“Still writing in your journal, huh?” Duke asked as they walked along, following Azrael towards the new Scion he’d sensed.
“Yeah,” North replied, “My dreams are getting more detailed and interesting these days, so I’ve been writing them down. Before all this, I was hoping to sell it as a book one day.” He passed Duke the journal, and watched him flip through it for a few minutes.
“Interesting stuff, man. Never really thought of a world where stars were tiny objects that could be captured. That’s awesome.”
They kept walking, with Azrael on point. At regular intervals, the angel would stop, close his eyes, and then keep going. He was tracking the new Scion, who was apparently quite the mover. From what he’d said about the woman’s mental instability, that was worrisome. North kept to the back, jotting down notes in his journal about the strange world he’d envisioned, letting Duke and Ryo worry about the angel and his quest. They’d been walking for the better part of two hours when Azrael lifted a pale blue hand to halt them.
“There,” he said, pointing out a dilapidated apartment building, not unlike the one North and his friends had lived in when the disaster struck, “She’s in there. And she feels us. Let’s try and make this quick and easy. Ryouta, you go in first.”
“Right…” Ryo replied, nervously.
As Ryo trekked off to find the girl, North walked to the complex’s courtyard, where the remains of an in-ground pool had become a cool green pond. The concrete glowed a warm gray in the sunlight as he took a seat on a fallen pillar. A world with a sun at its center, he thought as he sketched in his journal. It was certainly the most incredible idea he’d ever had, and its society had been slowly working itself through his brain; as he slept he dreamt more and more of its people and their lives. He jotted down more notes, and looked up to watch the green pool for a moment. The water was placid and stagnant, peaceful and poisonous. It stank a little, filling his nostrils with a rich smell that mixed with the scent of the grass and dirt and concrete that swirled around him on a quiet breeze. The sun reflected off of the pool and played against the shadowed walls of the first-story apartments. Most of the doors were painted a soft burgundy, and stood open and broken. It was a sad scene, touched and fouled by the cruelty and desperation of man. Suddenly, he heard a shout above and watched as Ryo came crashing from the third floor into the still waters of his zen-state epiphany.
He was laughing when Ryo surfaced and grabbed the rim of the pool, coughing and sputtering curses at the sky. Lucky he landed near the rim, North thought. Ryouta couldn’t swim. North walked to the edge and offered his best friend a hand up out of the pool. Ryo’s eye met his with a hard, angry stare, and the laughter stopped.
“Maya,” Ryo told him, “It’s Maya.”
North’s heart skipped a beat and he let Ryo fall back into the emerald pool.
The world was a blaze of pain and light, overwhelming her every thought and spiraling her down into the darkest depths. One moment she’d been sitting in class, listening to a professor lecture about something she didn’t really care about, and the next she’d been tumbling down into a swirling blue abyss, her body aching and her mind racing. She had tried making sense of it at first, but had given up not long after. There was no sense now. Her mind burned like fire unending, her heart beat to a strange new rhythm, and in the darkest dankest corner of her consciousness, she sat naked and cradling her head in her hands, her knees pressed against her face in a futile attempt to keep the terrors of this strange nightmare away.
Night and day were as one now, blending, mixing… transforming. For a time she’d wandered the streets of the ruined city, trapped in her mind and unable to control her body. Everything hurt to look at, the sun, the moon, the rubble, the fire. Everything was death. Everything was gone. She was vaguely aware of swords falling from the sky like rain nearby, but that was the least of her concerns in this terrible agony-driven dream. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been like that, how long it had been since she was sitting patiently in class, but she was certain it had been several days at the least.
Her mind had begun to clear, she thought, though at times the darkness and bright lights would return and leave her shivering and quaking and holding her head as she cried. What’s happening? Why me? Those she pondered on a regular basis, but found no answers. She was in the midst of another headache when she’d seen a man standing before her, and she’d tried to push him away out of fear. More nightmares, come to gloat and laugh and hurt.
Now, as the headache subsided, she noticed the hole in the wall near her, the wall that led to the courtyard of the apartment complex she’d found to hide in. Maya heard the voices of two men arguing and crawled closer to the wall to see if she could hear what they were saying.
“… way in Hell am I going in there, man. Look what happened to you! You’re soaked. And I don’t even have the benefit of mystical powers or anything like that. What the hell would I do?”
“She might talk to you, at least.”
“Oh yeah, talking seems to be a big thing for her right now!”
“Why are you being so difficult?”
“Why are you trying to get me thrown out of a window too?”
Maya rolled away from the hole in the wall she’d apparently created, her mind reeling from the headache and the arguing men. Who were they? The voices were familiar, but the names floated at the edges of her thoughts, elusive and strange. She tried to sit up, but then another man was standing over her, as though he’d materialized out of thin air. He was talking to her, trying to say something. She stared up at him, seeing his close-cropped hair and warm smile as though for the first time. Suddenly, reality existed again.
“Duke.” Maya said, a smile creeping across her face. Her eyes began to focus better; she was finally waking up.
“Yeah,“ he replied, “Glad you’re ok now. You know you blew Ryo through the wall, right?”
“That was Ryo?” Her smile broadened.
“Yeah. North said his eyes bulged pretty wide when he was falling. Must’ve been intense.”
“So everyone’s ok? What happened? I’ve been so…”
Something with pale blue skin and yellow eyes came through the door then, clad in a dark black robe that seemed to hang off it. It turned toward her immediately, and crouched next to her. It had no nose, just eyes, ears, and a mouth. The eyes seemed to pierce through her into her soul. It spoke quietly.
“You are a psychic with immense power, child. Tell me, where is your manaburn? We haven’t much time.”
“My what?” she responded.
“Manaburn,” Duke piped up, “A tattoo looking thing that feels alive and connects you to the soul of the planet.” He pulled off one of his black leather gloves and offered his hand to her so she could see the strange markings and feel the heat they gave off. She understood then.
“It’s on my thigh,” she said, “But why do you need to know? Duke, who the hell is this?” At that, the pale creature seemed to choke and almost blush.
“Forgive me, child, “ he said, “It was rude of me not to introduce myself. I am Azrael, Angel of Death, and something of a mentor, spirit guide, and chaperone to Ryouta and Duke.” His eyes stared into her again, and she was struck with the idea that this was all part of the dementia, all a dream that she’d worked up to make herself feel better. And then his hand, his pale, cold hand was pressed up against her inner right thigh, and she almost screamed.
Everything was clear then, and the disorientation faded. The Angel of Death remained, as did Duke. Ryouta was coming in the door behind them, sopping wet with a surly look on his tan face, with North trailing behind him, his eyes shifting around, never meeting hers as he found somewhere out of the way to stand. They were real. She almost cried.
Ryouta was telling Maya what had happened, catching her up on what their group had been doing, as well as helping her fill in the holes in her own story. North decided to sit it out, grabbing a corner and writing more in his journal. She was watching him, though. He kept his eyes down, intent on not confronting her. It wouldn’t do any good to talk to her now, not after the argument they’d had.
Maya Dantares had been everything once, a cute girl with big brown eyes and a smile that could melt his heart in an instant and always seemed to enjoy his company. Still, he was wary of what she had become now, and was honestly frightened of what she might do if she lost control of her new abilities for even a moment. So, he listened to the others talk, pretending his writing was more interesting than it actually was. Azrael was explaining that he’d placed a seal on Maya’s manaburn, to keep her powers from running out-of-control.
When they’d explained enough for Maya to be satisfied, Azrael suggested they return to the little house. The sun was setting, and the swords that had kept the demons at bay before had moved south towards the center of the city. Beings Azrael called the Stoneborn had begun to wander the streets, and they were very obviously quite dangerous: long serpentine bodies with brownish-black skin that looked as tough as concrete, little yellow eyes that threatened an animal violence. In short, not his crowd. North put his journal in his pocket with his pen, and followed the group out.
The sky had darkened to a deep indigo, and the stars were starting to come out by the time they had reached the road they needed to get back to their base. The moon was rising, a pale golden goddess that spoke of death and destruction. The city still burned beyond the rain of swords, its fires insatiable and bright. Like Hell on Earth, North reflected as he followed them. Azrael went first, as usual, with Duke right behind him. It was the first time they’d ventured out at night like this, however, so North was third instead of last. Behind him, Maya trudged along silently, with Ryo in the rear. Only Azrael carried a weapon: a long blue scythe with golden script engraved into the blade that he’d summoned from some pocket dimension beyond the ken of his mortal charges. Duke had complained before of needing something to fight with, but Azrael had refused him, stating that is was more important to master his powers before learning to use them with a weapon. Duke hadn’t brought it up again, and wisely so. Azrael was mellowing out a little, but he was still an imposing figure not to be trifled with.
North could hear Maya walking behind him, her small feet thumping the ground in tiny steps, careful and afraid. He knew the feeling. She was unsure of what to do in this strange new world they lived in, confused about what it all meant, concerned for her family. They were all feeling it, he was certain. In the two weeks since the quake, they hadn’t been able to get more than five or six miles away from their college campus without meeting a wall of raining weaponry. None of them knew where their family was, or even if they still had a family.
Azrael tensed suddenly, and a serpentine Stoneborn jumped at them out of the shadows. Duke shoved North to the ground and the beast leapt over them, its skin a warm gray with hexagon scales. Azrael whirled to face it, his scythe dancing around him. Maya was next to them a moment later, her eyes angry and bloodshot. The Stoneborn shot up into the air without warning, its thick legs kicking and clawing, begging for traction that did not come. Azrael leapt up to meet it, and took its head off with a quick slice. Black blood erupted from the neck of the beast as it fell, and North had to roll out of the way to avoid its corpse hitting the ground. He came up from the ground to find Maya staring right at him, inches from his face.
“Thanks.” He said. She looked at him, her eyes fearful and hurt and sad. He looked at the ground and was going to walk away when she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a crushing hug.
“You almost died.” She whispered, her voice shaky. He couldn’t argue with that, so he wrapped an arm around her and tried his best to calm her down. His own heart was still racing.
They reached the little house without any more incidents, the lot of them tired and hungry. Ryo took it upon himself to find a place for Maya to sleep. There were only three rooms in the house, so North decided to sleep on the couch in the living room, taking only a blanket they’d found in one of the storage rooms with him. Maya seemed content with the space they offered her, and soon the house was bathed in quiet.
Azrael woke North not long before midnight with a hard prod from his scythe.
“Wake up, human.” North sat up and gazed at the angel lazily.
“What do you want, Azrael?” he asked.
“There is much and more I would learn of your friends. They are powerful and willful beings, and I must know them better than I do now if I wish to continue teaching them.” He sat on the floor next to the couch then, dismissing his scythe back to its pocket dimension.
“Then ask them. You aren’t exactly someone I enjoy talking to, you know.”
“You take my warnings of your mortality as insult when they are meant merely as fact.” Azrael said, “It is unkind of you to do so. I mean no offense to you.” That was something North had not expected to hear. “Soon,” Azrael continued, “I will leave your little group so I might continue my duties to the souls of the dead. There will be no way for me to train them then, so I must learn more of my students, especially Maya. There is much I must do to help her.” North frowned.
“I’m definitely not someone who can speak to Maya’s mind. Greater men than I have tried to explain woman, and all have failed. Ryo and Duke, I can tell you about.”
“I see,” the angel said, “So I was right in guessing there was something… unique about the female. She seems quite attached to you.”
“Give Ryo a gun. He could definitely use one, and his abilities are uniquely suited to it. Duke could use something quieter, I think, like knives.”
“Good counsel. But I still need to know more about Maya. What is it between you two that makes her face downcast and her mood dampen when you’re around?”
North paused, letting the words sink into his mind and mulling them over. He didn’t want to think about it.
“It’s complicated, Azrael. You wouldn’t understand. Now leave me alone.”
He lay back down, covering his face with a spare pillow. Azrael looked at him for a moment, and then disappeared into the night to begin attending to his duties.
Scion of Blades
It was getting harder to avoid detection now, with Azrael growing more and more curious about the Blade Rain every day, Vassago tracking him any time he let his mana into the atmosphere, and now the Scion girl with the telepathic powers had a seal on her manaburn to help her control her abilities. Every day was going to be a new exercise in caution, or else everything would be revealed and his plan to keep the other manite humans safe would fall to pieces. Their kind hearts and fierce loyalty would inevitably drag them into the coming conflict if they knew the truth, which the Scion of Blades dreaded more than anything.
The moon was waning in the sky, preparing to set so the sun could once more govern the world. Azrael had set magical barriers around the little house, keeping it safe from demons and their ilk, making the mana signatures of those inside all but invisible. The Scion of Blades smiled. The barriers worked pretty well. He was standing in the yard behind the house, watching the moon and listening to the planet’s soul. It was the listening that helped him feel the demon approaching him from above.
“You look troubled, kid.” The tone was jovial, but the voice was dark and rough. He was growing to love it well.
“Much and more has changed, Samael.” He said, turning to face the demon, who was hanging his legs off of the roof of the house. Samael’s orange eyes were filled with concern.
“My brother is beginning to wonder more often about the Blade Rain, no doubt. And there’s a girl now, too. May or something, right?”
“Maya,” the Scion replied, “Her name is Maya. She’s a strong psychic, so strong Azrael had to place a Seal on her manaburn just to keep her from blowing up a city block.” It was an exaggeration, but not by much.
“I see,” Samael replied, hopping off the roof to tower over the human. His black wings flexed as he stretched his arms. His horns glinted in the moonlight and made him seem more menacing than he really was. He placed a three-fingered hand on the Scion’s shoulder and smiled. “You’ll have to be much more careful than before, Blood of Arthur.”
“And Vassago’s closing in on the scent,” the Scion said, turning his back on the demon to inspect the little house once again, “They won’t survive if he gets involved.”
“If Vassago comes, you’ll have to put your little charade aside, kid. These others have no hope of touching him. He fought Arthur himself once.”
“I thought as much. My father told me that story when I was kid. Arthur and The Demon, he called it. It was my favorite. Nice to have a name to the faceless enemy.”
“I heard it from Vassago himself, once,” Samael said, “He said he’d never faced such a worthy opponent, and doubted he ever would. I’m not so sure now, though. You may have what it takes to beat him. Shall we?” A black sword appeared in the demon’s red-skinned hand.
The Scion of Blades smiled at his guardian demon, and called up a sword of his own. That night, they danced more furiously than all the nights before, from the yard behind the little house all the way to the edge of the raining blades. It was all Samael could do to keep up, though he won out in the end.
“Don’t worry about it.” The Demon said, a warm smile etched into his chiseled face. “I’ve got a thousand lifetimes of men on you. Vassago’s only got a million.”
She had forgotten what a good night’s sleep felt like. As the sun washed over the covers, Maya stretched and yawned, half expecting to find a stuffed toy next to her, though its absence was not as disappointing as it would’ve been in other circumstances. She stood, letting her long hair dangle down in large curls. Part of it was matted and knotted, as it was wont to be following a long night and good dream. She winced as she ran her fingers through it.
North was absent from the living room when she walked in, though his blanket and pillows remained with the impression his body had left in the couch. She sighed, and wondered where he’d gone. She didn’t have long to ponder it before Azrael appeared before her, greeting her with an awkward attempt at a smile. The rows of sharp little teeth clashed with her personal ideas about angels, but she couldn’t deny that everything about him was strange and ethereal.
“Good morning, Maya. Are you ready to begin learning what you are and what you’re capable of?” At least he seemed enthusiastic.
“I’ll be ready when I’ve had a shower. Unlike the guys, you may find that I require at least a little bit of hygiene. Where’s North, by the way?”
“North? He usually gets up early to wander the town looking for supplies. Without a manaburn, it is really all he can do. He is like to return by midday with some food. Did you wish to speak with him about the emotional issues I’ve deduced the two of you have with each other?” Maya blushed when he said it, but didn’t deign to deny it. She wanted to protect North, truth be told, since he couldn’t do anything, but until she understood her powers she stood little chance of really doing that.
“I’ll be done with my shower in a little while, and then we can start my training. I’m actually really looking forward to it.” She said, giving the angel a smile and pushing past him to make for the bathroom.
There was no electricity, but the light streaming in through high window made the bathroom appear pleasant, and made the cold shower more bearable. She realized as she washed that it had been since before the quake that she’d bathed. The thought was sobering, and made the cool water that much better. When she was done, she dried herself with a fuzzy green towel, and slipped her clothes back on. She was going to need to find new ones soon; her black jeans were tearing at the knees and the back of the ankles.
Azrael led her up onto the roof of the house after her shower, and asked her to sit and meditate while he gave Ryouta and Duke instructions for the morning. All this disastrous turmoil, and yet we act like we’re still in school. It’s just a new professor and a new type of class. Everything in cycles, like some science-fiction or fantasy novel. Hell, this is like something North would write.
Meditating wasn’t hard. Maya closed her eyes and listened to everything around her, losing herself in the sound of wind rustling though the leaves of the trees, of water rushing in creeks and the long scar that sundered the city, and the alien but somehow beautiful sound of naked steel connecting with hard stone like rain. As she sat there, her mind began to expand outward, unbidden, and suddenly she was the wind, was the water. She could feel Ryo’s concentration as he loaded the rifle Azrael had brought for him to use. She could feel Duke’s frustration as a rabbit eluded his dagger, and he shifted out of his mist form. She pushed the edges of her senses, looking for North, and found him near a shopping center. His mind was a jumble of words and phrases, ideas that she couldn’t make sense of, but that didn’t worry her as much as the dark presence that seemed to be very near him. She opened her eyes then, and yelled for Azrael.“I sense nothing, child. North is thinking of his journal, and is coming back with food. No dark presences, nothing malicious. Still, I commend you for sensing him when he’s a mile out on your first attempt. You’re a fast learner.” His smile was more natural that time, like he was more comfortable with the expression. He patted her on the head with a three-fingered hand, and sat down next to her to join her meditation.