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Chapter 4-16

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The dreary winds of the closed world blew silently. Black birds with red eyes flew on those winds without even a single feather rustling. It was a place where everything was a twisted ghost from a time gone by.  The ashes of what was once Minte's home swirled, kicked up into dust clouds and scattered to the four corners of the world. Amidst all the ash, I stood over the girl who was curled up on the floor. I watched her sit there, motionless... traumatized. What had been a cozy home and workshop was now obliterated. It was all my doing.


If everything here was a reflection of her heart, then my enterprising in her memories and pillaging them for information had consequences. In a moment of weakness she had let me in. Try as she might, she could then not remove me. I was relentless, without mercy and stubborn to see it through till the end. One moment of considering my out stretched hand, and she had been robbed her of her home... Again.


If everything here was a metaphor, then this house where she hid away from the specters was her only sanctuary. At least it was. Every memory I witnessed forced her to remember them in turn. Each one was a painful memory; even the joyful ones. They reminded her of what she had lost. If this empty world was all she knew before, then knowing everything it lacked would make it tragic. I could sympathize with her. If all of that, any of it, had happened to me, I might have done the same. Maybe I was the same? My own memories are a patchwork. No journey into my heart would reveal anything. I had nothing that was hidden or painted over; everything had been cut out and disposed of. The mind is a resilient thing, so why mine was so heavily and irreparably damaged is the scary truth that I have to uncover.


But this isn't about me. Right now I had to undo the damage I caused.


The two of us stood within the ruins for some time. I struggled to compartmentalize and understand everything I had seen, and the girl was incapable of doing anything. It was a vicious cycle because she couldn't tell me anything. It all happened so fast that I barely understood it. The short of it was this helpless and fragile girl before me was the girl who had pursued me all day and almost killed me several times. If she was allowed to wake up, she would finish the job immediately. She hurt Rose, Susan and Chris without hesitation. The girl had hurt and killed countless people and monsters before that.


Yet right now... All I could see was a fragile little girl. She looked broken, defeated, disconnected from reality. No... She had always been disconnected. Just now I had forced her back. Minte was just a poor town girl. The eldest daughter of a cobbler of minor renown. She had no mother because she had died some time ago. She played the role of mother and older sister. This girl loved her family dearly. She loved it so much, she was willing to suffer to guarantee its safety.


But was that the way it had to be?


Maybe I ought'a send ya back home then? I can arrange that too.


I remember those ugly words from an ugly man.


I'll let you own this little place. No more rent. You'll also never have to worry about little Jerald's tuition ever again... I get my incessant son's whining out of my ear...


Ugly words from an ugly man's father. But something was amiss...


...and hopefully grandchildren before I die.


I said I wanted sons, but you can't even give me anything.


No. This didn't have to happen at all.


Show me that cute little smile of the little girl in the marketplace. The cute little smile I fell in love with.


     “That ugly sack of shit.” I hissed aloud. “The expensive wedding; staged as though money meant nothing. His father still having receipts for all that gold... He set it all up. There was no planned raising of the rent. It was all a ruse to get their hands on her... Because he couldn't keep it in his pants. There's no way he could have gotten the girl otherwise... The girl looked terrified at the mere mention of their names.”


I clenched my fists tight and paced back and forth on the spot. My eye caught the attention of Minte who was looking up at me for the first time. Her eyes were still dead and empty, but she was watching me; her mouth slightly agape. I stopped and waked back toward her.


     “Do you understand? You were deceived.”


No. I don't think that really means anything. That day is gone and has been long forgotten. Why it happened seems irrelevant now. Her current state isn't caused by that. It was only the catalyst that started the whole sordid affair. An unfortunate beginning that means nothing by itself. For as cruel and callous an act it was... That wasn't even the real beginning.


Was it the abuse? All the physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse? I knelt down to look the girl in the eyes instead of look down at her.


     “He can't hurt you or anyone else anymore. You know that, don't you?”


She slowly looked away and refused to look me in the eyes.


     “He wont stand trial, but he died a dog's death. He paid for his crimes; and if there is a hell, he'll be there.”


My words meant nothing to her. They didn't reach her, nor stir her.


All those months being kept as a prisoner, they destroyed her innocence and her smiling face. Those days created a sad girl who did nothing but stare out the window in her place. I was looking at the same face even now. She was unable or still refused to communicate with me. If I could only know what it was that she was thinking, I could try to help her. I had to help her in order to help myself.


     “I'm trying to help you,” I said, struggling to maintain my composure


As my patience grew thin a pang of guilt started eating me up from the inside.


     “I can't help you if you don't tell me where to start.”


Still nothing.


     “If I can't help you, we're both going to die. You're going to kill me, but you'd be sorely mistaken in thinking you'd get away with doing so afterwards.”


Minte was still completely out of it.


This approach was going nowhere. I had to think harder. There was something I was still missing. A piece of the puzzle to get this all started. Something obvious...


The hook.


That hook. The feeling of something tugging at my mind. If I had been in her memories, and it had been trying to get me out... Then when it was pulling its hardest... Not just at the moment she killed Sedrick, but afterwards. When I felt that disgusting and revolting feeling in my stomach... Those few moments when her emotions were so strong that I actually felt it myself... The moment when she was about to kill the maid. A pregnant maid, the one that tried to be kind to her; that tried to be her friend.


Whatever. You just need to be a mother one way or another.


No, not completely.


No one was crying over Sedrick's death now. It made her a murderer, but what plagued her was that wrath. It almost led her to kill an innocent girl. Sedrick planned on having a child, a son, and it didn't matter where it came from. All that mattered was that people thought it was theirs. Minte would raise it as though it was her own. But when she almost turned her knife on the maid... It wasn't jealousy or envy that consumed her. What was consuming her wasn't just hatred either, it was wrath.


It blinded her, and she very nearly plunged that bloody knife into her stomach. She almost killed an innocent girl and unborn child. Only the maid's shriek snapped her out of it and allowed her to take a sober reflection on what she had just done and planned to do. A feeling of wrath so powerful that it consumed her entirely, and she almost did not return. All to ensure that Sedrick was dead, even things half him.


It was a disgusting black mass which lumped in her stomach, and it made me sick to think about because when I did, I could feel it too. What would it feel like to have it weighing down on you? The guilt would have to be unbearable. I nearly vomited just after getting a small dose of it. The knowledge that you could be capable of such an ugly emotion would be a terrible burden. Especially for a sweet girl who once had such a pretty and genuine smile. She wasn't a killer. Not at heart. Killers with twisted hearts like that are made, not born.


After that she ran, and then she met that demon in the forest. The winter cold almost killed her, no, it did kill her. If that demon had not appeared, she would have died for certain. It then cast a spell over her, and it transformed her from a frail human girl into a ferocious monster. She slept till spring and reawakened as the mantis girl, the assassin I met in the dawn. The mantis who wore the same face as Minte when she struck down Sedrick.


What the girl had done before was certainly a crime, but I would dare anyone to claim she could not be forgiven for doing it. What she almost did was unforgivable, but she didn't do it. She regained her senses and stopped. The only unforgivable thing that had occurred was her brainwashing. They found her and took her in. When she was scared, confused and desperate they twisted her guilt and turned it against herself. The Church took her trauma and abused it further. I remember seeing how she looked at all those victims. Each and everyone of them was Sedrick. If it wasn't Sedrick, they made her believe it was his child. A child wore his father's face, an ugly and cruel face that would torment her further. It was an unforgivable act. That is probably why I am dealing with this girl as she is right now. She is a mental and emotional wreck because she is easier to control that way.


I might have broken her when I forced her to face her past. But I will not build her back together. No, I am not those villains. Even if my life depends on it... I will never do that... She'll have to face herself. She'll have to face her demons.


     “Minte,” I gently called out to her.


I said it so sincerely, that even she could not look away and she slowly but surely looked at me once again.


     “I know they hurt you. They messed you up, but I'm here to help. I can help you undo the damage, but you're going to have to do that yourself.”


She was listening.


     “They wanted a weapon. They never wanted to save you. What happened to you is something you can't be saved from. You need to know that; you have to accept that. It will be painful, but only you can deal with your demons. What happened to you was not a punishment. You were given a second chance at life. You may not have wanted it, but you mustn’t let go of that. Don't let anyone else take control it if for their own purposes. Not the church so they can continue to harm others. Not even me. Because I'll be honest, I just don't want to die.”


Her dead face changed for the first time, but it was a look of confusion. Not at the words that were coming out of my mouth... No, something more fundamental than that. But what could- No...


     “You... Do know I'm talking about, don't you?”


She didn't nod or shake her head, she just continued to stare at me, her head titled slightly to the right.


     “You don't know what I'm talking about... The forest, the walking, the church and the priests-”


Her head tilted even more... That's what I feared.


At first.


A piercing screech howled and bounced around the sealed world. There wasn't a single other sound to compete with, so it amplified and echoed to a deafening decibel. It hit the walls that were town and the ceiling above that was the town. It was a familiar screech. It chilled me to my bones, and I heard the first sound of the girl; she whimpered in terror.


All around the two of us, the black shades clawed out from the shadows. They were black human yet featureless bodies with glowing red eyes. They marched down the street, they climbed over the roof tops and they crawled like spiders over the walls. A hundred, and maybe more, converged on the burnt out rubble of her home. Every pair of eyes was glued to us. We were exposed, the solid walls of the solitary sane house amidst the twisted madness no longer hid the two of us, and the other denizens of this place found us.


     “...Shit,” I said with trembling nerves.




The wyvern lets out a mighty roar as her right talon swings upwards into the air and drops down in an axe kick. Her speed, power and weight behind the kick causes a ripple in the air pressure and the sharpness of her talons obliterates everything in its path. Even the ground beneath her heel is not safe, and soil explodes in all directions. A lithe cat girl back flips backwards, head over paws, twice and dodges the attack while the elf notches another arrow to her bow and lets it fly. It's on target, but it doesn't strike true. It strikes the wyvern's shoulder and leaves behind a gash while the arrowhead harmlessly glances off. It fails to pierce her armor like skin, much like the arrow before that. This stalemate battle has been carrying on for some time now. Christophaclies, the wyvern, is not fast enough to catch her opponents. The catgirl and elf who hounded her is not able to pierce her defenses.


A game of cat and mouse plays out between all three of them. The elf and cat runs circles around the lumbering giant between them. A handful of arrows protrude from the wyvern's back and shoulder along with a couple throwing knives embedded in her thighs, but all they show is the paltry progress they had made. In order to stay out of Christophaclies' path, they are quickly exhausting themselves. Meanwhile, the wyvern is indomitable. She does not slow down, she does not show pain and she most definitely does not show cowardice. After yet another arrow deflects harmlessly off her armor while the elf's bow string quivers. The two henchmen of Zerin leap backwards to regroup.


Their opponent did not let the two of them rest for long. The wyvern pursues.


     “My scales are not of flesh and bone but of justice incarnate!” She bellows. “Your cowardly attacks mean nothing, agents of darkness!”


Her taunts agitates both of them. The two henchmen grit their teeth and suffer through the humiliation because they have so far failed to even slow the wyvern down. Some would think the wyvern speaks like an actor on the stage, purposely mocking her opponents with laden sarcasm, but they would be misguided. Christophaclies believes each word coming from her lips as fact.


The elf and cat exchanges a series of gestures, holding a short but detail packed conversation with just a few sweeps of their hands. They suddenly split and circle around the wyvern in opposite directions to split her attention. It is possibly a fatal maneuver. They would not be able to support one another fast enough if the wyvern got one of them in her clutches. They doubted either could harm her till she let the other go if one was caught.


The feline sprints across the ground on all fours, legs between her outstretched paws, a tail that counter balances her sudden shifts in direction. Another arrow notches against the elf's ancient bow, but the elf holds her fire until she reaches the wyvern's left side. The she-elf lets fly a single arrow at the wyvern's head, but it is a futile exercise, the wyvern only need raise her wing, and it deflects harmlessly away. Just as they both expected she would.


A divot of mud and leaves is flung into the air as the cat-girl kicks off the ground and makes a sudden ninety degree twist toward Christophaclies. She kicks off the ground a second time just as the arrow hits the hard scales and leather of the left wing, raising her knee upwards as she rises. The wyvern is quick, the blow does not land, but the feline's light body carries her upwards, and her other paw kicks off the wounded wing within the splint. A faint crunch is heard as the soft pad of her paw presses the cat's entire weight on the fractured arm. The wyvern's seethes of pain are heard well above that.


Yet another arrow is notched and readied with rapid precision and the momentarily stunned wyvern is struck with an arrow. It strikes true on the back of her knee and it sticks halfway through the weaker armor, the human skin just above the dragon scales. The feline twists in mid flight and pincers her knees around the wyverns neck and lands on her shoulders. Razor sharp claws extend from her paws and she beats upon the horned head of the wyvern in a flurry of blows. Scratch after scratch leaves lines of red on Christophaclies' head as the feline hisses.


The wyvern seems through, but her tail snaps upward and slips between one of the cat's legs. It curls around one leg holding the cat tight against her head before the feline is aware. Stingy muscles on a cat are no match for the ones just within that tail, so with a flick the cat is swiped away like a fly behind a horse's ass. But a cat always lands on its feet, and as such, lands unhurt several meters away. The elf and cat quickly regroup to plan their next move, but they stop when they realize the wyvern is still standing tall.


Christophaclies over extends her knee slightly, and the arrow pops loose. There is a minor wound that bleeds out, but the ligaments and cartilage of the knee are undamaged. A hundred scratch and paper cuts crisscross her head and face, but her will is no less than it was before. Instead, she looks furious.


     “...Dirty fighting...” She growls lowly.


The cat and elf smirk and open their mouths to taunt the naïve dragonkin, but they are quickly muted.


     “How dare you get your muddy paws on it!”


On Christophaclies's splint, there now exists one single muddy paw print from the cat and it is enough of a spark to light a fire behind her eyes. Her opponents are taken aback and momentarily dumbfounded while the wyvern huffs and puffs.


There is only one reason a dragonkin does that.


Christophaclies' cheeks puff out, and a torrent of liquid fire cascades onto the battlefield. The elf and cat only just barely come to their senses quick enough to dodge; mistakenly in the same direction. A stream of fire rakes across the forest floor behind them. As she finally runs out of breath, the last burst from Christophaclies mouth explodes behind them. The cat and elf escape the blazing inferno, but just barely. The elf is forced to tear off and discard her cape that was lit on fire and soon crumbles into ash. But neither are given a chance to catch their breaths. They leap away in opposite directions as a roaring wyvern jumps into the air and slams her knee onto the ground between them.


While the dragon's tail spins and swipes, and the two agile fighters duck and leap over it, the inquisitor busies himself with his blood letting. The wyvern chases the mice and the mice try to be rats, so that they might scrap with the cat while the inquisitor tortures an unconscious Laven. Zerin paces around the anubis who clenches her paws and bites down on her lip, the temptation to rage at the man for harming her Pharaoh so incredulously rising by the second.


     With a snake's venom in his words, he presses in on Shoshanah, “Just how severe a crime was it to trample upon the laws you are sworn to uphold in order to have saved your 'Pharaoh’s' life?”


The anubis averts her eyes and looks downward, shocked. Her eyebrows and lips tremble. Her mind reels as she cannot understand how the madman could have asked such a question. A question too close to home, and what it implies, is too true.


     “Alice's final spell was a masterpiece.” The inquisitor recollected fondly, “Regrettably a promising talent was snuffed out at such a young age, but to exterminate the both you from this world... I would say it was a fair risk to take.”


Shoshanah's disgust grows more profound by the moment as she listens to the callous disregard for life coming from Zerin's mouth. But her mind races to piece together a rebuttal; and thus, the man continues, uninterrupted.


     “I saw it strike 'him' down. I saw as it tore through his chest, a blinding light which could rival that borne of heaven!” His voice becoming more sedated as he continues, “Yet even though it tore his lifeforce apart, I see him alive, unscared... A boiled egg can never become a hen. Lifeforce burnt away like that does not recover. No... No, it was replaced.”


Shoshanah's claws dig into her thighs as Zerin inches closer and closer, his words becoming more and more incriminating.


     “And here I thought the anubi, guardians of the dead, judges of the hearts of men, did not meddle with the natural order. They don't, do they?”


She refuses to look up at Zerin, but that didn't bother him. He refuses to touch her, but he still leans in further and further as he applies more pressure upon the girl with his words.


     “Dare I assume? There is even a law prohibiting that. What would happen to a poor misguided judge who did such a thing? How would a jury of her peers pass judgement? That would depend... Is it among the worst of crimes she can commit?”


His tone switches, a bipolar flip. His voice became jovial while he turns on his heels, walking away from the anubis, and he paces back and forth in front of her.


     “Someone who guarded a tomb for someone who died long, long ago. He died such a cruel death. A promising life cut short by those he trusted most. Yet even then, despite all her devotion and loyalty to her duty to protect him...” Zerin's voice becomes pointed while he rushes back to glare down at the girl “She. Did. Nothing.”


Zerin can not see the look on Shoshanah's face. It is contorting as though she has been stabbed in the stomach, but his senses and intuition are keen. He can feel it. All his research and investigation along with his prodding has identified the weakness he was looking for. He continues to pour his venomous words inside. Each of them is true and the anubis can say nothing.


     “Why? Why would she do that? Perhaps she never thought about it. Which is odd, because she's a smart girl. A very smart girl. So unlike all the others. She is perceptive. Dare I say: self 'aware'? No. She knows. She knows full well, but she hides it. She buries it deep down inside. Telling no one. Not. Even. 'Him'.”

The inquisitor squats down in front of Shoshanah so that he might look her straight in the eyes when he speaks next, but the girl still refuses to meet his gaze. It doesn't bother him in the least. He knows she is listening. He can feel it.


     “So why?...” He did not receive an answer, so he continues, “Do you want to know what I think?... It is because this world has been twisted. Two hundred years ago it was twisted beyond recognition. Whole chapters detailing, in all its glory, The Almighty's great plan for us all, were torn out and incinerated in a demon's pyre. A demon whore upset the natural order. Monsters: beasts of death and destruction, transformed into beasts of lust and beauty, as if overnight... But they are still just as ugly on the inside!” He screamed. “Just look at you, you pitiable dog! So much pride, so much respect for the law, brought so low. A bitch in heat, your reason corrupted. Tainted! Your principles undermined. Order... reduced to chaos. You were never meant to meddle with the living. Yet you prevented one man from passing into death. Why? Out of duty? HA! No, you did no such thing, not in the past, not then and not now. Your mind has been poisoned. Poisoned by a poor duplicate. A copy of something made by a creature that could never understand it. A whore borne of hell, who has never and will never know God.”


His lips curl and twist into a sinister face that could scare even the dead.


     “Love. A poor imitation of it dreamed up by the whore. Not even a shadow, but a mockery. A demon whore that could never imagine the love of God and only knows the carnal lust of beasts. And she misdirects it. At. Men. But you already know this, don't you? It pains you, doesn't it? You feel a faint warmth in your heart, but you are crippled by the guilt and fear of it all. Well, let me put your concerns to rest.”


Zerin leans in even closer, close enough that the stench of his breath wisps past the jackal ears atop the girl's head.


     “It's. Not. Real.”


He leans back again, but the girl still refuses to look up at him. She is frozen in place, almost shaking now, with her claws almost drawing blood from her thighs.


     “Free yourself,” He says softly. “Let it go. Be brave and renounce your dead gods. I know your smart enough to figure it all out. I know that you have already come to the truth. You've thought about it many a time before, but you dismissed it because your head is confused. Poisoned by a force you cannot control: The whims of the demon whore whispering in your ear. Let it go and free yourself... As others have.” Zerin says, as he waves and points his hand in the direction of his henchmen. “Let go of your earthly desires, accept the only love, from our Lord God, The Almighty”


Zerin's creepy smile returns to his face while the anubis shudders and shakes, still refusing to meet his gaze




The black shades that crawled out from the shadows surround the ruined home like an angry mob now. Their glowing red eyes, all of them, are fixated on the trembling little girl before me. I wasn't faring better. Even though not a single glare was directed toward me, my knees felt weak. They stood around the home, hundreds of them, but they just stood there and stared. There wasn't a single sound, they stared in eerie silence. I did not know what they were waiting for.


More shades emerged from the dark recesses of the town, and they all gathered at the fringes of the mob. As time went on, their numbers quickly swelled. When I looked up into the sky, I saw the opposite side of the town above me and there I spotted what looked like ants marching down the crooked streets. Streets that wound through the town, the walls, which were more curved town and were more like mountains. Soon those ants would merge with the mob that was surrounding the two of us. Their numbers would be in the thousands.


It all reminded me of a classic nightmare scenario... Only I wasn't waking up in the nick of time, was I?


They didn't seem to be that intelligent, and I wasn't talking about mob mentality, because there was nothing blocking them from approaching, yet they were just standing and waiting for what was a minute now. But just like mob rule, as soon as one stepped up to the foundation, others followed suit. Only a few seconds later and there were dozens closing in from all directions on the two of us.


Their red eyes burned like two pieces of lit coal. They had no skin, they were all pitch black, humanoid, but their surface was smooth and flat. Instead of skin, they appeared to be made of glass, black like obsidian. There was not a mouth between any of them, but I soon heard whispers. A thousand faint whispers in unison. Something was being mumbled on the stale wind.


I looked back at Minte, and her eyes were wide with fright. Her hands were clamping down on her ears, and she was breathing heavily. A very faint begging escaped her lips.


     “No. Please no. Stop. No.”


I couldn't hear anything; but from her reaction, she heard their chorus clear as day. There was no way for me to guess what it was they were saying, until Minte began to break down.


     “I didn't mean it. I didn't want to. Please, no. Leave me alone.” She mumbled to herself, trying to make herself small as possible.


Her pleading did not reach the ears of mob. The shades didn't even have ears. They marched slowly, one painfully slow step at a time. They were only just out of arms reach of me now, but they were already forming a break in their line to walk around me. It felt like it was only a couple hours ago that they hounded me with murderous intent. Now they were ignoring me. It was as if I was nothing more than a stray pillar sticking out from the ruined foundation.


Every step they got closer to the girl, the deader her eyes appeared. The closer they got, the more defeated and lethargic she became. Finally, her hands fell from her ears and her body relaxed. It was as if... she was accepting the inevitable. Life was leaving her. No. Not life, but the will to live. As the whispers got louder, I finally understood. In the final moments, I could pick out some chants.


Murderer. Sinner. Heretic. Traitor.


I'm not usually one to believe in such nonsense, but I was suddenly hit with a prophetic vision. It was as if the world was showing me its intentions as the mob was about to walk past me.


Despair. Helplessness. Guilt. Judgement... The End.


Those words flashed in my mind's eye. Unannounced. Every line of thought went to the same place. Perhaps they were guided to the same place. Soul crushing despair. The End. But this was inside her own mind... suicide.


A thousand man mob of shades descended on her, crushing her will and her life. What would happen if they reached her? An image, instead of words, flashed before my mind's eye: Death. Turning her own hands against herself. The End. An end to pain and guilt. I imagined the assassin pulling back her blades and turning them on herself. It would be... The End. Whatever happened here, I would wake up later. I would then be either dead on arrival, or not. This was one way, wasn't it?


I looked down at the girl; she looked dead. She was pale, her eyes were still open, but they were half closed. It was if she was about to fall asleep. She had looked as though she was on the verge of going mad just a moment ago, but now... Would this nightmare, mean the end of mine?


An image flashed before me eyes. It arose naturally, it was not imposed upon me.


A beautiful smiling girl. She looked very much- was... Minte.


The mob stopped and formed a semi circle around the girl. On my left and my right stood two of the shades. One more stood behind me, and it appears as though they had split just to give me my front row seat I had long since reserved. On the opposite side of the circle, one shade stepped forward. Its red eyes looked down at the girl, all the others watched the shade. It slowly reached out with one hand to lay upon the top of the girl's head... I just now noticed fresh tears pouring down her face. It was in such sharp contrast to the image of her-


     “God dammit... I'm going to regret this.”


Famous last words. I recall having said them before.


I stormed out from mob. I couldn't accept it. I wouldn't accept it. I'd regret not accepting it, but I'd hate myself if I did. I felt a nine hundred and ninety-nine eyes turn my way and I started regretting it immediately. But I didn't stop. I marched over to the lone shade, and with all my might, shoved it away from the girl. It didn't hear me coming and it certainly didn't see me coming. I was expecting something worse, because when I shoved it aside, it lost its balance and fell over into the crowd. It knocked over about four others, like bowling pins.


There was a shriek. It was such a horrible, loud and ugly banshee-like shriek. Like nails on a chalkboard and a screeching violin amplified to eleven. My ears felt moist because of it, I wouldn't be surprised if it was blood, and both my ear drums had been ruptured. I covered my ears on instinct, but that only made it easier when I turned around and one of the other shades was already in my face. Its elbows were cocked back and its hand shot out like daggers. It's palms joined, and a spearhead stabbed into the centre of my chest.


It didn't hurt at all, it moved like a ghost. I felt an icy touch, but my muscles, organs and bones didn't snap or break to make room as they plunged into my chest. Then I felt a pressure on my heart. The spear head opened up at the last moment and two icy hands had it in its grasp. My heart that had been pounding just a second ago, was now almost dead still. I gasped as I took in a quick breath of air in surprise and my body shook as if taken by a sudden chill. I found myself staring into the sizzling ember eyes of the shade. It had no other features, otherwise, its shadow could pass for a human silhouette.


My mind raced, but my body was slow, lethargic and- tired...


Tried of all this. Running. Hiding. Being bossed and pulled around. I just wanted to go home. There was a bed I wanted to wake up in. I've only caused trouble. Nothing but trouble ever since I woke up. How many lives have I ruined? How many will be ruined before I am done? Before I am satisfied? What right do I have to keep doing all that, just so I can go home? I was caught in a bad dream, right?This crazy world, it couldn't be real. Magic. Monsters... Monsters that were all women. It wasn't home, it wasn't real. It would be better if I just woke up now, before I hurt anyone else. I remember now. If I just... lean my head forward. Its just one way to wake up from this- NO!


My eyes shot open suddenly. I caught myself not breathing and I greedily sucked in air through my nose. I heaved while the cold feeling spread throughout my body. From the point the hands had stabbed into my chest, black veins were crawling just under my skin from the point of entry. They spread down my arms and legs and they were making their way toward my neck and head. I caught myself thinking forced thoughts. Ugly thoughts. They pissed me off, but I understand what's going on now... I understand well enough. I now comprehend the emotions and feelings plaguing this poor girl.


     “Crystallized... Despair...” I groaned at the shade. “...That's what... she... was hiding from.”


My hands, that were dangling limply at my sides, slowly, shakily, rose up and my hands seized the arms attached to the hands grasping my heart. Black veins, something foreign, flowed in from the shade's arm and into my hands. They slithered and worked their way up. Toward the veins that were already working down. They soon mingled and met, and I felt the cold slimy tentacles work their way up the arteries in my neck.


     “Don't... Think I'm... That stupid,” I growled. “It doesn't matter what I think... Alone... I'm only here, because... Others trust me. Rely on... Me. Expect things... from... me!”


I gripped tighter. I could feel the cold glass like texture of the shade's arm, the cold that was spreading throughout my body.


     “You hear that? Minte! You don't think... Anyone cares?” I shouted to the girl behind me while I tried to turn my head to look at her. “I can't... Save you... But I can... Show you... HOW!”


I didn't get a chance to look her in the eyes, if she was looking. My neck felt like it was made of ice and it snapped back forward as though it was made of frozen rubber that refused to stretch. The Worst case scenario: it would break. This was all a dream. It took place inside someone's heart and right now, I was one too. I understood that now. There was no way I was going to let a little thing like these shades get in the way.


I grit my teeth and started to push the arms back. I hissed and mucus gurgled in the back of my throat as my muscles bulged and strained. Slowly, a centimetre a second, the shade's arms gave way. Its icy fingers were slipping off my heart and the tendrils of cold spreading through my veins stopped and started slithering back in the other direction. I felt a brief moment of resistance, as though hitting a brick wall, but I just put more into it, broke through, and started moving again.


I heard a sound akin to shattering glass. I looked the shade straight in its 'face' and a fracture was forming across the lower part of its head. A jagged and uneven fracture. Eventually the lower half of it lowered like an opening maw, a maw made up of several jagged and pointy teeth that were like shards of broken glass. Beyond the black exterior, was a bright crimson red glow that radiated out from inside its body. It let out one last snap, then the jaw moved freely, unhinged likes snakes, and the head lunged forward only about twenty centimetres from my face. It howled a piecing shriek at me. I took a deep breath, a very deep breath, and I roared at it in turn. My voice carried louder than I would have ever given it credit for. It drowned out its shriek with ease.


It didn't take long until I had pulled its arms back enough that only its fingertips remained in my chest. The icy black tendrils had also pulled back to just around my sternum and had been completely repelled from my arms and hands. I continued to roar while it shrieked at me in return until I finally pushed its arms from my body completely. Then I pulled its arms apart and yanked them forwards. At the same time, I threw my knee up into his abdomen where I slammed into it with the sound of cracking glass. It's body stopped, but not its arms; the shade's arms cracked, crinkled and snapped off at the sockets, and the shade's next sheik was one of pain. It dropped to the ground on its knees and I swung my right arm, with its arm still in my firm grip, I took a step backward then swung it down on its head. The hollow glass-like arm shattered into pieces on impact, but so did its head which was obliterated.


The shade's headless and armless body slammed into the ground, and there it shattered into a million pieces, like grains of sand. Grains of sand that then evaporated into mist and diffused, or disappeared, into the air. I let go of the arm in my left hand, and it likewise shattered on the ground, disintegrated and vanished in the same way. My breathing was heavy while I slowly spun around on the spot and surveyed the hundreds of eyes still staring at me. Not a single one had so much as lifted a finger all that time.


Minte was still kneeling on the ground behind me unmolested. I flashed a quick smile and wink. She seemed to jump up off the ground a couple centimetres. She was alright, for now, so I turned my attention back to the horde of other shades.


     “Is that all you got?” I yelled triumphantly.


An explosion. Something bulldozed through a nearby crooked house and sent stone, timber and glass in every direction like shrapnel. A couple dozen shades were caught in the wave of destruction, the rest lazily turned their eyes away from me and toward the rising dust cloud.


Emerging from the cloud, was a giant two story tall monster. A giant black mantis creature thundering its way forward on four legs and two giant scythe arms folded in front of it. The antenna whisked and twirled above its head and its neck made sudden choppy movements as its red burning eyes scanned its surroundings. A pair of mandibles clicking and clattering together with a trail of clear drool oozing from its mouth.


     “That's... Not all you got...” I said, slowly deflating.



The inquisitor's eyes are wide open, rabid, as he stares down the anubis. He is nearly salivating at the jackal squirming under his gaze. His keen senses and reading the emotions and tells of others titillating him as he watches Shoshanah.


     “That's just the way you monsters are,” He says, barely able to contain his excitement as he preaches. “Just misguided pawns of the demon whore. Every belief and value you once held dear, gone. Every one of them an inconvenience in her designs. What you are, what you were, has been tainted. So I implore you, let it go. That turmoil you suffer through will be done away with it. All you need do is take back what you gave. I will then do the rest and you shall be free. Your peers need not know.”


Zerin leans close yet again and whispers into her ear. An ear that twitches as the white tufts of fur reacts to his foul breath.


     “It can be our wittle secret.” He says, as though talking to a baby.


Very suddenly, the jackal lets her paws relax and her body stops shaking.


     “Heh,” the anubis snorts, her shoulders shaking once more, but in weak amusement.


The smile on Zerin's face wipes away slowly.


     “I believe, that the man doth project too much,” She says, stifling a laugh before she continues. “Inquisitor Zerin... You think your interpretation of how the world functions is irreproachable, yet you have only observed it through a single spectrum for the entirety of your fleeting existence...”


Shoshanah's voice becomes serious; her head still bowing low, her eyes still fixed on the ground.


     “...Hatred... For all your proselytizing, Zerin, your heart is no less black than when you began. Dare I say? You are the single least qualified individual in existence to speak on matters of the heart... For all your bravado and self propagandizing of your 'genius insight' into the hearts and minds of others... I find my exact sentiments toward you are in unanimous consensus with someone who is currently unable to speak for himself.”


Zerin's face quickly becomes a frown.


     “Therefore, I feel obligated to bequeath these brusque words onto you. Not only for him, but for myself, when I say:”


Shoshanah slowly lifts her head and with furrowed brows stares right at Zerin. Her red eyes burn bright and full of determination and defiance.


     “Fuck you.”


The meaning of the foreign word is lost on the inquisitor, but not the tone and expression in which the anubis spoke to him. Zerin's frown turns immediately into a furious and rabid scowl. He rises to his feet and almost strikes her, but he controls himself just barely. He still understands that she needs to be alive, and to a point, untouched or else the spell binding 'him' may break and his query would be lost.


     “Vengeance WILL be mine!” He screams.


He turns on his heels and allows another stiletto knife from his sleeve to slide into his waiting hand. Zerin faces Laven once again, marches forward, his blood boiling. He walks past the kneeling assassin.


     “A tooth for a tooth!”


The Inquisitor, armed with a knife in his right hand, pulls his elbow back and takes aim.


     “An eye for an eye!”


The knife surges forward, propelled by the arm and hand in tow. It meets no resistance.




I crane my neck up, so that I might fully witness the immense size of the monster that had just barrelled into the scene. My instincts tell me two things: As metaphysical as this all is, this is a bit too much for to handle, and I'm going to have to stop jinxing myself. The monster has the same external makeup as the shades, the only difference is the insectoid shape instead of humanoid, and of course, the size. Its arrival spelled certain doom. Until it started moving again.


Faster than my eye could see, one of its forearms came slamming into the ground in front of it. Grey cobblestone and dust along with black glass and mist were tossed up into the air. A dozen then a hundred shrieks and cries from the shades competed with the further cacophony of crashed stone and breaking glass. Not a single shade remained still. For a mob that had been moving in unison, as if of one mind, just as suddenly broke into chaos. They fled away from the circle around Minte and me and rushed to be the first to vanish into the dark corners and shadows. Those that were not fast enough were soon cleaved by the massive sharp and spiny scythes of the giant mantis. I saw one of its pincers grab one of the shades and bring it to its mandibles. It's head was torn clean off and crushed to a fine powder in its mouth.


I backed up next to Minte; we seemed to be equally surprised at the rampage that was going on before us. It didn't take any longer than a minute until the area around the destroyed house had been cleared out by the beast; then it turned its attention toward us, with its two ridiculously large and red compound eyes. However, I didn't feel the need to run. The feeling wasn't mutual with the girl at my feet though. With the shades and the despair they brought with them gone, she was now back to panicking. She was clinging to my legs and on the verge of screaming... No, she was... pushing me?


The mantis rumbled closer and closer until its front legs stopped just before the ruined foundation. Meanwhile, Minte was trying to get me to flee. Her voice was soft, hoarse, dry and lost, but she still tried as she wept.


I didn't back up or run away. I stepped forward against her prodding and pulled myself free from her grip. I approached the monster. If it was going to attack, I'd be dead in an instant when I got within range of those scythes. One simple motion, like a finger crushing a bug from above, and I'd be split in half or simply crushed. I didn't fear either possible scenario. Things were coming together in my head and if I was right... I walked right up the monster, now well within strike distance. The mantis made no move, but its eyes were certainly watching me.


     “Minte...” I said cautiously.


I looked behind me and saw I had the girl's attention once again.


     “Not you.” I said.


The girl's eyes went wide with bewilderment.


     “Yeah. That's right,” I said, so she wouldn't mistake what I was about to tell her. “This...” I said while waving my hand in front of me. “Is YOU.... Part of you,” I clarified. “That's why I'm not afraid of it lashing out. You don't actually want to hurt anyone, do you? You never did. Even the worst scum of the world you had every right to.”


I reached up and put my hand on the smooth glass-like surface of the mantis' forearm, the sharp pointed tip of its left scythe. It didn't react.


     “You didn't want to remember that feeling. That knot in your gut. It made you feel as though you could hate everyone and everything... Enough to kill. You could associate your suffering, your destroyed life and dreams... with anyone. You'd be able to kill... Anyone, with impunity... Even your own family. It wouldn't be that big a stretch to blame them for pushing you away... For not stopping you. Not fighting or sharing the burden for you.”


I lowered my arm and turned around to face Minte again. She was still wearing the same dumbstruck expression on her face, but she was listening. Maybe she just couldn't see me with how red and water logged her eyes were, they were completely unfocused.


     “You panicked after you realized what you did... and almost did. Understandable. But it was cold outside. Snowing. You would have cooled off and realized what you were doing eventually... Here in this little town, now inside your head, this was your whole world. But it got twisted beyond recognition. It was supposed to be a safe place for you to escape to. But you couldn't get away from your guilt. You kept running into those woods... You didn't turn back to be arrested. You didn't run home. You wanted to get away... and survive. Even if you felt you didn't deserve either. In the end, you thought it best to save others from yourself and keep running even if it killed you. And it did. But it didn't end there.”


I started walking toward Minte as I spoke. She didn't push me away, she didn't try to crawl away and she didn't scream bloody murder. She was paying attention to my every word.


     “You became a monster. Not by choice. It was forced upon you in order to save your life. You became... this,” I waved again to the mantis, still on standby. “I don't know how these things work. Maybe the white demon woman had a dark sense of humour or its poetic justice?... But in the end, that's what happened. That's the part you don't remember, right?”


She started shaking again and clutching her head as I got closer.


     “Now you remember. Only the mantis over there woke up. But you didn't. You stayed in here. The mantis wandered through the forest, with a mind like a newborn. She was lost, confused... eventually she stumbled into another town. It had pieces of your memories to figure things out, so it went for the church right away... For help. But the church was instead gifted with a weapon. An impressionable and malleable monster... A potentially dangerous killing machine. They figured out it was you inside, so they used that moment with Selkirk... And... And brainwashed the mantis into believing it wasn't done protecting 'you'. You were still inside here, pushing everything away. Selkirk most of all, and this other 'you' did everything in its power to keep you safe.”


I squat down in front of Minte. I dropped down to her level so I could stare her right in the eyes.


     “You've hidden in here for too long, Minte. If you stay in here, maybe the mantis will come save you in the nick of time again... Maybe it wont. But I'll tell you this... If you don't leave this place you're going to kill someone. Again. I've seen who you were and what happened to you. I don't know if it's been seconds, minutes, hours or days outside, but in the couple hours I've been here, I think, I know you well enough to say: You don't want that and you certainly don't want it all to end either.”


I reached out and put my hand around the girl's head and pulled her closer. My other hand wrapped around her shoulder and held her tight against my chest. It must have been forever since she last felt this, and it's all very embarrassing for me to do so, but I'm sure it has to be done. I felt the bandages wrapped around my chest become soaked right away. Two small hands grasped onto my shoulders, and her tails dug in while she weeps quietly into my shoulder. She stayed that way for a couple of minutes, but she eventually had nothing left to let out.


I pushed her away gently, stood back up and then stepped aside. There was a straight path between her and the mantis now. There was no pushing or dragging her over. This was the part she had to decide for herself. She could walk forward, or she could run away.


Minte rubbed her eyes with her sleeves, picked herself up and dusted off her dress. She looked in the direction of the mantis, but when I did, I had to look back down. Standing on the opposite side of the ruined house, was the black silhouette and red fiery eyes of the assassin. The huge monster had suddenly shape-shifted into the form of a girl. It stood on the opposite end, unmoving, except for the antennae on top of its head.


     “It would be easier on you to run away,” I said honestly. “If you wake up from this nightmare, there is no going back. You're going to have to live with everything you did. Not to mention what the mantis has done in your absence. But it's the only way you're going live again.,, Otherwise, someone is going to live it for you, the way they want it lived.”


The girl breathed slow and heavy breaths. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. I could see her shaking, but I dared not move or say another word. One foot forward, then another. She crossed the fallen planks of wood, over the holes and stepped over the stones in her way. She reached out with her hand and the mantis mirrored her. Their hands met, like how your hand and the reflection meet. It moved perfectly with her every subtle motion, but opposite to her.


Their fingers pushed by the imagined barrier between them and then mingled. Finally, their hands grabbed hold of one another. From the mantis' hand, the coat of black peeled away and became sparkling black dust that vanished into the air. Underneath was a shining white light in the shape of the assassin. When the obsidian was gone, the red glowing eyes exploded with white light. It nearly blinded me, forcing me to close my eyes and cover my face. When I opened them, the closed world was gone. The dark had returned, and I was floating freely in the space between hearts.



A mess of red covers Laven's face. Zerin's arm stretches forward and the battle rages all around him. His one good eye is closed as a feeling of euphoria washes over him; a high that could not be matched by any drug of this world. His jaw quivers while tears stream down his cheeks, the fulfilment of his holy duty causes him to glow. Whispers of praises and hallelujahs escape his mouth. His vengeance which has been so long postponed had been delivered. Cuts, broken bones and the destruction of his eye, all returned in turn. All by his hand. His hand, guided by holy providence, which nothing could resist.


Too little resistance.


The stray thought cut through Zerin's mind like a knife through warm butter. He opens his eye which had been cast toward the heavens. Something wasn't right. His right shoulder was too far forward compared to his left. He feels the resistance of Laven's head against his arm... But...


     “Zerin.” The voice of the anubis calls out to him. “Let me impart you with one important lesson: You. Talk. Too. Much.”


The inquisitor looks down from the heavens and back to the earth. He sees Laven's blood covered face, but when he pulls back his arm, he sees 'his' face is still intact. His eye moves downward, ever so slightly, at his own arm. From halfway down the forearm, the rest was missing. His heart beats and a squirt of blood oozes out onto the forest floor.


The pain soon follows.


     “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” The inquisitor screams.


He clutches his right arm and then pain shocks his body. His knees give out from under him and he hits the forest floor with his back. With one eye wide open in shock, he looks to Laven. 'He' is still kneeling on the ground. Except... The left hand of the mantis that had been grasped onto his chest was free. She was holding it high into the air and there was a splotch of red coating its edge. He felt eyes on him and when he looked at the Green Reaper, one of the yellow compound eyes adorning the side of her head was not the dull yellow he had seen before. Some membrane had moved and now that compound eye shifts underneath, watching his movements closely.


His eye turns to the anubis, who was sneering at him. He bites down hard enough so that blood pools in his mouth from his cheeks and tongue. That bitch was just buying time since the start, is the thought racing through his mind. Pain and hatred consumed him, but his attention is soon torn back toward the assassin.


Your injury is not perseverance. It is weakness.


His eye... The anubis' knowing grin. His peripheral vision had lost sight of the mantis because of his missing eye. The bitch knew it. She knew the assassin was awake. She was just stalling for time, the whole time. He had been played for a fool.  


With a 'snick', her left scythe snaps back into place against her arm, the blood is wiped off the surface of the blade just by the air rushing by it. Another thin streak of blood coats the forest floor. Her right scythe pulls away from Laven's face, then it too snicks back into place against her arm. The Reaper slowly rises to her feet and she turns to face Zerin. Survival instincts overtook his pride and his legs began to scoot him away from her as fast as they were able to. He feels a sudden chill of his blood as the Green Reaper's human eyes open. The dull and lifeless indigo eyes now glisten with life, but her stoic killer's face was still set in stone, and it zeroes in on Zerin.


But how? Why? Why did the mantis attack him? His couldn't put it together. That... isn't part of the great plan. She was ignoring her target. She was disobeying direct orders, straight from the highest authority. An Arc Assassin simply does not... never has... bite its masters.


While The Reaper slowly follows Zerin, the spell had lifted off Laven as well. Shoshanah dives in to catch his body as it falls over. With his head resting on her lap, she hunches over to cover his body with her own, her paws clutch his chest and her cheek buries itself against his cheek.


     “Master Zerin!” A voice cries out from the battlefield behind them.


Sprinting across the forest floor like a gale is the elf with bow in hand. Behind her, the tomcat struggles to hold the wyvern at bay by herself. With her blonde hair trailing behind her, she closes in from behind the mantis and notches an arrow to her bow. In mid sprint and mid leap she yanks back the bowstring and lets it loose at the back of the assassin’s head, only five meters behind her. The one unbroken antenna on her head twitches. With one hand that moves with impossible speeds and precision, she catches the arrow mid-flight behind her head, only ten centimeters from impact.


It wasn't what the elf expected. Her actions were rash, unplanned, desperate to save her master. The assassin had already surveyed the battlefield and was two steps ahead.


With masterful acrobatic finesse, the assassin leaps off her feet and then twists mid air like a rolling barrel. Another snick follows the readying of her scythe. She brings the blade down on the elf as if she was serving a volleyball with her fist. The tip of the scythe comes down on the middle point of the elf's bow, which she holds up to defend her head. The ancient wood snaps in two with ease, the blade then grazes a few golden hairs on her brow, barely misses her face and then cuts her leather corset in two. Her breasts, which had been held snugly against her chest, fall freely. Each one just covered by what were now two halves a corset. Life leaves the elf's eyes as she now holds two sticks in each hand. Strength leaves her and she hits the floor.


The mantis continues to spin, she completes her rotation and lands on both feet; her back to the elf and her front toward her quarry. She continues walking away from the broken elf, as if she had never stopped at all and continues to pursue the inquisitor. The arrow grasped in her free hand hits the ground with a clatter after she casually lets it go.


She takes a few more steps, but then her foot gets stuck. A red slimy mass slithers out from under the forest debris and starts to wrap around the mantis and bind her to the spot. The Green Reaper does not look concerned in the least, but her face hasn't shown any emotion since the start anyways.


     “Master Zerin! Flee! I will-”


The assassin raises one fist into the air, back of the hand facing away. Her functioning antenna feels around in the air above her head as the slime quickly forms a body cast around her. With elbow pointing downward, along with blade retracted against her forearm, she suddenly brings it down with lightning speed. The blade easily slices into the slimy mass. All the sword swings from the Thorn Knight did nothing before, but the assassin knows where to strike.


They had trained her well. Too well.


The tip of the scythe comes down straight, but at the last second, she diverts forty five degrees away from her down hip. It cleaves easily through the jelly, but a small sticky and thick substance catches on the end.


     “AaAAaAaaAh!” The slime screams, which comes out partially a gurgle.


Ornamenting the tip of her scythe is a portion of the slime's core. The real body of any slime and hidden somewhere, anywhere, inside the slime at all times. From the core, the body grows and is replaced. If it is destroyed, the slime dies. The scythe could have easily cleaved it in twain, but she avoided it. It is still no less a mortal wound for the slime whose body begins to fall apart and blotches of jelly separate from the main body. The red slime falls to the ground like a moth lit by the flame of a candle. She coils around and in on herself, desperately trying to hold her body together through the rare feeling of pain that a slime seldom ever feels. The piece of her core stuck on the tip of the mantis' scythe disintegrates into the air.


Zerin holds tightly onto his bleeding stump as he scurries away, but he hits his back against a tree and go no further. His legs are unable to lift him, and the assassin is already looming over him. Cries of protest come from his two other henchmen, but they cannot pass through the salamander and wyvern. The inquisitor is alone. He grimaces through the pain and tries to stare down the mantis, but he does not have the composure. His trousers soil against his will.


The Green Reaper raises both hands in front of her, the spitting image of a surgeon preparing for an operation. Her hands close inwards, toward her neck and gloved fingers reach for the leather collar around her neck. The tips of her fingers slip under; It is a tight fit. The collar was attached with no intention of removing it after all. She has pushes aside her trachea and her skin starts to give way with blood beginning to flow. The Green Reaper struggles to breathe; scrapes and wounds ravage her neck as she forces her fingers further underneath the collar. With her fingers down as far as they will go, she pulls against the collar with all her might until it lets out a snap that echoes throughout the forest. Even through all the suffocating and risk or breaking her throat and neck, her face shows not a single emotion. She shows no emotion either when she tosses the collar at Zerin.


     “Use that for a tourniquet.” She says, in her usual soft, quiet and monotone voice.


She almost turns her back, but she stops halfway and faces the Inquisitor again. His face is contorting in an ugly struggle between pain, confusion, terror and anger. His good eye is bloodshot, bulging and twitching uncontrollably. Zerin holds the shredded robe around his missing arm with his left in an attempt to put pressure on the wound which was still flowing. His face was growing more pale by the moment.


     “Surprised?” Don't be. I don't kill anymore. Most certainly not for you.” She says, to 'you' who is no one in particular. “You tell them that.”


With those cryptic words she turns her back on Zerin. In a puff of black smoke the armoured and headless woman appears beside him. She cries out his name and scrambles to gather his dead weight in her arms and rises back to her feet. Her burning blue eyes glare at the back of the assassin, but she clamps down on her anger, her pride, and then runs off into the woods. The tomcat sprints by the elf who is still shell-shocked on the ground. She picks up the girl, as light as wind, and princess carries her away, leaping off into the trees. The mess of red slime, unable to collect all of herself, oozes over the forest floor, collecting half a severed hand on the way out as she scurries away.


Rose and Christophaclies tried to gave chase until they reached Laven's unconscious body. The Thorn Knight throws herself on him as well while the wyvern kneels down, spreads her wing as a shield and towers guard over all three of them. They raise their eyes in suspicion and defiance at the mantis who stood by and let Zerin and his henchmen escape. She stands tall about ten or fifteen meters from them all, her face just as stoic and expressionless as before. But her eyes slowly close and her face relaxes. Then she crumbles to the forest floor. Knees first, then her face hits the soil. It was as if strings holding her up, had just been cut and she lies motionless on the ground. Her chest rising and falling ever so slightly, the only sign she's still alive.

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