Chapter 20 – Almost (5)

Almost – Part 5

      Dom doesn’t take his eyes off of the windowed view as he answers me.

      “My dear, you do not understand another any better than another, you. You over buy yourself; else you sell short others.”

      “No. That’s-”

“Exactly. You may think you’re special, but know what say, I? To hell with your worries and your exhaustion. To hell with your thinking and your fear- your prejudices against the unforeseen. You dwell on that which you can not control in the now, and let slip through your fingers, choices that only now offers.”

      His words cut to my core. They make sense in a way. I keep hiding behind these thoughts, allowing everything to pass me by. If I don’t have to face the hard choices, then I have no choices to make at all.

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      But that’s fine with me…

      Dom looks at me softly and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps you should check in with Ninavin. I have taken much of your time tonight.”

      With resignation, I leave the area. I can’t help but think about what he told me. Surely I’m not making the wrong choices right?

      Following the corridors to her lab, I can’t help but ponder Dom’s message over and over.

      I’m not part of this world, so surely I have no rights in it, right? Even if I did possess rights to comment on what’s happening, surely having the power to manipulate people’s lives is beyond me. I’m just a girl who wants to go home.

      I can’t say every moment here has been terrible. Sure, the beginning was especially cruel and unfortunate, but it’s gotten better. I’ve gotten to meet wonderful people.

      Like the energetic, but playful Mimi. She started off sticking to me like a ball-and-chain. She beat into me her resentment at her fate. And then, she became my friend.

      Kay, with her multifaceted origins, has become a welcomed enigma in my life. She’s terrifying and leads a life I can’t agree with, but I want to be there for her pain. She arouses me in ways I’m not… sure about. I want to get closer to her.

      And Rose. My Rose. She cares about us and protects us. She uses that as an excuse to stop herself from getting close to us. But I want to get close to her. I want to know what she’s like underneath.

      And of course I could never forget about my dutiful teacher, my forceful guardian- Charlotte. I altered her life more so than others because she’s just a soldier. Meeting me threw her fate off even more than my wives. Yet the further she should be from me, the closer we become.

      My girls phase through my mind one by one. My head pounds and throbs in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. I don’t know why she would come out now but here she is.

      She’s just beneath the surface trying to break free. But I force her down. I can’t lose it right now.

      “Nina?” I say through pained breath.

      “Yes?”

      The door opens and there stands the girl who’s name escapes me as whispers. Her face is tired and worn, but still lights up the area around us as her smile grows much too large for one so small.

      I can’t help but pull her into my arms. She gives a little yelp. “Evangeline-sama. What is it?”

      I release her and kiss her forehead. Nina is my rock. In this world she has been the one constant. No crazy ass mood swings. No confusing my libido… mostly. Just a rock solid confidant.

      “I hear you have good news.”

      She gives me me another smile but before she can answer, a shock wave smashes through the Academy.

      The ground shakes violently, sending me flying down the hall. Nina falls back into her room. Adrenaline kicks in and I roll my landing and stand up. Before I know it, I’m dashing down the hall back to Nina. Just in time too, as the side of the Academy walls explodes inward just as I dash in and cover Nina.

      Rocks and other debris rain down on us as another quake shakes us. I shrug off what I can and check on Nina. She looks discombobulated and confused, but otherwise fine.

      I look towards the crumbling walls and see nightmare given corporeal form. What I see is large and grotesque.

      Standing easily ten feet tall, its face is misshapen and vile. A black sludge drips from its skin making a sickening thunk as it lands in the grass.

      Adorned on its face is a horrible grin, moving not from ear to ear, but chin to forehead. Its one eye glows with a crimson red as it stares on in a look of unbridled, animalistic rage. With a deafening roar, it raises a massive, deformed trunk of an arm and swings it towards us. I’m unable to react in time- the fear and confusion pinning me.

      With my body having protected Nina, I’m sent flying across the dilapidated ruins of the school. My body feels like putty and my bones feel stressed. I lay in wake but cannot move. The pain is unreal and unfocused. The creature’s arms, easily four or five feet in length, had collided with me at extreme speeds. The trauma has broken my body. However, the fear of what he might do to Nina forces me into overdrive.

      My blood vessels stitch themselves up. My bones set and mend. I stand up with more effort than ever before. I want to say the pain is terrible, but in a way, it isn’t. I hurt so bad all over that instead of an identifiable pain, my body just pulses in protest.

      I look through the debris in time to see another one of its hulking arms swinging at Nina. But she’s sober now and nimbly dodges the brute’s attack.

      I hobble over to her as best as I can. My legs snap into place here and there while my arms make a sickening crack as they realign themselves.

      “Nina!” I shout, but she can’t hear me.

      The creature lets out a deafening roar and swings wildly against Nina. She dances between blows until she’s able to slip through his attacks. Once in, a spear of fire forms in her hands and she stabs it into the beast’s chest.

      It screams in pain and flails all over. The spear disappears and in its place an ax of ice forms. With a swing of her blade, the creature’s arm flies through the air. A massive fountain of like black blood paints the air.

      Not to be outdone in spectacle, Nina dashes under the creature’s legs, swaps her ice axe out, which glitters into a mist in the air, and pulls out a sword of lightning given form.

      Nina eviscerates its legs. The creatures stumbles forward from the disconnect between itself and the appendages keeping it standing.

      As it falls forward, it catches itself with its one good arm. I see the creature look towards the sky and releases a roar unlike anything before. Within the guttural sounds is a melancholy of sadness.

      Nina wanders onto its back and jams her sword down the creature’s exposed mouth, and out through the back of its skull.

      With a thud the creature falls to the ground, having been thoroughly destroyed by Nina. I run to her the moment I’m able.

      The fact that I came back from such a blow causes a cold chill to wash over me. I don’t know what’s real anymore. But before I can put more thought towards it, Nina sways and falls off of the creature. I catch her in time for dark-red blood to expel itself from her lips.

      She heaves and struggles as what appears to be a seizure overtakes her. I feel powerless and start to cry.

      I call her name and tell her it’ll be ok. I reassure her with all that I am. I tell her she has to pull through. There’s still too much for us to do together. But the fates have proven themselves cruel as her form goes limp in my arms.

      “Nina? Nina! Wake up!” I shake her, progressively getting more violent in my attempts.

      Her cold form doesn’t reply to me. I break down into sobs and rock back and forth, cradling her in my arms. This is cruel. Too cruel. You can not take her from me! Not after everything that’s happened.

      But I receive no voice. No god wishes me well or tells me it’s just how the plan works.

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      The fates do not speak up about this practical joke. But an eerie laugh does echo on the wind and pulls my attention away from Nina. I look all around and can’t see anything. I call out for Rei and receive no response.

      The Valkyries and Dom are nowhere to be seen. Fighting can be heard in the distance, far closer than the city proper. That is where they would be. I have to help them. I don’t want to leave Nina but I have no choice.

      I plant a kiss on her forehead and lay her down onto the soft grass.

      I start to turn and stand, but my arm finds its way into a grasp of steel. A wheezing cough echoes across the courtyard as I turn to see Nina breathing with much effort.

      “Nina!” The tears renew their effort and flow freely. “Nina! I thought I lost you!”

      I throw my arms around her on the ground and she winced at first. Eventually, she wraps a trembling arm around me for comfort.

      My Nina, even now she’s thinking about me first.

      I shake my head to clear that line of thought and grab her hand. She gives me a weak smile with crimson lips. I dance her knuckles across my lips, forcing a small laugh to wheeze itself out.

      “I’m not so easily killed.”

      “I’m so glad,” my voice breaks.

      “But Evangeline-sama. It’s time.

       I hesitate to ask for clarification as her free hand reveals a small ring to me.

      “It’s not perfected but it should work.”

      Confused, I wrap the ring, and her hand, in mine. “What do you mean? Either way, we have to leave. It’s not safe.” She gives another labored laugh.

      “You get to go home, my Evangeline-sama.”

      Those words make me soar, then crash. “What are you talking about?”

      “This is the device to set you free. You can go home. Take it.”

      She trades it into my hand. I hate myself for allowing it to consume my thoughts at a time like this.

      But I can leave this world behind she says.

      I can go home to my world. I can see Grandpa and Jamie again. I can pay Rachel’s grave a visit. My eyes flicker between Nina and the ring. But…

      “No. Evangeline-sama you have to think bigger. I will be fine after more rest. The revolt has largely been quashed. You can’t even hear the fighting anymore.”

      Much to my surprise, she’s right. The wind around us calm and carries only the smell of death and grass to me.

      “Then once everything has settled down and I’ve said goodbye to everyone-” she cuts me off.

      “No. The beast is dead and the aether is higher than ever. But it’s dissipating. The energy required for the machine to work is massive. Until, and only if, the machine is refined, the energy needed can’t be naturally acquired.”

      I stare in shock.

      “Then I’ll wait until you do.”

      “You may be dead of old age by then. That’s how far beyond me this is. This is it Evangeline. This is where you make your choice.”

      My heart is breaking and I feel nauseous.

      “I don’t understand anything! Why does it have to be like this?!” I wail aloud. “What even is that monster? How do you know about such advanced things? How do you find yourself without surprise at this beast. Why is there so much you’ve never told me?”

      Long bottled-up questions pour out of me like a thick licorice. “Nina. Just what are you? What’s going on?”

      She gives me a weak smile and rubs her hand, weak with exhaustion, against my cheek.

      “The Beast is come once again. But felled all the same. In distance, Queen carries a beacon that can not be let alit. But all the same again, I can not interfere more than I have. The Knight is defending justly with Silence, Temper, and Mother.”

      Nina’s eyes seem to glaze over as she mumbles incoherently. But as quickly as she changed once, she’s changed back.

      “Nina, what’re you-” I’m cut off as the surrounding air hisses and distort.

      “The time is now Zero. There won’t be another,” her words fall in an uncharacteristically slow manner.

      This is it. This is the ultimate choice offered by fate. I can choose to continue being a coward and run from this world, probably never to see them again.

      I can stand my ground and try to make a life here, as a fake.

      But in both choices, I have to give up people who mean everything to me. My hesitation is clear as day and Nina takes note.

      “Evangeline, there is no choice,” She sits herself up and sends a weak glare towards me.

       “Listen. I haven’t gotten to mention, and I didn’t want it to seem like I was forcing you.”

      I look at her incredulously. “What?”

      “If you leave-” she coughs violently but holds up a hand when I try to help her again. With a struggle, she stands.

      “If you leave, I posit that the strings will break.”

       My very core jolts in response. “I… will free everyone?” She gives me a hesitant nod.

      “If that’s how you choose to view it.”

      “How else could I interpret it?”

      She gives me a pained look. But then asks me a question instead.

      “Who are you, without your bonds, Zero?”

       I can’t answer her; mostly because I don’t really get what she’s asking.

      “But if I’m gone, you can all go back to your normal lives. I won’t manipulate all of you.”

      “It’s time Zero.”

      She touches my hand and everything around us shimmers. I grow cold. Not just from the area, but from the tone Nina has taken. Three times now she’s changed how she calls me.

      She is no longer talking to me as a person but as a thing. She’s making my choice for me. Her cold tone, a reflection of everyone else, I’m sure. My existence here is unnecessary. And so my choice has been made. I turn to the shimmering around us and take hold of a deep breath.

      “I’ll miss all of you…”

      I let my sentiments hang in the air and take a step forward. My body heats up and tingles. I turn to take a selfish, last look at Nina. All so I’d have one last memory of my shame.

      Rachel, forgive me for weakness.

      The world starts to fade away as I catch a last look of Nina. She’s smiling the most beautiful one she’s ever given me. But tears stream from her face. Her despair radiates outward and drains into the enclosing space.

      I realize at the last moment that perhaps this was her plan all along. She knew I would hesitate and so she pushed me.

      Just as when I first arrived in Arsea, she saved me. She’d gone beyond herself to make me whole.

      Those thoughts are the last I’ll ever have of Arsea in the present.

      My world fades to black and a searing pain envelops me. A blood-curdling scream of pure agony escapes me as the concrete rips open my knees and hands.

      A murmur of voices surrounds me. When I look up, I’m staring into the gaping maws of dumbfounded people.

      The surrounding area, home.

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