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“I’m so glad we’re finally out of that realm,” Winoa said, sighing happily at the sight of the open sky and feel of the wind on her skin. “Who’s dumb idea was it to halt a person in the sixth floor testing chambers anyway? Argh it makes me so angry! We were only a week past the year limit.”
“You’ve said this before, Win,” Cleo sighed, “The parameters on us are a lot harder because we start with an advantage”. She agreed with her friend, but she could not help but understand the reasoning behind the restriction. “The entire point of the tower is to make us achieve the unachievable, so there’s got to be some way to push us beyond our comfort zone”.
“Yeah, well travelling with that Zoo guy was a mistake.”
“And I said I was sorry for that. He knew the best way to Slipstream, and neither of us realised that it would cause such a big problem when getting a ship to Maelstrom.”
Winoa stuck her tongue out at her friend and laughed. “Still your fault”.
The two girls had become even closer over the time they had been trapped in the sixth floor testing dimension. They both cultivated with the elements, so working together allowed them to cover each other’s weaknesses in greater detail than either of them could have on their own. Thanks to their two year journey together they had ascended to the lofty heights of peak Sainthood, with an extremely competent grasp on the capabilities of the four elements.
“So what now?” Winoa asked. She knew full well that Cleo refused to go to either of the regions controlled by the clans of Chaos, but they were both clueless about where to go from there. Winoa was loath to leave her friend alone, and she did not know anyone who would be in her clan’s section of the city. The only real benefit that either girl would receive was a stable place to stay.
Cleo fiddled with her collar as she thought about the options that she had. She could have stayed in the clan, but her status as an unwanted child meant that she would never truly be welcome there. Sometimes she would wonder what life would have been like, had she been born the first or second child of a family. Even the third child, usually considered the weakest would be treated better than she had originally. She had worked and worked, lucked out a little and eventually earned herself a copy of the Book. She had known for as long as she had known anything that no one in the Ignis clan cared about her, at least no one who was not her brothers. When she was around her clan, she had to work twice as hard for half the result. It was why so many people were shocked at the fact that she had become one of the three children selected to climb the tower, and not only that but she had actually been the first person of her year to become ready for Sainthood. She had risen far above her birth and stunned the entirety of the Ignis family in the process.
Again and again, Cleo had worked and worked to make herself the best she could be, to make herself respected, maybe even admired by her fellow members of the Ignis family, but she knew that even reaching peak sainthood at the age of eight and a half. All she needed was some time to consolidate everything she knew and she would likely break into Heaven rank with ease. Unfortunately, the amount of knowledge that she was dealing with took a long time to consolidate.
Her next option was to beg another clan to let her in, but that would likely cost her her book. The Heaven rankers of the nine clans of the books would do anything to get their hands on a second book. Getting a second book was the simplest path to immortality. It was something she simply could afford to do. The third was she could stay in one of the uncontrolled areas. She would need to earn her way, or find an empty house to squat in, but unfortunately neither one had any idea of how to begin.
They decided in the end to go to the desolate strip and look for one of the nicer areas, eventually settling on an area called Panwood lane. It was relatively quiet, and had been rebuilt by the current community that lived there. There were still several empty houses, but the lord of the land was a retired bobby. He prided himself on affordable, and high quality buildings that people could rent for cheap. He had made a killing off the various unaligned challengers who needed a place to stay. Some would only stay for a few months, but for many this floor would be their final stop on climbing the tower. They just did not have the courage or the tenacity to climb further.
Panwood lane was growing into a thriving ecosystem, as both a rest stop and permanent housing, but there was something about the area that seemed extremely morose to the two girls when they first arrived. They could not help but feel the waves of dread and sadness flowing off everyone. Every person they walked past wore a black armband, a simple black cloth hanging from their hips, or full on mourning clothes. It was like they were preparing for a funeral of some kind, one that had affected all their lives.
Eventually Winoa worked up the courage to ask one of the more active and happier looking members of the community, and got pointed in the direction of the landlord. The man was an elderly looking fellow, sitting against a wall, whittling away at a piece of wood. He looked up at the two girls and gave them a wan smile.
“Good day ladies,” he said, putting down a beautiful statuette, “how can I help you?”
“We just arrived in Spirit and are looking for a place to stay. We have to stay until we reach the age where we can climb Babel again, so we may be here for a while,” Cleo replied, bowing slightly at the man’s greeting. “Is there anywhere we would be able to stay, and perhaps work to earn shards to live? We are both skilled with the elements.”
The man chuckled, “You two girls are obviously golden children, so why aren’t you with your family? Why aren’t you with your clan? You could get much better treatement with them.”
“We can’t. There are reasons why we can’t stay with them, but I can’t tell you,” said Winoa. “It’s complicated, and to do with clan politics more than anything. We just need a place to live, and perhaps work on some element arrays to make the place a nicer place to live.”
“Alright, I’ll give you two a place to stay, and a stipend of two silver shards a week to live on if you install light and flowing water arrays in all the living areas in this estate. Does that sound fair?”
Cleo and Winoa glanced at each other. They did not know how much an arrayist would normally received, but they knew that they would both be able to live comfortably off that. After a moment, they nodded in unison. “That seems fair,” Cleo replied.
“I trust that you will be true to your word. The clans generally react negatively to those who besmirch their name.”
“We will do our work, don’t worry,” said Winoa. “The last thing either of us actually want is to rock the boat with the clans”.
The old man rubbed his hands together and began showing them the way to their new home. “Okay, well I have a house for you but there is a girl about the same age as you living there. We took her in a few weeks ago and she’s not in a good way. Perhaps you two will be able to improve her state of mind”.
The two girls followed the landlord to a small housing unit near the entrance to Panwood lane, it was dark, but it had a homely feel to it. Cleo sighed, it would be the first place she could call home without worry about being picked on or harassed by her own family. She took a few steps inside and saw the form of a small person curled up in a ball, shying away from the light and the people coming through the doors.
Her greenish brown hair was bedraggled and hid her face, but she seemed like she was a frightened rabbit. She pulled a thin blanket that covered her body up to her face, in the hopes that it would hide her better. Eventually the landlord walked in as well and said, “Girlie, you’ve got a few new roommates”.
“I told you not to let anyone in here. They will get attacked by the devourer if they do!” Her voice was musical, and for some reason Cleo recognised the voice. It was one she had not heard in almost two years, but recognised well. “It’s not safe,” the girl continued. “He’s coming for me. He always does…”
“Who is the devourer?” Interjected Winoa.
“Winoa? Is that you? It’s been a long time since I heard the voice of another golden child.” The girl pulled down the blanket and pushed away her hair. She was gaunt, but still had the floral quality that had made her a firmly popular girl when they had first met. She smiled, the thin slit of her sallow face not quite reaching her eyes. “Hello Winoa, hello Cleo. It’s been a long time.”
“Rose?” Cleo gasped, “What happened to you?”
“It started about a year and a half ago,” Rose began. She sat at the small table in the kitchen of the apartment with a fresh cup of Redweed tea, the sweet scent of the tea leaves and honey mixed together soothed the girl enough to focus on her terror. “I was originally with my partner for the journey, a boy from the Briar clan called Willis. He wasn’t as strong as me, but he was a worthy partner to climb to the tenth floor with. We learned a lot together, though judging by the aura that is around you two, I still fell behind.”
Cleo smiled, she could tell that Rose was trying to make light of the situation, but it fell slightly flat. She was better at rude than complementary, so the sound of her being such was odd. “What happened to him?” Cleo finally said, seeing ose slowly slip back into her shell.
“He died. I’ll get there soon enough,” Rose replied. “I was surprisingly happy back then. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that happy again. I don’t know if I can. Every day was a joy to be part of, every day was a wonder, every day was too good to be true. I didn’t have to pretend to be the controlling and arrogant person that I normally did. I didn’t have to pretend with Willis because he had known me for as long as we had both been alive. We traveled like that for six months, but when we arrived in the fifth floor, things started to get strange. About three weeks into the journey to the next gateway we came across a man who had killed three horses to escape something. He didn’t know what it was, but something had killed an entire citadel settlement. The corpses had all dessicated and the people had died, but they had not stopped doing their general day to day jobs”.
“We found a town like that. It… It was hard to deal with,” Winoa said, glancing at Cleo and remembering how she was the one who had to deal with the corpses of the devourer’s victims. It had hurt Cleo in a way that Winoa could not really understand, a way that was only beginning to show its edges now.
“It followed us. Every couple of weeks we would hear about towns and settlements that had been completely destroyed by this entity, this thing. It was following in the path that we took, it was chasing us and we had no idea why”. Rose began to shake and cry, but held her hands in fists as if to steel herself. “About a week after we arrived here, Willis decided to see which of us the devourer was chasing. He left me alone, and I haven’t heard from him since”.
There was silence as the two girls digested what they had heard. The devourer had harmed them all in some way, but they had no idea who or what it was. Cleo grabbed Rose’s hands and looked her in the eyes. “Do you know if it was Willis this devourer was after? Because if it wasn’t then we could hunt this devourer down. There’s no way that whatever this devourer could stand up to three saints, let alone peak saints”.
“I know he’s dead. He said he was going to come back in a week but he was in one of the regions of the festival of the dead when the killing happened”.
“The festival of the dead?” Winoa asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s something that happened a year ago, over a thousand people died in a single day. It was the single biggest massacre in the history of the neutral zones. Generally Bobbies keep the peace well enough, but that day they couldn’t. So many people died that day… Families. Innocents. People who shouldn’t have died. It was horrible, nowhere was safe. Panwood was one of the focus areas, the one hit by the devourer itself”. There was a catch in Rose’s voice. She was not sad, she was not even mournful. The night made her angry beyond belief. “I’m so tired of being scared, but… The thought of the devourer catching up to me makes me just want to run away and hide. I can’t go outside anymore. I don’t want to live like this, Cleo. I can’t”.
Cleo sighed as Rose broke down into tears. She had hated the girl when they first met, but this was something she would not wish on her worst enemy. There was such a huge weight over Rose’s head that even Cleo’s experience of dealing with the devourer’s waste could not compare to how the girl was feeling. She had been put under extreme stress for over a year, and she was well past her breaking point. A light breeze would break the girl, and Cleo had no way of knowing if she could be repaired.
“Why do you call it the devourer?” Winoa asked. She was genuinely curious. She had seen the corpses, she knew that they looked like they had been baked in the sun, but she could not understand why the name the ‘devourer’ had been chosen.
Rose could not look up; tears continued to stream down her face, but after a few moments, she tried to speak. “It’s… I… I know three things… about the devourer”. Every few words were punctuated with sobs and deep breaths as she struggled to get the information out. “The devourer is called the… devourer, because they devour the souls of… of their victims. They are male… and also, the only person who saw them and survived… They said the person was a child like us”.
“The devourer’s a Golden Child? That’s impossible though. The clans would clamp down on them immediately if they knew who was causing these issues”. Cleo was shocked. The iron grip of the clans was stifling, even to an effective exile like herself was still kept on an uncomfortably short leash. It seemed unbelievable to her that someone could avoid it, let alone commit the atrocities that Rose said had occurred.
“You think I don’t know that? It’s the only thing that makes sense though. They followed me up the floors for who knows how long. They have to be one of us”. Rose picked up the teacup and drank it in one go. It was easy to tell she was trying to be strong, but in Cleo’s eyes she seemed more like she was made of fine bone china. “There are rumours… rumours of children showing up with our level of expertise, but with names and auras that the nine clans have never heard of”.
“Do you think they could be from the four beast clans?” Winoa asked. The nine book clans and four beast clans were considered the peak powers by most normal people, but the four beast clans were looked down on. They had to marry out, or simply leave their birth clan to gain any sort of real power. They had strong physiques, but without an intellectual path, that meant nothing.
“The thought passed my mind, but the devourer was called a demon in human flesh. He had to be… he has to be one of us right? There were rumours of powerful children showing up in the neutral zone, but I don’t know how true they are. Most of us are in our clan territories, waiting for a chance to get to the eleventh floor”.
“Look, Rose. We will try and work out who the devourer is. There must be a short list of people, or maybe just a place we could look to see promising young challengers that we could check out,” Winoa said, taking control of the situation. Someone had to, and Cleo knew that without a doubt she could not. She had decided, after dealing with what she now knew as the devourer’s leftovers, that her role in life would be one of uncomfortable decisions and terrible actions. She would do things that other people balked at, the things that had to be done by were simply too unsettling to the conscience of a normal person. She chose her path, but she had to be led because of it. She would not shy away from things others could not look at, but she also could not stand in the limelight, lest her actions were revealed. She would become a monster, but she did not want to be called a monster.
“There’s a place you can go, but I don’t know if you’ll find anything there,” Rose said, “the Empty Throne school has a ring in the area, one that most of the adults and children in Panwood lane use for training. They say there are a few people around our age who are insanely gifted”. She sat down on her pallet bed, wrapping the blanket around her body again.
She looks so pathetic… Cleo thought, noticing how gaunt and pale the girl in front of her was. She had obviously been hiding for a long time. “We will be as back as soon a we can, and Rose, please eat something. You look really thin”. Rose gave a weak smile in response before the two girls left the house.
As Winoa and Cleo stepped outside, neither could help but squint as the sun was so bright in comparison to the gloom of Rose’s room. Cleo sighed in appreciation. There was something truly healing about the light, it just made her feel better after such a depressing discovery. They both moved away from their new living quarters with haste, if they were going to live there, they knew they had to make Rose feel better. The next few years would be awful if they had to deal with a girl constantly jumping at shadows, so both girls agreed to do whatever they needed to do to in order to clear Rose’s worries.
Their short walk to the arena was surprisingly pleasant, with the thin wisps of woodsmoke that permeated the area and scenting their path, and the soft, warm sunlight flowing over them, they could not help but relax. Gradually, the wood and thatch buildings came to a halt, and in their place stood a monolithic stone wall. The ten metre high boundary continued on until it eventually shifted into ornate housing for a massive wooden door. The left door was ajar, and a sign was hanging from it at head height.
“Empty Throne school of combat open day, please come in,” Winoa read out loud, pausing as they got closer enough to read the smaller text, “note: do not walk off the path to the arena. You may be attacked by constructs. Well, I guess we follow the path then, huh?”
“Seems that way,” Cleo replied.
They walked through the open door and followed the path towards the arena. There was an odd sense of peace that washed over the two girls as they walked past the perfectly sculpted stone gardens, the beautiful metal statues, and the symmetrically planted trees that lined the straight path towards the large building that hopefully contained their target. Each soft crunch of the gravel beneath their feet echoed around them, and was the only sound for miles around.
Finally they arrived at the tiered tower that held the combat area of the school. The steel grey bricks seemed to draw the eye towards the tower, no matter where you looked. If it was in eyeshot then eventually you would focus on the tower more than anything else; it truly dominated the landscape. Opening the door and stepping inside the tower, the two girls were confronted with a sound that was completely opposed to the tranquility of the outside. A massive roar overtook them as the crowd they were confronted with went wild.
In the arena, two rather bedraggled men stood at arms length from each other. They were circling each other, looking for openings. It was obvious from the welts on the body of one of the fighters that they had just had an intense, but one sided engagement, and the fight was coming to a close. Some of the crowd were cheering, some were booing, but either way they were whipped into a frenzy, and the men in the arena seemed to be feeding off it.
The weakened man punched out with his less injured right hand, hooking his fist towards the healthier man’s gut. In response the healthy man stepped inside the hook and swung his elbow towards the head of his opponent. The weakened man seemed to slip as the elbow swung towards his head. He fell on his back and rolled into his palms and shoulders. Wincing he coiled like a spring and kicked towards the head of the healthy man.
The healthy man stopped in surprise as his opponent disappeared from his field of view, unfortunately this sealed his fate. The weakened man gritted his teeth as his kick went wide, but he did not worry; both his heels slammed into his opponent’s collar bones. As his kick landed, he pushed off the ground and rolled back onto his feet to face the healthier man.
When the kick connected, there was a pair of sharp cracks as the two thin bones both shattered. The healthy man went white and his arms both feel to his sides. He gasped in pain and fell to his knees, then the referee of the fight called the end of the match. There was silence for a moment before a large swathe of the crowd went wild. Victories from the jaws of defeat were not uncommon, but they were always spectacular, and the crowd who had flocked to watch were reveling in it.
Various people stood up from the crowd and approached a young boy near the side of the ring. He was obviously important as he was flanked by two powerful looking fighters in some sort of grey uniform, and the way the crowd that approached him were acting, it was like they worshiped him. Cleo thought for a moment before correcting herself; they were not worshiping him, they were showing adoration for what he was giving them.
Each person was giving the boy a piece of paper with a word and a number on it. The boy looked at the paper, turned round and pulled a bag out of a small box behind him and handed it in exchange for the paper. Some would give the bag back and point to the stone board behind the boy. There were names and numbers written over the board, but the one they were all pointing to was “Law vs Geoffrey”. It seemed like it was the next match, so Winoa motioned to Cleo to sit down. They would have to wait until the end of the event to actually be able to talk to anyone, so they thought that they might as well enjoy the spectacle while they waited.
The crowd died down when a man walked out into the centre of the stage. He was a well dressed man, almost pampered in comparison to most of the audience, and commanded the room like he was born to it. As he walked into the stage he stepped round a small puddle of blood and sweat. Ushering over one of the attendants, he motioned for them to clean up the puddle and then began looking at the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “That was an incredible fight was it not? Tense from the get go, with the underdog finishing on top. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time”. The crowd cheered in response, then quickly returned to silence. Cleo could not help but find his control over the people almost mesmeric. The most incredible part for her was he was doing it all with charisma, there were no undulations that came about due to use of mana. The man was not a practitioner of the book of Order. “Is everyone ready for the next match?” The crowd cheered. “Well, the next two fighting are something special.
“Representing the Empty Throne school, we have Law, the wild child. He’s been studying under Alistair as a core disciple for the last year and has a perfect fortnightly match record. Twenty matches, twenty wins. A formidable record by any stretch of the imagination”. A young boy in a grey uniform, like the one that the ones that stood flanking the boy Cleo had seen earlier. He looked to be maybe a year older than Cleo herself, but the strength he radiated was something that she could not compare to.
“On the other side, we have Geoffrey, a Challenger from the land of Odnw’Aldn. I believe he said he was a Lieutenant from the border patrol. He has taken the initiative to do the hammer challenge!” The crowd jeered at the man. It was odd of them, because Cleo felt that the man who walked on the stage was of a decent strength, and was far better armed than Law. “As we all know, the hammer challenge is one where the challenger must force Law to use his hammer in either offense or defense. If he does so within ten minutes he automatically wins. Law on the other hand, must incapacitate his opponent, or just last for ten whole minutes without pulling out his hammer”. The crowd let out a collective ooh sound, and a second as Geoffrey walked out into the arena. The difference between the two combatants was obvious, almost to an extreme. Law was dressed in the simple combat uniform of the Empty Throne school, empty handed. His chin length wavy hair, dark eyes, tight visible muscles, and domineering aura made him seem like some sort of child demigod.
In comparison Geoffrey was armed to the teeth. He was decked out in full chainmail armour, leather and an iron helm. With a heavy sword hanging at his waist, Cleo could not help but think that the difference in the two of them was simply unsurmountable. Laurence was strong, but the deck seemed to be so heavily stacked in his favour that she could not see how he could win without a weapon.
The announcer moved to the edge of the stage, and motioned to a man beside a bell. He stepped out and sat down, then the bell rang. Immediately Geoffrey sprung forward and moved within range of Law. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he readied his strike. If he landed the strike, it was obvious he felt like he could win. He was a challenger, his blade had been forged through the fires of the first ten floors. He had technique, skill and strength, and his journey had been longer than a child.
Law shifted his feet and raised his fists. His form echoed in the back of the minds of people, but no one could recognise it, at least not until he dived into the range of Geoffrey. As he dipped into range, Geoffrey drew his sword and swung his blade towards Law’s head. Law took a short step back and then dove forward again once blade had passed him. He reached into Geoffrey’s inner range and slammed his fist into where Geoffrey’s solar plexus would be. Geoffrey used his own momentum and Law’s arm to spin out of the way, then swung his sword over his shoulder, towards Law’s head. Law stepped back as the sword swung down and then moved forwards again once Geoffrey finished his twist. He had a natural height disadvantage, so it would be hard for him to go for the face of his opponent. Instead he went for two quick strikes to the abdomen before pulling back into his starting stance. The first strike landed, but as it landed Geoffrey shot backwards and tightened his guard.
The fight was beautiful to Cleo; everything seemed to move so fluidly, and the two combatants were not holding anything back. The only oddity to the girl was that she recognised the style Law was fighting in, but she could not place it. As Law dropped the stance and began bouncing on the spot it clicked in her head, the boy had been fighting using Orion’s Hunt, a spear style. You can use weapon styles barehanded? she thought as the fight continued.
Law leapt forwards, this time taking charge of the combat, and immediately swung a heavy kick towards Geoffrey’s knees. Geoffrey stepped back, but was not expecting for Law to land on his right leg, the one he had just kicked, pivot, and send another kick towards his side this time. He blocked the kick with the flat of the blade, but Law only used this as another pivot point. Law sprung up and sent a third kick towards Geoffrey’s head, but Geoffrey reacted in time and dropped to the ground, mimicking the victor of the previous bout in escape.
The two combatants retreated once more and began staring at each other looking for openings. Law stopped bouncing and shifted stance once more, this time with his right fist just hovering slightly above his left. He moved forwards, using arcing motions to reach Geoffrey, but Geoffrey stepped forwards and began a flurry of strikes. He swung towards Law’s waist, and when Law moved to grab the blade, he slid his hand up and caught the tip with his metal sheathed right hand, pulling it from the boy’s grasp. He swung his left arm up, and tried to slam the pommel into Law’s jaw. Law ducked, but his attempt to grasp the blade had left him slightly out of position and so the pommel grazed the top of his head.
He span backwards and skittered to a stop. Taking a fourth stance, Law began grinning, he was obviously enjoying the engagement. Cleo, on the other hand had her heart in her mouth. She could not believe what she was watching. She had not recognised Law’s third unsuccessful stance, but the second one he took was that of Amaethon’s Blade, replacing the reaping blade with his legs. She was stunned that someone her age could fight and switch stances so fluidly, and not only that, he could switch so fluidly from one stance to another.
Geoffrey was about to run forward when Law spoke. “Thank you,” the boy began, “You are the first person I have met who I think can actually combat my martial skills. I’m going to have fun trying out something I created on you. Experience Yesod, my foundation”.
Law raised his fists once more, and his aura visibly changed. Geoffrey took a step back at the threat he felt from the boy. He steeled himself and ran to fight the boy. Blade out, he stopped just short of Law and thrust his blade towards the boy, a killing blow directed straight at his chest. Law’s grin stayed plastered to his face, in answer to the strike he shifted ever so slightly out of the way of the tip of the blade and began short spiralling motions. He struck at Geoffrey’s wrist, then spun and slammed his left palm into the man’s elbow. A second step and he was behind the man, still spinning he kicked against the man’s knees then swung his elbow into the man’s now lowered head. The iron helm Geoffrey wore cracked in two and Law kept spinning round him, his fist swung towards the man, but before he could strike Geoffrey shouted out, “I concede!”
Law’s fist stopped around an inch from the face of his competitor and smiled. “Thank you for taking part in this exhibition match”. He stepped off stage and walked out of the arena. The crowd let out a collective breath of air and began cheering at the engagement that took less than a minute to complete. It was a complete contrast to the fight beforehand and had Cleo on the edge of her seat the entire time. She could barely breathe, his fight had been beautiful and she wanted to see more
The crowd let out a collective sigh as soon as they knew the fight was over. There was something incredible about watching two Saint ranked super experts enter combat, even if they could not quite keep up with what was happening. Cleo, on the other hand, was still astounded at Law’s capabilities. To do what she had seen the boy do, and switch between five different martial forms with ease, one had to be able to fully immerse themself into a martial form at high speed, then shift out of it into another at equally high speed. Immersing yourself into a martial art took high degrees of skill, even more so without the weapon that the style was meant for. Cleo had heard of swordsmen who could transform their fingers into swords using mana, but this was something new to her.
When the match was truly over, Winoa shook Cleo out of her stupor and dragged her towards the boy they had spotted earlier. He was still surrounded by people, but there were a lot less people crowding round him now. The big crowd that had surrounded the boy had lessened, as it seemed like people were no longer allowed to change their bets. It seemed like there were three more fights that would go on, but the most unpredictable fight had already happened. He was still flanked by two men in the same uniform that Law had worn, but they were a lot more lax about their situation now there were no longer tens of people surrounding them.
Cleo and Winoa wandered up to the boy, slightly unsure of how to begin. The boy looked up from the various notes that he was carrying in his hands, humming a quiet ditty. Seeing how they were standing awkwardly, but apparently trying to get their attention, the boy waved at them and ushered them over. “Well, what do we have here then?” He said.
“Umm.. I’m not really sure how to go about this, but my friend and I are hunting for the devourer. We’ve heard that a child, or at least someone with a childlike height is the beast we’re searching for, and we need to find him to set our friend’s mind at rest. She’s really been tormented by it”. Winoa was the first person to brave the crowds. She had no problem with talking to new people, but she had never tried to talk to someone who was the focus of, or at least near to the focus of over a hundred people. Cleo was the same. It was slightly nerve wracking for them, but they managed to push past it because of Rose.
“The devourer… As in the guy who ate the nutrients from all those people in the Pen?” the boy laughed, “Oh no, we don’t have anyone like that here.Though I wouldn’t put it past Yun to try and feast like that… the guy is weird”. Jim hopped off the table he was perched on, and put away the notes into his box. “Look, I’ll ask around, but I can’t promise anything. There’s actually no one I know who has the powers that the devourer is supposed to use, but I can find out from my friends who are in the gangs. Come back in a week and ask for Jim. I’ll tell you if I find anything then”. The boy, Jim, bowed at the two girls and turned back to his box that he seemed to be able to fill with masses of paper and bags that people craved.
“Excuse me,” Cleo piped up, “Where did you get that box?”
“This?” Jim replied, “Law made it for me. He and I have been friends since he arrived in Spirit”.
“Law made it for you?” Cleo asked, mouth agape. “But is he not… Is he not a member of the Dominus clan?”
“Not at all, his full name is Laurence Absolution. Golden Child of the absolution clan from two years ago”.
“And he’s an arrayist as well as a combat prodigy?” She could barely believe such a person existed, let alone that he was only a year older than her. There were legends of Golden Children who were more prodigious, but they were usually fifteen or twenty years old. There had not been any such prodigies in her entire lifetime, at least not in her clan. She smiled wistfully at the thought, Perhaps I could have been one such prodigy, if I had not been born from my father.
“Be happy you aren’t Law. He’s a gifted fighter and maker of tools, but he’s not exactly the most emotionally balanced of people. He’s unpredictable. Honest to a fault though”.
Cleo sighed. “Okay, well thank you for your information, and hopefully we will be back in a week”.
“You’re welcome,” Jim replied.
With that, the two girls left the arena. If what Jim had said was true, then there was very little left for them to find in the martial school.There were only a couple more places that the two girls could reasonably expect to find anything, namely the mercenary soldiers, the Bobbies, or the gangs. With Jim asking the gangs, their only real option was to ask the bobbies if they were willing to share any information.
They walked through the streets of Spirit as the moon came up, the moonlight bleached road giving the whole view an odd, almost spooky feeling to the girls. They walked for about fifteen minutes before the road split. One way would lead them back to their house, the other would take them to the headquarters of the Sir Robert’s men. Winoa turned to Cleo and said, “It would probably be a good idea if I went and check on Rose. you reckon you’ll be okay dealing with the bobbies on your own?”
“Okay, I’ll be back as soon as possible”.
The two girls split off and Cleo continued her journey towards the headquarters of the peacekeepers of the city. The quickly darkening streets made her speed up her steps. Even a saint was not entirely safe in the streets of the city at night, but the closer to the bobbies base she got, the less likely she was to encounter anything. Eventually her pace slowed as she reached a tall and imposing granite building. There were gargoyles on either side and the crest of the Anvale family affixed above the door in plain view. It was obvious that while this was not the most important base for the bobbies, they still treated each building with a large amount of respect.
She walked inside and was immediately met with the hustle and bustle of a guard force that was thoroughly understaffed for the area that they had to deal with. Looking for someone to talk to she immediately spotted a familiar face. Her landlord was sat at a desk near the entrance of the building, at a table that was slightly higher than the rest of them. Quickly she ran over to him.
“Mr Mallory!” She said, “What are you doing here?”
“I work here,” the balding man replied. “You may not realise this, but I am Captain Bertrand Mallory, leader of the Executioners Pen bobbies. I usually only work at nights though. Sleeping through the day has been so ingrained into my blood that at this point I think I would probably die if I did anything else. Now, what have you come down here for… Cleo, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Cleo. Umm… I’m here because of the girl who I am sharing the house with”.
“What, that Winoa girl? Has she done something?”
“No, the other one. Rose. We knew her long before you housed us together. We’re golden children of the same generation, so we met on the way up. But that’s not important. She thinks she is being hunted by the devourer, and Winoa and I are looking for him. We were wondering if you would be able to give us any information on finding him, because the rumours seem to point to the fact that he is a golden child”.
“I had heard something to that extent, so why should I give you any information we have? He’s a dangerous individual, and you are not only my protectorate, but also my tennant. Surely, I should be less inclined to give the information to you”. Mr Mallory spoke sensibly, but Cleo could tell that he was must looking for a reasonable excuse to give her the information.
“You should know that I am a golden child, and that so is both Rose and Winoa. That means that not only are we valuable members of our respective clans, but also that all three of us are Saints. Surely it would be better to give us the information and let us deal with it than let some poor Earth rank bobbies meet the devourer by acting on your information and just adding to the already considerable death toll?”
Mr Mallory paused, then pulled out a leather bound folder from his draw. “Fine. This is a folder that contains a copy of the information we have on the devourer. If you can find him and stop his rampage, then that’s great, but don’t bite off more than you can chew”.
“I won’t”. Cleo smiled, curtsied to the man who had gone out of his way to help her twice this day. She then turned round and began the long journey home through the dark of the city.
The city streets were quickly becoming deserted as Cleo began her journey home. There was something about the night that terrified people, oppressed their spirits and allowed the rougher side of people to reign free. Cleo walked quickly, but confidently through the streets and back alleyways that would get her home fastest. She might have been a child, but she knew she could handle herself if push came to shove.
Some of the alleyways were tight quarters, filed with boxes, rubbish and other general detritus, while others were wide enough to get a horse down, paved with cobble and actually quite pleasant to walk down. They were not like the main roads, or the high streets, but they were still consisted world’s better than any of the small alleyways that lead to the doves and houses of those who were considered hopeless, or worthless. From what Cleo had learned, she knew that at one point Spirit was a paragon of support for the poor. Unfortunately, the event that made the Hephaistia clan disappear had left a gaping wound in the city, a and as the generation of social workers changed, they chose to use the easy option if forcing anyone of unstable, or poor finances into the two newly freed areas. It got rid of the problem for a time, but the two areas now populated with the undesirables of the city bred crime faster than a cesspool breeds disease. It kept Cleo on her toes, but she was still confident. As long as she did not meet someone of the calibre of Law, or of the devourer himself, she felt she would be comfortable dealing with anyone coming her way.
Her shadow extended as she walked by a lit window, quickly followed by two more. The sound of heavy footsteps had followed Cleo for the last five minutes, but looking back now would be a sign of weakness. She needed to wait for them to make a move. The footsteps quickened as she walked down one of the smaller alleyways, if they were not going to move now, then she would force them to. They got closer and closer, until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey kid,” said one, “You look like you’re pretty well off. How about you share some of your wealth with me and my friend here”.
Cleo turned and was faced with two men, barely more than boys. They were obviously members of some gang or another, but the only thing that showed that was the triangular pattern on their hand. Both were gaunt, and with their greasy, muddy brown hair they could have blended into the crowds that flowed through Spirit with ease. It angered Cleo. It angered her that she would be accosted by two boys on the street. It angered her that the life of the boy’s forced them into this life. It angered her that no one cared enough to get them out of it, but most of all it angered her that they had decided a child was a good target.
She snarled, and the flames that made up her mana reservoir burnt brighter than before. The boys took a step back, the girl they had targeted went from meek victim to wild animal in seconds. This was not what they were expecting, but nor was the dog formed from fire that aspirated in front of Cleo as she broke away from the grip she had been in.
The dog was originally the size of an apple, but as she shouted “Fenrir, come fight for me!” it enlarged to the size of a large horse. Fenrir slammed its front paws into the ground and sent the two men flying as thick red flames broiled off its body. It leaned down in front of them and began a deep guttural growl that seemed to echo off the walls. They crawled backwards as quickly as they could, desperately trying to avoid the sparks that were popping out of the mouth of the dog. It’s flaming eyes burned like the sun as the two boys reached the edge of the alley and stood up, stumbling into running away with badly singed faces.
Cleo laughed as the boys left, and walked up to the flaming canine to stroke its head. Fenrir rumbled happily and turned into a streak of light, disappearing into Cleo’s chest. Now that the area was clear she felt far more confident about herself; she knew that she could comfortably defend herself from almost anything that came up. Clearing out of the alleyway, Cleo continued her journey home. It was dark now, truly dark, and although Cleo felt far safer than she had before she still moved quickly.
The longer she walked, the more she felt that she had not dealt with all the threats that surrounded her. There was something… off about the way home. The way she was walking should have still had populated streets, but there was no one. It was like they had been driven off by something. She was being avoided, and this could only be done by someone with either terrifying power, or extremely great influence.
The cobbles clicked as she walked through the main street towards Panwood lane. It was eerie, the clear streets and moon bleached houses seemed to stretch and loom over the girl as she quickened her pace once more. After a moment she stopped. At the end of a street there was a figure. Not much taller than her, the figure at the end of the street barred her way. The figure was masked, with a horned hood covering their head. A large pole-arm with a hammerhead on the end sat in their right hand, lending an imposing air to the whole tableau. The figure growled and pointed the hammer at Cleo. “My men came to me, they said you attacked them. This must be rectified”.
Cleo immediately summoned Fenrir into the street. The giant incandescent canine stood between her and the masked figure, growling menacingly at them. “I defended myself. You can see that if I had wanted to kill them I could have easily with my elemental here. I let them go, so give me the same face I gave your men”.
The masked figure raised their left hand and a chain made of pure light shot out, entwining Fenrir. With brute strength alone, the dog was pulled high into the sky, before being flung behind the man. He raised his hammer and immediately dived forwards ending a thrust at her neck mere centimetres from the intended target.
Cleo flinched, and a sense of recognition surrounded her over the figure. She knew that posture, that strike. She had seen it recently, had admired it, and now she hated herself for it. The figure in front of her was without a doubt Law, but she could not help but feel aggrieved at the revelation. For a short time, she had idolised him, but now she was disgusted at herself, and at him. She was infuriated.
Law could obviously see the flames of rage in her eyes, he leaned forward and whispered in her ear “I understand you are in the right, and I will let you go soon. I must simply protect my own men from harm and set a message to those who would try to harm me through them. When I wear this mask I am not well liked, but I would like to discuss the finer points of the elements with you at another time. I wish to learn far more than I wish to kill”.
Cleo could not help but feel something profoundly unsettling about the way that Law had said the word kill. It had carried such great blood lust that she could not help but fear for her life. She clenched her fists as the figure stepped behind her and the chain was retracted from her dog, there were footsteps, and then the world around her was silent. She stood still for several moments, adjusting to what she had experienced. There was something there, something inside Law that she still admired. His thirst for knowledge was obviously great, but his baleful aura was something she could not deal with. She had found her young demon, and she hated it.
Rushing back to the house, Cleo immediately walked past the two girls and curled up on the pallet furthest from the door. She hugged her legs and shook quietly, with the folder wrapped around her shins. It was hard, realising someone you had admired, even for a moment, was not what they seemed to be. She was angry at herself, and had no way to vent other than shut Law down. She had to stop him from hunting Rose ever again.
She had to find out more, so she grabbed the folder and wrenched it open. She took a deep breath and began reading. The folder contained the compiled work that the men under Robert Anvale had done over the last year, since the festival of the dead. It was heavy, detailed and came down to five points; First, that there were two major figures during the deaths of that day, both children, and both were considered extremely dangerous. Second, unfortunately due to trauma by the survivors there were no real descriptions of either child. The only thing that was known was that two parts of the city were hit at the same time, so there was no way that all three events were done by the same person. Third, the child that attacked Panwood Lane was the one that fit Rose’s description of the devourer, but the one that had committed the massacre in Rodah Vale and Spring Street was a much more physical killer. Unlike the charred husks that had been left behind, the corpses were all reminiscent of people having been crushed by trees. The two killers were on different ends of the spectrum when it came to death. Fourth, while the devourer had struck several more times since the festival, the other child had not shown up at all. There were many possible ideas about this, ranging from the idea that it was a massive reaction to a gang war, to an experiment by one of the clans that got out of control. They had no way of knowing, as the gangs themselves refused to co-operate whenever the bobbies tried. There was even a note from Captain Mallory about how his source inside Spring Street was unable to tell him anything. They simply could not give out information on that particular case. The final point that was made clear in the folder was that there was definitely some involvement with the clans. They had stuck their hands in the pie that was the rundown areas of Spirit, and now the less desirable members of society were paying for it.
She was about to delve deeper into the hoard of information when Winoa called over. “Cleo!” she yelled, “Rose seems to be having a panic attack, give me a hand!” the girl was shaking far harder than Cleo had been earlier, her breathing was irregular and short. She had a far-away look in her eyes, and tears were streaming down her face. It was not pretty, but trauma never was. The two girls surrounded Rose and whispered calmly and quietly, making sure that there was nothing too intense for Rose to have to deal with.
Cleo left Rose with Winoa for a moment, to grab a kettle and teapot. She had no idea why, but Redweed tea had a much greater effect on Rose than it had on a normal person, so she grabbed a handful, threw it in the pot and summoned her flame to begin boiling some water. She poured some tea into a cup, then pulled some heat out of the cup and presented it to Rose. The girl took the cup and held it, absentmindedly holding it, she took a couple of sips before some colour returned to her face. For the rest of the night, the two girls took turns looking over Rose to make sure she was alright. When the morning rolled around, both of them were tired from being so attentive, but Rose was a lot better.
As soon as she was able, Cleo got up and stormed off to the Empty Throne school. The entire way there, she was fuming with a rage that had gestated over an entire night of stressful work. After hammering against the door, a very surprised groundskeeper of the school came to meet her.
“Where is Jim?” Cleo demanded.
“Who? I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about”. Cleo could not tell if the man was telling the truth or stonewalling her. She channelled mana into her fist and then slammed it into the door, making the whole thing shake with her Saint level strength.
“Jim, the guy with the pieces of paper near the arena yesterday”.
“Oh the betting boy?” The groundskeeper responded, flinching slightly at the girl after she hit the door. “I believe he lives in Spring Street, do you want to leave a message? I could give it to his friend who goes here, Law”.
Cleo gave the man a glare before saying “Don’t bother. I’ll meet him myself”. She walked off, ignoring anything else that the groundskeeper had to say. She knew she could not take on Law, he was simply too strong, so instead she would give his friend a piece of her mind. She walked briskly towards Spring Street. It was a long walk, but she would still get there comfortably for around midday. Each stride allowed the rage to fester even more. She was fuming. How could they? She thought. How could they lie like that? How could they treat another human being like that? How could they chase Rose like she was some sort of prize to be hunted and won?
The sun rose to its apex, and by the time it was a little past one in the afternoon, she had reached the street. She walked down the road, pounding on each door and questioning the people coming out of each home or building until finally she reached an abandoned bakery. She pounded against the door and there was no answer, but she heard movement behind the door. Taking a step back she shouted “I know you’re behind the door. If you do not open this door in the next ten seconds I will blow it up. I am in no mood to argue”. She gritted her teeth and waited, then after there was no response, she began counting out loud. “One. Two. Three…”
“Alright, alright,” said a voice behind the door. The door creaked open and a child a few years older than Cleo stood to answer her. “What do you want?”
“Jim. Does he live here?”
The boy swore. “What’s Jim done now?” He pressed against a symbol on the side of the door and began speaking into it. “Jim, come to the front entrance of the HQ, there’s a very angry young girl outside who wants to talk to you. Will that be everything?”
After about five minutes, Jim walked out of the building and a flash of confusion streaked across his face when he saw Cleo. “Hi Cleo, I thought you were going to wait until I got back to you?”
“That was before I met Law in the street and discovered he is the monster we were looking for. How could you do that to us? To Rose? It makes me sick”.
“Look, Cleo, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I can vouch for the fact that Law is not the devourer. Sure he’s monstrously powerful, sure he’s a bit crazy, and sure he’s remorseless, but he’s not the devourer. I know because I met him six months before the devourer’s attacks began happening, and he was with me for the biggest one. Now calm down. I will help you, but Laurence is not your target”.
“Is that his real name?” Cleo said, slightly taken aback. She was not sure how to really react to Jim. In just a couple of sentences, he had taken the wind from her sails, and completely drained her anger towards Law. She could only really smooth her dress and hope that Jim would still help her.
“Yeah. He’s Laurence Absolution, my best friend, and a very broken human being, but definitely not the devourer”.
“He’s an Absolution clansman?” Cleo frowned. It did not make him any less likely to be the killer, but it did make her more hesitant to believe that he would kill in the way that the devourer had. Everyone had heard the tales of the great killer of the Absolution clan, and how he had killed. She rubbed her temples, now she really had no leads. She had no idea who it could have been. She could do nothing but apologise to Jim and return home. It was infuriating to her, but she was no closer to the answer to the problem than she had been at the beginning of the day.
She sat back down on her bedding and sighed as she began flicking through the folder once more. She ran through what Captain Mallory had written about the devourer, the nature of each corpse, and what had actually happened to them, and she could not help but gasp. The killer was sucking the very souls out of each of his targets, an abhorrent act to Cleo. She flicked to the final page and looked at Mallory’s notes. Immediately she gasped, the last line of the section was ‘I cannot help but assume that the perpetrator is one of Mephisto origin. A golden child, which means we can only give this to the clan itself and let them deal with it. The only clue we have to go on is the red hair”. Immediately a face and a name sprang to mind. She growled in fury as she thought of the person, the child who had once defended her from the person she was trying to save now. Peter, golden child of the Mephisto clan.
“Winoa!” Cleo shouted, her voice cracking through the comparative silence of the room. “I know who the devourer is!”
“What?” Winoa and Rose both looked up from the food they were cooking in the kitchen of their little home.
“Yeah, you’re not going to believe it. We know him, I’m pretty sure.”
“Why’s that?” Rose inquired. Her heart in her mouth. One of the reasons why she was so terrified was that she had no idea who the devourer, her stalker, actually was. If she could put a face to the beast, then it would be far less of an unknown evil to her.
“The clue for me was that he had been following you up Babel the entire time, he was hunting for you specifically. Maybe it was your friend, Willis, he could have been looking for, but when Willis disappeared the attacks did not stop. In fact, they are slowly increasing again. The person he was looking for was you, Rose.”
Both girls put down their cooking implements and moved over to Cleo. this was simply too important for either of them to miss hearing. “The second point, the one that solidified who it was, is that he is a male child who is a member of the Mephisto clan. Does that ring any bells?”
Winoa frowned, she was having slightly more trouble than Cleo had to remember who amongst their batch were the golden children of the Mephistos. Rose on the other hand immediately looked at Cleo with wide eyes. “Are you sure?” She said. Her fists tightly clenching Cleo’s blue dress, “are you sure it’s Peter?”
“About as sure as I can be of anything else. He’s the only person I can think of from any of the clans who is both studying the book of Death and has an unhealthy obsession with you. He’s probably been chasing you since we left the first floor”. Cleo paused, then flinched slightly as she leant forward and began stroking Rose’s hair. “Rose, I’m sorry for enabling this by not shutting Peter down on the first floor. I know I could have”.
“No. Thank you, Cleo. You are helping me even though I was awful to you”. Rose smiled earnestly at Cleo. It was the first time that Cleo or Winoa had actually seen the girl happy. “I brought this on myself. I should have listened to my mother and just broken him when I had the chance. So what now?”
“Now we see a couple of boys I know about trapping a monster”.
The three girls left the house together for the first time, with their faces full of determination. The afternoon was bright and clear, with none of the unhealthy aura from the previous night. Cleo led them straight to Spring Street, as she had more faith that he would be contactable than Law in the high walls and deep gardens of the Empty Throne school. She also had a feeling that Law was involved Jim’s gang on Spring Street. The mask he had been wearing carried the same mark as the one the would-be thieves had worn, and Jim had been emblazoned with the same mark both times she had met him.
Knocking on the door to the bashers HQ again, Cleo stood and waited for the door to open. After two minutes she realised that the does were once again not going to open, so she hammered away like before. Soon enough, the same boy who had answered the door before opened up and glared at her. “Are you here to see Jim again?” He said, glancing over the party of young girls before him.
“Yes. Either bring him to us, or call him again. We have something to discuss that will benefit you guys as much as us”.
The boy pressed down on the array near the door and for the second time that day called for Jim. Within five minutes Jim had arrived and brought them inside the hallway that led into the Spring Street headquarters. They walked for a couple of minutes before entering a side room with a large table in the centre. Eight chairs were set round the oval table, and of those eight, three were currently filled.
Cleo did not recognise two of the seated occupants, a boy and a girl, but she could not help but recognise the third occupant. Sitting at the table, fiddling with some kind of plant shaped gem and constricting a complex array at the same time was Law. It was the second time Cleo had met Law out of his uniform, but the first time she had actually been able to look at him up close. He looked so innocent when he was focussing on his creation that it was hard to believe he had put the fear of god into her merely the previous night.
“Okay girls, this is my team of friends, my crew if you will. From the left, we have Louisa, her… something, Yun, and Law you know. Why don’t you introduce yourselves and tell us what you need our help for,” said Jim.
“My name is Cleopatra Tiberian Ignis, I am a golden child of the Ignis clan and I worked out who the devourer is. Behind me are Winoa Zephyr and Rose Briar, two more golden children of the elemental clans of Chaos”. At the mention of the devourer, Yun’s had perked up. Louise began paying attention after Yun did, and Law nodded along as he made what ever he was making.
“How did you work it out? We’ve been looking for him for the best part of a year,” said Yun. He looked shocked that a girl who looked younger than him was able to do something he could not.
“I admit, we had two bits of information you could have never known which gave us the answer, but either way we need your help to catch him”. Cleo ignored everyone else as she said this, looking straight at the boy who seemed like he was not paying attention.
Law began the final array mark on the gem, and Cleo stopped. She could tell that his array work was exquisite, despite only having trained in the miniscule amount of arrays that the Ignis clan actually used.
The mark sank into the body of the sculpture and the entire thing glowed momentarily before dimming into a soft red gemstone in the shape of a freshly bloomed flower. When the creation was complete, Laurence placed it into a velvet case with twenty other flowers just like it. He closed the case and looked at the three girls standing next to the table. “I was going to look for you tomorrow anyway, but now that you are here, you have made my life a lot easier. I’ll help, but if we have everyone here helping, catching the devourer will be simple for us”. He slid the box towards Cleo. “This box is full of twenty-one individual creations of mine. I call them inferno flowers. If you place at least three of them into the ground , then the area in the middle will have all the oxygen inside it ignite for as long as there are living beings inside. That’s an apology for frightening you last night. Jim told me about it”.
Cleo smiled slightly. She had not expected to receive anything from Law, let alone an apology. So when the box slid towards her, she could not help but be surprised. She walked up to the table and addressed the people presented. “The name of the devourer is Peter Mephisto. He’s a golden child of my generation, and very likely a peak Saint. As a member of the Mephisto clan, he specialises in dealing with the soul, and death in general. Other than that, I cannot tell you much about his capabilities”.
“What else can you say?” Said the boy with white hair, Yun, they had called him. All four of the people in the room freely gave off domineering auras, but Yun’s was by far the most animalistic. He worried Cleo.
“We know what Peter is looking for. He has an obsession with Rose, the girl with green hair behind me. For the last two years he has been hunting her, He’s the reason why I kind of went mad yesterday. He’s a hateful human being. I don’t know how we should go about this, but I think he would move mountains to get her under his thumb”.
“There’s seven of us, and if we put Rose in one of his current hunting grounds we will have six people to be in the area around her,” Jim said, “If Law is there, and can put an array on us that might somehow hide our auras, then we should easily be able to surround him and pen him in”.
“Do you think we will be able to pen him in safely?” Winoa said.
“You may not have noticed, miss, but all of the people in this room are Saints. Together we can easily deal with any single Saint that we come across. Any more questions?”
“What if he comes across one of you while he’s looking for me?” Said Rose. “What if he picks you off one by one?”
“He won’t,” Yun replied. His confidence surprised the girls, “He won’t beat me at least”.
Synopsis: The online game <