will be on those swords, do not let it belong to any of the Arrow’s people. You understand? Ensure that Zeldyn’s blood never spills, along with those who fight with her. I wish you all twice the amount of courage and strength that everyone already has.”

“Thank you sir, it’s our determination to avoid letting those die in vain during battle. We assure that every potential fatality can be avoided. We keep each other alive; and for those who die for us and can’t be saved, there is not enough respect in the universe to honor their bravery. Zeldyn ranks high pertaining to those I protect, our groups are our families, and we do not let family die.

 “Very well.” The man turned to his work station, while Alex took a look at a few more things. Once he had finished, he waved off the man, and called me over to the door. I opened my mouth, wanting to ask more details about the peculiar conversation, but stopped myself.

We walked back up to the roof and wandered to the edge. He backed up, ran, and flung the swords into the air, the whole set spinning and dropping onto the adjacent roof.

“Will you trust my training, despite where we go and what we encounter? Do you trust my abilities to protect and serve? Are you aware that you always have the opportunity to stop me at any moment in time?”

“Yes.” I said confidentially.

He leaped over the space in between the two buildings and crashed down onto the roof in a crouch. He curled in his index finger, gesturing for me to make the jump. He was serious. The gap was small, but my heartbeat was unstoppable and convinced me against the jump.

Ignoring my instincts, I backed up on the roof until I had a good amount of space in front of me, ran at my fastest, and jumped into the air. I felt ashamed of my stupid choices, but it was Alexander from the Arrow. I didn’t need to worry.

My landing wasn’t as graceful as the boy’s. I pounded onto my feet and rolled against the rooftop using my side. I peeked up at him and found my footing as soon as I saw him move. Alex picked up two weapons from the pile, two knives resting in both of his hands. He ran at me with blades pointed out.

I ducked as he swung. He spun his body around to halt the skid he used to stop his momentum.

“I’ve been going easy on you.” He said. I was running to the pile and picking up the sword on top. The choice was unfortunate, it was heavy and a hassle. Alex was charging at me once more and I didn’t have time to be picky.

“You’ve called the past few weeks going easy?” I asked, dashing forward and swinging my blade near his side, missing as he arched his back away from my knife-edge. Instincts told me to rush forward towards him once more. Our blades hit each other with every block and attack. The echoing sound of metal colliding was endless. He was much stronger than me, but my speed kept the fight even. I darted under his arm and knocked the small blade in his hand onto the ground. I dropped my heavy sword and picked up his old weapon. We were even now.

He turned and met my blade with incredible force as he used it to push me close to the ground. At this point, I was crouching. His blade forced me closer to the roof tiles. I kicked my foot out in hopes to ruin his balance, but he saw my intentions.

A small stumble was the result of my attack, causing me to jump away from him. He invaded the space.

Steel met steel once more to create a screeching sound. It went on for minutes, until an opening was available. His sword was high in his right hand and I quickly brought up my foot, so he couldn’t grab me, and pulled it down. It hit the bone in his wrist.

The sword clattered onto the ground, and Alex looked at me with approval. From where I stood, I blocked the pile of swords, my body barricading Alex from the defenses. I dropped my sword and put my fists up.

“Fair fight.”

“Pick up your sword.” He commanded.

“I said, fair fight.”

“You don’t know what you’re up against, Scarlett.”

In the end, I picked up my sword more for the sake of not arguing with Alex, rather than giving in to his pride. I held it up, trying to conjure up a way to block him without hurting him.

He charged at me and I shoved my sword into every space he tried to slide in between. The moment my knuckles needed to regain their grip, was the moment he attacked. He returned my previous move and knocked the sword from my hands. Instead of using his feet, he closed in on me and pushed the base of his palm against my wrist.

His punch was near my face before my weapon hit the ground, his fingers flying by the side of my temple. I moved as fast as possible, hopping to the right to avoid the attack. I ducked and punched him in the stomach. His body cowered backwards in response, my fist missing by an inch.

I jumped and circled him to keep his eyes busy. My plan was to punch high to distract his gaze, and then kick low.

The point was if the opponent was hit, they were not ready to protect all areas. In my opinion, I wasn’t moving fast enough. I recalled the anger that brewed within me while being a helpless, victimized girl over the past few weeks. I needed to prove myself worthy.

Alexander’s face became Tauro’s. It became the ugly grimace on his wrinkled skin, as he bashed my brains out and laughed. My body quickly carried me in front of my opponent, and I let the punches fly. The estranged sound of my voice filled the roof while my right and left hands alternated the attacks.

“Scarlett, stop.” His voice commanded through my daze. I kept screaming and kicking until I fell under my own feet and crashed to the ground.

My hands were punching the air in front of me, and scratching the roof surface.

“Scarlett. Stop.” Alex stood above me, lowering to kneel and look me in the eye. His arms enveloped me as I shook.

“Him. He made me feel weak.” I yelled at Alex. “He violated my strength! He embarrassed me, he made me pathetic.”

“He’s done all those things, but they’re only effective if you believe them. Then your mind will let them warp into what you believe to be facts and will affect your physical power. This is why I’m doing this Scarlett. Our group, and even your friends, should know rendering defenseless during a vulnerable period in life is frustrating. You, especially, must be prepared. Remember Wrath and Pride are his sins, he’s collected the most lives and never stops. You’re lucky to be alive in my opinion, the anger he took out on you was an understatement of his actual powers. You need to come back stronger.”

I breathed against his shoulder, pissed off at the weakness I was showing in front of him. He pushed me away, looking at me with a watchful gaze and standing up. His hand lowered and pulled me up in one swift movement.

“We’re alike you know. In the wrong way. I fight until I fall, Scarlett. My perseverance is risky, dangerous, and full of stupidity that I couldn’t even begin to elaborate on. I’m seeing the same qualities in you, but I don’t like it. I can handle myself running around with a potential death wish, but I do not hope you do the same. I bleed myself dry, until my skin is patched and raw, and it’s the worst thing a fighter can do. It’s idiotic insanity.”

I sighed, thinking about the time he fought at the club until he could barely stand and imagined that being me in his perspective.

“Looks like you need to vent. We’re running back to Emma’s, I want you there. Now.”

And with that, his consolation was over and he was throwing the swords down the fire escape stairs and jumping off the metal contraption, leaving me on the roof.

An ache grew in my stomach. The swords were just sharpened and I never jumped over a roof before, maybe once. How did Alex know we wouldn’t hurt each other? What if he didn’t? I brushed away the thoughts.

Running was the last thing on my mind, but I needed the motivation. Late afternoon showed in the sky, and I found myself racing taxis and covering as much distance, before they turned around corners.  

“Three minutes, improved.” Alex commented when I stood against a car in Emma’s driveway, steadying my breaths. He waited on her lawn, passing me a bottle of water and beginning to walk on the sidewalk again.

“I’d have you run and meet me, but you don’t know the street.” He jogged down the road, and my only choice was to follow him without questions.

The consistent sweat that dried on my neck disappeared after I adjusted to all of the running. He made sharp twists into alleys, and scaled the stairs onto roofs. He did so just to jump between the building’s tops and make his way down another set of stairs in a different part of town. He stopped after he saw that I was having trouble keeping my jumps within a safe range and was getting closer the edge of an abyss. I was glad since I didn’t want to suffer another grave injury. From that point on, he stuck to the regular paths.

When I’d fall back, he’d grab my hand and tug me through the streets with encouragement. We finally made it to a raggedy street in Washington, one that had been abandoned and left for the homeless. Trash blew around in the wind and the night time darkness seemed to be much worse at the opposite side of this dead end road. Alex had managed to find one of the sketchiest, dangerous parts of the city.

“Once again, do you trust the protection I can offer?”

“Yes.” I said, going along with the fact that he hadn’t killed me yet.

“You haven’t asked me why we are here.” He noted.

“I just said that I’d trust your judgment.”

Alex unstrapped two swords from his back. After handing one to me, he walked down the dead end; the tip of his sword created sparks against the ground. The whole alley reeked of alcohol and marijuana. They weren’t just homeless, but addicts as well.

Bodies hunched against the walls, hidden under torn and tattered rags for clothes.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here. I mean, it feels wrong, we can’t help.”

“We do. Many are delusional from the Interceptors that invade this place. Nico, Amber, Zeldyn, and many other hunters bring them food, water, and blankets every two weeks. Others come here to practice and take care of any lingering beasts. They’ve grown used to our faces, they don’t question it. One of the Arrows in Baltimore actually became a homeless shelter after they upgraded their facilities. We care for our cities.”

He continued down the street and closer to the dead end. A building stood at the end with a few broken windows that were covered with boards. Makeshift jail bars were over the door, and Alex was pulling them away.

Hissing and scratching came from inside and my heart started to pound. The anger I felt earlier had ceased, and was now replaced by a weird sense of fear and eagerness.

“We’ve given the headmaster a sword. He herds the local, lingering Interceptors into this abandoned building. They’re able to protect their people with our help. They’ve chosen this lifestyle.”

“You don’t think the drunks and addicts will end up hurting themselves?”

“The headmaster is sober. He’s the father of a boy here. They lost their home to his son’s gambling. He holds down this fort. We offered him a place at the Arrow, but he says he belongs here, broadcasting homelessness awareness. I come here to train with him sometimes. The more contacts we have in the city means the more fighters and protectors we have to turn to. When there is a huge decrease of these beasts in the city, there’s a good chance that they’ve been helping downsize them.”

More secrets flowed from his lips, and I couldn’t help but yearn for more stories about everyone at the Arrow who had connections in worldwide cities. He pulled back the bars and threw them to the side. The inside was dark and damp, with dim light shining in from the windows. The bodies outside talked and moved around. They created a small community of those who were troubled.

“Zeldyn loves practicing here.”

Stalling and thinking was my downfall. There were two Interceptors on the ceiling, crawling down. Three more were in the corner. The building had two levels. The stairs looked weak and ready to crumble under another Interceptor. Alex was ducking, covering his face from the dust the Demons stirred up when they ran. He looked at me to check that I hadn’t frozen.

I went for all three Interceptors at once. My sword slammed down with the amount of frustration I had unleashed on Alex earlier. I sliced under all of their limbs, watching them thud to the ground and begin the growing process. I chose the one to the left, stabbing it through its skull and cutting it in half between its eyes. It held resistance against my blade, forcing me to kick away another one that ran into me after it re-grew its arms and legs.

My fingers sunk into one’s skin, grabbing the spinal cord that burned my hands and pulling it. I used my knife to sever the bones of the other Interceptor in front of me. Afterwards, I cut bones connecting their heads and necks. The two masses of flesh and bone collapsed, and shimmered away.

I screamed a shout of victory and then was trampled to the ground during my gloating yell. My body was against the dirt floor. Claws scratched down the length of my back, blood spilling from the tip of my neck to my waist. Liquid secreted from five deep, long cuts.

Agony was an understatement to the pain I felt now. I curled my head into my knees and let my arm fall against the ground, sword and all. This Interceptor was wise.

I flipped over and kicked out; fighting against the pain it took to move. I sprang up, my back burning with every twist of my body. I brought my sword across the Interceptor’s body, leaving it split in half. It attempted to regrow, but I was hacking away black transparent flesh every time it moved.

The attack continued until it shimmered away, and I was bringing my sword down onto an empty ground. I looked over to Alex, who had an Interceptor pinned under his body as he continually dragged a sword down its chest, innards spilling and shimmering away with the beast. We were both covered in dirt, grime, and muck on our gear. The two that had attacked him were gone, as was the one on the stairs.

He jogged to me, whipping me around to see the torn marks in my shirt. He hurried to fix it.

“Upstairs.” I muttered. “Upstairs, let’s secure it first. I’m fine, secure it and then you can help.”

His eyes were wary, watching me with an expression of doubt. Just earlier, he spoke about us pushing ourselves too far, but I still walked over to the short stairway and carried myself upstairs.

There were two, and Alex ran from behind me to attack one.

I assumed the other one was mine. The Interceptor I saw across the room screeched, rearing up on his hind legs against the wall. At this point, I was exasperated and felt cheated. A chance was taken when I threw my sword at it, letting it horizontally fly in the air and stake the beast to the wall. I charged, kicking it in the gut and pushing my hand through transparent flesh. I found its spine and pulled. Heat rose up my arm from being in its body. The skeletal frame came out in one piece and I tossed it to the ground. I shoved my thumbs into its eyes and then decapitated it. Goo covered my arms from my shoulders to the tips of my fingers as it shimmered away.

I kneeled to the ground, waiting while Alex cut his Interceptor into pieces until it was fully gone. Groaning, I crawled over to one of the windows, looking out at the dark yellows and oranges that replaced the sky’s normal colors. A pile of rubble by the window ended up being my seat as I stared through the wooden boards. My temple scraped the surface of the wall.

“Scarlett.” Alex breathed.

“Yes, Alexander.” I spoke with fatigue.

“Your abilities as a fighter are strong. That was wonderful.” He was pulling bandages and a bottle of liquid from a zipped pocket in his cargo shorts.

“May I?” He nodded at injury.

“Yes.”

He crouched behind me, his hands exploring freely in the back of my torn shirt. I heard the bottle crack open and before I could prepare myself, a steaming hot liquid poured down my back. It scorched the exposed flesh and twisted my nerves together. I screamed, my nails scratching against the wall. His hand found mine, squeezing it and allowing me to transfer the pain into the grasp of our adjoined hands.

“You didn’t tell me that would burn.” I said through gritted teeth.

“No one wants to know they are to expect pain.” He said while unwrapping a roll of white bandages and strapping it to my skin with tape.

“It’ll help close the skin, Celtic gave it to me. I believe it’s a different form of Reaper silk, an innocent form. Reaper made.”

I held my hand out for the gauze and the bottle, eyeing the ripped fabric of his jeans that intertwined with the broken skin on the side of his thigh.

I splashed the liquid into the raw, red area, watching his fingernails dig into his palms and turn them white. I started to wrap it, encircling his thigh and tying it off in a knot. His legs were flat on the ground now. He sat up to look out the window and I slid next to him, crossing my legs. I hovered by his face to clean up his head wound.

I let out a huge sigh, and pressed my back against the wall. My head throbbed when I let it fall back against the concrete.

“Tell Zeldyn that I told you it’s time that you and your friends knew. You all are loyal and are willing to risk your lives for us. We owe you a bigger explanation.”

“It’s time we knew what?”

“I can’t say anymore. It’s her place to tell. It’s not a bad thing, just important. You can ask her when you see her again.”

Curiosity was killing me, but I dismissed his mysteriousness and just nodded.

“What do you think everyone is doing right now?” He asked.

“Not this.” I smiled and then laughed. They’ve blown me off, I wouldn’t know.”

“They’re just being cautious. They want everyone to stay safe.” He replied.

“Thank you.” I looked at him. “For this, for your insane methods of training, and for letting me know what’s been happening. Thank you for not making me feel like a burden for doing what I love, and never doubting that I have the ability to achieve it. Thanks for not thinking I’m the type that needs rescuing. All of that makes it easier to be around you, knowing that you don’t see me as an obstacle or task.”

He opened his mouth, searching for the words to say, but closed it.

“You’re welcome.” He nodded. “Anytime and always.”

It was silent. I dusted myself off and stretched my back, feeling the ache of skin closing against its will. I was careful not to pressure the blisters on my feet as I walked. Alex took a few more minutes and then followed behind me, down the steps and out of the building.

A man with shaggy white hair and a gray filled beard stood guarding the building. His face was old, but his physique was well enough to defend.

“Just making sure you two didn’t need any reinforcements.”

“Thank you Sy,” Alex nodded. “It’s clear inside. Thanks for rounding them up. We must be going, see you soon, and we wish you the best. We’ll bring supplies again in a week. The Arrow is also looking into buying a lot to fix up a place for you guys.”

Sy beamed.

I failed to think about the distance we had to overcome to get here, and walking back was almost as torturous as running here. We were heading back to Emma’s once more, to pick up of all the weapons, change, and take them to the Arrow. Thank goodness for no more training. We were going to the Arrow just to enjoy its offerings.

Conversation was light. I attempted to give Alex a small laugh every so often so he knew I was listening, but his words about Zeldyn keeping a secret bothered me. Once we reached Emma’s, I couldn’t go inside fast enough. Alex tossed me two bottles of water and I demolished them in seconds. I grabbed the only clothing options available, which was more gear, and headed into the shower first. Hot water met hot injuries and my body pulsed under the stream. Sweat beaded down my forehead. I hurried out of the shower and changed back into gear, which wasn’t the friendliest reminder about my day. I pulled my hair back into a loose bun. Exhausted, I went out to the living and Alex showered next. I let my body mold into the couch, happy after seeing the sandwiches Alex put onto the coffee table.

I heard him ten minutes later when he got out, but I didn’t have the energy to talk. I was drained and only heard him move around. He grabbed weapons, left to pack them in his car, and came back to clean up the place.

About half an hour later, a little before eight, he helped me up and promised that I could sleep in his car until we got to the Arrow where we wouldn’t have to do anything. It sounded worthy, so I joined him on the ride to the Arrow, trudged through the forest, and passed Tristan’s guard station until we reached the loft and its surroundings. This place was missed, and I felt reminiscent when we returned.

Alex abandoned me to put up the weapons, but afterwards, we made our way to the hammocks for a well-deserved rest. The emptiness of the Arrow enhanced its beauty and serenity. A few hunters walked by, on their way to a mission. There was a good portion of hunters missing. Few people sat on the cut tree stumps within the forest.

I mended my body into the fabric of the hammock, curling my face into its warmth and accepting its embrace. Alex began swinging the one next to me before settling in. My legs rose up in the air, swaying around while I examined the old scars on them.

“Caspian and his sister were travelers you said?” I asked.

“Indeed. They never knew their parents. Never. They grew up in this old home with a man and his son who participated in the foster care program. They were strangers, and cared for them until they both started asking questions and made a run from what they had. The family gave them all they could, love, food, and shelter. They began to wander at about sixteen. Caspian says he’s never regretted the decision. I think something scared them enough to make them leave.”

“How could two kids manage life on their own? Have they ever gone to school?”

“No, not really. They have a weak education from the man who cared for them but that’s about it.”

“What about food and shelter from there on?” I pushed on, feeling ashamed for the curiosity I felt about the twins’ pasts.

“They were actually quite wealthy. A few families in the system took them into their homes, and Caspian,” He stalled, and looked at me. His voice dropped drastically. “Caspian was a thief and a borrower.”

“How can one be both?” I questioned.

“He stole, from the foster families that trusted them. He knew their addresses and belongings. When he sold the items for profit, he returned to the homes and paid back the families one at a time. He kept the remaining money to keep his sister alive. They survived together. It worked, until one family saw him putting the envelope in the mail. They came out yelling and shooting, hitting him in his torso and leaving a bullet in his flesh. They screamed that he was a thief, and had stolen an object they could never replace. He ran with his sister, but eventually she was the one who dragged him to the hospital. They were taken in for questioning, but ran away from there too. After traveling for so long, they resorted to panhandling. Eventually they came to the capitol to panhandle, and came across the Arrow.”

“Oh.” I whispered. “That’s so personal; I shouldn’t be learning this without Caspian’s permission.”

“He’s proud and ashamed of that story. He did the necessary thing to survive.”

I paused.

“You’re wondering about the others?” He asked.

“In a non-invasive way, yes. I’m curious about their pasts.” I admitted.

“Amber worked in a bookshop with her family. She doesn’t talk about them much. Nico and his grandmother owned a small restaurant in the city. His parents are traveling; they’ve practically abandoned him with her. He met Amber after applying to work part-time in the bookstore. After his grandmother died, Amber Lynn and her mother took him in and they grew fond of each other. I believe Amber Lynn’s mother works at the Arrow as a leader. Eventually, they both joined the force.

I sunk into the hammock’s fabric, grasping onto the knowledge.

“And you?” I asked, peeking over the fabric to look at him.

“I lived with my father and mother. They divorced. My father was a hunter at an Arrow in another city. We had a secret; he took me out to fight. My mom believed that he was cheating because of his absences. When he explained himself and what he knew, my mom insisted that he see a counselor. Eventually, they divorced and he stuck with me. I left home, but still visited every so often. He’s found another woman. On one of my wandering trips, I met a girl in an alley. She was a runaway too. She left her father because she believed she was a mistake. Her family couldn’t care for the both of their children. She was the second child, so her mother insisted that she’d be put up for adoption. The father refused, took her away, and they lived in poverty until their later years in life. Her name was Zeldyn.”

“I’m sorry.” I offered honestly.

“Don’t. Trials in life create the person.”

“That’s true, I suppose.”

“You’re not getting off the hook that easily, what’s your story, Scarlett?”

“Nothing of interest, I assure you. My brother and I grew up seeing Interceptors and our instincts were to fight back. We live with my father. Our mom left us at a young age. My dad told me it was because they drifted apart, and they divorced. However, Sebastian claims there was a near death incident at one of the beaches we visited in the Outer Banks. Sebastian always tells me that we drowned, and no one was there to save us. He says that’s why our mom left.”

“What do you believe?”

“I believe that everything in our lives has happened to better us. We learned to accept and adapt.”

“I believe that is a good way to think.”

“We moved away when I was young, my dad never said where from. We came to the capitol and I met Vesper, who lived next to us with his mom. He doesn’t know his father.”

Alex processed my words.

“As far as Alice, she was involved in a car crash at a young age. It left both of her parents dead, and her grandmother passed away shortly before we came to meet with you all. It was her decision, actually. Her grandmother died the day I got this.”

I ran a few fingers over the ink, forcing back the regret that came with the memory.

“My apologies. Alice is happy, especially with Zeldyn. She’s been one of my closest friends for a long time now. She won’t hurt your friend.”

“I know.”

“Vesper, your friend, does he find interest in you?”

“Huh?” I fidgeted.

“You and Vesper, I understand that there’s a mutual connection between you two?”

“No,” I blurted. “No, there’s nothing like that. We’re just close friends. I feel for Vesper as you feel for Zeldyn.”

“Hm.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Curiosity.” He stated.

“Curiosity leads to the right people to the wrong actions.” I joked. “Curiosity gets us killed, which seems to apply to you and me both. The Arrow is curious about Tauro, but it’s hurting everyone in the process.” I sat up in the hammock, letting my legs dangle over the edge. “But, curiosity also gives an opportunity for answers, and it gives me the chance to be with a girl as peculiar as she is beautiful.”

I froze, watching Alex sit up in his hammock, intently observing me.

“That’s very sweet, thank you.”

I cast my eyes to the side.

“Scarlett?” He pushed.

“Yes?”

“May I kiss you?”

My body went rigid, filling with anticipation and panic. His eyes stayed with me, awaiting an answer or rejection. I parted my lips, but no words sounded. Alex pushed himself off of the hammock and against the tree that held mine up. His fingernails scratched at the bark and his eyes trailed down at me, I avoided the glance. Alex’s hand molded into mine, the boy now stood in front of me.

“If I’m making you uncomfortable, you would let me know, yes?”

A noise that resembled a yes came out of my mouth and I looked up to him. His palms held my face, leaning down to hover his nose above mine. His irises were bright and vibrant. A moment later, I felt the soft pressure of his mouth against mine, kissing the soft space between my lips. I lightly rested my fingertips on his torso. My head filled with regret.

I kissed back, allowing the small paradise from his touch to engulf my thoughts and incinerate them as they formed. The air of the Arrow hit my skin at the perfect temperature, the calm before a storm. I stretched up, pushing into the kiss as our mouths moved in synchronization.

A wailing siren sounded above us and I yanked back, flipping in the hammock and falling on my back in the grass. I stumbled up before he could assist me, crossing my arms and turning to hide my face. Red embarrassment was plastered on my cheeks.

Alex’s eyes were huge, looking at me, and then at the massive sirens connected to the trees. They screamed out an alarm consisting of electronic wails.

“What and how?” Alex said, running back and forth.

“How and why?” He continued.

Bodies poured in and out of the lodge, many ran to the arena and drained the large shed of its weapons. Others ran into the lodge and came back with defenses from the armory. Everyone was sprinting towards the gates and tower guard. Hammocks were left empty and swung in the wind.

The sky turned a sickly gray above, visible through spots between the trees. It started pouring instantly. I watched through my wet eyelashes that batted water away. The chaos of moving feet in the mud was all I saw.

Alex’s fist slammed into one of the hunter’s shoulders, pulling him back to ask what was happening. The boy looked a little older than Alex.

“Emma has made the call to Tristan. Willow is joining us tonight. They’re ridding of Tauro, soon. We’re to report to the bar immediately and carry out formation. The sign has been sent.” The boy was running again.

A lump formed in my throat when his face dropped. A look of pure horror took over his recent expression of bliss. He was staring at me, through me, it seemed. His mouth contorted into a miserable frown while he stared up at the clouds. I didn’t follow his line of view; I didn’t want to see whatever horror was happening above us. His face paled and cold shadows surrounded us. I closed my eyes to check the possibility of this being real.

Alexander was still silent, but then started pulling me through the foggy air. We both went to the lodge’s armory. Alex shoved knives and two swords in my hands, before dragging me to his car. We were driving through hurricane weather to reach the bar in Washington.

“This is Wrath.” I said as he sped against the limit. “This is what he’s doing, if he can’t ruin the few lives he takes, he’ll ruin all of Washington’s. How are the city people not reacting?”

“This looks like a storm. Right now, the concern isn’t about staying hidden; it’s about ridding of him before any more damage is caused.” He yelled over the winds that dulled out the sounds around us. Rain came down harder, resembling the form of hail.

We hit recognizable streets. I worried about my family and friends and how I was heading into battle against orders.

A blockade of totaled cars sat in the road ahead, blocking the path that led to the bar. Alex hit the dashboard with his fist, and parked the car in an abandoned alley. I jumped out, rushing to the streets.

“Stick by me.” He said. “I know you can fight, but the destruction we’re up against is massive. Don’t leave my line of sight.”

We were running, and I knew this wasn’t training. I followed him, climbing over the trashed cars, and skidding against the road. My feet trampled over broken objects, and debris. We were nearing the bar; I knew this because the buildings surrounding it were in pieces. Tops of the apartments were missing or bashed in, the windows of shops had been broken, and the ground was covered with glass. The whole area near the bar looked like a tornado came through and spit everything back out.

Impulsively, Alex ran until we couldn’t breathe, pushing us until we reached our destination. A man emerged from a hotel’s rotating door and yelled at us. Through the broken glass and into the wide lobby, there was a flat screen against the wall in front of a few armchairs.

The droning noise of a woman, the emergency weather warning, had taken over the original cartoon show that was playing. Apparently, the situation was being perceived as a weather crisis. Everyone believed it was a severe spring storm that required the streets to be evacuated. The people occupying the lobby ran upstairs to their rooms.

“Hey, you two idiots need to get to safety!” The worker yelled at Alex. “Everyone stay downstairs! Stay down! It’s a tornado and storm watch.”

The desk man hurriedly gestured for us to come in, but Alex pulled us away running once more, his eyes searching frantically for hope. The man slammed the broken hotel doors shut, staring at us with a crazed look.

I couldn’t stop to call Vesper, even if my phone wasn’t water damaged. I couldn’t stop to call Alice, or my dad, or brother. We just kept jumping over toppled objects and piles of loose building bricks as we ran under a gray sky.

Thunder crackled, accompanied by sharp, electric blue lines against murky clouds. Lightning bolts hit the tops of electric lines, breaking them free in quick snaps and twaps, and letting them crash onto the tops of buildings. The poles easily cut through brick and wood. The sky was black with streaks of red that reminded me of Celtic’s beautiful eyes.

A few landmarks ahead, the sky was worse. Further examination gave an illusion that the sky was cracking in half. It was accompanied by an ear deafening, powerful sound of thunder. The sight was terrifying. The world’s top had turned into hell’s interior decorating. It was the gateway attempting to be opened by Tauro.

Alex yelled and ran faster. “The gates, they’re not ready. We’re in luck, he can’t open them fully.” He spoke through his teeth. “If I’m correct, only Interceptors will pass, not Demons in our form.”

This is lucky? I thought.

A power line crashed to our left, bombarding a small two level home. Screams sounded immediately. Two bodies were almost falling over the edge of the broken floor. Another body was limp on the ground, his limbs in every direction. There were two small boys screaming out at the dead parent below. One started to trip over the edge, and the other pulled him back. They were so young.

“Alex.” I said, but I was already running to the apartment home. I passed the dead body that was bleeding onto the gravel, and screamed at the kids.

“Close your eyes! Now, I said! Close them!”

The shuddering figures wouldn’t listen; their eyes were wide, watchful orbs full of tears as they stared at their father. I scaled the rubble that led up to the open room. A still life painting of what the family had been doing moments ago was now literally torn in half. Shards of glass stabbed into my leg, but I made it high enough to reach the top.

“Close them!” My voice was foreign to me, angry and commanding.

They did so, and I instructed one of the kids to jump. Another two minutes passed by, the boys were still shaking and crying. I told him to jump once more. My arms were held out, waiting for him to grab his courage, and he did. He crashed into my embrace and we both fell against the debris. Unknown objects jabbed into my skin. The boy was taken away from me, now in the hands of Alex. He put him down on the ground and whispered for him to stay. I pulled myself up as he held up his hands to catch the other child, who jumped obediently.

Both boys were still looking at their dead father, staying far enough to avoid touching him, but close enough to see the gore of his death. Alex and I each picked up one and ran back.

“The hotel?” I confirmed his thoughts and he nodded.

Not even three minutes passed before we heard a back road full of screams. A little girl was flat against the ground, an older woman wailing over her as she tried to push the overturned dumpster off her legs. I dropped the kid. Alex did the same and ran into the alley. Her leg was purple and black, the blood circulation struggling to flow as her leg went dead.

“Help us!” She screamed. “Help my daughter.” Her nails were torn off, red with blood from prying under the heavy obstruction.

Alex and I heaved with the woman, hyperventilating as we spent minutes picking up the dumpster and listening to the girl’s torturous cries. It lifted high enough for one of the boys to pull her out from under it. Her leg was flattened, but fixable. The dumpster dropped down with a thud.

The woman held her girl, tripping every so often over misplaced mailboxes or car doors that were ripped from their hinges. Alex and I were carrying the children again. My ankle felt twisted after getting stuck in the rubble.

When we got back to the hotel, the residents and staff had blocked the clear rotating doors with racks, suitcases, and furniture from the lobby. We spent five minutes banging against the glass and contemplating whether breaking it would cause more harm than help. When no one answered, a new plan was needed. Alex put down the boy, so I carried both of them while he found a destroyed building to break into.

It was half of a two leveled apartment; the top half was sturdy enough to provide a shelf over the bottom. I carried both boys inside, placing them in abandoned blankets and old clothes I found after climbing up to what remained on the second floor. My clothes were soaked and dirty, my black hair stayed plastered to my face.

Alex did the same for the woman, finding a flattened out box to create a makeshift bed for the lady and her daughter.

“Her leg should be okay for now, keep the flow going.” He spoke to the mother holding her daughter in her lap. “I’ll come back after the storm; do not leave unless there is a threat. Please, watch over these boys. They lost the father only minutes ago.”

“Yes, okay.” The woman trembled.

I was pushing all of the furniture together, wet and ragged, to create a barricaded wall in front of the four people. I assured that the seats faced towards them, so they could sit on them. The shelf on the second floor covered the area enough for the rain to be blocked out. Alex was finding more blankets and wrapping them around the victims.

“Do you have your bag, Alex?” I asked.

“No, just the weapons.” He panted. “Medics are at the bar and the Arrow.”

“Wait here.” I called back, running into the rain.

“Scarlett!” He raged with anger.

“Just wait for me!” I screamed, and vanished into the storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

I rounded corners against the wet wind, squinting my eyes to avoid looking at our unnatural world. My fists pounded against multiple shop doors, the lighting out in all of them. A pharmacy was found after racing down three streets, the lights flickered and doors were shut. I kicked through the doors, my foot jammed between the electronic passages until it finally gave.

“Don’t leave it open! You’re insane, shut the door!” The worker was on the floor behind the register and crawled out to scream at me.

“I have an emergency, where are your first aid kits?”

“We all have an emergency. We need the supplies, too. Leave.” He spat.

“You have ample and I have children who need them, where are they?”

“Get out of the store!” He screamed.

An Interceptor ran in, trampling over the path I created and scampering across the floor. I only brought the small knife Alex had given me at the abandoned apartment. I left the other with him and didn’t have much to work with.

The man screamed, but I knew I was running out of time. Saving innocents was tampering with our mission of getting to the bar. I scaled the shelves, stumbling on one and almost falling to the ground. When I reached the top, I jumped onto the Interceptor, crushing it with my body and placing the knife into its skeleton. The procedure had become mindless, emotionless, and repetitive now. I sliced in between each of its bones, and pulled them apart.

I felt claws in my legs, creating small holes as I fought it. I went for its eyes, destroyed its skeleton, and bashed its skull into the ground multiple times before it shimmered away. The door was still open, and I ran to barricade it with a nearby movable shelf.

“The kits are in the back corner, the medical center.” The man was on his side, watching me with wide eyes.

“Thank you.” I grinned.

Scouring the aisles, I picked up a medium fabric bag before heading to the medical station and filling it with half of the store’s content. Theft wasn’t on my conscious given that a part of our city was in danger. Laws wouldn’t exist if our world didn’t. Gauze, ointment, pain killers, bandages, and other supplies filled half the bag. After that, I went to the food and water aisles, where I grabbed multiple nonperishable food items. I stuffed my bag until it overflowed. My hand shoved my knife into the belt on my waist and two six-packs of water made their way into my hands. In the dark, I saw a worker sticking a flashlight into my belt. A tall blonde girl gestured to where I fought the animal. She knew about them.

She made her way to the entrance and removed the door blockade. She nodded for me to go.

“Thank you.” I spoke.

“Take care of things.” She told me. “I love someone at the Arrow who warned me about tonight.”

I returned down three more streets, looking for the building location that I had already forgotten. I saw Alex in the street before I heard him. He dashed into the building after seeing me. I entered and placed the drinks in front of the rescued group. A teenage boy with shaggy orange hair now sat next to the woman, along with his mother and his grandfather.

“They were passing by and had nowhere to go. I brought them back. Why did you leave?” He yelled at me, looking momentarily at my bag and dismissing the question.

I emptied my bag halfway, giving them all of the food and enough medical supplies to take care of the girl’s leg or any other unknown injuries. The man was offering assistance to the lady and her daughter, who were tearing open supplies to use. The boys were on one of the sofas, both sleeping uneasily.

“We have to go.” Alex told me.

“Thank you both,” The woman croaked, and the others nodded in agreement. “Thank you.”

We raced for the last time. Panic arose. The sky still bled black and red into our world. The need to vomit rose in my throat. Alexander dragged a sword off his back and passed it to me.

My ears weren’t deceiving me. I could hear screeching and wild cries only a few streets over. Terror seeped into my mind.

We reached the street of the bar. Heavy footsteps sounded in front of us, blending in with the sound of thunder. Against the dark swirls of the sky, assembled on the streets of the city, was the Arrow. Large groups of hunters assembled behind two people, a female and male leader. Over twenty five groups and their leaders were waiting for an order. There were more than enough people in each individual group. A shout, an order, echoed over the pavilion. Everyone charged at the black figures falling from the sky.

The diversity of ethnicities, races, ages and gender who sought to eliminate the same cause was immaculate.

Every single soul was dressed in gear. They wore black shirts, vests, cargo pants, or long sleeve shirts, along with their heavy duty boots. Bodies were flat on roof edges with their crossbows aimed. I had never seen so many crossbows lined up and ready to fire. Their owners shot at the Interceptors running below in the streets. There were a couple hundred of the beasts. Many people were armed with knives and everyone was skilled in sword training.

A large herd of those who wielded butterfly knives and axes added to the clashing forces. Blood splattered on the road. Leaders had loaded guns strapped onto their waist belts. I gripped a sword and knife in my hand. Alex gave the extra swords out to those who were lightly armed, keeping only two daggers for him.

This must have been all of the Arrow’s weapon stock, and all of the hunters aside from Tristan, who stayed in his tower to protect their home. At this point, everyone was severely armed. The small army in the middle of the city was unbelievable.

I thoroughly thought about my actions, before running into the hundreds of bodies that fought Interceptors. The bar was next to two other shops. A bridge with water flowing underneath it was across from the stores. Over the water, there was a large crack in the middle of the world. It was like a black hole, with evil resting in its internal core. The crack was misplaced, loudly hovering in the sky while black goo and red dust poured out of it. The black ink turned into Interceptors, like molds.

The water turned gray from the gateway, draining the life of our city. A small portion of the hunters was pulling drunks out of the water. Countless Interceptors were already dominating the grounds, and continuing to loiter in the area. They crawled and scratched at buildings, hissing in the air until their teeth met human skin. The bridge was full of monsters, all being drawn to the bar. It was havoc.

Scaly, transparent, bony figures lurked around. The black entrance of the gateway burned strong, pouring more ink into the river and allowing Interceptors to form from the source. The amount that emerged was immense, but revealed that Interceptor shapes were their most achievable form.

The gear did well to hide the hunters in the dark, which gave them an advantage. The Interceptors coming from the gates were different. Green and red neon veins turned black, showing through their papery, transparent skin. They glowed abnormally in the night. Different colored eyes, as unnatural as possible, flashed every two seconds. It caused my stomach to turn.

All was dark and dreary. The tattoo parlor’s windows were blacked out for privacy, but it was definitely open. Its name was printed on a large wooden sign, hanging on the roof. Another group of hunters with crossbows hid behind the sign. Metal music could be heard from inside, and I pictured the multiple buzzing needles that were dropped after this invasion.

Next door, the tavern mimicked the same style of the tattoo shop, except it had a huge window in front of the building. A small glass wall allowed little view due to the tint. The bar had two signature life sized beer bottles by its doors.   

There was no way to see what was going on in either of the buildings, but Tauro had to be in the bar. The large ongoing pool of Interceptors turned the streets black with bones and flesh. I had to ignore the gateway. Until it was closed, the battle would never end. There was nothing we could physically do to terminate a spiritual power.

I left Alex, eager to make sure none of those I knew were dead. A loud groan came from inside of the tattoo shop. The entrance door was closed, forcing me to slam my body weight into it. The neon Open sign above the door came crashing onto the ground, shards of lights scattering against the cobblestone. Hot sparks stung the back of my neck.

I pushed past the tattoo chair that was tipped over on the other side. It was a weak blockade. I managed to make my way inside, enlightened to see that the battle here was better handled than it was on the streets. There were only ten Interceptors occupying the space, their glowing veins pulsing in the shadows. It was new evidence that they were trying to become human. Crystal, along with two other fighters, took care of four. Both fighters were holding back its legs as it flailed around while Crystal’s butterfly knife annihilated its face by the front desk. I slid by, assured that the fight’s outcome was clear. The walls were black with guts and the dim lighting revealed the mucky splatter of Interceptor matter on the wall.

Broken cameras littered the floor, someone had destroyed the evidence. There were three separate rooms for tattooing on the left, and in the main room was a basic couch. The hanging portfolios of tattoo artwork were all around the room’s perimeter. A register was in the back corner. Everyone had fled from the look of it. Only Crystal and her fighters occupied the main room.

Two hunters were heading to one of the individual rooms. They entered with irritation on their faces. A glance inside showed that they were pulling a hunter onto a long table used for tattooing back pieces. They dragged him onto the table and left for medical assistance. He was still alive somehow. It seemed impossible considering a tattoo needle was lodged deep in his eye and he suffered from other severe injuries to his head. Red tattoo ink bled color into his remaining eye socket. I ran by to avoid staring. I needed to know that my brother and friends were alive and safe.

The next room held two more hunters who had finished their current battle. Dust on a bloody floor remained. I jumped to the side, allowing them to run into the other room and help the one eyed victim. I ended up biting my lip from the pain that bolted up my leg. In my distraction, I stepped on a needle on the ground. I yanked it out from my foot and kept running.

My brother was in the last room with Caspian. The room looked like the other two, full of tattoo supplies, drawings, and a chair. The seat wasn’t tipped over, like the others. Instead, Caspian was inside and happily satisfied with the weak pile of Interceptors that were in the tattoo chair, shimmering away. My brother’s eyes were coal black with hints of ice blue crystals. He took off the heads of all four at once, and his irises sparkled.

He was okay, more than okay.

“Scarlett, our dad is fighting. Everyone is all alright. Help those on the streets; it’ll be a massacre if the gates stay open.”

 

………

 

In the distance, I heard my father’s voice and another woman’s. Macy’s? They were going to fight on the battle grounds. Though, it was weird, they were arguing about something completely different. I listened in.

“Has she seen a doctor?” Macy asked.

I panicked. Was Alice okay?

“Yes. She’s fine Macy, really. No worries. Can we please just relax?”

“Chris, this is serious. She seems to be out of it all the time. She’s been sleeping since she passed out after graduation dinner. And who is Sebastian?”

“An old friend.”

I felt pain spread through me. Did my dad just call Sebastian a friend? He was his son and my brother.

“Why’s she so distraught about him? Did she love him?”

“We all did.”

“Who is he?”

“That’s not important, Macy. Just please, let it go. I’m tired.”

“Your daughter just passed out at the table and you’re not worried. Does she have narcolepsy?”

“Yes. Now let it go.”

“Where’s her mother, Chris?”

“Macy. Too far.”

“No, it’s not too far.” She raised her voice. “I love you. And if you love me as well, and we plan to take this further than a high school romance, you’ll let me in on your past. Did she leave you? Are you even divorced?”

I never heard my dad yell, but when he did, it scared me.

“She’s dead Macy! Are you happy now? Do you know enough yet? She’s dead!” He screamed out and I heard him sob. The door opened, but I wasn’t sure who it was. I was confused. How was I seeing a battle, but hearing an irrelevant debate. I had no more time to think, my mind wandered off into the depths of ignorance.

 

………

 

It was a horror scene when I stepped out onto the gravel. Interceptors crawled everywhere, ready to fight with scowls on their skeletal faces. A painting of a potential massacre was before me. The odds worsened when a handful of Interceptors started to morph into twisted creatures that looked like deformed humans. They writhed for a few minutes, before turning back into their old forms. The odds were unpredictable concerning who would get slaughtered tonight. I had faith in the Arrow, but they were still new to me. My sight allowed me to see a blur of black bodies in gear, glowing veins coming towards the hunters, and dim light pouring out from the bar.

“I’ll help you.” It was Vesper, a lost voice. “It will be best as partners, just like how we used to fight. I’ll help. Questions on why you’re here will surface later, but for now, we fight.” He nodded to the pavilion.

“Vesper,” I had no time to be grateful for his familiar face. Two out of the four people whom I loved were okay. Gulping down phlegm, I grew out of my uncertainty. The desire to kill rose inside of me, it was my insistence to avoid rendering useless in this fight.

I spotted one of our leaders when I started to run. It was Emma, who raised a hand into the air. Everyone stopped. Arrows flew past our heads and landed into Interceptors. Four more invisible rounds shot from the rooftops and pierced the beasts. It slowed them down. The hunters stood frozen until Emma lowered her hand.

The clashing began again, silent screams echoing through the parking lot. Metal ferociously attacked slimy bodies that were avoiding being attacked. Their bright veins looked like engulfed fire under their skin.

The “storm” rumbled over us, the sky still bleeding a mixture of red, black, and blue.

An Interceptor with a clawed hand managed to strike and hit me. It then sprinted behind Vesper and me. It sped up, raised its body, and started clawing at Vesper’s back. Blood immediately soaked his shirt. It moved in front of me to slash at my shoulder blades. The power of the gates and Tauro was making the monsters stronger and faster.

I jumped on the skull of the Interceptor, skidding against the ground with brain and skeletal matter smearing under my boots. The head reappeared and the beast quickly reared back as I jumped over it and landed harder.

It was intelligent, but weaker than the others. Its skull disintegrated into white powder and the rest of it disappeared, according to the normal protocol.

Five more Interceptors poured into our direction from the bridge. My concept of fighting was repeated. I had to hurry to find Alice and my dad, while assisting with the battle on the streets. Then I needed to get into the bar to find Willow or Tauro. My mental agenda repeated in my head. I started creating hollow holes in their throats. Wasted air and screeches left their mouths. I shoved my feet into their skulls, and dismembered their spines while Vesper fought behind me.

Ves was down low, slashing at one’s feet, but the wounds healed immediately. An arrow shot through the stomach of an Interceptor running at me from the left. The weapon was absorbed into its stomach as it attempted to walk.

In seconds, I was on the ground crawling backwards from one that was morphing into a human shape. It stood on two legs and pushed me closer to another ongoing fight. I was inches away from running into another hunter holding sharp steel. My sword found its leg and its body fell forward in the process of regrowth.

We were in a square pavilion of fighters and Demons, with the source of the enemy multiplying above us. Ending the supernatural storm was the biggest task.

Vesper ran towards me and chopped the Interceptor on the ground in half. I stumbled up. Before half of a second could pass, another misshapen Interceptor on two legs stood behind me. Its claws slapped me red across the face, shallow scratches burning the skin on my jaw. I immediately swung my sword as a reaction, taking off its head and thrusting my foot into its side. These things shouldn’t have been walking on two legs.

The remaining four Interceptors surrounding us circled and spat. We each took two, our backs protected by the safety of each other. I used my typical method, pulling my knife high and protruding it into both of their skulls. It forced them both to stagger back. I annihilated the spine of the first. Then I was stabbing its eyes, taking off its head, and bashing its skull into the ground. He turned into ash. After I rid of the first one, the second watched me. It was now on its hind legs. Its transparent, molding body attempted to find the shape of a proper human being. I released my weapon and kicked the beast down by attacking the back of its knees, forcing it to fall onto them.

It sprang up, hissing and letting spit fly onto my face. Its teeth found my ankle, wrapping a set of jaws around it and crunching. I shrieked and kicked it away with my other foot. I rolled away from its mouth, jumped up, and obtained my sword from my side. The sword swung into its body and diagonally sliced it in half. Another severing of its tail and limbs was all it took, before it vanished.

Red smudged against my fingers as my hand clutched onto the torn ankle. There was no time to act, because my stomach had dropped. In front of my view, only a few feet away, was a body. It was not disappearing as the Interceptors did. I stared at it for a good moment, but it stayed there as a dark lump. Another Interceptor bombarded it, crouched over the lump to extract the flesh from its body. It stood on its two legs with pride.

I mentally numbed the pain in my ankle with thoughts of revenge. My body bolted, leaving Vesper on my trail. My sword slammed straight through its neck, upwards, and out of its mouth, forcing it to drop the piece of human meat between its teeth. I kicked directly into its back, freeing it from my sword, and then bashed in its skull. I pulled the dead hunter into an abandoned corner.

An unknown fighter came towards me, after beheading her enemy and sweeping her ax down to chop off its tail. She kept herself from gagging as she ran to me and the body. Her hands fell limp against it and held it in her arms.

“That was my sister.” She growled. “My sister.” Her voice was boiling.

“I’m so sorry.” I backed away, gaining my footing to stand up properly. The hunter was cowering over her sister’s body, her face full of denial and misery.

I was furious over the unknown hunter, who gave their life to the cause. The slight urge to find my dad and Alice became a yearning sensation. I charged through a hazardous path of swords and their swordsmen, slaying every Interceptor that I passed. Chunks of black skin flew from the Interceptors and regenerated almost immediately. The girl’s sister was a crumpled heap on the ground, falling into an unknown realm of bliss as chaos unfolded around her. The thought was burned into my mind.

I slayed another Interceptor while it was in a weak state. In the midst of trying to regrow a head, it turned to ash. I was choking back tears, charging into battle with foul thoughts that my family and friends got themselves killed being in a place they shouldn’t. I kept running, scowling when an Interceptor knocked the sword out of my hand while running past me. I stepped on its tail and fought it with my smaller knives, leaving multiple puncture wounds. The murky liquid turned into dust as it bled its body away. I then traded my knives for my sword, prying it out of the sticky substance by the hilt. It stuck in the goo from the disappearing Interceptor.

Vesper reappeared behind me, following my footsteps through the crowds, but getting lost to fight oncoming beasts. After I found my father and Alice, I planned to go to the bridge, the source, to gain any knowledge of stopping it. I spotted my father against the damaged wall of a building, over in the far right corner of my vision. I looked past the bloody massacre to see him in combat with an Interceptor. I pulled my knife back and threw it at him when I was close enough. I was satisfied that it landed in the back of the Interceptor’s skull, the one pinning my dad against the wall. I approached them.

Sharp silver stuck through the body of the Interceptor. My dad’s hand was submerged in its midsection, holding onto a knife.

My eyes locked with the blue of my father’s, and then onto Alice’s red hair. She was with Nico fighting near an old, broken building until she ran over to the bridge. My father started to jab his attacker against the wall using an uppercut. I jumped in and kicked it away, wielding my sword against its face. Gray steel flashed around and mixed with the pinkish tint of blood and teeth. It caused me to feel a sick joy. It vanished.

I ran towards my father with eager eyes. His back was against the shop wall and he rubbed his arm in pain.

“I had it,” was all he said.

I stumbled back, feeling the sharp recognition of pain, rejection, and being misplaced.

“W-What?” I asked.

“I could have handled it.” My father said. There was no gratitude that we were both alright. All I felt was hurt from not being wanted even if you were doing something good. I was a burden to my own blood. My father was changing, whether it was the Arrow’s introduction in his life or Macy’s, his arrogance seemed to return.

An Interceptor jumped into the corner of my vision, leaping horizontally in front of my father and me. I stabbed the monster through its stomach, before it could even to attack. One blow, and his body was kabobed on my sword. The tip was inches away from my father’s face on the other side.

I pulled back, my knees buckling at the emotional wound I felt. My brother ran towards us, leading a trail of three Interceptors behind him. He caught his breath, long enough to spin around and attack two at once. His arms repeatedly landed powerful blows into their stomachs, causing them to crumple over on the cobblestone.

I left. I wasn’t needed, and apparently everyone I loved was okay. The question was whether they questioned if I ever was. Vesper was by my side, clutching my arm and telling me to slow down. I trudged through the crowd with him pulling me back.

“Breathe.” He said. “You’re thinking with impulse.”

“I’m thinking with the mindset of being invisible. Pretend I’m not here, I can be on my own.”

“Then it’s too bad I won’t leave you.”

When we reached the bridge, Caspian was stalling the horde of Interceptors. He did so, long enough to slow down their flow. He didn’t want them to pass the bridge and go into the pavilion, which would bombard the hunters. He and my brother left the tattoo parlor to come out here which made me question why the bar wasn’t the main concern of the fight. Tauro was inside and created the source of evil outside. He was the solution to ending the evolved Interceptor ambush.

I knew Celtic and Willow were inside, but no one was helping with Tauro. Caspian brought his butterfly knife up to fight against beasts. His sister appeared directly under the crack, ridding of the Interceptors as soon as they entered our world.

I stood between the twins and near Alice, who yelled soundless phrases over to me. She was painting the ground with red, black, and bone. My body was a rapid functioning robot, executing death to all of the beasts in my path. I was surrounded by about ten. I stabbed the soft spots in their jaws, listening to bone cracking as I did so. Dust kicked up in the air as I created deep slits in their abdomens, heads, and any other visible tissue.

I heard Crystal scream twice. I turned to watch an Interceptor manage to morph onto two legs and plant its teeth into Crystal’s shoulder. Jagged gray rocks broke her skin. This infuriated her brother. He had an intense, insane killing spree. He attacked the mass of bodies ahead of him, taking off hundreds of heads in a matter of minutes.

Crystal screamed again, another bite, and she staggered back. Her position was putting her at the risk of a potential fatality. She was still under the crack of spilling ink. When she fell into the overflow, Vesper abandoned his post fighting with me, and ran to her. He lifted and set her down to the side, then replaced her spot under the gates. His arms strongly moved with a sword in his fist, mirroring Caspian. He personally killed the one that injured Crystal. My distraction caused me to receive a bone in my throat.

I was looking at the stubby limbs of an Interceptor in mid morph.  I brought my sword down and sliced it in half, carrying my sword through its skull, torso, and tail. It vanished on the first try, and I looked at the portal as more Interceptors formed from the black ink dripping from the opening in the sky.

My motives were ever changing, but I figured this was the place to stay until it cleared up enough to reach the bar. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the building and curiosity made me wonder why it was empty.

“Caspian!” I screamed over the uproar.

“Yes, Scarlett?” He grunted, swinging with each word.

“Tauro? What’s happening with him?”

“He’s not here. He opened the gates and fled. Coward. It failed, but at least we’re not fighting Demons in human form. Although, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that he’s managed to open the gateway. We’ve been fighting for almost an hour. We’ve got some dead hunters on the pavilion. Right now, we’re trying to keep the Interceptors contained, but their ringleader has vanished.”

He answered me curtly and went back to slaying.

“My theory is that he’s waiting for something, someone, or maybe the right time to fight back. Celtic is with Macy healing as many as he can before they almost pass. He cannot violate his laws as a Reaper to bring back the dead, but he can save them before they’re gone.”

“Willow?” I asked, pulling the skull from an Interceptor’s body with my bare hands. The ink on my skin stained quickly.

“She was here fighting with us; she’s planning to sacrifice her potential mortality to rid of him. She and Celtic attempted to keep the portal closed, but they don’t have enough power to shut it. No amount of Reapers can shut it immediately. Whatever Tauro has done is powerful, and it’s tied to him and the item. And he’s nowhere to be found.”

Time was still, the fight currently consuming our lives was unbelievable. We all fought, desperate for a short chance to breathe. The black shimmer that formed under the crack resembled another piece of the gateway, but it was Celtic. I couldn’t decide what was more important for him, saving lives on the pavilion to prevent more injuries from occurring or helping in medical. Either way, I was grateful for his presence.

Celtic hurried over to the end of the bridge, his body hovering as it always did. His spirit was full of anger and strength versus Willow’s graceful, wise one. He wore a cloak tonight, and when his hands lifted up to the crack, his bony arms were revealed under the sleeves. His hood was thrown back and his hair was down.  

A shadowy force protruded out of his hands, pushing back the Interceptors on the bridge. It slowed them down and paralyzed their movement. Caspian went into the horde, killing them while they were being held captive. It was like they were frozen. Crystal joined her brother, battling against her wounds. Alice fought by their side, leaving me to assume that Zeldyn was one of those on the roof. I hadn’t seen her all night, Alex had also been M.I.A. I looked at Celtic, who held back the Interceptors with strain. Color drained from his face.

The amount of beasts decreased, despite the crack, which created more Interceptors. Willow must have taken his place with the injured. My brother pushed himself into the swarm, and I followed, ignoring the sharp sensation that ran up my ankle. Even with Celtic’s powers, the beasts were beginning to regain movement. We hacked and killed as many as possible.

Minutes passed until I heard my brother’s groan. He was pinned under two Interceptors after being trampled. His arm rose in the air, fingers curling in. The scream that developed in my stomach was stuck. Interceptors clawed at his face until my brother rolled over on his side, blood pouring from his mouth.

I charged, multiple Interceptor claws dug in my skin as I ran to him and forced my sword into one’s stomach. It backed away from my brother and ran at me, I saw Caspian in the corner of my eye, avenging Sebastian’s attacker and carrying my brother away. I slammed my uninjured foot into the side of an Interceptor’s skull. My sword swung down rapidly, bone fragments flying in the air until it vanished. I screamed again, calling for Sebastian and running after him and his rescuer.

Caspian placed Sebastian at the beginning of the bridge, his back braced against one of the pillars. My brother’s face was slashed. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth all connected by tearing skin. Caspian was consoling him and I fell over his body weeping. The ground vibrated under us. Celtic’s face contorted in a pain I didn’t know Reapers could feel. His hands shook furiously as he held back the barrier containing the beasts.

“Get off!” Celtic screamed at Alice, Crystal, and Vesper.

“Remove yourself from the bridge now!” Celtic yelled, his hands lowering against his will. The three ran off, getting bit by Interceptors as they escaped. All three were covered in blood streaming from various places.

Moments later, the bridge’s support fell into the river, bricks and Interceptors impacting the watery abyss. The Interceptors flailed to the edge and quickly crawled over the stone to get back into the pavilion. The waterfall of ink pouring from the crack was now draining into the water. It turned pitch black, until it filled with Interceptors. They were trampling over each other to get on land; some didn’t survive and turned into ash. The bridge collapsed with a loud thud from stones falling in and killing a large number of Interceptors. There was space between where we stood and the land across the water. The crack hovered in the middle.

I left my sword on the bridge, which was now gone. Caspian still held my brother, who grunted noises of pain. Alice held his arm, while Crystal and Vesper stood guard in front of them. My head was resting on Sebastian’s chest, feeling the shallow, troubled breaths he inhaled. I needed to get a weapon, I was defenseless. Running past Crystal and Vesper, I went back onto the field and searched the ground frantically for a sword. More hunters ran over to the old bridge’s ledge to attack the new Interceptors.

I swiped a sword off the ground and returned to my brother. I told Caspian and Vesper that he needed to be moved. Caspian’s eyes wavered, before grabbing Sebastian under his arms. Crystal gestured for Alice to run ahead with her, clearing a path to where all the other injured hunters were being taken. I held my sword high as Vesper assisted Caspian with carrying Sebastian, all of us sticking to the edges of the pavilion to avoid trouble. I rammed my body and sword into every passing Interceptor that stepped in our path. Two more hunters Caspian knew kept guard behind us as we jogged.

A black nail encircled my other foot. It was an Interceptor’s claw holding me tight and pulling me down. Vesper and Caspian faltered, but I gestured for them to continue. My brother was in trouble. I scrambled for the small knife on my belt, but the Interceptor had already extended ten long claws into the surface of my stomach and chest, ripping it open.

I continuously shoved my knife into it, enduring the soreness in my arm. It turned into dust above me and vanished, the ash drifting down my throat. I stayed on the ground with my body flat against the surface. My lungs took in slow breaths before I had to get up and prepare myself to fight.

To my left, there was a woman being dragged away. Her side was torn open and her organs poured out as she held a hand over them, sobbing. Her face was still intact as she held pieces of her body in her hands. I bit my lip, tasting blood go down my throat.

To my right, a dying boy swallowed blood and air mixing in his throat. His arms reached out for clean air, which he couldn’t take in. A set of claws dug holes into his cheek and he was forced to succumb to human misery.

Blood and bile gargled in his mouth, a sickening smell that wafted into the air. Tears fell as I watched him. He spasmed uncontrollably, while unintentionally swallowing the mess in his mouth. He became still before I could put him out of his misery. I had never killed a person, but I assumed it was less inhumane than watching one be tortured to death. The Interceptor that abandoned him had surely punctured his lungs, causing blood to replace the air. Almost immediately after his movement stopped, a hunter a few feet away with a face full of tears had decapitated the Interceptor. It was the one that blocked him from reaching the boy.

I sprang up, my was brain too dead to function. I stumbled to where I saw Caspian and Vesper go. My head throbbed from the traumatic unexpected stop. The battle in front of me was a surreal reality. I simply walked, too numb to feel, around the corner the hunters went behind. It led to a broken building past a blockade that had been destroyed.

It was a large house with broken windows covered by boards. Hunters rested on the ground in rows. Macy and many others tended to them with bandages and Reaper’s silk. The groans and yells turned into soft moans with an occasional outburst every few moments.

My brother was on his side, his head on a pillow as a doctor poured yellow liquid onto his face. I cringed at every scream he created. There was a hollow pit in my stomach. I sat on my knees by his side, and took the pain his hands transferred into mine.

Tears silently fell from my eyes. His breaths finally softened and his eyes closed, ready to embrace a sleepy passage. Moments passed by as I waited. Caspian came over to me after putting his own sister in a medical slot to be examined.

“I love you, Sebastian.”

Only a soft mumble came from him.

“I’m going back out.” I spoke with finality to the male twin.

“I can’t stop you, but do something as stupid as letting yourself get killed and I’ll bring you back from the dead and kill you myself. Sebastian can’t wake up to his sister’s demise.” He eyed me cautiously.

I reflected on his words and nodded. “I have too many people I love to let myself get killed. What you did for Crystal on the bridge was brave. The anger you felt when she was attacked is the same feeling rising within me right now for Sebastian.”

I stood up, masking the pain in my ankle and giving Caspian’s shoulder a brief squeeze. I ran out of the building and its piles of rubble.

“Your ankle.” Vesper growled from behind me, once again on my trail. “Blood is leaking from your stomach like a drain. Stay here, and stop being stupid. Scarlett!”

“My brother.” I retaliated. “You said you would fight with me. Do it or don’t.” I stated, and ran back to the pavilion.

The gates showed no sign of closing. Willow was still missing and the hunters continued the war. The female Reaper wasn’t in the medical center either. Celtic was casting sparks from his hand and unleashing them upon Interceptors, killing them quickly.

An odd feeling occurred within my body; the kind felt when I fought alongside Vesper, Alice, or my brother. Thin and thick swords stabbed in every which direction. Butterfly knives and axes did the same, along with the silent sound of powerful arrows coming down. The shooters were careful enough not to kill their own, but precise enough to slow down an Interceptor. All of this action occurred in this very spot, a simple cobblestone street near shops and a bridge. I kept my place by a building corner, looking for the right spot to jump back in.

“Agh!” A familiar voice cried out in pain. I turned to see Nico flying onto his back after being punched in the jaw from an Interceptor’s arm. Amber slammed into his attacker, causing it to stagger back a step. Alice ran by to help the couple. They were circling it now. Amber was throwing daggers into the side of its skull.

I prepared to run, but Vesper’s hand grabbed my shoulder, which forced me to look to the side. Emma was protecting a body while Vince kept six Interceptors away from her.

“Emma!” I yelled out, but Vesper silenced me. He pointed at two running bodies, who were my father and the girl with the ax who had just lost her sister.

Another four Interceptors bombarded the couple.

Vesper was speeding in that direction before my mind told my feet to move. My legs carried me at an impossible speed. I almost ran into two bodies that were entangled in a wrestling hold. A hand from one clasped around my ankle again and pulled me down. My face slammed against stone and I covered my mouth with a hand to protect my teeth. It was a hunter who held me, apologizing and begging for help.

His eyes were a glossy white and his teeth stained red. He attempted to stay alive despite the talons in his heart. His butchered wrist was perched on top of his chest. He pulled his other hand on top of the mangled one and accepted death. I closed his eyes.

I bolted, stifling a scream. I approached the couple and Vesper. Nico had pulled himself up already, holding his leg in pain as he stood. I joined Amber, who was examining the pavilion and looking for the chance to pull her boyfriend into safety. Vesper helped.

Amber Lynn was frantically motioning at Vesper, indicating where to drag him. Her whisper was uneasy.  

More waves of terror struck, I ran past an Interceptor that was heading for Amber, Nico, and Ves. I kicked it in its back, causing it to almost fall over. My sweaty palms clutched onto the only two daggers I had left, which were now flying through the air and into its neck. It caught it off guard. I’d have to thank Alex tremendously for the extra training. Emma yelled and raised a hand. She and Vince finished off the battle they had in the corner, and someone took the body to medical. Everyone froze and more silent arrows pierced the Interceptors’ backs. They came down in a diagonal line. This ended up forcing my Interceptor flat onto its stomach.

I already imagined Zeldyn, the warrior girl, smirking on the roof and admiring her shooting skills. I ran forward and jumped on its head with both feet, producing a crunching noise. Its disappearance completed and I grabbed a longer knife off the ground.

Another Interceptor approached, just as my two friends moved Nico out of the way. I was already hacking away raw pieces of its back while it clawed out at the cobblestones in front of it.

Some hunters had the brilliant idea of killing the Interceptors in their ink form by the water, before they took their shape. It worked, although, their position by the bridge was extremely dangerous. A few slashes through the unproduced Demons resulted in them turning into ash. My father was one of the hunters assisting.

Whish. A massive force was falling from the sky above the pavilion, dropping down from a height higher than all of the buildings. It was a black swirling ball, speeding down at an incredible rate. I couldn’t handle another gateway, portal entrance, or Interceptor invasion. I couldn’t. I began to tear up, whispering curses under my breath.

Panic encouraged my body to run for it, despite how unsure I felt. Hunters continued their fight, but couldn’t help their eyes naturally wandering as they stared into the sky above.

Vesper’s harsh whisper caught my attention. He stood a few feet behind me, ushering me back. The noise also grabbed the attention of a few Interceptors, causing them to slither this way. Hordes of hunters were fighting faster. They were pushing their way to the outer edges of the pavilion to avoid the force that was about to come crashing down onto everything. I realized I needed to get away from the center before the force came down. Interceptors created a barricade between the pavilion’s perimeter and the center. I was swinging and slashing at cartilage and flesh from the beasts crawling our way. Five were already vanishing since Vesper and I were working against them. The kills were silent. The hunters made no sound as they fought, they were too fascinated with the force. The beasts coming out of the water counteracted this. They were very loud.

Every creature writhed in pain, flailing around like a snake soaked in gasoline and flames. They screeched in the dark night as the ball of black came closer to the ground. Creatures broke their necks to look in the direction; some of them turned their heads like owls and scurried over to the commotion. The shine of swords under the moonlight and swift movement of hunters was all that could be seen.

A wave was coming; a low tide of black, translucent skeletons ran towards the center of the pavilion as the force grew larger in the sky. Instincts made me run away, and I was relieved to see the others do the same in my peripheral. My hand grabbed Vesper’s and headed to the buildings on the side.

The sound was deafening, a screeching squeal that invaded my eardrums. The impact was colossal, partially blinding my eyes with dust. The entire ground felt as if it had caved in. Vesper and I weren’t far enough. The cobblestones sunk beneath us. When I was able to open my lids, I saw an enormous crater in the middle of the pavilion. It was unbelievable, though I was witnessing it.  The depth and width of the hole created a pit, a pit so large that if anyone fell into it, they would be dead from the impact or trauma.

I crawled over to the edge faster, ignoring the smashed Interceptors that had been crushed by the force. The remaining fell into the hole.

My movement attracted the attention of an Interceptor to my left with a cracked spine. A loner. Vesper was on my right, he was a decent amount of feet away and he struggled to pull himself up. I ended up pulling out my knife and stabbing it into the lower spinal region of the creature. I yanked upwards and navigated my blade through a maze of bones and up to its skull. Its claws scratched my legs, causing red scrapes to appear. It moved upwards, creating identical scrapes on my thighs. Thick blood surfaced on my skin.

I kicked it over, struggling to pull myself up and straddle its belly. I resisted the urge to vomit as my knees sank through its bodily flesh and hit the ground. I drew back my arm again and stabbed it directly in a soft spot. My knife found its throat, the metal hastily pulling down to the tip of its tail.

It screeched louder, making me wait until it turned into unwanted dust; but it regrew all its organs and reformed. A look to my right revealed my father and Vesper tag teaming another Interceptor. Creatures were being beheaded by more hunters with swords. The heads traveled across the sky and turned into dust mid-air. Past the numb squeal in my ears, I heard the sweet, rich crackling sounds of bones being disarranged and broken. It was a victory, knowing they were the bones of an enemy. Leaders quickly sliced up more beasts. I was on my own for this fight, and needed to pull through the pain to get it over with.

I kneeled against the ground, stabbing both of its eyes out. Ink poured down its jagged teeth. I placed my hands on both sides of the creature’s head and violently shook it off, twisting until its neck bone snapped. It fell limp and then there was dust.

The wave had been addressed in minutes. All of the Interceptors vacated to the crater. The black force was now rising from the pit, and hovering in the air. There were two bodies, the squealing noise getting louder as they arose. I squinted at the glow they created. A glimpse of white hair flowed from the head of one delicate body. I forced my eyes open to look at the form of a woman fighting a dark shadow. It was Tauro and the Arrow’s leader, Willow.

The Interceptors formed a cult circle below the two, their glowing veins burned in synchronization with the others. Pairs of black, gold, and red eyes painted the black night canvas. The bodies were clashing against each other in the air.

My head fell back onto the pavement. I was too shocked and paralyzed to move. A thud by my temple got my attention. Before my fingers clenched onto my sword, red blood poured out of my neck, wetting the skin over my collarbone. Claws dug a flesh wound into my jaw, succeeding in pushing my head back further into the ground. My back felt bruised. More blood poured out and I choked.

Vesper’s movement was beside me. A blade came down on my attacker, creating a clean cut through his throat. The Interceptor’s head fell against my forehead. The last thing I saw was one of the Demons, the woman, falling from the sky and into the pit again. It looked as if her throat had been slit. The man turned into a black shadow and disappeared. A huge gust of wind swept away all of the Interceptors that were in the pavilion. I looked for pockets of air, the taste of blood staining my mouth and teeth. My head fell to the side, the river was now the blue as it used to be, the sky now a misty gray. Then the crack was gone, along with all of the ink and Interceptors it produced.

My ears were numb with the sound of Vesper’s rugged voice speaking over the commotion. I felt his chest on my side. I was crying, I think. I wasn’t really sure. Buildings and streets swayed in front of me as Vesper ran.

“Thank you, Vesper.” I gurgled and accepted the quiet city night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

Hey pretty girl, it happened again. I feel slightly disappointed because it’s been awhile since you mentally left. You were doing so well. You blacked out in the car, but kept coming back, like your body was trying to fight leaving. I hope this is a good sign. Except you’re really confused about your mom, sometimes you think she divorced your dad, left, or is on a work trip and still married. The Interceptors keep growing back as a sign of your recurring problems.

At the table, you were lost. There was no getting you back. Your nose started bleeding and Ava started worrying about you and said to call an ambulance. Your father and I had to play it off. We told them that the hospital said this might happen after you left and that your sleep patterns were just off. Bullshit, I know. Chris paid for the bill and we all left. Macy questioned the situation.

For once, I think that I was happy my mom didn’t like you. I say that with a smile because she didn’t seem to care. The woman’s crazy, I tell you. She just kept eating her steak with no questions. I didn’t mind because that was less answers I had to give her. We split up when we got back and I came over when my mom fell asleep. However, Macy and Chris were arguing when I stopped by.

I hope you like my gift. You were twirling it in your sleep.

By the way, I think I may be jealous. You kissed Alexander in your dream land. You kept talking in your sleep, a lot. Apparently he kept helping you learn how to defend yourself and then you both kissed before running into a battle, I think. It was the battle that would destroy Tauro and the Death figures.

Is it crazy that I’m envious of a fictional character?

You don’t know it, but I’m laughing nervously.

Oh yeah, Caspian. He reminds me of someone and I think I made a new connection. He has a twin sister right? And they’re both great people in general? They’re a little tough, but caring. I think he’s that Cole guy you met when you first started dating. I know you remember him. He seems like a constant.

The reason he is not represented by Alex is because I don’t think he will change. He is like the Death figures and the issue, there to stay. I say Cole, because he did have a twin sister and you liked him a lot. You guys watched the stars together and sang music as you walked down the street during the middle of the night. His sister was friendly too. He was like a mentor or an elder reincarnated into a younger body.

If I’m right, then the only ones left I don’t understand are Zeldyn, Amber, and Nico.

Scratch that. No actually, I do think I understand. Every time you address Nico and Amber, you address them as a pair. They’re inseparable and seem to lack any in depth characteristics. You don’t talk to them much and barely interact with them. So, I think they’re a symbol of undying love.

I know, it sounds cheesy, and maybe I only say it because you’ve had me feeling all sorts of ways lately. But it’s not a bad theory. I’m going to wrap this up now. I’ve been debating reading to you in your sleep, but unsure if it would help.

 

Update:

 

Macy hasn’t been over and Chris seems down. And you’ve been asleep for almost a day now. It’s terrifying, Scar. It’s not as bad as when you were missing, but it’s still questionable. What big thing is going on in your mind? Is it the battle?

I’m trying to piece together what you mutter in your sleep. My jealously has faded since you mumbled something about me saving you. I’m glad I can be heroic in that world. Now if only I can figure out the truth over here. From what you’ve said, I assume a big battle is over because I heard you say something about Willow fighting the Demon and the portal being temporarily closed. Soon, she will sacrifice herself to a job.

Since Willow represents the desire to live, and the watch represents a desire to not waste time, Willow destroying Tauro and the watch is a metaphor. Your need to live and utilize your days was prevented by Tauro, and after he is destroyed, you can continue to live. The same goes for the other two triplets. Until all the Demons and the watch are destroyed, you’re losing time in your life because of them.

You kept coughing at one point and said Willow was hurt. If my earlier theory is correct, does that mean that even the heroes take a heavy toll when conquering evil?

It would be very helpful if you read this and at least told me whether I am right or not. Also, your dad’s been discussing another MRI.

Ava will be stomping over here eventually, so I need to keep this short. Hope you wake up soon.

 

Yours truly, Vesper

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Breath that wasn’t my own invaded my throat. My hands clawed at the rough bandages around my chest, stomach, thighs, and ankle. A hot liquid was plastered over certain parts of my body, and when I opened my eyes, Alexander was above me. His lips were pressed against mine for a medical purpose, not pleasure. I was on the ground near the corner of the temporary medical building. Bodies ran around urgently, holding medical supplies and bottles of water.

Through the boarded windows, I saw darkness. It felt like no time had passed from the beginning of the night. Morning had yet to come. I squinted, feeling uncomfortable as Alex breathed into my mouth. His hands were placed against the sides of my head to hold me still. I inhaled through my nose and he found my eyes. I wondered how long he had been doing that. I couldn’t be weirded out because I could barely breathe.

“Scarlett.” He assisted me with sitting against the surface. As soon as he let go, I managed to inhale the air that scraped against my throat.

There were fewer bodies than before, the room only held about forty injured people.

“Can you breathe? Are you alright?”

“Yes, thank you. Did Willow perform her sacrifice? What happened? Where is everyone? Are you alright?”

“No, but she is okay. Celtic can explain things better and he will. A lot of hunters have returned to the Arrow with reduced injuries. They’re properly taking care of the bodies in the morning. Celtic and Willow have healed hundreds already; they’re back in original condition, no pain. Now, we all need to emotionally heal.”

“How many are dead?” I asked.

“Nine.”

“They’re being buried in the morning? When is that? What time is it?”
“It’s four in the morning.”

“My brother!” I shot up with alarm, blood staining my bandages.

“He has been moved to the Arrow for recovery.”

“What about the city?” I asked.

“Many people in this area are still staying barricaded inside. Celtic is fixing the damage to make it look like a storm. He’s doing so after the burials.”

I paused, absorbing his answers. Silence hovered inside of the building as more people were moved out and taken to the Arrow.

“I told you about both us not fighting to our deaths. Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t.” I admitted. “I was attacked, I didn’t see it happening. Vesper saved me.”

My eyes looked around instinctively for my father and friends.

“Alice and Zeldyn are at the Arrow.” He comforted me.

I saw my father with Macy in the corner opposite of mine, helping her move a hunter. I caught Vesper’s glance, his body was slumped against a wall. He was alone and watching Alex and me. Glints of green and hazel irises observed me, and I automatically felt ashamed for reasons I had still yet to figure out. His eyes were small slits, wavering back and forth on me or Alex, until he cast his view elsewhere.

“Thank you again, Alex.” I struggled to stand.

“Where are you going?” He questioned as I pulled myself onto my feet, and walked across the room. Tattered clothes hung from my body. It took all of my strength to kneel in front of my friend and grab his hand.

“Are you alright?” I asked and he simply nodded.

“Can we go home?” I asked again, holding back the fear in my voice. “Please? Can we go home?”

He nodded once more and stood, walking by my side and out of the building. My whole mind felt tainted, but I needed my best friend for comfort because he was who I knew best. My body was a wreck. Every limb burned with movement as we climbed over broken sidewalks. My emotions were on hold. There were too many to experience just one, so instead, I chose to experience nothing.

I could never imagine D.C as an apocalyptic city, but the streets surrounding the bar looked like one. The sidewalks were so damaged that we walked in the middle of the road. Cars were overturned and the majority of building tops was missing. The grounds were littered with rubble and piles of bricks, so we curved off the makeshift path every so often.

“We should go to the Arrow for the burial.” Vesper said, breaking our silence as we rounded the street hosting our homes.

“Okay.” I answered.

“You’re hurt.” He muttered.

“Who isn’t Vesper?” I answered.

He cast a sideways look at me.

“My apologies.” I said. “It’s just so much.” I wailed. “You’re hurt too.”

“Do you think this will end?” His voice was a whisper in the night.

“It will.” I answered.

“Remember what you said to me in the pizzeria many nights ago?”

“Yes.”

“Would you have ever guessed that all of this would have happened?

“No.” I answered truthfully.

“How did anyone not see this commotion?” I questioned. “No one saw this?”

“Celtic explained it in a lesson at the Arrow with Amber Lynn. Reapers can cast domes similar to the one protecting the Arrow. Unless one discovers the dome through another who knows about it, they stay hidden from oblivious strangers. These domes hide battles when they can’t be covered up. The storm was one distraction, Tauro’s, but if anyone were to look into that pavilion tonight, they wouldn’t see a thing. Celtic wiped the memories of those in the shops. Others could feel it, maybe. They could sense the forces around them, but they’re blind to them.  Celtic and Willow’s cloaks work the same way, but most of the time they do not mind being visible. They use their cloaks for battle, or collecting those when they die.”

We reached my home and I barged in. Vesper quickly followed behind me. He was either not ready or didn’t care enough to explain his absence to his mother. I waited as he showered, fumbling around my room for clean clothes and a way to rid my memories from the past couple of hours. I went into the kitchen and gulped down the beautiful taste of water. I never truly savored the flavor of leftover sandwiches, but they were delicious at the moment. I trampled into the shower after Vesper emerged, borrowing clothes from my brother. He switched places with me in the kitchen and revived.

Dark taunts rang in my head as I showered. I envisioned images of Tauro and how powerful he is alongside his brothers. I saw the cruel visuals of what he did to the Arrow tonight. Theodore was the oldest, but apparently Tauro possessed strength while Tayden possessed intelligence. Regardless, tonight he failed himself and his brothers, but not without causing casualties for our people.

I carefully washed the talon holes that marked my skin, and wrapped my bandages after I got out of the shower.  My breaths were short and ragged as I remembered my loss of blood. I managed to stumble into my room and get dressed, gladly accepting Vesper’s assistance to his car. We drove off, occasionally driving on grass and back roads to avoid the street damage. The sun still hadn’t come up. All of this chaos occurred in one, single night. We drove through the city until we arrived at the Arrow.

I tuned out Celtic’s voice and the speech he made. The entire Arrow was assembled in front of the lake; bodies were now healed and energized with the help of Reaper powers. Although, that didn’t remove the misery surrounding the grounds. I stood by Vesper, steering clear of Alice and my father. They were no longer covered in dirt and blood, but instead standing tall on the Arrow’s grounds.

Snippets of the speech were all I could hear, pieces about how Willow is pursuing Tauro. He gave thanks and appreciation to hunters who battled tonight and mourned for those who passed. He continued to explain how he would be departing soon to take care of the damage that looked unnatural, and how tonight was a failure at Tauro’s end. He explained that the gates failed to open with true form Demons, and instead, opened with Interceptors. He reassured that he wouldn’t be able to open them anytime soon given the amount of energy and souls he used to open it this time. He gathered an army tonight, but Tauro will be alone the next time he is confronted.

He spoke about Willow and how she would be gone finding Tauro and a way to destroy the item he used to open the gates. Celtic elaborated that Tauro was a coward knowing that he was tied to the gates and by leaving, left a death trap for the Arrow’s hunters. The gateway only closed because Willow tracked him down and brought him back to diminish his energy in a fight.

I stopped listening for a while.

I tuned back in when Celtic grabbed nine pouches from his cloak. It was the first time I looked up to him since we all stood around the fire. He spoke about honorable thanks, and gave our condolences to the dead souls in his pocket. For every name he called out, those who knew the person would come up to tell stories and say goodbye. Tears were shed and the ceremony was over in an hour. Many stayed and held each other, others left to go to their rooms, and some distracted themselves with work or practice.

As soon as the ceremony was over, I ran into the lodge and searched for my brother. He was on the fourth bed near the space on the left side of the hospital wing. The room stretched all the way to the far back, but few bodies were in the beds. Considering Celtic and Willow’s abilities, I could understand why. I fell over my brother who smiled weakly and laughed.

“I feel wonderful. Celtic and Willow came through here and hunters were on their feet in minutes and off to the burial. I wish they could have done the same for your coma, but there’s laws preventing them altering certain states of consciousness.”

My hands glided over his face with wonder and sadness, barely hearing his words. Celtic healed the worst of the wounds, and now only a few minor ones were scattered over his face from the claws. His blue eyes were still vibrant against his complexion. His skin was bumpy and rough on the areas where scarring would begin. I planted kisses all over his face and watched him laugh louder.

“I’m happy you are all alright.”

“I am too, that you’re okay.” He spoke. “You defiant, little girl.”

“Alex and I were at the Arrow when I heard about the ‘storm.’”

Crystal and Caspian appeared in the doorway, smiling in unison and looking at my brother. It was weird seeing Crystal smile. He squeezed my hand and I kissed him goodbye on the forehead.

Caspian and Crystal spoke about high honor and fighting with both of us, before I left.

“You don’t have to stay here.” Crystal said to Sebastian.

“I know, but the beds are so comfortable. They’re perfect for sleep.” He chuckled and both of the twins laughed. It was funny due to his delirium, rather than him being hilarious or ironic.

When I walked through the lodge and back to the lake, Vesper was backed against a tree. His arms balanced on his knees while he stared out at the water. The pouches that had burst over the lake’s waves just moments ago were gone.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked him again.

“We can all ask if we’re okay and we can all say that we are, but are we really? I’m not, Scarlett. I know you’re not either. Maybe we should start asking if we’re alive, since that’s what matters doesn’t it? Is the notion that you’re alive amongst others better than suffering from sorrow when you’re alone?”

“Yes, because feeling alone is miserable. You need to have reassurance that one day, you’ll be content and happy. One day you’ll be okay, then sad again, and then okay once more. Alice is a prime example.”

“Don’t act like she isn’t any different.” He spoke. “She’s more devoted to the Arrow than you. I was pretty convinced that I would be losing you to this place, not her.”

“But she’s happy. She has Zeldyn.”

“And your father?”

“He has changed, but it’s for the better. Even if I feel hurt, I will gladly be alone if it means that those who I love are happy. My dad has found his strength with Macy.”

“And if I leave you?” He asked.

I hesitated, carefully choosing my answer. “I would be happy as long as you were, but I’m hoping that you never would.”

“I wouldn’t, because it means that I would not be happy.”

His face was grim as he spoke, but I felt lighter.

Celtic hovered by water, lingering over the deaths he had collected. A long nail from his right finger carved a full name as well as a birth and death time into his arm. It bled, before vanishing. Only his smooth skin was left. He explained to us that words written on a Reaper’s skin immediately transferred into the universal book.

“Goodbye, I’m leaving. I shall be back.” The Reaper said this to no one in particular.

“May I go?” I asked, looking at him.

“You want to accompany me?” He asked. His words sounded surprised, but his face was as flat as Vesper’s.

“Yes.” I spoke. “May I? Your powers are fascinating. I need a distraction.” I commented.

“You may. I planned on teleporting there, if that’s okay. It’s frowned upon by our kind to teleport with humans, but considering the circumstances, the rules have changed.

“It’s more than okay.”

I looked at Vesper, who watched us out the corner of his eye.

“May I?” I asked him, not wanting to abandon him after I traveled with the Reaper.

“I don’t mind.” He spoke. I’ll be back home by noon. I’ll probably argue with my mother for a bit and then meet you. Is that okay?”

“Yes, thank you. Please, make peace with her.”

I limped over to Celtic, who eyed my leg.

“I’ve healed many hunters already. I can’t let you go with me in that condition.”

His thin fingers grasped my shoulders. I felt a small amount of pressure against my skin and it stitched itself together. I cringed at the familiar feeling on my ankle, stomach, and throat. It felt like a new layer of flesh had merged with the damaged pieces.

A fresh sensation resided in my body. It was strong, until Celtic let go. I took in a breath, letting the world of fighting and hatred slip away from me. He placed both of his hands on my neck and his eyes glared into mine. The idea of my body slipping away from reality was all I could imagine. It felt like I was being pixelated into little fragments of air. My surroundings blurred around me. Celtic was hovering and I felt like light particles in the air. My vision went black, and then instantaneously, we were standing in front of the bar. The bridge was destroyed and the crater was still visible.

“We’ll start here.” Celtic spoke, and I obediently followed him to the bridge, observing the Death God.

“I must reconstruct the bridge because no storm could bring down such a huge structure.”

My body was still reeling from traveling by transportation.

He explained other concepts to me, but his hands were already moving quickly. A dark dome enveloped the space over the bridge. White stones started to elevate above the water. The event of the bridge collapsing played in reverse right before my eyes. Large bricks connected themselves together, starting on the far left end, until every stone was lifted up from their submerged spots in the river. They fit into their designated places like puzzle pieces. In moments, the bridge was rebuilt.

“It’s safe?” I asked, amazed.

“Reapers have built many wonders.” He commented. “Yes, it’s safe. It was necessary that it was torn down during battle to slow down the Interceptors. There’s no need for it to stay down now.”

He was walking again at his slow brisk pace, ignoring the approaching sun that would soon declare the early morning. I watched every movement and every word that left his lips. He was a mystery to me. Willow was too.

“I should hurry, but I tire. I consumed a lot of energy while I was creating the force earlier. We’ll need to work in the shadows.” He said.

A black fabric outlined his body in the air, and a cloak appeared around him. They covered the vest and dress pants he wore before for the ceremony. His hair was still down. He touched my arm, the black outline weaving onto my body to give me a cloak of my very own. I pulled the hood over my head as he did, and felt the strange material with interest.

“These are like the domes.” I noticed. “That’s astonishing.”

“Yes.”

I couldn’t imagine being invisible to the world. We were two nonexistent physical bodies from the power of a Reaper’s device. One was human and one was not.

Following Celtic through the streets, I watched his hands build apartments and fix major holes in the pavement. He left a few broken phone lines and rubble. It was all staged. He filled up the crater Willow and Tauro created by turning all the rocks into molten stone and pouring it into the hole. His actions left me with questions. I started to ask him something while he carved the old designs into the stones.

“Celtic, if I may, can I ask how you became a Grim?”

“I was born in 1901, New York. I loved a woman who was very beautiful, absolutely intriguing. She passed away after a late night store robbery in the city. I couldn’t live without her and readied to rid myself from the world after her death. My family had died of a virus a few years prior and I was alone. She was five months pregnant with our child; her attacker took our baby with her.”

“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” My heart sunk.

“I have wept for many years. I no longer have the ability or emotion to do so anymore, I am content with my past.”

“So you’re fairly new to this body and your world. What happened?”

“Only a century and a few years old, yes. A cloaked figure appeared before me and my dear, deceased wife. My hand was frozen with a gun to my temple. It was a woman who was very pale. She held my eyes, seemingly surprised that I could see her. It was because I was close to death; my soul was vulnerable to other presences. At least, that is how she explained her visibility to me.

Her work continued, and I watched with fear as she turned my lover into ashes as I screamed out. I asked the hidden figure if she could take away my pain, and she told me yes, but at a price. I was delirious, talking to strangers in the form of magic.

She promised me that she could take away the hurt. She said when I thought about my wife, I could do so and only think about good nostalgia. She said that I would feel nothing else, but bliss. She promised me an eternity, health against the timely diseases that passed through bodies back then. She promised me that I could avenge my attacker. I said yes. The next moment consisted of pain. My body was on fire, reforming from the making of ashes. I felt powerful immediately. When I asked her what she had done, she told me she had done what I asked. I realized once I turned fifty four that that there was something wrong with my age, appearance, immaculate health, and strength. She found me again and took me away from New York to tell me what I had become.”

“It was Willow.” I concluded. “She collected your wife and turned you into a Reaper to make you feel nothing.”

“Yes.” Celtic answered, walking down a deconstructed street and starting to clean up the trash.

“Isn’t it cruel?” I asked.

“At the time, yes. She was lonely. She had changed me for selfish reasons and I hated her for years. Reapers can change humans into Reapers under the correct circumstances. Demons in their old, human form, can change other humans into Demons. Interceptors or any animalistic forms lack any changing and turning ability.”

“Oh.”

“Willow was born in 1829, right here in the capitol. Her family was murdered by the very Demon we hunt today. It happened during the rebellion years with the triplets. Tauro forced her to watch him take away her family in one of his ploys. He made it a construction accident, crushing them and many others as they walked by. Willow was gathering an army of newly turned Reapers, strong and ready to take on the triplets without question; but they were not too happy about their new state.

Before she could act, the deadly seven killed the rebellion plans and locked up the triplets, closing the gates in the process as you know. After that, Willow stayed here, tearing down the home her family lived in and building the Arrow over it. The cottage she stays in at the Arrow was her bedroom, remodeled. She’s fought against the Demons since the beginning of her life as a Grim. I’ve known her since. She’s been apologizing to those she has turned.”

“Willow.” I whispered. “You.” I spoke with pity.

“Things happen, people move on,” was all he said, solitude in his words. “Since only Interceptors show on Earth, they can no longer turn people. We Reapers have the ability, but not the need to.”

“You know when death will occur.” I stated.

“Minutes before, yes. I appear and take them away silently. The time and location call my being towards the soul, and then I sense my direction towards the lost.

“Never sooner?”

“Often, yes, hours, days, years. Even some war deaths can be foreseen.”

“And you cannot tell them? Correct?”

“No, they will spend their time trying to alter their fate, some will. The altering doesn’t change their fate, I cannot be cheated.”

“What determines the amount of time in advance that you will know someone will die?” I questioned.

“My familiarity with them. When I look at the beautiful Willow, I see a black void over her head as she does with me. We will not die, ever, unless by choice. When a stranger dies in a place in the world that I am near, a name, time of death, and time of birth will appear in my mind. I must collect at least once a day or my strength lessens. I’m taken to that place when I create my portal to leave. When I pass a stranger on the streets, I may sometimes see their time of death hovering above them if their death will come soon. This is how the triplets exhibited their humor by choosing a pocket watch as the item since time is the power of a Reaper.”

“Isn’t that disturbing?” I questioned.

“Yes, but once I was accustomed, it became a habit to see humans and know when they will die.”

“What do you see when you look at me.” I asked, stopping in the road. He continued to walk.

“You know I cannot tell you.”

“Do you see a time?”

“A time only shows if the person is going to die soon. I cannot tell you what appears when I look at you.”

“What would happen if a Reaper did?” I decided to stop pushing my luck with his personal life and instead, generalize the questions.

“They could disintegrate, on the spot, and turn to ash.”

“So Reapers can die, no?”

“The ashes will be formed into a new Reaper, it is immediate reincarnation. This Reaper will lack the memory of their human life and those from the Reaper they were before. As for the person, they will not remember being told.”

The question of whether he had ever experienced that was unnecessary, given that he had just told me about his human life and he could recall it without hesitation.

“My apologies for asking so many questions.” I said quietly.

“I enjoy the curious company and conversation.”

That was my cue to continue letting my mind roam, absorbing the factual intellect that he fed me while witnessing his powers in front of my eyes.

“Willow,” I paused. “I’m so sorry, I had been so preoccupied with my friends’ safety. Is she alright? What happened?”

“As you know, Reapers do not die. The triplets have weakness because they are Demons, meaning they can eventually be rid of by the sacrifice of a Reaper. Tauro fled after opening the gateway, mostly from the shame of it failing. His success was opening them, but his failure was the Demons appearing as Interceptors, and not in human forms. They could only attempt to morph. Willow pursued him and he knows his life is in danger now, if she chooses to make her sacrifice to kill him.”

“Will she be okay with the sacrifice?”

“It will hurt her and that is rare. Reapers were created to feel no pain, emotion, or physical pleasure. They can still experience this during their early stages of immortality, but eventually it all diminishes. Willow’s sacrifice to rid of Tauro is the equality of her murdering him. She chased him as the Arrow fought last night, and eventually found him. She dragged him back to the pavilion and they caused the force that created the crater I just fixed. With him there, Willow managed to wound him enough to weaken him. By doing so, the gates closed and stopped our fight on the ground. He vanished, but not without slitting her throat. Even as strong as he is, she remained in perfect condition. If Interceptors can regenerate their own bodies, you can’t be naïve enough to think that Death lacks a power much more extreme.”  

“Celtic, if you don’t mind me asking, why does Tauro stay in Washington? If Tauro and his brothers, along with Reapers, are free to vanish where ever they please, why do they stay here? Why does he have a selective choosing on when he wants to vanish? He has the choice to escape at any time if need be.”

“He doesn’t. With the exception of Reapers, traveling through time and arriving at new places is difficult for Tauro and his brothers. They’re not meant to do it, given that they are Demons. Just like a sacrifice for a Reaper stresses and taints our invisible souls, traveling for Demons does the same, because it is not their place to do so. The times he has vanished during battle was because he was in a dire condition with a need to flee out of desperation.”

“Mm.”

“As for the reasons he stays here, just as Willow was, he was born in the capitol. Theodore is from Baltimore, but his ties with D.C and Tauro are so strong that they overpower the rule of birth occasionally and he can draw strength here. The two are closer to each other than with their second brother, Tayden. They have trained together and used the item to become stronger. Tayden was born in New York, as was I. That is why my powers are limited when I stay in Washington with Willow. With Tauro, Wrath makes him the strongest of the three, then Theodore, and finally Tayden. What you do not know is that a Demon or Reaper is strongest in the place they started life. Staying here provides strength to Willow and Tauro because they draw energy from their surroundings. They feed off where they were created, which is the reason why Tauro always returns. It’s also why Willow must match him and perform the sacrifice, and not me. Considering that he has wasted opening the gates this time, the only strength he has left to fight against us is his natural personality of Wrath, his home town, and the pocket watch he’s using for power and soul keeping. We’re going to trap him.”

“I understand now. How will you do this?”

“By using the power of creating a dome. The force I used to hold back the Interceptors invading the bridge can be recreated. It drains my power, but I am able to create the same one over the bar where Tauro and Willow will fight until she kills him. No human or Demon can enter or escape, until I let the dome down. Trapping him will minimize the damage he has caused. The reason that I could not create a dome last night was due to the gates being open. They interfered with my abilities and created an energy shortage within me.”

“Are any hunters joining this fight?”

Celtic furrowed his brow and turned a corner.

“Willow and I have much guilt due to last night’s battle. The deaths were losses we cannot replace.”

“But the hunters, it’s what they have chosen to do life.”

“There is no need to waste humans when she and I carry the power to fight against him.”

“The more help, the better. People can be saved, Interceptors might be there.”

“Not many, because the battle on the pavilion eliminated his army. A small group will be ambushing with Willow, four sections from the Arrow including Emma and Vince’s hunters. He is weaker; the damage should be controlled this time. There will be no deaths if the situation works out for the best.”

“Celtic, they said there were thousands of Reapers. Why are you and Willow the only ones we know who are fighting?”

“That is the sad story about our kind, they are neutral. Many believe that Willow and I show favoritism to the mundane world and do not do our jobs properly.  Plenty believe that what the triplets are doing is wrong, but they are too nonchalant to act. A portion of those who believe that, also think Reapers who communicate with mundanes are just as guilty as the triplets. Many Reapers have chosen to stay out of the cause, even if it involves killing another race. Considering they are the ones to reap what you all lose, it doesn’t affect them. They know that fighting against another type of our kind is impossible. We can’t win without a sacrifice, and they are not willing to commit to immortality. It takes away the hope of dying for them.”

He inhaled. “Also, many still hold terrible grudges against Willow, who turned them for the sake of getting revenge against Tauro.”

“That’s horrible.” I admitted. “Thank you, and Willow, for doing what you both do. For making some things fixable in our world and leaving us with some level of sanity.”

He nodded and halted, we both stood in front of my home and I had failed to notice he had walked us back. I looked behind me. The roads were broken, but not nearly as bad as they were before. It looked as if a storm had ruined some aspects of the city, but that was it.

“Oh.” I realized he had finished his work and was wishing me goodbye. “Thank you.” I waved goodbye as I ran up the steps to our apartment, only glancing back to see him vanish like tumbleweeds in the wind.

Ves was opening the door before I could extend my fingers towards it. He held a plate of marinated chicken, noodles, and herbs. His eyes watched me as we both stood in the doorway. He made me feel like a stranger in my own home. I passed him, grabbing the plate and lounging out on the sofa, feeling around for the remote with the tips of my socks. I wasn’t with Celtic long, but Vesper had already left the Arrow to come back.

“You cooked, thank you.”

“Mhm. We all deserve a good meal after all this.” He spoke.

“My brother, he is still at the Arrow?”

“Sebastian is sleeping in his room; I drove him back after he spent some time with the twins training, which was no surprise.

“He should take a break from fighting.”

“He could say the same for you.” He took up a spot on the floor by the couch, crossing his legs and leaning back against my knee.

“Do you ever think too much of a wonderful thing can eventually turn horrid?” I asked.

“Of course, that’s life.”

“Alice is with Zeldyn, and I lack the right to want her back here. I need to be content with knowing that I didn’t lose a friend. Alice has no family and if Zeldyn is becoming family for her, I refuse to take that away, but the Arrow has stolen her from my grasp. They’ve taken my father and brother. The Arrow has been a great source for answers to the world’s wonders, but everything has become so twisted.”

“It’s a decision we made. They have a family, protection.”

“And risks.”

“You love risks.”

I shook my head to diminish the moment that played in my head, the one of my father pushing me away during battle.

“Last night, after Alex and I found out about the storm,”

He interrupted, looking up to watch my reaction as he asked me “Is that where you ran off to after graduation dinner? He brought you into the danger?”

Guilt twisted in my stomach like a knife, remembering my decision to ignore the two young men who kissed me, expressing feelings that I didn’t know were existent.

“Yes.” I admitted.

“I understand.” He commented.

“You all cast me away after the incident with Tauro!”

“You were in a coma, you were hurt.”

“Why didn’t Celtic just try to wake me with his healing?”

“Celtic can heal, but interfering with sleep, comas, and death, any state of non-awareness, puts the person at risk of potential hazard. They must be aware they’re being healed, or else it goes against the natural process for the body. Amber Lynn and Nico have been teaching us lessons since the symbols. After you awoke, I’m sure that I, along with plenty of others who love you, didn’t want you fighting so soon. Is that not understandable?”

“Right, Sebastian said something like that earlier about Reapers. I’m sorry for not seeing it that way. Alex was helping me keep up with training so my body wouldn’t grow weaker.”

“Well I’m sorry he is okay with putting you in danger.”

“I’m glad he is. I am okay with knowing that I wasn’t left to rot.”

“No one left you to rot.” He hissed. “We left you to gather your strength, not test it.”

“Regardless,” I spoke, “I appreciate the efforts, but I felt isolated.”

“We would never purposely make you feel like that. We did what we thought was best.”

“Okay.” I shifted in my chair. “When we got to the pavilion, my priority was finding you all and making sure everyone was okay. I found my brother first, then Alice, and finally my father. He was being attacked and I let my knife fly into his attacker, giving him time to fight back. However, when I approached him, he was irritated that I had taken care of it. He wasn’t concerned about whether I was alright, or just happy to be a part of something bigger in our world. He was upset. He was joyful to be back in the world of hunting, but frustrated with me for stealing his battle.”

“I’m very sorry he acted that way. It’s his pride, a reopened wound.”

“It’s okay. I’m glad for him. I’m happy to have a father and to have his understanding about the situation. How has your mother been?” I asked, ashamed for being so self-centered at the moment.

“Annoyed of my behavior, which is no real surprise. She has no husband, one child, and few friends; I can understand why she’s upset with me being gone. I took her out for dinner a few times to talk, but she’s been resisting. Gifts would do no good considering she owns a gift shop.”

“Of course, I hope the situation gets better.”

“Scarlett?” He turned his body to face the couch; his head bobbing back to look up at me.

“Yes.”

“This is me apologizing for kissing you. I’m sorry. Especially since I did not consider the option of you falling for Alexander. What I did was harsh and impractical, and I am so sorry if it made anything uncomfortable between us.”

I hesitated, blinking furiously at a show I wasn’t watching.

“Vesper, please don’t apologize for kissing me. I kissed you back. As far as Alexander, I have no true knowledge as to how I feel about anything. I am confused. I’ve been alone for years. I’ve met people who have hurt me and used me multiple times, why do you feel threatened now?”

“I didn’t want you to want me out of loneliness or out of pity if I told you. I didn’t want to ruin the peace we had between us. I didn’t want to make Alice uncomfortable with my admiration for you. I felt that us graduating and leaving high school was the perfect time to admit things, to embrace chances, and stop holding back my cowardice. I didn’t expect Alex to gain interest in you. I mean no offense by that, you are beautiful and captivating, but I hope that he finds more in you than just those qualities.”

My cheeks went red with embarrassment. I was avoiding the pool of amber that created his irises. I felt intimidated by speaking like this to the person I told everything to. It made me tense, but partially relieved that the moment was being diffused and he was telling me the truth.

“Have you always felt that way?” I wondered.

“I believe,” he paused, “that you have always been the best person I have ever known. But after a year ago, I thought about you in ways I’ve been ashamed for. Nothing wrong, I would never have such defiling thoughts, I just thought about my desire to kiss you for experimental purposes, or to care for you. It made my mind go haywire. It made me question if we love what we recognize, factors that become steady in our life and leads to us never seeing anything else. Kissing you was something I have wanted to do for the longest.”

My body felt hot. My mind reeled from his confession.

He continued. “I’ve always wondered if it could ever be mutual, but I’ve hidden this. I don’t want to feel something unreasonable. If things returned to normal after this and this whole conversation and my choice to kiss you would disappear, I’d be okay. I would be okay with just knowing that I chose not to hide in the shadows.”

The words I could have said would have never lived up to what he spoke. Quiet washed over the living room, and I stared ahead with uncertainty. My right hand reached down, my fingers lightly rested against his arm. They reached for his hand, until I slid off the couch to sit next to him with my legs crossed.

“I’ve had moments like that with you. If I could explain how I felt, I would, but right now I am in shock from being wanted.”

His free hand pushed my hair back. “I never understood why you’re always surprised when anyone wanted you. The question is whether they do for the right reasons. He released my hand and reached under our couch, pulling out a wrapped square in brown paper. A red ribbon was tied all around it, meeting in a bow at the top.

“Blind date with a book, found it while I was out looking at records.”

I immediately brightened, gently grabbing the package from his palms. I unwrapped it by using the tape. Water for Elephants was under the paper, the cover was glossy. My heart still thumped under my ribs in the silent room.

“Thank you, thank you so much.” I beamed. “It’s wonderful, I love this.”

A look of accomplishment found his face and he leaned against the couch.

“What would you say if I asked to go away, just like we did after we met the hunters?” I brought up.

“I would say okay, if you want to. I would say that I would come because we all need to go away sometimes. As long as we don’t leave and encounter Tauro again on the trip. Where were you thinking?”

“We could catch a train and head south on the coast? Just for a few days.”

His eyes widened, vibrant at my words.

“It would be nice to see the tracks.”

“Okay? Yes?”

“Okay.” He nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell my mother we’re going to check out one of Carolina’s beaches or a college tour or something. We can head to the city. Cameron and Abby just moved to Richmond after graduating, we could visit. I need to tell Ava, I’ll be back in an hour.” Standing, he left my home and went next door.

I paced down the hall, questioning my decision to leave. I wanted nothing else. Sebastian’s door was slightly ajar, television noises drained from his room. I peeked in, surprised to see him sitting in bed on his back. He was smirking.

“You’re leaving, as usual.” He spoke.

“For a few days.”

“Willow’s battle with Tauro is coming up.”

“Then we will be back soon, will you keep me updated on the Arrow?”

“That’s some way to stay away from it.”

“I just want to be away physically.”

“Okay.” My brother nodded. “A train runs at five at the station tonight, on the edge of the city. Stay safe.”

“I will, you as well.”

“I’ve always suspected it.” Sebastian said as I reached to close his door.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Vesper, I’ve always expected it.” My face began to burn red again and I rushed to pull the door shut. I was even more flustered at the wink Sebastian threw my way.

Vesper’s news might have subconsciously affected me or it may have been my mind believing that it did. I showered a little longer, curled my hair a little better, and chose my outfit a little more deliberately. Thick curls fell around my face and framed the small curves of my face. I squinted my eyes, practicing different expressions in the mirror. If we were going to wander around a city for a while, I needed to feel situated. I chose a comfortable look, including jeans and a tank top. I stuffed a jacket into my bag, along with my phone, its charger, the new book, enough money to fund our momentary drifting, and a few other odd necessities. I went back to my brother’s room to borrow a small pocket knife, enough to avoid unwanted attention. I realized that I felt empty when Vesper’s presence was gone.

Afternoon was near and when my friend returned, I secured his film camera into its case and tucked it away in the corner of my bag. Wishing a goodbye to my father and brother, we headed out into the city. I thanked the universe for the comfortable weather that we would embrace during the next few days for this break.

My chest grew tight when we walked past the train station and snuck past a few bushes and onto the tracks. It would have been much easier to just buy a ticket and board, but that would rid of the fun from hitching trains. Plus this way, we didn’t have to deal with the annoyance from passengers on the train including their music and petty conversations. From where we entered, the tracks were in our view. The train would be heading down from its actual stop in a matter of minutes.

Vesper’s gaze was peculiar. A combination of sweet nostalgia and memories swirled around in his head as he ran his feet along the gravel. I braced myself against a tree, tightening my bag straps to secure my jump when the time came. Vesper inhaled a deep breath of the stuffy air around us when the tracks began to shake.

“Are you ready?” He questioned.

“Always.” I spoke, my head thrown back to look at the sky. I felt like a patched up doll after the events of last night. Being out here in the open made me forget everything. The thoughts about being alone and battered had ceased, my trivial interests and worries dissipated as each cloud passed by.

“You first. Just in case you don’t make it, not that I’m doubting you.”

I scoffed with a smile, leaning forward to see the head of the train rounding the curve. First, the conductor passed by, and then the seated silver boxes with passengers. Many passed by after so many minutes, until the end of the train came. Vesper urged me to run; he was on my heels as he pointed out the chosen cart. My feet carried me at the fastest pace, the speed I used for escaping danger or fighting. My hand reached out and touched the rough wood of the cart; the metal edge was firmly in my grasp. I swung myself into the opening with the help of Vesper’s push on my waist.

I rolled over in the empty square. There were boxes and sacks of miscellaneous items and I threw my bag against the wall. Half of my body was out the cart as I held a hand out for Ves, who was inches away from the opening. With one quick burst of speed and breaths, he projected his body onto the edge and hung on, until he grabbed my hand and pulled himself in.

I was breathing hard and laughing from the insanity of the adventure. As he caught his breath, he laughed too, settling against the wall next to my bag. After a couple of hours and stops, we would be in Richmond and free to roam, not too far from home, but far enough.

Conversation accompanied long stares out into the world as our feet dangled off the edge. Harsh wind pricked our skin while the weather stayed calm. His camera made its way out of my bag and into my hands, snapping a picture of Ves as he looked off, another as he caught what I was doing and reached for the camera. Genuine laughs filled the air in the cart. Thick trees clouded the vision past the sky at some points. I held the pictures, waiting for them to reveal themselves.

Our noise eventually dulled down. Vesper pulled out his copy of Eragon and I grabbed my new book. Before I finished Chapter one, I found a surprise, Vesper was leaning against a crate, asleep with the book in his lap. There was a small square chocolate lodged before Chapter two. I shook my head with a small grin. He was one of a kind. I snapped another picture of him and let him rest. He had been up for who knew how long, unlike me, who unintentionally slept for three weeks. For the next few days, we would be awake.

I wasn’t sure if it was the delicious motivation, or the serenity around me that encouraged me to finish Water for Elephants in such a short amount of time. With every new chapter, there was another square chocolate that accompanied the romantic, fulfilling plot. When the train started to slow down, I woke up Vesper and told him that I absolutely loved the book. After slipping it and his camera back into my bag, we awaited a full halt and jumped off before anybody checked the cargo. We ran into the green scenery, slipping in between trees and bushes until we emerged on the other side. We came out onto concrete streets.

The next step was a bus to Main Street. We embraced the Richmond lights flashing against the dusk for a while. We paid a trip to our favorite, venue, regardless of the artist that was playing, and stayed there for hours until it was near midnight.

“What do you say?” He asked. “Hotel, or Monument Park for the night? We can go to Belle’s in the morning, or that customized donut place.”

I smiled. “Despite being outside at the Arrow so much, I want to be outside more, if that’s not weird.”

“It’s not weird.”

We went to Sbarro’s Pizza for dinner to savor the taste of grease and pepperoni just like the nights we used to before the Arrow. I gulped down the remainder of Mountain Dew, before heading back onto the sidewalk. A short walk led us to the closed iron gates protecting the park. After hopping the pointed fence, receiving a tear on the side of my jeans, we were inside after dark.

The park was all soft grass and hills, with a tall important white building. At the top of a huge set of stone stairs, was a guard’s circle. Many feet next to it was one of the major historical buildings, and below that, was the underground level where tours were conducted. Due to the time, the entire park was a dark blue. The wind was silent, flowing between the crooks of the trees. Only the sounds of straggling cars were left to be heard.

“It’s beautiful tonight.”

“Indeed.” He commented.

With a hotel placed conveniently across the park, I connected to the Wi-Fi and played a music album aloud. We walked the circling trails for at least an hour, before trudging up to the large white steps and residing on the last one. My back rested against a pillar as Vesper sat on a step and watched me.

“It feels so good to be out and not have to deal with anything else.”
“It’s a good moment to be appreciated.”

We wandered off to the fountain when it hit two in the morning. The reflection of the water showed us sitting on the stone edge.

“Celtic told us this peculiar thing in one of the lessons with Amber. It was about reflections.” He spoke.

“What did he say?”

“That reflection is how he traveled. Through light, shadows, and reflections. No matter when or where, he is bound to have one, or even all elements, at a time. It’s how he transports.”

“That makes sense.”

“How did it feel when you traveled with him?”

“Like my body disintegrated into fragments, invisible to the eye, until I no longer existed. I couldn’t even blink before darkness took over us. The second after was followed by blinding light until we were in the pavilion again. It was amazing.”

“Sounds like an experience.” He whispered.

Meaningless mumbles exchanged between us until we fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

When my eyes opened, they were greeted by daylight and a tug from Vesper who was pulling me up.

“Great.” He panicked, full of nervous movement. He peered over me and to the right of the pillar, where the guard’s gate stood. No one has been in the park yet, although the gate was open. I pulled my bag on and shot up. We watched the guard who saw us and started running. I’ve never sprinted that fast in my life. Vesper was holding back laughter.

We stopped at the farthest bus stop that we could find. We needed to get to Carytown where Vesper’s mutual friends had moved. There were plenty of shops in that area that would fulfill our entertainment quest for the new day. After we got off the bus, we started on the far side of Carytown. We spent an hour in an arcade, several hours in a two story bookstore, and did some shopping at a classic thrift store. We then saw a two dollar movie at an old fashioned theater, browsed the local record store, and viewed an art museum. We stopped for curry during lunch where Vesper had to shove a newspaper out of my hand with the headline Deaths in D.C. There was a report about an interview with the president.

We made one last stop to a fondue place for s’mores, which left Vesper and me exhausted, and found the address to his friends after calling them. The day had fully passed by once more. My bag was full of new tank tops and a pocket watch chain I found at the thrift shop. I decided to embrace my tattoo rather than despise it. I found it suiting; it matched my clock tattoo and Vesper’s Roman numerals. In my hand was a stack of pictures, capturing the talented murals that we passed. Vesper pointed out his favorite, which was a black and white bald eagle wearing a top hat. That one was by the arcade. He snacked on European chocolate from the candy store and we walked until we arrived to a quaint house on the street parallel to Cary.

After two doorbell rings, Cameron and Abby appeared. They were two old associates who I hadn’t seen since graduation.

“Hi there you two. We heard you were in town.” Abby spoke in a sultry voice. The reddish auburn in her hair was toned down by her casual look. Cameron appeared, hugging Vesper while Abby let me in. She sat down on one of the seats, enfolded in her sweatshirt. The boys made their way into the main room eagerly chatting, leaving me and Abby in an awkward silence.

“Oh, don’t make this weird.” She smiled at me. “It’s nice to have some company around here.”

My tense body loosened after she said that and I leaned back to survey the place. It was a shared two story building and they lived on top. It was simple, but beautifully furnished with intricate additions. Their parents, mainly Cameron’s, must have tremendously helped them out.

“This place is great, what do you guys do?”

Abby stifled a laugh and I corrected myself.

“No, no, not as a couple,” I stuttered. “I meant job wise.”

“I work at a boutique in Cary and Cameron has been doing web design and EBay sales.”

“That sounds pretty nice.” I answered honestly.

Vesper was ambushing Cameron with stories about our rebellious train hopping and life in Washington. Abby questioned me about college and work, so I falsified stories to hide how I was really spending my time in the capitol.

Abby was a genuine friend, but regardless, I felt as if I was being sized up.

“Scarlett, I’m so sorry.” Cameron greeted me with a large smile. “I was so caught up with Ves. How are you two? You both look great. We’re finally done with school. Fucking done!”

His face glowed like a million stars, as if he just realized the epiphany for the first time.

“Listen you guys, feel free to stay as long as you like. Abby and I don’t mind, right babe?”

“Of course.” She purred.

“I told Vesper awhile back that he was free to move in with us if he ever wanted to escape momma bear. The guest room is all yours and the kitchen is stocked. After we get a bit of rest tonight, we’ll show you two the city. Not that your romantic montage doesn’t seem great with movies and bookstores, but we’ll show you a little night time fun. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Vesper nervously laughed and the couple trailed into their room. Cameron returned with a long glass bong in the shape of owl and held it out to Vesper.

“Ah, not tonight. Thanks though.” He declined.

One of his secrets. I knew that he smoked, but he toned it down around our group and even stopped for a while after things got better with his mom. The fact that he refused to leave me in this awkward situation while he pursued getting high was reassuring to me.

“Thank you.” I mouthed quietly.

The apartment filled with music from the couple’s room and smoke already emerged from under the door. Vesper shrugged and grabbed my bag.

“I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.” He spoke as I followed him in.

“We can, if you want. I’ve smoked.” I said boldly.

“Yes, I know. You’re such a daredevil.” He said sarcastically and corrected my statement. “You did with that one guy you dated, all the time. This trip should be clean. We have enough stress and should relax in a normal way.”

The guest room was white and blue. There was a window across from the matching bed with blankets folded neatly on top. Before I could slip into the bed, I heard sounds from the couple enjoying each other over the music. I stiffened. Vesper looked at me with worry, gauging my reaction and softening his voice as he whispered an apology. I just laughed and laughed, before resting on top of the covers. He seemed relieved.

“We both know them, we can’t be surprised. It’s okay. Moans are better than alarm sirens. As much as I loved the park, another night there would have been trouble. I’m glad we’re here.”

I woke up late, and also to Abby pushing me into the shower and picking out one of my tank tops for me today. She lent me a pair of black shorts and sunglasses, before telling Vesper and me that we would be going to an amusement park.

From that point on, our day consisted of boardwalk fries and lemonade until our stomachs were stuffed. My screams grew louder on every roller coaster we embarked on and we even went on a Drop Tower. The two lent us swimwear and we spent the majority of the day at the Water Park portion. We rode down slides, floated in the wave pool, and spun around on group a inflatable and talked. The best ride was saved for last; we rode it three times in a row during the night right before the park closed.

It didn’t stop there. We all drove to the closest hotel and snuck into the pool. This day immediately was one of my favorites.

“Man, I’ve missed being out like this.” Vesper said as we stood poolside, surprisingly being the only people using the area.

“I’ve missed you Vesper! This, this is life.” Cameron grinned, pushing Ves into the water and then his girlfriend. She squealed as she fell into the pool. He swam towards Abby and held her, despite her attempts to dunk him under the water. I slipped in, cherishing the cool liquid that swallowed my body.

After a few playful attempts to drown each other, the couple was all over each other in one corner. Vesper and I rested against the opposite wall.

Cameron peeked over at us, removing his fingers from Abby’s inner thigh and pulling away. He swam towards us, ushering for her to join him.

“Matching tattoos?” She whipped her tongue up. “Sexy.”

I looked down to inspect what she was talking about, and remembered Vesper’s numerals and my clock.

“Oh no,” He chuckled. “I had this first. It’s my birthday.” He splashed me and I slammed a handful of water into his face.

“Oh hush you.” I muttered.

Cameron and Abby watched us with interest. “You two are cute.” She admitted. “How long have you guys been together? I never noticed in school, you guys were subtle.”

My eyes widened and I furiously shook my head.

“Oh no, no,” I spoke, “We’re just-”

“Friends.” He finished. “Friends.”

Cameron eyed him suspiciously, before letting the subject go. He lifted his girlfriend onto his shoulders. I offered Vesper a small smile and watched his Pisces fish swim trying to catch the opposite fish’s tail in the water. I swam backwards to the other edge of the pool, letting my body driftlessly float in the water.

That night, I stayed up by the window, stealing Vesper’s copy of Eragon.  With every chapter I finished, I left a picture of our adventure. There were plenty of him, Carytown, and the murals. He took a few beautiful shots of the fountains and restaurants. I returned the copy to his bag and slipped into bed to dream.

The entire household slept until about noon, except Abby, who worked a morning shift. After Vesper and I showered, the day was dedicated to watching movies and being exhausted. Cameron was talking about going out tonight for an exhilarating rush. When Abby returned, he left with her to shower together while I fell asleep during a movie with Vesper.

At about seven o’ clock, Abby was standing over me flicking out her tongue again.

“Good, you’re up.” She crooned.

“What?” I mumbled.

“Shirt and pants off. You’re wearing this.”

In front of me, she held out a red dress. When I put it on, it was tight around the bust and flowing at the bottom. The backside was cut open in an upside down triangle that exposed most of my back.  A pair of black, cross strapped heels dangled in her hands. Surprisingly, I got them on comfortably. Abby was pressing my face between her hands and applying red lipstick to my mouth.

“You look hot.” She stepped back, admiring her work, and tossed a brush in my lap. “If I wasn’t dating Cameron…” She winked at me and left. I was trying to figure out how she had managed to do a five second award show wardrobe swap with me. I brushed my hair to loosen the curls and looked in the mirror. I looked gorgeous, promiscuous, and very captivating.

Abby left and returned wearing a tight black dress and black stilettos. Her copper hair was vibrant in comparison to her lips, which were also black. After fixing up my mascara and eyeliner, she did the same for herself. She then had me down three vodka shots, pulled me into the main room, and called out to the boys.

“Try to contain yourselves.” She taunted.

As we emerged from the room, I saw Vesper and Cameron in suits. Vesper’s eyes were wide with interest, and Cameron was already pulling Abby on top of him. They giggled hysterically before redeeming themselves and ushering us to the door. I grabbed my phone, and wallet, and headed out with them.

We looked like vintage models from the old days, sauntering down the street with class. I balanced on my heels next to Vesper as we followed behind the couple. They hadn’t told us where we were going.

We arrived at a strip club. With the approval from security bouncer they were on good terms with, we were all let in. Although, I was the only one who needed the secret entry.

I hadn’t been to one of these places, but it was interesting. Vesper and I went along with the flow. He occasionally glanced over to check my level of discomfort. I was tense, and slightly unsure about how to act without seeming like an amateur.

“We can leave if this is weird, Scar.”

“No, it’s fine.” I mustered up a smile. “I’m too subtle anyway. I never do anything risky that doesn’t involve death.”
“Don’t force it. Just let me know if you want to leave. Cameron told me the destination was a secret. After yesterday’s innocent fun, I didn’t think that this would be next.”

Abby and Cameron had obviously been here before; their tongues were intertwined with a female worker who had gone over to entertain them.

“Oh my.” Ves laughed.

The entire room was dim. A stage was in the middle with a runway for the girls to emerge from a backstage area. It strongly smelled of alcohol and the room clouded with smoke. It was like the bar, but dollar bills and lingerie were scattered on the ground instead of broken glass.

A girl the color of butterscotch came over; her hands were hidden in leather gloves. Her body was covered with only black bottoms. She was beautiful in looks and how she moved. I hid my smile as she danced on Vesper, who looked away with embarrassing disinterest and tipped her. When she sat in my lap, I bit my lip to keep from saying something stupid. It was Vesper’s turn to smile at me and my awkward situation. I shoved a few bills into her bottoms and she left me with a kiss on the cheek.

Vesper held back a roar of amusement and I was trembling while trying to contain my own. We both started writing weird messages on the dollars before throwing them out.

Once realizing the couple was engaged in shots and smokes, Vesper offered to bail. We said goodbye as Cameron blew a string of white smoke into Abby’s mouth. Vesper asked their guard friend to make sure that they took a taxi back home.

“That was…” He started.

“Interesting.” I grinned.

“You know what sounds great?”

“What?” I asked.

“Milkshakes.”

“Yes. Yes, please.” I dragged out the answer as I imagined the taste of ice cream.

“Milkshakes it is.”

“Even with tonight being crazy, this weekend has been amazing. I admire them both for enjoying life, but still having some responsibility.”

“Agreed.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t too late for Carytown Burgers and Fries. After a few whistles from strangers as we walked, and retaliating scowls from Vesper, we made it. The rewarding taste of a classic burger, shared fries, and a chocolate chip milkshake washed down my throat. Hours passed by and we stayed at the restaurant until closing. We proceeded to finding our way back to Abby and Cameron’s home.

Happily, they both made it back safe and left the door unlocked. The two of them were passed out on the couch in a tangled mess. Vesper and I slipped out of the borrowed clothes and changed back into comfort.

“I’ll have to say, being fancy for a night was pretty great.” Vesper quietly commented.

Even though we were both in sweatpants and physically drained, enjoyment still circulated through us.

Vesper crossed the room and reached for his phone on the dresser. He checked it before setting it in his pocket and meeting my eyes. The veins in his hands bulged as he curled in his fist and released them.

“Good night.” His face looked amused as he turned to the bed.

“Vesper.” I whispered, and he turned. I scolded myself for not having thought about anything to say. “Ves, I just wanted to thank you for all of this.”

He nodded. “Of course.”

My fingertips extended towards his and I looked up to him. He raised an eyebrow, but accepted the touch. I pulled him in, my breaths flowing under his chin. I sat there for a moment, watching the rise and fall of his chest. He rested his chin on the crown of my head.

I wasn’t sure what I needed, or wanted, but Vesper Evans was the steady in my life. He was the only one who had truly stuck by my side. If I made the mistake of loving someone that may not have been right for me, I wanted it to be him. His eyes wavered back and forth as I stroked his chin with the back of my hand. I slightly tilted my head to the side.

He only watched my movements.

Shivers ran up my arm, along with an annoying vibration from a phone’s ringtone. Vesper slowly threw back his head with exasperation and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He ran his index and middle finger against my jawline, before wandering over to the window’s edge to answer the call. It was my brother.

For once, I felt as if I was missing out on something legendary. I paced and listened in on the call update. Vesper was about to hit speaker when something my brother said caught his attention.

“We’ll come back tomorrow, immediately. Okay, thanks. Bye.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked, honestly too scared to guess.

“Amber and Nico were attacked in the city by an unnaturally large Interceptor wandering around. He might have been a stray from the pavilion. Willow is performing the sacrifice tomorrow night. She and Celtic believe that this has tortured us all long enough. They were trying to rally the help of other Grims since there are thousands of Death Gods, but as Celtic said, they’re neutral. Our deaths don’t affect them.”

“Staying neutral is killing humans.” I spat. “Amber Lynn and Nico, are they okay?”

He nodded. “Injured, but okay.”

We both quieted and slipped into bed. I slept uneasily that night. When we woke up, we wasted no time packing and finding our hosts.

“Thank you both so much, these past few days have been beyond wonderful. Thank you for taking us in.” I directed at a sleepy couple.

“Of course, you two are welcome anytime.” Abby said in between sips of tomato juice.

“Seriously guys, especially you Vesper, come see us more often.” Cameron croaked. “Sorry about your friends getting injured, we hope they’re okay. Washington has been having a lot of trouble lately.”

“Thanks and yeah, the city is struggling. You guys moved at the perfect time. Bye Cam, Abby.”

He hugged the two goodbye and I went to do the same. I grabbed my bag and phone from the counter and double checked the guest room. We had cleaned it this morning.

We ran on energy drinks and coffee stops until the train came. We chose the traditional way and bought tickets. Vesper and I were sitting back in a section, on our way home to the capitol. Vesper looked serene in the shorts, a tank top, and a beanie. His Vans were kicked off in the corner along with mine. Four days of sleep deprivation showed on his face. His eyes were red and a big smile sat under them as he looked out the window.

Early morning only allowed us to see dull outlines of each other. When the sun started to rise, Vesper pulled out his novel to read, surprised after finishing the first chapter. I winked at him and my eyelids slammed close. I was ready to make up lost sleep.

Home is always cordial when returning from being away, even if we had walked into a shit storm. My father was missing at the Arrow, no surprise there. My brother was at home, greeting us both with hugs and quickly explaining the attack.

“Why are you whispering, Sebastian?”

He cleared his throat and moved away from the door. On a kitchen stool was Vesper’s mother, pale and frowning.

“Hey, mom,” He greeted.

“Hey, mom?” She spat. “That’s it? You’ve been gone for three days and that’s all you say?”

“We spoke about this. We left to Richmond to check out colleges.”

“For three days? I cannot handle this, Vesper.”

“I can move out if you’d like. Find my own place.”

You could tell that she was taken aback, even before her hand dramatically went to her chest to show her astonishment.

“I have the money, I’m eighteen, and I’m fine.” He confirmed. “I won’t be a bother anymore.”

His face was content and it was obvious that he didn’t want to argue after the last few days. There was too much to worry about with our fellow friends in the woods.

When their arguing turned into yelling, mainly Ava’s, I gave Vesper’s arm a reassuring squeeze and went to my room. It was untouched. I passed by them again to catch a fresh breath of air outside. Sebastian joined when he saw me leave. Alice was outside on the curb with her head down between her knees. She only lifted it when she heard the door slam. Sebastian took a seat with her and rubbed his remaining facial scars.

“What the hell, Scarlett?”

“Are you angry too?” I smiled.

“Don’t use that sarcastic voice with me, where have you been? You couldn’t say goodbye?”

“You barely said goodbye when you left. When I was injured,” I spoke softly, “you all wanted me to rest and occupy my time. Now I am and there’s a concern.”

“Just tell me in person next time, okay?”

“I’ve left you to enjoy the Arrow, the least you can do is leave me to whatever I have left.”

“Alright, whatever.”

She got up, grabbed her bag, and started walking. Sebastian gave me a look that inquired what I planned to do, but I planned on curling into bed until tonight. I needed another break.

“If it’s the girl, let her go! She’s just a female Vesper, there are plenty of others. And if it’s your dad, stop asking questions, because I refuse to answer! Be happy that you have everything you need to survive and be happy!” His mom ran out of our complex crying, glaring at me and my brother with a dirty look. She slammed the door and caused the glass to rattle. I crashed against the pavement.

“I need her to survive. She makes me happy. All of my friends do.” Vesper said, coming down to the curb.

I felt numb. All of a sudden the trees and fields at the Arrow seemed wonderful right now.

The miniscule vacation of normalcy didn’t last long. My mind and body had just relapsed back to the Arrow’s lifestyle. Our getaway was a small speck in my memory. No sooner than I knew, I was staring at the tattered ruins of the tavern under the night’s cloak again. It was as if the past few days were nonexistent. Although, I chose to suit back up into gear and grab new weapons for a second fight, it felt like I had never left the pavilion. Outside, Celtic’s face was full of strain as he casted a massive, translucent dome over the bar. Inside, there were fifty hunters and a well-known Grim, Willow, who had just infiltrated Tauro’s hiding spot.

He wasn’t really hiding. After one of his monsters bluntly attacked Amber Lynn and Nico, leaving them both in recovery, Tauro went on a rampage throughout the capitol. Celtic, Willow, and a few other Grims collected about thirty souls. The amount turned the Arrow’s lake white, despite it usually staying the same color. Our two leaders, my dad, Sebastian, and I just bombarded the bar, alongside forty other hunters that belonged to the strongest groups. The twins, Zeldyn, Alex, and Vesper were on the front lines with the majority, witnessing the slaughterhouse for itself.

Working under Celtic’s dome was the equality of having the power almost cut off. It created such a dark environment that everyone was a shadow, friend and foe. The hunters all wore a small LED light to make detection easier for other fighters. Bodies marked the ground with traces of vomit near them. Glasses were broken and the damage from the last attack was unfixed. Celtic only covered up the destruction outside.

The place was serving as his lure and kill house. One remaining drunk had the audacity to laugh and cheer through his foaming mouth. He perched on a bar stool. My eyes found Len, the bald bartender with a dragon tattoo on his head. He was still hiding Tauro’s other false human form. Despite knowing about our presence in the room, Tauro continued his deliberate show. He dragged his feet over to the man who was oblivious to the chaos and demise in front of him.

“Would you like another drink?”

The man laughed and threw his glass forward. All of the hunters watched him warily, their weapons were high.

Len bent down to reach under the counter and retrieve a glass. He turned to fill it with beer. He bent down once more, grabbed another object, and stood up straight. He slid the beer to the man, who yanked it out of Len’s grasp and chugged it violently.

“Those who seek war with war himself will never find a justified ending.” Len argued.

It all happened so fast.

Interceptors came crashing through the previously destroyed back wall. There were less than the amount in the pavilion, but there were enough hordes to distract us from the real threat. These were different again. They had horns emerging from their skulls, more neon veins under their black bodies, and longer, sharper talons protruding from their feet and hands. They were all signs of his failed attempts to try and turn them into humans. Their old bare tails were covered in metal spikes, swinging back and forth and seeking a victim.

Len pulled a knife from his right hand and created a horizontal opening in the drunken man’s throat. Blood and beer flowed from his mouth and mixed together on the counter. Len’s body looked like a glass being molded in and out of shape. His form of Len melted away from his skin, peeling away and leaving a completely different man in the wake. Eli the ink artist, Gabriel the concert guard, and lastly Len the bartender, were all real men who had their lives taken. They were all destroyed by the man that brushed them off like layers of paint now.

He was tall, bulky, and stunningly beautiful. His red eyes held fury. He had tousled brown hair and hazelnut skin, all aspects that he shared with his other brothers according to legend. On the ground next to him was the skin of Len. It was a thin layer of unmoving meat like that of a deer that has been gutted.  

“Those who go to war with war, die.” His voice was as unfathomable as the unknown areas in the world’s deepest ocean trench. The entire bar shook. The shadow of the dome wavered, revealing Celtic’s persistence to keep it strong. The force of protection became darker.

Willow pounced. Her eyes were glowing red and her body created a light around her as she landed on Tauro. They two caused carnage to each other. At that moment, every hunter on the premises dispersed. They were ready to rid of the second wave of Interceptors Tauro had brought with him. Formations and strategies escaped my mind. They were replaced with a fighting mentality when an Interceptor attacked me, trying it’s best to shove its right horn into my side. I wrestled it against the bar’s edge and took off its head. Its spikes scratched my leg, and I quickly destroyed it.

A hunter was thrown across the bar counter, sliding all the way down and knocking over multiple mugs. They landed limp on the ground after toppling over the edge. Broken glasses shattered against the ground and a hunter ran over to the body. Another one took down the Interceptor that flung the hunter. A vicious Interceptor stood near the bar; admiring its work of knocking over a hunter. It wasn’t amused long because two leaders attacked it from behind. Four sharp swords went cleanly through the back of its head and came out of its sternum.

Slithering and hissing sounded around my feet. A creature made its way towards my legs. I ended up crouching down and grabbing a mug. Its top was broken, leaving only jagged shards that I used to charge for it. I thrust the glass into its eyes. Its whole body swung in a three-sixty. Its spiked tail brought me down and wrapped around my hand to yank me forward. I curved my body into a crescent shape, bringing my knees up high enough so my legs could kick out at it. The force was enough to free my arm. Instantly, glass shattered above me. Pieces fell onto my face when I looked up too soon. My father stood on the table, staring down at the Interceptor. He jumped off in a single leap and landed on his knees, rubbing the crown of my head.

“No thing or person touches my daughter.” He growled. Within the next second he had the Interceptor held high in the air, perfectly dormant so Macy could run from behind him and scale off the spikes on its tail. She shoved them down its throat.  

“Thanks dad.” I muttered, flinging the broken mug in between another Interceptor’s beady, button eyes. I watched it sink into its flesh. I saw Emma and Vince dragging the dead bodies into a pile, while fighting off Interceptors.

The place was in ruins that Celtic couldn’t even fix. The air was tainted from the smell of beers and wines hitting the ground every minute. The glasses were broken and used for weapons. The stench of alcohol was overwhelming. An Interceptor went for me, scratching at both of my legs and reminding me of the pain from one that was already damaged. I would need to ask the Arrow about clothing guards since the Interceptors often attacked low. I threw myself at it, distracting it enough to engage it in a wrestling match on the bar floor.

A familiar sound a pocket knife crunched into the Interceptor’s back while I destroyed its spine with my knife. I turned to see Alice, the red of her hair blending with sore cuts on her face. She weakly smiled at me, continuing to cut its tail off as it kept growing. I stabbed it in the eyes, ink dripping away and leaving empty sockets in their places. I then cut through the bone of its horns, severing them off its body and turning the creature into dust. I nodded at Alice and turned towards the next threat.

Three leaders were in the corner huddling around two bodies. They were two hunters that the Interceptors had killed, hunters that belonged to Arrow. Zeldyn shouted for the leaders in the corner to duck since Interceptors were outnumbering them two to one. She shot arrows into all of the televisions, causing glass shards to rain down over the section. It blinded a few Interceptors, long enough for the leaders to overpower them. A radio was thrown over, creating a combination of static and swords.

By the bar island, there were four Interceptors causing havoc. Five hunters created a defense line to keep them contained. Stumbling over a dead Interceptor, I made way over to the main bar; grabbing as many glasses that would fit in my arms. I pushed myself over the edge of the bar, chucking them at the Demons. It infuriated them when black cuts surfaced on their bodies, but instantly closed.

Alice joined in, passing me all the mugs on the shelves which I threw at the Interceptors. It gave the hunters a few moments to gain an advantage against the hesitating creatures. The Interceptors all clawed out in synchronization, finding a way to simultaneously attack the defense line. One broke free from the contained area, charging straight at us and pouncing on me. It knocked me onto my back against the counter.

It spat on my face, causing me to demolish it before Alice could interfere. I cut out its horns and split it in half. My knife found its heart and pushed inside of it, causing us both to stumble onto the ground under the bar.   Once seeing that I was okay, Alice darted to Vesper and Sebastian’s aid. They had attracted a swarm of beasts near the bathrooms. As much as I wanted to run to help my brother and friends, this vigorous fighting had caused my stomach to churn and old wounds opened up. My Interceptor vanished after the blow to its heart. I dragged myself behind the bar, my nails digging into the wooden floor as I rolled over on my back. I was where the back wall used to exist, the one that separated the bar display and the back exit. I pushed myself up and was eye to eye with an Interceptor in the back room, who looked as if he was hiding. Willow and Tauro obliviously fought above this creature, which was ten times the size of normal Interceptors, similar to the one that attacked the couple. It was much bigger than me. It seemed to be waiting for something to happen, but neither Demon nor Reaper noticed.

It smiled at me, and that’s what sent my skin boiling. It smiled as if it had been exposed, but didn’t care. It wasn’t afraid. Five horns were on its head versus two, one eye versus a pair, and large spikes were on its back as tall as a mountain. The speed he traveled at made him invisible. Five puncture holes violated me from my cheek down to my thigh. I looked up to see that he was gone and screamed at a pitch I never knew my voice could reach.

Willow and Tauro continued fighting as if nothing was happening around them. I pulled myself forward on the ground, enough to peer over the bar side. I saw the answer to why silence had replaced the fighting in the room. Every hunter and Interceptor was down, and I prepared myself to weep at the massacre. When many of them curled in or tried to reach for their weapons, I was overly relieved that they weren’t dead. Each hunter in the room had the same five puncture wounds from the colossal Interceptor who slammed its tail into them. If they didn’t, they had two long talon incisions down their sides instead. Either way, they were immobilized. We all were.

It stood in the middle of the bar, before returning to its spot in front of me. I immediately lowered my eyelids to appear hurt or dead, whatever would satisfy this monster.

Ghostly screams vocalized from Willow and the beast below them turned to look at the combatting Demons. I fully opened my eyes to see flesh flying off of Tauro’s chest like a meat slicer. Willow’s beauty turned into a monstrosity. Her teeth were taking off Tauro’s arms, wetting her mouth with fresh blood and staining her palms as she gripped him. The next disturbance was worse than the last, when she took off his head with her teeth.

Tauro regenerated all limbs with no problem, but when he came back, his body looked frail. His skin was papery and the veins turned black underneath it. Willow’s mouth clasped onto his chest and her teeth sunk into it again, ripping out a huge chunk of flesh and dropping it on the ground.

In that piece of flesh, was the blinding glow from the pocket watch I had seen, and the reason why Tauro put me in a coma. My hand outstretched for the rattling object and jaws snapped in front of me with a hiss. It was the colossal Interceptor, who sped across the ground in milliseconds and snatched it up. The chain hung between its teeth, before he tossed it into the air and gobbled it down. It went down its throat like a snake’s prey, the bulge slowly made its way through its esophagus and physically into its heart.

The organ throbbed; every pump of blood was intensified by the pocket watch. His body glowed and the veins inside of him turned the color of gold. This went on for minutes until it’s heart grew the size of a bloated tomato and burst internally, filling the Interceptor with red and golden liquid.

Tauro’s body went limp in Willow’s arm and started the process of returning to Interceptor form. Willow held Tauro, who struggled for breaths, in one hand and reached down her throat with the other. Like a freak show, a scythe emerged from the hollow of her mouth. It was longer than her body and ended in a sharp curve of melted silver.

The scythe was dragged down the length of Tauro and he turned into a black dust. Willow inhaled the substance as it flowed down her throat and consumed her. She choked and spat and cried out before falling onto the floor. She went still. Blood streamed out of her nose, eyes and mouth. It was her sacrifice.  

Wavering on my back, I turned over and coughed. The colossal Interceptor’s body was still accepting the item it had swallowed. The whole building brightened and the dark shadows of Celtic’s power were lifted. The Reaper ran in and crashed onto the ground in front of me. Human qualities showed on his face, sweat, strain, and exhaustion. He hovered, using his powers of a Grim. He eyed Willow, nodded, and rushed to the bar grounds to heal all of the hunters that were battered down.

Alex was one of the first. His idiotic impulse led him to run to the back and pull me up after Celtic healed me. The colossal Interceptor was gone, the red ink in its veins now shined as its body began to morph. Alex and I watched in awe and fear. Moments later, the Interceptor was a human. Actually, it was a Demon with tousled brown hair, gray eyes, and handsome features just like his brother. I understood why Tauro fled last time, it was because he was waiting for his brother to appear from the portal and he was late. The item needed a new owner.

Alex charged, despite my hands reaching to pull him back. The triplet raised a single palm that caused a force of air to throw the young hunter. Alex flew through the air and out of the glass window.

“Alexander!” I screamed, coughing up blood. I looked at the triplet who smiled again.

“Hello, I’m Tayden.” He grinned. “The debt for my brother’s death will be paid by all of your hunters. I will provide this world better company than his, but I will still kill each of you. Have a kind evening.” He said with a theatrical wave.

“You’re not even real.” I threatened stupidly, but anger was eating away my insides. “At least we exist. We’re not a sub-creation of Theodore. We’re real.”

Tayden screeched and a clawed hand slashed at my cheek. The Demon sped out of the bar and through the window, assumingly stepping on Alex given that he yelled. He vanished into oblivion. The pain on my face was numbed from the fight. We had killed the strongest one. Willow did.

When Celtic finished healing the room, after revisiting me for my injuries, he crouched by Willow who fidgeted in the back. I pulled myself up and braced my back against the counter, shaking as Willow struggled.

“Pain.” Her sweet voice laughed. “I haven’t felt pain in so long.”

Celtic brought her scythe to his palm and created an incision, pressing his palm against her face and taking the pain away. Black ink flowed through his veins. Willow’s smooth skin cracked, and white light showed through the spaces

“No, Celtic.” She croaked. “Let me feel this.”

The Grim removed his hand and hovered forward.

“Is everyone healed?” He spoke urgently after healing Alex’s major injury. He hovered around the interior of the building.

“Yes, thank you. Go.” Caspian and Crystal said, helping each other stand. Hunters were gathering themselves and weapons, ready to rush back to the Arrow or Emma’s local home. “We give you and Willow our ultimate thanks. Bring her back to us.” His sister pleaded.

Willow’s skin had turned black in his arms as he reached the water under the bridge. He muttered enchantments, hovered over their reflection, and vanished into another dimension.

That week I realized that the worst part about the Arrow was that it was a story you could never tell. It had been a bittersweet solution to my desire to avoid succumbing to a normal life. A normal life involving a career that I would probably hate. It would also include fake associates with ulterior motives, aside from my real friends. The Arrow changed that. It was all unbelievable until it was seen, and even then, getting used to the absurdity of this new life still made me question my sanity. It made sense to only those who knew about it.

Returning to a regular life after a mission was difficult. It became something I had to slowly adjust to each time. Risking your life for a cause that tested human vulnerability was terrifying. Real deaths occurred because of the beasts that were existent in their world, but not ours. It all felt like nightmare virtual reality video game. Recalling the events of the past few days was like trying to remember a dream, only to become more frustrated because you couldn’t remember everything as vividly as before.

It was the day after the battle. Everything was still and quiet. Emma’s home familiarized itself to us as the safe space it always provided. Sebastian and the twins competed in gaming challenges, and Vince and Emma would talk on the upper deck while having lunch. Zeldyn, Alice, Amber Lynn, and Nico all sat by the pond for the majority of the day, while Alex and Vesper sat around like lounging cats.

At night, s’mores was cooked over a fire Vince had set up, while Emma made lemonade in mason jars. She shared her story about being raised country and converting into a city girl. I never would have guessed, but it explained her excessive use of mason jars. Sebastian and Caspian would fish at the lake, though I doubted there were any fish coming towards the fire. We all just sat back, doing absolutely nothing. Alex spent plenty of time in bed nursing his broken arm, despite Celtic’s healing, and I snuck away a few times to visit him and deliver sets of flowers as he had for me. Zeldyn braided his hair for him. Everyone at Emma’s looked like a normal family. A large, adopted, happy family.

During the next few days, everyone had gone out into the city at least once or twice. The Arrow was being silently avoided, but obvious enough that no one had to discuss it. Willow was gone, and though Celtic was a wonderful replacement, the event was still heartbreaking. The victory triumphed with a cost. She could never die.

The end of June would be approaching in a couple of weeks and summer was the one distraction that made me forget my thoughts about hunting. On the third day of camping at the loft, Vesper, Alice, and Zeldyn brought over Vesper’s Xbox from home and installed it in the room Emma had let Alice and me stay in. I showered and found comfort in an oversized shirt from Caspian, and a pair of shorts, before settling down to join the game.

Eventually, Alice and Zeldyn went to watch a movie and left Ves and I to the television. Emma came in to drop off two plates of pizza and fries, a teenage dinner classic. Vesper thanked her and smiled. He seemed to be subconsciously adding a new motherly presence in his life.

“Have you talked to your mom?” I asked.

“Not lately, no.”

“I think you should.”

“I think you should stop getting so Facebook friendly with the triplets, but you know shit happens. I saw you at the bar, why are you always near one?”

He laughed when I hit him in the shoulder.

“I can’t help it, it’s always bad timing. Tayden sent chills down my spine about what he said and seeing how he morphed. Disgusting. It was the most chivalrous murder threat I have ever heard.”

“You’re very brave. Getting front row tickets to a Demon threat takes guts.”

“Thanks.” I snickered

“So much has happened, in such little time. I see what you mean about losing Alice, everything’s so spacious, but it’s for the best. As long as I have you to compete with in games, I think I’ll be okay.”

“That’s just because I suck and you always win. I’m easy competition.”

“Just in gaming. In life, you’re pretty hard to beat.”

“Vesper,” I gasped. “That’s so sweet.”

“Because you’re weird as hell.” He finished and I hit his shoulder again. I couldn’t help but laugh and sit back against the bed, leaning against his shoulder. His kiss found my temple and he fell onto his back, resting his feet in my lap.

His voice grew serious. “I’m glad we’re all okay. I don’t want any more drastic news changing our lives. ”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Dear Scarlett,

 

Your world is absolutely stunning. I wasn’t there when you woke up, but your dad called me as soon as he knew you were awake. You were mumbling about the battle. I took you to the White House surroundings and we walked for a long time while you vividly told me about the war, our trip to Richmond, and my mom. Seems like Ava’s not so sweet in your story anymore.

You have your own personal Narnia.

Apparently the war has finally been won, Tauro is dead. Being the escapists we are we took one of our trips down to RVA to visit my baseball buddy and his girlfriend in your dream, the one who saved you in reality after you ran away. I find this interesting because I told you about my day when you slept, and you seemed to have incorporated it into your dream life.

In my world, my mom came over and was angry as usual about me spending time at your place, so I left and explored culinary job options. I also explored a few photography stores to see if they were hiring. Cameron did come over and I went out with him and Abby for a bit before our outing, other than that, nothing else happened. Chris and Macy are still fighting and life is still ordinary. You stayed up until I brought you back home and you crashed.

 

Update:

 

I’m writing this swiftly, because I got a new job. I hate to leave your side, but you’ve slipped into a sleep coma again. After I brought you back from our day out by the White House, you slept again, but didn’t wake.

Wake up soon please. Chris and I are worried. If everything is solved in your false land, why do you keep going back?

 

Yours truly, Vesper

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

A couple days passed by with no mention of the Arrow. We camped out at Emma’s house in denial, until Caspian and Crystal decided to go back first. A few days later, Amber Lynn, Nico, Zeldyn, and Alice returned as well. I understood that everyone was trying to prolong their time doing something average and being a normal young adult. The time spent at Emma’s felt like a summer camp and allowed everyone to let go of their emotions for a few days. Vesper and I visited our home a few times, but when we did, he avoided his house.

One day, Vesper said he wanted to go out and run some errands. The vagueness of his task bothered me, but I was just his close friend. I didn’t want to pry because we trusted each other better than that. I finally decided to go to the Arrow and see the others. I was ready to accept our lifestyle again. I grabbed a borrowed book and my backpack, and used the bus system to find the grounds. Sebastian and Alice had already been there and Vesper had gone out for the day, so I didn’t have a ride.

After figuring out public transport, I found the gates and Tristan in his tower. An odd nostalgic ache formed over my heart after seeing the grounds again. It was impossible to hate this place, despite the reason for its creation. It was as mystical and welcoming as always. Tristan allowed me in and I discovered that many of the hunters wore casual clothing. It seemed out of place. Everyone was cherishing the days we had until Tayden made his move.

Following the demeanor of the hunters, I strolled into the lodge and found my way up to the third floor study. The lodge was partially deserted. Many of the hunters were outside enjoying the good weather. I slipped into the library, my scarf catching on the door lock as I entered. I temporarily fought with the door and let it quietly fall back into place. I didn’t want to startle anyone inside.

Walking between the fifth and sixth row near the back, I attempted to return the borrowed book to where it belonged, except, I didn’t know the system. I figured that if I found Amber Lynn, she would know, but I halted when I heard her voice in the row in front of mine.

“We can trust them. It’s time you tell Vesper and the others that us meeting wasn’t a chance encounter.” Amber said.

My heart sunk and I dwelled on what Alex said to me during training. He wanted me to talk to Zeldyn and I had completely forgotten about it given the past few days. I quietly walked over the side of the row, braced my back against the structure, and blended in.

“Not yet.” The stubborn girl growled.

“Then when? It’s not fair. They’ve risked their lives to work with us. We’ve trained them. We know their secrets and they know ours. They’re good people. Vesper deserves to know. They all do. If they find out on their own, they won’t be able to trust us if they know that we kept the information from them. Emma and Vince agree it’s time you spoke to him.”

“I’m not ready.” Zeldyn let out a heavy sigh.

“If you don’t tell them, Crystal or Caspian will. They have every single right to know. I feel wrong, Nico feels wrong. Everyone feels bad about keeping this secret and still seeing them.”

“The Arrow has a lot of secrets, why is this so important?”

“Because they deserve to know the reason they were brought into this life.” Amber said.

I couldn’t take it; my heart was pounding against my chest. I turned to face them in the row and intentionally tipped over a book. It toppled onto the ground and sprawled out, pages folding underneath the cover.

“Oops.” I said with intense sarcasm. My voice lowered. “Zeldyn, Amber, what are you guys talking about?”

Amber Lynn looked at Zeldyn until she turned red and curled in her fist.

“It wasn’t an accident.” She blurted. “Caspian and Crystal did have to confront Tauro at the tattoo parlor, but we knew you guys would be there.”

“Excuse me?” I took a step back.

“We were tracking you, all of you. We knew about your group before we even met.”

I felt violated.

“Why?” I managed to stutter.

“You guys never asked much about our backgrounds. You never sought verification.” She said.

“It’s called trust.” I frowned.

“I’ll leave you two to this. I’m sorry that it took so long for us to have this conversation.” Amber Lynn said, picking up the book I dropped and leaving the library.

“Spit it out, would you?” I felt my temper rising, which rarely happened.

“My name is Zeldyn Evans.” She said.

Vesper had a sister. I inhaled sharply and slid down the bookshelf surface. My hair fell over my knees and my eyes listlessly watched the floor. Everything involving the Arrow and the hunters wasn’t an accident. They tracked us down and turned us into hunters because Zeldyn wanted to find her brother. I thought back to Alex’s story about Zeldyn and her family’s adoption dilemma. It thought about Vesper’s mom and how uneasy she became talking about her husband.

“All this time, you knew.” I said.

“I’m sorry. Can you please call Vesper? I need to talk to him. He won’t answer my call, but I bet he’ll pick up immediately if he sees you’re the one calling. He listens to you. I’m going to Celtic’s announcement by the lake. It’s important. I’ll talk to Vesper when he gets here. I’m sorry that you had to find out this way. I was going to tell you all.”

Ten minutes were spent on the library floor until I found my phone to call Vesper. He headed to the Arrow after his errand and found me still on the ground.

“Scar, what’s wrong?” He moved my shoulders and I slowly shook my head.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“What are you talking about?” He asked, pulling me onto my feet.

My head fell back against the bookshelves and Vesper stood in front of me like a statue. I fondled with my scarf, not knowing what to say. I wore blue jeans and a white sweater. I looked nice, but Vesper looked impressively pleasant. He even wore a tie, which made me question where he had run errands or whether he had a date. I brought my mind back to the news at hand.

“We are here for a reason.”

“Are you okay?” He opened one of my eyelids and checked my pupils. “Did you take something?”

“No. Goodness, Vesper.”

“Did someone hurt you?”

“No, but someone hurt all of us. We were lied to. You need to go find Zeldyn. Now. You need to go find your sister.”

The Arrow smelled like pine when we returned outside, and by the lake was Celtic giving a speech. What I told Vesper had resulted in a permanent bewildered look on his face.

Vesper scanned the crowd and found Zeldyn perched on a rock with many others who were listening to the Reaper. He took a spot standing against a ragged tree with his arms crossed. I squatted down beside him, twisting my finger in the dirt to make shapes.

“I speak on the behalf of Willow as well as my own. As always, we thank each and every hunter for choosing to participate in such an anguishing, but rewarding life like this one. If it were not for you and the thousands of other hunters in cities and countries worldwide, this world would have been demolished ages ago. We’ve had a horrible experience from the triplets locating themselves in the capitol, but we contained Tauro’s destruction and removed him from all dimensions of life. Willow and I would like to thank the Arrow of Baltimore for traveling to find us and bringing reinforcements. The extra reinforcements will be around to stay for future endeavors. ”

“What happened to Willow?” A distant voice questioned.

“She gave herself to the cause, but she is alive. Her sacrifice rid of Tauro and his evil took effect on her. Healing for her is necessary until she is strong enough to return to serve you all. Until then, I will take her place.”

“What about the other brothers?” Another voice yelled out.

“Tayden and Theodore are still alive. And I,” he sighed, “will take the same responsibility as Willow to perform my sacrifice and rid of Tayden when I can. I will be the one to kill him.”

I knew it was a personal matter.

“And Theodore?” Someone asked the question that was unspoken, but in everyone’s minds. “There’s only two of you. The other Reapers will not help towards our cause, which will leave one triplet unconquered and alive after you perform your sacrifice. Theodore is the original one who practically cloned himself in the first place. Who’s to say he won’t do that again?”

Celtic avoided a direct answer. “It will be solved. All of them will be destroyed, every single demonic particle. Tayden is alive, healthy, and not to mention, traveling. He is the current concern. But for now, I want you all to heal, mourn, and revive. The deepest condolences come from both of us. We plan to pay our respects.

A redheaded boy stood. His face was plastered with freckles and glasses rested on the brim of his nose. He was lean.

“Yes, Zachary?” The Reaper questioned.

“We are fighters. We mourn our losses, but do not dwell. I believe that the hunt for Tayden should continue promptly.”

Celtic did not falter, but the Arrow seemed to agree. One by one, another hunter stood up and repeated the boy’s words until everyone was standing up as a pack. They held their hands to their hearts, leader and hunters. Everyone began clapping and Celtic ceased the assembly.

“Yes, you all are right. The hunt will continue. Thank you.” Celtic said and stepped down from his place on the rock. Many leaders went up to him, already discussing tracking plans and new mission quests.

Vesper pushed off the tree and headed directly for Zeldyn, who was brushing herself free from dirt and heading off. He grabbed her shoulder and received a stunned look from her.

“We need to talk.” He announced.

“Well if it isn’t the dynamic duo? You found me.” She amused herself with a laugh, before realizing Vesper’s serious look.

“You know. Don’t you?” Zeldyn realized.

“Where can we talk?”

Zeldyn scratched her brow before pointing to the left of where we were.

“We can talk in the trees?” Vesper seemed irritated.

“There’s a path leading to one of my places I like to go.”

It was all she said before trudging forward and vanishing into the bushes. Vesper gave me a look and spoke.

“You’re coming right? Please say yes. This is a mystery I’ve been trying to uncover for years. I need you by my side.”

“I didn’t plan on going anywhere.” I answered.

This path was fading. It wasn’t the color of bright sand like the other paths at the Arrow were. This one was covered by many pine cones, the few leftover from fall. After hundreds of thorn pricks in my jeans and mysterious sounds, we ended up further near the edge of the lake. There was a dock jutting out of the sand that looked intact and sturdy.

“What do you want to know first?” Zeldyn questioned as her footsteps creaked under the bridge. She pounced onto the edge, letting her feet dangle over the water. The dock was surrounded by wooden horizontal planks that served as a border around the platform. The girl rested both of her hands on one, placing her head in the middle.

“Do you know your parents?” Vesper took a seat on the dock across from her, pulling his knees up.

“Yes.” She exhaled.

I chose a neutral spot in the middle of the dock platform and stared out onto the water.

“Your parents, who are they?”

Zeldyn didn’t turn around when she spoke

“I know my father.”

“And your mother?” He questioned urgently.

“No, I don’t directly know her. I’ve only heard about her.”

“Do you have any other siblings?”

“No. Just you.” Her brows came down in an irritated V. “My mother didn’t want me. She kept you. That’s what my dad says.”

The dock was quiet for many minutes; the only noise came from fluttering insects.

His chest rose with a big inhale and I saw the resemblance as the two faced each other. They both had the same eyes; it was the exact same weird blend of hazel and emerald fighting against each other for attention. Neither would win and the colors ended up swirling with each other in cyclones.

As their hands touched, their complexion match was flawless. I felt idiotic for not realizing before, but to everyone’s knowledge and due to his mother, Vesper was an only child.

“You knew and you didn’t tell me?”

“We were strangers, Vesper. You cannot go up to a stranger and tell them that you’re their sibling. It’s not accepted easily.”

“Your father, he’s the one who told you everything?”

She nodded.

“And your father,”

“Our father.” She corrected him.

“Our father,” He struggled with the words, “He is alive, is he not?”

“He is.”

“Where is he now?”

“In the city, right here in Washington. He was a contractor who helped with the recent Arrow building upgrade. He also runs his own shop and works with weapons. ”

Vesper pulled back from her.

“Vesper, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t tell you any earlier.”

“Then when?”

“Whenever you would believe me. When you really trusted me.”

“And when would that be? When would I ever believe that I went from being an only child to having a lost sister just from someone telling me that in a few minutes?”

“Come back to the lodge, both of you.” She said.

We were traveling through thorns again, but it wasn’t silent. Vesper’s mind was sparked and his questions were only the beginning. Accusation came next.

“You knew! You found me!” His said as the pieces were put together.

“The place Scarlett and her brother went to get their tattoos was on the radar for one of the triplets, we had been scouting it out for weeks. You and Alice going with them on a day there would be an attack was coincidence. But yes, for at least the past year, I’ve kept tabs on you and I’m not sorry for that. My dad told me as much information about you that he knew. Afterwards, I set out on a search to see if our mother was still living in the same spot. I saw you and I’ve kept you in my sight since.”

We emerged out of the bushes like children from Lord of the Flies, but given the area, no strange looks were received.

“I begged Caspian and Crystal to go, to see you and admit the truth, but they said you wouldn’t believe it. They invited you to meet the group for your skills and to do me the favor of finally meeting my brother. I knew all along and I planned on telling you when I had enough proof. I looked for any official documents, but your mother kept all of them. My dad gave me pictures of us together, one was in the hospital. It was the last time he saw you. Finding you since then has been my priority, along with hunting. Our dad is a retired hunter.”

We entered the lodge, passed the commotion, and headed to the third floor library again.

“Chances are, Alice is in my room and she knows nothing. I don’t keep it anywhere it can be found that’s too obvious.

“Keep what?” He asked, but she kept moving.

The library was still empty and after passing four rows of books, she stopped in the fifth aisle where I first heard her. She made her way to the end. A thick dictionary, the color of eggplant, was shoved between a black book set. It was out of place, even though all the books seemed organized at random. She pulled it out and when she did, it revealed a tiny padlock on the side. The key to her padlock for the crossbow dangled right next to a smaller one that opened the book.

Zeldyn sitting down on the ground suggested that we should too. Vesper’s nervousness was still making me tense as she opened the torn cover to reveal that the inside was hollow. It was a book safe. Inside the same square was a picture of who I assumed to be Vesper, looking at a baby in a man’s arms, who sat on the ground next to him.

There were a few envelopes, returned to sender, but meant for his address. Vesper tore one open to see stacks of letters with money slipped between the papers. There was a small silver chain, two baby shoes, and more pictures of him at various occasions, before Zeldyn’s birth. There was another one of his mother in a white dress, holding him in her arms in a meadow. A torn baseball sat in the corner along with a small medal.

It was only a glimpse; before she gently took the letter from his hands and placed it back inside.

“I believe this is yours, it’s from our father. He used to visit you a lot, even after he took me away. Then our mother told him to stop coming around, and to just acknowledge me. He tried sending letters at first, then small gifts, until he gave up and tried sending this as a whole on your last birthday, but mother always sent them back. She placed the book safe in his hands and tore the key off her chain, leaving only the one for her room and the other for the crossbow padlock.

“Thanks.” He stalled and leaned back against a row of books.

“Be careful.” She spoke, but before she explained why, the shelves wobbled and shook, tipping over, despite Vesper’s attempt to hold them steady. The one he braced himself against knocked sideways and hit the remaining four in a domino effect. Books showered down on us, knocking against our heads, pages tearing near our faces, and spines cracking against the ground.

“Shit.” Zeldyn frowned. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“I’m so sorry.” He looked shocked, but Zeldyn started laughing.

“I guess this gives us some time to talk.” She stood, and with the help of Ves and me, pulled up each empty bookshelf with a good amount of strain. Nico pulled Amber Lynn in through the doors and she cried out exasperated.

“My library!” Amber whimpered as her boyfriend rubbed her back. “I heard the noise from the ground floor, and the worst I assumed was this, and it’s happened.”

“We’ll clean everything, we promise. Alphabetical and the works.” Zeldyn assured her. “I need to have a talk with my…brother. Nico get her out of here, it’ll be like this never happened when you return.”

He pulled out his lady and left us with the colossal mess. The work ahead of us would be tedious.

Three hours passed by and I thanked the Arrow for having such a small library. It was an appreciation that went against my usual hobby of collecting books. I found about nine good books on fighting and fantasy stories. Hearing Vesper and Zeldyn talk, and listening to all the discoveries being made by the second was fascinating.

Apparently, both Zeldyn and their father had been at graduation, and Vesper’s mom didn’t speak with either of them when she noticed. Thus the reason she was distant at dinner. The cake Ava made for him on his birthday was actually one sent from his father, but she never told him. Zeldyn told her story about running away from her dad at a young age and meeting Alex while discovering the Arrow and Willow. She eventually found her dad again and they reunited. She then discussed how her dad became involved with the Arrow.

Another two hours passed by. Following the alphabetical organization slowed down the simple task of putting the books back. Dusk came. The library was back in order, pleasing a very stressed out Amber, who thanked us all. Even though five hours of talking wouldn’t begin to cover a lifetime of void, it was enough for the siblings to discuss the basics.

Zeldyn and Vesper stood outside of the library door. Although Vesper said my presence was welcomed, I felt like an intrusion. This was something very personal. I sat on the top of the staircase as they finished up the conversation, ending it with an awkward handshake embrace.

Vesper jogged over to me with a curious smile on his face.

“Zeldyn said if we stay the night, she’ll take me to meet him, my dad. First thing tomorrow.”

“That’s amazing.” I beamed.

“I can’t believe my mother. I can’t believe all of this happened. Will you stay here with me and go tomorrow? Please.”

“Vesper, I told you not to ask for things like that. They’re givens. If you want me there, it’s my pleasure. Did she tell you where he stays?”

He shook his head. We both headed into the hammock forest, agreeing to sleep in the wilderness against Zeldyn’s offer on the extra rooms on the third floor. I molded my body into one’s fabric and offered Vesper my ear.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Like I’ve been shot in the foot and healed by a beautiful nurse, though she was the one to shoot me. Like I just scaled the highest mountain, and then fell off the edge. The positives and negatives are fighting within me.”

“You’re meeting your father.” I smiled at him. “That’s astounding. It’s remarkable.”

“It is.” He agreed. “Although, I could do without having the mother from Bates Motel. The fact that she hid all of this from me…” His hands curled the hammock’s fabric into his fist.

“I can’t even say it was for protection. That’s too much to keep from a person.”

With much joy on my end, Vesper held back the newly bitter feelings for his mother and instead, portrayed a Bates Motel episode while replacing him and Ava as the main characters. Our laughter was contagious as he went into detail.

A blonde and a redhead approached. Alice climbed a tree and sat on the nearest branch before we could greet them.

“Hey Alex, Alice.” I grinned.

“Hello.” They both replied, Alex standing by my hammock rather than finding a seat. He offered me the softest of smiles, which I assumed he was doing to remind me about this spot before chaos had erupted.

“Your cast is off!” I blurted and he stopped unraveling his braid.

“Indeed. Celtic’s healing let me get it off sooner than later, and my head is level. I thought maybe you could help me with fighting, I need a partner, so I don’t lose my ability, wither up you know?” He winked.

I was ready to politely decline, when my dad and Macy stopped at the hammocks smiling. They halted to speak, and continued down to a further one “Sure.” I agreed, ready to avoid my father’s puppy dog love and more information about a lady I didn’t care to know about. Plus, I remembered how much Alex helped me when I was recovering.

“I’ll be back you guys.” I directed to my two friends and left to the arena.

“How have you been?” He asked.

“Since seeing the battle or in general?”

“Both.” He chuckled.

“I’ve been in a mysterious state that I can’t figure out, but I’m accepting it nonetheless. It’s the adventure I asked for. You were right about Zeldyn, I overheard her and Amber talking in the library and we just had a huge load of news dropped on us, well Vesper really. You all knew about us, but I don’t want to think about that right now. How are you? Your cast was fully set already?”
“I understand. Some secrets are best kept until a proper time. Sorry for hiding it, we all are. We planned on sharing, but it was Zeldyn’s place to reveal the news. I feel refreshed. Weapons or no?” He asked when we arrived at the arena.

“Your choice.”

“Then none, I don’t fully trust my arm yet.”

I held up my hands as a block. It felt weird fighting in jeans and a sweater, like it was the first day we all came here and tested out the arena.

He kicked at me and I ducked as we circled each other. I blocked the majority of attacks, only a few of his passed my barriers and stopped before they touched my skin.

I raised a leg and kicked towards one of his high punches and accidentally hit him.

“Alexander, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s not even the arm that was in a cast.” He smiled.

“Maybe we should just do weapons, and slow down?”

“Sure,” He obliged. “I think you’ve gotten stronger, Scarlett.”

He grabbed two small daggers from the shed and we practiced for hours, attacking and parrying each other with invisible forces. Sweat dripped from my forehead and luckily we stopped before we got too gross. I’d have to take a quick shower before we left tomorrow and borrow something from Alice’s closet.

“Hey, Scarlett.” He stopped me as I was leaving the arena after waving goodbye.

“Yes?”

“Would you grab something to eat with me in the kitchen?”

“Sure, why not.”

We had chicken strips for dinner with mashed potatoes, biscuits, and fried eggs. He took a seat at the kitchen island and I followed quietly. I wasn’t sure what to say to someone you kissed, fought a battle with, and then ran off to go on an adventure with your best friend. Especially when that best friend felt threatened and had unspoken feelings.

The tables were halfway full and the loud chatter was a constant buzz in my ear. It emphasized the fact that Alexander wasn’t talking. We sat there for a bit, just eating, like he asked.

“I’m sorry for the quiet.” He noted. “It’s just nice to have the company sometimes. Like the actions you’re doing, even if they’re small, are significant to someone.”

“Of course. I’ll love to watch you eat.” I joked and that lightened his mood. “No, I know exactly what you mean.”

“Alice is a great girl, really she is. She makes Zeldyn change into someone I never knew. Her non-kickass, pretty side.” He laughed. “They spend a lot of time together and I’m no person to break that. Although, I’ve lost Zeldyn as a friend and even though she will always be my best friend, I have to let her go.”

“Looks like you’re going through what I am with Alice. But it’s best that way. Did you ever love Zeldyn more than friends?”

“No, she was too much of a sister. She has been my closest friend, especially when I was being a loner. Nico and I were almost very close. He balanced being with Amber, friends, and hunting, but eventually his love for Amber won.”

“Do you like it here?”

“Of course. I would be lonelier if I didn’t have this place.”

“Have you visited your dad lately? You guys are good terms, correct?”

“Yeah. Last week. We actually saw a game, got some food, and talked about mom.”

“I’m happy for you.” I said honestly.

A pause. They became like power outages, each one longer than the last.

“It’s pretty neat to have you guys here.”

“Thanks.” I smiled. “Meeting you guys has changed our lives completely. It was a safe haven for Alice and her feelings. We’ve met amazing people.”

“You all have great skills, aside from us finding you for Zeldyn. I’m really glad you came here actually.”

“Oh.” I muttered. I had no words for him, but I felt my cheeks warm. His hand came up to tap one before pulling back.

“It’s nice to have met you too.” I replied.

“I’m sorry the other night was interrupted. It feels like I haven’t seen you in forever. The crazy thing is that this timeline of events has only been over the span of a few days.” He sighed and finished.

I grabbed his empty plate and then mine, going over to the sink to wash our dishes.

“Oh Scarlett, no you don’t have to do that. I’ll take care of it.”

“I don’t mind.”

We fought over the plates until we agreed to wash our own, standing next to each other cleaning the dishes, as simple as possible. I felt bad for thinking that it was nice to be around someone who wasn’t Vesper or Alice for once. Emma’s group seemed to have paired off, aside from the bad ass trio of the twins and my brother.

“There’s a place in the forest I’d like to show you.”

I carefully raised an eyebrow and he panicked.

“Oh no! No! Good intentions, cross my heart!” He placed his hand over his chest. “I think you’ll like it. It fits your personality. It’s my spot, will you come see it?”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” I agreed. “Zeldyn showed us her spot earlier.” I commented as we left the lodge.

“Really?” He seemed surprised. “She must be warming up, she keeps personal things secret. It was random?”

“We had things to talk about.”

“Ah.” He did not press further. “She and I used to search the forest for places like Willow’s on the edge of the lake and mark them as our own. There are many here, the further you walk, the more you’ll find. Oh!” He jumped, suddenly remembering something.

“One second.” He dashed into the lodge and returned three minutes later with two of Emma’s mason jars. He held up a finger to his mouth to signal something secretive.

“We’re peeing in the woods? That’s so beautiful.” I couldn’t contain my laughter this time.

“You’re really something, Scarlett. Come on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

He held my hand in his, pulling me towards the lake so that we faced the liquid topaz.

Turning to the right, he pushed me forward by my shoulders, stepping in front of me to lift a branch that hung in our path. We were traveling along the edge of the water, in the opposite direction of Zeldyn’s hideout.

Lights twinkled in my vision. LED Christmas strings were drawn above a huge dirt square. They came down the trees in arches, highlighting the entire area. Encircling the dirt field was a perimeter of tree stumps, about thirty of them. A full grown tree was growing in the middle, its roots breaking above ground and swimming back into the dirt. A tire swing was tied to a thick, sturdy branch, and in the tree itself, was a massive tree house in the shape of a sphere with two windows and a door. There was a ledge, from which dangled both a rope ladder and a single rope to climb down. It was practically a home. On the ground across from the tree house were two wide gazebos that took up the space. The seats on the inside were wooden with red pillows.

“How is this possible” I gasped. “You have Zeldyn beat.”

He grinned proudly.

“Have you ever noticed that it barely rains here? That electricity never falters and the weather stays calm? The Reapers have their ways of making this paradise. This used to be the old meeting spot until it was moved to the lake.”

“Why?”

“The Intercoms were closer to the lodge and the deaths went directly into the lake which leads to another dimension when a Reaper turns it.”

“I understand.” I had him explain no further. “Your treehouse looks like a home from the Shire, but instead it’s in the air. It’s magnificent.”

“Thank you, Scarlett. Willow owed me a favor a while ago and helped me with this.”

The steps of the gazebo were covered in soft moss and the roots of the tree felt like mountains against my feet. My senses heightened as I walked around, highly impressed.

The Christmas strings warmed my fingertips.

“Light comes from the tree sap, Willow and Celtic’s powers once again.” He nodded.

Sounds of water drizzling played in the back of my mind and I looked behind the tree stumps to see a river flowing down and curving towards the lake. Small black bodies moved in the liquid and I dipped my fingers in, letting them tickle my palms. Tadpoles.

Alexander kneeled, kicked off his shoes, and stuck his toes in the water. His head flung back to look at the clouds overhead and I slipped off my Vans and socks to do the same. It felt amazing.

“You’re smiling and you don’t even know it. I knew you would like this place. It fits your personality. You seem genuinely happy around nature.” He told me.

“I thought nothing got better than the Arrow, but this is insane. It’s like the Arrow had a baby.”

“After a while the lake, lodge, and arena get boring. New spots always need to be created.”

“It only gets better.”

“Catch this,” he stood, his feet splashing water everywhere.

I shrieked with laughter and stood.

“Not that, sorry. I meant do you want to look upstairs? It’s my proudest achievement.”

He ran to the tree house like a little lost boy, scaling the rope stairs and sitting on the ledge.

“It’s safe.” He smiled, helping me up as I neared the top.

He opened the small door with an intricately cut pattern by using a key off his chain. I realized today, many secrets had been revealed with those little pieces of metal.

The color scheme was blue and the place was cozy. A small bookshelf was pressed against the wall along with two small bean bags that were near the window. A thin, untouched bed was opposite of those items, but instead of being on the ground, it jutted out from the upper wall. A small table full of drinks, a lamp, and a pocket knife was in the middle.

“Welcome to my home away from home away from home.” His fingers danced in the air as he said it.

“I love it. This is wow. I’ll sign for my timeshare now.”  

It was so much to take in that I had to look at it in a panoramic view. Alex plopped onto a bean bag and grabbed his pocket knife from the table, stabbing holes in the jars’ lids and twisting. I didn’t question what he was doing.

“Is this the part where you kidnap me?” I asked playfully.

“It seems as if I already have.”

He was an energetic being, hopping up again and ushering me to the door.

“You’re kicking me out already?” I laughed.

“Yeah right. Come on!”

He swung down the rope and hit the ground. I chose the rope stairs.

“Don’t be scared, okay?”

“Never.” I said proudly.

“Lux.” He whispered. “Latin is one of Celtic’s favorites.”

The lights hanging in the forest shut off and left a dull natural light. Alex didn’t move and after several minutes I started giggling.

“I’m not crazy.” He insisted. “It would be tonight that they wouldn’t come out.”

“What are you looking for?” I questioned. “Forest elves? I believe everything now.”

A speck of light fluttered by and vanished. A second later it reappeared with a bright flash and dimmed again to another location.

“Fireflies.” I smiled. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen these.”

He moved towards me and handed me a jar, before running back to his spot opposite of me.

“The more there are, the shinier it will be.” He challenged me and I couldn’t resist. We ran on the dirt like children, freezing and searching, spotting and conquering, diving and capturing. We were two young adults being outwitted by insects who were probably laughing in our faces. I looked at his jar. He had three, whereas mine had one. I motivated myself and then steadied my breaths to keep them from flying away from me.

In the end, it was a close tie. But when we tried to count each one individually, they moved and we both lost track.

“Call it a tie?” I offered.

“Sure a tie,” He accepted. “As long as I won.”

“Oh quiet.” I laughed, setting down my jar across from his and testing out the tire swing with joy. Alexander unscrewed each jar and watched as the fluttering insects buzzed off.

“Lux.” He said, and the area was illuminated with Christmas lights again. He pulled out his phone and I felt guilty that I may have been boring him, but he did so to play an alternative album. He hummed to the intro of a popular song, tapping his feet and doing a little dance.

I laughed at him and then looked away.

“Is this not impressive?” He inquired. He did a weird tap dance and then bowed.

“You’ve already surpassed the professionals.” I teased.

“As if you could do better. Come on, show me a move.”

“I prefer vocals over anything involving hand eye coordination. I’m sure there’s no need to make fools out of both of us.”

“Oh, oh!” He cried out, “I see, get over here.”

After a few challenging words from him, I dragged myself over and he turned to a new song.

“Know this one?”

I nodded. “This is weird, I’m nervous.”

“Will doing my weird dance make you less nervous?”

“No.” I laughed, but he did it anyway, dancing off beat to a soft intro.

I had said no, but it worked. The combination of this perfect place, song, and Alex’s brilliant personality accompanied by bad dancing loosened me up. I sang out.

He took my place after a while and his voice was a delight to listen to. It was deep, but on key and very close to the actual singer. My eyes widened at the fact that he could sing, and he did a ‘what do ya know’ shrug.

He sang and my heart was bursting with excitement. He stepped towards me, grabbing my hands, twirling me around, and then pulling me into him. He broke away to do his weird tap dance and I danced on my own, spinning and reaching up to the sky. We both sang the chorus.

His hand went to his heart to fake a heart ache. My smile stretched so far that if it didn’t stop, my face would tear in two. He kept spinning me, over and over, before catching me in his arms. I kicked out a leg and did a dramatic swivel, curving my hips back and forth. My hair flew around my face and my cheeks burned red from laughing.

He broke away for a solo, shoving his hands in his pockets and moving his shoulders back and forth while moving backwards. He spun around to face me and smoothly threw his head and chest back before meeting me again. He was challenging me to a dance off, but I was determined to end big. My voice hit a high pitch as I sang out the ending and spun in even more circles. I was kicking up my leg and dancing around him. I finished and bowed. He pulled me back in to dance with him and we swayed back and forth while shouting out the lyrics.

I clapped and he snapped in synchronization. His shoulders moved back and forth, his chest shimmying to and fro. He kneeled in front of me as the song slowed down, swiveling as the tempo rose and starting to dance again. We were screaming the words at each other now.

I was breathless, gasping for air and holding back tears of laughter. I took a seat in the gazebo, running a hand over the split wood and soft pillows.

“That was so much fun.” He breathed in. “I’m sorry you had to see me like that.”

“I’m sorry you had to see me like that!” I retorted.

“Are you kidding me, Scarlett? You have a beautiful voice and you’re fun to watch.”

I laughed the compliment away and stood to catch my breath. Alex was already on the next task, gathering random wood from the forest that was behind the river.

“What are you doing now?” I wondered out loud.

He held a finger up to his lips. “It’s a secret.”

“Everything is secret with you.”

“I like it that way. A person of interest is a person with secrets. It’s make you curious about them.”

“That is true. I agree.”

He threw all of the natural debris onto the ground and I came to the conclusion that he was having a fire.

“Surprisingly, as much time I spend outside, I can’t start a fire. Never have.”

“Really?” He looked intrigued. “Here come close, I’ll show you.”

He grabbed two pieces of flint and started sparking them against each other near the triangular wood set up. I held back the smile on my face while he tried to create fire for several minutes.

“It’s not working because you’re not giving me any proper motivation.”

I thought he meant a kiss, and I tensed, but then the little boy within him exploded.

“Come on! Cheer me on, beautiful!”

I rolled onto my back and turned my head to the side so I could laugh at him.

“Go, Alex!” I yelled out. “Any boy scout could kick your ass in this!”

“That’s horrible encouragement.” He laughed. “Let me find my inner caveman.”

He closed his eyes and for many minutes, I thought he had fallen asleep. All of a sudden a huge roar surged through him and he hit his chest like a gorilla.

“Me, Alex. You, Scarlett. I make fire.”

He ran to the tire swing and hopped on top of it, swinging around a few times and charging back to the fire. He kneeled down, roared again, and lit the wood with a lighter from his pocket.

“You are ridiculous!” I cried out.

“Boy scouts aren’t as resourceful as me. This is a modern way to get a badge.”

“Right, right.” I laughed.

“Will you wait here?” He asked, returning to his normal self. “I have to run to the lodge.”

“I’m not going anywhere, cross my heart.” I mimicked the movement.

“Ok. Okay good, I’ll be right back.” He sprinted into the forest and I had a moment to myself. I appreciated the serenity of his spot. There was detail in the sphere house that looked like a hamster ball in a tree.

I drew dirt patterns on the ground, pulling my legs up and down to create grooves near the roots of the tree.

“I’m back!” He yelled through the trees before he actually appeared.

Holding chocolate, marshmallows, grahams, and a set of playing cards, Alex sat down across from me. His jade eyes glistened over the fire, seeming more vibrant than usual. He held up two neon glow stick bracelets, yellow and pink, and offered to tie mine around my wrist. I accepted, and connected his around his wrist. The hairs on his skin stuck up and brushed against my palm.

“I ran into Zeldyn on the way back, she questioned why I was running into the woods with glow lights and chocolate. She then accused me of being the assistant to Hansel and Gretel’s kidnapper. Then she assumed I was on drugs, until finally letting me go. I think she figured out that I was with you in the end.”

He set out his display and offered me a long, metal rod.

“I love s’mores.” I looked at him.

“Good. If you didn’t, we’d have to end this friendship.”

“What?” I laughed. “Over s’mores?”

“Mhm.” He nodded with a fake persistence. “And you would have some serious explaining to do. Hating s’mores is hating paradise on a graham.”

The fire crackled and he placed a marshmallow on my stick, the flames eating away at the goop immediately. They melted like a record in the oven. When it was ready, I slammed two grahams and a chocolate around it. Alexander shuffled a deck.

“Blackjack?

“I’d love to.”

We waved marshmallows in the air to cool them, and alternated sticking them in each other’s face to eat. Between games of Blackjack, we tested how many marshmallows would could stuff into our mouths and still hold a decent conversation. All was at peace.

We ceased our game of Blackjack and sat by the fire until it died. Alex and I crawled up to the edge of the tree house and positioned ourselves parallel to each other, looking at the sky.

“Zel and I used to always sit out here and watch the stars. Especially after we ran away. I know it’s a cliché, but we thought it was the coolest thing in the world back then.”

“It still is. The sky is one of the many wonders close enough for the human race to question daily. For us to grow accustomed to it and never justify its presence with our admiration is a disgrace. As far as Zeldyn, I think it’s good not to think about your old friendship as a loss. You may not be as close, but memories are everlasting.”

“Speaking of memories, listen Scarlett. I meant to bring up the fight, well actually, what happened before the fight. I’ve been trying to play it cool and pretend as if I didn’t want to think about it, but it comes up in my mind more than often. I just wanted to say that I live in the now. And that you shouldn’t worry about the kiss, or dwell, or figure out any complex emotions because we only have the present. If you feel something towards someone, embrace it, if you want to travel somewhere, go, and if you want to do something, for god’s sake people, do something.”

He was ranting, but then got back on track.

“I like doing things that I won’t regret, or even better, things that I will. Feeling broken and feeling alive are both important emotional states in life. To feel anything excites me. The kiss gave me a wonderful sensation. If there could be something between us, then yes, let’s embrace it. But if not, life carries on.”

“I,”

“Don’t feel pressured to answer. Talking helps communicate clarity, but it also gives all parties a chance to falsely speak due to it being the spur of the moment. Recognizing a state of being should be a spontaneous epiphany, not an average discussion that brings one to a realization. People know when they’re in love, depressed, anxious, somber, or excited, they don’t have to be told.”

“You’re very wise.” I noted. “You phrase things in ways that make sense.”

“Thank you.” He said.

My back pressed against the wooden planks.

“Scarlett, will you sing again?”

“Why not?” I brightened at the flattery, not used to such sweet talk from anyone else but Vesper. I hummed out a tune intro before singing the chorus. I was trying to figure out how Alex could be a young child at heart, but have a fragile philosopher’s soul and mind.

“Scarlett?” He waited until I finished. “Will you stay tonight? I’m guessing that you were going to stay in the lodge, but it’s such a nice night. If not, I’ll walk you back.”

“I’ll stay.” I spoke. “Yeah, I’ll stay here for tonight.” I was reassuring myself more than I was convincing him. In a way, I felt like I was betraying my best friend. I told Vesper that I was coming back.

“Thank you. I’ve missed Zeldyn so much.”

Our conversations converted into the best kind. They were the ones at night that made no logical sense, but could be understood perfectly. Alex added a philosophical twist to every scenario. They were the type of conversations that if they were repeated during the day, the context would seem weird and out of place in normal conversation.

“It’s insane how we’re brought into the world with already established connections that you don’t know, but accept. They’re like webs; we’re the spiders with webs.” Alexander’s voice drifted into drowsiness. “Some people have more webs than others, and others will meet new connections daily. But in the end, we will never be able to stretch our web to every single person in the world. I wish I could know everyone in the world. That would be one hell of a social media account. I used to think that I would be able to know everyone if I spoke to everyone I came across. Then I realized that was too much work, and many people should stay unmet.”

“Well how about the fact that,” I yawned. “On top of those connections, there are other planets aside from the earth, which we’ll probably never get to touch in this lifetime. We can only dream about them with a curiosity that will never be tamed because it’s impossible. They’re looking at Earth and taunting us.

“Good point. Do you think Celtic or any other Reaper has been in space? There have been deaths in space right? Celtic, or another Grim, has probably been in space.”

The thought was odd and then I imagined a Reaper in their cloak, floating against gravity. Would they stand still? Would they be invisible? I expressed the thought to Alex.

“I’m fighting the urge to laugh at a Death God doing 360’s in the air. Now that we’re talking about it, Reapers have been in some horrifying places. On top of collecting death, imagine the locations. Some in paradise, some in water, lava in Pompeii, planes, trains, everywhere and anywhere in time…”

“Reapers are weather resistant then, yeah?” I asked.

“Yeah.” He laughed. “Okay, no more, this feels weird.”

“Agreed. Back to your web theory. Aside from the millions of people in the world, there is no way to pause all of the deaths and births happening every minute. The population is always changing. You can’t travel everywhere to meet everyone, and tolerate all of the different types of personalities people have. Your reasoning is truthful. Not everyone is meant to be met. I wish I could know everything about how people think and why some personalities disastrously clash and others mend so well.”

“That would solve so much over thinking at night. I believe to a small extent that horoscopes do play a part. A lot of people say not to rely on them, and I highly agree, but life is based on multiple concepts. And have you ever read them? They get freakishly accurate. I think they add the cherries on top to previously determined personalities.”

“I like the theory.”

For hours we went on about the worst and best books, movie plot twists, and awkward scenarios in our lives. We talked about social and stress difficulties of being high school and the freedom of having endless days to ourselves now.

“We could stay here.” He noted. “But if we fall off the edge, it will hurt. We should go in.”

“That sounds nice.”

I helped him up and we entered the tree house. My back arched, ready for a comfortable sleep for the night.

“Take the bed, I prefer the bean bags.”

“Are you sure?” I paused. “Will you be comfortable?”

“When you push the two together, it feels like a large pillow. I like it.”

“Okay, thanks.” I slipped into the bed and curled my toes in the soft fabric.

“No, thank you for staying.” The words played on his lips as he grinned. “Goodnight, Scarlett.”

“Goodnight, Alexander.”

It was like the yolk of an egg had been cracked open and thrown on top of my eyelids. Sunlight shone through the windows in Alex’s cabin, and after figuring out where I was I sat up. Alex rolled over on top of the beanbag, groaning with an arm outstretched on his chest.

I pulled out my phone to see five missed calls from Vesper, three from Zeldyn, and that the clock read almost noon. I had not only just left and didn’t return last night, but I didn’t show in the morning either. Zeldyn must not have assumed that I was with Alex yesterday if she hadn’t figured it out.

Alex’s phone vibrated in his pocket and he awoke with a complaint. Sitting up to look at me, and then checking his message, he sighed.

“Hi pretty girl.” He looked at me.

“Good morning.” I wiped my eyes.

“Zeldyn wants to know if I’ve seen you.” His fingers flew on the keys. “I told her we’ll be in the kitchen in five. Is that okay? Why the sudden connection between you two? Is it because of what she finally revealed?”

“No, no, no, no.” Guilt ate at me. “I was supposed to meet her and Vesper for something.”

As Alex gathered his wits, I pulled myself from his bed and fixed the blankets. Throwing on my shoes and sitting next to him on the beanbag, I waited as Zeldyn replied.

“She said that’s fine, but your other friend wants to leave, though not without both of you. This seems important Scarlett, let’s hurry back. I’m sorry I kept you.”

“No, yesterday was so nice. It was calming and fun. I loved it, but I neglected a task.”

I went out to the ledge and slid down the rope, standing at the bottom until Alex came down. I stayed on his trail through the woods until we headed back into the lodge.

Vesper was sitting at the table with his arms crossed as he stared down at an omelet with pepperoni flakes crumbled on top. His eyes looked through me as I entered, and then at Alex, who followed closely behind. He may have been making the wrong assumption. Zeldyn was sitting next to him drinking coffee, with a bagel in her hand sliced open by her dagger on the table. We both took seats across from them after grabbing something for breakfast.

“Vesper, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. I know this isn’t important to you, but it is to me. I just want to have someone I knew best there.”

“How could you say that? You meeting your father is extremely important to me.”

“Yet you disappeared last night and don’t return in the morning. If we were anywhere else but here, I would have been worried sick. You couldn’t even send a text. I didn’t want to head out without you.”

“Sorry man, I wanted to show her something. It’s my fault she’s late.” Alex said.

“Show her something? Something that took up all of last night and this morning. Oh.” Vesper had made that assumption and silenced himself. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He spoke. “I didn’t realize you two were together last night.”

A few heads looked in our direction, but continued on with their meals.

“At the table, Vesper? Really?” I spat.

“You didn’t deny it.”

“Take whatever idea you have in your mind, and throw it in the trash.”

“In case you didn’t know,” Vesper directed at Alex. “We had a commitment to attend to, it was on our agenda. But Scarlett, if you don’t want to, you can stay here. Stay with Alice, your brother, and your dad.”

Alex fidgeted beside me and pulled away from his chair. “I should leave, goodbye you all.” He headed through the doors and left me groaning.

“I. Wasn’t. With. Him. Vesper. He showed me this cool place in the forest, that’s all.”

He eyed my bracelet and slowly nodded. “You went to a woodland rave without me? I’m hurt.” He sarcastically amused himself, now revealing that he seemed instantly relieved when Alex departed.

“I give up, but I wish you would believe me.”

“I do.” He spoke.

Meeting his father took over his mind again and he asked for us to drop the discussion. I started and finished his eggs. As soon as I closed in on the last bite, Zeldyn was up and out of the door. Vesper and I followed, and we took his Jeep with her instructing directions.

Leaving the Arrow and returning closer to home was refreshing, but as we took a few turns that felt too familiar to me, I asked about his dad.

“You said he’s a retired hunter right?”

“Mhm.”

“Where does he stay?”

“In the city like I said, we’ll be there soon enough.”

“I just feel like I’ve been here before.” I mumbled.

“We wander so much, we probably have.”  Vesper assured me and gave my thigh a squeeze.

“Does your dad sharpen swords?” I dared to ask.

“Yes. How’d you know?”

Ves looked at me, curious about my answer. I just told him that it was a lucky guess. Truth being, my stomach had plummeted as we took the familiar turns down the street. When we stopped near an alley with a fire escape, I searched for a way to understand how I unintentionally knew my best friend’s father when he did not.

“It’s up these few dingy steps. It’s not his home, but his shop, which he never leaves anyway. Ves?” She looked at him as she hopped out of the car.

“Yeah?”

“He’s the best. There’s no need to worry. I know he’s missed you and just wants forgiveness. I’m the reason he left. The reason our family was torn apart.”

“It was Ava’s doing.” Vesper corrected.

My mind raced back in time to practicing here. Except this time, it was Zeldyn swinging up the rusty stairs and encouraging us to come up. He went first and I followed, but I had to pull him back before Zeldyn reached the top.

“Zeldyn, could we have second?” I asked. She eyed me watchfully, but then shrugged. She took a seat on a few steps above and distracted herself so she didn’t eavesdrop. I turned Vesper around and spoke quickly before he could ask what was going on.

“Vesper, I’ve met your dad.”

“What?” He asked.

“I’ve met your dad. I’ve been to this place. Alex took me here to sharpen swords and I met him. He asked about Zeldyn a lot, and it all makes sense now that she’s his daughter.”

He flinched, but instead of being frustrated he only asked me a question.

“Is it true? Will I really like him?”

I nodded. “From the few minutes I was with him, he seemed very true to heart. I just wanted to tell you. I didn’t know all of this would fall into place like this. I surely didn’t know that he would be the dad you never knew. I wanted to tell you first before he recognized me. That’s all, let’s go.”

Vesper continued up the steps.

The metal slot in the door opened and eyes peered through.

“It’s me.” Zeldyn mimicked Alex’s response to security measures and the door opened.

The man in the cloak pulled down his hood and embraced his daughter in a quick hug with a kiss to her forehead.

“Father, I’m so sorry for the lack of a warning, but I believed this was necessary.”

She sidestepped to reveal us in the shadows.

“Ah. Alex’s friend, Scarlett. Yes, and who is-”

He analyzed Vesper and in a minute his mouth dropped. His eyes seemed to turn glassy as recognition grew stronger. He stuck out a hand to Vesper and pulled him into a deep hug, slamming his back to make sure he was real.

“Can it be?” He grinned. “Can it be my son? Zeldyn you’ve brought me your brother. You found him.” He was still holding on.

“He wasn’t lost dad, we came back for him and he was here. He’s always been here. Now, he’s just with us. We don’t have to watch him from the shadows anymore.”

“How are you and your mother?” He pulled back, gesturing us all further into the room. We passed under a curtain and he offered us cups of coffee.

“Good, we’re okay.”

They were both shocked, two generations watching each other. Troy’s wrinkles folded near his eyes. The man wasn’t apathetic anymore.

“Well I’m Troy, your biological father. You know Zeldyn, your sister. I’ve met your friend already, girlfriend? Scarlett. And there goes that for introductions. My, it’s been so long.” He couldn’t stop staring at him.

“What has transpired in your life? What have you done? Where have you gone?”

“Honestly, I haven’t gone or done much besides the Arrow. I’m looking into local colleges and figuring out what I want to do for housing plans.”

“Your mother can be anal, but I wish the best for her. I know we’ve only met, but my place is open to you. Although I’m sure that your mom would have my hands in cuffs and the police at my door if I took you in, despite your age.”

Curiosity took over his face.

“She doesn’t know you’re here, does she?” Zeldyn confirmed her father’s suspicions.

“I plan on telling her directly after this actually.” He hesitated. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“How did you find out, did she tell you? We’re so happy if she did, but we thought it would never happen. We thought that we’d have to pursue you when the time came.”

“I told him.” Zeldyn stated.

Everyone sipped coffee hesitantly and stared. Zeldyn told more recent stories about their spying. Troy finally told the true story about the hospital and the divorce. He made Ava sign the papers after Zeldyn was born and she still refused to keep her. He did so right there in the hospital room.

Small conversations went on between two of us at a time. Troy asked me a few questions and then Zeldyn would talk to Vesper. Vesper would ask about his childhood, and then Zeldyn would ask her dad something. Revelations surfaced and we stayed in the small shop as long as he allowed, which was very long. It was finally Vesper who had enough.

“Zeldyn, thank you.” Vesper stood. “For not hiding my father from me. And Troy, I’ll be back. This is not the last time I’ll see you. There’s so much more I want to know, but right now, I have some adjustments in my life I want to attend to.

“Are you sure?” Troy asked. “You’ll come back so I can see you again?”

“I swear it.” Vesper looked at me and then back at his family.

“Thank you guys, goodbye.”

“You have my number Vesper, don’t go AWOL.” Zeldyn harmlessly threatened.

“You know where I’m at half of the time. Apparently you knew where I was at all along.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

We headed out the doors, leaving his father and sister behind. Once again we were in the city, lost, without intentions.

He told me that we were heading into central Washington, but never elaborated on why we were. We took a bus, letting time pass as he discussed meeting with his dad. Eventually, he abruptly stopped talking about it, and instead starting talking about checking out the zoo sometime soon.

“I’m trying to control this urge, Scarlett. I want to keep calm, but I’ve been full of so many emotions lately. I’m sorry about what I said at the table with Alex. This is the first time my emotions have been scattered and I can’t control them. If I lose you, Alice, and Sebastian to the Arrow, then I’ll struggle with going there for personal gain. That place will mean nothing to me, you know? I do like everyone in Emma’s group, for the most part, but they all already have established relations with each other. I don’t see myself mending to any of them, so keeping you guys close was important to me until I befriended someone at the Arrow like you guys have.”

“I’m glad you explained that to me. I didn’t see it from your perspective. I wish I would have known sooner, but I understand now.”

“Good.”

“Now that you’re opening up, does that mean you’ll tell me where we’re going?

“Nah.” He smiled.

After a few more bus stops and plenty of turns, we were on Seventeenth Street. I followed him past a wicked mural until we stood in front of the place where he first got inked.

“You’re getting another one?” I beamed and he opened the door to let me in. He was grinning.

Thankfully, this was a tattoo shop where we didn’t have to worry about any of the artists turning rogue. Tauro was eliminated. Terminated by Willow.

“Is this a rebelling act against your mother, or do you really want it?”

“Both, well the latter. As much as my mom hates me getting them, I’m eighteen. This tattoo is one that I’ve wanted for myself, to assure that I stay genuine to my spirit. I hope you don’t mind waiting. It’s not going to be as big as the Pisces one, so it won’t take long.”

“No problem.” I was excited for him.

“I know it’s a tattoo cliché, but I want this to be a new chapter. We’ve graduated and I’ve met my father and sister. I feel enlightened and I want it marked.”

“What do you want?” I questioned while eyeing his Roman numerals spreading across his wrist.

“Just a V, on the back on my neck.”
“Good luck.” I smiled.

“I’ll barely even flinch.”

A lanky man with multiple piercings emerged from the back and greeted Vesper with a welcoming handshake, slapping him on the back. Apparently his name was Brandon, and after he stenciled Vesper’s design and placed it on his neck, they disappeared into a back room.

I amused myself with petty apps and games as I waited, watching the various customers come in and out. Many entered with different tattoo requests such as owls, chains, and line designs. They were all taken to the back to draw out their outlines. One lady left a back room with a freshly tattooed serpent spiraling up her leg and into her skirt. Her artist covered it up with a bandage before she tipped him. She was accompanied by a young man with a metal eyebrow hook. She thanked her artist and asked to post something on the board. The manager agreed and she pinned it on top of all the flyers. It was a vibrant neon poster. I assumed it was for a band or service, and went back to sitting patiently.

Vesper showed up after a half an hour, turning and assessing himself in the mirror by using a small handheld one. He was obviously very pleased with the design. He thanked his artist again and came over to me. I hurried over, ushering him to turn around and viewing the back of his neck. In the middle was an outlined circle, it contained a black V in the most elegant font. His skin around it was red and sore. The V curved at the top and had vines spreading around it. It was dissected into four quadrants; clear enough to create the letter, but it was symmetrically split down the middle and across.

“It looks more than amazing. Ves this looks great, it’s about time you start doing something for yourself.”

He smiled and pulled me into a hug.

We were on the move again, but not without Vesper glancing at the neon paper I questioned earlier. He tore off a number from the bottom and shoved it into his pocket. I decided not to be nosy.

“I really feel invincible. I think I’m going to face my mother.”

“Are you sure you can do that?”

“Better now than later.”

I dragged the back of my hand below the ink on his neck, in admiration of the design and as a gesture of encouragement. He was brighter after that moment. He became a social butterfly, sweet and confident. He took me to a fancy bistro and disappeared again to talk to someone in the back. We ordered and ate, discussing how he planned on breaking it to his mom. The conversation took a lighter turn that pertained to summer and my eighteenth approaching.

When we made the trip back home, he spent no time procrastinating the confrontation with Ava.

“I’ll wait in my apartment, okay? If you need anything, I’m right next door.”

He looked down the street and back to me before accepting that he had to do this. We both disappeared into our homes. I pulled out my key, but saw that the door was already cracked open.  Going in and tossing my bag to the floor, I only had to take a few steps to see my dad holding Macy from the Arrow. Their lips touched and bodies mended.

“Dad, we eat there.” Was all I said, before dissecting my phone from my bag and heading back outside to the curb. I couldn’t leave, I told Vesper I’d wait for him and I would this time.

The hours passed by, literal hours, and I stayed on the curb until nightfall. I heard Ava’s scream through the thin wall, one that was first directed to his choice to get a tattoo. Vesper retaliated with a remark about keeping secrets and exposed what he knew about their family. It was quiet for a long time after that, until she started yelling at him for going behind her back. She claimed there were reasons for what she did. I heard crying, presumably hers, and after another hour she stormed out of the house and got into the car, driving off.

Vesper ran out with the keys to his Jeep in his hand as he flung himself into the driver’s seat. He looked surprised to see me.

“Why are you outside?” He rushed.

“Dad and Macy and getting comfortable with each other. I said I’d wait for you, but I couldn’t stay inside.”

“Get in, hurry please.”

I did as he asked and he sped off before I could shut the door, following behind his mother.

“I’m taking that it didn’t go so well.” I turned to read his expression and jumped.

“Vesper!” I cried out.

There was a large slash on his cheek and his new tattoo was bleeding more than it was supposed to. For the first time in forever, I saw a tear in his eye. He fought harder than he should have to keep it in.

“Ves, what happened? Did she do that?” I felt disgusted, searching for anything to stop the bleeding. Napkins in a bag from an old fast food trip were in the back, and I unstrapped myself to get them. I pressed the burger smelling tissues to his face as he drove.

“Vesper,” My voice softened. “What happened?”

“It’s nothing, really.” He stumbled. “She slapped the back of my neck after seeing the tattoo, and after telling her what I knew, she denied all of it. Every single piece. I was stupid, she was making dinner and I was too close, it’s my fault.”

“She cut you?” I growled.

My. Entire. Body. Burned. With. Rage.

“I need to find her, she’s not stable. I need to know that she’s safe at the moment. Things calmed down after our fight and we left to our rooms. I worked on a few things, but then she stormed out.”

“I get that, but you need to get out of that house. You’re staying the night at our place as long as she’s around.

Vesper drove for hours with me reaching over the console to stop the bleeding. His attempts to find Ava proved pointless as it got darker.

“Vesper, I’m sorry, but this needs to be stitched now. You keep bleeding.”

He didn’t fight me, and even let me take the wheel when he started to lose energy. I rounded our area in the city two more times to show that I wasn’t giving up on finding Ava. But afterwards, we had to return to his house.

He stayed at my house so much, that I usually forgot his own existed. After passing through the flower shop, we headed up the steep stairs and to the main room in the top of the apartment. Down the hall was a bathroom and two bedrooms. The entire house was decorated with warm candles and sweet smells.

“I can go get Macy. She’s a doctor and will take care of you in minutes.” I helped Vesper over to the couch.

“No, I don’t want words spreading. Can you do it yourself?” He groaned.

“I can try.”

I found a first aid kit under their bathroom sink and a sewing kit in her bedroom. I felt annoyed with being in her personal space. Her room smelled like peaches, which was deceiving to her ominous personality. I placed bandages on his tattoo, which was clearly irritated from her hitting him. I then threaded a needle.

“I’m so sorry; I don’t want to ruin your face. Are you sure Macy isn’t needed?”

“No.” He said firmly.

He passed me supplies and we sanitized the tools as best as possible. It suddenly occurred to me that I would be stitching his face. My hands ran through the motions, but I hadn’t fully process the thought. I inhaled and he grasped my shoulder.

“I just got a tattoo and then had a hand slam down it. Come on, its fine.”

I stuck it through the skin and started to sew; pulling the skin close together in hopes that it would heal better. His mom left a long cut on him, and even worse, it was deep. I neared the end, repeating the process until finally tying it off. Bandaging the stitches to hide the cut, I put away the first aid kit and left to get him something to eat, along with iron pills and a glass of water.

“Vesper I know you know this,” I returned and sat down. “But she not only hit you, she attacked you with a knife. Who’s to say she wouldn’t have missed by inches and blinded you? It’s abuse.”

“I got lucky.”

“Has she done this before?”

“Never.” He blurted.

“Are you lying to me? Your best friend?”

He was offended. “I would never lie to you and you know that. I’m just as shocked.”

“Have you read your father’s letters? The book safe Zeldyn gave you, have you gone through it? Maybe it will mention anything like that.”

He shook his head and recalled the other events. “Her face gave away that it was true, before she denied it. She knew about our family and lied to me about it. I’m trying so hard to see the way she thinks. I can comprehend wanting to give your child the best life, but my dad kept Zeldyn, and they both turned out fine. They changed their financial situation. They’re more than fine, that can’t just be luck. She didn’t trust Troy’s judgment. Let’s head to my room, I don’t want to stay here.”

Leaving to his room, I glanced at the kitchen and found a thick cutting knife with blood on its edge. Droplets were on top of the counter. I swiped a hand over it and Vesper’s blood was now on my fingertip. I shuddered and washed it off, before heading into his room.

I had seen the space, plenty of times, the simple blue paint on the wall, a rack of trophies, a TV, and an Xbox. Somehow it had seemed different, but maybe that was because we were. And also the fact that his clothes and books were all stuffed into bags, his TV and Xbox were unplugged and sitting in a box, and the two painted city canvases I gave him for gifts were propped against the door. Every other small item that accented his room was now in one box or another. It looked like he just moved in, aside from the trophies on the wall, which he left untouched.

“You already packed.”

“Mhm.”

“Want me to start carrying it over?”

“Actually, I’m stuffing this into the back of my Jeep. Your dad has already been burdened with Alice and I staying there like we owned the place.”

“The only thing burdening him right now is that Macy is not in his bed. He wouldn’t care.”

“That’s okay. I’m going to put these in the car and we can talk about something less stressful. We can stay here for the night, considering your dad’s situation.”

I offered to help, but he truly insisted that he needed the fresh air, so instead I sat by his bed. His laptop was the only item left in the room. I had agreed to not be nosy, but I was curious when I saw his resume on the screen. Lists of the culinary programs and achievements from school were on the document. An essay was partially open; it was a response to some question. I looked away. He really was making some major changes, but where was he going?

Crossing the room and opening a window, I looked out to the city, partially looking for his mom to return. His room was simple enough to be packed away in containers and hid in his car in a matter of minutes.

I thought back to his resume and personally considered looking for a job in a bookstore, or perhaps, a movie theater. I had made all of the money I needed reselling thrift shop treasures online, but it wouldn’t hurt to have something official. I relied on the Arrow too much anyway.

Though, it would be some excuse if a hunter called me for an emergency. ‘Sorry I’m at work, I can’t help save the city folk,’ didn’t seem like a legit justification.

Vesper stayed in the room after making three trips, and closed out the programs on his laptop. He offered it to me to use.

“There’s actually nothing I need to search.”

“How about what you have in mind for your eighteenth next month, huh? Skydiving? A trip? It’ll be fun to plan. Take our minds off the crazy.”

Narcissism took over me as I put my hair into a braid.

“I want to be out in the open, like really out there. Skydiving sounds great, but I was thinking maybe we all could go a beach resort? I’ll start putting money away for Myrtle or OBX to get a small hotel and just enjoy the night.”

“I like the sound of that.” He nodded. “I’ve neglected to tell you this, but I’ve put in some applications for a few jobs where I can exhibit my talent. You know, where I can do what I know best.”

“Being great?” I boasted his ego.

“I tried to apply, but they said I exceeded expectations for that job.”

“Well that sounds encouraging. I’m sure whoever hires you will be lucky to have you. I think these changes are good.”

“Yeah, me too. Thanks. I have a few movies on my laptop, care to watch?”

I nodded, accepting an earbud from him and leaning against the wall in his weirdly empty room.

“I think sometimes we just all need a boost, and I want to accept this as my boost. It’s my necessary change which helped me learn about my past and changed my future before it was set.” He acknowledged his thoughts. “Every day from now will be better lived, and maybe I’ll become wiser from this situation, and mold into something great.”

“I told you Vesper. You already are something great.

The next day, Vesper was gone. Despite spending more time with him than I deserved, I still felt lonely. He was discovering his new family, and I couldn’t take him away from that. I desperately wanted to visit Alice and see that she was still happy. Although, after a reassuring call from her, I didn’t need to.

Alice, Vesper, my brother, and my dad all disappeared to address their own lives. I didn’t want to reach out to Alex because I thought some space would be good after yesterday. I didn’t want to seem too eager and desperate for company. Besides, he was probably doing hunter things.

I peeked out my window to see Ava’s car in the driveway, and suddenly, I wanted to run over and scream at her. Calming myself down with a hot shower, I picked out a small gray T-shirt, black shorts, black leggings, and gray Vans afterwards. I dressed and settled onto my bed. An hour or so passed of no calls, texts, or inquiries. It felt like I was reliving a high school night occupied with homework. Except, there wasn’t any homework or school. There was nothing, just me, doing nothing.

Ves claimed to have left for a meeting, so when he called notifying me that his Jeep was outside waiting, I sprang up. I was ready for the chance to go out. Noting the fact that his mom was home, he greeted me quickly and started the engine. He looked handsome, wearing a black and white vest and black dress pants. A red bow tie rested under his chin.

“Well hello you. You look so nice. What’s going on?

“I had an interview.” He kept his expression steady.

“What? When and where? How did it go?”

“I got the job I’ve had an eye on for a while. I’ve been keeping in contact with one of the bosses who reviewed my application. He scheduled me for my final interview yesterday, and offered me a position catering. And that’s not even the best part, since it’s catering; I get paid by each event, meaning I don’t actually go to work nine to five. By working on the catering crew, I show up for every event and get paid just as handsomely as the restaurant workers. This place receives big requests for activities and parties. My time will be unbothered and it fits my love to cook. Since the summer program is full of internships belonging to previously applied candidates, the boss said I can start this upcoming August. I’ll go to orientation, and if I do well, I can have a trial run during their annual Summer Soufflé Showdown.”

“You mean where we were yesterday? Vesper that place is top class. Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” I reached over and he pulled me into a hug.

“It looks like you’re the one leaving me now.” I laughed off the comment, but felt the truth stab at me under my ribs.

“Of course not, this opportunity is what the Arrow was for you. I can balance it all, I promise. Do you want to see the second surprise? There’s more. It will be a huge adjustment, but after yesterday I realized it was much needed. Can I blindfold you?” He pulled out a handkerchief from his vest and I obliged.

We drove for about ten minutes before he told me I could take it off. We stepped out of his Jeep after he parked.

“I’d keep it on you, but I think that’ll look bad to whoever we pass.”

I stood next to a massive building made out of bricks and blue windows. Given the time, it was late enough for the street lights to beam around it. I stared at the apartment complex. The entire building was a reflection of the inside’s clean, sleek look. Before my jaw could drop, Vesper told me that I couldn’t say anything about it until we got inside and saw everything.

Cars were parked in parallel spots around it and the glass doors leading inside were so clear, they looked invisible.

We passed the two potted plants springing up in front of the entrance. The walls, curtains, and floors were all white with matching chairs and tables. Past a set of short steps was the hallway, stairs and the elevator ready to be used. He brushed past me to hit the button for the fifth floor. We entered the metal container playing soft music.  

“Oh my-”

“Ah, ah, no words until you’ve seen it all.”

The elevator opened into a hallway with velvet carpet and smooth walls. He walked a few steps to the left and opened the third to last door with a key he pulled out of his pocket. I couldn’t believe this was his. The interior decoration was divine and the view through the windows of Washington was refreshing.

The wall was abstract, black and white lines touching one corner of the room and reaching the others in horizontal patterns. The three couches were tan and the arm chairs and two tables were black. The tan curtains came down over a large window in the common area and the natural light illuminated the room with a glow. Short steps led up to the kitchen which took up the upper portion of the room space. It had a large speckled white island in the shape of a semi-circle with metal accents.

Behind that space was more metal amenities. A fridge, microwave, and oven were placed between matching countertops and cabinets. A bookshelf was against the wall near the dining table full of glasses, bowls, and plates. Intricate vases were placed on tables along with old fashioned framed pictures of phonographs, Polaroids, and old telephones.

The kitchen counter was filled with groceries and in the middle of the living room floor was a total of nine bags and suitcases.

“I have roommates.” He smiled. “Bedrooms, come on.”

I got to peek at each. The three small bedrooms were designed to match the rest of the apartment, a three dimensional tan room with the building sinking in and out at different spots. A large empty bed was in the middle with a table and two lamps by its side. The bathroom at the end of the hall, followed the same design.

“Well? He asked.

I squealed and hugged him tightly.

“This is perfect for you.” I said in his ear. “This place, your new job, and your tattoo are all so great. These changes are for the better. How is your tattoo and your cut?”

He pulled back to peel the bandage and reveal an oozy yellow sore still laced with red. I cringed, but assured him it wasn’t that bad. Although a wound from his family seemed to hurt more than being cut open by an Interceptor any day.

“It’s better than yesterday. Anyways, I’m glad you like it. You’re welcome always, I can even make you a key.”

“Your roommates, what are they like?” I questioned.

“You’ll meet them soon, trust me. They just went out to get the last of their stuff before they move in.”

“This is really the epitome of perfection.  It’s near both my home and the Arrow, and it’s so close to places like George Washington University and other attractions. You couldn’t have found anything better.”

“You’re right. I feel revived. I should’ve done this earlier.”

Rapping sounded on the door and two bodies burst in, it was the pair from the tattoo shop last night. The neon ad was for a roommate.

The black girl was the first to speak, her voice was raspy and her face was one of a model.

“Well hello there, greetings Vesper.”

“Hi.” I smiled.

She was wearing an all-white maxi skirt with red pumps and a red tube top, her belly button was pierced with a silver stud. The sides of her head were shaved and down the middle was an Afro with the tips dyed blue. It matched her nails. Her face was small and her dimples flashed with every facial expression she made. A septum hoop looped in her nose and a line of earrings ran down both ears. The serpent on her leg was as bold as it was yesterday.

The boy trailed in playing Plants vs. Zombies on his phone, the music familiar to me. The sides of his head were shaved down and dyed white. His Mohawk consisted of loose black dreads that created a messy bundle of tangled hair down the middle of his back. A small silver bar was hooked in his eyebrow and when he opened his mouth to speak, another silver bar stuck through his tongue. He beard was tied in two small braids.

“Hi there.” His voice was quaint. Guessing your Vesper’s friend. What do you think of the place?” He asked.

“Amazing.” I answered honestly. “I’m Scarlett.” I moved forward to shake both of their hands.

“I’m Mary, but known as Meadow. It’s what I go by. Nice to meet you little lady.” The girl greeted.

“Phillip.” The boy shook my hand, setting his game in his pocket.

They had beat Caspian and his sister when it came to being eccentric.

“How old are you? She asked.

“Nineteen.”

“Vesper told me you two are the concert type, genre?”

“Alternative, indie, the sorts.”

“Then it looks like we’ll have a lot of fun together. Phillip and I are going to unpack, we’ll be back to talk more.”

The two left, dragging their bags into their rooms, and Ves asked if I could help with his. Pulling his bags into his new room, we unzipped and began placing items.

“Are they dating?” I asked.

“If you’re worried about me third wheeling as a roommate, don’t. I met Phillip’s boyfriend earlier when we all discussed me moving in and Meadow likes to indulge with anyone who attracts her eye. We shared concert tickets, pictures, and memorabilia, before they agreed they wanted me in.”

He pulled the city canvases out to put on his wall and set up his television. I tried my best to neatly fold his clothes and put them in drawers or on hangers. His Xbox found a home on the table and the bags were tossed into the corner.

“I think it’s your turn to start making my home your own, Alice and I have practically lived in your house for so long that it’s time you and your dad get a break.”

“Why don’t you believe me when I say you guys are no burden?”

Phillip knocked on the door and entered with Meadow by his side.

“I was thinking we could talk, get to know each other more. Do you guys like Chinese for dinner?”

My feelings were neutral at this point in time. I had pondered during dinner. I really couldn’t complain. Vesper had branched out into a new home and finally met his other family. Alice had found solace with her admirer and was slowly recovering from the death of her only family. And my dad was finding love as well and an outlet since discovering the Arrow.

I left Vesper’s around midnight and returned to the Arrow early in the morning. Leaders and hunters, husky or petite, all gathered on the rock, listening to our new Grim in charge, Celtic. Hundreds of people were crowded around the rock, not a body was missing this meeting.

In a way I enjoyed that Alex was the male version of myself. He sat alone at a small fire, listening to Celtic drone on about Tayden, summer’s approach, and sending out positive vibes to each other. He may have been alone, but he was surrounded by strangers who he didn’t want to entertain.

When I approached him and sat, he accepted my company and passed me a thermos with coffee.

“I was kind of hoping you’d stop by.” He explained the extra coffee that was ready at hand. Marshmallows and other bonfire foods were passed around in tradition.

“Thanks. I’m glad I did. For the coffee of course, although you’re a plus.” I joked and received one of his genuine smiles before he frowned again.

“I’ll be right back.”

Celtic was finishing up his speech about another new journey through the seasons when he asked if anyone had any insights on Tayden. Alexander approached him and pulled out a rolled up newspaper from his pocket.

Celtic examined it closely and nodded to Alex.

The Grim read the title aloud.

“Disappearances may correlate with deaths in New York City. Cases stand unsolved.”

The content group around the fire got quiet as Celtic turned the page without lifting a finger, his eyes flipping to the obituaries as he spoke about an increase of those dying in that city.

“He went north.” Emma said hauntingly. “He’s already begun.”

“Is this in our district? Or is this strictly for the Arrow there? We have so much information to offer them.” Vince noted.

“We could just send a message.” Emma suggested.

“You all are not required to attend to this matter, it is the Arrow of New York’s duty to take care of him. For me, this is personal, and I’ll have to attend to them to perform my sacrifice.”

Some hunters seemed relieved, but others seemed disappointed that they wouldn’t carry on their mission. Alex joined me again, returning with the paper. I couldn’t read his face.

“Celtic, I mean this in a non-offending way, but Vince and I would like to go.” Emma spoke.

“I cannot deny the request, although I would prefer that you all stay here in Willow’s place.

Crystal and her brother stood, then the couple, and finally Zeldyn and Alex.

“Let us be the missionary group then. To fight by their side and inform them. I don’t want to give up on this mission.” Alex spoke.

“Then another set of group leaders will be assigned and in charge of the Arrow for the time we’re gone. Details will be further discussed. This meeting is ceased, thank you.”

Celtic vanished, reminding me what his original purpose was, collecting.

“We weren’t volunteering you and your friends. This is something we tend to do, reach out for missions. You, Vesper, Sebastian and Alice don’t have to go.” Alex rushed to explain to me.

I looked into his eyes, which were content, and I yearned to hold the same peace he held when I spoke.

“No, I’m going. I’m a hunter.”

 

………

 

“New York.” I smiled, stretching up in my bed and dwelling on these past few days. Everything had been so insane with Tauro, the Arrow, and Vesper’s new awakening.

“You’re up!” Vesper stood up from his spot on the armchair in my room.

“I am indeed.” I said.

“Why do you seem so happy?”

“We’re going to New York soon. I was just excited.” I admitted.

He seemed surprised. “We are, yes. Yes, we are.”

He seemed to reassure himself before coming over to my bedside to sit. He quickly pecked me on the lips, his hand holding my waist to bring me closer before pulling away. I reached back out for him, kissing him deeper and smiling against his mouth.

My hand rubbed against a wet spot on his neck and when I pulled it back, my fingers were greasy with cream.

“Your tattoo, I forgot.”

“You remember it?”

“Of course, now you have three.”

“Actually, I got this awhile ago.”

“What? No, when?”

“When you got yours. This is just color enhancer cream.”

“I got mine with Sebastian. You left.”

He cleared his throat and changed the topic.

“Where do you want to go? I got a new job and I don’t have to work today. I want you to tell me everything.”

“I mostly spent my time with you, Vesper. How can you not remember?” I frowned. “Let’s go back to the reflecting pool. Is it late?”

“No, just a little past noon.”

“Then it’s a deal. Can we head to the Arrow afterwards? I want to see the bus they’re taking to New York.”

Vesper cringed. “The hunters are coming?”

“Vesper, of course? Tayden has gone there and he has the watch.”

“Of course, of course. You have a lot to tell me. I keep forgetting things. I think I need to visit the doctor.”

“Probably do.”

“Come on your dad will want to see you, he’ll be excited.”

I quietly crawled out of bed in my shorts and sweater and followed Ves into the hallway. My fingers clasped the back of his shirt and made him stay still when I heard Macy speaking to my dad.

“I know.” The front door slammed shut, and it felt like the whole apartment shook.

“What?” Chris asked.

“I know about her. Your wife. How she died.”

Chris was silent.

“I know who Sebastian is. I know that your family is dead.”

My body froze and I turned white. My breathing became quite harsh.

“Macy, I didn’t tell you because it’s been hard on us.”

“I would have understood.” She whispered. “I wouldn’t have said anything. Is that why Scarlett behaves so strange? Why she’s so odd? Because you lost a son and wife, and she lost a brother and mother.”

“You can’t tell her. Vesper and I are trying to ease the truth into her.”

“Is that why that boy is always here?”

“Yes. He’s been helping her.”

“Then when? It’s been years. How long has she been doing this?”

“Not long actually. Not as long as you think. We don’t know why it started, but it started a few years ago and intensified after the move here.

Vesper was pushing me back into my room, but I fought him. I fought to hear what that bitch had to say about my mom and Sebastian.

The door opened and Sebastian came in quietly, greeting them both, but they didn’t speak back.

Macy sounded like she walked over to Chris to comfort him.

“They died in 9/11, both of them.” She said softly and I heard my dad choke.

“Yes.” He said.

I looked at Sebastian in the doorway, who seemed to blur like a pixelated image. Vesper’s arms were around me, but I was howling. I thrashed in his grasp and Chris broke free from Macy to come to me.

“She’s a liar!”

“Chris tell her the truth, denying won’t help.”

I fell to the floor with Vesper, who was restraining me. His arms were like a snake strangling me as I flailed.

My breaths were scarce.

“Scarlett.” She looked at me and I flipped her off.

“The truth hurts.” She said. “But you have to face it.”

“Don’t talk to me.” I screamed.

“Chris.” She said sternly.

“Ves?” I whimpered, but he kept his mouth in a grim line.

Vesper was holding me down as I screamed again and Chris was bracing himself against the table, the veins in his arms were pulsing too hard.

“Dad?”

“It’s true.” He groaned. “I’m sorry.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty

 

Time does have a different way of working in your world. You finally woke up and we’re going New York soon. In reality, you were asleep for one day and then awoke. You then fell asleep again for one and a half days. Apparently, an intricate timeline occurred in your head. The reality of our world and your fantasies has overlapped and reality seems to be showing up in your world more, which gives me hope.

I think me telling you about my day helps you insert the truth into your dreams. While you were asleep, I’ve been putting in hours at a restaurant for my new catering position. I also had a huge fight with my mom, which was real. And I got a place with Meadow and Phillip, my new roommates. My mom pulled a knife on me and hit me. It crossed a boundary, she doesn’t ever want me talking to you and tried to revoke the trip, forgetting that I am an adult.

Your dad and Macy? She found out about your mom and Sebastian. She knows that they’re dead and was infuriated that Chris didn’t tell her, but then understood how serious the matter was. They’re okay now, and she’s still coming to New York. She understands why you act strange sometimes, but she still doesn’t know you like I do. You were exposed to the cold, hard truth in the wrong way. Of all times you woke up, it was when Macy came over saying that she read the obituaries. I worry about how you’ll process this on the trip.

Your dad isn’t upset with Macy, but he worries for you. You spent so much time crying and shutting us both out.

In your world, you explored different dimensions, leading me to believe your world is just an Inception movie.

Anyways, in your world, you gave me a sister who happens to be Alice’s girlfriend and you gave me a dad. Thank you. I don’t know if it was intentionally imagined, but I enjoy hearing stories of what could have been. And I really enjoy that reality is slipping through the cracks, but I don’t want to be the one who is literally crushing your dreams and forcing you see the truth if it will make you sad.

My place is great and I hope you visit often, and I hope you read this.

Stay happy, I’ll be gone a little more with the new job, but I need to save up for George Mason. Your dad’s saving a college fund for you, but I can’t say the same for my mom. She cares for me and that’s all I need, but she’s invested a lot in the shop and business is slow at the moment.

I wish you’d call. Or just come out. We could see a movie. Or just stare at each other for all I care. Don’t let the darkness pull you down, ever.

You hear me Scar?

Never.

Be okay soon, for me and for yourself. Call me a million times or write a letter. I don’t want you hiding in your books or in your head too much.

Yours truly, Vesper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

We lived in a world where our government was a lie, and money was not the root of all evil, but power was. Power within the authority we learned to trust. They started killing us, the poor, the old, the weak, and the crippled. It was homicide. They killed those who could not fight for themselves and were alone. They tried to control the remainder of the population with threats hanging above our throats in the forms of lowered pay checks and fees. If the people did not die of starvation first, the authority found a way to kill them. They did not want to breed a superior race. They did not want to breed selectively. They did not want to breed at all. Point blank.

The population growth rate scattered globally in newspapers, but we the people did not listen until it affected us directly. Thus, the case with most worldwide issues. Rumors spread pertaining to the decreased amount of humans living in Africa. The starving stopped starving magically. The drought long ago in California, USA, was no longer a threat to the people surviving there, because no one heard from the people of California or Africa anymore. All the problems had disappeared until further investigation showed that the people had vanished. It was never stated publicly, but the population had depleted. Social security checks, pension, retirement, disability, and other sorts of checks were harder to come by. 

It is unknown to me who is currently ruling. They all fight for ultimate authority of the world. States and boundaries are no longer enforced, and I am unsure if there are still seven continents. Aside from suspicion of the government’s involvement in population purge, there is concern for their new methods. Throughout all decades, Grim Reapers have existed behind the appearance of average humans. As of the last two hundred years, all Reapers have been exposed and tagged by the government. Reapers, a supernatural forced bestowed upon the natural world, have been claimed by the powerful people. They’ve been branded like animals through the use of tags.

They have also concocted a body composition to control another force, D.E.M.O.N.S. Devices Enabling Monthly Overpopulation Nullification Systematically. Demons have replaced the old concept of police that existed centuries ago. They come in all forms, fog, animalistic, and even in the forms of other humans. They have the ability to speak and act as real beings. Demons have existed as long as Reapers have wandered the world, only now the government has found a manner to control them through internal gases and devices. The Demons are the ones who are making the people disappear. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A family evicted onto the streets and then vaporized into flesh and bones before the Demons consume them. Minus four in the population count. Don’t ask me how it’s done. With the constantly emerging technological advances and tendency for humans to stay oblivious to causes that don’t directly affect them, it’s all led to this moment in time. The people, no, excuse me, the people with power control land, currency, other people, and even now enslaved the supernatural. The Demons rid of the people, and the Reapers clean up the mess if there is any left. Reapers used to collect natural deaths for the Demons, now the Demons create forced deaths for the Reapers to collect. 

In the last decade, there have been some changes. A group of Reapers have rebelled as previously done to fight a Demon rebellion. They have sided with us, the orphans. The orphans are a group of people who should be dead given our status, but have avoided our fate by keeping underground or hidden. However, we are not children abandoned by our birth givers. We are the reborn. Every Reaper after their point of turning had the gift to bring back one person from a past life without mishap or consequences. All of us, and there are hundreds, are special to a specific Reaper in the crypts who has chosen to bring us back from a past life. We are brought back at the age the Reaper desires and we do not grow old. We are the orphans.

The crypts are one of the underground levels housing the majority of our rebelling Reapers now. They are there because of the government. We are waiting for their return so we can make a change in this world and stop the wrong approach to population control. They are in the crypts because the government unleashed an injection upon them named L.A.P.S.E that has altered their mind and continuity timeline. LAPSE has caused hundreds of our Reapers to slip into a dark sleep for the last five and a half years. During this sleep, the government took many of the Reapers into their possession, brainwashed them, and are now weaponizing them. Our crews have searched the city, finding the Reapers we could after the attack and bringing them to our underground bunkers. The Reapers are stuck, revisiting past lives that are merged with a lie to convince them that the life is the truth. In this time, the government has created stronger injections and DEMONS to hinder protesting organizations such as ours. It has been difficult without our Reapers here, and they cannot awake until the truth becomes clear. A handful of Reapers has awoken in the last year and have told us the stories about being stuck in this everlasting dream due to the injection of LAPSE. They explained their epiphany leading to waking up and how they deciphered the truth. They also explained what lie held them to the false reality. 

 

Xeno, a blue hair middle aged man spent hours going into detail about his old vivid hallucinations. His child, Lilac, who he brought back from his past life, was eager for his return. He explained that LAPSE had put him into his old life with Lilac and her mother. He relived much of that life, experiencing their marriage again, young adult life together, and the hardship of Lilac’s mother, his wife, getting cancer. Xeno discussed his transformation into a Reaper in his early twenties and even recalled other Reapers that he knows to this day at the age of eight hundred and twelve years. He was young for a Reaper, and still held the looks from when he was turned. It was concluded after hearing more revived Reaper stories that the injection LAPSE was inserting the Reapers back into the time frames that they became supernatural. Xeno said the epiphany that brought him back to the present was when he thought his wife was having an affair with a doctor, and Xeno killed the man. Xeno was never a killer.

My Reaper is a little over three thousand years old. He brought me back recently from the early 2000’s, from the same time he changed. I am the age of twenty five and I have stayed that way since. Young and strong. I still remember the past life I had with him. My older brother Sebastian died fighting Demons before the government controlled them and turned them into their army. They were rogue at this time we fought and defeated the set of deadly triplets during their rebellion. It was during our youth. The government sought to control the supernatural after learning about their abilities, and found use for them in population control. Vesper endured his change into a Reaper trying to bring Sebastian back to me. It failed and he became what he is today. We knew two Reapers who we still see to this day, Celtic and Willow. In our old life, we lived out our days after the rebellion. He had a sister, Zeldyn, found father, and a mother. I had an unknown mother, father with a girlfriend, and a brother until he passed during the fight. His mother never married and passed with old age as did my father with his new wife, Macy, when the time came to claim them. Vesper and I married in our thirties and lived a fulfilling life. We adopted two children, one already named Sebastian and a girl already named Emma, who reminded us of our Arrow leader who showed us true honor. Vesper’s sister stuck with the fighting life, keeping up to date with news of government interest in supernatural emergence, even when she hit her late fifties. She married, but didn’t seem interested in a family, and eventually passed at old age with more interest in the news than her husband and child. As for Vesper and I, we retired the hunting lifestyle after our decision for children, but lacked being able to bear any. However, after Vesper learned about the chance of resurrection for each Reaper, we knew that was our only chance to live a normal life until we met again. He chose to resurrect me fifty four years ago when he learned about the orphan organization and new powers of Death. 

He waited for me and now I wait for him. I wait for the lies in his head about our old life to filter out and for him to return to the truth. To the present. To the year 5015. I was curious on what lie was told that held him back for so long. He was one of the first injected with LAPSE and still unconscious. D.E.M.O.N.S and government officials roamed the streets looking for our kind, purging the world one innocent at time. It made me miss the days fighting the triplets and lone Demons because I never knew it would come to this.

What if he doesn’t come back? What if our numbers aren’t enough against authority? I pushed the thought away. 

“Scarlett, he will be back. As will the others. Right now, we have the living to care for. We must save them first.” It was as if my thoughts had been heard. 
“How is that to be done without the assistance of the rebelling Reapers?”
“It will be done, back to your post. I do not want to find you wandering the crypts again, understood?”
“Yes, commander.”

Damn it, I spent more time thinking than I had been with my Reaper. I was busted and the commander was still glowering at me. I had snuck away from my post upstairs plotting the most recent lookout towers that had been destroyed or discovered in the city. New York City, the center of most important headquarters, including those belonging to the orphans. Also the city with the highest population count still in existence in the entire world. Most of the skyscrapers were open and jagged, but the crucial buildings still functioned and news headlines still rumored around town. I told my associate, Camille, to cover for me, but I didn’t imagine running into the commander himself down here.

He was still glowering at me with his toes tapping impatiently against the uneven concrete slabs. His arms were crossed in his uniform, a row of military buttons strapped across his chest found in a building raid. He was still older, wiser, and intimidating, despite how long ago I had enlisted under his command after Vesper told me about the orphans. I wasn’t bold enough to risk hearing his husky voice command me back to my station again, so I swiveled on my boot heel and hurried back to the upstairs station. The entire hallway was narrow, and to my left and right were bodies of Reapers in their sleep state, injected with LAPSE in their system. Behind me was the commander who had appeared from a back entrance. A quick look back showed that he had also made his departure and I was able to slow down my walking speed. 

My eyes glanced quickly at the metal locker slots, holding the bodies on each side. There were plenty of notes near them, green and black lights flickering on and off. A curved glass provided a barrier between observers and the bodies. I doubted they lights held an actual purpose. Reapers were forces, the fact that the government found a way to contain them awed me to this day. I doubted we the people could do it. I kept striding, watching the block letter names above the bodies. There were old and young, turned at all ages and escaping being property of the government. Choosing to be with us instead and fight in the new world. 

My boots skidded against the sloppy underground floor, my heart thudding even slower at a glimpse of him, even though I’ve seen him a million times now. His face was unnaturally hollow, depleted of life and energy. It was covered in shadows, despite his ceased youth. Creases covered the corners of his closed eyes. He wore a torn suit jacket over a black shirt and ragged gray cargo pants. His fingers were thin and curled in, and his mouth was slightly ajar. 

I could still taste death on his lips when he kissed me and brought me back. It was the cold kiss of a Reaper. I inhaled a sharp breath, looked at the name tag, and continued walking. 

Vesper Evans. Injected with LAPSE during the Year 5006. Current State: Unawake, 9 years. 

412


Reaper's Kiss: Corruption of Reality Series

Scarlett Parker has a split mind. The cause originates from the monsters she dwells on at night, letting them seep into the cracks in her brain until they created a new land that they feed on. Her demons in reality have personified themselves and are no longer just metaphors. The people, places, and harsh periods in her life have become heavy clouds that infiltrate her body when she least expects it. Her blackouts are becoming more frequent. Vesper is her guardian, the one who refuses to leave her side until she shows signs of improvement. He is the only real thing she knows. Vesper longs to love her, but doesn’t know if he can love the girl who shares two worlds and can’t break away without destroying her beliefs. I am human, and because I am human, this book may contain errors. However, if this story is lost in the world of forgotten books, and I never shared my passion for storytelling, I would be devastated. I've reverted to simpler times. I have written a story, and want to be heard and empowered by my own perseverance. I hope my readers find a deeper understanding that lies beyond a fictional story of a character that lives in her head. I hope you understand that the mind is a fascinating marvel that controls every facet of our lives. This imaginary world has been created as a safe haven for the suffering. I want you to understand the disparity and complexity of all emotions, and how each affects our wellbeing. This fictional land is the temporary solution to many emotional confrontations, because it is Elysium for those in need. This novel begins to cover the split sides of the mind and the heart's darkest depths. It disguises inner isolation, and emphasizes that, it is you against the world, in the beginning, the end, and always. Death is inevitable and unexpected, whether it be kind or gruesome, quick or slow. And lastly, understand that the mind can morph as a defense mechanism to create false memories and suppression to cope with life's troubles whether they are fears of dying, sadness, loneliness, or settlement. I hope you join Scarlett Parker on her exploration of the mind and truth, accompanied by Vesper's behavioral analysis. And when you think you have it all figured out, think again. Thank you.

  • ISBN: 9781310756368
  • Author: Dawn Danielle Boyd
  • Published: 2016-01-26 03:40:24
  • Words: 118445
Reaper's Kiss: Corruption of Reality Series Reaper's Kiss: Corruption of Reality Series