Chapter 6 - Part 2
He let her go, fully expecting her to run. There was no fear in those haunted blue eyes. He could lose himself in the vastness of her soul.
The vibrant hues of the world around him faded to dull grays. The cacophony of celebratory hoots and cheering, mixed in with the fanfare announcing the beginning of the opening ceremony dulled as confetti snowed down onto the excited crowd. The claustrophobic closeness of the student population faded away, leaving himself and this strange young girl alone on the street. The confetti precipitation slowed then froze in midair. These episodes were getting annoying.
"I wanted to spare you from all of this," he heard her say. He narrowed his eyes at the girl glaring up at him. Her lips hadn't moved. Her voice wasn't quite right either though he was certain it was her voice. "I'm sorry," her voice continued in a whisper, like a recording caught in the moment, meant for his ears alone. "But I can't do this without you. I'm so sorry."
The multi-coloured confetti fell into Astral's dark curls. He stroked them from her hair, caught in a place between the present and the future. "I will always be here for you," he whispered to the memory. Tresses in hand as the world animated itself back into action, Seth's eyes grew wide, shocked at his actions, embarrassed. Astral's glare hardened. He couldn't fathom what had overcome him.
She slapped his hand away. He reached for her wrist, giving her plenty of slack ensuring that she knew that she was free to go. After all of the alienating he'd manage to do in the course of two minutes, he wouldn't be surprised if she never spoke to him again. His heart ached at the thought. He felt foolish for feeling so attached after having just met. He wondered if this was what love at first sight was supposed to feel like.
He chanced a glance at her disgruntled frown. He was certain that if this was love then she obviously didn't feel the same for him. No, it was far too cliché. The lovelorn dreamed about moments like these, failing to recognize what was really there. The lovesick were willing to stage the most elaborate meetings, just to be recognized. Their encounter was by all account a staged meeting. He called her to him, and she made him work for it. It was far too convenient to have her happen to be at one of the two entrances to the courtyard, where he had commitments to attend. He was certain that she was there to see him, and the reason she hadn't run was because her objective hadn't been completed.
He led her into the Leadership tower. The noises of the outside world remained trapped behind closed doors. He let her go, knowing that he wasn't going to lose her to the crowds. "I'm not that kind of girl," she told him sternly.
He flushed. "I never thought...That's not why I brought here." Though they were away from human eyes, they weren't exactly alone.
Such indiscretions would mark her credibility for future contracts. Girls who liked to have fun were considered less suitable as wives to the elite, though viable breeders. A man who dabbled in the fruits offered to him was thought of as untrustworthy, though suitable as a potential breeder. Men and women of questionable integrity would not be chosen as a spouses unless they could improve their worth. It was amazing what people were willing to overlook when there was enough credits involved.
"It's not much further," he told her, gesturing to the empty hall ahead. He led her through the reception hall, down the corridor passed a series of vacant classrooms to the back of the building. Tall windows, side by side, offered a clear view of the proceedings in the courtyard. Had it been raining, the students would crowd along this hall to watch the events as squad members performed in the rain.
Members of the sixteen squads stood at attention, waiting for the command to begin their march for the parade. It wasn't uncommon to see a position or two empty. Graduates moved on to serve in the war or began their contracts. Sometimes members quit, preferring to focus on the high demands of their studies. Some, like Wallace, never returned to the academy at all. Leaving a vacant position advertised to the student population that these squads were looking for new members.
Seth hurried to the left, hoping to avoid witnessing the march. Elevators were set on the opposing ends of the gallery hall, but it was only the left lift that would take him to the training program. He glanced at their reflection in the tinted windows, in an attempt to gauge his companion's mood. The woman reflected back was not the teenage girl behind him. He stumbled. Was she a demon? Wouldn't the shields have prevented her from entering the academy's safe zone? Or worse, was he hallucinating? The councilors would have him think that he was under too much stress. It was suggested that he reduce his workload though he noted that leaving his squad was never suggested as an option.
"Do I make you nervous?" came Astral's rueful taunt.
She did. Could he tell her what he was seeing? Would she understand? Would she be offended? At least in public, he wouldn't have to worry about being devoured; not if she wished to remain among the people. The very idea of a demon biding its time went against everything he had been told about them. They were savage, ruthless, and unrelenting creatures who thrived in the destruction of man. Their strength was as limitless as their thirst for blood, flesh, and anguish.
She moved toward the tinted windows, attempting to correct the path a few of her stray locks of hair. Did she know? Could she see it too? She fussed with one particular lock attempting to decide if it was supposed to fall to the right or the left of her head. The girl was reflected back at both of them, but a second person was also a part of her reflection, standing between himself and her. It was taller, looming far enough behind the girl that he struggled to recognize any details. He knew that it was female, older, and bound to the girl, though he couldn't decide if this entity was benevolent or otherwise.
"You see something?" She inquired, messing up her hair and smiling at herself with a satisfied smirk.
The colour had drained from his skin; he knew he must have looked like he was holding back a scream. "Your second shadow," Seth stammered. He wanted answers, revealing what he was seeing was a good place to start, though it might also prove to be a fatal mistake.
She sighed heavily and turned back to gaze at her second reflection. "One of them is an illusion," she told him. "I'm hoping it's not me." The sadness in her voice resonated with his desperation for salvation.
"What is it?" He chanced. She didn't feel like a threat. Was this entity some dormant demon, using her as means to gain access to the people? He was beginning to understand why survivors fell under the Red Order's protection. The average person wouldn't be able to bring themselves to understand the survivor's plight. Even if they made small steps toward that end, it wouldn't take much to spread panic and fear. He could envision mobs gathering around her home, dutifully removing the blight from their town, reducing the risk of another demonic entity rising up to kill them all.
"My core," she confessed. Her smile was broken. She clutched the small bear in her hand. "It's the answer to your question. How I survived the demon raid, is because of that." She gestured toward her second reflection watching both them.
He wondered why she would tell him at all. Wouldn't denying it be a better option? She could have played it off as a hallucination, or that he had some mental disorder. His records would have supported the claim. Given her station, she could easily bury him in whatever situation she chose to distract him with. Instead, she told him what he wanted to know, as terrible as the truth was. But why?
"How? I mean-" He wanted answers, but he didn't want to sacrifice his humanity to achieve his survival. He didn't want to be a threat to the people he wanted to protect.
She shrugged. "I have no idea. Quite frankly, I'm surprised you can see it. No one has ever noticed, not even the Red Order Master that watches over me."
He didn't know how to respond. Maybe he could tell her that he always could see the things that people knew nothing about. "Can your Master see demons?" he wondered.
"Only when they manifest," she told him.
He was excited, thrilled with the prospect of having someone who knew the details he sought. He had a million questions, enough to bury his fear under the elation of new possibilities. "Can you see demons before they manifest too?"
She arched a brow. That had to be the reason the officer had been so insistent on recruiting her to his squad. If she could see demons before they manifest, then she'd serve her country better as a soldier, saving countless lives.
"It's not much further," he told her, gesturing to the lift.
They proceeded silently into the elevators. She said nothing as he swiped his wrist across the scanner, triggering access to second digital control panel. He entered a passcode like he had done hundreds of times before. Passcode accepted; the lift began its descent toward their destination. A new panel appeared, replacing the previous one. Seth scrolled through the options in search of his final entry. The screen flashed a brief 'verify settings' screen, followed by a 'selections confirmed' notice before blinking out of existence.
There was once last thing to test, he doubted that she would confess to the skills he suspected she must have. There was no way, that her 'core' as she called it, was the only reason she survived a demon raid. There had to be something more. He needed her survival to be something he could achieve. He hadn't anticipated ethereal interference. Nonetheless, it would interesting to see it in action. Would it activate if it thought she was in danger? If so, how would it manifest?
The lift slowed to a stop, and the doors slid open to absolute darkness.
- It's your first day of high-school and a hot guy/girl asks you to come with him/her, would you?
- What abilities do you think Seth possessed beyond what the story has revealed so far?
- What do you think is the link that binds Astral and Seth?
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