Chapter 84 - The Siege of Babylon
The first domain proved to be a challenge, but through the combined forces of Alexandra and Hilda, the defenses melted away like wax. So, what made it such a task to overtake? Put simply, their opponents weren't the sharpest tools in the shed and only made the seasoned slayers' job much more taxing than necessary.
On horseback, Hilda Riggs rushed towards a large darkhound with her broadsword. Like a golfer with a club, she swung her blade at one of its arms as she rode past it, lopping it off and spraying blood everywhere. Enraged and in pain, the monster chomped at her steed and immediately killed it. Hilda now fell off the side together with the dead horse, almost crushing her. She tried to move out from under it but the darkhound skulked towards her, bearing its teeth. Saliva seeped through the gaps as its eyes glowed ready to kill.
With a growl, the hellish hound leaped forward to bite at Hilda's neck. But Todd, clad in a heavy suit of armor, used his axe to decapitate it. Hilda breathed a sigh of relief as he moved to lift the dead horse and allow her to escape.
Hilda looked back to her lost steed, blood forming a pool around it. She sighed. A terrible loss, but one she would have to bear with for the time being.
"Looks like you're hoofing it now," Todd told her. Hilda shot him an unappreciative glare. "N-no pun intended, of course."
"Let's just keep moving…"
Meanwhile their comrades had troubles of their own.
At the same time, Julia and Rue had to contend with a minotaur demon charging towards them at full speed. They were quick enough to avoid the sharp horns as they sidestepped out of the way. With the creature's back turned, Julia lunged her blade at the demon's leg. She found her mark in its thigh and forced it down onto one knee. With the beast weakened, Rue, using her mecha suit, fired several shots at the demon, vaporizing it in a haze of black blood and smoke.
In the far distance, hiding around a corner of a corridor connecting two domains, two cultists were preparing their submachine guns while their enemies were distracted with the monsters. They grinned with eager anticipation, ready to unleash hellfire upon the slayers for trespassing.
"I can't wait to show those bastards what for!"
"Feeling's mutual, Abe. With these guns Bartholomew made for us, we can snuff them out easily. Once they finish off the stragglers, we open fire."
As if on cue, Julia and Alexandra started making their way towards the corridor. The two young men readied their guns.
"Alright, on my count. 3…2…1…fire!"
Both squeezed the triggers, but nothing happened. The duo blinked in confusion.
"Lou? Nothing is coming out."
"Yeah, I can see that!" Abe grunted.
"Is there something jammed somewhere?"
"How the hell should I know? Hurry up and fix yours!"
Lou pounded on the gun with his hand in frustration hoping for something to come out. Fred closed one eye and peeked into the barrel of his gun. Perhaps there was something blocking the bullets?
Just as he did that, he accidently shot his eye out, causing the eye socket to bleed out profusely.
"AHHHH! MY EYE!"
"You idiot! What did you-?"
Lou's gun also went off and it planted a bullet in his ally's forehead, killing him instantly and ending his self-inflicted suffering. Meanwhile the commotion attracted the attention of the slayers. Julia and Hilda sprinted straight towards Lou, who was now struggling to return fire. Instead, he only shot himself in the foot just as the two women closed the distance. He was left hopping and screaming in pain, powerless to stop the two slayers.
Julia jumped forward ahead of Hilda and glided towards the cultist in a high arc. Using her long-curved blade, she deflected the stray bullets and flipped mid-air, cleaving through the muzzle. Lou threw the now useless gun away before making a hasty retreat for the neighboring domain, hopping on one foot, and leaving a trail of blood along the way. Julia proved too fast and threw a rock towards his head. Much to the woman's surprise, the cultist dodged rolled out of the way and threw a grenade right towards her.
Unimpressed, Julia kicked it away like a soccer player and it landed right at Lou's feet, much to his delayed horror.
The cultist was blown to bits, and he had nothing but his stupidity to blame for it.
On the other side of Babylon, Sol and his new team were making progress, but faced troubles of their own. The element of surprise was with them, but now as the cultists were alerted, resistance was beginning to stiffen. This was proven in their sectors.
Even though he wasn't officially a slayer, Tobias proved a proficient marksman as he took down cultists from across the plaza with his rifle. Gale covered for him as he shot several fire arrows at advancing hooded mercenaries, burning them all to a crisp. Others spilled out from occupied homes to put out the flames in their bodies only for the fire to grow faster. With their enemies now neutralized, Tobias and Gale bypassed the inferno to keep moving towards the domain, where their comrades were stuck in a makeshift trench to shield themselves from a barrage of gunfire. The archer and rifleman bounded over to the crude cover, bouncing from one wall or fence to another. When they could, they returned fire, and even managed to shoot down some cultists. However, by the time they reached the trench, their ammo was running low, and the fanatics kept their heads down with a withering sheet of suppressive fire.
"How many are there?" Tobias asked, crouching down to avoid the hail of bullets.
"I counted 60 rifles at least!" Klavdia shouted over the cacophony, loading up her shotgun.
"Shit, that many?!" Gi grunted.
"Too many! I don't like the odds stacked against us here."
"Well, desperate times call for desperate measures," Hei chimed in with a confident grin.
Hei produced something from her pouch. It was a silk ball large enough to fit in her hand with a red tassel, reminding all of an animal's tail. Gi eyed it with suspicion.
"Uhh…you have a plan to go with that temari ball, sis?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, but first we need someone to draw their fire."
Sol, glancing over the edge of the trench, saw a squad of cultists behind a broke stone wall that marked off the edge of a backyard. They had to get past them if they were to make their way into one of the domains of Babylon. If they stayed here any longer, they would be left behind by Hilda and the others.
His eyes darted back to his squad. Klavdia's violet eyes were affixed to his, hoping he could come up with something. Mason, his old rival, brandished a small new sword, spoiling for a fight. Tobias and Tessa did their best to return fire, but they could barely poke their heads a few inches before being sent back down.
They couldn't go around them. They couldn't blitz through them. If only there was another way…
He looked up to the sky, where the fading evening light cast a dull orange glow. Insantly, a switch flipped on in Sol's head, remembering a similar trick he did many months ago.
"Klavdia, fly overhead to get their attention. Hei, once they're distracted, hurl that ball as hard as you can. We'll all follow behind you."
Klavdia bit back a wince at the thought of showing her wings again. Still, if this meant getting past this hardpoint, she would have to do it again. She looked to Hei with trepidation in her eyes.
"You're sure this thing can do its job?"
"Desperate times, right?" Hei winked, smiling with confidence. She pulled on the red tassel which started a loud ticking sound like a clock…or a bomb.
"What does that even mean?" Klavdia grumbled as she revealed her wings.
"Less talk, more fly!" Sol ordered.
With the plan agreed, the snow haired princess sighed before bending her knees and leaping up into the sky. She extended her wings and shot up like a rocket. Not only did it make the soldiers look up, but even Sol could not help but admire his best friend in flight mode. She soared around the town, looking down on her targets just as they turned their guns up to her. Tracer rounds filled the sky as she began evasive maneuvers and gave Hei the opening, she needed to toss the small temari ball towards them.
Klavdia kept spinning through the area, gracefully avoiding their fire. With their attention totally focused above them, they failed to see Hei's temari glide in a high arc and land on their side of the wall. It gently tapped the foot of one cultist. He ducked down and curiously examined the strange sphere.
A spark ignited from the base of the tassel, and the ball exploded in a cloud of thick purple smoke. Sol smiled inwardly as he heard them all coughing and wheezing. Now was their chance.
Wordlessly, he raised his hand and ordered all forward. There was not a battlecry nor a shout. Only a silent, steely steadfastness to see this battle won. The smoke provided enough cover for all to close the distance. Then, all went to their deadly work.
Mason, eager to prove himself after his humiliating defeat at Sol's hands, was quick to find his mark in the cultist who found the ball. He snuck up behind him and plunged his new sword right through his chest. The cultist's sudden death alerted all to their foes' presence.
"THEY'RE ON US!"
Mason looked behind him and saw the silhouette of one, raising his handgun to fire. With a swift withdrawal, the ex-noble pivoted on his feet and swung around, the blade following him like a streamer in a dance. His blade sliced through the hand, cutting him off at the wrist. The cultist screamed in pain as he clutched his bleeding stump, Mason followed up with a sudden and deadly thrust to his lung. Blood slowly ran down his blade as the cultist fell to his knees.
"You're dead, kid!"
He did not miss a beat and looked behind just in time to see a cultist charging him with his rifle, looking to beat him to death with the stock. Mason turned and parried his attack. Metal clanged against metal as the two struggled to dominate the other. The slayer made jabs at his head and neck, but the larger cultist was able to block each one. He tried to bludgeon him in the face with the rifle butt, but Mason swiped it away with his blade. What he did next would normally be outside of a noble's etiquette. But now, he was a slayer. And he had to act like one.
He barreled his way right into the cultist's chest, causing him to stagger, but not stumble. Unluckily for him, Sol was right behind him and waiting for such a move. The tip of his spear emerged from the cultist's stomach like a deadly tree sprouting from the earth.
As the smoke cleared and the final cultist fell, all celebrated in their victory.
"Good work, you guys!" Sol praised his friends. "That definitely made things a whole lot easier for us." Hei laughed triumphantly.
"What would you all do without me?"
The last slayer coughed up a threat along with his blood.
"You damned slayers…haven't won yet…! This…isn't…over…!"
"Oh, still alive, are we?" Klavdia asked casually as she landed on her feet.
"Wait until…you meet the All-father. He will…see you receive…divine punishment—"
Sol cut off his warnings with a hard kick to his back.
"Screw your All-father."
To his surprise, the cultist smiled, blood staining his teeth. He revealed a switch in his hands, ready to be activated. Suddenly everyone moved to strike him dead, but it was too late. A loud explosion of black smoke left all disoriented. Mason strained to see what new danger faced them and was nearly stunned to silence.
The cultist had become a monster. Superficially, he resembled a wolf, but this had horns instead of ears and a scaly outer covering. With a new, deeper, and more intimidating baritone, the monster growled,
"Now you will witness the power of the All-Father's Blessing!"
The horned wolf charged down Sol's squad, throwing strong and vicious blows at the warriors. The attacks were relentless, and it seemed like they would all be taken down in one fell swoop. But none wavered. Instead, all scattered to let the enemy ride through them. All that is except Sol…and Mason.
"You go," Sol ordered. "I can deal with this."
"No!" Mason retorted. "You're still our captain, and we can't make through this fight without you."
There was no time for an argument. The horned wolf would not afford them one. It leapt through the air looking to pounce on Sol, but Mason stepped forward and side-swiped his saber through the creature's jaws. It managed to catch his blade in his teeth and tried to crush it, but Mason proved unwavering. The young noble proved surprisingly strong as he withstood the beast's assault, his shoes sliding through the dirt. Sol thought for sure he would be flung onto his back, but Mason held firm. His hands shook, but his blade did not crack.
"ANY DAY NOW, ISLANDER!" he shouted through gritted teeth.
Sol regained his senses and made a sharp, deep stab at the horned wolf's side. Black, oily blood poured down his staff, and the creature howled in angered pain. With his mouth opened, Mason had the opening he needed. He quickly pierced its throat, jabbing it several times. The creature weakened and slowly lost its strength. It lay on the ground, trying to get up. But neither would have it.
Together, they plunged their blades deep into the creature's heart and with a last painful cry, the demon dissipated into dust.
Both were lost in a daze from the short action. Mason surprised all with his strength and conviction, perhaps Sol most of all. The two glanced at each other as they wiped their weapons clean in the earth. Both were bloodied, but unbroken. As all gathered around him, the young captain pointed his spear off into the distance.
"We're done here, guys," he said, spitting up excess blood. "Let's keep moving."
All looked at each other but said nothing. There would be time for reflection when things were a little calmer. So, they set out once more.
Mason moved off to join them, but Sol took the chance to stop the noble and squeeze his shoulder.
"That was impressive back there. Where'd you learn that?"
"…While you and Orlova were off monkeying around," Mason explained with a note of resentment, "I took it upon myself to get stronger."
"Yeah, I can see that," Sol remarked, smirking. "I'm glad you're improving for the better."
"Says the man who beat me to near death," he scoffed, bitterly while shrugging off Sol's grip on his shoulder.
The islander boy paused. It was not fully his doing, but he doubted Mason would accept such an explanation. The full story would have to be saved for after this.
"Lead the way, Captain. This battle's not over yet."
Although dissatisfied by his comrade's attitude, Sol reluctantly complied with a small nod. With their foes dead and gone, the two made off to join the rest of their company.
Inside the Babylon castle, all were frantically trying to slow the Slayers' invasion. Apollo, Iris, and Bartholomew were tasked with overseeing the battlefield from the castle balcony, but it was sheer pandemonium.
"The first domain has been breached!" said a follower working on a computer.
"So is the second! Our brothers are getting mowed down!"
"Have them fall back to the castle," Bartholomew ordered. "We're not facing average slayers."
"This is ridiculous," Apollo grumbled, agitated. "What are we just standing around for? We could kill them all and end this right now!"
"And I'm sure you'd love that. But the All-father's revival takes precedent over these intruders."
"Exactly! The faster we get rid of them, the faster we can bring him back!
"Apollo, calm down," Iris tempered. "I'm sure Lord Malakai knows what he's doing."
"To hell with Malakai!" Apollo snarled with frustration. "Ever since Isaac died, his leadership has been nothing but shit! If not for his incompetent ass, we would've—!"
"Enough bellyaching! He told us to wait here," Bartholomew firmly replied. "And that's what we'll do."
However, Apollo's patience was wearing thin. The command center was bombarded with more reports of casualties, breaches, and failed attempts to subdue their foes. Clearly this was not working. Bartholomew was right in that these were no ordinary slayers. That only meant that he had to take matters into his own hands.
"We've lost contact with team 5 near the outer village. The slayers are now moving inside!"
At that, the wild haired boy had heard enough. He flipped over his chair in anger and growled as loudly as an angry bear. He threw his hands in the air and shouted,
"OH, FUCK THIS! I'LL TAKE CARE OF THEM MYSELF!"
The frustrated disciple stormed off the balcony and towards the exit, leading to a staircase down. Bartholomew followed him, but nothing and no one could stop him.
"Where are you going?!" Bartholomew asked, befuddled.
"Something we should've done the moment these fools set foot here! I'm gathering the disciples, and we're gonna give them a bloodbath to remember!"
Iris placed a hand on her comrade's shoulder, discouraging him from pursing the hothead as he disappeared down the steps.
"Let him go, Bartholomew. He's been itching for battle for a while now. At least the command center will be quieter while he's there."
Bartholomew sighed tiredly. As much as he hated to admit it, his constant grumbles and gripes were greatly grating. They could still direct the battle in some degree of peace.
"You've a point there."
He returned to the balcony, where plumes of smoke trailed into the sky like foreboding towers. Harbingers of the Slayers' destruction. If they could do all this damage and cut through their defense like scissors through paper, then maybe Apollo entering battle could turn the tide.
Meanwhile, down in the hallways of the castle, the fight between Sif, Freya, and Loki continued.
As Sif rushed her with her hair blade, Freya blocked it with her spear and then lunged for the other's neck. Sif sidestepped just in time for Loki to take several shots at their former leader. The green-haired girl spun her spear around, providing an impromptu shield that deflected every bullet…and sent them back her way. Sif and Loki avoided the ricocheting rounds only to be kicked in their faces by Freya, sending them flying through a weak wall and into a holding cell for prisoners. But that was not enough to subdue them. Sif and Loki left the cell and sprinted back into the hallway to find their opponent.
In the darkness of the corridors, the two lost sight of their former comrade. They skulked around, looking to find their prey, but it was difficult to see anything. Every shadow was enough to slightly psyche them out.
"Think she bolted?" Sif asked Loki. The mute shapeshifter shook his head. "No, I don't think so either. Not like her to run away from a fight…"
She glanced behind her, thinking she saw something. It was only a left behind rifle. Sighing deeply, Sif had to wonder just what her former partner was planning. She was already oddly chummy with the slayer, and she fervently objected to their methods of interrogation. Did they share some past?
While lost in the forest of her musings, her partner glanced behind him and shoved Sif to the side. A fire ball struck Loki's back and he doubled over in pain. Sif stood behind her comrade and produced her blade again. Another ball of flames raced towards her, and she blocked it easily. Suddenly, Freya launched herself off the celling and lunged at Sif, who instinctively ducked out of the way, taking Loki with her. Freya's impact left a big dent on the floor, as if struck by a meteor.
"I started to think you were getting rusty, Freya!" Sif taunted.
"Why wait until now to pick a fight with me?" the general calmly asked. "You're both outclassed, so, there's no reason for—"
"On the contrary, we have every reason! You're conspiring with the enemy! Why the hell else would you give him special treatment? You've even offered him a comfy room to sleep in! Nobody does that for anyone unless they share some kind of history."
"Even if there was, the past is in the past. And my past is none of your business."
"How unfortunate. Guess we'll have to force the truth out of you!"
"Go ahead and try!" Freya challenged.
Sif reclaimed her blade and assumed a ready stance. Then, she charged like a mad bull and lunged her sword forward, aiming for Freya's chest. However, the seasoned general saw right through her; she kicked her down and swung her spear towards her head. Freya bent over backwards to avoid the attack and backflipped to gain some distance.
Loki, recovered from the initial shock, aimed his guitar gun at the cult general and fired several ice-infused shots. Freya twirled her spear around like a baton and deflected them with ease. However, she didn't foresee the shapeshifter moving quickly behind her and swinging at her head with his weapon like a cudgel. She narrowly missed the swing, but in so doing careened backwards and planted herself against the wall.
"We've got you now!" Sif shouted.
Sif stabbed her stomach with her sword, earning a pained cry from Freya…before she dissolved into shards of glass. The sudden development made Sif's eyes widen and even provoked a gasp from the wordless Loki.
Suddenly, the dissenters felt massive pain everywhere in their bodies and they doubled over. A disheveled Freya stood before them, her arms out at full span and hands clenched into fists.
"You're in my way, traitors, and you've aggravated me for the last time."
Sif, trying to resist the forced control of her body, lifted her head at Freya.
"No…it can't be! This power's on par with the All-Father's. How…?!"
"Trust me, Sif: you don't know as much as you think you do."
With a snap of Freya's fingers, the mute shapeshifter combusted into flames, instantly turning him to ash and bone. Sif's eyes quivered at the extent of her general's terrifying power. It was at that moment, the dissenter realized that she severely underestimated her opponent.
"Such a shame that a promising young girl like you wasted your efforts on petty jealousy," Freya lamented half-heartedly. "Had you chosen to stay out of the way, you could've been a general someday."
"No…wait!" Sif begged, terrified. "Please don't! I don't want to—"
Freya snapped her fingers again, and Sif's pleas were cut abruptly. Fire and electricity engulfed her body and she exploded into cinders before they faded away with the wind. With a heavy sigh, the general fixed her hair and robes before briskly walking down the hallway. Now she could focus on finding Ignis.
The tempo of battle subsided until both sides ran out of energy. The cultists had been pushed out of the town and the four subdomains, retreating to the castle. Meanwhile, the slayer groups reunited and set up camp in the outlying town. It was a hard-fought victory, but the fight was not yet over. Tomorrow, the approach to the castle would be their next priority. Until then, it was best to rest and recuperate before returning to the thick of battle.
The slayers took turns in sentry patrol during their camping session. After receiving their rice soup and drink, Sol and Klavdia sat down together on a park bench to eat.
"Ahhh, this came at just the right time!" Sol sighed in satisfaction, enjoying his food. "It really hits the spot…"
"I can't believe we were able to conquer the subdomains without any casualties," Klavdia mused in wonder and amazement.
"Same," Sol agreed, blowing on his spoon before taking a sip of his soup. "Just goes to show how much we prepared to face the cult. At our current pace, it won't be long until we finally confront Isaac, Malakai, and their disciples."
"You know what will end this war even faster?" Los chimed in through Sol's mind. "Giving me control of your body again."
"Why should I do that after you almost made mincemeat out of Mason?" Sol retorted with annoyance.
"Because the sooner I finish this war, the sooner you can go back to tapping that sweet piece of—"
"Enough!" Sol condemned his doppelganger. "Don't you dare talk about Klavdia like that. She's not an object."
"Oh, come the fuck on, man! You were about to have a sexy morning with her until Mason barged in. Why else do you think I whooped him, huh?!"
"There'll be plenty more opportunities for us to be alone together, but not now. I will defeat the children of the dark on my terms, not yours. You won't tempt me that easily, Los."
"Well, don't blame me when you start getting blue balls. You'll be waiting a lot longer to clap some cheeks."
"Shut up, would you?! I'm trying to eat here! Gods, you're such a pervert!"
"Oh, hello there, pot. The name's kettle. Have we met?"
"Want me to twist your arm again?" Sol threatened, voice hard like stone.
"Whatever, dumbass," Los grumbled. "Let's see how long that attitude lasts when you meet the head honchos next."
Suddenly, one pale hand waved at his face.
"Sol? Hello? Sol!" The boy blinked three times before glancing at his girlfriend, slightly confused.
"Um, I was saying you were right about rejoining the slayers. Everyone wants to be rid of the Children of the Dark, not just us. And with their defeat, peace will return to Benham once more. That's why…I'm willing to fight for no matter how long it takes."
The islander shook his head and brought himself back to the here and now. He refused to let his doppelganger lead him to temptation. He was a captain now and he couldn't afford to abuse his hidden power too much. His allies were depending on him to stay the course and see the war through.
Sol smiled brightly after drinking long from his mug.
"See? You need to have more faith, Klava."
The white-haired girl trained her purple orbs to her bowl, mentally cursing her weakness. Here she was, unwilling to return to the chaos that drove her away. And yet, when seeing her comrades giving it their all, risking their lives, Klavdia felt smaller than a field mouse. How could she possibly have second thoughts when there was so much at stake?
"I'm…sorry." Sol blinked in confusion.
"What for? You've nothing to apologize for."
"Yes, I do. I was such a coward earlier," Klavdia explained. "I questioned why we returned to the conflict with the cult. I thought about running away…again. But you told me what I needed to hear. You helped me push forward when I doubted myself. Had it not been for your pep talk, Gods know what I'd do."
"Hey, I'm just returning the favor. You've tried to keep me on task many times, after all."
"And I appreciate that, darling." Sol placed a hand around Klavdia's shoulder, bringing her closer towards him.
"When the cultists are dead and gone, we'll finally live however we want to. We're one step closer to making the world a better place."
Wordlessly, Klavdia laid her head on the boy's shoulder, sighing deeply. She closed her eyes, and in that moment, it was just the two of them. No war. No firebrands. No chaotic conflict. Just a young islander and his half demon girlfriend, basking in quiet night, enjoying each other's company.
It wouldn't be long until they obtained the peaceful life they've craved since fleeing Higanbana Island. While sitting on that bench, Sol gazed up at the crescent moon. He couldn't help but sense some form of familiarity with it. Perhaps his connection to Los had something to do with it?
Suddenly, a polite cough interrupted his thoughts, and he turned his head. Mason and Gale approached the young couple to report their patrol results.
"Captain, no signs of suspicious activity anywhere," Gale informed Sol. "Guess the cultists have had enough fight for the day."
"Good work, you two. That means we can sleep tonight."
"Agreed," Mason mumbled, slightly uncomfortable.
"You both must be starving after all that fighting. You should grab some soup before it's all gone."
"Good idea. My stomach won't stop rumbling!" Gale chirped. "What about you, Mason?"
"Not hungry," Mason curtly replied, expression distant and conflicted.
There was a long awkward silence between the two pairs. Sol and Gale glanced at each other, knowingly. With a small nod, the golden-haired islander got up from the bench. He put down his bowl and cup as he suggested to his comrade,
"Mason, let's go for a walk." The boy's blueish eyes blinked with confusion.
"Well, I gotta walk off the food, don't I?"
"Now's a good time," Gale chimed in, eyeing Mason. "Things are calm for now. It's a better time than any to get some thoughts out…right?"
The brown-haired lad scratched the back of his head, mildly embarrassed by his partner's verbal jab. Klavdia stood up from the bench, unsure. She knew that they'd be fine, but she couldn't quite trust the insufferable cockroach enough to be around Sol or keep him safe. Or anyone for that matter.
"I'll come with you, then. We're still in enemy territory."
"No need," her boyfriend tempered, waving his hand. "It's not like we're going far away."
Before she could protest, Hei called out to her as she sprinted her way.
"Klavdia, there you are! I was looking for you!"
"What's wrong? More cultists have arrived?" Klavdia asked, alarmed. Her friend placed her hands on her hips and sighed.
"No, silly! I was on patrol around town and found this cool clothing store. You've got to check it out with me."
The ex-princess blinked twice in complete bafflement. Shopping for clothes wasn't really in her priority now, especially if they were still at a warzone.
"Hei, we don't need to buy new clothes—"
"Have you looked in the mirror, girl?" Hei snarked, arms folded and pouting. "You're practically begging for some new threads."
Klavdia looked down at herself and was confronted with the truth to the shadow ninja's words. Her wardrobe was stained with dirt, mud, and blood from the day's battle. A small blush spread across her face in embarrassed silence. Still, she remained reluctant.
"Hei, I hardly think now's the time for—"
"This is the ONLY time we've got! So, let's GO!"
Not taking no for an answer, Hei grabbed the white-haired girl's hand and dragged her along the path with a determined expression. Soon enough, Hei's power walking turned to running as she practically had the younger teen flailing in the air. Sol and Gale cheerfully waved them goodbye.
"Have fun, you two."
Meanwhile, not too far off from Sol's group, Hilda and some of her guild members gathered around the campfire to play a quick round of card games. Hilda and Rue took their seats on large rocks. Todd and Tessa found their spots on the grass, all five forming a star around the center.
"Reverse!" Todd declared.
"Void!" Rue shouted.
Hilda watched as Rue slapped down a blue card with a five on its face, forcing Todd to draw one from the deck, having neither a blue nor a five in his hand. Hilda, luckily had a blue two to put down and promptly did so before passing on to Rue again. She smirked and drew a wild card.
"Argh, no fair!" Todd complained. "I don't have any of those either!"
"Then it sounds like you need to get good at the game, rookie!" Rue snarked with a smirk.
Todd grumbled as he took another card from the deck before going on to Hilda, who put down a yellow four.
"So, what's next after securing the town? We march to the palace now, right?" Rue asked.
"Yeah," Hilda confirmed, "that's the true stronghold of the cult, according to Alexandra."
"It's going to be one hell of a fight, then…" Todd noted.
"Nothing we can't handle, now that we have everyone backing us up."
"That's for sure," Rue noted, smirking. "They'll regret ever messing with all of us."
Tessa looked ahead and saw the Babylon castle at a far-off distance. Once they set foot there, retribution will finally be within her grasp. She could finally avenge her family and friends that were taken away from her. But would that be the end all solution? Could she finally be free of the hatred and wrath?
She wouldn't know what to do with herself afterwards. Now she was an orphan with nowhere to go. Aunt Reese would have no problems taking her in, but she didn't want to be a burden to the hardworking doctor. Tessa sighed deeply, at a loss. If only the cult hadn't shown up and ruined what she had…then she'd still…
"By the way, Tessa, how are you getting on?" Hilda asked the girl, intercepting her musings. "Hope this campaign isn't too harsh for you to handle."
"Oh, not at all. I was taught self-defense a while back. My parents suggested I take a few classes."
"Smart folks if you ask me," Todd observed. "They must be very proud."
At that acknowledgement, Tessa's gaze dipped at her soup bowl. Biting her lip, she struggled to hold back tears.
"Those fiends killed my family…"
All turned their gaze to the redhead, whose hands trembled as they held the bowl. The horrific memory was still fresh on the young girl's mind.
"It was a regular day. I was just having lunch with my parents and older brother. Then, all the sudden, we heard people screaming and running away outside. That's when the Children of the Dark showed up and unleashed hell on our town. My parents told me to hide under the bed in my room while they got their rifles. They fought the cultists to the bitter end. But…they weren't strong enough to hold them back…"
Tessa shuddered at the traumatic memory as Todd drank long from his cup, he frowned deeply.
"I had no idea. I'm sorry for bringing them up."
Tessa shook her head and offered her comrade a weak smile.
"Don't be. If anything, you reminded me of my goal: vengeance."
The young villager's smile faded into a hard and darkened scowl as she stared at the firepit.
"And I will have it, no matter what."
"Actually, Tessa, you probably don't know this, but the captain, Rue, and pretty much all of us are orphans. Some of us lost friends and folks in some way shape or form. Losing family is painful and overwhelming. Any of us would do anything to get back at their murderers."
"So, you understand?"
"Of course. But, since we've become Slayers, we've learned that there's more to life than just getting an eye for an eye. We're also doing this for the people of Benham. Fighting to protect the weak is far more valuable than any destructive vendetta."
Tessa bit her lower lip, contemplating the paladin's words. Even if what he said was valid, that didn't change the fact she lost something she could never get back. Her whole town was devastated by the cult. That wasn't something she could easily forgive.
"Sorry, but I don't have it in me to pursue something else. Not until every one of those monsters are cut down to pieces."
"It's easy to get vengeance on those who wronged you," Rue challenged. "But what comes after? Will it make you feel better about yourself?"
"…I don't know."
"You must have some idea of what you want to do. Perhaps you can move to another town."
"I don't know…" Tessa growled quietly.
"You still gotta think about it. Where will you be at the end of the war? Where would you want to go?"
Aggravated, Tessa got up and threw her soup bowl to the ground, startling Todd, and a few others nearby.
"HOW ABOUT YOU JUST SHUT UP ALREADY!"
Tessa's fists shook violently as she struggled to calm the tidal wave of emotions threatening to swallow her whole.
"I don't know what my future will be and that's what scares me most of all!" Tessa spluttered, confused, and frustrated. "Maybe if Fiddletown still existed, then I would still have some dreams! But I can't afford to think about it now. I would only lose sight of why I joined you guys! All I have now is rage against these lunatics! And that's what's keeping me alive. I can't afford to be soft when I have justice close at my reach!"
Hilda blinked, and for a fleeting moment, she saw her. A young woman, no older than Tessa. Her platinum blonde hair danced gently with the night breeze as she glared grey-blue daggers at the captain, on the verge of tears. A disciple of the dark. A passionate follower. A wounded warrior with so much to lose and very little to gain. Unyielding. Vengeful. Ruthless. Dedicated, to an almost unhealthy degree. A child forced to grow up fast in an unforgivingly adult world.
The Crimson Blade guild leader could fully understand Tessa's righteous anger. Her lingering bloodlust. Her anxious taste for retribution. Indeed, Erebus was much the same. However, while the cultist had pretty much crossed the point of no return, there was still hope for Tessa yet.
"We will bring the cult to heel," Hilda swore. "But don't forget, Tessa: when this war ends, we have to return to our old lives. You should find something more worthwhile. I would hate to see that rage trap your heart and mind after all is said and done. A young lady like you has so much more to live for."
Tessa offered Hilda a puzzled, almost dissatisfied expression before reluctantly nodding. Perhaps some good will come of this promise. Perhaps.
"We've only known each other for half a day and already you're making me keep promises?" Tessa frowned, crossing her arms. "You've got some nerve, Captain."
"What can I say?" Hilda replied, smirking. "I'm a sucker for pretty girls."
Tessa's hardened look completely transformed into embarrassed bewilderment.
"Uh oh! Wait till your wife hears about this, Cap'n!" Rue jokingly chided.
Hilda laughed wholeheartedly, and so did Rue and Todd. Tessa looked away in annoyance, but a lighthearted chuckle escaped her lips as well. Perhaps her future wasn't so scary after all, if there were strangers like Hilda, Rue, and Todd willing to help her out.
"That game looks kind of fun by the way. Mind if I join?" Tessa gingerly asked.
"Sure thing!" Todd agreed with a smile, "I could use a partner against these two."
"Bring it on, rookies!" Rue boasted with a laugh, "Let's see how long you last before you lose!"
"I wouldn't count on it," Tessa quipped with a smug grin.
Stopping on a brick boardwalk overlooking the river, two young men stood there in silence. They were waging mental wars against themselves, trying to convert thoughts into spoken words. What could they say to each other? How should they address all they've been through over the past few months, let alone what transpired several hours ago?
Eventually, Sol bit the bullet and broke the ice for them both. It was best to get their grievances out of the way now than ever. Like Klavdia said, anything can happen when you've arrived on enemy territory.
"Listen, I'm sorry about what happened during our duel. You're not hurt too badly, are you?"
"N-no, it's fine. I'm used to being everyone's punching bag by now."
Sol visibly winced at the reply. Los must've given him quite a nightmare of a thrashing.
"Mason, I know we haven't been the best of friends from the beginning. But, even so, I want us to work together and see this war through. I don't know what I did to make you hate me so much, but I'm willing to make amends in some shape or form."
Mason's blueish eyes widened with surprise at Sol's mature response. Seeing him up close, he realized how much he's grown over almost a year. He was slightly taller than him and his shoulders were broader. His ash blonde hair was longer and now tied back in a low ponytail. There was even a hint of stubble under his chin. He was becoming a man, while Mason Adiemus was still growing. Far from the man he wanted to be. He sighed deeply and replied,
"Hate is too strong a word. With everything hanging in the balance, I just think people need to pay their dues. I mean, I had to, or rather…I'm trying to. And yet here you are, taking your time coming and going as you please."
Sol slowly nodded, soaking in Mason's criticism. It wasn't entirely unfounded. As soon as he became a slayer, the islander basically was flung from one quest to the next. He went to Reinhold to rescue Klavdia from marriage. He ventured into a video game world to find clues about his biological mother. He left the city to find her only to be dragged into hunting down the cult. He let stress and fatigue get the better of him and sought refuge in a false paradise. Sol Nakos had gone through so much these past dozens of months and yet he never realized how much growing he needed until now.
"You've a point there. Back when I first came to Big Fork City, I had a dream to become a great slayer one day. Once I did, I would go on many adventures. I was living the good life…or so I thought."
"And now?" Mason asked.
"Now I know it's not as simple as that. Being a slayer doesn't mean you can just go wherever the wind takes you. It means you have to commit to making the world a better place, for everyone. It means you can't stay a wide-eyed, dumb idealistic kid forever."
Sol finally started at his comrade; his hazel-colored eyes shined with hardened resolve.
"Most importantly, it means you've gotta finish what you started. That's what I'm doing now, but I can't do it alone."
At that, Mason felt something stir in his heart. Who would've thought that the once naïve islander would talk like a sagely teacher? He had truly come in to his own. There was another moment of silence as Sol glanced at the moon, hands behind his head.
"By the way, who won the duel? I kind of blacked out in the middle of it."
"Well," Mason admitted. "I would say that you are the victor, Nakos."
"Oh?" Sol blinked, taken back.
"As much as it pains me to say it…you've shown more potential then than you ever did before. Even though it's been a month since you went missing…you're still capable."
"Oh, right, I went AWOL for a long time, huh?" Sol acknowledged. "I should've contacted you, but things kept getting in the way. I swear I wasn't trying to avoid anyone. It was a mistake to keep you and the others out of the dark. You all must've been worried sick over us…"
Mason blushed heavily at that and crossed his arms. He looked the other way, refusing to make eye contact.
"A-as a matter of fact, yes! S-seriously, what were you thinking? We all thought t-the cult had captured you and Klavdia or worse! S-show some more consideration for other people next time."
Sol chuckled lightly. Typical of Mason to get annoyed so easily. Some things never change.
"I will. And it's nice to see you in action too. I guess some of that training paid off after all."
"Of course, it did," Mason boasted. "We're battling the Children of the Dark, after all. I can't stay a weakling forever. Neither of us can, frankly."
"Damn right. So, with that said…"
Sol reached out a hand to the noble with a determined smile spread across his face.
"Let's do our best to beat these freaks down. Together this time."
At that, the two teenage boys firmly shook hands, reconnecting at long last. Theirs was a reconciliation long overdue. But now, they could make up for lost time by fighting side by side against a common enemy.
That is…if both could survive the onslaught yet to come.