1

[Blights]

Of uncertain Origin.

Human renegades that has acquired Origins of power through immense nuclear radiation from the previous war, dubbed World War III.

"Ah, so you're new around here?"

"Yes."

The question feels like a common topic ever since my entry into the force. Two weeks in and the only way I am able to carry on a conversation is by explaining how I actually got in in the first place. It is probably the most common and fail-proof way to start an ice-breaker.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sound rude, but not many sane people I know would ever earn their dough in such an environment. I'm Czech by the way." Czech reaches out for a handshake with a grin on his face.

"Noah." It feels rude to shrug him off, so I returned him the favor and nods..

"You look kinda young to be joining the force."

"Everyone's crazy in their own way."

"Fair point," Czech's probing seems to end there. Not that I mind, but it just feels impossible to be having such a casual talk when our position could be compromised at any second. It was supposed to be an ambush mission, yet the three of us have been hiding in this abandoned bookstore for the past thirty minutes. The lack of activity in the comms makes you question if the other parties are still alive or dead.

Hopefully not the latter.

"Oy, Saelo, I hope those grenades on you won't act as our liability eh?" He rips a page out of an old book, and tossed the crumpled ball at the guy on my right.

"Meh, details." Saelo shrugs. Our "charismatic" leader. That nonchalant attitude is what make people love or hate him. But ever since entering the force, there are only words of how capable he is with his teammates and the type that gets the job done. Even so, this is my first mission with him and seeing how relaxed Saelo was sort of downplays the danger we are in. "Relax, they're just smoke bombs. These babies will be useful in the field, trust me. Besides, we'll be safe and sleeping nicely in our beds soon enough."

"Right, the last thing I want is a smoke party in this already dusty room." Czech draws a line across the layer of dust sitting on the table and rubs his fingers. "So I heard around the office that you two already knew each other from before?"

"We knew each other from the orphanage. Noah here begged me to be his friend so I can't just say no, right?"

"I didn't beg. You cornered me to be your friend." I countered. Saelo and I have a history as childhood buddies in the centre and those were fun times. He was always acting like the older brother around the other kids, and that bit has not changed ever since him working here as well.

"Sure, sure." Saelo shrugs it off and yawns.

Czech laughs. "Any previous postings other than here, Noah?"

"I was in the holding list previously if that's even an answer."

"So it's your first mission today."

I nodded all the while keeping an eye out on the streets to make sure I did not miss anything peculiar. I do not want our ambush to be turned against us and fail just like that. My stomach churns and my heart pumps wildly at the thought of that.

"Not to worry then. I was like you not long ago, but it'll be easier once you're used to things. Let's make this a good one and call it a night." Czech assured with a smile.

Then Saelo jumped, startling me. "Isn't tomorrow your kid's birthday?"

"Yes, he's turning six tomorrow. I'll be taking a day off tomorrow if you don't mind." Czech answers, lifting his rifle sideways to inspect while inching towards the window for that extra brightness. It is only under the filters of the moon light that I realised how blue his eyes are.

"Go ahead, Inspector. Permission granted. I've got something for your little boy as well. Come to my office later on and I'll pass it to you."

"Congratulations, sorry I didn't get anything for him."

"Don't be, Noah. It's the thought that counts. How about you two come over for the party as well? It'll make a good post-mission celebration."

"Sounds good," Saelo replied. "Noah, are you okay with it?"

"Sure, I'd love to see him."

Something cracks in the air. It was distant, but the echoes of short intermittent bangs seems to be from the building a street away from our right.

"Hey, you hear something?" I asked.

"Yeah, I think?" Czech muttered softly and shifts his rifle around while looking through his scope.

Being the closest to the concrete walls, I take a brief look over the windowsill. The noise have stopped and we are back to the quiet state as it was five minutes ago. I pull up my earpiece and toggled the controls.

"This is Team Two, do you copy?" There wasn't a trace of sound coming from the radio set too, which added to the strangeness.

"The suspects should be hanging out around here now, right?" Our mission brief earlier spoke about the estimated route the Blights will take hence the ambush setup. Even after the predicted time of arrival, there were no sightings of the suspect here as per the given intel. What if the Blights have already figured out our plans and was picking us off, one by one? Scenarios filled my head as I played all the possible events that could happen.

"Don't be nervous." Czech places an arm on my shoulder. "Your worst enemy in a situation such as this is yourself. In any case, we just need to be on guard for any aberrant movements."

"Guys, over here. Let's move around and check." Saelo opens the door leading to the back of the shop. We hurry through the winding alleys guided by the concrete walls on both sides. Shots echoed in the air once more. Nonetheless, the volume of flying projectiles did not seem to be coming from where we are heading. Knowing Saelo, he must be choosing an alternate route to secure an ambush opportunity.

If there's still a firefight, then there is a chance that the signals are active.

"Gaahhhh!" I yank the earpiece out and lean my body against the wall.. My head feels heavy from the buzzing echo through the piece. That screeching sound wasn't even there when I tested it!

"Noah, you okay?" Czech hurries over and pull me back on my feet.

"Our signal's down. I remembered testing it and it was working well. I just don't understand."

That scrambled sound continued to play from the earpiece. I forcefully pulled the cords apart to break the noise. Tactically, it was the only choice that came across my mind as I threw the severed piece on the floor. The possibility that the other teams being in the same situation dwelled in my head as I digest the situation.

I wipe the sweat over my forehead and look over Czech's shoulders to find that Saelo was gone. We needed to catch up.

"C'mon Czech, let's go ahead and find Saelo."

"Wait Noah," Czech pulls out a packet of sweet wrapped in green. "It's mint. I always use it to relax myself." He tears the wrapper and place the sweet in my hands before taking one for himself. "Don't worry I'll have your back."

"Thanks, Czech." The coolness emanates through my throat as I breathed. "I feel better now. Let's go." Since the signal set's useless with the earpiece, there is no point in lugging it around anymore as I detach it from my vest.

Czech then lunges at me. The seconds it take for me to fall towards the ground feels like minutes as I stare at his serious face. My hand strikes against the wall and a bolt of pain surges up my spine.

"Shit." I look up. Czech's body floats in the air with a scythe-like tail hooked through his vest. It has an obsidian finish, with veins pulsing within the surface of its skin.

"Czech!" He was knocked out cold with his legs off the ground. My eyes travels across the dark, thin arm connected to the man standing a few feet from where we came from.

"I didn't expect to miss. But, I guess one's better than none eh?"

That man, no way in hell is he just a normal human being. As he pulls his palm away from his face, his cold crimson irises shifts towards my direction. They feel like the eyes of a predator and I am his next prey. His bald head shines under the moon's brilliant glow, yet the temperature around here feels much colder than it looked. My heart races on and the air feels so stale that you can actually suffocate in it.

"Wait a minute, there's only two of you. I thought I saw another one." In contrast to my bated breath, the stranger was acting so naturally to the situation at hand. With pulsing veins running down his temples, his angular cheeks and burly figure emits an intimidating presence as he shakes Czech's limp body effortlessly in the air with his arm—hooks.

But nevertheless, he was so much like us – yet so different as well.

The temperature around me dropped drastically. It feels like my brain was overloaded but drawing any useful information out proves to be one big blank. I just watch as he murmurs to himself and counting with his fingers.

Czech's head remains tiled to the side unmoving. But judging from the arm that was hooked over the vest not soaked in red or anything of the like, there was a chance that he had only barely grazed Czech's skeletal vest.

If only I have been more alert, I could have prevented this from happening. Czech has been the one taking care of me throughout the mission but I have failed him completely.

"Is there two or three of you guys?" The Blight speaks with an indifferent tone, his arms still hooked to Czech's unconscious body.

"Let Czech go!" My carbine must have bounced off somewhere when I fell earlier. Nonetheless, I still have my dagger with me. A sudden explosion blinds me just as I unsheathed my knife. Thick smoke breaks out from the blast, surrounding the narrow alleyway with its grey body. It was hard not to breathe in the chemical substance as my lungs contracts the longer I stay within it while I navigate along the walls.

"Noah!" I spin around in the whirling mass of smoke to Saelo's voice. A hand reaches out from nowhere and pulls me to their direction.

"Kuh, kuh kuh–!"

I fall to my knees at the end of the alleyway where the hazy trail ends. My throat tightens as I gasp for air. We are now standing in the wide open space where the main street connects.

I whirl around and look into the dissipating clouds of smoke.

"Noah let's go!" Saelo pulls my hand up.

"We can't just leave like that; Czech is still somewhere in there!" I turn around and nudge, to which Saelo squeezes his hold on my arm. "Let me go dammit! Czech's still in there!"

"We need to regroup! Going in without a plan will just get the two of us roasted!" Saelo's brown irises stares back at me with a look as firm as the grip he have on me.

"And we're supposed to leave Czech with that Blight? You can regroup with the rest, I'm going to save him myself. Whatever happened to 'leaving no man behind'? Are we just gonna throw Czech to them as a scapegoat?"

"Y'know what? Screw this." Saelo pulls his free arm back and curls it to a fist. "It's for your own good." A dull sting follows, and darkness envelops my vision.

x

Those crimson red eyes of the Blight felt like they could pierce straight into my soul and crush it from the inside. Was Czech still alive or had he been done? The image of Czech's body still haunted my mind. That dreaded feeling just keeps coming back like a recurring tide, desperately reaching deeper into my heart.

"You're awake."

It takes awhile for my vision to adjust itself, and my neck is growing stiff from lying on the hard concrete floor. The room is filled with blue from the night light flooding through the broken window pane. I got up and looked around. Even into the night, the air is uncomfortably humid. Sweat rolls down the side of my head. My initial thought was that we were back at the abandoned bookstore, but the obvious lack of books and furnitures suggested otherwise.

"Where is this place?"

"Some random room a couple streets away. Two streets to be exact, but you're heavy to carry around so...it feels like a couple."

"Where's Czech?"

"Noah,"

I got up, and for a second my head feels light and overwhelmed by vertigo. As soon as I stand my legs gave way and I drop to a knee. Saelo's rushes over to pull me up, but I throw a punch towards his cheeks.

"Da'fuc-"

"This is for knocking me out earlier."

Saelo spits away and rub his cheek. "Fine, we're even."

Oh no we're not.

"You left Czech alone to fend for himself."

Saelo gives an incredulous stare. "Am I supposed to knock you out again until some common sense sticks in your skull?"

"He could've survived." I went on, pushing back my damp hair and sigh. "You're just being scared to help him."

"Okay, maybe it isn't that common at all."

"Are you even listening to me?"

My head forcefully snaps to the left, followed by a stinging burn biting across my cheeks.

"Shit, your skin's tough. And stop whining like a baby.". He shakes the hand that struck me and sighs. "You're new here, so I'm gonna let this slide but get used to it. This isn't your usual training ground where everything holds no consequences. So what if I did save Czech? Have you considered if there was another Blight besides him? We could've fed us three there and the end. No more chapters."

Then there was silence for the next couple of minutes.

"But Czech could still be alive."

Saelo's words provided that very thin thread of hope as I looked up. "His signal would be flat on my watch otherwise. So now Noah, think hard. What do we know about the Blight?"

I tried to recall how the Blight was able to creep up behind us. I should have been able to notice him since I watching our backs all those while. Then, there was the thing with his Origin that came from his right arm. Could he have done the same for his left? Either way, that hook of his was a danger considering its reach.

"That man's Origin allows him to stretch his arm into a scythe."

"So he's a melee." Saelo folded his arms and sat crossing his legs. "And we still don't know if he could use both hands for that matter."

"Even if we don't know that, I have a good hunch on his reach." Saelo leaned forward and egged me to continue. "He knew there're two of us. He must've wanted to pierce his arm through both Czech and I, but thanks to Czech's shove, he only managed to catch one."

"How're you so sure? He could've just thought you were alone at that time with your back against him." Saelo questioned, unconvinced.

"It's his words." I reasoned. He took the chance at us the moment I was struggling with the signal set. Even with Czech by my side, the Blight still chose us over picking off Saelo who went ahead alone. If I was in his position, it would be more strategic to pick Saelo off first before dealing with a bigger number.

But why didn't he?

I looked out the window and found the answer staring right back at me.