“If you don’t mind, Aaron, I’d like to go to a shrine later to write a prayer for my father. You can do the same for your dad, if you want.” Emi said with a calm tone. It was clear she was used to this by now. However, sorrow still darkened her hazel eyes. “Of course.” Aaron replied, rather solemnly. Natsumi stepped closer to the boy and gripped his arm for comfort. Despite staying silent, he could tell she was curious. “Our fathers served in French army together. They...” The teal-haired girl nodded. From the way his voice shook, it was clear he had strong emotions attached to that memory. “They didn’t come home, did they?” She whispered softly into his ear. All he could do was shake his head. “Her mom passed away when she was young. She has no one left.” Natsumi put a comforting arm around his shoulders. “She has you.” Aaron met the girl’s smile. Her positivity was unwavering and it managed to calm his aching heart. He sighed. “Yeah.”
“Hey guys,” they all turned to face the smallest girl with curly hair. “I don’t mean to interrupt this serious conversation...” “No, please do.” Emi said with a grin. “We could all use a distraction.” Yoko’s frown turned into a playful smirk. “Well, if that’s the case,” she pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. She unfolded it and presented it to the group. It was a poster advertising something called the Festival of Lights. “There’s a festival in town today. It’s kinda more of a couples thing, but I’m sure you two love birds would love it.” Emi’s smile widened as her cheeks flushed with a rosary red. “That sounds like fun.” She said as she wrapped her arm around Aaron’s. Then, she suddenly frowned. “Who are you gonna go with, Yoko?” Yoko seemed embarrassed by this question and scratched her head. “Well...” Emi uncoiled her arm from the boy. “I don’t want you to feel left out. We can go as buddies.” The blondie put her palm out and shook her head. “Oh, no. You should go together. Don’t let me keep you apart.” Yoko’s face was stern, but her emerald orbs held her silent disappointment.
“I don’t seem to have a partner for this festival.” Aaron heard the familiar soft spoken, accent-heavy voice from behind him and turned to see Alex emerge from wherever he was beforehand. “Perhaps, we could go together.” The tall, Romanian boy walked passed the group to the blonde freshman. He put his hand out for her. Yoko’s face lit up a bright, rosy red as she glanced at his black jacket. “Oh my god, a senior just asked me out.” Yoko passed the boy’s open hand and wrapped her arms around his torso. Alex stood a whole foot taller than her. So, her hug only reached his hips. “You’re so kind! Thank you!” She said with a radiant smile. The upperclassman looked down at the girl, a small hint of a grin on his face.
“That’s adorable.” Natsumi giggled, spinning the umbrella in her hands. She sighed, but it was not one of frustration. She seemed calm, complacent. “I guess I’m going by myself then.” “No, you’re not.” Natsumi recognized that harsh tone and frowned. The tealed-haired girl glanced behind her to see the boy with the golden hair and dark cobalt eyes. Tarje didn’t have the normal expression of joy. He still wore a frown, but it was much softer than before. Natsumi’s once kind eyes glared invisible daggers into the boy’s very soul. Tarje doubled over in pain as her elbow connected with his rib cage. Both him and Aaron shared a look of shock that the blonde actually felt pain from such a light hit. It seemed he was still weakened to a degree. “Nat...” Tarje tried to catch his breath. “What the hell are you doing here?! You should still be in the infirmary!” Real anger swirled in her caramel eyes. “The nurse released me.” Natsumi grabbed his collar and pulled him closer. “It’s pretty obvious you’re still too weak to function.” She whispered so only ones with supernatural senses could hear. “My injury has already healed.” He responded, defensively. “Idiot, the silver is still in your bloodstream.” Tarje glared back at her. “The nurse can’t help with that. I might as well be here.” The girl sighed in defeat. “Fine.” Natsumi said in a normal tone as she released Tarje from her grasp.
Natsumi and Tarje turned to see the shocked faces of Emi and Yoko, who were completely unaware of what just happened. The girl with sapphire pigtails laughed with a hint of embarrassment. “Shall we go?” The group remained silent. Emi wrapped her arm around Aaron’s, pulling him close. “Wow, Natsumi is kinda scary when she’s angry.” She whispered into his ear. “You have no idea.”
The group of students walked in peaceful silence out of the Verde-Trinity campus. Yoko led the way, attached firmly to Alex. Aaron and Emi strolled behind them, arms interlocked. The two exemplars stayed by the boy’s side. They were calm, but alert. Ever since Alex was ambushed by angels, either Natsumi or Tarje was always with the fledgling. With only Yoko knowing where this festival was taking place, they blindly followed her through the crowded city streets. They walked through the business district of Tokyo. The buildings rose high into the sunlit sky. The surface of those buildings were plastered with signs of various kanji, advertising products and services. Aaron had never really learned how to read japanese, so the language looked nothing more than random lines and symbols. He barely had a grasp of how to speak Japanese. He knew more than most Englishmen. The boy could actually understand half of the dialogue he passed. However, he was definitely more comfortable with French and English.
“Hey, Emi, will this shrine do?” Yoko stopped and glanced her emerald eyes over her shoulder. She pointed to a large, crimson torii gate, marking the entrance to sacred ground. Beyond the gate, was a small, boxy shrine, nestled between two humble shops. Emi’s friend frowned. “If it’s too small, I’m sure I can find a bigger one.” Emi gave her a small smile and waved away her concern. “This is fine. I’ll just be a moment.” With her arm interlocked with Aaron’s, she approached the shrine. The rest of the group stayed by the gate, wishing not to interfere. “Would you like to be alone, Emilia?” Natsumi asked. The girl shrugged. “I don’t mind having company.” Without another word, Natsumi, with Tarje by her side, strolled into the grounds of the shrine. Yoko, however, didn’t leave her place by the entrance. Alex stood by her side.
Emilia Riou stopped to stare into the shrine’s center. Her partner followed suit, silently. She took a deep breath and sighed, releasing her pent up emotions. The girl let go of Aaron and stood tall, hands interlaced in front of her. “Hi, dad, I-I probably should say who I’m talking to. In case someone else is listening.” Emi laughed nervously. “Fabian Riou, it’s me, Emi. Aaron’s here too,” she glanced back at him before returning to the shrine. “So, I hope Simon Van Roosen is listening too.” Emi paused, as if unsure what to say. “A lot has happened since we last spoke. I got accepted into this academy in Japan. It’s hard, but... it’s a dream come true.” The girl smiled, yet her hazel eyes were drowning. Aaron noticed her distress and gripped her hand. Emi squeezed his arm, her smile brighter than before. “Honestly don’t think I could do all this without this idiot next to me.” The dark-haired girl playfully elbowed the freshman boy. He smiled at her half-assed insult. “Thank you, Simon...for raising such a nice person and an even better friend.” “I think that’s more my mom’s doing than my dad-” Aaron chimed in, but Emi shushed him. “You don’t get to co-write my prayer. Wait your turn.” She paused, taking another breath. “Anyway, hope you and mom are doing well. Remember to take her out for a nice dinner every once and awhile.” Emi turned to Aaron. “You think there’s restaurants in the afterlife?” He shrugged. “Whatever, just, give her lots of love for me. Love ya guys. I gotta get going. Talk later.” Emilia finished her prayer with a sigh, but it wasn’t one of pain. She was peaceful. It seemed to have taken her stress away to talk to the open air, hoping her father was listening.
“How do you know that worked?” Emi frowned at Aaron’s question. She shook her head. “I don’t, to be honest. But, if there’s a religion, any of them, that will let me talk to my dad again, it’s worth a try, right?” The raven-haired boy shrugged. “Did you want to talk to your dad?” He shook his head. “I’m good. You ready?” The boy outstretched his hand for her. “Yeah.” Emi took hand with a small grin, relocking her arm around him. She strolled back to the entrance, Aaron followed her lead. Natsumi and Tarje appeared back at his side. Yoko greeted them with a warm smile. “All good?” Emi nodded, “yep, thanks for waiting.” “Of course.” The short, glasses-clad girl spun around, facing the busy street. “Come on, we’ve got a festival to see.”
The Festival of Lights was being held in a park that was fairly close to the small, rickety shrine. It wasn’t long before the group reached the entrance. Within a small, picket fence, was a cluster of trees with elegant, paper lanterns hanging from their wooden limbs. As they stepped into the immaculate garden, they saw the rocky path was accompanied by torch-like lantern holders of various colors. The park lit up like the night sky. It was such a small change, but it turned a normal forest into a wonderland of lights. A feeling of child-like innocence washed over the students as they walked peacefully through the park.
Aaron walked silently alongside Emi, watching her smile widened as her eyes darted from one light to another. Her childish awe made him chuckle. The girl broke her gaze of wonder to glare up at him. “Why are you laughing?” He smiled, his eyes glistening. “You’re such a child.” Her hazel glare deepened. “Don’t patronize me.” The boy seemed unfazed by her fake anger. Emi unlocked her arm from Aaron to get a closer look at a bed of flowering roses. “I never said it was a bad thing.” Aaron replied. The girl glanced back at him with a playful smile.
The raven-haired boy took a step forward to reunite with his girlfriend. However, as he moved, he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. It was so sudden that it stopped him in his tracks. The feeling was quickly followed by a wave of vertigo and a pounding migraine that filled his spinning vision with flashes of pain. The series of compounding events caught him off balance. His world began to blur as he fell towards the ground.
With her mother-like reflexes, Natsumi caught him before his body hit the cold concrete. “Aaron?” She whispered. “Are you ok?” The girl couldn’t see the freshman’s eyes through the raven curtain of hair that hung in front of his face. However, she could feel his aura darken. The boy gripped her arm, piercing into her flesh with his fingernails. His fair skin burned to the touch, as if ratidating unnatural heat. At this point, the rest of the group noticed his odd behavior. Emi crouched in front of him and ran her fingers through his ebony hair. “Are you feeling sick? Should we call someone?” As soon as her hand connected with him, Natsumi could see a glimpse of crimson flash from beneath his obsidian locks. Aaron tried to get up, but he was stopped by Alex’s hand, not so subtly pushing back into his lying position. The Romanian gave the concerned Emi a comforting smile. “He’s just exhausted.” “I’ll go find some water. I’ll be right back.” Yoko chimed in from the back as she broke away from the group. “Emi,” The dark-haired girl turned to Natsumi. “Could you do me a favor and get me some water as well.” Emilia seemed hesitant to leave Aaron in the state he was in. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him.” The girl with the cobalt pigtails gave her signature bright smile. A smile that seemed to have a calming effect on Emi for some reason. She nodded. “Call me if he gets any worse.” “Will do.”
The glow of the freshman’s eyes intensified. He glared up at Natsumi as she held him to the ground. His aura changed. Hostility filled the air as he began to test her restraints. All personality was gone from those swirling orbs. Only anger and hunger remained. Alex helped hold him in place, but even he seemed to struggle against the boy. Tarje stepped out in front of them, Nat’s geometric barrier in his hand. He released the pyramid from his grasp. As it hit the ground, the walls expanded until it completely encased them in glass. The other patrons of the festival seemed oblivious to the barrier, as well as the standoff within it. Once the area was secure, Alex stepped back and stood next to the blonde. He scanned Aaron from top to bottom, as if pondering something. His gaze quickly turned from one of contemplation to one of concern as Aaron convulsed, desperately trying to break free from Natsumi. His strength increased with each attempt and the girl was forced to pierce his skin with her crystalized fingers.
“I don’t understand, what’s gotten into him? He was fine just a moment ago.” Natsumi said with more than a hint of panic. She turned her attention to the boys that stood above her. Her caramel eyes pleaded with them for answers. Tarje crossed his arms. “Have you never dealt with a fledgling before?” She glared at his condescending nature. “Fledglings are creatures of pure instinct, like a ravenous dog. The longer they go without changing, the more desperate they become.” Alex responded calmly. “And how long has it been exactly, a couple days?” Tarje chimed in. “I’m surprised he’s lasted as long as he has without losing it.” The alarmed expression of Natsumi only deepened. “What should we do?” The two remained quiet, avoiding eye contact. “We are going to do something, right?” Nothing. “Come on guys, it’s not like he ever wanted this. Think about Emi, he’ll never be able to be with her in this condition.” “He won’t be able to be with her as a vampire either.” Tarje said, matter-of-factly. Now, it was Natsumi’s aura that darkened with frustration. She let go of Aaron’s arm and the boy lunged at the blonde. Because he was still recovering from being stabbed, he wasn’t strong enough to keep the fledgling at bay. Tarje fell to the ground. By the time he realized what was happening, Aaron had already ripped open his throat. The boy sighed, deciding it was best not to struggle. His navy eyes glared passed Aaron to Natsumi. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” She crossed her arms, giving him a sly smile. Alex stepped in between them, turning to Nat. “Ignore Tarje-” “Oh, trust me. I try every day.” He gave her a small grin. “Aaron’s still under our protection. We’ll make sure he, and everyone he cares about, remain safe, even if it means interfering against his will.” “Does that mean you’ve decided to force him to turn?” Tarje asked. Alex remained silent, glancing down at the ground. The blonde glared up at his uncertainty. “That’s the only way to really ensure the safety of everyone around him.”
Fortunately for him, Alex was saved from answering anymore questions as Aaron began to stir. He sat up, rubbing the red out of his eyes. His personality reappeared, and with it, a glaze of confusion. “Tarje?” He looked down to realize he was sitting above the boy’s body. He noticed his bloodied neck. “Did I?” Not wanting to think about what he didn’t remember, Aaron stood and helped Tarje to his feet. “Sorry.” The boy was genuinely concerned as to what the grumpy blonde would do. “It’s fine.” He sighed. “It’s not your fault.” He glared back at Natsumi. She smiled and picked up the pyramid from the ground, collapsing the barrier as she did so.
Emi and Yoko returned to the scene to see the four sitting peacefully by a small koi pond. Her hazel eyes scanned the group until she saw him, smiling back at her. Emi sat beside Aaron, gifting the water she found. “Feel any better?” He nodded. “Good.” Yoko sat across from them, transferring water to the rest of the students. The blonde girl smiled as she saw the couple’s hands intertwined. “So.” Everyone turned to the glasses-clad girl as she broke the momentary silence. “How did you two meet?” Emi and Aaron glanced at each other. “We were six, I think...I don’t remember much, to be honest.” The girl glared at him with a hint of annoyance. “How could you not remember? You save my life.” Natsumi chuckled. “Sounds interesting. What happened?” They all looked to Emi for answers, including Aaron. “We live in a pretty mountainous region of England. The terrain changed abruptly up there. One minute you’re on a nice, rolling hill, and the next, you reach a cliff that drops thousands of meters below. We just so happen to have one of these death cliffs at the edge of our property.” Emi paused, smiling to herself. “Now, I like to think of myself as an adventurous kid. As soon as my dad and I moved in, I went straight to exploring the forest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the smartest kid...or the most graceful...and I ended up tripping on my untied laces...I fell...” As Emi described her trauma in great detail, the same vision as before popped into Aaron’s mind. He could see her clearly, falling to her death. He saw himself falling as well, reaching out for her, and then...they stopped, floating in the air like gravity was no longer an issue. This was not a vision, nor a dream. It was a memory, now he was sure. “Lucky for me, I lived right next to this idiot.” Emi nudged Aaron with her elbow, but that didn’t wake him from his trance. “I caught you before you hit the ravine.” The boy said in a monotone voice, which concerned Natsumi and Alex sitting next to him. “But, how...?” His voice was barely a whisper. He desperately tried to remember, but as he tried to probe deeper, pain shot down his right, tattooed arm. He hissed, rubbing the muscles of his inner arm. “Your arm again?” Alex asked, to which Aaron nodded. “Your arm started hurting last time you talked about your past.” Natsumi’s voice was soft so no one could hear. “I’m sensing a pattern.” Tarje chimed in. “Perhaps one relating to a curse of some kind.” He looked at them with suggestion in his eyes. “Curse?” Aaron was more than a little confused.
“Hey guys,” Yoko broke up the whispers with her high pitched voice. “Sorry to interrupt the gossip party, but it’s getting kinda late.” Emi nodded and stood. “She’s right. We should get going. I have early classes tomorrow.” The rest of the group followed her lead. They made their way to the entrance in relative silence. Emi and Yoko led together, while the rest walked beside Aaron. That’s when he noticed Alex stop in his tracks. He turned, followed by Natsumi and Tarje, to see the tall Romanian answering his phone. “Hi, dad.” He sighed. It was hard to hear what Alex’s father said, but Aaron was sure he said something about a family dinner. Knowing his family was comprised entirely of vampires, the idea of a family dinner was horrifying. “Tonight? Can’t we do this some other time?” The boy waited for a response. “Yes, I’m aware of what she’s doing. She attacked me a few nights ago.” Using context clues, Aaron was certain he was talking about Celeste. Alex glanced up at the boy. His amber eyes had never been so stressed. “His name is Aaron.” Dread slithered down his spine at the mention of his name. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Alex tried to plead with his father. Of what, the boy had no idea. It was clear by his sigh that his father was not convinced. “Fine. We’ll be there soon.” Alex pocketed his phone.
“What does Vlad want?” Tarje asked. The same look of dread was hidden under his cobalt eyes. The dark-haired boy sighed, rubbing his temples. “Family dinner. He has some things he wants to discuss.” “It’s about Celeste, isn’t it?” Natsumi asked. “Damn her...” The blonde mumbled under his breath. “Is it mandatory?” “He made it clear he wants everyone to be there.” The three collectively groaned in unison. “Well, you guys have fun with that.” Aaron turned to leave, but he was stopped by both Natsumi’s and Tarje’s hands. “You’re not going anywhere.” “Why not?” Natsumi was the one to answer. “Anyone who bares the blood of Tepes is part of the Tepes clan.” “Which means, you have to suffer with the rest of us.” Tarje held a sinister smile. “My father asked for you specifically. I don’t think you can get away from this one.” Alex interjected. Aaron sighed in defeat. “Fine, just let me tell Emi.”
The two exemplars escorted Aaron to his girlfriend. They kept a close eye on him, as if he would try to run at any second. He walked up to the girl and her friend. “Hey, Emi? You mind if I go out with them tonight?” He gestured to the three behind him. The girl’s hazel eyes flooded with concern. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” He smiled. “I’m fine.” “Just don’t stay out too late. You have class too.” “Don’t worry, Emi. We’ll make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble.” Natsumi said with her brightest smile. Emilia smiled back. “I know. You guys are good friends. Have fun.” Before Aaron could say another word, he was dragged off by the exemplars.