All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Author's note: I am resubmitting this piece under my own name this time for technical purposes. This was originally intended to be an emotional piece, by the characters' personalities made things difficult, so I've given up on making it so, and instead just add in emotional scenes whenever I see fit. Hope you enjoy.
Being alive meant I was in trouble.
I awoke to only silence and darkness. I could tell my head hurt, yet at the same time, I could feel no pain. There was something important... something urgent, something I had to do no matter what...
I shook my head.
Where was I?
Something had happened in those last few milliseconds, right before I had been hit by that... that... thing. Phantom wounds all over my body began to ache. I winced at the agony, but still didn't feel any pain. This was definitely strange.
My eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. I took a quick glance around. There were other people here too. I took a breath to call out to them, but found that my voice didn't work. Neither did my lungs... wait.
How was I still alive?
I had clearly died the second that... thing ran me through. But then again, this wasn't exactly a place that resembled my neighborhood.
From what I could tell, everyone was gathered in some sort of cavernous chamber filled with darkness. Virtually no light shone into the room; only darkness shrouded the chamber... wait... then how could I even see?
The other people also looked confused. They all wore some kind of draping black garment, like a black robe that was two sizes too big for them. I could recognize no faces, nor did I want to. If the last thing that had happened to me was dying, then I didn't even want to think about what happened next.
"Greetings, deceased ones," a deep voice hissed into the chamber. "As all of you probably know, you are dead. This is a transitory room, where your deaths will be registered and your souls moved accordingly. You will be given freedom of speech now. Please await further instructions."
Almost instantly, a chorus of chattering broke through the silence. I tried to ignore it and process what was happening.
I had died, that was for sure. I clearly remembered that hideous thing killing me, but where I was... that was the mysterious part. This certainly didn't look like heaven or hell, or any variety I had learned about in mythology. Well, if this really was where people went after they died, I couldn't really do anything about it.
"But it's kind of unfair," I said to myself, sitting down on whatever the room's surface was made from. That thing that had killed me clearly hadn't been human. Maybe an alien? I just sighed to myself. This was really beginning to disappoint me.
"Greetings again, deceased ones," the deep voice hissed again after a few minutes. "Your deaths have all been successfully registered. Please head towards the nearest portal to commence soul placement."
Pitch black spheres appeared around the room. All around, people were approaching them uncertainly. Those who touched them vanished. After a while, nobody was left. I stood.
"Guess it's time for me to go too," I said to myself.
"Hey! Wait just a second!" a voice suddenly said.
"Me?" I asked, but there was no reply. I walked around for a moment, trying to locate the voice. Then, I saw them.
A person was arguing with what looked like a figure dressed in black robes, except with a black mask and a sword hanging at his side.
"You expect us to believe in this crap?!" one of the people said. His voice definitely sounded young. Probably a teenager, like me, but with an attitude. I decided to stay and watch a while longer; I was dead after all, waiting couldn't hurt.
"This isn't fair!" the teenager complained. "You can't just pop out of nowhere, telling us that we're dead and expect us to believe it!"
"Jack Carter," the figure said. "Cause of death, car accident: was severely intoxicated at the time of the accident. Evaluation, fair death."
"Don't give me that bull****," the teenager named Jack said. "I didn't die! Get that into that ****ing head of yours!"
The figure seemed to frown. "I would appreciate it if you did not employ vulgar language here."
"**** you," Jack spat at the figure.
Almost too fast to see, the figure drew his sword, ran the teen through, and sheathed it again. Black fire engulfed the teenager, who briefly screamed before disappearing along with the black flames. I swallowed hard.
The figure turned its mask towards me and walked over. I made no attempt to run. I doubted I could escape anyways.
"Why are you still here?" the figure asked.
"Let's see," I said, taking a deep breath to calm my nerves. "You gave that other guy an evaluation of his death, right?"
"That is correct," the figure said.
"Then do the same for me," I said. "If my death is fair, I'll go without resisting."
"Riku Alcastar," the figure said. I winced at the mention of my name.
"Cause of death," the figure continued. A brief pause. "Attack by an unknown entity."
"Unknown entity?" I said. "You mean even you don't know what that thing was?"
"Invalid support," the figure said. "Incomplete evaluation... I will contact my superiors on the matter. I apologize for the wait."
"No, it's fine," I said. "Take as long as you need."
The figure turned away and dissipated into black smoke. I sat down again.
This was getting stranger by the second. I had died, sure, I could accept that, but just what was this place? And what the heck had killed me?
"Riku Alcastar?" another voice said with a British accent.
I stood up. "That's me. Who are you?"
A black cloaked figure similar to the one I had just spoken with stepped out of the darkness, except there was something more... real about this one. Like he was actually a person underneath the mask.
"I am Mason Winston," the figure said. "I am one of the thirteen Hands of Death. I was informed that you were displeased with our administration?"
"No, your administration is fine," I said. "It's just, I'm a little curious. I was killed by something... well, something strange, and it didn't seem like your subordinate could figure out what it was either."
"I see," Mason Winston said. He paused for a moment. "It seems like a sort of dimensional anomaly. Possibly a creature that had escaped from our second sphere."
"Then technically it's your fault that I died," I said.
"I said possibly."
"Anyways, it's certainly true that your death was not in complete validity," Mason said.
"So... then can I go back?" I asked. "You know, to living?"
"Well, it is still uncertain as to what that creature was," Mason said. "So, I cannot allow back until the matter has been thoroughly investigated."
"Then... I have to wait?" I said.
"Sorry, but there's not much I can do until we've conducted an investigation," Mason said. He paused again. "However, there may be another method."
"If one is unsatisfied with their deaths, they can choose to serve as a wraith for the Hands of Death for a time, to be reincarnated into a newborn."
"Ah, I'd rather go back to my old life," I said.
"But, since your death has not been validated yet, I am willing to allow you to return directly to the world of the living after you complete your duties," Mason continued. "I'll even cut down the time you have to serve."
I thought for a moment. "Alright, sounds reasonable. But first, let me hear what this service is."
"As a wraith working for the Hands of Death, you will be required to bring the souls of those who have died back here," Mason said. "You will be given the proper equipment to search for and transfer the souls, as well as instructions on how to do so. Your training will take time, however, and you will not be sent to the world of the living at the exact time of your death, for sake of convenience."
"And how long do I have to do this for?" I asked.
"The standard time is two years of service," Mason said. "However, I am willing to cut it in half, since your death is a special case."
"A year then..." I said.
"Don't worry about the time," Mason said. "Time is in a stasis in this dimension, so when you complete your duties, you will be able to return to the world of the living at the exact time of your death."
"Oh," I said. "That's pretty convenient. So, just one year of hunting down souls and I'm free, right?"
Mason nodded. "But, if you happen to miss even a single soul, you will be transferred back and your death will become valid again."
I thought for a moment. The deal sounded risky, sure, but I knew it really wasn’t. I was essentially dead already, and dying a second time would probably just be experiencing this all over again. But, would I really want to spend a year of my life collecting souls…
Oh, wait. I was still dead. That made it easy then.
"Alright, sounds simple enough," I said. "When do we start?"
"Follow me," Mason said. The other black portals closed and a new one opened up behind the figure. Mason turned and stepped through. I followed quickly behind.
The girl looked at the hanger she had bent into a ring. A few tears ran down from her eyes, and she sniffled.
"Who cares what they think," the girl muttered to herself, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. She walked over to a computer moniter, displaying a popular social networking site. She typed something onto the site, then closed the page.
The girl proceeded to find a piece of paper and scribbled a few words onto it. She breathed heavily. More tears streamed down her face.
Her heart felt as if it would burst any second now. Tears flowed freely from the girl’s eyes. The girl closed her eyes and uttered a silent prayer. Then, she placed her head through the bent circle of the hanger and kicked the chair out from underneath her.
The girl woke with a start.
Almost immediately, the stench assaulted her. It stank of mustiness, like dirt and mud mixed together shoved down her nose. She could hardly breathe. Someting was pressing down on her too, something large and wooden. She tried pushing against it, but it wouldn't budge.
Just where was she?
The last thing she had remembered was...
The girl swallowed hard, tears welling up again in her eyes as she recalled her suicide attempt. But then, how was she still alive?
A soft scrapping sound suddenly came from above. What could that be? The girl trembled nervously. The sound slowly escalated, turning from a soft whisper to a crescendo of noise. The girl suddenly felt extremely claustrophobic. She had to get out of here.
The girl pushed against the wooden surface again. It creaked, and this time, it moved an inch. The girl, regaining hope in herself, redoubled her efforts. The wooden surface flew open... sending a huge pile of dirt tumbling in her face.
The girl struggled for a few seconds, trying to both get out of the dirt and not swallow it at the same time. About a minute later, the girl rose from the mound.
She was inside a hole, about a foot deeper than her height. Light shone from the overcast sky above. The girl took a deep breath, relishing the fresh air.
"You're certainly impatient," a voice said.
The girl whipped around, spotting a boy wearing some kind of black hooded-robe. He also wore black gloves and black boots, effectively hiding most of his features. His hood was down for the moment, and he was carrying a shovel. He looked a little amused.
"Who are you?" the girl demanded. "And where am I?"
The boy appeared to think for a moment. "You can call me Riku. And right now, you're standing inside a grave in a local cemetery."
"Wha...?" the girl said. Did that mean that she really had died?
"It took me a while to find you, since I missed the funeral," Riku continued. "I was worried that I might have been late for a few hours, but it looks like you're fine."
"Just..." the girl started. "What... what happened?"
"What's the last thing you remember?" Riku asked.
"I... I died," the girl said. Suddenly a twinge of sadness pierced through her heart.
"Well, that's probably the way you remember it," Riku said. "But, you're not dead. Well, not yet anyways."
"What do you mean?" the girl said. "I... I clearly remember. I... committed suicide! I know that I died!"
Tears streamed down the girl's cheeks. Riku didn't seem moved at all. If anything, he just looked bored.
"And you're standing here right now," Riku said. "How do you prove that?"
"I... I don't..." the girl started.
"Alright, I'll just tell you then," Riku said. "After you had lost consciousness and nearly crushed your windpipe by hanging yourself, I came into your room and injected you with this."
Riku waved a syringe filled half full with red liquid. "It's parasitic blood, more commonly known as vampire blood. The blood has miraculous healing properties, but takes some time to fully take effect, so you've only recovered just now. Everyone else who came seemed to think that you were truly dead."
"So... you mean... you turned me into a vampire?" the girl asked.
"That's not the technical term for it, but if you want to think about it that way, then sure," Riku said. "Anyways, after that, you have no idea how long it took to find out where your funeral was at, since I can't know your name, so I've only just arrived now."
"Then... I'm a vampire?" the girl asked, looking at her hands. "I... don't really feel any stronger."
The girl looked up, squinting at the sky. "And I can't fly either. Are you trying to trick me or something?"
Riku sighed. "Not everything you hear about vampires is true. There are many different kinds of vampires. The one you are right now is a parasitic hybrid, essentially a human that regenerates abnormally fast. The ones you're talking about are incredibly rare, with only a handful of them even on the planet."
"But I digress," Riku said. "So, now that I've explained-"
"Wait, so I'm a just a low class vampire then?" the girl said, looking back at her hands. "And the only thing I can do is heal really fast? Are you serious?"
"Look," Riku said, pressing a hand to his forehead. "I don't have all day to chat with you. We've got to get moving. The next soul is due in fifteen minutes."
"The next... soul?"
"Right," Riku said. "See, I'm a wraith, and you are going to be my partner."
The girl just stared at the boy like she was looking at a hallucination. "A... wraith?"
Riku's body flickered, briefly showing a skeleton shrouded in black smoke, then it flickered back. He nodded.
The girl screamed. Riku just put a hand back on his forehead and shook his head. The girl edged back to the earthen wall behind her.
“S-stay away,” the girl stammered.
“What is it with people these days,” Riku said with a roll of his eyes. “It’s not like I’m going to hurt you. You’re my partner after all.”
Riku sighed and looked up at the sky. “Finding this place took a lot longer than I thought. We don’t have much time now.”
“Alright,” Riku, said, facing the girl again. “I’ll give you the short version. After someone dies, they’re taken by a group called the Hands of Death. Then, they’re given a choice. They can either die or serve as a wraith for two years to be reborn as a baby in the living world. But, I was somewhat of a special case, so I get to go directly back to my old life, after serving for a year.”
“So… you’re like a dead person then,” the girl said.
“Each wraith must collect dead souls and transport them back to the Hands of Death,” Riku said, ignoring the comment. “They are allowed use of up to three pieces of equipment, and they are also allowed to save one person who would have died and make them their partner.”
“Then, you saved me?”
"And after I help you collect souls, I get to go home?”
"That's what the contract says."
"And if what if we don't manage to get all the souls?"
"Then we both die."
The girl took another deep breath. "Okay, I think I understand now."
"Two more things," Riku said. "If a wraith and their partner are ever separated for more than a day, they both die instantly, so don't even think about running off. Also, a wraith is not allowed to know the names of any being in the living world, so I'm just going to call you Alice from now on."
“Alice?” the girl said.
“Right,” Riku said. He brought out a strange device from his pocket that looked like a cross between a smartphone and a remote controller. He grabbed the girl by the arm and pushed a button.
Suddenly, the two were standing at the cemetery entrance.
“Whoa,” Alice said. “What was that?”
“My first choice of equipment, a navi-computer,” Riku said. “It tells me where our next target is, the time it will arrive, and teleports us to the vicinity.”
“Cool,” Alice said. Then she frowned. “Wait, you weren’t serious about calling me Alice back there, were you?”
Riku gave the girl a dead-serious look. “Is there anything wrong with that?”
“Ah, no…” the girl said. In truth, she actually liked the name better than most other female names, but the way Riku put it… it just upset her.
“Good,” Riku said. He pulled a black cylinder from a hidden pocket and pressed on the end. Silver strings shot out from the cylinder, forming the outline of a sword. Then the black metal from the cylinder filled in the gaps, expanding into a dark-edged short-sword. Riku handed the sword to Alice, who just looked at it as if it were magical.
“That’s a soul-containment device,” Riku explained. “You activate it by pressing on the hilt, then you only have to come into contact with a soul, and the sword will absorb it and send it to the Hands of Death.”
Alice pressed on the hilt. The blade gave off a blue glow. “Cool…”
Riku took another tool out from a hidden pocket, a black cube. He pressed on one side and the cube unfolded into what looked like an extremely technologically advanced handgun.
“Hey, wait a second,” Alice said. “Why do you get a gun and I get a sword?”
“It’s not like I knew I was getting a partner when I was picking my equipment,” Riku said. “Be grateful that I actually picked two soul-containment devices instead of something useless.”
“But… why do I have to use the sword?”
“Well, like I said before, vampires are stronger than the average human,” Riku said. “And even as a wraith, I’m not much stronger than I was as a human, so you’ll be better suited to handling the sword.”
“Well, alright,” Alice said.
“Our next target should be inside a hospital about three blocks from here,” Riku said, checking his navi-computer.
“Yeah, I know the place,” Alice said. “It’s the only hospital in the city.”
“Lead the way,” Riku said, and the pair set off.
After about five minutes of running, the hospital came into view. Riku sneaked a quick glance at his navi-computer before redoubling his pace. Alice followed easily.
It seemed like vampires really were stronger than normal humans. Alice wouldn’t have been able to run as fast as this without collapsing afterwards.
“Ten seconds,” Riku said.
Alice looked up. They had arrived at the hospital entrance. The white building took up ten stories, easily the tallest building on the block. Alice glanced around quickly, raising her sword. A few people passing by flinched in surprise, then began muttering amongst themselves.
“Lower your weapon,” Riku said, eyes still fixed on the hospital. “We don’t want to attract unnecessary attention.”
Alice stuck the point of the sword on the ground. “So, where’s the soul at?”
“It should be coming into view now,” Riku said. As if on cue, a transparent, light blue ball floated up from the hospital’s roof. Riku aimed his gun, steadying it on his left wrist.
After a few seconds of watching the ball float around, Alice spoke. “Are you going to shoot it or what?”
“I’m limited to three rounds per soul,” Riku said, squinting at the soul through his gun’s scope. “If I miss, it’ll be difficult to capture it.”
“Yeah,” Alice said. She imagined herself trying to hit the soul with her sword from ten stories up. She shuddered. “How much time have we got?”
“From what I know, souls will become malignant after about thirty minutes. After an hour, they become too strong to catch and require direct intervention from the Hands of Death,” Riku said.
“What do you mean by ‘malignant’?”
“They start fighting back.”
Suddenly, a blue flash flew out of Riku’s gun. The soul swerved sharply to the right, narrowly avoiding the flash. Riku frowned and aimed again. Alice watched with a slight feeling of anxiety building in her chest.
“You aren’t going to miss this time, right?” Alice said.
Another blue flash burst from Riku’s gun. The soul swerved again to the right, only to be caught by a second flash, shot a split second after the first. The ball glowed blue, then shrunk rapidly until it could no longer be seen. Riku lowered his gun.
“Nope,” he said, refolding the pistol back into its cube form.
“Hey, you could have missed that third shot!” Alice said. “If the soul hadn’t gone to the right, then we’d be in trouble right now!”
“Have a little trust in your partner,” Riku said. “And souls’ movements are generally predictable. I was waiting for a specific cue to shoot so that I could trap the soul as it moved to the right.”
“But then… how did you know what cue would signal a movement to the right?”
“I tested that with my first shot,” Riku said, stuffing the black cube into a hidden pocket. “Why else would I take so long to fire?”
“But… ah…” Alice was at a loss for words. Riku was a lot more skilled than she had thought. Either that or he was just really lucky.
Riku pulled out his navi-computer again and pressed on the screen. “We’re not due at our next target for another three days.”
“Okay, that’s good,” Alice said, heaving a sigh of relief.
“Our next target is in Italy,” Riku continued. “It’s in Florence, about forty four degrees north by eleven degrees south. There will be three souls in question, estimated time of capture is-”
“Whoa, wait, slow down for a second,” Alice said. “Did you just say that the next soul is going to pop up in Italy?”
Riku looked up from his navi-computer. “Yes.”
“Okay… you can just teleport us there with your computer thing, right?”
“The navi-computer only has a range of fifty miles,” Riku said. “We have to at least get into the same country as our target first.”
“Three days to get to Italy!?” Alice threw up her hands. “What, do we have to go do an interpretive dance too?”
“It should only take half a day by plane,” Riku said thoughtfully.
“And just how are we going to get on a plane?!”
“Probably from an airport,” Riku said, tapping something on his navi-computer.
“Yeah, sure, we’ll just walk into the airport and ask them to borrow a plane,” Alice said with an eye roll.
“The flight for Italy is booked for eleven tomorrow morning,” Riku said without looking up from his navi-computer. “We’ll rest for tonight and leave first thing in the morning.”
Alice just stared at the black cloaked boy. “You… booked us a flight?”
“We’ll probably need fake passports,” Riku continued. “I’ll have to forge them tonight. You’ll have to take care of the details, since I can’t read anyone’s name without bursting into flames.”
“Hey, wait just a minute here!” Alice said.
Riku looked at Alice. “What is it?”
“You… you just plan on walking into an airport like a normal person?!” Alice said.
“Yeah, of course. How else would we get on a flight?”
“But… you’re a wraith…”
“And you’re a vampire. Doesn’t mean we can’t act like normal people,” Riku said, looking back to his navi-computer. “Do you have a preference of hotel choice?”
Alice just stood there, speechless. Riku kept clicking away at his navi-computer.
“There’s a hotel a few blocks from here,” Alice said finally. “It’s where people usually stay.”
“Good, I will make a reservation for tonight,” Riku said. He tapped at his navi-computer a few more times then placed it back into his pocket. “Well, we have a few hours until evening. I’m going to disappear until then. Try to keep out of trouble.”
Riku turned, and promptly melted into black smoke. Alice just stared at where Riku had been.
“Did he just…” Alice muttered to herself. Then she shook her head. Her watch told her it was four in the afternoon. She would probably meet up with Riku at the hotel by six or seven. That left two hours of free time for her.
Alice looked up into the overcast sky. What was she going to do for two hours? Visit her family?
The girl almost immediately shook her head. They probably thought she was dead, having already been buried once. Alice still wasn’t clear on the whole dead person contract thing, but she was pretty sure that if she went and visited anyone she knew, she would probably get killed. That was how things usually worked in stories, after all.
Then, what was she going to do?
In the end, Alice just ended up wandering into the hotel lobby, and sitting at a bench there until Riku entered at six in the evening.
“You’re early,” Riku said, walking up to Alice.
“You just left without telling me anything,” Alice said accusingly. “How was I supposed to know what to do?”
“Girls tend to go shopping, don’t they?”
“I didn’t have any money.”
“Then, how should I know? Go stroll around the park or something,” Riku said.
“But what if I meet someone I knew before?” Alice asked.
“Pretend like you don’t know them.”
“But they can see me clearly.”
Riku gave Alice a look. Then an expression of realization bloomed on his face. “Ah, right, you still haven’t seen yourself yet. Your appearance changed when the parasitic blood took over. I doubt anyone you knew before would recognize you at a distance.”
“Wait… my appearance changed?”
“You’ll see when we get into our room,” Riku said. He walked over to the registrar and spoke with the attendant. A few minutes later, he returned, holding up two plastic cards. “We have room six hundred and two. Here is your key.”
Riku handed a plastic card key to Alice, who slid it into her pocket. Then, the pair proceeded down a hallway. A minute later, they arrived at the room.
“Just one room?” Alice asked. “You’re not sleeping in a different room?”
“More rooms cost more money, and with the cost of travel these days, I doubt we’ll have much to spare,” Riku said.
“Wait, how did you get the money for those plane tickets in the first place?” Alice asked.
“I borrowed some,” Riku said. “From a bank of course. I’ll pay it all back when I come back to life.”
“How did you manage to get money from a bank?”
“I told them I was a college student and I needed a loan for… various things. The payment is due four years from now with fifteen percent compounded interest. It’ll be a dent in my future budget, but I’ll have plenty of time to pay it off.”
“You… you took a loan from a bank?” Alice said in disbelief. “Just how old are you?”
“I was fourteen when I was killed,” Riku said. "I could have gotten transfered a few years ahead, so I might be older right now."
Alice just stared. “Is there anything else I should know before we continue?”
“About me?” Riku thought for a moment. “I think we’re clear for the moment.”
“Okay,” Alice said. She paused. “You’re not really going to be sleeping in the same room as me, are you?”
“I doubt I’ll be sleeping tonight,” Riku said. “Too much paperwork to do, forging our passports and all. I’ll sleep when the next soul is captured.”
“But then won’t we have another soul to worry about?”
“Then we’ll just have to hope the next one gives a longer relief period,” Riku said. He opened the door to the room with a light click. “Care to enter?”
Alice walked into the room, not sure what to make of the boy that was her partner. Then, she saw it.
There was a closet at the room entrance, one that had a mirror attached to the sliding doors. And reflected in that mirror, was a completely foreign girl.
The girl’s hair was white, silvery white, like gossamer. Her eyes had turned green somehow, like tree leaves in the heart of spring. Her facial features had changed too, somehow becoming more… more exact, more perfect in a way, but still not quite complete. Like her face had somehow tried to mimic the face of a model and stopped halfway.
“Are you going to stare at yourself all day?” Riku asked, still standing at the door.
“Ah, sorry…” Alice said softly. “I… I just… well…”
“Yeah, I know,” Riku said. “The first time I turned into a skeleton, I had the same reaction. But don’t let it bother you. It’ll all change back to normal when the contract is done.”
“Ah… okay…” Alice said, still staring at her own reflection. She touched herself on the nose, feeling her way up to her eyebrows, then her hair, as if making sure that this foreign entity was still her.
“Any time today would be nice,” Riku said somewhat exasperatedly from the doorway.
“Sorry,” Alice said, and immediately moved into the room. Riku followed and shut the door.
“Okay, I’ll get the forging equipment set up,” Riku said. “You do whatever girls usually do in hotel rooms. We’ll have a strategic meeting at nine. Then you can go to sleep.”
“A strategic meeting?” Alice said.
“We’ll discuss any further questions you may have, and general strategic outlines for completing our contract, regarding soul capturing, relief time policy, stuff like that,” Riku said, waving a hand. “But that’s later. Just don’t bother me right now.”
Riku proceeded to unload several bags that had been hidden under his robe. They contained pieces of complex machinery, loose ends of wire, random pieces of paper, and some exotic kinds of ink. Riku piled the equipment on a small table the hotel room provided and began organizing the tools. He caught Alice staring, and just waved her away.
It was clear that he didn’t want to be disturbed. But, then again, what could she do with all of this time?
Alice really wanted to take a shower, after a long day involving being buried alive, being dragged into an unknown contract with Death, and having to bear with Riku, but, she didn’t have anything to change into.
“Ah, Riku?” Alice said.
“What is it?” the cloaked boy asked, rummaging through his bags of equipment.
“You… wouldn’t have happened to pick up a spare set of my clothes when you were at my house, did you?”
Riku looked up. He picked up a bag that had been set apart from the others and handed it to Alice. Alice looked inside. A fresh set of female clothing in her size was inside, including the undergarments.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” Riku said, turning back to his piles of mechanical parts.
Alice wasn’t sure whether to smack the boy, or thank him. In the end, she just shook her head and stepped into the bathroom, making sure to lock the door behind her. She examined the set of clothing Riku had given her. There wasn’t anything special about the clothing. The pieces were mainly just solid black in color, with no real designs or patterns to accompany them. They matched decently, and Alice felt relieved that Riku hadn’t picked anything incredibly skimpy. He didn’t seem like a pervert, at least.
After her shower, Alice changed into the clothes Riku had given her. They fit her perfectly, of which Alice was inherently suspicious. She walked out of the bathroom, pausing briefly to examine herself in the mirror. When she had made certain that she looked presentable, Alice went to confront Riku.
The boy was working on assembling a rather complex looking piece of machinery, some kind of printing machine, as Alice saw it.
“Hey, Riku,” Alice said. The boy didn’t even pause to look up.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” Alice said louder.
Riku sighed and looked at Alice. “What part of ‘don’t bother me’ did you not understand?”
“Hey, this is important,” Alice said. “How did you know what size clothing I wear?”
Riku raised an eyebrow. “That’s important? I just happened to see the sizes in your closet when I visited your house. Now, if that’s all…”
Riku returned to working on his machine. Alice just looked on in half-disbelief. Sometimes, Riku acted so simple-mindedly that it was almost annoying. Alice sighed and looked at the time. It was six-thirty, still two hours and a half to go before Riku’s ‘strategic meeting’.
What did he expect Alice to do in the meantime? Just randomly make up things to do on the spot? Plus, there were still a lot of questions she wanted answered.
“Riku,” Alice said. The boy ignored her.
“Riku, hey, I still have things I want to ask,” Alice pressed.
“And if I don’t finish this by tomorrow morning, we won’t make it to Italy,” Riku said without turning. “I’ve already scheduled our strategic meeting to be at nine. You can ask all of your questions then.”
“But there’s nothing to do right now,” Alice whined. “At least let me help or something.”
Riku sighed. He looked up and pointed at a stack of papers lying on the ground. “Sort those by watermark pattern.”
“Hold it up to the light, see what pattern it has, then put it into a pile with papers with the same pattern,” Riku explained. “When you’re done with that, you can start organizing the screws by size.”
Riku gestured to a rather large pile of screws at the edge of the table. Alice picked up the pile of papers and started to work. The process was tedious, to say the least. There must have been at least fifty different watermark patterns on the papers. Just finding space for each of the piles had been difficult. When Alice had finally finished, it was already half past eight.
By then, several machines had already been assembled by Riku, most of them printing machines, by the looks of it. Riku had proceeded to fitting various inks into them by the time Alice had finished.
“Whew,” Alice said. “Alright, I’m done.”
“Good for you,” Riku said without looking up from his work.
“Anything else you need?”
“Take a picture of yourself.”
Riku pointed without looking to a bag sitting by the table. “There’s a camera in there. Take a picture of yourself. I can’t draw you that well from memory.”
“Okay…” Alice said. She found the camera in the bag and snapped a picture of herself. She handed the camera to Riku, who in turn took a picture of himself. Then he set the camera down on the table and continued working.
“Okay, done with that,” Alice said. She paused. “Um… Riku? I feel kind of hungry.”
Riku looked up. “Already? Didn’t you eat in the free time you had before we were supposed to meet up at the hotel?”
Alice shook her head. Riku sighed. He rolled up his sleeve and extended his bare arm at Alice. Alice just stared dumbly.
“You’re a vampire now, remember?” Riku said. “You can drink blood for sustenance.”
“But… you’re a wraith…” Alice said.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have blood,” Riku said. “But I doubt it’ll taste very good compared to human blood.”
“Uh… are you sure drinking your blood is okay?”
“Your class of vampire has parasitic blood, meaning that it needs to feed off of living cells, any living cells, to survive. Higher classes of vampires only feed off of specific kinds of cells, but for you, you only need ones that are technically alive.”
“Didn’t you die though?”
“I was brought back to life as a wraith,” Riku said, stressing every word. “Do I really need to explain every little detail to you?”
“Sheesh, sorry,” Alice said. She looked at the arm uncertainly. “So… I just bite you?”
Riku gave her a look. Alice sighed. She took Riku’s arm and gingerly sunk her teeth into it. A liquid ran out, tasting like a mix between licorice and coffee. After having just suffered a long day, full of mentally taxing explanation, and physical exertions, Alice sighed in pleasure at the fragrant taste. She drank deeply, savoring every drop of the delicious blood that flowed into her mouth.
Then a hand pushed on her forehead.
“I would much prefer if you didn’t completely drain me, thank you very much,” Riku said.
Alice dislodged her teeth from Riku’s arm, from which small streams of black blood flowed. “Ah, sorry.”
She stared at the black liquid, still running from the wounds on Riku’s arm. “I can… lick that up for you if you want.”
Riku rolled his sleeve back down. “I think I can manage by myself.”
“Oh… okay,” Alice said. Somehow, she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, seeing all of that blood going to waste.
“Vampires and their blood,” Riku said, shaking his head.
“But… your blood tasted fine,” Alice said. “And you said that it wouldn’t taste very good.”
“I said that it wouldn’t compare to human blood,” Riku said. “But I suppose, since you’ve never tasted human blood before, it would seem that way to you.”
Riku looked at the clock briefly. “Well, I guess we should begin our strategic meeting now.”
“Okay,” Alice said. She was still feeling dazed. It felt as if she had just eaten her first meal in days. And it had tasted so good…
Alice flinched involuntarily. She looked towards the mirror, seeing her reflection, still with a stream of black blood trailing down her face. She wiped off the blood with the back of her hand then licked it clean. Then she paused.
She was really a vampire now. She was drinking blood and everything, and it didn’t even feel strange.
“Ahem,” Riku said, cutting into her thoughts. Alice snapped to attention.
“Oh, right, the strategic meeting,” Alice said.
“First order of business,” Riku said. “Future methods for gathering souls. I have considered a variety of different approaches, and have written them down here.”
Riku pulled out a notebook from under his cloak and set it aside. “But then I figured you wouldn’t understand half of them, so I doubt we’ll be using this.”
“Why do we need to plan this again?” Alice asked. “I mean, can’t we just figure it out as we go along?”
“Not every encounter is going to involve just one soul,” Riku said. “And it’s not always going to be concentrated in just one area. If we encounter situations in which the souls are spread throughout a city, we need a clear method of approach to maximize efficiency.”
“A whole city?” Alice said. “When are there ever going to be souls spread out through a city?”
“Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, gang violence,” Riku listed. “Need I continue?”
“Alright, fine,” Alice said. “So what’s the plan if any of those happen?”
Riku looked at his notebook, then at Alice, then back to his notebook. Alice sighed and picked up the notebook.
The entire thing was filled with symbols and drawings, sometimes stretched over several pages. It was completely unreadable.
“And… what’s all this supposed to mean?” Alice asked. Riku sighed.
“I didn’t think you would get it,” Riku said. He took his notebook back and tucked it into his robe.
“So what do we do?”
“I’ll tell you when the situation comes up.”
“Wasn’t that what I just said we should do?”
Riku gave Alice a deathly serious stare. Alice backed away slightly.
“Next we have to discuss operating policy,” Riku continued. “We’re bound to have free time after each assignment, so I’ve come up with a few regulations to make sure that none of us get killed.”
Riku handed Alice another notebook. The first few pages were filled with hastily scribbled words. Alice skimmed over it and handed it back.
“Okay, seems reasonable,” Alice said. “But dude, you have some seriously twisted imagination.”
Riku gave the girl a questioning look.
“Rule fourteen,” Alice said. “And rule twenty seven. I mean… maybe, in like twenty years, I might do those things. But… well, eww.”
“It doesn’t hurt to be thorough,” Riku said, taking the notebook back. “Okay, now that we’re clear on policy, we will discuss your grievances on the matter.”
Alice gave Riku a blank look. Riku sighed. “It means you get to ask me questions now.”
“Finally!” Alice said. “Okay, so, you’re dead, right?”
“What does dying feel like?”
“It’s boring. You sit inside a cave and wait for some masked people who look like me to process your death or whatever.”
“And how did you die?”
“I’m not allowed to answer that.”
“Can you tell me anything about yourself when you were alive?”
Riku shrugged. “I had a pretty normal life. Above average grades in school, a few friends, played video games a lot.”
“What did you expect?”
“Ah… alright. So how does the wraith thing work?”
“The wraith thing?”
“You know…” Alice made several sweeping gestures. “Whoosh, skeleton, black blood; that stuff.”
“I don’t know. Ask the Hands of Death.”
“Who are they?”
“They’re in charge of death, or transferring people into death or something. They didn’t tell me much when I was dead.”
“So, they’re the ones who you made the contract with, right?”
“And what does the contract say?”
“You want the long version or the short version?”
Riku pulled out his navi-computer. He tapped the screen a few times and handed it to Alice. There was something loaded on it. Alice glanced at the screen. Then her eyes widened.
“… you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“You have no idea how long it took me to read the whole thing.”
“You read… the whole thing?! This is ten thousand pages!”
“Yeah, it took me about a week. But, then again, I was dead, so…”
Alice was speechless. She just stared at the screen, so filled with words that it almost seemed like a thousand tiny insects were crawling on it. She handed the navi-computer back to Riku, who put it away inside his robe.
“Alright, give me the short version then.”
“The main points I’ve already told you. We go out and collect souls for a year. Then we’re released and go back to our original lives. Until then, we’re stuck together and if we separate for more than a day, we’re dead. You can’t tell me anything about your life, and I can’t know anything about any living person, including their names. There are also many other things I can’t do, but they aren’t that important right now. You’re a vampire, you get enhanced strength and agility, regenerative abilities, and some property abilities.”
“Yeah, so, when you drink blood, your parasitic cells consume the living cells inside the blood, right?”
Alice nodded slowly.
“Then, since your cells have consumed the living mass of the other cells, they begin to take on the property of those cells.”
“… what do you mean?”
“Well, for example, if you drink my blood, since I’m a wraith, you will begin to take on the properties of a wraith.”
“So… I’m going to turn into a wraith?”
“No, you would have to keep drinking my blood for a month for that to happen.”
“Oh, okay,” Alice said.
“And now you know why vampires drink human blood so often.”
“Yeah…” Alice said. She imagined herself like Riku, turning into a skeleton. She shuddered at the thought. “But, wait, you said before that since I’m only a low class vampire, I can just eat something living and survive, right?”
“Well, if you were desperate, I suppose you could do something like rip off tree bark and eat that,” Riku said. “But I wouldn’t advise it. I’ve read about vampires who’ve only eaten plant matter for a month and turned into trees at the end.”
“Indeed. Any more questions?”
Alice thought for a moment. “How do you know all of this stuff?”
“I spent a few months studying my contract details and planning in the place the Hands of Death gave me. I had access to a lot of books there, so I read up on some of the more… supernatural entities that were present.”
“So, you just read all of that stuff on vampires in… an underworld library?”
There was a brief pause.
“How do you… well, you know… do this stuff?”
“You know,” Alice said, gesturing to the pile of printing machinery assembled on the hotel’s table. “How do you do it?”
Riku shrugged. “I like planning things. I planned out most of this in the time I was dead. I figured that I wouldn’t be guaranteed proper transportation to wherever the next soul would be, so I thought that I might as well plan something in advance in case I ever needed to travel international.”
Alice just shook her head. “You’re incredible, you know that?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Well, I probably couldn’t come up with all of this in a few years, much less a few months,” Alice said. “And you probably planned a lot of other stuff too.”
“That I did,” Riku said. “But it’s nothing to be amazed about. Anyone could have done the same with enough preparation.”
“Definitely not me.”
“You just don’t have the right attitude,” Riku said. “But whatever. I hereby call this strategic meeting to an end. You can go ahead and sleep now.”
Riku turned away and went back to work with his printing machinery, now pressing small indents of ink on the various pieces of paper he had assembled.
“Um… are you sure?” Alice asked uncertainly. “I mean… I could help more if you want.”
“I’m going to be tired as hell tomorrow,” Riku said, not turning away from the machinery. “So I need you to go take us through the registration and security at the airport. If we’re both exhausted, it won’t do us any good when we have to go through customs and whatnot.”
“I guess you’re right,” Alice said. She undressed, making sure several times that Riku wasn’t looking her way, but the boy was so focused on his work that Alice doubted he even cared she was there. Then, with a final glance at Riku, still toiling away at the machines, Alice slipped into the bed and fell fast asleep.
Alice awoke to the sound of clicking. Not just a few clicks that only came occasionally from whatever was making the noise, but a few million clicks, turning the room into the interior of an obnoxiously loud music box. Alice turned over in her bed in an attempt to block out the noise. Then, without warning, the clicking stopped.
A breath of relief left Alice’s lips. She could finally rest some more-
“Alice, get up,” Riku’s voice cut through her thoughts.
Alice groaned. “It’s too early. I want to sleep…”
“We need three hours to get to the airport, and it’s already seven,” Riku’s voice said again. “That only gives us one hour to prepare, which I think is about the standard time we should have. Now get up.”
Alice felt the blanket leave her body. She shivered for a second. Then, suddenly, her eyes jerked wide open.
The girl flung herself over the bed, clutching at her chest. “What do you think you’re doing, Riku?! I’m still undressed here!”
“You weren’t getting up,” the boy said. One of his hands had been outstretched, gripping onto the blanket, but he hadn’t been looking in her direction. His eyes were still trained with a laser focus on the papers in front of him. His other hand weaved back and forth over the papers, guiding a part of one of the machines with it.
“You have twenty minutes to get dressed and do whatever girls do in the bathroom when it’s morning,” Riku said without looking up. “There are some bathroom supplies in the third bag to the left, on my side of the bed. After that, we will eat. We will discuss further matters from there.”
Alice was about to argue, but then she noticed the heavy tone in Riku’s voice. This boy had just stayed up the entire night finishing what would get the two of them to their destination. He had put in so much time and effort into the project that he was nearly dead on his feet. She was in no position to argue with him.
In the end, the girl quickly grabbed the bathroom supplies Riku had, with the same uncanny foresight, gotten for her, and dashed into the bathroom. After about fifteen minutes, Alice came out, feeling much more awake. She looked at Riku. The boy’s face was sunken, and he seemed to have aged dramatically through the night. A ripple went through the boy’s body and his entire form flickered, reverting to a skeleton, then back. Riku closed his eyes briefly and his body stabilized. Then he kept working.
“Uh, anything I can help with?” Alice asked, but the boy ignored her. Then she realized she was still in her undergarments.
Five minutes later, Alice was fully dressed and walked back over to Riku. The boy was putting the finishing touches on the passports, drawing the last part of the background in her picture by hand. The camera was sitting beside him, displaying the photograph Alice had taken of herself last night.
Riku’s drawing skills were remarkable, Alice thought as she looked at the picture, and back to the passport. The two looked nearly identical.
As the boy drew the last line on the passport with a small flourish of his hand, he slumped back in his chair and let out a deep breath.
“Finished,” Riku announced. He handed the forged passport to Alice, who quickly flipped through it. Everything had been duplicated with pinpoint precision, down to the last marking on the fake stamps inside. Her picture resembled herself so much that Alice could have sworn that Riku had somehow copied the picture from the camera to the paper by magic, had she not seen him working on it. The entire thing was bound by blue leather with a stamp of an eagle surrounded by an illuminated border. Alice marveled in awe at how precise Riku’s forging skills were.
Alice’s name was in the profile at the side. It was fake of course, as was most of the information in her profile. Alice Flina, it read.
“Alright, now we eat,” Riku said, tucking his own forged passport into his robe. The boy grabbed another of the many bags sitting around the table, and lifted it up. He started to move the printing machines down to the floor, but his hand slipped and the machine tumbled down. Alice caught it just before it hit the ground. Riku’s hand trembled as he withdrew it.
“Good catch,” Riku said, setting another of the machines down.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Alice asked.
“No, I feel like I’ve just ran a marathon while taking a test on quantum physics,” Riku said with a weary tone. “But I will manage until we get onto the airplane.”
Riku emptied the bag onto the table. There was a lot of food, enough for at least two meals. Pastries were wrapped tight in plastic, a few loaves of sliced bread were present, and there was even a box of cereal.
“I wasn’t sure what you would like, so I picked a variety,” Riku said, peeling the plastic wrapping off one of the pastries.
“Um, are you sure I can eat this?” Alice asked hesitantly. Everything looked so good, but after what Riku had told her about vampires and their eating habits, Alice wasn’t so sure.
“Of course you can eat it,” Riku said. “The normal cells in your body still need sustenance to provide you with energy.”
“Wait, so now I have to eat normal food and drink blood too?” Alice said.
“You can do either,” Riku said. “If you drink blood, the parasitic cells will consume it and will provide energy in place of your normal cells. If you eat normal food, your normal cells will divide naturally and the parasitic ones will consume a portion of them.”
“Then why did you give me blood last night?” Alice asked.
“I hadn’t bought any food for dinner,” Riku replied. He popped the pastry in his mouth, chewed a few times, and swallowed. Then he went on to the next pastry. Alice just stared at the boy.
“You should eat,” Riku said after finishing his third pastry. “You’ll regret it later if you don’t.”
“Ah…” Alice didn’t know what to say. She felt bad that Riku had done so much for her, yet she hadn’t done anything for him. She had even treated him badly on some occasions.
“I… I’m sorry,” Alice said finally.
Riku looked at her in surprise. “What for?”
“I… well, it’s just, you’ve done everything you could for me, and… well, I just sat around being useless,” Alice said with a tinge of sadness.
“If you’re just going to beat yourself up for being useless, we might as well give up right now,” Riku said. Alice turned away, tears welling up in her eyes.
Riku rolled his eyes. Then he sighed. “Honestly, I have no idea why you’re so depressed all of a sudden. Look, I like planning things. Preparation is what I enjoy the most. Planning out your needs into this trip was pretty exciting for me, and it would have been beneficial for you, so I thought, win-win situation. So why the heck are you crying?”
Alice wiped a tear from her eye and sniffled. “I… I just thought… maybe you didn’t like me for being so useless…”
Riku just stared at the girl. “Give me your sword.”
“You heard me,” Riku said. “Give me your sword.”
Alice reached into her pocket and brought out the black cylinder. Riku took it and it expanded into a black sword. Then, he stabbed himself in the hand.
“What are you doing?!” Alice cried as Riku pressed a bleeding hand to her mouth. The blood trickled into her mouth, not as freely as before, but the taste was still the same. Sweet, with a trace of bitterness that left a lovely aroma on her taste buds. Alice couldn’t help but drink.
Then, Riku withdrew his hand, still dripping blood. He pulled on a black glove and looked back at Alice. “Good. Now that you’ve eaten, we can leave.”
“Ah…” once again, Alice was speechless. Riku began cleaning the table, packing away the remaining food into one of the bags. Then, he dragged over a black suitcase that he must have gotten in the middle of the night, because Alice hadn’t seen it before. He put some of the other bags inside too, ones with the bathroom supplies, some with mechanical parts and wires that still hadn’t been used, and some with papers too. Riku took a practice swing with the sword, and slammed it down on one of the printing machines, crushing it into a pile of scrap metal. Then he repeated the process with another and threw them into the trash. Riku placed the last one into the suitcase.
“We don’t want anyone finding out what we’ve been doing here,” Riku explained. “I’ll keep one just in case we need it again. Last night was a rushed job, so I needed more, but the process should be manageable with one.”
Alice still sat there at the table, dumbfolded. She licked her lips, tasting the last of Riku’s blood that she had just drunk again.
Riku compressed the sword and handed the black cylinder to Alice, who took it speechlessly, putting it into her pocket. Then finally, Alice spoke.
“Um… why did you do that?” Alice said.
“You were being stupid,” Riku said simply.
“I… was?” Alice asked with a dazed voice.
“You were rambling about how I wouldn’t like you just because you thought you were useless,” Riku said. He glanced at Alice. “I know you committed suicide. And if it’s because some incredibly shallow people called you useless for some incredibly asinine reasons, I feel sorry for you.”
“So… you don’t… hate me?”
“Didn’t I just say that I enjoyed having you around? If you weren’t here, it would be incredibly boring, planning out everything by myself,” Riku said exasperatedly. “Now if you’re finished being stupid, we have ten minutes to get to the lobby.”
“Ah… okay,” Alice said. She stood up and walked over to Riku, who was waiting with the suitcase by the door. She thought briefly that she should maybe give Riku a hug, or say something to show her gratitude, but he was looking at her impatiently with something between exasperation and pity.
“Do you have your card?” Riku asked.
“Oh, yeah, it’s here,” Alice said, pulling out the piece of square plastic from one of her pockets. Riku nodded and opened the door.
“Um…” Alice said uncertainly. “Thanks for… what you said.”
“It was just words,” Riku said. “Nothing worth thanking me for.”
“Well, then thanks for everything you did for me,” Alice said.
Riku gave Alice a look. Then he turned away. “You are welcome.”
The pair walked off into the corridor. A minute later they came into the lobby. Riku checked out while Alice took a look outside. The weather was much nicer today, with only a few white clouds dotting an otherwise clear blue sky. The sun was still rising up on the horizon, but Alice could already feel the warm light reaching her. Then she froze for a second and squinted at the sky.
“Riku,” Alice said as the boy came up to her, lugging the suitcase along. “I forgot the ask last night, but are the myths about vampire true? You know, sunlight, stake to the heart, garlic, that kind of thing.”
“Most of them aren’t,” Riku said. “Parasitic cells don’t take ultraviolet radiation well, but you have few enough in your body that it shouldn’t affect you. A stake to the heart would probably kill anyone, and garlic will just smell really bad, since your senses are heightened. You may also want to stay away from onions.”
Alice crinkled her nose. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound too good.”
“Looks like our ride is here,” Riku said, glancing at the street. A yellow taxi car pulled over by the hotel. A man in his fifties stepped out, wearing a uniform.
Riku walked over to him and the two exchanged a few words. Then the man took Riku’s suitcase and loaded it into the back of the car. Riku gestured for Alice to join him.
The taxi driver took a look at Alice and whistled. He said something quietly to Riku, and the boy frowned. He said something back and the man laughed, patting Riku on the back. The boy’s frown deepened, but he climbed into the back of the taxi all the same. Alice quickly joined him.
“What were you talking to the taxi driver about?” Alice asked.
Riku made a face. “Apparently, he thought you were my girlfriend and was commenting on how you looked.”
“Me… your girlfriend?” Alice said slowly.
“I know. It’s ridiculous,” Riku said. “And don’t you dare say ‘well…’.”
Alice closed her mouth. She had been about to say something, like maybe it could happen in the future, but she could tell that Riku was in a bad mood after getting next to no sleep last night, so she kept quiet.
As the engine started, Riku closed his eyes.
“Wake me up when we get to the airport,” Riku said. Then he was asleep.
As the landscape blurred past, Alice just stared at the road ahead, occasionally pausing to check on Riku. The boy was fast asleep, deep breaths flowing from his nose. Alice reached over and put her hand onto his. Riku’s eyelids snapped open. He glanced over at Alice, then down to her hand on top of his. Alice instinctively pulled her hand away. Riku gave Alice a weary look, as if he were too exhausted to chastise her, and fell back asleep.
The next two hours passed without event. Alice stared outside the window at the green foliage rushing by, slowly fading into the wide, gray cityscape that would harbor the airport they sought. Alice almost felt sleepy herself.
“Have we arrived?” Riku asked. Alice flinched, glancing back his way. Riku was wide awake, leaning forward in his seat as if to get a better view of their destination.
“Dude, I thought you were going to sleep until we got there,” Alice said.
“I got bored,” Riku said, eyes still fixed straight ahead.
“How do you get bored when you’re asleep?” Alice said.
“When wraiths sleep, we remain conscious, and our minds are instead sent to the realm of death where we wait for our bodies to recover,” Riku said. “It’s boring as hell.”
“Well… technically, it would be hell, right?” Alice said.
Riku looked at Alice. Then he smirked. “Funny.”
The boy looked back ahead. “We’re here.”
“What, we are?” Alice said, turning ahead. Indeed, the airport loomed before them, an incredibly complex structure of twisting roads, gray walled towers, and four gray walled buildings, interconnected by eight massive glass bridges. Of course, it hadn’t been her first time seeing the place. She had gone on vacation twice before with her family. This would be her third flight.
Alice felt a pang of nostalgia in her chest, and yet, at the same time, a flutter of anxiety in her stomach. This would be the first time in years that she had flown on a plane, and this time she was with a strange boy too…
“We are terminal C, gate 21,” Riku said, cutting into Alice’s thoughts.
Alice blinked and faced the boy. Riku was still looking straight ahead, eyes swerving left and right, as if he were searching for something.
Apparently, he didn’t find it, because the next second, Riku collapsed back in his seat and let out a sigh.
“You know how registration works, right?” Riku asked.
“Ah… actually, I’ve got no clue,” Alice admitted. “The last time I flew was when I was ten and I didn’t really watch the registration process, like, at all.”
“Just find a computer and enter in your name,” Riku said, slowly closing his eyes. “The computer will print out tickets. After that, we encounter customs, where they check our passports. That will be the trickiest part, and if my forging skills weren’t good enough, I’ll be pulling us out with the navi-computer.”
“But what do we do then?” Alice asked. “We still have to get to Italy, right?”
“If all else fails, we’ll steal a plane,” Riku said. “I’ll need to buy a flying manual, and will probably spend another night studying it, but it would be possible.”
“After customs, we will enter security, and you probably know what happens there.”
Alice nodded. She still remembered airport security. Being forced to take off her shoes and walk through a metal gate could still strike a chord in a ten-year-old’s mind.
“And after security, we’re good,” Alice summarized. Riku nodded slowly, eyes still closed.
“But, won’t my sword and your gun go off in the metal detector?” Alice asked.
“Of course not,” Riku said. “With all that their scans can do, when our weapons are compressed, they’ll be no more than glow sticks.”
The taxi drove up to the central complex of the airport. Riku immediately got out, along with Alice. The taxi driver unloaded Riku’s suitcase, and Riku handed the man some money. A minute later, the taxi left.
Riku opened one of the two glass doors, and stood by it silently. Alice took a deep breath and entered.
The airport was massive. People moved in every which direction, making it nearly impossible to tell which way to go. A long counter with multiple computer screens displayed above it ran along the length of the airport with a only a few breaks in between. Escalators ran up and down the complex, people crowding onto them as if they knew where they were going.
Riku put up his hood. “If I burst into flames, don’t be surprised.”
“What? Why?” Alice asked.
“You have no idea how many names there are here,” Riku muttered. “If I read or hear a single living person’s name, I’m screwed. I’ll be tuning out anything I hear, so don’t ask me for advice.”
“But what if I need help with something?” Alice said. Riku stared at her blankly. Then he pointed at his ear.
Alice nearly groaned. How was she supposed to do this? She hadn’t been on a flight since she was ten. Alice took a deep breath. Focus. She could do this. Just stick with the plan she and Riku just went over.
Alice walked over to the long counter. Riku followed her, hood draped over his eyes.
There were a few people standing in line to meet one of the clerks standing behind the counter, but there were also quite a few standing at some computer screens nearby. One of the people moved away, holding what looked like a boarding pass. Alice quickly took his place at the computer screen.
A large, yellow button was displayed in the center of the screen. It read: CHECK IN.
Alice pressed on the button. Several more yellow buttons appeared. They were language buttons, with flags by them. Alice pressed on the one that read: ENGLISH, with a U.S. flag by it.
A message flashed on the screen: PLEASE OFFER VALID IDENTIFICATION OR ENTER YOUR FLIGHT NUMBER. A picture was displayed by it, showing a hand putting a card into the computer, or a hand pressing on the screen. Alice looked down. There was a gap in the machine, enough for something like a credit card to slide into.
“Riku,” Alice said, tapping the boy on the shoulder.
Riku looked up, eminently annoyed. Alice pointed at the computer screen and Riku glanced at it.
“Ah, right, this,” Riku said. He tapped on the screen a few times and it shifted. Then he stepped back, draping his hood over his eyes again. Alice stepped over. The screen now read: PRINTING, PLEASE WAIT.
A second later, a slip of paper slid out of the machine in the lower gap. Alice grabbed it. It was a boarding pass. Her fake name was displayed, along with the gate number and departure time. Another boarding pass slid out. Alice took the other. It read: RIKU ALCASTAR.
“Riku,” Alice said, tapping the boy’s shoulder with the boarding pass. Riku grabbed the slip of paper, held it under his hood, and nodded once. He pointed into one of the gaps between the counters.
“Head for security next,” Riku said. Alice walked in the direction of the gap. Riku followed silently.
“Thank god airports have so many signs,” Alice said, turning left at a sign that displayed which direction security was in. With a few more twists and turns, the pair reached security.
The place had three lines of people, all crowded together, all carrying luggage. At the beginning of each line sat a man in a uniform. One couple walked up to him and he shone some kind of light on their passports. Then he stamped their boarding passes and they left.
“Riku, I need your passport,” Alice said, shaking the boy. Riku grabbed her hand, looking up again. Alice pointed at the security guard. The boy nodded. He reached into his cloak and brought out his forged passport. Alice took out hers from her pocket. Alice approached the guard, followed closely by Riku.
“Hello,” the guard said in a jolly voice.
“Hi,” Alice said. She handed him the passports and the boarding passes. As the guard looked over them, a knot began to tie itself in Alice’s stomach. What if the guard found out the passports were fake? What would they do then?
“Italy, huh?” the guard said, running his light over the passport. “That’s pretty far away.”
“Yeah, we’re going there… on vacation,” Alice said. The guard glanced her way.
“Ah, and is he your boyfriend?” the guard asked.
“What? No, he’s just a friend,” Alice said quickly. Riku just stood there, looking at the ground.
“Oh, and is your friend deaf or something?” the guard asked. He looked over to Riku. “Hey son, can you hear me?”
“Ah, no, he’s just had a long day,” Alice said. “He stayed up all night last night making sure our preparations were perfect. He’s practically asleep right now.”
Alice tapped Riku on the shoulder. The boy gave a jolt, and looked accusingly at Alice. Then he turned his gaze back to the ground. The guard nodded slowly.
“And I thought my wife took preparation seriously,” the guard joked. He flashed his light across the second passport, stamped both boarding passes, and handed them back to Alice.
“Thanks,” Alice said briefly, before moving on to security. Riku followed in silence.
“Riku,” Alice tapped the boy on the shoulder.
“Yeah, I know, it’s security now,” Riku said, pulling up his hood. He glanced around quickly. “It should be safe for me until we get on the plane.”
Alice let out a deep breath. “Thank goodness. I think I nearly died back there.”
“Come along then,” Riku said, walking over to one of the lines.
Waiting in line took at least twenty minutes. When the pair finally got to the security scan, Alice’s anxiety had nearly disappeared. The pair placed their things inside plastic boxes. Riku removed his cloak and put it inside one too, and for the first time, Alice finally managed to get a good look at the boy.
Riku had black hair, and blackish-brown eyes. His skin was deathly pale, and he didn’t look like much of an athlete, or anything at all; pretty much your average teenager with really pale skin. Heck, Alice could have mistaken him for a vampire if he hadn’t shown her the flickering skeleton thing. The boy wore a white polo shirt and black jeans, underneath his black robe.
“What is it?” Riku asked, catching Alice staring.
“Oh… it’s nothing,” Alice said, quickly turning away.
“Technically I have wings too, but using them makes my back sore,” Riku said.
Alice just stared at the boy, peering at his back, half-expecting demonic bat-wings to pop out of him any second. Riku just shook his head and moved on.
The pair passed through security with no real issues. Then, a quick walk later, and the pair were at the gate. People were already boarding.
“Come, let’s hurry,” Riku said from under his hood.
“Yeah,” Alice said. She was just about to join Riku in line when she caught a man staring at her.
The man had silvery-white hair, and wore a black suit as if on business. He was looking at Alice with a curious expression, as if he were unsure of how to judge her. Then, as the man caught Alice staring back, he quickly adjusted his tie and turned away.
“Um, Riku, I think there was a strange guy staring at me,” Alice called after the boy.
“Happens all the time to girls in public locations,” Riku said. “Now are you coming or not?”
The pair handed in their boarding passes, walked down an extended corridor, and finally boarded the airplane.
As Alice took her seat, she noticed someone else, this time a boy about Riku’s age, also with silvery-white hair, staring at her. But, once again, as he caught Alice staring back, he quickly turned away and took a seat.
“Riku, I think there are people stalking me,” Alice said as the boy sat down.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Riku said. “Why would anyone want to stalk you?”
Alice was just about to reply, but then an announcement came on over the loudspeakers.
“Attention ladies and gentlemen,” the flight attendant said. “Flight 27C will be departing for Florence, Italy in just a few minutes. Our pilot today is-“
A scream cut the announcement off. Riku unplugged his ears. A low droning sound suddenly filled the cabin, something like static from a radio, but with a much lower tone.
An old lady was staring outside her window, pointing a finger, just a few seats in front of her.
“Monster!” the old lady shouted. She screamed again.
Alice peered outside her window, and her eyes widened. There was some… creature on the plane’s right wing. It didn’t look like anything she had ever seen before, kind of like a cross between a lizard and an enormous bird, except this creature was completely black, and had white bones sticking out of its body in various places.
A few other people screamed. Some ran for the exit. Others murmured amongst themselves. Was this some kind of movie set, or special effects?
Riku took a glance outside. He drew a sharp breath. “It’s here?”
“What?” Alice said. “What’s here? What is that thing?”
Riku held out a hand. “Give me your sword.”
“Why? What are you going to do?” Alice asked. The creature was slowly inching towards the plane now, its black, hollow eyes hungering for something Alice really didn’t want to find out. The droning noise got louder.
“I have a score to settle,” Riku said.
“You know that thing from before?”
“Just give me your sword. Do you want our flight to get canceled?”
Alice opened her mouth to argue, but realized it would be pointless. She took the black cylinder out of her pocket and handed it to Riku.
Riku took the cylinder, extending it into its sword form, and stood. Then, pitch black, feathered wings unfolded from his back. Alice stared, unsure of whether to be in awe or terror.
Half of the boy’s body flickered, briefly showing its skeleton form. Riku grimaced. He faced the window with the creature edging closer. “Let’s see you try and kill me this time.”
Then, the wraith flicked, and vanished completely. Alice just stared. A shout brought her back to attention.
“Look over there!”
Alice looked back outside the window. From anyone else’s perspective, a black-winged angel had just descended, wielding a glowing blue sword, facing the creature. Alice knew it was Riku, but she couldn’t help feel a little awed.
Riku raised his sword at the creature, taking a firm stance. The creature lunged, surprisingly quickly, at him. Riku quickly pulled back, and slashed downward at the creature. The creature pulled back just as easily, using its skeletal wings to thrust into the air. Riku extended his own wings and rose up just as easily. The people in the airplane cheered, muttering excitedly among themselves. Some even tried to take photos, but found quickly that only darkness could be captured on their phones.
The pair of wings circled each other, neither willing to give ground. Then, Riku dived, and spun sharply, catching the creature with the tip of his sword.
The creature maneuvered back, slashing at the wraith with its claws, but only finding air.
Riku lunged with his sword, pressing the tip into the creature’s body. The creature quickly flew away, trailing drops of red as it flew. Riku obviously had the advantage in this fight, and everyone seemed to see now, that the wraith would definitely win. The creature seemed to know too, because it darted away from the plane, heading to some unknown destination. The droning noise died.
The black winged figure seemed to pause for a moment, pondering whether to chase after the creature or not, but Alice already knew what would happen. As she turned away, the black figure vanished, and Riku reappeared in his seat.
“That was amazing!” Alice cried, hugging the boy around the neck.
Riku scowled. “It got away.”
The other people in the airplane cheered wildly, conversing with excited voices among themselves. The flight attendant tried to take control, tapping her microphone with a few attempts at speaking.
“Everyone… everyone, your attention please,” the flight attendant said with little effect.
“So, what was it?” Alice asked amidst the chatter.
“I’ll tell you later,” Riku said. Then he shouted. “Everyone quiet down! Our flight has been delayed enough already!”
The chatter slowly died down to a low murmur, and the flight attendant finally took over. “Thank you. Now, ah, where was I?”
After a brief announcement, through much of which Riku kept his ears plugged, and some review of safety precautions, the plane finally took off, launching itself into the pure, blue sky.
“So now can you tell me?” Alice asked, but Riku put up a hand. He was fiddling with something on his navi-computer.
Another ten minutes passed and the fasten seatbelt sign came off. Then Riku spoke.
“It looks like they don’t know either,” Riku said.
“Who doesn’t know?” Alice said. “And what was that thing?”
“I just contacted the Hands of Death, and sent them the information on that creature,” Riku said. “They didn’t know what it was, so I have no clue.”
“So… even the Hands of Death don’t know anything about it?” Alice said. Riku nodded.
“But, wait,” Alice said. “You sounded like you knew that thing from before.”
“I did,” Riku said. “But I’m not allowed to tell you how I died.”
Alice looked at Riku in silence for a second. Then, realization dawned on her. “You mean…?”
“I’m forbidden from talking about it,” Riku said.
“But… that thing…”
“Don’t say it.”
Alice closed her mouth. She glanced at Riku again. The boy had closed his eyes.
“I… I’m sorry,” Alice said.
“Again with the apologies,” Riku said exasperatedly. He opened his eyes and glared at Alice. The girl shrunk back in her seat.
“W-what do you have against apologies?” Alice asked in a small voice.
Riku sighed and leaned back in his seat. “Never mind.”
Alice looked at Riku again. He seemed so distraught, with both his eyes and mouth dragging down the skin on his face, and yet, somehow he seemed strangely content, as if he had just found out that a long lost relative was still alive, but was lost in the Himalayas. Alice cautiously moved her hand on top of his, just barely touching the Riku’s gloved hand. The boy glanced at her, but made no move to stop her. Then he put his hand on top of the armrest with Alice’s clasped tightly around it, and closed his eyes.
And that’s how, for nine hours, Alice ended up holding hands with a wraith.
A man hurried down a poorly lit corridor.
The chairman had called for a meeting about three hours ago, and had expected all members of the board to be present. Failure to comply could lead to possible expulsion from the board… or worse.
At last, the man burst through the double doors that led to the meeting room. Sixteen people were already seated at a long, rectangular, with the chairman at the front of the room. The meeting room was also dimly lit, only with light from a few small lamps in the corners of the room illuminating the red carpet and walls. The man glanced at his watch. He was two and a half minutes early. Just on time.
The chairman gave a stiff nod as the man joined the others at the table. The man pulled out his briefcase, and set it on the meeting table. The chairman stood and cleared his throat.
“I believe we all know why we are here today,” the chairman spoke with a deep voice, reaching into even the far corners of the room. “We have received results on Experiment One.”
Almost immediately, conversation broke out among the other board members. The man himself almost joined them. Experiment One… it was regarded as one of the most top-secret and dangerous experiments ever conducted by the corporation. If it was successful…
“Experiment One has failed,” the chairman said. The room was immediately silent.
“Experiment One encountered the wraith at approximately eleven thirty this morning,” the chairman continued. “The wraith, as we had hoped, was sufficiently provoked, and fought with Experiment One. However, the results were much less than satisfactory, and Experiment One was forced to retreat.”
“This must be no ordinary wraith,” one of the other board members spoke up. “Our previous experiments were able to deal with other wraiths with relative ease, and forced them to retreat every time. Experiment One was the culmination of our research. It is impossible that it has failed.”
“Our previous experiments had never engaged in a true battle with a wraith,” the chairman said. “It is possible that the other wraiths our experiments encountered merely retreated because they thought our experiments were not worth the effort to kill. We must also keep in mind that our ultimate goal is not the fall of a mere wraith, but the fall of Death itself.”
A low murmur of agreement arose between the board members. The chairman cleared his throat and the room turned silent again.
“Are Experiments Two and Three ready yet?” the chairman asked the man sitting beside him.
The man shook his head. “They are still in the testing stage. It will also take some time to adjust their biological structures based on the data Experiment One gave us; a week at least.”
The chairman nodded. He turned to the rest of the table.
“Board member Rita White,” the chairman said. The woman next to the man tensed. “You are to personally oversee that this wraith is terminated. If word reaches Death of what we are doing… well, I don’t need to remind you of that.”
“Yes sir,” Rita said, bowing her head. “I will not fail.”
“Good,” the chairman said. “All of you are dismissed.”
The man let out a sigh. It seemed he had gotten lucky this time. But it was troubling news that Experiment One had failed. Just who was this wraith? Well, in any case, the man definitely wouldn’t want to be him right now.
The board members slowly rose from their seats and left the room, leaving only the woman remaining.
Rita reached into her pocket and brought out a phone. She pressed a few numbers then held it against her ear.
“Release Experiments Fifty through Sixty,” the woman said. “I have a target for them.”
“This place is amazing!” Alice exclaimed.
I made no comment.
We had arrived in Florence at about six in the evening, with the sun still hanging above the horizon. Alice had slept nearly the entire time, and I had also taken the time to rest my body. The creature from the airplane still bothered me, but I couldn’t worry about that now. The next soul took priority.
After Alice had woken up, apparently, she hadn’t realized she had been clinging to my hand the entire time. She seemed rather flustered after that, and her face had turned red. I, of course, made no remarks. Checking out at Florence’s airport had been much easier, mostly because I could choose not to understand the language and tune out annoying names much easier. My navi-computer could broadcast a translation field around us, so communication hadn’t been a problem. One could still know very little Italian, and good English, and still get around in Florence, however.
Now the both of us stood inside the city of Florence, overlooking one of the many waterways that ran along the city. The streets were relatively narrow in Florence, with very few cars driving. The majority of the people seemed to walk or bike from place to place, giving the city a very touristic feel. We were due at the hotel in about an hour, but it was only a short walk from where we were, so we had stopped to take a look around.
“Hey, Riku, can we go sightseeing later?” Alice asked, looking in my direction.
“You can do that in your free time,” I said.
“You are giving me money this time, right?”
I pulled out a wad of bills from my cloak. The currency exchange at the airport didn’t exactly give a good return value on the exchanged currency, so I had only gotten enough Euros to spend on lodging and meals… and a little more for Alice.
I split Alice’s share from the bills and handed them to her. “Don’t buy anything expensive. We don’t exactly have an infinite amount of money to spend here.”
“Yeah, I know,” Alice said. She smiled, and blushed slightly. “Thanks, Riku.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said. I put the rest of the money back into my cloak. Then I checked the time on my navi-computer. “We’re due at the hotel in about an hour. Afterwards, we will eat dinner, and return to the hotel. Tomorrow will have no pressing issues, and the next day we will retrieve the three souls.”
“Then we can go sightseeing tomorrow, right?” Alice asked excitedly.
“I suppose we may have time for a few places,” I said.
“Yay!” Alice said. She stepped closer to me, almost touching my body with hers. Then, realizing her mistake, she immediately backed away, averting her eyes.
“Oh, sorry,” Alice said meekly.
I sighed. “Again with the apologies.”
“Ah… do you have something against apologies?” Alice asked.
“Another time,” I said, waving the question away. I glanced towards the setting sun. It had been some time since I had seen the sun. Being stuck in the underworld, conducting research and plotting out my approach had been almost completely without light. But, being a wraith at the time, I didn’t really mind the dark. The light didn’t bother me much either, but it still seemed strange, seeing the sun again.
“Riku,” Alice said, tapping me on the shoulder. I turned backwards.
“What now?” I said.
“I think still think there are people stalking me,” Alice said. She glanced quickly behind her shoulder. There was a boy there, about my age, with silvery-white hair and wearing a completely white business-like suit there, staring at Alice. Then, seeing me turn in his direction, he immediately turned and began walking away nonchalantly, blending with the crowd.
“It’s probably your imagination,” I said.
“I swear, there are these white-haired people following me,” Alice said nervously. “They’re always there, like, everywhere I go. It’s getting creepy.”
“If they try to attack us, I will deal with them,” I said. “Or you could deal with them yourself.”
Alice shook her head. “How could I deal with them?”
“Use your sword.”
“I don’t know how to use a sword.”
“Then maybe you should start learning,” I said. I glanced back up at the sun, now turning a dull orange color as it dipped beneath the horizon.
There had been something in my readings that had mentioned the setting sun. Had it been something on wraiths? No, light shouldn’t even affect wraiths.
What was it then, something on vampires?
I just shook my head. I would remember eventually. For now, we needed to get to the hotel. With a gesture to Alice, I set off in the direction of our lodging.
Suddenly, an insanely powerful force slammed into my back, instantly throwing me forward into the pavement. I sprang back up to my feet, only to be knocked down again with a crushing blow to the head.
That would have hurt… if I hadn’t already died.
“This is a tenacious one,” a voice said. Then louder, “Come on, hurry up! The wraith will recover any second now!”
“Hey, let go of me!” Alice’s voice screamed.
My eyelids flickered open. I clenched my teeth and phased out.
For a brief moment, I returned to the cave, the chamber of darkness where the Hands of Death stationed their headquarters. I caught a glimpse of other black-robed figures, probably other wraiths passing through. The ignored me, and I paid them the same regard.
The setting sun… I remembered now. When the sun began to set, the vampire clans allowed their race to begin to hunt. Vampires then… this would be difficult. But why were they attacking us…?
A moment of concentration later and I phased back, a good distance away from Alice. I quickly surveyed the surroundings. It seemed I was atop a building, overlooking the square I had just phased out of. Most of the people were gone now, save for three, one of which I recognized.
The silver-haired boy from earlier stood about a meter away from the girl, arm extended over a large crack in the ground. His brow was furrowed, and his gaze darted all around the area. He had probably just knocked me down.
Another silver-haired boy wearing a black business suit had grabbed Alice by the wrist and seemed to be arguing with her about something. Alice was trying to pull her hand back, slowly edging away from the boy.
I unfolded my pistol and turned a dial on the side. I aimed at the boy grabbing on to Alice and fired.
A red ball of light flew out of the pistol, almost too fast for human eyes to follow. However, the boy, with a quick glance in my direction, leaped to the side, easily avoiding the shot.
“He’s up there!” the boy pointed a finger at me.
The other boy immediately turned in my direction. His form blurred then vanished completely.
A split second later, I ducked, a gust of wind sailing over my head as the boy’s fist shot forward.
Without looking, I pointed my pistol behind and fired again. The boy reappeared in my peripheral vision, preparing another punch.
I quickly brought up my arm, deflecting the blow. The boy unclenched his fist and grabbed my arm, abetting several cracking sounds. I winced at the wound, but quickly spun around, narrowing avoiding another punch.
My arm flickered into skeletal form, giving me just enough time to wrench it out of the boy’s grip. Then I quickly turned the dial on my pistol, it at him and fired a third time.
The boy flung himself to the side, but this time, instead of a flash, a wave of red light sliced through the air, catching the boy on the arm. Almost immediately, the boy crumpled.
I dashed over to his fallen form, and held him up by the arm. Then I walked slowly over to the edge of the building, keeping my pistol trained on his head.
The other kid, the one still clinging onto Alice, flinched as I appeared.
“Release my partner and I’ll let your friend go,” I said.
The other boy seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he released Alice’s wrist. I phased out, phasing back in the square.
“Riku!” Alice exclaimed, running up to me. I held up a hand.
The other boy had vanished. Then, with a blur of white, he reappeared, along with his friend. They both looked perfectly fine.
“That’s some pretty fast regeneration,” I commented, eyeing the boy’s arm.
“Those are some fast reflexes,” the boy I had fought with said. “Any other wraith would have fallen in three seconds.”
“Hey, shouldn’t we go soon?” the other boy whispered. “If the elders find out we’ve been targeting a wraith…”
The boy I had fought with sighed. “Gregory, he can still hear you even if you whisper.”
The boy named Gregory flinched. He looked in my direction, narrowing his eyes. “Hey, wraith! If you know what’s good for you, you’ll forget everything I just said!”
“Hey, don’t talk that way to Riku!” Alice cut in. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll back off right now!”
The other boy and I exchanged glances.
“Should I be concerned over your partner’s incompetence?” the other boy asked.
“I should say the same for your friend,” I said.
“Then I take it your name is Riku,” the other boy said. I nodded.
“My name is Eron,” he said. “You must be wondering what we are.”
“I’m assuming, by the extent of your strength and speed that you are vampiric hybrids,” I said.
“He is a hybrid,” Eron pointed a thumb at Gregory. “I am a pureblood.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Then I take it you’re pretty young.”
“Fifteen years old,” Eron said. “Although our race doesn’t show aging unless we allow it.”
“That would explain how I managed to defeat you,” I said.
Eron scowled. “Don’t get too arrogant, Riku. I’ve beaten every wraith I’ve come across over the last five years. I just underestimated you; that’s all. It won’t happen again.”
“I doubt it will,” I said.
“Uh, Riku, what’s going on?” Alice asked.
I glanced in Alice’s direction. Then I gestured toward the two silver-haired boys. “Those two are vampires.”
Alice’s eyes widened. She looked at the two silver-haired vampires with a mixture of awe and astonishment. Then her brow furrowed.
“Wait, then why did they attack us?” Alice asked.
“Why are you keeping a vampire hostage?” Gregory snapped. “Answer me, wraith!”
“She’s my partner,” I said. “Why else would I keep a vampire around?”
“What’s a partner?” Gregory whispered to Eron. The silver-haired boy sighed again.
“How many times must I repeat myself for it to sink in?” Eron said. Gregory looked confused for a second. Then he flinched, and glared in my direction.
“Forgive my friend’s incompetence,” Eron said briefly in my direction. He turned back to Gregory. “Wraiths usually select partners to accompany them and assist in their task of capturing souls. And since if the two are ever separate, they both die, wraiths and their partners must keep close to one another.”
“You seem to know a lot about wraiths,” I said. Eron looked back to me.
“As a pureblooded vampire, I am required to commit all of our clan’s knowledge to memory, including various encounters with wraiths in the past,” Eron said with a dismissive gesture. “Although it can get boring at times.”
“And what about you?” Gregory said, eyes narrowing. “How do you know so much about us?”
“The Hands of Death have several hundred books on your race,” I said. “And I did my research very thoroughly.”
Gregory scowled. “Hey, Eron, aren’t we going to finish them off?”
Eron glanced briefly at the sun, now only a sliver of red over the horizon. He glanced back in my direction. “It’s been a while since I’ve sparred with an opponent who could actually keep up.”
“I think Alice here would like some training in the sword department,” I said.
“Done,” Eron said.
“Agreed,” I said.
“What…?” Alice said confoundedly.
“Um… I don’t follow,” Gregory said.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I said, ignoring them both.
Eron grinned. Then suddenly a fist materialized right in front of my face. I ducked quickly then leapt backwards into the air.
But, just as I was about to unfold my wings, a sudden kick to the back sent me sprawling into the pavement.
“Don’t think I don’t know about your flying capabilities,” Eron’s voice said. “Remember, I’ve fought plenty of wraiths in the past.”
“Well, that’s certainly fair,” I said, slowly pushing myself back up.
Eron shrugged. “You did agree.”
“That I did,” I said, aiming my pistol in his direction.
The vampire blurred, and a second later, I sprang to the right, dodging a lightning-fast punch. I quickly aimed a wave shot at Eron, but he had anticipated the attack, jumping several feet into the air to avoid the wave.
I attempted to take to the sky, but another crushing kick brought me crashing down into the pavement. I jumped to my feet, avoiding a stomp to the head. A massive cracking sound echoed around the square as Eron’s foot smashed through the concrete.
“That would have been fatal,” I said.
“I was intending for it to be,” Eron replied. The vampire pulled his foot free and took up a stance. I turned the dial on my pistol back to its sphere mode. There was no point in using the wave mode anymore now that Eron knew about it. I looked up at the vampire with a grimace.
Eron was about twenty times stronger than me, and with nearly quadruple the speed. He also seemed to learn incredibly quickly, planning out his next attacks with perfect timing and accuracy. I could maybe hold out for another minute, but I definitely wasn’t coming out victorious.
Suddenly Eron paused, relaxing his stance slightly. He frowned. “Do you hear that?”
“What?” I asked. Gregory also frowned nearby.
“It sounds like… buzzing,” Gregory said. “Like a swarm of bees has surrounded us.”
“Crap…” I muttered. “Not this again.”
“It’s getting closer,” Eron said. “Do you know what this is?”
I glanced around quickly. The square was completely deserted, save for Eron, Gregory, Alice, and myself. The sun had set completely, leaving only a dimly lit indigo sky. Faint glimmers of stars had begun to take form, marking this slow transition from day to night.
No witnesses... and in a crowded tourist city too… that was a sure sign. Did they intend to take advantage of the darkness to attack us?
“I have an idea as to what they might be,” I said.
“Then tell us,” Eron said.
I shook my head. “It’s difficult to describe.”
“Wait…” Alice said. “You mean, like that monster from before?”
“Monster?” Eron said. “There are no monsters in this city.”
The droning sound finally reached my ears. It was faint, but definitely the same one from before. I saw Alice tense. She and I exchanged glances.
“It’s coming,” I said. I turned outward, facing the numerous buildings surrounding the square. Alice and Gregory did the same, the four of us forming a tight defensive circle. I steadied my pistol.
This was bad. We were stuck in a wide, open area, with no cover whatsoever. However… there were two vampires on our side now. I took a quick glance at Eron. He seemed to be squinting at one of the nearby buildings. The droning noise escalated.
“Wait,” Eron said suddenly. “There’s another one.”
“What?” I said.
“It may be difficult for you to tell, Riku,” Eron said. “There is a slight difference in pitch of the noise, indicating at least two of these ‘monsters’.”
“Two?” I shook my head. “No, there was definitely only one before.”
“Eron, I’m picking up a third pitch,” Gregory called.
Eron frowned. He glanced up at the sky. Then his eyes narrowed. “Ten. There are ten of them.”
Before I could reply, an enormous black hulk materialized in front of me. Then, before I could move, Eron’s fist smashed into the creature with a sharp crack, sending it flying across the square.
“Don’t let your guard down,” Eron warned.
I took a deep breath and steadied my pistol. “That was definitely not human.”
“Indeed,” Eron said. He turned to the rest of the group. “Everyone, stay alert, another could easily-”
Suddenly, a huge blob of black smashed into Eron. The dark mass stuck to the pavement like glue, forming a huge ball of black ooze. Then Eron emerged, black tendrils sticking to him. He tried to break free, but the black ooze stuck fast. I looked up. Three black shapes circled us above.
“I will admit,” Eron said, gritting his teeth. “That one caught me off guard.”
“You two,” I said, pointing at Alice and Gregory. “Alice, set your sword on disintegration mode; there’s a dial on the hilt. Gregory, pull Eron out of there, and hold out as best you can. I’ll be back.”
Without waiting for a reply, I spread my wings and sprang several meters into the air.
As I climbed slowly into the darkening sky, the three black shapes above me dispersed. I scowled. Apparently these creatures had learned some strategy.
I pointed my pistol at one of the fleeting shapes, turned the dial, and fired. A glowing yellow sphere raced after the creature, which abruptly swerved to the right, avoiding the shot. I held up a hand with three fingers extended. Two. One.
A colossal boom rang through the air as the yellow sphere exploded. Yellow fragments of light rained down from the sky, like an oversized firework detonation. The creature skidded left and right in the air, finally succumbing to the yellow light. Then the creature fell.
“One down,” I said to myself. I raised my pistol. “Thank you splash stun mode.”
Suddenly an icy cold edge grazed my wing. I spun around, catching a glimpse of one of the creatures, now quickly darting away. It looked somewhat like a pterodactyl, only with black flesh and white bone fragments jutting out of various parts of its body. The creature fled a good distance and turned to face me. Then it opened its mouth.
The ball of ooze nearly impaled me in the face. Had I not anticipated what the creature was about to do and began my evasive maneuver beforehand, I would have probably ended up just like Eron; except I could have probably phased out of it.
I steadied my pistol, turning the dial back to wave mode. Then, as the creature moved to spit another ball of ooze at me, I fired twice.
As expected, the creature ducked the first wave, committing its movement to a downward velocity; which left the creature wide open for a vertical wave, requiring a horizontal velocity to dodge. With a flash of red, the second creature fell. I blew the tip of my pistol.
“Last one,” I muttered to myself. I spun around in the air, scanning for the last creature. Only the darkening sky met my gaze. I frowned. Soon night would fall and absolute darkness would cloak everything in a black haze. Since the creatures had waited until sunset to attack us, it would be logical to assume that they could see perfectly fine in the dark. As a wraith, I could see fine in complete darkness too, but I knew vampires, ironic as it was, still relied on light to see. In the dark, vampires would be as blind as a bat. Of course, they could still rely on their enhanced sense of hearing and smell to discern the location of an individual, but not being able to see would be a significant disadvantage. Not to mention that I still had no idea what the enemy was capable of.
A sudden rush of wind past my wings brought me back to attention. I whipped around, catching a glimpse of the third creature soaring by. The jagged edges of white bone encasing its wings struck out at me as it flew, landing a gash across my black feathers. I winced and pointed my pistol in the creature’s direction, but suddenly the creature was gone. My eyes darted wildly across the open sky, but I found no traces of the creature.
Then suddenly, with a flash of white, another cut ran across my wing. I quickly turned my gaze in the direction of the flash, but once again, no creature met my eyes. I frowned. What was going on here?
A blur of white bone caught my eye, and I raised my arm in its direction. A sharp fragment of white bone buried itself in my forearm. My arm flickered, briefly turning to its skeleton form, dropping the bone fragment to the city below. I thought for a second, and phased out.
Back in the chamber of death, I took a moment to contemplate my next move. The creature was somehow camouflaging itself against the night sky, and shooting fragments of its own exoskeleton at me. But then why couldn’t I see it? I had been able to see the bone fragments clearly, and the creature had been covered with white bone.
I shook my head. I didn’t need to know how the creature camouflaged itself right now. The important thing now was to find a way to locate or immobilize it. Of course, hitting the creature with a stun bolt would be difficult. Not to mention that my pistol still only gave me three bolts per enemy, even with non-spirit entities. I had used one bolt on the first creature, and two on the second, meaning that I had six left for the last one.
I quickly pulled out a notebook and pen from my cloak. After a substantial duration of time, I lifted up my pen and quickly surveyed the mess of incomprehensible black ink scribbled onto the paper. Then I jotted down a note in the bottom left corner: WORK ON YOUR HANDWRITING.
I phased back.
Darkness still shrouded the silent night sky. Stars glimmered through the darkness, tiny pinpricks of light over a pitch black canvas. I shot a quick glance upward, but caught no indication of the creature.
But, as a flash of white bone suddenly raced past me, I knew it hadn’t fled. I raised my pistol, and fired twice. Two yellow spheres rocketed upwards, casting brilliant yellow light across the cityscape. I scanned the skies again, but the creature still remained hidden.
As the spheres rose higher and higher into the night sky, they began to falter, gradually coming to a halt. Then one burst, scattering millions of smaller spheres into the air. The other simply stopped, floating lightly above the yellow shower beneath, as if awaiting further orders. I scanned the sky again for the creature. Still nothing… but there hadn’t been any bone fragments aimed at me recently either. Had the creature fled then? Or maybe…
I pointed my pistol up at the yellow sphere still floating above and it detonated, sending trails of yellow sparks blazing through the night.
I raised my arm to shield my face, and, as if on cue, a shard of white bone buried itself in my forearm.
“Found you,” I said to myself. I quickly pointed my pistol in the direction of the bone fragment and fired twice. Two spheres of yellow light flew forward. A second later, they detonated. The creature let out an earsplitting screech as millions of yellow sparks impaled its body. Then the creature’s body shifted, changing from invisible to visible, finally dropping down to the city below.
“You were afraid to move when I lit up the sky,” I said to the creature’s falling form. “Since if you moved, the light bending around you would refract, acting like a mirror instead of providing invisibility. Of course, by not moving, your speed would have been drastically cut be inertia, thus leaving yourself vulnerable to any given counterattack.”
However, if the creature had chosen to begin accelerating before attacking me outright, things would have gotten a bit more difficult. It was a good thing these creatures had limited intelligence.
With the flying creatures taken care of, I slowly descended back down to the square.
Eron was stuck. Riku was gone. Gregory was useless.
Alice felt an urge to smash her head against the pavement. Why had Riku just taken off like that? What was she going to do if one of those creatures attacked?
“Ugh…” Gregory grunted nearby. “This stuff… is really sticky…”
Alice peered in the vampire’s direction. Eron was still about half stuck inside the ball of black ooze that had fallen out of the sky. He looked more annoyed than anything, like a lion being held down by mice. A lot of mice. Gregory stood at this side, pulling on his one free arm, but the ooze stuck to him like damp superglue. Gregory seemed to be making progress, but it wasn’t exactly going by quickly.
“Hurry up,” Eron said.
“I’m… trying…” Gregory said.
“Hey, you there, Alice,” Eron said, looking over in Alice’s direction.
“Me?” Alice said.
“Where did the wraith, Riku go?” Eron asked.
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “He just said, hold out as best you can, or something and flew off somewhere.”
“I heard what he said,” Eron said. “He’s clever, that one.”
“But how are we supposed to hold out here?” Alice cried. “Those monsters might attack us any second now!”
“I heard Riku; you have a sword,” Eron said. “Use it.”
Alice brought out the black metal cylinder from her pocket, flinching slightly as it expanded into a black sword. She pressed on the end and the blade began to glow blue.
“How do I use it?” Alice asked, raising the sword.
Eron just gave Alice a look. “You can’t be serious.”
“You’re carrying around a sword, but you don’t know how to use it?” Eron said skeptically.
“Riku just gave this thing to me!” Alice exclaimed. “I don’t know anything about swordsmanship or-”
A sudden growling noise cut through Alice’s words. Eron looked up. His eyes widened. Alice felt a chill run down her spine. Then she slowly turned around.
A bear-like creature about twice her size loomed over her. The creature growled, black saliva dripping down its mouth. Alice felt a scream choking up in her throat. She raised her sword at the creature, hands trembling.
"We are all so dead," Eron said, dropping his head.
Suddenly, a light flared across the square, followed by several smaller, ongoing flares. The creature angled its head up, making a higher pitched growling sound. Alice, bewildered by the light, almost did the same.
"Now's your chance!" Eron shouted, snapping Alice back to attention. The girl looked at the creature, completely distracted by the multiple exploding lights above, then to her sword, then back to the creature. Alice took a deep breath and charged, raising the sword with both hands. The creature just stared blankly above, utterly dazed by the bright flashing lights.
As the sword came down, Alice heaved a breath of relief. She had actually done it. The creatuer was as good as dead, and Eron would be free soon. They were safe.
Then the blade disappeared.
As the sword's hilt flew downward, the blade reappeared as soon as it had cleared the creature's body. Alice just stared at the glowing blue sword.
The huge black hulk before her still stood unmoving, just gazing at another extremely bright light flaring up in the sky.
Alice slashed at the creature again, and again, the sword's blade disappeared before it struck the creature, reappearing after she withdrew.
"What the hell?" Alice muttered to herself, eyeing the sword with suspicion. Riku had used her sword just fine on that other creature. What was she doing wrong?
Alice began to contemplate a third attempt, but suddenly a huge black mass impaled her in the chest, instantly smashing her into the pavement. A sickening crunch reached her ears. Alice let out a cough, feeling hot liquid trail down her mouth.
Then, Alice felt three sharp, pointed objects stab through her body. She tried to scream, but only coughed up more blood. A shout sounded somewhere in the distance, something about hanging in there, but the ringing sound in her ears kept the shout muffled.
The pressure left, along with the sharp objects stuck in her body. The pain instantly tripled, sending more blood flying into the air. A muffled shriek pierced the night.
Alice's eyelids flickered open. Several bright lights shifted in and out of focus, dancing to some foregin, unheard melody. The pain in her abdomen randomly shot up through her body like an electric current, giving her painful awareness of just how much damage her body had suffered. Alice closed her eyes.
Was this it? Was she going to die here? It was ironic, really. Even though Riku wouldn't tell her, she knew he had been killed by one of these things. Now she was dying the same way he was. Maybe she would end up as a wraith just like him... maybe... if she... was lucky...
An explosion sounded, distant, like everything else sounded. Another wave of pain shot through her. Alice winced. She let her head roll to the side. She was finished fighting. Finished with the pain. Finished with reality. Just let everyone else handle it, this cruel, dark world of madness. She was finished. Completely finished. And nothing would change her mind.
"Like I'm going to let you die when we're still bound by the contract," a voice suddenly said. "You should be able to stand, the regeneration is nearly done."
Alice's eyes snapped open. She sat straight up, glancing down at her body. Except for three round holes torn through her shirt, she looked completely fine.
Right, vamipres could heal themselves.
Riku stood before her, pistol in hand, wings half-folded. He stuck out a hand. Alice grasped it, and Riku pulled her to her feet. Then he promptly slapped her.
"What was that for?!" Alice cried, rubbing her cheek.
"Don't be selfish," Riku said. "You may get a second chance, but this is my last chance. If you do something idiotic and get killed, I'm not going to be able to come back."
Riku slapped her again. Alice recoiled.
"What the hell is wrong with you man!?" Alice shouted.
"If you apologize one more time, I will paralyze you for the remainder of the contract," Riku said icily. He strode past Alice, wings folding back into his cloak.
Alice stood there for a moment, conflicted as to whether to be angry with Riku, or relieved that he had saved her. Finally, the girl let out a sigh, and followed Riku back.
"How many are left?" Riku asked.
"Five more," Eron answered. "They appear to be regrouping in the city's alleys."
"Good, then we can retreat to a more suitable location to counterattack," Riku said.
"What are we talking about?" Alice asked, running up to the group.
"I do not believe that will be necessary," Eron said, ignoring the comment. He made a dismissive gesture, and Gregory stepped aside. Then he took a deep breath, and, in one fluid motion, wrenched his arm out of the black ooze. Another momentous gesture, and his leg came loose as well.
Eron brushed off his suit, raising his head into the wind. "Two at one o clock, about ninety meters distance. One at six o clock, two hundred and fifty meters distance. Two at eight o clock, one hundred and sixty meters distance."
"I'll take the two fartherst out," Riku said. "Eron, you take the two closer ones. Gregory, Alice, you have the closest one. Alright, let's-"
With a swift gust of wind, Eron vanished. A second later, five colossal roars broke out through the square. The droning noise stopped.
Then, Eron reappeared, dragging a pile of black bodies with him. He dropped the bodies in the middle of the square and they promptly disintegrated into black dust. Eron let out a breath.
"I don't like being underestimated," Eron said.
Riku frowned. "I wanted one alive, which is why I didn't plan on just setting you loose. But whatever."
Riku gestured at Alice. "We've leaving."
"Hold up," Eron said. "The elders will want to know why we've returned so late. You two should come as witnesses."
"And why would we do that?" Riku said.
"You are a wraith with a vampire as a partner," Eron said. "Another member of our covenant could easily make the same mistake we made and attack you. This is a good opportunity for you to clear things up with the elders."
Riku appeared to think for a moment. "And I suppose this benefits you for having an excuse for being so late."
"If we tell the elders we were attacked by monsters, how do you think they would react?"
"... Fine. Let's go."
The journey to the vampire covenant headquarters took about ten minutes. Mostly because Alice and the other two vampires could run at much higher than human speeds, while Riku could keep up by flying. The obvious and grandiose nature of the building also helped quite a bit.
The building resembled a cathedral, with its intricately crafted buttresses and friezes, lined with arabesque vine-patterns. A wide set of stairs led up to the portico that served as the main entrance, surrounded by a white marble colonnade. Two silver-haired men in black business suits flanked the entrance.
"Master Eron," one of the men bowed. "You have returned."
"The wraith and the blood spawn are with me," Eron said. "Notify the elders of my return."
"At once, master Eron," the man said, quickly blurring into the building.
The other man glared at the group, facing contorting into a scowl. "You dare bring such tainted creatures into our holy order?"
"Don't be delusional," Eron said. "Our covenant couldn't be farther from a holy order."
Eron gave a gesture to the three behind him and entered the building.
"Oh yeah, Riku, I just remembered," Alice said as the group strode into the entrance corridor. "Umm... no offense, but aren't you supposed to burst into flames when you hear a living person's name?"
"Vampires with greater than fifty one percent parasitic blood composition aren't technically classified as living," Riku said. "At least, that's what the guidelines on my navi-computer say."
"There are guidelines?"
"Yeah. It says angels, demons, sprites, vampires, other wraiths, mechanical constructs, esseaes, rift walkers, and any hybrids of the above with fifty one percent or greater non-human genetic composition are exempt from the name rule," Riku said.
"Whoa, wait," Alice said. "Angels and demons are real?"
"We encounter them ocassionally," Eron commented. "They usually observe us for a while, then they leave."
Alice just stared. "...are you serious?"
The two boys exchanged glances. Then they both turned ahead and walked onward.
The building's interior almost looked more extravegant than the exterior. Velvet curtains draped down from in between rows of fluted marble columns. More friezes and colored paintings ran the length of the interior, carving out great battles and festivals into the walls and ceiling. The innitial corridor then broke into a vast, domed chamber, where the rib-vaulted ceiling converged into a single, circular relief painting at the height of the dome. Seven other corridors branched out from the domed chamber, leading off into different parts of the building. Glass chandeliers hung in regular intervals from the ceiling, casting a warm, yellow glow over the various chambers.
"Oh my god," Alice marveled. "Do you guys actually live here?"
"The living quarters are elsewhere," Eron said. "This is just a room where members of the covenant go to celebrate."
"You two are lucky to even be seeing this place," Gregory added. "Only certified members of the covenant are ever allowed inside."
"I'd much rather be getting back to the hotel now," Riku said, glancing at his navi-computer. "They'll charge us extra if we're late by more than a day."
"Master Eron," the silver-haired man from before reappeared. "The elders will see you now."
The man bowed and blurred away again.
A few seconds later, five men, all around age fifty, each with silvery-white hair, wearing business suits in varying degrees of black, walked out from four different corridors. The five elders met in the center of the chamber, and proceeded to approach Eron.
"Figlio, perche ci hai portato tali creature in casa nostra?" one of the elders stepped forward.
"Ci hanno ritardato da una sorta di mostro," Eron replied. "Il fantasma ha aiutato a sconfiggere la."
"E che dire del micelio sangue?"
"Lei e il suo partner."
"Umm... what are they saying?" Alice asked, nudging Riku with her elbow.
"Eron is explaining the monster attack and who you two are," Gregory explained. "And your Italian must be terrible. Be grateful that Eron and I both know how to speak English."
"I don't have to worry about things like that. My navi-computer can translate almost any spoken language," Riku said.
"Wait... then am I the only one who didn't get what they were saying?" Alice said.
"I doubt a wraith would understand with only a simple translator," Gregory said, rolling his eyes at Riku.
"The elder called Eron a child and Alice a blood spawn," Riku replied.
The elder and Eron exchanged a few more words, all of it gibberish to Alice's ears. The words kind of sounded similar to spanish, a language she had learned in school. Alice kind of regretted getting a C in the class now.
"Alright, we're done," Eron said, turning back to the group. The elders returned from their respective corridors.
"What did they say?" asked Alice.
"There is good news and there is bad news," Eron said. "The bad news is, they didn't believe my story."
"That's ridiculous," Gregory said. "You're the most respected member of the covenant for your age, Eron. The elders should know by now that you would never tell a lie to them."
"No, they believed me," Eron said. "That was the good news. They believed that we were attacked by monsters, so they excused us for returning so late, but they didn't see the reason why I had brought Riku and Alice here. So I explained to them that Riku had helped greatly in defeating the monsters, and nearly saved our lives. However, they didn't believe that a wraith could have such great skill."
"Oh..." Gregory said. "Well, that is to be expected. I wouldn't have believed that part myself if I had been an elder."
"There's more bad news," Eron cut in. "Since they didn't believe the whole story, they want to have Riku and Alice executed for trespassing on covenant grounds."
A moment of silence passed as Eron's words sank in.
"What?! That's insane!" Alice finally cried out. "They want to kill me and Riku for helping you guys?!"
Eron nodded. "That's what they said. However, more good news for you two. Well... not necessarily good news. I did try to reason with them to abandon the execution, and they agreed, on one condition. If Riku can demonstrate his level of skill to the elders, then they'll let you two go."
Riku sighed. "And by 'demonstrate my level of skill', you mean...?"
"You're going to have to fight another vampire," Eron said. "They won't pick someone as powerful as me, don't worry, but they definitely won't give you an easy time."
"No," Riku said.
"I knew it was a bad idea coming here. Now this... this is ridiculous. We're leaving."
Eron shook his head. "That's impossible. You might be able to escape this covenant, but the elders will contact every vampire covenant from around the world. Every vampire on this planet will be ordered to kill the both of you on sight. You can't escape."
Riku remained silent for a moment, as if debating on whether to escape, or smack Eron on the head. After two minutes of contemplation, Riku sighed.
"Get me the battle specifications by tomorrow morning," Riku said. "Make sure the battle is staged before morning on the next day. And since you got us into this mess, you have to provide me with the proper equipment if the specifications allow it."
"A little demanding, but fine," Eron said.
"We will also be staying in a hotel tonight," Riku said. "I'm not wasting any more money here. Get a vampire to guard us if it makes the elders happy."
"Alright, now we're leaving," Riku said. The boy turned around, giving a wave for Alice to follow.
Alice glanced back at Eron before following Riku out of the covenant building. Riku did not look back.
"What are you doing?" Alice asked.
"Strategizing," I replied.
The hotel room was small, barely able to fit two beds, with a space between them just wide enough to walk through. A bathroom scaled to the same proportions was built into the room near the entrance. The two of us both sat on our respective beds, Alice giving me a curious look. Around twenty or so vampires hovered in the lobby of the hotel, in case we tried to escape.
I flipped through my notebook, quickly glancing over the various sketches I had made.
"They won't pick anyone stronger than Eron," I muttered to myself. "That's the only guarentee."
However, strength could be interpreted in different ways. The vampire I would fight just had to be someone Eron could beat, not necessarily someone Eron would be able to beat on a regular basis. Of course, with the elder vampires and their senseless pride, they would probably choose someone as close to Eron's level as possible, so long as they could pass them off as weaker.
I put a hand to my forehead. Fighting Eron had been near impossible before. Fighting someone possibly stronger than him would not be an ordeal I could likely survive.
Then there were the rules. The elders would most likely make a rule against flying, or any form of aerial combat. They would also definitely not allow use of any type of weapon I owned, and would probably require me to present a passable weapon myself. Eron would handle that, but I would definitely be outguned in the fight.
"I'm going to have to fight against the rules themselves," I said to myself.
"I don't get it," Alice said. "All you have to do is prove your skill to them, right? That's can't be too difficult."
I shook my head. "They're out to get me. They want to make sure I lose, and will likely try and bend the rules in their favor as much as they can. I need an overwhelming, absolute victory to convince them."
"I think you're being a bit paranoid there," Alice said.
"It's not a question of whether you're being paranoid," I said. "It's a question of whether you're being paranoid enough."
"Well you're being paranoid as hell," Alice said.
"Good," I replied.
Of course, contigency planning would only be useful if I had an actual battle plan to support it. Think. What would be the most effective course of action against a vampire as strong as Eron?
First, the goal. Simple, immobilize or kill the vampire. To achieve that, I would require a direct hit on one of the vampire's vital organs, or a clean decapitation. Cutting the vamipre or severing his or her limbs wouldn't do any good, since they would only regenerate. It could slow them down though...
"So what's your plan?" Alice asked.
"I'm thinking," I said.
In the end, it would all depend on the opponent. Every fighter has its flaws. I would just have to find and exploit those flaws with the limited time given.
I sighed. "Guess I can't really do anything about that."
"What? You mean you can't win?" Alice said.
"The chances are slim," I said.
"Don't you dare die on me," Alice said, some concern leaking out of her voice.
"In the fight? No. However, being executed afterwards is an entirely different matter."
"You're going to win. I believe in you."
"Believe in someone less paranoid," I said. "I'm going to sleep now."
Relying on how my enemies chose their champion didn't exactly seem like the best choice for the fight. But then again, when had I ever had a choice in anything?
"Here are the rules," Eron said, handing me a slip of paper.
I read over the paper twice, and nodded.
Alice and I had woken up around six in the morning, then, escorted by a host of vampires, we arrived at the covenant headquarters in less than an hour. Eron had greeted us there, and ushered us into a private meeting room, accompanied by Gregory as always.
The match was to start in about half an hour. The battle grounds would be the square where we had fought those creatures. The elders had already arranged for the square to be cleared, so there would be no humans present. It seemed straightforward enough.
Now the rules, those were interesting. No moving outside of the boundaries for battle, which included a height boundary. Essentially, no flying for me; expected. No firearms or other form of long-range weapon, again, expected. Also no phasing for the wraith, which I hadn't thought of, but made sense to consider.
The interesting part, however, were the rules made for the vampire. No regeneration or use of non-physical supernatural abilities. That was a surprise. They were giving their own fighter a disadvantage? Or were they so overconfident in their own abilities that they had deemed regeneration unnecessary?
I also noted no rule against killing was listed.
"The restrictions for the vampire are interesting," I remarked.
"The elders tried to make it look as fair as possible," Eron said. "But make no mistake, the rules are very much stacked."
"I expected as much," I said. "What weapon will the vampire be using?"
"Both of you will be allowed to choose your weapon before the match begins," Eron said. "Apparently the elders are making something of a spectacle out of this and want to dramatize the battle as much as they can."
"Their mistake," I said, folding the slip of paper in half. "I dislike being underestimated."
Thirty minutes later, I made my way out to the square with Eron, Alice, and Gregory in tow. A crowd of vampires awaited my arrival. Yellow marking posts fenced off a large section of the square, with the vampires crowding around it. Two enormous shelves filled with various forms of weaponry stood off to the side. A single vampire stood inside the marked-off area.
She looked about the same age as Eron, only with jet-black hair cut short, and relentless blue eyes. She wore the same business-suit style outfit all the vampires seemed to wear, and held swords in both hands.
"So that's my opponent," I said. I glanced at Eron.
"Never sparred with her before," Eron said. "Haven't watched her spar either."
I sighed. "Oh well. Let's get this over with."
As I entered the miniature arena, the vampires all turned my way. A vampire walked inside and gestured to the weapon shelves assembled before me. I looked over the weapon choices, and took hold of a long, black scythe. The vampire nodded and stepped out of the ring. I turned to face my opponent.
"I am Chelsea," the vampire facing me said.
"I'm Riku," I said.
"I apologize in advance, Riku, for what I am about to do to you," Chelsea said.
"Hope you don't regret it," I replied.
"We all know why we are gathered today," a voice from the audience said. I turned, eyeing a vampire on a podium in the midst of the crowd. Undoubtedly one of the elders.
"A wraith has dared enter our beloved sanctum," the elder continued. "He has claimed to have saved a member of our covenant as an excuse for coming here."
A chorus of booing ensued from the crowd.
The elder held up a hand. "But, we are not unreasonable. We give this wraith a chance to prove himself. If this wraith can defeat our chosen warrior in single combat, we shall overlook this treaspass and allow the wraith to leave in peace. However, if this wraith is defeated, he will be executed."
A roar of cheering from the crowd. The elder bowed and stepped down from the podium. Another, younger-looking vamipre stepped up.
"The rules of this match have already been stated," the vampire announced. "Combat boundaries are marked by yellow posts. An additional height boundary of three meters will also be in effect. The combatants have already chosen their weapons. No additional weapons or weapon exchanges will be allowed. The wraith is forbidden from phasing, and the vampire from regenerating or using non-physical abilities. Combantants, at the ready!"
I sighed. "The way he says it makes it sound like I'm the one with the advantage."
"Match begin!" the vampire shouted.
The vampire Chelsea slowly took up a cautious-looking stance, holding both swords in blocking positions in front of her. I twirled my scythe around a few times, noticing no reaction from Chelsea. I slammed the bladed end into the ground, breaking through the solid rock. Chelsea flinched slightly.
"Fine then," I said. "We'll do this the hard way."
I dashed forward, wrenching my scythe from the ground. Chelsea blocked the uppercut with one of her blades and swung at me with the other. I twisted my scythe around to block her cut and threw a punch at her chest.
Then suddenly, the vampire vanished.
I ducked reflexively, avoiding a slash from behind. Spinning my scythe around, I quickly executed another uppercut to the back. A sword appeared in my peripheral vision, forcing me to leap out of range.
About three meters away from the vampire, I took a deep breath. Her defense was flawless, that was for certain. As long as she avoided attacking, there was no way I could break through without being hit by a lightning counteratta-
A blade cut down on me overhead. I jumped back, avoiding another blade smashing into the ground. Chelsea appeared in my vision. Then she blurred and vanished.
Not even time to think-
Another swing at the neck materialized to my left. I ducked quickly, aiming a cut, but Chelsea blurred again, completely avoiding my attack.
How was I going to keep up with this speed? The vampire herself had plenty of holes in her offense, but her speed was always there to cover-
A sword suddenly stuck out from my chest. Crap. I hadn't been paying attention.
My body flickered, shifting into skeleton form, and I took the opportunity to slip out and reposition myself.
About ten meters away from the vampire, I gripped my scythe in a defensive stance. Chelsea took up her similarly defensive stance again.
This was unfair. I was so much more skilled than Chelsea, yet I was about to lose due to lack of speed. It reminded me of those online games I used to play so much. One could be so incredibly skilled, yet lose to overpowered characters, or classes, or equipment for that matter.
I grimaced. Well, if this were a game, Chelsea would definitely be an agility based character. Me? I would probably be an intelligence based character, with a lot of hitpoints too. Of course, this game had no magic, so intelligence was a relatively worthless stat.
The stats were already so imbalanced. Chelsea had that overpowered agility, and possibly strength, which gave her insane evasion, damage, and attack speed. I would have slightly higher range with my scythe, and probably more health than her due to me being a wraith. I also had air mobility, but that was relatively useless with the match's constraints. My damage would also be pitifully low, and even without regeneration, Chelsea would have a very high defense stat.
"This game is so unfair," I said aloud. Somehow, saying it made it funny. I laughed.
Chelsea frowned. "Why are you so happy?"
"This game's rules are stacked and your stats are hax," I said. "There isn't even magic allowed. What a joke."
The vampire's frown deepened. "What are you talking about?
"Your agility and evasion are way too high," I said. How do you deal with agility based characters? Well, first you'd have to close the distance, since if you didn't, they would escape. Then you'd probably have to cut down their mobility, lower their evasion with a binding spell or something. Of course, magic wasn't allowed, so that would have to be done manually. Then, just hit them until the spell wears off and repeat the process.
"Yes, my speed is much greater compared to yours," Chelsea said, stiffening her stance. "But I am a vampire after all. You should have anticipated this before agreeing to the battle."
Apparently, that statement made me angry.
"Assuming I had a choice in the matter," I said icily. "But of course, death is always another option."
Chelsea seemed to flinch. She back away a little.
Perfect opportunity. I unfolded my wings and closed the distance.
The vampire reacted with lightning speed, dodging my innitial strike and burying her sword in my arm.
My health dropped about five percent. I glanced at the vampire, just off to the side. Binding spell... who needs those when I had a character with wings.
The vampire struggled as my wings wrapped around her, eyes widening. She plunged her other sword through the black feathered apendages. My health dropped another twenty percent.
I skidded to a halt on the ground, quickly slashing both of the vampire's legs with my scythe. The vampire screamed. Her health dropped ten percent.
My wings tightened around Chelsea, bringing her closer to my body. The vampire punched at my face with her one free hand. My health dropped two percent.
I pulled Chelsea's first sword out of my arm and stabbed her through the chest. She screamed again. Her health dropped fifty percent.
Then the vampire began to regenerate, the streams of blood flowing down her chest slowly coming to a halt. Her health rose twenty percent.
She was cheating. Hacking the game. Hacking. Hacker.
"Hacker!" I raged at the vampire, slamming my scythe blade into her shoulder. Chelsea screamed even louder, tears dripping out from her eyes. I punched her in the face, cutting her scream down to a low whimper. Her health dropped forty two percent. She was in the red zone. Just a little more and she would be dead.
Someone in the audience shouted something. I ignored them. NPCs and their random chatter...
I released the vampire, plucking her other sword out from my wing. Just one slash, right at the neck. I could score a critical hit and drop her health down to zero.
Chelsea looked up at me, her wounds slowly healing, even now. Tears flowed freely down from her eyes, her face contorted in pain, a bruise swelling from where I had hit her before.
Her health was back up to forty percent now. I would need the critical hit to kill her.
I raised the sword, carefully aiming for the neck.
Another shout from the audience. This game's NPCs sure were loud.
"Riku, stop!" cried the voice. "Riku!"
Riku... right, that was my name. Not my character name, my actual-
"What is it, Alice?" I asked, glancing into the crowd.
"The match is over!" Alice shouted. "Chelsea broke the rules and regenerated, so the match is over! You can stop now!"
Stop, huh? The match was over...
A glowing, yellow "WINNER!" appeared above me. I blinked twice and it disappeared.
I turned back to Chelsea, who was sniffling and whimpering like a two year old. She dislodged both weapons from her body, letting out another scream. I winced.
"Here," I said, extending a hand. Chelsea eyed it suspiciously, but took it anyways. I pulled her up and she fell onto me, spewing water like a raincloud.
"Sheesh, do all vampires cry this much?" I said.
"Shut up," Chelsea sniffled. "You stabbed me in a lot of painful places."
"You nearly made me go insane, so I suppose it's even," I replied.
"Riku!" Alice cried, running into the arena. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said, waving her away. I looked up at the vampire standing on the podium. He scowled.
"The wraith is the winner!" the vampire announced. A hushed whisper rippled through the crowd. A vampire stepped forward from the audience, one of the elders.
"Well done, wraith," the elder said, contempt easily visible in his voice. "Few others of your kind would have survived. As promised, we will pardon your intrusion upon our sacred ground, this time."
"Ahem," I cleared my throat. "If I may make a request."
"What is it?" the elder said.
"If you could inform the other covenants not to attack me because I have a vampire as a partner, I would appreciate it," I said.
"We shall consider it," the elder said. He turned around. "However, if you are found near our covenant again, you will be executed without question. Is that clear, wraith?"
"I would expect no less," I said. I gave Alice a waving gesture. She nodded.
"I'll see you back at the hotel then," Alice said, and quickly disappeared.
The vampires broke out into conversation, slowly dispersing in groups of three or four out into the city. I saw Eron and Gregory admist the crowd. Eron gave me a thumbs up. I rolled my eyes, but waved nonetheless.
I sighed. Then I noticed.
"Why are you still here?" I asked, glancing down at Chelsea still hugging my waist.
"You... spared my life..." Chelsea said, although reluctantly. "As a proud and noble warrior, I must-"
"Stop talking nonsense," I said. "And get off me."
I pushed Chelsea off. She grabbed my wrist.
"It's not like I enjoy doing this," Chelsea said, clenching her teeth. "But to preserve my honor as a warrior, it is my duty to serve one who spares my life in battle."
"And just who made up that ridiculous rule?" I said.
"My father did," Chelsea said, casting her gaze down. She slackened her grip. "He's... the one who forced me into this. He always said that we are a proud and noble race, that our warriors were the greatest and most honorable of all. Defeat is unacceptable, and being spared in battle is the greatest humiliation one can endure..."
"Sheesh, it was only a test fight," I said.
"That makes it worse!" Chelsea cried, eyes watering. "My father... he said to me this morning, that this would be an easy battle. That this victory would be my first step to becoming a warrior. But now, everyone has seen my loss... even if I do return, I will be shunned as a failure for all of eternity. There is no place left for me here."
"Yeah, and there's no place for you with me either," I said. "You vampires live a long time, right? My contract as a wraith only lasts for the rest of the year. Once it's over, I go back to being a human, what you would call food. Heck, I might have even gotten transfered a few years into the future for this assignment, so our battle might not have even existed by the time I get back. Anyways, you get the point. Staying with me is just another dead end."
"Then... what should I..." Chelsea whimpered, tears running down her cheeks.
"You vampires really do cry a lot," I said. Chelsea just sniffled, falling down to her knees.
I sighed. "Eron, help her out, will you?"
Eron walked forward, Gregory still shadowing him.
Gregory scowled. "Why are we still here, Eron? We have no further business with this wraith."
"Because he's my friend and I want to say goodbye," Eron said.
I raised an eyebrow. "I don't recall ever agreeing to being your friend."
"If you don't, then I'll cut you down where you stand."
"Okay, hello friend."
Eron glanced at Chelsea, still crying softly. He looked back up at me and shook his head. "Sorry. What she told you before was mostly correct. Even if she comes back to the covenant, she'll be a laughing stock, and if her family disowns her, which they most likely will, she will be expelled from the covenant regardless. There's nothing I can do for her now."
I put a palm across half my face. "Ugh... if I had known this was going to happen, I would have faked defeat and escaped in the chaos."
Eron raised an eyebrow this time. "You would risk making an enemy of every vampire across the world just to save one vampire's dignitiy?"
"I was prepared to fight the rest of the world from the beginning, so the vampires wouldn't have made much of a difference," I said.
"Did you seriously prepare that much?" Eron said.
"I did a rough outline of battle plans against the U.S. military, and various other large countries on pages five through eight in here," I said, pulling out my notebook. "Page nine is a general outline of fighting against local police and/or militia. Pages ten and eleven contain variations of air and naval battles. I had some ideas about how to combat supernatural forces jotted down on pages twelve through fifteen, but those aren't really concrete enough to put into action."
Eron stared at me for a moment. Then he just shook his head. "You are either the most ingenius, or the most paranoid person I have ever met."
"I take both as compliments," I said, putting my notebook back in place. I looked back down at Chelsea, still crying. "What should we do with her?"
"I'll take her back to the covenant for now," Eron said. "But I highly doubt she'll remain there for long."
"Can't hurt to try," I said. "Anyways, it's been fun, Eron."
"Indeed it has, Riku," Eron said.
The two of us shook hands. Then Eron grabbed Chelsea with Gregory following closely behind, I called Alice on my navi-computer, and the two of us went our separate ways.
"What are you doing, Alice?" I asked.
"I feel... really weak... right now..." Alice mumbled.
"When was the last time you ate?"
"Back in the hotel... I think..."
I pressed my palm against my forehead, glancing down at Alice, currently lying slumped against a wall one the side of a road. The pedestrians gave us curious looks, but none bothered to approach us. I gave Alice a light kick. She grimaced.
"That hurts..." Alice said.
"Do I have to remind you when to eat now?" I said. I rolled my eyes, and pulled Alice up. She stumbled, steadying herself against the wall.
"Think you can make it back to the hotel?" I asked.
"Maybe..." Alice said weakly. She gave me a look resembling that of an injured lion eyeing a juicy steak.
"If you keep drinking my blood..." I started.
"I'll turn into a wraith," Alice said with an eye roll. "I know already... Just help me get back... so I can eat some real food..."
"The things you put me through..." I muttered. I wrapped my arm under Alice's shoulders, and leaned her against me while she hugged my neck tightly. Then she stumbled forward, forcing me to hold her steady.
Alice gave me a pained look. "Carry me..."
"In your dreams," I said. We started again, but slower this time, with me bearing most of the weight. I briefly considered complying with Alice and carrying her back, but this would be slightly faster. In theory anyway.
About fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the hotel lobby. The clerk gave us a curious look. I just scowled. Then, after a long journey down the narrow corridors of the hotel, we finally made it back to our room.
I opened the door and promptly pushed Alice onto her bed.
"I'll prepare some food," I said. "You try not to complain."
"But..." Alice started. I glared at her. She cowered. "Okay..."
At least the cramped hotel rooms in Italy had water boilers. I opened up my suitcase, removing a bowl of instant noodles from one of the various plastic bags inside. Then I glanced back at Alice and took another bowl. The water rose to a suitable temperature about a minute later. I divided the hot water between the two bowls, stirred, and presented one to Alice, who promptly wolfed it down. I waited about half a minute before handing her a fork.
"Aren't you hungry?" Alice asked, fishing out the last few pieces of noodle from her second bowl.
"We need to conserve supplies, so I won't be eating yet," I said.
Alice looked down at her bowl, then back up at me. "Umm... you can have the rest of this if you want..."
"You finish it," I said.
Alice gave me one last look of concern before gulping down the soup. She put her bowl down on the counter. "Thanks for the food."
"Don't mention it," I said.
"You know, Riku, you're a really nice person," Alice said.
"I'm not a nice person," I said.
"But you're really nice all the time," Alice insisted. "You saved me from those monsters, you fought vampire twice to get us out of trouble, and you always put me ahead of yourself. You're a really, really nice person, Riku."
"Those scenarios were situational," I said. "And you're my partner. If you get killed, I die too."
Alice shook her head. "That's just an excuse. I know you're really a nice person on the inside, Riku."
"Believe what you want," I said dismissively. Alice frowned. She grabbed me by the wrist.
"What do you want now?" I said.
"Sleep with me," Alice said.
I stared at the girl for a second. "You're serious."
"Yeah, I'm serious," Alice said. She pulled me over to her bedside.
"You do realize it's only like, noon," I said.
"We'll take a nap," Alice said. She pushed me onto the bed and began to undress.
"I don't even..." I muttered. "Didn't you complain before about not having a separate room?"
"That's all in the past now," Alice said, climbing into the bed.
"That was yesterday," I said.
"Yesterday is in the past," Alice said. She gave me a look. "Are you really going to sleep in that outfit?"
I sighed. It seemed there would be no convincing her. Well, it wasn't as if time was an issue. The souls were due to appear the next day, after all.
My clothing flickered, changing to a set of black pajamas. Alice smiled, and pulled me down next to her. Then she pulled the blankets over us and hugged me around the waist.
"I take it that you aren't going to let go," I said.
"Nope," Alice replied.
"If this is what having a wife feels like, I am never getting married," I said.
"Aww, don't be like that," Alice said.
I turned over in the bed to face the girl. Alice gave a start, but managed to hug me tighter until we were practically pressed up against one another. It felt strange, since both our bodies were icy cold to begin with, but apparently I was colder, since Alice felt lightly warm.
"You know, you're actually kind of handsome when I think about it," Alice remarked.
"I'm not even going to bother," I said. "Now can we please get out of here?"
"What, are you embarrassed?"
"No. But this does feel like a waste of time."
Alice's face fell. She angled her head down.
"Hey, Riku," Alice said after a few minutes. "Have you ever kissed a girl before?"
"No," I said. "And I haven't kissed any guys either."
"So... if you and I kissed right now... it'd be the first time for both of us... right?"
I sighed. "To hell with this."
I phased out.
Phasing back near the entrance of the hotel room, I made sure to materialize my clothing properly.
"Riku...?" Alice said, peeking out from her bedside.
"Get your head straightened out by the time I'm back," I said. I phased out again.
Riku came back about three hours later.
Alice had put her outer layer of clothing back on, and immediately ran to greet the wraith as he returned.
"Riku! You're back!" Alice cried.
The boy gave her a suspicious look. "No sudden desire to sleep?"
Alice shook her head. "No. I'm really sorry about earlier."
Riku cringed. "Don't apologize."
"Sor... okay," Alice said. "I'm glad you're back."
"Yeah, well, without you whining all the time, I got bored," Riku said. He sat down on his bed, opening up his notebook.
"I really meant what I said though," Alice said. "You're a really nice person."
"I'm not nice," Riku muttered without looking up.
"Well, whatever, you act nice which is good enough for me," Alice said. She fidgeted nervously. How was she going to say this?
"Hey, Riku," Alice said.
The boy sighed, closed his notebook, and looked up. "Whenever you begin a sentence with those words, I can't help but worry."
"Umm... about what I said earlier..." Alice said uncertainly. "Umm... can we kiss?"
Riku gave her a look.
"No, it's not like that!" Alice said, her face turning hot. "It's just... back before you came, my friends were always making fun of me for not kissing a guy. I know, it's stupid, but it always got me depressed thinking about it. Then, a guy named Jason at my school-"
"Are you insane?!" Riku shouted as his right arm burst into black flames.
The boy winced, his arm flickering rapidly between skeletal and normal forms. Then his body flickered and disappeared. He reappeared a second later, breathing heavily.
"Riku! Are you okay?!" Alice cried.
"The damage was significant, but recoverable," Riku panted. He grimaced, giving Alice a dark look. "And how many times do I have to say it? I can't hear the name of any living person otherwise I die."
Alice blinked. "That... was true?"
"Yes," Riku said, rolling his eyes. "I've suffered this much just from you vaguely mentioning someone still alive."
"Oh... I'm sorry..." Alice said.
"It's fine, and don't apologize," Riku said. "Anyways, if you wanted me to kiss you, you could have just asked. No need for a lengthy explanation that nearly gets me killed."
"... You'd really do that for me?" Alice said.
"If it saves me from dying, then yes," Riku said.
"Would you like to do it now or later?"
"Umm... actually, let's not," Alice said quickly.
"I'm not even going to bother asking why," Riku said, lying back on his bed.
A moment of silence passed between the two.
"Riku, are you mad at me?" Alice asked.
"No. I'm mad at that guy Jason for almost burning my arm off," Riku said.
Alice giggled. "Yeah, he's a total douche."
"Okay," Riku said, sitting back up. "We'll sleep now."
"What, already?" Alice said.
"The first of the three souls is due at three o'clock in the morning," Riku said. "Then we have two more coming at six, and a flight to Los Angeles at twelve."
Alice blinked. "Los Angeles?"
"Our next location," Riku said. "I don't have a time or number for the souls yet, but they'll give us at least a day or two for travel. We'll head straight to the airport after finishing up here. Any problems?"
"Nope," Alice said. She blushed. "Umm... actually, yes."
"If it's a social problem, I don't want to hear it," Riku said.
"Well... then no," Alice said. "Wait, yes, there's one more thing."
"Make up your mind please."
"No, no, this one is serious," Alice said. She put on the best serious expression she could think of. "Those monsters that keep attacking us."
"What about them?" Riku asked.
"Well... what do we do if they keep showing up?" Alice said. "And how do they keep finding us?"
The boy appeared to think for a moment. "I'm still figuring out how the monsters are finding us. With all of the monsters in the world, our encounter rate should still be about one percent. As for what we're going to do, we'll keep killing them until they stop coming."
"Okay...." Alice said.
"Which is why you should work on your combat skills," Riku continued. "Honestly, you don't even know how to use a sword correctly."
"Hey! Don't give me that crap!" Alice exclaimed. "You can't just expect a girl to know how to use a sword right off the bat!"
"You could at least invest some time to practice," Riku said.
"Yeah, if I knew how to practice," Alice said.
Riku rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just keep in mind that you're not the only one who's life is at risk."
The boy turned around and lay down on his bed. A second later, the lights clicked off.
Alice struggled for a moment, finally biting back a retort, and lay down to sleep.
The woman sat at her desk, eyes focused downward. A man sat opposite to her, a folder filled with papers lying on the desk between them.
The woman sighed. "You are dismissed."
"Yes, Ms. White," the man said. He stood, bowed, and left.
Rita White glanced up, over the screen of her laptop, past the stacks of paper detailing various experiment results, focusing on the folder that the man had just left behind.
"That d*** wraith," Rita muttered, pulling a small mobile phone out from her pocket. "I'm going to crush him."
The woman pressed a button.
"Hello, board member Rita White," the receiver said. "What can I help you with?"
"Are they ready yet?" the woman said.
"Experiments one through five are still undergoing modifications," the voice replied. "They won't be ready for a few weeks at least."
Rita cursed silently. "What about the others?"
"Most are under the jurisdiction of the other board members, and are undergoing energy congregation," the voice said. "Only experiments six and eight are currently available."
"Send them both out," the woman said. "And add twenty of the organization's elite guard. I want this wraith found and dealt with immediately."
"As you wish."
Alice woke to a rough shake.
She lashed out with one hand, pushing a heavily clothed person away. Then she withdrew her hand and rubbed her eyes.
"It's almost two thirty," a voice said. "You have half an hour to prepare."
Alice sat straight up. Dim moonlight streamed in from the window, bathing the room in silver. A dark, cloaked figure stood at her bedside, giving her a curious look. She blushed.
"What are you doing?" Alice asked.
"Waking you up," Riku replied. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yeah... sorry for overreacting so much yesterday," Alice said.
Riku sighed. "No matter how many times I say it..."
"Oh, right," Alice said. "Umm... then how should I...?"
"Just use 'I apologize' from now on; I can bear with that," Riku said. "Now hurry up and get ready."
Riku sat down on his bed, pulling out a notebook and a pen. Alice quickly slipped out of bed and entered the bathroom.
About fifteen minutes later, Alice emerged, fully dressed from the bathroom. At this point, she wasn't even going to ask how a fresh set of clothing exactly her size had found its way inside.
"You look nice," Riku said, glancing up from his notebook.
"Uh, are you sure you didn't hit your head or something?" Alice asked.
"Sheesh, I actually try to be nice for a change and this is what I get," Riku said, putting his notebook away. He pulled out a black box, quickly unfolding it into a pistol, and his navi-computer. Alice brought out the small black cylinder and pressed on the hilt, transforming it into a sword.
The boy extended a hand, and Alice took it. Then, with the push of a button, their surroundings blurred.
Alice blinked twice, quickly glancing around. A few stone buildings stood on either side of them, forming an alley-like pathway. One end of the alleyway led into the wall of a building with a sharp turn lurking in the shadows. The other end led out onto a wider street overlooking one of the many small canals in Florence.
"The soul will appear in five minutes, around this section of the river," Riku said, tapping away at his navi-computer.
"Okay," Alice said. She looked down at her sword, and frowned. "Hey, Riku, I think my sword is broken."
Riku looked up. "What?"
"I mean, it didn't work against that monster back then," Alice said. "It just passed right through it."
"Did you set it on the correct mode?" Riku asked.
"The correct... mode?"
Riku sighed. He grabbed the sword from Alice and spun a dial built into the hilt. The sword glowed blue, then red, then yellow, then green, then purple, then back to blue. He handed the sword back. Alice just stared in awe.
"Blue is the mode for soul capturing," Riku explained. "If you set it on that mode, it will pass through everything else."
"What? Really?" Alice said. She swung the sword at a wall. It passed right through. "Whoa!"
"Red is for the stun mode," Riku continued. "If you set it on red, it'll emit an electric shock, stunning whatever it hits. Yellow is splash stun mode, green is altercation mode, and violet is disintegration mode."
"Huh? What's altercation mode?" Alice asked, turning the dial until the sword glowed green.
"If you think 'acid' and hit something when the sword is set on green, it'll turn into acid," Riku said. "Same with anything else you might think of."
"Seriously?" Alice said.
"Well, the mode has certain limits of what it can alter," Riku said. "You can't change things into fluffy pink elephants or anything like that. But I'll explain that later. The soul should be coming in half a minute."
"Okay," Alice nodded. "Let's go."
The pair ran down the alleyway, over to the riverside. Ten seconds later, a glowing blue orb rose up out of the water about five meters away.
Then suddenly, a blue sphere flashed out from Riku's pistol and the soul slowly shrank and vanished.
"Hey! No fair!" Alice said.
"What?" Riku said, tapping his navi-computer's screen again.
"I want to get a soul too!" Alice said.
"Your sword is still set on green," Riku said without looking up. "It would have just passed through."
Alice glanced down at her sword. She quickly turned the dial until it glowed blue again. "I call the next one."
"As long as we retrieve it properly," Riku said. He held out his hand again, and the scenery blurred.
The new place was on the rooftop of a tall, rectangular building, overlooking silent roads on either side. Alice glanced down at the city below, now a quiet and peaceful landscape painted silver by the moonlight.
"The next two souls will appear in three hours," Riku said from nearby. "They'll be coming from this building, so they should appear from underneath us."
"Three hours, huh?" Alice said, plopping down on the ground. "What should we do to pass the time?"
"Figure that out by yourself," Riku said.
"Aww, come on, aren't you at least a little bored?" Alice said.
"Maybe you could hold me? Protect me from the cold."
"You're a vampire. I'm a wraith. What is cold?"
"Okay... maybe we could sing a song together."
"I don't sing."
Alice sighed. "You're no fun. I'm taking a nap then. Wake me up when the souls get here."
Alice lay down on the rough concrete, and closed her eyes. Darkness flooded her vision.
"Alice, wake up," a voice called sometime later.
"Are the souls here?" Alice said, stifling a yawn as she rose to her feet.
"Two minutes," Riku replied, tapping away at his navi-computer.
Alice looked at the boy for a moment. "I want one of those."
"I only have one, and I doubt you know how to operate it," Riku said.
"At least buy me a phone," Alice said.
"We don't have money to waste on that," Riku said. He put away his navi-computer and unfolded his pistol.
"Nu-uh," Alice said, raising her glowing blue sword. "I'm getting them this time."
"If they're within sword range, I'll let you have them," Riku said.
About half a minute later, the first blue orb slowly wobbled up from the roof. It looked strange up close, like a giant blue bubble with constantly shifting designs swirling on the surface.
"Hurry up," Riku said.
"I got it, I got it," Alice said, raising her sword above her head. With a clean overhead cut, the soul split in two. Then the two halves shrank and vanished.
"See, told you I could do it," Alice said, glancing back at Riku.
Riku nodded. Then he raised his pistol, and fired, the blue sphere contacting another soul at the edge of the building, still only half-risen above the roof's surface. The soul shrank and disappeared from sight.
"Showoff," Alice said.
"We should be in the clear for now," Riku said, folding his pistol back into cube form. He pulled out his navi-computer, and tapped the screen several times. "Our next target is due in eight days, at Los Angeles. There will be thirty-four souls in question, estimated time of capture is four hours."
"Wait, thirty-four souls?" Alice said.
Riku frowned. "An earthquake is going to cause several buildings to collapse. The souls are going to be scattered in groups of five or six, and will likely appear in the same time frame... We'll have to split up for this one, since there'll be too many locations for us to cover as a group. I'll plan out the details later. For now, we'll head to the airport."
Alice slowly shook her head. "This just gets crazier every day."
"The airport is about twenty miles from here," Riku continued. "We have five hours until we have to check in. We should head back to the hotel for now, and retrieve our belongings. Then we can call a taxi to take us to the airport.”
"Alright, let's go-"
Suddenly, a gunshot rang through the air.
Riku's body flickered into skeleton form, and something small and metallic dropped to the ground.
In one fluid motion, Riku pulled out his black box, unfolded it into a pistol, turned the dial, and fired. A red flash shot out, and a man standing in the shadow of a nearby alleyway grunted and collapsed. Alice just stared.
"We should run," Riku said. He grabbed Alice by the arm, and leaped down from the rooftop.
Alice fought the urge to scream as the ground rushed up to meet them. But at the last second, the descent suddenly slowed, and the two landed gently on the ground. Riku folded his wings back, then promptly gunned down two other men lurking in the shadows of the buildings. Alice caught a glimpse of one of the men's uniforms. A logo was printed on it, a large circle with two twisting vines running down the sides and a large word printed in the middle, D.R.E.A.D.
The pair quickly ducked into a nearby alleyway. Alice fumbled around in the darkness for a moment before managing to grab Riku’s arm. Then the two pressed themselves against the wall.
“What should we do?” Alice whispered.
“One second,” Riku said. He pointed his pistol up, and fired a yellow sphere. The sphere drifted up into the air in a long arc, then abruptly halted and hung in the sky. A burst of gunfire quickly followed. Then the boy pressed something on his pistol, and the ball in the sky promptly exploded, showering the area with sparkling yellow dust.
More gunfire sounded in the distance. Riku nodded thoughtfully.
“I estimate around fifty pursuers,” Riku said. He paused. “Although realistically it’s probably around twenty-five.”
“What? How can you tell?” Alice asked.
“Don’t move,” Riku said, and vanished.
Alice just stared at the place the boy had been. She smashed her fist against the wall. “That idiot….”
Another burst of gunfire, followed by several shouts. They were getting closer. Suddenly, a cold chill ran up Alice’s spine. She glanced around nervously, into the darkness of night. She backed up against the wall, breathing heavily. Had the alley always been this cramped?
A scream pierced through the air. Several sharp cracks quickly followed, with more shouting. Just what was Riku doing?
Then the boy reappeared, brushing his sleeves nonchalantly. His body flickered, and several small metal objects fell clinking to the ground.
“Annoying bullets,” Riku muttered, turning to adjust the dial on his gun.
“Uh… I thought we were going to run,” Alice said.
“You go on ahead,” Riku said with a light wave. “Just act natural and they should ignore you. It’s me they’re after.”
“How do you know that?” Alice asked. Wasn’t he even the slightest bit worried? There were people shooting at him with machine guns for crying out loud.
“Well, I just shot a flare from this position,” Riku pointed up at where the glowing yellow sphere had exploded. “And they didn’t come here when I revealed myself to them, so they must be under orders only to kill me.”
“Wait… that was why you shot that yellow thing?!” Alice said.
Riku rolled his eyes. “Are you really going to complain about it now?”
“Hey, I have a right to complain!” Alice exclaimed. “And why the heck did you disappear on me like that?! I was really worried back there, you know! You can’t just run off and do whatever you want without telling me!”
The boy opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again. He looked up past Alice, at the entrance to the alleyway.
After a few seconds of silence, Alice spoke up. “What? Is something wrong?”
“We’re being chased, yes?” Riku said, keeping his eyes focused on the alley entrance.
“Then why is it so quiet?”
Alice blinked. She looked up, tuning her hearing to the eerie silence of the night. A shiver ran through her chest, and she edged closer to Riku, eyes still darting around nervously.
“I don’t know…” Alice said in a small voice. “You think… they got killed by one of those monsters from earlier…?”
Riku’s eyes narrowed. “You stay here, I’ll go out and check-”
“No!” Alice cried.
The boy winced. “Don’t be so loud. And why not?”
“Just… don’t leave again…” Alice whispered. “Please…”
“What? Are you afraid of the dark or something?” Riku said.
“Please…” Alice whispered again, putting on her best pleading expression.
“Why do I even…” Riku muttered to himself. He grabbed Alice by the wrist. “Fine then. We’ll check it out together. Happy?”
Alice nodded a few times. Then the pair headed out of the alley, and into the open streets.
The first thing that struck Alice were the lights. Bright streetlamps lit the road every few meters, forcing her to blink several times while her eyes adjusted. The second thing was the smell. A faint metallic smell clung to the air like the aroma of food streaming off a freshly cooked thanksgiving dinner. Speaking of food, Alice suddenly found herself very hungry, her stomach making growling sounds, and streams of saliva flooding her mouth.
“Alice,” Riku said. “You might want to keep your eyes away from the middle of the street.”
“Why?” Alice asked, already shifting her gaze towards it. “What’s in the middle of the…”
Alice just stared for a moment. She opened her mouth to scream, but Riku clasped a hand over it. Then he kindly rotated her head to face the other way.
“Vampires must be the world’s messiest eaters,” Riku scowled.
“Th-that… those w-were…” Alice stammered. Suddenly, the rich food smell turned sour, similar to the stench of rotting garbage. Alice felt like she was going to vomit. Tears began welling up in her eyes.
“I count seventeen corpses,” Riku said. “Including the three I stunned earlier, that makes twenty in total. That’s a reasonable enough number for a pursuit squad.”
“H-how… wh-why d-did that…” Alice said, shivers running all over her body.
“I’d say it was a vampire hunting party that did this,” Riku said. “But vampires don’t usually hunt this far into the night.”
“It was not a party that did this,” a voice sounded.
Alice turned slowly to face a dark figure trudging down the sidewalk.
She looked about the same age as Riku was, with the same kind of silky black hair that came down to her eyes, except that it was cut short at the back. Her eyes glowed a sharp blue color, contrasting with the black blouse and pants she wore.
“You again?” Riku frowned. “Didn’t Eron take you back already?”
The girl grimaced. “I was thrown out the minute I arrived. My father saw to that personally.”
She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if contemplating on each and every word. Her voice had a heavy accent to it; Italian if Alice were to guess.
“And Eron didn’t defend you at all?” Riku asked.
“Eron does not hold enough influence in the covenant to sway the elders’ decisions. I would have been thrown out regardless,” the girl replied.
“Umm… Riku, who’s she?” Alice asked.
“You forgot already?” Riku said. “I just fought her yesterday.”
Alice thought back to the arena battle. Then she clapped her hands together. “Oh, right! She was the vampire you were fighting yesterday!”
The boy rolled his eyes. “Chelsea, this is my partner Alice. Alice, this is the vampire warrior Chelsea.”
“Now,” Riku said, turning back to the dark girl in front. “What are you doing here?”
“I was following you to request again if I may accompany you,” Chelsea said. “I know that it will only be a temporary companionship, but if you could be so kind as to guide me until I can find a more permanent residence, I will be eternally grateful.”
“As long as you quit it with the ‘my life is in your hands’ nonsense, you’re welcome to stay,” Riku said. He shifted his gaze to the middle of the street, then back to Chelsea. “So…?”
“While I was following you, I noticed some humans were shooting at you, so I disposed of them,” Chelsea said.
“Don’t you people have any notion of taking prisoners?” Riku said.
Chelsea tilted her head. “Would it not be easier to just kill them?”
“If you capture one of the enemy alive, you can interrogate them and get a lot of useful information out of it,” Riku explained. “Like why they’re targeting us, for example. By killing all of our pursuers, you’ve effectively left us in the dark as to who’s trying to kill us.”
“I… I apologize,” Chelsea murmured, bowing her head.
“Whatever,” Riku said, eyes shifting to the side.
“Uh… someone tell me what’s going on,” Alice said. “Why is the vampire you were fighting here?”
“She got kicked out for losing,” Riku said. He glanced at Chelsea. “And apparently she wants to come with us to preserve her honor as a warrior. Now let’s go. We have a flight to catch.”
“Uh… don’t forget to buy a ticket for Chelsea…?” Alice said uncertainly.
Riku slapped his hand across his face. “Nobody talk for the next half hour. I’m annoyed as it is.”
A while later, after a quick trip back to the hotel to fetch their luggage, and some time waiting for a taxi to come, the group finally arrived at the airport.
Alice couldn’t help but shiver in anticipation as she entered. It still felt so strange standing in a large open space surrounded by a myriad of colors and sounds. And then, of course, there was Riku’s problem.
The boy walked slowly behind the two girls, his hood draped down covering most of his face. Not being able to hear a living person’s name made it difficult for Riku to navigate through crowded, public spaces, so once again, Alice was left to figure out how to get through the airport on her own.
From her previous experience, Alice knew to go to one of the computer-like machines to check in first. They walked there in relative silence, with Alice in front, and Chelsea glancing inquisitively at Riku in the back.
“Why is he acting like this?” Chelsea asked, poking the boy several times in the arm. Riku slapped her hand away, letting out a scowl.
“He can’t hear the name of any living person, otherwise he’ll die, so he plugs his ears while a lot of other people are around,” Alice said. Chelsea gave her a questionable look. “It’s true! I’ve seen him almost die from hearing me mention someone’s name once!”
“He did not die when I told him my name,” Chelsea said.
“He said vampires are an exception,” Alice said.
“That is quite a convenient exception.”
“What is taking you two so long?” Riku called out mildly loudly.
Alice rolled her eyes and entered in their names on the monitor. A moment later, three slips of paper slid out from the bottom. A soft droning noise whirred somewhere in the distance, but Alice shook her head, ignoring it. It was probably just some construction workers fixing an airplane or something.
“Okay, we’re all set,” Alice said, turning back to the other two. “Oh yeah, Chelsea, do you have any belongings with you?”
“Only the clothes I wear,” Chelsea replied. “The covenant forbade me from bringing anything else.”
“Stop talking and get moving already!” Riku said.
“Alright, alright,” Alice said. “God, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
Then, just as the group began making their way to security, the wall behind them exploded.
Alice immediately shielded her face from the cascade of dust and rubble flying from the explosion. She felt a hand grab her by the forearm, and suddenly she was standing a good distance away from the explosion, in a crowd of screaming people running away. The droning noise escalated.
“Never tried that before,” Riku said. Alice glanced to her side, eyeing Riku holding both her and Chelsea. Then he promptly released his grip and began walking towards the explosion, ignoring the panicking mob on either side of him.
“What was that?” Alice asked, quickly dashing up to Riku. The boy brought out his handgun, pointing it at the bulk of the dust cloud.
“Riku!” Alice said, tugging at the boy’s cloak. Riku gave her a glare, pointed at his ears, then turned back to the billowing clouds of dust. Alice rolled her eyes.
“Chelsea!” Riku called. The vampire instantly appeared before the two. “How many are there? Hold up fingers.”
Chelsea held up a single finger in front of Riku’s face. The boy nodded. Black feathered wings unfolded from his back, and he jumped up several meters into the air.
“What’s going on?” Alice asked, turning to the dark-haired vampire.
“There is an unusual scent coming from the hole,” Chelsea said, pointing into the dust clouds still lingering by the walls. As Alice turned her head towards the hole, the droning sound suddenly doubled in volume. “I assume there is a hostile presence within.”
“Then we should help,” Alice said. She pulled out her black metal cylinder from her pocket and it grew into a black sword. She quickly scanned the area, seeing no people remaining. Everyone had already fled the airport.
Suddenly, an enormous black shape burst out of the dust clouds, crashing into Riku’s small black form above. Then Riku reappeared to the side of the creature and fired three violet flashes at the black mass. A massive explosion sounded, followed by a roar as the creature retreated back into the dust cloud.
Riku reappeared at Alice’s side. The droning noise lessened slightly.
“What happened? Are you alright?” Alice asked quickly.
“Three disintegration bolts and it’s still not dead,” Riku said, folding his pistol back into its cube form. He dropped the cube into his pocket, turned around and began walking the other way.
“Hey! Where are you going!” Alice shouted.
“I only have three bolts available for any given target,” Riku said, with a brief glance back. “The other people have already evacuated, and we’re in no rush to get to Los Angeles. Better to retreat for now.”
“But….” Alice started, but she couldn’t find any flaw in Riku’s logic. She shrunk her sword back down and put it away. “Okay.”
The boy nodded and proceeded to walk towards the exit. Then suddenly, a black shape erupted out from the ground, smashing Riku up into the air.
“Riku!” Alice shouted. The creature turned its head to face her.
It looked like a gigantic centipede, at least a hundred feet in length, with thousands of long, spindly legs protruding out from its sides. Two compound eyes dotted the creature’s face, like enormous black-tinted, multi-faceted mirrors reflecting countless images in the creature’s sight. Four jagged black pincers surrounded a set of sharp, circular teeth around the pitch black hole that was the creature’s mouth. A black number 8 was carved into the side of its head.
Riku flickered into existence next to Alice. He crouched down on one knee, clenching his teeth. His body shifted back and forth from skeleton to flesh.
“Riku! You’re alive!” Alice exclaimed.
“Not for much longer if this keeps up,” Riku panted. He squinted up at the giant centipede, now rearing its head at the ceiling. “Just how do these monsters keep finding us…?”
The creature lowered its head down to ground level, sweeping along the floor until it finally crossed gazes with the wraith and two vampires. Alice tensed, trying very hard not to vomit at the creature’s open mouth, flowing with vile black liquid. Chelsea took up a defensive stance in front of the two others. She glanced back.
“I will distract the creature,” Chelsea said. “You two run away.”
“What, no! Chelsea, you can’t!” Alice cried.
“Make sure you keep it occupied properly,” Riku said as he stood. Alice just stared at the black cloaked boy.
“Riku! You can’t be serious!” Alice said after a moment of silence.
“If she wants to do it, then let her,” Riku said icily. “We’re leaving.”
Then, with a flourish of his hand, Riku Alcastar turned his back to the two vampires.
I began walking, ignoring the screeching of the giant insect-like monster behind me mixed with Alice’s persistent wailing.
“You can’t just abandon her, Riku!” Alice shouted over the cries of the creature.
I didn’t bother replying. Of course I felt guilty leaving Chelsea to fend off the monster by herself. Of course it would pain me later when we escaped and she died. But right now, the priority was survival. As it always was and always will be.
“Riku, stop!” Alice said, suddenly running in front of me. She had on a pained expression, with tears welling up in her eyes. “You can’t leave Chelsea here, Riku!”
I sighed. “There is already an extremely slim chance that we will make it out of here alive, and you want to jeopardize that chance for a vampire we hardly know?”
“That’s….” Alice said uncertainly, but she shook her head, her expression turning firm. “No, we don’t leave people behind.”
I glanced back to the battle, with Chelsea’s blurred form darting around the place and the creature madly lashing out at random, smashing several dozen new craters into the ground. Then I turned back to Alice, the girl on the brink of tears and yet still resolutely holding her ground.
My hand reflexively slipped down to the navi-computer hidden in my pocket. Alice was proving more of a hassle than I had expected. Maybe it was time to cut my losses.
Suddenly, a high-pitched whining reached my ears, like an electrical motor charging power. It took a second for me to process what was happening. Then I quickly tackled Alice as a violet beam flashed over our heads.
I phased back to a standing position, Alice still laying dazed on the ground, and looked up at the creature. A glowing violet hole burned into the side of its head, dripping black ichor like a leaky faucet. The creature let out a long moan and collapsed, burying itself in enormous clouds of billowing dust. The droning noise stopped.
A few seconds later, Chelsea blurred into existence next to me, panting heavily. “Thank you for killing that thing.”
“That wasn’t me,” I said. Chelsea looked surprised for a moment, followed by Alice quickly standing back up with the same expression. Then the three of us looked back to where the violet beam had been fired.
A young man, probably a little older than I was, with short blond hair and a black hooded cloak stood facing us, about a hundred meters away. What looked like a long, black sniper rifle was tucked under his arm. He gave a wave, and walked slowly towards us, folding the rifle down into a medium-sized black cube.
“Yo, what’s up?” the young man said as he neared us, tossing the cube into one of his cloak’s hidden pockets. He smiled, flashing his sparkly white teeth. “You know, even with the giant monster tearing up the airport, I’m still kind of relieved seeing another wraith. Makes me feel like I’m not doing this alone.”
“Do you know what this monster is or why it attacked?” I asked.
“Not a clue,” the young man shook his head. He glanced at Alice and Chelsea, standing on either side of me. “Who are the girls?”
“Tell us who you are first,” Chelsea said, raising her hands in a martial art-like stance.
“Whoa, chill,” the young man said. “My name is Darrien. I’m a wraith, like your friend here.”
Chelsea nodded. “My name is Chelsea. I am a vampire.”
“The other girl is Alice,” I continued. “She’s also a vampire. I’m Riku, the wraith.”
“Nice to meet you, Riku,” Darrien extended a hand. I glanced at it for a second before shaking it. Darrien grinned.
“So, Riku, what are you doing at an airport with two vampires?” Darrien asked. “No offense to the ladies, of course.”
“Well, I’m his partner, and Chelsea is just tagging along with us for a while,” Alice said before I could speak. She smiled. “Thanks for saving us, by the way. We really thought we were going to die back there.”
Darrien’s eyes widened. He glanced from me to Alice, and back to Alice. Then he suddenly tackled the girl.
“I’ll hold her down, Riku! You get your weapon on stun mode, quick!” Darrien shouted, keeping his arms wrapped around a flailing Alice.
“What are you doing?!” Alice shouted back. “Riku, help!”
“Get off her,” I said in a dark tone.
Darrien flinched, freezing in place. Then he slowly rose up, releasing his hold on Alice. The girl quickly ran behind me, glaring at the young man.
“What the hell is your problem?!” Alice said, pointing an accusing finger at Darrien.
Darrien stared at me for a second. He pointed at Alice. “Dude, do you seriously let your partner run free? You do know the rules for choosing a partner, right?”
“It’s not like that between us,” I said, giving the young man a look. “The rules are of no concern to me.”
“What rules?” Alice asked. “What are you talking about, Riku?”
“You guys don’t know?” Darrien asked. “Hey, Riku, you haven’t been lying to your partner, have you?”
“I don’t tell lies,” I said. I just don’t say the whole truth, I added to myself. I turned around, facing the two girls. “Come on, we’re leaving to find another airport.”
“Whoa, what’s the rush?” Darrien said. I glanced back, crossing gazes with the wraith. My eyes narrowed.
“You can just take the rift gate wherever you want, right?” Darrien said, a glint flashing in his eyes.
“The… rift gate?” Alice said confoundedly.
My hand fell to my navi-computer again. This was getting dangerous. There would be no telling what would happen if the wraith kept babbling. I should cut my losses now....
“A rift gate is a device that allows for instantaneous transport between two locations,” I blurted out. What was I doing? Was I really going to trust these people?
I fingered the navi-computer, gritting my teeth. I could almost feel God hovering over my shoulder, whispering in my ear. Choose now: your companions, or your life.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Darrien said, interrupting my thoughts. He cocked his head at me, his innocent smile suddenly turning sadistic. “It’s standard issue equipment for all wraiths. So, where’s yours, Riku?”
Every light in my head was flashing red. I had to make a choice now.
“Sorry, everyone,” I said, pulling out my navi-computer. Darrien gave me a curious glance, but quickly turned dark as he realized what I was doing.
“You won’t escape,” Darrien hissed, suddenly flickering into skeleton form. “You will never escape me. I will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, you wretched-”
“Too late,” I said, pressing the navi-computer to my lips. “Contract revision, article 41.”
The words were out of my mouth before I realized what I had said. I smacked myself in the forehead. “Crap… wrong one.”
The navi-computer beeped twice. A mechanical voice spoke. “Contract revised. Phasing restraint removed; partner strength increased.”
Phasing restraint…? My ability came with a handicap?
“Riku, what’s happening?” Alice asked, a hint of fear in her voice.
Would it be all right if I tried it now? Then suddenly, the dark form of Darrien’s rifle filled my vision. The wraith glared at me with bloodlust and glee, the hole of his rifle quickly filling with purple energy.
Well, better getting sent to oblivion than dying at the hands of a lunatic.
“Brace yourselves,” I said, grabbing both Chelsea and Alice by the wrist.
Los Angeles, I thought to myself, and the world turned black.
A radiant sun met her gaze, and she quickly turned away, bright afterimages burned into her eyes. She glanced around, from the deep blue ocean water to the whitish-gray sand below her feet, finally turning to the colorful umbrellas and beach chairs set up around her.
“What the heck…?” Alice muttered to herself. Was it normal for people to randomly hallucinate of being on a beach in an airport?
“Alice,” Chelsea said, suddenly materializing beside her. “I cannot detect Riku anywhere in the vicinity. Do you know of his whereabouts?”
“Huh?” Alice said, blinking twice. “Don’t ask me. I don’t even know where the heck we are right now.”
“Somewhere near Los Angeles, probably,” Riku said, flickering into existence at the side.
“Riku!” Alice exclaimed. She paused. “Wait, what happened back there?”
“Darrien, the other wraith, was about to kill all of us, so I phased us somewhere far away,” Riku said, brushing off his cloak. He glanced up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand. “Judging from the sun’s position and the time zone shift, we should be in the right place.”
“Darrien was going to kill us?” Alice asked. “Riku, what’s going on here? Are you hiding something from us?”
“Yes,” the boy replied, pulling out his navi-computer. “Many things, actually. Do any of you have a preference in hotels?”
“Riku!” Alice said. The boy looked up. “What aren’t you telling us?”
“You declined to read the full contract the last time I offered,” Riku said. “It’s your loss.”
“Tell me now!” Alice said, stomping her foot down. She exchanged glances with Chelsea, who nodded and gave her a thumbs up. She turned back to Riku. “I won’t leave here until you do!”
A dark expression suddenly crossed Riku’s face, like a butcher contemplating on whether or not to kill one of his livestock. Alice flinched slightly, but didn’t budge. The boy sighed.
“The only major point I missed back in our discussion was the one with other wraiths involved,” Riku said. “You see, wraiths are in a kind of competition with one another for soul collection. If a wraith captures a soul, they get some kind of soul points recorded on their record. When a wraith collects however many soul points are required on their contract, they are released. Also, if a wraith manages to kill another wraith, they gain all the soul points the wraith they killed had.”
“What?! That’s terrible!” Alice cried. “Why would people make a system like that?!”
“It’s not the system that’s at fault,” Riku said. “When one of us wraiths captures a soul, the weapon we use to capture it, like my pistol, records the soul points. If another wraith were to take my pistol into their possession, they would essentially gain the soul points on that weapon, regardless of what happens to me. It’s really the weapon that’s important, not the wraith.”
“Oh… well, it’s still a terrible system,” Alice said. “So, why didn’t you tell me in the first place?”
“I thought it would confuse you and scare you more than you already were,” Riku replied. “The chances of meeting another wraith were relatively low to begin with.”
“Okay… that explains why you wanted to get away from Darrien,” Alice said slowly. A thought crossed her mind. “Wait, why did Darrien attack me in the first place? And he said something about ‘partner rules’, right? What are those?”
Riku’s expression turned dark again, his eyes glowing a bright amber color under the shadow of his hood. Alice shivered, goose-bumps rising over her skin like an icy wind had just blown past her. She retreated a step back.
“If I tell you, I’ll die,” Riku said. The tension in his voice was almost palpable.
“What? Is it, like, another rule for wraiths or something?” Alice asked.
“No,” Riku said.
“Then why can’t you tell me?”
“Because after I tell you, you’re going to want me dead.”
“What? Why?” Alice said.
The boy sighed. “If we’re going to do this, I at least want to live through today. Chelsea, please bind Alice’s hands.”
Suddenly, Alice felt the vampire warrior’s iron grip against her wrists. Her arms were twisted behind her back, with Chelsea keeping a watchful eye over her.
“If this is what it takes, then fine,” Alice said. “Now tell me.”
“Alright,” Riku said. “This is what happens when you become a wraith…”
“The contract terms?” I said.
“That’s right,” Mason, the cloaked figure next to me said.
After I had agreed to the terms imposed by Mason, I had spent nearly two months in the vast library of the Hands of Death, studying, writing notes, and running simulations through my head. I ran through all of the information in my head again. A notebook would be necessary to store all of it when my assignment started, but at least I finally felt prepared enough to continue.
“We’re going to turn you into a wraith,” Mason said. “You will be turned back when you’ve completed your service, of course.”
“May I ask why?” I asked.
“Wraiths are much more effective when it comes to combat, and their general strength and agility is higher than that of humans,” Mason explained. “You will encounter many varieties of creatures, and possibly sub-dimensional beings, as you have read.”
I nodded. My low level of physical stamina had been a primary obstacle in the construction of my plans, and this wraith aspect would fill that gap nicely.
“Now you may choose your terms,” Mason said.
A holographic screen suddenly appeared before me. I glanced over it quickly.
“A soul capturing device… is there any reason why they’re all weapon designs?” I asked.
“Souls may turn malignant after a half-hour of neglect,” Mason said. “I don’t have to tell you the danger you will be in when that happens, do I?”
“Fair point,” I said. I ran my finger down the list of equipment, filling in a mental checklist of items I would need. I stopped at the last item.
“What are ‘supplementary articles’?” I asked.
“You may add articles to your contract to increase your abilities as a wraith, or gain new abilities when you transform,” Mason said. “However, each supplementary article comes with a handicap.”
“Are the handicaps specific?”
“Some are, and others you can make up your own,” Mason said. “It depends on the level of ability you want to gain.”
“Interesting,” I said, tapping the “supplementary articles” item on the holographic screen. Another list popped up, one of the various common abilities to be selected when adding a supplementary article.
“What’s this ‘phasing’ ability?” I asked.
“The phasing ability allows you to essentially teleport as you wish in a specific radius around you,” Mason said. He seemed to wince. “However, the handicap on that ability is quite a hassle to deal with.”
“So what is it?” I asked. Now this was very interesting. Phasing sounded like the perfect ability for escape, essentially putting risk levels of any situation to near zero. If I could acquire that ability, I could skip over half the precautions I had made in my plans.
“The handicap is to take on a partner,” Mason said.
“A partner?” I repeated.
Mason nodded. “A partner is a human that you will have to take with you during your service as a wraith. The rules for a partner are as follows: if your partner dies, you will die; if your partner is not within a fifty meter radius of you for twenty-four consecutive hours, you will die; if your partner reveals to anyone else that you are a wraith, you will die. Finally, if you die under any circumstance, your partner will be sent back to their original life, without any memory of what happened to them.”
“That… seems like a really annoying handicap,” I said. “So, basically, I have to keep a human alive but immobilized for an entire year?”
“Most wraiths who choose the phasing ability tend to use the method you described,” Mason nodded. “Although none have succeeded so far.”
“Hmm….” I thought for a moment. “So, let me get this straight first. The conditions of having a partner are that the partner has to be human when I contact them, and that they don’t die, leave my side, or tell anyone that I’m a wraith, right?”
“That’s the gist of it,” Mason replied.
“Okay,” I said, pressing my finger to the phasing item on the list. The button flashed green before disappearing. I looked to the black cloaked figure standing to my side. “So, Mason, can I choose items not on this list?”
The black cloaked figure gestured, and a search engine popped up in the upper right corner of the screen. A holographic keyboard appeared at chest level. “If it’s within our relative power to acquire the item, you will be given it as long as you give yourself an appropriate handicap.”
“Okay,” I said, quickly typing in the search engine. After a few minutes, I stepped back from the screen, reviewing the items and abilities I had selected.
“That should be enough,” I said to myself. Mason gazed at me curiously.
“Are you sure?” Mason asked. “Taking twenty-nine unique handicaps will be quite a burden, you know.”
“I’ve assessed the risks already,” I said, turning to the black cloaked figure.
“So be it,” Mason said. The holographic screen vanished. “Your items will be prepared in three days. Make sure you are ready by then.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
Three days later, I stood back in the chamber of death, where I had arrived. A black hooded cloak was draped over my shoulders, my hands placing several items delicately from a black briefcase into its hidden pockets. Finally, I looked up at the black cloaked, black masked figure of Mason standing before me.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“You should be,” Mason retorted. “If you weren’t ready after taking all of those items, I’d turn you into dust.”
“Well, people did say I overprepare a lot,” I said.
“D*** right you do,” Mason said. A clap of thunder shook the ground. Mason appeared to roll his eyes. “Yes, I’m sorry Zero. Won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Uh… what?” I said.
“Just Zero being strict,” Mason said. “That bloke really hates swearing. Anyways, try not to scream too loudly.”
Mason raised a gloved hand, and suddenly my entire body screamed in pain. Of course, I kept my mouth pressed tightly shut, but that was more out of necessity than willpower. It felt as if huge chunks of my flesh were being ripped off, then sewn back on with threads of burning magma. Blood filled my mouth several times during the process, but I swallowed it back down. This was nothing. If it would bring me back to life, I would endure this pain a millions times over.
Finally, after several minutes of having my body metaphysically mutilated, Mason lowered his hand and I collapsed, breathing heavily.
“Congratulations, you survived the transformation without screaming!” Mason said with a round of applause. “You’re the third human who’s ever done that..”
“Phasing….” I muttered, and a strange sensation overcame me, like I was existing in two separate places at once. Then suddenly I was standing upright, facing Mason.
I flinched, nearly collapsing again, but I caught myself. Mason looked impressed.
“Phasing right off the bat, now that’s a rare sight,” Mason said.
“It’s easier than I thought,” I said, looking down at my hands.
“Well, you can test it all you want later,” Mason said. “I’ll be sending you to your first soul’s location now. And don’t you fail this, you hear me? I have high hopes for you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I replied.
“Now that’s what I like to hear,” Mason said. He snapped his fingers and the world blurred.
I blinked twice. A series of houses amidst neatly trimmed grass met my gaze. I looked up, taking note of the overcast sky, then around, at the rows of white painted houses, the dull gray streets with the occasional car roaring past, and the sight of skyscrapers in the distance. I was probably somewhere in the suburbs of some city, right on the transition line.
I ran through my pockets, picking out the navi-computer I had received from the Hands of Death. A perimeter scan showed that most houses were unoccupied, their residents probably at work or elsewhere.
“Well, I can’t use phasing until I have a partner….” I muttered to myself. A red dot suddenly caught my eye. One person still at home.
“Better than nothing, I guess,” I said. I unfolded my wings, a characteristic of a wraith that I had read up, and gave them an experimental flap. Then I leapt into the air, soaring towards the inhabited house.
I landed gently on the doorstep, folding my wings back. Aching pains riddled my back, and I rolled my shoulders a few times.
“I guess flying isn’t easy,” I said, knocking on the door. No answer.
“Hello?” I said, turning the doorknob. The door was unlocked. I let myself inside.
“Hello?” I said, a little louder this time. The interior of the house looked relatively normal. A kitchen was to my right, with numerous cupboards and drawers lining the walls across from the stove. A living room was to my left, with couches and a television set in a semi-circular arrangement. I walked forward, towards the staircase right in front.
Suddenly, I heard a faint choking noise sounding from above. I dashed up the stairs, drawing the sword I had been given by the Hands of Death. I glanced around quickly, noticing three rooms. The choking noise seemed to be coming from the closest one, its door closed. I entered silently.
A girl hung by a makeshift noose in the closet, and a computer screen displaying some form of popular social media stood on a nearby desk. I glanced over the screen, and suddenly black fire flooded my vision.
“Aah!” I screamed, my body flickering several times. After several minutes, I finally recovered, quickly turned off the monitor, and panted heavily, slumping under the desk. “Well… it looks like that name handicap I made up is working fine.”
“Oh, right, the girl,” I said, pushing myself back to my feet. I grabbed the girl and took her off the noose, laying her on the ground. She was barely breathing.
“Well, this is… an amazing opportunity,” I said. I looked up. “God, if you really do exist, please don’t smite me or something later. This is exactly what I needed.”
“Alright, now where is it?” I muttered, sticking my hands into my pockets. I pulled out a syringe filled with deep red liquid, and held it down towards the girl.
“I think I’ll call you Alice,” I said, sticking the syringe into a vein in the girl’s neck. “You’re going to be my partner today.”
“Report,” Rita White said to the man across the desk.
“Experiment Eight has been terminated,” the man said. “We believe a third party wraith interference was responsible. Experiment Six still pursues the enemy.”
“And the guards?”
“Their bodies were found in the vicinity. Cause of death is most likely a vampire attack.”
The woman swore, pounding her fist against the desk. “This wraith must have the luck of the devil.”
“The chairman also wishes to see you,” the man said.
Rita paused for a moment. "Tell him... I'll be right there."
The man nodded and promptly left.
Rita reached into the air, as if attempting to grab something, and a holographic screen materialized. She pressed against the screen, and an image of a black hooded figure appeared.
"Zero," Rita said, bowing her head slightly.
"Have you found anything new?" the figure in the screen asked.
"Nothing yet," Rita said. "Also, I fear that DREAD is beginning to suspect me. I won't be able to remain undercover much longer."
"Is there any particular circumstance?"
"A wraith I have been discharged with eliminating has eluded the grasp of the organization a number of times. At this rate, I'll be expelled from DREAD's elite board."
"I see," the figure said. "Pull out immediately. Make sure to hide any evidence-"
"Board member Rita White?" a voice suddenly called.
The woman immediately made a downward gesture, closing the holographic screen. A second later, the chairman entered the room.
"Chairman," Rita said, surprise evident in her voice. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Yes, I wanted to meet with you as soon as possible," the chairman said. He took a seat, folding his hands just above his chin. "I've heard that the matter with the wraith still hasn't been resolved."
"Sorry, chairman. The wraith still remains at large," Rita said.
"How many Experiments have you utilized so far?" the chairman asked.
"Only Experiments One, Six, and Eight," Rita replied. "Experiment Six has yet to make contact."
"And this wraith has defeated all those who have contacted him?"
The chairman paused for a moment. Then he uncrossed his hands and stood. "Alright. I give you permission, Miss White, to personally seek out this wraith and terminate him."
"Me, chairman? I couldn't possibly-"
"I know what you are," the chairman said.
Rita flinched involuntarily. Then she gritted her teeth, small spheres of energy concentrating under her desk. "And...?"
The chairman turned his back. "If you succeed, we will give you the information your patron seeks. However, if you fail, we will not hesitate to destroy you. That is all."
The chairman left. Rita let out a sigh, letting the energy dissipate. She pulled up the holographic screen again.
"You heard that, right Zero?" Rita said to the dark figure. "What do you want me to do?"