D & V

Blood on the Outskirts

It was just past noon when that man strode out from the desert of the Outskirts, a harbinger of the past bringing with him a new course for the future. Kimberly and I watched from the garden as he approached, my shadow-haired companion apprehensive and shy she always was around strangers, while I looked on with a stone-like glare.

He wasn't tall by any means, but he was certainly no dwarf. He wasn't bad looking either, with a sharp chin, sun-kissed skin, wavy sandy-brown hair, and eyes a curious shade of dark green. His long duster was black where it was not coated with sand as was his wide brimmed hat. A saddlebag was held loosely in one hand and a shotgun slung over his shoulder with the other. A short sword swung from the back of his belt, while a pair of clearly customized six shooters sat snugly at his hips.

I recognized him without a moment's hesitation and I pondered for a moment if it would be worth traumatizing Kim to use my hoe as a crude axe.

My name was Olivia Somerset, formerly an investigative officer from the Tamedlands, then a bounty hunter in the Territories, and for the past three years the sheriff of a tiny frontier town who was half-crippled and largely decorative. During my time as sheriff I had become close friends with Kim, a quiet reclusive girl who lived out on the edge of town. Though we were practically sisters there was still much that she kept secret about her past, and her eyes held some strange power that kept one from being able to remember what they looked like.

Kim, this man, myself; soon a fourth would join us on this fated day, an epitome of human cruelty and madness. Two would walk away. One would receive justice. The other…

With a steady stride the man approached the well. Tossing aside the saddlebags and shoving the shotgun precariously into his belt, he looked up at us with a pleasant smile and cocked his hat.

"G'mornin' ladies," he said as he began to pull the winch. His voice bore that slight drawl that all folk of the Territories bore. Just as he had finished retrieving the bucket from the depths of the shade-filled well he happened to glance up at the sky.

"Sorry, I meant 'good afternoon,'" the man corrected himself. He drew a loud drought straight from the bucket before promptly tossing aside his hat and dumping the rest on himself. Kim giggled as he shook himself off in a distinctly canine matter. I just scowled.

"'Scuse me once again," said the newcomer in that far too cheerful voice of his, retrieving his hat and ambling over to lean against the garden fence, "But I'm a bit lost. Would either of you two ladies be so kind as to tell me how to get to Fort Nel?"

"Certainly, sir," my sweet Kim said, eternally naïve to the threat that strangers could pose here in the Outskirts. At least, that was the only explanation I had for why she was the only person for miles around without so much as a pistol. "You're not far out of Blue Lilies. The fort's about fifteen miles northeast of here."

Clearly, she wasn't all that disturbed that a man would stop and ask for directions, either.

"And if you're wise, you'll be gone and on your way in about five seconds."

Kim turned to scold me for my rudeness. The man, on the other hand, started at my voice with a mixture of surprise and, perhaps, even a touch of fear. As he should.

"Holy skunks, I didn't expect to find you here of all places, Olivia," the fool almost yelped.

"You will refer to me either as Hunter, Detective, or Miss Somerset," I corrected, not at all in the mood to bother with the grinning idiot who stood before me. He may have saved my life, but that doesn't mean that I had to tolerate his presence.

"What, still not married?" he questioned as those crafty eyes took in both Kim and myself. What he thought to be a sly grin grew across his face "Or perhaps-?"

"Shut up and be gone," I snapped before he could go any further with that remark. I knew that he didn't mean anything by it, just trying to be funny, but being the butt of the same slightly off-color jokes day in and day out leaves one with little patience for them.

"You know this person, Olivia?" Kim asked, trying to be hospitable even as her body tensed and she began to fidget, a common thing whenever she was around strangers. What was not common, though, was her voice. A bare hint of eagerness, which I alone could have discerned in all likelihood. I gave an inward groan as I realized what was happening. The most anti-social girl in the world was going to break her usual habits because she was intrigued about meeting a former acquaintance of her one and only friend, and now I'd never be rid of the buffoon!

"My name, Miss-," he began, starting in with a sickeningly chivalrous bow before I put a stop to it.

"He calls himself Ryu, the so-called 'Dragon of the East,'" I said with air-quotes, "But he's really just-,"

"Lots of people call me that," he replied with a pout.

"And he's the idiot who made me a cripple!" I shot back, causing Kim's eyes to widen with shock. Whether it was this revelation or my venomous attitude that had sparked her reaction, I'm not quite sure.

Ryu winced at my rapier words. Had I hit a nerve? Perhaps he felt guilty? I'd be amazed if he did, since nothing seemed to phase that idiot's exterior save for the most horrendous of circumstances. A memory of one such circumstance, which happened to involve me, crept up, but I pretended that it held no relevance and brushed it aside. "And he's one of those monster hunters whose 'great exploits,'" again with the air quotes, "That we sometimes hear about: One of those Akuma Bounty Hunters."

To my surprise, Kim blanched and retreated several steps at the mention of Ryu's profession. True, I had known that she didn't like Demon Hunters, but she'd never given any indication that she was afraid of them. Not for the first time, I felt a desire to know that all had happened to this poor girl.

"Yeah, about that," he began, seeming to be oblivious to Kim's reaction, but I hadn't finished speaking.

"What are you doing here anyway?" I demanded, "And without a horse, no less. I'd never have imagined even you were idiot enough to go traipsing through the desert on foot."

"About that," Ryu repeated with a force that brought me up short, though his voice soon returned to more casual tones. "I had been tracking someone across the desert, but my poor horse found a soft spot in the sand and fell and broke her leg. I couldn't do a thing, so I had to put her down." He shook his head in a mournful manner. "Tragic thing that. She was a good animal."

"Someone?" I questioned with a laugh, "Not something? So you've moved to hunting down flesh and blood, then? Killed all the ghosts and monsters have you?"

"Not quite," he replied, his face now becoming grim and serious. Now I was worried. "You were right, though. I should have said 'Tracking something.' To insinuate him to be an actual man is disrespectful to the rest of us."

Frozen fear seized me in an instant. I recognized the quote, for I had once said something similar. 'This is a joke,' I wished out of desperation, sweat running down my back despite the breeze. 'This has to be, he can't really mean…'

"Mortnem?" I choked out, my voice small and child-like with terror.

A simple nod was his answer.

"B-but how?" I babbled all desire for confrontation with this man gone in the face of such a terrible enemy. "Had he found a way to bring himself back before we captured him, or-?"

"Nope," Ryu shook his head sadly, "Never even died, sadly. At least then we could have arranged for his spirit to be captured and sealed away."

"Still al-but, but how? Why?" I screeched, fear replaced by rage. "Why wasn't that monster executed? After what he did to all those people, after all we went through to catch him, that maniac should have been left dangling from the end of a rope!"

"I don't know," he growled back, "Not exactly, I don't know. But from the way I figure it, the good doctor had enough cash stashed away to keep suspending his execution date until enough of his power had trickled back to escape. I nearly had him yesterday but for a wind storm. Then after I lost the trail there was the thing with my horse. Now I'm trying to get to Fort Nel to organize an area sweep. With any luck, we'll be able to catch him before he gets away.

Grudge or no grudge, my duty at this point was clear.

"How can I help?" It was a demand, not a question.

"But your injuries-,"

"How can I help?" I repeated. The steel of my voice left no room for argument.

"W-wait a moment," a small voice stammered. I had almost forgotten about Kim, I'm ashamed to admit. "Mortnem? As in the mad doctor? The man who hurt you, Olivia?"

I nodded.

"I've heard about him," she said, hugging herself and shuddering with revulsion. "It's said that he butchers people for fun, and used to purposely kill patients in surgery so that he could perform all sorts of horrible black magic experiments on them."

"All that and worse," Ryu nodded with grim conviction. "Much worse. Just to hear about it would give you nightmares."

"Then please don't," the pale girl whimpered, holding back a pained sob.

"Mine and Kim's horses are in the back field," I announced, grabbing Ryu by his gun belt and dragging the hunter behind me by it. "At full speed we'll reach the fort in under an hour, have this whole desert crawling with troops in three. He'll never make it out of the pass." The conviction in my voice would have left no doubt, but that rotten hunter was able to find something to object to.

"Can you ride that hard?" was his question, struggling to match my clipped pace without being dragged face first into the dirt in the process. Kim followed with a tight lipped expression.

"I'm not as frail as I was three years ago, Ryu. I'm healed enough for this," I snarled before rounding on Kimberly in a kinder voice. "Kim, you're going to have to come with us."

"Huh?" she replied, as if I had brought her out some deep thought. Realizing what I had said she began to fidget and stammered "Um, n-no thanks. I'll be fine."

"The hell you will." I growled. "There's a serial killer who gets his kicks out of torturing folks through fiendish, unholy rites, and you can't even bring yourself to point an unloaded gun at something. You're coming with us."

"N-no. Really. I'll be fine. I'll keep my door locked and everything…"

"What's wrong with you?" I demanded, startling not only her but also the horses. "I know you don't like being around other people, but to the point of risking your life, Kim? Listen to the voice of experience, girl: You don't risk this creep getting his claws on you."

"I know, but…," her voice trailed off and she refused to look at me directly. "I just can't. Not enough time has passed to risk it…,"

"What the hell are you babbling about?" I demanded, releasing Ryu so that I could give her a rough shake by the shoulders.

"Come on," Ryu said, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder that was soon shrugged. "You said it yourself. Three hours at the most, probably less. There won't be much danger so long as she stays inside and out of sight."

"But-," I tried to protest, but Kim stopped me.

"He's right," she insisted, staring deep into my brown eyes with a voice that no longer quavered, a voice that filled my mind and it left at peace and unable to object. "I promise you, there will be no danger for me. Go and do what needs to be done, and don't worry about me." Calm incarnate was her voice, and her eyes wells of assurance. I was helpless to do anything but believe and obey. I was barely aware of the hunter observing us with a critical eye.

"Just in case, though, hold on to this," said Ryu once our close eye contact was broken, lobbing his shotgun to a surprised Kim. The raven haired child juggled the weapon back in forth as she tried to keep from dropping it.

"B-b-b-but I can't-." she stammered.

"You don't hardly even need to aim the thing," the hunter assured as he dragged me the final few feet to the horses, "All you have to do is point and squeeze the trigger and nine times out of ten it'll go down screaming."

"That's not, I mean..." she practically shrieked as we mounted the horses, "That is, I'm a pacifist. I can't just go shooting-!" Her protests were in vain, for already we were already out of the tiny stable yard and trotting away bareback, our pace developing into a swift gallop.

Despite the heat of the day, I could not help but feel the spreading cold within me as we rode. A bottomless pit of fear that had sprung up within my soul and its frozen touch clutched at my heart, threatening to shatter it as easily as paper-thin ice; yet it was not for my own death that I feared. It was Kim who I was scared for; Kim, the townsfolk, hell, even the idiot bounty hunter who rode by my side.

At Mortnem's hands, death would be neither swift nor merciful. I knew from experience what that demon was capable of, for on me he had but barely begun before Ryu had rescued me, and I had been left a minor cripple for life. Most weren't even that lucky, often expiring hours after the mad surgeon had begun an experiment and themselves out of their minds with pain and horror.

Such a thing on my friends and comrades I would prevent even till my dying breath. This I swore to myself.

Don't believe that fate doesn't have a sense of humor, twisted though it may be.

Ever since I had been small I had been cursed (despite contrary parental insistence) with a certain amount of clairvoyance. Though they were a rare occurrence, once in a great while all of my senses would be overcome by acute visions of the immediate present, most often when misfortune befell someone close to me. Hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, it would be as if I was actually there, observing events unfold, yet helpless to change anything. It was through this 'gift' that I watched my older brother die when his fishing boat went down in a hurricane. It was how I knew that my husband of one week had been killed by an outlaw in retaliation for my arrest of the rest of his gang. It was how I knew now that my best friend was in mortal danger from my most terrible foe.

We were less than halfway to the fort when it began. One minute I was galloping at full speed across the dusty plains with Ryu at my side, then I blinked and I was back at Kim's homestead. I was not particularly startled, for these visions always seem to leave me with a certain amount of calm understanding of what was happening when they first began, though that calm always failed to last. Such was the case this time.

I was sitting in a simple wooden chair in the kitchen of Kim's house, watching as Kim paced nervously about the cramped room. She was oblivious of my intangible presence, and in her worry she clutched at her blue and white checkered cotton work dress until I feared her fingers would rip right through.

Eventually Kim broke into one of the cabinets and extracted a tiny glass bottle filled with a thick, crimson liquid. She downed it in a single drawn out swig, her hands shaking with eagerness until every drop was gone. I felt my eyes grow wide as I watched her lean against the counter with eyes closed, tongue swirling around her bright lips and an expression of pure bliss on her face. She'd always told me that it was some kind of special medication that she needed to take on occasion for nerves, but now I wasn't so sure.

Was it possible for someone to be an alcoholic when all you'd ever seen them drink was water?

A minute passed by, then two more. I had just allowed myself to hope that nothing would come of this vision when Kim started- as if she had somehow heard something outside of the house- and snapped her head to the window by the front door. Following her gaze, I watched as a hunched figure wrapped in a wind-ravaged overcoat staggered out of the desert and onto my friend's property.

Kim hesitated, torn between the urge to rush out and help the stranger (as she was normally wont to do, despite her shyness) and the threat of Mortnem. I prayed that she would desist and try to find cover, but when the newcomer collapsed, the fool girl undid the latch and dashed to the man's side. I cried out to her through the void, to warn her of what must now happen, but as always it was no use.

"Water…," the stranger rasped with a voice like dry bones as Kim rolled his body over and brought it to a sitting position. "Please…water…,"'

"Of course," she nodded, her voice calm and reassuring and her smile bright and hopeful. It broke my heart to watch, though I had no choice. To be killed by one's own kindness, it was just so repulsive, so wrong.

"Wait right there, I'll be back with some-,"


As she stood up to make her way to the well, the stranger reached out with snake-strike speed and held Kim's arm in an unrelenting grip. My dear friend flinched at the contact and tried to pull away, but his grasp was unbreakable as stone.

"Tell me," the stranger rasped, his face concealed beneath a layer of bandages and old rags that left but a single, shadowed eye hole. "Is there a Detective Olivia Somerset nearby by any chance?"

Kim's already pale skin became almost transparent at the question, and the creature's voice revealed a malevolent grin beneath its mask. "Ah, excellent. Now, dear child, where can I find her?" A knife appeared in one of his bandaged hands, held just below his captive's chin.

"Please," it hissed in wickedly, "Please tell me. We are old friends, Ms. Somerset and I, and I would be overjoyed to me her again."

"I'm right here, you freak." I heard my voice ring out, shattering the vision as I came from around the house at full gallop. As in all of my premonitions, my subconscious had guided me as close to the scene of the occurrence as possible. For once, I had arrived in time.

Taking no more than a second to regain my bearings, I drew my six-shooter from its holster and drew a bead. Though Mortnem attempted to pull Kim in front of himself, coward that he was, I was much faster.

A single shot rang out, my bullet plowing between the doctor's eyes with a sickening crack. Those bone-thin fingers lost all feeling, releasing Kim and the knife as his body collapsed to the ground without a single cry of pain. Pity.

Drawing back hard on the reins, I brought Jackson to an abrupt stop and leapt off, rushing to Kimberly's side whilst stuffing my gun back into its holster.

"Are you alright?" I asked, wrapping my arms about her as Kim's knees gave out. She looked ready to die of heart failure.

"That…that…," she stammered in a weak voice, barely conscious.

"It's okay," I reassured, holding her close and holding back tears, "It's over now. He can't hurt you now. You're safe."

"No, no, that's not it," her new found voice quavered, babbling as if she someone's life was in danger.

There was. Mine.

"The blood…there's no blood!"

I held her at arm's length, puzzled. Her eyes were scared and pleading, but there was something else, something I had never comprehended before. It was as if an illusion had been broken in her panic and I was seeing her for the first time. I made the fatal error of stopping to study this even as her golden eyes widened in terror.

"Look out!" were the words she tried to scream, but her voice was a thousand miles away, the sound reaching me many seconds after her lips had formed them. My entire world was slow and out of place, and it wasn't until I saw Kim covered in blood that I was overcome with excruciating pain.

Staring downwards, I saw a bandage-covered hand protruding from my stomach, some of the shroud pulled away to reveal fleshless bone beneath. Both hand and cloth were stained crimson, as was my shirt. I opened my mouth to scream, to yell, to curse, but all that would come was a pitiful, throaty moan and a small spray of blood.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I raised my eyes to see Kim with hands over her mouth, holding back her screams. My head lolled back to gaze upon the grinning skull behind me, the bandages that had concealed it released by my gun shot. I tried once more to speak, but again no words could come out. My vision slipped away, as did my other senses. Soon cold and darkness were the only things I could feel, but hearing and touch held out the longest.

Another report of gunfire echoed in my hazy mind, while hard tiny fragments bounced off of my head. My body crumpled to the ground, cradled in what could only be Kim's quavering arms. The drumbeat of my heart was the only sound in my world now, and the only sensation save for the feeling of crimson essence escaping my mortal shell.

Then a miracle! Once more, I could see, I could hear, I could smell everything again, but it was hazy, at a distance, not quite real. I knew at once that I had slipped into another vision.

Kim was kneeling in the dust, my dying body in her lap and hot tears streaming down her pain-torn face. A headless body with a blood-soaked hand and dressed in rags and bandages lay to the side, curved ivory chips scattered all about.

The newly arrived Ryu was dismounting, a pistol in each hand and an expression of purest rage glaring murder at a point beyond Kim. In the center of that deathly look stood the most arrogant looking man one could ever have the misfortune of seeing. He was in his late sixties with hair and a large mustache the color of dirt-flecked snow. Black silk was his attire, able to look dapper and neat despite the dust of desert travel. His weight was pressed upon a cane with the golden head of a snarling beast. A large traveling case sat at his feet.

"Well, well, if it isn't my old friend the RyuKen," Dr. Nicholai Mortnem croaked, his voice identical to the skeleton's but no longer parched. "So you were that fellow chasing after me through the desert. I might have known."

For a moment all Ryu could do was grind his teeth and glare, the intensity of his gaze so fierce that I'm amazed that the old man didn't burst into flames. At last he was able to spit out a rather unoriginal, "You monster!"

"Hmm? Oh, yes," the Bloody Doctor mused, glancing towards my body as if my death were of minor interest. "I did make a bit of a mess, didn't I? Oh well, had to be done. I couldn't very well let her live after making a fool of me now could I?"

This time both pistols sang, but the doctor seemed to have expected it. By then a grey mist was flowing from the mouth of cane's decorative head, swirling about Mortnem's body like some sort of shell. As each bullet passed through the mist it was drained of all momentum and dropped to the ground.

"So you have most of your power back then, eh?" growled Ryu through still-clenched teeth, lowering his pistols in frustration.

"All of them, actually," the butcher corrected, his tone almost conversational. "Here's a demonstration for you."

With a wave of his walking stick, the doctor's shield of mist expanded, its outer limits taking shape and substance. Soon well over a dozen skeletons stood between the hunter and the still shielded lunatic. Each one's eyes burned with a fell orange light, and every one of their fingertips and teeth had been carefully filed into needle-sharp points.

Though Ryu raised his pistols again in defiance, it was clear that even that fool knew that he was out-matched. Unless Mortnem himself was defeated, Ryu would soon be overwhelmed and torn to ribbons before ultimately joining the ranks of the doctor's minions.

"This is your one and only chance to give up, Doc," Ryu declared, his features impassive, probably to hide his fear.

"An amusing proposition, but no," Mortnem chuckled, stroking the hideous head of his cane as if it were kitten in need of an ear rub. Turning towards his skeletons, he said, "Now my pets, disarm him and make him bleed, but don't kill him. He needs to be punished properly, both for his own sake and for Ms. Somerset's."

The monologue proved to be Ryu's salvation and Mortnem's undoing, however. At the mention of my name, something within Kim snapped.

With a monstrous, yowling hiss that I'd never heard pass through human lips before, Kim hurled herself upon the mass of skeletons. Her right arm sliced through the air as little more than a blur, palm flattened to better imitate the blade of a knife. Three skulls exploded as her hand passed through, the body of each dissolving back into mist as their numerous parts collapsed in a heap. Though the other skeletons shambled towards her, unperturbed and arms outstretched, myself, Ryu, and even Mortnem looked on in stunned amazement, but only for a moment. The fool akuma hunter was the first to realize that the battle's turning point was now.

Nine shots rang in rapid succession. Nine skulls split apart in a marvelous explosion with each report. With the rest on Kim, a path was open. His main guns spent, Ryu cast them aside and reached into the depths of his duster. A single, sleek revolver was raised, its casing seeming to be made of polished silver, its grip mother of pearl. Four crosses were etched around the edges of the barrel, two more on the hilt. The hammer clicked once in preparation, then fell forward with the trigger's release. The sparks flew from the barrel as the weapon gave a draconic roar which split the heavens.

An awful screech reverberated from the mouth of Mortnem's remaining minions echoing the scream of their master before breaking apart into swift-departing mist. The doctor himself was thrown to the ground, a dark red stain blooming out from a half-inch hole in the shoulder of his traveling cloak.

Ryu approached with deliberate slowness, his face fierce and grim and more serious than I had thought him capable. He stopped a moment to blast Mortnem's cane, the black magic stick evaporating into vapor along with the skeletons. The silver pistol's hammer was cocked back a final time, now pointed to the doctor's head.

Mortnem recoiled in fear dropping his face into the dirt and whimpering pathetically for mercy. Both Ryu and I scowled in disgust at the cowardly display, and even Kim stared at the doctor with remorseless eyes.

The bounty hunter stood still for many long minutes, his eyes hard and cold. All that could be heard was the whimpering of the coward at his feet and the whistling of the cool late morning breeze. Then to my utter shock, the fool pushed the hammer of his gun back down and lowered his weapon.

"I'm not an executioner, Doctor," Ryu said, his voice soft but still filled with a terrible anger, "And even now, there's a chance that you might be saved from your madness before you're to face the gallows. Besides, Olivia wouldn't have wanted this."

"I beg to differ. Avenge me, dammit!" I yelled, though I knew it to be pointless..

At the mention of my name, Kim seemed to come back to herself and dashed back to my side. The wound wasn't as bad as it had at first seemed, but it was still a mortal wound. Nonetheless, upon finding my pulse, she tore off her blouse and vainly tried to stop the bloody stream. As she did so, she looked up to give Ryu a sad, grateful smile.

Ryu returned the holy gun to its hidden holster and approached one of the saddlebags that he had left before, probably to find a rope with which to tie the doctor up. He had not taken ten steps before Mortnem looked back up, his eyes ablaze with an unquenchable hatred.

A wickedly curved knife- more of an oversized scalpel- leapt from the sleeve of the doctor's silk coat. Pulling himself to his feet with surprising silence for a wounded lunatic, Mortnem charged at his would-be captor like an animal, eyes ablaze, teeth bared, tongue lolling.

Without a backwards glance, Ryu gripped his shortsword underhanded, drew and took a single step back.

Mortnem gave a strangled cry as he impaled himself upon the polished steel. The crimson of his blood stood in stark contrast to the ebony of his cloak as the knife fell from nerveless fingers. He half-croaked a number of choice profanities as his body twitched, then his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. The hunter freed his blade with a swift motion and stepped away, letting the body collapse into the sand without a word.

My murderer, Dr. Nicholai Mortnem- the Fiend of New Haven- was dead.

I began to let out a cry of joy, but instead found myself on the ground, filled with pain and coughing up tremendous amounts of blood and spittle. With my enemy dead, my final vision had come to an end and my consciousness had returned to my expiring shell.

"Y-you killed him. You did that on purpose," I could dimly hear Kim shouting with an anger. Why couldn't she just be happy that I'd be able to rest in peace? "You knew that he was going to do that, admit it."

"I had to give him a chance," was the fool's answer. I heard his boots crunching against the sand as he approached. "I couldn't have killed even him in cold blood."

"Y-yes you cou…" I gasped aloud, hurling more of my already depleted blood stores into the air with a violent hack. "…Could. Yes you could, you ass."

"Olive," Kim turned towards me with joy in her eyes, throwing her arms about my next and hurting me even more. Realizing her mistake, she released me, then forced me back down as I tried to push myself up. "Hold still, you're too weak. Don't talk. Save your strength."

"I…I don't have any left," I argued weakly, "At least let me yell at him with my dying breath."

"Olive?" I turned as much as I could towards Ryu at the sound of his voice. His head was bent over mine and an eyebrow was cocked with nosy curiosity.

"It's a private nickname, she's the only one who gets to use it. Got a problem with that, you-ACK!" I was hit with another fit of blood-filled gasping. I didn't have much longer.

Kim continued to cradle my head in her arms, her eyes were darting back and forth between me and Ryu expectantly, as if waiting for him to leave. Desperation was in her eyes, and… and I realized that I could still see the true nature of those beautiful orbs. Revelation dawned upon me even as my life's twilight came to a close.

"Oh, your eyes," I sighed, a blissful smile on my face. I was happy now that I knew, though before I would have been afraid. Perhaps because I was so close to it myself? "The-they're so pretty, Kimberly."

I closed my eyes and smiled. I was so tired.

"Please don't do it, Kim," I said with a fatigued sigh, not needing to see to know that she had begun to lean closer. "I know what you're waiting for, but please, don't do it. I don't think I'm brave enough."

She gave a startled gasp. "H-how long have you…?"

"Just now…," I answered, my voice growing faint with each labored breath. "It's alright though, Kim. It's fine. You've been…my best friend…and…my sister. For that…I'm grateful."

Only with the greatest effort was I able to open my eyes and look Ryu in the eye. The fool was perplexed, though his face was solemn. It didn't matter, though. He didn't need to know to do the job I had for him.

"Ryu…take care of Kim. Don't let…anyone…hurt her. Protect…her…for me…She's…" My lungs were scarcely able to take in any air. There was almost no blood left within my shell, and my heartbeats were moments apart. A moment's pause hung between each word. "She's…precious…to…me…"

As the darkness came to claim me, I turned away from my friend's agonized face to gaze into the tear-filled eyes of the sister that I had to leave behind. Eyes so beautiful and gentle, like polished rubies glistening in the sunlight, bisected by ebony slits and painted upon disks of gold.

I became weightless like the sand, pure as crystal. As I ascended towards what came next, I could not bring myself to look back. I knew that he would keep her safe, just as I knew that we three would meet again.

End Chapter 1

Author's Notes: This is the first of my "Big Three Projects" to reach the stage of publication readiness. While it was originally intended to be a book, I eventually realized that I don't have enough material or of a coherent plot (at this time) to actually make a book out of this, so for now I think it works best as a short story. I've already sent this particular chapter into two magazines in hopes of having it published, one I have yet to hear from, the other saying it didn't "hold their interest." I realize that it's a bit big for a first time publishing and that its probably over-detailed, so any and all hints, tips, and suggestions on making this thing worthy of appearing in "Realms of Fantasy" or any similair publication would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for your time. ^_^

P.S.- While I would be greatly honored if anyone thinks to favorite this or any of my work, I ask you to please also review instead of merely favoriting. I get far too much of that on Fanfic (Fictionpress' sister site) and it's turned into a pet peeve. So please, reviews by themselves are fine, favorites without them not so much. Thank you in advance.