Chapter 2: Vesta
His living room felt empty, void of the warmth it once emitted. It was always bare, only having the essentials, but now it was even more desolate. The fan in the room was unplugged and stuffed into a corner, and the heat was almost as suffocating as his emotions. Vesta took down all of Karen's stuff and packed them into boxes. Her mom came to pick them up yesterday.
It had only been a couple of days since the murder. To Vesta it felt like weeks. The only thing left to remind him of his girlfriend were the flowers that he bought her, now left in a vase on the kitchen counter, and a ring he gave her a month before. It was something he received from Alden when he was a kid. Vesta took it as a reminder and was satisfied it fit on his little finger.
Vesta groaned into his hands and rubbed his eyes with his fingers. He managed to get ahold of the authorities, although he had to hide while they handled the cleanup. He was still wanted for earlier allegations and couldn't risk being taken away. Karen's mom had informed him there were no leads on who the killer was. Lenny and Clay were questioned, but that was the end of that. With nothing to go on, the case was practically dead even before it began.
He knew he couldn't stay in his apartment anymore, memories too fresh they were painful. But he had to come back one last time. Alden was still trying to clear his name. Yet, he had to see the place. He wasn't in-love with Karen. God, he hated to admit it, especially since she was dead. It felt wrong to even think that at this point. Vesta loved her like a best-friend and all that did was blow up in his face.
Vesta stood up and grabbed his backpack off the couch. He made many memories on that old thing, especially with how often he was kicked out of his own room. It wasn't the most comfortable piece of furniture, but he would miss it. The Inn's on his way to the South were anything but luxurious.
Boots walked over the stained carpet - he tried to get out the blood stain and failed - and to the door. He inhaled, exhaled, and turned around for one last look. Old memories flowed through him, the good and the bad, the harsh and the cherished. The thought of him leaving was sickening, mostly because it was like starting a new chapter in his life, partly because it was the only place since he could call home - being an orphan kept him from ever settling down. It was easy to say he had no intention of coming back. Change, as for any human, was a hard concept to accept. Thanks to his upbringing, he was less than human.
It was time to head over to Alden's and see if he had a plan figured out to get Vesta over the Border. He was out all day yesterday getting supplies, feet aching and body sore.
It was already afternoon by the time he made it to the Flower Shop. A couple people were strolling around, and after a quick look at their outfits, Vesta was happy to see none were from the Order. He was getting tired of having to tip-toe around them. They weren't hard to miss, considering their favorite piece of clothing was the most vivid color to the eye.
A scowl crept onto his face as he thought about the asshole that was trying to get him in trouble. Vesta hoped that cigarette burn would scar.
"What's with that sour look?" Alden asked upon seeing him, worry apparent on his features.
"Nothing. I just remembered I forgot to take out the trash before I left." Anyone who was with the Order was nothing more than a piece of garbage.
Alden looked at him quizzically, saying nothing in reply to his offhanded remark. "Are you ready to go? Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Of course I'm sure. You know what, I haven't been so sure of anything in my life." The sarcasm was dripping from his words. "This is a life changing moment, you know, old man?"
A sigh. "I'm serious, Vesta. Life in the South is nothing like it is up here."
"Please don't tell me you're going to start that father shit again. I don't need a lecture." Vesta set down his backpack and sat onto a stool next to the counter. Alden stood behind it, hands folded on the countertop.
"They don't have the order we have. Their country is ruled by gangs and they are the authority. The strong survive and the weak are picked off." Alden had a faraway look as he spoke about the South, like he was remembering something from long ago. "It's not unusual to find a dead body lying in the streets."
"Sounds a hell of a lot better than here. With the Order breathing down our damn necks, it's near impossible to do much of anything."
"I can't argue with you there. I left the Counsel for a lot of reasons, but that was one of the bigger ones." Vesta watched as Alden bent over and fiddled around with something below the counter before he reappeared with a rolled up piece of paper.
"What's that?" he asked, eyeing the paper suspiciously.
"A map." Alden unfolded it.
"If you would hold on a second. . . Here." He pointed to a black line that seemed bolder in color and out of place. "This is the Border and over here," his hand traced a faded red line down the map," is where you need to go."
"And that is?" Why couldn't Alden give him straight answers? He hated guessing games.
Carefully, as to not tear the paper, he circled the spot on the map with a red marker. "A safe place."
"Enough of the bullshit. Are you going to explain, or is this cryptic crap all I'm going to get?" His patience was wearing thin. Sadly, he didn't have much to begin with. Anger overtook his senses and rationality flew out the window with ease.
"A friend lives there. His name is Seere. Tell him my name and he will take care of you and get you situated over there." Alden's voice was solid and unwavering, his conviction and trust in the man openly obvious to anyone. "I'll try to let him know ahead of time, though you shouldn't take my word on that. I heard there's trouble brewing on the Border, so I won't make any promises."
"S'good enough." Vesta rolled up the map and pocketed it. "Is there any trick to getting over the Border unharmed?"
Alden's lightly smiled at his question. "Run fast and don't get caught."
"That's it?" Vesta's eye twitched in annoyance. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No, I'm not. The Angels don't like anyone leaving their city or anyone entering it. Merchants and the few people with a travel pass are the only ones allowed to navigate the Border." A finger found its way to Alden's chin and he silently stroked pale skin in thought. "Blend in with the early morning crowds and sneak in."
"You make it sound so easy." His hand hovered over his pocket, debating if smoking would calm his rattled nerves or not.
"Don't get caught," he reminded him again, this time with a firmer tone.
Vesta held back an eye roll. Alden was acting strange, but he found it in his best interest to ignore it. A cigarette was sounding better and better by the second.
"A word from the wise, you should probably quit smoking. Cigarettes sold by demons are usually laced." A smug look formed on Alden's face.
Why did he look so goddamn happy? "Good, I need something with a stronger kick."
"You'll change your mind when you find yourself stripped naked on the side of the road."
"You're really starting to annoy me." A customer came up to the counter then, hands carrying a potted plant. Vesta kept whatever else he was going to say inside and stood up.
With the map, a person to meet on the other side, and a bag of supplies, he felt oddly lighter than he did before seeing the old man. "See you on the other side." The irony in that comment had Vesta regretting ever having said it.
Alden nodded and turned his attention to the customer. Vesta left the shop and headed towards the Border.
A couple hours in and Vesta was already entering the Outer City District. Dirt, dust, and smoke were all too noticeable in the air. He caught himself coughing more than once and he often rubbed his eyes on his dark green jacket. The stench of the Outer District paled in comparison to the Border District, but that didn't make it stink any less.
Vesta was by no means well off, but he caught more than a couple people eyeing him and his belongings. Damn if he was going to give any of his stuff up. He'd fight tooth and nail before they got their grubby paws on any of it.
The afternoon turned into evening and the light began to subside. Vesta wrapped his jacket tighter around him and picked up the pace. His stomach growled in anticipation of a meal that was coming closer and closer by the minute. The Border District had a semi-decent Inn on the main path, at least that was what Alden had mentioned. It wouldn't be long now.
Sometimes, he would think about Karen, and then he would dream of the impossible and piss himself off before he had to stop himself. He didn't have the luxury of being depressed and distracted, anything could happen to him now that he was farther away from the Order's influence. They mostly stayed away from the outer districts, terrified for their life. It was understandable; if they were captured they would probably never see the light of day again.
Vesta meandered the path and felt his eyes close more than once. He was positive he would master sleepwalking before his trip was over.
He needed to hurry. Once darkness hit it would be near impossible to travel. Sleeping in an alley meant certain death, he was sure.
After more time passed, the Inn he was looking for stood merely a few feet away from him. The only thing keeping him from running in and finding a bed to pass out on was a group of gangly looking idiots hanging outside the entrance. His luck had been fairly good till that point, but a creeping feeling couldn't help but simmer in his stomach.
His approach must have alerted them and their gazes fell upon him. The boredom was stripped from their faces and replaced with something akin to hunger. Why did everyone want to pick a fight with him? It was really starting to tick him off.
Vesta narrowed his eyes and made to push past the group, but a heavy hand held him back by the arm.
"Where do you think you're goin'?" The man's breath reeked of alcohol.
"Get the hell off of me." Vesta shook his arm free and stepped back. Their original eye color was faded to the point that the red of their sclera took over. It was the side effect of a popular drug, a name he couldn't remember.
"Nice shoes," one of the guys spoke. Vesta wasn't sure which one.
"What's in the backpack?"
"Hey, cool jacket. You won't care if I borrow it, will ya'?"
"I call dibs on that ring."
The ring. He forgot he had it on. There was no way in hell he was going to let those druggies have anything of his. He was outnumbered and most likely outmatched, but he would fight even knowing he would lose.
Before they had a chance to attack, Vesta flung his fist forward and it smacked into the person closest to him. He could hear a crack and a groan, someone swearing, and the smell of sweat and B.O. as the other members of the group jumped him. Punch after punch landed on his face and body, even a couple kicks to his ribs.
He managed to break free momentarily to punch one in the gut and, out of sheer adrenaline, bite one on the neck. His little victory didn't last long. He was assaulted from behind. As he fell to his knees, they assaulted his sides with strong, bruising kicks. The fight was moving at lightning speed, the pain started to numb and his emotions were running haywire. Vesta knew he was going to blackout soon and silently cursed the fact he was dumb enough to take on so many guys himself.
They were holding him down now, pain coursing through his flesh and his nerves frayed. He would hold out as long as he could, this pain nothing compared to what Karen had probably felt before her last breath.
Even though he wouldn't remember it until he was awake, he was slightly proud of the fact he bit one hard enough to make them bleed.
Vesta woke sometime after the sun came up. His head was throbbing, but even that pain was dull in comparison to how his lower extremities felt. He wasn't sure of the damage, though he had to guess a few bruised ribs and a concussion was somewhere on the list of why he was feeling like shit.
A quick look around helped him surmise someone had dragged him to the side of the Inn. His backpack was missing - no surprise there - and his ring was nowhere to be found. Odd enough, his cigarettes were untouched in his pocket and his clothes were intact besides the dirt caked on from his earlier rumble.
He looked a little rough around the edges, but now he supposed he blended in better with the trash around. Vesta stood up, took a few steps, before coming to realize he was favoring his right leg over the other. The short journey left to the Border was going to be anything but enjoyable, as if it had been prior.
With the help of the buildings, the way to the border was less painful than it could have been. His stomach kept growling, twisting in displeasure and refused to give in; he could feel the acid eating away at his insides. It was a shock he had yet to vomit, although the feeling wasn't far away.
Kids played around in the streets, vendors waved customers in, guards patrolled along the Border and a wild dog searched an overturned trash can for food. The Border District was barely more livable than the Outer City. The Border was cleaner than the actual District, but only by a bit.
Vesta scanned the two sides met and watched carts come in and out without a problem, the owners waving some ID card around. One or two people were stopped and inspected, but mostly it was free reign. Alden must have been getting senile in his old age. There was nothing secure about the area. Anyone could walk in and out without as much as a glance their way.
If anything, it raised his spirits and gave him a spark of hope. Vesta watched for a few more minutes before braving the deed himself. It was now or never. He'd be lying if he said his heart wasn't racing in his chest, or if his anxiety wasn't already through the roof. He left everything he knew for a chance to get away from the chains, the people, that held him down.
He reached for his hood and pulled it down over his eyes. Vesta kept his golden-green orbs down, afraid the color would alert a guard. He was told numerous times over the years that his eyes had a strange look to them. It tended to draw people in, and not always the right kind.
Vesta kicked an empty can aside with his boot as he walked. Trying to avoid all of the litter was a game in itself.
The distance was closing in.
"Almost there," he mumbled, excitement coursing through his veins as the end came into his view.
He was tempted to pick up his pace, but decided against it. It was one thing to look eager, not to mention his appearance would only make him look suspicious.
Vesta stepped over the invisible line that separated Oratio from the demons, so close to one another yet so distinct in their own ways. A guard only a few feet away didn't even notice him, too busy telling off a fool that managed to get caught. The man was frowning, obvious to anyone he wasn't a noble, law-abiding citizen.
Feeling accomplished, Vesta lowered his hood and spared a glance ahead of him. Even though he had lost all of his belongings, he still had a smidgen of optimism at his situation. That was owed to Alden's enigmatic friend he had to find now that task one was crossed off his list.
Vesta's eyes finally focused and settled on two people in front of him. Crimson orbs and blond hair observed him. The one with the unmissable red eyes widened before his hands reached behind him, although the small things happening around him passed by unnoticed.
Vesta continued to move forward, momentarily forgetting about the suspicious men to take in the scene around him.
The broken down wood buildings were replaced with warehouses and some tinier steel structures that surrounded and covered the Border. Wagons of all kinds littered the streets and people hovered about them, delicacies only found in the demon realm lined up in a way that was appealing to the eye - reds and oranges the more prominent color. The sun, blinding in the North, faded the farther south one looked, once cerulean skies lost in an inky blackness.
One line divided the two, but they felt worlds apart. It even smelled different, the wafting scents of foreign food lingered.
Even with the hundreds of people in the immediate area, he felt empty, the atmosphere devoid of any pleasure or fondness. To figure out what was truly going on, it would be a while before he could place it.
It was then, after hearing the sharp sound of a gun going off, that Vesta finally came to terms that the world was out to get him. His vision blackened, the smell of gunpowder being the last scent he remembered.