"Huh, looks like we'll have to pay Mister Price a visit next. And the school as well," Nazar nodded with his eyes closed, breaking the silence as he started tinkering with his bracelet, "there any more messages, kid?"
Teacher. Liaison. Survivor. Demon. Do any of these labels fit him? As far as I knew, the man known as Jonathan Price was no more, his body and soul possessed by a demon and chopped into pieces two nights ago. Apparently still alive even after being dismembered, the pieces of his body now lay deep underground under the eyes of the Third Division. The demon's the reason why Deanna's out of commission right now, and the Third Division's hard at work trying to rectify that situation. That's the truth.
That's why this doesn't make any sense at all. There's no doubt about it, that was Jonathan Price's voice we just heard. The message was recorded yesterday. This means that Jonathan Price is still out there, prowling around in that school, and that's just not possible. It just doesn't add up!
Dammit! Did... that crooked doctor somehow ended up letting the demon go? What about Deanna's condition? He said he would help. What's going to happen to Deanna's fractured soul now?
Suddenly I'm forcefully pulled away from my thoughts with a rough shake of my shoulders. I blinked and came face-to-face with Nazar's disappointed frown. "Look kid, I'm no mind reader. If you don't talk, I won't know. And in our line of work, we can't afford to get distracted nor can we afford to keep to ourselves."
"Guh! N-no I uh," I fought the urge to look away, "it's just... Jonathan Price turned into a demon before my very eyes... he was slain, and pieces of his body were locked away underground. They're still supposed to be in there..."
"Huh, so that's what's been bothering you?" Nazar's frown disappeared as he started stroking his chin. "Remember that demons are first and foremost shape-shifters," Nazar continued, tapping his right temple. "In any case, just look at things objectively for now. No point guessing in the middle of investigation. We do this because we want answers, Da?" Nazar gave out before pointing me to the door.
"Yeah, you're right," I replied before fiddling around with the answering machine one last time. I guess I should have said something. There was no harm in discussing it with Nazar. Like he said, communication is key, especially with a job as dangerous as demon-hunting. I can't afford to keep things to myself like before anymore. "Well, it doesn't seem like there's anything else in here."
As soon as I finished, I followed Nazar out the room and closed the door behind us.
Chapter XIII: Causality Escalation
The girl in the yellow jacket muttered something as she shifted to the front edge of her seat. She would raise a finger and look at me, ready to speak, only to lose herself to doubt seconds later. This little back-and-forth charade repeated numerous times with no resolution, leaving the one sitting across the coffee table—namely me—twitching in the eye.
"Maybe I should—N-no. Hm... how about—Ugh..."
She's hesitating again. Why does she keep on discarding the confidence she built up at the very last moment? Just what is it that has her so afraid?
"Nel," I called out to her as my patience reached its limit, "Nelli, look—!"
"M-my name is Nelli Antone. I'm Ian Antone's little sister." Nelli gave out in response, her shoulders tensing up and going stiff. The widened eyes staring straight through me suggested nothing of thought; her mind must be going blank. She looked more nervous than ever, like a student who's waiting for the results of his finals.
"Yeah, yeah. You said all that already..." I said, scratching the side of my head. Indeed, it was the first thing she said after I elaborated on our 'investigation' on Ian. At first I thought I finally got through to her but between the fidgeting, the tense demeanor and repeated information the conversation doesn't seem to be going anywhere. "Calm down. Remember what I talked about? The school? Your brother? The dismemberment cases?"
Sigh, I think she blinked for a moment there.
"Nelli, I just wanna know if you know anything about these meetings your brother's been attending, with a liaison from the school by the name of Jonathan Price? Maybe a place or something, does that ring any bells?" I continued, raising my arms and waving them around for emphasis. Anything to get through to her would be welcome.
"No, I don't... think so." She said, calming down a bit as her eyes fell to the floorboards. I can't tell if she's in a daze or just in deep thought. Suddenly, she looked up to me with some measure of certainty. "So Izel's been visiting some school? Why?"
"What do you mean, why? To apply for your transfer to Springwood High, of course." I replied, only to be met with a look of surprise. "Don't tell me... you didn't know? Didn't Ian tell you about it? It was your application, so we assumed..."
"No... I had no idea. Maybe it's supposed to be a surprise or something? Ha ha..." She gave out, forcing a smile before pushing herself to the back of the sofa, as if trying to hide.
Hm, she doesn't seem to be lying. Unbelievable, what the heck is Ian thinking?
"Well that's... unfortunate to hear. You really don't know anything, do you? Sorry for... dropping this bomb on you." I said before shooting a glance at Nazar.
"N-no, it's... thank you for your concern. At the very least, I'm glad to know." The girl squeezed out her response while hugging onto a piece of cushion. As soon as she finished her expression grew crestfallen, her eyes growing blank as if her mind was mired by thoughts.
It didn't feel right continuing our little talk, so I got up from my seat and started making my way towards my mentor.
"So it's true. They really are siblings; Ian Antone didn't come here to Springwood alone."
Throughout Nelii's questioning Nazar played a less active role, mostly listening as we spoke. Nestled in the corner by the window, it seemed like my mentor was taking notes while speaking into his bracelet. It took me a good while to realize he was reporting it all back to HQ, cross-referencing with the intel they already collected. The bulky instrument case, his demon culling armament, had returned to his side. He must have retrieved some time ago, when we were waiting for Nelli to get ready.
"What a waste of time," I said with a heavy sigh, "She's clueless. Maybe we should have left when we had the chance..."
"Looks that way," Nazar replied as he looked up from the bracelet, sounding a little disappointed himself, "time for new line of inquiry? Try asking where they come from, why they're here."
Ah, right. Ian popped up in Springwood a little more than three months ago, presumably together with Nelli. Also, there's that keyword Nelli tossed out before. Maybe learning why will lead us somewhere in the investigation.
"Roger that," I replied as my eyes zipped towards the girl whose head was still buried in a cushion, "hopefully she'll be more receptive to that particular topic."
As Nazar's eyes fell on his charcoal black sports watch, I made my way back and threw myself into the chair Nelli offered me before once more. The ebon-haired girl perked up when I returned, slightly tilting her head to the side curiously from the sofa across the coffee table. Before long, her eyes started pining at me, as if constantly asking 'What else is there?' in a mix of apprehension, doubt and surprise.
"One last thing, Nelli," I said, leaning forward to the edge of my seat, "who's this 'Heron' you mentioned earlier?"
Nelli tensed up again at the word. Breaking eye contact, she turned to the sides before finally giving her reply "I-I never said anything about no heron."
The whole act was so choreographed you can't help but be instantly convinced she's lying.
"I don't do no drugs..." She mumbled, her words barely a whisper.
"Huh? What was that?" I moved closer, bring one hand up to my ear. Did she just mention something about drugs?
"We're clean, my brother and I," Nelli raised her fist with conviction, "we don't do no drugs, so I don't know anything about no heroine!"
I had no idea how I'm supposed to react, so I didn't. What Nelli just did left both me and Nazar staring. Despite it being a painfully obvious act, I can't help but wonder why she did it, and if there was a deeper meaning behind it all. Apparently not, because as the silence grew heavy, Nelli froze up with her fist still up in the air. Her face flared up instantly, red as a tomato, as she drew back her trembling arm and resumed her hiding in the sofa.
If you're that embarrassed, what made you decide to do it in the first place? Surely, you must have guessed that there's a chance things would end up like this.
I heaved out another sigh. "Nelli, why do this now? I thought I told you we're here to help, so why pull this stunt? Why aren't you cooperating?"
"N-no, that's... it's just... this is..." For some reason, Nelli was distraught again, overtaken by an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. She hunched over, arms around her and eyes to the ground as she bit down on her lips. After a few seconds of what seemed like contemplation, she finally relaxes herself with a deep breath before looking up towards me. "S-sorry... rewind?"
"'The Great White Heron of New York City," Nelli muttered in a mix of awe and fear, "have you heard of him?"
I shook my head.
"Y-yeah, I figured." Nelli said, before continuing. "'Heron watches all.' That's... what they say, anyway. He's the leader of the American-Chinese triad, who rules New York from its seedy underbelly."
"The triad leader of NYC? Seriously?"
Right out the gate I'm presented with a pill that's just a bit too hard for me to swallow. I wonder if this means the investigation's going to get a lot more complicated? I shot a glance towards Nazar, expecting him to share my skepticism. To my surprise however, he looked all sobered up in that corner of his, focused on the girl and her tale.
"I... I know it's hard to believe but... my brother and I have been trying to get away for what, two years now? We hop from town to town but his men always somehow manage to track us down." Nelli added, getting more worked up than confused.
"I'm guessing he'll do a lot more than chat when he finally gets his hands on the two of you—"
"He's going to kill us," Nelli said, blank-eyed.
"What? Why?" I couldn't help but ask. "What exactly did you do to piss him off in the first place?"
"We killed his son."
With that answer, everything Nelli had said started to click, and the gravity of their predicament increased tenfold. A dozen more questions popped into my mind, but I was simply too stunned to voice any of them out.
The silence grew heavy once more. I expect even Nazar's taking his time processing what Nelli had said. Sinking into the seat of the sofa, Nelli's eyes dimmed as she winced, as if in pain. That was when I realized she wasn't looking at me anymore.
"When we were in the city, I caught the eye of Heron's son, James. After that, the shameless creep would flirt with me whenever he could, which—with his father's connections—meant every. Waking. Hour." Nelli started trembling, shutting her eyes and wrapping her arms around herself for comfort. She was obviously traumatized by what happened.
"You don't have to continue, Lady Nelli—"
"But the bastard didn't stop, he wouldn't. 'Not until she's mine, body and soul' he said." Nelli pushed forward, ignoring my mentor's suggestion.
I doubt she'll listen to anything we say anymore, not until she calms herself down.
Bringing her knees close and hugging them to her chest, Nelli slipped into a panic. "He started... touching me... all over. Forced himself on me and I... I just... I couldn't..." The last part died out in a whisper. "He did something to me... to my... b-body. A cloud of weakness came over me, sapping away at my every strength. My senses, it dulled with a headache. I would scream and scream until my throat hurt but... no sound would come out... sniff..."
From that sniffle came twin river of tears trickling down the side of Nelli's cheeks. Her eyes soon turned red as they swelled. "Sob... hah... ugh... sorry." Nelli muttered, rubbing away the tears.
You, of all people, really didn't need to apologize, Nelli. In fact, I should be the one to do it. After all, I was the one who barged into your home and reopened those old wounds. Wounds you so desperately tried to hide, to forget.
As Nelli calmed down and relaxed her shoulders, I found myself doing the same.
We came here fishing for a lead. I asked for her story but honestly, I didn't know what to expect, and her visceral first-hand account caught me way off guard. This 'James' fella sound like a real piece of work...
Sometimes, with freedom humanity goes down a dark path.
…I think I can guess what happened next.
"When Ian found out what happened, he was furious. He took his gun and hid, like how we used to. He ambushed James when he showed up again. Murdered him—the son of one of the most powerful man in New York City—just like that." As Nelli touched upon her brother, relief and gratitude swelled up in her voice.
I'm pretty sure Ian's the reason for that, and not the murder.
"We tried to hide the evidence, the... body, and when that didn't work, we ran." It seems it was but a moment's reprieve, because Nelli voice started quivering again. "Every single day since then I've wished that was the end of it, but Heron never forgets, and never forgives. When we evaded the first hit-man we realized he had placed a bounty on our heads. We've been running for our lives ever since."
The ebon-haired girl blinked, and light returned to her eyes. Bringing both hands up and slapping on her cheeks, she shook her head vigorously from side to side before her smile reemerged. "Uh, that's... it I think? Springwood's just the latest town we settled in, the latest one on the list," Nelli nodded to herself as if to confirm. "Did any of that help?"
Oh, right. The investigation.
"I-I'm sure it did."
It was a lie, of course. Tragic as it was, Nelli's story had nothing to do with anything demonic. There wasn't anything in the details that linked back to the current investigation we're running. However, I may be wrong. More importantly, I'm not going to blow her off after seeing her pour her heart out.
Could survival be the reason why Ian's dealing with Jonathan Price perhaps? Maybe Nazar has a more concrete answer for me, or maybe he picked up something I missed.
"Well then, that's all we needed to know. Thank you very much for your understanding and cooperation with this matter Nelli." I flashed the most sincere smile I could muster, "just let me corroborate the information with what we have on hand and we'll be out of here before you know it."
"Okay," Nelli nodded, before her eyes widened, "wait, you're leaving already?"
It's as if she wanted us to stay. Slightly confused, I brushed away her question with a nod and a stifled laugh before getting up from my seat and turning back towards my mentor.
So Ian and Nelli came to Springwood because they were on the run from this Heron character. Whatever Ian's gotten himself involved in right now, it's logical to assume it only started occurring after they moved here. That's… really not a lot to go on. If he really is consorting with demons, we need to figure out the where and the when, and stop it dead in its tracks. We can work out why later.
Just as I stopped in front of Nazar, hoping to lay my thoughts out, the tiny red light started flashing from his bracelet. Nazar prompted a pause by bringing his hand up before receiving the message, "dah, this is Dragomirov. How can I help?"
It must be another telepathic message relayed from HQ.
"What!" Nazar's expression darkened. Brows furrowing, he listened attentively before yelling out a reply, "and you didn't think to help him out?!"
It's difficult to follow a conversation when you can only hear the response of one side, but it was obvious something had taken a turn for the worse. His patient, easy-going demeanor all but disappeared, Nazar grew more exasperated with every word.
"Idiot! It doesn't help us one bit if he's hurt!"
What, somebody got hurt? Who? Was it a demon attack?
"Um..." A faint voice called out to me from behind, followed by a tiny nudge on my right shoulder, pulling me away from my thoughts. "Did something happened?" Nelli asked, worry spilling back into her expression. All the noise must have gotten her attention, pulled her away from the sofa.
Before I could even answer however, Nazar barked out an order, "c'mon kid, we have to go! Now!"
My mentor hauled his cello case on his back with one hand before stomping his way towards the door. Both Nelli and I were left lost in the dark. In her confusion the girl looked to me for answers. Having none, I ended up chasing after Nazar's tail. When I caught up with him, he had already pulled the main door wide open.
"W-wait Nazar, what about the girl?"
Nazar took one glance at Nelli before turning back to me, "what about her?!"
"Nazar! Hey Nazar, wait up! Just slow down!"
Even as we stepped onto the street and were greeted by the winter breeze I was still chasing. Unbelievable. Despite lugging around that huge case on his back, my mentor was actually picking up speed with every step."You're not even going to tell me what happened?"
"Sorry. Can't slow down. I'll explain on the way, but for now we have to run," Nazar finally gave out. "The bottom-line is that Ian's in trouble. We need to get to the store now."
"Ian? O-okay," I said, pushing away everything else. Taking in bigger breaths as I ran, I turned back to see Nelli's place shrinking into the distance as we traversed up a steep slope.
She seemed distraught at our sudden departure a minute ago. Was it really a good idea ditching her like that?
"I know what you're thinking," Nazar added from the front without turning back, much to my surprise, "but we can't drag her into danger by bringing her along. Based on what we know, it's safer for her to stay at home, at least until this whole things is over."
"I just… maybe the Council can do something to help?"
"Hah, I'd pay to see that!" Nazar tossed out, before picking up speed.
After a certain point, we dodged into the alleyways of Springwood. With increased agility likely granted from the Ouroboros we moved twice as far with half the time, weaving through entire blocks and avenues in mere minutes. Despite sprinting, it felt little more than a walk in the park. Nazar surprised me again by deftly maneuvering his way through the alleys with ease. I can't help but wonder how we'd look to passerby with how fast we're going.
"Manny, one of the guys I posted on stakeout, reported four burly Caucasian men and a lithe Chinese man paying the store a visit. Ian Antone reacted right away, disappearing to the back of the store. The group hustled their way into the store after. The last thing he said was that there was some sort of argument going on, that things were getting violent. We need to get there and secure Ian's safety. He's our best lead to the demons right now."
As soon as Nazar finished, our dash came to a grinding halt. I blinked my eyes and adjusted to the change of inertia, scanning the street from one corner to the other. Across the road stood my old workplace, its neon storesign still flickering, and still looking out of place. The memories surfaced in an instant. All the times I stared out the window from the counter, only to be greeted by an empty road that seemed immutable. It wasn't too long ago; it's merely been two day, but at the same time it feels like it was another lifetime ago.
"Weird, I don't see anyone inside," Nazar said, peering through the glass windows. "C'mon we need to meet up with the others," Nazar beckoned.
"Nazar!" Suddenly, a voice called out just as we were about to cross the street.
We turned to see a figure popping out from the nearby alley. A thin man, whose dark hair and grey jacket blended his presence into the building so much so he may as well have been invisible.
The worry that had stricken my mentor disappeared, replaced by a slight smile. With a sigh of relief, Nazar gave his reply, "Manny!"
The inconspicuous man glanced the corners, perhaps checking to see if there was anyone watching, before joining us. "You guys are fast! I mean, of course, my lord is as swift as ever. I'm afraid something's happened," The man called Manny pointed to the store.
"I got your report," Nazar said, "Where's the rest of your group?"
"They're inside," Manny said, "I sent Peter and Henry in after everyone vanished to the back."
From where I stood, I couldn't help but double check. Looking through the windows again cleared any and all doubt I had, though I could scarcely believe it. "No way," I checked my watch, "Mr. Collins would never leave the storefront at this time of day, and there's just no way he'd ever leave the cash register unattended."
"He would at gunpoint I suspect," Manny said.
The man looked at me coldly as my eyes bore into his, my face frozen in shock.
"There was a gunshot," Manny continued, "That was what drove me to send the others in, and contact you, Nazar."
"What?!" This time it was my mentor's turn to get riled up. Whatever it was Manny reported before, he must have left out that one crucial bit. "Derr'mo, we've no time to lose! Manny, stay out here and keep the entrances watched," Nazar gave out before turning to me, "Briar, we're going!"
With a nod, I joined Nazar as we ran across the street, stopping before the main doors.
The familiar, mechanical chime, the one I've heard for more than a hundred times before, sounded off as the doors slid open.
Suddenly, there was a crash. The sound of glass being broken and something smashing against the wall. Then came a piercing scream.
"H-help… g-get away from me!"
"Oh gawd, the blood! You need to stop moving!"
As soon as we stepped through the door we were bombarded by a cacophony of voices. The locker room looked as though a hurricane had just finished sweeping through it; stacks of boxes had been knocked down and their contents sprawled across the floor, the lockers and shelves toppled and in the middle of it all, an ebon-haired girl carefully making her way towards a disoriented old man flushed against the wall.
"Nelli? What are you doing here?"
"Briar!" Nelli tossed out before pointing frantically, "we've got to help him, he's hurt!"
"Argh! Sh-she devil, you will not take me!"
The man was in such bad shape I could barely recognize him. Amidst the bruises, Mr Collins struggled to keep his drooping eyes open. In between his pained wheezing, he floundered on the floor in a pool of his own blood. His dress shirt, waistcoat and jeans were soiled, stained red. Either instinct or reflex drove him to press one arm over his stomach, the blood seemed the thickest. That must be where he was shot. All the while, a faint odor, the smell of sweat, grime and blood, lingered in the air around him.
"M-Mr Collins," I gave out, extending my hand only for my mind to go blank.
It looks bad, what with all the blood, but what should I do? What can I do?
"Ashen hair and those terrible blood-gorged eyes," Mr Collins muttered, "d-don't look at me! Ugh, it hurts… It fuckin' hurts!" The old man shut his eyes as he cried, his head sinking into his shoulders as he fell deeper into shock. There was fear in his eyes every time he glared towards Nelli, and he twitched with her every move.
I have to have to do something!
Rushing to Mr Collins's side, I bent down on one knee to try and calm him down, only to realize my hands were trembling hard. "N-Nazar, what should I—!"
I turned back only to see the scenery morphing right before my eyes. From the dark locker room in the evening to an empty street in the twilight shade.
"Don Maurizio, what are you doing?" One of my commanders behind me panicked, "the demon's getting away!"
I turned back to the front only to see a teenaged boy in pain, clutching down hard on the bleeding wound on his shoulder, left by the demon's poisoned claws. His pulse had grown weak, and his breathing ragged. "Hah… hah… so c-cold," the boy muttered.
"This little one's hurt, I'm not leaving him to die!" I gave my reply, my right hand curled up into a fist and shaking. "Inform the sentries and prowlers about the demon. I'll get back to the hunt after this kid's past critical, and can somebody get me please get me the doctor!"
Only through screaming did I break my men out of their confused stupor. When they realized I was serious they scattered, presumably to carry out my orders.
Turning back to the boy, I tore off the sleeve of my shirt and wrapped it around his shoulder tight. I may not know much about tending to wounds like this, but at the very least I know we must apply pressure in order to stop the bleeding. If he loses too much blood he's done for! "H-hey! Stay with me, kid!" I gave the boy a slap on the cheek, "don't you close your eyes now. You stay awake, you hear me?!"
"Don Maurizio! I'll take over from here." The lady doctor said as she got to her knees beside us, placed her medical bag down and donned the gloves and mask.
"Look, the doctor's here already. You're going to be okay!" I gave out, drawing the kid close.
The worst part of it all is not knowing if what I'm doing is helping or not.
The next few minutes felt like it went by at a snail's pace. The dreaded silence tempered only by the kid's breathing, his occasional gasps of pain and the clinking of tools as the doctor went to work. Before long, the bleeding stopped and the boy's shoulder was wrapped up in a thick layer of gauze. Finally, the doctor pulled out a needle from that bag of hers.
"You're giving him a jab?"
"Morphine," The lady doctor said, "It'll help with the pain, and hopefully put the kid to sleep. He must be exhausted after all that." The doctor then proceeded to clean the area around his wrist with a swab.
I heaved out a sigh as I felt the weight fly off my shoulders, "I'm so glad he's all right." Laying his head down on the ground, I adjusted my tie out of habit and picked up my sword and scabbard. There's still the matter of the demon. It's high time I left the kid to the doctor and rejoined the—!
Suddenly, a hand held me tight around the wrist.
I looked down to see the kid using all of his strength to muster up a smile, "thank you..."
Just like that, I'm back again. Kneeling on the floor, a first-aid box had somehow ended up beside me at arm's reach, its contents all over the place. Before me, Mr Collins hung his head as he sat leaning against the wall. His shirt and waistcoat were gone, scattered across the floor. Naked from the waist up, a thick layer of gauze could be seen below his chest, where he was bleeding from a few minutes ago.
"Briar, you did it!" Nelli threw her arms around me from the side with a smile.
"H-hey!" The hug was so sudden I ended up putting my hands on her shoulder, trying to hold her back on reflex. When Nelli realized herself what was happening she blushed, but I still had to pry her off myself. Nelli shot me a confused look after that, but quickly dismissed it.
She's right, though. I feel the same way.
"A-anyway," I turned back to my old boss, who had been just sitting on the floor in silence, "I'm just glad you're all right, Mr Collins. You should be okay now. Does it still hurt?"
Despite not looking my way, Mr Collins winced and gritted down on his teeth as if pain.
"Mr Collins! H-hang in there," I said, before turning to Nelli, whose smile had just disappeared. "We should call an ambulance. I patched up the hole but the bullet's still in there!"
Panicked, I scanned the room for my mentor. As if realizing what I was doing, Nelli pointed me towards the dark corner of the room. There, my mentor knelled before a wrecked cupboard seemingly lodged into the concrete wall. On the floor between them were numerous pieces of shattered glass, glittering in a puddle of… blood?!
The shocking sight robbed me of all my worry, my anxiousness. Things were starting to feel a bit surreal.
"I'm sorry… I shouldn't have listened… shouldn't have believed..."
A weakened voice mumbled. I jerked my head back only to see the old man breaking down in tears.
"I was the one… who planted the money," Mr Collins's voice cracked with every word, "I needed… an excuse to get you fired."
Instinctively I found myself digging into my pockets. The wad of cash I found in my possession that night. Mr Collins exploding in anger before kicking me out of the store. That was all a ruse?
"But, why?" My fingers curled themselves into fists. Clenched at my side, they were starting to shake.
"I-I had no choice," Mr Collins continued, shaking his head from side to side, "you're... a murderer."
At the word, something snapped.
"You massacred that cult... even went and... killed your own—!"
Suddenly, everything goes blank. My hands moved on their own, lashing out for the old man's shoulders before pulling him face-to-face.
Mr Collins gasped and croaked as he finally looked me in the eye, his face going white as a sheet. Fear choked him up so bad he ended up at a loss of words. Good.
"Briar, what are you doing?!" Nelli gave out, tugging hard at my arm, "stop, you're hurting him!"
She thinks I'm trying to hurt him? I barely scratched the old man.
He deserves far worse.
Ah, but she doesn't understand. Of course, how could she possibly understand? We've just met, and I'd been lying to her from the start. Still, if she doesn't have the whole picture then she has no right say anything!
At my glare, Nelli recoiled in fear before jumping a few steps back. When I got tired of Mr Collins's terrified expressions I let go, sending him tumbling to the floor before turning away from the judgmental stares.
"Ack!" The old man cried out before scrambling a good meter away. I'm surprised he still had the strength to move like that. "S-so it's all true?" The old man gave out after regaining his bearings.
"No, it's not! I didn't kill anyone! I didn't kill my... my sister, so don't fucking call me a murderer, you hear me!"
Mr Collins flinched when I yelled back at him. I could feel the anger bubbling up, seething with my every word.
"B-but the letter," the old man muttered under his breath, "it came with reports... articles—!"
"They didn't know jack shit when they wrote all that!" I stomped forward, throwing my arm out in a wild arc, "nobody knew what happened, not even me, the sole survivor! Now do you fucking understand?!"
Dammit, it's happening again. One way or another, people always end up discovering about the incident. They find out what happened, spread nasty rumors, and before I know it, there's a mob trying to lynch me outside my door. Despite cleared of all charges, I still have to bear all the blame for something I didn't even do!
"I'm sorry, Briar," Mr Collins tossed out, "I just… couldn't have a murderer working here. You know what I mean, yeah? It's just… too dangerous."
"Stop calling me that!" I gave out as I slammed my fist into the toppled locker at the side. I was so worked up it left an indentation in the shape of my fist on the metal cover. "If you're so afraid, why didn't you just call the cops on me, have them lock me somewhere far away?!"
The old man flinched at my raised voice again, turning away just to escape my glare.
"I did… but they… refused to listen," Mr Collins muttered before cursing under his breath, "so I had no choice but to plant the money."
That… makes no sense at all.
"I knew… you'd have no rebuttal… in the face of evidence." Mr Collins continued, looked back at me. His fearful eyes were tempered by pity, becoming the same irritating eyes he had for me when I was hired.
"You don't know shit about me, old man!" I gave out before turning my back on him. I couldn't take any of it anymore. The look in his eyes. The absurd reasoning behind what he did. The lie. "...I would have understood if you had asked me to leave, told me the truth." I said while halfheartedly looking over my left shoulder, as if trying to steal one last glance at the fool.
"Um, Briar?" Suddenly, there was a slight tug on my jacket. It turned out to be Nelli, who pulled back trembling slightly when she saw me.
"What is it?"
"I don't think he can hear you anymore," Nelli said, staring the old man who had closed his eyes and stopped moving. Mr Collins had finally succumbed to the shots I gave him a few minutes ago.
"Tch, whatever. It's just not worth the effort," I shake my head, banishing away the turmoil plaguing my mind. "I'll just call the hospital to come pick him up later or something," I gave out before shambling towards my mentor and that pincushion of a body.
As I got closer, the man's body seemed seemed way worse looking at it a second time. The man was dug into the wreckage of the cupboard, sitting amidst the torn wood, splintered compartments and broken glass like a makeshift throne. On the surface, the man wasn't that badly injured. There were no signs of struggle, no bruise nor marks that suggested this was the result of an extended fight. He and the furniture was probably smashed into the wall in one fell swoop, a display of strength too massive for any man to perform.
"Yeah, we got injured," Nazar said into his bracelet beside me, probably sending out a distress signal for help. "Spasiba," he gave out, before rubbing down hard on the bridges of his brow, "dammit! Izvinite, Peter. Should have gotten here sooner."
"Injured? He's alive!" I couldn't help blurting out. With all that blood and the glass lodged to his back, I assumed he was dead. "What happened? Was it a demon attack?"
"H-he was already like this when I sneaked in here." Nelli said, before turning away from the sight with one hand over her mouth and a disturbed look in her eyes.
"Whatever it was, it threw Peter across the room like a rag-doll. Too risky to move him without a stretcher now," Nazar gave out, before picking up his armament and turning to face me; "what about you, kid?"
"You want to talk about what happened?" Nazar gestured towards Mr Collins.
"No I don't want to talk about what happened!" I spat out, much to my mentor's surprise. When I realized I raised my voice again, my eyes fell to the floor. I guess it was only natural that he overheard everything. "Sorry Nazar, but it doesn't matter now, not when we still have a job to do."
"Alright, alright. If you say so," Nazar raised one arm and took a step back, before reaching for his bracelet again, "Henry, do you read me? Where are you right now? What's your status?"
"While Nazar sends his message, what are we going to do about you?" I said while walking towards the ebon-haired girl.
As soon as she heard me I saw her shoulders tensing up. Wound up tight like a toy she slowly turned around, but instead of looking afraid, her ashen eyes were full of conviction. She looked determined. Strange, wasn't she already here when we came in?
"What are you even doing here in the first place, Nelli?"
It took a while, but her shoulders finally relaxed. "Uh, seeing you guys were kinda bad omen," Nelli replied, hands in her pockets and eyes dodging from side to side, "I thought it was a good time to check up on my brother..." As her words trailed off, her gaze fell on Peter and Mr Collins, and she wrapped her arms around herself, as if for comfort, "...and it seems my hunch was right. Something terrible must have happened."
"Whatever it is that's happened, we can't have you tagging along, Nelli. It's too dangerous."
"No," Nelli gave out, looking away, "we've been in danger before. The important thing is that me and my brother face it together."
"Nelli, stop. You don't understand," I said as I grabbed her arm when she eagerly looked towards the door, "this is different!"
"Got it! We'll head there right away," Nazar suddenly gave out, "Briar, I know where we're going next. Henry's tracked Ian to the local mega-store, Mall Easter!"
With that one word, Nelli tore herself out of my grip and broke into a mad dash for the door!
As soon as I ran through the sliding doors the temperature instantly shifted from frigid to toasty warm. Stumbling into the cluster of shoppers loitering around, I was greeted by shrieks and shouts of surprise. I guess it's true what they say, no matter what time of year, Mall Easter's always crowded. People both young and old come here clamoring for the goods imported from other parts of North America or even overseas, reason being that Mall Easter's the only place in town that sells them. Twisting and turning on my heels, my haste came to a stop in the open center of the mall.
"I don't see her," I said, scanning every corner of the mega-store, the walkways, the escalators and the store entrances lined up along the side, from ground floor up. "Nazar, you don't think she's here already, do you? The way she just disappeared when we got outside..."
"Don't worry, Briar," Nazar popped up beside me with the usual stuff at hand, "there's no way she beat us here." Joining me in the search, Nazar brought his hand over his eyes in an attempt to shield his eyes from the late afternoon sun pouring in from top. "I'm more worried about Ian. Let's find him before Heron's goons get to him."
There were pockets of people on every floor but Mall Easter's a big place. Giving up the idea of trying to identify every single person by profile, I end up looking for signs of any incidents instead. No doubt there would be a commotion if the manhunt by Heron's men got out into the open…
"I don't get it. Where else could they possibly be?"
My wandering eyes endeavored to go through the floors one last time, but something was distracting me. A piercing hum whose source seemed indiscernible. The more I looked, the sharper it got.
My vision's wavering. It's too loud. The sound's blocking everything out. Staring at the transparent ceiling made up of a dozen or so glass windows fitted together like a puzzle, I started to feel… cold. As if there's something wrong with the heaters.
Ugh. Everything's flickering. The faces are starting to blur, details smothered with grains.
I rubbed my eyes on instinct and turned on my heels to get a better look, only to have the dust dancing in the light obscure everything else.
The ceiling looks so weird. For some reason, the ornaments hanging down are starting to feel out of place.
The whole scenery's frozen in place, like a still shot out of a photo or something, only twisting into unbelievable shapes and proportions when I moved.
Odd. These parts don't make sense. They don't fit.
Wrestling myself free from the numbness, my hand reached out towards the strange visual fallacies that had appeared…
...and they shattered.
The noise reached its apex before exploding. A sharp pain jabbed at my forehead, as if someone took a knife and bore it into my brain. Naturally, I flinched before stumbling a few steps forward, clutching on my forehead and trembling, all while breaking out in cold sweat.
"Hah… hah… hah..." Amidst the sound of my painful breathing, my senses returned to normal. The noise was gone and my vision got clear again. The first thing I noticed was the murmurs of the people around me, whose tones suggested it was escalating out of control.
"What are those things? They weren't there a few seconds ago."
"I'm not sure… it's too high up for me to tell."
"Oh my gawd, it's… it's…!"
Then came the scream from somewhere up top. That was the spark that started the wildfire. Within seconds people were shoving and screaming. Some fall victim to panic, others broke down and cried. Most of them however joined in on the stampede that charged straight for the exit.
As for myself, perhaps it was due to exhaustion or shock but my feet was glued to the floor. Something had obviously happened, and just the thought of that was enough for me to muster all my remaining strength just to look up.
"Shit, those are..."
"Bodies," Nazar said while frowning. His face was tinged with regret.
The victims were all shriveled up, reduced to little more than husks of skin and bone. Five of them were hanging from the ceiling, wrapped up and held by these thin, flesh-like appendages that stuck out from blackened pustules festering on the walls. They reminded me of insects caught in a spider's web.
The Ouroboros reacting! As if to confirm my suspicions the creature around my wrist started throbbing. I pulled it up only to see the creature in a panic. Its legs dug into my flesh like needles, grinding against my bone. It wasn't as bad as when it latched on for the first time, but the sensation was very much unmistakable.
"Did you feel it?" I looked up from my bracelet just in time to see my mentor scanning the mall with a grim expression on his face. When his gaze shifted towards me, I gave him a slight nod in reply.
"Now we really need to find Ian, and fast!"
Whoa, this one took quite a while. Almost half a year, in fact. I'm quite proud of what I've written though. Haven't felt like this for a while now. I wonder if this is because there hasn't been anything major happening in BtWV or if I'm simply losing interest in the story? Hopefully it's the former. Nevertheless, there's some intense scenes written in this chapter and I hope you guys enjoyed it. As always, I'd love to hear about it in your reviews below!