Sniping was becoming a joy. Azrael had taught him how to physically manifest his mana, the lifeforce that dwelled within him and constantly replenished with rest and sustenance, and crush it into bullets for the rifle. The angel was a genius. Ryo didn’t have to worry about finding bullets that there was nobody left to manufacture, didn’t have to worry about carrying his ammo around with him. He was even working on crafting a bullet inside the cartridge of the rifle, so he wouldn’t have to reload. The mana bullets seemed to make the rifle more powerful as well. Ryo could snipe a blade of grass in half from a mile away without even trying now. He was crafting bullets on the roof of the little house, waiting for someone to tell him lunch was ready. Crafting bullets always made him hungry. He was practicing different ways of forcing his mana into a physical object. It amused him to make little balls out of it, similar to the bullets used in early guns. He knew it was lunch time when a few of his old-school bullets rose into the air, spun around in a circle and then shot off into the distance. He looked over the edge of the roof to see Maya Dantares standing in the yard below, her dark brown hair flowing in the wind. She’d cut it to just below her shoulders, he noticed.
“Hey, I was saving those!” he shouted down to her.
“My bad, man,” Maya yelled back, “Come get some lunch. North brought you sour cream and cheddar chips.” Those were his favorite.
Duke and North were making sandwiches in the kitchen, and he could hear North telling Duke that mayonnaise lasted for centuries as he entered the room. He clapped his friend on the back.
“Mayo and chesse sandwiches again?” he asked.
“It’s what we have, man, unless you can find us some animals to slaughter. There’s no good meat left anywhere.” North replied. It was true, there was no meat. What little hadn’t been ruined in the stores during the quake had either spoiled by now or been eaten. “I’d offer you some pickles, but I know you don’t like them.”
Ryo sat and devoured his mayo and cheese sandwich in silence. When he was done, he went back to the roof and picked up his rifle. Time for some scouting, he thought. He readied it to fire, working his hands with the motions Azrael had taught him to craft his bullet. His eye zoomed in on the horizon. The swords still rained from the sky day and night, blocking them in to their little suburb of the city, like a great steel curtain denying them the outside world as much as it denied the demons their flesh. Beyond it he could see the fires still burning, the serpentine demons known as the Stoneborn writhing as flames leapt from their mouths, and among them, two humanoid demons. One was the creature with black skin and yellow eyes that had killed the police officer on the first day of the disaster, the one who had shot a chain from its arm and laughed. The other was similar in appearance, skin as black as obsidian, but with short-cut white hair and a white beard. Lime tattoos etched its sculpted body, covering broad shoulders and wide chest, hardened abs and muscular arms. It carried a bright red spear, and its eyes glowed a ghostly blue. From the body language, he could tell the one with the spear was older, and likely a teacher of some sort, as he gestured while the chain-wielder watched. The older one placed a three-fingered hand on the snout of one of the Stoneborn, and rubbed it lovingly. It’s treating them like pets, he realized.
Ryo felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned up to see Azrael.
“There’s an old-looking one out there. It’s treating those Stoneborn things like they’re some sort of pet,” he reported, “and it’s talking to another. They’re not like the Stoneborn, though. They look…”
“They look like me.” Azrael finished for him. “I do not know who the other one is, but I would guess the old looking one is Vassago, Lord of the Stoneborn. He is older than your planet, actually. The Stoneborn are something akin to his children. He created them from his own blood and the stone of the Blacklands he hails from, or so the legends say. In total, he commands twenty-six legions of his kind. It worries me that Vassago is here.”
“You don’t say?” Ryo replied.
“Others may enslave humans, others might keep them around as cute pets, but Vassago is not that kind of creature. If the Demon Emperor has sent Vassago to this city, then he means to strike it from the face of the planet. Vassago knows we are here, Ryouta. We must not tarry long.”
“How would you propose we leave, Azrael? This rain of swords bars all paths. We’re stuck in a five-mile-wide circle of land, left to scavenge what little we can from the stores that are left. There’s no way out, and even if there was, it’s like you said – Vassago’s waiting.”
“Someone in this town is causing the rain.” Azrael said.
“You’ve mentioned that before, but if there’s a Scion in this city causing this, why haven’t we found them yet?” He lowered his rifle and looked Azrael in the eyes, retracting his enhanced vision.
“Simple,” Azrael replied, “They do not want to be found.”
Scion of Blades
Samael did not approve of him being active in the day, but things were growing out of hand. His mana was regenerating at a much faster rate as his abilities grew, and he had to release it into the atmosphere more often. He had to be fast during the day or the psychic girl would find him and then everything he did to hide would be for nothing.
He had begun to realize that the Blade Rain was hindering his goals more than helping them now. The area he’d cut off was smaller than could support the amount of people in it; the stores were beginning to run dry and meat was scarce. The Angel of Death was likely growing suspicious, and he needed a diversion if he wanted to remain unnoticed. He renewed the Blade Rain blocking off the core of the city to the south, but opened a large chunk of the western edge. If he opened it up just right, he might be able to direct the wayward humans around the city safely. He could feel other survivors on the other side, in other suburbs. Nothing was left in Dallas proper, though. That was where Vassago waited.
The leader of the demons in the city had grown tired of searching in vain for the Scion of Blades, and had instead begun to call to him telepathically, challenging him. Here I am, he’d say to the Scion’s mind, come and fight me. Come face your destiny as Arthur’s Heir. It was a call he could not answer. He let the mana slip out of him and into the air again, this time dropping a hundred swords right in front of him. They stabbed into the soft earth in front of him, and stayed. Samael had been teaching him how to forge permanent blades, and this would be a handy stash of swords to keep around in case of trouble. He studied them all, looking for Caliburnus, the Godblade that was his by blood-right. None of them looked like what he imagined it would be, so he left them there, buried in the ground. His stomach grumbled, telling him how upset it was that the food supplies were dwindling. He sat down for a moment, and forced himself to disappear from his own mind. That would throw off anyone trying to sense him. Once he was sure he was thoroughly invisible to mental probing, the Scion of Blades stood up and strode into the area he’d opened up for the humans.
There was a forest between him and the next town, a nature preserve of some sort. Lucky for him, it had a gift shop with t-shirts and snacks. He’d never been so glad to see a bag of processed beef jerky. He ate a little, and then grabbed everything he could to keep himself going. Swords took a ton of mana to produce, even with his natural regeneration increasing. He meditated for an hour or so, letting himself become one with the trees and the wind and the rock, feeling the breath of the Earth again. He reached out and touched Vassago. I will not come to your call. You must come to mine. It was the most he’d ever said to the demon, but it was enough to make the old one’s mind flare in wroth. When he opened his eyes, the city seemed to be burning brighter than before.
North returned to the house just before sunset, carrying what food he had found during the afternoon. Ryo came down from the roof with Azrael a little later, carrying news that the swords were clearing from the sky to the west and that the demons in the city were growing more restless. Duke was shifting in and out of his mist form all over the house, practicing stealth.
“I wonder if I could sneak past those swords like this?” he mused to nobody in particular.
“I doubt it.” Azrael shut him down. “They’re made out of mana, not steel. They bite in ways molded iron never could.” Duke seemed downcast by the truth of it.
Maya strode into the kitchen and found North digging into a bag of teriyaki-flavored beef jerky. His beard was starting to get out of hand, with patches of it growing up his pale cheeks and sideburns threatening to grow in. He was wearing a dark green t-shirt that had been his trademark clothing for years: a video game themed tee with a sword and shield blazoned up the left breast at a strange angle that drew the eye up the wearer’s side. It brought the green of his eyes out. A dome-style flashlight set in the center of the dining table lit the room.
“You were gone for a pretty long time today.” Maya said to him as she took the seat adjacent to his.
“I had to go further out to find food. We’ve started to eat all the stores low. Azrael and Ryo are talking about moving off towards the opening in the sword rain. I think it’s probably the best shot we have.” He looked depressed and tired, but Maya guessed that was to be expected. They were all tired, and North didn’t have any training to keep his mind off of how bad things were. She placed her hand over his, and smiled at him.
“I’m sure things will be ok. We’re all together, so there’s nothing that can stop us.” Maya almost believed it as it came out. She wanted to be right. “And even if things get nasty again, I’ll be here to protect you. I promise.” She ran her thumb over the back of his hand. Nothing was going to touch him, not while she was there to push it away. North, Duke, and Ryo were all she had left. Azrael was growing on her, too.
Night fell once more, and darkness took the little house. Flashlights came on in the rooms and chatter fell to a whisper. Ryouta was praying in his room, Duke was already fast asleep. From the couch in the living room, North could hear Maya using the shower and humming to herself. Azrael was already gone for the night to ferry the souls of the dead to the land he called Tartarus. He sighed to himself. It had been three weeks since the day their world had ended, and five days since they’d found Maya thrashing and crying in the abandoned apartment complex, and yet it was beginning to feel as though things had been that way for an eternity. Three long weeks, five agonizing days, a lifetime of disconcerting events and no time to process what was happening. In the morning, the group was going to abandon the little house, and head west towards the opening in the swords raining from the sky. Things were getting rough, as Azrael had promised they would.
The sounds of the night closed in around him, the sound of steel against concrete the most insistent. He had learned to drown it out; they had all learned to ignore it. But tonight, he let it sing to him, as though it were the most beautiful song in the world. As each blade hit the ground, it rang from the impact before disappearing in a strange flash of green light, and the ringing was almost musical. The blades mixed with the sound of Maya’s shower, played off her humming in his mind. For a moment, he felt as though the world was calling to him through the strange music it made.
He sat up, unable to sleep, and scanned the dark room. Moonlight streamed in the windows of the dining room, which adjoined the living room, and threw long shadows across the furniture. North was fully clothed, as always. The nights had gotten colder and darker and longer since the quake, and now in the depths of October he could feel winter marching ever closer. A winter bathed in human blood, he realized grimly. He wondered if there was anyone left that had no manaburn, no mark of the planet. Azrael was loath to speak on the subject, and even if he was forthcoming North was unsure of whether or not he and his friends would like the answers they sought. He stood, and walked to the window in the dining room. A wooden chair was next to the table, which he turned toward the window before taking a seat in it. Outside, the moon shone down on the world as though everything was right and good, as though Earth was not tearing itself apart and demons weren’t wandering the streets of the city, burning and devouring and choking the life from it. The moon stood apart, silently pouring white light down without a care. He was jealous of it for that.
He’d been studying the moon and stars so intently that he hadn’t heard the water of the shower stop. Instead, he was surprised when a small, pale hand slid onto his shoulder and a cheek brushed his own from behind. North felt Maya’s small chin on his shoulder, could feel her breath against his skin. She didn’t say anything, but her arms were warm as she wrapped them around his chest. It didn’t really make sense that she was being so affectionate, but it was nice to know that someone was there. She watched the stars with him like that for several minutes, her arms wrapped around him as he sat, her face right next to his, neither speaking a word. He turned when her hands slipped away, and saw that tears were streaming down her cheeks, dropping onto the black t-shirt that covered her.
“What if we’re the only people left alive?” she said suddenly. North couldn’t answer. She needed reassurance, comfort, security… all the things he wanted to offer her but couldn’t dream of now. Maya wanted to hear that everything would be fine, that her family was safe, that they’d all make it through this, he was certain. He wanted to say those things, but the words caught in his throat. She was staring at him, her eyes full of sadness and pain and loneliness. He stood up from the chair and gave her hand a squeeze.“Get some sleep.” North told her. It was the best he could manage. As he watched her walk back down the hallway, he finally made up his mind.