LXXIII.

He came about with a pang in his chest: a cry, he knew before he saw from his blurred vision. “Ma…,” She was armed with nothing but her profound remorse as she beheld the shadow that towered over her. Eri was still in there, trapped in the infinite abyss of eternal suffering, and as the Nokshan Lord raised her bloodied hand, Aldebaran knew.

“I am sorry,” He stood witness to every calamity the Creator pulverize their family with. “Eri, ma is here now.”

“No…” After all those years, he thought that time made him stronger, but he was pinned to his place, his shoulder and gut pierced by twisted shadows into the wall.

He grabbed one blade like a fool and barely registered his palms burning as he saw the demon froze in its place by the voices of a wronged sprite. Alvenia walked to it, drawing runes on her way, “I will see you again,” it sounded so casual, like one of those utterances before she bend down to kiss him on the head before leaving for a long mission when he was a boy. One last smile, he wrenched one spike free but he was too late. The floating runes glowed, the beast suppressed its threads of consciousness, roared and it was over.

He knew what he had to do, dust settled though his vision swam and threatened to drown in tears as he ripped the other spike free. The ancient rite where a soul was the price, and the empty shell bowed forward to be swallowed by the darkness. He never envisioned his coming-to-power to be so violent and sudden, but what did he expect? Waiting out his mother’s death before he receives the title? He closed his eyes, embracing the warmth that calmed the burning, numbing sensations of his broken frame, finally able to breathe in his lifetime. They were there, the rulers past, and he could only thank them for their blessings as he knelt before them.

At last, he could do more than witness.

*******

Claud was flanked by his guards and certainty that he would die the pathetic death that perhaps, he deserved. The steady ooze of blood made him reflective, and each time he had to stop to pant, the nauseating sight of his stub of hand in blood-soaked bandages and his subordinates regarding him with increasing intent of abandonment threatened to make him retch. A carriage was waiting for him in the west wing’s exit, and with each screech of the palace’s marble bones under his demon’s abuse, he wandered what good galloping horses could do.

The beast was his shadow, and just a sprinkle of light would bring it out of him.

Right as he thought that came a ray of light outshining the setting sun. He was blinded, pained, and at last the two guards sought after their own life upon seeing the shadow against angry fiery red.

“You are not worthy to be a vessel of the Creator,” The voice was devoid of personal vendettas, a crystal sound delivering a divine message.

He could only see a world of pure white, and the Creator’s Messenger was before him. He was humbled, bowed his head to pray for the first and last time.

*******

She knew, that it was a foolish idea, attacking a demon without a plan like that, and she reaped the reward of her foolishness as she pried at the obsidian spike protruding through her chest. She fell to her knees, her adversary was towering over her, mocking her. Something within her called, Let us help you. And as darkness took over it dwindled to a voice, a warmth buried within a rare glimmer from her childhood, Lyra, let me help you.

It was him, Lyra closed her eyes to meet him.

You don’t frighten me anymore, she muttered as she walked to him.

He looked so foreign without a sinister sneer, almost just like his brothers, almost kin, almost kind. Forgive me.

I am no priest, I cannot pardon, she took his hand anyway, her eyes never leaving his though she almost thought she was looking into a mirror. Your time here is finished.

He blinked, bit his lips, very well. When she released his hand it was as though the world’s will to keep him on its surface disappeared, his will to haunt and remain disappeared, faded, off to the eternal abyss he knew he needed to face one day. Then power, the warmth in the dream under the rebels’ tents returned: freed, it finally manifested as the last of his shadows lifted.

She woke to herself in a pool of her own blood, though her wound was gone; the beast was writhing, the commandments that held it in place suddenly went silent and its hold on itself threatened to shatter. It looked up from the ravages it wrecked, screamed infinite blades of darkness at her. She brushed it aside with a wave of her hand, the loosened sprites recognized her, was confused.

Then the confusion led to wrath and another rumble of pure energy: she raised a hand, and the wave parted, thinned into air. The beast didn’t understand the sudden change, didn’t understand the overwhelming aura. The full power of the Fallen was contained in that woman who merely approached with uncanny calm as she gathered the wisps of tortured sprites stripped from its form, its body, its very core.

It screeched, writhed under the pull of this woman’s power.

“Give up,” A simple command. “This world is under my jurisdiction.”

The power burnt her, but she couldn’t care. As she fought each agonizing step towards the monster, the world about her eclipsed into anguish; but she could see through it, her sights was illuminated by her will and memories guiding her to the core of the storm.

A reach, a leap, she gripped the form, a dagger of bone, and dashed it into the hell until it shattered and light remembered its name.

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The Fall

Vega was only equipped with the knowledge that she was here before, an irrational optimism and the desire to undo the seal that doomed her to oblivious uselessness. Now the time called for unthinkable measures, and she didn’t want to think about what mother would do…or even worse, the expression of sheer disappointment and worry upon her father’s face, if she ever see her parents again. They only ever wanted to protect her, love her, and she appreciated it, but she couldn’t bear to see them shoulder everything.

It was her turn to help, they cannot carry the world with their sheer power for so long. So she snuck out in the dead of the night, went to where she knew her mother store the seal. She really should be more careful, her assumptions about her own child’s limited powers allowed her to get so far. The moment she seized the green jewelry and it immediately answered her will, she realized she was so confident that she assumed she was going to return on time, that she didn’t even kiss pa and ma goodbye, didn’t notice the little fluff that hooted and leapt after her right after the bright light engulfed her.

All she felt was the tug of gravity, and she was falling.

LXXII.

“You have come, I am honored,” Claud hid his sputtering under courtesy as he snapped himself out of the daze imposed by the heavenly aura that humbled even the grandeur of the imperial palace deigned to regard him; Eridani was nothing in comparison.

She was flanked by two equally dignified lords, and their procession paused ten paces away from the stolen throne.

“I am here to honor my words only,” Her voice was crystalline, tainted by a slight accent and disgust. “And as out of your habit as it is, I expect you to honor yours.”

At that Alvenia’s clansman presented a bundle of silk to the Grand Priest, and as he peel the silks away to reveal the clear sphere. He grasped it like a greedy child after candy, and marveled at the antiquated power he was promised now pulsing between his fingers.

“Now, my daughter,” The feathers upon the Nokshan Lord’s back bristled subtly while her lips pursed. “Where is she?”

“Oh, she is right here,” Claud smiled.

The earth shook, the ancient walls of the palace shivered for its inhabitants, the air was enslaved by an oppressive aura that was strong enough to manifest into a physical force extinguishing all the torches and hopes within the throne room.

“Your daughter is dead, Lady Alvenia,” The beast appeared by his side, a blank facade of pure shadows screeching as a horde of tortured souls were forced to take physical form.

“What…have you done to this world?” Alevenia placed herself between the Priest and her clansmen, betraying no emotion beyond a deep frown.

“It is hardly in its full form even with a whole mountain worth of spirits,” Claud saw that his demon retreated slightly at the artifact in his hand, smiled. “Now with this, and you and your clansmen’s spirits, I can restore it to its proper glory.”

The figure of pure shadow regarded the Nokshans in animalistic hunger, morphing nightmares launched themselves to prey.

Alvenia found an unmistakable aura within the tumult and gasped, “My child.”

“Relieve the Lord of her duty,” Claud savored every syllable, though as he raised the sphere to draw its powers pain overcame him instead.

Previously concealed by Horatio’s illusion, Alde dove off of a vantage point into the throne room, a flap of his wings, and he was behind the priest. Claud saw, yelled incomprehensibly, but the momentum of his fall carried him to his target through a clean slice following the curve of his flight, singing through blood and flesh and bone.

Lyra leap off, too, breaking her fall with a spell before deflecting a thrusted spear, fell guards with a wave of her hand. She spared the priest a glance, his pathetic face twisted in the pain he deserved as he clutched at where his arm had been, those deceptive eyes fixed upon the blade about to crash into his skull.

Then the shadow came upon them.

“Alde!” He felt it, too, evaded with a twist of his heel and slashed across the beast.

He returned to her side, observed the scattered spirits reassembling into its cursed form now enraged, extending its grasp at them. Before it could touch them, Alvenia had retrieved the artifact from the dead clutches of the priest’s severed hand and bound the demon with ropes of light. It cried out, wriggled once, twice, seemed to have shrunk under the bindings of pure spirits but they were naive: it burst through twice as powerfully, a sheer explosion of shadows solidifying into obsidian shards.

Alde tugged her behind him as though he knew the shield they raised would still crack and crumble. A poor wing caught a few stray shards, Lyra winced at the wet crunch though he remained expressionless, eyes fixated upon the scattering dust where his mother stood as he pulled the blades free.

The Nokshan Lord was unscathed, but her face betrayed a deep fear and they understood as they followed her eyes to the glass powder in her hand where the artifact had been.

The monster, invigorated by blood and absorbed spirits, leapt at her, and her sword clashed against claws before tendrils sprouted to tangle with the blade, reached with its spiked edges her sword arm. She was wise enough to let go, ducked low to evade a swing that snapped the two central pillars behind her like dried sticks.

The form split, shot across the hall in a blur; an incomprehensible weight crashed down, her legs and the wall behind her gave away. She scrambled upon her feet as Aldebaran forced back the monster with sheer will.

The previous strike left him a gaping gash he tried to ignore; but, she was fine, and that was all that mattered. The world swirled, and when the demon pounced back he barely sidestepped. Then it spouted more tendrils from the earth, infinite daggers piercing his leg. He fell on one knee, and it was as though it knew exactly where its last blow landed. He pretended he was deaf to the wet crunch of his poor ribs and numb to the taste of iron.

She was yelling something, and he pushed against the earth to leapt backward for a belated retreat but the figure followed. An iron grasp locked about his neck and slammed him into what was left of the marble walls. He stabbed, kicked, dug at the claws before he was out of breath and blinded by flashes of white agony.

Lyra summoned powers she knew she didn’t possess, temporarily stunning the tendrils that bounded her. She tore herself free, not caring about the scarlet trickling down her arms, dying her armor. Instead, she hurled insults and another spell at the creature. As though it relished the art of the dramatics it was content to drop the Nokshan after bashing him against the wall one more time. She winced as he crumbled to the floor, lifeless.

But she had very little time to frown: the beast was upon her.

The Keeper

She took after her father, though the graceful portrait of her mother in her necklace locket disagreed. No matter, she was a mistress of disguise, and she was supposed to keep her thoughts locked away as her mind scrambled for a palatable way to present her fruitless findings. She left the destroyed sites, nimbly melting from one crowd to another. Drawing her coat’s collar close and boiling resentment closer, she darted a look to the store windows to ensure there were no ashes on her as she attempted to ignore the foreign face glancing back at her.

No, this was no special mission. She just needed to go home. Oh, and get groceries. She almost forgot the latter: ‘tis a strange task to befall her as Gabriel more or less took care of it, occasional substituted by a surprise visit from his brother and later on with…yeah, never mind that. The point was, she cannot remember the last time she had to pick up groceries. And as she arranged this and that, meandered through the mundane, she discovered that even the brain numbing jingles of overplayed Christmas songs on the radio cannot fill the air with a false sense of cheer.

“I’m home!” She shed her disguise, knew he would have heard the clatter of keys and it scraping against the lock had he missed the sound of the garage door in the first place.

He looked conscious enough when she went to their bedroom and planted a kiss upon his brow.

“Hey,” His voice was a deep rasp she could almost find attractive, but thought the circumstances inappropriate for that comment.

“How are you feeling?” She chimed, he smiled; ah, he saw through the lines she rehearsed in the car, alright.

“You didn’t find him, huh?” The usually gentle eyes was glazed with fatigue and deep disappointment.

You ought to be happy that it meant he didn’t die,” She ventured, he sighed.

“I suppose you are right,” He fell back into the pillows as his only strength derived from anticipation for good news left him in a heavy sigh replaced by a hiss as she threw the windows and blinds open.

“I can’t help it, your moping permeated the room,” She was hoping that her act of nonchalance would relax his nerves. “Your brother’s indestructible. He’s safe from even himself.”

“…” Only they could find a statement so morbid comforting, and she knew that was how he thinks or else she would not have dared the utterance.

“I’m going to try to figure something out for dinner –”

“– I can help –”

“– No, mister, you stay here and do what you do best: mope sexily.”

It was relieving to hear him laugh, though as the melodious bubble hollowed and pulverized into thin air, his gaze fell longingly out the window.

“What’s wrong,” She wasn’t planning on allotting him enough time for self-blame or concocting some crazy plans of leaping out the window to look for his brother.

“Nothing, love,” She pecked him on the cheek, made to make use of her groceries.

When she was at the door, he called, “Hey, Saph.”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

She smiled, finding such a small gesture silly at this stage of their relationship, “Sleep, Gabe. He will be fine.” Then she closed the door and left those useless doubts and sentiments behind her to look ahead for the two of them.

In Stress

I can’t be stressed: I give too much

of a damn for the condemned,

demand too much for a dame

whose father told her to shut her trap.

But her mother told her to build a damn

for those tears and cut the crap.

Thoughts messier than tree’s roots, sappier

than a politician’s toots. I am happier

than the rich men. Greet the day, growing greyer

with teeth borned to be gritted, brows

made to knitted.

“Daddy didn’t teach ya how to smile?” He called.

I sneered, I don’t need to smile, I smite.

I am no damsel in distress.

*******

Inspired by finals stresses and caffeine.

The Last Straw

All around me were the bemoanings, though truly thinly

disguised recounts to friends of the events from the night before.

A wink, a sling, a one-time fling.

I laugh inwardly and clutched at my backpack

strap: It grew heavier in a blink. When I got back

to my room, the slim figure in the mirror on my left greeted.

I forgot to close my cabinet, and the plain face smiled, sneered.

How funny, that my friends should brush off hook-ups,

while I wonder what it feels like to have my hand cradled in

another’s, my cheeks pecked

by a gentle, innocent kiss. Perhaps I am out

of my depth tackling topics as ambitious as “fate” and “love,”

when my mind tumble and tangle at the cup in my hand.

The straw, flattened by my habitual

biting while drinking boba was where he had tried the drink.

Curiosity, he said, with those glimmering eyes and smirk.

I suppose I am the only college girl who blush at the notion

of an indirect kiss. But now, the idea was forever

etched into my writer’s mind.

Each sip of boba now

sweetened by a new bling

that the face in the mirror blushed at.

LXXI.

Forsaken were her doubts, just for this indulgent moment when the luxury of imaginations returned briefly against the tide of her pessimistic nature. A small voice nagging at the back of her mind suggested that all would crash down on her regardless.

But she was happy, not because she deceived herself into thinking that life would not fall into pieces, but the knowledge that she had could catch it, or fix it, or move on and be fine with it.

Though one thing she was not fine with is this pair of skinny, polished, wooden sticks the Nokshans insisted to be sufficient instrument for dining. Yes, she had seen Athlem using these sticks to gracefully fish out noodles somehow cooked in a couldron (that left Horatio sick for a week. Athlem was by no means, a chef), but no, she never used them, and was about to drop them again as she attempted to pick up the marbles in the wooden bowl before her.

He was humming something, even thuds signaled one bizarre vegetable after another being diced into perfect pieces, “They would understand if you use a spoon.” She heard the smile in his voice.

“I want a good impression,” She whimpered through gnashed teeth.

The other Nokshan clan leaders were coming tonight. Alvenia jokingly explained that it was just that they missed her son’s cooking, though it was a meeting that they knew would determine Lyra’s future. She needed their support: so far, their allies were but their dwindling connection to Etzion, and that would not be enough to face the sheer power of those spirits Claud was collecting.

The chopping stopped, and before she knew it he was beside her. The marble she finally captured plopped back to the bowl as he pecked her on the cheek.

“Bleh,” She wasn’t sure what sound she just made, but her cheeks were redder than the root vegetable bleeding out on the chopping board.

“Here, we will go over it again,” He stepped behind her to guide her hands and correct her grasp, and she was about to burst into flames again. “Are you trying to break them or use them?”

She could feel the vibration of his laughter in his chest pressed against her back before she blurted, “I think I will just take a spoon.”

With each Nokshan leader that arrived, she prayed more fervently that each name would cling to her nervous mind.

She was still mildly disappointed at her uncultured inability to master the art of those wooden sticks just yet, but soon enough matters of actual importance steered her occupied her thoughts. Around a round table laden with Aldebaran’s latest crafts appreciated, a buzz of pleased intonations she interpreted as praise so casual as though he never left helped her relaxed by an insignificant degree. Strings of the expressive language filled air and her mind with guesses at the conversations that, if require a response from her, Aldebaran would translate.

After the pleasantries of foods they retired to the living room where Jiube seemed to be guarding a teapot slightly larger than itself. She attempted to not fidget with the tiny clay teacup in her hand while the elders sipped, observed her, waited.

Then one of them thought it appropriate to break the silence, an old woman of the Leon Clan, “Plans,” A heavily-accented mumble of an attempt at her language left her with one coherent word and infinite appreciation.

She wants to know your plans for retaking the Empire and how we may assist you.

Lyra was pleasantly surprised at the lack of questions about her qualifications, I was not expecting such willingness from a nation as reclusive as yours.

And I was not expecting my fated one to stab me on first sight.

“My plans, your ladyship, is as follows…” I was held to sword point! I didn’t know you back then.

Fair enough. Jiube hooted as Alvenia shooed the little thing off the table.

Upon hearing her intentions of relying upon herself and the possible Etzionese forces Horatio might be able to rally, Alvenia chimed in, “You cannot do it alone, my child,” the eleven other clans head nodded. “We are at your service.”

She was at a loss of words, she rehearsed in her mind — while trying to pick up marbles from a bowl — different persuasion for their support, but she never imagined all the other Nokshan leaders to act like such, “Thank…thank you.”

The same elder who spoke first grunted out another string of attempted Lunzeldine, and she made out, “Family” amongst the mix and tried not to hug the adorable old woman. As they retired to their homes she went to the balcony to watch the stars sparkling like kind eyes. For once, she didn’t need to battle for approval, and home and peace and dreams seemed so close to her grasp.

“Mind if I join you?” The deep, calming voice of the mother was but a slight vibration beyond the chirp of the night.

She nodded, and with a slight movement the raven-winged was beside her, “You have done well tonight.”

“I have you and Aldebaran to thank for that,” She darted a glance back indoors to catch a glimpse of the latter chasing after a little owl thief hopping around with a chunk of leftovers.

“No,” Alvenia gently brushed off that idea. “They admire you: no Nokshan had ever been known for taming a demon, much less a human.”

“…”

“We all agree that we would have less to fear if you are the Lunzeldine Emperor.”

“Do you not…are you not wary of…my bloodline?”

Alvenia looked up to the ink black sky and traced the silver runes before pausing at the egret at the corner of her eyes, “Shouldn’t family help each other?”

She needed not words to do her gratitude injustice. The comfortable silence settling like the chill of night air spoke enough, just fellow sufferers basked in the silvery solace of moonlight.