“What do you mean, I’m all alone?” Hironah asked aloud, turning back to face the column. She was shocked to see a young man sitting upon it, lounging casually. “Who are you?”
“My name is an ancient secret. To hear it would cause your ears to bleed. Think of me as a guide. I am here to help you understand what you have done. You cannot atone of course… but your despair will be exquisite.”
“For a so-called guide, you don’t make a lot of sense.”
“I will. Perhaps you ought to cherish your final moments of ignorance.”
Hironah’s eyes narrowed. What’s going on? The young man yawned and smiled at her.
“You see,” he said, “you are here because of your indecision. You lacked action… Of course you were unaware of how your inability to make choices has affected your world. You have been stagnant, and so stagnant shall you remain. I shall keep you mired here for eternity.”
“Okay, first of all, you have no power over me. You can’t keep me here or anywhere else. And second, I do so make decisions.”
The young man laughed.
“Oh, do you? All right… say I was to show you some mercy. I’ll allow you to meet with one soul for a last goodbye. Who would you like it to be?”
Hironah opened her mouth to reply, to answer his question, and found that she couldn’t. She couldn’t choose, torn as she was between the two names that came easiest. And what did that mean anyway, “a last goodbye”? The man claimed to have her trapped, but she knew she could take him easily. There were wide avenues of escape…
“There you have it,” he said patiently. “You cannot decide. Your mind is torn. Your heart is torn. You simply sit in the balance of the poles and do nothing. You have never been alive.”
“All right, so I’m a little confused at the moment. Big deal. At least I’m not a total nut like you.”
“You’re so defiant!” the man chuckled. “I like your spirit. It makes such a wonderful prize.”
“You’re not going to like me so much in about five minutes, when I’m in the process of cutting your heart out.”
Hironah drew her swords. The man stood, his feet splashing in the stagnant, reeking water. His power struck her like a wall of wind, causing her to stagger. That strength was ancient and undying. It had always been and always would be. It would never ebb, never wane, but always be as she felt it- immeasurable and terrifying. Hironah felt her palms go slick with sweat as she realized that this was not a power meant to exist in the world.
“Where is this place?” she whispered.
“This is your final home,” the man- if he truly was a man- replied simply. “This is where your soul shall cease its Cycle in accordance with the will of the gods.”
Oh… holy… crap.
“Kaiya!” She screamed his name, knowing he couldn’t hear her where she was.
“Stop that,” the man said impatiently. “There’s nobody here but you and I.”
“I don’t get it,” Hironah pleaded. “How did I die? I was just standing around! What, did a building fall on me or something? Please don’t tell me I just keeled over on the spot.”
“It’s not important. You wasted your life anyway. All that matters is that you are here. I shall keep you. My mistress will be glad to have acquired such a bright spirit.”
“No!” she shouted defiantly. “This isn’t fair! Yes, I’ll admit it; I’ve had a lot of trouble making choices in my life. Sometimes I sat on things so long they didn’t even matter anymore. So what? It never hurt anybody. I never did anything to deserve eternal damnation!”
“You forget, my dear, that judgment is passed upon your soul and its cumulative experience. Your final life served only to prove that you are beyond help. Holding you here will quite possibly save your world from cruel fate.”
“What? Look, buddy, I’m not a bad person. I’m not evil. I don’t belong here. There must be some kind of mistake.”
“And how many times have I heard that from your kind? You are here, and therefore you must be here. That is all that concerns me.”
He was drawing close to her.
This can’t be, was all she thought. Blue, are you watching now? I need you.
The man’s hands were on her shoulders, pushing her down. She struggled against him, though she knew it was in vain.
“Hironah!” She heard her name being called by a familiar voice.
He was running toward them, splashing through the shallow, stinking water. The power around him, some strange force, rolled like thunder, churning the air. Seeing him strengthened Hironah’s resolve as she fought to stand, grasping her weapons.
“Get away from her!”
The raw, mortal power Kaiya emitted forced the man back. It was then that Hironah felt fear. It was not only fear of the primordial, unbending force of the man who’d snared her, but fear of the one who’d come to save her. She’d never known he was capable of this…
She watched them struggle.
Holding the stranger back with one hand, he took her by the arm with the other and looked down at her, grinning.
He slashed at the air, hands formed in ancient patterns, muttering words she barely understood. She felt the very atmosphere around her tear apart. Who are you?
Abruptly, the water was gone. The moons and stars shone above, through the air of a clear autumn night. All was as it should’ve been, midnight hanging over a lost and forgotten city.
“Go back to the place where we stopped. Wait there. I have to go for the others,” Kaiya told her, still smiling in his crazed and manic fashion.
“What’s going on?” Hironah asked frantically.
“I haven’t got the time to tell you now, even the little bit I understand. You’re safe,” he spoke the words with relief, drawing her close. “Go wait. I’ll bring everyone back. I promise.”
“Go.” He pushed her forward. “I’ll see you soon. And I’ll explain then.” Still grinning, he vanished.
He’d decided to search through the Gates one by one. Logic told Kaiya that they’d all have emerged in different places, if any of the rest of them were there at all. Now that he knew what to do, he could search for them. There was risk, naturally, but he couldn’t leave them.
He’d decided to begin at the beginning and work his way through the Gates systematically. He found Hironah within the First Gate, the strength of her soul shining like a beacon. She’d barely wavered, fighting against what she must surely have seen as inescapable fate. It had been easy to locate her… Kaiya found himself uttering a prayer that the others possessed such fortitude. If they didn’t, there would be little he could do to help them.
He could pass by the Second Gate, where he’d been ensnared, knowing that none of the others would be there. Leaving Hironah, he felt the chill of the Third Gate envelop him. He stood, ignorant of the eddying snowfall, and searched for the sensation of a living soul.
What he felt nearly knocked Kaiya senseless. His mind filled with visions of green, of plants pushing through dark earth. His own soul was battered by innocence he’d long forgotten. That soul neither fought nor surrendered, but simply existed. Confused, aware that he might be running headlong into a trap, Kaiya pushed forward, following the path that spirit had laid out. He readied himself.
A figure dressed in black huddled beside a mound of snow. Kaiya approached cautiously.
The bright voice chattered with cold.
“Hi, K-K-Kaiya. L-look! I m-made a sn-sn-snowman!”
“Mirai! What are you doing here?”
“Same as everyb-body else.” She looked up at him, eyes vacant. “It’s c-cold, isn’t it?”
“Aw, Mirai…” She was half-frozen, her pale lips blue. Ice rimed her hair and eyelashes.
“You c-came to save me?” She asked. “Like a hero?”
“Something like that.” Kaiya took off his robe and draped it over Mirai, who quickly huddled in its warmth. “Here, take my hand.”
She grasped onto him and he performed the Rite that would bring them from this dread place. Once they were free, he looked down at her.
“You know where the bikes were parked?”
“Yes,” she replied sincerely.
“Go wait there. Hironah will take care of you.”
She ran about a block or so before turning around.
“Kaiya, you want your shirt back?”
He was already gone.
There was no one to be found in the Fourth Gate, and so Kaiya pressed on. When he stood in the noxious, poisoned air of the Fifth, he felt a twinge. The soul he felt fought on, but barely. The struggle had nearly reached its end. He had to hurry. Following the weakened siren of that soul, he rushed on, steadfastly ignoring the burn of the poisoned air in his lungs.
He found Yume on her hands and knees, dragging herself along with every bit of resolve she possessed. He called out to her, running faster. She raised her head, and for a moment her dull eyes glazed with relief.
“Kaiya?” Yume mouthed his name, unable to force sound from her scorched throat.
He gathered her up and once again slashed his way back into the waking world. For a few seconds, the pair simply gulped at the clean, pure air around them. Leaning heavily on Kaiya, Yume gazed up at him.
“Where’s Yoshiki?” she croaked out, voice rasping.
“I don’t know,” Kaiya answered grimly. “But I’ll find him. I promise. I’m going to take you to back to Hironah.”
“No,” she grunted, pulling away from him and leaning against a crumbling wall. “I can go by myself. Please, Kaiya, go find Yoshiki.”
He looked at her carefully in the moonlight.
“Are you sure?”
“Alright. Take care, Yume.”
When she picked up her head to look at Kaiya, he was gone.
I forgot how bad this place stinks.
Kaiya stood in the area beyond the Sixth Gate. Of all the terrors of Pandemonium, this was the one he hated the most. The first time he’d set foot here, he’d wept bitterly, surrounded as he was by the unending death and decay of the living creatures he loved so much. He’d been a boy then, merely eight years old, traveling Pandemonium at Blue’s side. He was grown now, but still this place unnerved him more than any other.
Forcing himself to ignore the horror all around him- the screams of the animals, the stench of their decaying bodies, their sightless, empty eyesockets gazing blankly- Kaiya searched for a sign of any living soul that might be trapped in this place. At first he noticed nothing, and it was with relief that he prepared himself to pass on to the Seventh Gate. Then he realized. There was a still-living soul here, but it was not a soul in struggle… and yet, it was not forever condemned. Was one of his friends here, just now giving up? So it seemed.
Kaiya threw himself forward, rushing past the corpses of the animals, his feet slipping in blood and rotting fat. He followed the signal of that soul, ignoring as he went the sights that haunted his nightmares superimposed on the cityscape. He had to get there in time. It could be that he had only seconds…
Kaiya skidded to a halt before Uneme, who sat dejectedly upon a pile of pigs, his hand to his throat. Blood welled between the Angemal’s fingers.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to take you back,” Kaiya informed him. Looking about and seeing no one else, he added, “Let’s go.”
“They said I have to stay here. They cut me… not badly, but… They said next time they’ll cut me so I can’t recover, but will forever wake so the next day I can be led to more of the same. They told me it was my fate.”
“It isn’t. I’ll take you out of here.”
“I can,” Kaiya grinned triumphantly. “And will.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re useless.”
“In some cases, yes, but not in this one. We’ll go, even if I have to drag you.”
Kaiya reached out and took Uneme by the arm. The Angemal stood, but as Kaiya performed the Rite that would deliver them from this nightmare, Uneme’s eyes blazed with such hatred that the Night’s Herald nearly faltered.
“You’re more powerful than I thought.”
They stood once again in the shell of the city, no longer surrounded by any horror other than abandonment by humanity. As though a spell had broken, Uneme’s demeanor changed instantly. He looked frantically at Kaiya.
“She’s safe, back where we stopped.”
“Go. You’ll find her there. I’ll see you later.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have to find Yoshiki.”
“What was that place?”
“I’ll explain later. I have to go.”
“Take me with you.”
“It’s impossible. I can’t, as much as I’d like the backup.”
Uneme regarded Kaiya coldly in the darkness.
“Is that really true, or are you just playing hero?”
“It’s true. I can take people out, but I’m not entirely certain how to take people in.”
“So you say.”
Kaiya said nothing in reply, simply disappeared into the night.
The sounds of battle filled his ears as he emerged beyond the Seventh Gate. Immediately, he felt the presence of the soul here, which like Hironah’s was fighting on defiantly. Reaching that soul would be tricky, but Kaiya pushed ahead without fear. Bomb blasts showered him with dust and debris, bullets whizzed through the air… but he did not pause.
Yoshiki was surrounded, fighting frantically. He was cut and bleeding, his face a mask of despair. The odds were impossible, and he had no idea how he’d even come to be in this situation. He raised his eyes for one final, defiant look at the people against whom he fought, and was shocked to see Kaiya battling his way through the horde, none of whom seemed a match for his raging power.
The two men smiled broadly at one another.
Once the Night’s Herald had managed to fight his way to the center of the fray, he took Yoshiki by the arm. Still smiling, odd eyes blazing, he slashed at the air, hands forming strange symbols. His voice rose, speaking an unfamiliar language. Suddenly the air grew quiet. Yoshiki turned to look at Kaiya, so many questions fighting to fall from his tongue that he was silenced. Instead he found himself focused on the way the Night’s Herald’s skin burned, radiating heat. He’d seen that look in Kaiya’s eyes before, that look on his face, but was taken aback by the way it seemed he was aflame without burning. Suddenly, Yoshiki remembered the most important of his questions.
“Kaiya, where’s Yume?”
“Back where we parked. You should go back there, too.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Rift. I’ll tell you about it when I’m done.”
“What? Tell me you’ve been running around getting the rest of us out of whatever it was we got ourselves into.”
“Something like that.” Kaiya was still grinning. “I gotta go. There’s still a couple of places I gotta check out.”
“Go on… It’s gonna be one heluvan explanation, isn’t it?”
“I s’pose. See you later, man.”
Yoshiki watched as Kaiya turned and vanished. He shook his head. It seemed whatever was happening, the Night’s Herald had it all under control. Just like always. Good old Kaiya.
Kaiya’s calm voice cut through the air, echoing over the knee-deep pool of blood in which he stood.
“Surely that one is easily conquered. Leave him.”
The dead turned their empty eyes upon him. Each one had a gaping hole where its heart had been ripped from its chest. He knew they would appear different to Seiken, who was here as well. The Decameron had stumbled and fallen into the river of blood. He was not rising. A sudden surge of force from Kaiya annihilated those nearest him. The rest hesitated.
“Go ahead. Face me.” This time it was a taunt. “Bring me your tortures. Let’s see how long they last.”
More of the dead shambled forward, only to be cut down by the Night’s Herald. Finally, one managed to lay a hand on him, its chill, clammy touch freezing him from the inside. Kaiya felt his guts twist like snakes. For a fraction of a second he stood convinced he’s seen his own future- heart torn out and discarded, useless, consumed by disease and despair. With a furious shout, he called up the power that slept within, blasting the dead thing into oblivion. What remained of the walking corpses shambled away.
Kaiya pulled the Decameron from the pool in which he lay. He hung limply, pale as the dead that had surrounded him, the last of his soul leaching out. Kaiya fought with all his will to contain him, pressing against the very power of the Plane itself. He scorched himself with his own inner fire. Defiantly, he pushed until he felt the slightest give. In that instant, he ripped them both from that horrid place and dragged them both back to the waking world.
Holding Seiken in his arms, he crouched down on the pavement. Mercifully, the Decameron sputtered and drew a few gasping breaths.
He opened his eyes, gazing sightlessly at a point beyond Kaiya’s shoulder.
“Kaiya.” His voice awash in relief, the Decameron sank back on the pavement. After a few moments, he asked, “Where are we?”
“Back in the Dead City. I’ll take you to the others.”
“Why’s it so dark? I can’t see anything.”
Kaiya didn’t reply.
“It’s not that dark, is it? I’m blind… Just like she said.”
Seiken shook his head, trying to drive away his memory.
“You can tell me about it later,” Kaiya said softly, helping the Decameron to stand. “If you’ve been cursed, the effects may wear off in time.”
They walked a few blocks, the Night’s Herald leading his friend along gently, when Seiken spoke suddenly.
“Are you alright? Your skin is burning.”
“I feel great,” Kaiya replied. Though Seiken couldn’t see his smile, he heard it in his words.
“I owe you my life.”
“So we’re square then, huh?”
Seiken shook his head.
“I get the impression that now I’m the one in your debt.”
“Let’s just call it even.” Kaiya laughed. “To be honest, I’m having fun.”
“I’m beginning to feel inclined to agree with Hironah. You really are crazy.”
“Nope. Not crazy, just enjoying the feeling of being alive.”
Hironah gazed again down the dark street. It had been nearly an hour since Yoshiki had come running out of the night, not breaking his stride until he’d reached them. He sat now with his arm around Yume, who was still pale, struggling to breathe. In the silence between strained conversations, her wheezing and Mirai’s chattering teeth were easily audible in the still night. Hironah broke her gaze and buried her head in Uneme’s shoulder. In silence, he stroked her hair, comforting her.
“What if he doesn’t come back?” She asked brokenly.
“He’ll come back,” Uneme replied. “Think about what you felt and ask yourself if you truly believe he won’t be back.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“I dunno. Just wait for now. Kaiya knows. He’ll tell us.”
Hironah nodded, snuggling closer to Uneme. How much longer would they have to wait? She felt she could hardly bear it. Wildly, she fantasized about racing through the streets of the cursed city, dragging Kaiya back the way he’d done for her. This was not to be, and she knew it. Whatever unknown power that had been sleeping within the Night’s Herald was one she did not possess. What in the world was he doing, and why? It’s so like Kaiya, she thought bitterly. The rock.
Her attention was diverted by Mirai, who’d sprung to her feet with an incoherent shout. She was running up the street, arms open wide.
“Seiken!” she yelped happily, embracing the startled Decameron.
“Yup! Um… Seiken, my face is over here.” She pointed at her own nose, one arm still clasped around the Decameron.
“Sorry. I- I can’t see.”
“Well, it is dark.”
“No, I mean, I can’t see anything.”
“What, like at all? Wow. That must be scary.” She closed her eyes tightly. “There, now I can’t see anything either.”
“Kaiya!” Hironah came racing out of the darkness. “By the gods…”
“Hey, Hironah. Look, would you take Seiken the rest of the way? I have to go back for Quen.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I still haven’t found him. I can’t just leave him there.”
“You won’t find him. He’s here. You’re done, Kaiya… with whatever it was you just did.”
Kaiya beamed with triumph.
“Seiken,” Hironah turned to the Decameron. “Go help Yume. After that, see to Yoshiki and Uneme.”
“Mirai,” Kaiya said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Take Seiken back to the others. Hironah and I will follow you.”
“Open your eyes, please. It won’t do to have both of you lost.”
Kaiya held Hironah back until Seiken and Mirai had passed out of earshot.
“He’s blind, Hironah,” the Night’s Herald whispered.
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know. Go easy on him, okay?”
“What happened to us, Kaiya? What was that place? I… I thought I was in Pandemonium. I thought I was dead. Why? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you… but I want to tell all of you together.” Suddenly, Kaiya’s smile faded from his face, as though wiped away with a dirty rag. “When did Quen get back?”
“He was waiting here when I arrived. I assumed you helped him first. He’s been really quiet. But then again, he usually is. Why?”
“So Quen didn’t go,” Kaiya said cryptically. “But that’s impossible. He was with me when I… Hm.”
“You’re not making much sense.”
“Come on, let’s go and I’ll explain all of what I know… not that it’ll make much more sense.”
They approached the place where the others waited. As Hironah sank to the pavement, Uneme moved closer to her. When Kaiya sat, it was then that exhaustion seemed to creep over him. He paled, blinking, and shook his head with a sigh.
“You okay, man?” Yoshiki asked cautiously.
“Yeah, just tired. I wasn’t really planning on that little adventure.” His smile crept back into place.
“What was that?” Yoshiki pressed.
“Pandemonium. That was Pandemonium.”
“That’s impossible!” Hironah cried.
“Apparently not,” Kaiya said evenly. “What I’m going to tell you is only supposition. I don’t really know why the Planes have merged, which they shouldn’t. To learn that, I’ll have to ask someone else. This doesn’t bode well for our world.”
“What do you think it is?” Uneme asked, his yellow eyes fixed on Kaiya.
“I think it was an avatar.”
“An avatar? You mean when a god takes human form?”
“Yes… although it couldn’t have been a god.”
“Why not?” Hironah asked.
“When a god creates and embodies an avatar on our Plane, it does cause a Rift, but only momentarily. The god or goddess has the power to close the Rift behind them. They see to it that this is done.”
“Gods don’t bother with avatars on this Plane,” argued Uneme.
“Ah, but they do.”
“Like the Guardians?” Hironah asked curiously.
“No. The Guardians are gods upon this Plane. They aren’t human. It’s more like… Okay, you guys all remember the Tale of Qa Haran?”
Everyone nodded solemnly. Kaiya continued.
“In the Tale it says he was Clanless because he was born of a god. His mother was an avatar. Human, yet goddess. That’s what an avatar is. A human god.”
“But you said it wasn’t a god,” Uneme countered.
“No… I’m sure it wasn’t. First of all, there’s only one god in Pandemonium- the goddess Erishkegal. Though it’s not impossible that she’s become an avatar on our Plane and on our particular planet, it’s unlikely.”
“So… you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Kaiya ignored Uneme.
“There are, however, demigods in Pandemonium. Those demigods exist on that Plane without the suffering inflicted upon ordinary souls. Some of you might have seen one tonight.” His mismatched eyes lingered on Hironah. “Demigods could also, theoretically, become avatars. If they did, it’s possible that they would not have the power to close the Rift behind them, leaving it gaping for unsuspecting souls to fall into.”
“But… why would a demigod even bother?” Yoshiki asked. “Aren’t they pretty much content with their lot? I mean… I asked Blue about it once and he told me that the demigods were the Holy Dead of Pandemonium.”
“It would have to be a demigod who was quite invested in our world and its happenings.”
Hironah and Kaiya locked eyes for an instant, and he nodded at her ever so slightly.
“How sure are you?” She asked, voice shaking.
“Not sure enough. I’m going to have to go and find some answers.”